Building the UX Dreamteam

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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.

The Art

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 Skills

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?

Writing Skills

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.

Getting Hired

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During a heated discussion on the difference between an Information Architect (IA) and an Interaction Designer (IxD), I suggested that what we do is more important than what we call ourselves. The response was that a label is an alias that carries a set of meanings. Yes, but what happens when there are two aliases that are very closely aligned? We can choose the alias we feel fits us best, but what do employers think?

As the User Experience Network (UXnet) local ambassador for the D.C. Metro area, one of my responsibilities is supporting local UX-related groups. Austin Govella, an IA colleague, thought UXnet should help get some answers to the question of what matters to employers, so we began to work on an event to gather professionals and employers to help us figure this out.

The ensuing event, titled IA Round-up, was a discussion panel and workshop where IAs, IxDs, usability professionals, and their employers came together to discuss what employers care about and what the perfect resume should look like.

The panel included three individuals representing three different types of employers: the agency, the corporation, and the small business. On the agency side, Dan Brown, principal of EightShapes, gave us a clear understanding of the agency perspective. On the corporate side, Livia Labate, senior manager of information architecture and usability at Comcast, outlined the best strategy to get a job with a large corporation. On the small business side, Michele Marut, human factors specialist at Respironics, Inc., described what she looks for. And I, Olga Howard, MC’d the event.

At the IA Round-up we found two reasons why employees and their potential employers may not find the right match:

  1. The terms used by professionals and employers sometimes mean different things.
  2. Resumes and portfolios may not sufficiently explain the work involved, or there may not be enough samples of work–wireframes, taxonomies, etc.

What Employers Care About

Employers have very specific needs and won’t spend much time trying to figure out the difference between an IA and an IxD. They just want their position filled. So while IAs and IxDs are having heated debates, employers pay attention to our resumes – that’s where semantics matter. The following key areas show how we can improve our resumes.

Paint a picture with your documentation:
Accurately describing documentation is difficult, if not impossible. It’s simpler just to show the documents themselves–they tell the story of where we started, where we ended, and how we got there. Unfortunately, we live in a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) world that usually prevents us from showing our documentation. Regardless, according to our panelists, they’d rather see a highly censored document than no document at all.

Include only what employers ask for:
This is a tricky one. Most resumes tend to include what employers ask for, but some of us add other qualifications because we’re concerned the employer won’t see the breadth of our experience.

Present a sense of purpose:
This is the number one issue we heard from our panelists. When we put everything on the resume, the perspective on what’s important is lost.

Include a job history:
Every employer wants to know what jobs we’ve had, what we’ve accomplished, and how we accomplished it. Employers are also looking for employment gaps: if there are any, say why.

Be truthful and promote yourself:
A truthful resume is not the same thing as a factual resume. When we are part of a team we should say which areas of the project we were responsible for.

Create a straightforward resume:
Personality should not be part of the resume. Instead, focus on factual information. If our experience describes the kind of skills and knowledge the employer is looking for, they will want to see examples of our work—our portfolios.

Have a portfolio online:
Although we are bound by NDA rules, we can censor as much as necessary. As our panelists said, they’d rather see a highly censored document than no document at all.

Formalize your UX portfolio:
Lack of formality in presenting a portfolio is like a photographer showing you her photographs in a pile rather than neatly stored, each in a plastic sheet, ready for easy viewing.

What employers are looking for in portfolios is HOW we like to do our work. This is really where your personality shows.

  • Are you attentive to detail?
  • Do you communicate clearly?
  • Do you spend time only on the important aspects of the job?

Unfortunately, the portfolio is where most of us lack clarity. In your portfolio, you should include scans of sketches, drawings, and anything else you use to do your job.

Some people include odes to their heroes, and that’s ok in the portfolio. It speaks to their work and values.

Changing Careers

UX is so new that universities have just begun to offer degree programs. Although many of us actually started in another line of work, there are established communities of practice that new UX professionals should turn to, get involved in, and learn from.

Transferable skills:
A number of skills from other fields transfer to IA, but the only clear way to understand what these skills are is to read about IA, IxD, and usability and start volunteering to do projects. The IA Institute offers a mentorship program, and UXnet is always looking for volunteers.

Once you begin working in the field, you’ll know what strengths you can present to employers. Being new sometimes makes it difficult to have an opinion about the UX conversation going on, but you have a unique perspective and that’s what matters, so have an opinion.

The question of age:
What a nervous experience it must be to be older than your UX peers and compete for the same job. If you are this person, you have years of experience behind you. You have strengths younger UXers probably don’t have, so pay close attention to the job description and play to your strengths. One example is the person who has been a manager for many years. This person can play to their managerial strengths and speak to supporting the UX team in UX work. Employers are usually willing to build roles around your strengths.

One issue raised is that some older people are set in their ways. That is to say, set in the ways and processes that were in place during their tenure. These days, things change so fast that it’s hard to keep up with new thoughts and ideas, so older folks looking to work in UX need to be extremely flexible and adaptable to different processes and cultures.

Two questions you can ask yourself before moving to UX are:

  1. Why are you interested?
  2. Given that culture is a large aspect of work, will you add to the culture?

Next Steps

How much are you worth?
Find out how much other UX professionals are getting paid. This will give you a good idea of what salary you should ask for. The IA Institute Salary Survey and the Aquent Survey of Design Salaries will be helpful.

Where can you find job listings?
You can find great job listings on several websites including here in the Boxes and Arrows jobs section, the IA Institute job board, and the IxDA jobs section.

How can you get help with your resume?
If you need more help, the IA Institute’s mentoring program is a good place to start. Even if you don’t find a mentor in your area, you’ll find very friendly IAI members who will help you out. You can also contact your UXnet Local Ambassador and host your own IA Round-up. This will help give you context as to what local UX employers are looking for.

For formatting direction also try using Livia’s resume template below.

First Last
123 Name St, City, ST

(000) 000-0000 | |

High-Level Summary/Goals as an IA: where you see yourself as an IA, what you like to do

Month YY to Month YY: My Title, Company Name, Location
– Two or three sentences describing responsibilities go here.
– Your favorite, proudest accomplishment goes here
– Your second greatest accomplishment goes here
– Your third relevant accomplishment goes here

(Repeat for as many relevant jobs as you want to show.)

Degree Title, YYY, Institution Degree Title, YYY, Institution

You can find Livia’s direction and template at

Designing for Nonprofits

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We all find ourselves looking in the mirror at one time or another and asking ourselves if we’re doing all we can for the good of society. What’s it all for?

Those of us in the user experience (UX) profession can actually do something about it. As information architects, interaction designers, usability consultants, and developers, we don’t have to change our careers to do something good for society. All we have to do is connect with the right nonprofit: One that shares our goals and whose mission we support.

Once I asked myself that question, I decided to take a sabbatical from the commercial field and devote my time entirely to nonprofit entities. During my two-year nonprofit experience, I found that there are some differences in working with nonprofit organizations that can be monumental challenges.

The most important difference between nonprofits and commercial or government entities is how they do business. This trickles down to every aspect of working with nonprofits and will ultimately affect anyone’s decisions to work or not work with them. The following are some of the challenges I faced in my two-year commitment to only work with nonprofits.

Requests for Proposals (RFPs) are Creatively Divided

A non-profit’s cash reality—the uncertainty of income—is one perspective not shared by government or commercial entities, at least not to the same degree.

Nonprofits depend on their income from government grants or the public-at-large, so an inconsistent cash flow might make them want to scrimp and save. For this reason, many nonprofits tend to break a project into its parts and bid out the work to a variety of companies in an attempt to obtain the most inexpensive solution.

The bidding situations I’ve encountered in this fragmented approach have divided the project into the following parts.

a) Marketing/Campaign management: Most of the time, this is the highest priority and the conversation revolves around how to get donors, volunteers, or activists. Naturally, the conversation then moves to the campaign tool.

b) Design: As of late, nonprofit organizations have begun to pay close attention to the user experience and are actively sending their employees to information architecture, interaction design, and usability conferences. This is a big step in the right direction. If anyone needs UX work, it’s nonprofits since their mission relies on the public’s money, volunteer efforts, and activism. In this case, the user truly is king.

c) Technology: Is it a content management system (CMS) or a campaign management tool? I’ve done a ton of research on this and found no good answer. Large nonprofits almost always buy big CMS tools that they don’t need, many times as a result of politics but also under a false impression of perceived value. I’ve been surprised that, given the option to chose a smaller more effective tool, most nonprofits chose to go with the big CMS because they think they’ll need those extra features in the future. But that future rarely comes because the site design and—most of the time—the back-end change about every five years.

d) Implementation: This generally goes to the company that wins the technology part of the project, unless it’s Sharepoint or something that comes from a large corporation. In this scenario, there may be an intermediate company that does implementation, or the project managing or design vendor will have a group of developers who can implement.

e) Maintenance: This will most likely fall to the internal development team because the organization is looking to spend little money.

So, although in a commercial project I may win the entire project, with a nonprofit I would most likely be one of three or four partners in the project. If that isn’t enough of a challenge, I found that in many nonprofits, stakeholders differ greatly depending on the stakeholder’s position and department.

Stakeholder Expectations May Differ From One Person to the Next

Unlike most commercial projects, where I usually work closely with the marketing team, in nonprofits I worked with all the directors of the entire organization…and the expectations from each stakeholder are entirely unique.

I once found myself in a room with stakeholders who requested very different information. One stakeholder requested a chart of “quantified” user statistics from their current site; another requested “qualified” data. Yet a third wanted to see none of that…”too much information for me.” Managing those kind of expectations can be challenging.

A worst-case-scenario was when I was working on the Big Brothers Big Sisters design and I found myself in a conference room with the directors and CEOs of the federation’s organizations throughout the country. My challenge was to get all the stakeholders on the same page and comfortable enough to allow a handful of the federation agencies to represent the entire country. With my microphone clipped, a projector, and an amazing presentation assistant, I was able to walk them through design elements as they asked questions. By the end of the conference, I had met my challenge with seven agencies representing the entire country.

Focus on the Mission Can Leave Details Dangling

Nonprofits have a mission which is 100 times more amplified than a commercial entity selling products. A nonprofit, by its definition, IS its mission. Without the mission, the organization doesn’t exist. So, while the commercial sector is asking us how they can sell widgets using the web site, the nonprofit is asking how our work is helping the mission.

At first glance I thought this was great; this is what I want commercial companies to do since they’re so often focused on the widget. But it’s not that simple. In order to get buy-in on the big picture, I need consensus on the smaller pieces that make the big picture—usually from a large number of stakeholders. And if the organization is not paying attention to the smaller pieces, getting to the big picture can be difficult.

Creating Emotion in Design

Look and feel is extremely important for nonprofits because emotion is so intertwined with connecting the user to a specific issue or cause. Emotionally compelling creative connects design and the mission. The challenge here is in balancing appropriate design with the emotion necessary to inspire the user to become a volunteer, donate, or call their congressperson.

So how can balance between design, good usability, and emotion be achieved? It all comes down to the designer. The trick is to find designers who can evoke emotion with their design. Having done that, directing good usability and strong design will create the necessary balance to inspire users to act.

One important lesson I’ve learned is that an appropriate design does not translate into a snazzy site with the latest gizmos or the latest in Flash. There are nonprofits who don’t want to look like they’re rolling in money; in fact, their goal is to look like they’re doing their job despite the budget. So, my job is to help them present a lot of information and make the user experience enjoyable. Information architecture professionals are very valuable to nonprofits because we tend to think about how people will find the content rather than how cool the site will look.

Our Work is As Worthwhile as Our Cause

In an ever-changing world, there is one thing that can’t be taken away from us—our conviction. In the past few years, nonprofits have begun to realize that good user experience design is one of the most effective ways they can achieve their goals, and they are beginning to set high standards for their cause. Despite the sometimes peculiar-to-nonprofits challenges, we should help nonprofits step up by adopting a cause and competing for the work—because we know we can do better.

Straight From the Horse’s Mouth with Chris Fahey

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iTunes     Download     Pod-safe music generously provided by Sonic Blue

banda_headphones_sm.gif Christina Wodtke traveled with microphone to the IA Summit in Las Vegas this year and sat down with some of the most interesting and accomplished information archictects and designers in all the land. Bill Wetherell recorded those five conversations, and now B&A is proud to bring them to you. Thanks to AOL for sponsoring these podcasts.

In this fantastic finale, consulting powerhouse Chris Fahey of “Behavior Design”: talks with Christina (herself a former consultant-turned-entrepreneur) about the conditions that led to the founding of the firm. He speaks with great nuance and honesty about how the practice developed, what it means to lead the consultancy, and how the partners’ work has changed because of its success.

For those who have ever considered striking out with a few colleagues or are just curious about the path, do yourself a huge favor and listen to this podcast before you jump off that cliff.

We discuss…

*Your future…*
Chris discusses the reality of the business world today when it comes to careers. How we start to think less about how we can do well for our clients and more about how we can get involved in larger projects.

*Virtual detox*
Chris talks about how he and his four business partners created his company Behavior Design and the challenges of moving into an office after working virtually for years.

*To hire or not to hire*
Chris discusses the hiring process at Behavior Design and their good fortune in hiring staff. His biggest challenge remains whether to out source work to trusted consultants or hire staff full time. Pros and Cons to both are talked about.

*In through the out door*
Although one of the partners left the organization to take on a dream job at the NY Times as the lead designer, the culture that was developed allowed for a smooth transition for the organization and its’ people.

*Shameless Self-Promotion*
Christina describes the importance of shameless self-promotion in order to continue to advance your company. Chris describes other important aspects including knowing when to say “No!” and when to be hungry for sales.

*Come together*
Christina and Chris talk about the challenges and advantages of working with several partners when building a company.

*Summing Up*
Part of the natural growth of the company is for people to walk away to take on new challenges. As Christina points out, we’re human beings, we grow, and ultimately we’re bigger than what we do.


Male Announcer: This podcast brought to you by AOL, now hiring designers in Silicon Valley, New York City, and the Washington DC area. Help us set the standard for what happens next on the web. Send your resume to today.


Female Announcer: Boxes And Arrows is always looking for new thinking from the brightest minds in user-experienced design. At the IA Summit, we sat down with Chris Fahey from Behavior Design.


Christina Wodtke: This is Christina Wodtke of Boxes And Arrows and we ran into Chris Fahey in the hall of Behavior Design and we thought we’d catch up with him and see what interesting things he’s up to. So Chris, what are you up to over in New York these days?

Chris Fahey: Well, Behavior Design is growing quite a bit, we just passed our fifth year mark, so I think that’s sort of the marker as to whether or not a business can survive, so that’s been great for us.

Christina: Do you wake up every morning going “not dead yet!”?

Chris: [laughing] I wake up very late sometimes, because we’re still working very late. Even after five years, we’re still putting in massive hours and still working as if we’re in our first year.

Christina: So, you know, a lot of folks on Boxes And Arrows are becoming really excited about the articles we’re running about careers, because they’re asking themselves, “Where am I going to go with my life? I’m a designer, and I could become ‘best designer in the universe,’ but maybe I should try something else, maybe I should run my own agency, maybe I should become a product manager.” Do you have some fun thoughts on what brought you here? What made you decide to run your own shop?

Chris: Actually I was just in the hallway having an interesting conversation with some other people about the very same topic actually, so it’s fresh in my mind. Someone said there was a sort of series of ingredients that go into making you a ‘superpowerful’ consultant as an individual, and that is starting a business, publishing a book, and speaking at conferences, or teaching at a university of some kind. So, these ingredients add up to escalations in your ability to make money and get premier clients.

I guess, over the years, we start to think less about how we can do good on our projects for our bosses and clients and more about, “Well, what’s going to happen to me coming up in the future? Am I going to manage people? Am I going to work on bigger and bigger projects? Am I going to work on more and more refined, focused projects?” And, you know, I’m in my mid-thirties right now and a lot of people I think in this industry – while it’s very broadly ranged – I think there are a lot of people in that kind of boat, where there’s a new generation coming but there’s people who are entering the second generation, having started in the web industry in the 90’s. We’re kind of all facing that question, you know, where do we go now?

Christina: So, as a way of thinking of the question, can you tell me what was the moment that you said, “Hey, take this job and put it in a trash bag, and let’s go start our own thing.” How did that happen?

Chris: Yeah, that was an interesting decision for us. At Behavior we started with five partners, including myself, and we all were working together at Rare Medium, which is one of the razorfish-like global consultancies that managed to…

Christina: I actually remember…

Chris: …driving to…


Christina: …Rare Medium, believe it or not, and March 3rd, and…


Christina: …Vividenson [?], Gohan [?]

Chris: Yeah… March 1st, March 3rd is my birthday, actually.

Christina: Oh, must have been in the air.

Chris: Yeah, but we were the last people to work there as they gradually went from a thousand to five hundred to fifty to three… you know, thirty people. Finally it was down to about ten people and we realized we all liked working together, we had clients that like working with us that were going to be upset when their vendor disappeared. So we continued to work with the same clients right away, working from home.

It wasn’t hard for us to decide to continue working together and to serve clients as almost like a virtual agency. What was hard was deciding to incorporate and move into an office and start delegating tasks to underlings and start to, you know, build an organization. You know we had all managed people before, but kind of we had this brief period of time where we were virtual freelancers as a virtual company. It was very awkward.

Christina: What made the decision hard?

Chris: I think it was just sort of the change of focus. It was sort of transitioning from working out of your home, to spending money on an office. I think it was financial difficulty. We grew organically. We did not have any investment. I think we all lived off of credit cards for a few months in the early stages when we had unemployment. [laughter]

Gradually I think we made enough money in our first year to be able to afford the down payment or the deposit on a space. We started with folding tables, worked our way up to buying actual doors that we could then varnish and make into real tables. Now we’re actually getting furniture built for us from friends of ours. [laughter]

I think the hard part is financial but its also just sort of cultural, understanding yourself to be not the person the client hired, but you are the embodiment of the brand that the client hired. So clients don’t necessarily get Chris Fahey 100 percent on a project. They get me leading a team, and my selection of that team. My course correction of that team. My standardization of the deliverables that we do. That’s been hard. That’s been tough to do because I really like working on stuff too.

Christina: You know, I was talking to another entrepreneur who just made his first hire and he was talking about what a terrifying moment that is. Can you talk a little bit about what it meant to change from five guys who are all kind of responsible for their own troubles to being responsible for a team of young people who you have to grow and nurture and keep your brand going.

Chris: One of the hardest parts about that was when people started sending us resumes from outside of New York. Then we have to say to them, yeah, OK you’re going to come work for us, and relocate and move all your stuff, and move your wife or your family to New York. That was a big tough decision. I think hiring other people…

Christina: And then you might have to fire them two weeks later.

Chris: Exactly, that was the tough part, was sort of feeling comfortable enough in our pipeline and our growth and our stability that we could make that kind of commitment. We’ve never made a wrong decision in that regard. We’ve hired people that weren’t great, and that sort of works out eventually.

We’re generally very, very careful about who we hire. Most of our interviews don’t, you know, end up really short. [laughter] Because we want to hire the best and so we wait a long time to hire people. It takes a long time.

Christina: It’s got to be tempting when you’ve got this incredibly fat pipeline and the market is red hot. You’re like, gosh, if we had three more people, boy, that would be a lot of leverage.

Chris: We looked at a pipeline recently that said if we got every single client that we could get, and we felt like was a sort of a good nibble in this business development, we could hire up to a hundred people.

Christina: Wow!

Chris: [laughter] Over time, that shook up and we decided, we said no to some clients. Some clients said no to us. It turns out you don’t actually have to grow that much.

One of the hardest parts though, is deciding between freelance and staff. We have a lot of freelancers working for us as well as staff. I like staff better, because they grow our competency and enable us to have an organization which has institutional knowledge which you don’t get from freelancers quite as much. Except that our freelancers, we like to keep for a long time, in a long-term relationship. So it’s virtual staff.

Christina: Almost staff. And you can flip them sometimes, right?

Chris: Yeah, we’ve done that a couple of times and hope to do more of that.

Christina: So are all five partners still with you?

Chris: No, one of our partners, Khoi Vinh, took his dream job at the New York Times as the design director. I think it was the one thing that could possibly take him away from us, literally of all the jobs out there in the whole world. I think he spoke to some other companies that at some point were interested in him, and the New York Times was his dream job, and he’s loving it.

Christina: Well I would be. If the New York Times comes knocking sometimes… but it’s still got to be hard right? You’ve got this core five, and you’re seeing your company turn into something that isn’t about you five guys but is its own entity.

Chris: Yeah, and actually we thought that would be a difficult transition, and while we miss Khoi very much, we were able to do it because the company had been abstracted enough away from the personalities and to the communal culture. And that culture is embodied not just in our methodology and our deliverables, but also in the zeitgeist of the group of people.

There’s five partners, well, four partners now, and there’s 16 additional employees working around the office and that’s the culture. We’re bringing people at every level and that’s great too, so we’re actually transitioning from bringing in people that we’ve known for a long time with the same experience as us, to bring in people from other cities, from recent graduates. We’re sort of nurturing that, so the culture is constantly evolving and that’s really exciting.

Christina: So let’s say that I’m a practitioner in my late twenties and I feel pretty good about my craft and my game and I come up to you and say, “You know, I’ve been talking to a couple friends and maybe I want to start my own thing.” What would you warn me about? What would you ask me to think about?

Chris: You want to start your own thing? You mean as an entrepreneur?

Christina: As a consultant. I’m going to start a consulting gig, a consulting company. I’m going to go out and there’s so much work right now I feel kind of brave and I might be able to get together with a couple friends and start a consultancy.

I know what I’d say if they wanted to be an entrepreneur and it’d be a very different story.


Christina: “Are you mad?” is what I’d say.

Chris: I don’t want to say it’s luck, but I think there’s a lot of faith you have to have in your own personal connections and their ability to drum up business for you.

I think you have to be shameless in certain ways. You have to tell people what you’re doing more often than you might feel comfortable with, in what they call shameless self-promotion. You have to be gentle with that too, you can’t just spam everybody, but you have to keep in contact with people, have lunch with people, something I’m really bad at.

But don’t get too caught up in your work that you forget that business development is… I’ll be honest with you, business development has and always has been, ever since we started this company, probably a third of what I do. Defining our process in a way that is digestible by clients, that is sellable, actually going to pitches, working on proposals, having a business developer on staff and helping her craft our pitch, marketing ourselves, writing press releases, editing press releases.

That’s a lot of stuff you don’t have to do when you’re working inside of an organization for someone else. I’ve seen you doing it too, a little shameless self-promotion!


Christina: Of course!

Chris: It’s the hard part, I think. One of the hardest parts.

Christina: Oh, absolutely. Well, I was at South by Southwest where you were, and I was tired, it was eight, nine in the morning and I was a little bit hung-over and I was like, “Oh, God. Am I really going to stand up and try to ask a question that promotes my company, and yet doesn’t do it in a really horrifying fashion.

I felt really guilty and shy and tired and like drinking water and laying down. But I did it anyway because you don’t actually have a choice. You think you have a choice, and you don’t actually have a choice. You just always got to stand up there and have a way that your company’s name gets in front of more people.

Chris Fahey: Yes, and you have to make your presentations very sleek, and even to the point where they go beyond doing what they have to do. They have to put on a good show. Another piece that I thought was interesting is really defining what you’re aiming for and knowing what your target is. We don’t say no a whole lot to clients, lately maybe more so just because of the saturation of the market.

But, you have to understand when to say no, and when to just be as hungry as possible. I can’t say that I’m not practicing what we preach, because we’ve taken a lot of almost everything that we got, but we have to decide what to pitch for, we have to decide who to contact, who to send our marketing materials to.

I guess, it’s a good idea, especially if you have partners, to have constant communication. We have summits with our partners twice a year where we just go outside and we’ll hang out for a while. It’s surprising how you’ll realize that you haven’t actually spoken to your partners one-on-one in weeks or months sometimes. Especially when you start getting a staff and you start getting kind of into your projects. So when you communicate internally with your partners, sometimes you’re surprised as to what your company vision is and then the company vision gets embodied in how you pursue business.

Christina: Interesting. I got to say, I’m very impressed that you started the company with five partners. I started the company with five partners, but we had never worked together. So a huge amount of our time was just trying to figure out how we’d relate to each other. So there wasn’t as much time that we could spend with clients or, if we were spending time with clients, we weren’t working through those details. So it was just a tremendously hard thing to do.

Chris: I can’t imagine doing that. I think we had all worked together for five years before we started Behavior or almost five years, maybe four or five years, at Rare Medium. Two of my partners had worked together for four or five years before that at IO/360, a Web design firm in New York that was pretty influential, from day one of the Web.

Also, two of my partners that I’d gone to school with in college, so we all know each other very, very well and we’re able to–I think we’d shaken out a lot of our kinks early on. Every partnership has kinks, and we still have disagreements as to how we want to do things and personal styles and stuff like that, but I think we shall grow out of it early and that was a really big event.

Christina: OK. Well, you know, MIG and Adaptive Path are both two partner companies now.

Chris: Oh, really?

Christina: Yes, absolutely. So I think that’s something else I would say, when they were starting up, it’s like start with one person and get to know them really, really well or start with somebody you already know really, really well and build from that. I got to say, those early years, as you were talking about not having any money, being scared about rent, that’s a lot of stress for any relationship, friendship or otherwise.

Chris: I would say also that part of the natural growth of a company is for partnership to break up and then people go on. There’s no guarantee that everybody, especially if you have three, four partners, wants to spend the rest of their lives doing that. People move on, Adaptive Path has had a very organic changes and behaviors, we’ve had one. Then we don’t see anymore coming, but six years have passed and we’re still together. We all put our vision, like we want to do this for the rest of our lives, that’s just how we say it, but you’ll never know.

Christina: Yes. I think that’s part of our lives, is just to remember that. We’re human beings, we grow, we change, you do one job, you do another job, you become partners and then you go off and get to be the Design Director of New York Times. That’s not personal because we’re human beings, we grow more bigger than what we do.

Well, thanks, Chris. It’s been really, really wonderful.

Chris: Thanks so much. It’s great to be on the podcast for my first time.

Christina: Yay!

[music fading]

Pioneering a User Experience (UX) Process

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Maybe you’ve recently been hired by a company who wants to “do usability.” It could be that you’re a UI designer, business analyst, or front end developer who’s been conducting impromptu hallway usability tests and you’ve started to think you might be on to something. Or perhaps you’re a product manager who’s realized that the key to a better product is a better understanding of the people who use it. Whoever you are, wherever you are, one thing is certain: You’ve got your work cut out for you.

Creating a User Experience (UX) process can be a very rewarding journey; it can also be a nightmare if approached from the wrong angle. Initiating a culture-shift, overhauling existing processes, evangelizing, strategizing, and educating is an enormous undertaking. Often it’s a lonely path the UX advocate walks, especially if you are the only one who is driving that change from within the company. But that path is ripe with opportunities to improve your company’s product creation process, as well as the product itself.

So, where do you start? What approaches work? What pitfalls can be avoided? How can you stay motivated, encouraged, and professionally connected—even if you’re flying solo?

Why Create a User Experience (UX) Process?

Understanding why you should create a UX process is a good place to start. If you’re already in the initial stages of UX startup you probably have a number of answers to that question already. It’s important that you know why using a UX process is valuable because you’re going to be explaining it to everyone. A lot. Many companies are just starting to realize the value of keeping their end users in mind before, during, and after the product creation lifecycle. If your company hasn’t quite figured this out yet here are two of the most powerful arguments you can make:

  • A UX process helps build products people want and need
    You’ll create a product that’s a good fit for the people who end up using it—instead of for the developer who built it or the CEO who envisioned it. This is particularly important if your users also spend their hard earned dollars to buy your product.
  • A UXprocess saves time and money
    Your team will save valuable time and resources by getting it right, or mostly right, the first time. And they’ll be faster doing it.

Keep in mind that both arguments have a strong tie to something many people in your company already value: Money. Whether it’s money gained through sales or saved through efficiency, financial impact is a very tangible way to illustrate the value of UX activities.

Start Small

Starting small will keep you from biting off more than you can chew, but it also allows you to focus your attention on building your process from the ground up. You’ll be nurturing both your growing process, and the people with whom you work, as you go. A gradual introduction to UX methodologies is much more effective than trying to completely change everything about the existing process all at once.

If you attempt to immediately overhaul the existing process you risk overwhelming, intimidating, and offending many people who could otherwise be turned into UX allies. So pick a smaller, less visible project where you can start integrating new techniques while showing your team how to build products with your users in mind.

Be sure to document and track the progression of UX activities and outcomes so that you can use that information in the future to illustrate how your process works.

Find Business Drivers and Track Against Them


Simply put, numbers talk. Find out what your company’s goals are and align your UX goals accordingly. When you know what’s driving strategy in the finance group, or what targets the marketing team is aiming for, and you can show how your work helps achieve those goals, you’ll be speaking their language.

For example, if one of the primary initiatives company-wide is to reduce costs by reducing the number of tech support calls, make one of your primary UX goals for the next release improved usability and a higher rate of self-support. Get a current baseline for how many tech support calls are being received on the current product and at the end of your project do a comparative analysis for the reduction in tech support calls.

Plan UX Activities Upfront


Another great reason to pick a smaller project is that it’s more likely you’ll have some influence on the project planning. By working with your project manager in the early planning stage you’ll be able to prepare the team for the UX activities you will be leading. If you don’t show up early and stake a claim to the dates and gates on your project, you’ll end up squeezing your research and design activities into a process that already exists—without you.

Ideally, you’ll plan an ideation phase or “iteration 0” where you help clarify business requirements by researching the real people who use your product. Iteration 0 may include some initial conceptual design work as well. When project iterations begin, you’ll have negotiated what sorts of UX activities are going to take place as you move from one iteration to the next.

Go Deep, Not Wide

A common pitfall to avoid is spreading yourself across too many projects. If you’re the only person doing UI design and usability research, it’s tempting for project managers to want you to consult on all of their projects. Avoid this at all costs.

Distributing a single UX resource across multiple initiatives is destined for failure for two reasons.

First, by working broadly across many different projects, you compromise the quality of your UX work. You run the risk of producing mediocre results on many projects, rather than doing a great job on one or two projects. You need strong examples of success, especially if you’re trying to convince others why a UX process is valuable.

Second, you will rapidly become burnt out and frustrated because you never have the opportunity to impact any real change. When your role on a project is limited to someone emailing you for your opinion, or briefly running an idea past you without any deep contextual understanding of the project, it won’t take long for you to become disillusioned. Your role on a project needs to be more than just providing the UX seal of approval.

It’s difficult to find the balance between advocating a UX process and having to say no to some projects. You may feel like you’re delivering a mixed message because one day you’re explaining how important UX activities are and the next day you have to say no to a project. But here’s the twist: As demand increases, it provides more support for growing your UX team. Every time you have to say no in order to keep your focus deep, remind those around you that it’s a sign you probably need more UX resources.

Be Realistic and Flexible

Do a reality check and figure out how much support exists for UX activities in your organization. Then adjust your expectations accordingly. If many of the people with whom you work are new to the concepts of user-centered design and usability testing, then you probably won’t be able to spend months on ethnographic research or thousands of dollars flying around the world to conduct elaborate usability tests on site.

Stay flexible. Make your points and recommendations, but show that you can see all sides and are willing to compromise as needed. Avoid dogmatic thinking that says there’s only one way to correctly do usability research or design. At this stage it’s less important that you do everything by the book, perfectly, formally—and more important that you integrate the user’s perspective to make your product better. Keep your idealism in check and introduce people to UX methods gracefully instead of beating them over the head with it.

If you’re a perfectionist you may feel like nothing is being done the right way at first. There will be a lot of kinks to iron out before your UX process runs smoothly, so try to go with the flow during this awkward stage of your evolving process. Remind yourself that the smallest amount of UX activity is light years beyond no UX activity at all. In this early phase, even the smallest bit of user perspective can have a profound effect on the outcome of your product.

You’ve heard it a million times before: There’s a lot of low hanging fruit. Don’t get too caught up in worrying about how it’s being picked, just make sure it gets picked!

Watch Out for Toes, but Don’t Avoid Them

It’s inevitable that, over the course of building a UX process, you’ll bump into others who feel you’re encroaching into their area of contribution or expertise. No one wants to hear that their way of doing things results in a bad product or the company losing money. No one wants to hear you telling them your way is right and their way is wrong.

The key is to show, rather than tell; persuade, rather than dictate. Use a screen/video capture tool, such as Morae, to make video snippets of users struggling with that widget everyone on the team thought was so cool. Convince your developer that you can make her job easier and save her time by doing the conceptual design and sketching out some prototypes before she ever starts writing a line of code. Show your product manager that you can help him define his business requirements by talking to end users and finding out what their needs really are.

Once you’ve built credibility with the team and have diffused any potential rivalries, you’ll all be on a level playing field. Then they’ll look to you for your perspective, input, and expertise rather than being threatened by it.

Be Patient and Set Clear Expectations

Being patient can be one of the hardest things about building a new UX process. It doesn’t matter how committed you are, how many hours you work, or how persuasively you evangelize…it won’t happen overnight. It’s important to set realistic expectations with others, as well as yourself. Set clear, attainable goals with your manager at your yearly review. Review those goals together quarterly and make adjustments if needed. Communicate openly about deliverables and milestones with your project manager and other stakeholders. Then deliver.

With every expectation you meet, or exceed, your case for the UX process will be building momentum. Visibility and understanding will increase with every win you publicize. But be patient.

You’ll probably have days where you question whether you’re making a difference, whether you’re making any headway at all. You’ll have days where you feel frustrated and confused. When you start to question the impact you’re having, remind yourself how far you’ve come since the pre-UX days.

Get Creative

Because you’ll almost certainly have limited resources, it pays to get creative. Show your team that UX activities do not need to be expensive or time consuming.

  • Is anyone in your company a representative user? Grab them and schedule a feedback session on your wireframes. There’s no need to recruit strangers to help with usability research unless your end users are highly specific and there are no representative users available.
  • Do you need global perspectives but have no budget for travel? Conduct remote contextual interviews and usability sessions. Webcams and online software such as WebEx and UserView make it easy to connect to users all around the world and gather valuable information from them.
  • Have you been told there won’t be a budget for hiring more UX professionals in the next few years? Teach your developers some UI design best practices, show business analysts how to conduct usability tests, lead participatory design sessions with your team. If you know you can’t hire more UX practitioners, start teaching others how to make good UX decisions.
  • No budget for expensive software and research tools? It’s amazing how much you can learn using paper, pencils, pens, and sticky notes. Learn more about paper prototyping and guerilla HCI.
  • Email video clips from usability sessions. This is always a great way to spread the UX message because it’s hard to argue with the real live people who are shown using your products.
  • Make posters showing common UX mistakes and great UX solutions.

Document Your Wins, Then Publicize Ruthlessly


This is probably the most important thing you can do to sell the value of UX within your organization. This is where you put it all together. You’ve focused deeply on a small project, planning and tracking UX activities from beginning to end. You understand what’s motivating your company and you can show improvements in the user experience that support those goals. Because you measured the user experience of your original product against the new product your team just built, you can prove how much better the new product is for your users. And you can clearly tie those improvements to the UX process your team employed during the project.

Once you have one UX win, no matter how small, that you can clearly map to your process publicize that story ruthlessly throughout the company. Be sure to credit the entire team for their role in the UX work that contributed to the project’s success. And get ready for more work to come your way.

Being Shallow

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“It is important to consider the balance between breadth and depth in your taxonomy.”

—Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web 2nd ed., p. 67

“Deep down, I’m a very shallow person”

—Charles Haughey

We’re all painfully familiar with flame wars. But they’re not always marks of dysfunction. Watching flame wars over a period of time can make one aware of patterns within a profession. After witnessing a few acrimonious threads, you start to notice the personalities that play different roles in that community: the elder statesman (usually one of the younger ones), the enfant terrible (usually one of the older ones), the one who tries to make everyone get along, the one who delights in poking people with a stick. You can watch allegiances form and re-form as circumstances change, and glimpse the darker and less friendly thoughts of all those smiling faces at a conference. Above all, you can find the hot buttons: the statements and accusations that will always provoke a hostile response in the community.

In my lurking on various IA lists over the past 4 years, I’ve noticed that some accusations can always be relied upon to get IAs angry and vocal:

* IAs are history. They used to be cool, but they got caught on a few irrelevant issues, and have lost their chance to gain and hold a central position in today’s information environment;
* IAs are insular. They are unfamiliar with, and indifferent to, things going on outside the world of wireframes, facet analysis and web analytics;
* IAs are shallow. They may be flashy and indeed intelligent, but they don’t think deeply about things, and they have failed to reach the subterranean profundity that other fields have attained.

These are serious accusations: so serious that it’s easy for IAs to forget how easily one can make such accusations about anything, and how common such accusations are. In my 20 years on the academic conference circuit, I’ve seen many speakers punctured during question period, not by a loud-mouthed bully (although they show up, too), but by a weary, kind-looking figure with a gentle voice, who is normally reluctant to make a fuss, but cannot, simply cannot let such intellectual prostitution take place without raising an objection.

But these accusations, while easy to level at another, are not so easy to deflect. If you refute them, you sound defensive; if you get angry, you lose the moral high ground. And if you let it go, people might think the accusations are true.

And what if they are?

Let’s face it: the accusations are serious. So, let’s take them seriously. What’s more, let’s assume for the moment that they’re true, take them in reverse order, and delve into them more deeply.

1. IAs are Shallow.

Long before Dorothy Parker accused Katherine Hepburn of “running the gamut of emotions from A to B,” we’ve all been terrified of having a narrow range, or of having no hidden depths. The terror arises from that gnawing suspicion that it’s true, together with a hideous fear that other people span the whole alphabet.

Here’s a suggestion to begin with: recognizing your shallowness is perhaps the most profound act of your intellectual life. It’s the recognition that you’re mortal, that you’re busy, that you’ve got to survive in a cruel world, and that there’s more to read, more to write, more to think about, and more to solve, than you could ever possibly manage in your lifespan. I suspect that most of the standard disciplines begin with this recognition of shallowness. My doctoral program in English, which I thought would open doors onto a wild orgy of knowledge acquisition, forced me to close all kinds of tantalizing doors, and confine myself to a tiny, tiny, tiny patch of ground that I could master in four years. I’m a Doctor of Philosophy, and if you want to know how much money Juliet Granville had in her purse on page 254 of Frances Burney’s The Wanderer, I’m your man. But like most Ph.D.s, I emerged from my final thesis defense, not empowered by a sense of mastery, but horrified at how little I knew.

I sometimes wish that IAs were more shallow, that they were less insistent about staying at that giddy nexus where your small activities resonate across the entire networked world. I’ve been known to hide in my hotel room at the IA Summit, rather than risk being invited to dinner, simply because I don’t have the energy to hold up my part of an intense conversation. I sometimes wish we were less eager to leap from visualization to facet analysis to web analytics to information scent to pace layering before I’ve even had a chance to look at the menu. What some people would call shallow, I would call a fear of being shallow, which translates into a frenetic inability to calm down.

What’s more, this inability to relax and be shallow is a formidable barrier to IA curriculum development. A field has to have patches of stability: areas that stay constant, not because the world is constant, but because people are sufficiently mule-headed to insist on not changing. Ranganathan’s Colon Classification foundered, at least in part, because he kept tweaking it massively from edition to edition, making it impossible for libraries to keep up. And a curriculum of study can only develop when a field hits a good mix between navel gazing and stubborn obliviousness. Questioning is good; questioning is necessary. But there have to be times when you fold your arms and say, “Because, that’s all. Just because.” ( I teach cataloguing, and I’ve grown used to saying that. ) The fear of being shallow could prevent IAs from reaching a working consensus on what constitutes an adequate skill set.

2. IAs are Insular

Yes, they are. I’ve never seen a field more earnestly dedicated to welcoming newcomers at the IA Summit. We have nuts and bolts; we have newcomer tables; we have baseball cards. (I tried to get my sister to accept my swimlanes card in exchange for her treasured card for Jean Beliveau of the Montreal Canadiens, but she refused.) And yet in the registration area you inevitably hear wild shrieks of joy as delegates fly rapturously into each other’s arms and start making plans for a no-holds-barred, dish-it-all dinner, far away from all these other tiresome people. And at one point in every summit, the Argus Rapture occurs, where everyone who ever worked for Argus suddenly disappears for a dinner of reminiscing.

IAs make friends. IAs love each other. IA is a community, and one with solidarity and affection and mutual respect. There are worse things to be. And I can attest to the fact that if you hang on and stick it out, you’ll get in there eventually.

But what about intellectual insularity? What about the accusation that we’re not familiar with the work being done in other fields? Here, the problem is more complex, and I think it revolves around a nasty distinction: the field of practice, and the field of study.

IA professes to be a field of practice, and aspires to be a field of study. As a field of practice, it has no great need to define an intellectual foundation of its own; as a field of study, it can’t live without one. If IA is a field of practice, it simply needs to combine ideas wherever they can be found into a set of practices and skills that others find useful. If IA is a field of study, it requires a distinct field of discourse, with both canonical and resistant texts, multiple voices, and a constellation of methods of inquiry. As a field of practice, IA can lift whatever it wants from philosophy, computer science, architecture, graphic design and library science; as a field of study, IA must appropriate and redefine those things into a common discourse.

I, for one, believe that developing that common discourse is a good thing. But imagine how it looks to outsiders. Those of you with children probably know how hard it is to watch them learn to do something you know how to do very well, and how overwhelming the temptation can be to rush in and fix things that you know will go wrong. Those of you with older children probably know how irritating it is when your children learn rapidly to do something that took you years of painful study to learn, and how disorienting it is to see them appropriate that knowledge in a totally different way.

It’s hard for experts in the fields that feed into IA to sit back and watch us stumble around, and probably harder still to watch us leap ahead unexpectedly, often at the cost of some unquestioned dogma in the parent field. And it’s hard for IAs not to snap with irritation when someone pipes up with phrases like, “you’re doing it wrong, you know.” It’s especially difficult to remember that phrases like that are infinitely preferable to the alternative: “I thought all along that you were screwing up, but I didn’t want to say anything.”

Maintaining a certain insularity is a necessary part of nurturing a common discourse; like children, we’ve got to learn to do it ourselves. The challenge lies in ensuring that cordial and productive relationships are maintained between those fields that lie outside that discourse; like children, we’ve got to learn to ask for and give help. And if we sometimes don’t get the mix right: well, what family does?

3. IAs are History.

It’s true, and I for one am glad that it’s true. Christopher Hitchens “once called”: North America the only culture “in the history of the world, where the words ‘you’re history’ are an insult.” Against a culture-wide disdain for history, and for longitudinal perspectives on current problems, prominent IAs are mounting a vociferous resistance. Peter Merholz, in his closing plenary of the 2006 Summit, treated us to an enlightening history of the term “information architecture,” showing us that the term has indeed a history, and that the concepts have a history longer than the actual term itself. As a profession, IA is struggling to avoid reinventing the wheel, and that can only come from a sense of history.

But what is history, anyway? T.S. Eliot once said that history is a collection of timeless moments, and that’s a very apt description of what IA is all about. Underneath all our usability studies and frameworks and paradigms and swimlanes and facet categories lies a core conviction: if you’re going to present complex information effectively, you’ve got to stop and think about it. You have to insist on your right to stop and think.

That’s not easy to do, when a chorus of voices is telling you that you’ve missed the boat, and that the world has moved on. It’s even harder to persuade an organization to do it, when its leaders are afraid of becoming history. Of course the world has moved on; the environment that produced the first edition of the Polar Bear Book is ten years in the past, on the other side of Google, the dot bomb, the Web 2.0, 9/11 and American Idol.

Information architecture at its best is not about the cool, the newest, or the latest. Information architecture is about the breath, the pause, the stillness in the eye of the information hurricane. I’ve experienced that stillness in many places. I feel it when I play Bach, and sense those incredible structures that stand like cathedral arches within the myriad notes that I’m trying to play. I feel it when I’m programming, and I sense the logic of the program I’m struggling to create emerge out of all my false starts and stumblings. I feel it whenever I see someone, from whatever walk of life, come down from the heights to figure out patiently what’s happening between A and B. IA is history, and a part of history: one class of those timeless moments in human life when we’ve stopped chasing about, one of those moments when we’ve stopped to think.

Using Technical Communication Skills in User Experience

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It started with the small stuff. I sweated it all: field labels, button positions, lining up the label and the field, ensuring the icon was understandable. After 2 1/2 years of correcting designs, the heavens opened: the project was delayed, and no one could do the requirements and UI design. How were they going to get it all done? Special T (that’s me) stepped in to save the day, of course. “If you don’t have time, then I’d like to do it.”

I don’t care; I’ll take scraps (err—experience) where I can get it. I come from a technical communication background and seen many successes and failures with user experience in the software world.

It started as a backwards, fix-the-design approach but eventually became a more forward process, designing from a blank slate. Technical communication skills can be a great starting point to an interesting and more lucrative user experience career, if the communicator knows how to apply those skills.

User experience professionals can also learn some lessons from and find potential recruits in technical communicators as they have skills that can be applied directly to the design process. Continue reading Using Technical Communication Skills in User Experience

Talent Isn’t Everything

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Here’s a common myth: To be a successful creative professional, all you need is talent. It’s a nice myth to believe in. “Talent” suggests a divine or evolutionary genetic gift, so if you’re blessed with the talent gene, you’re special and can be a cool creative person. If not, you’re destined to be an accountant.

… this myth of talent has very little to do with the success of a junior designer.

After working three years at “MetaDesign”:metadesign and since starting my new position at Dubberly Design Office, I’ve noticed this myth of talent has very little to do with the success of a junior designer. Instead, I have found that those who survive and last more than six months practice these seven habits:

  1. Work quickly.  Produce a lot
  2. Attend to details.
  3. Be versatile.
  4. Make an effort to learn.
  5. Anticipate problems.
  6. Set goals.
  7. Display a positive attitude.

1. Work quickly. Produce a lot.

In a design studio with large collaborative projects, time is money. Being fast is critical to your survival. The studio relies on your speed in two areas: Idea generation and production.

Idea generation

Being a junior designer often means your final work won’t be polished. Fortunately, design is not just about quality. It’s also about ideas and concepts. The more ideas you generate quickly, the more value you bring to the studio. Having many unrevised ideas, as opposed to one perfect concept, helps your creative director and design team to:

  • Envision the solution space, the set of possible solutions, for the project.
  • Evaluate what’s conservative, feasible, or ridiculous.
  • Create a pool of alternatives to choose from in case a client rejects the team’s initial recommendations.
  • Invite early client participation, by having more options to show and discuss.

Ideas shouldn’t remain in your head; you need to find ways to express them. Some ways to show ideas include brainstorming via outlines, concept maps, mood boards, and sketches. Also useful is rapid prototyping, the iterative process of creating rough and imperfect proof of concepts. Here are some ways you can present your ideas.

Outlines are lists organized hierarchically, much like the lecture notes you took in school. They’re a quick and familiar way to organize initial ideas without worrying about what the final design looks like.

Concept maps show relationships between concepts in the form of nodes and links. Each node represents an idea; each link represents a relationship. Both should be labeled. Their advantage is the ability to show one-to-many and many-to-many relationships.

Mood boards are collages that combine images, colors, and words to capture the general feeling of what a product or service might evoke. They’re useful for discussing general conceptual approaches without getting bogged down in details such as layout and typography. For examples of mood boards in all shapes and sizes, check out Flickr’s Inspiration Boards Pool

Sketches are drawings that approximations what a design might look like. They can be rough or detailed.

When generating ideas, keep in mind that in the early phases of a project, you should first try to generate a lot of ideas instead of having a few perfectly defined.

Second, you should create distinct ideas rather than variations or permutations of the same idea. (I still have a hard time with this one.)

Finally, don’t be afraid of dumb ideas.


Even if your ideas don’t work out, you can help refine, improve, and implement the ideas of others on your team. Production—the execution stage of a design process—is a vital skill for every designer. This means you need to be well-versed in the most commonly-used software applications and prototyping methods in your studio. You don’t need to know them like the back of your hand; you just need to know enough to meet the possible demands of the studio. To become more proficient:

  • Seek help by asking another designer how to do something.
  • Search online for answers. Google, message boards, blogs, and wikis are your best friends.
  • Keep updated on product announcements, tutorials, and updates.
  • Try-out and adopt new software.
  • Practice your skills by experimenting on side projects, such as personal websites and designing for your friends and family.
  • Read sites like this one for tips and tricks.
  • Take classes on new or unfamiliar technologies. Your employer may even sponsor you.

Most major applications now come with a set of tutorials that demonstrate old and new features. As a daily or weekly exercise, choose and complete one tutorial on an unfamiliar part of the application.

2. Attend to details

Successful junior designers take great care in preparing files for others to use. They pay attention to pixels and picas, check spelling, remove unneeded files, and strive to make it easier for someone else to understand their work. Nothing will annoy your supervisor or creative director more than having to clean up sloppy work. Some tips:

In programs with layers, such as Photoshop and InDesign, name and order your layers with a logical naming convention. Delete any layers and ruler guides that are unnecessary.

Keep files managed with clear naming conventions and a logical hierarchy of folders. This makes it easier for your boss and other coworkers to find a file later.

If you have linked or placed images in a file, make sure they work when you package them for your creative director to review. Linked images should also be named according to a logical naming convention.

Make it easy for your manager to give you feedback by making a list of specific questions you need answered to take the project to the next step.

3. Be versatile

Versatile and flexible designers can weather the economic ups and downs of a design studio because they can be staffed to more types of projects. A sure-fire way to shoot yourself in the foot is saying “I don’t do web” or “I don’t do print.” You’ll be seen as a diva and won’t last long.

Effective designers instead say “I don’t know how yet, but I want to learn how to do it.” Eventually, you’ll learn new skills and—more importantly—ways to adapt these skills to new demands. Being well-rounded also gives you a wider range of experiences and skills to draw from when designing. This means more variety when generating ideas and a better understanding of how different disciplines can work together.

Hugh Dubberly, a design planner and educator, shared this anecdote:

“Herman Zapf, famous type designer, tells a story of his first job. He interviewed with a printer who asked if he knew how to use a process camera. Zapf said yes. He got the job and went straight to the library to read up on how to do it.”

Unlike what Zapf would say, I still hear many designers proclaim, “I don’t want to design websites. It’s too technical.” These designers close themselves off to the possibility of learning and growth as well as the reality of technology’s prevalence.

With the ubiquity of technology and the Internet, it’s impossible to avoid getting technical. I encourage every designer, whether print-based or software/web-based, to have some understanding of:

  • Basic programming concepts (functions, loops, conditionals, and variables)
  • Web development (XML, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AJAX, PHP/MySQL, Flash)
  • Social networking and collaborative authoring (blogs, wikis, message boards, MySpace)
  • Cybernetics (study of systems, goals, and feedback)
  • Search and search engine optimization (metadata, tags, page rank, contextual advertising, personalized search)
  • Version control and content management

4. Make an effort to learn

To be versatile, you must learn new skills all the time. Effective and successful designers are lifelong learners. They are curious, enthusiastic, and passionate about design and want to learn more. This passion translates to better job satisfaction and productivity. They also:

* Seek out mentors, perhaps a teacher, manager, or industry expert they admire. * Choose jobs based on those that let them learn the most. When you’ve stopped learning, it’s probably time to leave. * Have projects outside of work (such as cute productivity blogs). * Participate in the design communities by attending lectures and other events. * Keep up with technology and become an early adopter. * Read books on unfamiliar topics. * Write about what they’ve learned and share it with others. It helps organize their thoughts.

5. Anticipate problems

Junior designers can make themselves indispensable by recognizing and anticipating potential problems for their managers. For example, you can:

  • Point out potential production issues that might delay the project.
  • Accurately estimate the amount of time you need to a task. Junior designers are notorious for underestimating the time it takes to do something, so give yourself some padding for anything that might go wrong.
  • If you need more time to do a task, tell your managers at least 24 hours ahead, so they can rearrange the schedule.
  • Alert managers when work falls out of the project scope.

6. Set goals

To be an effective designer, you must set goals for yourself. These goals can be skills you want to learn, responsibilities you want to have, and types of projects you want to work on.

Knowing and articulating these goals is especially important during performance reviews. Reviews should be more than just about discussing your past performance; use them as an opportunity to present your goals. This shows that you want to grow. It also allows both you and your manager to agree on a plan for achieving your goals.

For more about goals, check out Erin Malone’s article on the five-year-plan

7. Display a positive attitude

Companies change. One day, your company is the leading design studio for non-profit corporate identities. The next day, it decides to specialize in websites for luxury European cars. As company vision shifts, so can the staff, location, and other resources. Amidst change and uncertainty, it’s important to remain positive. Nobody likes a grump.

Here are some ways to show a positive attitude:

  • No matter how junior you are, mentor others by sharing information you’ve learned.
  • Identify problems in the studio and find ways to make them go away.
  • Ask what you can do to help.
  • Avoid gossip and talking ill of fellow coworkers, clients, and competing studios.


Certainly, these habits apply to other fields as well as design. They also may be obvious to some. Nonetheless, it’s important to restate and articulate what we often forget. For junior designers who want to eventually become senior designers and managers, it’s vital to avoid believing that success depends on talent alone.

Success for a designer depends on how much value he or she brings to an employer or client. Quality and talent can be part of this value, but success requires more than that. Designers also bring value through speed, versatility, foresight, and other qualities that have little to do with talent. Talent, if it exists, is only a small part of success.

(Special thanks to “Hugh Dubberly”:dubberly for his feedback on an earlier draft of this article.)

Recommended reading:

NOTE: This article is based an earlier blog post on LifeClever, published July 12, 2006.

Deep Context

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Information architecture has developed few techniques to deal methodically with the “soft” issues addressed by context.

Let me share a silly joke with you:

Q: Why did Lieutenant Worf change his hair color?
A: Because it was a good day to dye.[1]

Do you get it? If so, you understand who Worf is and what his character is like. For this joke to make any sense, you need to be part of a clique—Star Trek fans, in this case—with a shared base of understanding. In other words, the joke relies on context for its effectiveness.

IA Venn Diagram Context is the frame of reference that gives meaning and proper perspective to a communication. Pervasive and inescapable, its importance to information architecture is evident in it being one of the three circles in the oft-referenced “Scope of IA” Venn diagram from the Polar Bear Book. While users and content (the other two circles in the diagram) are intensely scrutinized by information architects (most tools and methodologies we employ seem to reside in these two fields), the profession has developed few techniques to deal methodically with the “soft” issues addressed by context (business models, politics, culture, social dynamics, etc.). Context is deeply ingrained in us, so we tend to relegate the issues it raises to a set of background assumptions that we believe to be shared by all parties involved in a project or organization.

This belief may not always be accurate; people have differing assumptions and expectations that affect how they relate to the people and the world around them. While ignoring these differences can obviously cause problems when we’re designing sites targeted at people from other cultures, it may also lead to miscommunication with folks in our own culture or organization. On the other hand, information architectures that take these differences into consideration can help express these unspoken assumptions in meaningful ways, allowing the sites we produce to communicate more effectively.

The role of context in communications: Hall’s model

Effective communication, in any medium, depends on both parties sharing a frame of reference. In his book Beyond Culture, American anthropologist Edward Hall argues that the effectiveness of a communication between two people depends on the amount of context they expect to be present in the communication.

In Hall’s model, High context (HC) communications convey much of the meaning of a message in information that is pre-programmed beforehand in the speakers and the setting of the communication. In other words, much of the message implied by who the speakers are, their relationship to one another, where they are communicating, etc. A typical HC situation would be your family’s holiday dinner party: the way you communicate with the other people there, the manner in which jokes are told and interpreted, and the special places reserved at the table for certain members of the family are all “rules” that are agreed to by all, yet not written down in any formal manner beforehand. The bounds of these relationships have emerged naturally through the interactions of these people—and you—over the years.

Low context (LC) communications, on the other hand, are the opposite: the bulk of the meaning is carried in the message itself, with little left open to interpretation. LC environments and situations rely on formal rule systems to define interactions between different parties. For example, a supermarket supply chain is the process by which a bunch of grapes in a field in Spain can end up being poured from a bottle of wine into a glass in your kitchen table. This exacting system requires all parties involved to interact as efficiently as possible; even minor mistakes can result in millions of dollars lost. In order to minimize failures, formal rules clearly define the relationships and interactions between the parties that make up the supply chain, and these rules are communicated in ways that leave very little open to interpretation.

In studying different cultures around the world, Hall discovered that some tend to be more context-dependent than others. For example, French institutions tend to be more HC than their American counterparts. The French legal system, for one, accepts contextual information about a case (e.g. hearsay, details about the accused person’s character) that would probably bewilder an American attorney.

Of course, it is impossible to generalize: nations are not completely homogeneous, and the institutions that comprise them vary in their degree of context. Besides, organizations and institutions can also have “cultures,” and these can also be subject to differences in contextual dependency.

Deep structural differences between the two communications systems have important effects on how societies and groups develop over time. For example, HC environments and systems tend to be relatively stable—they are long-lived and slow-changing. LC environments, on the other hand, adapt more quickly to changing situations, because they more easily redefine relationships that are established by explicit, mutually agreed-upon rules systems. (Think of the relative stasis of imperial dynasties versus the dynamic “messiness” of democracies.) As a result, members of HC and LC societies show marked differences in their communication styles and social dynamics.

Culture and the Internet medium

Hall defines culture as:

… what gives man his identity no matter where he is born—the total communication framework: words, actions, postures, gestures, tones of voice, facial expressions, the way he handles time, space, and materials, the way he works, plays, makes love, and defends himself.

As a part of this communication framework and a medium for the transmission of cultural information, the Internet is a particularly LC environment. For example, given a single item of content on the web, it is often difficult to ascertain its authorship and the contextual information that usually accompanies the author. These are key details that profoundly influence the way the reader interprets the information; if they are not present (or not clearly presented), the meaning of the message can be radically misunderstood. (Thus the punch line of the classic New Yorker cartoon—“On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.”)

Because of the decentralized nature of the Internet, it is also very difficult to establish contextual relationships between sites. By its very design, the web flattens the relationships between morsels of information, and, by extension, the organizations that publish them. For example, a search in Google for “US Immigration” reveals a mix of official government sites that provide information for prospective immigrants, and official-looking commercial sites with other (perhaps less noble) objectives in mind. A user lacking the contextual information provided by an understanding of the American immigration system (or Internet domain naming schemes) may well choose the wrong site, with potentially disastrous results.

On the other hand, many of our clients’ company cultures tend to be HC environments: they have a particular value system, a history, and a “special” way of going about their business. This “company culture” is often transmitted informally by peers in the organization, or by management in corporate pep talks, but is rarely stated formally in a rulebook. In some organizations, this zeitgeist is explicitly stated as a differentiator that sets the organization apart from its peers (e.g. “The HP Way”).

The role that the organization plays within its larger social group also changes the meaning of the message it intends to communicate. Simply stated, who they are makes a difference in how people understand what they say. In a recent post in his blog, Diego Rodríguez called out a strange recurring typo in the US Federal Aviation Administration website:

I actually like the word “frequestly”, and would find it to be brand enhancing if I heard it from Cranium or Virgin or Mini, but when the FAA speaks, we need it to sound like James Earl Jones. We want the FAA to show us at every opportunity that they have their act together.

In other words, this contextual information (the role of the FAA in American society) changes the user’s interpretation of the content. When context and content are in discord, the user perceives that the organization “doesn’t have its act together.” [2]

IA ChallengeBecause of this, information architects must understand and somehow express the contextual details that are key for the client organization’s messages to make sense in a LC medium. Indeed, it can be said that one of the purposes of information architecture is to reduce context dependency in order to facilitate finding—and understanding—information in LC media.

The tools that information architects employ—sitemaps, wireframes, taxonomies, etc. —can be thought of as means to capture contextual information and collapse it into LC space. These documents and methodologies define the “rules” that establish how communication will occur in an information environment. In some cases (e.g. pattern libraries), the rule sets are defined explicitly as such, while in others (e.g. sitemaps, wireframes) they are expressed through the chosen site organization schemes, metaphors, and labeling. When an information architect creates a taxonomy, she is literally defining the language that the organization will use to describe itself internally and to others. These rules must provide the means for the user to find the information he seeks, but they must also provide the necessary context so that this information conveys the organization’s messages correctly, independently of his level of contextual understanding.

This notion of information architecture as a context-reducing agent has important implications for our day-to-day work. Most obviously, designers need to be conscious of cultural differences when designing sites that have a global reach: members of a HC culture will expect a different mode of communication, navigation structures, and content from a site than members of a LC culture. (We can hypothesize that HC users will expect more information about the organization itself, its leadership, and its relationship to society and to themselves. LC users, on the other hand, may want to “get to the point” and may become irritated with contextual information they perceive as “filler.”)

Context dependency also affects the way we communicate with clients. Hall points out the difficulties inherent in cross-cultural communication, especially when one person comes from a LC culture and the other expects a HC style. Given that information architects are immersed in a LC practice, we may unconsciously approach problems primarily in LC terms of the information to be published and how it can be produced and organized, at the expense of “soft” HC issues such as the social dynamics between individuals in the group, the role of the organization within its society, and the political environment. Knowing how to “speak the client’s language” will make us better communicators—and, more importantly, listeners—crucial skills for anyone seeking to help others communicate effectively.

Just being aware that these differences in contextual dependency exist offers us new avenues for understanding our practice, and improves the effectiveness of the cultural artifacts we produce. To quote Hall:

If one is to prosper in this new world without being unexpectedly battered, one must transcend one’s own system. To do so, two things must be known: first, that there is a system, and second, the nature of that system. What is more, the only way to master either is to seek out systems that are different from one’s own and, using oneself as a sensitive recording device, make note of every reaction or tendency to escalate.

In other words, by exposing ourselves to different cultures, we develop a deeper understanding of our own, and this will make us better designers. When we create an information architecture for a website—irrespective of its intended target audience—we will inevitably be called on to express the contextual assumptions that allow the website’s messages to be properly understood. Knowing that these assumptions exist (and understanding how the various audiences may interpret them differently) is the first step in creating sites that communicate more effectively across cultural lines—even if they are within our own society.


[1] This joke illustrates the Wikipedia entry on High Context cultures.
[2] Note that Rodríguez’s comment also assumes a certain level of shared context: I expect he refers to James Earl Jones as the voice of CNN, not Darth Vader. Also note that my previous sentence makes cultural assumptions as well: that you know what “CNN” and “Darth Vader” are, and that James Earl Jones is the voice of both. This critical process can be taken to counter-productive extremes.

Testing Incentives: The Best Way to Pay

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What do users want? We all know the answer to that one. Users want products that are simple, yet powerful, yet inexpensive. They want to go to your website and find the information they need in the blink of an eye, whether they browse or search. They want to use your software to accomplish their tasks quickly and easily, without even being aware of your UI.

But how about those users in your lab? Are they, like you, simply doing their part to make the world a better, more usable place? Do they realize how valuable their feedback is, and nobly offer it freely to all for the betterment of mankind? Or are they just in it for the money?


Recently, I informally surveyed the members on a popular usability list serv to see how other usability professionals compensate their participants. I heard from 37 respondents. Here’s how you compensate your participants, by the numbers:

  • Cash – 18
  • Gift certificate – 17
  • Gift cards / gift checks – 10
  • Freebies – 9
  • Nothing – 7
  • Checks – 6
  • Other – 6

It Depends

It doesn’t take a mathematician to see that the responses above don’t add up to 37. Usability professionals typically use more than one method. In fact, the average usability professional used about two methods (1.97), with some using as many as five. Less than half (42%) cited only one method.

Why so many different methods? Well, it depends, of course – on the context, on the users, on the kind of test. “Our compensation depends upon the situation,” says Doug Beck, with Agilent. That’s further explained by Bob Virzi, of Verizon Labs, “We use a variety of options depending on the type of study we are doing.” Sue Heim added, “It depends upon who the users are.” Others were even more detailed, citing one method for in-person and another for remote tests, one method for customers and a different one for employees, and so on. In fact, the why’s and wherefore’s are much more interesting than the mere numbers.


“Cash is king,” says Ron Perkins, of DesignPerspectives. Bob Virzi points out that cash is the “preferred method, especially by participants.” This is an important point, detailed by Ted Sienknecht:

Nothing has the impact that cold cash does. While many corporations throw up more red tape about disbursing cash, believe me, the user appreciates it more (no issues with stores not accepting it, no befuddled clerks, no balance to check, no card to lose/misplace, no fees/non-use penalties).

Other usability professionals point to cash’s supreme flexibility. “Obviously, as long as cash is still accepted everywhere,” jokes Lyle Kantrovich, of Human Factors International, “it’s the most flexible.” Chauncey Wilson, with MathWorks, Inc, continues the joke: “Cash is generally the best alternative. Cash can be used almost anywhere.” Ted offers a concrete example of what this can mean for usability professionals: “Since cash is liquid, you can easily divert any leftover cash due to no-shows to appropriate uses ([which is] much more difficult with gift cards).”

Cash is not, however, without its issues. Cold, hard cash can be somewhat risky. As consultant Carolyn Snyder points out, “It can’t be replaced if lost or stolen.” Susan Farrell shared a particularly close call:

I flew over the weekend to the UK for a study and needed to have something like £2000 before 8 a.m. on Monday. (My fabulous recruiter … met me with cash at the testing venue and billed it back to me.)

Others pointed to the fact that cash is simply not allowed at their company. Several pointed to particular reasons for this, such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act or the fact that government employees are often prohibited from accepting gifts of any kind. Chauncey cedes the point, but encourages people to fight on: “Companies, educational, and government institutions are often reluctant to give out cash, but it is worth investing the time in getting a good process set up for getting cash for participants.”

Overall, cash may be the best alternative. Ash Donaldson, of Produxi, summarizes the issue well: “It’s instant gratification [for users] and very little hassle for me.”

Gift Certificates

Gift certificates ran a very close second in my survey. They seemed to be the method of choice when doing remote studies. Note that this includes not just tests, but surveys, phone interviews, and journal/diary efforts. Employees seem to be good candidates for gift certificates as well.

Survey respondents mentioned several different kinds of gifts certificates. Those from Amazon seemed the most popular, but iTunes, Starbucks, and movie tickets all had their proponents. Of Starbucks, Carl Myhill, with GE, waxes positively poetic:

That made me think how much I liked getting a Starbucks card as a gift…. Starbucks seems to worry a lot about customer experience. It’s the first place I ever went where I could use a credit card without signing my name or typing my pin. Wow, it was almost like Starbucks actually trusts me or something. OK, I’m generally pretty anti huge corporation and like to support the little guy, but when I get wowed by a corporation who trusts me, phew, just get me a chai latte!

Gift certificates also, however, have their drawbacks. As with cash, there is some risk involved. “If you use the paper version,” notes Chauncey Wilson, “you must inform the person that the paper certificate is just like money, and if they lose it, you cannot replace it.”

as long as cash is still accepted everywhere — it’s the most flexible.

Chauncey also points to lack of choice as an issue: “Movie cards work well in some places, but not everyone is a movie fan.” Using her own experience as a guide, Leanne Waldal, of Otivo, offers a possible solution, “I love the idea of a choice of gift cards because a snobby foodie-person like me would really hate to be given a Starbucks or Jamba Juice card, but would love an iTunes gift card. ”

Lyle Kantrovich goes one further, recommending a gift certificate that can be used at multiple locations:

One option I haven’t heard mentioned is a service like Hallmark’s Premiere Choice Awards® – where you basically can give a gift certificate (or split it into multiple certificates) that can be used at many different stores (physical, catalog, and online). Recipients can redeem their award for gift certificates at over 350 stores. Of course, there’s a little more cost involved, but I think it makes it more likely that the recipient will enjoy what you give them. My previous employer gave these certificates for employee recognition, so I used them a few times, and it was a great experience. Better than getting cash from my employer.

Though these more flexible gift certificates are ideal for employees, they may also be useful for customers.

Gift Cards / Gift Checks

Similar to Hallmark’s Premiere Choice Awards® are gift cards, which also includes gift checks. They operate very similarly to the Premiere Choice Awards®, but can be used almost anywhere. Examples include American Express® Gift Cheques and Gift Cards, and Visa Gift Cards.

Several survey respondents pointed to the cards’ portability. Carolyn Snyder explains how she “buys a bunch at the start of the project so we have them on hand.” Bob Virzi likes them when he needs to “take a pile of compensation to a study in another city.”

Others use them for remote users. Carolyn notes that “they can work very well for remote users, when you’re not able to hand them cash. At one of my clients, we’ve used them for several studies involving phone interviews, and they’ve worked fine.” Kirk Doggett, with VistaPoint, also points to the fact that they can be purchased online and that they “can be associated with a purchase requisition for accounting purposes.”

Unfortunately, gift cards and checks also have their problems. Ironically, these issues seem to revolve around the cards’ usability. Paul Sherman, of Sage Software, has a fair amount to say about that user experience, both for the participant and the usability professional:

Both have big drawbacks (for the participants, as well as for us). For the participant, they’re a big PITA (pain in the …). Some checkout clerks go into brainlock at the sight of an Amex gift check. Some won’t give change off it. The Visa gift cards are annoying because you have to call to determine your balance. And if your purchase is over your limit, you have to split the item cost across the Visa card and some other form of payment. As for us, we get one or two no-shows for a study, and end up accumulating Amex checks and Visa cards in varying denominations. And did I mention that the Visa cards start auto-debiting a $2.50 per month service charge after six months? If I had my druthers, I’d just cut a check.

Leanne Waldal shares her own less than optimal user experience with this method:

I received a Visa $100 “gift” card as a gift once, and I ended up throwing it away because I couldn’t figure out how to use it. Stores wouldn’t accept it unless I purchased the “right” amount. I had to call some number and register it and give up all sorts of personal information. It wasn’t worth it. It’s horrible that it’s called a “gift card” when it imposes so much on the recipient.

Unfortunately, getting compensated isn’t supposed to be part of the usability test. It sounds like gift cards and checks in same cases may be a poor solution to the problem of compensation.


Call it what you want – goodies, swag, booty, boodle – freebies remain a popular option. This is especially the case when there are limited funds to offer cash, checks, or other forms of real money.

Traditional items like T-shirts, coffee mugs, caps, and pens are popular, typically emblazoned with the company logo. Though some respondents thought that users appreciate this sort of thing, they really function more as a thoughtful gesture more than anything else.

In a different category are company products, which may be of real interest to the user. This can mean software, upgrades, and hardware. Barb Hernandez, of TechSmith, points to the difference: “We offer real cool swag.”

Still, Susan Farrell wraps up the appeal of the typical freebie well: “Everyone needs cash, but not everyone needs another bag with another company logo on it.”


A surprising number of professionals (almost one in five) say they offer no compensation. This is done – overwhelmingly – because tests involve employees. A couple of survey respondents cited company policy in this regard. Others just cited lack of funds and the availability of warm bodies.

Several respondents noted that, even though their users weren’t receiving any compensation, recruiting was not an issue. Tom Suther noted, though, that this isn’t always the case:

We have our real users and do not need to look much beyond our staff to perform usability or Human Factors work. Since we build things for the staff, they are captive and willingly volunteer as part of their job to produce the best that we can. Yes, we are in a luxury state in this regard.

Not compensating users is much rarer when trying to recruit customers or the general public. I only heard from one user who admitted to this. Kim Moroni, (who didn’t indicate a company association), sounds like she shares the same lucky situation as Tom:

Typically, our customers value the opportunity to participate in the evaluations early enough in our product/application design that they volunteer. We still have more participants sign up than we can include. I guess our primary “compensation” is providing customers with a real voice in improving our products.


A final major category is checks. Mostly, though, checks are condemned. “Never checks,” says Tara Bazler, of Indiana Univ. “A check is definitely second choice,” echoes Ron Perkins.

Why are checks so universally loathed? Mostly, it has to do with timeliness. Carolyn Snyder tells a story about “one client who tried to go through their A/P department and have checks mailed, but there was no way to make the process happen in less than 30 days. Given that we’d told the users to expect a check within two weeks, we had some apologizing to do.”

My company also uses checks. In addition to timeliness, we have also had problems with the check requisition forms users must fill out. Sometimes, users forget to fill out all the fields on the form, forcing us to follow up with them. Our form also requires users to give us their Social Security number, which often raises privacy and security alarms. We’ve also found there is many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip, with the form or check or both getting mislaid or misdirected. Finally, whenever we work with users from a recruiting agency, the idea that they won’t receive cold hard cash immediately after the study leaves them dumbfounded, and can even hurt the recruiting effort.

Other Incentives

Several usability professionals got a little more creative. One particularly interesting suggestion was to do a lottery. Instead of getting a coffee mug, the user’s name goes into a drawing for a Bluetooth®. Instead of $40, the user gets a chance to win $200.

Another strategy was simply allowing a recruiting agency to take care of everything. As Bob Virzi puts it, “Sometimes we use an outside agency to recruit and pay participants, and I don’t give a hoot how they incent [sic] them, so long as they show up and meet the requirements.”

And a final strategy cited by more than one respondent was to offer copies of the report. For a consulting firm like Forrester or Giga, this can really be valuable.

Other Considerations

The survey respondents also shared some very valuable advice on issues other than the pros and cons of particular methods. For example, Chauncey Wilson points to setting expectations: “You need to carefully spell out your incentives when you recruit and how the person will get them and what the limitations are on the incentives.” Based on my own experience, users who are told they will receive cash, then get a check, won’t be happy.

Something similar needs to be done at the end of the test, especially if the compensation is something less straightforward than cash or a check. For these kinds of payment, instructions may be necessary. Here’s what Carolyn Snyder does for gift checks:

At the end of the interview we ask if they have any questions about how to use the gift check. We provide a link to the FAQ page that explains how to use them, in both the thank-you email and the letter accompanying the gift check itself.

In Summary

There are many ways to compensate a user. And which method you select depends a lot on the situation. Still, I would recommend cash for in-person studies and gift certificates for remote ones. Even if we can’t guarantee that we’ll solve all of the users’ problems, at least we can put a smile on the face of those with whom we actually interact.