Organizational Stories That Teach UX Designers | Professional Roadmaps

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A column by Janet M. Six
February 20, 2012

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our UX experts discuss what organizational stories we should be teaching UX designers, as well as professional roadmaps for UX designers.

In my monthly column, Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].

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The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Jessica Enders—Principal at Formulate Information Design
  • Leo Frishberg—Principal Architect, User Experience at Tektronix Inc.
  • Mike Hughes—User Assistance Architect at IBM Internet Security Systems; UXmatters columnist
  • Paul Sherman—Principal at Sherman Group User Experience; Vice President of Usability Professionals’ Association; UXmatters columnist

Organizational Stories That Teach UX Designers

Q: What organizational stories should we be teaching UX designers to enable them to survive and be more effective in business?—from a UXmatters reader

“We should teach stories that require UX design to accommodate business priorities,” recommends Mike. “A few examples:

  • whittling down a long list of requirements to one requirement that fits the development bandwidth—The UX perspective in this situation should be on helping the decision-making process take into account the users’ perceived value of the different requirements. I have found myself, for example, making the argument that certain requirements that a team was going to drop represented the true customer delighters, while those that they were keeping in scope had a more internal focus.
  • accommodating technical or platform constraints—Take an approach that leverages the existing code base and requires the least amount of new coding to put a feature into the marketplace.
  • designing for success in Quality Assurance—A lot of engineering investment gets burned up in handling rejection churn that could have been avoided through a better analysis of alternative paths and exception cases. I have found this to be particularly true in agile shops where the front-end work is not very rigorous. UX designers should learn modeling techniques such as writing use cases to enable them to recover an organization’s wasted engineering costs by reducing post-code-freeze churn.”

“First of all,” replies Jessica, “I think it’s incredibly good that you have organizational stories on your radar. It shows an appreciation for both understanding organizational culture and the almost unsurpassed way in which stories help convey knowledge and experience. Second, I’d advise you to look out for stories not only from fellow UX professionals, but also from people in diverse roles across relevant organizations. By gathering these stories, you will get a sense of what your organization’s true culture is, not just what the organization outwardly and artificially promotes.

“As for personal accounts, I’ve worked only as a UX consultant, so all of my stories come from that perspective. A story of my work with one of Australia’s biggest companies illustrates one experience I’ve consistently had in my consulting work. In the beginning, they engaged me to do just a quick heuristic review of a Web site that was 80% into their production process. That’s pretty late in the game to get a UX professional involved, so I was, of course, pessimistic about how much influence I could have. Sure enough, they could not do much at that point, beyond some minor improvements around the edges. But having seen the value that I could add, they then brought me into other projects earlier. Almost three years later, I’ve ended up working across many different parts of the company, I no longer have to convince senior decision makers of the value of user experience, and they engage my services earlier and often.

“The moral of this story is: learn to be comfortable starting small and delivering quickly. It’s a sure-fire way to establish both of your credibility, trust, and familiarity, which, in turn, undoubtedly leads to more work and your having more influence—provided there’s a good fit.”

Professional Roadmaps for UX Designers

Q: What is a good professional roadmap for a UX designer?—from a UXmatters reader

“Assuming the question is about where an individual can take his or her own career,” responds Leo, “the world is wide open. You’ll need to consider several questions to help you figure out the answer to this broad question:

  • What are you passionate about? Identify an industry or application on which you could happily spend 10 hours a day. Are you interested in helping people? Animals? Creating weapons? Food justice?
  • What specific skills do you enjoy using? Visual design, interaction design, prototyping, strategic definition? Use this knowledge as you take your first step down the road and build on it.”

Paul agrees: “The short answer is that the UX professional roadmap is all over the map! I don’t think that’s a bad thing. While there are definitely more interaction design-focused academic and professional programs than there were when I was in graduate school, I’m still seeing UX professionals coming from many different disciplines. With that said, since user experience almost always bridges the gap between the business and the technologists, I recommend your becoming more familiar with product management’s role in the product development life cycle (PDLC).

“If you come from a technical background, it is, of course, easier to understand the technologists’ world. If not, it would be to your advantage to become familiar with the conceptual underpinnings of the technology stack that your organization uses. And, of course, the more domain knowledge you have, the more valuable you’ll be to the development folks, who are sometimes strong in technical skills, but light in actual domain knowledge.”

“Volunteer with your local chapter of IxDA, SIGCHI, UPA, or another organization for UX professionals,” recommends Leo. “Part of being a UX professional is contributing to the profession at large. Mentor others; another mark of a UX professional is the willingness to help newer members of your profession. Ultimately, you need to answer the existential question: What do I want to be when I grow up? A question most of us continue to ask well into our professional careers.

“Are you interested in managing projects or people? Are you interested in being the best possible designer—recognized the world over—or would you be satisfied doing exemplary work within your local community? Do you want to work for others, lead your own company, be a consultant, or work in an agency? All of these are possible pathways to a successful professional career in user experience.” 

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research.  Read More

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