NOTE: There’s a bit of an intro here so if you want to cut to the chase, scroll to MY SECRET TOOL, below.
When I was just starting out in UX, circa 1999, I had already been a web designer and graphic designer for about 5 years. At that time, 5 years experience in web design was a lifetime. We weren’t designers or developers. We were Webmasters. We were everything. This period has hurt UX to this day (more on that here). But in 1999, I was one of maybe 4–6 true web designers in all of St. Louis.
Within the next 6 years EVERYTHING would change.
2001 saw the end of the first Browser War. This allowed us to design and code faster and more freely. 2005, saw the release of IE7 and again life got a little easier. By this time I was already on to UX. But I was doing most of my UX via competitive research, analytics, and restricted to certain technology stacks.
Why I was in demand…
I had maintained front-end development skills, which put me in high demand because there wasn’t a ‘designer’ handing off Photoshop files to a developer. There was a UX designer handing off HTML/CSS. This made the process faster and allowed for something called “iteration”. Believe it or not, iteration was unheard of in the mid aughts.
Needless to say, by the time SharePoint was released, 3 of us could build a $400k enterprise web presence for a Fortune 500 company in less than a fiscal quarter. Making us and the client team look like heros… yet we rarely were heros. Everything we did was wrong.
My new UX path.
It wasn’t until 2007 that I realized that it didn’t matter how much research you did from your desk, the only way to get a product close to perfect was by pure luck, or hitting the road. I started meeting users where they were. Wherever they were when they interacted with the product.
I realized accessibility was not only important, it was more than I thought. If I build something that someone can use that is missing an arm, it’s also good for a mom holding a baby. If I can make it easier for someone with color blindness, it’s also good for a construction worker outside on a sunny day on his phone. OK Chris, enough of the examples, we get it.
UX is here, baby!
By 2008, web and app design had complete hijacked the term User Experience from the labor workforce and assembly lines. We were starting to get tools. No more paper card sorting, no more Visio information architecture. NO MORE PHOTOSHOP WIREFRAMES.
2008 also saw the explosion of “Lean UX”. We were going agile. “Fail faster!”, said everyone always. Iterations were the bullets in the war on bad user experience. If you released a product with a sometimes not so obvious user experience flaw, you got called the fuck out.
Finding and mastering the right tools became CRITICAL to success. We had Balsamiq, Bootstrap, icon libraries, CSS foundations, JS libraries. It was glorious… and frustrating. We had Sitefinity and WordPress. We could churn shit out in record time, watch the users and iterate every damn day until we were satisfied.
What happened next was a disaster.
People lost touch, or never learned to spend time with the people. They called people ‘users’. The called experiences ‘flows’. They leaned on the tools and dehumanized the people using the product. Mice in a maze.
I could go on forever. The point is, while there is more robust knowledge of the importance of UX now than ever before, less and less of the percentage of ‘UX Designers’ truly understand how to spend time with humans and solve their problems without heavy reliance on tools.
MY SECRET TOOL…
Reliance on tools is the first step toward failure. Use paper and pencil for everything until you have mastered the arts of human empathy, user research, and testing.
Only then should you focus on learning tools for interaction design. Same goes for service design.
This philosophy can be near impossible if you’re a freelancer trying to impress clients. But if you’re impressing clients with your tools, and not your knowledge of human behavior, are you really doing the right thing for them?
Equally impossible is convincing an agency that it’s best to teach empathy, processes, design thinking before teaching tools. They are equally eager to impress their clients with graphically impressing reports, hi-fi prototypes and design systems. Usually with ZERO time spent with the people using the product.
So, my secret UX design tool is something I call the OG Package: pencil, paper, patience and empathy. Once you’re consistently winning clients with your mind and not your tools, the tools will blow them away.