Jared Spool: Hello, everyone, I’m Jared Spool.
Robert Hoekman, Jr.: And I’m Robert Hoekman.
Jared: And we’re going to try to answer your questions today.

Hello, you’re on “Userability.” Who are you and where are you from?

Mohammed Alaa: Hi, my name is Mohammed. I’m from Egypt.
Jared: Egypt!
Robert: Egypt.
Jared: We’re not talking about like Egypt, Idaho. We’re talking Egypt.
Mohammed: No, Cairo, Egypt.
Jared: Cairo, Egypt. The real Egypt.
Robert: That Egypt.
Jared: You’re the first person I’ve ever—
Robert: So, so far, in “Userability,” we’ve covered Sydney, Australia, Hong Kong—what was the other one?—Oslo [laughs].
Jared: Yeah.
Robert: And now Egypt, so we are full on international.
Jared: Yeah, don’t forget Newark, New Jersey.
Robert: Oh, yes, New Jersey. That was the highlight.
Robert: So yeah, that’s definitely international. Mohammed, what’s your question for us today?
Mohammed: Actually, I have two questions. My first question is my current position is as an user interface designer. I mostly work with business applications. So I want to convince my manager and my client and tell them how important it is to have a plan for usability and usability testing, during the process of creating the project.
Jared: Oh, right now they’re having you design stuff, but then they don’t actually get any feedback on that design until they launch?
Mohammed: Yeah, actually, what’s happening now is that we go to show the client our design and how things go. And the client gives his feedback and we do the changes according to the feedback of the client.
Jared: Oh, OK. So this is all consulting stuff. My take on this is that you probably need to discover up front how risky it is that this project be perfect for the users going in. So you need to have a conversation, probably before you even take on the job, that says how important is it that we make this work great for the users?

For some clients it’s going to be more important to just get something out there. But for some clients, having it out there and being very usable, from the very beginning, is something that is going to be a top priority item.

When that’s the case, the next question is, well, we can reduce the risk. We can just build something and get it out there and see if it works, but we’re basically relying on luck. If we want to hedge our bets, and not rely on luck, then we need to actually have some places in the design process where we actually get feedback, into the process, to make sure that we’re going in the right direction and we’re doing everything right.

So that’s where we have to put in this usability testing. But I actually wouldn’t bring up usability testing until way after you’ve had the conversation about risk.

Robert: Yeah, and also, I want to clarify, actually, a little bit. Are you saying when you do a design, you send your designs back over to the client. And then the client requests all these changes. And then you make changes based purely on what the client says? Rather than on best practices and usability testing?
Mohammed: Yes.
Robert: Yeah, so like the changes that they’re requesting are arbitrary, like based on what they like?
Mohammed: Exactly.
Robert: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ve come across this quite a lot, actually. The best way to handle that, those situations, I think, is to back up, get recommendations. Whenever I make a recommendation, I try to justify it as much as possible.

Like, say, here’s the design principle that you want to keep in mind. Here are a couple of sources that show data from usability studies on this subject. So here’s why we’re recommending that you do this particular thing. If you want to do it this way, then we can, but we really believe that the usability of X, Y, and Z are going to be sacrificed as a result.

So, when you make your recommendations, be sure to justify and explain them as much as you can. So that they understand that there was a really good reason for what you did. And also, in doing that, it helps you to justify the design to yourself. So there is a nice bonus to that.

When you’re designing, when you’re going over your own work, if you can think through those decisions that will make sure… You can use that as a self-editing mechanism. You can say, am I really confident about the decisions that I’ve made in this design? So imagine what you would say if you were trying to justify a design and use that as your self editing measure.

Mohammed: Yeah, I think that will help a lot.
Robert: Good, good, good.
Jared: So you said you had a second question, right?
Mohammed: Yeah. My section question is, as I told you before, my current position is user interface designer. And I would love to know if there is any specific study if I want to be a user experience designer? And what’s the difference between a UI designer and a UX designer?
Jared: The difference is about six and a half.

[laughter]

Jared: I just don’t know what the units are.
Robert: The difference is how many characters it takes up in a tweet.

[laughter]

Jared: So what do you think you’re missing?
Mohammed: Yeah, what I’m missing is that I’m not sure in which direction I should go to become a user experience designer. And what’s the difference between the two positions? Like in the job role itself.
Robert: I think it depends a lot on which aspect of user experience you’re talking about. Because user experience is kind of a broad term. And it can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. It’s such a huge semantic debate. It’s an endless semantic debate, in fact, in user experience circles.

So if you want to focus specifically on the interaction design, which maybe might be less strategic and more about user research, and defining feature sets, and actually fleshing out designs. That’s one aspect of it. Visual design is also part of user experience.

What I do is more user experience strategy work. So I’ll help clients… A lot of clients come to me and they just don’t know… You know, they’ve got a product out and they don’t really know where they’re going next. They’re just sort of adding features and they don’t really have a vision.

So I help them figure out what their vision really is, and then help them figure out how to achieve that in the short term and in the long term. There’s a lot of different ways that you can do user experience work, and a lot of different facets to it.

As far as user experience education goes, that’s kind of relative, too. There are some really great programs, in the US at least. I don’t know about Egypt, but I know that there are several really good programs in the United States. One is at New York University, called the IXB Program, the Interaction Design Program. It’s a Master’s program at the School of Visual Arts at NYU, and that chaired by my friend Liz Danzico and staffed by some of the best web designers around.

So, there’s a program like that, but like I said, it’s all kind of relative. I’ve never really had formal design education. I studied philosophy and English in college. Back when I started working on the web, there was no such thing as a degree that was relevant to web design, except, perhaps, cognitive psychology and stuff. I did take some psychology classes, but by no means do I have a Master’s degree in cognitive psychology.

So, it’s kind of a matter of… Education can come in multiple ways. It can come in a $1.85 in late fees, to paraphrase Will Hunting, from your local library, or it can be from an expensive, long term design program at a collegiate level. It all depends on where you are in your career, and how far you want to get, and how much time you’re willing to spend educating yourself.

There’s a million different ways to get to where you want to go. Do you know specifically what you would like to do?

Mohammed: Yeah, actually I’m thinking… I love what I do right now, the UI design and everything, but I would love to go more strategic. Something like what you do right now.
Jared: OK, so you want to make the big bucks, like Robert. …Robert laughed at that.
Jared: I think that, right now, the strategic isn’t something that you learn from a book per se. It’s something about looking at the big picture about what’s happening in the world around you, in particular in your prospective client’s worlds, and how having a great experience can be useful there.

There’s actually quite a bit of work that’s being done at that level. There’s some great stuff written by a guy named Joseph Pine called “The Experience Economy,” which isn’t a technical book at all, but talks about how experience really makes a difference. “Design Thinking” by Tim Brown is another fabulous book that talks about that.

On a more tactical view of things, the actual techniques for doing this, I really like Kim Goodwin’s book that she just came out with. It’s a large book, and quite the tome. It’s called “Designing for Digital Age: How to Create Human-Centered Products and Services.” But, it really does talk about a lot of what’s going on in experience, and how to actually translate the process into design work.

Those are some starting points for doing this, but I think the trick is to mix it up, in terms of looking for resources both that are technical, and talking about these bigger pictures of design, and at the same time from a strategic standpoint, getting outside the digital space, and looking at what people are saying in terms of how you create something that really resonates with the users and brings meaning to them.

The combination of the two things is really what makes great experience design.

Mohammed: I think that helps a lot.
Robert: The way to start heading into that direction is to just start thinking about that stuff more in the work that you’re doing. I think that’s the evolution of any designer, is that there’s the thing you’re doing now, and the thing that you might want to do, and the thing that you’re most interested in.

So, you can start incorporating those ideas into what you’re doing now by thinking about how does… By justifying your design decisions more, for example. Looking at a design that you’ve worked on and saying, “How does this fit into the larger vision of where this particular client wants to go?”

And if you don’t know that that vision is, why don’t you know that? Because you should. If your client doesn’t know, maybe you can help them figure that out. You can make yourself more valuable by incorporating these kinds of services and this sort of design thinking into what you’re doing.

As you get more experienced doing that, you’ll start to see what the areas are where you might need more education, or what the areas are that you most enjoy, and that you find most valuable, and what your clients are finding most valuable. So, just start working that stuff into what you’re doing now, and see where that takes you.

Jared: One quick thing to add to that is, here’s something that I recommend people do on a regular basis: Look at the people around you, your family, your friends, and look at how they respond to certain types of products and services. Look at the things that get them really frustrated, and look at the things that get them really excited, so excited that they want to tell you about it without prompting. “Oh my gosh! I just bought this new thing. I’m so happy with this.”

Then ask yourself, what did those organizations do? What did the designers at those organizations do to explicitly get those reactions? Was it an accident, or did they do something intentional? How would you take that same thing that they did and apply it to yours for the good stuff, and how would you make sure you don’t do those things for the frustrating things?

Once you start doing that regularly, and you make that part of your regular thought process, you’re now talking strategy.

Robert: That’s also the best way to learn, to just analyze every piece of design that you see. Analyze the reactions of people. Analyze the qualities of products that you come across.

It’s the same thing with writing. It’s so interesting how design and writing parallel each other so much because the best way to become a good writer is to study good writing, right? It’s exactly the same thing with design. If you want to learn, if you want to think strategically, think about what it is with the products that you come across, think about what it is that the designers were trying to achieve, and how that fits into a strategy. What was their strategy?

The more you spend time thinking about that, the more you’re going to start having insights about it. The more you have insights about it, the more valuable you’re going to be at actually offering that.

Jared: The same thing is true for answering questions on a podcast. The more you do it, the better we get at it.
Robert: The longer we talk, the closer we arrive at an actual answer.
Jared: Actually. So, thank you very much, Mohammad.
Mohammed: You are welcome. You are welcome. Thank you for having me again.
Jared: For those of you who want to ask questions to Robert and I, you can do that by sending an email to userability@uie.com, or if you don’t want to trouble with figuring out how to spell “Userability,” you can send it to questions@uie.com, and Robert and I will do our best to answer.
Robert: Until next time, everyone, stay vertical and don’t get shredded.
Jared: Thanks for encouraging our behavior.