I’m giving a talk to a bunch of project managers about what I do, user experience design. In an effort to kill two birds with one stone, I thought I would just write a blog post to share with them and you.
The group of PMs that I’m talking with have a pretty thorough understanding about what I do and UX process in general. What they may not be as strong in, is the interactive design world in general. How do all the components fit together and how does UX help coral them all into a meaningful whole?
So the main areas we will cover are:
- What is “interactive” anyways?
- How does this world wide internet actually work?
- What is user experience design?
- UX and project management sitting in a tree
- Let’s get healthy with lean UX
1. What is “interactive” anyways?
The term interactive is a catch all for anything that isn’t print or sculpture. Interactive is something you can touch and effect. So, a website is interactive, a billboard is not. The knobs on you washing machine are interactive, a commercial is not.
Marshal McLuhan classified mediums as a dichotomy of either “hot” or “cool” based on their ability to engage the user. Hot mediums include movies, radio, lectures, and print because they require little effort for the user to engage with. Cool mediums include TV, dialogue, and the internet or interactive design because they require more engagement on the user’s part to do their job.
Since we have to to work harder to engage and effect the user with interactive design, this means or projects are much more complex. With print design, a copywriter and designer alone can create the worlds best ads for the biggest brands, Mad Men style. Interactive design however, usually takes an army of specializations to work together to deliver something useful to the end consumer.
2. How does this world wide internet actually work?
Since 90% of interactive work winds up on the internet, it’s important to understand how the fundamentals of how it all works.
For us, this means that our job is to create the file that the viewer requests. This includes all of the the backend pieces to make sure it can be easily located among billions of files, that it’s in the right format so everyone can view it, and that it displays just the way we want it to. That’s why we worry about whether or not we are hosting the site or if the client is, or if it needs to be on Google App engine or Amazon’s Cloud Services because each of these creates it’s own layer of complexity in delivering our file to the viewer.
3. What is user experience design?
Wikipedia says that “UX is the way a person feels about using a product, system or service.” So then UX design is the act of designing a product, system or service with the goal of maximizing the positive feelings and experience that a user has.
In this regard, the user becomes the central figure in the design process. This is a shift from traditional marketing design, where catchy concepts reigned. Now, whatever the end product may be, it must fill a need for the user. For most functional websites these are generally specific tasks that the user wants to complete. In the case of many advertising projects, the goal is harder to discern. In general, the goal of advertising is to get the user to do something that they wouldn’t necessarily do on their own, like buy a specific toothpaste or get excited about SSD drives or submit their personal data into a lead gen form.
When it comes to the collection of things a UX designer does the list gets pretty long, but the core of the discipline is decision making. All of the deliverables from user research and analysis to wireframes and prototypes to content strategy all help us figure out what goes in that file the user asks for.
So, User Experience is the umbrella discipline with many sub-disciplines. A few of the more important ones are:
- IxD or Interaction Designer – these folks work on the behavioral components of a project. These behavioral components can range from how a button should behave to how an experience should be modeled off of real world interactions (like the metaphor of files as a navigation element). Their domain is wireframes and prototypes.
- Information Architect - these people are the ones who figure out the larger structure of the information in a website. They also love labeling all of the different components (pages, content types, actions, etc.) of a website so people can find them easily. Their domain is sitemaps, vocabularies, and page diagrams.
- Content Strategist - these are the people who worry endlessly about what content do we have, why does it matter to our audience, what should we get rid of, how do we create new content, and how do we get it from concept to live on the website. Their domain is really lengthy content inventories and super boring content strategy documents. However, these are arguably the most important people in the entire process because the audience is only coming to the website for the CONTENT.
- User Interface Designers – they are much closer to their graphic design counterparts than they let on. IMO a UI designer is 1 part IxD, I part graphic design. They are the ones who work in Photoshop to execute the final PSDs that move into development. Often a UI designer also has a working knowledge of HTML and CSS to help make their designs come to life. Their primary domain is the actual design file.
Also, bear in mind that all these practitioners will argue to the death about what they actually do. This is an ongoing, and slightly annoying, debate in the UX world. In the end, as our UX Jesus, Jesse James Garret has eloquently said, “we are all UX designers.” This is an important shift in thinking that most agencies don’t get. Every single person that touches a project helps shape the end experience. Yes, even project managers.
4. UX and project management sitting in a tree
For the most part this one is self explanatory. UX designers can’t get anything done without PMs and vice versa. I worked a few projects as a PM and the similarities between the two are obvious. When we work together well, the basis of the project is pretty solid.
Following are my list of demands from any PMs I work with:
- Be engaged with the project. We can manage ourselves for the most part so unless you are going to help us make decisions, GTFO.
- Understand what you are working on. This means you have to understand why it is important that the button is justified right and red. You also need to understand why we had to build this application on Amazon EC2 and why that helped us resolve server calls between two disparate services. This is the important stuff that we need help making decisions about. We need to know where the client is at and what they are thinking.
- Set client expectations. All that UX deliverables really do is set client expectations. They let them know what to expect in the final product. Your job is to tell them constantly how we get there. They should know exactly where the project is at every single day. No exceptions.
Other than that, we work pretty harmoniously. All the UX documentation is designed to facilitate the rest of the project so embrace that and familiarize yourself with our deliverables.
5. Let’s get healthy with lean UX
Lean UX is a relatively new concept that essentially argues that the UX deliverables business is slow and process heavy. Lean UX means that we don’t sell sitemaps and wireframes to a client because nobody needs or wants either. However, clients do want UX, and they want it bad. So what’s the best way to deliver on time and on budget? We get rid of the deliverable waterfall and move directly from concept to testable prototype. This doesn’t mean we skip all the important bits, it only means we don’t focus a month long deliverable around them.
Smashing Mag has a great article about it here
And lastly, Mike Tyson singing Ipanema is perhaps the best UX of all time: