The Most Valuable UX Person in the World

She builds her wireframes with real wire from ancient hand-smelted Ukranian steel.
Her worst personas could kick the ass of your best personas.
His pattern library is now in the Library of Congress.
When she explains good design visuals, the only thing Edward Tufte can add is “What she said.”
He’s organized his wine cellar in order of awesome.
Wikileaks is ready to release her sketchbooks just because they’re cool.
He only sketches on the front of the napkin.
He built the world’s biggest web site, using only his left hand.
Last season’s American Idol featured her concept maps.
His research finds customers desire to research his behavior.
He is the only person Don Norman agrees with.
She makes her own icons out of straw.
Software bugs specifically ask for her to fix them.
He defined the damn thing, then moved on.
Her study participants screen themselves. Out.
Her interactions are the basis for everyone else’s designs.
Scalpers sell tickets to his project kickoff meetings.
He is already coding in HTML6. And has been for a decade.

They are the most valuable UX person in the world.
“Design well, my friend.”

 

Brought to you by

The 2011 IA Summit podcasts were recorded and produced by the fantastic team at UIE. UIE is a research and training company that brings you the latest thinking from the top experts in the world of User Experience Design. UIE's virtual seminars allow you to get your hands on that information, to absorb as much as you can, on your schedule. Of course, you can keep up with all the shenanigans by signing up for UIE's free newsletter, UIEtips.

Intro music provided by BumperTunes!

Transcript

Jess McMullin: I am so pleased to be able to introduce our next speaker. It's actually his fault that I work in user experience. In 1997, my father-in-law brought home a handout from a conference he'd been to, and there were some things in it that said, "White space is bad for people using websites." And I spent the next two years trying to prove that wrong. And didn't, actually. [laughs]

But our next speaker, Jared Spool, is the founder and principal of User Interface Engineering. It's a research, consulting, and events firm, headquartered out of Boston or Cambridge?

Jared Spool: North Andover, actually.

Jess: North Andover. So Boston, for folks like me.

Jared: Exactly.

[laughter]

Jess: And Jared's extraordinarily prolific, has a great sense of humor and tremendous insights. And I think one of the things that I've seen is that things that people know in this field, that have become canon or common sense or accepted wisdom, very often find their way back to Jared and the work of the team at UIE. There are probably things that you know or that you have learned that you may not know they came from the work that these folks do, but we all owe a great debt. And I'm always excited to find out what the next cool thing that he's been looking at.

So, with that, you can hear from Jared instead of from me. So, big round of applause. Thank you, Jared.

[applause]

Jared: Thank you, Jess.

Hello. So, I have a history of speaking here at the Summit. I gave a keynote the second year, spoken almost every year since. And, I usually do... I give about 50 presentations a year or 60 presentations a year, but most of them are repeats. They're things I do over and over again so that I can eventually learn the material. But the Summit is always different because the Summit is always a place where I bring out something very new, and sometimes it's not even something I know anything about.

This year was an unusual year because the conversation started during the planning cycle of last year, when Livia came and said, "I want you do something really different this year." Livia Labate, who started the process of picking the chairs and setting the program and defining what this conference has become. Which, by the way, it's awesome, isn't it? Yeah?

[cheers and applause]

Jared: The team deserves to be commended.

The conversation started with this word. She said, "I want you to talk about the market." And I didn't know what she meant. And it turned out, in sort of bouncing around, it was the market for UX work. What does that mean?

This is something that we've been sort of thinking about, because the work that we do at User Interface Engineering has primarily, for the last few years, focused around, "What does it mean to create great designs?" And in order to create great designs, you have to have designers and UX professionals who are going to be able to execute on those designs and come up with the ideas and everything that's involved in that.

And so the question of this idea of market was an interesting one, because what does that mean? And so I started to do some research. And market, from an economic standpoint, has to do with this idea of value. And so I got sort of hooked on this idea of the most valuable UX person. Who is that person? How would we meet that person?

And so let's sort of start down this journey that I went through, which is basically what we're going to talk about here is sort of the thoughts I had in my head as to how we went about thinking about this market. And let's think in terms of a thought experiment.

And the thought experiment is this. Imagine every UX person in one room - it's probably a room just a little bigger than this - and we were to have these people line up by value. And the idea of value is very simple. The better you are, the more you're to the left; if you're not as good as the person to your left, you stay to their right. And so we would line everybody up. There would be some person who ends up at the end. One person who is, in essence, right now, the most valuable person in UX. That's just the way it has to work. And by the way, there has to be someone at the far right. Don't all line up. But there is someone who is currently the least valuable person in UX.

But I'm not interested in that person so much yet; I will be in a moment. I'm more interested in the most valuable person, because that person is somehow doing something that everybody else isn't. They're somehow providing value in a way that - it might just be a little bit more than the next person, or it could be a ton more. And so the idea is that there's one person.

Now, I started talking about this to people and they got really upset at me, this idea that there's one person who is the most valuable. And I started thinking, "Well, other professions have this." So the first one, of course, I thought about was NASCAR.

[laughter]

Jared: Turns out that there is a most valuable NASCAR driver. It's Dale Earnhardt Jr. He earned over $30 million, making him, by far, the most valuable. Now, I've attributed here value to money, because in our world that is often a relationship that exists. So Dale Earnhardt Jr. won like 85 races in the last two years. It's the most valuable guy.

There's a second-most valuable guy, Jeff Gordon: 27 million. And a third, Jimmie Johnson: 23 million. Tony Stewart: 19 million. I didn't even know these people existed until I started Googling them. But yet, these are the most valuable NASCAR drivers. And no one can test this. I can show you 45, 50 different Google articles, in "Forbes" and in "NASCAR Weekly" and all sorts of places that have the exact same list. This list is well understood. Everybody's got Dale at the top and everybody else behind them.

And it's not just NASCAR that has found this amazing uniformity. Now, NASCAR is this thing that has uniformity, right? This is an entire sport that's based on turning to the left.

[laughter]

Jared: So you would think that they would be, you know, rigorous in their uniformity. But it's not just them. The world of tennis is similar, right? Roger Federer is considered to be the most valuable tennis player. Maria Sharapova, second-most valuable tennis player. Number three comes in at Rafael Nadal. Serena Williams is number four.

So, again, we can rank the top tennis players. We can rank the top NASCAR folks.

Well, maybe this is just sports. Well, turns out it's not just sports. We can do the same thing for neurosurgeons. It is considered that the best neurosurgeon in the world is Philip Gutin at Kettering-Sloan. You need a neurosurgeon, this is the guy to go to. I found 30, 40 different citations that said he was the best. There were another 20 that argued that it might be Arthur Day. But it's one of these two guys. That's it. They are considered "the best" neurosurgeons. This is interesting to me that NASCAR and neurosurgery share this ability to tell who the best in their profession are.

Who is the most valuable UX person? Now, right before I started to speak, Dan Willis came up to inform me it was him.

[laughter and applause]

Jared: He's taking us out for drinks later.

[laughter]

Jared: So this is the thought experiment, right? Who is this person? And what did they do to get there? That's the interesting thing.

Now, here's the thing that's really interesting. I'm not the only one who wants to meet this person. This lucky man or woman is actually highly desired right now. All you have to do is go to Silicon Valley and you will find no less than 200 or 300 different companies right now who would hire this person for whatever price that person wanted. There are companies out there who are quite willing. There's a company that just launched last week, a company called Color; $41 million of venture money. They made it very clear: they want to hire the world's best UX person. Who is that? And that's the really interesting thing is we don't know.

Now, we can tell the difference between good and bad design. Let's take, for example, this. This is "The New York Times" website. This is a design that was orchestrated by a team led by Khoi Vinh. And the website really sort of changed the way news was presented online. When they came out, it had a very strong use of grid, a very strong use of fonts. They had really thought about the user experience in a variety of different ways. They made some choices, right? For instance, the links are not underlined, which sort of went against a lot of common wisdom, a lot of things that even I've written about. But it works.

Now, compare this design to another news source. This one's called Havenworks. Havenworks has a completely different approach to design.

[laughter]

Jared: An interesting use of white space, as Jess mentioned. And a completely different strong sense of grid. I actually like this grid. As I scroll down here, notice - I'll keep going here - we've got six columns here. But it'll quickly drop to five, and then to four and then down to three. Eventually it gets down to two and one, and then, surprisingly enough, it'll go off and do its own thing at some point.

The interesting thing about the Havenworks design and "The New York Times" design is that this design here, if I were to survey professionals, people in our field, which one is the better design, we'd be uniformly in agreement.

So, to some extent, we have this ability to separate good from bad. But I've really become interested in the idea of separating the best from the good. How do we separate out great from good? What is the difference?

There are instances where we actually need to know who the best people are. There are problems that we have in this world that really could use the attention of the best folks. And, like I said, in Silicon Valley, the free market is very willing at this point to pay top dollar for the best folks. So you've got commercial interests that are interested in finding these people and you've got projects that are very important, life and death: world peace, poverty, literacy. Any big social problem that we're dealing with could really use some excellent UX designers. So knowing who these people are, knowing that we could put them on a team and actually produce great results would be really useful to us.

It turns out that the more I thought about this, the more I realized that there was sort of a bigger thing happening here. And part of it is that this is an act of maturity. You couldn't always tell who the best tennis player was. You couldn't always tell who the best neurosurgeon was. It wasn't until those professions became mature that they actually could distinguish this idea that there is a person who's best.

And so, starting to look at, how do we find this out? How do we make this decision? How do we separate this out?

Now, there are different ways that we do this, right? For example, in the world of movies, Hollywood uses things like the Academy Awards to figure out what the best picture is, who the best actor is in a given year. And who votes on that but other actors and other movie-makers. They decide amongst themselves. So we could choose amongst ourselves who the best people are if we knew how to identify them.

You could use a merit-based system, right? You could actually look at the products that people created and go from there. And I was actually interested in this idea, so I put a question up on Quora. I actually ended up putting it up twice because I didn't like the answers the first time and I thought, well, maybe I just phrased the question wrong, so I came up with a completely different way of phrasing it. And I got pretty much the same answer the second time.

But the question that I put up the first time was, "What are the qualities that define the best UX person?" Because there were all these questions on Quora: "Who's the best UX person in Silicon Valley?" "Who's the best UX person in Brazil?" "Who's the best UX person in France?" Right? So I'm thinking, "OK, well, how would you figure out that person's the best UX person?" So I wanted to know the qualities.

One of the things I love about Quora is that you actually don't have to understand the question to provide answers.

[laughter]

Jared: So it produced this slew of answers. I thought, "OK, maybe I got the question wrong." So I rephrased it and I said, "How would you give advice to a hiring manager who needed to hire the best person?" I said, "Imagine a project like world peace or literacy that has the money behind it and has to hire 'the' best UX person. How would you give them advice to do that?"

And again, I got these answers. This one guy's answer was, "Well, what you got to look for is good articulation and clarity of thought." That was well articulated and pretty clear, but I don't know what it means.

How many people here have clarity of thought right now? OK. That's actually better than I imagined. Let's ask after the reception.

[laughter]

Jared: His second quality was self-abdication and appeal to a higher authority.

[laughter]

Jared: That's what he wrote. What he explained, when he explained this, was that "You shouldn't be designing for yourself, but in fact you should be designing for users. So you have to abdicate your own opinions for your users' opinions," which, I guess, are higher authorities. Do user research is what his explanation said, but it's a strange way to explain it. Oh, and by the way, I got a whole bunch of research that says, actually, you can design for yourself and be really successful, so I'm not sure that's true either.

Then he said, "This person has to have empathy and accommodation." Now, I'm glad accommodation was singular and not plural.

[laughter]

Jared: Though, if you know someone who has some good accommodations in Norway, I'm going there a little later this year, need a place to stay.

And then, finally, the fourth thing was knowledge: "You have to have knowledge." Knowledge. That's it. Just out of curiosity, how many people here feel they have knowledge. [laughs] OK, good. And just to make sure, how many people hate raising their hands in little surveys. OK, that's our margin of error.

So the literature actually has a lot about these things, and you don't have to go very far to find it. There is a distinction of what makes a person good or bad at something, and there are basically four qualities that go into this. The first is talent. The second is skills. The difference between these being talent is what you're born with, and skills are acquired and practiced and can be mastered even if you weren't born with talents that support those skills.

And these are very important things. And separating out talent and skill is pretty easy to do once you get an eye for it, right? For instance, we could look at Maria Sharapova, the number-two tennis player, and if we wanted to look at her serving, that's very different than when she's serving at parties. One is talent; one is skills.

But there are lots of skills that have to do with UX, and we've been spending a lot of our research time trying to acquire and understand what those skills are. And we've actually put together a list of skills for things we call experience design. And so we can start with understanding how things are organized on the site, what we would refer to as the information architecture. But there is also making sure that the words that are on the page actually are meaningful and compelling. There is being able to manage the design process and understand how you're going to iterate through the design and test out ideas.

There is being able to go out, talk to your users and get the information you need to pump into the design process. There's figuring out the flows and the way that the interaction will happen on the screen. There's being able to display the knowledge and data that you have in a way that is compelling and meaningful and understandable and clear; that's good information design.

Of course, there's visual design, which a lot of people think it's about aesthetics, but it's really about clear communication and understanding how you prioritize the best information out there. There is editing and curation, the fact that someone has to be able to say, "No, this is not going to go in our design because it's going to make it more complicated," the act of saying no, the act of knowing when things come out. So all of these things are key, core experience-design skills that we've identified. We've been sort of playing with this list now for a couple of years, and it really has stood the test of time. It's a very concrete list.

Of course, in order to do a project, there's actually a lot more skills you have to do. You, for instance, have to know how to go into the field and actually interview people and collect data. You have to understand the design space that you're working in and what are the problems that your design solves and how does it solve it for those people. There's always a business that's involved that you have to be able to deal with and understand how that business is going to make money and support its ongoing activities.

There is, of course, all the data that comes into the organization that has to be interpreted and understood in the form of analytics. There is being able to talk about the value that we bring whenever we put something in the design and put it in front of the customers and the users, being able to understand and how to talk about that value.

Of course, there's the underlying technology that we're driving, and how all of that works is key. There's being able to explain that when we put all this effort in, we're going to get this investment out, and so understanding how to talk about return on investment is absolutely key. As Dana Chisnell mentioned earlier, there is this whole social aspect. We're no longer just a person and a machine. Everything we do has now got these social components, so we have to understand how to work in this social space. There is, of course, being able to talk to our development teams and explain to them what it is in the design that we want to be able to execute on. And of course, we have to understand the way that they deal with those things.

So we have all these sort of skills that are really important, that are not specific to UX but are required for us to get a design out the door and serviced. And then this isn't even all of them. Turns out that as we started digging further, we found another set of skills that turned out to be really important. We call these skills the liquid skills that you have to have. They have to do with being able to take what you're trying to do and put it in a form that's compelling, through good storytelling, being able to talk in terms of goods and bads and have a way of communicating with your fellow team members about where you're trying to go and how you're trying to get there, which is what critique is all about.

Of course, sketching is all the rage now, and it's a completely important skill of being able to take an idea that's in your head and render it on a page so that people can see why you're trying to do it and what you're trying to build, and you're not trying to always communicate things in front of a white board with interpretive dance.

The ability to present, both to our teams, to our clients, to our peers, is an absolutely essential skill. And then, finally, being able to take a session and run it and actually say, "OK, we're going to start with an objective and we're going to achieve that objective," and make it happen.

And these are the soft skills that really drive what we do. And all of these skills, combined, are necessary. And we started looking at this and we're realizing, OK, teams have to have all these skills on them. Yet, while we were doing the research project, team sizes were actually getting smaller. We're actually using less people to do all these different things. So this is the pool of skills. And this isn't even a 100-percent-complete set; it's just a working model that we use to talk about everything that's required from UX in order to get things built and get things created.

What was really interesting to me about the Quora discussion is nowhere, in terms of what do you look for, was there anything like, "Well, you want to see if they built anything useful." You want to see if they actually did something that worked, that might have made money. Did they actually ship something? There were all this discussion of soft skills, and none of this sort of hard-skills stuff.

And so the other two pieces to the puzzle, in addition to talents and skills, are knowledge, which is just we have to know a boatload of things in order to just get things done. And these are things that we both sit down and study and come to conferences like this and pick up and take workshops and classes. But there are also things that we just sort of learn intrinsically, as we do our work. And along with that comes experience, which just happens with time.

And I see this because I get, these days, to work with a lot of really young designers and UX people, and they're lacking experience. They've got skills, and they've even got knowledge, and they've got some real talent. But they don't have any experience, and they make some really amateurish mistakes because that experience is really important. There is something about doing your time.

When I started working, I was not given choices. I worked in an arrangement where I could not win. I had a boss who told me exactly how things were going to be done, and if I tried to be creative, I got scolded and yelled at and was told that's not the way we're going to do it. We're going to do it over until it's the way he wanted it done. And it was a miserable experience, except I learned so much, and I gained a ton of experience doing it his way.

The thing that always reminds me of experience is the old saying, which is, "Good judgments come from experience, and experience comes from bad judgments." Right? We have to make those mistakes, we have to have the opportunities to do that, and we have to be able to be in this position to get there.

So we have all these skills that we're trying to deal with. A lot of us have some talents that make it easier for us to work in this field, but some of us don't. Some of us just push through and compensate through the skills. We have the knowledge and the experience there.

So now let's get back to this idea of value. What makes one of us more value than another?

So we can have this idea of an information architect. We can have this idea of an interaction designer. Is one more valuable than another?

According to the market right now, information architects are not quite as valuable as interaction designers. Why? There's a lot of theories. One could say that it's because the interaction-design world has just got better marketing. I think it's not so much that. I think it's because interaction designers are better understood by the people who are hiring, because they can sort of see the screens, they can see the flows. Information architecture, unless you're working in large information spaces, is a little bit harder to sell to some folks. So I think a lot more projects can see a role, and if they have to choose one versus the other, they tend to go for the interaction designer.

Right now, there's a real shortage of interaction designers in the world. In 2009, I was asked to run a panel for the Interaction Design Association, where I made this little sort of off-the-cuff prediction, based on something that Meg Whitman had said. Meg Whitman was, at the time, the CEO of eBay. She was in the process of running it into the ground, before she ran her campaign into the ground. But she had talked about how user experience was going to be eBay's top priority at that point.

And so I sort of put out the hypothetical question, well, what if the Fortune 2000 world, half of the companies followed along those lines and said, "We need to spend one percent of our budget on some project that has amazing UX, so let's go do that"? It turns out that to fulfill one percent of your budget for half of the Fortune 2000 companies would come to a need for 10,000 UX people. And so the panel was about, "Where are these people going to come from?"

And I said, "If this is the trend, if this is where we're going, we're going to see a real shortage real soon." And guess what: we're starting to see a real shortage right now that it's very hard in some markets to find a UX person who isn't very well-employed and very happy where they are if you're trying to hire. How many people who work in companies that have had open reqs for UX-related positions now for months that they can't fill? Yeah, it's a story I'm seeing over and over again. By the way, there's a whole bunch of people looking for jobs. They'll be looking for you during the break.

So, that's key. But we launched on this project a few months ago, where we started to pay attention to job ads. We started to look at the different requirements that were being asked for. And job ads for UX people are hysterically funny. For one thing, they want, "must be highly abdicated and overly accommodating." Plus, six years of HTML5 experience...

[laughter]

Jared: ... And 22 years of e-commerce experience, and must be able to program in Java, PHP, JavaScript, and some language to be named later.

This is actually it, right? If you talk to the people who are looking for folks, right now, the Holy Grail, the thing they will pay anything for, is the UX designer who can code. They want that coding UX designer. And of course, every time, on one of the email lists I'm on, a job like this gets posted, there is 15 emails: "I can't believe someone actually wants a designer who can code, because designers, if they code, they're not very good designers. If they're not very good coders, they're miserable at both." There's all this sort of debate about this, but this is the deal, right?

What happens if you are a good UX designer who actually could write decent code? You could get a job at one of these companies for a really high price. This idea that someone could do that is actually not too farfetched, and it's just a matter of time before that's the norm, and all of the UX folks are going to be good coders. If you're not a good coder, you're not going to be a UX person. And this is sort of the evolution that we're going through.

I talked earlier about this idea of skills, and these skills currently align to roles that we've all adopted that, in fact, there are people who go by the titles that match 100 percent to those skills. But one of the really interesting things about all these job ads that I've been reading through is that they are no longer asking for people with these roles. They're not looking for this. They're just looking for a UX designer, and then they list all the skills they want.

The reality is the idea of discreet disciplines - information architecture, interaction design, user research - is going away. The hiring managers do not want discreet people. They don't want to have to hire a team of six to do this job. They would be very happy with one person who did it all.

We can sit and try and fight this all we want and say, no, no, no, you can't possibly be a good information architect if you're also a good user researcher because you can't possibly know both things. I don't believe that's true, and I don't see any evidence to support it, and frankly the market is not that interested in having these discreet disciplines anymore. And I think over time, I think we're going to see that go away.

It's being replaced, and it's really interesting because I've been trying to figure out what's been going on here. What we're getting now are what, I don't have a good name for it, so I've called it the specialty collection, and the specialty collections are things like mobile design and service design and content strategy.

Content strategy, right, Karen McGrane this morning convinced me and everybody else in the room that we are all now content strategists. I didn't know that before I got up this morning, but I'm happy to have that title. Hopefully, it pays well. Karen, does it pay well?

Karen: [away from mic]

Jared: OK. Well, there we go. Every time we do something on mobile design, our registration numbers double. And service design is this fancy new title, and I keep trying to ask people what service design, and it's basically UX when you have a business that's a service. OK.

[laughter]

Jared: There is knowledge and experience that's useful in these contexts. When you group these things together and you talk about this stuff, it really is compelling. The work that folks like Karen and Kristina Halverson and Margo Bloomstein and a bunch of really smart people in the content strategy world are doing is really impressive because it gives this focus to the content, and it merges all these different aspects of the business - the creation of the content, the management of the content, the organization of the content, the governance.

Who the hell decides when this stuff is supposed to leave your site so that it's no longer there long after its usefulness. All of this stuff is necessary. So these collections of skills, these collections of knowledge and experience and talent into this special thing that we're now, for today, calling content strategy and, maybe, it will last for five years and, maybe, it will last for ten years, that's great. As long as we all can agree that these things are just an ability to do this, that's fine and you don't have to go very far to see other examples of this.

In the world of medicine, there's a branch of medicine known as physiatry. Physiatry is solving a real problem with modern medicine. Compared to other medical fields, it's very young. It's less than 30 years old, and it's dealing with a real problem which is people, whether it's sports related or car accident or war injuries are having traumatic long-term chronic pain issues. These are neurologic issues but they have to be dealt with through pain management and rehabilitation.

Neurology, rehabilitation, and pain management traditionally have been completely different fields that didn't really work together or talk to each other. So physiatrists formed a school to teach these things in one place and combine them.

This is the fastest growing part of medicine today. is physiatry. It's really remarkable because these guys can talk to the neurosurgeons about the nerve damage that's there, at the same time that they talk to the rehab people about how treating that nerve damage works, at the same time that they can employ important pain management related activities, such as using non-traditional medicine such as acupuncture or chiropracty looking at results in dealing with chronic pain. Until someone started focusing on that specialty with this combination of three existing things, people were suffering. And now, a lot of people are seeing a lot of progress in their conditions because of the advent of physiatry.

And so, that's how I think of things like service design and content strategy, and there's tons of this stuff. There's multi-cross channel stuff that Samantha was talking about earlier today. It's not hard to come up with these sort of collections of things where we take these disparate disciplines and we combine them, and we learn everything we can about the whole package, and we start to work together on that.

And so, I think that this evolution is a natural one, and it's part of this maturation process that we're talking about. Another way that I see this maturing happening amongst our clients has to do with what we call skilled distribution strategies. The problem is, is that in an organization, if you try and have an information architect and an interaction designer and a visual designer and a user researcher, you have a load balancing problem because the work that comes into your team does not come in equally for each of those jobs.

The visual designer may have way too much work to do, and the information architect may be sitting around, not doing very much. People are looking and say, how do we distribute the skills across the team better? We've come across in our work with teams that are very good at getting products out some really interesting strategies.

One is what we call within team mentorship, so you start by doing an assessment. You say, OK, who's really good at what, and you figure out who like is, in fact, amongst your team the best information architecture folks, and who are the best interaction design folks? You do a solid detailed assessment of each of these people.

And then interestingly enough as new project work comes in, when an interaction design project comes in, you do not give it to the person who is best at interaction design. You give it to someone who's in the middle of the road on the team. They may be good at something else, but you give them the interaction design thing. And then, you assign your best interaction designer to be their mentor. They're not actually allowed to work on the project. They are there to teach that person to do that project.

When you do this, what you see is a raising of all the boats in the bay. All of a sudden, all of the skills of each person starts to go up as the best people mentor the good people, and you can start to grow different skills. And so now, all of a sudden you have more people on your team who can handle any given part of the package. Depending on the load and the distribution, this works really well.

The other strategy that we're seeing that actually works in large organizations is what we call pollination or what some of our clients call the foreign exchange program. What you do is you grab people from completely unrelated projects, possibly unrelated jobs, like you grab people out of support, grab people from, you know, medical products to come work on the website and just one person, two people at a time, just sort of swap places, just like you would do in foreign exchange with a high school kid. And just like foreign exchange with the high school kid, there's a lot of beer involved in this, particularly the German kids.

And so, you bring them together, and they work on a full project for its full duration, six weeks, eight weeks, ten weeks, twelve weeks. Whatever the duration of the project is, they are there as this person from this other team, and then in that process they get mentored in doing various jobs on the team with their skills.

And then, you send them away back to their original job with the intent that they're now going to mentor other folks. And within large organizations, this cross pollination program takes a little while to kick off. But once it gets going, it actually is really powerful because not only does it publish the skills throughout the organization, but it publishes relationships throughout the organization because these people get to know folks in the different departments. They now have someone to call over on the website team when they have a question that might be related, and that turns out to be really, really powerful.

The last piece of this sort of evolution thing - I want to take a little digression into a pet project of mine which is understanding the difference between engineering and craft. And to understand this, we have to sort of burn down a house because there's a group of people, there's an entire profession out there known as fire protection engineers. You've probably never heard of them, but they have an annual conference where 40,000 of them combine. And it's a huge event where there is all sorts of workshops and training just like this, but there's a huge trade show where there are fire trucks in the trade show floor. It's this amazing, amazing event.

To be a fire protection engineer, this is different than being a fireman. The fire protection engineer understands the code and the science behind fire. They understand what materials are flammable, what aren't, how to make something flame retardant, what the distance from a heat source has to be in order for something to be safe. So, how far do you need to make sure flammable materials are away from a source of heat, all sorts of things.

They understand how the sprinkler systems work. It turns out that there are four different ways that you can have a smoke detector, and they understand all of that. The science behind that, how many you need for every square foot, how many sprinklers you need.

Here's a fact that you probably didn't know. In a large building like this hotel, there are fans at the top of the emergency stairwells in the tower. So, there's what? 27 floors in this hotel, right? They're big fans, but what you probably didn't know is they point in. In the event of an emergency, these fans blow air into the stairwell.

By blowing air into the stairwell which, of course, is where people are evacuating, if someone opens a door on a floor that happens to have the fire and smoke on it, the air pressure from the stairwell will actually blow the fire back into the floor, not suck it into the stairwell.

Beautiful engineering, beautiful thinking. The folks at the National Fire Protection Association who sort of put all this, they have created all of these standards and guidelines, and this is engineering at its finest. This is understanding the rules. If you understand all the standards and the guidelines, you can be a great fire protection engineer. You can save lives. That's amazing.

These guys don't save lives. This is Cirque du Soleil. This is not engineering. Sure, there's actually a lot of engineering that goes into the trapeze work, but what makes Cirque du Soleil completely different from every other circus that's out there is their craft. They have a sense of style. They have a sense of artistry - the way they put together their costumes, their music, their movements. The way they orchestrate the entire show is done with this sense of craft that has completely revolutionized the circus industry and much of the performing industry.

The Cirque du Soleil shows are the largest grossing shows in Vegas. Where it used to be headliners that would bring in the big bucks, it's now circus. No one would have imagined, but they pulled it off. And they do it through these amazing shows. They are extremely valuable because of their craft.

Now, there is craft and style to everything you do. And I'm sure that there are fire protection engineers who have developed their own craft and style. But that's not what makes them really valuable. So the question is, when we're talking about user experience, is this engineering, or is it craft? And in our work, there's a huge tension. There's this constant pull. For instance, we know that the New York Times website was actually really well done. And we know it was done by Khoi Vinh. And we know that his style of using grid and font and typography is really unique to him.

Everything he's done follows this pattern, and you can see if you're trained in his work, you can see that influence in the way that the Times has changed under his watch. So we know that his style, his craft, is part of what makes the New York Times website really cool. Now, keep in mind it's a team effort. There's a lot of people at the New York Times who makes those websites there. But his particular influence is very prominent in that site. He's not even there anymore, it's still prominent. So we know that there's a craft element to what we do.

Certainly that's true in visual design, and it's possible that's true in interaction design. But what is the craft of information architecture?

Is there a work that we can look at and we say, "Oh yeah, that's Donna Spencer's work. I can tell." Do we have that sense? That again, is another element of maturity. At the same time, we have to keep this engineering basis. We have to be able to understand, what is that minimum stuff that everybody has to know in order to make sure that we produce great stuff? What is that base line knowledge and education that we can build a curriculum around and we can actually identify with science? It becomes that engineering platform. And that's a big challenge for us. And I think that's going to be a huge piece of what's going to happen over the next few years.

A couple of things before we go and drink a lot, which is what I'm planning to do.

There are posters involved, I am very happy. I have found, if this is your first IAS Summit, you should know that posters improve with liquor. They're usually pretty good to start with, but they just get better.

So there are two challenges that I see, that comes out of all this work. The first one is if we want to help the hiring manager figure out how to get the right person for the job, maybe they need the best UX person. Maybe they don't need the best UX person, but they need a really good UX person. How do we help them find that person? There are a few things here. One is, I'm going to mention the C word, certification.

Certification is inevitable in our field. It is only a matter of time before it happens. Certification is not necessarily a bad thing. The primary customer of the certification is the hiring manager. The hiring manager uses certification as a short cut for what they're getting. If we require that every hiring manager understand UX at the depth or better than the people they are hiring, we will fail. So we need to give them a way to tell whether what they're getting is good or not.

Every neurosurgeon who practices in the united states is certified to do so. Now, that doesn't separate the good from the great, but it at least gets you to the good. And we need to have an establishment of certification. Certification can come in a variety of ways. You can just declare yourself a certifying body and build up a set of courses and tests, and give it, and then move to India and have a great time with that.

[laughter]

Jared: You must be thinking of someone specific, because I'm not. You can be an established accredited school that has done some work and put together a nice certificate program that everybody understands what the curriculum is. And it comes out of it. I got to do a lot of work with lawyers, and one of the things I learned is how law schools work. People hire people from the law schools they went to because they know the professors at the law school, because they know what law is being taught there, and how it's taught. So that they know that the associates that they're going to hire out of the law school will come with a certain set of skills in a certain way.

I see that today with the way people hire from schools like CMU. CMU students, tend to hire CMU students. CMU alumni tend to hire CMU students. Why? Because they know what's being taught. Whether it's the best or not, it doesn't matter. They know what's there. It's a short cut. So understand, certification is key.

The other thing that I think is really key here is this idea of understanding the role of specialists and generalists. And I've been writing about this, I put some articles on Johnny Holland about it. This idea that you can be someone who has a lot of skills, and it's not this T shaped man, which is this silly notion of a person who has one deep skill and lots of broad skills. If you want to think of it that way, think of it as a broken cone person where you've got a whole bunch of skills at different lengths, and you're constantly repairing the cone to get them a little better. Now you're going to get that image out of your head.

The key thing is that a generalist is someone who can do a good job across a variety of skills. A specialist is someone who actually has depth in one or more skills, such that they can actually execute that, and their experience and knowledge works to that skill. But they are not a compartmentalist. There's a guy at the lay clinic, a doctor. Doctor Margolise, who specializes in orthopedic surgery of hands and wrists. That's all he does, is hands and wrists. He is the best hand and wrists guy in the world. People line up for six months to get an appointment with him. He has more patients than he can deal with. He's up to his elbows in hands and wrists.

[laughter]

Jared: But in order to get his accreditation as a hands and wrists guy, he went to medical school. He studied general medicine. He did a rotation in OBGYN just like every other student in his school. He could deliver a baby, if he had to deliver a baby. If he was the only doctor on the island, he's the one you want to deliver the baby. That's what it's about.

So even if we want to specialize in something like content strategy, we have to be able to still keep up to date on the non content strategy aspects of this, so that we can continue to work in that space.

Another key thing, is this idea of portfolio. If we are not just engineering but craft, craft has to be able to show style, and show skill. That is our element. And this is where the portfolio comes from.

But what's interesting is in our work, what we've realized is, a lot of what we do is not the end product but the decision process by which we get there. So the portfolio has to talk about the decisions we have made and how we made them. If you want to put together a portfolio - here is a great thing that I've learned that really awesome hiring managers will ask you about if you don't have it, which is an org chart. Put in org chart for the team that you worked on the project with. So that when you're going over the portfolio, you can say, "I worked with this person on this part of the project, and we worked together here. And I worked with these other people on this part of the project. This person here was a pain in the ass and I was able to appease them by doing this work and this stuff." Being able to talk to that org chart is absolutely key.

And finally, which I think is really important, being that we're here together under the hospices of information architecture and the IEI is.... I think the hiring manager can be the number one customer of our professional organizations. The thing that we can do the best is to actually help hiring managers. I think it should be the number one initiative of every single one of our 15 different UPA, IXDA, FBU, CIA, TLAs. TLA is the acronym for three letter acronym. The trick is coming, I can tell you. This is really a key element. And I think that as members of these organizations, we need to start asking ourselves what are we doing for hiring managers? Not just to sell us as a profession, but to really help them understand how to choose who amongst us is the best for their position?

Finally, how do we become that best person? How does each of us become that individual? And here I think there's a couple of key things. One of the things that's emerged from the work we've been doing in our research is the sheer importance of practice and critique.

How many people here have user experience people working for them in some fashion or another? OK. Keep your hand up if you have dedicated time each week, at least two hours, for those people to just practice. Keep it up if you actually have practice time. Hardly anybody. You look at the best tennis players, and what do they do when they're not playing a game? They're on the tennis court hitting balls. Baseball players are out practicing. This is not an accident.

Malcom Gladwell talks about 10,000 hours, I know that's on my IEI bingo card somewhere. If you have to have 10,000 hours of expertise, where are you going to get that? Practice. So every week we should have several hours dedicated to not the project work we're on, but practicing something, whether it's sketching, whether it's ideation, whether it's playing games out of Dave Grey and Sunny Brown's game storming book. There's any number of practice related activities that have to be part of our basic work.

And critique is the other piece. We do not do a good job of critique. Tomorrow, Adam Conner.... Adam, who are you presenting with? I'm sorry. Aaron. Adam and Aaron are doing a fabulous session - if it's like the one I saw Adam do last time - on critique, the role of critique, and the separation of where we're trying to get from what we actually do, and having a way to actually communicate amongst our peers in a productive communicative way to talk about goods and bads.

Again, this is one of the things that separates out the great organizations that we tend to see from the ones that really struggle, is that the great ones have dedicated practice, and dedicated critique elements.

The other thing is, I think we need to re think what we are doing with mentorship and apprenticeship. That our existing notion of you just find somebody and you talk to them every couple of months is not mentorship. Mentorship is actually looking over their work on a regular basis, and delivering the bad news that right now they suck. Apprenticeship is being really humble and putting your best work forward, and then finding out that guess what? You still suck.

And the connection of that, and having that in our workplace is absolutely key. I think that's absolutely essential. We do not have words that tell us what the difference is between good and bad design. We do not have a language of what makes up good design, and what makes up bad design. I think these languages have to happen, and I think these languages when they come about, will be really useful. This is the work that we've been doing with design principles. Because when you establish design principles that are to a specific project, I'm not talking about the global design principles of, "We have to make our design human and universal." But I'm talking about specific principles that say in this release we are going to focus on discoverability over completeness. That's a principle. And we're going to focus on that.

Now, we have to have conversations for the next four months about what the hell we meant by discoverability, and what the hell we meant by completeness. And that discussion creates a vocabulary. It creates an understanding. And we need to really push that in to that.

And finally we have to build up our curriculum. We have to understand, what does it take to do a good job? And then what separates the good from the great? We have to figure out who is doing great work, and start to really, to some extent, idolize and emulate those folks, much in the way that people idolize Francis Ford Coppola, or people idolize Federer or any other top of their craft type individual. We have to start building that up. And then dissecting what they do to deserve that idolatry. Because I think in that process we will come up with a curriculum that will teach us what it actually means to be great. And that will help us figure out who the best UX person in the world is. And that's what I came to talk to you about.

[applause]

2 thoughts on “The Most Valuable UX Person in the World

  1. Pingback: Effective Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Elevator Pitches

  2. Pingback: Prose Kiln | The most interesting technical writer in the world

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>