My user experience design journey; a reflection

Helen speaking at Tech Nottingham

At this time of year, it’s often a good opportunity to look back on the past and see where we’ve come from before looking to the future. My first full immersion into UX was NUX3, (Northern UX conference) in 2014, an all-day event focussed on how an understanding of people can help you define, design and build better experiences.

I had just quit a full-time graphic and web design job to start a web design company with my husband and I was in the early stages of starting to call myself a UX designer.

For those that aren’t familiar with the term ‘user experience’ or ‘UX’, it is the process of enhancing the user satisfaction on a website/app/product by improving the usability, accessibility and pleasure in providing interaction with the product.

Sat pondering at the conference, I started off feeling positive about the talks, but as the day progressed, I realised that I was completely out of my depth. By the end of the day, and upon reflecting on the experience, I felt deflated.

I chastised myself for thinking I was a UX designer. I’d just had business cards produced with UX designer as my job title and I wanted to throw them away and revert back to visual designer, where I belonged.

I was just me

That’s not to say that there was anything wrong with the conference itself, it was well-rounded with great speakers. But at the time, at least from my perspective, it seemed that UX was a team sport.

The speakers were from DWP, Salesforce, and dedicated UX consultancy companies, who were talking about the work they were doing with large organisations. I was just me. How was I going to be able to convince our much more modest clients that they needed to invest in UX?

Who was I going to learn from if I was the only designer? What was I going to do to get from this place to some form of, yet to be defined, success?

UX became more prevalent

This year the story is a little different. Recently I attended NUX6 and had a completely different experience. Rather than feeling out of my depth, I felt that the talks validated my own thoughts, my plans and my learnings. Rather than confidence-breaking, it was confidence-boosting.

So what’s changed? How have I changed over the last three years? Or is it the industry that has changed? Was I mistaken three years ago that UX was just for the big leagues?

We could certainly argue that UX year-on-year has become more prevalent, more requested by businesses. “We need some UX” is now on many businesses’ minds, even if they’re not completely sure what this “UX” thing is.

Organisations such as Government Digital Service (GDS) who led the way on transforming Gov.uk, plus design teams at Co-op Digital and BBC.co.uk, to name only a few, brought the concept of UX to the forefront of digital design. Their focus on UX has probably drip-fed through to the smaller businesses and companies, generating interest like never before.

The early days

So in 2014, I had a problem: how was I going to convince my clients that they needed UX and they needed me to deliver it? Looking back there’s not a single point in time that I can identify as ‘now I’m a UX designer’, it’s been a more organic process than that (and that imposter syndrome still creeps in every now and again).

Each project we took on in my own business got a little bigger and allowed a little more budget to do more until we got to the point where we could do user research, detailed IA and user testing.

Despite working on bigger and better projects, I was always conscious that I was the only designer in our two-person team. Was I even doing things right? As designers, we need peers. We need other designers working in different situations, with different clients, stakeholders, and in different environments to learn from and share knowledge with. When I started our company, I didn’t have those peers and it was hard going.

Getting ‘out there’

In 2015, I submitted a talk on inclusive web design to the Port80 conference. Buoyed by a successful project where we’d learned a lot and created some new ways of working for us, I felt the need to share it. To my utter surprise, it was accepted. This was a turning point in ‘becoming an expert’. Maybe I knew what I was doing after all. Or at least convincing in my application. Probably a bit of both.

Being accepted as a conference speaker opened more doors than I had ever anticipated. I was asked to speak at DxN, then, a fairly new design event in Nottingham where I was speaking the same night as Andy Clarke, who is a very well-known web designer, speaker and author (no pressure!). Since that first invitation, I’ve been back twice (they’re probably getting sick of me now) to deliver other talks, one on delightful design and the other a follow-on talk on inclusivity. I was also approached by leading web design magazine Net to publish an article based on the Port80 talk.

Earlier this year I was delighted to be listed on the top 343 female tech speakers in the UK. It was a surprise and a privilege to be listed with fantastic female speakers across the industry, some of whom I’ve seen speak at other events. Last August I was invited to an event in London to meet the other women on the list and promote women in tech; which, as an organiser of Women in Tech Nottingham, is a subject close to my heart.

Speaking in the here and now

Over the past year I’ve presented a few different talks at a range of events from conference; to meet ups; to, most-recently, guest speaking to the designers at the Co-op digital headquarters.

I still get nervous. It’s a big thing to put yourself in front of people and talk. So why do I do it? It comes back to peers. I want to share what I learn and I want to learn what other people know. As the only UX designer, I need access to that knowledge. This has lead to me being a regular event attendee. I go to design events, tech events and co-organise Women in Tech.

Sometimes I hear talks so far away from my day-to-day role, or so technical,  that I don’t really understand them, but I want to be exposed to new ideas, even if they go above my head. Through events, I’ve also built up an amazing community of UX designers. We share what we’re working on and provide each other with encouragement and support. We push each other to be better designers. I wouldn’t be where I am today without those peers and friends.

The power of going it alone

The biggest change that I can attribute to being the person I am today, was going it alone. Running our own business allowed me the freedom to choose what to learn and how I was going to work. After two and a half years, we wound the business down and I decided to move into a consultancy role where I was contracted to design a new product. For the first time, it was just me. I had to make my own decisions and be confident in leading the project.

Over the last few years, reading and learning had been an important part of my development, but now, it was essential. I had to know what I was doing. This was daunting but also liberating. I was the hired expert to deliver in whatever way worked best for the team, the stakeholders and the product.

Changes at Katapult

After a few months of consultancy, I joined Katapult as their UX lead. This was a switch away from product design and back to client-facing work. This was a big decision as internal product design and client-facing design are two very different ways of working, The principles are interchangeable, the processes can be the same. But whereas product design involves working with an internal team focussing on building and iterating a product; client design work is about quickly understanding client and user needs, not knowing at the outset what the best digital product for them will be.

As such, at Katapult, we begin any large-scale project with a discovery phase. This usually involves a one-day session including a variety of workshops to enable our team to understand our clients and their users’ needs. But also to help our clients clarify the project and business goals, their users’ goals and to ensure that the different stakeholders are in agreement of the scope of the project before it goes into production.

I recently changed role from leading the interaction design team to moving back into a consultancy role. This is to allow me to focus on the initial discovery aspect, facilitating workshops to ensure we’re designing the solution to the right problem. As a client-facing designer, I have to be able to talk to clients in a way that they trust my expertise and that of our team.

Speaking has helped build confidence, but it was running my own business that has made the biggest difference. I can speak to my clients as peers. I understand their business needs as I understood my own. Empathy and perspective taking are key components to being a UX designer. There are many analogies that can describe UX design, but for me, I think of myself as the bridge. I connect our clients’ goals to their users’ goals. I advocate the users, but I understand and support our clients’ needs too.

We never stop learning

I can’t overemphasise the importance of trust in digital design. Users need to trust that the business or service isn’t misleading them, clients need to trust that the designer understands their business, their customers and what they’re trying to achieve, and the designer has to trust themselves to deliver something that’s going to meet those expectations.

As designers, we never stop learning and wanting to improve ourselves. There’s many areas of UX that I don’t have an intimate understanding of and wouldn’t call myself an expert in, so that’s where I’m heading. I’ve come a long way over the past three years, but there’s still a long road ahead. The future is always unknown and there’s always more to learn.

First published at katapult.co.uk