My Interview with the UX Practitioner Series
Had the great opportunity to talk to Lauren Ventura for her UX Practitioner series – you can see the interview here – but I also wanted to crosspost the interview here – “for the record”, as it were.
To start, I’d love to learn a little more how your career path has segued over the years into the realm of UX? UX is a relatively new concept; do you feel you’ve evolved with the movement, or did you see UX becoming more than theory and turning into practice?
I’ve definitely evolved as things have moved along… I have been doing “UX” for over 15 years, even if my job title didn’t have those two letters in the title.
So, when I was hired as a Creative Director at a startup, I was more interested in the UX stuff than the creative design stuff. And after the UX Director, who hired just after I was, left the company, I inherited his responsibilities. It was all downhill from there… I fell in love with user experience and absorbed all I could about the domain.
Early on, UX had to fight to have a seat at the table. Middle-managers were going, “Why do we need you?” Myself and other UX folks were like, “You need design documentation! We can do wireframes!” And that fit into a need that SDM (software development methodologies) teams had. They were waterfall, and we were able to sell ourselves as designers and documentation people.
As the success stories have become more and more known, UX hasn’t had to justify itself as much and now with UX and Design Thinking becoming known as a “must-have” instead of a nice-to-have… Well, it’s good to be wanted.
I’ve really enjoyed your articles in UX Mag, and I notice there’s a focus on using UX to manage projects. Could you tell me a bit more about this theme and your top tips for making it actionable? What’s been your greatest lesson as you’ve used UX to manage projects, could you share a story?
I like to learn from failure and attempt to learn from other people’s failures instead of my own—though I have, of course, had ample opportunity to learn from my own missteps and failures as well. I have encountered a lot of UX people who are incredibly self-centered and think that they are, basically, the most important people on any project. The truth is, while we have become very valuable and valued over the past decade—we haven’t become mission critical yet.
The best way you can fail as a UX practitioner is to come off as arrogant. That will turn off your non-UX colleagues and peers faster than anything. No matter what the project, you are a member of a team, and you have to align with how people work and what they need. This is why I say there is no one unified “UX process,” because every engagement and design problem is different. While I appreciate companies like Frog and Cooper promoting their process, in my opinion, the best way to work is to identify how and when UX can be properly applied.
To that end, my team has developed a set of offerings that can be applied depending on the need—with various levels. The key is to identify how and when you can impact things in a positive way; how you can apply the best practices that UX has in the most appropriate way.
That’s the best lesson I can bring to the question: be flexible and align your approach to the specific needs of the team. Basically, apply a little user-centered thinking to the process.
As per specific case studies, well, the best example was when I was involved in reimagining the electronic bill sign-up process when I worked for Fiserv—a company that sells software to banks around the world. UX at this company was very immature at the time, but thankfully I had a product director who “drank the kool-aid” and supported doing the proper “due diligence” around UX—research, usability testing, etc. The key to success was he was receptive and open to it, and my team communicated the value of what we were doing effectively.
By applying UX rigor, we were able to identify what worked, what didn’t and we were then able to rollout a new process that made signup so easy and explained the value proposition so well that we had a “hockey-stick” uptick of adoption and use, which meant companies cut costs by not sending paper bills, users had a better experience, and scores of trees were saved from being cut down and turned into paper. A win-win-win.
There’s a new movement in our design realm to begin to see user experience as more than just the web design, but also the entire customer experience. This is oftentimes coined XD, Experience Design or Customer-Focused Design. Many luxury brands, like BMW, Fairmont Hotels and Tiffany have been creating these well-rounded experiences for decades, but there’s many brands that do not. How do you see the future of Experience Design unfolding, and how do you feel it will impact non-luxury brands and the like?
I’ve been a big advocate of “service design”/experience design for a long time because I’ve seen the results of good UI design and bad user experience. It doesn’t matter if your app or screen design is incredibly effective and beautifully designed, if the underlying and surrounding experience fails—then you, as a user, are unsatisfied.
I’m a huge fan of Disney—that company knows what good user experience is, and I’ve even written an article, “Walt Disney: The First User Experience Designer,” because I think what Walt brought to the table—and Disney still focuses on today—is that everything is important! The devil is in the details, and smart companies understand that you need to sweat those details.
Case in point: Let’s talk about McDonald’s—a tangent, but an appropriate one. The company is really struggling now, and a lot of pundits say it’s because there is a movement to healthier food and/or the quality of food at McDonald’s is inferior to other fast food chains. There is some truth in that, but I’d say the real problem with McDonald’s is that they have been trying to do too many things for too many people and lost sight of what people want.
McDonald’s became the huge company it is today because for decades it kept things simple: good food; fast; in a clean restaurant. All three of these factors have been sacrificed. The food is sometimes not good at all, they have expanded their menu—which increases the time to prepare your order so it’s no longer “fast,” and the cleanliness of many of the restaurants has gone downhill. Why wait a long time for subpar food when you can go to a competitor and have a better experience? And the competitors are succeeding in doing what McDonald’s used to do. Five Guys is expanding across America, and they have always focused on a simple menu, with good food and a clean restaurant to eat it in. Sound familiar?
Many may not think “fast food” or Disney Parks as the future of experience design, but the lessons you can learn from those domains are completely appropriate. The past is prologue: The future of experience design is defining the holistic experience that keeps all factors—technology, user expectations, and process—in mind.
I also must add that people’s baselines have shifted. When you see customers exposed to really great experiences it spoils them. They start to expect a similar quality of service everywhere. You aren’t competing with your direct market rivals: You are competing with the last best experience your customer has had.
You’ve been a designer of multiple mobile and Internet applications, many of them with a “next gen” focus, what are some emerging trends that you’ve seen come that are surprising, and what trends or practices have you seen fall by the wayside that were positive or negative, in regards to the design of applications such as this?
I don’t know if surprise is the right word, fascinated is more appropriate—as a Star Trek fan. I have been fascinated by the rise of apps and how dominating it has been. I have also been fascinated by how alike everything is beginning to look. There was a lot of discussion years ago around interactive UIs that were 3D landscapes, as well as gesture-based interactions—and neither has reached critical mass. Voice is getting a lot more traction with users than I initially thought it would, to be honest. The next generation may use voice as their primary interaction, in my opinion—not my sons, but their children.
Where things are going—and this may scare some designers—is less screens, and more interaction. The Internet of Things and the proactive “enablers” that smart designers and technologists can provide will be a different way of getting things done. Ten years ago, every UX presentation I attended had what I call the “obligatory Minority Report slide” because that is where we thought things were going. Now, we have the “obligatory Her (the Spike Jonze film) slide,” and that is where I think things really are going.
If you are a young person interested in UX, start learning about content strategy and IoT, and focus less on UI design. You may not be designing screens at all in a decade.
What’s your personal design philosophy? How have the ongoing improvements in technology affected your design philosophy?
Keep learning; try and approach everything with an open mind. One of my heroes is Bruce Lee—not because he kicked so much ass—but because of his philosophy on life: He was always continuously improving, and he approached life with an open mind and heart. “Be like water,” and let things be what they’re supposed to be. This means accept that there are expectations and conventions that should be used and aligned to. Don’t try and start from zero with every design. But also, be open to The New that you can learn during every design project.
And technology has given me more opportunity than I ever thought possible! If you had told me that ten years ago we would be looking at mobile computers that are a thousand times more powerful than the CPU that was used to send man to the moon, I would have scoffed. The possibilities are crazy now! I can now envision experiences that I never thought possible. It makes coming to work really exciting—most of the time, anyway.
How do you as an expert educate yourself and keep yourself up-to-date?
I run “This Week in UX” in addition to my own site, and so every week I review the latest UX news and articles that are top-of-mind in the industry. This helps me know the lay of the land, as it were. I also engage pretty aggressively on Twitter—there are a lot of UX peeps I follow there.
Lastly, are there any brands that have surprised you in 2015 that have really changed their ethos using the power of UX?
Microsoft. (laughs) No, seriously, Microsoft has undergone a transformation over the past two years, and they are incredibly focused on going where users are. The idea that we would put Office apps on Android and iOS devices would never have happened before the new leadership. We are focused on personal productivity and human-centered design like never before—even to how we market our products. The slogan for Windows 10 is, “The more human way to do.” That’s what user experience is all about.