Some Notes On UX Practice

For those of us, the number is growing, who want to practice UX or who want the practice of UX brought to their organization there’s a steep challenge to cross. Not least of these is knowing what UX is. A while back I was interviewed for Vitamin T’s blog Vitabites.

In the interview I really wanted to express a little of how I think UX tackles some of the bigger problems as well as some hopes for the profession at large. Here’s some of the interview I wanted to share.

When making recommendations to improve a product or service, how do get management buy-in?

You can’t really talk about things you don’t really comprehend; so understanding a business and its goals always comes first. We make our biggest mistakes when we assume that we know the nuances of a business. After that, it’s a question of presenting alternatives to the issues we see.

I recently worked on a project where a pricing model would have had an impact on usability. After working out the implications in the context of use, our team was able to modify the pricing structure and ultimately make the system much more exciting for the user.

As UXers, we’re concerned with making our clients a success. That’s our job. To that end, we have to be prepared to think through the implications of a set of requirements, present our thinking, and most importantly, have solutions.

In your experience, what are the top 3 benefits of Great UX?

  • Better systems, seamless technology, and less obvious technology. Ben Templeton of Thought Den in the UK recently wrote an article in Guardian’s Culture Professionals Network. In it he makes a strong case how relevant technology doesn’t need to always be in our face. He imagines a world where technology is pervasive, but isn’t everything. That’s where UX comes in; it contextualizes use, that’s what makes it ‘smart’.
  • UX plays a big role in helping technology become seamless. Until technology is seamless (and it’s not) systems need to be as relevant as possible to businesses and the consumer. That’s where UX comes in. Whether or not the system provides health insurance, legal support, or fashion advice, the better that system addresses the needs of people, the more justice it does for those people.
  • I guess the standard answer would be better relationships between a business and its consumer and that’s true as well. But, it’s just that bit more exciting to imagine a world where technology is an afterthought. A few years back I went to the Gene Autry museum and saw an exhibit on Indian baskets. Of course all of the pieces were behind glass and truthfully I wasn’t all that excited by the exhibit at first but, they had these kiosks that allowed the user to explore a basket, pull up videos showing how materials were sourced, and let you to explore their histories and cultural significances. I’d have challenged anyone to look up from the display and not see a much richer artifact than they’d imagined before. The interactive kiosk did a great job of bringing to life something that I didn’t know I was interested in.

When thinking about mobile, what are you most excited about?

For me personally, a second screen and a deeper understanding of context is where the future is. I know that sounds vague, but the more pervasive, connected, and personal our devices become, the more we can apply smart thinking.

I’ve always been a fan of installation art and in some way I see mobile devices as the device that embeds us into a richer context in the world. Am I about to walk into a store I’ve just been browsing? Does the store know? Have I just researched a place or directions before getting into my car? Did I just walk into a movie theatre or museum? Is my TV, computer, or office connected to my phone? One of the features of smart technology, from successful platforms online through to the hardware on which we rely daily, is that they all respect context. Better technologies just do that better; it’s what makes them relevant and I think mobile is a real opportunity for that.

Which skills do you admire most in a UX talent?

Flexibility and communication.

I included communication because UX only works when you use the appropriate tools to communicate your solutions. Design only goes part of the way and wireframes only go so far, too. Out of context they are meaningless. That’s why you need to have a rich set of tools at your disposal, from flows and maps to personas and scenarios. A good UXer has to be able to think holistically, tackle the details, and communicate in a top-down fashion how he or she has reduced complexity into a set of features, touchpoints, and interactions.

What’s the biggest challenge you face as a UX professional?

Being asked if I can produce wireframes. No, seriously. Explaining what UX is can be challenging. All About UX has a list of 27 definitions of it collected from around the web and few of them share much in common. Some definitions appeal to screens, others to interactions and others to context. Two of my favorites are:

“The value derived from interaction(s) [or anticipated interaction(s)] with a product or service and the supporting cast in the context of use (e.g., time, location, and user disposition).”

– Sward & MacArthur (2007) (article since removed)

“The user experience considers the wider relationship between the product and the user in order to investigate the individual’s personal experience of using it.”

– McNamara & Kirakowski (2006)

UXers really want to work beyond screens. If we’ve discovered anything in the last few years, it’s that the business problems we can solve go way beyond a website. By looking at a business as a whole, we can make the whole set of interactions richer, more engaging, and in the end increase loyalty. I can think of at least three large projects I worked on where we couldn’t really get to the meat of a solution until we spent time speaking with sales reps at call centers or in showrooms.

As a final note I’d like to thank Vitamin T for all the support they’ve given me as a practitioner of UX. They do a lot of great work promoting the discipline and deserve a lot of recognition for making the landscape we work in more interesting and accessible. Thanks guys…. props to you! 


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