Talk @ GA: A Day in the Life of a UX Designer at Essential

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Last month General Assembly invited Margaret Jacobi and me to introduce a new group of potential UX professionals to our field. Our session, entitled "A Day in the Life of a UX Designer at Essential," provided an overview of the key activities, collaborations, processes, and concepts that make up what we do as UX designers. UX designers know the reality is that no two days are alike in our profession, and this is especially true for a consultancy like Essential--this variety is what makes UX such a dynamic field. But the tools we use, goals we drive towards, and general processes we follow are important resources to learn and weave into the fabric of our professional sensibility.

The talk was well attended by both prospective career switchers and hiring managers looking to build, or collaborate with, a UX team. Margaret and I highlighted the things that really make us excited as UX designers, many of which are possible because of Essential’s diverse client and project base and frequent involvement in early product development research, strategy, and planning.

At Essential, UX designers work on digital products that might be delivered through web browsers, mobile apps, or embedded interfaces for clients in a range of industries. We therefore follow a flexible process that allows us to choose the right activities and tools to move towards key objectives on the path to a clear design intent. Our work gives us the opportunity to engage different development methodologies, business models, user audiences, and channel strategies; but the goals we track and drive towards along the way are pretty consistent.

One question we were asked to address was “what makes a good user experience?” This in itself could be the topic for an entire talk, but we summarized our perspective in these three points:

  • At first impression, communicates with the user on an emotional level
  • When being used is intuitive and seamless to the user—a perfect fit
  • Overall is thoughtful and deliberate on all touch points

For us, the blend of emotional and functional user connection--appropriate for the audience and use context--with a genuinely thoughtful design process is what unites many great experiences. Not all experiences need to look the same, follow the same patterns, or have a high level of visual polish in order to be successful. It’s about being authentic and deliberate when designing and going out of the team’s way to do the right thing for users during development.

Another big topic we covered was our high-level design process, which we split into seven steps. Again, we don’t always follow these steps in exactly this order, and we frequently need to repeat some of these steps to get finer definition of key moments in the experience. But these milestones are easy to keep in mind when helping a team drive toward a finished, user-centered product:

  1. Gathering it all: collecting all the knowledge a team has, and does not have, around an area
  2. Choosing a path: defining success criteria, desired experience attributes, target audience(s), and benefits that an experience will deliver
  3. Asking questions: filling knowledge gaps and evaluating the definition through exploratory field research, stakeholder interviews, and workshops
  4. Sketching solutions: establishing clear definitions of the key paths users will follow through the software; focused, low-fidelity iteration of possible solutions that evolve toward one or two cohesive experiences along the primary scenarios
  5. Figuring out what works: identifying strengths and weaknesses of each approach through evaluative user testing, through either observational sessions or role-playing activities
  6. Locking it down: tracking resolved and open issues while iterating on the design to arrive at a final intended design that the entire team approves
  7. Making it real: working collaboratively with development, marketing, business development, and others who will make the vision into reality to ensure the evolving design is consistent with the spirit of the approved design intent

Again, this process is not set in stone for all of our projects, and in reality there is lots of iteration, sketching, and collaborative work across all these stages; however, for us these seven steps establish milestones to ensure a project moves forward from fuzzy and lofty goals to the right experience, thoughtfully designed and focused on the right user contexts and strategic objectives.

There were many excellent questions that highlighted for us some of the worries and preconceptions that accompany the public image of the UX profession. Many people were concerned about following "the process" exactly every time and learning each and every tool in the process before even getting started. Others felt they needed to learn how to write production-level front and back-end code before getting in the door. And yet others felt they might have difficulty collaborating with other teams in the name of creating the best experiences for the people who use a company's products and services.

We were quite pleased to shed some light on the current state of UX that reflects its more developed position at the table in many organizations, especially in Boston:

  • There is no one process that must always be followed, but in practice a team can learn to consider a progressively focused set of objectives and activities that a team should follow to guarantee progress and measurable success. Many of these goals and questions become second nature with experience, as they all support the creation of great experiences for us as people.
  • While code is a critical medium for designers to understand, particularly on the logical and structural levels, successful UX designers certainly need not write immaculate, shippable code. But a thoughtful UX designer will develop over the course of a career a set of tools for bringing ideas to life, and code can be a great tool for this task. At Essential, we use a combination of index cards, pencils, Adobe CS, and--yes--just enough front-end code to do this. The key thing to remember is to remain flexible enough to respond to any new constraints, dependencies, and opportunities; and to always keep the big picture in sight.
  • And finally, we were pleased to report that we have met many clients (and prospective clients) from many industries who have understood the value of UX in their business and have invested in building internal teams and/or involving designers early in the product development process. We see this trend continuing to develop across even more industries and into parts of the business that may not typically think of design as a core driver, such as service delivery (but that’s a topic for another day).

It’s always fulfilling for us to meet people who are excited about UX and the ways in which the process and methods can make our lives easier, empowered, and connected. We hope to meet many of those who came to our talk in the future as practicing UX professionals!