What’s your T-shape?

I spent a few hours last night beating myself up for letting my HTML and CSS skills get so rusty that I now need to dedicate a significant amount of time getting myself back up to date in order to be able to do a halfway decent job of coding my own prototypes.

I frequently see other UX practitioners being beaten up on mailing lists because they don’t have a traditional design background, or visual design talent, or know everything there is to know about accessibility.

Interestingly, I rarely see us beating each other up for having poor client communication skills or project management skills, or uncreative or inappropriate strategic direction (or no strategic direction at all), but perhaps that is because these things are more difficult to measure and judge.

Here’s the thing though – these are just a tiny few of the skills that are tremendously useful if you want to be a good UX practitioner. And there are many, many very important ones I haven’t mentioned at all. How on earth is anyone a good UXers when there is no way in hell we can all be good at all of these things?

Truth is, we can’t. The sooner we accept this the better, and the sooner we embrace our own and others ‘T-Shapes’ the happier we and our clients will be.

I learned about the concept of T-shaped Information Architects and then T-Shaped UXers from Peter Boersma. The general concept is that along the ‘short’ bar of the T you have all the skills/experience that a UX practitioner needs – everything I listed above and more… if I made a list I’m sure we’d just spend time adding more and more to it.

Then we each have a ‘long’ bar of our T – your long bar is made up of those aspects of UX that you particularly enjoy, have aptitude for, and enjoy doing. That might be coding prototypes, it might be typography, it might be visual design, it might be research, it might be managing teams. As far as I can see, as long as you have a certain amount of experience and knowledge in each of the ‘essential’ elements of the short T-bar, then you can choose any of these to make up your long T-bar.

None of us has any right to tell someone who has different elements in their long t-bar that they are any less of a UXer than we are. Any one who does is, I suspect, either insecure about all the elements they’re not so great at, or unnecessarily proud of the few things they do well. Or don’t realise how much there is to know about if you’re going to be any good at this at all.

And then here’s what we need to do:

  • Choose our own long t-bar.
  • Become really great at what we really enjoy.
  • Tell our clients where our strengths and weaknesses lie.
  • Choose projects and teams that work to our strengths and give us opportunities to work up more experience and knowledge in areas we’d like to move from our short bar to our long bar.
  • Network  with peers who have different things in their long T-Bars and work with them when we need to fill in gaps.
  • Embrace our differences, stop shouting criticism at each other, be encouraging.

Yes, I know I should have done a diagram to go with this post. I’ll do that later if I get some time (or you’re welcome to make one for me if cool diagrams are in your long T-Bar!)

The bright face of iPhone parenting

The other day my 2 year old son suffered a surprising recurrence of separation anxiety.

Usually he waves me off to work for the day with a kiss and a hug but this morning he really didn’t want me to go. 

Something was different this time. In the past, it was me he was going to miss. This time he didn’t want me to take my iPhone away for the day.

Shock, horror! Toddler addicted to iPhone! Parent supervises children between tweeting and emailing! Technology is so evil, right?

Well, you tell me. The reason he didn’t want me to go to work with my iPhone is because he had such a great time the previous evening learning about numbers and letters thanks to the great applications from Montessorium. (No, I’m not on commission – I just love, love, love their applications and the amazing learning experience they’ve provided for my son).

Old School, meet New School

My son has been using my iPhone since he was about 8 months old. Firstly to listen to nursery rhymes (he now knows and sings more songs that I ever knew, including the second verse of Twinkle Twinkle – who even knew it existed!), he has great fine motor skills honed by playing with Peekaboo Barn (his first iPhone application), later followed by a selection of the great apps by Duck Duck Moose (we started with Wheels on the Bus but our current favourite is Itsy Bitsy Spider). My son can find The Wiggles, Pingu and Peppa Pig episodes on YouTube on the iPhone unaided (although, I hasten to add, not unsupervised).

It’s been with these Montessorium applications that I’ve really been in awe of the power of technology, good design and passionate teachers as I’ve watched my son, already quite interested in numbers and letters, become almost obsessed with them.

Not only does he only ever want to play ‘the numbers game’ or ‘the letters game’ on my phone, the whole world has become his playground as he’s suddenly found himself surrounded by numbers and letters that mean and do different things and create all kinds of new meanings in his life.

Meet him this week and there’s every chance he’ll ask you ‘what’s your number?’ (code for: how old are you – we’re still working on manners!) or ‘what’s your letter?’ (which means, what letter does your name start with).

Better still, as the apps are aimed at children slightly older than him, he needs help with parts of them, creating a beautiful opportunity for social learning mediated by my iPhone.

Everyday he’s creating a more compelling use case for me to buy an iPad without waiting for the second generation to be released. And, as I have a second son rapidly approaching the 8 month mark, he’s also creating a compelling reason for my husband to ‘need’ an iPhone – have two boys, need two iPhones.

Sure, everyday I try to be disciplined about not constantly checking email and Twitter over the heads of my children but I’ve found that by relinquishing the device to the kids and letting them become addicted to learning, it seems to work out very well for all of us.

UX Intern Opportunity – exciting 1 week intensive project

In the week of 11 October, I’m going to be working on a really exciting project with the team from StartHere, Andrew Travers and Mark Boulton.

We’re going to be working on a highly collaborative, intensive project that will involve a stack of sketching, strategising, experimenting, designing, wireframing, prototyping, researching, iterating and testing.

We’d think this is a unique opportunity for someone new to User Experience to join us for a few days as an intern. You provide an extra set of UX hands and we’ll provide you with a more project experience in a week than you’d get in a weeks and weeks of a ‘normal’ project. (For the sake of absolute clarity: we won’t provide you with any payment for the week, but we will provide you with lunch/snacks/tea/coffee etc.)

Sound interesting?

If you’re available in that week, relatively new to UX and passionate about learning more and improving your craft please email [email protected] and convince us that this is a good idea!

Update: for anyone thinking – ‘that sounds good, I’ll send an email later’ – here’s a deadline to motivate you – we’ll need to decide that we’re definitely doing this and who we’re doing it with by 1 October so we’ll need your email by Weds 29 September.

Empathy – Essential Soft Skills for User Experience Practitioners

The other day I was reading Donna Spencer’s excellent book A Practical Guide to Information Architecture. Early on in the book she runs through a list of skills that she things help most with Information Architecture work, and I was struck by what she chose to write about first – empathy.

Donna says:

The person creating the IA must genuinely care about understanding the people who will use the site, and be willing to represent their needs (and go into bat for them when the pressure is on).

I think there is a very important nuance in what Donna has written here. Notice that she doesn’t just say ‘it’s important that you try to understand the people who will use the site’ but rather that you ‘genuinely care about understanding’ them.

Look for definitions of empathy and one word comes up repeatedly – feelings.

As UX practitioners, we seem to be on a constant drive to validate our work with number, processes, techniques, deliverables. This is all very important, and let’s continue to do that. But don’t let’s think that identifying pain points in a user journey through site usage analysis is the same as actually witnessing someone experiencing that pain.

Let’s not become caught up in simply designing to achieve numerical goals associated with user behaviour. Rather, let’s design to see the smile that spreads broadly over someone’s face when they’re able to achieve something they didn’t think possible, when they feel empowered, when the design surprises them in a good way, when it delights them.

If you don’t genuinely care about the people who are going to use whatever it is you are working for, then perhaps you need to ask whether you should be working on that project. Perhaps you need a holiday, perhaps you need a new job, perhaps you’re not actually cut out to be a UX person after all, perhaps you just need to do some more user research work.

Genuinely caring – having real empathy – is something that can’t be taught, but it is something that we can allow, encourage and validate for ourselves and our UX peers.

So, let’s do the work we need to do to gain the understanding we need, and then let’s be properly empathetic – let’s really care about those people we’re designing for. It will make you a better designer, and it will also makes the world a whole lot more interesting when you can see it, richly, from so many different perspectives.