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UX is Serious Business!


Matt Grant is Director of Content Strategy for Aquent and Aquent Gymnasium. The material in this article was originally presented at UX Boston Conference #2

What skills are UX designers missing?

About a year and a half ago as part of curriculum development research for our online school, we ran a focus group to help us identify skill gaps in the field of UX. The participants in the group included one-man bands from mid-sized companies to team leads from the Fortune 500. We asked them how they had gotten into the field, where they thought the field was headed, and, of course, what skills were the hardest to find when they were hiring.

On the technical side, they said they were looking for designers who could code and especially designers who knew how to make working prototypes.

As everyone knows, it’s notoriously difficult for stakeholders to envision what a site or interface will look like simply based on wireframes. And it can likewise be hard for people to envision interactivity based on full-color printed comps. Having a prototype they can interact with can really bring design concepts to life, hence the desire for this skill set.

The focus group participants also spoke of a general misunderstanding of UX fundamentals, not so much on their teams, but within the organization at large. (To address this, we decided to produce a UX Fundamentals course.)

Finally, they said that they really needed to find designers who were comfortable working at the intersection of design and business. Specifically, they sought candidates who understood that they were designing things to solve specific business problems and who had experience facilitating conversations about business and product requirements, on the one hand, and user needs on the other.

Based on this research, I wrote a post that ended up on entitled, “Why Your UX Designer Won’t Be the Next Steve Jobs.” My point here was simple: While we rightly think of Steve Jobs as fanatical about design and even more fanatical about user experience (especially with his repeated emphasis on making products “that just work”), in the end, he wasn’t a designer. He was a marketer and someone incredibly skilled at bringing innovative products to market, products that themselves created entirely new markets such as the iTunes store or the app store ecosystem that grew up around the iPhone.

As far as the hiring managers we spoke with were concerned, designers were not generally equipped to do any of the latter. And these particular managers are not alone in that assessment. Last November I was at a panel discussion on UX careers in New York. When the panelists were asked what they were looking for, McKinsey’s James Torio said he wasn’t looking for designers so much as people who were good working with data and able to “connect the dots and uncover new business opportunities for our clients.”

In the same vein, Jennifer Bove of Fjord (owned by Accenture), who specializes in service design, said she was looking for people who understood organizational behavior and change management. “Designers,” she added, “aren’t necessarily going to be good at that.”

What’s the problem?

The idea that designers face challenges when it comes to interacting with business folk is hardly new. As someone who has worked on the business side of creative for 17 years or so, I’ve heard this complaint before.

Unfortunately, however, the situation is usually expressed as a shortcoming on the side of the business people. I distinctly remember attending an AIGA event in 1999 and hearing designers say things like, “Clients just don’t understand the value of design.” (And how many times have you heard someone say, “Clients don’t understand the value of UX”?)

I said it then and I’ll say it now:

If clients don’t understand the value of the service you provide or the work you produce, that’s not on them; that’s on you. Why? Because you have obviously not been able to articulate the value of your services and sell them on it.

I believe that the problem ultimately stems from the fact that designers and writers (such as myself), and even developers, have adopted a false dichotomy that says that there is a fundamental difference between themselves and “business people.” “We,” so the sentiment goes, “get paid for what we do, and they get paid from what the business does. We’re about our art, our craft, our practice, and they are about the money.”

This thinking is wrong. In order for us to do what we do, we need someone to pay us. That means we have at least one customer — and probably many if you end up serving the needs of multiple stakeholders.

As soon as you have a customer, you have to think about what you’re doing in terms of the benefits it affords that customer. In other words, you have to think like a businessperson and identify or articulate the business problem you are solving.

Oddly enough, this really means applying some basic UX principles to the work you do. You would be (and, in fact, probably are) frustrated when you hear clients or stakeholders say, “The users just don’t get it.”

But aren’t we doing the same thing when we complain that the people paying for our services don’t appreciate or understand the value of them?

Business Thinking 101: Control your costs.

To illustrate my point, I would like to tell you two stories. My first story demonstrates how business thinking not only affects your interaction with clients, but also requires that you pay heed to the cost of doing business.

My friend and colleague Andrew Miller used to work for a leading digital consultancy that had been engaged to redesign the website for a medical center in Chicago. He and the team had worked closely with the medical center’s director of marketing to scope out the project and everything was going according to plan.

Then something unexpected happened. Around the time that the team had settled on two basic design options, the CMO said he wanted to make the final decision about the site’s design. Naturally, since the director of marketing reported to the CMO, this was a request that had to be honored.

But, there were a couple hiccups.

First, the CMO wanted to be guided by data when making his decision. Specifically, he wanted to know how the competing designs were performing with users. Furthermore, he didn’t think that it made sense to test two designs alone. Instead, he wanted the team to test three.

Now, on the one hand, this was a good problem to have; a C-level business leader was actually asking for research and user insight to inform a decision. This is precisely what one would hope for.

On the other hand, this was a real business problem for the UX team.

Specifically, testing design was not part of the original, agreed-upon scope. There was no time or money set aside for developing a testing protocol, finding a testing location, recruiting test participants, running the tests, compiling the data, and putting together a report.

On top of that, they really only had two designs, so they were going to have to come up with a third to satisfy this customer’s requirements.

The question thus became: How could they do what the client wanted without incurring additional cost themselves, passing along unanticipated costs to the client, or throwing off their schedule (which would have an impact on other client engagements)?

The answer they came up with involved a bit of improvisation.

First, they found an early iteration of the design that they could use as a “third” option. Next, they made poster-sized versions of the three homepage options, took them out to Michigan Avenue, and set them up in front of McDonald’s and the Apple Store to ask passersby what they thought. Finally, they videotaped all the proceedings.

As it turned out, there was no clear winner when it came to audience preferences for the design. However, when they transcribed the interviews, they found that people tended to use words that echoed the medical center’s brand statement when describing one of the design options. Based on this correlation, they recommended that design and the CMO signed off on it.

I’m sure that some UX research specialists are cringing at this example. And when he told me this story, Andrew admitted that the methods chosen were far from scientific. That being said, it did solve the business problem they were facing in a way that addressed the customer’s need, avoided cost overruns, and kept the project on track.

Every project has constraints.

As this story illustrates, approaching your practice as a business means remembering that you need to stay profitable while delivering the service that your customer is paying for. It also means that you have to be flexible, both with regards to any changes in scope that may arise as well as with regards to the application of your own processes.

On this last point, there is no doubt that you need processes and methods. At the same time, what makes design, UX or otherwise, interesting is that it is always conducted within constraints. And figuring out how to accomplish your goals given specific constraints — time, resources, knowledge, cultural context, etc. — is as much a part of design thinking as it is part of business thinking.

Business Thinking 102: Sales and marketing are always part of the job.

The other thing that goes into thinking of your practice as a business is the notion of sales. Now, I know that for most designers and developers, “selling” isn’t your first love. In fact, you may actually hate it and, as a result, consciously pursued a career that did not involve sales.

Nevertheless, as even my first story illustrates, a big part of your job as a UX specialist is to make recommendations. In fact, the whole point of research and testing is to help business owners and others decide between different possibilities.

Sometimes, as everyone knows, the recommendations you make may involve considerable cost. This means that you will need to sell your idea and do so in the most persuasive way possible. In other words, you not only have to sell your idea, you have to market it as well!

To illustrate what I’m talking about, I’ll tell you the second story.

My friend Amanda, a UX consultant, was doing user research for a company that made email marketing software. To conduct this research, she and her team went out into the field to see how the users were using the product.

Now, the company was particularly proud of their HTML email builder, a tool which allowed users to create cool emails simply by dragging and dropping. The problem was this: The primary users of the product were small business owners, meaning that many of them were multi-tasking while using the tool.

This wouldn’t have been a big deal except for one small issue: the tool had no auto-save function. As a result, if someone got interrupted in the middle of creating an email, they could (and often did) lose all their work.

Adding an auto-save function was going to mean a lot of development work, which meant that Amanda was going to have to be very convincing when advocating for this user-centered change to the platform.

People don’t buy data. They buy stories.

Luckily, she had something that marketers are always looking for: a persuasive emotional hook.

When she was out videotaping users, she caught the problem on tape. A woman was putting together an email when she had to take time out to deal with a customer service issue. When she returned to the tool, her work was gone. At that point, she started to cry.

“I can’t believe I have to do it again,” she moaned. “My week is ruined!”

Now, if you are selling a product to small business owners, and your price point is relatively low (this software cost around $30/month), and you have competitors, you can’t really afford to ruin weeks and make your users cry. You have to do something about it.

And do something they did, to the tune of six months of development time at a cost north of $100K.

This is how you sell recommendations to business owners; you use the data you have at hand to tell a compelling story that shows why the changes need to be made.

The good news was that, some time after they made the necessary changes, the company was eventually purchased and, Amanda told me, they even discovered that one of their competitors had begun copying their interface. Both of these events were desirable business outcomes, the latter because it validated their design direction, the former because: money.

If you don’t take care of your business, you can’t take care of users.

In a webcast we sponsored on the ROI of user experience design, Samsung’s Willy Lai offered up a three-part schema for thinking about UX design. When you are designing an interface or a product or a service, he said, you have to start with the users. You have to solve their problems (without creating new ones!) and provide them with a fluid experience.

You then need to consider what is technically feasible. Of course, nowadays, particularly when you are working in the digital space, there is little that is out of question, technically speaking. Which brings us to the third element that you must consider: the business. Sure, something might be technically feasible, and users may be asking for it, but if it doesn’t make sense from a business standpoint, you may need to take a pass.

So, to review, if you want to incorporate business thinking into your design practice, here’s what you have to do.

First, you have to remember that your practice is a business. This means that you need to think in terms of the business problems you solve and you need to be able to articulate the value of the solutions you provide.

Second, you need to keep an eye on your costs. Yes, you need to satisfy your customer. And, yes, you need to advocate for users. But you can’t do this at a loss. This often means getting creative when it comes to your actual practice. You won’t always be able to do everything by the book. This doesn’t mean cutting corners, however. Instead, it means recognizing what constraints exist and figuring out how best to do your job within those constraints.

Finally, you need to be able to sell your ideas. This means framing your recommendations not in terms of some UX ideal, but in terms of your client’s business and the actual value your ideas will deliver.

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