My son is 5. He just started kindergarten, but has been asking challenging questions since he was able to talk. On the way to school one day he asked what “Percent” means. That’s a pretty profound concept for a little guy to wrap his head around. As I tried to find a metaphor or something to compare it to, I realized what I needed was a mental model that fit in the world of a 5 yr old.
Last year we took our first family vacation. I loved watching my son’s reaction to the icons and symbols he saw on our travels. He regularly called out pictures such as no smoking signs, train, bus and restaurant icons. It occurred to me that children are a great litmus test for the effectiveness of visual information displayed to a general audience or in situations where written language is ineffective.
Moments like these are great mental design exercises. Nearly every project requires me to create a virtual environment that makes sense to users whose frames of reference are very different from mine. Sometimes I am guilty of forgetting that what makes sense to me doesn’t matter. The design needs to fit into the world of those people who will use it.
As for explaining the concept of percentages, I thought of the 4 out of 5 dentists recommend tagline. I told him that it’s a way of pointing out how many out of a group are different in a certain way from the rest. “For example, if there are 10 kids in your class, 2 are wearing yellow shirts and the rest are wearing red shirts, you could say that 20 percent of your class are wearing yellow shirts.” That seemed to makes sense to him. Now if I could just come up with a good answer for his question today, “Mama, why is there war?”
We all come to the table with different understandings, experiences, and knowledge bases. It is so easy to forget. Once we’ve been working with a certain technology or in an environment for a while it’s easy to make assumptions based on our own knowledge. As a UX professional, part of my job is to have empathy for users’ current knowledge base rather than judging them for what they may not understand. At times I have to apply this to my relationships with other technologists.
I was taken off guard recently when I was called on the carpet to defend my statement that expecting a user to open a new browser tab was a work-around, not a solution, for a multitasking requirement. I sputtered a bit as I tried to recall arguments I’d used in similar situations. It was challenging to find the words to defend the idea of designing to accommodate the user’s current skill level rather than expecting a user to learn new browser skills. My professional role is based on doing just that.
I nearly came back with the witty retort “Seriously?! It’s 2011! Have you not heard of easy to use software?” I had to take a step back. This person is not a fellow UX professional. This person does not spend his professional life trying to understand how people use things and how they make sense of their worlds. That’s not his job. It’s mine.
To be a good UX designer, I need to wear my ethnographer hat to tailor my methods and deliverables to be effective within the environment I am currently working. If the team I’m collaborating with can’t understand wireframes, then I need to find a different way to communicate the design. Perhaps I need to make a quick video walking through the storyboard and white-boarding. Empathy for the users of my design deliverables. Peter Morville has some great thoughts on changing approaches to User Experience Deliverables.
That can become exhausting for UX folks. We don’t get to be possessive of many of our methods, and we never stop finding people who struggle to understand what we do. UX has grown considerably as a discipline. In some of the larger markets, UX methods like usability testing are standard practice. But for those of us scattered elsewhere over the globe, we continue to introduce clients and teammates to the beauty of learning about and designing for the user. Some days after reading too many blogs and articles from UX rockstars, explaining what you do to a colleague is a bit deflating.
While we may have the burden of being flexible, we have the coveted position of making people’s lives easier. There’s nothing better than that moment when you show someone how much easier things can be. The smile and relief in the eyes of that user are enough motivation to keep slogging forward and explaining what I do as many times as it takes.
There’s a lot going on. Almost all of it is energizing and fun. BabyGirl is still a strong, happy baby who is generous with her smiles. And her big brother, LittleMan, keeps her covered in kisses. And Daddy is enjoying his Mr. Mom days while they last.
As I mentioned before, right now I have a few simultaneous design efforts in flight. I wasn’t sure if that would be a blessing or a curse. Turns out that I enjoy having multiple irons in the design fire. Being forced to spend time away from one design effort and think about something else opens up the creativity. There’s a lot of benefit to it over the usual practice of slogging through it and banging your head on the monitor hoping to have an epiphany.
Of course the drawback is lack of sleep, and sometimes having to cut back on time with the family. Working Moms Against Guilt is a great resource reminding me that one of my roles in Team Swanson is bringing home the bacon. (I get lots of help with the frying it up in a pan part.) It makes no sense for me to feel guilty about fulfilling the role that we decided I would play. Especially when doing it well means that it demands more of my time. It’s an nontraditional situation to be sure, but that suits my family. And heck, this study shows that it’s a good move for my kids as well.
It’s all a matter of perspective. Well, that and coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.