Jaime Levy on developing a career in UX

Jaime Levy, photo: Paul Vachier


Jaime Levy is an American author, lecturer, interface designer and user experience strategist. She’s been working in the field of product design for more than 25 years. Her book, ‘UX Strategy’, an Amazon bestseller, is now being translated into Polish. I’ve decided to use this opportunity to interview Jaime and to learn about her career path, advice for those, who are starting in UX — and much more. Read on.

Dla polskich czytelników: ten wywiad został przetłumaczony na język polski i jest w całości dostępny na moim blogu.


Wojtek: Hi Jaime. It’s a pleasure to have you here. Let’s start… Some of my readers might know you as the author of ‘UX Strategy’. You’re also a professor, teaching UX, and you’re busy with client work, too. How did you start? How did you become an UX strategist? Did you follow a typical career path?

Jaime: I’ve been doing software design for over 25 years and it’s all I’ve ever done. I started as a video artist. I studied interface design in the 80’s; I haven’t transitioned to UX from anything else. I knew from the beginning that the thing I wanted to do was to design new products. I was interested in making games and stories, something called ‘interactive multimedia’. No one was doing it back then, really, so I started with Hypercard and Macromedia Director. Of course there were no jobs where I could use this (unless I wanted to design a cash machine interface), so I did my thing. I’ve spent two years making disk after disk that I would then sell in bookstores and art galleries; people would write articles about them saying ‘what the hell is this new thing?’. Those were electronic magazines — Cyber Rag and Electronic Hollywood. Totally innovative. Imagine, that back then there was simply no interactive reading. I was pushing it out and marketing it as well as I could, and then — fortunately — Billy Idol bought one of them. I ‘commercialised’ my product by making one of my disks that would accompany his album Cyberpunk. Then the web came and selling became easier… I guess this is something that should be of interest for those who say ‘I can’t get any job, I have no experience!’. If you want experience, you should just make stuff. To do interface design or UX — I assume that if you do UX, then you can also design an interface — you have to have an understanding of technology and design. That is the core. Left and right side of you brain and the ability to use both at the same time is the core to making good, innovative products.

Anyhow, this is how I started and, as technology advanced and bandwidth increased, I never stopped with the goal of working on projects where I was inventing something new. I would become bored otherwise. I also teach, as you know, and that’s important to me. Sharing the knowledge and allowing yourself to look at what you are doing from a side. I am enjoying that a lot.

W: Thanks. Today we’re in a different world; it’s full of (sometimes unemployed) aspiring UX designers. One could say that you were in a very different situation; you’ve had a better chance, perhaps, of coming up with something that was really groundbreaking. What would you say to those, who would like to start today as user experience designers? Where should they go, what should they do? I am asked that quite often. People thinking of universities or picking up books… What do you think?

J: The first thing they need to learn is the craft. Look at surfing, for example. How can you get good at it? Do you read a book? No. It’s the same with UX. You cannot learn it by reading a book or attending a lecture. You can read my book (Jaime laughs), because my book is teaching readers how to do stuff, but ultimately it’s not going to do anything unless you get into the water and swim, getting bitten by the waves. In Yiddish we say that people kvetch — complain a lot — and they might, but the truth is that they should be working 40 hours a week in the tools. Anything they like, be it Sketch, JustInMind, Axure, InDesign, anything where they’re connecting an interface with an interaction concept. What would they make? Make a wireframe of Amazon. Or eBay. Seriously; without even looking at it. Pick any existing website. Just get good at the craft; learn how to stand at the board. Then ask yourself: how to apply UX strategy to solve a real, existing problem? That’s only after learning the basics of craft. People want too much too soon; this needs to take time. Malcolm Gladwell had his 10000 hours (Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking , Malcolm Gladwell, 2005) — it really is absolutely crucial. Otherwise you might be like a doctor who wants to cure cancer without even being a GP first.

If you look at individuals like Edison or Jobs, people who invented amazing products, not just stupid, mundane ones — they had first-hand experience. Oh, and get used to the idea of not getting paid for this, initially; no education is going to give you that, either, unless you’re very good.

The only reason for anyone to stop doing stuff is just pure laziness and self-entitlement.

W: Pretty harsh, but I agree with you. Practice makes perfect. Can we talk about other skills of a good UX designer? Craft is important, but is that it?

J: This is a difficult one. There are people out there with high levels of emotional intelligence, unlike me (Jaime laughs), people, who are good with games and this way of thinking, those, who are into business strategy… I think it’s to do with passion that, at the very end, has something to do with creating new products. UX to me is the most exciting art form… I know I am biased, but it is, because there is a sincere opportunity to do something new and amazing every day. That’s unique. So many markets and mental models out there. I’d try to find something exciting and then I’d go through the process of validating the value proposition, defining customer segments… Finding what’s out there and then take craft skills to make really good products.

W: This is all very cool, but how many people out there (including us at some stages) were or are employed as prototyping monkeys? How can one be creative and inventive in a role like this?

J: I sympathise. I’ve been in this position many times. If you can’t be intrapreneurial (Jaime explains the concept of being intrapreneurial in her book — it’s a way of focusing entrepreneurial activities towards the organisation rather than to outside) or inventive at your work, simply do it at night or over the weekend. Most ideas are developed when their inventors are paid for the work done during the day. I had to take my savings out and work for a bank to get another half a year time to spend on writing the book. We’re all making sacrifices and whether you’re doing it over the weekend and losing sleep or doing it when there’s no one looking, you have to do it.

W: Alone?

J: No. Put a team together. It’s like a rock band. I’d put together a team of people; a designer, a programmer and a business developer, and you, of course, the UX specialist. You need someone who’d love the idea, and meet with them or Skype every few days. I watched a movie lately about some kids in Ireland who wanted to play music but couldn’t use instruments. They learned that from watching music videos of groups from the 80’s and they started making great music. No one is going to hand you anything, you have to take it!

W: I quite like this analogy of the rock band. Let’s expand on this a little bit.

J: It’s about two halves; one brings skills to the table and the other one has all the conversations about pushing the idea forward. When I was a kid starting all of this I worked with a person who is now one of top designers at Google. We were working together in this huge loft space in New York that I have invited others to — all kind of crazy, creative individuals. There were 25 of us there, and we’d work, listen to music, talk… It was like a party every day. Extremely stimulating. Coworking spaces are great. Of course this was in the 90’s, so things were a bit different, but I learned a great deal back then. Teamwork.

W: Creativity and teamwork. Yeah. But there’s also reality; one can often see apathy and the lack of spirit, especially when working with large organisations. Some clients are unbelievably indecisive and stubborn. The UX design is still a generally misunderstood concept — often mistaken for just visual design. How could this be challenged? What would you say to those who are struggling with persuading their clients who might be thinking that design processes are too expensive or unnecessary?

J: Collect empirical evidence. I’d be doing two things; talking to customers who will be using the product, regardless of the fact that my boss might not want me to do that. This can also be done online! Steve Blank talks about this; never say to your boss that he’s wrong, but prove your point with evidence. Show them the research you did. You have to be like a chameleon and also manoeuvre through the meanders; adapt. You need to become to be able to get what you need, and you can’t do it by being an asshole. People are often so focused that they can’t see obvious things. It’s your work to show them research data and, for example, point out that there are products out there that are already better than the one that’s being created. However, if they’re an ostrich and they don’t want to talk about it I wouldn’t be pulling my energy into it. Sometimes you cannot change anything and there’s no need for sacrificing energy.

I rarely get the coolest gigs in the world; that’s normal. You guys are lucky in Poland. There’s such an immense opportunity there to show what good UX design is about and to explain that it’s different from visual design. You can really show that it’s the UX experience that makes products successful. The market is young and would take it. Explain return on investment. Why is Samsung an Apple rip-off? It’s because Apple invented better user experience, not because iPhones are pretty. They are, of course, but that’s secondary to the fact that the product is easy to use. Lack of friction — that’s what’s all of this is about. If your mum can use it, then that’s good, and you did the job.

W: Someone asked about the role of UX strategist within a startup. Where would you see them? As a part of business team, or creative team? Startups have such fluid structures, and UX strategy is often overlooked or not invested in at all.

J: Startups are just a bunch of different bands, and maybe one of them gets a record deal… Good startups, these, that are funded, are funded, because they can get thousands of product users. If that’s not happening, there are no record deals. Not investing money in thinking prior to making always fails. Many startups are thinking that ‘users will come’ but that’s not how it works, not unless it’s a thing that users want. The role of UX strategist there is very important, and it doesn’t really matter where they sit or how they are called, if they’re able to influence all necessary activities.

Validation is the key. However, I think that the Lean Startup methodology is starting to show itself as a bit of fallacy; you can’t pivot every two weeks and validate every time with just a few people. That’s too crazy. Keep that in mind… I’ve lately read a book written by a dude who worked at Tinder and he said that he once worked at a startup where they were changing the project concept every two weeks, and re-validating. This can’t work.

W: What do you think would become the future of UX? Are there any unexplored fields?

J: I think that the voice recognition and products that rely on voice interaction will grow into a massive market. It’s 25 years since I started doing this and I still have four remote controllers on my table. One for TV, one for my hifi and two for something else. Why cannot I just say ‘Play me this series, season 2?’ We should stop thinking of UX attached to a physical interface, and I think it’s happening. Amazon’s doing something and it still sucks a lot, but it’ll get better. Things change quickly; look, how we have redefined the context of the phone. Who’s making calls now? No one. Everyone’s texting. I think that the next revolution will be in voice interaction, though. Frictionless interactions so that people can have better experiences.

W: It’s time for us to finish — I don’t want to hold you for too long. Jaime, is there any final thing that you’d like to say to all the readers of my blog? For example, people in Poland who are eagerly awaiting the translation of your book?

J: I’d say: stop feeling sorry for yourself — if you do — the world is your oyster. The only thing that we have to fear is ourselves. We’re extremely capable of putting our minds at anything and doing it. Get others around you excited, broaden your network, change someone’s life. Have a positive attitude and do anything you can. I am 50 years old and I am still going to all possible events to keep myself creatively stimulated. Watch keynote talks, Youtube is full of them. Don’t shut down. If you want to do it, to become a good UX designer, remember — there’s always been an opportunity to do something new, and we’re at a great time in history to be able to take an advantage of it. There’s technology. Use it!

W: Thank you!

J: Thanks, it’s been a pleasure.


You can purchase Jaime’s book on Amazon.

Jaime on Twitter: @jaimerlevy

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