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What can urban sprawl teach us about UX design issues?

UX design sprawl mimics urban sprawl, both in its push for growth and its potentially dangerous pitfalls. Here are a few things to keep in mind during the UX design process.

Urban sprawl can be used to describe rapid municipal development in response to significant population growth. While its purpose is to provide homes and jobs to millions of individuals, urban sprawl can also create drawbacks to the living experience, such as increased congestion, water and air pollution, and more dependency on cars.

Metaphorically speaking, urban sprawl can help us understand the challenges of product and UX design. As organizations rapidly scale to meet the needs of customers, UI design can also get to the point of becoming confusing, fragmented and off-brand.

I call this issue UX design sprawl, and I've seen it happen repeatedly in my nearly two decades of working with software engineering and design teams. While sprawl is an inherent challenge of UX design, there are ways to anticipate it and stop the spread before it damages UX and, ultimately, the organization's bottom line.

UX design starts with empathy for the user

A responsible product development culture starts with empathy for the user. UX design strategy is grounded in understanding users, including how they work and what their needs are. This type of information helps developers provide the best UX.

By nurturing a user-centric culture, every individual building a product or making decisions about it -- regardless of discipline -- understands who they're building for and how they are contributing to improving UX.

Evolving an organization's UX design approach requires individual teams to put any existing power struggles aside. Focusing on the user's needs and embracing important values, like diversity, inclusivity and accessibility, help to move the product development and decision-making processes from "inside out" to "outside in."

Don't let compromises become bad design habits

Be aware of the precedents you set when making UX design choices. Over time, necessary go-to-market compromises can accidentally evolve into poor standards and practices that generate design debt. Like technical debt, which can occur when teams take certain shortcuts to meet deadlines, design debt grows when developers skip good design practices in order to rush software to market.

For example, let's say that a development team makes a compromise to only support desktop users for the first iteration of a product, just for the sake of shipping the product sooner. While this was only intended to be a temporary solution, it results in releasing a button that is too small for mobile users. If the developers don't follow up soon and fix the button size, that shortsighted approach could quickly become an erroneous standard and proliferate within the company's overall UX design process.

While this example may seem trivial, unchecked design details can add up to bad UX. No matter how inconsequential a single poor design choice may seem, these details can aggregate in the minds of the users, chipping away at their trust of the product and the brand. Companies need to talk about design debt before design sprawl gets out of hand.

It may be necessary to make some design compromises, especially when you're a startup -- i.e., have fewer resources and/or need to get to market fast. But make sure to chronicle those compromises, and don't allow them to morph into problematic design sprawl. Taking action can minimize accessibility issues down the development road.

Recognize how design sprawl impacts accessibility

Unchecked UX compromises also have huge consequences when it comes to meeting the accessibility needs of end users. Maximizing ease of use leads to products that anyone can use and enjoy, whatever the context. Meanwhile, a universally accessible interface design only widens the user pool.

Designing a product from scratch that meets the requirements for accessibility doesn't have to create additional cost or effort. Tools that are accessible and universally designed treat accessibility as a foundational element. Retroactively fixing or redesigning inaccessible software can be difficult and costly, which is why accessibility must be at the forefront when designing new things and evaluating features.

Failure to acknowledge design sprawl, including how it affects accessibility, eventually catches up with you in the form of disaster. Beyond the immediate impact of a poor design choice, you may eventually find yourself in a design-centric fire drill while trying to close the deal on a product. There is no right or wrong way to go about making accessibility a part of your design process -- just incorporate it.

Build trust into UX

Responsible design revolves around creating software that is useful, intuitive, inclusive and accessible. It also means building those traits into the corporate culture.

Organizations shouldn't expect to transform their software design practices overnight. However, now is the time to start considering these issues. Developers should treat failures in UX design with the same urgency as software bugs or bad code. They should be removed or fixed before they become technical debt and expansive software design sprawl that affects other systems.

It takes careful planning and follow-through, but good UX design practices ultimately create trust between the company, users and people that provide the software. Organizations who rise to the challenge and integrate responsible design into both their product and company culture will see their efforts rewarded through customer loyalty.

About the author
Adam Draper currently leads security UX and product design at Elastic. Previous roles include head of product design and UX research at
People.ai and lead UI/UX designer at LogicHub and Fountain Software.

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