So, you're a UX Designer?
Once I was walking with my kids on a hiking trail and we came upon a bridge. Someone spray painted the word “APPLE” on it.
It got me thinking. Even at the most basic level, most people want to leave a mark in the world and have an impact. Sometimes the impact is mediocre vandalism, and sometimes leaving our mark means attempting to make the world better for people.
As a UX (User Experience) Designer, I try to take the latter approach, asking questions like:
- How is this going to help people?
- What problem is it solving?
- Wait, is that really the problem?
- Is this “solution” going to mess people up more than help them?
- How do I know this is the solution?
- and so on…
My Work Through Stories
Nowadays, I’ve been trying to track the life of a project I’m working on through the lens of research, discovery, and design. These are the things that inform the solutions I work on. This helps me stay focused and ensures that I question the value of the approaches to research and design activities that I spend time on. As I am working on a project, I am designing a story around it. The story ends up being a case study.
Looking at projects and design like a case study while in the midst of working the project takes discipline and practice. I’m already working on a feature or a product, and then I am attempting to ensure that I’m documenting the path I’ve taken to get there. It takes some organization skills.
Who Are You?
I’ve interviewed several people for the role of UX Designer. Some have no story to tell. Their work highlights the finished product, but I can’t make an informed decision about hiring them as a UX Designer if I don’t know how they attack problems.
If you’re not approaching your work as a problem, you’re not a designer, you’re an artist. The finished visual design might look nice, but it tells me very little about how you think, your views about how design problems are worked out, and what motivates you.
If you’re not comfortable creating friction and generating discomfort, by challenging your team and stakeholders about why things are being done, then you’re just someone that cranks out eye candy. There’s a place for you in the design world. But it’s not UX Design. That’s order taking.
There’s Always More To Do
Yes, I know. You don’t have time to document how you work at that level, describing in exquisite detail about how you got to the design that people see with their eyeballs (or hear with their ears, or whatever it is that you’re designing). You’re busy. You’ve got stuff to do! It’s easier just to show the finished product. (Yeah, I know that nothing is ever really finished in digital, but there is a tipping point when there’s enough done to tell a story).
For me, I was getting to the end of projects and thinking: “It would have been cool to document the whole research/discovery/design process from the outset of this project”, and asking myself questions like, “Er, what just happened and how did we get here?”.
Step back. Design how you want to document how you work. Start documenting as the project evolves. Take lots of photos and videos. Photos of artifacts, screen shots, workshops. Archive your design iterations.
People Don’t Get Me
If you consider yourself a UX Designer, you’ve probably heard this…
“You know those people that sit over there that do the wireframes? Have those people make some designs for the developers.”
Okay, maybe nobody has literally said that, but it sometimes it feels like that is the perception of how UX Design is viewed in a lot of organizations.
Yes, I’ve been known to do those wireframe things. But that’s not where I start. Wireframes are but one stop along the way. In fact, I know UX Designers that don’t do wireframes much at all. Wireframes can assume BUFD (Big Up Front Design) because there can be a considerable amount of time invested early on in creating those. Many clients just want a bunch of design up front. But design changes as you get new information.
I also know people that go straight to high fidelity as fast as they can, skipping over the discovery process. Not cool. In fact, even in school for Graphic Design I was taught to start with thumbnail sketches. Keep it simple. Generate lots of ideas. If you start at the keyboard, you’re missing some steps.
Designers today are ideally involved throughout the product or feature development, not just at the beginning.
- Feedback changes along the way.
- Design changes with that feedback.
- Feedback is obtained from that new design, and so on.
Wireframes are nice, but so are whiteboards, and pencils. Show me some whiteboard sketches, or something on a napkin. I’ll be impressed. I promise. That shows me how you think, and how you approach ideas. It shows me you’re willing to be wrong.
In the article The Design Industry Has Grown Up, John Romano states:
“The design industry has grown up. The skillsets needed to plan, design, and execute complex digital products and services have become broad and deep…the reality is that the body of knowledge is so broad that specialization is now commonplace.”
Grow up. Tell a story. A story about the experience of how you took a problem and made it a solution.
I went on a trip to South Africa in 2006. It’s not unusual that individuals there speak up to 8 different languages. What’s interesting is that when people meet for the first time, they need to greet each other in several languages until they can both figure out what language they both speak in order to continue the conversation.
With UX Design, there’s a similarity with the language barrier I described. Not only is it unclear to a lot of people in the information technology industry about the responsibilities and skills that a UX professional has to offer, but even among UX professionals, it can become muddled as to what the different roles people play regarding the various skillets and responsibilities that are possible and necessary.
A portfolio of work, or a case study, or a portfolio of case studies (or whatever you’d like to call the thing that lets me know you know what UX Design is and that you know how to do it) can help to educate others on what we do and what UX Design is about.
“The experience is about how we get there, not the landing place.”
– Bill Buxton
From the Materialistic to the Experiential: A Changing Perspective on Design
Design Concepts Aren’t Mistakes
Design concepts are assumptions based on the research we’ve done. It’s a mistake to think that you need to present only finished work out of a fear that people will think you’re not a superhero designer.
I heard this once at a UX conference presentation. It was so good that I wrote it down:
“I trust that this is a safe crowd and you won’t judge me when I show this to you. This isn’t something I would put in my portfolio”.
– Anonymous UX Person
It was so good because my reaction was so adverse. My reaction was that as a UX Designer, anything can go in your portfolio, if it helped to inform your design and tells that story of how you came to a design solution. Show me where things failed, where things got off track, where things caused good and healthy discussions on what makes the most sense. Show me the laughing and the crying!
As Tom Greever says in the book Articulating Design Decisions:
Your ability to be thoughtful about a problem and articulate any solution is more important than your ability to design the perfect solution every time. When other people realize you’ve put thought into it and are being in intentional, they’re more willing to trust you, even if they disagree.
Who’s the audience for a UX Portfolio?
Congrats! There’s plenty of room and plenty of opportunities to communicate what UX Design is across different groups of people. A UX case study can help to bring awareness and educate people on what you do. It’s also a way to put yourself out there and get insight into how other people tackle design problems.
- Potential Clients
Selling design can be difficult. Describing how a project flows from a design perspective can promote trust and buy-in on the value of design.
- Potential Employers / Internal Leadership
I’ve worked for companies that hire UX Designers. Some of these companies had leadership that didn’t exactly know what UX Designers do, or what the value of having a UX Designer is. They just knew that it’s a thing, and that they should hire UX people in order to be like everyone else. There are better reasons to hire people.
- Other UX People
As UX Designers, we’ve done a good job in recent years when it comes to sharing best practices and information sharing to help the UX practice evolve and mature.
- Developers, Stakeholders and Product People
UX case studies can educate teams that you’re working with on what a project can look like from the perspective of UX Design. Additionally, they can help to build morale when the project they worked on is summarized from inception to production. “We made that, and this is how we did it!”
What would be in the UX Portfolio?
Here’s a sampling of what could be in your portfolio:
- Brainstorm coordination
- Creating personas
- Design sprints
- Design workshops
- Empathy maps
- Feature writing
- Field research
- Gathering and organizing statistics
- Graphic arts
- Information architecture
- Interaction design
- Interface design
- Interface layout
- Journey maps
- Presenting and speaking
- Product design
- Requirement writing
- Stakeholder interviews
- Taxonomy creation
- Terminology creation
- Usability testing
- User interviews
- Visual design
- White boarding
- and other things!
Some questions to ask yourself to help you craft the story…
- Who did you talk to?
- Why did you talk to them?
- What were you trying to find out?
- What did you talk to them about?
- What did you do with their feedback?
- What was the team structure?
- Who did you work with?
- How did you collaborate with your team? Were they involved in design discussions?
- What did you design? What did your team design?
- Did you test your design? How?
- What did you do with the test results? How did you deliver the test results?
- Did other people observe the testing?
Quit Being Fancy
This is how I think of the stuff I create when I’m designing things…
It’s healthy. It’s okay. The first design is probably not going to be the thing. You’re human. You’re making things that other humans use. You make assumptions and you go with what you know. You learn more along the way. You’re leaving your mark.
Go ahead. Tell your story. People will pick it apart. Be vulnerable.
No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.
– HG Wells
So, you're a UX Designer? was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.