netmagInterview

Kevin M Hoffman on user experience

Kevin M Hoffman on user experience

Happy Cog's user experience director Kevin M Hoffman answers your questions on selling UX to clients, making meetings work, and whether designers should know how to code

@andy_wickes: How do you convince sceptical clients that UX is worth investing in?
@kevinmhoffman: I don’t really think of the problem that way. If a prospective or current client presents a problem and I see a natural fit for a particular research, analysis, or design technique, I manage expectations by identifying benefits of the technique rather than describe the technique itself. The more I can communicate those benefits in the natural vocabulary of the other party, the better, but once I’m familiar with the basic chess pieces of the problem, plain english usually works pretty well.

Here are a few examples from past experience. A client is convinced that using a “special, uncommon version of a word” will reinforce their brand in the site navigation. Let’s run search metrics to see how many people they lose if they take that approach. A client is convinced that people won’t make a donation because the button is too small? Let’s test that to make sure, because losing web donations translates to an exact budget line they depend on. A client is having a problem aligning department expectations around a large project? Let’s get together in a room and do some focused work together, but let’s not call it a “UX Workshop.” Let’s just call it a “productive meeting.”

@angelacolter: What prompted this interest in meeting design? Why shouldn't we boycott all meetings? And who is Keyboard Man?
@kevinmhoffman: I wanted to improve certain types of meetings in our own design process, and I searched the web for the term “Meeting Design”. No-one seemed to be using the term, so I decided to combine a lot of existing disciplines and techniques to start to develop a good spectrum of ideas that fit the label. Strategic thinking about meetings can be traced back to the 1970s, and there are a number of books that have been published, starting with How Meetings Work by Doyle and Strauss in 1976, all the way to Gamestorming by Gray, Brown, and Macanufo in 2010. As I explore related disciplines and their tangents, I hope to assemble a good compendium of proven approaches, whether they are based on other great thinking or a few of my admittedly rare, but decent ideas.

Boycott meetings? Why shouldn’t we all boycott cars? Cars do bad things. Also, sometimes I don’t like food that makes me fat. Let’s boycott hamburgers and milkshakes. Wait, that sounds like a massive amount of work. Let’s just be smarter about how we design these things. Let’s design better, safer cars. Let’s design diets that allow us to enjoy things that taste great. Meetings can be a flawed tool, so lets’s use some design thinking to make them better.

Keyboard Man is a character I pretend to be when I host karaoke events. But more than that, he’s a lifestyle. He likes to present class by dressing the part, but make things a little awkward. And he’s mainly for adults; kids, don’t try this at home.

@bil2k: Have you dealt with the challenges of improving UX in legacy environments such as old enterprise apps and if so, what are your reflections on it?
@kevinmhoffman: Yes. I would characterise that as drawing a lot of lines in the sand, then erasing those lines, and redrawing them. Then repeat.

@idanhart: What are your thoughts on designers knowing how to code?
@kevinmhoffman: I heavily endorse lifelong learning, but not everyone can get to a point where they are “knowing.” My opinion is that whatever gets results is the best way to do something.

If you have found a group of people that gets results by combining juggling with aqueducts, I could care less who is doing the juggling and who is doing the, uh, “aqueducting,” as long as the person doing each thing respectively knows what they are doing, and they can speak each others language with sufficient accuracy to get things done.

If you are a great designer, and you know how to code, that’s fantastic. If you are a great designer, and you know a great coder, and you get along and do great work together, that’s awesome. Who am I to say “fantastic” is better than “awesome"?

@jamesdeer: What steps do you take to ensure your UXD integrates with content strategy and vice versa?
@kevinmhoffman: Identify dependencies between the two and make sure I have sufficient time to allow one to feed the other. For example, I want audits and inventories early and often, so I can develop a robust understanding of the current content situation before developing any proposed site structures. I also want to know final site structures and labels are well aligned with the content production capabilities and the current (or proposed) messaging architecture, so if and when that information exists, I try to integrate that knowledge into our iterative process for a particular deliverable, when possible.

@Visrez: What is the most recurring UI problem you see constantly on sites?
@kevinmhoffman: Here’s a few that I see, in no particular order:

  • Over-designed interfaces as the result of organisational political processes or business requirements, such as advertising
  • Unnecessary pagination to increase advertising potential
  • A lack of progressive enhancement, so you end up with a useless pile of code when JavaScript is disabled
  • People overeager to apply “cutting edge” user interface ideas without consideration for their effectiveness in solving the design problem at hand. It used to be drop down menus. Now it’s those “mega menus"
  • Related to the above, apparently menus are getting bigger but screens are getting smaller. This will probably lead to menus developing their own consciousness and taking over mankind. That would be a pretty big user interface problem, for both web sites and for all of mankind

@madeinthenorth: Regarding your involvement in web design education - what do you think of the status quo and how can things be improved?
@kevinmhoffman: I’ve been out of the classroom for a couple years, but when I was in the classroom, my impression was that full time teachers rarely were connected to the network of knowledge of cutting edge techniques that full time professionals stay connected to in order to do their jobs. As a result, the status quo, in terms of curricula, was almost always playing catch up. I also found that many art and design instructors subscribed to a “pixel perfect” philosophy, that, and this is going a few years back, led to a number of syllabi being based on Flash, because it was a predictable WYSIWYG environment that you could get up to speed on within a single semester easily.

Regardless of what current syllabi focus on, I think things can be improved by teaching students critical thinking skills and the ability to self supplement what they get out of the classroom. There was a time when the only way to learn how to do this stuff was to get your hands dirty in HTML and CSS after work, and by trial and error, learn to understand the inconsistencies between browsers, etc. So many fields of specialisation have become established in the larger professional community, such as usability, user experience, user interface, screen design, information architecture, social media strategy, search engine optimisation, just for starters. Those same critical thinking skills, which provide the ability to evaluate an approach on its merits, identify weaknesses and inconsistencies, make informed decisions, and when appropriate, identify opportunities for innovation, provide a great template for entering any one of those fields.  

@paulrandall: How much does a person’s environment affect a site’s usability? I'm thinking about on busy trains, etc.
@kevinmhoffman: Depending on the environment, significantly, I would imagine. I haven’t been involved in, nor am I aware of, any studies specifically measuring the relationship between external physical stimuli and ease of use for screen based interfaces, but it would be an interesting issue to identify some best practices from, if any generalisations are possible. Looking at usage of tools in their natural environments is certainly a benefit of remote usability testing and other more ethnographic methods to identify those types of variables, though.

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