Apr 24, 2016

The UX-factor: why I don’t care where or what you studied by Bram Bos

Trolling design establishment. Like. A. Boss.

I vividly remember the first time I was about to build my own UX design team for a big multinational company. When the hiring process started, the lady from recruitment asked me what sort of educational background I was looking for in potential candidates. My answer: “I don’t particularly care”.
My senior creative director, a well-respected authority in product design (and in many ways a mentor to me) with many decades of experience all but exploded with rage. He prided himself in always hiring the most promising talents from the most prestigious design institutes. Of course it mattered what background a candidate has!
Since then I’ve done my share of hiring UX/UI design talent, and I still stand by my statement: I don’t care what background you have. Just show me you have the UX-factor.

We’re building this brave new world together

Back when I started as an interaction designer in the early 90s, the field of expertise barely existed. As I wrote in another article, we were rebels; using design to avenge the atrocities of technocracy from the 80s. The eternally blinking 00:00 on VCRs, excessively button-laden copy machines, the “underwater” screens of Wordperfect, the insufferable arrogance of the DOS prompt.
In the 20 years that followed, interaction design evolved into user experience design and a smorgasbord of related competencies. The most influential contributors of the field came from myriad backgrounds: human factors, graphic design, architecture, AV arts, software engineering, philosophy, cognitive psychology, people research. I can’t think of any other profession that encompasses such a holistic spectrum of arts and sciences.
But since the founding fathers and mothers of the UX expertise are so diverse, why should we narrow the process of UX design recruitment down to people with a highly specific background? Unless I’m looking to fill a very specific vacancy (e.g. UX trend research, or user testing) I’m just as open to interviewing candidates with a background in architecture or scenography as, say, someone who was trained as a graphic designer but taught herself interaction design skills.

So what is the UX-factor?

Educational background is obviously not completely irrelevant. It will show me things about your interests, the context in which your skills were initially formed, whether you’re likely taught to take an academic approach versus an intuitive approach, etc. But when it comes down to it, for me it’s all about the portfolio. Show me what you’ve done. Tell me about the process and your ideas. And while we’re talking, I’m hoping to spot three things - the trinity of a true UX designer’s character traits:
  1. A passion for design
  2. Empathy for people
  3. A knack for problem solving

Passion for design

While interaction design (with its roots in human factors and HCI) has always been a pretty rational specialism, User Experience design -by its very definition- is an expertise that makes technology and communication resonate with people on a rational AND on an emotional level. It has to.
You can design something to be 100% usable and logical to your end-user, but if the product is dull-as-dishwater people may still have no interest in using it. Don’t underestimate the irrational side of people; the importance of warm fuzzy feelings. (And that’s why I feel user testing is a double-edged sword; it often ignores the unquantifiable qualities of design. But that’s a discussion for another article).
Don’t underestimate the irrational side of people; the importance of warm fuzzy feelings.
I believe that the passion a designer puts into her work always shines through in the end-result. The fun you have making something will be reflected somehow, no matter how mundane or utilitarian the product you’re working on. That’s why it’s essential for a designer to truly have a passion for the irrational, the beautiful, the elegant, the superficial, the emotional, the unnecessary, the enjoyable. It’s what will make technology feel human.

Empathy for people

As a user experience designer you have to identify with the people you design for. Empathy is much more than just understanding your user. If you understand your user, you’re half-way there. It means you know what people do and the logical rationale behind those actions — a workflow, if you like.
But you still don’t really know why people do things, what drives them emotionally. Is it enjoyment, fear, boredom, pride, convenience or curiosity? Knowing such motivations can help your design tremendously. It can make the difference between indifference and engagement. For example: it’s what makes the difference between a wearable step-counter and a wearable that motivates people to sustainably change their behavior.
But you still don’t really know why people do things, what drives them emotionally. Is it enjoyment, fear, boredom, pride, convenience or curiosity?
Feeling a bond with your user is an absolute must to take your designs beyond their rational purpose.

A knack for problem solving

I recently read an article claiming the definition of design is “solving problems”. I think that’s both an oversimplification and a disservice to the wonderful kaleidoscope of facets that make up design. Having said that, creative problem solving is certainly one of the defining qualities of design. And especially in UX design and interaction design there are often many problems to solve and obstacles to remove.
The Tao of user experience design is a concept called “flow”. In a perfect user experience all tasks flow seamlessly and uninterruptedly into each other. All obstructions have been removed, all friction is smoothed out by the designer, there are no perceivable hoops to jump through.
The Tao of user experience design is a concept called “flow”. In a perfect user experience all tasks flow seamlessly and uninterruptedly into each other.
This means problems are not just solved, but the solutions are seamlessly embedded into a bigger context. It takes a designer that can zoom in and out of problems: draw the blueprint for a complex construct of tasks, but also come up with clever micro-interactions.

Serving the Trinity

As I stated earlier, we’re building this brave new world together. I don’t believe the field of User Experience design has finished evolving. We’re not even close. This means there is still a lot of opportunity for cross-pollination with other professions, arts and sciences. And none of the three characteristics I described are exclusive to a single design competence. They can exist in many different professional contexts. So, I don’t care what your background is, as long as you love design, care about people and surprise me with clever ideas.
Go to the profile of Bram Bos

Bram Bos

Creative Director User Experience, World Traveler, Perpetual Learner, Amateur Tinkerer, Occasional Writer
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