I “borrowed” the idea of an FAQ by Allison Milchling; of course, I have adapted the questions and provided my own answers. This is an interview FAQ, and its aim is to speed up the process of getting to know me.
What does design mean to you?
Design is a tradecraft that consists mainly of the purposeful analysis of a problem, identification of a solution, and planning of the solution’s execution. Good design is useful, usable, and pleasant. Ideally, the identified solution to the problem at hand would be elegant; realistically, because of limitations in time and budget, the minimum viable elegance is often applied in projects.
Design to me is not the latest trendy toolkit, since Systems Design in the past and User Experience Design at present, to name a couple, have both offered significant contributions in how one can work as a designer. This is what I call the ‘Big Design’ which focuses on problem-solution fit and market-solution fit, as opposed to ‘small design’, which is a specific set of techniques that help with planning the execution of a solution (e.g., user journey maps, wireframes).
What’s the difference between a good and great designer?
In my opinion a good designer applies user-centred methods to solve a given problem.
A great designer can see beyond that: they can see that a) problems evolve over time, thus static solutions can be suboptimal—in the sense that by the time you have found a solution to a problem, the problem has evolved into something else—, and that b) stakeholders and systems other than the end users need to be taken under consideration for a project to be successful. These may include business decisions, etc.
In my recent world of Learning Technology, one has to design for systems where the end user, the decision maker, and the purchaser are often three different entities. They may be the student, teacher, and parent in the case of K12, or the employee, L&D manager, and line manager in corporate training. Focusing on students and employees is good to the extent that it does not exclude the rest of the stakeholders.
How do you plan a project?
Typically the process starts with a collaboration round with domain experts, tech people, and business people. This collaboration answers the questions of what we are doing and why, is it feasible, and will it fly, respectively.
Then, I like to use a mix of Lean/Agile UX and some good, old, waterfallish Information Systems Design (IS). Requirements and deliverables can have value in times of vagueness, especially in a completely novel application; while Lean has merits, I wouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
My personal experience is that IS Design is good for creating a backlog (yes, you can even do user stories in UML, too), and Lean/Agile UX is good for curating it.
The tools I use in this process vary and depend on the project. I have used wireframes and prototypes for mobile apps and web apps, or storyboards for VR apps; I have documented designs in UML for engineers, or in business canvases for policy makers.
What is the relationship for you between UX and visual/graphic design?
It is a symbiotic relationship. I studied Information Systems Engineering in the early 2000s, and I took all the Human-Computer Interaction and Multimedia Design classes that were available as electives. In parallel, I was designing posters for my local film club, for music events of university clubs, or other local NGOs. I somehow ‘discovered’ that principles in graphic design and HCI have a lot in common, only to find out that it had been an entire field of study since the 80s! I immediately knew what I would specialise on.
That is, my path to UX passed through visual design. Hence I can speak the visual design language and I can work with visual designers in order to create really usable UIs, where aesthetics are not the endgame, but rather a means to increase usability.
Describe your experience collaborating with developers. In your opinion, what makes for the best collaboration between designers and developers?
It is a relationship that can be amazing or strenuous, at times. As with the story above, I was writing code as an undergaduate student, and writing and teaching code as a graduate student. I also wrote code for various jobs. Therefore, I believe I can personally relate to developers.
In one sentence, my experience has been that my job is to translate business needs to technical requirements through design. Thankfully, I do possess the vocabulary to achieve this translation.
What is the relationship for you between UX and the “Business Layer” (Clients, Project/Product Managers, Business and Customer Development)?
As above, the relation has been translational, in that I take their input and make it into design. It has not always been easy to convey to the ‘Business Layer’ the following: a) the need for user-centred design, b) feasibility limitations, and c) data trumps opinions.
Ultimately, it is about understanding that each and every project is a partnership on which we need to work together, and that designers and developers cannot do their job by following orders. Even more so when orders are based on opinion (“make the UI ‘pop”, “the developers should be able to deliver this in a week”), but also when no opinion is present (“you are the expert, go fix it”).
However, when the business is informed by and about design, the former can really inform back how the latter works, and then the synergy leads to amazing results. It is beneficial to treat the business-design relations as a necessary and ongoing part of the process, rather than treat it as a transactional relationship between unrelated departments.
What’s the most interesting project you’ve worked on? What made it interesting?
One of the most interesting projects I’ve worked on (really, who can pick the one), was a training platform for assessors of IT maturity in organisations. The learners were consultants who would visit large multinationals and governmental organisations to assess they IT maturity level. The client was an innovation centre that had devised an assessment framework and wished to deliver training in a blended environment (classroom and online combination).
The objective was to scale the training. The innovation centre already had participation in the hundreds globally, and wanted to scale up while preserving sanity.
I analysed the existing process and identified the painpoints that inhibited scaling. Then, I prepared a target journey map with the painpoints resolved. Once it looked good to the client that this was the problem to address, myself and a learning scientist started interviewing consultants thoroughly in order to understand their motivations and desires. This helped us understand how to remove the painpoints we had identified, and we also identified a couple new painpoints.
Then, I collaborated with the learning scientist and a Tech Lead in order to design solutions that were not only pedagogically appropriate, but also technically feasible and reasonable for the resources of our client.
The deliverables included wireframes, user journey maps, learning science recommendations, and a system architecture. We also delivered an evaluation plan so that our client would do user testing and be able to iterate and improve the platform on their own.
Unfortunately, as most enterprise systems, it is not publically available for me to share a URL.
What tools do you use? Why have you chosen them over their alternatives?
Pen and paper for initial storyboarding and service design. I use an adapted version—a subset—of the Unified Modelling Language (UML) for my diagrams, as it eases the communication with developers and software architects, and is simple enough for business stakeholders to understand when presented in a meeting. The alternative would be to use my own language, since there is no standardised service or systems language, and that introduces ambiguity. Standardisation is good when it’s not too much.
I use either Qualtrics or the Google Suite (Sheets and Forms) for capturing user surveys. I analyse the results using either Excel, Google Sheets, or R. I am a fun of standardised usability questionnaires, such as SUS and SUPR-Q. I believe that a) performance time of a task, b) completion rate, and b) usability scores, are the basic evaluation triad of any project. Moreover, I strongly believe in using these tools in several stages of a project and not in the beginning and the end only.
The Adobe Suite for diagrams, wireframing, or prototyping. Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Dreamweaver, and now Adobe XD have the advantage of looking and feeling similar, and many of us in the field have an experience of decades using these tools. While other tools may have other advantages, familiarity is not easily beat.
For the web I mainly use Bootstrap, and also Material Design. I have also designed using native iOS and Windows frameworks. For interactions I like Processing and Processing JS, and I like the Fungus plugin for Unity. I have also done 3D work on Second Life/OpenSim. For data visualisation I have a good grasp of R and D3, even though I am not an expert in the sense that I do not follow the latest updates with religious zealotry. Visualisation principles and good applications fascinate me more than its tech.
I also absolutely love CARTO for geomapping visualisations, Leaflet.js for web geomapping, and have some knowledge of MapBox (which is easy to start, hard to master).
For team management we use primarily email, and then a combination of Slack and Trello. We have documented our internal design language in a WordPress site. We have weekly design team meetings, and do 1:1 meetings for project briefings and catching up. I have also occasionally run team satisfaction surveys and UX maturity diagnostics.
Finally, I can handle SQL; I am rusty, but I remember enough about writing queries to effectively ensure that a data architecture is in accordance with the service design, and that a database’s endpoints identify with and facilitate a service’s touchpoints.
What are some websites and apps whose design you love? Why do you like them?
Twitter (and Tweetdeck). Before the specific design, the idea had stuck with me from the early days of its predecessor, Tad Hirsch’s TXTmob. Its main feature, to build the platform on text messages, gave the design limitation that became Twitter’s most powerful feature: the 140-characters-long message.
It was a great design decision to keep this length for the web platform too. I do not want to underestimate other features such as the useful metrics in the analytics, or creating lists, even following the ones of others—whom you don’t necessarily follow, you can still follow their lists! It’s amazing.
The other design feature that defined Twitter and is in my opinion brilliant is to be able to follow someone without them having to ‘accept’ the follower. This comes straight from TXTmob, and engraves in Twitter a democratic character of a public forum, lacking from other social media platforms (which may try to make the private sphere into public, i.e. generate drama). And yes, some will try to abuse this by creating bot swarms etc., but experience shows that they are also able to abuse these other platforms. So, no, this is not an argument against open following.
Firefox. Yes, I like the browser itself. Currently I am using the desktop version for MacOS and the mobile Android version. As above, I like how Mozilla went about improving Firefox equally if not more than I like Firefox itself.
They combined agile and waterfall methods to deliver the Lorentz version of Firefox. They not only improved their delivery, but they even changed their entire design methodology to ensure faster and better updates. Moreover, they went against the grain by avoiding going full Agile or crazy Lean as the trend is, and they kept useful waterfall practices.
Their best features are probably desktop-mobile syncing, and content threads to decrease heavy memory use; however, I will repeat that while these features exist in other browsers too, Mozilla made sure to work with the community and take input and deliver results when they were actually ready to roll, and not when only development was finished.
For example, a main design decision for the desktop-mobile syncing seems to have been that the users perceive the process as safe, in addition to the process actually being safe. Explaining the steps in a transparent way seems to have been as integral in the design as the syncing itself.
Sway. This little-known Microsoft tool is a storytelling and media composition powerhouse. I like it a lot as a piece of technology. In addition, they have made easier tasks in media presentation that were quite complex until now, and so I like it.
I think Sway is the future of media interfaces, so I forgive it for being occasionally slow.
I also have to give an honourable mention to WordPress for Mac, which has made me revive this blog: having to log in on the browser wouldn’t do it for me, and the icon sitting on the dock is a nice reminder too.
Other Relevant Skills
I routinely work with:
Multiple projects simultaneously. As the lead design researcher in my team (and the only one originally), I have managed 3 to 8 projects at any given time for the past 5 years, sometimes with the involvement of other designers.
Multiple stakeholders per project. All our projects are academic-industrial partnerships, with us sitting in the middle. Moreover, each project usually include several industry partners. Thus, communicating with all these stakeholders is a critical part of the process.
Multidisciplinary teams. I work with Learning Scientists, Tech Leads, and Business Developers to ensure that our projects have not only internal integrity, but also good product-solution fit, and market-solution fit.
Less often I mentor students who do their placement with us, and I used to tutor in Trinity College Dublin (Systems Design, and Graphics). ⌋