Anne Petersen

Director of User Experience at Fastspot

Anne Petersen

Director of User Experience at Fastspot Episode 40

Episode Notes

Episode Transcript

Gary:
Hello and welcome to Episode Forty of Design Edu Today, the podcast series discussing what is necessary to be a successful designer in a contemporary, screen-based interactive world. I am your host, Gary Rozanc, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

In this episode we will be discussing what makes user experience design different from interactive design; we also discuss the user experience design process and how it fits into the overall design process. We finish off the conversation talking about what user experience design principles design educators should be teaching to interactive designers.

Today’s guest Anne Petersen, Director of User Experience at Fastspot. She brings over a dozen years of experience creating holistic strategies that center the experiences of people who need technology to work for their benefit.

Anne’s mission is to improve lives in large and small ways via beautiful, understandable and sustainable digital products. Her work spans user research, roadmaps, content strategy and facilitating collaborative workshops with clients.

Her experience and passion are in the higher education and non-profit sectors, but Anne has a breadth of knowledge from work with past clients in the insurance, risk information systems, and accounting industries. She’s been in-house at universities like Penn State and University of Illinois at Chicago, as well as within agencies and consultancies like Lipman Hearne and Rightpoint. Anne also helped bring a hardware product to life that has been available in the Apple Store: the Nova flash.

Anne is proud to serve on HighEdWeb’s annual conference committee, and to have been a past president of Chicago Nerd Social Club and Pumping Station: One. Fluent in emoji and Danish, you’ll find her on almost every social network interpreting UX and humanity via entertaining GIFs.

Gary:
All right, welcome Anne!
Anne:
Thanks!
Gary:
Before I get into specific questions, I want to let the listeners know the impetus for this and future episodes. During the past 39 episodes I have been focusing on what I consider to be the nuts and bolts of what it takes to be a successful visual designer today. However, I’ve touched on a lot of other professions to determine for myself what is the ideal balance of those professions to make a great visual designer. There is one profession in particular that comes up on a regular basis that I want to explore further, and that’s User Experience Design. I want to explore this job title more because it’s a really hard one to consistently get a definition for. All the UX job descriptions I’ve seen range wildly from a visual designer who researches the end user before designing to researchers who hand off their findings to information architects and visual designers. So, this leads to my first question for Anne. What is your personal definition of User Experience?
Anne:
So, this is an interesting question and one that comes up often, since there is so little consistency out there and in some cases, as you said, there’s super-wildly differing definitions. Now, some of that is, I think, kind of an indication of how young the industry is; it’s still evolving, we’re still kind of feeling out the edges of it and I would also say that it’s become so valuable in so many ways that a lot of other disciplines really want to get into it, edge into that space, so I totally understand that. But, to me, user experience is a set of activities and philosophies. Not to muddy the waters, but I might even call it a strategy that ensures that users’ needs are understood, addressed and ideally, surpassed. So, in that relatively simple definition, UX can still kind of encompass many other disciplines and many other disciplines can encompass UX, so these can be things like information architecture, user research, interaction design, usability testing, psychology, content strategy and yes, absolutely, visual design. So, all this said, UX is not based on opinion. Asking something like, “do you like this?”, is super-different than “does this design accomplish its goals?”. Even when we do what we call heuristic evaluation of sites, that is, when a UX practitioner sits down and combs through a site to identify potential usability problems, that is also not opinion. We have heuristics to measure against, including how finable and clear those items are, all the way to how controllable and/or valuable they might be if we’re using, say, Abby Covert’s set of heuristics as an example.
Gary:
Which…so there’s more…what was that set of heuristics…Abby, you just said?
Anne:
Abby Covert.
Gary:
What is that? This is for the listeners so we can go back and Google that?
Anne:
You totally can.
Gary:
Versus other different kinds.
Anne:
Uh-huh. So, Abby Covert’s set of heuristics are information architecture heuristics but you can literally go to Wikipedia, look up Heuristic Evaluation and get a list of different varieties of heuristics. That could be Jakob Nielsen’s, that could be Abby Covert’s, that could be…there’s a Wittgenstein…I’m gonna blank on it…let’s see…Gerhardt Powals’, Weinschenk and Barker; there are a lot of them out there. Abby Covert’s is the most modern. Jakob Nielsen’s is probably the most referenced.
Gary:
OK, so, using that definition of user experience, so, let’s ask this original question then I’ll just remember to loop pack. So, can you pick a typical web project and describe how you and the UX team at Fastspot fit into that project from start to finish? So, the UX team, how do they fit into the big picture?
Anne:
Absolutely. And let me back up a second and say, while there’s an ideal, there’s no typical, quote unquote, air quotes…I’m doing air quotes, but over here. Typical doesn’t really exist. That said, I’ll try to reference typical as, here’s what would happen ideally.
Gary:
OK.
Anne:
So, ideally, a project would start when a client says, “OK, we’ve agreed upon what we want to cover: let’s start now.” Starting now would include going to all of the stakeholders of the project, that is, folks who have content on the website and who own that content, people who work with the CMS, the Content Management System and users, and talking directly to users in the very beginning is super-important. And talking to all of them. That could be through interviews, that can be through workshops, that could be through card-sorts, that can be through journey-mapping; there’s a lot of different exercises you can do up front as part of what we call User Research. So, that’s discovering all of the needs that the business has, the organization itself and all of the needs that the users have for whatever this website’s going to be. And I say website: it could be an app, it could be an intranet, it could be a product; it might be any of these things but the process is usually about the same. Once you finish all of that research, you start setting up what we call a Strategy. So, a Strategy includes what we’re going to tackle, how we’re going to tackle it and the tactics we’re going to use to accomplish it. That is a really super-simplistic way of putting it but there we are. This is all the UX team thus far, for us here at Fastspot. At different companies that I’ve worked at, different other parts of the organization have dipped in and out and that includes folks like business analysts, folks who specialize in Information Architecture would be part of the next phase, so the Information Architecture helps figure out the site-map, that is, the words that are going to be on the website to help you navigate to where you need to go. That produces the very basic really super-skeletal structure of the site and then you start deciding on what your main templates might be, what your home page is going to contain and that leads into wireframes. So, for us, that also includes a Concept Brief, so the Concept Brief also, and a Creative Brief, which isn’t confusing at all for us, but for some clients that is, having those two terms running around, does get a little confusing.

So, the Creative Brief is basically what contains our Strategy, which I spoke about earlier. It also contains some of the information like, how we’re going to elucidate this brand; so, voice and tone, look and feel, those sorts of things are in that document. The Concept Brief starts kind of sketching out what the Home Page is going to look like and really gives a feel for the creative direction that Home Page is going in. After the Concept Brief, we end up doing wireframes and those wireframes will help elucidate further; with some content, with some functionality in it, what those Concept Briefs are going to then look like in design. We also do what we call Functional Requirements, and those are wireframes of the templates we’ve decided upon are the most important parts of the site that a user is going to need. Those landing pages, sometimes audience-specific landing pages or landing pages within the first two levels of the navigation; those are often then pieces that we concentrate on at that point and those go really into depth; not only what those pieces are going to be doing but where they’re getting that data from, so that helps bridge the gap between the client side, understanding what content needs to be where and internally for our Developers to understand where they’re going to get that data from. Then we move into visual design, which is where the UX team tends to kind of peter out a little bit. I don’t want to say peter out: we’re still involved, we do still provide things like a content strategy, sometimes some SEO recommendations, things like that down the line, but the main bulk of our work I think is pretty much done by that point.

Gary:
All right. So, do you then…so when you’re further involved in this, so you hand off this body of research to the Visual Designers?
Anne:
I try not to say “hand off”, just because we try to be a little more iterative than that, but…
Gary:
But at that point, you give them, this is the basis of your work, so then do you go back and check, like, hey, your visuals are not matching what we found in our…we put in the brief?
Anne:
Yeah, absolutely. So that’s a struggle for many, many, many agencies and one I’ve faced for years and years and that is basically, how do we keep from spending a ton of time, which also then means budget, but also keep kind of a pulse on the project so that we keep everything in line and keep that strategic vision going forward. So, this has been solved in different ways by different companies that I have been involved in. At Rightpoint, which was my previous company, we had what we called a PEDL, which was a Product Experience Design Lead, and that PEDL pedaled throughout the entire project, front to back, making sure that hose touch-points basically stayed in line with the vision as set and the user feedback that we got in the very beginning. Here, we do that through kind of weekly updates, making sure that everyone’s aware of what’s going on and often, frankly, it’s kind of solved by collaboration here, so we work pretty fluidly together and we snag each other at any point, anybody gets hung up, so in that way we keep touch with what’s going on in the project, what it’s looking like and can bring their attention to something they might have missed in terms of user feedback in the beginning.
Gary:
OK. I probably should’ve asked these next two questions at the beginning, but the first on is, so, you are a Director of User Experience; so, is this different from a User Experience Designer?
Anne:
In a lot of ways it’s no different.
Gary:
OK…
Anne:
So, most days I’m sitting right next to my team doing the same things there but in other ways I would say it’s very different, so my challenge to clients is usually to kind of bump them up a level in terms of their thinking, that is, to think more strategically, either more broadly or more deeply, to determine their organization’s priorities and how those might be reflected on their website. So, in many cases, dysfunction in an organization’s website simply reflects dysfunction in the organization itself.
Gary:
Oh, I totally see that!
Anne:
And we need to weed that out as soon as possible. Or at least, find out what it is so that it can either be solved or flagged. Additionally, I work on our practice within Fastspot and how we can better work with other teams, both within Fastspot and with our clients, so that’s not only managing my team members but it’s also getting things out of their way so that they can do their best work and pushing us, frankly, to make everything we put out useful, meaningful and, dare I even say it, delightful, to our clients.
Gary:
Great! So, the next question then which I should have probably asked earlier was, how is a User Experience Designer different from a Visual Designer?
Anne:
They’re absolutely is and frankly should be a little bit of overlap. That Venn Diagram is not simply a circle, however. While Visual Design expresses the brand and the user research in esthetics, that is, typography, color and their relationships, User Experience is all about the material that goes into those decisions, ideally. So it covers the up-front research, often called Discovery in the business, what I was talking about earlier with interviews, card-sorting, those sorts of activities. It also covers what we consider strategy. It also includes Information Architecture and I’ve worked in agencies where content strategy stands on its own and agencies in which it lives within UX, so that one can very but it also covers wireframing and prototyping. So, starting to make those solid decisions about functionality.
Gary:
Well, I’m glad you mentioned the content strategy one again because I heard you say when you answered a couple of questions earlier, you said that it was part of the UX thing and that’s the one when I’m teaching Visual Design, I can’t figure out where to put content strategy; it just doesn’t have a natural home in the process, so it doesn’t surprise me to hear you say that we do it here, but other places it’s all over the map.
Anne:
Well, I’d also say that frankly, it is much like UX in that it needs to be throughout the process; you need it at many different points when you’re giving clients information, so frankly, it shouldn’t live on its own; it shouldn’t be discrete, it needs to be integrated into the whole process, this collaboration has to keep going during the whole thing.
Gary:
Yeah, and you know, I think that’s something that I could do a better job of as a design educator, now that I just think about that, because if I make the students…if I hand off all the content to the students, it’s like, here’s the content: we’re done. We never re-visit to say, oh, can we tweak this, now that we’ve done this…we’ve done some design, we’ve done some research, maybe is this the best? And vice versa if I make my students find it, again, I still never go back and re-visit the content to make sure that there’s some flexibility into it, so I think that’s something that I need to do better.
Anne:
One thing that I will say is that iteration is absolutely the norm, so you’re going to get client feedback and you’re going to have to make some changes and those may be changes that you think you already covered earlier in the process, but that’s absolutely things that just kind of come out of the blue and the client isn’t quite there with you in terms of a decision you though had been solidified earlier.
Gary:
So, as a Director of User Experience, I’m going to assume that you direct a few user experience designers, I hate to say that; well it was fun writing that question, but based on those experiences, what would make for a good educational background for a UX Designer? Basically, how do I train these?
Anne:
Absolutely. So, some of these things, honestly, certainly can be learned but they’re really hard to be taught and those are things like listening and empathy and honestly, putting users first is the thing that needs to be learned but is often difficult to teach. The way I learned it, I might add, is through usability testing, so I observed a ton of usability testing in my really early days when I was working at Penn State and that really taught me the value of empathy, listening to users; I had one student during the usability test break down into tears in front of me and that was frankly because I was sticking to the protocol maybe a little too closely and didn’t quite get on her level in terms of the empathy that was needed because she was essentially in a password reset loop, so she kept hitting the password reset button and then clicking the email that was sent before and I totally…now, I totally get it, but at the time I was like, can’t you see…is this not simple? So that listening, that empathy, understanding what a usability test is and how to run it; understanding how to apply that feedback to your work. Those are really super-key. Certainly, user research is a big category that people can dive into to a huge extent; frankly a little bit of psychology helps; a little bit of ethnography, but not leaning too heavily on those because you really need to listen to the users you are going to be designing for, not just people in general.
Gary:
Yeah, one way I tried to solve that and I do on occasion, depending on the courses, I’ll actually make the students go do something, literally one of them was, OK, you need to…you’ve got a limited budget, you need to go buy clothes for work and you live here: how are you going to go do it? And I would make them go it; that would include riding buses and realizing that OK, I can’t go to the Mall in the suburbs now to get my clothes: where am I going?
Anne:
Yeah, for sure.
Gary:
And I’ve found that really opened their eyes. It made them empathize; they were like, Oh my God, this is tough, and it is a great way to introduce, make them self-introduce the project I guess is a better way to say it, to them.
Anne:
I would also say that skills are a thing that we don’t necessarily see as a continuum in the way that they are; that is, digital literacy. So, for example, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development studied over two hundred thousand people to understand how well they could complete really simple digital tasks. They found during this research, twenty six per cent of adults cannot use a computer at all. Fourteen per cent couldn’t figure out how to delete and email. So, the skill level that is necessary for visual designers and UX practitioners is what they consider Level Three in that particular survey, but that’s only about five per cent of the adult population, so we are that five per cent. Not only are you not your user, but your user’s almost guaranteed to be less skilled online than you are.
Gary:
Oh, I’m surprised it’s…the percentage doesn’t even surprise me. In fact I would almost say I would have thought it would’ve been higher than twenty five per cent are essentially functionally illiterate in using digital devices. So, do you think there is a need for a distinct UX design program or in design schools or is it enough for UX principles to be covered in an interactive or visual design program?
Anne:
I have seen really successful programs out there. That said, I’ve also seen really unsuccessful programs out there.
Gary:
If you want to name the successful ones, feel free!
Anne:
I’ll keep that one to myself for now!
Gary:
OK.
Anne:
Because we’re having a debate right now in the industry about Bootcamps and kind of what methods are best for teaching UX practitioners, I feel like that’s a bigger pool than I want to wade in right now.
Gary:
That’s fair because quite frankly, I don’t know enough either way to make an educated comment on it, but it is something that I am…there’s obviously a need or they wouldn’t be popping up.
Anne:
Oh yeah, absolutely.
Gary:
So I’ll just leave it at that, OK.
Anne:
I would say, off the cuff, that it is a UX design program would be absolutely useful, but I am not sure that most traditional universities can keep up.
Gary:
Why don’t you think they could keep up?
Anne:
I’ve been a teacher, so I taught at Penn State for three years. It is curricula are really hard to change and that’s part of it.
Gary:
And you see, that’s…and I’m glad you said that, because that’s the one thing that I’m going to argue to my death is that yes, submitting a new course is…it’s a year-long process and you have to get buy-in from all of your Faculty. Creating a new program you’re looking at least two years, full Faculty buy-in so yes, in that respect it can’t keep up. But tomorrow, I could walk in any given course and teach whatever I wanted.
Anne:
Yeah. Classes: absolutely, way more flexible than the curric…
Gary:
And so I think that’s where design education needs to really…and Meredith Davies of NC State has already built a program that basically did this the way everything’s been re-named, the way things are linked, it’s a system, it’s a design system and you can plug in the relevant curriculum tomorrow when something’s new, so I think educators could do it: we just haven’t!
Anne:
Right, but that will to do so needs to be there and that’s where we’re lacking right now.
Gary:
Yeah, I get that, I feel that! So, well you know, so this is actually I’m going to now switch back to the one…this is the one thing that made me actually kind of start thinking about this whole, is UX a potential solution and it’s one problem I currently see in student portfolios, and not just the ones where I teach but I’ve been to many portfolio reviews across the country and students, there’s this real inability for them to not make design decisions, decisions based on their own personal esthetic. No matter how hard an educator tries, students will always default to designing to their own personal esthetic and to me, UX is, I think, and please tell me if I’m wrong, but organically, is there a UX process or the process of UX itself that visual design students should be exposed to that would help them better design to the end user and not themselves?
Anne:
I would say, watching usability tests can really change minds and lives. It sounds like a really simple thing but really listening to that user’s problems as they voice them, as things are happening on the screen that they don’t necessarily understand: it’s huge and it really makes you understand that as simple as you think it might be, it’s not simple to everyone and that’s something you really have to start working on; understanding what makes an interaction or a navigation simple, what kind of, frankly, what kind of things are people used to and how should you play with those, but not break them to the point that the user cannot cope with it. Where can you flex boundaries and where should you frankly stay in a lane so that people really can step from one step to the next without getting confused, so frankly the usability testing observation, listening, empathy, start understanding what are the easiest sites out there to use and why is that and start exploring that esthetic rather than your own personal esthetic.
Gary:
I’ve never thought about just making them actually watch usability testing in real time; I’m now going to have to find people who are, if that’s already online somewhere, if people are willing to hand over some footage to make my students watch that. So, OK then, so then the other question, so this is in regards to making a better visual designer who doesn’t design for their own personal esthetic; the suggestions that you gave: where in the evolution of a designer do you think that should be introduced? Should they see that all up-front first in their Freshman year and then be expected to apply it or should they do it later on after they’ve had a chance to do some design and then come back and then see, be experienced to that?
Anne:
On the one hand, I would say most educators might be scared that you’re going to scare them away from the industry but on the other hand, restraints sometimes promote creativity, so understanding where the guard-rails are, where those users might get confused may help your students in the end rather than make them worry about the potential impact of a design that they’re creating, so I would tend to say as early as possible: maybe not first day first semester, but soon.
Gary:
It comes down to it’s this delicate balance of…I’m trying to think of a good analogy, but you need to…you can explain the purpose of a Stop sign to somebody who’s never driven before, but when they actually get in the car and have “don’t stop at a stop sign”, or see somebody else not stop at a Stop, they understand the purpose of it better, so I’m constantly struggling with, when do they need theory versus when do they need the practical skill before they can understand the theory in context, I guess? That’s a constant battle for me. So, in your LinkedIn profile, you list out the following skill-set: User Research and Usability Testing. OK, so we’ve got to be mindful of that Oxford comma there, so, User Research and Usability Testing including stakeholder and one-on-one interviews to identify target audiences’ needs. You list out tasks and goals and then translate those tasks and goals into insights into deliverables including wireframes, task flows, sketches, interaction specifications, site maps, user scenarios, mental models, journey maps and prototypes. So, those are a lot of terms and I don’t think most visual designers incorporate most of those. So, given that most programs are already don’t have enough time in credit hours in the program, so of those skills that I just read off, which do you really wish visual designers had more training in?
Anne:
I would tend to say user research and usability testing, just so that they understand what…where the information that UXers might be giving them is coming from. This isn’t just stuff we’re making up: this is stuff that we have researched and heard from users and/or know about through heuristics, so those are the three things that I would say to concentrate on. User research, usability testing, heuristic evaluation.
Gary:
OK. So, I’m going to ask one other thing about…looking at all the different skill-sets, can you talk about the journey map a little bit? How it’s used on…so, you’ve designed, I don’t know if you’ve personally designed, because you’re sort of new to Fastspot, just to let the listeners know that, but Fastspot seems to have a niche in education. So, just using that concept, what would be like a journey map, what would that look like for an education institution?
Anne:
Absolutely. This is something we do pretty often and I would say that we do it at other companies that I’ve been at as well. So, in some ways, it replaces and in some ways it’s just a very strong pairing for the persona and that is, exploring what a user might do, start to finish, in some task, in depth. So, that may be for an educational institution the very beginning of a perspective students’ understanding of an institution, so I just became aware of State X University and I am interested in finding out more, so I explore the site some and I would say in a typical journey map, that student would not necessarily fill out a request for information form; that may be what we want them to do, but that is probably not what that student is doing at that time.
Gary:
So, do you have this happen, the visual designer, because I’m actual fascinated with the whole idea of the journey mapping, helping the user get to the end goal. Do you have this happen in the visual design phase where visual designer’s designing something…like, what happens when this button gets clicked? Do they see maybe like the journey, there’s a dead-end: oh wait, we forgot something here. Does that come up a lot?
Anne:
I wouldn’t say it comes up a lot but I would say that when designing, you often run into those things and we run into them on the wireframe side as well as the visual design side but that’s where we can check each other and that’s where we should be checking each others’ work to find out, hey, what happens when X or Y? What if they use this draw and then use this link? What happens? So, those are definitely checks that we should be working on each other with. The journey map is a little earlier in the process, so that’s a little bit closer to the user research end of things, the Discovery phase, and it helps set the tone for that particular persona, that particular type of user, so that we can reference back to it and say hey, what’s the kind of stress level for this particular person on this particular journey that they’re on to complete this task? If they’re really stressed, we really need to make it really simple so these pages should be extra stripped-down, whereas if this is an exploratory phase, we need to make it really rich.
Gary:
OK, well, so we’re getting close to running out of time, so before I let you go, is there anything that you are working on personally or anything you’re involved with that you want to promote or share?
Anne:
I can tell you a little bit about HighEdWeb.
Gary:
Oh, please do.
Anne:
Yeah, so HighEdWeb is the Higher Education Conference for web professionals; it’s by and for web professionals, so that’s everything the gamut from marketing folks to technical programmers with UX and design in there as well so it’s a great program, once a year, it moves around; it was just in Memphis and next year we’ll be in Hartford and we’re really excited to get into the East Coast now.
Gary:
So, just one…I guess…so this if for, what’s the name of the organization again, sorry?
Anne:
HighEdWeb.
Gary:
So, HighEdWeb….you know, it’s funny because I’ve seen this organization before, so I’m not unfamiliar with it and I’ve seen other conferences, they’re related to designing academic websites and the whole process of how they do it. I guess it’s kind of…where do…do designers go to these things because….it’s just weird that from a design educator, on campus, I have all of this happening behind the scenes but I know absolutely nothing about it and this thing has its own set of conferences and it seems like, at least for design educators, I think there’s a disconnect between that, so do you have any recommendations for design educators? Because you also did work at Penn State? How should design educators be reaching out to this resource that’s already on campus? Does that make sense?
Anne:
It does! So, the folks that are doing these things are not nameless, faceless folks; these are actual staff behind the scenes, so they might be in Admissions or Alumni Relations or Marketing or lots of different places on campus: there’s a lot of folks in the Library that you might not really realize: they’re supporting your Library’s online presence behind the scenes; all of those folks are super-open to hearing from actual practitioners and frankly, probably want your stories. In a lot of cases they want those stories for the Home Page; they want those stories for promoting something that’s going on at the Library; they want to show off the collections at the Library to your students, things like that, so definitely get in touch with them. There’s a lot of siloing that happens in Higher Ed.
Gary:
Oh yeah!
Anne:
And I really wish that wasn’t the case so I would encourage all of you to go out and make friends with someone you may not have otherwise interacted with.
Gary:
Yeah, I’m going to now because it just, I don’t know why, it just dawned on me hearing you say it, but there’s an opportunity for my students to go interact with professionals across the campus!
Anne:
Absolutely!
Gary:
Not having to go across the city or region or whatnot.
Anne:
Totally.
Gary:
All right, so that’s all we have time for today on Episode Forty of Design Edu Today. I want to thank today’s guest, Anne Petersen, for being so generous with her time. I want to thank the audience for listening and I want to thank the Design Edu Today hosting sponsor, Digital Ocean, and CDN sponsor Fastly, for making the hosting and distribution of these podcasts possible. Finally, I want to thank the AIGA and the AIGA Design Educators’ Community for their generous support of my research that led to this podcast series.

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