When it comes to User Experience and Design, kalahari.com is a sound example of a brand doing this successfully. We spoke to Rian van der Merwe, Head of User Experience at kalahari.com. We got some great perspective on some of the challenges faced in large organisations, design versus usability, and we hear about his next chapter that is soon approaching.
Being head of User Experience for kalahari.com, what are the biggest challenges you face?
In large companies, user experience tends to be an organizational challenge more than it is a design challenge. The biggest difficulty is embedding user experience thinking completely, across the company, in everyone’s minds. It’s not just the designers or developers who create the sites or apps that need to think about this, we all do.
In South Africa we still find ourselves in an environment where design is often seen as a bit of an afterthought. A varnish you put on a product before it goes live. This thinking needs to change. At its core, design is problem-solving. It’s understanding user needs and then building experiences that meet those needs in a way that makes business sense, as opposed to forcing users to fit into how we view our business.
So to come back to the original question, one of the biggest challenges for us as a User Experience team has been to show the business value of what we do. We make sure that we define clear success metrics on our projects, and that we communicate the increases in conversion rates or revenue that we see from the work that we do. That’s how we’ve been able to expand the expertise on the team and gain a voice in strategy discussions.
Do you think design is ever sacrificed for usability?
I guess that depends on your definition of design. I view design as a set of decisions about a product. And yes, this includes things like Interaction Design and Visual Design, but it’s more than that. Good design is good usability. Good design communicates the product’s core functions well, in whatever visual style the designer chooses. So it’s not about minimalism or skeuomorphism or any of the other trends we’re currently seeing. It’s about telling the product’s story well. That’s intimately linked with good usability.
If the question is whether we sometimes sacrifice aesthetics for usability, my answer would be yes. To quote Jeffrey Zeldman, “Not enough designers are working in that vast middle ground between eye candy and hardcore usability where most of the web must be built.” Design exists to serve the user. If we sometimes have to sacrifice aesthetics to do that effectively, then so be it.
What are you thoughts on Ecommerce in South Africa, in general and in relation to other emerging markets?
The data tells us we’re still a small Ecommerce market, but growing fast, particularly in mobile. I don’t want to go all ‘the future is mobile’ on you, but the reality is that many people in South Africa, and the rest of the continent, will only ever go online on their mobile phones. So we have something unique to offer to the rest of the world when it comes to mobile. For us, Mobile First isn’t just a mantra. If we don’t take it seriously, we will lose out to someone who does.
Ecommerce in South Africa is really exciting right now. We have a lot of competition and a lot of niche players entering the market, and that’s good for everyone. It forces companies to innovate faster, and consumers get more choice.
You started Elezea.com, a website aimed at reflecting on User Experience Design, Technology and Software Product Development. Explain the idea behind Elezea to us.
You know, I wish I had a good answer to that question, but I’m still figuring it out myself. I started the site because I love writing, and I wanted to get better at it. I also see the enormous value of what Wired reporter Clive Thompson calls ‘the art of public thinking‘. I’ve definitely seen how thinking out loud about technology and design challenges me on my own assumptions, and helps me build better arguments, all of which helps me grow as a designer and as a human being.
In the beginning I wrote a lot but didn’t post much, because I felt the need for every post to be long and perfect. And then I slowly realised that I’ve raised the bar too high for myself, nothing is ever perfect. So right now I see Elezea as a way to share the things I find interesting, and I hope that some of it resonates with people. Sometimes it’s original writing, but more and more it has become about pointing people to other great writing out there, with some quick added perspective. I’ve slowly relaxed the limits on what kind of stuff I’m allowed to post there, but the common thread is the intersection of design, technology, and sociology. Ok, and coffee. I think about coffee way too much.
What is the best piece of information to remember when trying to keep design user-friendly?
You are not the user. You have to talk to and observe users of your product to find out what’s wrong, and what they need. There are great design patterns and guidelines out there, and we definitely have to follow those. For example, there is no need to re-invent forms. We know what works. But every product and every situation is unique, so one of the biggest mistakes we can make is to think that we can just follow, or ignore, the rules because we are users too. Without user research, we’re flying blind.
I think the biggest epidemic in the design world right now is that we open our design software too early in the process. We have to spend time understanding the problem and user needs first, before we grab the mouse. There are so many products out there that look great, but don’t really solve a user need. The app ‘Color‘ has become a poster child for this kind of thing.
Instead, designers should raise their voices much earlier in the strategy discussion, and bring their design thinking skills to the essential practice of finding what Marc Andreesen calls product/market fit. Oh, and we need to use more paper to share those ideas. Sketches are fantastic low-fidelity prototyping tools, and it’s cheap to test and iterate on.
We hear that you will be moving on from kalahari.com soon. What will your new work involve and what challenges do you look forward to most there?
In June I’ll be joining the Cape Town office of UX consultancy Flow Interactive. I’ve known Phil, one of the co-founders of Flow in the UK, for a while and I’ve always admired his approach and methods to User Experience work. So when I decided to go out on my own and we chatted about it, the idea slowly emerged that we should team up.
My role is going to be a mixture of client work and training, and I’m really looking forward to both areas. I’m excited about being part of a small team that does methodologically sound and highly practical UX work with organizations across South Africa. It just feels like a perfect fit.
We wish you great success in your new venture. Thank you for sharing these insightful bites of information, Rian.