Q&A: getting into user experience

For the past few years I’ve given an annual talk at UCL to students of the HCI with Ergonomics M.Sc. It’s always a pleasure to share my questionable world view with impressionable minds, and I look forward to the sessions in much the same way as one secretly enjoys a visit from a drunken uncle.

In an effort to make this year’s session a little more interactive, I pulled out an old Knowledge Management set piece:

  1. Distribute post-its
  2. Ask everyone to write one question they wish they knew the answer to (preferably about the topic at hand).
  3. Stick the post-its on the walls. (It’s surprising how much people group them, despite your invitation to use any of the three free walls)
  4. Ask everyone to read each post-it.
  5. If they too want to find out the answer to a question, tell them to mark the post-it with a question mark. If they think they have an answer, mark it with a tick.

It’s not that surprising to find that a room of similarly qualified students share similar concerns. What’s more interesting is that many of them can also help to answer each other’s questions.

The purpose of this exercise is of course to show that networking and collaborating is valuable, and not just a case of awkward conversation and limp handshakes. However, having made this slightly facile point, I realised that most of the posted questions were damn smart and deserved to be shared more broadly. So here are a few that were particularly interesting, and some proposed answers from myself.

Is the graphic design of a site more important than usability when initially attracting users to the site?
I say yes. Research shows users form an opinion on the credibility of a site within milliseconds of visiting it. To form a valid opinion on usability takes use, which may not happen if those impressions are negative. However, the line between the two is of course blurred, and a site can successfully convey usability through layout, visual design and information hierarchy. There are plenty of other factors that have an impact too: load times, content and proposition spring to mind.

How many hours do you work a week?
Define “work”. I’m paid for 37 hours, and most of that is spent on billable client work. But add in commuting, writing articles and conference talks, mentoring, and reading about my field and it would exceed 60. Yes, I’m aware that’s a little unhealthy. Good thing I enjoy it.

What’s the most useless skill you think we’ll learn from this course?
Probably rifling through academic papers to find an authoritative source that proves or disproves a detailed HCI argument. Truth is, not many people in industry will care. It’s more important to judge the the problem at hand and make the right design decisions based on context. HCI theory can give a strong advantage here, but you’ll need to state your case with something more real: usually how your client will make more money by following your advice.

How much do you get paid?
Not telling. But here are some approximate London figures: £25,000 is fair for a graduate-level position, rising to £35–40,000 with a couple of years of experience. Senior people should be looking at £60,000 and up (seven years and above, probably managerial responsibility). Freelance rates typically range between £275-£400/day.

What are the best design tools in HCI?
Thinking, conversation, sketching, software. In that order.

Can you be a good UX designer and a good programmer at the same time?
You can be good at both, yes. But who wants to be just good? Deep specialists tend to better than jacks-of-all-trades, and only extremely rare superheroes can be world class at both. I do, however, strongly recommend that all designers learn to code to a reasonable standard, and that all developers learn the fundamentals of design. Speaking each other’s language is the easiest way to ensure good designer-developer relationships, and one of the easiest ways to become substantially better at your job in a short time.

Do you need to draw well / be arty to be a user experience designer?
Some drawing talent helps, but sketching well is a skill that can be learned and that comes with practice. Its main value is when communicating with clients – a well-crafted sketch can simply convey more information than a poor one. However, it’s more important to develop a designer’s mindset. As Jason Santa Maria says, “sketchbooks are not about being a good artist, they’re about being a good thinker.”