Seven things your boss needs to know about UX

As someone who has been in the user experience domain for a LOOONG time, I have had lots of conversations with many different executives. And, most of the time, these execs knew how to spell “UX”, but they didn’t know much else about it. There were many misconceptions that needed correcting and while it was sometimes frustrating, I also enjoyed the opportunity to educate these key decision makers on the discipline and how it worked.

Here’s seven conversation topics that came up when I was discussing UX with managers, and all are worth pointing out to YOUR boss – especially if you are a UX consultant and your boss is your client:

UX is iterative

“What is taking so long?” One impatient CFO once asked me. He expected the design for the application my team was doing to be “one and done” and the idea that we were having iteration cycles confused him. I had to explain to him that the process we followed was iterative, and that we had to refine the designs to get to the point where it was at the appropriate level of quality. He resisted that idea, but the results convinced him that iteration produced results.

User research is vital

“We already talked to our customers, why do you need to?” A project manager was surprised at the request, and we had to explain to him that a proper UX project required insight and understanding about what people thought and felt about the domain, and we couldn’t just leverage marketing research. Having those one-on-one conversations let us build out personas, and these personas, representing what we learned about the users, gave us “targets” to align our designs too. The project manager grudgingly accepted the results.

There is no standard “UX process”

Some managers are very process focused, and they want to see a Six Sigma-like UX process chart, one that is approved by some central UX “signing authority.” Well… while UX is a mature discipline with many different defined processes, it’s more flexible than that. In fact, UX is more a series of tactics and approaches than a formalized process. Many design teams and consultancies have formalized their specific processes, but there’s on “one UX process to rule them all.” Which is a good thing, in my opinion. It allows us to apply a flexible toolkit to solve specific business and user problems in targeted ways – letting us use the right tool for the right job.

UX is not UI

Well, specifically, UX is not JUST UI. Many executives that I encountered think that UX work was just designing screens. It’s not. And in fact, as we move more towards a connected “Internet of things” world, user experience design is going to be less about screens and more about how different systems and processes interact with each other. And burgeoning UX specialties like service design and content strategy are leading the way to be more about process and content design than UI creation.

Even if you are designing an application or a web site, there’s still more to the jib than designing and documenting screens. There’s the aforementioned user research, scenarios, storyboards… and of course:

Usability testing is incredibly important

“You guys are experts, why do you need to test the designs you come up with?” That was the question one stakeholder asked me as we were planning out the engagement.

My response was as follows: “Even if you have confidence in the design you have done, you are not the user. You can apply best practices, use the right design patterns, and do all the necessary research… but you still will not know how people will react to the design until you test it with them. And the best way you have got the design right is to have the user engage with it and then TELL YOU how it works, with no instruction or demonstration before hand. If they can do that, then you know you’ve got the design right.”

That answer convinced him. Because it’s true.

Usability is not UX, either

“You’re the usability guys, you tell us what it should do.” I sometimes think I should start a consultancy called “The Usability Guys” because of that comment. Usability is not UX - it’s important, but UX is much bigger and broader than that. In fact, because people’s standards have increased as they are exposed to better and more usable apps, usability has become the “table stakes” that all solutions need to provide. Anything that isn’t usable, in the competitive marketplace of ideas… will not succeed.

UX “Unicorns” are rare

“Why do we need a lead, a designer and a graphic artist? Can’t we just hire one guy who does all of that?” That was an executive looking at a proposed job ladder that was created for my team. I had to respond that what he was looking for was a “UX Unicorn,” a rare breed that is nearly never found in the wild. UX is a broad domain, that encompasses many different disciplines. While I believe that, as Robert Heinlein famously stated, “specialization is for insects,” it’s incredibly difficult to become proficient at all the skills in UX. Sometimes, specialization is useful and necessary.

There you have it, seven things that bosses should know about the user experience discipline. Hopefully, you can use these points to educate your superiors and “manage up.”

Photos: The Andy Warhol Museum

I love Pittsburgh.

No, really. I totally did not expect to enjoy a recent business trip to the former steel town, but… Love it, I did. The downtown is really beautiful with great new architecture sitting side-by-side with some classic buildings from the 1930s and 40s.  The streets are clean, the weather cold, but the sights and sounds are absolutely winning.

Plus, downtown Pittsburgh has something that takes things to another level: The Andy Warhol Museum. Seven stories tall, the building showcases all the work of the late great artist. It’s absolutely a must-visit if you are ever in the area. And it has a very eccentric eclectic gift shop, too.

Though I was not supposed to take photos, I did manage to sneak a few in. And here they are:

The worse advice I’ve ever heard about Doctor Who

“Watch it from the beginning.”

That’s the recommendation that I heard from a Who fan (or “Whovian”, as some of them prefer) who was talking to someone who was interested in the show but had never seen an episode.

And it’s not like the advice was to start with the first episode of “nuWho”, the Christopher Eccleston episode “Rose”… No, it was to go back to the VERY FIRST EPISODE, “An Unearthly Child” and watch DECADES worth of episodes.

Sorry… but no. Horrible idea.

Now some “old school” fans may be reading this and going, “Hey, what’s your problem with ‘classic’ Who?” That’s not my problem with the recommendation. My issue is one of quantity, not quality.

If you want to introduce someone to a fifty-year old show, do NOT insist in the “completist” perspective. That is a LOT of time to invest in ANYTHING. If you were going to recommend learning something – like how to play an instrument, or pilot an airplane – that’s something you want to invest a lot of time in.

Not in watching a TV show. ANY TV show – even one as good as Doctor Who.

The better advice would be to recommend key “gateway” episodes for someone to watch, and this should include episodes from both classic and new Who. Use the rule of three – maybe two modern and one classic. And then, if they like it, recommend they watch an first series of one Doctor… The one you like.

And for God’s sake, don’t start them with Trial of a Time Lord.

Drew: The Man Behind the Poster is a fascinating portrait of a very talented man

Finally got around to watching the documentary about the legendary movie poster artist Drew Struzan, Drew: The Man Behind the Poster, and was quite impressed with the film. The documentary interviews some of Hollywood’s biggest names – Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford, George Lucas, Michael J. Fox, Frank Darabont, etc. – and all express great admiration and respect for Struzan’s work.

What is so amazing about the film, to me, is how completely humble Struzan is about his life’s work – he has no pretense, no ego… and yet his talent is obvious and undeniable.

The documentary steps through Struzan’s life, and showcases both highs (his cover art for Alice Cooper’s Welcome to my Nightmare, his posters for the Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Back to the Future films) and lows (he was unloved and unwanted by his parents, and was cheated by business partners out of hundreds of thousands of dollars). Throughout is a portrait of an unassuming passionate artist who, when faced with the choice of buying paints for his work or having food to eat… he’d buy the paints.

We could learn a lot about passion and perseverance from Struzan’s story, though the film ends on a melancholy note… Movie posters are now the result of Photoshop work rather than paintings these days, and because of this (and the decision-by-committee process that now pervades Hollywood) Struzan has “retired” from doing any more work for the studios. A shame, because, as one interview subject states in the film, “When Drew creates a painting, it’s often more alive than the film is.”

Here’s the trailer:

Photos from a very geeky Christmas, circa 1979

This is a self-indulgent post, so please bear with me. I recently visited my mom (who still lives in Alabama) and had the opportunity to look through boxes and boxes of old photos. Among them were lots of Christmas photos, and I was particularly excited when I found the ones I’ve scanned and posted below. First, some of the Christmas haul I got that year:

Christmas Haul 2

Micronauts Mobile Exploration Lab: Man, I was OBSESSED with the Micronauts. Had all the comics, had almost all the toys, and I remember DESPERATELY wanting the Battle Cruiser toy/playset. Well, I never got it as a kid (I finally picked one up on eBay about a year ago) and I got the Mobile Exploration Lab instead. It was quite cool, you could build different smaller vehicles and combine parts with some of the other toys.

Micronauts Hornetroid Vehicle: 1979 was when they introduced “aliens” into the Micronauts toy line, and this was one of the three vehicles they made. It was AMAZEBALLS. You could flap the wings of the thing to simulate flight, shoot missiles, and grab figures with it’s pincers. My mom  got rid of most of my Microsoft toys around ’85 (as well as my Star Wars toys) because I wouldn’t clean my room. I still occasionally remind her how much those toys are now worth (especially the Star Wars ones).

A Nerf football: Yeah, like I was gonna go outside and be active when I had all these cool Micronauts toys. Come on.

A robot piggy bank: I’m pretty sure this came from TG&Y, and was a gift from my grandmother (who lived with us and took care of us while Mom and Dad went to work).

A checkers set: My mom thought I would like to play checkers, when I was already playing chess by then. She wasn’t paying much attention.

Starcruiser 1 model kit: This was another FANTASTIC toy, a model kit that was designed by the same guy who designed the Eagles on Space: 1999, Brian Johnson. Once you put together the kit you had a modular space vehicle you could change into three different ships… As you can see, I liked building things (ironically, I was never really into LEGO as a kid, though I am a fan now).

A stuffed dog. Apparently, someone mistakenly thought I was a little girl.

You can also see our cat Mikey peeking out from behind the stuff. He was a good cat.

Here’s another picture, with me opening some more stuff:

Christmas Haul 3

And another item is revealed: THE HULK! Oh my God, I was such a Hulk fan. This was a great toy that came with a plastic cage  you put Hulk in and then blew him up with a air until he broke through the cage… I lost count of how many times I did that. I was such a Hulk fan that I dressed like him for Halloween that year.

By the way, my grandmother Marie sewed me that robe, as well as many of our clothes. About once a month we would go to TG&Y and look at Simplicity patterns of clothes, picking out the tackiest designs for us to wear. I’d share more pictures of my wardrobe from the time, but I don’t want to make any of you blind. Or insane.

Another pic, and the last gift reveal:

Christmas Haul 4

A plush Superman figure! I kept this thing FOREVER for some reason, even though it was really really ugly. Thanks to the Internets, I found a better picture of it:


See? Also, he had velcro on his hand AND feet, so he could hold onto things. No idea why.

At any rate, it was a good Christmas, though not as good as later Christmases that brought more Star Wars toys, an Atari 2600, and more Micronauts. Couldn’t find any pictures of that one.

Here’s one last pic, and it confuses me:

Christmas TV watching

It’s me, watching TV in my grandmother’s room. It’s around the same Christmas time, and I’m pretty sure that I’m watching Battlestar Galactica. The only thing is… it was canceled in the spring of ’79. Was this a rerun? It couldn’t have been Galactica 1980 because that didn’t start until January 1980. Oh well, one of life’s little mysteries…

Hope you enjoyed this trip down memory lane. I still wish I had some of these items (especially the Starcruiser 1 model) but at least I have the satisfaction of knowing that when I DID own them, I played the living heck out of them.

My 2014 Oscar Predictions

All the cool kids are doing it, so here’s my 2014 Oscar predictions:

Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave
Best Director: Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity
Best Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio for The Wolf of Wall Street
Best Actress: Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine
Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club
Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Lawrence for American Hustle
Best Original Screenplay: Her: Spike Jonze
Best Adapted Screenplay: 12 Years a Slave: John Ridley
Best Animated Feature Film: Frozen
Best Foreign Language Film: The Great Beauty: Paolo Sorrentino(Italy)
Cinematography: Gravity: Emmanuel Lubezki
Editing: American Hustle: Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers
Production Design: American Hustle: Judy Becker, Heather Loeffler
Costume Design: American Hustle: Michael Wilkinson
Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Dallas Buyers Club: Adruitha Lee, Robin Mathews
Original Score: Gravity: Steven Price
Original Song: Frozen: Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez(“Let It Go”)
Best Sound Mixing: Gravity: Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead, Chris Munro
Best Sound Editing: Gravity: Glenn Freemantle
Best Visual Effects: Gravity: Timothy Webber, Chris Lawrence, David Shirk, Neil Corbould
Best Documentary Feature: The Act of Killing: Joshua Oppenheimer, Signe Byrge Sørensen
Best Documentary Short: The Lady In Number 6: Malcolm Clarke, Carl Freed
Best Animated Short: Possessions: Shuhei Morita
Best Live Action Short: Helium: Anders Walter

Some of these are “no brainers” IMO (NO WAY is Cuarón losing, and Frozen is a shoo-in) and others… well, they could go either way (DiCaprio and McConaughey are neck and neck in most predictions). We’ll see how I do come Sunday!