Someone sent a message to the Adaptive Path Alums mailing list last fall asserting that Information Architects (IAs) need to be really great coders to do their jobs. I was aghast. I uttered many things, loudly, that are inappropriate for a profession
al blog. The clincher for me was this line, “[IAs] need to wake up in the middle of the night and code SQL joins.” No. No, we don’t. I collected myself and wrote a response just snarky enough for me to feel I’d made my point. This discussion went back and forth for a bit, but it ended up somewhere interesting. To make my ultimate point, I thought hard about it and defined the nine essential characteristics you must possess to make a good software user experience designer.
A note about terminology: I use the term “User Experience Designer” (or UX designer) instead of “Information Architect” because IA refers to a subset of what we do. Also, that’s what Jesse says we are now.
#1: A Deep Understanding of Human Psychology & Research Methods
As Robert Fabricant says, human behavior is our medium. If you don’t understand people, you won’t be a good UX designer. You must have the capacity to hypothesize about the reasons behind the actions you observe people take. You must be able to see things from another person’s perspective. UX designers do more than think about what people do; they actively research it. You must also be familiar with psychological research methods designed to elicit and elucidate people’s perspectives. It takes talent and empathy to unearth these often well-hidden psychological constructs. This isn’t something just anyone can do.
#2: Competence in the Basics of Graphic Design
If you had to be a graphic designer to be a UX designer, I would have been fired long ago. Thankfully you don’t. But you do need to be competent in the most basic of basic graphic design principles. Graphic design breaks down into three elements: layout, color, and typography. What you need to know about layout is really Gestalt psychology. Things that appear closer together, bounded by lines, in the same color, etc. appear to be related. What you need to know about color is how to use a difference in color and its properties (hue, saturation, & brightness) to draw the user’s attention to important user interface (UI) elements. You also need to know how not to draw attention to unimportant elements. You need to know how to avoid the limitations of using color to convey information. Not everyone perceives color equally well. What you need to know about typography is how to use it to make content readable and scanable online. You also need to know not to use Comic Sans ever, apparently.
#3: An Awareness of and Interest in Technology
While I fundamentally disagree with the assertion that UX designers need to be expert coders, you do need to be fluent in technology. You should be able to understand technology well enough to communicate with developers, but you don’t need to have the skills to make it. While I absolutely cannot program my way out of a paper bag, having taken a few programming classes has helped me think like a developer when I need to communicate with them. Even if you haven’t done any programming, you can still communicate with developers if you’re interested enough in technology to learn. Ask questions if they start talking about things you don’t understand. Don’t just nod your head and say, “Mmm-hmm.” Interest is the first step toward knowledge.
#4: Verbal & Visual Communication Skills
UX design is all about abstractions until suddenly they are concrete and expensive to fix. You must be able to clearly communicate your ideas and the research findings they’re based on before that happens. You must be able to verbally describe everything from squishy user motivations to rigid, detailed sequences of events. But words can have different interpretations. You need to be able to supplement verbal communication with visuals. buy viagra online You don’t need to be an artist but you do need to be able to sketch your ideas on a whiteboard and create clean, clear prototypes and wireframes.
#5: Moderate Familiarity with Business, Deep Familiarity with Your Business
You need to understand the basics of how the business world works in order to effectively elicit and understand business goals. That doesn’t mean that you need to take an accounting class. Just think hard about value and what increases and decreases it. You do need to be very familiar with what your particular company or client finds valuable, though. On top of that, you need to be familiar with why your customers find your products or services valuable. To do that, you need to deeply understand the context in which they work.
#6: The Ability to Quickly Learn a Subject Matter Area
UX designers, whether corporate or consultants, are thrown into situations that they must understand from multiple perspectives. And quickly! Key to this is the ability to quickly master a subject matter area. This allows you to generate useful insights from user research and uncover hidden business goals by asking the right questions. This is crucial to good user experience design. This deep knowledge of context guides your design and allows you to make effective design decisions.
#7: Mediation, Facilitation, & Translation Skills
UX designers sit at the crotch of the Y. Business, technology, and users all intersect in our work.
Mediation, facilitation, & translation skills are necessary to ensure that everyone’s perspective is accounted for. While user goals can be uncovered through empathetic, open-minded research, business goals are often much harder. Different departments or business units often have different or even conflicting goals. I cannot overstate the importance of keeping these groups on the same page. On top of that, then you have to make it work in whatever technological context is required. Our jobs are not easy.
#8: Creativity & Vision
You need creativity and vision to take all of the above and mold it into a system that helps a business achieve its goals by making it easy and enjoyable for its users and customers to achieve theirs. You need the ability to both envision the big picture and craft the details. You need the creativity to innovate consciously and the drive to
encourage innovation in others.
If you have all the characteristics I described above, you’re probably a good UX designer. But there is one single characteristic that makes the difference between a good designer and an excellent one…
In some ways, UX design is a worldview, something you just can’t turn off. Passionate UX designers constantly watch people do what they do and analyze why. They can’t help but redesign self-checkout machines in their heads after suffering through them. They create taxonomies for their kitchens and do interaction design on their living rooms. There is no interaction they have with technology or any other type of system that goes un-thought about.
Passion is the most important of all these characteristics. If a passion for UX is all you have, that’s a good place to start. That passion will drive you to cultivate the rest and success will soon follow.