I feel very fortunate early on in graduate school at Parsons to get exposure to thought leaders in usability such as Don Norman and Jakob Neilson through a usability research professor’s elective course. There were less than 10 students and I wondered why it wasn’t completely full and laugh when I think how today that type of class would be standing room only. At the time we really didn’t know that Usability, Interaction Design and Human Factors would merge into a larger context of UX in the way that is has. Even now many newbies to the UX field do not know the history and influence we have from HCI and Usability fields and why we advocate for data driven design. These fields may have merged in the working world, but I fear the historical context is getting lost with an influx of new practitioners and interest by companies.
I left graduate school with my brain full of ideas and knowing that web design was not going to be enough. I was not satisfied with the idea that I would get into opinion based arguments about design when I had learned at the very least you could do a usability test. My thesis was a legit web-based software product, not a digital brochure for a brand; which given my undergrad in graphic design would seem the logical path. So when I started looking for work I was disappointed and confused about why this “thing" I wanted to do and couldn’t articulate very well just didn’t seem to exist or why I couldn’t find it.
I started working as an adjunct professor teaching graphic design related topics which led to my full time gig at the same institution as an instructional designer. My logic was that my graduate thesis had been an educational product so obviously instructional design must be what I was doing. To some extend that was true, but I quickly learned the difference. After realizing that instructional design, though valuable for the time, was not really the right fit long term I started the job search again. Things seemed a little better and ther were more roles, but I was still not finding anything more than web design or graphic design positions. I did manage to interview for a job redesigning web-based tax software, but didn’t get it for lack of experience (where were these people with experience I wanted to meet them!).
Somehow I put something out there that caught the eye of the recruiter working with Hugh Beyer and Karen Holtzblatt over at InContext Design. I had never heard of them or their body of work in HCI and Agile with their respected and robust Contextual Design process. They had decided that finding qualified practitioners to work on their client projects was hard to come by so they were going to mentor some young and hungry folks. This was another place where the timing was right for me. I was eager.
The more I went through the stage of job interviews with them (which included a presentation, building a mini affinity diagram and a day long exercise in a short version of their process with other candidates) the more I felt this made sense for me. I have never done any in depth field research, only a bit with my graduate thesis which was powerful, but pretty rudimentary. Every part of the process they had me try I was a natural and I felt everything starting to click.
Part of why these experiences are so special for a designer like me is because of how easy it would have been to not have them.
Coming from graphic design made it unlikely I'd be part of anything user research related or even hear about its existence and lucky for me they offered that one class in grad school. I have seen a few graphic designers learn about usability, but too frequently its not something they see as pivotal to their work. When I've been labeled "The researcher" by my fellow designers and it has felt like I had been pushed out of my own community. I saw user research as a logical progression of design process where we need to understand the problem first. Why didn't they see it that way too?
I have often heard “I used to be this user so I know how to design for them”. That view has changed a bit, but I still encounter designers who have been working for a while and feel this way. It makes me wonder what kind of work they are doing that hasn’t challenged them to reconsider their process. Why haven't they seen a data driven design approach modeled for them?
To be fair many will recognize that it’s a good idea to get user feedback in some way, but that doesn’t mean they do it or know how to properly advise their clients to do it. Often they are too quick to throw in the towel when their client gives them a hard time about it. Those designers who do not use a data driven approach have set a precedent making it that much harder for them and all of us to convince clients to adopt a user centered design approach.
It makes sense to me that classically trained graphic designers who are now designing UI work this way because adding user feedback conflicts with their training and its hard for anyone to see how something would work if its never been modeled. Traditionally in print design you never needed to consider how someone would “use" something because posters and magazines are assumed to be understood. The client would give you all the market research you needed (or thought you needed) to understand the issues to resolve.
So what happens when you come from that world and are suddenly faced with designing websites that people need to “use" in addition to visually communicate a message? If you have a graphic design education historically you are not well quipped to handle more than the visual communication. Maybe you even grab yourself a usability specialist or read Jakob Nielsens principles and all is good right?
I would argue that not being the one to test your designs in the first person (at least some of the time) is doing a big disservice to your growth as a designer because you become too disconnected from the problem and can’t be sure you understand it completely. The problems of interaction are too complex to not take user feedback seriously enough to do it yourself and to instead believe that you know enough to keep going.
As a UXer with a career in data driven design I can’t imagine now working any other way, but I was fortunate unlike some of my fellow graphic designers to gain knowledge at critical times in my development as a young designer in order to transition to UX when it came around.
I don’t think all is lost and gaining these skills might put a visual designer out of their comfort zone at first, but I have rarely met the person who after testing their own designs with their target audience themselves, even in the most casual way, wasn’t transformed for the positive and felt their work greatly improved. At the end of the day all we want is to make great designs so why not learn and utilize all the tools at your disposal?
I talked with a designer a short while back who aggressively pushed his idea on a client. The client didn’t feel the feature to be added would work as designed and insisted on a prototype with an in person user test. The designer protested, but gave in and they found that the idea didn’t work. The client was proven right, but ultimately it’s not about that. It’s about building the right product and putting a stop to unnecessary arguments so we can focus on getting to the right solution together. This is a hard lesson to learn and should have been transformative for this designer to grow, but in this case the designer ego took a blow.
Having the experience of learning from industry leaders was crucial to my development as a designer and my point of view about my work. If I didn’t work in a place where conducting contextual inquiry was the standard I would never have seen the value of it. Once I learned the value I could then articulate it to the business and now its a deal breaker; its that important. It is not ok anymore for designers regardless of how they entered into this field or level of experience to not insist on data driven design because anything else is just not UX.
If we want to convince companies it is in their best interest to do all types of user research (qualitative and quantitative) we need to make sure that designers are empowered to speak up and advise properly on why this is critical. Of course the business stakeholders can still say no, but they are less likely if designers are equipped with not only the necessary research skills, but also feel empowered to consult on how working this way will make more successful products and avoid costly mistakes. This can’t happen until more designers see how user feedback is critical to their success too.
I hope someday to never hear,
“There was no time or budget to talk to users”.
Do you think it’s possible?