Two Reasons I Chose UX as My Profession

Two Reasons I Chose User Experience (UX) as My Profession: I saw a good deal of effort and frustration in explaining difficult products to bewildered users; and my life’s goal is to help people breathe easier. UX connected the pain I saw to the goal I had. UX has both practical value and meaning.

(Many thanks to Shyamala Prayaga of UXLabs India who asked the question “Why did you choose UX as your profession?” via User Experience Professionals Association, UXPA.org.)

And, why did you?

When Do You Call Yourself a “UX Expert”? The time is now.

Search for the term “great designers” these days, and thousands of results appear:  almost all about web design.  When did it pass away that great design was about architecture, interiors, furnishings, and inventions of household devices and factory machines.  When did a ‘device’ cease to be a doorknob, or can opener, or car, and conjure, instead, only images of handheld electronics run through ‘taps’ and ‘swipes’ and ‘pinches.’

I was recently asked, “Where do you get inspiration for your designs?”  It was asked in the context of user interface design, and was couched with the implication that inspiration must come from a “who” rather than from a “where” or a “what.”  My answer, “My inspiration comes from many places!  Especially architecture!  Fashion!”  The gentleman looked at me in surprise.  I am, after all, a senior user experience strategist, and yet my answer did not come from the halls of electronics and digital design.  Then we got to the heart of his question, “i mean, what do you think of Nielsen and Tufte?”  I briefly stared back at him, wondering at this exhibit of UX knowledge from the president of a company specializing in a a non-digital domain that was only beginning to emerge into digital design.  All who had spoken of the ‘old guard’ in this company I was visiting, thought its leaders and staff rather staid and old-fashioned, not fully ready for a new world; yet here he was citing two names well-known in the field of information design.  He shifted in his chair and finally blurted out his real distress, “You’re an expert.  What do you do when two ‘experts’ in the field disagree?  Nielsen and Tufte have a very public disagreement.  Which one do you hold with?  How do you know which one is ‘right’?”

I smiled, “Of course they disagree, that’s part of the fun of design!”  He has a company and millions of dollars at stake, and was clearly nonplussed at this mention of ‘“fun,” but clearly intrigued, nonetheless.  Pausing I waited to let my shocking statement sink in before plunging ahead to an answer  “Tufte and Nielsen are experts, yes, but I am an expert, too.  Every UX person is, each in his or her own way.  What those ‘experts’ are talking about is design, in general.  They are big names, with big audiences, each brilliant and each often ‘right’ in general terms.  What they do not know, and will never see, are the users I see, study, and that get into my very cells every day.  They do not know the goals and the needs, the hopes and desires of the users I serve.  They do not know my organization’s goals and how to reach them and, indeed, are not in the least committed to doing so.  I take the best of what I see and hear and read, and what I have created in my own work and seen in my own user studies, and use my expertise to apply it in the context of what I know is best.  That’s what UX is, and why your and other companies now seek what we in the UX field provide.  We know how to take the experts’ advice and apply to make real things, to generate new ideas, and take those ideas from concepts to real.”

So when do you get to call yourself an expert?  The time is now.  Whether you have been in the field for 20 years or 20 days, you have something to bring that no one else does.  You, we all, also have something to learn.  Look around for guidance and inspiration; look around for great design.  Then let go of what you learned and go with what you know, even if only for a moment.  Work with the team; let collaboration drive your design.  Sketch and make lists and get frustrated and throw things away.  Let the eraser and delete key become your best friends.  Take it step at a time.  Breathe.  But more than anything remember that design is personal.  Tufte and Nielsen and a corporate president, and you and I, bring ourselves to the fore, and use what we know, and all for three central purposes: so that users will be happy, successful, and reach their goals; so that we, ourselves, will be happy, successful, and reach our goals; and so that those around us, our team members, in the context of their own work and our corporate goals, will be happy, successful, and reach their goals.

Want great design?  Do it now.  Make it personal.  Go create!

Design Delight is not Always About Delivering the Fastest Path!

Suddenly, I was smiling.  A simple box reminded me that a “fast food” experience can miss key moments of delight using designs for daily tasks.

This morning I was making my beloved English Breakfast tea from one of a couple of brands in my pantry.  For some days I had been slipping the tea bag from the handy ‘dispenser’ slit in the Brand X box.  It was fast and easy because it let me skip the steps of opening and closing the box, taking the box out of and placing it back into the pantry, or even using both hands.  I was ripping and and slipping and dipping in a second or two.  A ‘usable’ design that sped up a routine task that would meet all the typical best practices of a good user experience.

Enter Twinings Irish Breakfast tea, the box that I reached for today.  It required me to pick it up out of the pantry, open the lid, take out the tea bag, set the bag down, close the lid, replace the box in the pantry, then rip, slip, and dip the bag.  Lots of steps, right?  But suddenly, I was smiling!  It was a new box design that delivered a new delight.

When I closed the new wrap-around lid it slid into place with the most satisfying little ‘slip and click.’  Aside from the smooth closure, which now eliminated the old cardboard tabs that, by nature, fought against each other at opening and closing, the whispered slip and feel of the click, well, it made me smile!

I found that this box and its extra steps was suddenly a much better fit for my experience of morning tea than the fast-food dispenser style box.  For me, morning tea is a time of savoring, of enjoying a certain flavor, taste, and experience that I had first learned to love when I spent 35 days in England many years ago.  The slip and click slowed my pace and thoughts slightly, reminding me to savor the next few moments of the flavor of the tea.  Yes, you read that right, the slip-and-click box design made the tea taste better!

When I replaced the satisfying box into the pantry, I slid it in next to the other one.  I realized I much preferred this one in my hand, even though it took several steps more and took longer to do repetitive tasks.  The ready access box saved time.  The ‘experience delight’ box gave me something special, in just under 5 seconds more.

What can you do in your designs or your world today, to add the tiniest bit of ‘savor’ to your customer’s day?

Using UX to Lead Leaders

Special for UXPA conference session attendees! Posted here are the proceedings paper and handouts for the “Using UX to Lead Leaders” Session. Stayed tuned here for more!

ABSTRACT – Laura Faulkner, PhD; Sheilagh O’Hare, MS
Mastering the applied science of usability for the ‘underserved audience’ of executive leadership to create targeted, actionable communication ultimately supports end users with the best products.
• Identify your own needs for influencing decision-makers
• Understand the pitfalls of communicating UX vision and needs to decision-makers
• Recognize capabilities from UX toolsets that can be turned into successful influence
• Prepare to apply this toolkit to immediate and future needs for ‘leading the leaders’

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I’m a leader. Now what? [Leadership series, part 1]

The two most challenging aspects of leadership are accountability and communication. Whether you have attained a leadership role in your company, your profession, a volunteer organization, or even your own household, you now face two daunting prospects:

  • Failure will be placed squarely at your door.
  • Effective messaging is harder than you think.

No matter who you are or where, your leadership marks new territory in reporting, convincing, and guiding both action and decision-making throughout your organization.

New leaders can seek out multiple resources, education, training, even certifications in effective management.  These resources cover a wide range of topics and issues, from planning to accounting to the ‘soft skills’ needed for the hard job of managing people. However, the heavy focus on managing others misses one of the most powerful keys to success in leadership.

A hidden pain point for new leaders is communication to those to whom they are accountable.  Over a period of five years, I had the great privilege of conducting three ethnographic studies with executives to determine what they most wanted and needed in terms of decision support data and how it is presented.

The executive audience requires both precision and accuracy.

Whether, in your new role, you are accountable to a higher-level executive, a board of directors, an organizational membership, or even a constituency, you must master the fine art of executive communications.  To that end, as you embark on your own journey of communicating to influence, keep in mind these lessons learned.

Executives are under a constant pressure to perform, yet must motivate, track, and rely on others to complete the performance.  This means you; and these means those to whom you are accountable.  Many of these pressures are hidden from those that you lead, because they are at levels where failure would have a lesser impact on the overall success of the organization, or greater chance for error to be mediated by the effective performance of others.  Executive success is tied to corporate goals and benchmarks.  Any deviation must be justified and supported to the executive’s own leaders and stakeholders.

Key points to understand for yourself, and to convey to your staff are:

  • Leaders need to know where to place their attention, and require data-driven support for how best to apply resources.
  • Crafting executive communications takes logging your detailed information and data, then distilling, trimming, and deleting, again and again, to rapid summaries that are both concise and dense.
  • Craft your message until it directs executive attention to the key decision you need them to make.

For your message-crafting to have the best chance for success, observe your audience to find these answers to these questions:

  • What are the central goals of the executive audience?
  • What do executives need to support their daily situational awareness?
  • What do executives need for strategic decision-making?
  • What obstacles and pressures do executives face on a daily basis?
  • What information and presentation best support executives to achieve their goals?

See your own ‘leaders’ as your own personal customer.  Observe them through a customer-centered lens; then provide them with solutions on their terms and their own language.

Interestingly, executives who best learned the lessons of ‘communicating up’ also gained the greatest skill and effectiveness in their leadership of others.  Look to this area of learning, and tell me how it goes!


Site Launch and World Usability Day 2011!

It was appropriate that this  new FalconDay website launched on World Usability Day 2011.  I had the great privilege of being the keynote speaker on the theme “Design for Social Change” at the UPA Arizona World Usability Day event.  The event was a thrill and a smashing success, thanks to all the hard work of the Arizona user experience community leaders and the generous support of Paypal, who sponsored and hosted the event at their beautiful Chandler facility.  It was a full house, with a lot of buzz and energy, showing that user experience is vibrant and thriving in this region.

I look to this area to emerge as a new force of leadership in the user experience / usability / user research / experience design / interaction design world community.  The group won the WUD competition as one of  five featured ‘partner events’ among the more than 100 events in 40 countries worldwide.  That selection prior to the event was evidence enough; but what I heard at the event, itself, told me much more.  This community has a breadth of talent, both new and deeply experienced, across the wide-ranging skill set of the usability and experience design field.  The current strength of performance and support in central Arizona that is being provided to design the user experience, from the largest corporations and name brands to small ventures and solo practitioners, is a testament to the visionary nature of what is happening here.

The diversity of skills and knowledge represented by the attendees is both a map of the field today and a powerful indicator of the critical need for overarching professional interaction and education for all  to see the breadth of the field and how to do their best work to fit into it.  I am grateful for opportunities such as World Usability Day, UPA-International, and regional and local chapter events that bring together and help all in their various roles who are dedicated to the mission of making things easier and better in the world.

It was an honor to speak in such an environment.  I look forward to returning, and to seeing what these folks come up with next!