Confessions of a UX Designer: Habits that can’t be helped

It’s happened. My profession has infiltrated my daily life with creepy and odd habits that I’m hoping assuming most user experience designers can relate to…

1. I’m a nosy commuter.

While everyone on public transit is absorbed in their own worlds, I’m absolutely exploiting their oblivion. Every day and every mode is a fresh opportunity to observe others — some same and some new, some with heads tucked in books and some with fingers glued to phones — all with typical and not-so-typical behaviors that unleash fascinating realizations and ideas. It is a goldmine of ethnographic research!

I’ve mastered the art of lurking over shoulders to see how someone is using an interface. I’ve abused the use of reflections to see how someone is passing the time. I’ve adapted way too much aptitude in forming stories by tracking someone’s eye movements and expressions. And most importantly, I’ve practiced the imperative capability to conceal myself from looking like a totally creepy commuter while doing all this. Good thing that while I’m watching, there is always something shadier for the surveillance to be watching…

2. I check myself out in the mirror at work.

Hey, after countless experiences of unknowingly attending meetings with dry-erase marker ink smeared across your face, you learn to keep a mirror at your desk and use it damn well!

3. I’m irrationally infuriated by poorly-designed doors, elevators and buildings.

(Yep, that includes you, designer of former Microsoft headquarters building on Avenue of the Americas in NYC — unless your intent was to trap or lose your visitors). Seriously, I turn into the Hulk over this kind of stuff. I just can’t fathom the amount of money that goes into such terrible design decisions. Although, the fury actually is quite rational for anyone who appreciates what we learn from understanding The Design of Everyday Things.

4. I prep for projects the way actors prep for plays.

In the performing arts, dedicated actors are known to take on the personas of their characters all day err’day well before it’s actually time to play the part. It’s supposed to help them, well, get into character. And the same goes for the start of a user-centered design process.

When new projects kick off, I “get into character” by absorbing myself in anything and everything about the project’s industry, background, competitors and users. Obsession is necessary and unstoppable. It might involve plowing through a pile of related books, attending related events, joining blogs and online communities with the users, trying out competitor services, reconnecting with old acquaintances who represent the userbase — anything to surround myself in the project. Sure, I won’t need to act out a scene as our users (thank GOODNESS), but I will need to embody their perspectives and behaviors in relation to the product.

5. I invent creative stalking opportunities.

As mentioned in the nosy commuter point, researching people in their natural environments and behaving in their natural ways can unlock some amazing discoveries. Especially at the start of a new project, I seize any opportunity I can get to secretly observe the project’s target audience. And if there are no opportunities, I make them. That might mean scheduling a doctor’s appointment (that I don’t need) and “mistakenly” arriving way early so that I can loiter in the waiting room to see how patients and staff are all behaving. It might mean “reading a book” outside a playground at lunch time so I can see how kids play in groups on their own. It might mean “shopping” in Home Depot to see how customers seek information about products and navigating the store.

In the case study of Meetup.com, it literally meant creating a stalking opportunity….I once read an article about how in the early phases of Meetup, they’d research their user experience by creating Meetup events (with different key variables) and essentially hiding in a coffee shop across the street instead of actually attending so that they could observe how real users would approach the physical space, analyzing what kinds of online features could minimize any inhibitions. The craziness is for your own good!

6. I ask too many questions.

Sometimes I feel like a kindergartner persistently asking “why?” the way that little kids pester their parents about everything. Other times I feel like Dr. Phil, asking people odd questions in order to figure out  the root of their feelings in relation to their experiences. And sometimes I just feel like an aggressive lawyer demanding a rational, evidence-based explanation why decisions were made as they were. My mind turns everything into the Spanish Inquisition.

7. I save useless stuff.

Call me a hoarder or call be resourceful, but you never know when all those paper clips and beer caps will make the perfect playing pieces for the game you need to paper protoype approximately right this second right now you have 5 minutes go.

8. I have a fear of finality.

“Norman’s Law: The day the product team is announced, it is behind schedule and over its budget.” -Donald A. Norman

Paradoxically, a perfectly seamless experience is attempted to be created by someone who will never stop finding things to improve. “Is it finished?” is one of my least favorite questions in the world. Sure, a product might be built and a checklist of requirements might be all checked off and the feedback coming in might be amazing so far, but “finished” really rests more like “version 1.0” in my mind. The learning process never ends. In fact, the more we put out their, the more opportunities to recreate are created.

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