OOUX is a design method in information architecture with many benefits, but principally it helps you organise things so that they naturally join up with your user’s mental models.
It was popularised by Sophia Prater when she was tasked with designing the CNN website for the 2012 US election. Her original article in A List Apart, where she defined her ORCA process, has been transformative in my UX practice.
- What is OOUX?
- How does OOUX work?
- 19 benefits of OOUX
- What OOUX can’t do
- OOUX design examples
What is OOUX?
Object-Oriented User Experience (OOUX) is a design philosophy and method which respects that people think in objects. It makes sense of mess by synthesising user needs and business goals into a scalable and user-centred structure/system of interacting objects.
The world is made up of objects, and people naturally think in terms of the objects that make up their non-digital experiences.
To borrow a metaphor from Sarah R. Barrett: recall where you kept your toys as a child. Or where your bed was in your dormitory at school. Or where your house keys are right now. Now, where is your most recent copy of your CV in the cloud? Which one of those was easier, both to remember and to describe?
People have evolved in real-world environments and are good at comprehending tangible objects and how they relate. Conversely, people can struggle to understand abstract virtual environments, like websites and software.
Identifying the objects which define a digital product/service can help ensure that it intuitively matches the user’s real mental model before prototyping or developing interfaces/systems.
In practice, this means:
- exposing high-risk questions for research early,
- uncovers the unknown unknowns collaboratively,
- tangible, intuitive and humane experiences for users,
- alignment with real, valid and authentic mental models,
- circular and contextual (heterarchical) navigation/wayfinding,
- simplified, de-cluttered content-first designs,
- thinking of the system, then the detail,
- prioritising the prioritisation of user needs and stories,
- shared language across internal teams/roles,
- streamlined projects with happier teams,
- making the right thing the first time.
How does OOUX work?
OOUX is most useful for complex experiences which have many interrelated instances of things/objects. Specifically, data which has:
For example, products, people, articles, medical conditions, recipes or shows in a system.
Conversely, it’s ineffective at designing one-of-a-kind ‘snowflake’ designs, like a homepage or contact page. It’s not a substitute, or replacement for, bespoke design.
As such, OOUX is built around the ORCA process:
- Objects — the tangible things in a user’s mental model of the system.
- Relationships — how and when objects interconnect and nest.
- Calls-to-Action — the actions a user can take with an Object.
- Attributes — the content/metadata which builds Object instances.
If you’d like a deeper introduction, I recommend Lindsay Eryn Sutton’s excellent article: An introduction to object-oriented UX and how to do it.
Alternatively, this primer from an OOUX ‘mini-conference’ I curated for UXPA (UK):
What are the benefits of OOUX?
OOUX with ORCA is inherently:
user-centred — mapping real mental models to content objects creates effective products/services which meet user needs. Understanding the relationships between objects sets up intuitive wayfinding using objects as primary navigation.
content-first — thinking of data objects forces teams to define and validate content, metadata, labels and their interrelationships before moving to interaction design. Considering back-end content engineering at the outset enables continuous design/delivery of front-end content strategy.
COPE — content is expensive and complex. Modelling content for re-use from the outset allows it to be used across systems and use cases. Both at launch and in the future.
visible — discovering, validating and mapping objects and relationships enable cross-functional teams to understand the proposed system. This minimises the scope for confusion and complexity, especially later in the project.
system-agnostic — postponing detailed interface design allows data to be modelled independently of its ultimate contexts of use. For example, by fundamental user needs rather than for mobile, desktop and/or voice user experiences.
sustainable — real-world mental models are simple, authentic, and slow to change (vs digital/design). Building an information architecture around mental models means that your content is sustainable over time, including inevitable changes to technologies or brand design.
lower-risk — understanding objects, their interrelationships, content attributes and calls-to-action (ORCA) at the outset helps to ‘get project questions from the future’ early so that there are fewer nasty surprises later on.
consistent — OO thinking enables and informs aesthetic, functional, and internally consistent design in a system. Consistency improves learnability, usability and quality. For example, enabling product teams to avoid design elements that change from context to context without a good reason.
accessible — similarly, the consistent predictability of design components reduces cognitive load for everyone, including people with some cognitive impairments. Likewise, screenreader users rely on the familiarity of functions to make sense of any system. See WCAG 2.2; 3.2.4: consistent identification.
scalable — the more complex the problem domain, the more lucidity, coherence and consistency the ORCA process can bring by detangling/defining requirements for the product(s) and/or the project team.
efficient — decreases the need for work (and re-work).
serendipitous — it creates inherently discoverable, usable and relevant heterarchical relationships between instances of objects. This enables people to find unanticipated but highly pertinent content/results during their search and wayfinding.
Role-specific benefits of OOUX
The benefits of OOUX with ORCA are also:
researcher-friendly — synthesising research insights into an OO structure will expose high-risk assumptions/questions early. These can then be prioritised for further validation. Meanwhile, the ORCA outputs create a foundation for continuing user-centred definition. For example, prototyping the whole system, its content, calls-to-actions, and journeys — even at very low fidelities.
writer-friendly — gives content designers early engagement in the design thinking process and gives them visibility to the types and scale of content that might need designing and governing. It also enables them to start designing and validating aspects of ontology and wider parts of their content process so that their work is choreographed and integrated during the project (rather than as an afterthought).
content architect-friendly — breaking data into its fundamental components helps ‘make sense of mess’ by wrangling complexity into understanding. This is particularly true if data/content is missing, duplicated, distributed or devolved across a system, siloes or organisation. OOUX helps IAs elegantly organise large datasets in highly usable, scalable and future-proof ways.
designer-friendly — provides them with the pieces they have to work with, a methodology for identifying objects that will need patterns in any design system, and a framework for organising and governing it as the product/service develops over time.
developer-friendly — many coders already use Object-Oriented Programming (OOP) approaches and architectural decision records. Collaborating with a shared model for data can help join-up design with development and create better projects/models.
business analyst-friendly — the ORCA process helps BAs understand the system domain, its complexity, likely requirements and dependencies. In turn, this helps them to accurately forecast and monitor the project’s resources, budgets and risks.
consultant-friendly — the ORCA process is an excellent way to collaborate with clients and stakeholders. Socialising decision-making improves the quality of the product/service and makes for happier project teams. For example, it helps to avoid issues farther into the project. Like nitpicking and fingerprinting by senior stakeholders distant from the work (but who feel they must be seen to contribute).
stakeholder-friendly — mapping and modelling content objects creates opportunities for subject matter expert’s to contribute from the outset and at their level of expertise. For example, contributing to terminology for metadata or providing insights about relationships and rules between objects.
What can’t OOUX do?
OOUX has many benefits and has been useful for my design practice for user experience architecture, but it’s not a silver bullet. The ORCA design process is a string for your bow. It won’t, or will be limited in;
- delivering detailed interface/interaction design — it will help define calls-to-action for objects, but not what happens after they’re used. Similarly, it can inform, but not create, interface design patterns.
- creating front-end content design — will define and scope the types of content and metadata needed, their hierarchies, relationships, and some labels. But it won’t deliver the outputs of detailed UX writing, media creation and broader aspects of a content strategy.
- representing every object — whilst OOUX and OOP support each other, developers will still need to factor for and define additional objects in their code and databases.
- designing one-of-a-kind items — factoring for facets of an object, like calls-to-action, content and metadata can help define single instance designs. However, the real benefit of OO thinking is at the system scale.
OOUX design examples
The following products are from diverse domains. Yet, they share something in common — objects, relationships and calls-to-action which are readily identifiable by the user.
|BBC Food||Recipe, Ingredient, Chef, Shopping List, Programme.|
|Etsy||Shop, Shop Owner, Product, Customer.|
|Kickstarter||Projects, People, Articles.|
|City, University of London: News||News Article, Academic Expert, Course, Journalist.|
|Tweets, People, Lists, Notifications.|
|OOUX.com||Resources, Testimonials, OOUX Strategists, OOUX Strategist Cohorts, Products.|
- OOUX.com — a definitive list of resources and training by OOUX Strategists.
- Understanding Context — an O’Reilly book by Andrew Hinton.