UX in the United Nations Development Programme

Photo: chronicleofalonesheep.com


Hubert Uy is the User Experience Lead at the United Nations Development Programme. He shares with us how User Experience design within the United Nations differs from startups and design agencies. He gives us insights on the U.N.’s bureaucratic evaluation processes, as well as the different design and usability challenges that they face.


Photo: hub.cool


Hubert Uy is the User Experience Lead at the United Nations Development Programme. He was chosen to be the U.N.D.P.’s first UX designer while still finishing his Masters in Interactive Telecommunications at N.Y.U. He and his team work with different organizations around the world to create innovative solutions for sustainable development.

“UX design in the U.N. is very different from how it is done in agencies and startups.” Founded in 1945, the United Nations is a bureaucratic and traditional institution. The U.N. uses a “Waterfall” or gated method while startups and design agencies use “Agile” methods.

“For example, we are redesigning a website. In an agency, normally, they pool a project team (project manager, UX designer, engineer, content, and several other people) to meet and discuss. By the 2nd day they have a prototype. They come up with the MVP (Minimal Viable Product) – what is the minimum thing you can develop? They don’t care if its buggy, it just has to be usable, because a big part of UX is getting your product out there to test.”

“In the U.N., because of the bureaucracy, no matter how you try to be agile, it is difficult. It consists of a lot of channels and red tape that you have to go through. My team can churn out prototypes in two or three days, but we launch it in 2-3 months. We have to ship it to the director, he has to approve it, then it comes back to us for revisions. After the director approves it, the head of the bureau has to approve it, then it comes back again to us. It then goes through the president for the final approval, or back to us for further revisions. This is what a gated design method is. It’s not that we can’t launch quickly, in the U.N. we are bound to certain guidelines and laws.”

These laws include the U.N.’s Web Accessibility Guidelines that are agreed on by certain member states. All their products have to conform to the latest screen readers, and be accessible to those with disabilities. For example, he mentioned that designers cannot create motion in the U.N.’s digital interfaces. This is because those with vestibular disorders (inner ear imbalance) get triggered by visual stimuli such as motion, and colors- most especially the color green. When uploading videos, they also have to transcribe them for those with vision impairments. “When we put up a video on Youtube, we have to transcribe alternative text in HTML so that those with vision problems hear what’s going on when they access it.”

Another admirable aspect about his job is that he and his team design digital interfaces in three different languages: English, Spanish and French. But the U.N., in general, has six official languages. Other departments might have to design for all six languages.

“In UX we always say ‘Design for Mobile first’, because it’s easier to create something small initially. In the U.N., we have the saying ‘Design for French first.’ Language defines your interface.  A person who’s vernacular is Mandarin will interact with your product differently from a person who is an English speaker. Some languages read and write from right to left. That’s one of the reasons why developments take longer to produce. For example, when designing in French, the SIGN UP button is going to be one or two lines longer because of the language and the context. “

The U.N.D.P. works with 170 countries and they recently redesigned their homepage. Hubert and his team are now in the process of translating the website for the rest of the 170 countries- each having communication officers on ground. Currently they are 20% finished and they have been working on it for 7-8 months. “By the time we complete all 170 countries, we might have to redesign the global webpage again. But it’s fun!” He has a great time doing this, as he gets to connect with different people and learn about cultures around the world.

His team consists of roughly three project managers, one UX designer (him), a developer and three content producers for the three languages they are mandated to design for (English, French, Spanish). When asked what a normal day on the job is like, he mentions two more projects he is also working on. He is currently working with C.A.F.I., Central African Forest Initiative. They are developing a tree tracking app to manage and prevent deforestation. They want to be able to track all the trees, so they know if one is being cut down. There is no name yet for this app, but it is definitely something they feel would benefit and aid in C.A.F.I.’s mission to monitor deforestation. Another project of theirs is with Asia Pacific’s Youth Co Lab. They are trying to solve poverty through entrepreneurship. Their goal is to create a digital product that teaches kids about entrepreneurship through video lessons on skills, business management etc. The major challenge for this project is the content and not the design, as they need to consider language translation and culture. There are various socio-economic levels and backgrounds that they need to consider when designing for this.

User testing in the U.N.D.P. is very informal, and they often outsource their evaluations to third-party companies who specialize in user testing. However, for initial prototypes, they usually invite a few friends for casual guerilla testing. “But of course, before we launch it, we always do formal testing which another company does for us.”

Lastly, I asked him to give striving UX designers some advice. He stated that having a good foundation of coding is important. “Your role is really to collaborate with a lot of people. You will make your developer and project manager happy if you can understand code. If you can speak the same language, it will be a huge help. After all, how are you going to design technology without understanding technology?”


Accessibility Guidelines for United Nations. (n.d.). Retrieved September 21, 2017, from http://www.un.org/en/webaccessibility/

Design Critique: Snapchat is counter-intuitive

Photo: Snapchat.com


With 173 million users, Snapchat continues to grow (slowly), despite its lack of well-planned design. Its competitor, Instagram, has adapted and improved the design model, greatly surpassing Snapchat’s daily user count to 250 million. Snapchat fails to provide users with affordances, mapping and constraints in its interface, being the perfect example of a design that is neither discoverable nor understandable.

When the Snapchat application is first opened, users can choose to either sign in or log-in. It then takes users to a main camera screen, with familiar camera options plus other buttons that do not afford users are supposed to interact with them. Then what is next?


Photo: theverge.com


Snapchat navigation is almost nonexistent. There is no linear flow of where the user should go, or signals that guide users where to swipe, push or press to their desired destinations. Users will discover (to their horror) a maze of unstructured, ungrouped items, forming an illogical structure map that only means one dreadful thing: users will have to learn the Snapchat language for them to use it. It is an overdrive of the gulf of execution and evaluation for the users.


Main interface- camera





Swiping up leads them to saved snaps and their camera roll. Swiping down displays a confusing newsfeed of top stories, music, other news, friends, quick add of possible friends, contacts etc..  Swiping left goes to the contact list, while swiping right leads users to their stories, and their friends’ stories. Swiping right twice, from the main camera screen, opens a (sponsored) snapchat news feed. There is no clear indication of where to access settings. Trial and error will show that clicking the unassuming ghost emoji will lead you there.


Photo: Independent.co.uk


When the Instagram app is opened, users can see an organized line of their friends’ miniature photos. This indicates that these friends have uploaded stories available for viewing. To upload a story, there is a “+” sign indicated on the user’s profile photo, which affords and signals users that this is the button to click to add a photo. Next, a camera screen appears, and users are given the options to select whether they want to start a live video, take a normal photo or video, create a boomerang etc and so on. The user then can add filters or decorate their stories, with three simple buttons: buttons that afford putting stickers, drawing, or typing text, respectively. Users then can choose who they send their stories to, or if they prefer to place them in their personal story feed. Additionally, there is a save and download button on the lower-left side that saves the story directly to the user’s phone.


6 buttons of editing


Unlike Instagram, Snapchat’s stories do not play continuously (one friend’s story to the next). Snapchat users have to click on who’s story they would like to see next. After taking a photo, instead of three simple buttons used to decorate, snapchat provides 6: Text, drawing, cutting, hyperlinking, and a clock timer (indicates the shelf life of the snap once it has been opened). Double filters can also be applied but not indicated unless one is familiar with snapchat. One has to hold down a photo and continue swiping to add another filter. When downloading a snap, it does not get directly saved to a user’s phone. Instead, it is saved to a user’s snapchat album, which the user will have to access, find the photo and press save again in order for it to download to the phone. Aka: to save a photo to your device is to save it twice in Snapchat.



Photo: Aline Bradford/ cnet.com


The one good feature of Snapchat is its impeccable feedback. When another user takes a screenshot of a story, the user who created the story is immediately notified. When someone is typing a message to a user, the potential receiver is notified with a phone notification such as “Jimmy is typing a message…” This is a very good design concept as users receive real-time, immediate feedback on these two behaviors of their Snapchat friends.



Suggested mapping solution


Learning Snapchat is through trial and error. Despite its poor conceptual model, it still has millions of users worldwide. Perhaps it’s the gratification of figuring out how to work the app that makes users still use it. Either way, it is a very poorly-designed conceptual app, as it lacks affordances, signifiers, discoverability and understandability.

If Snapchat followed a more usable approach, perhaps they could hit their targets and overpower their victorious competitor, Instagram. My recommendations are:

  • Devise a more linear approach by eliminating North, South, East or West swiping to navigate. If not, create a user-friendly menu page
  • Follow a more consistent grouping pattern (ex. all news found only when you swipe left)
  • Improve signifiers and make use of actual words, given the amount of icons users are left guessing (ex. arrows with interactive icons or captions)


Photo: power.pereless.com


On top of all the design problems it presents, users are left baffled to what its main purpose is- Is it a messaging app? A photo messaging app? A news app? It’s company positioning is yet to be determined, just like a ghost- its mascot.