I was recently interviewed by Stewart Salazar, a senior recruiter with Xpand Group specialising in UX and digital media, to answer some questions about User Experience.
What makes a good UX designer?
By UX Designer I will assume we are specifically referencing a UX practitioner that specialises in the interaction design aspect of UX. I say this, as UX Designer is often used as a catch all term to describe people in the UX industry, but in fact there are a variety of titles reflecting the various jobs across the distinct components that make up User Experience. With that out of the way, I’ll run through what strikes me as the more important factors defining a good UX Designer.
What separates the mediocre from the champions are those that think beyond the immediate page, content or interaction, and have a greater consciousness of the broader ecosystem they’re designing for and how design decisions can ripple through a system. They look for opportunities to innovate and leverage technologies to improve upon typical ways of doing things – and it’s their ability to balance anticipated and familiar interactions with identifying the right points to introduce new innovative interactions. Also on the topic of balancing, they should also have a commercial intelligence to their design logic that takes both the end-user and business objectives into account. They should have a strong sense of contemporary best-practice design, keen eye for detail, understand optimal screen layout and visual hierarchy, and have a strict approach to maintaining consistency.
Technically they must be well versed in one or more leading prototyping and diagram tools such as Axure, OmniGraffle or Justinmind (each having their strengths and weaknesses, Axure strikes a good balance and often makes the desired skills list of UX job descriptions). There is a plethora of online tools to perform various UX related tasks, getting up to speed on a select handful would be advisable.
Finally, and most importantly, I believe having certain personality traits clearly distinguishes the better UX Designers. UX as a career is wholly about people designing with people, for people. With this in mind, the traits I usually look for include:
- Empathy so they care about a user’s experience
- Being affable and approachable as they will spend considerable time mediating, negotiating, presenting and gathering at all levels of organisations
- Having solid problem solving skills to tackle the harder design decisions
- Stamina to handle high-visibility projects, intense stakeholder scrutiny, unpredictable situations and environments, challenging political and bureaucratic organisations
- Confidence in their design, yet a balanced yielding to commercial realities specific to the project
- Lastly but certainly not least have ‘potential’, their ability to handle the unknown and adapt to meet unexpected challenges, which often comes about in UX
What is the background of a UX Designer?
UX designers often come from a visual design background. As they mature through their visual design career, they become increasingly conscious of how the end user will interpret and interact with the designs they create. This increased awareness in the value of making design choices fuelled by user insights and applying user-centerer design principles steers them towards UX in one way or another. UX professionals also come from a broad range of other backgrounds including psychology, usability, accessibility, business analysis and digital strategy.
Does a UX specialist need to have technical skills and understand HTML, CSS, etc?
I would not expect a UX specialist to sit and cut code in a project. However, having a broad understanding of the capabilities, limitations and behaviours of front end programming languages and technologies is important. It’s that knowledge of the capabilities, not the actual language or development tools themselves, that allow them to make technically informed design and interaction decisions. This knowledge lets them weigh what’s feasible, challenging or impractical for the interfaces they design.
Does UX clearly demonstrate value or return on investment?
There is immense value in UX that is immediately apparent during even the first days of a UX engagement, all the way through to post-launch. The return isn’t specific dollar figures, but rather how it positively impacts the entire product ideation, design and development cycle:
- Right from the first discovery, requirement gathering and stakeholder workshop days, UX serves as a hub for strategic decision making and the process driven gathering and structuring of business requirements and objectives for a project. It is often this process and structure that is missing or insufficient in organisations that UX helps to handle. UX is capable of pulling the right information from the right stakeholders, teams and departments and create output that decision makers can clearly understand and have consensus on before moving to subsequent stages.
- Even if a company is considered a subject matter expert in their respective industry, the value UX offers in creating a formalised approach in understanding their user’s needs, motives and behaviours is invaluable. Understanding an industry doesn’t necessarily mean understanding a user’s way of thinking.
- During the wire framing and prototyping phase, the prototypes that emulate end product design and interactions save an immense amount of effort otherwise needed by developers to build out and constantly change the actual product. The trial and error approach is costly on all fronts and prototyping eliminates the vast majority of this time, resource and cost absorption.
- Usability testing will optimise the design of the product to avoid launching and going live with costly design and usability flaws. Doing design right in the first place, by understanding and validating with real users, is infinitely more cost effective than building an interface needing subsequent design, development and technical resources to retrofit trial-and-error corrections.
- In a post-launch perspective, the simple fact is that usable products do better. They convert more sales, subscribers, sign ups, quotes or whatever metric is used to measure success. Case studies of past successes can easily demonstrate the value of investing in User Experience to create a usable product that will yield higher returns.
- UX artefacts done correctly serve as detailed ‘blueprints’ developers can use to accurately understand a product’s architecture, interface, business logic, behaviours and so forth. Developers get clear visibility at all levels of detail from a single interaction point to the product as a whole and the ecosystem it resides within, resulting in an unprecedented understanding of what they’re building. The outcome is greatly increased precision and timeliness of development efforts.
What sorts of industries hire UX specialists and how is that important to my career decisions?
While any organisation that has a product or digital presence can benefit from UX, the reality is often unfortunately dictated by a combination of budget and understanding the value of UX to their business. The usual suspects of UX hiring are telecom, health, e-commerce, financials, insurance, education, government and large multinationals. Startups and SMBs to a much lesser extent seek UX talent. This is unfortunately hampered by budgetary constraints and the often ill fated approach of hiring a UI / UX combo resource that’s principally a visual designer with little actual UX knowledge or experience in an effort to cut costs.
What are the trends in UX?
Firstly, more intelligence in the responsive design of web sites, not merely setting up break points for the staple three device formats, but having responsive awareness to factors that utilise onboard sensors and inputs beyond simply screen dimensions and whether the device is touch enabled or not, in addition to a more granular approach to stepping between break points.
Secondly, adaptive content has been slowly developing, allowing sites to show content that reflects user behaviours and patterns, however I see this evolving more rapidly as we move beyond the first generation solutions into more intelligent systems that dramatically tailor site content through smarter user data analysis, profiling and trending technologies. Going beyond merely displaying related products, rearranging categories and targeting promotions, but complete site content and layout re-mappings to better reflect anticipated user goals.
What are your favourite technologies?
At the moment I’m excited about the resurgence in virtual reality and augmented reality. I’m excited about crypto-currencies inevitably sticking it to the banks. And lastly the mass migration to a fully streaming-based media consumption society, it can’t come soon enough.