Hiring a UX

One of the side effects of running UXMTL, a growing local community forum for Montrealers interested in UX design, is that I’d often get asked: “Know a good information architect?” “Who’s the top UI person in town?” “Do you know an amazing UX person I can hire?”

I find myself employing a favourite answer of UXers: “it depends” — because it does. UX spans over a wide range of skillsets and knowledge areas; like any other field, we have specialists and generalists. The best person for one job may not turn out to be the right person for another.

If you’re looking to hire someone to help you out, there are a few questions you can clarify before you seek out a UX designer to work with:

  • What kind of work do you need done?
  • Are you looking for someone to visualize an existing concept?
  • Are you looking for someone to help you make sense of raw ideas and create a strategy for what works?
  • What kind of site, or application are you building?
  • Is it predominantly for mobile, desktop, or are you planning for a ubiquitous presence?
  • Is your product content/editorial-heavy, flow-driven or is it a new, radical concept?
  • Are you predominantly looking for feedback?
  • What is the size of your budget — if you’d like to hire the top folks in town, do you have the cash for it?

Depending on your answers to these questions (and there are of course, more), you could end up with a few candidates with different strengths and skillsets. There’s also a fairly good chance that you need more than one UX person on your team.

There are already some good resources out there for how to put a UX team together, and this will also help you figure out what kinds of questions you need to be asking:

Good luck and happy hiring!

Sustainable advertising for sustainability?

Late last week Planet 100 covered their top-5 “eco-shock campaigns”. It’s somewhat disturbing that these videos (some produced as long ago as 2008) are handed kudos in such a crass fashion. There’s enough debate around shock advertising, but in the case of climate change, I’m not convinced that this is the right way to go.

Yes, you can argue that they “raise awareness”, that they generate buzz and cut through your advertising-clogged media experience (pick any). Yes, it’s great that Greenpeace’s “Have a break” video induced a response from Nestlé. But perhaps it shouldn’t escape us that this kind of advertising works best when we have something concrete to lose — such as potential revenue loss in the face of bad publicity — as in the case of Nestlé. Other than that, it’s not proven that shock effects lead to active, positive actions. In particular, we need to tread carefully for an issue as sensitive as climate change — just look back at the kind of news we’ve been hearing for the better part of the last two months: scientists are being accused of over-exaggerating the scale of the issue.

If we are having trouble swallowing that the nature of science includes uncertainty, how is shock advertising going to help? What we are likely to get are more people crying foul at how we’re tugging at their heartstrings. This is one issue we cannot afford to create a desensitized public with our actions; the eco movement should really know better and rise above short-sighted advertising tactics that are rapidly becoming old. Can we, instead, look at championing outreach methods are culturally sustainable?

ALD 2010: Things Dey taught me

Ada Lovelace Day is an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science. Find out more on findingada.com.

If I were to look back at my long journey as a web professional spanning over a decade and to identify my key influences, the person who truly set me on the path I am on today…is Dey. Young and naive as I was, a relatively fresh Computer Science graduate at the time, fate had me share an office with Dey. Our web department for a major university was made up of a grand total 4 people. Our job was to keep the main web site (and some web services) running and alive. I was the web developer and code-monkey; Dey worked on usability, interface design, liaising with marketing and communications — the stuff we simply used to call “web design”.

At the time, the job of maintaining websites for Faculties and Departments often fell onto the shoulders of administrative staff who had little or no web training. It was Dey’s idea to create free weekly (or was it fortnightly?) lunch time sessions to give free coaching to staff; faculties and departments didn’t quite have money for training. It was the web, right? In 1999, it was hard to understand that the web would be as important as it is today. Then Dey started up a webgrrls chapter at the university, except we had to be “web girls” in order not to be in conflict with the Melbourne chapter. (My memories are fuzzy, I don’t remember the details…. but oh look, the website still exists.)

Dey taught me the beginnings of everything that shaped my work all these years: web standards, accessibility, usability, information architecture and design. Even after I left the university, and even when my job title was technically “web developer” for a long while afterwards, I brought best web practices with me and taught fellow colleagues wherever I went, because Dey showed me that the only way we could create a better web was to cultivate a culture of continuous learning. Dey got me motivated into grassroots movements, mentoring younger girls still finishing up their computing degrees. Dey brought me to Melbourne Web Accessibility Group meetings, which later spurred me to get involved with projects like MACCAWS, and the Web Standards Project, which I still contribute to today after many years of active involvement.

One day, Dey brought her new camera into work to test it out before taking it with her on a trip to India. She showed me a few websites she found on photography shooting tips. Just like that, she simultaneously inspired me to learn photography (today, I still shoot film) and incited an urge to visit India (something I haven’t managed to do yet). Dey taught me how to identify a corked bottle of wine. For some unknown reason, Dey liked to see me on bourbon, and would generously feed me a couple of bourbon and coke after work every now and again. Let’s not underestimate this skill — years later, in professional situations, I still silently thank Dey for the unorthodox training when I can outdrink my client, my boss, or my manager.

I have no idea where I’d be today if it weren’t for Dey and her generosity in imparting what she knows, and for inspiring me to continue doing the same. Thank you, Dey!

Unlecturing in Barcelona

A little over three weeks ago when I happened to be in Barcelona, my friend Professor Carlos Scolari snagged me for a guest appearance in one of his classes. I hadn’t done an “unlecture” before — being technically on holiday and it being a last-minute arrangement — I came armed with my brain and not much else. I spoke to a small roomful of 20-22 year-old students in Advertising and Public Relations. They were already well acquainted with knowledge of usability, accessibility and social media — I was very impressed.

We talked a little about web standards, user testing methods, how branding intersects with user experience goals, and discussed examples of sites that had well-designed (or badly designed) information architecture and content. Everyone was a Facebook user, and they would prefer to have things advertised or referred directly to them through Facebook or Tuenti. And no, they don’t watch television anymore, unless it’s on their laptops.

It reminded me of some research done by Solutions Research Group that I have seen quoted (but not directly available online), presented at NEXTMedia Toronto last year. While this research referred to the US/Canada market, it is interesting, though perhaps not surprising, to note that Millenials in Spain have similar characteristics. Because the idea of “destinations” on the web no longer quite exists in the same way in their mindset, they wonder why there’s any point in building more brand-contextual/niche social networks that are in competition to where they spend their time — Facebook and similar networks. I find this very fascinating. I don’t think this means we should build everything over Facebook Connect, but it’s hard to see an alternative model.

At that juncture, the class and I discussed about how technology moves fast, and with it, many user habits change, that different generations exhibit different levels of comfort with technology and different usage patterns. With this broad scope, it really does comes down to answering the question: who are you designing for?

There wasn’t time to go into detail about profiling users, but we identified iRobot as a company that’s getting things right, targeting “people who don’t have time to clean”, and “people with pets”. A few of the students actually had Roombas. Again, I was impressed.

On greatness and love

Early on in the week, Tara Hunt asked us if we “would sacrifice love for greatness”:

Do you have to sacrifice love for greatness? And, if so, what would be your choice?

(Disclosure: I was also at the Comfort Food Club dinner.) It reminded me that I wrote a very short post several years ago about the choices presented to us as women:

[…] In front of the fireplace, we discussed how today’s feminists have relatively little interest in [Simone de Beauvoir’s] work, and that certain women have rejected her because she chose not to have children.

The lack of interest is understandable — she belongs to a different time when the feminism battle was different.

However, the rejection seems to me a little uncalled for, even though I can see the basis for it. Today’s first-world woman has been given the choice of having a family, a career and a personal life. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that these choices have not always been present and that our rights were hard-fought, that I think women today tend to feel we must have all three. The fact of the matter is, we don’t. The idea behind choices is that we can choose, that we are no longer imprisoned behind society’s demands. Just because we have these choices available to us does not mean we have to take everything that we can.

This is where I agree with Tara: it’s difficult to pursue a love-focused life at the same time as a life that is purposeful — especially in the context of wanting to change the world.

Where I disagree with Tara, is that greatness is what history sees of you, and that’s where you may not have any choice in the matter. Such as in the case of poor Simone. It wasn’t lost on me that even if you’re an intelligent, independent, thinking woman of your time, you could well be painted into history as a supporting actress to an apparently greater man. Remember that quote tinged with misogyny: “Behind every great man …”. Lucky as I am to have had relationships that were built on love as much as on intellect, I’m well aware that if the man you’re with becomes known for major changes in history (say, someone like Sartre), it’s easy to forget the woman quite likely helped him shape his ideas. Therefore, women have had to carve our own path and often reject social norms to be acknowledged by history in the same light.

Almost 15 years ago, a teacher in philosophy gave our little group of student-thinkers a topic of discussion: what is greatness? It struck me then: like everything, “greatness” is relative. A world-changing innovation, like nuclear energy, may be the most amazing scientific discovery until your city is struck by an atomic bomb. I remembered saying cautiously, “I could say … my mother is great.” She was a teacher of physics and mathematics in South East Asia, no small feat for a woman in a developing country in the 1970s. She inspired her students, who wouldn’t have seen how she held our home together. My mother trod the fine line of the strong, intelligent woman where our culture and history could barely acknowledge her achievements.

Fast forward several years later, I volunteered in a group that helped students in the university gain access to free Unix accounts in order they could learn more hard core computing than what was taught in classes. A group leader and friend said to me one day in passing, “We teach what we know, and hopefully, those we teach will go on to teach others.” This was back sometime in 1998, and he was describing a positive feedback loop that results in network effect.

For some reason, that stuck with me. Greatness does not necessarily involve taking the world on. It is first about doing what you believe in, whether recognition or not is in order. Greatness comes much later, and greatness is something that is attributed to you and the impact of your actions, not something you can strive for. What one can do on the road to greatness is to have an ambition for change, but it is to first affect those in our direct sphere of influence. Changing the world does not require, well, changing the whole world at once. It requires persistence in changing those you can reach.

All that aside, I’m one of the lucky few that has been chosen by love, so I have never felt as if “love vs greatness” is a choice I have to make, or that I have a right to make. It’s a choice forced upon that those who love me: they take my energy, passion, ambition and my incessant activism for a better world as a part of me. The honest truth is: it’s not a sacrifice that I make, but it’s a sacrifice made by those who love me.