Karl Smith Experience Consultant human knowledge belongs to the world


Getting into User Experience

Setting the scene for user experience to work

I have over the last few months had several rants about people claiming to be involved in user experience who are not regardless of their job titles.

I came across a great blog post by Whitney Hess (I don't want to steal her traffic so here is just a link) about what shows your not a user experience person, but I though maybe I should point to what does show your are one to get some balance here.

Setting the scene for user experience (training clients what to expect)

Does your client know what they want, this sounds obvious, but user experience is unlike a purely functional activity (asking developers to make sign in work), most clients just want better, but don't know how to quantify better. This is not the time to set KPI's except in the broadest terms, but clients do need to know where they ARE in a quantifiable way, 'things are bad now and we want better' is not a good starting point.

What things, set against what standards or targets based upon what business or research rules (who wrote them and why) are BAD and what level of better is better, just to get a transaction, getting a reuse or becoming friend for life type of BETTER?

If you don't set your clients expectations in a realistic manner they will come up with unrealistic expectations that you will never be able to meet. But to do that you'll need a starting point, mid point and end point, that uses your clients own language and the only way to establish these things is through research.

Does your client understand that user experience involves thinking as well as doing, user experience is not a headless chicken activity, involving lots of running around, thousands of meetings about meetings, it requires complex thought and strategy. I like many other user experience people find going for a walk while thinking about the complex interactive and logic of use in the initial part of a project very useful, either that or people can watch my head explode.

User experience is not a production exercise;

  • User experience leads
  • User experience finds out
  • User experience tests
  • User experience communicates

so trying to cost plan it or manage it in the same way as development does not work very well.

Does your client understand that there is a set of formal methods that will make the user experience work, for some reason everyone focuses on wireframes. Wireframes are of the least importance in user experience and are the culmination (after a lot of versions) of the user experience research. Wireframes are low quality pictures for the most part (or should be, prototypes are something else) and should be as sketchy as possible to allow stakeholders to focus on signing off the interactions rather than focusing on pixel level graphics and colour.

I have previously mentioned about the avoidance of research by clients on the bases that they cannot see its value in the final deliverable. This stems from clients being misinformed by business journals (I have read some great howlers by highly reputable journals) and sales people not understanding that the user experience research is the deliverable and that wireframes or functional specifications are the communication tool.

Getting into user experience, what I need to know?

The above said what will a person need to be able to do to get into user experience;

Can you think? not the most subtle way to ask, but can you be creative? Thinking at the beginning of a project can save a huge amount of money and time later, but many user experience people blast their way into a project by starting on wireframes, without knowing what they are doing. A huge amount of user experience simply is not user experience, its pretty pictures with poor justifications 'it's best practice' my usual response is 'prove that it's best practice'.

Can you find things out? do you have a critical mind, can you work out what is missing from the information you have been given. A project requires a bit of detective work because there are always gaps in the information provided to user experience, mainly because clients and IT don't know what to provide or what is provided has had the juicy bits (outlier views) removed because clients and IT don't know they are important.

Are you objective? having a strong opinion on user experience is really important, but it must always be tempered with an open non judgemental attitude. Are you willing to be changed by what your client, users or IT people know? User experience people are not the gate keepers of an absolute set of rules, we have two ears and one mouth, we should listen twice as much as we speak.

Can you discern fact from fiction? again talking with clients, users or IT people can be pretty confusing unless you can work out if what they are talking about is still within the boundaries and various time lines of the project. A quick guide;

  • Clients tend to talk about the desired end state
  • Users tend to talk about any snippets they have heard about the project or their hopes for it
  • IT tends to take the pragmatic approach by thinking 'what can we really deliver'

They are all true or were true at some point, or may be true if we had more time and money etc.

Can you deal with the politics? can you avoid taking sides in the various feuds that were going on before you got there and not flame the fires of distrust between business and IT.

Will you understand the business you are serving? your in a service relationship with the business, helping them get past their assumptions about their users and giving them some facts to act upon.

Will you understand the users you are serving? your in a service relationship with the users, helping them get what they need and desire.

Can you test - concepts, theories, business thinking, user perceptions etc? your going to need a lot of guts to question other peoples thinking.

'User experience people reserve the right to ask stupid questions, in order to avoid doing stupid things'

I don't know who said this first, I say it often.

Can you seek validation? the user experience person is not right, they can come up with concepts and questions but a user experience person never decides they are right, they must check out what they do with other people. Often this process of seeking validation reveals more information and opens door to previously inaccessible people.

Can you communicate - findings and designs? can you talk to people and provide information to them in a digestible way? The best way to work is to not use jargon, not assume that people understand anything especially verbal references to famous people or design principals. You need to be able to package your information in the users and stakeholders own verbal environment, so that they recognise and understand it when they hear it.

Can you understand and benefit from the project teams expertise? do you know what other people on the project do? For example do you know enough about technology to carry out research with developers to pre-scope extra user requirements. Can you cope with the give and take that happens during development and know which things to fight for?

Finally do you keep your common sense active? Can you spot a non sensible request, a great example of this was NASA spending $1,000,000 on a pen that would work in space, while Roscosmos (USSR) gave their astronauts a pencil. Can you give a reasoned non personalised argument for not doing something?


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