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Taking your English degree to the web: Understanding User Experience Design

Last week I had the pleasure to give a presentation at PechaKucha Night in Santa Barbara. Like the Ignite series of talks it inspired, the PechaKucha format embraces constraints: each speaker uses exactly 20 slides, which auto-advance every 20 seconds, to present on any topic they’re passionate about. No videos or animations allowed.

As a designer and an accomplished escape artist, I am no stranger to constraints. I also happen to be passionate about at least two topics, so I put together a personal talk based on recent reflections I’ve had about my work as a UX designer. It was a nice opportunity to speak to a mixed crowd of folks outside of the tech sphere.

And lo! I have embedded that six minute video here for your viewing pleasure:

I had fun with this, and challenged myself to keep the slides and the ideas dense. Looking back, I might change a few things: I think repetition of the term ‘user’ does a disservice in several places —’reader’ or ‘listener’ might have been better. And with so much good and bad UX design in the world, I’d love to include other examples in that portion of the slides. Thanks to all the presenters, to everyone who came with an open mind, and to Bruce Caron for organizing the event.

If I had more time, I might have mentioned a few things:

  1. There’s nothing like a lot of reading and writing to hone your communication and critical-thinking skills, which will serve you well anywhere. It doesn’t take a liberal arts degree to get them, but you probably need to write about some fairly complex ideas for an audience, over and over and over. Blogging works well.
  2. Really, watch Mr. Rogers defend PBS to the senate commission in 1969.
  3. I’ve always written slowly. I don’t type very well, but my real hangup is that most of the time I can’t let go of a sentence until it’s perfect. I want the reader to get exactly the message/experience I intend. I tend to fuss over sizing, spacing, and color details in CSS in exactly this same way.
  4. For aspiring writers: The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White. It remains the grammatical bible for the English language, direct and amusing.
  5. For aspiring UX Designers: The Elements of User Experience, by JJG. Take a close look at his classic elements diagram, which takes a thorough look at the layers of UX.
  6. Though I’ve been designing web sites for 13 years, I’m often more comfortable with the fundamental elements of writing than I am with the fundamentals of design. Thankfully, I’ve absorbed great deal of knowledge from all the talented designers on the Product team, particularly in the past year or so.
  7. Good web copywriting has long been considered an essential element of UX design.

As I tried to express during my 19th slide: It’s a real pleasure to work at Vox, where every part of the company cares about creating compelling narrative & community experiences for our audiences. Our team is proud to help design and build the products, the platform, and the pages that make those experiences possible.

I think empathy matters. Maybe you’re not working in media/tech or trying to grow a different kind of company, but I bet you collaborate with humans, for work or play or love. I highly recommend Designing the Team Experience, an article published by Jessica Vallance while I was working on these slides. It’s more food for thought about the value of UX design thinking in daily life.

Thanks for watching! Feedback welcome. And I dare you to challenge my Design Palpability diagram.