How do UX designers ensure their product is a high flier?

16 Feb 2019

Image: © Mopic/

UX expert Gareth Dunlop outlines the importance of testing in design – and why Neil Armstrong is the perfect example.

In rocket science, NASA coined the phrase: “Fly as you test, test as you fly.” In the military, Helmuth von Moltke, the 19th-century head of the Prussian army, opined: “No battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.” In design, the same truth applies: “No untested design survives first contact with a user.”

As we approach the 50th anniversary of humankind first stepping on the moon, it feels appropriate to reflect that no individual personifies this concept better than Neil Armstrong, the first man to step on the moon.

Armstrong conducted his first spaceflight as commander of Gemini 8 in March 1966, becoming NASA’s first civilian astronaut to fly in space. The mission had to be aborted after Armstrong used some of his re-entry control fuel to halt a dangerous spin caused by a stuck thruster. Despite no contingency plans being in place, Armstrong was ice-cool throughout the incident, calmly communicating to ground control, exploring various courses of action, acting unflappably under pressure and landing safely.

Later on, during training for his second and last spaceflight as commander of Apollo 11, he had to eject from the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle moments before a crash.

NASA recognised that many pilots and astronauts had the technical ability to fly brilliantly in the simulator or in routine flights, but what set Armstrong apart was his brilliance in battle, flying as he tested, testing as he flew. He was therefore the ideal choice to lead the moon mission, not because he was exceptional in the safety of the simulator but because he was ideally suited to the danger of uncharted space.

‘You might reasonably ask why designers spend so much time talking about failure. The reason is because the design will fail first contact with a user’

The importance of designing for the danger of the real world and not just the safety of the design studio has driven the UX industry’s relentless decades-long pursuit of involving users in the design process as early, as often and as inexpensively as possible. It is because ‘no untested design survives first contact with a user’ that phrases such as ‘fail forward’, ‘fail early’ and ‘fail often’ are part of design parlance.

You might reasonably ask why designers spend so much time talking about failure. The reason is because the design will fail first contact with a user, so make that contact early, inexpensive and positive. The corollary of this is that by the time a product launches, it should be experiencing its nth encounter with a user and so has every chance of surviving.

The second reason why designers seek to involve users in the design process as early as possible is because, by themselves, a designer cannot possibly hope to do their job. Left to their own devices, a designer can only hope to do half the job.

This is because they have two priorities to achieve:

  1. Design the thing right: Straight from university, talented designers will be able to design a digital product right from day one, using tenets of interaction design and universal design principles such as those outlined in Don Norman’s 1988 classic The Design of Everyday Things
  2. Design the right thing: This is impossible without knowing the user intimately. The user is the ultimate arbiter of product quality and so the product can only match the user’s expectation, intuition and mental model if it has been co-designed between the designer and the design target

It is only when these two processes are brought together that the designer can create exceptional experiences.

Make sure when you launch your product you know exactly what first user contact will be like, and give yourself, and your product, the best shot at survival.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user experience (UX) consultancy that helps ambitious organisations get the most from their digital products by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include UX strategy, usability testing, customer journey planning and accessibility. Clients include BBC, Bord Bia, Firmus Energy, Kingspan, AIB and Tesco Mobile. 

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.