• User Research

19th Aug 2015

4 min

If you asked me what I thought it was to be a front-end developer early on in my career, my response would have been something along the lines of (and not limited to), “A technical problem solver who can convert beautiful designs into clean semantic code with the ability to communicate well and adapt to new and emerging development trends”.

So I’ve spent the last four years obsessed with trying to gain proficiency in front-end coding languages. I’ve built the front-end code from beautiful designs and merged them into a CMS, so is that job done?

Typically, most of my roles have followed this structure, but it’s this structure that restricted my vision, rendering me unable to take into account the end user experience amidst all the excitement of writing the code. This ‘bigger picture’ I am referring to includes:

  • Understanding the current digital piece, why it behaves the way it does and why there is a need for change.
  • Discovering elements which currently seem like brilliant ideas but your actual users struggle with.
  • Creating customer personas to really understand who uses the website, their needs and motivations.

No more pigeon holes

Day three in my new front-end position at PRWD and I  was asked to attend my first user research session. Here’s a snippet of how I found it and whether it was in fact helpful in my role.

User research participant

User Research Insights

While observing each participant I became aware of how presumptuous I am as a developer. It was fascinating to see the varying interpretations of the content and how the visual elements affected the participants absorption of information.  Some minor changes made a significant difference, both positive and negative.

I unconsciously expected people to be comfortable viewing and interacting with a digital piece on any device because myself and those around me are competent, but this was not the case in the research. What’s “intuitive” really varies for different users.

One participant was asked if they knew that they could scroll down a page they were viewing on desktop to the see the rest of the content, to which the participant responded with a ‘no’ as they were used to browsing on an iPad and flicking the page up and down to scroll but didn’t know how to do this on another device.  I have now witnessed how unpredictable users can be, despite the participants all seeking a similar goal from the prototypes we were testing, not everyone will make the same journey; everyone’s experience will be different.

Why you should get your developers involved in the whole process

There is an engineering minded culture that makes it problematic to open up our thinking with the design process in mind. A front end developers focus seems to be geared towards experimenting with JavaScript task runners, MVC frameworks, templating engines, css extension languages, anything that will improve the efficiency of development.

While it is imperative to experiment and stay up-to-date with new and emerging development trends it is vital that we become more collaborative, offering hybrid skill sets where teams can utilise our technical proficiency in earlier stages of the project and we can gain a better insight into designers thinking.  Collaborative working is essential to ensure that the end user reaps all the benefits of what we’re producing.

My role here at PRWD allows me to be a part of the kick off meetings where I carry out a technical audit on the clients digital piece, analysing how it’s built and whether this may cause restrictions for us when carrying out our A/B testing, which contributes to developing a hypothesis for testing which takes into account any potential limitations.

The outcome for me , other than thoroughly enjoying observing these user research sessions, is to ensure the end user experience is the priority, rather than the successful implementation of code.

Instead of remaining unaware of the user, I need to understand their technological aptitude, their understanding of the content and what their objectives are. I should not be presumptuous or judgemental.  The experience was insightful and highlighted flaws in my thinking, it is something I believe to be essential for front end developers going forward, we can achieve so much more from having a clearer understanding of the audience we’re building for.

For more information on methods and tools, check out our beginner’s guide to user research.

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