11 August 2015

On persuasion

Grumpy old designers

Last week I discussed the financial collapses of the last couple of decades over lunch with two engineers on my team. We talked about one that impacted me in 1994 where funding for a PhD fell through due to a financial downturn in the UK. This lead to me taking on my first UI designer role instead where I taught myself HTML by looking at the source of websites in Mosiac browser (before there was widespread use of Netscape). Both engineers were quiet for a moment and one said that that was the year after he was born and the other said that he that was the year he was born.

After designing products for that length of time and observing people use them you build up an intuition about how people will respond to UI design and where they will fail.  You continue to observe people use your products while the platforms and interactions evolve and it adds to your deeper understanding of HCI. This is what you can offer engineering and product teams as a more experienced UX designer; fewer rounds of experimentation and testing (or in a few cases more testing in areas where you understand assumptions need validation) leading to a more rapid and hopefully successful release. Note: Yes we offer much more such as our design ninjutsu skills to get our recommendations built - we will get to that. 

At Google, as in most companies dominated by engineering teams, there are daily conversations as a UX designer where an engineering partner will challenge a recommendation resulting in more time spent gathering evidence to support your thinking. It is the toughest and usually least fun part of the role. Often for you the recommendation could be a basic UX 101 concept yet it is new to them and along with a presumption that you are approaching the discussion with the same understanding; that you just have different opinions. Experienced UX designers approach these discussions with a deep understanding of the user segment being represented and make a recommendations based on the user needs and mental models, not an opinion of how you would personally experience the UI.

Here is where the daily battle with your own arrogance comes in. The fight to suppress yelling out that you have been doing this shit since they were born, that this recommendation is obvious for you and that because they have haven't been working as a UX designer for over 20 years we don't have equally valid 'opinions'. Guess what, it doesn't work. Trust me, I have tried it. Didn't end well.

Google hires plenty of grumpy old designers who were design directors and then have to deliver designs alongside the Google designers fresh out of college where the work is judged by stakeholders in the same way. It is tough for old designers that rely on their reputation to speak for itself and the biggest mistake I have seen is to quote your qualifications, books published and years of experience as a way to argue for your design recommendation. That also doesn't work. I have tried it. Didn't end well.

Empty your cup

Back in 2000 I would sometimes be referred to as a web design 'guru' and I liked it (as a relative veteran in a new industry). Every year since then I have increasingly despised the term when it has been applied to me, Aristotle's wisdom ...

the more you know, the more you know you don't know

applies to UX designers just as much as when you attain your black belt and realize that you have only scratched the surface and the journey has just begun. Our most successful engagements are usually with teams that challenge us design ninjas and force us to gather evidence and question our own understanding of UX design reality. Its how we continue to grow.

While studying Kung Fu in 2005-2006 I had been a black belt in TaeKwon-Do for 6 years (I wanted to focus on developing my hand striking techniques and I was drawn to the rapid punching in Kung Fu) and encountered trouble letting go of my TKD training which was ingrained into my muscle memory. My Sifu told me a story of a troubled young monk was called to see the head of the monastery where they had tea. Summarized - The master poured the student tea but as the liquid reached the top of the cup he did not stop and the tea poured over the table. The master explained to the surprised monk that his cup was full and the only way he could take on new knowledge is to empty his cup.

I loved this story and have told it to my students until the disaster movie '2012' came out where they re-enacted it to make a plot point. After that came out the response from my students has been, "yeah I saw it in that crappy movie". There goes another great story...

2012 - Stupid movie

Us design ninjas need to work hard at emptying our cup with every new project. Naturally it gets harder with every passing year of experience, so it is worth starting the practice early. We need to approach each project open to question what we believe we know which is effective when partnering with UX researchers who can run studies and experiments to challenge our assumptions. Great engineers are not going to take your word for it, they are trained (and learn) not to.

As well as partnering with UX researchers and gathering evidence we can do a few things such as...

1) Relationship building

Over time while working with a team persuasion gets easier as their confidence in your design abilities grows and trust is built. You can help build relationships with your team by

  • being present at their team meetings
  • sitting with them for some of your work time (don't work in your design fortress of solitude)
  • going for lunch with them at least weekly
  • go drinking with them - by far the most successful
  • smoking outside with them - I wouldn't recommend it but my mother built a successful career on this technique
  • include them in your design sessions
  • never be dismissive of their ideas; understand the core of what they are trying to achieve and steer this in a user-focused direction

If it helps, set a quarterly goal and review it regularly. Sorry to say that you have to leave your comfort zone and play your extraverted role as they are unlikely to approach you.

When moving to London a few weeks ago my manager and mentor, Hector Ouillert, gave me a solid piece of advice. We were discussing what my focus should be in the London office and he said that my #1 priority is to build relationships. The primary goal is that the new team wants to work with you. Hector allowed me to give myself permission to take the space and time needed to do this, the essential piece of the puzzle. Design managers take note - this is a great practice. With the pressure to ramp up and start delivering on new projects the focus on team integration can take a back seat.

Good guy Mr Hector

2) Learn the science of how people work

Engineers like evidence rather than when UX designers use words like 'I feel that...', 'I expect that...' which leads us back to the 'your opinion vs my opinion' madness. A few years back I discovered the effectiveness of learning the science behind why people respond to GUIs in order to persuade engineers to buy into my recommendations. Rather than spend your valuable spare time learning the latest prototyping tool, consider investing time in learning cognitive psychology, neuroscience and anthropology. There will always be a new prototyping tool, but humans won't change that much.

This topic of further education as a UX designer deserves its own blog post. More to come soon. 

3) Don't be an asshole

Its worth making this point. Us grumpy old design ninjas need to be reminded on a daily basis, so write it on a post it note and stick it on your monitor next to your password. Don't be an asshole, really. I am regularly, and it doesn't end well.

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