what we am are

on exposure

I was speaking with Andrew the other day about the transition from in-house to agency and how that adjustment takes place after a number of years at the former. because a number of years at the former has a particular pace and a particular comfort in the ownership and management of the design you do and the thinking you think and the constraints you know and the collaboration you undertake and the scrutiny under which you find yourself and the measurement of success that you might be subjected to which is likely measured over a period not much less than a decent-sized freelance contract against a set of goals and objectives mapped out over a period not much less the bronze age.

if you have spent a meaningful amount of time as a resident designer on the client side, either as a larger team, or, worse still, as the design team of one, you’ve likely woken up at your desk one day and realised you can probably go back to sleep for a while and nobody will notice until the end of the quarter. a massive generalisation of course, and more likely just an accurate description of my 14 years in-house, but the point is that the pace and scrutiny is different. and it can be a safe place. and you can get away with it. and you can sometimes disappear completely.

once you make the change, however, you can suddenly find yourself very exposed. I thought it was perfectly acceptable to take 6 months to design a faceted navigation system for a line of hardware. and, you know, it kind of was. but as soon as you get started on your first proper design project agency side, you are immediately aware that there is something different. people want to know what you’re doing all the time. they want to know why. they want you to explain to them the things they don’t understand and tell you why those things you suddenly can’t articulate aren’t actually that good anyway. they want to question everything you do. and, by the way, that 6 months? that’s actually 6 days here. if there’s one thing that really hits home in your first 3 months of transition, it’s the change in pace. and it’s not that the change in pace is a bad thing. it’s just that it feels like you don’t have enough time to think. which means you don’t have enough time to design. which is stressful and surprising and difficult and awkward. because you might not actually be able to do it. you might fail. and everyone will be able to say they told you so. and you’ll be exposed.

if I’m honest, it took about a year to get used to the change in pace, which I’m sure will be validated by the account teams who’s budget I used to work that out. I’m pretty efficient now. and that doesn’t mean I’m by any means a worse designer for being a more efficient designer. it just means I’m a bit quicker. if anything, I believe it makes me a better designer, since I’ve worked on the skill that is understanding and articulating the very thing in a given design challenge that is where the opportunity lies. and I can do that very quickly. and I can do it for multiple design challenges. and I can move from studio to studio, whiteboard to whiteboard, desk to desk, and I can point to the thing that matters. it’s an acquired skill. it takes time to learn. but the efficiency in the clarity is what facilitates pace.

the less tangible form of exposure comes when you are suddenly placed under an intense level of interrogation regarding the very thing that you think makes you a designer in the first place. your design thinking. or whatever you want to call it. that process you go through when you think about stuff. and write down words. and draw boxes. or abstract categorisations of emotions. maybe you use different colour pens. maybe you cut bits of paper out and rearrange them in a way that you think is the responsive version of the jean genie. whatever you do to evolve insight into articulation. evidence to ideas. you know, DOING DESIGN THINGS. for that is the place where you’ve likely never really had to justify yourself to other people who might actually be designers too who might even be better designers who might even be honest designers who might actually tell you what they think. because when design is money, clarity is currency. you really need to be able to explain yourself. be under no illusion, when you work for an agency, your constraint is time. but your reputation is all about quality. so quality is, and should be, ruthlessly monitored, evaluated, and understood. and that’s why the integrity of design and design thinking is the first thing that you will get caught out on. well, apart from the pace thing. but it’s not personal. even though that’s what it feels like the first few times someone like me sits down with you, looks at your designs and pulls that horrible squinty patronising-but-really-caring face that tells you there’s something not quite right. but I do that because, actually, there’s something not quite right. I’ve exposed you. how you then deal with that is that up to you. if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably print out pictures of me and stick them to your bedroom door whereupon you’ll spend a full 3 nights throwing manically sharpened pencils at them sobbing in your underpants slowly mouthing “I can design. I’m a good designer. I can design. I’m a good designer. I can design. I’m a good designer” over and over and over until you’re all cried out and you collapse on the floor onto a pile of ripped up creative reviews as the queen is dead plays on repeat over the wail of sirens and the incessant banging on the door.

you get over it. it’s all part of the transition. welcome to the real world.

listening post: biffy clyro – 57

Practice makes perfect UX at the UK UPA

Andy Budd - Perfect UX

I like UK UPA events. There’s something very reassuring about carrots in a bowl and speakers worth listening to. Last Thursday’s ‘Profiling the Perfect UX Practitioner’ was a particularly good event, pulling together a great list of UX practitioners to talk about UX practitioners to a room full of UX practitioners. While that sounds like it could be the point where we actually end up eating each other, it was actually the point at which we start questioning each other, which is always healthy.

There was no danger of it being a dull affair. Most of us have seen Andy Budd or Jason Mesut speak before and know that even though painful honesty borders on willful disruption it’s a dramatic tension that makes it not a little bit exciting. Put these menaces together with ‘not intentionally provided as a counterpoint but actually it works quite well that way’ Stavros Garzonis and Aline Baeck and you have a pretty good spread of disciplines, experiences and specialities that might, arguably, add up to the perfect UX practitioner, thereby rendering the whole evening redundant.

But that’s the thing. There’s not really any such thing as the perfect UX practitioner and we weren’t really there to try and determine what that is, any more than we were there to determine who has the brightest trousers, even though, as it happens, that was a really easy one to call. To summarise: it depends. With knobs on.

If there was a recurrent theme regarding the problem with defining pathways to becoming a better, more well-rounded UX practitioner, is was dichotomies. That is to say, perhaps it is the current open migration paths into UX from, say, engineering, development, psychology, for example, that are essentially dichotometrically opposed to the establishment of practitioner pathways since you have to already be pre-disposed within those disparate paradigms to an affinity with the values of user-centrednessness. Or something. I may have lost track there for a moment when I realised dichotmetrically opposed reminded me of thumbs. Anyway, there were dichotomies.

Also worthy of circular arguments was the notion of certification for UX professionals so that we all know who’s good at it. Notwithstanding the fact that none of can agree on what it is. Admirably, the German UPA chapter are looking seriously at certification, which, I’m sure, will be looked at closely to see how it might affect perception of value, ability or perfection in the long term. I asked Oliver what he thought of it. He kind of shrugged.

And it wouldn’t be a discussion about our ability to demonstrate capability without touching on, and then deep diving into, and ultimately wrestling naked in front of the fire about UX practitioner portfolios. Porfolios are good. If you think they’re good. Even though your good might not be my good. But let’s all agree they have value. In the way I value straight lines, but someone else values sketchy ones. You see. It depends. But let’s also agree that if you want an opinion on the basic thresholds of portfolio benchmarking and what, from sheer volume, might be considered the relative merits of showing deliverables vs. telling stories and demonstrating thinking, reacting, shifting, agiling, then Jason is the man to tell you to leave the wireframes at home.

Ultimately, the sum of the parts of a strong team are often what makes the whole of a perfect practioner and it’s being part of those teams that will most likely incubate the hard and soft skills required to effectively practice in the UX profession. There might be, and probably are, practitioners out there that come close to having it all, but you won’t be that person with 2 years in the industry and an impressive job title. That’s not to say that the perfect practitioner necessarily comes from the small pool of 10+ year UX veterans who like to remind you that they actually did the original user research on punched cards for jacquard looms or something, but, to be honest, longevity in the field simply affords you the benefit of experience. It’s hard to argue against it.

I enjoyed all the panellists. I enjoyed all the attendees. I even enjoyed sitting on the floor for most of the evening so I could take photos of Andy’s boots. My favourite moment? Grinning inanely while Andy ranted animatedly about how terrible the state of somethingorother was and how you should just forget about doing it when patently plenty of people in the audience were already doing it. My least favourite moment? Having to run off and leave everybody having a nice chat over fava beans and a nice chianti, because I had to rush to get a train to Norwich because we don’t all live in London you know.

Looking forward to the next one.

Careering around at the UK UXPA

“He’s actually really nice”

Notwithstanding the fact that any address that ends in ‘Canary Wharf’ seems to disappear into the Bemuser Triangle the closer I get to it and that on this occasion I wasn’t alone in trying to locate an enormous shiny building that was right in front of me, I made it along to the UK UXPA careers event yesterday at the Thomson Reuters building somewhere in, well, Canary Wharf, along with a number of extraordinary colleagues from Foolproofwho I can only describe as infinitely more approachable than myself. And Matt.
I had initially registered as an attendee, just because I was interested in the event anyway, but somehow become part of the official delegation, which mostly meant I had to carry Karen’s popup banner from Goswell Road to Canary Wharf. Either way, I’d really come to attend the panel discussion with Leslie Fountain, Andy Budd, and the most charming man in the world™, Giles Colborne, who were going to have a stab at discussing the vagaries of UX in the boardroom and what that means to business, businesses, management, aspiring management, new hires, prospective new hires, clients, projects, practice, vision, values, mission, goals, and how things smell.
At the same time as the panel, there was to be several rounds of speed-dating for prospective employers/recruiters and candidates/people of interest, which, as it turns out, would consist of some rather loud whistling, CVs, portfolios, elevator pitches, business cards, raised eyebrows, knowing glances, ticks in boxes and, by the end of the evening, more or less passing out on the corporate carpet. Taking part in one of these events requires a strong constitution and boundless enthusiasm. I wasn’t part of it.

And if that wasn’t enough, there was also some splendid UX booth kinda action in the main foyer, where I noticed Jason Mesut was delivering the kind of folio advice that can leave unsuspecting hopefuls in that curious state of super encouraged and mostly terrified about their future. That man knows what he’s talking about, children.
And if that that wasn’t enough wasn’t enough, there was more pork product than I think I’ve ever seen in one place and buckets of cold Prosecco, which would later be the cause of my Downfall-like self-castigation wandering rather too close to very deep water whilst frantically searching for the underground station that would take me to the train back to Norwich via Stratford, the official travel centre of the London 2012 Olympic park in association with A SHOP or something. For UX events at Canary Wharf are not your UX events in Shoreditch. I mean, I like hot lofts and crisps and everything, but corporations do hospitality as a core practice and they mostly do it very well. Thompson Reuters didn’t buck that trend.
But back to the panel. Leslie opened proceedings with some discussion points about what it means to provide leadership in UX businesses and, specifically, used the example of how this is manifest at Foolproof. Core to her proposition is that vision and values are critical in describing what your business is all about and enables internal stakeholders and staff to deliver toward that and understand why they do what they do in context of what that means to the company. Crucially, it also describes to the outside world – clients, customers, partners, candidates, friends – what the culture of the company is, what their aims are, and how they intend to pursue their goals, so that it becomes a shared imperative at the point where relationships are formed and ongoing engagements are managed. In other words, it enables you to say “this is who we are and this is where we’re going. If you like the look of that, lets have a conversation”.
I like Leslie. I like hearing her talk. I like her style. We’re going to do a double act.
What followed Leslie’s opener was a nicely animated discussion, which, in a nice touch, had Andy, Leslie and the most charming man in the world™;, Giles, perched on stools, like some awesome UX Westlife. There was even a spare stool next to Andy and I was sorely tempted to join them for an impromptu cover of a Jared Spool ballad or something, but resigned myself to kicking things off with the first question, which went something like “yeah, you say vision and values but really, people just ignore that stuff, innit?” Needless to say, it was pointed out that yes, that might often be true, but what we try and do is…
I only trailed off there because I can’t remember the answer correctly. But over the next 40 minutes or so, an awful lot of sense was spoken. I was particularly drawn to the passion and sincerity in Andy’s descriptions of how he makes his business decisions, runs his company and decides what to do and why. He was very honest about the learnings made from his mistakes and how he used those to make better decisions and, in particular, learn how to say no, which was a bit of recurrent theme. As ever, Giles was thoroughly entertaining, but because of the most charming man in the world™ thing, every time he spoke, I just kind a gawped at him like a headlit rabbit as the words came out and consequently missed a lot of what he actually said. He does tell a good story though.
And then I was done. I did get to speak to a number of people during the course of the evening who commented, as I felt, that this wasn’t like a normal UX event, because you get to speak to each other throughout, rather than at the end, which was all very convivial. I hope those bright-faced young prospectives got as much out of it as the gurn-faced old miseries (that’s me, by the way, just to be clear) did. Curiously, I also had a couple of people make the comment at the beginning of this post. That was about Andy. I’ve no idea how they might have thought otherwise.
Thanks to the UK UXPA for organising. Canary Wharf is sometimes a bit wrong, but last night there was a little place in the middle where everything was right.