UX at the Core

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As a former Marine, I held many jobs.

My primary Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) was as a Crash Fire and Rescue Specialist.  It was my job to lead the Marines that served under me to respond to aircraft emergencies and extinguish fires and escort anyone in the crash to safety.  However, it was the core mission of every Marine to be, first and foremost, a hard-charging, rifle-slinging, ground-pounding infantryman.

So no matter what your specialty, whether you are an air-traffic controller, computer technician or a police officer, your job first and foremost is to pick up a rifle and head into battle.  General Al Gray, the 29th Commandant of the Marine Corps said it best, “Every Marine is, first and foremost, a rifleman. All other conditions are secondary.” But what does this have to do with designing and developing for digital?

value of design

It is my opinion that at the core of every designer, developer, project manager and copywriter should be a usability specialist.  Like Marines who have a basic mission as riflemen, those who work in the interactive marketing space need to understand no matter what their specialty, their primary function is to create a positive user experience.  Because no matter how well designed or technically innovative our creations are, if they are not easily understood by the end-user they are worthless.

That may sound harsh, but it is true. The critical element in everything we do is the user journey.  As designers, we are the first (often only) line of defense against poor usability.  And it is in all of our best interests to make sure that any part of the process we touch is left better than how it was delivered.  The crafting of an amazing digital brand experience is not an assembly line process.  It is a constant push and pull of ideas, concepts and tweaks to the execution.

The most challenging thing for most designers and developers to accept (and I know because I was both) is that sometimes things don’t translate to end-users as you intended them to.  What looked good on paper doesn’t always work on the screen and what made perfect sense in wireframes fails when someone actually tries to use it in a real-world situation.  I have long designed with the philosophy: “The last thing your design intends is often the first thing someone notices.”

So the big question is how do we all get in touch with our inner usability specialist and begin to consider our intended audience in all that we do during the process. In true military fashion, I trust an acronym to help me remember.  Maybe it will help you as well. So when it comes to perfecting the user journey, just remember to get B.A.S.I.C.



Take a step back from the process – For a moment stop being a designer, developer or project manager. For a moment take a look at what you are doing from a consumer’s perspective and start. Don’t just start looking at how to execute wireframes or design interfaces. That’s what a designer or developer would do.  You need to take a deep breath and look at things and imagine what a person who just opened your project would think.  The best way to do that is…


The biggest error most designers and developers make is assuming that every person who interacts with a project understands the nuances of what’s going on.  It’s interesting to me that whenever you speak to designers and developers, they are very quick to critique other designers’ work.  They get very nit-picky and rip projects apart, not because of the complexity of the design or technology, but rather the inability of the project to answer the most basic of questions:

  • Where am I?
  • What am I doing here?
  • Where is the information I want?
  • How do I get to that information?
  • Is it easy for me to figure out what to do when I get to that information?

If any one of the answers to those questions sounds complicated or is somewhat difficult to answer, your usability may need some tweaking. Think about it this way; what do you ask every time you visit a new site, look something up on your mobile device or start a new game?  You will begin to see that the same questions come up over and over again: Where am I? Where is what I want? How do I get it?


After completing the ‘questions’ exercise, look at the answers.  Is it reasonable to assume that a consumer would be able to give the same answers you did?  What in the design itself supports that conclusion?  The answers you give should not substantiate your team’s concept but rather to make sure that a consumer’s scrutiny will be met and positively answered.


This sounds a bit more sinister than it is.  The true goal of this step is to start looking outside your group for answers.  Now that you and your team have scrutinized your plan and come up with a full-proof way of pleasing your end-user, it is time to go and speak to someone who might be in that group.  Or, at the very least, start talking to someone who isn’t familiar with your project.  This can be done in a number of ways – but basically you want to test very specific elements of your ideas with people who might be able to give you insight.


Here is the key element to the entire process.  You need to be looking at your work and checking it often with members of your project team and people outside of your group.  It would be great to check it often with those who are similar to your end-user, but this may be unrealistic.  The key is to check it.  It is all too easy for us as designers and developers to get lost in the minutia of our work, especially when everything has been approved and the green light has been given to build.  The key factor is to establish milestones where usability check-in is explored to make sure the user journey still remains intact.

So there you have it.  Well, actually you just have my recommendation for a B.A.S.I.C. framework to get your entire team thinking about usability.  While each of your team members has a specific role to play in creating rich digital content experiences, we should all take it upon ourselves to understand our projects in a more user-centric, holistic way.  The more you follow these B.A.S.I.C. usability guidelines, the more focused you will become on delivering successful projects in the eyes of your audience.

For the record, the above mentioned are truly just guidelines. I would love to hear how you and your team are working together to keep user experiences at the forefront of your build processes.