The hidden business of user experience design

User research often throws up problems beyond the scope of designing websites and applications. Awkward things like corporate focus, content freshness, customer service relationships and database quality problems.

All affect the user’s experience, yet addressing the business processes responsible is rarely seen as part of user experience design. Which is a shame because failing to address business issues can undo all our design work.

Redesign the organisation

My first exposure to user research was the CABE redesign in 2008. The big (unsurprising) finding was that people wanted to find content by themes like housing, health or sustainability.

It didn’t take long to design the information architecture, but three years later we still had problems with creating the content. Sections like sustainability, which had a dedicated internal team, had great content. Areas which required cross-team collaboration, like health or housing, were poor.

The lesson? It’s not enough to redesign your website - sometimes you have to redesign your organisation. CABE should have created new teams, or refined their editorial processes, to populate our shiny new information architecture.

Forget the front end (sometimes)

Another site that I worked on had serious usability issues. Frustrated at my failure to convince people of their importance, I did some user research to show the need for change.

But none of the research findings related to my usability concerns.

Instead, the real user issues touched on multiple areas of the business. Addressing them involved difficult conversations, serious data analysis, renegotiation of contracts and even culture change.

The lesson? User research throws up some issues that can’t be addressed with wireframes and prototypes. (Also, don’t do research to prove yourself right!).

Fight for better processes

You might wonder whether these issues matter to user experience designers. They sound suspiciously like things other people should be sorting out.

Maybe. But many managers aren’t digital natives, let alone advocates of user-centred design. They won’t make good strategic or operational decisions without good advice and, weird as it seems, our research is often the first time they find out what users really think. So, for now at least, it falls on us to fight for the better business processes our designs deserve.

And if we don’t? The beautiful websites and applications we design won’t work for users. No matter how good they are on paper.

Let me know what you think on @myddelton.

Concatenate rules

Normal people don’t usually thank you for teaching them Excel tricks. Unless that trick is the Concatenate function. Then they love you forever.

Concatenate joins together text from multiple cells. Let’s say you have two cells containing “Hidden” (A1) and “Gems” (B1). Here’s how to combine them:

results in “HiddenGems”

But Concatenate is a long unusual word which makes it hard to remember. So it’s good you can use an ampersand instead, just like you use plus and minus:

results in “HiddenGems” as well

You can add your own characters into the formula too. Insert a friendly space (or any character string) by putting it in quotation marks:

=A1&“ ”&B1
results in “Hidden Gems”, which is much prettier

It’s difficult to explain how useful Concatenate is. I use it to build greetings from title/firstname/lastname (mailouts), construct working URLs from unique identifiers (content audits), add HTML tags to list content (CMS uploads) and export quotes to Wordle to make pretty word clouds (data visualisation).

If you liked this you should read about PureText. Let me know what you think on @myddelton and follow @wizardofexcel to supercharge your Excel skills.

The hidden powers of SurveyMonkey

Twice I’ve joined companies to find professional researchers laughing at my use of SurveyMonkey for user research. They assumed it was inadequate compared to their costly enterprise software.

But most surveys don’t need advanced features. When they saw how easy it was to do surveys with SurveyMonkey, the researchers never looked back.

In their honour, here’s my guide to the lesser-known features of SurveyMonkey.

Super simple data sharing

The whole point of a survey is getting responses. But enterprise tools put so many barriers between writing the survey and getting the responses that it’s easy to forget why you were asking the questions in the first place.

This just isn’t good enough.

So my top reason to use SurveyMonkey is it only takes 30 seconds to create a password-protected URL for your survey results. Now anyone can access the data without being able to modify the responses or mess up the survey itself. 

And what does quick and timely access to user data equal? UX converts.

One survey, multiple collectors

SurveyMonkey lets you create a single survey with many different URLs (‘collectors’). You might put one on your website, another in a mass email to registered users and a third on your Twitter account. 

All collectors gather responses to one place, but the trick is you can view data in aggregate or segment it by collector. This lets you easily see differences between your audiences at the same time as gathering overall data.

And that’s just the start. Segmentation lets you test your hunches (do people respond differently when incentivised?) and compare feedback over time (one set of feedback questions with a different collector for each time you speak).

Conditional logic that my mum understands

You don’t have to create many user surveys before you find that you want to ask different follow-up questions depending on previous answers. 

The classic example is the satisfaction survey – ask one thing to users that failed to complete their task (‘what prevented you doing this?’) and something else to users that were successful (‘what do you most value about our site?’).

Although this sounds simple, in practice it’s dangerously close to programming. And, ouch, debugging. But SurveyMonkey has an interface for branching surveys so straightforward that my mum can (and does) use it.

The creepy part

Finally, you can pass information into the survey via a personalised URL. 

Using something like Campaign Monitor you send personalised emails to all of your registered users, each with a survey link that contains their email address as part of the survey URL. When users complete the survey their response is logged alongside their email address. Without them doing anything.

Now you can contact users about issues raised without ever asking for an email address. Fewer fields to complete, and no input errors either. Win-win.

Just don’t claim this is an ‘anonymous’ survey…

It doesn’t do everything (but in a good way)

Of course, many great features are missing from SurveyMonkey. (Although the refusal to bloat it with features just makes me love it more).

You can’t drag and drop when designing your survey. Or allow respondents to upload their own files. Or completely retheme your survey with CSS. If you want to do those things then check out Wufoo.

You can’t get an RSS feed of responses. Or do computation and scripting. Or use strings from previous answers in subsequent questions. If this sounds fun, you should look at SurveyGizmo

But SurveyMonkey has been ever-present in my arsenal for the last five years, and no other tool can make that claim. It’s solid, easy, powerful, friendly, usable and cheap. If you do user surveys, you should definitely try it.

I’m not affiliated with SurveyMonkey – I just love using it. Let me know what you think on @myddelton – particularly if you know something useful I’ve missed.

Update: SurveyMonkey introduced the ability to use strings from previous answers in subsequent questions in February 2011.

Becoming a user experience designer

This time last year I was a web editor. Today I’m a user experience designer. If you’re thinking about making a similar transition then this post is for you.

A word of warning. This isn’t about shortcuts or changing your job title to make more money. This is for people who already love improving things for users, who lap up design theory wherever they can find it and who use user-centred design techniques despite these not being in their job descriptions.

If that still sounds like you, here are the lessons I learned. I hope they help.

Calling yourself a designer is the hardest part

For me, the biggest obstacle was learning to call myself a designer. I can’t create beautiful layouts. My sketches look like a spider fell in an inkwell. I’m red-green colour blind and I last studied art back in 1991.

In my mind I was no more a designer than an astronaut.

But it turns out that design is about solving problems within constraints and communicating the solutions, not creating pretty art. UX designers come from many disciplines - for example, I’m a history graduate (like the Guardian’s Martin Belam), come from a content background (like Jesse James Garrett from Adaptive Path) and spent my 20s as a musician (pick one from many!).

My advice? Get comfortable calling yourself a designer because it’s hard enough to switch to a new career without second-guessing your own job title.

Networking is essential

I’ve had a dread of networking ever since I first heard the term. So imagine my surprise when after forcing myself to attend a UX meetup I found a crowd of kindred spirits – warm, welcoming and passionate about the things that I loved.

Meeting UX designers makes you realise they’re mostly just like you. Talking with people who employ UX designers helps you find strengths and weaknesses quicker than you would on your own. People, even strangers, naturally tell you about unadvertised job openings and their favourite recruitment agents.

And don’t forget existing contacts! One work colleague observed a personal quality that I’d missed completely – and which I’ve used in every interview since. Another convinced me that I had what it took to make the switch.

Treat your CV like a UX project

I’ve always approached my CV in the way that most businesses approach the web, throwing everything possible at it in the desperate hope that something would stick. It was a mess until a close friend put me straight:

Your CV is a record of what you want to do, not of what you’ve done.

This simple advice helped me rethink my CV as a UX project. Stripping out irrelevant experience felt less like erasing my past than leaving space for core competencies to shine. Focusing the entire first page on my last job didn’t feel disproportionate, it felt like establishing a proper visual hierachy. Fitting it all into two pages was the right thing to do for my users, busy employers.

I solicited feedback, iterated mercilessly and got a job on version 17.

Portfolios make interviews easier

Creating a portfolio terrified me. I’d never done one and I didn’t know what it should look like. So I kept it simple: four pages, four projects, each with a description alongside thumbnails of sketches, photos and screenshots. I was trying to show my whole process rather than specific details.

I also took a paper copies to interviews rather than a digital version. This caused a few raised eyebrows but had some advantages:

  • the interviewer can skip around on their copy, scribble on it or read it in detail
  • the higher resolution lets you present a whole project on a single page
  • you get to leave a physical artifact in the hands of your interviewer
  • there is no risk of being flummoxed by technology.

The best parts of my interviews were the portfolio discussions. Rather than responding nervously to questions about hypothetical situations you end up having a proper, substantive conversation about your real work. (This is why you should avoid sending a digital copy in advance – if it works as a prompt to conversation, chances are it won’t work as a standalone document).

Look at my portfolio if you like – but trust me, you’d be much better off reading Jason Mesut’s guide to selling yourself.

No research, no excuses

The worst moment of my experience came when an interviewer asked me what I thought of their recent work. I hadn’t looked. It’s not a mistake I made twice.

Researching a potential employer is easy on the web. I wandered through corporate websites, press releases, trade media stories, products and client work to build up a rounded picture before interviews.

It doesn’t stop there. Companies might check employees out on Facebook, but what about employees checking out interviewers on LinkedIn? Knowing the background and interests of your interviewers is, well, kind of a big deal.

But the most useful research task was evaluating a company’s web products before interview. If the portfolio allows a conversation on your terms, turning up with questions about their design decisions is the opposite – your interviewer can assess your design views in the context of work that they know. Just be careful not to force your opinions on them.

You don’t get what you’re worth, you get what you negotiate

So you’ve convinced yourself you’re a designer, networked furiously to find openings, used your CV to get an interview and solicited a job offer with the help of your portfolio.

It’s time to talk about the money.

Yes, like most Brits I hate this part. But after years of moaning about not being paid what I thought I was worth it was time to try out a strategy. Mine was:

  1. Set a minimum salary in advance – speak to colleagues about what is reasonable, set a figure and don’t go below this whatever happens.
  2. Decide on your opening bid – be prepared with an opening figure higher than your minimum and practice saying it out loud (seriously).
  3. Be ready to walk away – the first time I walked away was awful and made me feel like a loser, the second was easier and the third felt completely normal.

Which hubris brings me neatly to my final point.

Switching career to be a UX designer, or anything else for that matter, requires you to put your humility aside and sell yourself hard. It’s OK, that’s part of the game. Just don’t forget to go back to being humble afterwards.

Feel free to ask questions or tell me what you think on @myddelton. Thanks again to Andrew Travers for incredible advice, Jason Mesut for portfolio wisdom, Matthew Solle for the recruiter tip, Ben Clarfelt for finding my job and Leisa Reichelt for the Peter Drucker quotes.