End user knowledge is the linchpin of product design. Incorporate that knowledge, you’ll more than likely you have a better chance of usability, adoption, and overall success. Sideline end user knowledge, you’ll almost certainly enter a world of pain from where Walter Sobchak would not even want to enter. So, what are we to do when we know we need this knowledge, but don’t have the resources…is there a compromise? In the harsh realistic world, void of unicorns (UX or other) and leprechauns, there will always be a time when we must rely on representative users to help us make semi-informed decisions.
Relying on representative users (RUs) can be beneficial; I’m not saying the knowledge and advice gleaned from their experience isn’t valuable. However, this approach of using their input as the sole source of end user knowledge will come with risks and these risks should be recognized/accepted early on by all stakeholders (especially those directly responsible for the product). Representative user input can never replace the value/knowledge gained from even minimal end user interaction. One of the most significant pitfalls of relying on RUs is you are basing design decisions on someone’s experience; this experience may be vast or may be minimal. Or worse, the alligators of this metaphor, your RU may be misinformed. More often than not, the people you’re working with are not trained observers or researchers; they’re business/ marketing people who perceive products and users from a completely different perspective. Varied perspective is a positive input into our process, we need that multifaceted view to balance the overall approach and achieve a compromise that produces a usable product that is cost-effective and marketable. However, we need to know the RU observational perspective can be a contributor to risk just as much as reward!
So then…how do we gauge the level of knowledge and trust our RUs are providing useful input? Before any project, the team should have a basic understanding of the target audience. If you don’t know the answers and your RU cannot address the following basic questions, in my opinion, you’re off to a world of pain. This is not an exhaustive list, more a litmus test – please share other questions that you find useful:
- Who are the target users of this solution? How many are there, how different are they across environments/locales, what specifically are their roles, the types of tasks they perform, frequency of those tasks?
- Are there special needs of users in the population?
- What is the defined business problem being solved by the proposed product or enhancement, why is this important to the target users and/or business?
- What are the primary use cases that will be driving the product/enhancement?
- How do users commonly interact with the product (desktop, mobile, laptop, etc.)?
Now that you’ve got these questions answered – Document and share with the team! During design discussions, refer back to these questions/answers as the drivers for decisions that are being made! Do not get caught up in the “What-Ifs” that kill progress. These answers will help the team stay focused on the problems that you’re trying to solve. They’re gold!
I don’t mean to be offensive, but then again, whenever anyone says that phrase, something offensive to someone inevitably follows. There is no such thing as a unicorn. Nessy nor Bigfoot will be making an appearance; my condolences on this Earth shattering realization. Quietly, sometimes loudly, we all determine what lingers in our library of wisdom and reality, agree or disagree, it is all good to me. However, if you ask about a unicorn, or even worse for me to refer to you one, I’ll ask we part amicably with an agreement to disagree. A UI designer/UI developer/UX researcher/UX analyst/Usability Specialist/HF Guru/Interaction Architect/Information Architect/Interaction Designer/etc., etc., simply doesn’t exist nor should this person be sought. It’s lame, it’s selfish, it’s counterproductive! What you’ll likely find at the end of this rabbit hole is a wasted set of candidates or frauds who look more like a horse with a rhino horn stitched on than that awesome unicorn from Legend. I literally laugh out loud (or at least a modest chuckle) every time I come across a request for someone that can code…but also do UX ‘stuff’ or knows UX. Are there people out there that can code well, keep users in mind as they design and/or perform research, I’m sure there are, but that isn’t the same as an Ace of all things UX! If you’re on the hunter-side of this equation, please take a hard look at what you actually NEED. If you are the prey-side, be very careful when answering this call…as you may find yourself in a position that isn’t fulfilling your short and long-term career goals or worse, a position for which you are not qualified.
Will this undoubtedly upset my peers, especially those that think they differentiate themselves as being this Unicorn? Maybe, but I can’t with good conscious let this farce continue. As I speak with recruiters and other individuals in industry looking to understand our already veiled field with polarized lenses, I find it responsible to be honest. If you want someone with a particular set of skills (pardon the Taken reference), be specific and realistic! There are generalists out there who can perform a variety of tasks, but remember you’re getting a generalist and likely won’t perform any of those tasks at an expert level. If that is all you need, fantastic – you have done your homework and expectations are aligned. However, don’t expect miracles.
Would you hire a person who built a career on painting cars to work on your brakes?
How about a plumber to fix your electrical issues?
Maybe a pastry chef to grill prime steaks at your restaurant?
Ahhh, the handyman! They’re affordable, know how to do everything, and get the job done…what’s wrong with that?
My two cents (and one of my favorite bars in Key West), if you need a handyman (or woman), great…If you need an expert to drive your program to success, hire an expert or experts. User Experience is already a muddied field made of bastards…ABSOLUTELY AMAZING AND TALENTED BASTARDS…but INDIVIDUALS who have often had to differntiate themselves from other roles more commonly misunderstood. These roles, while often related and overlapping, do require unique skillsets and personalities. You’ll likely have greater success with a project or program if you know exactly what you want. Take the time, understand the role or roles you need and hire accordingly. The same can be said for those who are seeking employment. Just because you are a UI developer, you are not the same as a UI designer, etc.
If you’re a hiring manager, looking to enhance or start a UX practice at your company, recruiter, or anyone else that may find themselves asking what User Experience is and why should I even care…you’re not alone. This practice has gained a fair amount of light in recent years, which is further complicating the understanding of the UX industry. Traction, as a necessity for product development, is on the other end of slow telephone mired in a rotary republic. We can’t afford to continue the ambiguity both in requests for personnel and seeking employment.
Am I saying there are people incapable of filling multiple roles with great success??? ABSOLUTELY NOT! I’ve met many individuals who can transition in/out these roles like badass UX chameleons. However, it should not be expected that this is the norm! Just as there are many handymen out there that are better than specific plumbers or electricians, this should not be the expectation nor should you expect these people are easy to find (or cheap).
If you want someone to develop UIs using the latest and greatest technologies…hire a UI developer!
If you want someone to kick ass at designing a user interface…hire a UI Designer!
If you want someone to understand your users and all the crazy reasons why they’ll make or break you/your product, hire someone with an understanding of Human Factors!
If you want someone to ensure your designs meet the needs of your end users, hire someone experienced in Usability Testing!
Etc. Etc. Etc.
I would love to wake up tomorrow and not see UI developer roles married to Human Factors research roles. They aren’t the same, stop asking for the same…I’d like to sleep well tonight!