Under the cover: an interview with the authors of Undercover UX

September 30th, 2010
Published on
September 30th, 2010

User Experience Design isn’t an easy thing to do out in the open, let alone under the radar. Yet, somehow, this is exactly the subject that authors James Box and Cennydd Bowles tackle in their recent book, Undercover User Experience Design. This past week, I was fortunate enough to catch up with Cennydd and James to ask them a couple of questions. Read on to learn about the particular challenges they faced in making something so difficult look—well, read as if it were—easy. Enjoy!

First off, I want to start by thanking both of you guys for taking time out of your busy schedule (now that the book’s out!) to answer some questions for me on behalf of our community. I think that speaks volumes to your commitment to our field.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve read your blog, Cennydd, whenever you’ve had a chance to post. I like what’s written there for a variety of reasons: you seem to come to design from an honest, open place; your tone is really accessible, and you frequently share insights that only you can—insights that one might expect from working at a professional UX consultancy. Which leads me to my first question:

Both of you guys work for Clearleft, a self-described UX consultancy; so it would appear that neither of you are, in fact, practicing UX design “undercover.” How would you say that affected your ability to write the book?

You’re right; we’re lucky enough that we now work with clients and colleagues who genuinely understand the benefit of user experience design. But we didn’t always have it so easy. In our pre-Clearleftie careers, James had to build a UX proposition from scratch in an agency that had never previously shown any appetite for it. Cennydd worked in government and e-commerce businesses, where senior managers and product owners held the reigns of the website. But we managed to make decent headway despite our difficult environments, and wanted to share some of the techniques that worked for us. We also made some pretty awful mistakes, so the book is also a chronicle of things we learned the hard way.

We realize as relatively established UX designers we’re in a fortunate position. But through our training workshops, conferences and mentoring, we regularly meet people who are struggling to embed UX in their organization or who aren’t acknowledged as full-time UX specialists; so the book was largely born out of their questions and needs. This focus meant we had to leave out some high-level questions that were interesting to us but not relevant for our readers. It’s a ruthlessly practical book; you won’t find any discussions on “the philosophy of design” within its pages.

Many articles in the UX community are discussion pieces: various design deliverables are put forth and the pros and cons are weighed. Inevitably, though, I find us returning to the same design deliverables. How (if at all) have you guys broken that trend in this book? What comprised your filter for “undercover” user experience design methods?

Obviously Undercover UX Design does discuss deliverables, since they’re a recognized way to gain visibility for our work and explain our design recommendations. But they definitely aren’t our focus. We figure our readers will already know how to make a wireframe. Instead, we encourage people to focus on delivery, not deliverables. So while there’s some discussion of some less well-known deliverable formats such as the Page Description Diagram and Wireflow, we’re far more interested in helping people be effective within their organizations.

In particular, we feel there’s been scant coverage of the important role of critique in UX design as a way to ensure your colleagues understand and agree with your design choices. So we go into detail about how best to share your deliverables with others and how to solicit and accommodate their feedback in a positive way. Deliverables aren’t done until everyone agrees they’re ready to be turned into production.

Our main filter for undercover techniques is that they had to be quick, cheap and realistic. While we find detailed research can be immensely valuable on larger projects, in the real world we simply don’t have that kind of time or freedom very often. So we looked for ways to provide good-enough shortcuts that get you most of the way there without starting difficult conversations about budgets and authority. The purists may complain, but if it helps our readers make headway then we’ve done the right thing.

Moving on, the deliverable-oriented part your book explores a couple of techniques for “collaborative ideation,” something Sarah Nelson shared in her presentation at An Event Apart late last year. In your opinion, is the daily charge of an undercover UX designer closer to that of a facilitator, or a “genius designer”?

We wrestled with this exact question at first: how can a designer be “undercover” but still involve lots of stakeholders in collaborative design work? But the important thing about Undercover UX Design is that it’s not about keeping design a secret. Instead, it’s about getting people excited about UX without them realizing what you’ve done. If you’re in a company that doesn’t ascribe much value to user experience, you’re not going to have either the spare time or authority to go and make whatever changes you’d like in the name of UX. You need to help others to see the same way, lending clout to the cause. So your role will naturally be that of a facilitator, and the book focuses strongly on gaining allies and buy-in.

That said, you do want to become known as someone with design skill, so your contribution to the process should be a valuable and visible one. You’ll still have to make difficult decisions based just on your intuition (as is always the case with design), but however good you are, it’s far easier to work with people than against them. One part of that is using simple, accessible language to describe your UX techniques, so you’ll be pleased to hear we avoided use of the ugly “ideation” word throughout. Although it can be useful word to us designers, it’s the sort of ivory tower talk that makes non-designers roll their eyes.

Finally, near the end of your book you introduce a three-phased scale for gauging an organization’s UX maturity—maturity which, of course, comes with age. Many of the companies that I’ve worked with are startups, relative newcomers to the crazy world of the web. How. then, have you gauged the UX maturity of a startup? Is it appropriate to practice undercover UX in working with them? 

One good litmus test is how the organization responds to the idea of usability testing. In our experience, startups usually do understand and value the benefits of usability testing, but don’t always stay true to this belief and actually carry it out. They may have a reason for this (such as focusing on speed to market), but often this sort of testing doesn’t happen simply because no takes ownership. In this case, undercover UX is entirely appropriate. Motivated designers or developers have very little to lose—other than a lunchbreak or two—from carrying out some guerilla usability testing. They may just stumble upon something important.

As an agency, we’ll often carry out some guerilla testing when starting out with a new client, whether they’re a startup or multinational. Their response to the tests can give us valuable insight into the state of UX maturity within that organization, meaning we can choose our design strategy accordingly.

Startups in particular face resource pressures that can rule out UX “by the book.” Instead, designers need ways to work quickly, take the odd shortcut, and push in UX techniques wherever they can. Fortunately, that’s exactly what Undercover User Experience Design is all about.

Closing thoughts

That’s all for now, everyone. Thanks again to both James and Cennydd for taking time out of their post-book-buzz to take part in this interview. If you’ve got questions for either James or Cennydd, feel free to ask them below! The authors are very likely to be lurking around to see what the community has to say.

About the book

Undercover User Experience Design is a pragmatic guide from the front lines, giving frank advice on making UX work in real companies with real problems. Readers will learn how to fit research, generating ideas, prototyping and testing into their daily workflow, and how to design good user experiences under the all-too-common constraints of time, budget and culture.

Grab your copy today!

Don’t want to pay? How does free sound?

If you’re not up for paying for Undercover UX and would rather we just sent a free copy to your home or office, you’re in luck! As it turns out, Peachpit has generously offered to give three books away to our readers. To enter for a chance to win, simply follow @uxbooth on twitter and leave a comment (with your twitter handle) below telling us who would win in an arm-wrestling match: James of Cennydd. Based on the accuracy of your answers—kidding! No, in fact, we’ll randomly draw three members within a week of this post, and contact you over Twitter. See you in the comments below!

About our Guests

Cennydd Bowles

Cennydd Bowles is obsessed with making the web a better place and has several years’ experience of doing just that on e-commerce, government and community sites. As a user experience designer at Clearleft, he thinks, writes and practices information architecture, interaction design and usability like there’s no tomorrow.

James Box

James is a self-confessed ‘user experience professional’. Part information architect and part interaction designer, when he’s not crafting sandcastles on the beach, James crafts websites that are fun and easy to use.