The shape of an experience designer

Jacqueline Fouche
Superfluid experiences
15 min readMar 31, 2019

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You do what now?

As a design community we’re pretty awesome at designing amazing, immersive experiences for our customers — while trying to make the world a better place.

We are, however, pretty awful at explaining to people what we do and why they need us.

TECHNICAL DESIGN SKILLS

Peter Mehrholz and Kristin Skinner’s book — Org design for design orgs — saved me when defining an effective operating model for design.

I found their 7 technical design skills elegant and useful building blocks for the team. I added some more activities around each skill.

Over many meetings and presentations, I started visualising the skills in this way.

SERVICE DESIGN

Systems-level understanding of all the parts (technical systems, frontline employees, touch points etc.) that go into delivering a service, coordinated to support customer journeys.

INTERACTION DESIGN

Structural design of a software interface. Supporting a user’s flow through the system and the ability to successfully interact.

PROTOTYPING

Quickly simulating proposed designs in order to better judge their user experience. Could be technical (writing code), use digital tools like After Effects, Keynote, Axure or InVision, physical prototypes or even conversations.

VISUAL DESIGN

Color, composition, typography, visual hierarchy and brand expression that present the product or service in a way that not only is clear and approachable, but appropriately exhibit personality.

WRITING

Clear written communication that, like good design, guides the user through an experience. Much of the time, written content is the experience and far more valuable that the design dress around it.

INFORMATION ARCHITECTURE
Structuring content, developing taxonomies, design navigation and other activities ensuring information is accessible, usable and understandable.

RESEARCH

Conducting user research sessions and derive meaningful insights through analysis.

The technical design skills are great building blocks. But getting to elegant solutions you should have a classification model.

We talk about experience design falling into 3 categories — How things work, How things look and How things sound.

MAPPING JOB ROLES TO EXPERIENCE CATEGORIES
We can map job roles to the categories.

HOW THINGS WORK

We need to understand how things work — workflows, back offices, people in teams

  • Who do you think will be interested in or subscribe to the product or service?
  • What those people will try and do?
  • How you or your business want to make money from the idea?

HOW THINGS LOOK

The part most people are aware of. The look and feel of any and all elements you interact with. And what it communicates to you. How elements respond to interaction from customers.

HOW THINGS SOUND

Arguably the most important aspect of experience design — relating to how the words we use the stories we tell your customers.

Thing are starting to get interesting. We can start mapping skills to roles.

THE SHAPE OF DESIGN

I used spider diagrams in my continuous research programme — I lean towards them when I model ideas. When I plot my skills, it looks something like this.

I’m not a huge fan of Plato, but I was thinking about his ideas on ideal shapes when I was contemplating this problem.

I asked myself.

Can we get a visual shape mapped that helps us recognize what role people are playing?

Service design — I think it should be a roundish shape. So true generalists who are very well versed in the how things work. You have to be a system’s thinker to fulfill this role.

  • Responsible for the experience design across all interaction points between customer and company
  • Must be expert interaction designers

Technical design skills: 1. Service design 2. Interaction design 3. Prototyping 4. Visual design

Interaction designer or UX designers— you should be well-versed in the how things work skills.

  • Responsible for the experience design on a particular channel.
  • Understand what tasks users are completing, maps interaction with the system.
  • Adequate at critical thinking and various research techniques.
  • Should be proficient in information architecture.
  • Expert in task analysis, user and system flows.

Technical design skills: 1. Interaction design 2. Prototyping 3. Information architecture or visual design

Now we get to the more specialist roles

Information architects — Our need for specialist information architects are diminished and it creates a serious amount of problems in our systems.

I encourage our interaction designers and writers to explore related IA topics or to hire an IA in your organisation.

Technical design skills: 1. Information architecture 2. Writing 3. Interaction design

Researchers — Carrying the responsibility of end-to-end customer research. I encourage these humans to follow a continuous research model and they must also guide, mentor and support the team and specifically the designers to conduct their own research as well.

Technical design skills: 1. Research 2. Writing 3. Prototyping

Product designers

See How things look entry

HOW THINGS LOOK

Visual designer / UI designer — a specialist skill that pulls into the graphic design field.

  • Expert visual communicators
  • Responsible for production-ready design
  • Accountable for brand identity
  • Often have specialized motion, animation or illustration skills

Technical design skills: 1. Visual design 2. Prototyping 3. Interaction design

Product designers — are generalists. They have a strong interest in understanding strategy and having more influence in the overall product.

The driving force for visual design experts moving into the UX space. It is also where the dreaded UX/UI construct lives. So if you self identify as a UX/UI consider your skills very carefully to up-skill quickly.

Product designers are able to take design from high-level research (user and stakeholder), task analysis, system analysis, information architecture, navigation design, interaction model then to the surface aspects of wire framing, prototyping all the way to delivering production-ready design.

Technical design skills 1. Visual design 2. Interaction design 3. Research 4. Prototyping

  • I think connecting this definition to this job role is my most controversial decision. Please get in touch with your thoughts on how I can re-frame it if you disagree.

HOW THINGS SOUND

UX writers — are excellent at turning complex ideas into clear, simple messages

  • It’s a specialist skill.
  • Involved throughout the design process

Content strategist — an excellent writer who and a good system thinker

  • Helps with taxonomy, labeling and structured writing
  • Defines what, where and how we speak across channels.
  • Plays in the strategy side of the process (abstract)

EXPERTS VS GENERALISTS

Generalists — Service, interaction design and product design are generalist skills. Note the more rounded shape.

Specialists — Research, information architecture, writing, content strategy and UI design.

DESIGN LEVELS

Another goodie from Org design for design orgs — modeling the core skills to a level of experience.

Junior designers — let’s consider what you studied.

Qualifications allowing you to move into experience design as an expert:

  • Journalism, English or Publishing — UX writing
  • Visual design or graphic design — UI / Visual design
  • Sociology or psychology — Researcher

Qualifications leaning towards generalist skills:

  • Multimedia, digital design or informatics — interaction designer

Cross-overs

I use this label for people who have built a career in a different space and want to “become” an experience designer.

For instance if you work in the product space you should focus on your interaction and service design capabilities.

Back-end developers are also suited to interaction design — but they should focus on selling their prototyping skills.

Regardless of where you are crossing over from, you should focus on your primary research skills. Interviews, validation testing and usability testing will set you up for success.

Gaining empathy and listening to the stories of customers will give you the biggest competitive edge and innate understanding of human-centred design.

Note: In our space all developers are seen as technologists — I’d prefer having front-end developers closer to or part of the design team.

LEADERSHIP

Design leads

Becoming a design lead is a different path and we focus on a bunch of personality traits and other life, essential skills.

Make sure that you have a deep understanding — or empathy — of all the technical skills.

If you feel very uncomfortable in a particular area — say you’re a UI designer and your research and interaction skills are weak — have a relationship with other design leads to help you

Practice leads

I think this is a valuable path for hardcore makers — where you work as a research, visual design, interaction design or writing expert. It refers to level 4 on the levels graph.

E.g. Research practice lead, UI practice lead, UX practice lead and Content strategist.

In large corporations you may work in a business unit, design system or design operation team.

In South Africa we have not had much opportunity to move into Practice or Head of design roles — but that is changing rapidly. Making for great opportunities. It does however mean you need help with process, mentorship or operating models.

*I wonder if there is a cultural bias built into this model. It implies all designers consider leadership as a career path. In my teams, and personal life, I wonder about the expertise and making part of our job.

I’m still pondering it but have successfully helped designers who want to stay expert designers

MAPPING JOBS TO PROJECT PHASES

My method is best reflected by the Elements of user experience by Jesse James Garrett. Another amazing book — that is still relevant to any design, technology or business person who want to understand the field of experience design better.

The key concept I’d like to convey, is that design is a continuum. When you start a new project — you are in abstract design mode — the other side is concrete design.

The diagram is more about what skills and activities you need, than entire roles. It helps you understand what type of designer you need to hire and what skills they need during the design process.

As a solo designer it helps you understand what activities you should look into or improve on.

In my view it also illustrates why you cannot have one designer doing all these activities. It shows the case against unicorns.

Scenario 1: New start-up that needs to land quite quickly

Imagine you landed your initial funding — now you need down to business — you need everything done and rather quickly.

Roles

An experienced Interaction or UX designer that are well-versed in Experience strategy, a system’s thinker who is good enough at service design, very good at all aspects of research, a good IA who can knock out taxonomies, way finding and aid at search.

UI designer — who has deep design skills. Able to design a brand with it’s associated digital and physical artifacts. That can define a cross-channel visual strategy and produce print, IOS, Android and responsive web production ready designs.

Writer — who is a good system thinker to do the identity work for the brand, define the cross-channel content strategy and write everything else a new company needs. From editing business plans to guidelines and content for the app and websites.

This is the absolute minimum crew you’d need. It is rare for designers to be amazing across all strategy and execution layers. Hiring proven specialists like experience strategists and researchers may prove cheaper in the long term.

Everyone should work together to ensure there is enough time and funding to do the first iteration of the design system.

Scenario 2: Continuous improvement on existing software

You’ve successfully launched your products. Now you need to improve your and grow your audience.

You’re basically spending most of your time in the second diamond — focusing on detailed design and delivery.

If you still need to do a lot of work in understanding what your customers need, I strongly advise hiring a researcher or interaction designer. Assuming that a product designer can perform throughout the entire life cycle is unwise.

INVOLVEMENT OVER THE PROCESS

This mapping is an approximation — not based on actual hours or activities. And only shows the design community.

It is important to note that, if possible, the whole team should be involved throughout the life of the product, project or feature.

*For this mapping I kept the experience strategy as a skill in service, research or interaction design role.

BIASES

In the last year I did job interviews with about 40 designers — and the technical design question became one of my standard questions.

I was interested in how people anchor their skills, how they felt about self-assessing in an interview and how the context influenced how they rated themselves.

I’m also grateful to my team, who indulged me with my many research questions.

My question was, how would you rate yourself on a scale from 1–7 on the following technical design skills?

Anchoring

The following themes emerged:

  • Some people would just start rating themselves, then post-rationalize what the number meant to them
  • Others would ask what the numbers meant, including whether 1 is the lowest rating. I told them it is an open-ended question and I’d be interested in understanding how they would come up with a rating system. After some hesitation they would rate themselves.
  • The last group was extremely apprehensive to rate themselves. Pushing back to say they need more information.

Over time I put the scale in place to mean the following:

  1. I know the field exists
  2. I can explain what the field is about
  3. I am producing work in the field
  4. I am competent — my work is good enough for production-ready design
  5. It’s a core skill — I am very competent
  6. I’m an expert
  7. I’m a master

You may have wondered why level 1 and 2 were so vague. I wanted to leave space for people who do not know anything about design.

I still need to come up with conversations for non-designers to understand experience design better.

I do not believe you can get to level 7 in any of these fields, as they are all emergent areas of knowledge — not a finite dataset. It also leads me to my next observation — over and under confidence.

Dunning-Kruger

In the field of psychology, the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is.

I think of it as — the less you know the more you think you know and the more you know — the less you think you know.

Some people correlate this with imposter syndrome — referring to individuals who doubt their accomplishments. I believe they are quite different.

The value of Dunning-Kruger is that it helps identify blind spots. If you’re honest and open with yourself it can help you become a better designer.

Shows the self-assessment at a certain point in time with 5 mid-level UX designers

This graph shows an example of how people assess themselves — in this case mid-level or level 2 designers.

The orange line (bottom) was actually one of the strongest UX designers I’ve met the last few years. She undervalues her experience and skill.

Doing this exercise helped me mentor each of these designers to a level of detail I would not be able to do before.

It also points to a massive gap in my research — and the next area I want to explore.

What verifiable data can we set up to prove what level you are?

The good

  • Overall I’m pretty happy with my progress with this framework.
  • It is providing me with the tools, vernacular and structure to start helping designers in all my teams
  • It also provides a shareable framework for learning and development helping me build a design capability and grow designers
  • Allows me to have good conversations with executives about the structure, cost and scale of design — essentially required to enable design ops in corporations

The bad

  • It doesn’t provide measurable, data driven mechanisms for self assessment
  • Doesn’t yet address soft (essential) skills, traits or behavior
  • Doesn’t provide a framework for leadership
  • Assumes career growth leads to leadership, what about staying in the work?
  • The levels still feel a bit dismissive

The ugly

  • You can only run this type of work when there is strong trust and respect between a leader and the team.
  • With my team, the self-assessment was just a small part of our growth conversations and part of a “state of design” questionnaire in the teams.
  • I had one-on-one conversations with each person in my team — to contextualize my research goals — before I sent out the questionnaire.
  • Participation should be voluntary
  • Do not treat this as a strict measure of skill

You should ask your team to self assess a few times. It lets you and them understand how our self-assessment changes due to mood, circumstances and context of use.

I would for instance compare self assessment in an interview with actual delivery after about 3 months.

It’s starting to help me see what level of posturing you can expect in an interview setting.

MAKING THE MOST OF IT

I believe in inclusive and open communities. My intention around this work is to provide frameworks and tools for experience designers to navigate their job roles and improve their skills. And for leaders to help their teams.

It is also valuable to identify areas you are weak at, so that you can up-skill quickly or ask the people with the money to hire an expert for a short time period if needed.

Alternatively, you should be more aware at where you or your team may fail if you have to make a trade-off and do the work yourself — when there is no extra money to hire an expert.

My main conclusion though, make sure you are part of a team that represent how stuff works, how it looks and how things sound. That’s the minimum you need for an awesome experience that ensure your customers love you so that you can make money.

BACKGROUND

In the last year I’ve had to design an operating model, explain design to many business stakeholders and help a team of learners with a path to become experience designers.

I spent the last 5 years as a design leader helping many different designers and cross-overs to become better designers.

I’ve spent the last 20 years to improve my own skills to be a better human and experience designer.

This article shares my story around the shape of an experience designer.

I would also love your help to refine and improve my research around this topic. I focused on technical capabilities — because that was my most pressing need.

I do believe working on essential skills, leadership and personality traits are more important to set your team or project up for success.

I’ve been working on modeling experience design skills since October 2017 after mulling over helping young designers a bit longer.

I settled on these ideas in May 2018 and shared my first iteration at UX Cape Town in November 2018.

You may wonder why I decided to do this work when other models are available. I guess we don’t always know which of our ideas will continue tickling our curiosity.

I also couldn’t find anything that felt right. The information architect in me disliked the categorisation in everything I found. As a bottom up thinker I felt I needed something with the most basic building blocks — just like lego — for a elegant solution. Then work it’s way up into a scaled framework. I hope to get to that one day soon.

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Jacqueline Fouche
Superfluid experiences

I’m a hands-on, principal experience designer and design coach specialising in conceptual design for startups and new setting up the design practice.