Episode Highlights and Show Notes:
Arsalan: today I have the pleasure of interest introducing you to a user experience guru. He has written a book and is in the process of writing a book in an audio format as well about user experience. Usually I asked my guess about themselves first, but I think I’m going to change it up a little and ask him about user experience first. What is this user experience, Ed?
Ed: That’s a great question and the challenges all of us to try to make an adequate explanation of it. User experience as a whole is just the result of using any product or service. Second to that is user experience design. That’s the professional application of trying to create effective user experiences. That often becomes a combination of taking what a user wants to do and what a business wants to do and trying to find ways of reconciling that so that you have a good user experience resulting from that.
Arsalan: Now that we have that out of the way, let me introduce you. Your name is Edward Stull and you are a consultant and you do user experience design. How do you describe yourself?
Ed: Well, you know, I think you just did a great job with it. When I introduce myself, I usually tell people that I am a user experience designer and researcher. About half of my work is the actual design, where I’m trying to generate sometimes documents, but often it is brainstorming and trying to help teams solve software and sometimes digital marketing issues. The other half is a combination of primary and secondary research. It’s not as robust as a traditional academic role, but a lot of times I do a combination of usability research, accessibility research, and third-party research.
Ed: I spend a lot of time going through research reports, as well as secondary and tertiary research sources to be able to be able to support any types of decisions were doing concerning software with evidence.
Arsalan: So, are you doing this research as part of a billable work project for a client or just to keep up to date?
Ed: I would say that at least the way I was defining it the first time is that it tends to be a paid engagement. Not all projects require research and there’s not always the case where you have to do a large research study. Sometimes it’s a matter of just doing the due diligence and realizing what audience you are speaking to or, say, a client’s business and the sector they operate in. That could just end up being research. There is also a lot of research just to keep yourself marketable. It’s just the state of the nation in terms of what’s going on from a UX and information architecture perspective.
Arsalan: Besides user design and experience you’ve also dabbled in programming. Can you tell us a little bit about your experiences in programming, what you’ve done so far, and how you got started with that?
Ed: I think I would completely under pressure audience with my knowledge of programming. But, it makes me a better user experience designer. My knowledge is primarily based on scripting languages and things like HTML and client side work. My work with iPhone apps has helped me a lot. It has really helped me understand that type of structure thinking has really helped me to understand system based design, being a lot more cognizant of the fact of any type of user experience, design or deliverables that I’m doing. It has really helped me to be more cognizant of the people who I’m working with and has helped me to better collaborate with developers hand-in-hand, or work with anyone who’s going to receive the product that I’m designing. It is something that makes me better at what I’m doing.
Arsalan: So, you have done a whole lot of different things. My feeling is that you have not studied computer programming and a formal environment. You’ve probably also not studied user experience in a formal environment. I’m saying that because I don’t know if anyone is actually teaching that. So, what was your education like?
Ed: I actually went to school thinking I was going to be a painter. I ended up graduating with an advertising degree. Then, I was a creative director for a while. I kind of migrated into doing user experience close to fifteen years ago or so when it was more commonly called IA work or information architecture. User experience has essentially evolved out of that, as well as a few other disciplines.
Arsalan: although your education wasn’t directly related to what you’re doing right now, do you think your education was helpful?
Ed: I think most people find themselves in a career at some time wondering if there formal education helped. There are adjacencies with what I’ve learned. For instance, the research perspective helped because I had some wonderful copywriting instructors. Although that may not sound like it’s related, it did help in terms of the structure thinking that it required. To be able to really ferret out and say what is the data that you’re working with and then trying to arrange or rearrange that in some new way. If that happens to be written prose for copywriting or formal research projects or information architecture with UA and UX design. These things come off of a common origin even though the results are often different.
Arsalan: I think I’m really excited to have you here tonight because you are a user experience expert and I have my opinions on user experience. It’s very general. It’s nothing very specific. I’ve read parts of your book and I am completely overwhelmed and I don’t think I could talk to about user experience. My idea of user experience is the quality of interactions that a user goes through that results in a satisfactory outcome and that’s very subjective.
Arsalan: In my worldview, every user interaction should result in a happy customer. It should result in a customer who is able to achieve the goal that he or she set out to do when using the application and that should be done in a way that’s compliant.
Arsalan: In my world, if your application is slow and it forces the user to change their behavior in their activities just to work with your application that is a bad user experience. I know that some people have no clue about user experience and they may even think that it has something to do with user interfaces, which it is in a way. UI and UX have one thing in common and that is you. From my point of view, I should know how to create a good user experience for my users. We need more people to go into user experience and design. That’s why I had you on, to inspire some people. Hopefully, a lot of our listeners can think about it, read your book, and perhaps start working as user experience designers, and perhaps you can mentor them.
Ed: I think your explanation of it was very spot on. Everything that you said was exactly correct, but I would add that the user experience is not only giving the user what they want but also reconciling them with the goals of the business. It’s important to also make the application fast performing. A well-performing application, even poorly designed, is far better than a poorly performing application, well designed.
Ed: What I often tell people to do is to imagine an iPhone app or an android app that you are using and it just has one button on it that says ‘give me a dollar’. Everyone in the world would click that button to see what it does, thinking it must be fantastic. Now, every business in the world would love to have that button read ‘give us a dollar’ so that every user who hits that button is going to essentially give the business a dollar. Neither one of those cases is going to be worthwhile. If every time you hit the button, you got a dollar from the business, that business would go out of business pretty quickly. If every time you hit that button you gave a dollar and got nothing in return. Then as a user you were not being paid off. So, there has to be some way of reconciling this kind of value.
Arsalan: I think we may have to have you come back to this podcast a couple of times to really dig deep into the psyche of what we need to have in our head to really produce good user experiences. I think that this is a very deep topic. How you keep your skills up to date? You do a ton of reading and research and you’re dabbling in program development for iPhones and android apps among other things. You have a busy life. How do you keep your skills up to date?
Ed: honestly, I’m really not all that unique in trying to keep these things up to date. I do probably have a little more time available to me as a consultant. I’m probably lynda.com’s biggest user. There are many great sources, but that is just endlessly fascinating to me that you can listen to tutorials and screencasts and pick up anything to gain a functional knowledge of things. It’s nothing that would be professionally viable, but it’s enough for me to kind of gauge and learns a few things. That then spawns me to Google the heck out of stuff. If I run into something and I don’t know what it is, then I might go over to Stackoverflow or something. It’s almost like task-based learning.
Ed: you had mentioned something like that in one of your recent podcast with Derek Bailey, I believe. You mentioned just-in-time learning. A lot of that stuff resonates with me too. I love reading a book from cover to cover, but I often find that if I need to build something in a development language that I don’t have a whole lot of personal experience with, this kind of learning helps me to take care of a particular task.
Arsalan: That’s a really good point. And as you mentioned, the just-in-time learning idea is that you only learned the thing that you need right now. You don’t learn for the sake of learning. I’ve done both. I love to learn for the sake of learning because I’m so curious. I just want to know. But, I know that it takes a toll on my own time and sanity. Sometimes I just learn as I need to learn. If I’m building a particular website and I need authentication for that, I learned how to do authentication.
Ed: I think there are some people who are inherently more curious than others. You really do run into a situation where there just isn’t enough time to learn everything that you want. What I often try to do is triage it in a way. There are things that I have to do to keep my lights on as a consultant. All of that stuff is kind of like a first level priority. The second is kind of what we’ve talked about with trying to solve different tasks. But, the third level is where I will pick something up that perhaps I’m weak at, but am interested in.
Ed: If you are just learning things to kind of keep your lights on, then it can be exhaustive. Some people are better at it than me. I think there’s this way where you can find these various levels of learning where you’re like okay this is the type of learning that’s keeping me gainfully employed, this is the stuff I need to do, and these are the things that are interesting to me that don’t necessarily contribute to the first two levels. It’s a lot easier to keep the momentum going, if you make it a regular habit.
Arsalan: That’s an excellent point. You have to schedule this learning. It’s not just going to happen. If someone says “in my free time I will learn to ask,” then there is a very strong possibility that you will never have free time. If free time means that I am not doing anything, then I don’t have any free time because I am always doing something, even if it’s just watching TV. But if I put it in my schedule, like if I say one hour before I go to bed, I am going to do this thing that becomes a task for me. It is not part of my free time anymore. It’s work.
Arsalan: If you treat learning like work, then, over time you will accumulate all of this learning that seems impossible. Imagine doing that for a whole month. Say you do one hour a day for thirty days. Now you have thirty hours of learning.
Arsalan: While you do have to learn some things, as you said to keep the lights on, you also have to learn some things to broaden your horizons. You also need to learn what to learn. Let’s take web development as an example. Every six months to a year. The technology landscape changes all the time. New languages and frameworks and tools come out. It’s a never ending ride. So, how do I know what I should learn?
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