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Big Picture or Detail Oriented? UX Requires Both!

Selling UX

A unique perspective on service UX

A column by Baruch Sachs
November 17, 2014

Autumn is a great time to be a New Englander. While autumnal beauty happens all over the world, New England is the place to be in the United States. Sitting on my back deck and looking at the forest behind my house is one of my favorite ways to get inspired. One day, as I was watching the leaves swirl and fall, I started thinking about user experience and consulting. Weird, I know, but as each leaf fell, I realized that, while each leaf seems small, enough of them will eventually cover the entire ground. If you rake too early, you will have to repeat the process multiple times. If you wait until every single leaf is off a tree, your job becomes that much harder. With leaves, this is a game every New Englander plays. When should you pay attention to them?

It’s the same in UX consulting. There are constantly little things falling all over the place. If you’re not able to analyze and focus on the right patterns, you’ll end up buried. If you focus on catching every little crisis before it touches the ground and festers, you’ll constantly be putting out fires. Neither of these outcomes is a good place to be, and it requires the right character and personality to strike the correct balance.

Leaders and Doers in User Experience

We usually divide people into two groups: the big-picture people and the detail-oriented people. Sometimes, we break these groups down even further and talk of there being leaders and doers. Leaders are supposed to be strategic visionaries who are creative in their approach and who do big things for an enterprise. All too often, however, they blaze a path of destruction to get where they’re going, leaving many bodies and relationships in their wake. When you are a consultant, that is definitely not the way to become successful.

The doers are the people who focus intently on the details. They often plan and plan and are exacting in their approach to solving problems. Yet, in all their planning, they may focus too much on small details and lose sight of the big picture and a broader perspective. They are the tactical workhorses upon whom leaders rely, but they’re not the ones you look to for strategic vision. For a UX consultant, who has been brought in to provide user experience vision, this is not the way to become successful either.

As a UX consultant, it seems more and more apparent to me that it is important to be both a leader and a doer. It’s a typical scenario these days for a company to bring in a UX consultant not only to set the strategy or vision for user experience, but also to create wireframes, visual designs, and from time to time, even to place their hands on a keyboard and write a little HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Such expectations do not respect the characterizations of the two types of people that people commonly think exist.

These days, people make much of the idea of a so-called UX Unicorn. This mythical creature cannot just draw pretty pictures, but also knows exactly how to make those pretty pictures a reality. Find that person, so the fable goes, and your UX problems are solved.

But I don’t really think this type of person is that hard to find. In fact, I have a number of these types of folks on my team now, and I am grateful for them every day. They are able to blend the creativity of design with the technical skills that it takes to make their designs scalable and maintainable for the enterprise.

The Real UX Unicorn

In my view, the real unicorn in User Experience is the person who combines strategic thinker and tactical doer in one individual. The characteristics of successful, visionary leaders and the doers who are able to bring their ideas to life are indeed very different. So why is the expectation of this ability to be both so prevalent for UX professionals?

This expectation speaks to the heart of the continued misconception that many business have regarding what user experience really is about. While it’s not my intent to define user experience in this column, I would like to bring up one important point: When we consider that we can actually say “good UX” or “bad UX,” this means the user experience itself is not a strategy or vision. A user experience is actually an end result. Your product or service has either provided a good experience for users or a bad or mediocre experience that may drive them into the loving arms of a competitor who was able to successfully provide a good user experience where you failed. User experience is the primary motivator to get a product right—whether you’re designing an application or the ergonomics of a headset or toaster oven.

By nature, a UX consultant is someone who continually aspires to achieving spectacular end results. The design background of UX professionals enables them to see beyond their daily tasks and conceive of a vision that they can communicate. If UX consultants have technical skill, they can break down their vision into the detailed tasks that are necessary to making their vision a reality. In the consulting world, we need to be able to swoop in and, in a short period of time, get a handle on the problem that we are there to solve, set a vision, and lay out the tasks that we need to do to realize that vision. When we are the sole UX person, we also have to perform those tasks. Or, if we have a team, we must at least be able to properly delegate those tasks to them and oversee their completion. This is a pretty unique spot to be in.

It is because user experience is so results oriented that most of us in this profession are actually really talented at being both visionaries and detail-oriented doers at the same time. Our training—whether it be formal or informal—and experience have honed our ability to blend a strategic and tactical approach in almost everything we do. For example, think of how many UX professionals who, though they do not come from a technical background, have decided to learn HTML and CSS simply because they were tired of technical folks telling them that their designs were not possible, given the technological constraints, or were frustrated by not getting their designs built as designed. The leader in us could not accept that. We needed to learn what was really possible. The doer in us actually enjoys having the power to make our pretty pictures a reality.

While this blend of strategic and tactical thinking is not unique to the field of user experience, it is very prevalent among UX professionals. In fact, this is a strength that we should exploit even more than we currently do. In doing so, we can ensure that we deliver good results for the businesses for whom we work and good experiences for those who interact with the products and services that we design, and make the world better through design. 

Vice President, Client Innovation, at Pegasystems

Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Baruch SachsAt Pegasystems, Baruch helps global clients develop new ways of streamlining their operations, improving their customer experience, and creating real transformations—digital or otherwise. Previously, during his 12 years at Pegasystems, Baruch led their global User Experience team and served as the principal end-user advocate for the Pegasystems Services organization in their delivery of user-interface design and user experience to customers and partners. He has led and participated in successful efforts to improve user experience across various industries. Baruch earned his Bachelor of Arts in Professional and Technical Writing and Philosophy at the University of Hartford and his Master’s of Science in Human Factors in Information Design from Bentley University’s McCallum Graduate School of Business.  Read More

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