Introduction

Here’s a common question we hear at Springboard on almost a daily basis: 

Does UI and UX Design only apply to digital products and services?

Our answer: absolutely not! While the most common focus of UX/UI is mostly nestled within the digital realm, its topics just as easily apply to physical, voice, gesture, light and multimodal-based interfaces and experiences. 

In fact, the underlying principles of UI and UX Design are virtually agnostic to context. The reality is that UI/UX experts regularly apply their skills far beyond digital interactions. This is why the portfolios of so many senior practitioners include past projects throughout multiple domains and settings, and so many UX consulting firms and agencies showcase work samples that span entire sectors and industries. 

This is also why UI/UX work does not arbitrarily stop and start throughout online vs. offline touchpoints as we seek to improve user journeys in b2c, b2b, b2g, and all kinds of contexts. User-centered design can – and should – persist through all the touchpoints of a user journey; online, offline, and all the interfaces in between that comprise an end-to-end user experience.

A Caveat About UX vs. UI 

As a caveat, it’s important to note that a lot of job titles with some variation of “UI” or “UX” are actually very similar. You’ll often encounter job titles with the combination phrases “UI/UX” or “UI and UX” precisely because employers don’t always understand their true distinctions. Applicants often report seeing a tremendous amount of overlapping vernacular, work responsibilities and desired qualifications among these roles. 

So, even though nuanced differences do exist between these spheres, we’ll focus particularly on the overlap of their practical applications – beyond digital – in this article. In that spirit, let’s step through an example of how UX and UI disciplines can be applied to help bring a new internet of things (IoT) product to market. 

A Real-World Example

Consider the following graphic depicting most of the major touchpoints that UX and UI professionals would work on for a general IoT consumer product:

Let’s call this: Product X. Imagine a business that has already determined the viability and demand for such a product through market research and other means. As a next step, UX/UI professionals and cross-functional teams design the initial experience that will be launched, known as Minimum Viable Product (MVP) 1. This initial launch would be followed by a series of enhancements, whereby various layers of functionality and optimizations are made in MVP 2, 3, 4, and so on. 

Next, let’s walk through how they would define what to build for MVP 1. Assuming that Product X is well-funded and staffed, they will follow a real-world approach that’s partially Lean UX-inspired, yet still rooted in the way that many companies operate today. 

Preliminary End-to-End Assessment

Before tackling any touchpoints, it’s important to look at the whole customer journey to: 

  • Build user empathy
  • Determine how user-centered design should be applied
  • Clarify business goals
  • See which technical limitations to assume
  • Scope how MVP1 will be delivered on time

From the UX/UI perspective, Product X’s team starts with an exploratory design workshop that leverages market research data to map out the steps their key Personas – aka representative users – will undergo throughout the journey. By the workshop’s conclusion, they’ll have produced artifacts such as Journey Maps and Swimlane Charts that create a shared understanding of the end-to-end experience. 

From this point on, the team diverges and converges as needed, sometimes working in parallel on the following phases, in order to ensure a holistically aligned perspective and to meet their internal production deadlines. UXers and Product X leadership drive the overall process while UI specialists handle detailed designs, style guides, adherence to branding, and handoff to engineers.

Phase 1: Online Shopping

In Phase 1, supported by conversations with marketing and sales personnel, the team explores channels by which consumers will find and buy Product X. They decide that MVP 1 can only be obtained through the company website, so all paths eventually lead to its product detail page as the purchase point.

Iterative design-test-redesign cycles are conducted on the major path-to-purchase channels, giving rise to a user-vetted shopping experience marked by high satisfaction, easy findability, and maximum conversion rates. 

 

Phase 2: The Out of Box Experience

In Phase 2, once the team has identified opportunities for key differentiation in the out of box experience, they’ll begin with competitive research. Top competitors in terms of market share and design expertise are systematically selected and analyzed, resulting in a number of ideas that could elevate the out of box experience well beyond consumers’ expectations. Competing packaging designs are then prototyped and UX Tested in order to tease out the ideal experience, eventually reaching one that brings undeniable delight to target users as they get their first glimpse at the proposed product.


Phase 3: Online Setup & Registration

In Phase 3, the team examines how customers would create an account and register their device: a critical step that must occur before product usage. As with the next two phases, a properly planned information architecture is key here in order to effectively ideate upon user stories, sitemaps, and user flows, all while leveraging card sorting as a method for ensuring user-friendly navigation. Then, various solutions are prototyped and UX Tested to determine the winning ideas.

Phase 4: Connecting to Wi-Fi

Phase 4, which was identified as a potential major user pain point in Phase 0, consists of figuring out how best to enable customers to connect their devices to a Wi-Fi network. Based on their experience with other IoT products, the team knows this usually proves difficult for consumers because the task is unfamiliar to most people and there’s often a serious lack of success/failure feedback throughout the process. They decided to begin with exploratory qualitative research, comprised of in-home visits with target consumers to observe how they connect similar IoT products to their networks. From that study, they learn of the common pitfalls and best practices associated with this critical task, which they exploit to create a trio of competing concepts. 

These concepts are then shown to target customers to elicit key feedback and design direction to inform the creation of a prototype, which is UX Tested multiple times. They finally drive their prototypes to a streamlined state that produces extremely high task success rates and very low rates of customer support requests for help.

Phase 5: Ongoing Usage

In Phase 5, which encompasses ongoing usage, the team rapidly develops a slew of prototypes that undergo their now-standardized design-test-redesign cycles. Upon ascertaining the most successful design for Phase 5 through extensive UX Testing, they are now ready to ensure all the phases fit together well and proceed with a summative research study to look at the end-to-end user experience. To their delight, this mixed-methods study results in sparkling success metrics, providing the Product X team with a high degree of validation and confidence in MVP 1.

As the multi-month project comes to a close, the team has a unified set of prototypes for MVP 1, representing each phase of the journey that Product X leadership and UI professionals will handoff to engineers to initiate production. After launch, key business and user metrics will be consistently tracked to inform the creation of subsequent MVPs, following a similar approach as with the first release. This helps ensure a close pulse on customer’s needs and expectations, constantly steering Product X down the most user-friendly design path and dramatically increasing their chances of marketplace success! Now that we’ve covered a specific case from the practitioners’ view, let’s change our lens to look at UX and UI from the consumer’s view.

Universal Presence

Since our field resides at the intersection of people and technology, the breadth and depth of its applications are nearly limitless. For a frame of reference, just think of these everyday products, systems, and services that many readers of this article will experience in the first few hours of their workday:

Although often overlooked, these above examples represent merely a small slice of the engineered world around us that is constantly co-developed or improved by UX and UI experts around the planet. The immensity of potential UX/UI applications is truly wondrous! 

Conclusion

Simply put, if there’s room to improve the user-friendliness of a product, system, or service, then there’s a demand for UI and UX. These disciplines span digital, physical, and omnichannel horizons. From appliances and power tools to control rooms for running critical infrastructure and user interfaces in jets and space shuttles, UI/UX professionals are contributing to all kinds of technology and situations beyond strictly digital experiences, including (but not limited to):

  • Multi-channel user journeys
  • Multi-device interactions 
  • Smartphones, Tablets, Computers and associated peripherals
  • Wearables
  • Robotics (HMIs)
  • Kiosks
  • Physical Products
  • Voice interfaces (e.g., smart speakers)
  • IoT (straddles physical & online experiences)
  • Printed and digital documentation (e.g., installation manuals, user guides, etc.)
  • In-person interactions (e.g., stores, hotels, restaurants, etc.)
  • Work environments at offices, industrial plants, and transportation hubs

If any of these topics appeal to you, or you’re considering a career in UI and/or UX, then check out Springboard’s UI/UX Career Track, an online bootcamp that’s guaranteed to get you a job.