Jan-Willem Muller

UX design – more than just a pretty face

User Experience (UX) design is a discipline involving much, much more than creating a website that looks good. It’s an approach driven by trying to get into the mind of your potential audience and give them what they want and expect – not what you might assume they want and expect. Assumptions are the enemy of good UX design – while research and strategy are the UX designer’s friend.

Jan-Willem Muller is part of RNW Media’s Data and Digital team and over the past year he and his colleagues have been transforming the Citizen’s Voice platforms according to UX principles. It begins, says Muller, with questions:

I work closely with strategists – business developers, marketers, managers to identify which goals they want to reach. Then I ask myself questions and ask them questions, look at the data, do you know your user well enough? Have you looked at the tech research? Do you have a business model?

A business model is traditionally based on making profit – but, says Muller, it’s also an ecosystem for what can be gained out of a project and what is invested in it. Even though RNW Media’s platforms are not commercial entities, they do have an end goal – put simply, to engage users in ways that can lead to social change. Donors’ money is invested in the people, the technology, the programmes to make that engagement happen and both quantitative and qualitative data is used to measure the return on that investment – our impact. In the RNW Media context, our Theory of Change is our business model and the strategic basis for all our platforms and activities.

UX analysis
Once a clear strategy has been agreed and the goal(s) of a platform identified, the next step in the UX process is market research to identify the target audience

Age, gender, location, tech standards, needs and wants, income, education, mind-set, occupation – all of these factors must be considered and there may be multiple target groups. Based on these target groups I can start thinking about how users are going to engage with the platforms and start to create user scenarios e.g., a user is going to buy these products or read this article X in order to achieve Y.

For Masaraat, an intensive analysis phase took place where we used workshops to decide on strategy, target groups, personas

Creating user scenarios helps to identify the different ways in which a variety of users will engage and move through a platform depends on their needs, their level of interest, the technology they use and a variety of other factors. No one user can wholly represent the target audience, but scenarios aim to reflect them as best as possible, says Muller.

Once you’ve described all the possible scenarios it becomes clear what the website should do, what needs the online engagement should fulfil.

The design process
The next step is transforming these insights into real prototypes, testing those prototypes on users and optimizing and adjusting design as needed. For Muller and his colleagues who are based at RNW Media’s headquarters in The Netherlands, the involvement of in-country teams is essential to successful UX design. The expectations and wishes of a user in Burundi are very different from those of a user in Libya or China, and the implementing teams based in RNW Media’s target countries are vital in ensuring that the platforms truly reflect those needs and aspirations.

For China we make a China-specific design because reading patterns are very different. A Western site prioritises clarity, focus, visuals with space between. But that’s not what a Chinese audience wants. I heard from the Chinese team that efficiency is key. White space means scrolling, and scrolling is inefficient. A Chinese audience want more functionality at a glance on one page – one mobile screen. The number of elements on one screen view in China will be double that of a Western website. And there are also design considerations that come with language – Chinese uses symmetrical characters and doesn’t have capital letters.

Love Matters China required a full Chinese design 

Muller describes UX design as functional art and says good UX design is always a compromise between product goals, tech, creativity and user experience. It’s about what the user wants – but a user may not always know what they want so the designer needs to provide clear possibilities and choices to guide users through a site. Technology also affects design. If connectivity is difficult and expensive, and users are accessing the internet via older devices, it’s important that platforms are optimised for accessibility

[Read more about inclusive tech]

The compromises are driven ultimately by usability – making the choices needed for the best possible product in the target audience’s context. And a good UX designer is primarily the users’ advocate – promoting their needs above all other considerations and keeping them at the centre at every stage of design and development.

Examples of platforms Muller and the development team have re-designed following UX principles include Masaraat, This Is Africa and RNW Media’s corporate site.