At the start of the 2016 spring semester, the IHR Nexus Lab offered a free workshop on user experience (UX), an approach to design that draws from the humanities and STEM fields to think about how people will engage with the product. All too often, designers focus on the tangible benefits of a new product—how it will offer its user new abilities, speed up productivity, or refine pre-existing technology—without bearing in mind that those benefits are only fully realized when the product also makes sense to the human being who has to use it. By paying attention to this aspect of design, UX tries to bridge the gap between innovation and practicality so that the final product can be deployed to the best possible use.
We began with by looking at everyday design choices in a parking lot and gradually shifted our attention to questions of digital design such as information architecture and content strategies for websites. Regardless of whether the design choices were for a physical tool or a digital one, the questions remained the same: who is going to be using this and how can that use be made as intuitive as possible?
We dissected websites so that we could do a card sorting exercise where we grouped content into categories and thought about what categories would be most immediately recognizable by users. As the workshop continued, we followed that up by developing “personas,” miniature biographical sketches of potential users with a sense of what sorts of skills that person might have. Once a persona had been designed, it often became surprisingly clear what that person would need or want from a website or product. By combining the two, we started to be able to think through questions of web design not in terms of aesthetics—a perhaps too common starting point—but in terms of actual use. From there, we could start sketching out and prototyping different possible websites.
The workshop culminated by taking a look at a website for a series of collected online teacher training courses and taking it apart to see how it worked and to consider how it might work better both as a teaching tool and as a resource for the teachers after they had finished taking it. Having gone through card sorting and taking a look at different personas, we could then sketch out and prototype different possible variants on websites showcasing the already extant content as well as make suggestions for new content creation.
I personally came to the workshop from a background in English literature and object-oriented criticism and found a lot of overlap between high theoretical questions about the role that objects play in everyday life and the practical choices that have to be made by the designer. The workshop also served as a welcome reminder of the degree to which material culture is, deliberately or not, designed with a particular set of goals and ideas in mind. As someone interested in the role that physical books played in identity construction, this was a fruitful thought. As an added bonus, the workshop also taught me how to set up a useful personal website for myself, one that doesn’t just provide information but does so in a way that makes that information easily accessible.
Department of English Faculty Associate and recent PhD graduate, John Henry Adams, is a scholar of Renaissance literature, book history, and literary theory. He teaches courses in first-year writing, and is currently working on a critical edition of the works of Isabella Whitney.