All posts by Gail Swanson

Revising UX: Learning from the Lean Startup Movement

As a consultant, I’m always interested in new ways to win interesting engagements. By interesting, I mean the opportunity to do research based design, measure the ROI and perhaps even have a publishable case study. UX designers are consistently plagued with situations that shut the door on research and KPIs. “We can only afford the time and budget for wireframes.” and “If only we would have brought you in at the beginning of the project you could have had more impact.” Are frequently heard when I to dig into a new project. I love Leisa Reichelt’s  great presentation Strategic User Experience at UX Cambridge 2011 discusses the state of typical UX engagements.

Brick Wall
User Experience projects consistently face the same barriers to delivering value.

User Experience has had considerable time to mature as a discipline. Heck, we even have a cryptic acronym with an ‘X’! It’s surprising that we haven’t broken through the roadblocks that we were fighting a decade ago. At the same time, iterative, user centered methodologies like Lean Startup are gaining significant momentum. The message is the same; make informed decisions about your product based on empirical information. From this we can see that the value proposition is not what businesses don’t embrace. It’s the packaging and delivery of that value. The way that UX presents itself to the market is in need of a pivot.

Stephanie Sansoucie and I have been discussing the shared ideals of UX and Lean Startup. Eric Ries doesn’t make much of a mention to user experience even though UX strategy is the core of what he is presenting. Stephanie and I have concluded that it’s time for User Experience to heed its own message and become more accessible to those we work with and serve. How do we do that?

User Experience has centered itself around design activities, always hoping to get the budget and time to do research first. What would happen if our defacto deliverable was research, and design was what got done with copious time and budget? Think about it. The UX resource focuses on doing the research necessary to develop a UX strategy to fulfill the product vision. He ensures that the project team is exposed to the information they need about users in order for the team to make informed interface and workflow choices. What would happen if our primary role was providing that information and we left the bulk of the designing to those with their hands in the code? I have a theory that the world would become more user friendly.

Which produces the better experience? A skilled designer making assumptions about what will work for users based on experience and no data, or developers making design decisions armed with ample information about their users? We have a world full of digital products produced using the former process. I’d like to see us try a new way rather than banging our heads against the same brick walls. I think it will be the first step to finally gaining wide adoption and having a better way to deliver on the promise of UX.

The Most Important Thing a UX Designer Can Do for You

The most important thing you can do to improve the user experience(UX) of your website, product or app is to spend time with your users.

Companies are sometimes surprised when we talk about spending time with users before starting on backlogs and design aspects. For a re-platforming project, there’s usually a catalog of current functionality. A UI person is expected to take a look at the screens and improve the interaction design on each. User Experience professionals are partly to blame for the misconception that UX=UI. UX designers ask for room in the budget to spend time with users. We sigh, then focus on creating great user flows and wireframes when we are denied. As a discipline we haven’t done our jobs selling the importance of user research.

Photo credit: San Jose Library

A recent article by User Interface Engineering, an authority on user experience methods, revealed the value of spending time with your users. According to Jared Spool, “We saw many teams that conducted a study once a year or even less. These teams struggled virtually the same as teams who didn’t do any research at all. Their designs became more complex and their users reported more frustration as they kept adding new features and capabilities.” According to UIE’s research, the tipping point to large gains in UX improvement is spending a minimum of 2 hours every 6 weeks with your users. The greatest return on a user research investment comes when you have diverse set of team members involved. Including developers, product owners and QA exposed to users on a regular basis.

The primary benefit to bringing a UX expert on board is not the expertise they bring to designing a screen. The real value comes in how we connect makers with users and examine problems from a different perspective. Approaching problem solving by asking how can we create a tool to help this person accomplish their goal in a way that feels easy and perhaps delightful. This is why user stories make so much sense to UX designers. The most common format itself imbues the requirement with a human goal. As a ____, I want to _____, so that ___.

Returning to our re-platforming example… A business analyst or developer will catalog the current features and look to how they fit within the future platform. A UX architect will begin by examining the tasks that the current system facilitates and how it fits into the overall context of the user. Rather than approaching a system as a set of features, UX design begins with “what are you trying to accomplish”. We use methods to understand what about the system is currently working, what is needed, and what features are deadweight and don’t need to be included in the future.

Then we have the current context and the user’s mental models. How do the people who are going to use the system think about the work they are performing? People all have ways of making sense of how things work, and when it comes to software, we often equate certain functions with things in our physical world. Think about copy and paste. That terminology was the result of the physical process that graphic designers used before digital design tools. They would literally copy the page, cut out what they needed, and paste it on the new paper. Copy & Paste, Cut and Paste. Folder metaphors have been a fan favorite for years. They are a very accessible mental model for conveying hierarchy through something tangible.

Most businesses have their own mental models associated with their business processes. Make sure that your design doesn’t conflict with how they currently see the world. If there is a unique way of understanding something that is part of the community’s environment, use it to your advantage. If it’s natural to them, it’s a great thing to use.

How do you learn about these cultural nuances? You spend time with the people who are going to use what you are making. If you’re working on a startup project and you aren’t sure who those people are, find the people that you want to target. Who are the users that you want to please…find them and spend time with them. The more time you spend with your users, the easier it will be to make your product fit your users. And that’s the most important thing a UX professional can do, connect your team and your organization with the human beings who will use what you are making.

Meeting Mindfulness

Mindfulness, which, among other things, is an attentive awareness of the reality of things (especially of the present moment)


Meetings meetings meetings… There are always too many, they’re too long, and they don’t seem to help you get much done. Throngs of people have written about how to have effective meetings, planning as well as conducting them. Getting together face to face should be a very productive moment.  That said, I’ve seen few organizations get them right.

Listen by Ky Olsen

There’s a certain meeting amnesia that happens when a meeting disperses. You just spent 2 hours in a discussion but no one can seem to remember what was decided. You have the same debates over and over. A stunning amount of time is spent reworking the same features. Frankly, it makes me stabby. I can’t stand being in a meeting when I know that the same conversation will be replayed again for no reason other than the lack of attention paid the first time. I’ve been in plenty of meetings when even the person talking wasn’t paying attention to their own words. Oh to have those hours back!

In my quest to invent the 28 hour day, I came upon a great video that mentions the effectiveness of fully focusing on the task at hand, practicing mindfulness. Tony Schwartz: The Myths of the Overworked Creative He makes the profound statement that we are infinitely more efficient when we focus on one thing at a time. If everyone focused on the discussion during a meeting, would it be faster, more memorable, more productive?

All the structure in the world can’t make your meetings effective if no one is paying attention. I’m not talking about sitting quietly staring at whomever is speaking. I’m talking about mindfully listening and considering the discussion. We need to do this to be effective. At Centare I see many examples of getting this right. It’s one of the things I love about the people I work with.

My list of what works:

  • Meetings are only as long as they need to be. Less time with follow up questions is better than a long meeting.
  • Be frank and concise.
  • Have a clear purpose. Once that is satisfied, end the meeting.
  • If the people you need are too busy to pay attention in the meeting, don’t have the meeting.
  • Don’t interrupt when someone’s speaking. It’s a clear sign that people are thinking about their response rather than listening to what is being said.

That last one is huge. Everyone is crunched for time, and everyone wants to contribute. Interrupting is a red flag that no one is listening and you are doomed to repeat this conversation. This behavior becomes part of your team’s culture and it’s a tough habit to break. We learned to wait for our turn to talk in kindergarten for good reason.

I spent some time with a team that was so desperate to make sure that the project succeeded, design arguments went on for weeks. For all the words that were said, very few were ever heard. Our team culture became so toxic that ideas were shot full of holes before they were fully presented. In meetings it was rare that anyone could finish what they intended to say before someone else started talking. We weren’t looking for the gems we could harvest out of each other’s ideas. The sad truth is that a lot of those ideas were awesome. But we missed them. We were too busy jumping to conclusions and assuming that we knew what the person was about to say to consider a different point of view.

Respect your own time, respect other’s time by allowing ideas to be heard and considered before moving on to rebuttal. Make sure that you are harnessing all those great ideas rather than talking over them. We are all busy, but we will get more done if we take the time to listen to each other. (Stop, collaborate and listen) apologies

Think of how short and useful meetings would be if everyone paid attention.