How do I get started in User Experience?

I’ve had this question put to me in the past month about 20 times or so. It’s a tough question to answer in a nutshell, as it has a lot to do with “How do I retrain my skills to focus on User Experience” which is really what i think is the right question to be asking.

Firstly, I’m personally constantly learning new things around User Experience daily so I’m by no means done with this subject as there is more secrets of human behavior yet to be unlocked. My approach here is to get started at what i call the core of UX – the human :)

Secondly, User Experience for me is purely around how humans behave, in that I think you really need to sit down and read as much as you can on how the human mind works, specifically in around cognitive science.

Cognitive science is usually defined as the interdisciplinary study of how information is represented and transformed in the brain. It consists of multiple research disciplines, including psychology, artificial intelligence, philosophy, neuroscience, linguistics, anthropology, sociology, and education.[1] It spans many levels of analysis, from low-level learning and decision mechanisms to high-level logic and planning; from neural circuitry to modular brain organization.

The keyword being study as in the end, listening and learning about how a human being processes information and makes decisions is one thing but then mapping this knowledge to interface design in software is really what i personally think comes back to experience. Building the muscle here is something that is done with both trial/error, whitepapers, videos etc of how others have succeeded (i.e. Microsoft’s favorite one is the old “Ribbon Menu” and how it supposedly won over the Microsoft Office Masses).

Thirdly, I think you need to practice the art of design, I’m not talking about high fidelity user interfaces, I’m talking about wireframing and prototyping your ideas. These are crucial as it forces you to jump into the hot seat of the end user and try and see things through there lens. It’s also important that you understand who your end users are likely to be, as we human beings aren’t the same. We are made up of different ages, sex, race and abilities – so understanding your target demographic is just as important in software design as it is in marketing the software (the two are interlocked really).

Example. If your expected audience was made up of 10-35 year old males from an English speaking country, would you approach the software user interface from the angle of a 35 year old only? or a 10 year old? would you fork the UI depending on age brackets? if so why?

To answer that, prototype. Experiment on what you think is the right theory, research how to design for the aging brain, find out as much as you can on how males differ from females, and does this offer any extra clues on how it should be approached? or does it even matter. Point is, absorb who your audience is and find ways to make the software design suite their needs to carry out actions and less on the easy route that gets you done quicker.

Example: Inside Microsoft, I often heard UX designers complain that they are limited in terms of winning over the engineering teams on fixing bad UX within the company. The reason being was that a lot of the times the engineers would simply refuse to change their practices, and would constantly throw the old “it will cost more” argument onto the table. This in turn left the UX Army frustrated, as nothing was changing and they were constantly having to accommodate engineering’s needs and less on the end user. An example of bad UX in Microsoft that i can think of is SQL Server.  Its a horrible installation experience and makes you the end user feel like its way more complex than products like MySQL for example.

Fourthly, experiment and listen/learn from others who are in this space. A lot of times people are often echoing the same b.s they probably read in Jenifer Tidwell “Designing Interfaces” book, but mainly research what terms like “Progressive Disclosure” means..or specifically how Fitts Law is relevant to software you are designing today and does it have a positive or negative effect? if so, why?

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I personally am constantly retesting theories all the time, my main focus is not to play it safe with software design, I want to essentially break out of the mould of guys like Jakob Nielsen.  I instead want to push the boundaries and break rules, as my theory is based around what others in Apple have told me – “We know what people want, they don’t know what they want”.

It’s arrogant and bold, but i often wonder if products like iPhone were put to the usability test, would it pass or fail? Same with the Windows Start bar, isn’t the BOTTOM LEFT position more cumbersome than say TOP CENTER? is this accepted now due to habits being formed around its current location or would a virgin user likely accept it being placed elsewhere on the screen?

Habits can be the enemy in user interface design, as in order to break away from existing patterns (good and bad) you have to convince the end user to change their habits in a subtle way. If you succeed, then you innovate and we see more and more exciting experiences emerging (or flipside, horrible ones) – the key though is doing this within context and within scope (ie pick your battles)

In order to get started in User Experience, sit down and read as much as you can on how humans interact with software. Books, Websites etc are all going to offer clues but the best starting point imho is reading as much as you can on “Cognitive Science”

One of my favorite books I often refer to a lot is -  Universal Principles of Design.

I’ll continue to explore this subject more.

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