Archive for the ‘UX design’ Category

Interaction design interview question #1

Last week, I mentioned that I have a good interview question for hiring an interaction designer, then presented several problems with asking one of those horrible “edgy” design interview questions. Here’s the question:

Please apply your standard design process to design a swimming pool for a resort hotel. Feel free to ask me questions if you need more information.

Of course, there’s nothing special about a swimming pool—aside from being a familiar object that needs to be well designed. Feel free to substitute any other familiar objects that need good design and lead to interesting design discussions.

The answer and scoring

Before checking the answer, please think this through as you would in a real interview situation. Spend at least 5 minutes before peeking.

The answer

Why I like this question

This question is simple enough, so what’s the big deal? Here’s why I like it:

  • There’s no trick to it. The question is clearly presented and candidates can get full credit for answering the question as asked. Candidates don’t have to figure out what you are really asking, so the response reflects their design skills, not their interviewing skills.
  • The response demonstrates the candidate’s design skills in a meaningful way. A strong response is a meaningful indicator of superior design skills, whereas a poor response is a meaningful indicator of the opposite. Candidates reveal exactly where they are on the UX Design Skills Ladder.
  • There’s more than one good solution. Consequently, each candidate can respond in a unique way. Because there’s no one expected answer, there’s room for brilliance. There’s also enough depth to the problem that prior coaching won’t help much.
  • Experienced designers have an opportunity to shine. In addition to demonstrating their user centered design skills, advanced candidates can also demonstrate their strategic product design skills.
  • BS won’t go far. Both you and your candidates know enough about the problem and the target users that BS won’t get them anywhere. Unlike with “edgy” questions where total nonsense might pass as insight, common sense can be your compass.
  • It’s fun! It’s a fun exercise, so asking it will reflect well upon you and your team.

How to ask good design interview questions—and why “design a spice rack for blind people” isn’t one of them

I was originally going to present a good interaction design interview question, but soon realized that my rationale for liking the question was as interesting as the question itself.

The key to success in any project is to hire the best talent you can. When it comes to evaluating interaction design skills, the interview questions used are often weak.  How can you identify that best talent by asking poor interview questions?

Stop asking “edgy” design questions

Interviewers often ask what I call “edgy” design questions. You know, something that fills in the template “Design a <useless product> for a <target audience that isn’t you>.” “Design a spice rack for blind people” is a popular one of these, but the possibilities are endless:

  • Design a coffee maker for a car.
  • Design a texting device for toddlers.
  • Design a voting booth for Martians.

As if Useless Japanese Inventions wasn’t comprehensive enough. I gave one of these to a candidate once and I’ve regretted it ever since. I’ve been on the receiving end of these a few times and honestly I’m not impressed. People seem to think these questions are cool and insightful. I find them neither.

Yes, I get it—these questions are about design thinking and process, and realizing that you aren’t the target user. Interviewers want to see candidates working the problem from the target user’s point of view and not designing for themselves, making assumptions, or jumping to solutions. Any candidate that starts off by thinking about possible solutions likely won’t pass the muster.

I think there are many problems with “edgy” design questions. Here’s some:

  • “Correct” answers are too narrowly defined. Interviewers who use these questions often have a predefined notion of the correct answer, and anything else is likely considered incorrect. While candidates that start off with possible solutions aren’t following good processes, they might be demonstrating another valuable skill called “brainstorming.” Who’s to say that applying a design process deserves full credit but brainstorming creative solutions demonstrates lack of competence? And of the two, the creating brainstorming skill is the harder to master. Just because a response is unexpected doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
  • Advanced design skills are penalized. Candidates experienced enough to apply user-centered thinking should also have enough experience to realize the question is silly. The impractical nature of these questions means that the products have no market, don’t solve real problems, have a poor value proposition, are potentially unsafe, are based on questionable assumptions, etc.A good answer to “design a coffee maker for a car” is “I’d rather not—people might get killed. There are too many distractions in cars already. If people are running out of coffee while driving, consider designing larger mugs instead.” Another (snarky) response: “That’s an interesting design challenge. Do you have data that shows there’s a market for such a product? No? …then I’m not sure why you’re asking me to design it.” Those are Level 3 responses, but would the candidate get the job? Seems to me that demonstrating that a product concept is safe and has a viable market requires more advanced design thinking than figuring out how to shoot hot water through a hole.
  • True user-centered design is impossible. Candidates intentionally aren’t part of the target audience, forcing them to design for somebody else. In practice, how do we normally do that? With some sort of user research, right? Can’t do that in an interview. A skilled candidate could work around the problem by asking questions, but if done well that should ultimately lead to a dead end—these impractical products don’t exist for a reason.
  • The interviewer isn’t a target user either. One of the goals of these questions is to reveal if the candidate makes false assumptions about users, but chances are the interviewer is just as likely to have false assumptions. For example, most “blind” people (actually, “vision impaired” is more accurate) can see to some degree, so a good spice rack for blind people is probably a good spice rack for sighted people. The question itself is based on a false assumption.
  • A good response requires answering a different question. To answer the question well, candidates have to realize that the interviewer wants to know about design process, or wants them to ask clarifying questions, or redefine the question into something more practical. But the interview process isn’t exactly a realistic discussion among peers. The interviewer has all the control, and candidates might be reluctant to answer anything other than was literally asked. You asked the question, and candidates shouldn’t be penalized for answering it as asked.
  • Interviewing is a two-way street—and your side of the street now sucks. While your goal is to determine if the candidate is qualified and a good match, the candidate’s goal is to determine if he or she wants to work for you. Do you think highly talented designers want to work for teams that develop impractical products? Do you think highly talented designers want to work for teams that are so clueless about good design? Just as you judge candidates by their responses, candidates judge you and your team by your questions.
  • Ultimately, such questions fail to demonstrate design skills. Interviewing acumen and preparation are as important here as design talent. To do well, it’s not so much what candidates say, but how they say it. Suppose you have Bob, who lacks design skill but has received 10 minutes of coaching on this type question, vs. Alice, who has amazing design skills but spends her time thinking about practical design problems. The impractical nature of the question plus a bit coaching are a great equalizer, so Alice doesn’t necessarily have the clear upper hand.

Yes, a skilled candidate could work around these problems. For example, a candidate might say “It’s not my experience that people with visual impairments would need or want such a product. Still, let’s apply the principle that everyone benefits from accessible design, so instead let’s design a spice rack that’s highly accessible to everyone.” That’s a much better design challenge—a product that might actually sell—but even so it’s more a demonstration of interviewing skills than design skills. I don’t think these interview questions aren’t good enough to deserve redemption.

What to do instead

The solution is simple: ask practical design questions that solve problems people actually have. Choose design problems that candidates have some familiarity with so that they can observe instead of speculate. Choose design problems that you have some familiarity with so that you can use common sense to distinguish good responses from BS. Score the results based on design skills demonstrated instead of interviewing skills required to diplomatically navigate around a poorly conceived question.

If you do only one thing: Make sure your design questions demonstrate design skills instead of interviewing skills. Allow for brilliance—have enough latitude so that insightful responses are recognized as such, even if completely unexpected. And make sure the question is engaging enough so that talented designers will want to work for you.

I’ll post my design question next week. I hope it lives up to my buildup.

Getting started in interaction design

“I’m a software developer and I just started working on a project that needs a good UI. I don’t have a UI design background and nobody on my team does either, but I know enough to realize that our current design needs a lot of work. I’d like to help make it better. How should I get started?”

This is a popular question. While there are many things you could do, here’s what I recommend:

  1. Pay attention to design Design, both good and bad, is all around you so pay attention to your everyday experiences. If something works well or doesn’t work well, try to understand why. To develop your design thinking, make note of what is “intuitive,” what confuses you, what delights you, and why.
  2. Know where you are on the UX design skills ladder Understanding the ladder will help you develop a road map to get to the next skill level. It will also help you work more effectively with people with different skills by understanding where they are coming from.
  3. Design for your users, not yourself The most common trap for beginners is to design for themselves. It’s also common for intermediates to think that they are designing for their users but design for themselves instead. An easy way to tell the difference is to gather your team and write down all the known facts and assumptions about your target users, then validate your design decisions against the list. If, for example, you are targeting beginners but some features require advanced knowledge, you’ve got some work to do.
  4. Work with more than one design idea The second most common trap is to fall in love with your first idea and, as a result, fail to see other possibilities. Design is about making choices, but you can’t make a good choice unless you have options to choose from. Considering alternatives also helps you build confidence in your decisions. But if your first idea is so good that you can’t possibly think of anything better, at least design a simpler version of that solution. Chances are you’ll like it better (and prove to yourself that there are alternatives.)
  5. Think in terms of users and scenarios, not in terms of features and technologies A scenario is a description of a user’s goal, problem, or task in a specific environment. Great design focuses on nailing important scenarios. By contrast, weak design focuses on individual features and technologies, without much regard for the user’s goals, tasks, or environment.
  6. Make priorities It is literally impossible to focus on everything. Good design establishes clear targets and nails them. Poor design is undisciplined and tries to do everything for everybody. You can’t do everything, and you certainly can’t do everything well. Do less better instead.
  7. Learn to communicate to users effectively Great designs communicate their purpose well. This is what people really mean when they say a design is “intuitive.” Think of your UI as a conversation between you and your target users.
    Does your design communicate well? Here’s a simple test: suppose you are looking over a user’s shoulder and he or she asks, “What should I do here?” Think about the explanation you would give—the steps, their order, the language you’d use, and the way you explain things. Also think about what you wouldn’t say. That’s what your UI should be—like a conversation between friends—rather than something arcane that users have to decipher. If the UI feels like a natural conversation, your design communicates well.
    Many developers avoid thinking about UI text, and assume that any problems can be fixed by somebody else later. Wrong!  If the communication is poor, the design is poor—and quite often such problems can’t be fixed by just tweaking text. Effective communication is an essential element of good design, not an add-on.
  8. Look for design models What existing products or services have a similar experience? This is helpful question when brainstorming or identifying design alternatives. The design models don’t even have to be remotely related to what you are doing—a particular experience at Starbucks might be a great design model for purchasing your accounting product. The key is to understand that the goal isn’t to copy other people’s ideas but to inspire you to consider the full range of possibilities.
  9. But don’t design by copy Another trap for beginners is to design by copying features that you like. While at first this approach seems logical—if the design works and you like it, why not use it? The problem is that design is all about making good choices on behalf of your target users to create a product that satisfies their goals. Design-by-copy often fails because it short circuits this user-centered thinking by focusing on features—features that may have been designed for different users with different goals in different environments.
  10. Ask for feedback Ask people who represent your target users (or at least neutral observers) to review your design and provide feedback. Review their feedback, look for trends, and refine the design. If you design without getting feedback, there is a good chance that you’ll make many mistakes. I try to get feedback on everything.
  11. Learn how to receive critical feedback Critical feedback is required to do your best work, but not all feedback you receive is going to be encouraging or well presented. Regardless, smile, thank the person for helping you, take the feedback seriously, follow up on it, and encourage more.
  12. Learn to give good feedback—based on something other than personal opinion Feedback is a two-way street, so it’s important to learn how to give good feedback as well. If someone asks for your feedback about a design, it’s inevitable that at least some of it will be personal opinion. However, feedback based on scenarios, design principles, guidelines, and such are far more useful, especially when there is disagreement within a team. For example, think of the top tasks you can perform with a product, and present your feedback in terms of the issues you found while performing those tasks. While such feedback might still feel personal, it’s not just personal opinion anymore.
  13. Learn to appreciate good design It’s easy to criticize bad design—anybody can do that. A more useful talent is to understand what makes a good design good. When you see a good design, examine it carefully and try to understand why specifically it works so well. Think about the project management angle too—consider the team leadership and design process required to make that good design a reality. It didn’t just happen by itself.
  14. Learn to appreciate bad design It’s easy to sneer at bad design—look at how silly those people were…what were they thinking? Of course, we would do so much better, right?
    Not necessarily. There are many traps in the design process and we are all bound to fall into them eventually. When you see a bad design, examine it carefully and try to understand what went wrong behind the scenes. Did they try to do too much? Was it designed by non-designers? Was it designed by committee? By the boss? For the boss’s mom? Did they design around features and technology instead of users and scenarios? Did they not do any user testing? Was the schedule unrealistic? Did they rush to market? Bad design happens for a reason, and many of those reasons extend well beyond design skills.
  15. Continue to improve your skills Read books and blogs about UX design. Read up on interaction guidelines. Take a design course. Hire a design consultant to help you get started.

If you need professional help with any of these skills, please let us know. We’re here to help!

Why “everybody is a designer”: The UX Design Skills Ladder

I started to write an article on how non-designers can get started in interaction design, but quickly realized that Tip 2, “Know where you are on the UX design skills ladder,” is worthy of its own post.

The UX Design Skills Ladder has several constituents:

  • The ability to recognize problems
  • The ability to identify solutions
  • The scope of design knowledge
  • The method for making decisions
  • The ability to give and receive feedback
  • The ability to persuade others

Here it is:

Level 0—”Everybody”

  • Can identify general, superficial problems with a design.
  • Thinks of design in terms of technology.
  • Believes “user centered design” means designing for the one’s mother, sibling, or spouse.
  • Gives vague, often harsh feedback, usually in terms of personal opinion or preference.
  • Offers feedback that is often inappropriately detailed, focused on minor visual details.
  • Is unaware of what they don’t know.

Level 1—Beginner designers

  • Can identify basic interaction and visual design problems.
  • Thinks of design in terms of technology and features.
  • Works with a single solution, rarely considers alternatives. Often that single solution is their first idea and they have trouble seeing beyond it.
  • Makes one-off decisions based on whatever “feels right.” Often “wings” it.
  • Offers feedback in terms of personal opinion or the behavior of other programs.
  • Can convince self that a design idea is good.

Level 2—Intermediate designers

  • Can identify many interaction and visual design problems. Aware of what makes a design good.
  • Thinks of design in terms of tasks.
  • Usually works with a single solution, but occasionally works with a few.
  • Makes decisions based on data, team feedback and consensus, and the problem at hand. Still often “wings” it.
  • Offers specific, actionable feedback at the appropriate level in terms of design concepts.
  • Can convince several people that a design idea is good.

Level 3—Advanced designers

  • Can identify subtle interaction and visual design problems. Has a strong appreciation for good design.
  • Thinks of designs in term of scenarios and personas.
  • Always works with many solutions before making a choice. Proposed solutions include standard approaches, simple solutions, and innovative alternatives that others would miss.
  • Makes decisions using a decision making framework and a holistic product vision. Often uses data to make decisions, but is willing and able to go beyond the data.
  • Offers specific, constructive, actionable feedback at the appropriate level in terms of design principles, guidelines, branding.
  • Can convince a team that a design idea is good. Experts can convince a team that a radical design idea is good.
  • Is completely in tune with what they don’t know.

Some observations

  • Level 0 Everybody has at least level 0 design skills, which is why “everybody is a designer.” Unfortunately, these skills are neither rare nor particularly valuable but people at this level are blissfully unaware of this fact. They often think their vague, unactionable feedback is brilliant. For example, they’ll say things like “My mom would never do that” or “I don’t care for that color red.” Brilliant! They also tend to be managers.
  • Level 1 Most people experienced with “design thinking” are at least at level 1.
  • Level 2 A surprising number of people are at this level, even designers with many years of experience.
  • Level 3 This level of design skills is fairly rare. Many people think that they are at this level but aren’t quite there yet. For example, I’ve noticed that many who think they are doing user-centered scenario-based design are really doing feature- or task-based design. (The difference? Check Design scenarios—and how thrilled users ruin them.)

Why this helps

Knowing the ladder will help you in a variety of ways:

  • It suggests a road map on how to improve your design skills.
  • It helps you understand other people’s design skills better so that you can work with them more effectively.
  • It helps you evaluate other people’s design skills for things like job interviews.

If you do only one thing: Know your UX Design Skills level and make a plan to get to the next level.

Next week, we’ll look at how non-designers can get started in interaction design.

NBC Olympic Coverage and Courageous Design

Know your users, design for your users… right?

I loved the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. Vancouver did a fantastic job. CTV did a fantastic job too. And NBC? Well, let’s say they did OK.

Living near the Canadian border, I’ve long had access to Canadian broadcasting and greatly prefer their coverage over ours. Apparently, I’m not the only one. I took a short winter vacation at Stowe, VT and of the Olympic coverage that I saw displayed in public, the score was CTV 6, USA 1, NBC 0. Not one set showed NBC!

Before the games, I had two predictions about NBC’s coverage. First, I expected to see a lot of Michael Phelps as a cheap ratings ploy (sorry guys, wrong Olympics!) Second, I expected to not see any significant coverage for events that 1) are unpopular with Americans, 2) didn’t have any American medal contenders, and 3) don’t immediately appear exciting or dangerous. In other words, no cross-country skiing and for sure no curling. I nailed the first prediction but was pleasantly surprised to see NBC cover entire cross-country skiing events that had no American contenders. (Didn’t see any curling though).

As a user centered design challenge, this presents an interesting question: what’s wrong with giving people what they want? If most viewers aren’t interested in cross-country skiing, wouldn’t user centered design suggest that NBC would be right to not include it? (Let’s assume for a moment that user centered design is what NBC tried to do, as opposed to, say, maximizing advertising revenue.) NBC does extensive viewer research and their programming choices reflect their data, so we should love the results based on our own input. Why then did so many people prefer CTV’s coverage?

The answer, I believe, is that giving people what they ask for can lead to good design, but it doesn’t guarantee great design. You can be good by following your users, but to be great, you have to lead them. In short, great design often requires courage.

Following your users is safe design. It requires research, analysis, and process, but little more. By contrast, courageous design is risky. It requires insight, creativity, and boldness to go beyond the data. Courageous design requires saying “we’re going to give you something you didn’t ask for, but we believe you might like anyway.” This is hard to do well because you have to discover desires that people don’t even know that they have. And if you fail, you fail big. You might be leading your customers to some new, exciting place…or maybe somewhere they have no desire to go.

Why is this important? Well, nobody asked Apple for an iPhone. Nobody asked for Facebook. For sure nobody asked for Twitter. Revolutionary innovation requires courage. You can’t lead by following.

If you do only one thing: Do the best user research you can, but be willing to see beyond the data.

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