Reblogging: How to Evaluate a UX Designer for Your Company, or, What Makes a Great User Experience Designer – Whitney Hess

I was reading the comments in a LinkedIn group posting several weeks ago and came across a link to a terrific blog post by Whitney Hess that discusses how to evaluate a User Experience Designer.  I was reminded of Whitney’s blog posting a few days later when discussing with a recruiter acquaintance of mine how difficult it can be to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to evaluating prospective UX resources, especially for people (recruiters, HR professionals, IT managers, etc.) that don’t have a grounding in the function.

Our discussion came around to those companies that post job openings whose descriptions seem to be randomly conflated with user experience such as “UX Visual Designer”, or “UX Front End Developer.”  Neither of which seems at first blush to be fully under the umbrella of User Experience.  I opined out that this was a result of people writing job postings and job descriptions that don’t really understand what a UX designer does, let alone what makes a good UX designer.

I pointed my friend to this blog post, telling him that I thought it would help him out, and once he had a chance to read it he agreed and advised me to share it far and wide.  So I am!

I want to pull out a couple of key passages for comment, so click the link and read the article, but then come back here for some additional thoughts…

How to Evaluate a UX Designer for Your Company, or, What Makes a Great User Experience Designer – Whitney Hess

This is the single best article/blog post I have ever read on what makes a great UX Designer great. Hess’ main thrust in the article is that it is more important to uncover and understand the mentality and thought processes of a UX candidate than it is to make sure that the candidate is buzz-word compliant with the latest tools, trends, and terminology:

I’ve come to learn that it really isn’t about whether someone has the best pedigree, has mastered all the right tools, has memorized all the latest terminology, or has worked on the most recognizable brand names. What matters in a user experience designer is the way they think.

I couldn’t agree more!  I have always considered personality and team fit to be more important that knowing tool X or having worked in methodology Y.  I can always teach a good candidate how to use a new tool or new method for reaching a goal, but it is very difficult (if not impossible) to learn how to be a good fit with a group, just as it is difficult to learn a new way to think.

Background: Process Over Portfolio

While it’s easy enough to pass off the end products of a design exercise as one’s own, it is much more difficult to bluff your way through a discussion of the process you followed and the decisions you made over the course of a project to get to that final design.

It’s the journey, not the destination. How they came to the final product is what you’re hiring them for, not the outcomes they came to. Other businesses’ outcomes don’t apply to yours. You’re a special snowflake and you deserve to be treated as such. How a user experience designer has treated previous projects is what you want to see.

As Hess also points out, any number of influences external to the UX Designer may have impacted the final design that is ultimately delivered.

Goal: Intel Over Instinct

In discussing this facet of user experience design, Hess looks at one of the bedrock principles of quality UX, that any of the hundreds or thousands of design decisions that are made over the course of a project should be validated.  There are any number of methods for capturing data through up-front user research to inform these decisions, and several key methods for validating designs based on these decisions.

Quantitative data from web analytics and surveys, qualitative data from interviews and observations, usability testing, card sorting, participatory design sessions — whatever techniques they need to use to get the goods, they’re adept at figuring out which ones to use when, can manage the process throughout, and know how to get the most valid findings.

Hess does circle back to the initial conceit of this facet of UX, pointing out that the more practice UX Designers have at planning, collecting, and analyzing User Research data, the better their intuition for such information will be.

Intuition is enriched with experience, whereas instinct is innate. Neither is conscious, but instinct is an immediate reaction whereas intuition is an immediate understanding. A great user experience designer recognizes the difference.

Knowledge: Principles Over Rules

The next facet of UX that Hess addresses is really one that is universally applicable, that is the importance of understanding and valuing underlying principles over strict rules.  As they say, “rules are made to be broken” and the only way to understand which rules are worth breaking is by understanding the principles that underlie these rules.

Some practitioners pride themselves on knowing the latest and greatest best practices from industry thought leaders. A best practice is a standard way of solving a common problem. It is a rule, a prescription for how to behave given certain circumstances. And it’s almost always wrong.

I’m not sure that best practices are “almost always wrong,” but it is a key skill to be able to determine when those best practices are wrong for the context of your current project.

Hess also points out another aspect of a quality UX Designer: the skill to determine specific principles that are specific to a given project’s industry, organization, and users:

Great UXers have a set of principles near and dear to the hearts that they use as guidance on all projects, but the best ones craft a custom set of principles for each project they work on, tailor made for the needs of the business and the customer.

Attitude: Flexibility Over Formality

This facet is a close relation to our previous facet, Knowledge:  Principles over Rules, in that it speaks to the need to be flexible and understand when it is proper to deviate from “best” practices or, in this case, “best” processes.  While the previous section deals with figuring out what to do on a project, this facet deals with how to do things on a project.

Like our previous facet, I think that this is a universal principle.  Processes should (except in extreme cases) provide a roadmap for how to reach a destination, but you have to be able to account for unexpected challenges and opportunities once you are underway that may present options for achieving a higher-quality user experience.

A great user experience designer can bend their process without breaking it. Being willing to change course because it’s what the business and customer need at that very moment is the sign of a true leader, not a follower who knows what to do but not why. Zero in on how this person chooses to communicate, whether they’re making things sound complicated to appear intelligent or if they’re just telling it like it is.

Behavior: Assimilates Over Alienates

This attribute of a good UX Designer is another one of my personal favorites!  When discussing opportunities with clients, I always emphasize the fact that I see myself not as the dictator of UX, but as a facilitator.  

The best user experience designers aspire to be liaisons between different factions of the business that are not currently working together effectively. They don’t want to do all the work of getting to know the customer, they want to teach others how to make those exercises a part of their own daily work. They want to establish process within the organization that remains present and thriving long after they’re gone. The best user experience designer wants to put themselves out of a job every time.

Motivation: Empathy Over Ego

I think that there are two heavily salient points in this final section of Hess’ post:  1) the best UX Designers are able to empathize with their potential users and can use this skill to help guide the near-infinite number of design decisions that must be made over the course of a project; and 2) the best UX designers project a high level of confidence that can be off-putting.

From an evaluator’s standpoint, you want to try to get a feeling for how much of the first they possess without confusing arrogance for confidence.

What do you think?  Do you agree with Hess’ method for evaluating UX Designers?  I wish this was required reading for UX Managers, HR Recruiters, and staffing agencies.

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Scaling Your UX Strategy – Robert Fabricant – Harvard Business Review

Here’s a great article from Harvard Business Review focusing on the growing realization in the business world that User Experience is critical to the success of an organization.  I want to pull out a couple of key passages for comment, so click the link and read the article, but then come back here for some additional thoughts…

Scaling Your UX Strategy – Robert Fabricant – Harvard Business Review

All in all I thought this was a great article that touched on several points of interest…

User Experience Defined

Fabricant starts his article with a VERY high level definition of User Experience:

In business today, “user experience” (or UX) has come to represent all of the qualities of a product or service that make it relevant or meaningful to an end-user — everything from its look and feel to how it responds when users interact with it, to the way it fits into people’s daily lives. You even hear people talking about UX as the way in which a consumer connects to a business — all the touch-points from marketing to product development to distribution channels.

While I think he hits all the right notes in defining User Experience, I think there is a level of nuance that Fabricant misses.  I like to think of User Experience as having two major levels:  Organizational User Experience, which I think Fabricant nails here as ” the way in which a consumer connects to a business — all the touch-points from marketing to product development to distribution channels,” and Product User Experience, the utility or usefulness of a product (“how it fits into people’s daily lives”), the usability of a product (“how it responds when users interact with it”), and appeal of a product (“its look and feel”).

As an aside, I am more and more convinced that User Experience and Customer Service are one and the same.  For service organizations or organizations in which service is a large component of their offerings (like a restaurant or a doctor), Customer Service IS the interface between the product (a meal or a checkup to follow my previous examples) and the user.

Outsourcing

The article then continues to a brief discussion of outsourcing User Experience:

Some companies believe that outsourcing to design firms is becoming less attractive as the value of UX as a core business asset increases.  frog and our peers in the design consulting world have become more adept in recent years at helping companies build this capacity internally.

I agree wholeheartedly with this point.  In addition to this argument for bringing User Experience functions in house, I think companies are beginning to realize that the value derived from the user research component of your User Experience function increases exponentially as the knowledge and experience of the industry/vertical/domain/product deepens with time.

An organization is going to get a lot more value from user research conducted by in-house researchers that have built a deep familiarity with the domain for an extended period than they are from a design firm that comes in and spends a few weeks interviewing customers.  This deeper understanding allows greater intuitive leaps, makes recognizing extant and emerging patterns easier, and provides an overall better feel for the nuances of the domain and its users.

Leveraging Limited Resources

Then we get to the meat of the article, a discussion of how to best leverage limited UX resources across an organization:

 But even as big business looks to bring UX and design talent in-house, few companies are willing to embed designers on every product development team (and, frankly, there is not enough talent to go around even if they wanted to).  So in-house UX groups generally focus on a few high-impact product releases a year, leaving much of the business — and most of your offering — untouched. So what is management to do? How can large organizations deploy this capability on an enterprise scale?

I have yet to work with an organization that has enough UX resources to go around, and it is indeed a challenge to get the most bang for your UX buck.  However, I think that Fabricant is presenting a false dichotomy here: product releases either getting a UX focus or remaining untouched.  This system leaves a lot of room for partial engagement, and I have never seen a project that wasn’t improved, sometimes substantially, by even casual involvement of a UX resource.  The key is to evaluate each project and determine which facet of UX would provide the greatest impact to the project (user research, design, heuristic review, usability testing) based on the projects size, scope, and impact.  From there it is a matter of determining what UX activities or techniques to execute.

From here, Fabricant discusses several methods for leveraging limited resources:

Lean UX

…inspired by the startup market, many businesses are experimenting with lean, agile product development processes, which benefit from customer insights, participatory design, and prototyping.

Fabricant seems to be conflating several different concepts here, including lean, agile, and UX.  My understanding (and I believe the definitions of all three are in a bit of flux these days) is that Lean is a term that refers to a set of business practices that emphasize and focus on adding value for the consumer or end user via the elimination of inefficiencies.  Agile on the other hand is a development methodology that focuses on iterative and incremental delivery of complete subsets of functionality through the life of a project.  “Customer insights, participatory design, and prototyping” are, of course, all aspects of User Experience design and can benefit any business practices and any development methodology.

UX in R&D

There has been a startling change in the technology environment… that allow teams to much more rapidly experiment with new product and service concepts at the UX, and not just the engineering, layer.  … This form of experimentation is a Trojan Horse for getting product development teams to capture requirements in working UX prototypes instead of documenting them in endless Powerpoint decks and PRD’s. It also provides the executive leadership with a steady stream of “demos” to show off at CES.

This to me is more indicative of an Agile development methodology that focuses on working prototypes rather than requirements documentation, especially if these early prototypes are constructed in an iterative fashion while other back-end foundational development is happening on the coding side.

Baby-Step UX

While the app marketplace has not necessarily been a great contributor to the bottom line for many businesses, it has created an easy environment for organizations to strengthen their UX muscles. Companies like Bloomberg, whose core user interface is hobbled by their terminal infrastructure, have released successful iOS apps that meaningfully shifted perceptions in the broader market.

Not something I had really considered until reading this article, but I am persuaded!  I think this is a great idea and a wonderful way to get some modern workflow and design associated with what might be perceived as an otherwise stodgy brand.

Six Sigma UX

Successful UX is often about doing less, not more. This can be hard won in today’s engineering culture in which middle management is generally rewarded on product features and releases — more, not less. … But great UX requires some teeth — the ability to delay or kill product releases if they are not aligned with the corporate UX strategy.

I couldn’t agree more with the point that Fabricant makes here.  As one of the three pillars of User Experience, usefulness should always be considered and used as the ultimate judge of whether a product or feature is worth the effort spent to develop it.  The most useful and beautiful product in the world is going to be a loser if it is not addressing the implicit or explicit wants or needs of its potential users!

Customer-Driven UX

Sales teams generally believe that they know what customers want, yet they are usually terrible at asking that precise question.

Yes!  But, no!  Yes, user experience should be customer driven (well, user driven, but that is a discussion for another time!), but being good at asking that question is not where you want an organization to be.  Asking users what they want a product to be is a violation of the first rule of User Experience!  I will say that asking users what they want is better than guessing, but neither can hold a candle to direct observation of users in their natural habitat.

Summary

All in all, I think Fabricant’s article is full of excellent points that any organization would do well to heed.  What do you think of the article or my comments?  I’d love to hear what you have to say!

Product Management vs User Experience – Similarities & Differences

Here’s an interesting article from earlier this year on the UXPin blog which attempts to differentiate between Product Management and User Experience Designer:

Product Manager and UX Designer – What’s the Difference?
I’ve heard from couple of well respected UX Designers, that currently Product Development and User Experience Design are almost the same and in the lean future they actually should become the same. UX Designers are expected to understand business objectives (couldn’t agree more!), be really team oriented (collaboration is crucial!) and guide product through iterations (we should be great at measuring behaviour and acting upon results!).
(View Original Article)

I agree with a good portion of the article’s content, but I think what’s missing is a distinction between the main focus of these two functions.  In my experience product management focuses on a deep understanding of the domain and competitive space (competitors and competing products) to help guide the overall direction of an organization and/or its offerings. User Experience Design, on the other hand, focuses on a deep understanding of the users (and their attendant needs and desires) within the domain, to help guide the initial design and ongoing evolution of an organization’s offerings.

There is of course an overlap between the two functions, and input from both are crucial to building out experiences that are both useful and usable.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? What other differences (or simnilarities) do you see between the two functions?