The testament of a UX professional

The booklet “The Testament of a Furniture Dealer” (14 pages, pdf) was written by IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad in 1976 and describes the essence of IKEA as a company and its cornerstones in nine segments.

I have adapted this idea to the UX profession. In the following, I list 8 important lessons that life has taught me.


Overview of this page

#1: The more things change, the more they stay the same
#2: Don’t just talk – set a good example (the usability of usability)
#3: Design for mistakes
#4: Social skills
#5: Sell your results well
#6: Quality
#7: Faster, Better, Cheaper
#8: Humility and Curiosity


#1: The more things change, the more they stay the same

Sometimes people ask me: “What do you think of all the new, wonderful UX tools and techniques that have emerged over the past 20 years?” I usually reply something like “Yes – there are indeed many interesting new ways of doing things and lots of fancy tools. They open up a lot of new, interesting ways of doing things incorrectly, sometimes with catastrophic results.”

I tell people that the UX basics are the same as when I started in the UX field in 1984:

Focus on users, evaluation and iteration.

More specifically, a UX professional should master:

Symptoms of not mastering the basics of the UX profession are:

  • Basing design on opinion instead of user data – that is, relying on managers’, developers’, or your own opinions
  • Using focus groups or interviews for evaluating usability
  • Confusing interview and usability test
  • Using self-invented methods – that is, methods that have not stood the test of time or methods that are not described in a recognized textbook

Jakob Nielsen invented the term “Voodoo usability” for dubious use of usability methods in 1999. I think this is a wonderful term. I have got in trouble once or twice where I have used this term in presentations or on discussion lists for usability professionals. Some UX professionals react strongly to criticism of their products. Others, fortunately, react with humility and curiosity.

I know what my users need.
I asked my sister.
An example of Voodoo usability.
Thanks to Tomer Sharon.


#2: Don’t just talk – set a good example (the usability of usability)

Usability professionals must set a good example by delivering UX work products that are highly usable Examples of such products are:

  • Usability test reports
    For example, do all usability reports in your company follow the same standard? Are they short and easy to navigate and understand?
  • Presentations
  • Responses to questions and comments from stakeholders; avoid “It depends”, instead explain the alternatives

More about the usability of usability.

Sweep before your own door before you sweep the doorsteps of your neighbors


#3: Design for mistakes

THERE WILL BE ERRORS
— Jurek Kirakowski —

THERE WILL BE ERRORS – so plan carefully for them.

Design for mistakes:

  • Prevent problems
  • Design for error tolerance
  • Provide constructive, precise and comprehensible error messages
  • When considering an error condition, keep in mind: What would a helpful human being say or do? Can the error condition be avoided by clever redesign?
  • Write your error messages early and have them reviewed. Don’t postpone writing error messages until a few hours before the system is launched.

More about usable messages.


#4: Social skills

Good UX professionals have empathy for their users during observation, interviews and usability test. A rule of thumb is that after an interview or a usability test, the user should feel at least as good as before.

Another important social skill is the ability to communicate bad news about lack of usability to proud product owners and their team. Product owners and their teams are particularly sensitive to bad results just before the deadline.

Positive comments

  • Ensure that the development team doesn’t remove a feature that users actually liked
  • Make it easier for you to sell inconvenient truths. As Mary Poppins sings ”A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”

I sometimes – quite rudely – say:
Even developers have feelings

Never “police” UX, for example by strictly enforcing a styleguide. Instead, show interest in user interfaces that are being developed and regularly ask curious questions about apparent deviations. Make it a sport to comply with the styleguide.

When you have a hammer in your hand,
everything looks like a nail
— The Law of the instrument, A. Kaplan —


#5: Sell your results well

Your boss and your stakeholders won’t necessarily notice your accomplishments. So tell them what you have accomplished in short, usable messages.

Use usability tests to sell yourself and UX. A usability test can have at least the following goals:

  • Find usability problems so they can be corrected
  • Demonstrate convincingly to skeptical stakeholders, for example a product owner, developers and management, that usability problems exist even in their favorite product, and that there are efficient ways to find and correct them

My experience is that enemies of UX work are rare. They are characterized by quotes like

  • Real cowboy programmers don’t need no stinkin’ usability test
  • A good user is a dead user

Further objections to UX – and rebuttals

I have learned that my enemies are sometimes my friends – because they tell me openly how I can improve.


#6: Quality

To many people, quality is simply an empty buzzword. To me, it means for example meeting resonable user needs and requirements and conducting interviews and usability tests in accordance with established standards.

If you don’t care about quality, everything else is trivial  
— Gerald M. Weinberg —


#7: Faster, Better, Cheaper

Throughout the times, our stakeholders have demanded that we do our work Faster, Better and Cheaper.

I have learned from bitter experience that

Faster, Better, Cheaper.
Pick any two.

or even The Despeate Version:

Faster, Better, Cheaper.
Pick one.

I offer the following practical advice for those who care about Faster, Better, Cheaper:

Faster► Focus on essential results, shorter reports
► Consider remote or unmoderated testing
Better► Follow strict rules, standards. Treat UX as an industrial process
► Measure quality
► Follow up on unsatisfactory measurement results
Cheaper►Focus on cost, productivity. For example, is a notetaker, lab, or eye-tracking really indispensable for your usability test?
►Remote testing


#8: Key properties of a great UX professional: Humility and Curiosity

Humility:

  • Listens attentively to users and other stakeholders.
  • Eager to learn.
  • Open to new ideas.
  • Grateful when mistakes are pointed out to him/her.
  • Insists on having products reviewed before they are made public

Curiosity:

  • Continues to ask questions until the issue is fully understood, for example in interviews.
  • Explores alternatives, even if it’s not required.