This is my first attempt at writing a UX centered blog post, but I believe it’s likely long overdue.
Recently, I ran across Dan Willis’ blog, UX Crank, which I immediately fell in love with. Specifically, I was impressed with the relatively recent post of his, Build a Strong UX Foundation. It’s a topic I’ve thought quite a bit on recently, as I’m entering that phase of my career when I’m thinking more and more about how I can help newly christened designers be successful.
I enjoyed how he nodded to the issue of “UX” being a sort of wastebasket diagnosis of a profession, in regards to how our field loosely encompasses just about everything related to design. That inflammatory comment of mine could perhaps lead someone to think I’m dismissing my entire profession, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Though strongly worded, I must admit, the analogy seems sound. (and yes, I know how dangerous analogies are, let’s not go there…) We, as a group, are continually stumbling around, trying to get a grip on what it is we do, why we need to do it, why people should listen to us, etc… And we can’t resist putting a label on that struggle. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I do the same sort of stumbling every week as I figure out how best to fulfill my role in a sea of overlapping disciplines. But despite that continual struggle, I believe we’re coming ever closer to an understanding with blog posts like Dan’s there. Specifically, I have to call out this statement:
Our real value has never been about picking the right template for the right challenge; our value is to fully define a problem from the user experience perspective and then to craft practical solutions that address that problem in specific and measurable ways.
-Dan Willis, UX Crank
This paragraph gets to the core of UX for me. It’s something I’ve personally thought on for some time now, actually. The real value isn’t in picking a template. I would take it further – it’s not about picking a tool or a process. Instead, our value is exactly as Dan says – “to fully define a problem from the user experience perspective.”
I have to admit, I feel a temptation to leave off the “user experience perspective” bit and just focus on the definition of the problem. But doing so would remove what makes us special, what makes us unique. It’s what separates us from product management. We take business goals and needs and focus them through the lens of a user’s needs. And we do this in order to enhance them and increase the likelihood of business success. That’s the “secret sauce” that’s not really all that secret.
But I was tempted to leave all of that out because, frankly, that first part is complicated enough on it’s own! Fully defining a problem is a hard thing to do. And this comes to the topic of my post. (Curse you, verbosity! I shall defeat you another day…)
If fully defining a problem is the foundation of a UX practitioner – which I believe it is – then there’s a very specific aspect to defining a problem that I would call out for any burgeoning designer. And that specific aspect is:
It’s a simple question and a simple concept, but also one of the easiest concepts to overlook. It’s the most important question to have an answer to, in any undertaking, and the most valuable bit of information to communicate to any team of knowledge workers (which we ALL are). It’s at the very center of our entire profession.
Yes, there are other details of a problem that are important. The regulars: who, what, where, how – those details are all very important. But they are all crushed under the imposing weight of why. Why? Because answering “why?” gives us intent, purpose, meaning… The rest is context. Useful, but greatly diminished without a foundation.
Years ago, a brilliant colleague/designer I work with, Sylvania Dye, first revealed to me the power of understanding why. She introduced various root cause analysis techniques, one of which was the 5 why’s, which was a quaint but wonderful beginning for me in my analytical adventure. I’ve since grown beyond that simple technique, but the essence remains. In any of my undertakings, I simply must have an answer to that question.
The true power of why is that it provides a simple, quick escape from the perils of shallow thinking. I define shallow thinking as any situation where you aren’t being deeply critical of yourself and your activities, not to mention the activities of those around you. For example, perhaps you are only designing solutions to symptoms, focusing more on aesthetic than experience, or simply trying to put lipstick on a pig. In each such scenario, simply asking why can easily break you out of self inflicted doldrums and unearth real design problems worth solving.
But here’s the kicker – asking why isn’t always easy. There’s SO many ways to ask such a simple question. Let’s say you’ve been asked to implement a big circular button. Asking “Why don’t we have a big circular button” isn’t going to get you very far. Asking “Why do users need this button” will. And from there, hell, ask whatever questions you need in order to get to that core WHY. You can be sure that something kicked off the desire for this button and you, as a designer, need to know what it was.
I can guarantee you, if you don’t know why you are implementing that big button, you aren’t going to be able to deliver the best possible solution. And it’s your job, as a UX designer, to really know why. You can’t take things at face value. You can’t make assumptions. You have to do your best to really analyze the problems in front of you and understand why they are problems and why they are worth solving.
To unearth those oft elusive whys, you may have to ask the question quite a lot and ask quite a lot of people. But you have to do it without making people look stupid. That’s vital, because I can also guarantee that someday, someone will ask you that all important question and you’ll respond by smacking your forehead, ashamed that you don’t have an appropriate answer. (Which is fine – when that happens, search deep down in your gut and find the answer. You’ll probably find one. There’s a reason good designers have instinctual reactions/ideas. But be willing to kill your babies if you find out they are just fluff.)
The main point is that it’s NOT the job of a UX designer to just implement what they are asked to implement and make it as shiny as possible. As Alan Cooper frequently points out, users don’t know what they need. Likewise, neither do your teammates in many cases. Hell, I don’t know what I need most of the time! It’s a normal thing. But it’s our job to make sure our team has done that digging, to find real needs, to get to the core of it all. Until we do that, our ability to deliver amazing designs is a crapshoot.
And I’m not saying that asking why is the one tool that will get you there. But I strongly believe it’s the start. And if I could encourage any budding designer to start doing one thing well, it would be both asking and answering that question. (For starters, you could ask “why would it be useful to ask why?”)
Of course, next up, you can ask ask all sorts of other crap. “What problem am I really solving here?” “How far do I need to solve the problem?” “How do I know if I’ve solved it effectively?” etc… But that’s all for another overly wordy blog post…