Georgia Straight Geek Speak: Selma Zafar, Senior UX Designer

Our very own Selma Zafar, Senior User Experience Designer at OpenRoad was featured in the Georgia Straight’s Geek Speak section.

by Stephen Hui, October 8, 2010
Selma Zafar sees her job as being an advocate for the end user. That’s because the 35-year-old West End resident is the senior user experience designer for OpenRoad Communications, a Vancouver-based technology consulting firm.

Born in Toronto, Zafar has worked for two years at OpenRoad, which helps companies build websites, web applications, and intranets. She is also an instructor in the communication and ideation design program at Langara College, where she teaches courses in human factors and information design. Previously, Zafar was the director of user experience at Fjord Interactive and worked for Nokia, designing mobile phones and software.

On October 28, Zafar will speak about creating effective requirements for intranets at the Social Intranet Summit at the Vancouver Convention Centre. The day before, she will lead a pre-conference workshop on information architecture, card sorting, and task testing.

The Georgia Straight reached Zafar by phone in Papendrecht, near Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, where she was working with Fokker Aerostructures, which is deploying OpenRoad’s ThoughtFarmer intranet software.

What do you do as a user-experience designer?

That’s probably the hardest job description to explain. My whole role as a user-experience designer is to ensure that whatever the experience or the product that we’re designing—whether it be an intranet, a website, or a mobile experience—the people that it’s being designed for are understood in terms of their needs and desires and the key tasks that they want to do, and make sure that they’re represented throughout the whole lifecycle. So, at the end when something launches, people say that it’s easy to use or it’s very usable. Those are kind of things that I look for people to hear.

So, I see myself definitely as the advocate for the end user in the whole design process. This happens in a couple different ways. So, in the creation of the strategy, I’ll create things called personas. Personas are kind of little descriptions of the different people that you’re designing for and what their motivations and behaviours are. So, doing things like personas, writing requirements from the view of the target users, and then, when you get into the design phase, doing tasks like creating the sitemap, different wire frames, creating use cases, and, when it comes to different evaluations, creating focus groups, usability testing to make sure that your design’s on track. So, it’s kind of integrating the user throughout your whole design lifecycle. It’s called a user-centred design process.

What are common aspects of websites that might make for a poor user experience?

There’s so many. I think that one of the big things that websites fail to do sometimes is tell the user where they are in the experience, in their website. I think we’ve all been on websites where you start clicking on some different pages and stuff like that, and then you take a step back and you have no idea where you are in that experience. You know, you’re lost down a little rabbit hole. But I think that’s one of the common things that I see a lot on web experiences.

The second thing: one of the big mantras for user-experience design is to always make sure that the person using the website is in control of their experience. So, not having things flash and pop everywhere, which cause people to either get annoyed and close down the website or it kind of leads them on this weird experience that they have no idea what’s happening. I think those are two of the big fatal flaws right now.

What are human factors and how do they relate to user experience?

User experience is a different term for human factors. Human factors come from an older psychology profession, where it’s all about understanding the psychological and physical characteristics of people you design for and applying them to whatever you’re designing. So, when I was working at Nokia and designing mobile-phone hardware, we would look at the size of the buttons and the force it takes to press down on the button and how the hardware and the software interacted with each other.

And then user experience is just today’s fancy term that everyone is using because it’s a lot easier to understand than human factors is.

How does an intranet become social?

An intranet becomes social by allowing people to collaborate and share information. A big driver for organizations these days is to enable people to share their knowledge with their co-workers and also have a better way to discover the knowledge that resides within the organization. So, easy ways to make an intranet social are making sure that an employee directory is there to make it easy to find people, making it easy for people to share content and engage in conversations with people.

It’s a lot about promoting conversation and sharing information and enabling information to be shared and contributed bottom up. So, from the ground up and it’s not just the organization pushing information down. I think that method of communicating within an organization is definitely going by the wayside, and organizations definitely see the benefit of tapping into their employees and engaging their employees on a daily basis and allowing them to work and find each other.

So, for example, the client that I’m working with right now, they have offices all around the world. They have two in the Netherlands, one in Romania, and then two in the States. So, one thing that they wanted to have is to enable people, if they’re working on this project, instead of reinventing the wheel every time, to reach out to each other. If they can see that people worked on a similar project, they can contact that person and see what their project learnings were. Providing people the tools to do that themselves instead of trying to search the phone directory. Someone in the Netherlands isn’t going to randomly call a co-worker in Seattle that they’ve never met. But the way that it can be presented in a social manner kind of breaks down the barriers of communication, and it makes people more approachable.

What’s one tip that you’re planning on sharing at the Social Intranet Summit?

One big tip with writing requirements is to preface all your requirements with who it’s for. The old way of writing requirements is like, “The system shall blah, blah, blah, you know, do this.” Instead, it’s really focusing on the user. So, who actually needs to use that feature and why do they need to use it? To change your thought into putting the person back into how you approach it. I think then you’ll end up with a much more human and social intranet at the end of the day.