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9 UX design lessons I wish I’d learnt at school

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Just kidding, there are actually 10 lessons 😉

Inspired by the recent post on NN/g, I decided to create a list of my own UX lessons I wished I’d learned in school. I need to admit that my background is in industrial design engineering, where, although human factors play a large part, they’re not the only focus. I had the fortune of attending two excellent universities in the field, learning the fundamentals of design at KAIST and a holistic view of product design engineering at TU Delft. Both schools considered UX to be the default of your designs – it’s like air – you don’t see it or feel it when it’s good, but when it is bad – it can make your life hell. Despite the common saying ‘90% of what you learned at school you never use at your workplace’, this post in no way intends to go against education, but merely suggests that there’s so much more to life than that you learn in your classroom lectures. (In fact, I’ve recently been using geometry to figure out whether my 2m table will fit into a 1.6m x 1.3m moving van – Thanks, Pythagoras).

This list will hopefully prepare recent graduates for the realities of new jobs or even it-might-be-a-long-shot inspire educational programs to include some of the real-world conditions as part of their curriculum. This list goes beyond the obvious ‘time-management’, ‘teamwork’, ‘public speaking’, ‘importance of usability testing’ and other skills (which by the way I had been lucky to have had lots of in my education). It’s purely based on my own experience working as a UX researcher/architect/designer.

1. Be the advocate

At most universities, you’re taking classes and doing projects with similar-minded peers: you all have knowledge of the basic methods and processes and there’s no need to convince anyone of that; for example, conducting a usability testing before submitting your final work.

One thing you’re not warned about at school is that, in the real world, you face a lot of situations where you need to defend the user’s point of view for the sake of more desirable user experience. You’re the representative for the whole cast of UX designers (you know, just like the goodwill ambassadors?) and whatever you say or do will be attributed to UX designers from now on – no pressure! On your tiny (or big, as you wish) shoulders come the tasks of educating clients and colleagues about user experience, about the benefits of usability testing and good UX in terms of ROI, number of active users, increased customer satisfaction and other things we call success metrics. You need to equip yourself with results from previously-conducted research, product usage data and all kinds of guidelines whilst being prepared to use these as weapons to promote the advantageous design in any given situation.

“As an individual, you need the confidence to back up your ideas or to push back on ones you think don’t fit the product thesis. You need to learn how to listen to great ideas from all sides, build the talent of persuasive communication, and, ultimately, understand when you’re wrong and why. Experience design is, at its crux, an experiment in collaboration.”

Dan Maccarone and Sarah Doody

That being said, there is more to the profession of a UXer than just being the advocate, which brings me to the next lesson that served me well in the workplace.

2. Learn to Compromise

You’ll be the advocate. But you’ll be advocating one part of the composite – the product management triangle. To achieve the right design for the right product at the right time, you need to account for the other two pillars: business and technology.

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The Product Management Triangle. 

Sometimes you’ll need to make UX sacrifices too – cut back on technology costs, having to work to an early launch, making a more secure solution, etc. You need to be able to compromise. Find the tradeoff, but always be sure of the sacrifices you’re making – don’t hesitate to pull out your yellow pad a-la-Ted-Mosby style and create a list of pros and cons.

3. Be wise about client communication

Nobody ever warned me of the diplomacy skills I’d need when working in a client environment. Don’t get me wrong, we had great client projects at TU Delft (it’s actually known for its ‘professional master’ programme where almost all briefs come from real life client problems). However, at school you’re still in a client-student relationship, where the client has substantially more experience in the topic or rather, this is considered an exercise rather than a client-consultant situation where a lot is at stake.

‘Playing politics’ is what’s missing in job descriptions and lectures at university, as it sure is something you’ll encounter every day at work (at least in UX consultancy jobs). When you thought you were defending good UX for your client’s own sake, as they wouldn’t want to be shipping a bad-quality product, you need to be careful not to come across as impertinent.

Over the years, I’ve learned that better communication skills come with experience. What helped me (and still helps) was observing how other, more experienced colleagues talk to clients, receive feedback and defend their designs. There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ formula when it comes to client communication, but adjusting to their way of communication and culture is key. At times, the daring, self-confident approach might be respected but other times the results of such could be misinterpreted.

4. Define the problems to be solved

At school, we’re often provided briefs that state a problem for us to solve. It usually specifies the scope, the exact deliverables and sometimes even the expected amount of hours to work on it. It’s not as obvious in the industry. More often than not, working only with what’s provided to you isn’t enough; sometimes as a UXer you might be responsible for identifying the problem from the get-go. Some might argue that the role of the product owner (the person who defines the priorities) might coincide with the role of the teacher. But in a design-driven process us UXers need to proactively propose issues that have to be fixed or areas that require (re)design.

A modified version of the famous Eisenhower method for time management can actually be used for issue prioritisation to help identify important tasks/issues to work on.

Screen Shot 2017-10-17 at 09.54.29A modified version of Eisenhower’s matrix.

Part of a UXer’s job is to help define which tasks or functionalities bring higher gain and question the stated problem; this also concerns processes. Leading to the next lesson I wish I’d learned in school…

5. Get your process in order

In the ever-changing environment of product design and development cycles, it’s easy to get caught in a stream of never-ending requests or ever-changing priorities. People might argue that this is the way to stay agile, however, to get work done and for the sake of sustainable pace (I don’t need to remind you of the harm of context switching), you need to get your process in order.

In my experience of working in Scrum or Kanban methodologies, to shield the designers from interruptions, the PO is encouraged to put the interruption on the product backlog and defer until the start of the next sprint. The way Scrum fights ‘interruptions’ or additions to the active sprint is by canceling the current sprint and planning for the new sprint; where the unfinished tasks of the active sprint goes back in the backlog. Seek for alternative options: you can also plan ‘unplanned time’ in sprints. Other teams have adopted splitting their designers into two streams: one working on new features uninterrupted, while others are working on bug fixes, business-as-usual requests and so on. What we’ve not learned at school is that we can question their processes. Bottom line is, don’t just take the given process, suggest ways to improve and innovate. As always in the role of a UX advocate, proactively suggest including UX in the right phase. Protect yourself and your work but also your processes.

6. Question every decision

As said above, you can question the problem, the process or even the decision. The client, the business analyst, or even the user might come to you and say “you know what, I’ve got this great idea!” and despite the temptation of the amazing-ness of the idea or the genius-ness of the bearer, be sure to question it. Question what the problem the idea is trying to solve, what the user need is, and if there’s a better way to solve it or even if that’s the right problem to solve.

7. Make friends with the data analytics department

As mentioned earlier, your users’ data is your number one go-to tool for making decisions. Whether you need to persuade your clients to have or not have a certain functionality, or to understand which parts of your product need more effort – use the available analytics to fuel your arguments. Depending on the company or project at hand, you may have a team or individual responsible for collecting data analytics. Be sure to know who they are and maybe suggest a coffee to get to know them better. The truth is, you’re going to need their help. Once you’re on friendly terms, you might even be able to steer them towards defining which interactions to track or where to create funnels, in order to get the data you want about user behaviour in a product.

8. The importance of work-life balance

I’ve previously worked in a conglomerate in one of the high-paced Asian countries and know that sometimes the work-life balance can get tough. While it’s a much better situation in Europe, even if you’re physically at home or doing other things, it can always feel like your mind is still at work. If you’ve got a chance, learn some breathing exercises, do some meditation or be sure to have a hobby outside of work to let out any tension before problems at work start affecting your health. As a UX designer, our profession includes a lot of interaction with people, a lot of consideration when speaking with people of different backgrounds, a lot of requests coming from different sides and much more – so it’s important to stay balanced. Believe me, if you got one grey hair for every time prioritization changed – you’d have greyer hair than Santa Claus by now.

9. Pass on knowledge

The teachers at school never taught me how to teach. At a workplace, especially one where specialists of different designer profiles have gathered, you need to be able to pass on your knowledge or skills. That doesn’t come easy. Mentoring is a skill and it’s a skill to be learned. Being really good at something doesn’t mean you can also teach others to be good at it. There are many important things to consider, such as encouraging your colleagues/mentees to seek solutions themselves instead of instantly providing the answer, which might be more useful for them in the long run. That’s how you nurture sustainable professionals and future leaders, rather than command-executors.

10. Stay curious

Most importantly, stay curious. Although some might argue that curiosity is a skill someone is born with, I believe that it’s definitely something that can be acquired and practiced. As designers, we need to always be searching for new and better ways of interacting with a product or solving an issue. Stay on top of what is happening in the world, which new trends and technologies are being developed and how you can utilize these advancements in your current line of work. Be aware of the new tools that are out there that can make your work easier, faster or smoother. Staying curious will help you not only follow the current but also run ahead of it.

To conclude, in the words of Alby Einstein:

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.”