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UX Careers: Honesty, Empathy and Design Theater

by Matthew T. Grant

UX Careers: Honesty, Empathy and Design Theater

This article was originally published on Medium.

“If you want to know about the next big thing,” says Fjord’s Tanarra Schneider, “watch your toddler try to swipe the stove.”

Tanarra was speaking as part of a panel on the future of UX (user experience) careers sponsored by AquentVitamin T, and Designation and held at 1871 in Chicago.

The other panelists included: Sarah Bellrichard, SVP Wholesale UX — Interaction Design at Wells Fargo; Michael Faddis, Head of UX at Vokal; Nicole Maynard, Interaction Design Lead at GE Capital; and Shay Howe, Director of Product at Belly.

The panel was moderated by UX Consultant, Amanda Stockwell.

Over the course of the evening, panelists addressed a number of questions regarding what makes a particular UX candidate stand out, how UX teams and team structures are changing, and “next big things.”

The three themes that emerged were: the importance of honesty, both when interviewing for UX roles and when practicing UX; the need for empathy when devising solutions for clients and end users; and the value of storytelling, particularly as an element of what Michael Faddis called, “design theater.”

1. Be Honest About What You Do and Don’t Know

As Sarah Bellrichard pointed out, it’s frustrating when speaking with a candidate about a site in their portfolio to discover that they were only really responsible for one small part of it. When interviewing, she said, it’s essential that you be honest about your real capabilities and what you’ve actually done.

This kind of honesty requires a measure of self-awareness, Tanarra insisted.

“Know your strengths and weaknesses,” she said, “and appreciate them both. The one allows you to learn and the other allows you to teach.”

This honesty doesn’t end once you get the job, though. A critical component of doing client work is talking about what you know and what you don’t know. “We rarely have the answer when we walk through the door,” Tanarra added.

Specialists vs Generalists

More importantly, this level of honesty relates to the question of whether UX folks should be generalists (even unicorns) or specialists.

Nicole Maynard voiced the representative view when she said, “You should really know and understand all the aspects of UX — strategy, front end development, visual design, interaction design, and so on. How can you know what to specialize in if you haven’t tried different things?”

Both Shay Howe and Sarah Bellrichard pointed out that the need for specialization will vary based on the size of the organization: the larger the UX org, the greater the need for specialists.

But regardless of the level of specialization or the complexity of the organization, the need for honesty remains. You have to know, as Michael Faddis put it, “Where your job ends and where [for example] industrial design begins.”

In other words, as all-encompassing as the notion of experience may be, user experience designers need to be open with themselves, their teams, and their clients and be able to say, in the words of Tanarra Schneider, “Here’s what we need and here are the questions we can’t answer.”

2. Empathy Extends in All Directions

“Building technology,” said Michael Faddis, “without thinking about who’s using it and why, leads to problems.”

This is the central tenet, the truth at the heart of UX: someone needs to represent the user; advocate for them; ensure that the solutions you devise actually solve the problems they have.

There is no UX without empathy for the user.

But the panelists emphasized again and again that this empathy needs to extend to all the stakeholders in a UX project.

This need for 360º empathy was clear in Nicole Maynard’s belief that UX professionals need to “talk on many levels” and “know how to present ideas and discuss them so that everyone can understand them.”

This was echoed by Sarah Bellrichard who said, “You’ve got to spin a narrative that everyone can follow.”

More importantly, this empathy needs to include the business owners of the projects you take on.

“They have skin in the game,” Sarah said, “After all, they’re giving you the money to do the thing!”

Along the same lines, Tanarra Schneider said, you’re going to face challenges “if you don’t have empathy for your client and the struggles they have.”

“We’re dealing with people who are trying to solve problems,” she reminded everyone.

Of course, those “problems” usually involve the client trying to sell something. Helping them do that, Nicole said, is what you as a UX professional need to do.

Michael Faddis phrased it even more bluntly, “You need to design something because you’re trying to sell something.”

This topic, however, highlighted the ambivalence that some UX professionals can have about “selling.” To those harboring such ambivalence, Shay Howe insisted, “This is very much a sales job.”

“You come up with ideas,” he added, “but they are shit unless you sell them.”

3. To Sell You Have to Tell

Within this context of selling, Tanarra said, “A little business acumen doesn’t hurt.”

When then asked how a candidate would demonstrate such acumen, she said, “When walking me through your portfolio, I want to know the business case. What problem did you have to solve?”

Similarly, Sarah Bellrichard said, “I want to see the steps, how you did the work, and what sticky wickets you ran into. I also want to know how this [piece] was not the final product you had in mind.”

Sarah said she wanted to hear the story behind the work because, “If you can tell your story, then we know you can tell the story of the design we’re trying to tell. Storytelling is the narrative that ties everything together.”

Michael Faddis put this notion of storytelling in the broader context of “design theater,” which combines the stories you tell with the way you present yourself and your work.

Design theater is where storytelling and selling come together. It’s a recognition that, as Shay Howe implied, ideas don’t sell themselves.

At the same time, design theater embodies the basic principles of UX: That experiences matter and that you have to be conscious and deliberate about the way you stage experiences to engage and influence people.

Image Source (Creative Commons): Sergey Gabdurakhmanov.


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