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.

Adaptability – Essential Soft Skills for User Experience Practitioners

As User Experience practitioners, we spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the skills we don’t have or have enough of and trying to acquire them.

I don’t hear a lot about the soft skills that, in my opinion, are probably more important than all of the CSS, sketching & typography skills you seek so I thought I’d contribute a short series on some of my favourite soft skills, starting with this on on adaptability.

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.

- Charles Darwin

Best Practice is a concept that you hear of frequently but very rarely see because very few projects are actually appropriate for ‘best practice’. What most projects need is the best possible practice you can fit in to the constraints of the project you’re faced with. There are usually many constraints.

Typical constraints include a lack of time, budget, people, data, cooperation, interest, and understanding of UX.

You can spend your time battling to remove these constraints – sometimes this is appropriate but usually it is not only fruitless but also places you further behind than when you started. Usually, the best thing to do is to sit down and work out what is the best you can do within these constraints and get started.

Adaptability is about understanding and respecting that, for your client, UX is usually one of many priorities they need to balance. It’s about responding to the environment you find yourself in, building the best process, employing the best techniques you can in the best way you can within the constraints you’ve been given. It’s about doing your job entirely differently for almost every project.

Adaptability is about knowing that you’re not doing things the best possible way but, against the odds, you’re getting them done well enough. It’s about being creative. It’s about remaining aware of the corners you’re cutting and factoring them into the analysis.

Adaptability makes User Experience accessible to all projects.

How to be more adaptable:

  • DO be as familiar as you can with as many different UX techniques as possible – read, listen, talk to your peers, be active in the incredibly sharing global UX network
  • DON’T be precious, or a stickler for process. Don’t expect people to drop everything to do things your way (or the way it says in the book)
  • DO keep doing research
  • DON’T sacrifice time to do analysis and lots of design exploration (sketch!)
  • DO make sure you’re constantly focussed on the end goal – what are you trying to achieve? What is the goal of the redesign you’re doing to that page? What is the goal of that research activity? (Demonstrable victories often buy you more time/budget/participation for future projects)
  • DON’T do it alone – share your process with the team and skill them up to assist, look for ways to work together to save time
  • DO cut corners – interview less people, recruit less fussily, spend less time, prototype more roughly.
  • DON’T forget which corners you’ve cut and why – factor this into your analysis, educate your team on what would have been a more ideal approach
  • DO be creative – experiment, try different approaches and see what works, make up new ways to solve problems (and share them back with us!)

Please share your thoughts on how to be more adaptive as a UXer, and also the other soft skills you think a great UX practitioner needs.

Persona driven user stories for Agile UX

Given how long I’ve been thinking about Agile + User Experience, I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to start doing writing user stories that are centred on the personas we’ve created for the project. Nonetheless, it’s something I’ve started doing recently and I’ve found it to be really successful. I’m not the only one – Will Sansbury has written about it before and Joe Sokohl spoke about it recently at the Agile 2010 conference.

It’s as simple as it sounds – rather than writing user stories that nominate members of your project team, instead write them nominating the persona they are designed to most benefit.

For example, on the Project Verity backlog I’m working on with the team at Mark Boulton Design we have the occasional ‘as the developer, I want to…’ but the vast majority of our stories lead with ‘as Verity, I want to’, or occasionally ‘as Verity’s boss…’

This is, in theory, a teeny tiny change, but in practice I find it has two big effects.

Firstly, it keeps your personas alive and actively in use – this has always been a big challenge for UX people in agile and non-agile teams alike – here is one big opportunity where agile teams actually seem to have the edge.

Use your personas in your user stories and your personas can’t be left on a shelf to gather dust, instead they effectively become active members of your project team. If the stories don’t make sense with the personas, then either your story or the persona is at fault – the team needs to sort out which is at fault and make the appropriate adjustments. Which leads me to…

Secondly – it’s much harder to write a rubbish user story when it’s grounded in a persona. Let’s face it, there are plenty of user stories in most of our backlogs that are really management feature requests disguised as a user story. Transform your backlog so that the user stories that are supposedly there to help the users are given to a persona and suddenly it becomes much easier to interrogate feature requests against real users.

I can’t tell you how many user stories I’ve ended up throwing out because when I try to write the ‘so that I can…’ part of the user story it becomes impossible to make a compelling case because I have to make it gel with the agreed persona attributes.

I keep thinking – because I haven’t heard of people using this approach very much – that there must be some fatal flaw I’ve not thought of or come across yet… if so, perhaps you know what it is?

Making Agile & UX work together can certainly be tough, but this strikes me as one of those opportunities that Agile offers UXers to actually practice our craft all the more rigorously and visibly in our teams. I think I’ll be doing a lot more of it in the future.

how to take your baby to a design conference

I had the privilege of attending the UX London conference earlier in the month. I was accompanied by my then 5 week old baby. I’ve not taken a baby so young to a conference before, and you don’t tend to see many of them at conferences.  I thought you might be interested in what the experience was like in case you’re considering it for yourself.

When contemplating the event there were a few things I was concerned about:

  1. equipment – what gear to bring and what to leave behind
  2. noise and disruption – how bad would it be, how can I minimise it
  3. effort v return – would the hassle and hard work of taking a baby to a conference allow participation make it worthwhile
  4. is it appropriate to bring your baby to a professional conference?

With the benefit of hindsight, here are my thoughts.

Travel light but invest in the right gear

Having as little gear as possible but the right gear is, I think, key to giving you as much flexibility as you can possibly have with a babe in arms. Personally, I find a buggy to be high risk for hassle – it makes it difficult to do public transport in peak hour (which you’ll no doubt have to do) and it makes getting from place to place, often up and down stairs, more difficult. I used a Moby Wrap sling most of the time I was at UX London and found it fantastic for moving around, for hands-free holding while attending talks (allowing me to tweet through the sessions when my baby slept or was sufficiently settled), and for relatively discreet feeding.

The other essential piece of kit was the Samsonite Pop-Up Travel Bassinette which gave me somewhere to lay him down when he was settled in for a good sleep (and when I wanted to participate in the workshop activities). The bassinette fits in my small backpack and weighs less than a kilo (more than can be said for my MacBook which I had to swap for my husband’s tiny netbook on this occasion!). It was quick and easy to put up and take down and gave us both a bit of a break from each other!

Don’t forget to bring your own decent changing mat – the chances of finding a changing table in the bathrooms at a conference centre are pretty remote so you’ll probably find yourself doing rapid changes in the field (often at the back of conference rooms in my experience!). You can get those great clutch style mats that are sufficiently robust but small –  Isoki is my clutch changing mat of choice.

Minimising noise & disruption

The younger your baby, the more likely they are to sleep all day and make hardly a peep, thus nearly-newborns make ideal conference companions. I tried to sit close to an exit point so I could get out the door really quickly if we were going to be making a disruptive amount of noise, but found that the close cuddly sling meant that he did sleep quite a lot and when he woke, giving him a quick feed (yes, in my seat at the conference, apologies to the squeamish) worked most of the time. We did miss bits and pieces of a few talks throughout the days, but saw the majority of proceedings.

The biggest tip I have is to get to the conference room early to stake out and secure the ideal seat in the house for you (usually closest to the door!) You *really* want to get this seat and, although it’s far from the best vantage point in the house, you’ll be surprised how quickly it seems to get snapped up.

Effort vs Return: was it worth it?

It was really very hard work taking a 5wk old baby to a 3 day conference and, I confess, we did sneak away early on the afternoon of the second day for an afternoon nap. (Having said that, we were at the conference from 9am until 9pm the previous day attending the UX Bookclub in the evening).

Personally, I found that I was able to attend many of the sessions and actually pay attention to most of them, I was able to meet with lots of people who I haven’t seen for a while and to meet some new people as well, and – most importantly – I was able to escape from the relative isolation of maternity leave, to keep in touch, to feel active and engaged in my community and profession, all of which are very rewarding. So, on balance, I did find that it was worth the effort and, if needs be, I’d do it again and encourage others to do likewise.

It’s certainly very different from doing your conference solo, and you’re not allowed in the bar for drinks because you’ve got an underage drinker with you (yes, even at 5wks they’re still apparently worried they might accidently be served alcohol). I think it’s important to keep your expectations pretty low – I was prepared to turn around and head home without seeing a thing if it came to it – then hopefully you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Is it appropriate to bring your baby to a professional conference?

I have to say, this is actually the issue that plagued me most of all. I don’t bring my baby to my meetings, but I do take on work while I’m still at home with him and often do phone conferences with him on my shoulder and many of my clients are aware that my working schedule is sometimes impacted by his sleeping (or not) schedule.

I didn’t experience any negative feedback whilst at the conference or since then, and I had several people approach me to tell me they thought it was great to see a baby at the conference and that they’ll do it themselves or tell someone they know etc. I’m very aware that I’m probably the last person to hear any negative feedback though… so I’m not assuming it didn’t exist.

Ultimately – tiny babies are very portable and very sleepy and much less noisy (mostly) than you’d imagine. They’re also far to young to be separated from their mothers. If said mother particularly wants to attend a conference and has a very small baby, I think there’s no reason why she should feel that it was inappropriate for her to attend. So, it is appropriate and perhaps even necessary. I look forward to helping other mum’s at conferences in the same way that others were able to help me at UX London.

Meanwhile, interested in your thoughts, experiences & tips…