What software do you need to know to get started in UX?

I’ve been asked a few times recently about my opinion on what software people should know if they want to do UX so I thought I’d share my thoughts here. Of course, the first answer is – it depends.

It depends on what *kind* of a UXer you want to be (there are many types – some are more design-y or research-ish, some some are closer to the business or the interface) and what kind of place you want to work for (there are many options there too).

The tools you use affect the work that you output, so I think you should be thoughtful about the toolkit you decide to use.

To begin with, I would say that no software will ever replace the advantages provided by a willingness and ability to sketch.

If you are not confident with sketching you will start designing into software and this is not something you want to do.

The minute you start designing into software you limit the number of options you explore, you move more quickly to high fidelity and are more likely to become attached to your own design. You sit by yourself at a desk instead of collaborating with your team.

Before you learn any software, get comfortable sketching in company.

Another important thing to understand is that most of the time, the tools we use are substitutes and shortcuts for the actual raw material for which we design.

Don’t think that because you have ninja skills in Axure, you don’t need to understand how HTML, CSS and JavaScript work or how a database is designed or how some importnt content management systems work. You don’t need to have advanced development skills but it is more important to me that you understand and have some hands on experience of the how the technology behind faceted navigation works, and what the challenges and restrictions and opportunities are, than being able to fake it in Axure. (I’m picking on Axure, I know.)

The last thing I would say before I give you the list you’re really here for,  is that it is less important which software you learn now, and more important that it doesn’t become your hammer.

(You know the saying – when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail). Every day a new piece of software comes out that might be a great tool for you on the particular project that you’re working on. Get comfortable always exploring, evaluating and learning new tools. In fact, I’d go so far as saying, don’t even bother trying to be a master of one, be a jack of all software! And be prepared to change your mind.

But, tools you must have. Here’s my thoughts what you might find useful.

UX Design

  1. A  ‘diagramming’ tool for basic wire framing, sitemapping, content/data modelling and flow charting. Common choices are Omnigraffle (for Mac) or Visio (for PC). There are also a swathe of online (SAAS) alternatives including Balsamiq, Mockflow, Mockingbird, Hotgloo, Pencil, Pidoco and the list goes on (there’s a nice list with summaries here)
  2. A tool for making higher fidelity (prettier) wireframes/prototypes. Common choices include Fireworks, InDesign, Photoshop. Keynote (Mac) or Powerpoint (PC) are also increasingly popular with good reason I think – they’re easy to use, flexible and increasingly powerful little apps.
  3. A tool for making interactive prototypes. This used to be optional, it’s not anymore. Common choices are: Fireworks, Axure, Keynote, Powerpoint, also HTML/CSS/JavaScript incl. JQuery etc using Text Editing software (eg. Coda, Expresso etc.)
  4. A tool for image processing – a lot of people use Photoshop but most UXers could get away with Fireworks or even Preview (comes with Mac) for their requirements

Personally, I’ve moved away from Omnigraffle and towards Fireworks in the past 12 months or so for various reasons, but there are no perfect UX tools. I’ve seen people make a compelling case for moving back to Omnigraffle. Personally, I think Axure is more trouble than it’s worth, unless you are having to do all your detailed interaction design work in the absence of developers. (Which, if you know me, you’ll know I try very hard to avoid).

Some companies will only hire people who have skills in specific software, eg. Axure. This is idiotic as software is easy to learn, being a good UX designer is the hard part.

UX Research:

Good UX Designers will also read this section – there’s not a clear break and more and more designers should be integrating these tools into their daily practice.

If you’re doing UX Research then having some good Excel skills will come in handy for analysis. You might alway want to get handy with SPSS (although, again, this will be overkill for some). I’ve found having some good mind mapping software to be handing for research analysis as well.

Important note:  the best analysis, in my opinion, happens doing affinity sorting using post it notes on a wall – this is research’s equivalent to sketching.

You’ll also need some software to record the user research you do in person. The obvious contenders are Morae (if you’re working for a company with a decent budget) and Silverback which you can run on your Mac.

The tools I find most interesting for UX research tend to be newer web services such as:

This is by no means a definitive list – there are lots more great tools out there that I’ve no doubt neglected to mention. Feel free to add your favourites in the comments below.

Just remember – it’s not the tool you use (although they will no doubt leave their imprint), it’s the way that you use it that really matters.

Personas are for hippies… and transformation and focus

Thanks to London IA, I had the opportunity to share some thoughts on Strategic UX that have been starting to take shape into a book recently.

I happened across this twitter exchange this morning. This is a not surprising response to personas, I’ve shared this response at times and have empathy for both points of view.

Twitter conversation between Tom Coates and Martin Bellam

Here’s the thing… You don’t really want to use personas, do you? They are really a pretty cumbersome way of maintaining your customer’s active presence in the design & product management process.

What you really want is a small, tight team who get who your users are, what they value about your product/service and what is behaviourally significant about them. And you want regular access to them (if you or your boss are representative of your target audience this helps enormously).

Enter reality – the majority of us are not working in this kind of environment. We are working for large organisations who are focussing more on themselves than their users, with people who may not have seen or heard from a customer for years (if ever), whose attention is constantly being focussed on internal KPIs focussed on quantity not quality. Who resist making and decisions in preference to making a sub- optimal decision that can be traced back to them.

Sure, the likelihood of incredible design flourishing in this environment is significantly reduced, but what do we do? Give up?

We can’t all do that, can we? And neither we should.

Many of us have experienced that moment when a team transforms – when they realise what it is like to be their customer and how easy it would be to make that experience better. This most often happens during usability testing. (around the 3rd or 4th participant when the team acknowledges that perhaps we haven’t recruited a bunch of stupid users and maybe we do need to change the design a little).

Well made and well used personas are less able to create this transformation (watching real users will always trump personas) but they can help maintain that transformation and act as a tool to evangelise a customer focus through out the organisation and to create a common language around our users and – possibly my favourite thing – to allow us to reduce usage of the term ‘user’ (so abstract, inhuman and elastic) and replace it with our personas names.

Yes, this does make you feel like a bit of a hippy. I agree. But it helps, a lot, to transform focus from internal processes and priorities to what people actually do, need, want.

You don’t *have* to use personas to do good design. If you make bad personas (made up not researched, focused on demographics not relevant behaviours and attitudes), and if you use then poorly (make them and forget about them, or keep them hidden within the UX team) then you might as well not use them.

But well made personas in day to day use through out the organisation are incredibly useful when you need to gain and maintain focus on the (potential) customer.

Here’s the test:

  • do you have personas for your project/product?
  • are they made of data from real (potential) customers?
  • do they have real names not segment names?
  • do you have fewer than five personas?
  • can you remember all the names of your personas and describe them?
  • do you use them to guide, evaluate and/or explain design decisions?
  • can your boss name your personas?
  • can the developers on your team name your personas?

If you’re not answering yes to the majority of these, there are probably good reasons why personas aren’t really working out for you.

Don’t fret if you didn’t do so well here – most people don’t (out of a room of dozens of UXers last night only one lonely hand remained in the air at the end of this line of questioning last night).

I reckon personas are the best known but most misunderstood and misused tool in the UX toolkit. Don’t throw your personas out necessarily but see how you can incrementally improve how they’re made and communicated.

And if your fortunate enough to work in a project team who doesn’t need personas, well, lucky you – just don’t be too successful or you may find yourself large enough that you’ll windup needing personas after all! ;)

(For help on making good personas, two excellent resources are Designing for the Digital Age or About Face 3)

Drupal.org – Help Overhaul the Information Architecture – participate in our online card sort!

Continuing in the community led approach to the experience design, let’s get started taking a look at the information architecture.

A really useful exercise to help understand how people organise, understand and label/name information is to do a card sort. (Ref: A definitive guide to card sorting)

As we’re scattered all over the globe, we’ll have to settle for an online version. I’ve actually set up two versions of the card sort because I particularly want to understand differences between the way that ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ deal with drupal.org information.

If you identify as an ‘insider‘ (which might reflect either your expertise and/or closeness to the drupal community) and you want to participate, please go to this link and participate in the cardsorting exercise.

If you identify as an ‘outsider’ (particularly if you’re new to Drupal, but also if you don’t feel close to the community) and you’d like to paticipate, then your cardsorting exercise can be found here.

It should take you about 15-20 minutes to complete the exercise, so be sure to get yourself a nice cup of tea before you get started!

This is just an information gathering exercise – it’s not going to define the Information Architecture, just help give us the understanding we need to help shape it correctly. Don’t worry too much if there is information missing (we’re just using a sample of the entire site(s)) and don’t worry if you don’t understand what a card means, and feel free to leave copious comments as you go through the exercise – there is a space for you to do so.

As ever, I’ll let you know what interesting things we learn as they come to hand.

(Remember, you can also participate by submitting some wireframes!)

Try Google Docs for survey or recruitment forms

Just a quick note to recommended using Google Docs ‘forms’ as a free tool to manage surveys and recruitment. (Choose New, then Form).

We recently wanted to invite people to participate in user research for the drupal.org redesign project – as a part of this we had a short screener we wanted to run people through so that we can target research appropriately in the coming months (and also get some interesting stats – more on that soon!).

Initially I was planning to use Ethnio, as it is purpose built for this, looks pretty and has a kind of nice DHTML ‘not-popup’. I couldn’t get it working though, so then turned to the ever trusty Survey Monkey, but… eh, so ugly! At the last minute I thought of Google Docs and that’s where we stayed.

Super easy to set up, and a nice clean looking interface out of the box, plus no worries being charged for having too many responses. Easy peasy.

We have since almost 900 responses in a just few days and it seems to have held up nicely.

So, if you are looking for a nice tool to use as a screener or a questionnaire and you’re not too fussed about customising the look and feel, I’d heartily recommend Google Docs.

Disclaimer, disclaimer etc. I’m sure Ethnio works beautifully for lots of people. I tried to get it working for several days without luck and by the time support got back to me, we had hundreds of survey responses to the Google version. I’m also sure you can make Survey Monkey look grand, but I don’t know how and didn’t want to spend the time finding out.