Is he ruining the soup? Can anyone do User Experience?

For those who haven’t seen the movie, Ratatouille, it recounts a rat named Remy who has a dream to become a chef in the city of Paris. The dream seems impossible, because he is just a rat. However, at the end Remy manages to be a chef despite the troubles he faces. There are the themes of courage and perseverance, but another theme that runs through this film is, “Not everyone can be a good cook, but a good cook can come from anyone.”

The same can be said for usability and user experience. As a leader of a user experience team, how can I say that anybody can do UX? Have I just written us off your projects? To be blunt, the answer is no.

Anyone can do some UX and usability analysis. And, as a mantra, some usability is better than none. But knowing your limitations and being aware of what you could be missing is really important. Having a guide that can show you how to maximize your usability analysis can be the difference between simply meeting your project goals and delivering a product that will resonate with users.

I often use food as a metaphor. It is something we all have in common. For some it is a necessity to eat, others a desire and joy. In going over research and in discussions at conferences with UX professionals and others conducting usability tests, there is an unsettling trend in which untrained and inexperienced testers make a variety of errors in the way they conduct usability tests. Valid and useful UX activities, like a good recipe, take time and expertise. Shortcuts and lack of rigorous controls invariably reduce the validity and usefulness of the usability activities, like information architecture, usability testing, and interaction design. Too much browning and garlic gets bitter, spoiling your pasta sauce. Without the proper amount of time, your dough will not rise in baking. Usability is a lot like cooking.

Cooking, like your projects have a start and an end, and people need the finished product. Like our need to for sustenance, our systems need to meet their stated goals, which it can do much better if the design has been improved through usability.

But can anyone really do some UX and get results?

In cooking, like UX, anybody can perform the most basic activities. Most anyone can boil water, scramble an egg, run a quick test with 5 users, or score a design for compliance with a heuristic checklist. And if you cannot, you can learn the basics pretty quickly. They’re not all that difficult. Remember, any usability is better than no usability. However, there is a level of excellence beyond the basics.

Going to a fancy restaurant and eating a meal cooked by a five-star chef is vastly different than eating something you throw together yourself in 20 minutes. Similarly, a usability expert will give you insights into your users’ needs and your possible design directions that are much deeper than advice you’d get from someone whose main job is in a different field. Skill levels form a continuum from beginner to expert, it’s not an either or situation.

Every time a non-UX practitioner learns something, their performance improves and they learn a new skill. Some facets of UX, like usability and cooking are particularly suited for continuing education, because anything you learn will remain useful for many years to come. This is why some basic usability training is important: you get better results for every extra bit you learn.

The cooking analogy gets even tastier:

  • Even though multi-star gourmet restaurants are wonderful, there’s also a need for modest neighborhood restaurants, and comfort food. Similarly, you should sometimes use a junior usability practitioner or even a resource with a passing interest in usability, instead of bringing in an established usability practitioner. Most design projects include many workman-like, everyday UX analysis activities that the less experienced folks can succeed at.
  • Even if you can afford it, you shouldn’t eat out every day. Your waistline benefits from getting more modest meals most of the week. Similarly, sometimes it’s good for your project if many day-to-day usability activities are performed by the designers and developers themselves. The more usability guidelines these folks know, the fewer design mistakes they’ll make, and the less rework you’ll have to do after discovering how people really use your product. But knowing what you don’t know is important. And if you are trying a new recipe at home, you will most likely look for an experienced resource, like the internet, cookbook, or a friend that has tried it before as well. The bottom line, know when to ask for help.
  • Variety is the spice of life. Think of a resort, a gourmet market, or the many restaurant choices that a city has to offer. Why pick only one type of cuisine? Similarly, combining many usability methods — such as user testing, guideline reviews, analysis by independent experts, analytics, and field studies — offers the best insights into optimal design. Experienced usability professionals have a very rich toolbox that goes beyond the simpler methods that anyone can use after a few days’ training.
  • Sometimes it’s important and easier to leave it up to experienced cooks. As much as someone may enjoy sushi, seldom does one attempt this on their own. Are you sure you are using the right type of tuna? If cooking for guests do they trust you? If being served by an untrained cook, do you trust they got that specialty correct? Also consider something like stuffed grape leaves, which are amazing, but where does one find grape leaves? Or the more common Indian food, like butter chicken. Do you have a clay tandoor oven? Do you want to roast cardamom pods in your home? The people who specialize in these things can do it faster and already have the right tool for the job.

DIY or leave it to the Pros – It’s really a matter of balance.

Experts will always add value in user experience, as in other walks of life. An expert can go beyond the accomplishments of newbies and those that are interested, but not exactly classically trained. But no, that doesn’t mean that usability and UX should be the responsibility of the experts alone. Everybody on the team needs to take responsibility for improving the user experience. And anybody can do usability; the basic methods are simple enough.

For more tasty examples of how user experience can help your projects, contact the Digital Strategy User Experience Team.

Bon Appetite.


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