Highlights from our AMA with Joel Marsh, designer and author of UX for Beginners

Last week on our UX community Slack channel, we hosted a live AMA with Joel Marsh, designer and author of ‘UX For Beginners’ and ‘The Hipper Element’.

 

Joel Marsh

Joel has been a designer for 15 years and his work has been used by over half-a-billion people. His experience ranges from freelancing with startups, to in-house teams, to agencies, including famous brands like Absolut Vodka, McDonald’s and Sony BMG.

Joel is also the author of the best-selling UX For Beginners (O’Reilly), and the popular UX blog The Hipper Element, which comes highly recommended in our own UX reading list.

For this hour-long chat, Joel fielded questions covering absolutely anything on the subject of user experience, with a heavy leaning towards career advice – including how to communicate the value of UX to stakeholders, how to transition from agency life to product and the importance of UX case studies and prototypes.

Here are the highlights from Joel’s AMA. Please note, some edits have been made for clarity and spelling.

When generating ideas for a design solution, at what point do you say ‘enough is enough’ and run with something that you think *could* work? How do you determine the ‘least worst’ solution? [Tom Jepson]

There is an assumption built into this question that that you should start with ‘ideas’.

The basic idea is that you should start with a problem to solve, or a hypothesis to test. A problem might be something like ‘users get lost on page 2 of the checkout’ and a hypothesis might be something like ‘I think our invitation emails are too complicated for people to know what they should click’.

If all of your ideas are things that might solve your problem, or prove whether your hypothesis is right/wrong, then you don’t need to worry about trying the “least worst” answer. However, if you just barf out ideas that could all be useless, then you don’t have a lot to work with. Take a step back, decide what you’re trying to accomplish, and evaluate which ideas seem most reasonable for that goal.

What would you suggest to someone who wants to change their career and apply for Junior UX roles, but is being disregarded because the recruiter only sees the current role of the person and not their portfolio? [Kyle Booth]

Wow, shitty recruiters! This is a bit of an issue in UX. As simple as this may sound, the first thing I would try is emailing some companies that you think would be fun to work for. Not like, the hottest startups on the planet, but companies that might need you.

Tell them you will be their UX intern. Or ask for a project to do. Early-stage startups (less than 10 people) could often use someone to help out, but can’t necessarily afford to pay you much.

In other words, go directly to companies (avoiding recruiters), and try to get some real work without necessarily making them commit to you as an employee, just to get your CV in a better condition.

I got my first full-time UX job by emailing an agency directly!

Any advice for when moving from a UX team of one to a team of three. How do you step back from being a lead to a team member? [Scott Smallman]

I have done exactly this a few times. I feel ya. The first thing I can suggest is having a meeting with the other designers, and tell them straight out: “I want to make sure we all feel good about working together, so I wanted to discuss what you like to do and what I like to do.”

It’s usually good if everybody has a ‘territory’ or something to ‘own’, or at least if you all know what each other is working on so that you work together, not just on the same project. But I would also suggest that you try not to protect your seniority.

Enable everyone to feel like they are contributing, including you, and don’t be afraid to make boundaries for yourself. Doing less often means doing it better!

What can visual designers do to better understand the human mind? [Oscar Amaya]

You should train yourself to be more observant, and to question why people do what they do. And do it a lot.

But the best best advice I can give you is to measure your own designs and interview people about how they use them. There is nothing that will open your mind more than seeing 10 people use your design in the wrong way, or seeing data that proves your favourite design doesn’t work.

In other words: stop judging the quality of your design by how you feel about it.

I’m trying to transition from agency to product as a UX designer – any advice? [Maria Bonello]

The switch can be simpler than it might look. I find that the agency mindset of ‘making it work’ is really helpful in UX. When a client wants to do something, you don’t get to say “no” to the idea, you just have to find a good way to do it.

That being said, the biggest difference will be thinking in longer time scales. At an agency you tend to do the current version and then move on to something else. So spend more time thinking about what makes sense now and what makes sense later when you know more about version one. Let the product evolve, try to keep the scope as small as you can (do the smallest thing that will have the biggest effect) and learn to manage your time!!! When you are the in-house team it can be easy to forget that you don’t have time to do everything.

How do emerging technologies such as AI, VR and AR play together with UX? [Oscar Amaya]

Oh man, so many ways. Maybe too many.

UX is really about people, not tech. All the principles that apply to UX on a phone, or in an airport, or anywhere else, also apply to voice, and VR, and any other device you can think of. It’s really important to understand ‘why’ UX works in a fundamental way, and not just to collect best practices for one specific situation.

The best uses of AI right now (in UX) enable people to make better decisions, or to reduce the number of decisions we have to make. AI can do the work or reveal possibilities we not have found by ourselves.

But all of this is only beginning.

How do you deal with stakeholders who question UX decisions? Especially when they are a little more risky? [Jay]

I can’t recommend this enough: spend time on research. Not just user research, but research in general.

‘Risk’ is often measured in time or money if you’re not a UX person. So come into the meeting with a lot of reasons why that time and money is worth it.

Experiments are cheap, and if you design them right, they can prove that your idea is valuable (or not!).

Also be clear about what you’re trying to do, how you came to your decisions and why you didn’t choose some other path. Help the stakeholders understand the risks of NOT doing your plan. That will help them (and you) feel confident that a lot of thought has gone into the plan, and it is the most solid plan.

A lot of times the safe plan is the most expensive plan, because it doesn’t give you the opportunity to make big improvements!

And when all else fails, explain why you changes will add more users, or increase revenue.

Also, involve them along the way! Get requirements from them early on, and then refer to those things as reasons for your decisions. They will have to disagree with themselves to disagree, or they will give you good input about how your solution might not be good for their requirements!

How can you explain to clients the benefits of involving UX in their projects? [Oscar Amaya]

Think like a UXer when you plan your presentations. Ask the client what they want, how they will measure success, who their customers are, and try to meet some of their users for interviews.

It’s hard to argue with someone who knows more about the client’s needs than the client.

I’m no longer the process owner for wireframes. I’ve now been assigned to write functional specs, features & functions and module flows. I don’t know where my career is going. Any advice? [Tiffany]

I can feel your lack of enthusiasm. Honestly, get a new job if it makes you that sad! There has never been more demand for UX, you might raise your salary, and what better reason could you have for leaving a job than “I don’t get to design enough”?

But if you want to keep your job, talk to your boss and be honest. If design is what you love, then design is what you should do.

What offline collaborative tools are there to make the information architecture for a mobile app? [Shanti]

Collaboration and information architecture are a tricky mix. The main thing you want to do is to get an understanding what how your users think about the content and ideas in your site/app/tool.

Try card sorting! Or make a bunch of post-its with features and ideas on them, and ask a bunch of people (one at a time) to organise them into groups.

And read Design Sprints.

As a beginner in UX, how important is making case studies and prototypes? [Preethi Shreeya]

Case studies are very useful in a portfolio. Any good recruiter or manager will care more about how you think than what you actually made. Talk about the problems and limitations you had, the research you did, the options you considered, and why you chose the final designs you chose.

Non-digital prototypes are great and easy to make, and easy to take photos of, for your portfolio, do it!

If you can’t code, don’t feel like that is a weakness. Just be honest about it. But there are lots of free tools to make prototypes (Framer, Invision, Sketch + plugins, etc.) and that can be a great way to show people how you imagined the end result.

It doesn’t have to be pretty, it just has to be simple!

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Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher is the Content Marketing Manager of WhatUsersDo. He’s also the editor of wayward pop culture site Methods Unsound. He used to be the deputy editor of Econsultancy and editor Search Engine Watch.

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