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Thought UX design was a new phenomenon? Think again! The Founding Fathers had user experience down pat

Thought UX design was a new phenomenon? Think again! The Founding Fathers had user experience down pat

Ah, the good ol’ fourth of July. Picnics, fireworks, parades and… user experience design. UX might not be the first thing that comes to mind on Independence Day, but there are some valuable user experience design lessons to be learned from the words and deeds of the five Founding Fathers. They might just look like a bunch of old timey dudes in tights, but in fact they were masters of user research, iterative prototyping and product design.

Don’t believe us? Find out what the Founding Fathers can teach us about UX.

Prototype, debate, iterate

We like to think of the Declaration of Independence is kind of like an old-timey UI wireframe. Why? Because the founding fathers took their time to prototype and iterate the Declaration. The States actually legally separated from Great Britain on the 2nd of July, not the 4th; the following two days were spent writing and rewriting – in other words, iterating – the Declaration.

And like a true UXer, Thomas Jefferson didn’t work alone – a SWAT team of five collaborated on the document, which was then refined by Congress. Two days later, the finished Declaration was launched. Hello, 4th of July.

Make like Jefferson by pulling in your best UXers to work collaboratively on a static wireframe at the start of any UI design project. Activities such as card sorting or JAM session workshops get collaborative juices flowing even with paper prototypes.

Then, once initial layers of interaction have been added with a prototyping tool like Justinmind, get feedback from a wider circle of stakeholders – dev team members, marketing, target users. Their feedback will help you rapidly iterate on the prototype and convert it from static wireframe to hi-fi prototype, and finally to finished product.

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Do what’s best for the users, not for the C-Suite

If the Founding Fathers had prioritized their British rulers and not the American people, we wouldn’t be celebrating right now. Same goes for all those UX designers out there: the needs of the average user should take precedence over the desires and assumptions of management. Sometimes it won’t be easy to defy the C-Suite, but heck, it wasn’t easy for Jefferson either!

So how do you know what’s best for users? By applying one of the golden rules of user experience design – user testing on high-fidelity prototypes. Testing is one of the most powerful weapons in a UX designers arsenal. You can use usability testing tools to conduct remote tests on users (check out this list of 7 awesome usability testing tools), or can run in-person tests to observe user behavior up close and personal.

Make sure to run the tests on prototypes rather than on the final product. Making changes with a simple drag and drop in a prototyping tool is better than spanding a day working with a (justifiably) grumpy development team.

UsabilityGeek walks you through the process of usability testing on hi-fi prototypes.

An MVP isn’t just for product managers

So we know that the finished Declaration was ratified on the 4th of July. But it wasn’t signed until a month later, on the 2nd of August 1776. Why?

We like to think it’s because Jefferson, Adams et al knew the importance to their UX process of a good Minimum Viable Product. By launching an MVP in July but tarrying in putting their names on the dotted line, the Founding Fathers had time to apply the build-measure-learn process to their product.

You might be thinking, “hold up, that’s product manager talk right there.” But as Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden point out in Lean UX, an MVP is part of a successful UX process. According to Jeff and Josh, an MVP is “the smallest thing you can make or do to test your hypotheses.” Lean UX is all about gaining shared understanding of a problem or product, testing our assumptions and progressing from doubt to uncertainty incrementally.

Watch Jeff make the case for MVPs on YouTube

Take inspiration from good user experience, wherever you find it

OK, we’ve got to break it to you: Jefferson didn’t pull the text of the Declaration of Independence out of thin air. In fact he took inspiration from previous documents and used them as a basis to build an even better product.

In some of the most famous sections of the Declaration – “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, for example – Jefferson was in fact riffing on Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, written by one George Mason. That doesn’t mean Jefferson was slacking off; it means that he knew good UX when he saw it, and wasn’t afraid to make it his own.

Three decades into the UX revolution, we’re getting a handle on the UI patterns that delight and those that damage users’ experiences of a product. Using established UI patterns, whether on desktop or mobile, is often a way to safeguard your design against early-stage failure.

User are already trained to intuitively recognize certain patterns, from bottom navigation to the dreaded hamburger menu, so why reinvent what works already? Use your creativity not to reinvent the wheel but to turbo-charge it, just like Jefferson did.

Justinmind prototyping tool has a ton of UI kits and device-specific widgets that help you apply standard navigation and assets quickly and easily. You can also make your own custom UI libraries, so your branding is always on fleek. Find out more about using our UI kits, libraries and elements.

4 things the founding fathers can teach us about UX – the takeaway

Ok, so maybe the Founding Fathers wouldn’t have considered themselves as UX designers. But there’s no doubt that they put the good of the people before the interests of the few, they tested their ideas and they collaborated to achieve better results. The spirit of UX helped shape the nation. Happy 4th of July, UXers!

Cassandra is Marketing Lead at Justinmind

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  • These are fine lessons, because writing without planning is the best way I know to ensure failure.