Practise like an expert, don’t communicate like one.

October 28, 2013

Peer networking in the design community is thankfully not the rarity it used to be. Where there were onceinfrequent events based around an occasional high-brow lecture or overly self-conscious ‘networking opportunity’ (ugh), thanks to any number of driven and enthusiastic individuals we now have conferences, unconventions, informal meet-ups and increasingly relevant and compelling talks.

Industry peers aside though, our professional communications take place with a number of other key groups: colleagues, clients and end users. It’s worth considering how we handle these conversations.

A couple of years back the excellent UX Bookclub Belfast covered ‘How to Use Your Eyes’ by James Elkins. Each chapter delivered a brief but compelling insight into the expertise of others. By deconstructing (amongst other things) a culvert, an oil painting and the Periodic Table, the book revealed hidden mechanics and meanings, inspiring admiration for those whose contributions you might not otherwise consider.

Had there been a chapter devoted to the makeup of a graphic user interface or how a web browser renders HTML, no doubt most in the web design industry could have articulated something to inspire  similar, admiring reactions from readers outside our sphere of activity. Indeed, expertise is (or should be) the minimum price of entry into the increasingly crowded Service Industry Club. A key question to consider then, is: how do we convey our knowledge to those we most need to engage with?

It just works

Almost everything we interact with or consume is the product of others’ technical mastery; their input is largely invisible, allowing us to go about our day without having to consider theories, systems or production processes. We care about these things, only in the sense that they just work without insight on our part.

The same goes for most experts we come into contact with. Be it a doctor or a car mechanic, we appreciate it when these people frame problems and solutions in the simplest possible simple terms, revealing more detail only when we request it.

Dumbing up

In UX design, and I’d suggest pretty much every other design discipline, expertise should manifest itself in simplicity. Or to rephrase that, the science we incorporate into what we produce should be invisible to a non-expert; and we should be able to communicate our expertise while remaining intelligible to the listener.

Too often we trip over ourselves to prove our competence rather than communicate it effectively. In many ways our ability blinds us. We should not berate the client for, as designers are so fond of saying, “not getting it”. Others do not see as we do. We are the ones who have the responsibility of making sure clients “get it”… whatever “it” may be.

So perhaps the truest test of our competence is how simply we can share it. When we discuss a project’s challenges and potential solutions with a client, make it simple to understand. Communicate like a true expert.

Truth and Reconciliation

September 12, 2013

Research can so often be construed as an inherently noble pursuit. Activity intended to increase understanding, clarity, depth of knowledge? It can only be worthy, surely.

Of course, research is subjective. When governments (as an example) commission research activity, many harbour a suspicion that the findings will – conveniently – either directly support, or be spun in such a way as to support, a particular policy.

Certain marketing approaches can devalue research completely (it really is worth a look at some of the small print flashed on-screen in the middle of ads for hair care or beauty products). Leading, loaded or suggestive questions have a huge effect on survey results and the conclusions they appear to inspire.

With research such a core ingredient in the overall UX mix, those in user experience need to be very sensitive as to how their own contributions might be similarly skewing or obfuscating reality.

My belief is that UX research must stand apart and distinguish itself. Lofty idealism it may be, but with innovation, adoption and growth as ultimate goals, UX research needs to deliver truth.

You will hear all kinds of views from stakeholders within a business or organisation and each is but one part of a broader picture. Research what an organisation represents to its customers and end users however, and a different picture can emerge. It is likely to be a more definitive one.

The role of UX in the discovery phase of a project can and should be to uncover truth and reflect it back at the organisation. Often this can be very uncomfortable to deliver, and difficult to accept (if it is accepted at all).

So this is our job. Only by revealing truths and reconciling these with an organisation’s culture or belief about itself, can we approach the starting point for the creation of something new, something better. Something true.

Cutting from the same cloth

August 16, 2013

I’ve written on this blog before about my Dad, a joiner by trade. A recent tweet has given me cause to write about him again.

Dad died just as I was waking up as an adult – not in my teens, but in my twenties, as I finally started to think about design as a career rather than a meander through a series of jobs. I was a late starter, but thankfully, eventually came to have great pride in the profession.

Over the years there have been, and continue to be many days when I have imaginary conversations with Dad, trying to work out what his advice might be on matters both professional and personal. Dad would not have claimed to be universally liked, but he commanded respect; more than anything, people trusted him. And while we had any number of differences over the years typical of a father-and-son relationship, I would never have questioned Dad’s judgement. He was ‘true North’ on an ethical compass, to me and to many others.

One element of the legacy he left me was that I strive to exercise the same judgement and sense of integrity whenever I can.

Bill Monro had huge pride in his work and his tradesman’s background never left him. His role in later years, that of a Clerk of Works, brought him into contact with any number of trades, all of whom he could relate to because of his background in the Belfast shipyard and later the construction industry. He said that doing anything was worth doing well. Doing it thoroughly. Doing it properly.

As I move deeper into the area of user experience design, I often wonder what Dad would make of it, when so many even within the digital design industry have issues with the concept. I remember the difficulty I had in explaining what a Graphic Designer was; I can’t imagine what he would have made of something called ‘User Experience’.

And yet I know that to Dad the idea of building something without first specifying it thoroughly would have been a completely alien concept. As a joiner the old maxim of measuring twice, cutting once was an unflagging principle. I like to think that by talking in terms of thorough research, comprehensive planning and effective execution we would have found much to agree on.

I have a suspicion, though, he might have raised an eyebrow at user experience even being a thing: “You mean understanding the problem and making the results fit for purpose..? Hmm.” To Dad’s generation, these fundamentals were the minimum price of entry. Customer experience would have seemed an equally perplexing idea; surely good customer service is a prerequisite to trade?

I get a degree of comfort from connecting what I do to the skills and motivations my Father had. And so this post’s title is not a misquoting of the old idiom, but a suggestion of common purpose. Amidst the talk of a return to craft in web design, I have a personal motivation in wanting to achieve it.

The UX of Edinburgh

July 5, 2013

At the end of last month I had the pleasure of not only attending, but contributing to the excellent UX Scotland, a UX design conference held in a striking venue in the middle of a beautiful city.

Crucially, unlike a plethora of other design events, UX Scotland didn’t try to reach beyond its stated remit. Instead it addressed the ever-growing UX industry in a practical and comprehensive manner, packing over 30 sessions into the short space of two days. And being an unashamedly niche conference (a good thing), the opportunity was there to get talking to almost everyone else attending. I met some great people both at the conference itself and at the social evening, and swapped some project stories that were as galvanising as they were entertaining.

The speaker line-up was the right mix of headline grabbers and coal-face practitioners. Keynote speaker on Thursday was the redoubtable Jeff Gothelf who sadly I missed due to a late change to travel arrangements. Jeff’s recent book ‘Lean UX‘ is an electrifying read that has the potential to change how UX practice evolves.

Friday’s keynote came from Giles Colborne, whose own book ‘Simple and Usable‘ is a veritable UX call-to-arms and whose agency (Bristol’s CX Partners) is behind some of the most informative, practical UX books available.

Other notable sessions I attended included:
Stephanie Rieger, speaking about how the future tends to be very different from what might have been predicted, also tending to be much more usable
Oli Shaw, offering a swathe of tools and techniques to leverage design strategy
Ian Fenn, giving a whistle-stop tour of the qualities UX designers should demonstrate in order to practice more effectively
Mike Atherton on how brand-driven design sets the tone for the overall customer and user experience
– Lorraine Paterson, Patty Kazmierczak & Mike Jefferson describing the process of creating a UX design pattern library for more cohesive UX design across large organisations

It was agony at some points having to choose between one session and another, and I can’t help but think of great insights I may have missed. And one of the drawbacks of hosting a session was missing some of the great sessions immediately before and after my own.

My own contribution – The Persona Express workshop – went by in a flash, certainly the quickest 1.5 hours I can remember. Although well accustomed to speaking in front of an audience, be it presentations, stakeholder meetings or client workshops, this was the first time I had stood in front of highly informed industry peers in a workshop setting. And there were immediate takeaways from the experience. Next time I won’t make the beginners error of trying to fit quite so much in to such a short period of time. Although, nor would I drop quite so much material from the opening pitch: much of what I cut out appeared in one form or another at other sessions, and would have tied neatly into some of the conference’s major themes.

Feedback from the event was positive and, as I had hoped, I learned much both from putting the session together and from the contributions of participants. Total win.

Credit is due to all on the UX Scotland team – Jacqui, Ryan and Mark from Software Acumen – who put on a very impressive event, in a very special place, that brought together a diverse attendee list. I have attended a number of conferences where the visibility of organisers suggested that self-promotion was high on the agenda. Not so here. As with UX Brighton, it’s all about the event.

What I heard and discussed at UX Scotland is still rolling around my head. As any good conference should deliver, the lessons will have an immediate effect on my work. I feel very fortunate not only to have presented at the event but to have attended at all.

 

NB – The venue – Our Dynamic Earth – is difficult to describe. Visit the website and be assured that the images simply don’t do it justice, set as it is in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat, adjacent to Holyrood House place. Stunning.

User experience, not user control

May 15, 2013

Amongst the bizarre interpretations I’ve seen applied to User Experience is the notion that UX is a coercive or manipulative pursuit. You can just see the eyes of cynical marketeers* light up at the thought that some form of Jedi mind trick might be available to lead consumers trance-like to a destination not of their own choosing.

Granted, dark patterns have emerged, for those who feel that unethical practice is the way to go. But the idea of control is a false premise.

The language of user experience design has made the transition into the marketing lexicon of web design. It’s become the phrase du jour in many client conversations, too; businesses quite naturally want to know what a more informed approach to design can deliver for them. The return on investment in UX is undeniable.

In the heat of a pitch, or to satiate a demanding client, it can be tempting to paint UX design as an exact science, a precision sport. And it isn’t.

It is the path of sanity in a world of ‘inspired’ guesswork and ego-driven design indulgence. Better of course to hypothesise, test and iterate during development than to rely on guesswork, only to find out a design is ineffective when it should be making a difference for your organisation.

Any claim to control the user’s experience is however a false one, akin to claiming that traffic flow is ‘controlled’ using traffic signals and road signs. People are not predictable animals. We may be engineers of the user experience; we can guide, inform, facilitate, enable, assist, and more. But we cannot control.

As a UX practitioner, to suggest otherwise is dangerously over-promising.

 

 

* Were such a thing were to exist…

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    Designing the Middle is the personal blog of Rick Monro, a UX Director, designer & consultant in Belfast, Northern Ireland

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