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Thinking Thoroughly, Widely, and Deeply: Developing User Experience Designers in China

In China today, there is strong awareness that user experience can add value to products and services. As a result, having designers in relevant professions on a team has become more and more important—even a necessity at some large companies or industries. But the role of user experience designer is often confused with other, more specific design professions.

Designers in each profession tend to be given a heavy workload within their narrowly defined skills. For example, UI designers devote most of their time and attention to drawing interaction wireframes, GUI designers to creating visual graphics, and industrial designers to creating product mockups. Although a strong focus on one set of professional skills can help a young designer grow, it can also encourage them to get stuck in their own domain and not pay enough attention to the complete user experience. To address this problem, designers must have a way to advance professionally and become qualified as user experience designers.

What is User Experience Design?

According to Kujala Sari and several other authors in their 2011 article, “UX Curve: A method for evaluating long-term user experience, user experience design is defined as the process of enhancing user satisfaction by improving the usability, accessibility, and pleasure provided in the interaction between the user and the product. To meet this goal, a user experience designer starts from traditional human–computer interaction (HCI) design, and extends it by addressing all aspects of a product or service as perceived by users. This means that designers today have to be cross-disciplinary in their approach.

Today’s Challenge

There is no shortage of good designers in China, but we lack a systematic approach to design. In her 2008 article, “Taking the Pulse of Chinese Design,” Jia Wei called for a design process with a particularly Chinese cultural basis. Without a locally based approach it can be difficult to meet users’ expectations. This is particularly important because end-users don’t try to understand or forgive imperfections or even bugs in a product. And unsatisfied users may complain or even spread negative reviews that can impact satisfaction and Net Promoter Scores.

To meet this challenge, it is necessary for all designers to become user experience designers––or at least be aware of how to evaluate and improve their own design responsibilities within the overall design. In addition, user experience designers must also know when and how to insist on elements of a design that improve the user experience––and how to find compromises when needed.

Several changes in professional practice in China are needed to support this transformation, including an updated definition of user experience designer. In the 2012 book, China’s Design Revolution, Lorraine Justice said that designers in China are moving from level two to level three in Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs—that is from safety to love/belonging. This move is seen in their practice as a shift from the aesthetic and behavioral concerns of specific design professions to the broader values of user experience. With it comes a shift from pursuing improvement in a narrowly defined profession to developing key abilities for user experience.

Developing a Solution

We established an experience design club as a branch of UXPA China in Qingdao at the end of 2014 (see Figure 1). Our goal was to find ways to more effectively develop user experience designers in China. We evaluated and selected several senior designers from local industries (Haier and Hisense), plus two senior design lecturers from local universities as the founding members.

A small group of people around a table.
Figure 1. Meetings of the branch of UXPA China in Qingdao (photos by the author).

During 2015, through a range of group topics and ideas sharing, we discussed the possibility and effect of aligning design theories with real design practices and researched the key abilities that a user experience designer needs to cultivate and master. The three key abilities are to:

  • Think thoroughly (know why and how)
  • Think widely (know why and when)
  • Think deeply (know more and beyond)

1. Think thoroughly (know why and how)

A user experience designer needs to think thoroughly both before and after coming up with a design solution. Specifically, designers must know why they have chosen their design approach and how to verify that the design is a good fit for the scenarios of use.

Unfortunately, few Chinese designers have paid enough attention to this skill. We observed that many of them work diligently, but they only focus on their assigned tasks and projects under pressure to meet budgets and schedules with insufficient resources. Once they get used to a design approach they tend to stick with it, reiterating the same pattern in every project. They seldom challenge themselves to improve their understanding and work on a higher level. As a result, their designs can be easily challenged because they are not based on evidence from user research or usability testing.

Case study: Rapid testing and design cycles

Projects inevitably have limitations of budget, time, and resources that make it difficult to conduct any real usability test. To find a way around this project, we tried conducting a usability test according to Steve Krug’s theory of rapid testing (from his book, Don’t Make Me Think). We wanted to conduct experiments to see how many users are really needed for a usability test to meet a balanced goal.

One test with eight users may find more problems in a single text, but the worst problems will usually keep them from getting far enough to encounter some others. Total problems found: five. Two tests with three users may not find as many problems in a single test, but in the second text, with the first set of problems fixed, they’ll find problems they couldn’t have seen in the first test. Total problems found: nine.
Figure 2. In Don’t Make Me Think, Steve Krug shows that two tests with three users can find more problems than a single usability test with eight users.

Using our long term relationship with students in the second or third year of university, we selected 20 to be participants in usability tests as “simulated users.” Every time we had a design that needed a quick usability test to verify a design, we randomly picked four students to complete the test. They completed at least two rounds of evaluation, sometimes working with us for a whole day or even two days.

The results were very positive: the cost and time duration was much lower than traditional usability tests and it was very productive after two or three rounds of testing. This valuable process of iterative design and testing usually takes just a few days to provide persuading evidence and shift the design direction of projects to head strongly in a good direction because participants are already on “standby.”

Alt text: A group sits around a small table. The screen image shows a page of test reports displaying the relevant information of a single problem, description, scenario, analysis, recommendations, and screen shot addressing where the problem occurs.
Figure 3. A quick usability test. (photo from

To summarize, thinking thoroughly requires both professional experience and skills and correct approaches and actions that are a guide and support for the approach. Getting to know “why to design” using iterative testing that makes design recommendations convincing and reasonable is just like the back side of a coin: also necessary.

2. Think widely (know why and when)

User experience designers also need to think widely to get a broader view of their own domain so they can know why and when to insist or give in. Designers are influenced by both objective requirements and subjective initiatives. Requirements are normally unpredicted and uncontrollable because they are defined by product management which may not have user experience as their primary objective. Subjective issues can be managed and used effectively in the work only if designers understand the underlying principles that influence these opinions. To manage both well, “thinking widely” must start from the early stage of a project so that the designer can know when to compromise or be strong, not just simply keep fighting based on a limited viewpoint.

In Effective UI: The Art of Building Great User Experience in Software, Jonathan Anderson, John McRee, and Robb Wilson analyzed the factors involved in a design project. They suggested that designers should take the time to see things from the view of a project manager or leader, not just act as a limited contributor

We tested this concept by leading and tutoring a team of five students from different majors such as computer science, industrial design, visual design, and interaction design to attend the competition of UXDA 2015 (the annual UX competition of UXPA China). We wanted to see how the team, called Fisssh, would perform if everyone looked at the whole project as they worked.

Case study: Team work

The Fisssh team’s goal is to create an app for a wearable device that helps children learn to stop stammering. This project was not only about the design of the app, but to create a whole experience from the start point to the completion of product. When functioning as product managers, the students had to consider more that the specific design elements.

As they worked through different phases of the project, we assisted and reviewed product concepts, user research, competitor audits, design concepts, UI designs, GUI designs, software developments, and synchronizations with target hardware. (By deeply participating in each phase, students begin to realize how to apply design in a real product and gain valuable insights into why and when design functions in certain ways.) As we hoped, Fisssh was successfully promoted to the Top 10 among close to 400 teams across the nation.

Two children playing with the game on a tablet. On the left, two students standing at a podium making a presentation.
Figure 4. The Fisssh team presenting their product, “Shut up Peter” at the competition. They were promoted to TOP 10.

The best time to introduce and cultivate this sense in students or junior practitioners is when their design principles and notions about how to work are still in the being developed. Helping them form a clear idea of how user experience designers must think and behave in an early stage, rather than after they have finished training, is a better learning process. As they start their career, they do not have to spend time and energy reversing biased habits or incomplete recognition of their role.

3. Think deeply (know more and beyond)

Design’s ultimate goal––to help create a better user experience in a product or service, not just to produce a simple tool––works on a multiple layers beyond ordinary interaction and aesthetics factors. However, as far as we can see, many product and service areas are poorly designed in China, without enough consideration to human care and cognition. In the early 2000s, Patrick Feng, in his book Science and Engineering Ethics, pointed out that human values are reflected in the very design of artifacts, so ethics are also a part of the design process and should be taken into account as a product is developed. Even if the public takes some time to wake up and request a better level of user experience, designers must realize and act proactively, ahead of the current social beliefs.

Case study: Art alters perception

To raise the awareness of thinking ethically while designing, we conducted a public talk and two workshops at the Qingdao branch of UXPA China. The talk was open to anyone, especially designers, product managers, and developers based in Qingdao. The presentations analyzed some successful product design and then looked more closely at two famous design works.

Inspired by the work of Michael Garbutt in his article “Ethical Issues in Design,” we looked at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the US and the artwork displayed on the wall between Israel and Palestine. In the first example we showed a virtual memorial in the same style but for Vietnam. Our virtual memorial was several times higher than the real memorial, showing that the number of Vietnamese who died in the war is much higher than the number of Americans.

Photo of the original showing that it’s not much taller than a person and the mockup showing that it would have to be many times taller than a person.
Figure 5. A photograph of the Vietnam War Memorial and a virtual design showing the relative size if it included all the names of Vietnamese who died.

After presenting the two versions, we allowed the audience to discuss how the design would affect people in one country. We asked them to think about whether design might unilaterally lead to further misjudgment or even abhorrence towards innocent people in the other country, even if the memorial design itself won great awards.

In the second example, we showed how a group of creative designers took photos of residents’ laughing or smiling faces from both sides of various areas along the Israel-Palestine isolation wall. These photos were posted on the wall, with each side showing the photos from the other side. The tension was magically alleviated because people suddenly realized that those living on the other side of the wall live same lives as them.

A photograph of the wall, showing the scale of the images, which are up to 10 feet tall.
Figure 6. The wall of faces in Palestine featured large images of people smiling and laughing. Image credit: Face-2-Face

In their article, “Face 2 Face,” authors JR and Marco said the images were placed in locations where they would be unavoidably encountered during daily life. “We want, at last, everyone to laugh and to think by seeing the portrait of the other and his own portrait.”

At the first workshop we arranged the audience into different conversation groups to ponder on these ethical issues. We hoped that this new way of thinking would be a moment of enlightenment for them. We know it is hard to change deeply seated ways of thinking, but it critical to develop habits of ethical thinking and have a broader view of the audience for design work.

Becoming a User Experience Designer

To become a user experience designer is to strengthen and equip oneself with key abilities and recognition of the deeper issues in order to be more competitive and complete. With a broadened vision and more flair for designing for user needs, user experience designers can apply their own professional skills to product and service design in an optimized way.

Even more, excellent user experience designers can act with a higher level of responsibility. Their designs and works have the power to change peoples’ minds and ideas, and raise the general social discussion to a higher level.

User experience is not a design issue but a huge mission towards making a better world. Just try to think thoroughly, think widely, and think deeply.

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