Creating my own UX design challenge: the Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival edition

As I’ve worked to find my first UX job, I’ve also struggled with feelings of inadequacy. I’m confident in my understanding of and competence in UX design, particularly in navigation and information architecture, but I haven’t spent as much time building my visual design skills. These skills can be learned, and so I decided to do a few design challenges to help me improve as a visual designer. But inspiration just wasn’t coming. Where to start?

My sister is a talented actor, writer, director. She recently wrote, directed, and starred in a show created for the Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival. In “Risk of Exposure,” she plays a character named Hero, who is trying to figure out the already fraught world of dating during a pandemic. She downloads an app called SparkMate and begins a journey that leads to her realizing that true connections require “removing the mask,” both literally and figuratively. The entire show is seen through the eyes of the app, as Hero swipes left and right trying to find that rare and true spark.

Liz asked me to provide some advice on the app and how it would function, even though we never get to see it. It’s bad: based on the script, it has a bad font, a bad tagline, and poor usability. We discussed what it might look like and I consulted on sound effects, layout, and UX writing. The show was a success, and I felt proud knowing I had contributed a tiny amount to its positive reception.

And then I thought, why not make SparkMate my design challenge? I can design a few screens of the original, poorly designed app, and then re-design it, practicing my skills along the way. And so, dear friends, I present to you:

It is bad, y’all. Poor color contrast, bad, bad fonts, no visual hierarchy, inconsistent icons (what does that toggle switch even do?!?). It was a ton of fun to design. One of the key moments in the script is when Hero accidentally answers a video call she means to decline. So I designed the video chat to have the answer button on the left and the decline on the right, opposite of pretty much every other video chat software in existence. Genius.

I think designing something badly actually helps me better understand the principles of user-centered design. I found myself wanting to make better choices, and I still worked to make images were centered and copy spelled correctly. And that’s the thing: something can be designed poorly but still function. This exercise was more about visual design than anything else, and I only designed a few screens. Bad SparkMate is functional, but that doesn’t mean it is designed with user experience in mind. Creating a better version not only allow me to practice my visual design skills, but also ensure I’m following the fundamentals of good user experience.

And so, without further ado:

I started with finding a better logo and font and applied a consistent design style from there. I kept the bad tagline, but tried to make it a little more fun and silly rather than earnest. I matched colors in the logo for buttons and highlights, introduced a strong visual hierarchy, and updated the copy.

One of the most important aspects of the update is increased inclusivity. As someone who is genderqueer, I always feel uncomfortable choosing between identifying as a man or a woman. In SparkMate, you can write in your own gender and choose to display your pronouns in your profile settings. SparkMate is for people seeking companionship of all kinds, and is not limited to gender or sexual dualities.

I also performed a limited competitive analysis, looking at other dating sites like Bumble, Tinder, and HER to compare how profiles were built and home pages were laid out. I tried to make unique, creative choices while also designed screens that users would find intuitive and pleasing.

And I’m pretty proud of how it turned out! I still have a long way to go in my UX journey, and doing design challenges and practicing my visual design skills is only a small part of that. But now I have one more piece of work to show off, and that feels good.

*Images have been used with permission

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I am a Junior UX Designer with a focus on accessibility, sustainability, and inclusivity.

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RJ Whittaker

I am a Junior UX Designer with a focus on accessibility, sustainability, and inclusivity.