Five community challenges for design in Drupal 7 & beyond.

This week sees the release of Drupal 7 – a big event for the Drupal community and also individually for myself and the team at Mark Boulton Design as we worked together with the community on the D7UX project which aimed to significantly evolve and improve the user experience and usability of Drupal.

I’d like to start by congratulating the community on coming together to once again significantly improve Drupal and give it all away for free. Let us never forget what an amazing thing open source software development is.

The last couple of years have been interesting both as a participant and as spectator (because I do feel as though I occupy both of these roles, as incompatible as they may seem… many others who have attempted to participate as a designer in an open source community can probably empathise). It has been exciting to see Drupal embrace the idea of design and user experience as vocally and visibly as it has. I think this visible and actual (financial) commitment has really paid dividends although – as ever, the numbers will ultimately tell that story.

There have also been some fairly significant frustrations. I hope that as we raise a glass to celebrate the release of Drupal 7, we also take some time to resolve to think about how we can make design work even better in this community (and all open source software communities).

To that end, here are some challenges I’d love us to attack:

1. Designing participation for designers

Issues queues and IRC are the traditional communication environment for open source development. If you want to be involved in design for an open source community that’s where you need to be.

During D7UX I was there all the time. Since then – not so much.

I have no idea how people keep track of what’s going on in the issue queue – on it’s own, it doesn’t work (unless I’m doing it all wrong?). You need people to ping issues at you in IRC (or elsewhere) to make sure you know what’s going on.

Being on IRC 24/7 is just not an option for me – much of my work is done away from my computer (sketching, running workshops, doing research) and when I’m at my computer I need to be focussed – IRC is not good for focus.A culture of participation that is designed around IRC and the issue queue is not compatible with getting designers to participate in design problems at the right time (that is, toward the beginning, not at the very last moment).

We need to come up with a way that is more proactive – that goes out an pings designers who might be interested in participating, rather than relying on them coming across something in a timely manner.

Yes, this means changing the way the system works because designers have special needs. Do you want good designers to participate in a meaningful way?
Deal with it. (And yes, we’ll help you design this change. Happily.)

2. Recognising participation for non-developers

At this point I’d like to give the accessibility team, the security team, the documentation team a shout out and congratulate them for their brilliant work on Drupal 7.

I regret that there are probably more people whose lack or recognition I am currently perpetuating, because in Drupal, if you’re not listed in the commit message, your contribution, literally, doesn’t count.The Drupal community subscribes to the saying ‘talk is silver, code is gold’ and there’s been no better demonstration of this then the various thank you pages that have been posted recently using the list of commits to Drupal 7 as an indication of the amount you have contributed to the project.

This means that someone who, in a few hours here and there, submits a handful of minor patches is more recognised than someone who spends hours every week taking all kinds of flak from the community trying to educate them on the importance of accessibility, or explaining a design pattern, or reviewing Drupal.org  and organising the design and content work required in preparation for the product launch. For many of us (and in fact, probably for developers as well) there is a whole lot of thinking and talking and sketching and research that happens before any code is written – actually writing the code is (sometimes) the easy part.

We need to change this culture. We need to make non-code contributions much more visible and recognised. (And this can’t be achieved by simply sitting in IRC 24/7 having a presence and ‘gaining respect’).

Yes, again – people who don’t write code have special needs.
If we want more of these people we need to  change the environment because these needs will not change.

3. Maintaining coherence without ‘owning’ design

Design ideas in the Drupal community need a maintainer, just like core or a module or any important piece of code.

How is it that the Drupal.org homepage can be radically changed within the space of a few hours without any consultation at all with the people who did the research and design work behind it? Or even any adherance to the style guide that accompanies it. (Not to suggest that a style guide is capable of providing specific guidance for every possible outcome).

Of course design needs to evolve as the community and product needs evolve. Of course designers need to respond to the competing requirements of end users, developers, and everything else. This is not about design being precious and permanent.

Just because you *can* change the design, doesn’t mean you should be allowed to – not without a ‘maintainer’ of the design giving approval or at least feedback that you can then act on or against. There is no point investing in good, thoughtful design and then not making any effort to preserve it. Especially when the designers who have done the work are around and more than happy to contribute.

This is not about ‘special needs’ – this is about crediting designers with some ownership over their own work. Not wholesale ownership, just a little. Enough to warrant the opportunity to participate and be consulted.

4. Design leadership in open source communities

Reliance on the current model of participation (issue queues and IRC) means that leaders in the design/ux community currently emerge by virtue of presence – being available on IRC and active in the issue queues. You can’t ‘commit’ design in the same way that you commit code, so you can’t build your reputation in many other ways than being there and participating. (The relatively recent movement toward designed distributions is possibly starting to shift this a little, although still relies on code).

This is good because it means that these people are passionate about design and UX in Drupal and show commitment to the project. It is bad because it naturally privileges people who have more available time and who tend to be less experienced. Designing for Drupal and in the Drupal community is a challenging prospect. UX and product design considerations impact an ever increasing audience who rely on Drupal for ever more critical capabilities.

We need to find a way to allow experienced designers (and in this I include UX/Usability people) to play a proactive, leading role in shaping design in the Drupal community at a strategic, not just tactical level, without requiring them to be on IRC every hour of the day and night and having to respond within minutes.

It is not an acceptable response to say (or think) that there are no designers or usability people out there who are interested in participating or that they just don’t have what it takes to stick it out. There’s no shortage of people who would willingly contribute time and expertise and many who, over the years, have attempted to contribute much more.

I’ve been reading a lot about change management lately and one of the keys to successfully making change is making the environment conducive to the behaviour you want to achieve. That’s our challenge moving forward.

I think this is possibly the most important consideration in my list.

5. Defining our value proposition

I’ve said it before and I’ll no doubt say it again – you can’t meet the needs of the wide range of activities of the incredibly broad Drupal audience in the one interface. Not well. Drupal 7 via D7UX is – hopefully- a better experience for both newcomers, content creators and, in some ways, developers. It is nowhere near an optimal experience for any one of these groups, because they have conflicting needs, behaviours, and characteristics.

Drupal is just like most of the clients I’ve ever worked with who are seeking growth – struggling with their value proposition. I’m not saying we need to abandon any one of our audiences, but we need to address them in different ways, not through one incredible interface. Thankfully I’m now able to stop just talking about this and actually do something through the Project Verity theme work Mark Boulton & I are doing together. (It’s really starting to come together now – stay tuned!) We need to define a UX strategy for our key audiences and then optimise the environment for people to design most effectively for them. We need to do that before we start designing Drupal 8.

It has been a great honour to have worked on the D7UX project and the Drupal.org redesign and, through that, to have had the opportunity to work with some of the passionate and talented people who contribute – in many ways – to Drupal, it’s current and future success.

I look forward to having some kind of continued involvement in the community – exactly what that is will depend on how seriously the community takes some of the issues I’ve outlined above. Regardless of that, I’m here – you want some help, you know how to find me.

Cheers Drupal – Congratulations!
Here’s to the success of Drupal 7 and beyond.

I’m thrilled to be attending Drupalcon Chicago in March – I’m even doing a pre-conference training session called What Users Want that I think will be really fun and which is focussed on teaching people to do what I do (UX research and design), especially those who have never done it before (managers, developers, marketers, I’m looking at you!).

Want to talk about this stuff in person? I’d love to see you at Drupalcon. It’s a great conference and, with Jared Spool, Clay Shirky, Mark Boulton, Jeremy Keith, Russ Unger, Karen McGrane and more coming to share their experience, it’s almost a design conference with added Drupal – hooray!

UK UX Freelancers Rate Review 2010 – The Inaugural Report

Recently I conducted a survey of the UX Freelancers in the UK. Usually I would leave this kind of thing to our professional bodies, however given that a recent ‘official’ industry survey managed to achieve only 44 responses from UX Freelancers in the UK, I thought it was important that we get a more substantial sample size and verify the findings (and perhaps learn some more about ourselves).

This survey is not intended to be an authoritative source on ‘what to pay a UX Freelancer’ but rather a data point that can be used by freelancers, their clients and relevant recruiters when trying to make an informed decision about a reasonable rate to charge or pay.

One of the key findings has to be that the anecdotal feedback – that UX Freelancers’ day rates are all over the place – is true. This is particularly the case among our less experienced colleagues.

There are certainly some people with very little experience being paid some fairly hefty day rates. At the same time, there are some very experienced people charging extremely reasonable rates. There is no discernible evidence for why some people charge more than others except for a self-perception of expertise and value.

It is my hope that sharing this information will enable us to better self-regulate and make sense of our own relative value in the current market.

The survey opened on November 29 and closed on December 13 2010.

In that time 168 people completed the survey. Many thanks to everyone who who tweeted, emailed freelancers they know and tapped people on shoulders. As far as I know, this is the most extensive survey of UX Freelancers ever done in the UK (probably in the universe).

I’ve taken a comb to the data and I’ve compiled some findings below.

Do feel free to take a look at the data yourself and see what other conclusions you can draw – there are many different ways to sift through the data, it was very hard to choose which way to slice it up.

Firstly – the bit I know you’re all really interested in. What are we charging?

A Summary of UX Freelancer Day Rates 2010
[table id=1 /]

For me, the most interesting thing about the data behind this table is the diversity of rates charged within each ‘category’. There was considerably less geographical impact on rates than I might have expected. There wasn’t much difference between the rates charged by sector. There was only a slight difference in the median rates charged by men and women.

Gender Comparison of Median Day Rate by Experience
[table id=3 /]

I couldn’t find anything logical to explain the diversity, however I do wonder whether how you get your work makes a difference to your day rate (whether you contract direct or go via a recruitment agency for example) – a question for next years survey perhaps.

I’d be interested in any other hypotheses you have that we might be able to test.

A note on the data: as this was the inaugural survey I wanted to not make any assumptions about how we’re charging ourselves out at the moment so I left the ‘rate’ field as a text field – this made analysis quite a pain but it did avoid me making assumptions that could have completely ruined this endeavour. If you want to play with the data you will similarly have to go through this pain to get to the day rate data… sorry!

Out of UK: This refers to UK based UX freelancers who do work on projects that are predominantly based outside of the UK.

So, in the course of exploring the reasons for the diversity in our rates, I was also able to explore another subject I find quite interesting – the intersection of ‘experience’ (years we’ve worked) and ‘seniority’ (our own perception of how expert we are relative to our peers).

Seniority / Experience / Day Rate
[table id=2 /]

(Note that some segments in this table have very small samples so shouldn’t be taken too seriously in isolation)

For me, this table calls out (at least) three interesting things.

Firstly – as a profession, it would suggest that the tipping point at which we consider ourselves ‘expert’ is before the 5yr mark. The progression from ‘entry level’ through ‘mid level’ and onto ‘senior’ seems rather swift to my thinking. This may be an artifact of freelancers particularly, but I suspect this is something we should be cautious of.

Secondly – women don’t start freelancing until they have about 5yrs experience under their belts. Of the 45 female respondents, a mere 13% were freelancing before this 5yr point as compared with almost 40% of the male respondents who were freelancing from the very earliest stages of their career.

Thirdly – as mentioned earlier, your personal perception of your skills and abilities relative to those of your peers (whether you rank yourself as a ‘mid level’ or ‘senior’ practitioner is of vastly more importance than the number of years experience you have behind you. In some ways this makes perfect sense, but it also makes life difficult for potential clients.

Some other nuggets from the survey data:

In the next calendar year do you expect to increase, decrease or not change your day rate?
Q2 Graph

We’re feeling optimistic.
98% of participants intend to maintain or increase their day rate.
50% intend to increase their day rate.

What industry sectors have you primarily worked in this calendar year?
Q4 graph

I thought the representation from Start Ups and Charity was surprisingly strong here.
Other answers included: energy/utilities (3), retail/e-commerce (4), sports (3), travel(2), ad agency, arts, engineering, gaming, multinational corps, music/entertainment, online web giants, restaurant/food, software industry, technology, tourism

Which of these do you regularly contribute to your projects
Q5 Graph

Other answers included: conversion rate enhancement/optimisation (2), social media, experience / service design, training, accessibility, sales, evaluation, search engine optimisation (SEO).

Conversion Rate Enhancement or Optimisation is a new one on me (as a specific job role, that is) but I have to say, I quite like it.

Seniority: Do you consider yourself to be:
Q6 Graph

Predictably, most freelancers consider themselves to be relatively senior.
Other answers included: 
not sure, senior to mid, executive/director level(2), guru (!)

How many years of UX experience do you have?
Q7 Graph

Industry affiliations
Q8 Graph

Considering the importance of networking for freelancers, the proportion respondents who identified as active members of some key industry groups is quite low.

Geography – where do you do most of your work?
Q9 Graph

Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the respondents report doing most of their work in London.

Gender
Q10 Graph

Male UX Freelancers significantly outnumber female significantly. The UPA Salary Survey doesn’t report salary by gender so it is not easy to say if this is representative of the general proportionality within our industry or specific to freelancing – would be interesting to know.

Other answers included: Jedi (note: this respondent also answered ‘Guru’ in response to seniority. Apparently we have The Force among us)

Age
Q11 Graph

Unsurprisingly, the bulk of UX Freelancers are aged between 30-40yrs.

A selection of additional comments from respondents

Freelance rates are highly variable, especially when working through a recruitment agency. I often find advertised rates are below what I earn, but then find that after speaking to a potential client they’re willing to pay my expected rate or similar. It seems that advertised rates (by recruiters) are perhaps used to lower expectations of contractors in advance.

There still seems to be a lack of respect for/understanding of experience…my day rate has not increased in 3 years even though experience has…(and it was at the same level from 2000 – 2007)… recruiters won’t touch me once they find out my rate …say I am too expensive…say people can be had for £350 (or less)…(fortunately, at my level i don’t need them much even though they call me)

It would be nice if people went back to talking to references…there are still quite a few amateurs out there on £350/day which makes it bad for the good ones, weakens the whole respect for contribution if UX…

Also seems to be a bit of a fuss about promotion/rock stardom…so the silent craftsperson who mentors on the job across silos and fiefdoms is not even that valued by his community unless he speaks in public or blogs or tweets or in some says “look at me”…kind of what academics have to do which distracts from their alleged purpose – education and mentoring…

It might be useful in future to provide for variable rates, e.g. I charge more for short jobs than long. Here I quoted for long duration jobs. Also education might be interesting. (This comment was made by several participants, something to consider if we do this again next year)

There is sooooo much work about – 2 or 3 recruiter phone calls a day. I have no idea where they get my number from…

There seems to be a lot of people trying to side step into this industry from roles such as project management which seems to be devaluing what we do. These people are expecting the same rates as solid UX’er with years of experience. I think these people are ultimately going to drive the day rate down and I find it quite frustrating.

Senior people are highly in demand in the UK particularly if you have strong sector experience.

Its very difficult getting work in the Midlands as a freelancer… we constantly have to turn to London for work!

As a profession UX suffers from such variable approaches and outputs it’s very hard to get an idea of how to place yourself.

Although a great salary is a good part of being a freelancer, for me it’s more about having flexibility in terms of my time and the type of projects I choose to work on. This is facilitated by good pay, but we should focus on quality of life and work above mere cashflow.

I look forward to more North West based clients embracing usability and conversion optimisation, as well as more UX professionals working in Manchester and the NW to bang the usability and UX drum like it is in London!

In terms of how I operate, I never give ideas away for free – no spec work, free pitching, etc. This has been the single most important aspect to my success in the field – conversations are the most important. Also, I never do work for people I don’t actually like as people. Sounds a bit silly, but as a self-employed person, you can only blame yourself if you’re working for people you don’t like :)

Knowledge is power. Use it wisely. A small rant.
So, there you go. You know what the rest of the UX Freelancers are doing. Go, adjust your rates accordingly (judging by what I’ve seen in the data, there’s a bunch of us who could do a little tweaking as part of our freshen up for the new year!)

This works both ways – there are plenty of people out there who – if they have the experience and skills they claim to – are really undervaluing themselves at the moment.

On the other hand, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence (and some support from this survey) to suggest that there are some of us who are more confident to claim seniority and charge higher rates with less experience.

Now, experience isn’t everything – if you are doing an amazing job and really delivering results for your client then, well done you. If you can’t really see how your client is making back your cost and then a whole lot more, then think carefully about the rates your charging.

Let’s make sure we’re doing what we can to continue to built up the respect that our clients and peers have for us by making sure that we do represent good value to our clients.

And, on that note, I wish you all a productive, creative, inspiring and rewarding 2011.
I welcome your comments, questions etc. below.

Strategic UX – Seeking examples of the good and not so good.

I’m busy writing about Strategic User Experience and I could really use your help.

Right now I’m looking for two things in particular:

  • the dark side: examples of things that are commonly called ‘our strategy’ but are not really strategy at all.

    I think there are plenty of these out there. Some examples:

    1. I’m often shown things that are called ‘our strategy’ but are usually a list of tasks in groups, like, say  ‘Our Social Media Strategy’ with a list of things we’re going to do (make a facebook app, make a twitter widget, etc.)

    2. Another one I often see is an incredibly vague product description something like, ‘we’re doing social mapping’ – again this is not a strategy.Do you have some other examples of things that are currently misconstrued as strategy?

  • the bright side: good ways to keep strategy alive (known, understood, attended to) in an organisation – communicating strategy

    These examples, I fear, may be a little more scarce, but I’d love your help to try to uncover as many good examples as possible. What have you seen/made/used to help an organisation maintain it’s focus on it’s purpose/strategy/mission? (where that purpose/strategy/mission is a real one and not just a marketing soundbite).

    This could be some kind of physical thing, an activity, a tattoo (just kidding… I think) – whatever works to help make sure that people in the organisation know what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, who they’re doing it for.

I’d really appreciate your help compiling two sets of examples and, of course I’ll happily share them back with you here (wherever/however possible, taking commercial sensitivity into account of course).

Add yours to the comments below or email me.

UK UX Freelancer Survey – Initial Data

Thanks to everyone who participated in the UK UX Freelancer survey I’ve been running over the past fortnight. I’m really pleased that we managed to beat the target of 150 participants and have a total of 168 people participating in this survey.

Mostly because the tool allows me, I’d like to share with you the raw data that we’ve collected. It’s kind of interesting, but I would hasten to add that there are some really important filters that we need to add in before we can make any real findings about things like day rate – geography and seniority being, probably, the most important.

I’m going to do some work cleaning up the data and applying some of these filters in the next week or so and then I’ll publish some more useful findings.

Because this is the first time I’ve done this survey, I’ve collected the day rate as a text field – I really wanted to get a sense of what we’re actually charging and this seemed like the best way to do it. Next year, I’ll do it the more sensible way, and we’ll be able to more easily get a pretty graph.

So, have a poke around, don’t get too excited about findings yet, and stay tuned for more interesting thoughts coming soon! Meanwhile, let me know if you’ve got any questions or if there’s anything particular you want me to try to find out for you!