Self-Education in UX and Working with User Research Data

By Janet M. Six

Published: December 15, 2008

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Educating Yourself in UX

Q: What are some good ways to educate myself in UX?—from a UXmatters reader

The following experts have contributed answers to this question:

  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—VP, User Experience, at scanR, Inc.; Publisher and Editor in Chief, UXmatters; Principal User Experience Architect at Spirit Softworks; Emeritus Member of Board of Directors, Interaction Design Association (IxDA)
  • Michael Hawley—VP Experience Design at Mad*Pow Media Solutions; UXmatters columnist
  • Dirk Knemeyer—Founding Principal at Involution Studios; Board of Directors of the International Institute for Information Design (IIID); Board of Directors of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) Center for Brand Experience; Executive Council of UXnet; UXmatters columnist
  • David Heller Malouf—Senior Interaction Designer at Motorola; Professor of Interaction Design at Savannah College of Art & Design—effective January 1, 2009; Founder and former Vice President, IxDA
  • Peter Merholz—Founding Partner, Board Member, and President of Adaptive Path
  • Daniel Szuc—Principal Usability Consultant at Apogee Usability Asia; Founding member and President of the UPA China Hong Kong Branch

Learn from Your Peers

“You only need the desire to learn more and the willingness to spend the time to absorb an incredible amount of education.”—Dirk Knemeyer

Dirk says, “One of the biggest benefits to being part of the UX community is how open and progressive most of the best people are. You only need the desire to learn more and the willingness to spend the time to absorb an incredible amount of education.”

“When you’re new to UX, make every effort to plug into the UX community—at work, through UX organizations, and socially,” Pabini suggests. “Many large companies have brown-bag lunches where coworkers present case studies or user research and guest speakers present talks they’ve given at conferences. If your company doesn’t have brown-bag lunches, organize some! Professional organizations and conferences provide opportunities to hear the best and brightest in our industry speak on diverse topics, and the socializing that occurs at these events gives you a chance to ask the speakers questions and discuss the presentations with your peers. Volunteer with UX organizations and publications, and you’ll have the opportunity to work on projects with experienced UX professionals and get valuable experience. In many communities, UX professionals get together at face-to-face socials where you can discuss UX issues and meet prominent people in your profession. If there aren’t any such get-togethers in your community, organize one.”

“When you’re new to UX, make every effort to plug into the UX community—at work, through UX organizations, and socially.”—Pabini Gabriel-Petit

Dave recommends that you find yourself a mentor. He also encourages you to attend “local presentations—obviously, depending on where you live—by organizations like UPA (Usability Professionals’ Association), IxDA (Interaction Design Association), IAI (Information Architecture Institute), SIGCHI (ACM’s Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction), and others.” Daniel agrees, “It can be helpful to join a local UX group like the Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA).”

Read Books and Online Resources

Pabini is almost entirely self-educated in user experience. Talking about her early days in UX, she says, “When I was just getting into UX design, pre-Web, there weren’t very many good books about design, but I read everything I could get my hands on—even dry-as-dust academic treatises on HCI research. You had to dig out the information wherever you could find it. At the time, some of the best books included classics like

  • Designing the User Interface, by Ben Shneiderman
  • The Psychology of Human-Computer Interaction, by Stuart Card, Thomas Moran, and Allen Newell
  • User Centered System Design, by Don Norman and Stephen Draper
“The information online is more up to date. But it’s still good to read books, which offer more in-depth explorations of topics.”—Pabini Gabriel-Petit

“And the original Apple Human Interface Guidelines: The Apple Desktop Interface provided an excellent introduction to user interface design. Now, there are many good books on every aspect of UX and guidelines for every operating system, so you can learn a tremendous amount by reading.

“Since the advent of the Web, it’s so much easier to find any information you need by searching for it online. Plus, the information online is more up to date. But it’s still good to read books, which offer more in-depth explorations of topics.

“Most of the information on UXmatters will remain relevant for many years to come, so I recommend that you explore our Topics page, where you’ll find links to all of our past articles, organized by topic.”

“I can speak directly from experience. My tools for education were books, mailing lists, blogs, and conferences.”—Peter Merholz

Peter, who has an anthropology degree, says, “I can speak directly from experience. My tools for education were books, mailing lists, blogs, and conferences. The Adaptive Path reading list is a good place to start for books. The two mailing lists I pay attention to are IxDA and Anthrodesign. The two blogs I make sure to read are Peter Bogaards’s InfoDesign and Experientia’s Putting People First, both of which come out of Europe.” Our UXnews is a feed from InfoDesign.

There are many good Web publications that cover UX. Some of Dirk’s favorites include the following—and Pabini has added descriptions, because they’re some of her favorites, too:

  • UXmatters—“You’re already here, so you know our magazine provides information covering the breadth of UX.”
  • Boxes and Arrows—“It began as a Web magazine about information architecture, but now covers broad UX topics.”
  • A List Apart—“This magazine focuses on the development and design of Web sites.”
  • Digital Web Magazine—“Their focus is also on Web development and design.”
  • InfoDesign—“Peter Bogaards’s blog is a great place to find out about the latest posts in the UX blogosphere.”
“Read the personal Web sites and blogs of practitioners and thinkers who you enjoy and are working on the sorts of things you’d like to work on yourself.”—Dirk Knemeyer

Dirk suggests, “Read the personal Web sites and blogs of practitioners and thinkers who you enjoy and are working on the sorts of things you’d like to work on yourself. Some of my favorites to recommend for young practitioners are Luke Wroblewski and Steve Portigal—the former of whom aggregates the best from his peers, while the latter infuses his own unique personality into everything he writes. Also, learn about the different skills, disciplines, and areas of interest related to user experience in online glossaries such as the Interaction Design Encyclopedia.”

“A good RSS reader can make it easier to keep up with the wealth of new information that’s published on the Web,” says Pabini. Daniel exhorts you to “Read, read, read. Find yourself a good RSS reader, but don’t overload.” Michael advises “signing up for RSS feeds from a variety of thought leaders to gain various perspectives. Scour the reviews on Amazon for books that are most relevant to your interests.”

“Look for UX trends. What trends interest you today, and what will interest you tomorrow? … Watch for technology and social trends outside the UX field that may have future impacts on UX—for example, mobility.”—Daniel Szuc

Daniel suggests, “Look for UX trends. What trends interest you today, and what will interest you tomorrow? Where do you see your career going in two to five years time? What do you want to be when you grow up? :) Watch for technology and social trends outside the UX field that may have future impacts on UX—for example, mobility. Look beyond your local UX market and see what is happening in other cities. Furthermore, define specific topics you are interested in learning more about—for example, strategy, team building, prototyping, or usability testing, to name a few. Then, go broad, but also go deep on specific topics of interest. Write articles and invite discussion.” Daniel recommends the following Web sites for exploring “UX goodness:

“Every so often a book comes out that is life changing—like Sketching User Experience—so it must be read. There are fewer and fewer of these books.”—David Heller Malouf

Dave suggests “blogs, the IxDA discussion list, podcasts, and virtual seminars—if by self-educate you mean free or cheap. I have done less book reading in the last five years, because of all these resources. But every so often a book comes out that is life changing—like Sketching User Experience—so it must be read. There are fewer and fewer of these books.”

We’d love to hear what your favorite books and Web publications are. Please let us know by adding a comment.

Attend Conferences, Take Courses

“Attend industry conferences that bring together a lot of different people to listen and learn from a variety of different speakers. This provides a great survey overview of the latest thinking and practice.”—Dirk Knemeyer

“Attend industry conferences that bring together a lot of different people to listen and learn from a variety of different speakers,” Dirk suggests. “This provides a great survey overview of the latest thinking and practice, and most importantly, gives you the opportunity to make new contacts and even friends. Conferences can be expensive between the fees and travel costs, so rather than suggest one in particular, I would urge you to research the disciplines that interest you and see what conferences bubble up to the top in those areas.

“The next step to consider is taking hands-on training courses like the program we offer at the Involution Master Academy. Anytime you can work alongside top professionals, learning about their specialties directly from them, it will have a huge impact.”

“Pick a few conferences to learn and share your experiences. I like to attend one association and one commercial conference per year, if time allows.”—Daniel Szuc

Peter says, “There is a wide variety of conferences. My standard bearer is the IA Summit, and I’ve heard great things about Interaction.” Dave recommends Adaptive Path’s UXWeek, Cooper’s Practicum, UIE’s UI Conference and Web App Summit, and Smart Experience, and says the CHI and UPA conferences are also good. “Of the conferences I’ve attended,” says Pabini, “my favorites are the UIE Web App Summit, which is great for cutting-edge information about Web applications; the IA Summit, which is the best place to hang out with the Web crowd; and CHI, where you can meet up with both industry old-timers and students just getting into UX. A big part of the conference experience is networking with your peers. If you actually want to learn something, it’s usually best to stick with the tutorials and courses.”

Daniel offers some practical advice: “Pick a few conferences to learn and share your experiences. I like to attend one association and one commercial conference per year, if time allows.”

Please add a comment to tell us about your favorite conferences, too.

Get Real-World Experience

“There is no substitute for experience. Take a job, even just an internship if that’s all you can get, and soak it all in.”—Dirk Knemeyer

Dirk says, “Finally, and most important of all, there is no substitute for experience. Take a job, even just an internship if that’s all you can get, and soak it all in. It is a good idea to try and spend time with at least two or three companies to get a complete education; or work with a services company that deals with or works inside various other corporations. Ultimately, there is no substitute for real-world experience.”

According to Pabini, “Study alone is not enough. You need to put what you’ve learned into practice. If you can’t find work in UX, do your own projects to get more hands-on experience and internalize what you’ve learned in school or through reading. If you’re lucky enough to be working within a company that does a lot of usability testing, observe as many test sessions as you can. You’ll learn a lot.”

“While all of the reading and speakers are necessary to keep up with industry trends, there is really no substitute for watching real users work with real applications. Whenever you have the chance, attend usability test sessions, even if you are just an observer.”—Michael Hawley

Michael agrees, “While all of the reading and speakers are necessary to keep up with industry trends, there is really no substitute for watching real users work with real applications. Whenever you have the chance, attend usability test sessions, even if you are just an observer. If your company does not run usability tests, volunteer on a local usability discussion board or online to help as a note taker for usability tests. The overall experience of watching people use software is the best way to help you understand human behavior with user interfaces and build a foundation on which you can base decisions for future design projects. Obviously, the greater the variety of domains and user types you can observe in a usability testing environment, the more prepared you’ll be for UX work in a variety of industries.”

Capturing and Presenting User Research Data

Q: Can you recommend a certain set of tools user researchers can use to help capture user research data—such as workflow diagrams, charts, and so on? At present, I am using Adobe Illustrator to visualize user research information.—Sandhya S. Pillalamarri

The following experts have contributed answers to this question:

  • David Heller Malouf—Senior Interaction Designer at Motorola; Professor of Interaction Design at Savannah College of Art & Design—effective January 1, 2009; Founder and former Vice President, IxDA
  • Whitney Quesenbery—Principal Consultant at Whitney Interactive Design; Past-President, Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA); Fellow, Society for Technical Communications (STC); and UXmatters columnist
“For recording observations at the point of observing them, there is nothing better than a sketch pad and pencil—optionally, with the support of a voice or video recorder.”—David Heller Malouf

Dave says, “When you say ‘capture user research data,’ do you mean to communicate the data to others? In that case, any graphic tool is as good as the next. I use PowerPoint to communicate research findings. For recording observations at the point of observing them, there is nothing better than a sketch pad and pencil—optionally, with the support of a voice or video recorder.”

Whitney gives both an overview and a detailed answer to your question. First the overview: “The simplest answer is that any tool you can use quickly and fluidly is a good one. Having said that, Adobe Illustrator has always seemed like a way to create fine presentations, but it is not as good for exploring information—and certainly not for capturing it.

“For collecting information, the most important thing for me is that the tool not get in the way. Paper and pen work well. Whiteboards are great.”—Whitney Quesenbery

“For collecting information, the most important thing for me is that the tool not get in the way. Paper and pen work well. Whiteboards are great. Cards that are labeled for the steps in a workflow are easy to rearrange and add to. A small digital camera is an easy way to turn the material into an electronic file. You can add some electronic tools to make it easier to go from analog to digital:

  • Electronic pens like the LiveScribe can capture what you draw, but are pricey. I also find that most of them are too heavy for my hand, and most require special paper, which you have to have with you.
  • Printing whiteboards are one of my favorite ways of working. They combine the freedom of brainstorming with users on a whiteboard, with a way to turn the information immediately into an electronic file.
  • I have tried a number of different software programs, but in the end, have always returned to either pen and paper or taking notes in a freeform text editor. For structured data, spreadsheets or mind-mapping software work well. I like Mind Manager.”
“The most important quality in any tool you use is transparency. It should be intuitive for you to use, so your attention is on the person you are working with, not on your software or other tools.”—Whitney Quesenbery

Whitney offers more details about how to interact with user data. “You start by talking about capturing information, but end by talking about visualization. We researchers interact with user data in several different modes: collection, analysis, and presentation. As I said earlier, for collection, the most important quality in any tool you use is transparency. It should be intuitive for you to use, so your attention is on the person you are working with, not on your software or other tools.

“Analysis is a different problem. In this stage of work, you want tools that encourage brainstorming and also make it easy to look at the information in different ways. I have never found a software tool that is completely satisfying, so I tend to use spreadsheets—I can sort, filter, and add notes easily—or lots of flipcharts or whiteboards.

"Finally, there is presentation, sharing your analysis and insights with your client and others on your team. The challenge here is to create a clear visualization of the data. Visio, Illustrator, and other drawing programs are obvious choices, but some of the analysis tools also provide reasonable output.

“As you can see, each of these aspects of the research task has slightly different requirements. Depending on how formal your presentations need to be, you may find that you use different tools for each stage of the work. Some possible tools include

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