Smashing UX Design: An Interview with Jesmond Allen and James Chudley

September 17, 2012

In recent months, I’ve found myself rereading staples from my UX bookshelf in preparation for a course that I’m teaching. Regardless of how fascinating the subject matter, it tends to get a bit dry around book five. However, I recently had the great pleasure of reading Jesmond Allen and James Chudley’s new book, Smashing UX Design: Foundations for Designing Online User Experiences. From the beginning, I was struck by the novel approach they had taken. Rejuvenated, I found myself eager to implement some new ideas—and even to resurrect some oldies that had gotten buried in my UX toolbox.

Erin: The tone and personality of your book is so refreshing; it is as if a mentor or friend is talking to the reader. Since setting the tone and language for a product is an important aspect of our job as UX designers, were you cognizant of writing your book in this manner, or was it was simply a natural product of your writing style?

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Jesmond: We’re user-centered designers, so the first thing we thought about was our audience for our book. We considered the Smashing Magazine readership and aimed to address their needs. Neither of us is a professional writer, so thinking about writing as a dialogue with a colleague was a helpful starting point.

James: I tried to read a book about how to write before we began the book project. Pretty soon, I became bogged down in the rules, and it really got in the way of just getting everything down on paper. Our deadline meant that we just had to get on with it and rely on the editors to help us to pull it together at the end. Luckily, our writing styles worked well together, and the guys at Wiley did an amazing editorial job.

Erin: There are many subtle aspects of the book that I thoroughly enjoyed. One in particular was the inclusion of case studies. They provided a relatable aspect to readers. What gave you the idea to include real clients into your book?

Jesmond: We often advise our clients to “show don’t tell,” and case studies were an opportunity to do just that in Smashing UX. We wanted to bring our real-world experiences to life for readers, and we’re incredibly grateful to the clients who allowed us to write about their projects.

James: We are lucky in that we work on UX projects every day, with a team of people who have a really rich variety of experience and expertise. This allows us to ask quick questions that help to shape our projects. But, of course, not everyone has easy access to a bunch of UX professionals they can bounce ideas off of, and in those situations, pitching an idea or a process to a client without passing it by others first can be pretty daunting.

Case studies are a nice way of letting people learn from the work we have done and apply it to their own projects. Everyone talks about tools and techniques all the time, but they rarely discuss the subject of designing a project. Designing a process that results in a design or research solution is an art in its own right, and we hoped that, by including case studies, we would shed a bit of light upon how we go about doing things.

Erin: Your admitting that contextual research is a favorite approach made me smile. There are certain techniques that I enjoy more than others as well. Out of all the research and design tools you cover in Smashing UX Design, do you find there are any in particular that you use most often?

Jesmond: You can never beat a good usability test for teaching you something new. Plus, the activity that is my personal favorite is definitely sketching on a whiteboard with colleagues to solve interesting design problems.

James: I agree with Jesmond here, and this is probably a common theme among UX professionals: I love going out into the wild and discovering weird and wonderful behavior, then trying to come up with designs that support that behavior. I also really enjoy understanding how organizations work, then trying to juggle often conflicting user and business requirements. Design is definitely addictive, and we all find ourselves identifying things that are broken, then trying to fix them. I guess it’s just the way we are wired!

Erin: To borrow one of your own questions from the book, were “there any burning issues that [you] must address” within the book?

Jesmond: No real burning issues, but we felt we wanted to be honest, down to earth, and above all, practical. We wanted to ensure that this book would be useful to people. We’re passionate advocates of user-centered design, and we genuinely wanted to help others to put users at the heart of their projects. Activities like usability testing may sound difficult to those who have no training in usability, and we wanted to show that anyone can roll up their sleeves and get going with user experience.

James: I think Jesmond has really nailed this one. The book is all about sharing what we know and trying to help others who are also working in user experience. The practical aspect of the book was hugely important to me. If we have done our job properly, it will end up like a well-loved recipe book—dog-eared and covered in tea or wine, biscuit crumbs, scribblings, and highlighter ink. It’s ended up as a bit of a UX manual, so hopefully it will become what we originally envisioned: the UX expert on your bookshelf.

Erin: One topic we don’t often see covered is the nuts and bolts of time and budget allotment for UX. As you mention, it’s a common question that is quite difficult to answer because projects and clients vary so much. Aside from just learning through experience, what direction would you give a novice in the field to ease some of their uncertainty?

Jesmond: Unfortunately, there’s no substitute for experience. However, taking the time to break down a project into every activity you’ll need to cover is a good place to start when budgeting your time.

James: I used to use only one rule of thumb: 1 day per wireframe. But with the advent of responsive design, this has gone out the window. You need to come up with a plan and review it regularly. I often need to change course during a project, because things always seem to change. But as long as I communicate well with clients, this rarely causes problems. Scope creep is the enemy of successful projects. I’d advise novices to keep note of how long they thought something would take, and how long it actually took to do and why.

Erin: As often as we discuss how user experience is good for both users and businesses, I still find that there are misconceptions—and even, at times, a business-versus-user mentality. Unfortunately, in some cases, I’ve even seen a business-versus-developer type of environment. You not only go to great lengths to spell out the importance of addressing business and user needs, but also describe various workshops that can increase buy-in and common understanding across a project team. From your experience, has this helped you overcome the us-versus-them mindset?

Jesmond: We’re user-centered designers, but if we designed solely for users, we wouldn’t meet the business needs of the people who are paying us. As someone once said, “The most user-friendly online store possible wouldn’t need to take payment details: the goods would be free.” The interesting design challenges lie in getting the balance right between business and user needs in an elegant and efficient product.

On our projects, we usually have the luxury of working for clients who have already called in a user-centered design agency, so we have a head start on overcoming the business-versus-user mentality. However, sometimes we are there because one part of a business needs to provide evidence to another part of the need to change. Those projects can be tough, but are rewarding. We always find that projects go more smoothly when key stakeholders are involved in the decision-making process. If our clients understand the basis for our design decisions, they can build on our designs long after we’ve gone. All marketing, design, and development disciplines have a place in UX design, and we strive to involve them wherever possible.

James: I always used to find it odd when Account Directors would tell me that they owned the commercial aspects of a project, while I should concentrate on the users. As UX professionals, we need to understand and cater to needs of both. In terms of managing conflict, when clients just decide to let their customers make the decisions for them and we follow a truly user-centered design approach, we seem to get fewer conflicts!

Erin: How would you run a requirements workshop for remote project teams?

Jesmond: Remote teams are an interesting challenge. If at all possible, we try to get all the key stakeholders in a room together, even if it is only once, at the beginning of a project. Once everyone knows each other, it’s much easier to run workshops via screen sharing and conference calls.

James: I can imagine that running a remote requirements workshop would be an absolute nightmare! It makes such a difference getting to meet people first hand, particularly when trying to understand what they need. But if you have no choice, a series of individual calls would be a good way of forging rapport and understanding. (Skype might help because you can see everyone.)

Erin: How do you entice clients who are disinterested in participating in requirements or ideation workshops?

Jesmond: People generally like to be asked for their opinion, so in my experience it’s rare for people to be reluctant to participate in workshops. The main issue I’ve seen is people who are reluctant to sketch out their ideas. I reassure them that it’s not about drawing skills, and jotting down a few words or ideas is the perfect place to start.

James: I’ve seen clients employ some interesting tactics when trying to entice their busy colleagues to help out. These generally include the promise of getting their opinions and ideas across, getting away from the office, a nice lunch, or a day with some creative types!

Erin: Perhaps I’m biased by my love of sticky notes and affinity diagrams, but I really enjoyed your discussion of prioritization in a workshop setting, and I am eager to work it into my repertoire. Can you explain how you incorporate user research findings into client prioritization exercises?

Jesmond: In workshops where the client is focusing on business needs, a couple of approaches are helpful. One option is to have materials at hand, such as a previously agreed on task model, customer experience map, or perhaps personas. Ask participants to prioritize requirements using those materials. Alternatively, the facilitator of the exercise can act as the voice of the user to make sure their needs are considered.

James: An important related point this raises is timing. To represent the voice of the user, you must understand user needs before you run prioritization workshops. However, I prefer to define business requirements first, then do my user research afterward. This allows me to focus my user research on the priority areas for the business. If you do it the other way around, you’ll miss opportunities to focus on the juicy bits. When you get to prioritizing requirements, make sure you involve all of the guys who did the user research. This seems obvious, but it doesn’t always happen in my experience.

Erin: Another thing I found quite novel was the part of the book titled “UX Components Deconstructed.” As you mention, I did feel as if it were cheat sheet of sorts. What gave you the idea to create this checklist for UX designers?

Jesmond: We wanted to do something that we hadn’t seen addressed before. Between us, we have loads of experience designing the different elements that we covered in that part of the book, and we wanted to share that experience.

James: We can all recognize the situation where we are really up against a crazy deadline, and we just need someone to remind us that we need to make sure we include specific deliverables. I think we could have titled that section “Lifesavers”!

Erin: Mobile growth is such a force in our field. Your approach—that mobile user experience is truly not different from any other user experience—is notable in both its accuracy and simplicity. I’ve refined my standard research techniques slightly to accommodate desktop and mobile access, but not nearly as much as I’d expected. Do you feel that any particular areas of UX design might garner more attention as mobile continues to grow?

Jesmond: New technologies always present fascinating design challenges. It’s been really wonderful and interesting to have clients ask us to design responsive sites for them over the last year or so. Working out what the new constraints and opportunities were and applying them to real-world projects has been hugely rewarding. I’m not going to pretend that I know what the next big thing will be. But I do know that the way to design for it, whatever it is, will be to watch users interacting with it, ask them questions, and understand their needs.

James: The most significant areas of change that we are experiencing with respect to mobile are probably the process we follow, the way we wireframe and also how much more we are thinking about content. It feels like mobile is hugely disrupting everything, and it’s really shaken things up. It is a truly exciting time to be working in this field!

Erin: You both have a wealth of UX experience you’ve gained over the years, and you’ve had multiple titles. What initially drew you to user experience? After looking back, what areas of user experience do you find most intriguing as you look toward the future?

Jesmond: I started out in the world of digital design as a graphic designer. In the late 1990s, I was working for a UK-based Internet service provider with a large Web site for its customers, and they called in some American consultants to help with a redesign. One of them was an information architect and produced HTML wireframes for the visual designers to work from. Another ran usability tests on the designs. This was an approach to design that I had never seen before, and I thought it was marvelous. They intended their design to be user friendly and gathered evidence to back up their decisions. After they had gone, I was the designer in charge of a million-page Web site, but I knew I needed to be an information architect to do my job properly. I left to study for a Masters of Science in Computer Science, specializing in Human-Computer Interaction, and I have been working in user-centered design ever since.

I’m always excited by producing designs that are rooted in a deep understanding of user needs. If a new technology comes along, that’s even more exciting, because there’s more research to do to understand those needs.

James: I think user experience found me, as opposed to the other way around. I was working as a Research Assistant at Leeds University, and they asked me to design a user interface for healthcare professionals to use during outbreaks of water-borne diseases.

At a recruitment event, I showed an early prototype to a guy called Nigel Conde, from a digital agency called Amaze, and he told me that I was doing the work of an information architect. I had no idea what he was on about! Subsequently, Amaze employed me as an information architect, and as time went by, I learned more and more about usability from reading everything I could lay my hands on. We then started doing more and more user research and, as the industry matured, we started to describe ourselves as UX professionals.

Peering into my crystal ball, I know that user research will get more and more interesting, given the inevitable growth of mobile and the different contexts of use that we’ll be designing for. Designing for mobile is also fascinating. Hardware changes such as retina displays and practical challenges such as producing UX deliverables for mobile projects is causing everyone to scratch their heads. I’m a really keen photographer, so will continue to keep an eye on the impact that photos have on digital design. Check out my blog, photoUX, for my thoughts and some interesting examples.

Erin: My sincere thanks to you both for not only taking the time to talk to us at UXmatters, but also for writing such a wonderfully thorough handbook on UX design!

Jesmond: Thank you for the interesting questions!

James: An absolute pleasure. Thanks for asking us! 

Jesmond Allen and James Chudley’s Smashing UX Design is available from Wiley in print and digital formats.

User Experience Architect II at Anthem, Inc.

Norfolk, Virginia, USA

Erin WalshDuring her twelve years of experience working in user-centered design, Erin has often found herself in a teaching role, evangelizing usability and the user experience. Early in her career in Web development, she was responsible for all aspects of development, from requirements gathering to deployment. More recently, Erin has had the opportunity to focus on user behavior and experience design. When she is not analyzing her toddler’s interactions with digital applications, she continues her work evangelizing user experience to Web design and interactive media students. She has an M.S. in Interactive and New Communication Technologies from Florida State University.  Read More

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