The Web has made it easier for designers to hone and elevate their craft. It has also created a new set of standards and challenges that must be overcome to successfully finish a project. UX designers like Mike Towber ensure that our experiences while visiting different sites and apps are smooth and user friendly. Webby Connect caught up with Mike, former UX designer at Rdio and current Product Design Manager at Stripe, to discuss his job, his process, his favorite digital tools, and what makes for a successful user experience.
How do you explain your job to a layperson?
Here’s how I explain it to my mom: Before an app gets designed and built, there’s a lot of thought and work that goes into deciding what goes where, how the app responds to your actions, how you move through the app, et cetera. Someone should be looking out for your priorities and interests as a user and be responsible for understanding the situation you’re in before, during, and after you use the app. Hey, that’s me!
What’s your creative process?
I used to feel guilty that my process doesn’t start with pen and paper — but you know what, I think that’s OK. That’s just not how my brain works. I talk to folks until I understand the ins and outs of a problem well and then jump straight into wireframing. Talking to people early and often quickly reveals oodles of little and big things that haven’t been solved well. As soon as there's a rough idea (and hopefully a prototype) of the user journey put together, it’s time for more conversations. I revise the hell out of those wireframes and repeat the process until I can explain things elegantly and completely.
What tools do you use to elevate your craft?
Sketch files get saved to Dropbox, which syncs with Marvel. Sketch is my substitute for pen and paper. It’s fast and lightweight, and makes it easy to create and shuffle lots of ideas. There’s some magic in Marvel that sniffs a Dropbox folder looking for file changes and automatically updates your prototype. I can’t say enough good things about Marvel. It’s the perfect prototyping tool for me. It doesn’t distract you with a bunch of virtual bells and whistles. It lets you link together images with simple transitions and gives them a device frame. Quick. Simple. Delightful. OK, I’ll stop gushing.
How has your background in cognitive science influenced your approach to user experience design? For example, do you take perception research into consideration in any specific ways?
There’s this process we learned called Contextual Inquiry. Oversimplified, it's a formalized way to talk to users, collect, collate, and present feedback. More than the method, the thing that’s stuck with me is the kind of empathy that comes from deeply understanding a user’s context. And then there’s Don Norman’s Design of Everyday Things. That book blew my young mind.
What are some common misconceptions about UX design that you’ve encountered?
Most troubling to me is when people treat UX as an early step in a rigid waterfall process, sitting neatly between a brief and a design. In this weird world, UX labors intensely in a vacuum and spits out some intimidating, 300 page functional spec that then gets handed over to some poor designer or engineer to implement: job done. UX at its best is a messier, fluid thing, applied collaboratively throughout a project.
What do you think the future of UX design will look like?
I’m really bad at predicting the future, but there’s definitely some trends. UX is no longer the sole domain of a specialist. Prototyping tools are getting both easier to use (Marvel) and higher fidelity (Pixate). At the same time, UX is becoming one of the many tools deployed by visual/product designers, product managers, and producers. I don’t think we’re hearing the death rattle of the UX specialist, but the role is certainly changing. Maybe it means a little more management-type-tasks and slightly less wireframing and prototyping — we’ll see.
You’ve worked in both San Francisco and London—how do you think their tech cultures compare.
Someone smarter than me can speak to the impact these different cultures have on technology companies — I just wish we loved tea in America. In England, I think they take for granted the ceremony of asking your deskmates if they want a cup. You get to know your workmates well enough to know their exact milk and sugar preferences. And while you’re getting up, you may as well see if they want some delicious biscuits from the kitchen. It’s such a pleasant, social, welcome pause in the day. I miss that.