September 26, 2017

Centering on Design that is Positive and Enriching to People: User Experience Researcher and Designer Stephanie Lawrence

Stephanie Lawrence is a Market Researcher turned User Experience Researcher and Designer. Is was through her article “Design Ethics in Practice” that I discovered her work. Here, she elaborates on the meaning and relevance of user experience design, especially in the development and building of Web-based tools.

How did you reinvent yourself from being a Market Researcher to a User Experience Designer? Was there an experience that compelled/nudged you to start engaging your path toward becoming a UX Designer?

I had a good friend and former manager first tell me about UX after she started working at a tech startup. At the time, I knew I wanted to try another career outside of market research—I was missing having any kind of visual creativity as a part of my work. It wasn’t until I heard about UX from her that I felt excited about moving in a new direction. And once I realized the UX community is full of nerds, I felt like I found my calling (haha).

From there, I tried to learn as much as I could: I went to tons of meetups, read everything I could about design, learned how to code, and worked on personal projects. It all became like a second job for me, but I also had people that encouraged me to continue and grow as a designer, and that made it easier to keep going. I eventually took a big leap and left my market research job to do a UX internship, and the rest is history.

Label-mania: What is your job-title preference—UX Designer, Interaction Designer, User Interface Designer, UX Architect, Information Architect, Usability Specialist, et al.?

UX Designer works for me, but it’s never been my “official” title. Right now, I’m “officially” a UX Researcher. I do both design and research, similar to my last job where I was “officially” an Interaction Designer.

Who/what are your regular influences
in your user-experience design work?

That’s hard to answer. I think that’s something I’m still trying to nail down in a deliberate way. Currently, I’m influenced by all of the awesome people I follow on Twitter: Amelie Lamont, Ethan Marcotte, Senongo Akpem, Catt Small, Mina Markham, Erica Joy, so many others. I’m inspired by designers that think about people and social impact, not just this idea of “users” and conversion rates.

I have a background in working with government and healthcare Websites, and that continues to influence and frame how I approach designing any site. I think about what people are learning and how they’re served by interacting with any design I’m working on.

The debate persists on what “user experience” is. What does it mean to you? What is “user experience design”? How do you communicate these concepts of user experience and user experience design to clients so that they understand?

To me, UX is about thinking about how someone will use what you design, and constructing a product/service in relation to where it exists in the larger context of that person’s life. UX design is the process of making something that actually fits into that context, and optimizing it accordingly. You can’t “design” a full experience, but you can understand an experience and design tools that fit within it. That means thinking about larger sociological and psychological factors that are a part of that context, thinking about accessibility, sustainability, impact.

That’s actually how I explain it to people, if I have time. Otherwise, my definition is “I make websites easier to use and not ugly, so people are more likely to use what you want to make.”

What are the principles you adhere to 
and practice as a UX Designer?

I always think about context and impact, like making sure an interaction isn’t going to frustrate someone or make them feel bad. Little things can have a big impact on people that are in an emotionally vulnerable place, so I try to think about what emotional states someone could be in during a given interaction, and try to account for the “worst case scenario” in some way.

I also feel that designers have an ethical responsibility to do right by their users, as a bare minimum. Broadly, it should do right by everyone, and not enable users to hurt other people. I still follow the research ethics guidelines I learned when I was working as a market researcher.

From your UX Design toolkit, what specific methods do you rely on toward effectively, as you put it, “Establishing Context”?

For specific projects, I listen to people and try to learn as much about what they’re doing and what they need as possible. I try to learn about them, and what goes wrong for them, what their stakes are. Research is key to this, especially user interviews. When I interview someone, I try to make them the star of the show—I want to learn about them and how I can help them, not just watch them use a site and see what breaks. And then I have to try and connect it all back to the larger context of how each interaction causes waves in their experience, and how that relates to a larger context of their life based on their identity. So: a lot of talking to people, a lot of sticky notes and a lot of reading.

Some of my personal library I keep at work, along with my co-workers’ books.

I also try to draw on the information and theory I learned back when I was in school for psychology, and keep up on current events; I try to connect a lot of that theoretical understanding of society and history to current implementations and impact of technology. For example, I think way too much about racism in AI and machine learning, design ethics and the consequences of bigotry in the tech industry. It’s hard to not connect that to when you get user feedback on a chatbot or search results during an interview. These larger social questions impact the user feedback you receive.

How would you describe “good design”?

As an absolute bare minimum: Design that enables people to complete tasks with minimal hassle. Design that doesn’t harm nor enable harm.

Ideally, “good design” inspires action beyond interaction with the design itself. Any design that encourages users to do more than they thought of before, in a positive and enriching way, is “good.”

What user experiences do you judge as really good,

and how do you feel this was achieved?

The ones I judge as good are always hard to pin down, since good experiences always feel the most natural, so it’s hard to catch them. One I encountered recently: A clothes subscription box I signed up for. I went to the site already worried, since anything to do with clothes and bodies is ripe for body-shaming or other assumptions that can turn the whole experience sour for me. But the one I used was surprisingly pleasant. It wasn’t until it was over that I realized that I didn’t feel uncomfortable, that I didn’t feel discouraged from using their service because of my size, proportions or income. I think any kind of experience that can do that, that doesn’t reproduce some of the expected pitfalls of typical experiences that reiterate exclusion of people that aren’t seen as “normal” or “ideal,” are really good ones.

At this year’s TypeCon, Creative Director Bobby C. Martin, who co-founded branding and design agency Original Champions of Design, posed to the audience: “Where are all of the black typeface designers?” To steer this question toward your discipline, where are all of the black user-experience designers?

I would turn this question back around and ask: “Why haven’t Black UX designers been made to feel welcome, to the point that they need to be sought out?” A lack of diversity is never just circumstance, it’s by design. The larger contextual factors that build up to the consequence of homogeneity in the design industry—from systemic racism to daily microaggressions—are what need to be examined.

What part of your work is particularly trying,
and how do you deal with it?

Time. With enough time, you can get the copy on a page just right, or work through conflicts with stakeholders. Lots of issues can be addressed with enough time, but there never is enough, and it only moves forward.

I personally take up the mantra of “done is better than perfect.” Time is the one factor you can’t control at all, so it helps me to relax and work with what time I have and prioritize, rather than spin my wheels looking for perfection in my designs and wishing I had a time machine to do things differently before. It helps to give me perspective when I’m working with stakeholders, so that it’s less about getting things done “just right” and more about thinking about what needs to get done at a given time.

What software/Web-based tools that you use and
highly recommend to work on ideas and make them grow,
to collaborate and get things done?

Helpful tools I’ve used lately:

Purple: the team I’m currently on has been using it to keep track of project, and it’s been really nice to see all of our notes and visual assets in one place. It really helps to grasp the larger picture of a project’s changes over time.

Notion and Freeter: I’ve been using Notion to keep notes and keep track of any tasks I complete in a week, and it’s become a staple for me. No other productivity or to-do app has worked for me, and I keep all of my important research and design notes in one place. It helps me keep track of my own weekly tasks outside of JIRA so I don’t get lost in a sea of tickets. I just started pairing it with Freeter to also keep all of my files and important links in one place, and it’s been amazing.

What is that one tool which helps make your work productive
and gratifying—as a result, making your life good?

My sketchbook. It’s silly, but looking back and seeing all of the work I’ve done helps to silence imposter syndrome. I’ve always kept sketchbooks even before I was in UX; that’s how I organize my ideas and thoughts, and it’s like my security blanket. When things get tough, I can look back at old ones and find new inspiration. I also get to accomplish my childhood dream of having a creative job where I get to draw. Notion is slowly becoming a digital extension of my notebook, but nothing beats the feeling of carrying around a notebook. I’m also a stationery nerd, so trying new notebooks always makes me happy.

My current notebook, a Rhodia with grid lines.

If you were tasked to make a code of conduct 
for the user-experience design profession, what would this be?

A modified version of the Hippocratic oath: Do no harm, Do not make tools that enable harm, Prevent harm when possible, View people as human beings instead of problems to be fixed, And respect people’s privacy.

If you were approached by someone who expressed, “I want 
to have a career in/involving user experience,” what’s
your response?

First, I’d ask them why. UX means so many different things, it’d be hard to give any advice without knowing what UX means to that person, and what about UX they personally like. From there, I’d encourage them to go for it!

How would you describe success?

Personal contentment. Not feeling like you’ve done everything you want, but feeling a sense of peace with where you are in life and what you’ve accomplished. In that sense, success is a matter of scale rather than a state you’re suddenly in.

For people who are making a transition from one professional 
role/discipline to another, how would you advise them?

Learn as much as you can about the everyday of the profession you’re interested in, think about what you personally want from following that path. Talk to lots of people, don’t be afraid to have and speak up about your ideas even if you’re the “new kid.” Leverage your current strengths, and think of how they relate to the profession you want—get really creative about it, and make connections between where you are and where you want to be.

Since you enjoy watching documentaries, which one is 
a must-see? Do you plan to view Ken Burns’ latest documentary 
series “The Vietnam War”?

Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Hearing someone talk about their passion, and that attention to detail for every piece of fish, it’s so energizing to see. But it also felt humbling to see what that road looks like, what you gain and what you give up when you dedicate yourself so totally to one thing. It’s a documentary that always sticks with me, personally.

Also, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, because (1) Space is cool, (2) it’s a great reminder how amazing it is that we are tiny creatures living on this watery rock in space, and (3) Neil DeGrasse Tyson is also really great in communicating all of that, and being excited and passionate about studying the universe.

I hadn’t heard about Ken Burns’ documentary, but I’ll check it out.

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All images courtesy of Stephanie Lawrence.

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