Is UX about asking questions or providing solutions?

Since when has UX become more about ‘delivering solutions’ for IT and business instead of asking question? Has creating UX assets and citing UX research become more important than spending time understanding users?

A question bulb

I have watched as many designers and developers have become disillusioned by the Agile methodologies that were supposed to make developing IT products and services a collaborative, engaging and dynamic progression. Inadvertently playing planning poker has become a high-stakes game where developer reputations and even careers are at stake if the task estimates don’t match with the delivery schedule. Since when has Agile become a justification for delivering more with less resources rather than a way to manage change and enable developers to work smarter and more effectively? For some reason we have become more reliant on the methods and tools to do the thinking for us, and we stopped asking questions about what it is that we are supposed to be doing.

After constantly being bombarded with various opinions, comments, and suggestions from everyone but the users over the years, I realized that this job is not so much about providing answers (since everyone seems to have an equally important opinion) as it is about asking questions.

And that’s the hard part: learning how to ask questions, in the right way, in hopes you can get that much closer to the truth. At times this can be as simple as the classic one-worder “Why?” Often, it is a much more complex challenge because finding out what you don’t know (but need to know) is almost just as tricky.

Sometimes it is not even about asking the users questions as much as asking yourself some tough questions. So hopefully let’s ask some questions about UX:

Question 1 — Are you spending too much time in the office?

The advantage UX practitioners have these days in having so much readily available tools and resources means that you can hone your skills and fill gaps in knowledge with reference materials, online articles and research papers. Maybe you prefer exchanging ideas with your peers at conferences and seminars, or with colleagues at afterwork drinks or their desk when you walk by (debates and not arguments, hopefully) to get inspirations or swap problems and solutions.

The real learning, however, will happen when you are out and about listening, watching and understanding people when they are not staring at the screen in a room being observed by UX people. The real experience is not gained by you staring at a screen trying to get wireframes and prototypes developed in time for the next sprint cycle.

Despite what people may say, think, or tell you, UX practitioners are not mind readers. We’re communicators.

80% of the job is to communicate ideas. People will expect wireframes, mockups, storyboards, user journeys, design guidelines, evaluation reports, and anything else that proves you have thought about and talked with the users. You will have Illustrator to design mockups, PowerPoint to generate prototypes, and Visio to create storyboards — it doesn’t matter what the tool is. What matters is what the process involves.

Why does it take so much time and effort? It’s because part of our job is understanding things from a lot of different perspectives and then finding a way to communicate this to all the people involved in the UX design process. This might be the user, developer, designer, business stakeholders or even your fellow UX practitioners.

You’ll have to put on your UX thinking cap, sometimes over your designer (or developer or researcher) cap, and sometimes not wear a cap at all. You will have to get inside the mind of people who work on different aspects of the project delivery and also step into their world by understanding the things that are relevant to them.

This may seem overwhelming if your perception of UX is something closer to designing user interfaces and running A/B tests. But remember UX is not just about the tools and processes, it is a philosophy and a mindset that you have to embrace, and it compels you to try and get inside the mind of the users.

Can you really do all of this inside the office?

Question 2 — Are you still holding onto standards and ‘best practices’?

Education from from the “University of Hard Knocks” is just as good if not better than any formal training or qualifications. Now there is a Unicorn Institute, thanks to Jared Spool and Co., as well as the likes of General Assembly, but institutionalized training and fancy qualifications were not the prescribed entry for me into UX field, and no one will ever get close to knowing everything there is to know about this field because it keeps growing and changing.

It is easy to get lulled into a false sense of security, even arrogance with a degree or three under your belt (or the number of years you have worked in the industry), but in fact you have to know quite a lot just to realize how little you actually know. One way to bridge that gap is not being afraid to knock on doors — or to knock down doors — when the occasion calls for it.

It is all well and good to follow the best practices and standard guidelines, but just as there is no ‘average user,’ there is no single set of rules in UX that is guaranteed to work, especially in this day and age where user behaviour and expectations evolve so rapidly.

You do have to know the rules to know when to break them, and you should never assume anything in this field unless you have some solid evidence, not just references from textbooks or UX StackExchange. Although you can never hope to keep all users happy, every effort should be made to influence decisions based on the best data available as well as ongoing professional development.

I have seen many ‘UX myths’ that have been proven or refuted through lots of research and testing, yet we all agree that users and their behaviours are context sensitive. Therefore why should we spend so much time going through standards and best practices when we could be out there in the field and be closer to the ‘truth’?

Question 3— Have you considered the ethics of UX design?

To tell someone how to be a UX practitioner is not unlike telling someone how to live and experience life… there is no right or wrong answer, just decisions and consequences that for which you need to take responsibility.

UX practitioners apply their knowledge and skills in a number of different disciplines, and therefore carry additional responsibility when it comes to ensuring that their work meets professional and ethical standards. Furthermore, the nature of our work and the impact it has on user behaviour, so UX practitioners may need to consider their responsibilities and commitment to ensure that unintended harm comes to the user.

In saying that, the onus to maintain and uphold a standard code of ethics should rest on the shoulder of the UX practitioner rather than a piece of paper or document. Since the nature of our work varies between different organizations and projects, there isn’t really a prescribed set of standards, but a general guideline to how UX practitioners should think and behave in order to achieve the right balance for themselves and the organization they operate within.

Often it is too easy to become pressured by managers or co-workers to overlook the details that we should be paying to, and the responsibilities we owe the end-users to advocate for their needs. Sometimes when the deadlines and resources become too unrealistic, and the expectations become too unreasonable, it takes conviction to stand for what you believe in.

Yet if it still becomes too stressful or difficult, then it is probably time to step away and find another niche where you can enjoy the work and feel that you are fulfilling both your professional and ethical benchmarks.

The suggestions and guidelines do not define what is acceptable or unacceptable in a UX practitioner’s professional conduct, nor is it intended to form the basis for decision making. Rather, through a continuous process of introspection and practical experience every UX practitioner should be comfortable with the risk and conflicts that they manage in their line of work, and communicate this explicitly to their collaborators and co-workers.

Question 4— Are you solving the REAL problem?

Thinking like a user and being a user, not a designer, is one of the most difficult things to do as you learn more about UX design. Developing a deeper understanding and appreciation of UX design can make it more difficult to take an objective stand or to put personal views and ego aside, so you are guided by best practices and not opinions or assumptions.

User don’t care about how things work as long as it does what they think it should. It frees your mind of the unnecessary clutter so you can focus more on the problem that you want to solve for the user. Technical details or design principles can sometimes become so much of a distraction that you end up trying to solve those problems instead.

Of course, there will be the constant internal conflict between doing what the management thinks is right, what you think is right, and what is actually right by the users. You will need all your wits to negotiate and convince the stakeholders, courage to pick the right fights with the product manager and sales departments, and humility to know that nothing is perfect but everything can be improved.

Question 5— Are you asking enough questions?

You need to find your own process to do things, your own reasons, motivations, and inspirations as a UX professional. There is no short cut to acquiring the knowledge and experience you are going to need. It is also not just about reading books or blogs or participating in forums. You will have to roll up your sleeves and get stuck into the research, design, and testing work — in as many different projects, organizations, and contexts as you can possible involve yourself in. Then you will begin to scratch the surface of just what the job involves.

Had I asked myself all these questions before I embarked on the UX adventure, would I still have ended up where I am today? To be honest, learning more has meant realizing that I know less than I think I do, and through all the trials and tribulations I have recognized that there is a unique path for everyone in this field, and that following a well-trodden path is more likely to lead you away from where you probably want to go.

Perhaps that’s all I really wanted to say at the beginning.