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NN/g Usability Week: Metrics, Memories, and Magic

This post was written by Amina Patton, MGD. 

I’ve heard people say that the creative process of design can seem like magic.

Years of art and design school helped me understand that the “magic” actually comes down to a handful of fundamental techniques and methods. And I’m always excited to get an opportunity to demystify the magic a little more. That’s why I jumped at the chance to attend the  “From Science to Design” class at Nielsen Norman Group Usability Week in NYC.

Kathryn Whitenton’s NN/g class focused on using Human Computer Interaction (HCI) research to address real world problems like how to make typing on a mobile device less difficult. The class covered many concepts that I understand and often use, but can be hard to explain.

We discussed research that directly relates to design and user experience. A memorable example for me is the structure of the human eye: the cones at the center of our eyes are sensitive to color and detail, and the rods alongside them are sensitive to low light and movement.
Diagram of an Eye
Hearing that made a light bulb go off in my mind and I quickly tweeted:

 @minamachelle tweets: "Peripheral vision is more sensitive to movement." That's why the bouncy notification on my Mac is so effective! #nnguw

As we dived into a discussion of different interfaces, things really began clicking with me. And this must have been true for others, too, because the room quickly filled with stories, including charged discussions of Apple’s past use of skeuomorphic design (copying the look of an object) and Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system. The conclusion from both: Appealing visual design doesn’t guarantee a great user experience.

These discussions really brought the concepts and methods full circle for me. I began the day excited to learn about scientific research that informs my work, yet I was most impacted by people’s stories. Individuals’ stories captured the humanity in HCI.

In the end, the course was a good reminder that the “magic” stems from the delicate combination of lessons learned from our own experiences as users and techniques from direct observation and scientific research. When User Experience Designers combine intuition, observation, and experience with science-based HCI research, the result is an experience that really does feel like magic.

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