Part one of a two-part article.
Finding the right person to compliment your User Experience team is part art and part luck. Though good interviewing can limit the risk of a bad hire, you need to carefully analyze your current organizational context, before you can know what you need. Herein lies the art. Since you can’t truly know a candidate from an interview, you gamble that their personality and skills are what they seem. Aimed at managers and those involved in the hiring decision process, this article looks at the facets of UX staff and offers ways to identify the skills and influence that will tune your team to deliver winning results.
There are many pieces to the User Experience puzzle. The art of fitting the roles together to compliment each other and your particular situation requires a bit of luck and intuition. Try as we might, it is nearly impossible to find someone who is highly skilled in all areas, so you will want to find either a "Jack of all trades" or a specialist. First, lets explore some loose definitions of various skills that make up the User Experience Team.
Skills are measurable. Anybody can learn new skills through education or apprenticeship. They are the capital built over the course of a career, making the applicant more saleable. Categories of research, information architecture, interaction design, graphic design and writing help us communicate and understand the part each skill plays in defining user experience. Not to be confused with roles – which define the activities of any member on the team – staff employ skills to do the work.
Let’s look at skills in a sequential order, as they’re typically utilized when practicing User Centered Design. We’ll begin with research.
Research is interwoven into all user experience roles – the inspiration and validation of ideas and designs greatly enhances the chance of success in meeting your design objectives.
This skill, as it relates to UX, is about asking questions and illuminating a subject area in unobvious ways. Knowledge of psychology, sociology and anthropology are used to tease out intelligence from users, market data and academia. In this regard, Interaction Designers and Information Architects must use research skills to inform the strategic aspects of their job. Even a cursory study of a potential product’s competitive landscape requires an essential research component.
The researcher in us takes a scientific approach to the study of humanity and uses quantitative and qualitative studies to inform the design process. Roles on the UX Dreamteam employ techniques such as:
- Contextual inquiry – field research that involves interviewing users “in context” i.e. as they perform familiar tasks in their normal environment
- Surveys – one questionnaire answered by many respondents, statistically analyzed for trends direct us toward a user’s requirements
- Usability testing – key for highlighting UI and system design flaws as well as opportunities
- Card sorting – used by IAs to test categorization ideas
- Emotional response testing – great value to graphic designers seeking direction on the impact of their visuals
Research skills punctuate the UX professionals’ work agenda.
Being good at research is key, but disseminating the results for maximum impact to ensure findings are used is equally important. A lack of attention to this can undermine valuable work. Good communicators reap the benefits of clearly, poignantly presenting facts and theories.
A researcher, whether dedicated to this role or filling it temporarily, needs to be pragmatic. Remaining objective – interpreting findings only from collected data – is often a challenge when we are invested in a particular idea or direction. Researchers should be inquisitive and analytical with an empathetic instinct to dig beneath the surface of things.
Screening tips: Look for some evidence that a candidate understands scientific method with regard to research. They should also be able to separate themselves from an emotional attachment to their own ideas. Not to say they should be dispassionate about finding the right answer, but their personal biases should not taint this effort. Probe their ability to analyze data. Test to see if their nature is exploratory (good) or if they are just as happy to make general assumptions (not so much). See how they have creatively engaged the team with research findings by threading them in to the day’s work.
Information Architecture Skills
Information Architecture entails designing an information system and the users’ pathways through it. The IA’s goal is to create a system that will provide useful information to suit the user’s context. System structure, inputs and outputs of information, semantic analysis and accommodating changes in the user’s context are in the information architect’s domain.
Frequently Information Architecture (IA) and Interaction Design (IxD) skills are confused. Job titles of one or the other do not neatly describe the skills at work and it’s common for an “IA” to use IxD skills and visa versa. Jesse James Garrett in his book The Elements of User Experience differentiates IA and IxD by the type of system being designed. He asserts that Information Architecture fits a model of the web as a hypertext system, rather than a software interface. Johnathan Korman from Cooper delves into the distinction in his article The Web, Information Architecture and Interaction Design – “IA means defining information structures to answer the question "how does a user find the information they want?… IxD means defining system behaviors to answer the question "how does a user take the action they want?”…”
IA and IxD roles can work in tandem. The IA defines what data needs to appear and the IxD crafts the UI and user flow. Primarily IxDs in this setup are focused on the nuances of the functionality of the system, and IAs on the data that drives it or is manipulated through it. This is a good strategy for large scale, data-centric projects such as defining a content management system. For smaller projects, one person may perform both roles more efficiently. What type of systems does your team work on? How much of your work is about “content” and searching and how much is about software UI?
IA activities fall into two categories. Big IA includes creating ontology, categorization and metadata design. Little IA is labeling, auditing content, creating sitemaps and wireframes. Do you know which of these you really need?
Richard Saul Wurman – an architect and graphic designer – coined the term “Information Architecture” about 30 years ago. He laid out the domain of what’s now more commonly thought of as broadly “information design” with an emphasis on systemic design. The practice of IA we see today was matured by those in the field of information and library sciences, such as Peter Morville. An IA is an analytical, left-brained beast with a detailed eye for modeling content, metadata and information retrieval systems. They are tireless completers, auditing seemingly endless quantities of information, carefully filtering it and finding the patterns within.
Screening tips: Look for patience, attention to detail and a comfort with language, particularly vocabulary, synonyms and definitions. Pattern analysis and capacity for cataloging and organizing information such as content types, article topics, genres, authors, dates, etc, is essential. Conclusions should not all be derived from their own organizational prowess – are they inclined to gain inspiration or test ideas with users? The difference between administrative, intrinsic and descriptive metadata should not be foreign, after all, they revel in semantics!
Interaction Design Skills
The Interaction Designer is a story-weaver – scripting the narrative between man and machine – the dialogue of system response to user action. Goals, behavior and flow are significant strategic concerns, but this skill goes beyond making interfaces relevant and usable. IxD marries personality with each interaction story, creating a system with which users make an emotional connection. Interaction Design and Visual Communication work together to breathe life into software UI. IxD defines the way the user manipulates the interface and Visual Communication determines how that looks in concert with all the other visual elements on screen. Blending analysis and creativity – working between artistry and engineering – Interaction Design concepts muster team consensus around what to build via the user interface layer.
Scenarios, flow diagrams, interaction models, prototypes and wireframes are typical deliverables of interaction design. They capture the desired user experience that is translated into a functional specification.
Because interaction design is primarily about creating intuitive interfaces, a measure of empathy produces the best results. This skill is not a precise science, so humility and resilience in the face of criticism (or sometimes failure) is also good.
Screening tips: Look for an interest in and aptitude for psychology; passion for making things work intuitively; enthusiasm for the difference between good and great interactions. Do they understand how to brand an interaction? Good IxDs make stories; can they hold your interest? The world is full of interaction – they should draw their inspiration widely. They must be comfortable with research and usability concepts too.
Graphic Design Skills
Graphic design (also known as Visual Communication, Information Design or Visual Design) is primarily concerned with clearly communicating the aesthetic, personality and function of a system and to invoke feeling. Strategically, an understanding of branding on a level deeper than visual identity, delving into messaging, semiotics and interaction is important. It is here that they work closely with writers and Interaction Designers on software or with an IA on hypertext systems. Tactically, Visual Communicators ensure that the UI layer is lucid, communicates visual hierarchy and represents the brand in ways that appeal to the end user. Inherently creative, Visual Communicators demonstrate a passion for the marriage of beauty and function.
In collaboration with other disciplines, graphic designers translate concepts visually to persuade stakeholders. They produce ‘comps’ (short for composite or comprehensive) of the UI, advertisements, illustrations and corporate identity treatments. Some companies like to have their graphic designers produce CSS, thereby ensuring that every detail is captured in the finished product. When a graphic designer must compromise their design for technical reasons, an acceptable solution is arrived at more quickly with no friction between development and design. It’s helpful if your graphic desinger can converse in the terms of your technology.
The wider field of graphic design has its share of passionate folk. However, most that have moved to the technology sector have since matured of “artist’s ego”. A lot of compromise typically comes with crafting the surface layer of technology so only those who are flexible survive. Evoking emotional response, passion, flair and patience for refining details are hallmarks of the graphic designer.
Screening tips: Test for an understanding of branding beyond the visual, moving into interaction and messaging. Be sure they embrace usability concepts and processes and are as concerned with user comprehension as beauty. Gather evidence of “willingness to compromise”. Do they value what other UX disciplines bring to the team? Ensure they understand CSS or the constraints of your particular interface technology. How concerned are they with engaging the emotions of the user?
Good writers can effortlessly guide users through an interface with concise instructional copy. They have the ability to create memorable taglines, deduce complex concepts into layman’s terms and author well-researched and thoughtful articles. Great writers have honed their skills well beyond what we learned in high-school English.
Steve Calde from Cooper says in his article Technical Writing and Interaction Design, writers have a pivotal role to play in the interaction design process: “As the first people actually trying to explain how the product works in users’ terms, technical writers are in a unique position to spot problems.” He is speaking from the technical writing perspective.
When we talk about writing to express a brand, there is a synergy between all disciplines committed to creating a strong voice. A writer’s ability to express the brand through phraseology is key not only for creating associative messages for the customer, but also for driving home a subtle Interaction or Visual Design personality.
Other than manuals or help files, instructions, labels, advertising headlines and copy, a deliverable missing from many UX teams is a style guide that details how concepts are to be expressed. Do you currently have a clearly articulated and documented voice and style?
Writing requires patience. Language allows us to express ourselves in many different ways and it can be a contentious area for stakeholders concerned with the message sent to readers. Therefore, subjective rework can happen, especially with highly visible projects. Empathetic people make good technical writers since they can quickly learn to speak the language of an audience who needs them to be clear. Equally, those exhibiting flair and wit often craft great marketing material.
Screening Tips: Are they comfortable with language? Can they demonstrate a command of the language to explain or sell ideas. Can they demonstrate how you create a ‘Brand Voice’ and keep it consistent?
While skills are important, less tangible qualities are arguably more so. With time skills are developed, but people who are creative or analytical, strategic or tactical, directive or hands-on are like this by nature. It behooves the hiring manager to identify which of these qualities are needed. In the next part of this article, we will look at some of the less tangible qualities of UX Dreamteam members and organizational contexts that determine which skills you really need.