The Most Valuable UX Person in the World

At this year’s IA Summit in Denver, Jared Spool is giving a presentation on measuring the value a UX person delivers, which he’s called, The Most Valuable UX Person In The World. Borrowing liberally from the Dos Equis ads, he used this as the program description:

The Most Valuable UX Person In The World

She builds her wireframes with real wire from ancient hand-smelted Ukranian steel.
Her worst personas could kick the ass of your best personas.
His pattern library is now in the Library of Congress.
When she explains good design visuals, the only thing Edward Tufte can add is “What she said.”
He’s organized his wine cellar in order of awesome.
Wikileaks is ready to release her sketchbooks just because they’re cool.
He only sketches on the front of the napkin.
He built the world’s biggest web site, using only his left hand.
Last season’s American Idol featured her concept maps.
His research finds customers desire to research his behavior.
He is the only person Don Norman agrees with.
She makes her own icons out of straw.
Software bugs specifically ask for her to fix them.
He defined the damn thing, then moved on.
Her study participants screen themselves. Out.
Her interactions are the basis for everyone else’s designs.
Scalpers sell tickets to his project kickoff meetings.
He is already coding in HTML6. And has been for a decade.

They are the most valuable UX person in the world.
“Design well, my friend.”

What would you add to this list? Leave your own ideas of the Most Valuable UX Person In The World in the comments on UIE. He’ll be sprinkling your best suggestions through out his presentation, giving you full credit.

Hand vs Brain UX Work


Jared Spool wrote an article describing the difference between ‘innies’ & ‘outies’ as well as ‘handiwork’ vs brainwork’ when it comes to ux consulting.

The short version-

Innies work within an organization, while the outies are brought in for projects

Handwork is when the consultant is creating, producing work, wireframes, etc.

Brainwork is when the person is hired to give advice, more like a strategy consultant.

The difficulties arise when either a company doesn’ t know which kind of work they need, or they hire someone to do handwork, when really they need brainwork, or the person hired to do handwork has a great ‘brainwork’ idea but isn’t listened to. Even worse, the person is hired at brainwork prices but ends up wasting their talents on handwork.

It is up to the project managers and hiring managers to be sure they not only know what the project and team need, but also that they hire the right person at the right rate.

Five Indispensable Skills for UX Mastery

5 Indispensable Skills for UX Mastery

Original posting

Jared Spool

Jared Spool, User Interface Engineering

For practicing User Experience Designers, one of the most important laws isn’t Fitts’s Law, which helps us understand how to design interactive elements. Nor is it Hick’s Law, which describes how long people take to make decisions.

It’s Sturgeon’s Law, which tells us that 99% of everything is crap. It’s easy to produce a poor quality result—anyone without the critical skills is capable of it and there are a ton of those people floating around.

Yet if we want to be really excellent at what we do, what are those essential skills? What should we be practicing to become a master?

This is exactly the question we set out to answer as we studied the work of the master UX professsional. These masters were folks from all different disciplines within the UX world—interaction design, information architecture, user research, copywriting, and visual design. While they produced different deliverables and end products, it was clear that each of the masters we talked to had built their mastery upon some common skills — skills that turn out to be indispensable when they’re trying to produce excellent results.

Indispensable Skill #1: Sketching

Someone once said that talking about design is like performing interpretive dance about architecture. Words, while critical, often don’t do our ideas justice.

A quick sketch about a design—what it will look like, how information flows from one place to another, how the users move between activities—often is the best way to get our ideas across.

The masters we talked to gravitate to sketching easily. They aren’t embarrassed by how ugly their sketches are (and, by the way, they can be quite ugly) or how silly they might look (quite silly too). They focus on the ideas behind those sketches.

We’re talking back-of-the-napkin quality stuff. Thick pens, broad strokes, simple stick figures. It’s not the Mona Lisa or the best work of the Impressionists.

We asked each master how they obtained their sketching skills. Their answer? They practiced—in meetings, at their desk, waiting for their kid to finish soccer practice. They just kept drawing and doodling and sketching thoughts that came into their mind. They would write the same phrases over again, to improve their handwriting’s readability.

Sketching isn’t hard, but it’s a learned skill. Once learned, it becomes an effective part of the communication mix.

Indispensable Skill #2: Storytelling

One of the things that separates humans from all other species is our ability to enjoy a good story. (You don’t find mice sitting around a campfire recounting their recent life-threatening encounter with the farmer’s wife.) We love to hear stories and we worship those among us who can tell the best ones.

In the sterile, fact-filled workplace, we don’t think of stories as being a critical skill. Yet stories can inspire. They can illuminate. They can help us empathize with those we’re designing for.

Telling a great story was another common trait of all the masters we talked to. When we asked them to describe something they had accomplished, they didn’t just describe the result, they told how they’d accomplished it. They told us what problems it solved, who they talked to in the research, and how they convinced their team members to focus on the best parts. They did it in a totally fascinating way. Our attention was riveted.

Storytelling, like sketching, is a skill they regularly practiced. They told the same story over and over, watching how their audiences responded. When the audience responded with the right ideas, they knew they’d succeeded. When they didn’t, they changed their story until they got the effect they were seeking.

There are elements of good stories that the masters understood: characters, plot lines, the journey the protagonist takes, the challenges they face. These things make the story interesting and entertaining. But they also make them informative.

Like sketching, telling a story is an essential skill to becoming a master. Keep it fresh. Keep it interesting. Most importantly, keep it relevant and information-packed.

Indispensable Skill #3: Critiquing

It’s rare to find a UX master who works completely by themselves. Instead, they are part of a team, collaborating on the designs they create.

Part of the collaboration is delivering and receiving feedback. Great design succeeds through iteration. Each round of changes is best when it’s informed by the experience and knowledge of the others around us.

We don’t hear much about critique. The folks who are best at it can deliver constructive feedback that helps us better understand what we’re trying to do and how we can do it. Those folks are also great at receiving the feedback by empowering our thinking process and helping us understand how to be better problem solvers.

Critique goes beyond criticism. It explores what the design’s objectives are. It looks into how the users will solve their problem and move through the design. It’s a discussion, where nobody is right or wrong, instead we fully explore the landscape of the problem.

A great critique is an engaging, energizing, and empowering session. Everyone feels they’ve learned something new and grown professionally. Mastering this skill enhances our teamwork, while enriching our designs.

Indispensable Skill #4: Presenting

Presentations are a UX master’s staple. They are always presenting ideas to their teams, their work to their management and others inside their organization, and their methods and results to their peers at professional gatherings.

At the core of a great presentation is storytelling. It’s boring to just list the facts, so embedding it into a memorable and engaging story is key.

But great presentations go beyond the storytelling component. They are multimedia events, involving live action, sound, and visuals. Presenting involves writing, orchestrating, choreographing, and producing.

Great presentations also involve a new level of attention on the part of the presenter. A great presentation, in itself, is an exercise in designing an experience. Understanding how to listen to your attendees is an essential component of crafting the experience you’re creating for them.

It’s easy to stand in front of a crowd and walk through a slide deck. It’s much harder to create a meaningful presentation that persuades, engages, and rocks the world of the audience.

Some, those who have mastered presenting, make it look easy. However, the great presenters put tremendous effort into their craft. They practice frequently, editing their presentation with fine precision, making sure every moment has the audience right where they intend.

It’s a performance-based skill that looks easy, but is hard to pull off well. Improving this skill will make you an indispensable voice of your team and organization.

Indispensable Skill #5: Facilitating

Frankly, when I started working on this article, I wasn’t thrilled with the name of this skill: facilitating. It sounded so administrative, so boring. And this skill is anything but boring. It’s essential to great, collaborative design.

In our work, we regularly have to lead teams through critical activities, whether it’s analyzing the results of a user study, brainstorming ideas for a new feature, critiquing a design, or dividing up the work for the next iteration. (I had thought of leading or leadership as an alternative to facilitating, but that sounded too grandiose.)

The facilitator is a momentary leader. They step in and take over, with everyone’s support and respect, to push through the group’s next activity. Team members often take turns facilitating, spreading the effort around, giving everyone a chance to guide the team for that moment.

The best facilitators have a full toolbox of tricks. They know when the whiteboard works and when it constrains the conversation. They understand how to use sticky notes or index cards. They know how to separate valuable explorations from wasteful digressions, as the team works through the session. They know when to assert their own point of view and when to play a neutral role.

Folks who master facilitating are always looking for new tools and tricks. They are in search of new ways to get the team to consensus, to agreement, to assigning and delegating. A great facilitator is indispensable to their team, helping them move closer to success with every get together.

Five Indispensable Skills

So, there we have five skills for UX mastery. These skills aren’t unique to the user experience profession, but it’s clear from our research, the best professionals work hard to master them.

These skills—sketching, storytelling, critiquing, presenting, and facilitating—are all communication skills. They are all collaboration skills. They are skills that help us make every design better.

What’s great is that we can use these skills as a way to better ourselves and our teams. We can constantly look to improving— scouting out friends, colleagues, and mentors who have reached a higher level and learning from their practice. Managers can add these skills to the performance review process, asking each period, “Have you improved on these?”

These are indispensable skills to have, which, in turn, make us more valuable (and more indispensable) to our teams.

Three Important Benefits of Personas

Jared Spool

Jared Spool, User Interface Engineering

This article was originally published in May, 2007

Next time you have a chance to watch someone reading a map, look for the first thing they do. They’ll likely do the exact same thing everyone else does: find themselves on the map.

It doesn’t matter what kind of map it is, whether it’s of their neighborhood or an amusement park. They’ll open the map and find something that is personally meaningful, such as their house or their favorite roller coaster.

Psychologists call this “grounding,” the natural behavior of initially finding a known reference point in a foreign information space. Once the person has grounded themselves, they can then use the starting point to understand the rest of the space.

While grounding helps people adjust to complex situations, it can be detrimental when it happens during the design process. If, while conjuring up an interface, designers ground themselves in the design, they run the serious risk of creating an interface that only they can use.

Separating You from Your Work

Creating an interface for yourself is great if you’re going to be the only user. When we decide how we’ll arrange our kitchen cabinets— where the plates, glasses, pots, and pans will go— we want to put ourselves into the design. But, we don’t expect other people to wander into our kitchen and start grabbing things without help.

When we’re creating online interfaces, it’s a whole different story. Here we’re designing for others, not for ourselves. We may know too much about the layout and structure. We’ll understand the relationships between various design elements (“That button is only used with this dropdown”). We are very familiar with the jargon and business rules.

Therefore, when a designer grounds themselves in their own design, they run the risk of designing an interface that only they can use. Any tools that help designers prevent the natural behavior of grounding helps them attack the design more objectively, with their target user in mind.

Benefit #1: Preventing Grounding with Personas

We recently had the opportunity to talk with several design teams currently using personas to help create their designs. We discovered, while studying how they integrated their personas into their design work, one major benefit was to prevent grounding.

Personas are model users that the team creates to help understand the goals, motivations, and behaviors of the people who will use the interface. The persona represents behavior patterns, helping the designer understand the flow of the user’s day and how the interface will fit into it.

The teams we interviewed used personas as a way to avoid the grounding problem. Instead of asking, “How would I use this system?” they asked, “How would Mary use the system?” They found their persona’s (Mary) initial reference point instead of their own, making judgments about the design from the persona’s point of view.

Understanding Retirement

One team in our study was working on an investment tool, primarily used by retirees. The team, who consisted of primarily 20-somethings, naturally assumed that, when they retire, they would have simple investment and financial needs. As a result, they created the initial design for simple transactions.

Their subsequent field research produced a persona named Ron, an active 76-year-old who had nine sources of income, three mortgages, and needed to write 21 checks every month from his multiple accounts. In the field, the team had seen many people similar to Ron and their transactions were anything but simple.

As soon as the team looked at their design from Ron’s perspective, they realized that their simple transaction approach was going to complicate his life immensely. Putting Ron into the design, instead of themselves, made them realize that they needed to take a different approach. It turns out that preventing grounding wasn’t the only major benefit of personas we discovered during our research. Two others jumped out at us as well.

Benefit #2: The Oral Tradition Lives On

As we studied teams who made substantial use of personas, we noticed that the personas were talked about frequently, almost in mythical terms. The team members had made up lives for these people, usually based on the actual observations they made when they studied real users. They constantly used these imaginary lives to relate important stories about how these users would interact with the proposed designs.

Storytelling is an age-old tradition. Long before the written word, humans have used stories to teach their children values and prepare people for the world ahead.

This tradition hasn’t gone away. A few years ago, Xerox Corporation set about studying how field repair technicians learned to effectively deal with infrequent, yet complex problems.

The researchers originally assumed that it was a mix of training and mentoring that played the biggest role. They were shocked to discover that those technicians who were best prepared for the craziest problems didn’t learn how to solve them in a classroom or by tagging along with a more senior technician.

Instead, they learned that the war stories exchanged when the technicians got together were the biggest contributors to their education. In these informal get-togethers, technicians would brag about their accomplishments and try to shock their peers with stories of woe and wonder. It was in the details of the stories that the field technicians attributed their best education.

Communicating Details in a Meaningful Way

The teams we researched did the same thing. They got together and told stories about how their personas would tackle some problem. In the details of these stories, team members would start to get a real sense of who these users were and the problems they might encounter.

Using just the oral tradition, the stories become distorted with every new telling. Many of the teams prevented this distortion by capturing the stories along with the persona descriptions. (One team went so far as to create a screensaver that would randomly display the pictures, backgrounds, and stories of each persona on the development team’s machines when they were idle.)

Benefit #3: The Role Personas Play in Role Playing

Along with preventing grounding and encouraging story telling, we found personas had a third benefit to the teams we studied: enhancing role playing.

From an early age, we use role playing as a way to safely explore the world around us. By pretending to be different people, we can try things out from their perspective, seeing if their viewpoint is different from our own.

Role playing has long been a part of design processes. For example, in the 80’s, designers at Apple used comic strips and play acting to think through the lives of their users and how they would integrate a variety of products, real and imaginary, into those users’ lives.

One design team we studied, who was in charge of a major electronic retailer’s e-commerce site, had an analyst role play each of four personas, walking through the site as each character. For example, one persona was a mom who wanted to buy educational software and technology for her children. She wasn’t a technical wiz, but wasn’t completely ignorant of the technology either.

The analyst adopted her role to play the shopper on the site. From that perspective, the analyst identified several issues with the design of the site that hadn’t been discussed previously. As the analyst adopted the other three personas, different issues surfaced. (Interestingly, we were independently doing a usability study on the site simultaneously and discovered many of the same issues as the analyst found from the four personas.)

When we adopt a role, we can start to view the world around us from that person’s perspective. Using the persona as the target role, we can identify how that person will interact with the design and the issues that will arise. We start to see things we can’t see any other way.

Taking Full Advantage

Personas don’t automatically get the benefits of preventing grounding, encouraging story telling, and enhancing role playing. They have to be carefully crafted to get those benefits.

To get the benefits, the personas have to have rich, relevant detail. They need to accurately represent the users the team is aiming for. And they need to have a solid foundation in the experiences of real users to be believable and meaningful.

Our research into the usage of personas has taught us that the most successful teams are those that are constantly feeding their persona information. They conduct frequent field studies to understand who the users are and what goals and motivations they have. The teams regularly use usability testing to expand their knowledge of their users. They think of their persona documents as living descriptions — constantly changing as they learn new things from their ongoing research, studies, and design exercises.

Personas are becoming a regular staple in many of the development teams we talk to. The method helps teams make a smooth transition between requirements and design, resulting in much cleaner designs. The benefits of preventing grounding, encouraging story telling, and enhancing role playing are rarely discussed, yet very present when you see the method in full force. It’s these benefits that guide our belief that personas will be a trusted method for many years to come.

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Jared’s article is also available online.