Book Review – Design is a Job

If you read one short and sweet book on design, let it be this one, all the more so if you’re just starting out. Mike Monteiro points out potential pitfalls that come with the territory and gives tips on working with clients, crafting a contract, and negotiating payment schedules among other things. No matter what your experience level, whether you’re freelancing or working in-house, there’s something in here for you.

Here are some of the most poignant takeaways from this book:

Focus on developing and refining a process

If there’s one thing I wish I had focused on when I got started in UX, it’s this. Devising a design process is very much like learning a language. Learning techniques like card sorting and crafting personas is on par with expanding your vocabulary, while learning how to present your design solutions and recommendations is like learning grammatical structure. The goal is to get “fluent” in UX, ideally in a setting where you can listen to and observe experienced designers, and have the space to make mistakes and recover from them.

Don’t work for “portfolio fodder”

It’s one thing to volunteer to do a project you think is worthwhile, but Monteiro advocates against working for free no matter what your current skill level is. Yes, even beginners have the right to say “F*ck you, pay me.” If at all possible, don’t take on work that doesn’t pay enough to keep food on the table and a roof over your head – a race to the bottom in terms of rates drags everyone down. If you don’t know how to negotiate rates and “[c]ompete on quality, value and fit,” (35) it’s good to learn sooner rather than later. It also helps to only work on projects you find genuinely interesting or meaningful, as the deliverables that come from such projects are ones you’ll be proud to share to potential hires.

Think in terms of selling, rather than just presenting, design

Chapter 7 of Monteiro’s book is worth reading and re-reading. Do the research, understand the problem, and reflect these in your design solutions. (70) Have rationales for every element in your designs – think and articulate how your designs will meet client goals and user needs. Show your designs in person whenever possible, and be open to constructive feedback and criticism (be sure it’s objective, not merely “Do you like it?”)

Make friends with other designers, not enemies

While freelance gigs and full-time positions may be scarce in some areas at present, there’s no need for designers to view each other “with the catty competitiveness of contestants in a trashy reality TV show” while searching for work. (102) You can learn from anyone you encounter in the field, and that includes people who have less experience than you. Bounce ideas off each other, and challenge design decisions in an objective way so when you sell work to clients you’ll be confident in your work since you know that it’ll yield results.


“Sometimes when you can’t find what you need it’s just because you haven’t made it yet.” This doesn’t just apply to UX design, but also in regards to becoming a UX designer. If you can’t get in on a real-world project, design your own so as to develop your process. If you can’t find a local mentor, find a remote one to keep in touch with via Skype or email. It’s okay to even have multiple mentors (it’s not infidelity!) Focus on gradual but continuous improvement.


Mentoring Revisited

Last year, members and volunteers of the UPA Delaware Valley began brainstorming on a local UX mentoring program. It’s about time we had one of these. Frequently I come across posts on IxDA and other forums with people writing about how they want to transition into UX from a related field, but can’t get the experience they need to get a UX job; or they have some experience, but it never seems to be enough. Most responses don’t go beyond what books a person should read, what conferences they should attend (the latter not even being an option for most people due to the prohibitive expense.)

One person I know is a copywriter who wants to make the leap into UX. Over the years he’s gotten a few UX contracts under his belt from well-known companies. He recently applied for his dream job at a top-notch agency, only to be told that he didn’t have enough experience for their current openings but nevertheless had a “bright future” in the UX field. He’s yet another person who’s been thrown into the vicious cycle of being shut out of contracts and full-time positions due to lack of experience, but can’t get the experience he needs that companies say they’re looking for. If he can’t get more experience, how can he have a bright future?

In the grander scheme of things, how do we expect to UX field to continue to grow and prosper if we’re not cultivating the next generation of designers? Few hiring managers seem to care about self-directed UX projects or student work. Internships are often restricted to enrolled college students. Mentors are hard to come by since the most well-known designers are either flooded with freelance projects or have full-time positions that require their full attention. This is understandable, especially in these economic doldrums that aren’t letting up anytime soon. At the same time, the UX community needs to exert effort into carving out workspaces for new people to learn the craft and gain the experience that companies and agencies insist on.

With the UPA mentorship program, we’re hoping to get on board some seasoned UX designers in the area to help out those who are getting started in the field or have limited experience, engaging in side projects to cultivate and keep their skills sharp while they’re on the job hunt and create attractive portfolios to show. Among other things, we’re hoping this program will bring some fresh faces onto the scene and show that companies and agencies shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss job candidates who don’t have x years of experience.

Note to hiring managers: stop holding out for UX rockstars*. Take a look at the resumes of those who have potential to become rockstars, those who can wax lyrical about your company at gatherings and conferences, thus attracting even more talent.

If you’re in the Philly area and interested in becoming a mentor or seeking a mentor, send an email to mortvia at gmail dot com. Hopefully we can set you up with the right person so you can get your UX career rolling!

*I personally abhor this term, along with “guru” and “ninja”, but I’m using it anyway.


Cole Haan – Does UX Right

Recently I took advantage of the recent summer sales to get a pair of knee high boots. Shoes and boots are very hit or miss for me because I have odd feet (I’ll spare the details.) Out of all the ones I tried, I ended up getting a pair by Cole Haan.

Cole Haan Air Jalisa

The salesperson who helped me mentioned that Cole Haan was specifically widening out their collections in terms of shoe sizes and widths so as to broaden their customer base. Many of their designs use ultrasuede so they stretch in the back to accommodate wide calves. If you’re gearing up for winter, I can’t recommend these enough!


Book Review – Napkin Sketch Workbook

Vampire bears, bacteria and stinky bunnies are among the examples you’ll find in this book, one that makes an excellent case for visual explanations. As UX designers, we rely on visual explanations to communicate our design ideas. Technical communicators can also use visual explanations to complement text.

Some of the main points you can derive from this book:

• Moyer points out how pictures draw us in. We’re more inclined to try out a new recipe when there’s a picture of what we can expect to create.

• Pictures also help us overcome language barriers, which is useful when dealing with international projects such as creating multilingual interfaces.

• Anyone can draw – your visual explanations do not have to be art gallery worthy. Throughout the book, Moyer gives examples of how to draw stick people and other figures. You can reuse an image by attaching different labels as needed (the shape of an otherwise generic dumbbell can also work for a depiction of a pepper mill.)

The lucky 20 people who have signed up for Moyer’s workshop this Friday, March 25th, will be in for a huge treat. You’ll get a chance to work on a few mini-exercises that drive home his points about visual explanations. And stick around after the workshop if you happen to like Japanese food. :)

If you missed out on the workshop but still want to hear Don Moyer’s perspective on visual explanations, attend the STC Mid-Atlantic conference on Saturday, March 26th. He will be giving the keynote presentation at 9 AM.

For more information and to register for the conference (while there’s still spots left!), visit the STC Philly Metro Chapter website.


We Should Celebrate Each Other’s Successes

I’ve never understood how friends can get jealous of other friends. If they seal the deal on a new home or announce their engagement, why do some feel gnawing resentment instead of happiness for someone they claim to care about?

The same thing can be applied with how we feel towards fellow UXers, no matter how long we’ve been in the field. Yes, even though the recession’s been officially declared over in the US, it still sucks to be a junior IA, UX designer or interaction designer, since nearly all new jobs are going to those who have mid- if not senior-level experience. While thankfully some people are taking steps towards resolving this (or at least are putting ideas out there), we need to stop beating ourselves up and not envy someone who’s landed a new position, even if it was the exact one you wanted. Would you want someone hating on you because you obtained what they wanted?

It would be far more productive to be happy for such ones – reach out to that person and congratulate them, wishing them success with their new position. Perhaps at some point down the line they may get wind of a new job opening at their company and drop you a line about it. In the meantime, don’t neglect sharpening your UX skills, even if it means working on self-directed practice projects or revising your resume and portfolio for the 18 billionth time.

Send good vibes out, get good vibes back.


The Disappointing Experience of Castlevania: Judgment

Having received a very, very early holiday present from relatives, I finally got the chance to play Castlevania: Judgment. Castlevania is one of my favorite video game series (the name of my website is derived from one of the games [link]) and whenever a new game comes out, I’m rarely disappointed. But Judgment is one of the instances where I am disappointed.

While I won’t nitpick on the less-than-stellar graphics compared to other games, or the horrific character redesigns – that’s Simon Belmont on the cover? Really? – but the gameplay experience can yield insightful lessons for game designers and developers, namely on how not to make a video game.

Koji Igarashi is often praised as a genius, but it’s games like this that make critics say that he should stick to developing 2D games. The nature of fighter games really doesn’t translate well with the Wii remote, which Judgment was developed for. He himself admitted that he had complaints about the control scheme…but rolled with it anyway. The only possible reason for doing so is because the Wii was the biggest-selling console at the time (2008) so perhaps the thought was that making the game a Wii exclusive would yield big sales.

Lesson to be learned: if it sounds like a bad idea from the get-go, most likely it’s not worth pursuing further.

Other troublesome aspects of the game are not being able to reconfigure buttons to your preferences. As someone coming from PlayStationland, it was a huge adjustment to remember which buttons are for attacking and guarding (and this is with the Classic controller that can be purchased separately.) Odd camera angles can make battles in certain stages difficult, and can even disorient gamers who are sensitive to sudden movement. Richard Li of 1Up.com rightfully points out that Judgment ignores “established fighting conventions.” Gamers are certainly getting a different experience with this game, but it’s not a good one.

I can only echo Li’s sentiment at the end of his review: “Castlevania Judgment employs too many design ideas that are neither well planned nor well executed. It’s a strange misstep for the beloved series, one that Konami hopefully learns from.”


The UX Designer as Nightmare Inspector

Hiruko from the series Nightmare Inspector

The dream eater Hiruko is probably one of the most intriguing characters in manga. And what he does to earn his keep really isn’t much different from a UX designer. We take client’s nightmares and correct them. While some projects aren’t so bad, such as a website in need of some tweaking, some sites are indeed a designer’s nightmare: excessive use of Flash, background music that can’t be paused or muted, or craptastic navigation. But after getting over the initial shock, you roll up your sleeves and start brainstorming.

We have to get into the heads of our clients, as well as the audience they’re targeting. A company that wants to reel in high-rolling clientele needs to make sure their website is elegant and aesthetically pleasing. A site that wants to be an information hub needs to have good typography and contrast for readability.

Sometimes clients are blinded by boxed-in thinking and not questioning their status quo, and hence are driving away customers without even realizing it. Like Hiruko, we need to effectively guide our clients and (in a non-abrasive way) show them why their website sucks, and how to improve it. They may need to “kill their darlings,” such as remove a portion of their site they may have spent their blood, sweat and tears making via hand coding or using Flash.

Unlike Hiruko who likes to maintain a sense of mystery about him when he’s at his job, we need to articulate and communicate our ideas to the client as well as fellow teammates throughout the project. We should expect to be questioned and have potential answers at the ready, or at least assure that we will prepare satisfying answers in a timely manner.

What was the worst design project you had to slog through? Were there times when you wanted to throw in the towel? What helped you to see through the project to its completion (aside from money)?

P.S. – For those who are interested in the manga series, all nine volumes have been translated into English by Viz Media, and can be purchased on Amazon. Not a paid endorsement – I just really like this series!


Book review – Prototyping: A Practitioner’s Guide

Prototyping: A Practitioner’s Guide by Todd Zaki Warfel

This book couldn’t have come out at a better time for UX designers. It was an immense help during my stint at Comcast (and also kept me productively occupied on my train commute.) And I’ve learned to say “prototyping” instead of “wireframing.”

Most of us already know the importance of prototyping. As mentioned in the foreword by Dave Gray, “to build a product or service before you test it is insane.” Some may view making prototypes as a waste of time, money and effort, but it’s better to “waste” such things at the testing stage than to present something to the world that’s a fail whale.

Warfel gives tips on how to make prototypes quickly and with little cost. Many of us are so dazzled by technology that we tend to think that to make a prototype we have to do raw coding or use a language like Java. A prototype can be made from paper and index cards, among other things. What really impressed me is that paper prototypes can also be made for devices like the iPhone.

Other great points about the book:

• The emphasis of prototyping as a process, and the need to brainstorm freely, emphasizing quantity over quality.

• Getting to use your imagination more readily by sketching rather than boxing yourself in by using an application right away. “Rough sketch” prototypes actually reduce cost and risk by working out the kinks now rather than with a finished product.

• There’s information that’s useful for both beginners and seasoned designers. Like many others who’ve read it, it’s hard to point out any flaws in the book. The only thing I can think of is the fact there’s no review or tips on using OmniGraffle, InDesign or Balsamiq, among others. But there may be a revised edition in the future, so hopefully these will be included.

Now if only the concept “If you can’t make it, fake it” could apply to all areas of life….


An Unfortunate Case of User Experience

Recenty a patron at the library was having trouble sending an e-mail inquiry to the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History. She couldn’t copy and paste the address into her e-mail because the address links are written without using the “@” symbol, so as to curb spam. (Clicking on the links opens up Microsoft Outlook.)

Seriously, who does this anymore?

What struck me as odd about their contact page is that it’s a slush pile of email addresses. A better idea would be to create a contact form with a drop down menu so messages can be routed accordingly. This is a glaring flaw in an otherwise impressive site.

And it’s interesting to note that “if you have no idea where to send your inquiry,” just send it to the webmaster. Having a contact form would sure make his/her job easier.

This incident has inspired me to begin rounding up examples of “Bad UX”, online as well as in real life. Watch for more to come!


New Idea In the Works

Thanks to everyone for their input about the UX deliverables workshop! Mike and I had a discussion yesterday (over a delicious bento lunch in the city) that we should hold off on the workshop for now. Instead, we want to focus on a more immediate need of beginning designers who need an environment where they can learn from others, encourage each other and grow their portfolios.

One idea I received via email came from someone who wants to have his portfolio critiqued as he’s building it. This in turn gave way to the idea of local designers having meetups – a mini UX show and tell, as it were. It doesn’t have to be some major event like the ones Philly CHI hosts. It can be as simple as a few designers sitting at a table at a local coffeehouse sharing their work. Having these gatherings every other week would allow for consistency as well as flexibility. It’s also a great way to get to know local designers in the area and network with each other. And perhaps it can be a soapbox for beginners to vent about their struggle to find work (kept to a minimum, of course. This is meant to be a positive environment where we can encourage and support each other!)

Would you be interested in having this kind of UX meetup in your area?