At one point we have all tried to push open a door marked “PULL” and experienced that same dumb moment.
Tammy teWinkel, a user experience expert who has worked for BlackBerry, uses the door analogy to illustrate the challenges to creating a great user experience.
“Given from a systems perspective it’s quite rudimentary and still we have experiences that don’t work,” said teWinkel, speaking on a recent Web panel hosted by the University of Waterloo. “There is something in that affordance aspect (the inherent use of an object) that can still be magical or not.”
For teWinkel the term “user experience,” or UX as it is also known in software circles, can be very broad, but is fundamentally about solving problems that require good “facilitation skills” to be able to work with different team members and stakeholders.
Mark Connolly, a visual designer at Waterloo-based Karos Health who has worked with teWinkel, described his job as a balancing act where he is forced to make “reasonable compromises” among parties who all want a say in how the final product looks and feels.
Next month Connolly will co-chair Fluxible 2013, an annual design conference held in Kitchener.
In her role as a mentor at Waterloo’s VeloCity Garage accelerator program, teWinkel acts as a “little psychiatrist” for start-ups in trying to get them to do “a deconstruction process” to find out what works and what doesn’t in terms of their user experience.
Often the term UX alone can cause paralysis as teWinkel admitted it comprises about two dozen different elements, including content, design and project management.
Most people associate UX with user interaction (UI), but Terry Costantino, co-founder of Toronto-based digital design firm Usability Matters, said the job is more far-reaching with the end goal of helping clients: “bring some of those ideas that may be embedded in their minds out into the open.”
At the end of the day, however, it’s all about the end user. “Let them be the arbiters,” advised Constantine.
Connolly agreed, adding it’s the best “tool in the toolbox” to help mitigate the “religious war” that can erupt between designers and developers and get everybody working toward the same outcome.
Both Connolly and Costantino came to UX from careers in the arts. Costantino has a background in film and photography and trained as a librarian and writer before jumping into software design and architecture.
She said the most important skill for a UX designer to possess is a “deep respect for people and what they have to offer” and that when her firm is hiring, it looks for “empathy and smarts.”
Most people come to the job later in life when they’re already doing something else, confided Connolly, who holds a fine arts degree from Waterloo.
“It’s not a profession with a licensing board,” he conceded. “If you’re good at it, that is what will matter and so there is an opportunity to get into it.”