A collection of wisdom collected up over the years from others and my own experiences.
Once in a while we have a moment of complete clarity, and it was in a rare moment of peace and quiet this week that a number of thoughts about what I would say to myself at the beginning of my career all came rushing at me out of nowhere. I’ve tried to collect them up, and provide examples where possible. Most of them are so deceptively obvious, but that doesn’t make them any less important. It’s long, and meant to be dipped in and out of. I’ll probably add to it over time too. If you think there’s anything really obvious missing that you have found helpful in your career, do let me know 😄
You are the research instrument
Everything you do, see, ask and analyse is subject to your own biases, built up over a lifetime. You are the research tool in all your activities, and being aware of this is the first step to remaining objective in your work.
Action: read more about cognitive biases, especially from Thinking Fast and Slow – By Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman
Learn how to ask good questions
Questions are the tools of the researchers trade — they’re what lead us to the great insights that the rest of the products and services we’re responsible for influencing are built on.
Actions: read “A more beautiful question” by Warren Berger
If you want to give a good experience then you must appeal to the right emotions. As Maya Angelou said “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”.
Action: Read Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
So many people forget the user experience is both online AND offline
It’s not just screens and apps. It’s the time you can’t work out how to get the bathroom tap to switch on, or you pull a push door. All of this is user experience.
Action: Read about user experience from Don Norman, or look up Service Design.
Find a mentor in a senior UX practitioner
Either informally or formally, hanging around those that have already more experience than you can help you expand out your thinking, and address issues you haven’t come across before.
Action: Check out your local UXPA for mentors in your area, attend local groups, ask to be mentored by someone more senior where you work.
Understand how businesses work
Having a good commercial head on you will always stand you in good stead. At the end of the day, you’re probably being hired to help the business grow, and understanding it’s inner workings will help you make the best recommendations.
Action: Ask for business training from those internally to understand how all the different departments work, basically do a research project on your organisation!
You will always need to balance user and business needs
With the best of intentions, a UX purist will never prosper over someone else who can take the business perspective too. The best you can do is make your recommendations and make it clear what the repercussions will be if they aren’t followed.
Action: talk to those you work with to truly understand what their business needs are. They’re your user too!
Pay research participants fairly
First of all, it’s just the right thing to do. Second, you will get much more value from those that feel their time has been valued, they will reciprocate in kind with useful insights into their world. Note that it will vary according to the sort of audience. Someone who fits the profile of someone looking for a new job will be cheaper than an investment banker for instance.
Action: Make sure you are paying the industry standard, contact specialist recruitment agencies who will advise you on the recommended payment.
Work hard to understand what your values are
When you are making design decisions that can ripple out and affect millions of people, you need to make sure you have a set of values you can align to and be guided by. Anytime you are asked to do something you are uncomfortable with, you can check if that aligns with your values, and ultimately the decision becomes a much easier one. Which leads me nicely onto the next thought…
Action: See Brene Brown’s set of guides for understanding your values.
You can say no
Not a fan of dark patterns? Make it known. Feel like you’re exploiting people to get them to hand over money, data or something else? Just say no. If your spidey sense is tingling then trust your gut feel.
Action: Explain why you feel this way, the website darkpatterns.org can help you articulate why.
Never start a funeral with logistics
This is advice from The Art of Gathering, by Priya Parker. It’s taken from a story she tells about attending a funeral. As they’re waiting to start, the air is charged with a palpable emotional weight, which reaches it’s crescendo as the minister takes to the pulpit — only to extinguish the gravity of the moment by going through the emergency fire procedure. Experiences shouldn’t start with logistics, don’t extinguish the emotional momentum people have. I use this bit of advice for everything — meeting people, designing experiences, starting workshops (don’t start with the itinerary!).
Action: Read The Art of Gathering, by Priya Parker
Get in the habit of recording your work and projects
Do it as you go, if you don’t you will forget. Build up a portfolio of work that can be referred to later on. Collect photos, quotes, and artefacts. Get used to writing down what challenges you came up against. Document the approach and most importantly the outcome.
Action: Create a template in Google forms or Typeform to capture pertinent details about a project (title, description, challenges, outcomes etc) and have it mail it to you. Complete it after each project (or ideally as you go along!)
Aim for simplicity
In design, in process and in communications with other people.
Action: make Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s quote your mantra: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
The stakeholders you work with are your user
This is a biggie, and unbelievably it took me a while to realise. You serve them, and the experience they have with you speaks volumes about the sort of outcomes you can provide for the projects you are working on with them. Design for them, be it shorter more usable presentations instead of hefty reports, or making it easier to access repositories of research data.
Action: Start documenting what you notice your colleagues emotional needs, goals and tasks are. What is important to them? Can you create a persona to help you guide how you work with them?
Learn how to tell a story
Nothing resonates better with humans than a story. We are wired for stories. Being able to simultaneously explain your research as stories internally to stakeholders, and craft an experience narrative for end users is a super power.
Action: Read The storytellers secret by Carmine Gallo
The tools really don’t matter
Find one that you like and meets your needs and requirements, and experiment often. Don’t fall into the tribalism of “my tool is better than yours” — just do what is best for you.
Action: Sample everything, but don’t get hung up on the FOMO of not using the latest thing. If it works for you, great!
Follow the masters
There is a lot to be learned from those that have already trodden this path, and usually written a book or three along the way.
Action: Get acquainted with leaders like Jared Spool, Erika Hall, Don Normal, Jakob Nielson, Jesse James Garrett, Indi Young, Samuel Huilick, the list is endless…
…But take it with a pinch of salt
Although there are some “thought leaders” truly deserving of the title out there in our field, there are many who are not. You learn to separate the ones drawing on years of tried and tested wisdom, and those spouting out opinions to anyone who will listen.
Action: Always ask the question: “is this a baseless opinion? Or is this knowledge grounded in experience?”
Sometimes it’s better to ask for forgiveness than seek permission
I speak to so many people saying “I’ve asked a few times but I can’t get access to a customer/I want to start a research project but they won’t give me budget” etc etc. It’s not always easy, but there are ways around, undercover ways that can get you a foot in the door to the getting that access or budget. Go guerilla. Do some quick and dirty testing. Start asking contact details of customers, rather than asking if you are allowed to do it. Just make sure that you make a damn good job of finding some interesting things to share once people found out what you did (I speak from experience!).
Actions: Just get started, be prepared to ruffle feathers and poke some bruises.
Understand the lateral academic paths and associated industries
i’m talking about anthropology, social sciences, market research, human factors…there are so many to investigate.
Action: First, get started with anthropology and writing ethnography to understand a bit more about researching.
Get used to experiments and being lean
Ok, ok, this article is not lean in the slightest. But in your day to day practice a lighter touch has huge advantages. You can pivot quicker, make discoveries and decisions far faster than if you take a heavier approach.
Action: Read up on the experimentation mindset.
Be a practitioner
You can’t get good without practice, it’s just not possible. I’ve found practicing my craft means i’m confident in my abilities, and can help others. So many new UX practitioners are nervous about running their first usability tests or research sessions, but know that like anything new, this will go. Keep going.
Action: Just keep being hands on!
Aim for building trust with stakeholders and colleagues first
If there is something I see regularly, it’s that getting buy in is one of the hardest struggles in an organisation with low UX maturity. First of all you have to build trust that UX is a thing worth pursuing.
Action: Have lunch and learns. Demonstrate the interesting findings you have brought back from initial research. Bring them into the inner circle. Get them interested.
Design for humans not technology
People have not changed much over the last few thousand years, compare that to the phone that has changed massively over just a couple of decades. Pay attention to behaviours, culture and society instead of the latest technology fad.
Action: Read more books on human behaviour, culture and how we live. A good starter is Cities for People by Jan Gehl, or What we actually do all day by Jonathan Gershuny
Put an expiry date on your user research
Encourage yourself and others to keep revisiting past research to validate if it really is still relevant.
Action: Make sure all deliverables include a field for “expires on [date]”
Build repositories of research
If you’re trying to get more buy into research, then making your repositories accessible to the entire organisation can help people feel included, and builds trust
Action: Check out tools like Dovetail and Aurelius
Get used to finding ways to communicate to stakeholders without using the UX buzzwords
Things like Information Architecture can leave you with blank stares. Find a better terminology. I sometimes say “site structure and navigation” to keep it simple.
Action: Come up with a list of commonly misunderstood words, and then an alternative user friendly word for each.
Get used to presenting your work
…and the inevitable critique that follows!
Action: Read Thanks for the feedback by Douglas Sheen and Sheila Heen
Learn about the people you will be working with
Project managers, Product managers, Product owners, Business Analysts, Developers…
Action: read up on what their responsibilities and accountabilities are, and then conduct stakeholder interviews to get their POV on the project you’re all on.