UX Mastery: Beyond the Buzzwords

Demand for UX services is currently high, as reflected in the huge number of openings for UX professionals within the job market. General Assembly predict that user experience Designer will be one of the most promising careers in 2020. The fact that many businesses are waking up to the value of design, and user experience design in particular, is great news.

However, when demand outstrips supply, how do you find the people who have truly mastered UX? As demand rises, prices tend to increase to reflect the increased demand. This can mean that higher prices don’t necessarily reflect higher quality. So, how do you spot quality? How do you know who has truly mastered user experience as compared with someone who has just sketched a few wireframes and knows a few buzzwords?

We believe user experience mastery is achieved by a combination of experience and working within a supportive team environment. Experience gives you knowledge and understanding. The supportive environment and mentoring that come with working in a team amplifies that capability.

So, what does UX experience look like?

In the 1984 film, The Karate Kid, a young boy – Daniel – asks an elderly Japanese man – Mr Miyagi – to teach him karate. Mr Miyagi asks Daniel to first carry out a number of chores, such as painting the fence. Daniel becomes frustrated with carrying out what he sees as menial tasks, but it soon becomes clear that the chores have been a way of training muscle memory for defensive karate moves. What Daniel saw as a tedious lack of progress towards his goal was actually developing foundational karate skills.

Image credit: Sony Pictures, 1984

What does this have to do with user experience?

Well, many people see usability testing as a bit of a menial task which is passed down to anyone who is new to the team. Other activities like service design projects or prototyping in code are seen as much more glamorous and exciting.

But, I would argue that usability testing is a bit like painting the fence was for Daniel in the Karate Kid film.

If you haven’t watched lots of people from all walks of life using different digital products in a lab, how do you know what works? How does your knowledge go beyond your own experiences? To use a current buzzword – how do you have any empathy for users?

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell proposes that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in a particular field. Others have contested this and it’s definitely not such as strict rule as he claims but there is lots of evidence that practice and experience really helps to build expertise and mastery of a subject.

I am certainly not saying everyone needs 10,000 hours in the lab to be proficient at user experience! But, there is a need for UX consultants to be experienced in lab testing. This experience teaches valuable skills transferable to other research activities: it teaches you how to phrase questions and avoid bias, it teaches you how to listen and it teaches you how to generate insight. All of these skills are transferable and valuable in any user experience research activity.

Observing or facilitating testing also provides a basis of knowledge so that design decisions are based on something other than individual opinions. Every time we run a usability test, we find something surprising and unexpected. For example, we often assume that people will know that a company’s logo in the top left of a web page acts as a link to their homepage. However, testing has shown that some groups of people are unaware of this convention. Depending on the audience you’re designing for, this can make the difference between a frustrating and an enjoyable experience.

Watching usability testing builds up knowledge and understanding of how people behave and interact with technology. This may be implicit knowledge, but alongside the other skills and knowledge that come with working in a diverse UX team, this will certainly help in designing better interactions, content and structure.

So, usability testing experience is a valuable building block towards user experience mastery. Looking beyond the buzzwords to find practitioners who have solid testing skills, alongside the more usual UX skills like wireframing, will help you to find the masters in a crowded user experience market.