So you want to be the next Jedi User Experience (UX) Master? You want to create an application or website that millions of people desire? To do so you will need empathy, specific skills, and an indefatigable drive to defeat an “empire mindset” which may confront you.
You will find most UX opportunities within the tech industry—mostly in website and software development. However, UX is a growing field which applies to areas as diverse as cognitive research, marketing, engineering and psychology.
Whether you are helping design a cooling pump on a NASA project or finding out which demographic prefers the latest diet soda, UX skills are critical for success. Realize that most of the biggest and most successful companies have accepted UX methods as doctrine. Companies which do not use UX methods will typically struggle against their competitors.
UX professionals come from a wide range of backgrounds. And no, you do not need a college degree to succeed as a UX professional, but it helps. You will benefit from pursuing formal education in the fields of psychology (specifically research methods) and human factors engineering. However, many UX professionals emerge from other concentrations such as anthropology, English, business, and computer programming.
Having a mentor is also very valuable in the UX arena, as is participating in many of the available networking communities. UX is founded on a spirit of collaboration. Take advantage of the many good books, blogs, online training sites and websites that offer great advice on how to reach your UX career goals. I list several of these at the end of this article.
Before I describe some of the practical skills and methods for successful UX work, let me introduce an important concept: “UX is not just User Interface (UI) and graphic design. UX is an amalgamation of collaborative efforts to define a specific problem and offer solutions using a set of user-centered design (UCD) methods.” UX involves multiple disciplines which can range from art to engineering.
Now that we have defined what UX is, let me provide a non-exhaustive list of skills that are common among today’s UX practitioners.
UX methods require lots of interaction with your users or customers. The purpose is to elicit truths, both macro and micro, so you understand the problem. Research might include surveys or market requirements provided by collaborators. However, some of the best results come from contextual inquiry and observation in a “laboratory” of real people in action. Watching someone in the environment where problems arise provides insight into variables easily missed in other forms of research.
In short, observing “a day in the life” provides a much clearer picture. To ensure success in observational studies:
- Have more than one person present. Three is ideal
- Document as much as possible (sticky notes a-plenty), especially quotes
- Use your ears and eyes much more than your mouth
- Bring your best manners, as you are there to help and learn
Deriving meaning from research is also a collaborative process. Reaching the right conclusions requires active listening, precise organization, and thoughtful evaluation.
Effective designs derive from several artifacts created to structure and analyze research. Some typical artifacts include:
- Personas: Detailed portraits of fictional characters who represent your users. These help you adopt your users’ perspectives
- Empathy maps: Depictions of aggregated personas’ feelings and actions
- Experience maps: Depictions of your understanding of the customers’ interactions, allowing insights into the complete experience a person may have with a product or service
- Quantitative reports of demographics and findings
- Evaluation documents on the certainty of the findings (more research may be needed)
- High-level product or application requirements
- Documented constraints: technical, monetary, personnel, aptitude, etc.
- Workflow diagrams
When making use of these and other artifacts, UX leaders typically need to partner with multiple company departments such as product management, marketing, development/engineering, sales, and executive leadership.
>Creativity and Imagination
As UX experts collaborate to make sense of research and begin working to design solutions, they must follow a process of structured creativity. UX design is iterative, meaning it progresses through a series of evolving concepts.
Whether you are creating ice cream scoops or software applications, the following method typically provides the best results:
- Collaboratively ideate: Work with others to set goals and acceptance criteria. What does success look like?
- Collaboratively design: The more eyes, ears, suggestions, and criticisms, the better
- Evaluate prototypes according to your personas or real customers (as many as possible)
- Use feedback to refine your design
- Repeat until you’ve achieved a harmony between business goals and user goals
Tools of the Trade
As you work through this phase of the process (especially in software design), you’ll typically use tools such as:
- Paper and pencil: There’s nothing faster, easier or more cost-effective than using these to sketch ideas
- Card sorting: Collaborative exercises using index cards organize concepts or navigations steps
- Mockups and wireframes: Also shown to representative users, these visions are a step up from paper sketches and creations
- High-fidelity renderings: These are usually created by a visual designer and introduce detailed elements such as sizes, colors, typography, etc.
- Prototyping: This presents an even more advanced vision of your concept which better demonstrates how the user interacts with the product or service. For example, prototypes may show how clicks, hovers, animations, transitions and presentations of space contribute to a good interaction. Popular applications for hi-fi renderings and prototypes include Sketch (for Mac only), Adobe XD, Figma, Framer, and Axure
Regardless of the tools you’re using during the design process, you must collect user feedback throughout. Only your customers can tell you if you’re on the right track, meeting their expectations, and making their lives better. Constantly showing your ideas to users also ensures that you don’t unintentionally create any frustrating or confusing experiences for them.
When a strong process of user involvement is in place, your success probability goes up. Not only are you making users feel included, but when the product or service is finished, they will be delighted with the results.
Beware of the Empire
Let me conclude with suggestions about your role and relevance as a UX leader. I have been the in the field many years and have encountered varying degrees of corporate appreciation for UX methodologies.
Unless you are with a company that truly embraces UCD principles—from research to iterative design—you are going to waste a lot of your professional efforts. Even a gifted UX Jedi will be overcome by the dark side of a culture which doesn’t appreciate good, user-centered design.
By contrast, participating in a stratified team of UX that provides separate services, research, analysis, visual design, information architecture, and interaction design can provide excellent and satisfying results. This is because the culture is heavily invested in UCD principles and design thinking.
Unfortunately, in many organizations, there is often only one person who must singlehandedly champion and perform all the responsibilities around UCD. Such a person will be outnumbered and ineffective.
Last, I’ll offer another warning about the dark side of UX work. If you are hired by a firm or agency that utilizes UX to improve persuasive design, you may eventually be assigned to a project which seems unethical. Convincing someone to purchase a good or service that you know is harmful will make you feel bad.
It is also contrary to an unspoken UX oath: UX is there to help, educate and ease; not subdue, subvert or deceive. Consider this, for example, before you design a play-to-win game that gets younger generations addicted and drains wallets, or before you promote some other addictive substance.
• Nielson Norman Group
NNG offers an amazing array of learning opportunities founded on years of experience. Spot-on reports are also available as well as a certification path.
• User Interface Engineering
UIE is led by venerated industry expert Jared Spool. UIE offers conferences, courses, articles, and strategies from some of the best in the industry.
To get started, I suggest joining their community. Sharp people.
Another blistering hot site of Q&A from seasoned professionals.
Probably one of the better online learning sites for UX methods and tool set usage. Check to see if your local library card allows you a membership. A goldmine of learning opportunity.
John Coria’s UX career started when he had to create documentation about poorly designed software. Later, as a Technical Writer, he gradually learned to eliminate the need for extensive documentation by suggesting better product designs. Over the past 15 years, his roles in the software industry have included Tech Writing, Training, Business Analysis, Project Management and UX. He graduated from The University of Missouri with a major in English and a minor in psychology.