Client-Centered Therapy, Student-Centered Learning and User-Centered Design
On the Personal Philosophy of Carl Rogers

Scott Berkun's Personal Insights on the Experience of User Experience Professionals


Scott Berkun shared some mistakes and lessons learned from his experience as and with user experience (UX) professionals last night at a meeting of the Puget Sound Special Interest Group on Human-Computer Interaction (SIGCHI). In a highly interactive session, he also invited the 40 or so other UX professionals who attended the meeting to share their own mistakes and lessons. The most prominent lesson I took away from the evening was one that applies much more broadly than to the UX (or HCI) profession: being a specialist generally means most people won't know what you do, so you must always be prepared to give a brief "101" explanation - and/or demonstration - to the uninitiated about what you do, how you contribute value and why others should care.

Scott began with a playful scree about the proliferation of titles - user experience researcher, usability engineer, interaction designer, etc. - that has led to a factionalization of UX, and suggested that we do away the variants and focus on the primary verb that unites the different roles: design. He then presented his list of UX mistakes and provoked a lively discussion that revealed that many experiences of many user experience professionals designers involve many of the mistakes (and lessons) he listed. Having recently written about the interrelationships between client-centered therapy, student-centered learning and user-centered design, it struck me that the root of many of the mistakes arise from a deficit in transparency, acceptance and/or deep empathic understanding on the part of one or more parties.


A large portion of the discussion revolved around issues of credibility, and the challenges designers face when working with teams composed primarily of software engineers and/or business folk. Many of these challenges arise from others' lack of transparency, acceptance or understanding of design[ers]. However, some challenges result from an unwillingness on the part of some designers to fully understand the needs of their other team members. Scott described one category of mistakes as "Vulcan pretension", an approach in which a designer focuses [only] on collecting, analyzing and reporting data, and is more concerned with the number of studies produced rather than how the results of those studies will be effectively applied to the problem(s) the team is trying to solve. Organizational and individual incentives that reward designers based on the count vs. impact of studies only serve to reinforce and exacerbate this issue.

Scott highlighted the multidimensional facets of usability involved in the design process: a designer might create an incredibly rich mockup of an interface that represents the epitome of usability for the eventual users of the product, without paying sufficient attention to how developers - another important set of users - will use that mockup to implement that interface. Taking care to specify details such as colors, fonts and sizes of different interface elements greatly eases the usability of the mockup for the developers who have to use it ... which also helps build credibility for the designer. Design is an inherently iterative process, but It is important to iterate with the developers - not just the intended end users - so as to become better acquainted with the developers' challenges as early as possible in the design process.


Another suggestion Scott had for designers to gain credibility was to find allies. Even if no one else on the team "gets" design, a designer can at least identify the one person who is least unappreciative, and invite that person to coffee or create another 1:1 interaction opportunity to help that person better appreciate the process and products of design. And if designers finds themselves in meetings without anything useful to contribute, it is best to be transparent, and talk with the manager about whether or how to set the stage to make contributions, or raise the prospect of not going to future meetings. This last suggestion sparked some interesting discussions about meetings, and about laptops in meetings making people more productive even when they cannot contribute [much] ... but Scott - fortunately - steered the discussion away from a potential rathole on meetings. Throughout this portion of the discussion, I found myself musing about Goethe's provocative insight in The Holy Longing:

Tell a wise person or else keep silent.


Another set of common UX mistakes involves what Scott calls a"Dionysian pretension" - being intoxicated with lofty ideas without sufficient concern for their applicability - and is also related to Scott's mistake category of "never get dirty". A willingness to roll up one's sleeves and do the dirty or disagreeable work the team must slog through - e.g., sticking around to participate in late night bug bashes - both yields a deeper empathic understanding [my words] of challenges faced by other members of the team and builds greater credibility among them. This wisdom aligns well with a post I recently encountered by David Heinemeier Hansson of 37signals arguing that There's No Room for the Idea Guy, in which he emphasizes the relative importance of execution vs. [only] ideation.

I would share more details of Scott's presentation, but I know he is planning to write his own blog post on the topic, and didn't want to steal too much of his [mind]fire. I will update this post with a link when his post is available.

[Update: Scott has posted a far more thorough writeup on the top 10 mistakes UX designers make.]

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