Confessions of a Designer

Innovating UX Practice

Inspirations from software engineering

A column by Peter Hornsby
June 22, 2015

My name is Peter, and I’m a designer. This is not something I’d previously thought of as a problem—until recently, when a friend pointed out that I was looking at a Web page as a designer and not taking the time to experience it as, you know, a regular human being. Most people like to think of themselves as just regular folks, and I do, too. So I had not given any real thought to my identity as a designer before. But the signs were there for me to see if I’d paid attention to them.

My responding to a Web page as a designer usually starts with mild cursing—questioning the parentage and intelligence of the person who designed the page. Then I move on to deriding specific details—for example, the apparent lack of thought given to the labels on a form, the poor alignment of elements on a page, or the ubiquity of a Useful Links page on so many Web sites. (One day, I plan to create a page called Useless Links that is filled with similar content.) Finally, I realized—when my friend pointed this out to me—that I was experiencing the page as a designer first and a human being second. If you’re a designer, I’ll bet you’ve done the same thing on more than one occasion.

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I should also note that those nearest and dearest to me have used phrases like “You do know you’re doing it again, don’t you?” as I mutter under my breath at the inability of companies to create a date field that can accept single-digit years and months without churning out an error message that they’ve apparently designed to make users feel like they’re the stupid one in the relationship.

Having a designer’s mindset is great—when you’re in the midst of a design process. The rest of the time, though, you should be able to switch it off. First, it slows you down. Really, you’re on a site to get a job done, and taking those moments to evaluate the site’s design—whether consciously or otherwise—is a hindrance to your actually getting things done. More importantly, though, you’re denying yourself an opportunity to feel a page as a user does—to experience the user’s true frustration or delight. Admittedly, experiencing the sensation of delight is a rare and precious gift, but such experiences can be found. Sites such as Little Big Details have some wonderful examples of the kinds of insights that some designers have applied to their designs to imbue them with a real sense of surprise and delight.

Teaching UX Design

Fortunately, at around the same time that my friend was pointing out my shortcomings as a human being, I had another opportunity to take a step back from my designer mindset and reflect on it. Recently, my boss asked me to develop some training in UX design for a range of my colleagues, including developers and quality-assurance testers. I’ve taught before, and it’s something I enjoy doing, but I’d never before taught design. If you’re of the mindset that “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” please take a moment to watch the video “What Teacher’s Make,” by the beat poet Taylor Mali. In fact, go ahead and do that now—I’ll wait.

Not only is this piece of work wonderfully performed, it imparts so many brilliantly communicated gems. This video is about making a difference. I can’t speak for those who have teaching as their vocation, but I would strongly recommend teaching as a way of developing your own understanding of what you do, whatever that is.

To teach something, you need to go through a process of reflection—thinking about what you know and questioning your knowledge and understanding at each stage. How do you know something is true? Where is the evidence? What challenges can you expect, and how might you prepare yourself to tackle them? In my case, I was thinking back to material that I’d initially learned about 20 years ago—writing that down makes me feel so old!—and trying to couch that information in terms that would make sense to my audience. The hard part was thinking back that far. The benefit of doing this was my being able to draw on experience and examples that I’d acquired throughout those 20 years.

Then, having pulled together all of the content, the next step was to structure it in a way that would make sense to my audience. I’d already taken as my initial premise the view that I needed to establish a scientific basis for design. In part, this reflects my own world view, but it’s also a more rational starting point for any discussion about a topic that can be as fraught with opinion as design is—often, unsupported opinion. To use a quotation that is sometimes attributed to W. Edwards Deming:

In God we trust, all others must bring data.

Experience helps. Rather than just talking about principles in isolation, I can show what they mean through application and, occasionally, demonstration, which helps me to communicate my ideas much more clearly. (I’d like to thank Joel Marsh for inspiring me with his fantastic approach to demonstrating Gestalt principles of organization with rubber ducks.) Particularly when teaching UX design, it’s much more effective to show why something works and connect the dots for people by applying the ideas in a context that makes sense—and ideally, solves a problem for someone.

As a rule of thumb, it probably took me around 15 hours over the course of a couple of weeks to pull together the content and prepare the materials for a 90-minute class session on UX design. I spent a lot of that time writing and rewriting the material. I feel like preparing the class materials has been a huge benefit to me, as well as to my audience. Through this process, I’ve managed to take a step back to understand UX design from someone else’s perspective and, thus, was able to share my understanding of the field of UX design with colleagues.

I still do find myself getting annoyed with badly designed Web sites though. Learning how to break out of that mindset is now a goal for me. 

Director at Edgerton Riley

Reading, Berkshire, UK

Peter HornsbyPeter has been actively involved in Web design and development since 1993, working in the defense and telecommunications industries; designing a number of interactive, Web-based systems; and advising on usability. He has also worked in education, in both industry and academia, designing and delivering both classroom-based and online training. Peter is a Director at Edgerton Riley, which provides UX consultancy and research to technology firms. Peter has a PhD in software component reuse and a Bachelors degree in human factors, both from Loughborough University, in Leicestershire, UK. He has presented at international conferences and written about reuse, eLearning, and organizational design.  Read More

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