A couple of days ago, I attended the Defining UX event presented by PhillyCHI at Philadelphia University. It was great—five talented UX professionals talked about User Experience Design and then answered questions from the audience. It was a collision of worlds for me: I am a UX Professional by day, and an adjunct faculty member at Philadelphia University by night. I was pleased to see many of my students there.
Toward the end of the event, someone asked a question about how to get a job in UX. Lots of great advice and ideas were given by the panel. I had a few more to add, so I’ve compiled this list of advice for people looking to enter the UX industry.
I have been an adjunct faculty member in higher education for as long as I’ve been in the professional world. One thing I’ve noticed is that the best students, the ones who become really good at what they do, are the ones who ask questions. I can say the same thing for the best UX Designers. Our job is to be inquisitive, to learn.
I can’t tell you how many guest speaking gigs I have conducted where nobody in the room asks questions, then they mob you afterward and whisper their thoughts to you so nobody else can hear. If you have a question, chances are somebody else in the room is wondering the same thing. Share it. Asking questions actually makes you seem smarter, not the other way around.
Here’s a good habit to get into: any time someone is in the front of a room speaking, write down any questions you think of. If the opportunity arises, ask them. It’s our job to be inquisitive and to learn our customers’ businesses. If you don’t transition from passive observation to active engagement, you’ll never get ahead.
Always Be Learning (Sorry, Glengarry Glen Ross)
This ties into the thoughts above. In addition to actively learning about our customers’ businesses, our job is also to keep up on technology, trends, buzzwords and the latest styles in vests, scarves and socks. We bring that to our clients regularly. Once you’ve mastered something, use it and move on. Things change and if you don’t adapt as they change, you’ll be left in the dust.
The vest, scarf and sock thing was just to see if you’re listening.
Master These Four Communication Skills
UX Professionals write a lot. Conceptual design briefs, requirements and specifications, placeholder copy, actual copy, emails, presentations, articles, books, manifestos, you name it. Being concise, complete and compelling is a talent that takes time to master. A few years ago I found a pile of the papers I wrote in college—I was an English Major. I don’t know how I graduated with that mess—I’ll have to assume my profs took pity on me. In the classes I teach, there is a LOT of writing. The subject matter is not as important to me as the practice my students get. I feel like I have accomplished something if I can go back and see their skills develop through the semester.
Along with writing comes grammar, spelling and punctuation. Nothing contributes to discrediting your work more than typos. We are all very lucky to have spelling and grammar checking tools so widely available, but don’t let them make you lazy. Have others read and edit your work before you consider it done. If you know someone who is a good editor, use them. Russ and I established a rule when we started this blog that no blog post is published without an editorial pass by someone else. Their edits make me sharper every time I write.
You may be shy, you may be a church mouse, or you may not like or feel comfortable speaking in groups of more than three. There may be a place for you in UX, but I’m sorry to tell you that your chances of advancing in your career will be severely limited if you can’t get over that fear. Some day you will be asked to present. Your choices may be challenged and your greatest innovation may be questioned—and if you can’t respond articulately, briefly and with confidence in your decisions, you’ll quickly hit your ceiling.
If you asked me to draw a horse, the only resemblance between my sketch and a horse would be four legs. I still carry a sketchbook, pens and my own set of dry erase markers wherever I go. DO NOT TOUCH MY MARKERS, they are mine and you will ruin them. Get your own markers. If you’re a client, maybe you can use my markers, but if you cross a black line with my green marker so help me…
I draw every day: workflows, wireframes, data visualizations, caricatures of Brad, you name it. My drawings are an extension of what is going on in my head. UX Professionals draw. Good UX Professionals draw in front of large groups of people. Their drawings don’t have to be masterpieces, but they have to express something clearly. At the end of my best Think Sessions, my hands are a rainbow of dry erase dust. That’s when I know I’ve had a good day.
Humility and Confidence
Yes, you read that right: Humility and Confidence are communication skills. You will not always be right. How you handle being challenged when you are wrong or don’t have a good justification for your decisions is extremely important. Get defensive and you’ll limit your future options. Learn from it, change course and those around you will know you’re versatile and flexible.
I’m not saying to fold whenever you’re challenged. If you’re sure you’re right, that’s the time to be confident and stick to your guns. I practice the “object three times” method. If after the third time you have provided a good argument for your decisions and an authority figure still says, “Nope, do it my way,” then respectfully disagree and do it their way. You’re not caving, you’re deferring to authority. It is very likely they pay the bills. They know you don’t agree. If it blows up in their face, you both know why and you may both learn something.
Do What You’re Good at First, Then Follow Your Passion
I know everyone tells you to follow your dreams, do what you love, blah, blah, blah. The key is to get your foot in the door and gain experience. If you’re like me, the things you’re passionate about take time to master, but you may have some less-sexy skills that make you valuable now. I started by writing scripts, shooting video and writing code. In 1992, I was a good programmer and an acceptable writer and producer. Today, I can barely spell HTML. Programming got me in the door and I continued to follow my passion for writing and communications. Along the way, I discovered UX, research and strategy. Almost everyone I work with started somewhere different than they are now.
The key is to be brutally honest with yourself—do what you’re good at and tinker with the things you’re passionate about. Maybe you’re in the minority where you are actually highly skilled at something you’re passionate about. Good for you. Now take your work samples, sit with someone who is a master of that craft, and ask them how you can improve. Don’t ask if you’re good at it, ask what you can do better. You can always do better.
Notice I didn’t give any advice on job hunting… that’s because everyone I know in this industry got where they are in a different way. Applying for jobs, recruiters, informational interviews, internships, working your way up the ladder…any of these are viable if you’re in the right place at the right time. Everyone I know started with that first job: I delivered AV equipment to meeting rooms; Carl helped design and install high-quality wood signs. We can’t all drop out of Harvard and start a billion-dollar company (but if you do, give me a call, I have ideas).
What is critical, and what every successful UXer I know has done, is to consistently grow and maintain a professional network. Stay in touch with former colleagues. Attend meetings for professional organizations like PhillyCHI. Be inquisitive, but don’t be annoying. If you’re turned down for a position, ask what you can do to improve your chances. But most importantly, do what you’re good at.
So, in the spirit of humility, does this advice fit the bill? What advice would you give?
Designers and product managers should be obsessed with observing how their communities use their products. They should be fascinated with the differences between what they intended to design and what the community gets out of it. It’s easy to pay lip service to that principle, but harder to make it the focus of your work.
In 1917, Marcel Duchamp submitted an art piece titled Fountain to an exhibition. It was an upside down urinal signed R. Mutt, 1917. The piece was part of a series he called Readymades. His work was rejected by the exhibition and, almost a century later, continues to be debated in art history classes around the world.
What was this accomplished cubist/modern artist trying to do and what does it have to do with experience design? We get some insight by reading Duchamp’s essay The Creative Act where Duchamp explains his fascination with the specatator’s reaction to art.
…the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.
In this essay, Duchamp also introduces the concept of The Art Coefficient:
…the personal ‘art coefficient’ is like an arithmetical relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed…
Experience designers have a similar practice I’ve started to refer to as the Innovation Coefficient. Anyone who has designed or built anything has had a very specific idea of how the user should interact with their product. The Innovation Coefficient is the difference between what you intended to be done with your product and what the user actually does with the product.
To track the Innovation Coefficient you must become obsessive about observing your community of users. Watch what they are doing with competitive and analog products as well. Run usability studies; monitor analytics; convene advisory panels; read product forums; avoid putting the “I in ‘design.’” The more often something is observed, the higher the Innovation Coefficient. Propose features that are observed through repeated hacks, behavioral patterns, and direct user requests.
Designers and Product Managers who encounter the Innovation Coefficient can react one of two ways: embrace it or fight back. Usability Guru Don Norman refers to fighting back as “Blame and Train.” In other words, fighting back is a fool’s errand. Here are two ways to embrace the differences.
Cowpathing: Embrace Unintended Uses
When Twitter first launched it was not very feature-heavy. Send a text message to 40404 and it would appear in a searchable public feed. Users started mashing words together and adding a hash symbol (#) to make search more powerful. They did similar things with the @ symbol to identify other users.
Twitter could have tried to tweak their search functionality to meet the needs of the user and get rid of all the #’s and @’s cluttering their newsfeed, but they didn’t. They chose to embrace the change and built #hashtags and @naming into their designs. The result: when we see a hashtag, we want to click to execute a search (well, some of us anyway). Facebook, Instagram and most other social media tools adopted the functionality. In 20 years we may still be using hashtags but, like parking lights on your car, few people will know their origin.
Landscape architects and usability experts call this cowpathing. Rather than laying out a series of paths and sidewalks in a new landscape, don’t put in any paths. Visitors will wear out the grass in the patterns of their typical commute. Once you know where people are walking, pave the cowpaths. The result may be more organic and less symmetrical than originally intended, but your design also won’t be cluttered with fences, hedges and “Keep off the grass” signs.
Cowpaths are the formalization of the Innovation Coefficient. Ask yourself, “What would Marcel do?” He wasn’t curious about other artists, gallery owners or art critics, he was curious about his spectators.
Product Management using Innovation Coefficients
Most modern product teams target features that are absolutely necessary to release a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Product managers listen to analysts and watch their competition to identify new features and add them to a backlog. The result is a cluttered matrix of features, strategies and estimates. For the life of the product, your team will slowly chip away at a backlog that is always growing. Your community needs will always evolve faster than you can address items in the backlog.
There is a better way, and it starts with burning your backlog.
Go ahead and release your MVP, then spend your energy observing user behaviors. When it’s time to work on an update, focus on features with a high Innovation Coefficient.
If you already have a backlog of features, gauge their Innovation Coefficient before making a decision. Throw out whatever doesn’t make it into a release and start over again. Watch competitors, but don’t chase them. If their features are valuable to your users, your users will let you know. Marcel may have cared that Picasso went through a blue period, but that is not what made him curious and he certainly didn’t go through a blue period himself.
Where is the Innovation?
Many argue that large organizations are incapable of innovation; I’m not in that mindset. I am often concerned that large organizations pay attention to the wrong sources in order to innovate. Of course new ideas can come from within and they should be explored. Making a strategic decision to expend all of your energy hoping your ideas will catch on is ignoring your greatest innovative asset – your community of users. As Charles Leadbetter explains in this TED talk, mountain bikes were invented by a community of hackers, not the R&D department at Schwinn or Raleigh.
At Think Brownstone, when we go to conferences we do sketchnotes. This has become a fun tradition for us, and we keep doing it because:
- It forces us to pay close attention and seek to capture the most important points made by the speakers.
- It helps us retain the information we learn so we can apply it to our lives.
- It generates a nice summary of the event that we can share with our co-workers both during the event via Instragram/Flickr feeds and when we return.
- It helps us, as Laura Fitton recommends, be useful on this blog, and on Twitter and Facebook!
There are lots of different ways that people do sketchnotes. Here are some guidelines we TBIers try to follow when we do ours:
- Use a smaller notebook (I use these) and a bold-tip pen (I use these) so photographs of your sketchnotes can be read on tiny screens.
- Draw your sketchnotes in real-time during the talk (don’t scribble messy notes and then draw sketchnotes later)—this is challenging, but it keeps your notes fresh and doesn’t leave you with one more thing on your to-do list after the event!
- Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to draw objects or pictures—most of the time, simply writing down key words and phrases is enough. Try to discern the speaker’s most important points and write down those words/phrases bigger than everything else on the page.
- Think of each notebook page as a work of art that can be enjoyed (and shared) as an individual piece of content. During moments when you’re not feverishly trying to write down something awesome that was just said, draw boxes or shapes around key phrases you’ve captured or decorate the page with a border or pattern.
- Include each speaker’s Twitter username in your sketchnotes so your readers can look them up and learn more.
- Photograph and post your sketchnotes periodically during the event—don’t wait until you get home! Tweet key quotes that you’ve captured, mention the speakers by Twitter username, and be sure to include the event’s hashtag. Try to take your photos during the day in natural light—just throw your notebook on the floor in front of a big window, or go outside!
A little more than a week after the Inc conference, what’s sticking with me the most? Well, actually it’s a talk about food! The Inc crew smartly included a breakout session on critical healthy lifestyle habits “that fuel our success.” Norm Brodsky introduced us to his nutritional consultant Barbara Mendez, a registered pharmacist in New York City. Among other great advice, Barbara suggested that we eat a good breakfast every day—ideally consisting of eggs, tomatoes, and green vegetables. I’ve started doing this, as have a few of my colleagues!
Check out the rest of my sketchnotes for more inspiring insights on topics related to health, business, and leadership from this year’s Inc 500|5000 conference. And if you’re a sketchnoter too, share a link to your stuff in the comments below!