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8 Things You Should Be Doing in Your UX Practice, but Probably Aren’t

Envision the Future

The role UX professionals play

A column by Paul J. Sherman
July 19, 2009

Let me get a bit meta with you right at the top. This month’s column is more than a touch formulaic. But here’s the thing: The reason columnists keep coming back to drink from the X-things-you’re-not-doing-but-should well is because readers find it irresistible. Why? Because, when this format is done right, it scratches the itch that UX professionals have for self-improvement—for lifting themselves out of their ruts.

So, enough with this combined apology/meta explanation, let’s get right to it. In no particular order, here are 8 things you should be doing to improve and grow in your professional practice, but that you’re probably not doing—or not doing enough.

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Communicate Simply

Admit it. Ours can be an insular profession. As much as most of us think we communicate simply and effectively, we often don’t. Why? I think it’s because we’re sometimes overly concerned about how we’re coming across to our fellow UXers. You know what? Forget about them. Your real audience is the business stakeholder. When you’re planning a presentation or trying to figure out how to communicate your research or design solution, don’t let your inner Nielsen—or head-Nielsen for fans of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica TV series—prevent you from communicating in terms and concepts that your stakeholders can understand and groove on.

You know what this means, don’t you? You’re not allowed to use the term heuristic evaluation anymore. Banish it from your professional vocabulary! Now, wave goodbye to it, because, if you use it again, I will personally come to your house and punch you in the arm.

Whether you’re reporting research results, writing a research plan, showing off a new design, or drafting a specification, keep it simple. Communicate your key points efficiently and using minimal jargon.

Read, Read, Read

I know keeping up with all there is to read is hard for all but the most inveterate readers in our crowd. But it’s important that you keep up to date with the latest news about design, user experience, usability, product management, technology, mobility, and more. My advice is to get yourself an RSS reader—Web-based or desktop, whatever works for you—and bookmark and tag relentlessly. Don’t worry, you don’t have to keep track of what you’re bookmarking and tagging—yet.

After a few weeks, once you’ve built up a nice backlog of reading, I want you to schedule some me-time for yourself. At least once a month, reserve some time for an hour of strolling through your bookmarks and tags, reviewing what you’ve filed away. Open up a notepad—either a virtual notepad or a real one—and just crank out a raw dump of the main takeaways from each article. If you’re doing it electronically, don’t forget to note the sources of your takeaways. Just grab the URL and paste it beneath them.

I promise, if you do this for 3 or 4 months, you’ll get smarter and be a better UX practitioner—or manager, VP, or whatever. And don’t forget to share your gleanings. Not only is this a good way to consolidate your knowledge, it’s a good way to spark discussions in your professional community. It’s an even-money bet that, pretty soon, you’ll find yourself becoming the proverbial font of knowledge that people rely on for user experience expertise.

Pick a New UX Tool and Experiment with It

You want to grow in your practice? Download or browse to a new tool and play around with it. You may not put it into regular rotation, but it’ll get you thinking and looking at your practice a bit differently. And who knows, you might find that 10X-efficiency-booster application that works just the way you think about design, IA, user research, or usability.

Here’s a good place to start: Check out Russell Wilson’s 2008 article “16 Prototyping Tools Reviewed.” And give the comments a read, too. There’s good stuff there.

Hold a UX Stand-Down and Operational Review

This is something I’ve done in my management and leadership positions at Sage and Intuit. I got the idea from the US Navy. Periodically, certain naval air units examine and improve operational policies and procedures by standing down for a day and thoroughly reviewing how they do what they do. They look for opportunities to do things better, eliminate procedures and processes of dubious value, and improve safety margins.

I’m sure you have some cruft in your UX practice. So, do yourself and your colleagues a favor. Take a day where all you do is look at what you do, what you produce, and how you deliver your services. It might help for you to pose some form of the following questions to yourself, regarding every aspect of your operation:

  • Is this activity or process still meeting the need for which it was originally designed?
  • If it isn’t, why not?
  • If it is, can you meet that need in a better, faster, or stronger way?
  • Are you performing any activities or processes that don’t meet any of your organization’s needs? (And can you stop doing them right now?)
  • Are there new needs your current activities and processes are not satisfying?

There are many names for these types of activities. One I’ve heard in my corporate travels is the stop-start-continue exercise. Whatever you call it, it’s a good idea. Do it! Don’t worry, I won’t punch you in the arm if you don’t. But if I see you at a UX conference or meetup, I will give you loads of Jewish-mother guilt.

Stretch Yourself Outside of User Experience

Our profession can be like a comfortable, well-decorated, and distracting gilded cage. It’s so comfortable, we are often loath to leave it. Well, guess what? Temporarily assuming a completely different job or responsibility might make you love our little UX world even more when you return to it. And you’ll have the added advantage of bringing back an outside-in perspective of your field. So, do yourself a favor. Go do something else for 6 or 12 months—for example, take on a requirements analyst or business analyst role. Be a product manager. Work in the online marketing department. If you have the chops, go write code. Hell, you could even do QA for awhile. (Although it seems to me that it takes a certain kind of focused craziness to geek out on testing and validation.) But it’s all good, and it’ll pay dividends down the line.

Think About Your UX Career Path

This is the other side of the coin. Who are you professionally? What is your UX specialty, your brand? Are you a strategic UX thinker—business oriented, big picture—or more tactical—testing, testing, testing? Are you a tool wizard—adopting the latest, greatest tools—a specialist—the forms guy or gal—or a cutting-edge Web 2.0/social media wonk? Pick a persona and work it. Specialization is not a bad thing, especially if you’re seen as the go-to guy or gal for a particular class of problems.

Repurpose Your UX Assets

Here’s a suggestion from John Rhodes, one of the truly talented marketing minds in the user experience industry. He suggests taking reports you’ve written for several clients and creating a meta report for sale on your Web site. Another suggestion from John is to convert a whitepaper to an MP3 and post it as free download on your Web site or a podcast directory. Use it for marketing or sales support.

Think your stuff isn’t worth the reuse effort? Think again. Everything helps. If your for-sale report doesn’t sell like hotcakes, you’ve got a ready-made piece of marketing collateral—or a portfolio piece, if you’re looking to get employed by a company that likes to see work samples.

Departing from Script on User Research Visits

Serendipity is the mother of discovery. I have created dozens of user research studies and moderated hundreds of sessions. Invariably, the most interesting and important findings for my clients come from pursuing a line of inquiry that wasn’t even part of the original research protocol.

I’ll fess up. One of the major mistakes I made as an inexperienced user research practitioner was over-determining the session protocol. In my younger days, I was too eager to cram the protocol full of tasks, questions, and opportunities for recounting critical incidents. I didn’t realize that the best, highest-quality insights come from simply being attentive and open to the unexpected, then describing the phenomena you’ve witnessed and offering some clever and penetrating analysis.

So, learn from my experience. Loosen up your field-research protocol a bit. Don’t fill it with too many tasks and questions. And be on the lookout for interesting phenomena, behaviors, or rituals. They’re your business-class ticket to insight city.

I’m sure there are lots of other things that we, as UX professionals, should and could be doing. I invite you to share your suggestions in the comments below. 

A quick thanks to Susan Hura of SpeechUsability, Daniel Szuc of Apogee, and John Rhodes of Webword for their suggestions and ideas.

Founder and Principal Consultant at ShermanUX

Youngstown, Ohio, USA

Paul J. ShermanShermanUX provides a range of services, including research, design, evaluation, UX strategy, training, and rapid contextual innovation. Paul has worked in the field of usability and user-centered design for the past 13 years. He was most recently Senior Director of User-Centered Design at Sage Software in Atlanta, Georgia, where he led efforts to redesign the user interface and improve the overall customer experience of Peachtree Accounting and several other business management applications. While at Sage, Paul designed and implemented a customer-centric contextual innovation program that sought to identify new product and service opportunities by observing small businesses in the wild. Paul also led his team’s effort to modernize and bring consistency to Sage North America product user interfaces on both the desktop and the Web. In the 1990s, Paul was a Member of Technical Staff at Lucent Technologies in New Jersey, where he led the development of cross-product user interface standards for telecommunications management applications. As a consultant, Paul has conducted usability testing and user interface design for banking, accounting, and tax preparation applications, Web applications for financial planning and portfolio management, and ecommerce Web sites. In 1997, Paul received his PhD from the University of Texas at Austin. His research focused on how pilots’ use of computers and automated systems on the flight deck affects their individual and team performance. Paul is Past President of the Usability Professionals’ Association, was the founding President of the UPA Dallas/Fort Worth chapter, and currently serves on the UPA Board of Directors and Executive Committee. Paul was Editor and contributed several chapters for the book Usability Success Stories: How Organizations Improve by Making Easier-to-Use Software and Web Sites, which Gower published in October 2006. He has presented at conferences in North America, Asia, Europe, and South America.  Read More

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