Dear reader, you are about to embark on a tale similar to “A Series of Unfortunate Events”. In this famous story, two orphans are befallen by misfortune at every turn. Every time something nice happens to them, it doesn't last. Sadly, my story is also one of those “there’s no happy ending”. There’s still time to turn back and enjoy the sun or a nice cup of tea far away from this screen. Without further ado, let’s get started...
At the beginning, it sounded like a nice idea
I see you chose to stay. Every good story needs a nice protagonist. Let’s call him Mr. Client. You see, Mr. Client had a really nice project idea: he wanted to help children learn music. What a wonderful thing to do! But he couldn’t do it alone. So, he chose a team of brave people to help him in this adventure: our web agency and a savvy group of investors.
Together, we thought about how to bring this product to life:
- the music teachers would get an iPad application to record small videos of lessons;
- the children would watch those videos on a web platform directly in the browser.
The agency had fierce Web Developers capable of slaying any PHP, HTML and CSS dragons. Unicorn Designers yielding UX and visual wands were working their magic with interfaces. Unfortunately, they did not have any native iOS developers. No matter! The client also chose a third part team to build the iPad application.
Everybody was motivated and the project started. The web agency would work on the web platform, design and code while the iOS team would start working on the iPad Application.
Like every epic quest composed of so many different people, you know, dear reader, that things would eventually start to go wrong.
A series of Unfortunate events
“But who will take care of the design?”
Our brave team of agency devs and designers started working on the platform and finally met with the iOS development team. Plans were made regarding APIs and file formats. And then… a designer asked the 1 billion dollars’ question: “But who will take care of the iPad App design?”.
The discussion went a little bit like that:
iOS dev team: “We can do it as well”.
UX Designer: “But when you presented your company, you didn’t mention any designer. Do you have designer in the team?”
iOS dev team: “We don’t. We will ask a freelance designer to take care of it”
UX Designer: “Well, since we already take care of the platform design, we can also create the design of the iPad app. It would be silly to hire a freelance designer while we have the resources here. We can take care of the design for you. Also, this will insure consistency between the two parts of the product.”
The iOS dev team didn’t seem super happy about the proposal but they still agreed. Mr. Client seemed just happy that somebody was taking care of it.
Dear reader, you might think that at this point everybody was on the same page. But this is, as we said, a series of unfortunate events. So, they were not on the same page, at all. For the UX Designer, “taking care of the design” meant “I will help you with information architecture, wireframes, and visual design of the UI”. For the iOS dev team, this meant “We will build the product with our framework and your design unicorns will put some paint on top of it”. But nobody said any of this out loud during the meeting. And this is how things lead to terrible misfortunes befalling the team at every turn.
A single decision would doom us all
The iOS team worked with the agency developer on the API. But they never consulted the Designers Team for the information architecture and usability of the iPad application. A few weeks after, they sent a first prototype. The UX Designer was a little bit puzzled and sad nobody asked her help for the prototype. So, she tested the application.
Deep in her heart, she really hoped it was “just a proposal”. The user flow didn’t make any sense: users had to go back and forth between different tabs to accomplish their task, without any guidance. It was complicated to use. It took more than 15 actions to record the video, choose the children you wanted to send it to, and when to send it.
When the Design Team asked if they could do some proposals to make the application more usable, the iOS dev team agreed “if the modifications can be coded using their framework”. Due to budget and deadline, they apparently built the application using a custom framework. This framework had its own capabilities. So, the framework they chose was going to dictate usability and UI decisions.
Dear reader, as you guessed it, this custom framework would turn out to be a foe. There’s still time to look away and get that cup of tea.
“Make it pretty”, and they did… but it wasn’t going to be enough
It was the middle of spring and the project was due to launch on September. No magic wand was going to help make the application better. Designers were asked to do “quick fixes” and to “make it pretty”. It broke their heart, but they did. The UX Designer proposed a few fixes while the Visual Designer applied a nice UI kit template. It was all trendy, all shiny, flat and everything Mr. Client could dream of. The app LOOKED nice. But the information architecture was still broken. No amount of shiny unicorn magic was going to save the horrible tab based user flow.
Mr. Client liked the shiny mockups. Of course, he would. They were admittedly pretty; so pretty in fact that we could call them Dribbble-pretty. Something this pretty had to be shared with some end users! FINALLY, the end users were getting involved! The Design Team didn’t get to meet the users, but they knew what was going to happen.
And, a unicorn’s worst fears came true. Mr. Client showed the mockups to some users. Those users could not understand how they were supposed to use the iPad application. They all agreed it was pretty, but Mr. Client had to explain how it worked to every single one of them.
Dear reader, at this point, you might think that the project was doomed, that the Design Team was doomed, that we were all doomed. And you would be right. But fear not, this isn’t the end of the tale: fate has a strange sense of humour. Things would start to get just a little better, before getting even worse.
Hope in a hopeless world
Re-starting from scratch to build a better user flow
So, Mr. Client told the Design Team what happened. He was nervous, he could not launch such an application in September. The Design Team knew that THIS was their chance to make things right. They explained that the current flow was indeed too complicated for any end user. They proposed to work on it and make. And so, they obtained a small budget to rework the application flow. Things were going to turn around!
Using white boards and post-its, the two designers took half a day in a room to rebuild the whole application flow. They tried to make the flow as simple and seamless as possible. They started from scratch, broke the concept down into pieces. They were able to prototype a linear flow that was guiding the user step by step. It now only took 8 actions to complete the whole process.
Then, they went to a face to face meeting with both Mr. Client and the iOS dev team to present their rework. At this point, it was a post-it proposal with arrows due to lack of time, no wireframes, no mockups, just the flow. And it worked. The client felt confident about this proposal. During the meeting, the developers at the table agreed that it should be possible to rebuild the application based on the flow proposal. Hurray!
Dear reader, this is one of those moments in a story where you get hope and think “finally miracle is happening, we might get a happy ending”. So, did our Unicorn Design Team. But I told you in the beginning, there’s no happy ending to this tale.
Treachery, budget and deadlines
Every good story needs a dose of deception and treachery. This is what happened next.
The iOS developer team left the meeting earlier so Mr. Client was left alone with the two Unicorn Designers who were happy to finally be “allowed” to do their job. They proposed to build a quick interactive prototype for the next week. They also proposed to test and validate it with end users.
Then suddenly the phone rang and Mr. Client answered left the room. When he came back 10 minutes later, he was gloomy. It was the iOS dev team on the phone. Yes, the same team, that told them 15 minutes earlier, that they could build the application with the new flow. Over the phone, they explained that they thought about it and this new flow would not fit into the requirements of THEIR framework. It would require custom development and extra time. If Mr. Client chose to stick with the new flow proposal, they could not deliver the application by September. It would also cost extra, of course.
Dear reader, if you are a product or a UX designer, you might say that it’s better to postpone the deadline and launch a usable product than to stick with one nobody can use. And you would be right. And that’s exactly what the Unicorn Design Team told Mr. Client. But like I told you before, there is not going to be a happy ending for this story I’m afraid.
The final decision was not in Mr. Client’s hands. He wanted to rebuild the iPad application with a better user flow. But the investors were not ready to postpone the product launch. They decided to stick to the September deadline. They decided to keep the “pretty but not usable app”. Anyway, Mr. Client was going to try to sell it directly to the customers at the beginning. They said they would keep the new user flow for a “next version”.
Epilogue - this is not a happy ending
Dear reader, this is the end. As I kept telling you, there is not happy ending. But here you are, so we may as well get to this unfortunate tale’s conclusion...
You can guess that the September deadline was never met. If I remember correctly it took an extra 8 months to launch. The “new version” also never happened. In fact, the product never launched for various other bad decisions. And sadly, Mr. Client and his investors lost more than 250 000 euros in the process.
Regrets… about not taking the seat at the table
By now, you might have understood that I was the UX Designer in this unfortunate tale. I am still sad when I think about this project. I was young and I lacked experience with UX methods. I was also suffering from a big lack of confidence (I still am but it gets better with every new project). I was working in a dev company where they “did not sell usability and wireframes to clients” before I arrived. Since I was not feeling comfortable about my role, people were easily second guessing my proposals and decisions. At the end of the day, I was “just happy that people would invite me at the table”. And I was sad when I didn't get invited. But I wasn’t doing anything about it. I was just hoping that people would eventually ask for my help. That they would magically discover what UX was and that I could help.
Instead, I should have TAKEN that seat at the table and make them hear my voice. And do my damn job. After all, they were paying me to be the usability / UX expert!
A lot of other things went wrong during this project. There were no real specifications to begin with. The collaboration with the iOS dev team was clearly complicated if not impossible. A lot of bad decisions were made. Letting their framework dictate the user flow was only one of them. I’m not sure building a better user flow would have saved the project. But I sometimes wish I tried harder. Because, in the end, nothing good comes out of “we will build the app based on our framework, just make it pretty afterwards”. Never.