Soft shaping and the Perfect Experience Architect

Jason Mesut
Dec 7, 2018 · 7 min read

Map the qualities, competencies and attributes that really matter to your work

How to do it

  1. Take a copy of one of my Soft Shaping handouts, or draw it yourself
  2. Review the categories and the scoring
  3. Rate yourself against each of the categories
  4. If you want, get others to rate you too
  5. Have a conversation with your manager about the deltas and your own scoring
  6. Make a decision where you might want to improve

A collision of two agencies — two tribes of designers

My designer profiling obsession started in my early days at Oyster Partners (now Digitas). Back in 2005, we were dealing with some large growth in our teams as we were going through a merger with Framfab. We had a whole range of designers within Oyster’s Experience Architecture team. But Framfab’s UX team had a different range. More IA. More HCI. Less Designerly. We wondered: In what ways were we different? In what ways were we the same? What made a good one?

Seeking aspirational role models

A question from Giles. Top UK UX geezer.

Around the same sort of time, I was attending a UPA event (before the X) where a related question was asked. Giles Colborne, one of my favourite people in the industry, asked a few questions along the following lines. Who do we look up to? Who are our heroes? Who should we aspire to be?

As someone with a design background, I wasn’t inspired by the leading figure of the day. He was a figurehead for usability. He talked some sense. But, in no way could my colleagues and my peers connect with him. We were designers, not nitpicking usability nerds. Sorry. I did learn to love you all.

The superficial barriers were strong here. I shouldn’t have been so harsh. I had met the guy. But I wouldn’t have wanted to spend much time with him. He was not the sort of person I wanted to become.

Creating the perfect experience architect?

The ‘Perfect EA’ Poster. Better when bigger.

Around this time, I remember seeing a call out for the first Euro IA conference. I thought this might be a great opportunity to try to define the perfect role model for our developing industry. I put messages out to people across Oyster and Framfab.

To my ex-colleagues and industry peers. To my clients. I asked around what people thought made a good user experience person. I was asking designers, developers, project managers, clients, CEOs and more.

I brought all the responses back and analysed them on full view within ‘The Big Space’ with Mike Mcintyre and a few others.

The top 18 attributes we identified, distilled and prioritised

We clustered, prioritised and abstracted to a set of attributes and skills. You could say characteristics I suppose. But the label didn’t matter for me. What was interesting was that most of the attributes were softer attributes. Thinking ones. Feeling ones. Interpersonal skills. Human skills. We still struggle to describe the category. Either way, they are not so much about harder technical skills.

Let me pick a few of the more interesting ones.

Empathy
Not just for users but other stakeholders. Developers. The Business. Product people. The marketing department. Too many UX and design folk emphasise the user at the cost of working with their colleagues. And as a result they can come across naive and disrespectful of their motives.

People / relationship skills
Related to ‘empathy’, having the people and relationship skills, is key to working with others and being a team player. As much as this can be being a good collaborator, it can also extend to the powers of persuasion, and dare I say it — manipulation.

Solution driven
There is a challenge in the world of UX when the desire to decode the problem and ‘understand the user’ results in not creating anything. No wonder why others get frustrated at the dreaded UX bottleneck. But I believe this is a misunderstanding of the power of creation to better understand needs. The relationship between requirements and solution is symbiotic. Sometimes you can drive out better understanding by making.

Conceptual thinking
Beyond the concrete. The use of metaphors. Based on a bigger unifying idea there is a distinct lack of conceptual thinking in UX style design. Whereas in the marcomms work it sits at the core.

Passion & energy
Back in 2005, there feels like more passion for the industry than now. I think this might be because of the money and demand that exists.

Strong backbone
I would probably refer to resilience which is different, but having a strong backbone is about defending your ideas and thinking when you are confident it is write. Strong opinions, held weakly.

Creative
Lateral thinking. Being imaginative. Not just ‘visual’ or makey. So often this, as a term, is misunderstood.

Technical understanding
Not necessarily about writing production code, but appreciating the complexities of software development, systems and logic. Too often I get pressure to add ‘front-end development’ to the designer’s skillset, but the ability to create interactive prototypes and style in CSS is not quite the same as true development.

HCI / UCD / Ergonomics knowledge
It’s amazing how few people in the workshops I run understand these acronyms. That’s Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and User-Centred Design (UCD).

Body metaphors against the attributes

I then worked with Julian Cross, a designer at Oyster, to come up with some visual metaphors and the poster design. We were keen to have a focal point. Somewhere between our rational thinking and our silliness, we came up with body part metaphors. Some worked well, some less so. Either way, I thought it looked cool.

The attributes in a dial — I am not a big fan of the scale, but most people ignore it anyway

We then came up with a chart to assess people on. Using the 18 attributes. We then picked 5 team members and the leading figure of the time. We got three peers to review the subjects against the 18 criteria. One other designer, one developer, and one project/account manager.

There was some resistance from one project manager. “I don’t feel comfortable doing this. We have a formal review process for this.” was one of the comments. I put him at ease, and said this wouldn’t affect the subject’s career. He helped in the end. Thanks Phil!!!!

Different ‘EAs’ different shapes

We collated the results and put the charts on the poster, alongside our unfair guesses of said guru. The point was clear. No one individual would be perfect. It took a team of complementary skills and shapes. That feels very huggy. Job done.

After presenting the poster at Euro IA, which I think went well, we continued to use the poster at every careers event for the next 3–5 years. Even after I had left LBi. But, we hardly used it in the day to day.

You can get a copy of the poster here — it looks better huge obviously.

Using in the workshops

When I started reviving this work I knew it had an important place in the workshops I was running. It was, after all, one of the most considered frameworks I had developed. Still imperfect though. It also shone a light on areas that I felt were important to highlight beyond the usual practice and domain skills.

Because of this, I would make sure people spent a decent amount of time when filling out the charts, and I would often have to explain some of the categories.

All sorts of styles of filling in

I am fascinated by the different ways that people fill these in

Doing some more detailed analysis

Because this framework is one I believe to be more rigorous in its creation than the others I use, I created a form to capture data after people had filled out the chart. This means that I can quickly do analysis across teams across the categories that matter. Or at least used to matter back in 2005. I don’t think it’s far off.

Because it being largely self-reflection and scoring with different criteria across individuals (I honestly don’t think you could ever be completely consistent), I just tend to focus on those that rate themselves a 1, or 2, and a 4 or 5. Within the teams, you can then decide who is the best role model for a particular area, and who might need help.

Quick heat mapping across a team can reveal those that think they are very string or very weak in certain areas

Want to find out more, follow the series

If you want to learn more about the Shaping Workshops I run, and what I have learned over the years, follow me, or read some other articles in the Medium Publication.

Keep your eyes peeled for another post tomorrow.

Shaping Design

A series of frameworks to help you reflect, direct and develop yourself or your team

Jason Mesut

Written by

Creating positive connections between people and technology. Heading up a new design and innovation consultancy called Resonant

Shaping Design

A series of frameworks to help you reflect, direct and develop yourself or your team

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