The Triforce of UX : Part I — Empathy
After 2 awesome years with Improving, I took a leap of faith and joined Precocity. Leaving my former employer also meant leaving my client. It was one of those rare golden client/consultant relationships; it felt like we’d worked together for ages and were always on the same wavelength. Upon my departure the client wanted to hire an in-house user experience (UX) designer that could meet or exceed the relationship we’d had. They contacted me and asked 2 key questions:
What three skills would you place as most important for a UX Designer?
How you might phrase some interview questions to validate a candidate actually has those skills?
Having both interviewed and been interviewed for UX positions many, many times over the last 16 years I must shamefully concede that I’d never actually asked myself those questions. As I began to answer those questions (now more for myself than the client) I realized I had incredibly strong opinions on this subject. Then as I began to compile my thoughts a friend of mine asked me the exact same questions but from the candidate’s point of view. Thus this 3 part series was born.
What geek worth their salt can be asked to codify anything in 3 parts and not liken it to The Triforce?
The Triforce is one of the most iconic symbols in video game lore. In Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda it’s an omnipotent sacred relic. Each triangle represents a Triforce all of which make up The Triforce when combined. In the game they represent Power, Wisdom, and Courage.
While admirable all, in answer to my client and friend I believe The Triforce of UX consists of Empathy, Curiosity, and Humility.
In each part of this three-part series I discuss why I believe each of these are the three most important aspects of a good UX Designer, and three questions to ask to discover if the candidate matches these qualities. I’m sure many of you will disagree with me on some or all of these. That’s okay. I understand how you might feel. I’m curious to better understand why you feel that way, and would be humbled by your responses ;-)
PART I: The Triforce of Empathy
In The Legend of Zelda, your health is measured in little hearts. The more hearts you have the more health you have, the stronger you are, the longer you’ll live, the longer you’ll last in battle. The same is true in UX.
When considering a UX candidate, ask yourself some questions:
Does the candidate know how to get into the heads, and hearts of the users/developers/stakeholders? Can they walk a mile in their shoes?
Or, is this some hot-shot MY Experience designer? (A UX Designer without the U is a MyX Designer). Do they think the answers to all of their questions lie in their own background, knowledge, and experience? Do they cloister themselves atop Mount Sinai then descend bearing the stone mockups from on high with God’s Gift to Software®, or are they sitting at the feet of the people who will actually use the software, studying them? Are they trying to discern what the users’ and business’ problems are, and how the customers might more easily accomplish their goals?
This is what I mean by empathy. It’s also not just for the users. The best designers are good negotiators, mediators, and bridge-builders. If each member of the business, development, and users pool are the spokes of a wheel, the UX designer is the hub around which these things turn. They bind disparate parts into a functional whole with a centered and unified focus. They don’t make enemies, they make allies. They build relationships of trust, and accountability. Everyone needs to be able to trust the UX designer , and feel free and encouraged to come to them with the gnarliest of their problems.
When designing solutions the best UX designers will be juggling all of the research and notes from all of those involved trying to come up with the solution that fits the customer first then all others accordingly.
3 Empathy Questions For Candidates
1. What’s your primary goal as a UX Designer?
After all the chit-chat, ice-breaking, and weather talk, open here. We want to discover if this candidate’s mental-model of UX aligns with yours. Their answer to this question (and how quickly they respond) could help save both of you an hour wasted. If you don’t sync here there’s not much reason to continue the conversation.
The answer I’m looking for speaks to making people rock-stars at their jobs/tasks/etc. while balancing the needs of the business, and the realities of the humans involved in the process of making it. I want to know that they’re as passionate about creating amazing experiences for humans as I am. Basically do our UX visions align at the macro level?
Listen for the order they rank items as they sift through their responses. They may never have voiced this verbally so give them some time to collect their thoughts and the freedom to rearrange. They might first mention developers and last the users; get them to clearly rank-order their responses after the fact.
- In terms of importance, for me, they need to first focus on the end-users. It is after all the U in UX.
- Next do they care about shipping the product the client or business actually wants? Can they speak to helping the business steer clear of pitfalls and mistakes using their expertise and position to guide the business to the best-possible version of their vision?
- Lastly, but never least, do they care about the humans that will actually build it? Are they cognizant they may be asking people to give up time with their families and friends to build some lofty, impossible dream requiring new chip architectures and improbable bandwidth speeds in 6 months? Good designers understand that although the customer and business may want a thing, even need it, every feature we add, every interaction we invent means a developer’s time to implement — usually a lot more time than it took us to dream it up. We should never be anxious to volunteer other people’s time.
2. Tell me about your user-research techniques and methodologies.
Here we’re starting to delve into soft skills. Can they talk to other humans? Is he meek as a mouse? Is she a blustering braggard? Neither is optimal. Even if you have separated your UX Research role from your UX Designer role, they still need to have a broad overlap of soft skills.
The very conversation you’re having will help you suss out much of their natural abilities. But to be a good researcher they should also have a conscious, purposeful method. Candidates need to be able to talk about interviewing people over the phone and in person. Are they able to help customers talk about their problems without leading them (open-ended vs close-ended questions)? Most importantly — are they capable of shadowing people in their own environments, seeing what their needs are and how and where they do their job? Do they even have a desire to do this and do they know why it’s so important? Are they able to mention these items free of prompting from you and can they eloquently articulate them?
Find out when they do research. How prominent a role does it play in their process? Is it an after-the-fact A/B test kind of thing? Do they like focus-groups (and if so, dear-Ganon WHY!?) Is this where they start or end? Is this iterative?
Ultimately the ability to accurately assess users’ needs will be the primary dictator as to whether the product solves anybody’s actual problems.
3. Who has final say what a UI looks like, and why?
This is a tough one. I know that my answer to this question has cost me at least 1 job. But it was actually a good thing — because the would-be employer’s opinion was fundamentally different from mine, and would’ve been a major source of contention. Fair warning: here be monsters.
UIs are designed by those who commit code.
IMNSHO the correct answer here is the developer; this is the answer I look for. Why? Because so much of what a designer does is consensus-building, and human coordination, it is vital that the UX designer, the hub of all these human interactions, recognize where true power lies: to extend the wheel metaphor, where the rubber meets the road. My friend Tim Rayburn told me once “Decisions are made by those who show up.” Let me be bold then and say similarly “UIs are designed by those who commit code.” When all was said and done your Sketch file went into the garbage, but code was shipped; that’s what the user sees and interacts with. All the rest of us make suggestions (functional specs, business requirements documents, flow charts, user stories, wireframes, prototypes, hi-fi mockups)— but ultimately those writing and committing are making the final call. The crux of it is this: When the designer builds a relationship of trust and accountability with developers everyone’s jobs become exponentially easier. And better. Another way to put this as Tim is wont to say
The .PSD is a lie.
“But Brandon,” you say “we have peer reviews, QA, UAT, checkpoints, sprint reviews, and…”. That’s all great I say. If you guys love it — keep it going. Self-managing, self-correcting teams should create processes of checks and balances that work for them. I prefer to trust my team to execute well and look to me for confirmation rather than approval. In that landscape those same processes only work better.
Some might say stakeholders (business, CEOs, POs etc.) own the final UI look and feel, because they write the checks, are in charge of hiring/firing etc. I’ve heard designers and CEOs alike say things like “They better implement what was designed or they’ll be out of a job!” Really? Where’s the trust? Where’s the empathy? Where’s the respect? Nobody wants to work for, or with that person. Don’t be her; don’t hire him. The opposite is just as bad — we shouldn’t bow and bend to the whim of every architect. Many developers feel their sole duty is to say no every time new or changing work is presented. This is an okay checks and balances approach on the surface, but this too lacks trust, empathy, and respect. Nobody wants to work with that person either.
Remember — your UX designer is the hub of interaction for the business, design, and development. If the hub of the wheel doesn’t work well, the whole wheel fails.