On site insight: advice from a UX apprentice

Everyone’s journey to UX design is unique. For me, it all began in an academic environment that promoted marketing-oriented thinking. Eventually, though, I found myself in an environment that promoted a more analytical approach. The transition between the two wasn’t easy, so I’ve compiled the following pieces of advice for those in a similar position.

You see, I was brought up in a country where no one spoke about – let alone taught – user research at university. I studied Communication and Public Relations in Bucharest, and although I remember one class that taught market research methods, no one ever explicitly mentioned “user research” – or that a “user researcher” could actually be a full time profession. Instead, we learned that the most important part of the process was what came after a product was created: advertising, copywriting, etc. In other words, our future wasn’t in listening to users. Our future was in sales.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I decided to move to Berlin and came across a UX job ad …for which I was qualified! Soon thereafter, I was talking to three interviewers who asked me all sorts of strange questions: “Are you comfortable with talking to new people once on a while?” “How do you feel about sitting and observing?”, “Here’s some problems that our users have identified, what do you make of them?” That’s when I landed my first job as a student worker – an apprentice – on an actual user research team.

That’s when the fun began.

Seeing is believing

Being in an office where nearly half of what your colleagues talk about are unknown words and technical abbreviations can make you feel like quite a dummy. Aside from the fact that the products we were working with were completely new to me, there was this other gap I needed to bridge: NPS, API, SR, PT, ODML, PO, BO, PM, etc. So I created my own, secret text file. There I gathered and translated the mysterious concepts I heard day to day.

Greek writing on a blackboard

Learning UX design, like any language, takes time.

Like any apprentice, a large part of my job was comprised of passively observing the more experienced and knowledge people at the company. Soon, though, observation became an innate part of everything that I did. It was undoubtedly the part that helped me grow the most. Remember that text file I mentioned? The one with definitions? Add to that a scrapbook. There, I wrote down everything that I found meaningful.

It’s not enough just to look. You have to train yourself how to see. Seeing comes not from your eyes, but from your mind. Seeing means more than noticing; it means understanding. Understanding comes from introspection. The only way to remember everything you’ve noticed is to write it all down.

Whitney Hess

Build something bigger

Sometimes my work would consist of analyzing the transcripts of usability tests. Other times I would simply watch and edit test videos or keep track of the emotional behaviour of test participants. In the beginning I saw these as disjoint “things to be done.” After a while, though, I came to understand their value in the wider context of research methodology. As a researcher, each small, apparently insignificant task that we conducted was always part of something bigger. Our work was always part of an ongoing process, whether it is a process of improving a product or the process of improving ourselves as professionals.

Along with a bit of experience in the team came more important responsibilities, such as creating posters that would be seen by the whole company, moderating usability tests or presenting research findings to the designers. Eventually I was responsible for a full testing project: everything from taking care of organizational matters to planning the sessions to moderating and delivering the results. It was then that I grasped the meaning of each small task.

Serious. Fun.

So how did I pull of a full-scale testing project, you might ask? I planned. If there’s one thing UXers must be good at it’s planning. In my case, I had a web tool for organizing and prioritizing my tasks, set deadlines for most of the tasks and stuck to them. I encourage you to do the same and to pay close attention to detail. Choose the tone of voice, style, fonts and formats of your deliverables carefully as they are your calling card as a professional. (If there’s one thing I got out of school it’s that there’s a bit of PR in everything!)

This is far from expert advice, of course. There are plenty of people who’ve written books on project management and I’m not one of them. The best way I’ve learned is simply by trial and error. Although it wasn’t something I was comfortable with at the start, it eventually made the most sense. I can’t recall how many times my supervisor has said to me: “Don’t be scared to do this on your own. If you make any errors, you will learn. That’s what it is all about.”

Go with the flow

The basic idea behind user research is that if we look to our users we will create something better than if we had not. By its nature, user research implies constant learning revision. Be willing to do the same with your own person. Be ready to go through many changes quickly. Be ready to learn something every day.

I was often annoyed by the fact that I barely got used to a certain report template or mind mapping tool, that we had to adapt to new ones. Adapting and learning is not only a cognitive process, it’s also an emotional one. During my year and a quarter in this job, I’ve changed offices three times. I’ve also seen some of my most cherished features removed in order to give room to new ones. That’s the nature of our industry. Getting attached to places and products only holds you back! Learn to go with the flow and remember that it is all about improvement and building better things.

…But don’t stop there!

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention tools I used outside of my apprenticeship.

Books helped me get accustomed to analytical thinking and armed me with more practical skills. In this respect, Jeffrey Rubin and Dana Chisnell offer a good collection of advice for user researchers in their Handbook of Usability Testing: How to Plan, Design, and Conduct Effective Tests. From skills that a good researcher should have to step-by-step planning of a project, the book prepares you for part of the nice ride ahead and gives professional tips for improving your skills.

Writing helped me to collect my thoughts. Not only in my definitions lists, but in compiling this very article.

Have you gone through similar experiences while getting into UX? Or on the contrary, was it very different for you? It would be really exciting to hear some of your stories!

About the Author

Anne-Marie Florea

Anne-Marie Florea is part of the User & Design Research team within Nokia’s Location & Commerce business unit, based in Berlin, after working in the Communication department of several Bucharest-based advertising agencies. Her upcoming master degree in Media and Cultural Management is another jigsaw to the puzzle. She reaches bliss when writing, cooking and painting. Find her on Twitter as @annegreen or on her blog at http://www.hehasadream.blogspot.com

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Comments

  1. This is super helpful! Thank yo u for sharing! I’m trying to learn UX and get into the field, and this is a great perspective to hear :)

    • Anne-Marie Florea January 25, 2012

      Hey Anya, thanks! I’m happy you found this helpful, lots of luck in your UX quest! :)

  2. User research may be helpful to convince a prospective employer that you are grounded in academic principles of science and analysis to reach conclusions, but in my experience I’ve seen it lead more companies astray than create a product that matches their vision. Rather, it creates a product that matches many different users’ disjointed, whimsical habits – users who naturally have not given in depth thought to your market and the tradeoffs required to advance it significantly.

    Witness: Apple – a fairly well-known leader in UX design. They have never done user research. Why? Because, to quote Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

    • Hey Jason,

      In general, I agree with your comment: most people *should* beware doing up-front user research – that’s not because user research is inherently bad, mind you, it’s just that it’s often conducted incorrectly.

      User research informs the products we plan to build based on the products we’re currently using. In the case of startups, this is a non-starter. Startups (who are charged with creating a brand new product) need to practice a different kind of user-centered design process that simply can’t rely on extensive user research. This is in sharp contrast to established companies such as Nokia – which Anne-Marie works for – who are constantly working on improving their products (read: phones). Nokia *needs* to first understand how their phones are being used before they build a new one.

      All of this is to say: it depends on the company/product’s lifecycle whether or not research is necessary. It’s always an important consideration.

    • Anne-Marie Florea January 27, 2012

      Thanks Jason for bringing up this point!
      And thanks Andrew for giving such a complete answer – I couldn’t have put this better.

      To add a short point on why user research can be very useful and important in some cases: the company I work for not only produces phones, but also phone and web applications such as Nokia Maps, which needs to be not only up to date – but also easy and intuitive for daily use.

      Some of the applications must even provide (strange as it can sound) a good degree of safety, for example navigation apps.
      In this case, a company’s vision alone won’t do :).

  3. Hi Anne-Marie, as an aspiring UI/UX designer, I want to thank you for sharing your experiences. I agree, observations are really the key. But observing alone is not enough. I find I am always jotting things down on my phone.

    At first, they seem to be scattered information. But it’s like a treasure hunt and a puzzle at the same time. Hunt for all the clues, and then piece them together!

    Cheers!
    Ruby

    __

    I meant to say that I also agree that observing alone is not enough.. Haha Or else it sounds like I’m disagreeing with you.. which is not the case! :)

    • Anne-Marie Florea February 21, 2012

      Hey Ruby,

      Thank you for reading the article and you’re right, observation alone represents just data. Placing it into context can transform it into knowledge, which can then be used to improve something :).

      Cheers,
      Anne

  4. Anne-Marie, thank you so much for quoting my comments on observation. Really means a lot.

    • Anne-Marie Florea February 21, 2012

      Well, you were the one inspiring me – so I thank you, Whitney! :)

  5. Ricardo Silva January 30, 2012

    Hello Anne-Marie..
    Was great to read your story and insights on your career path..
    I’m trying to do the other way, I am originally an engineer and want to leave the “coding” aside to dive on UI and UX design..
    I agree that design shouldn’t be all driven by user research, but it’s important to observe them, especially for evaluating the usage flow and levels of satisfaction of the users.

    • Anne-Marie Florea February 21, 2012

      Hi Ricardo,

      Thank you for the comment!
      I think you have a great advantage (considering your profession so far), that of truly understanding the products to their very core, right?
      I wish you good luck and lots of good inspiration (along with it comes the motivation…).

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