Crafting a New Reality for Education and Career Decisions: Lead With UX

The take-away feeling an end user records from an experience in a digital environment reigns supreme. With almost any product or service accessible via wifi and a connected device, user behavior is most accurately analyzed with patterns of interaction between people and technology devices. In fact, many people spend a significant portion of their day “glued” to mobile screens (for the average consumer, that’s 5 hours per day), scanning social accounts, browsing trends, visualizing their ideal self and inevitably measuring digital self-worth.

Equally important, people search for answers to difficult life-questions using digital experiences as validation. And they are convinced by their findings, certain their devices (and someone else’s experience) confirm reality. Whether this is good or bad, it supports the idea that people can arrive at sensible conclusions upon interacting with well-designed digital touchpoints — websites, web apps, and mobile apps.

With this understanding of the digital world, we believe the described experiences increasingly influence the way a person thinks about the following four questions:

Who do you want to be in life?

What do you want to do?

What makes you happy?

What is your passion?

Referring to younger generations (ahem… millennials and gen z), people commonly learn about their “authentic” desires through research conducted on a smartphone, often dreaming vicariously over project photos or videos shared by someone with a “purposeful” occupation/existence. Ultimately, these experiences influence the discovery phase for both students and young working adults:

What do you want to study?

What school do you want to attend?

What career path do you want to pursue?

What company do you want to work for?

John Richardson, an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa and head of English at Ashbury College reiterates that “Technology is less intentional and more intuitive for 32% of the population, and their social skills are morphing into a hybrid of technology and face-to-face contact” — therefore, solutions must be designed to reflect these nuances.

Most importantly, if digital thresholds have become the gateway for self-discovery, we (as journey crafters) want to further examine this same process in order to support young people in making better (well-informed) choices about their education and career. We repeatedly talk about the rising costs of attending universities and how difficult it is to correlate a degree with success — or passion with career prosperity — in the real world. And it’s time we further examine the many options already being touted as the future of learning, the ones that have been available for years and may simply be in need of experienced and strategic UX designers to better craft their purpose and impact for developing generations.

Believe in the User and Their Experience

It’s time we embrace the inherent superficial value of digital and social media as a life-advice tool — our pixel reality — that empowers people to believe in themselves, explore new opportunities, and provide constant reinforcement through it’s craftily designed feedback loop: claps, likes, shares, comments, or “You have to see this!”

While watching the ‘Astrology’ episode of the Netflix series, Explained, scientists and current astrologists presented data supporting the idea that something doesn’t need to be real in order to have real effects — sorta like social media. It’s called the placebo effect, and it states: The belief in something can be enough for it to work.”

In fact, further research proves that many people admittedly know they are taking “the fake pill” (or accepting an absence of the real thing) yet still record a positive effect.

Feel better faster with the reassuring words from the doc; a bit of wishful thinking, don’t you think? Not quite. A new study conducted by Stanford University revealed the true power of believing in a positive outcome: healing. The study, published by Alia Crum, assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University’s School of Humanities and Sciences, hints at the use of the placebo effect beyond pills. Healthcare providers, in this case, significantly reduced healing times of allergic reaction patients using encouraging words about recovery times.

As you can see, if the effect (and affect) is in our minds, and belief is enough to inspire realness, companies should be more willing to support UX designers and more importantly, the UX process. UX practitioners craft journeys that empower people to be moved: students to personalize their education, workers to develop their professional path. All according to what people want, feel, and most importantly, believe.

Academics, careers and finances; these are key factors every student should consider before making one of the most important decisions of their lives: what college to attend and what career to pursue. But how does a developing adult gather the key information required to make sound choices on such weighted subjects? e believe personalized digital experiences can have a profound impact on a person’s choices, leading to greater feelings of success and ultimately happiness.

‘Money’s Build Your Own Rankings’ tool is a great example: it enables prospective students — and parents — to quickly adjust their needs (the input) and receive a research-supported list of schools and programs best suited for their life (the output). Not only does this provide simplicity, it reduces the frustration felt by those who truly don’t have the time and resources to independently identify their best options.

Good Design and Passion for the Problem

Considering the obstacles students and institutions currently face (affordability, location, academic preparedness, program choices, etc.), Designing North Studios recognizes that addressing these challenges with good design solutions is also really good business.

As the previous Director of Web Communications & Branding at Stanford Law School, Lisa Peacock (Designing North Studios’ Executive Creative Director) has been thinking about this for years, and was asked to  develop a tool for law students while at Stanford: SLS Navigator. This web app enables students to not only find courses offered at the law school based on their area of law interest, but across the entire university as well. It also suggests journals to reference, blogs to read, influencers to follow, and in some instances connects them with alumni who work day-to-day in those areas. The real stand-out feature, is that it also helps the students to ‘cover their bases’ – if they can’t decide between criminal law and corporate law, the app shows them courses they can take that work for both (just in case). That saves students from not heading down one wrong path, or delaying graduation because they didn’t take the right courses. What a concept, right? When asked about the project, Lisa had this to share:

“I think that every school should have something like this. I started with the following premise: what do I want to be when I grow up? Then you can take courses, read things, follow people, etc. that might cover various paths — so when you finally decide on a specific path, you’ve at least made some initial broad decisions that still count towards graduation and your focus.”

Simple, user friendly, and results oriented, SLS Navigator is still relevant ten years after its inception, and remains a testament to the positivity felt from good, inclusive design. Additionally, as it pertains to the student experience, let’s acknowledge that the process involved in choosing an education and career path must always account for the evolving needs of a digital-savvy (not dependent) generation.

The amount of data at our fingertips today is unprecedented, and what better way to use this information then design solutions to reduce uncertainty for students burdened with life choices: what school to attend, what career to pursue, where to live, and how much to spend. In a way, this approach embraces the art of paying it forward — helping the people who society will eventually rely on to create positive change in the future.

At this very moment, designers, scientists, and educators are looking for new ways to collaborate, with the vision that all students will eventually feel empowered to personalize their campus — or virtual — experience. As a design studio, it’s our goal to simplify the digital matrix of tools, processes, and lingo which serve as a means to this vision, while crafting thoughtful experiences for everyone involved. It’s what we love to do.

 

Digital Designers and Drug Dealers: We All Need The User

Nobody wants to be called a user. In grade school, that meant you only pretended to be friends with Tina because you really liked Amy. User. In high school, when your mom found Jack’s badly rolled joint in your jeans pocket on a pre-wash inspection, she freaked. Oh my gosh honey, are you a user!? But once you found yourself in the digital design world, the seemingly unsophisticated and often maligned moniker ‘user’ took on a more positive mantle. In fact, it opened the door to thought-provoking conversations about design, experience, and the joy that is felt as people interact with something that is well-designed. More recently, it’s being treated as an undesirable label again, attributed to a form of rather careless behavior on the part of the digital labeler: Oh no, we shan’t call them ‘users’.

Sigh. I think we’re going to have to toughen up. The practice of UX (User Experience) in its classical sense, demands a conceptual context with a blend of human factors and ergonomics that without a doubt, needs a user. Co-founder of the UK-based agency Clearleft, Andy Budd, recently participated in a lengthy and enlightening interview with Digital Arts that thoroughly covered his take on the biggest morphisms in UX; much of which relates back to the term ‘user’ and its unique meaning for the niche specialists who use it as a part of their profession. Andy illuminates the classic UX designer role while educating his audience on the murky waters surrounding title confusion within the field of digital design.

Watch the full interview here: Digital Arts UK | UX in 2016: An in-depth discussion of today’s big issues with Clearleft’s Andy Budd

We can’t all possibly be UX designers can we?

Over the past five or six years an interesting shift has taken place within the digital design market that has resulted in mass confusion among the greater industry. This includes clients of design firms, employees within these firms, as well as new professionals who are seeking to join the industry in their career search. As Andy points out in the interview, this shift in professional title and qualification is simply a result of supply and demand. As demand grew rapidly for classic UX designers, supply couldn’t keep up, leaving prime opportunities on the table for other designers who have similar skill sets. In theory, a niche group suddenly opened its door for others to join the cool kids.

Before we share any further insight from Andy Buddy, let’s quickly cover the core competencies that make a UX designer such a commodity in the first place:

  • Interaction Design
  • Design Research
  • Information Architecture
  • UX Strategy

Many industry professionals fail to recognize that UX design is more scientific theory with well over 20 years of practice behind its title. In fact, the UX community should be looked at as a body of knowledge in its own right that is approached with well tested theory and dedicated practice.

If we go back to Andy’s point on not seeing enough initial supply in order to fulfill the demand for classic UX designers, we can understand why it was fairly easy for other skilled designers from slightly different disciplines to fill the void. From a client’s perspective, it’s not easy to differentiate between all high level designers while identifying exactly what expertise they need for their project. This explains why a large number of predominately visual designers (or UI designers) have filled the gap in supply and demand with a quick transition into the UX field. They may be talented within their area of expertise, but that’s simply not an automatic qualifier for the UX title, and the same goes for all speciality design fields.

UI designers are often experts in:

  • Visual Design
  • Interaction Design
  • Experience Design

In addition they commonly follow the mindset of:

I designed an experience, I then designed a thing, so I must be a UX designer. Andy understands this reasoning but proves that it’s a bit misleading as he explains, “I believe you can’t design an experience. You can only try, and that it is much more of “a layered practice” with lots of practitioners adding to that experience.” We believe the same. You can’t design an experience, but you can design strategic paths for it to unfold. We can see first-hand that this idea of everyone being able to call themselves a UX designer is causing the strategic approach of design to be overlooked and possibly even archived for some unknowing clients. For a large pool of clients who understandably don’t know exactly what kind of ‘U’ or ‘X’ or ‘D’ they should be looking for, they may be finding talented individuals, but might not be finding the best tool for the task at hand.

The simple truth is that you need specialists when you are building complicated things. Andy Buddy said it best, “If everyone is responsible for everything, nobody is responsible for anything.” So lets keep it straight, UX design is not experience design (XD). A classic UX designer taps into the human factors discipline to understand interaction, can analyze your business problem, employs research-based design practices, knows how to structure content, and will strategize your customer journey before any visual designer should even hit the sketch pad. Experience design is broader. It’s what designers want users to feel when they interact with a brand across all its various touch points, beyond digital. It’s the layer of intuition and visualization atop a solid foundation that gets uncovered as the entire design team does its strategic thinking (or discovery). A design team will all be solving the same client problem, but will be doing so from different perspectives and much different lenses. Super key! You wouldn’t use a telephoto zoom lens for a portrait photo shoot unless of course you found out your client was selling the next great acne cream. Then, only your visual designer might insist on real proof and switch up the lens.

No one tool will ever do everything that you need, and the more often companies chase this dream of the multi-acronym designer saving the day, the further down the rabbit hole they will fall. Moving into the future, Andy expresses that designers need to consider themselves as a toolbox. A toolbox full of skills clearly knows what it can do best, but also knows that it may need to collaborate and learn before embarking on complex digital projects.

Designing-North-UX-User-Example

It’s quite interesting to watch the digital design industry burst at the seams with professionals, cringe as the acronyms morph, and sigh as the term ‘user’ gets dropped from many UX conversations. We get it. The subject of UX is a confusing topic and it doesn’t show signs of simplifying anytime soon. Whether the term ‘user’ is considered impersonal, not representative of a project’s defined persona, or even feels a little drug-den-ish or mean, it’s still an integral front-end component to the Experience Designer title if that’s what one is really practicing. In some disciplines, redefining titles to better align with a more familiar subject is appropriate (like, vice-president of people vs. vice president of human resources) but that’s not the case in this design realm. In a way, removing the U from UX would be comparable to asking a chef to make your favorite meal without him inquiring as to the name of your dish, or at least some hints on a food group. Or better yet, it’s like Jack’s joint getting that whirl in the washing machine: Mom didn’t do her usual ‘research‘ and just wanted your jeans to ‘look and feel‘ pretty.

As the industry moves forward, it’s vital that rising design leaders receive broad exposure to all the various lenses and mindsets of UI, UX, XD, IxD, et al. In doing so, they will be better suited to bring the right mix of design minds to the table while trying to create a collaborative environment and strategic approach for client projects. With so many X’s in our world it’s not shocking that the classic discipline of UX has been misrepresented through title confusion and task semantics. Regardless, the interesting evidence in throwing around the UX term so liberally is somewhat indicative that more and more clients and designers are recognizing that digital projects are indeed complex and strategic exercises: touching all aspects of a client’s business ( marketing, sales, customer service, IT, HR, etc.) Digital agencies like us understand that no longer are we in the website design business. We are in the crafting customer journeys business. And like so many of us operating in our own dark den somewhere: we all need the user.


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