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.

Strategic UX – some recommended reading

I had the honour of doing a short talk about my thoughts on Strategic User Experience at the Content Strategy Meet Up last night and in my presentation I included a list of reading that I’ve found particularly useful in helping to understand how UX can work more strategically within organisations.

This is far from a comprehensive list, but is a good place to get started.

It’s also worth keeping an eye on the Harvard Business Review and Forrestor’s CX Blog.

If you’ve got any other recommendations you think people should know about, feel free to share below.

Happy reading.

Improving UX and CX through Customer Journey Mapping

Lately I’ve been asking the same set of questions to UX people.

How many weeks in the past year did you feel as though you were doing the right kind of work, on the right kind of project. How often do you feel as though you’re really being properly utilised, that you’re using your skills and experience in a way that is really helping companies make a difference?

Based on my own experience, my hypothesis was that the answer would be pretty depressing. And, with a few exceptions, it has been.

At a time where companies are crying out for User Experience people to come help them solve problems – and there are so many problems to solve – the people who are at the coal face generally feel as though they’re either not able to work effectively, or they are doing great work but tackling the wrong problems.

What a tragic waste of talent, of time, of money, of life.

The last few months I’ve seen a lot of movement in the UX field – people moving in house out of agencies, starting their own companies, leaving freelancing – it feels like we’re generally a little restless at the moment, and it’s a feeling I’m familiar with. I need to stop taking briefs and trying to reshape them, and instead to work with companies to give them the tools to make better decisions, to give better briefs, to allow teams to work together more productively. We need to get out of the design or UX department to solve these problems.

So I’m shifting my focus to Customer Journey Mapping.

In workshops and conference talks I’ve done recently I’ve waxed lyrical about the Customer Journey Map and how it has, without doubt, been the thing that has most transformed my practice as a User Experience practitioner over the past few years. In particular it does three things that immediately accelerate an organisation’s customer focus:

  1. Makes the customer experience understandable and addressable – even for quite small companies, understanding what it is like to be your customer at all points of the customer lifecycle and across all channels can be difficult. Creating a customer journey map helps make the big picture of customer experience understandable so that even as we deep dive on specific projects, we’re maintaining a consistent and coherent experience at all times. By picking out the critical moments of truth and focusing on those touchpoints, we make significant improvements much more achievable and measurable.
  2. Unites the silos, ignites customer focus – often organisations are filled with people who are passionate about customer experience but who are functionally separated from each other and have difficulty communicating effectively and aligning their efforts across the organisational silos. A customer journey map gives them a focal point and a shared language and way of communicating the insight they have and activity within their functional group, improving the organisation’s ability to maximise the efforts and expertise of its customer champions.
  3. Visibly connects business value and customer value – Peter Drucker tells us that the purpose of the business is to create value for our customers and that profit is the feedback we get from doing it well, but the connection between customer and business value is often difficult to see in today’s organisations. A customer journey map provides a way to show how the critical moments of truth for customers – the touchpoints that should be most thoughtfully designed – almost always maps to places where money flows in or out of an organisation. Customer journey maps provide a way to measure CX metrics that directly impact the organisations bottom line.

I’m not giving up the usual research, design and strategic UX work I’ve done over the years, but I’d like to spend more of my time working on making Customer Journey Maps with clients and helping to focus their energies on the UX projects that will really make a difference for their organisation, and also to bring some more ‘design’ into the world of Customer Experience (CX) (yes, CX is different to UX, and yes, I totally understand how confusing that sounds).

So, if your organisation needs some customer experience mapping done, or you hear of someone who does, I’d love it if you’d send them my way. With a bit of luck and good management I can do my bit to help make sure more UXers are working on real and important UX projects in the coming years.

Cognitive Psychology UX Bootcamp Exercise: Killer Tips for writing a better blog post.

I’m writing this post while attending Cognitive Psychology UX Bootcamp. This is an exercise that we’ve been set to do and I’m working with Tara and Jerome of Ribot. This is the incredibly laymans version after half a day of the two day program so don’t take any of this too seriously. If you disagree with any of this, you can take it up with our Bootcamp trainer, Joe Leech:)

Tips we’ve learned so far:

  • Limit the line length to around 95 characters per line, allow plenty of space between lines, make sure the colour contrast is sufficient and be aware of the impact of colour choice and colour blindness
  • Aim for a reading age of around 10yrs (using the Flesch-Kincaid readability test), especially if your audience is multitasking
  • Write using upper and lower case unless you want people to read REALLY SLOWLLY  and find all your typos
  • Don’t put lots of flashing stuff in the peripheral view but also don’t rely on something animating to grab attention in my field of focus
  • Try to keep hyperlinks on the same line (not broken over two lines), and don’t put too many links off to other pages/sites if you want to keep people focused on your article (hyperlinks create a fixation point and draw attention)
  • If you want to look smart on your blog, include a photo of yourself that is closely cropped around your face. If you’d rather look less intelligent (and possibly more sexy), include a photo with more of your body in it (Note to self: get new profile photo).
  • Group similar things together, make use of established/known patterns.
  • Make sure any buttons are sufficiently large targets (ref: Fitts Law)
  • Encourage psychologists to do a lot more research about the effects of design on reading on the screen because there seems to be a lot of things we don’t really know for sure.