Luke Jones

Working at a User-Centered Design Agency

November 17, 2015

At the end of November 2015, I handed my MacBook back over to cxpartners and moved on to new pastures over at Hudl.

I’ve learned a huge amount during my time at cxpartners and achieved more than I ever thought I would by my mid-20s. The cxpartners approach to design is far removed from anything I’d ever experienced, so I had to adapt quickly, learning along the way that I was a young & foolish designer who had a bunch of assumptions that were wrong. Here are a few things that I have learned in my tenure at this wonderful agency.

Watching users is eye-opening

I thought my ideas of how people interact with interfaces were pretty advanced. I was wrong. I thought sketching out an idea for ages before producing it in a prototype would mean a user wouldn’t miss it. Guess what.

Watching users walk through your designs is nerve-wracking and eye-opening. You will spot glaring errors in your design in moments and, before you know it, post-its containing user insights will cover every wall.

It blew my mind how much hand-holding users require. I’ve seen users misunderstand propositions entirely, miss huge calls to action, and ignore clear, basic microcopy.

I’ve never left a user research session thinking ‘I have learned nothing today’. Seeing how much a user struggles to understand standalone icons, or how they totally ignore microcopy will stick in your mind and make you become a more empathetic designer.

Post-its and Sharpies. Everywhere.

Designers may be driving the stock prices of post-its through the roof. These yellow squares cover everything in the cxpartners office. There is so much joy in being able to scribble on a bit of paper and build a prioritised list of components in seconds.

This habit must’ve dripped down into my process because, for even the smallest project, I will make sure I have a stack of post-its at hand to start writing notes.

Kick-offs, communication, and stupid questions are essential

Before cxpartners I had taken part in briefing meetings, asked standard sets of questions, and produced designs that required multiple rounds of feedback before getting them right.

I had made the (daft) assumption that non-designers know exactly what it is they want. In reality, we are the experts and it is our responsibility to help the client understand what it is they really require. If we end up producing the wrong design, it’s our fault. If you visit a physiotherapist and tell them your knee hurts, it’s their responsibility to figure out that it is in fact your glute that is the problem.

To get a true, accurate brief from a client these days I ensure the following happens:

This kind of thing requires additional time up-front, but mean the projects run more efficiently so are often quicker overall.

Fast, collaborative iteration is the best ever.

My most recent projects have involved working closely with ux designers, developers, and the client, allowing us to quickly iterate and deliver designs that everyone was happy with.

What helps this is a massive dose of mutual respect. Each member of the team understood the value of the other members, but let everyone get stuck in. A dev wants to dig into my Sketch doc? Great! I have some input for a UXer on how a layout could flow nicer? They welcome the feedback.

Working this way is the future. No more waterfall projects. There is an overlap in each department at cxpartners, so we should treat it that way instead of throwing wireframes over the fence at designers, and throwing designs over the fence at developers.

Popularity doesn’t matter. Clients and users do.

A few months after joining cx I stopped using my Dribbble account and, along with it, my modest number of followers. Why? Because I realized I was pandering to peers instead of designing what was appropriate for the project I was working on.

This realisation came when I was designing an icon for a project and I asked the Creative Director (Chris) if I could upload it to Dribbble. The conversation went a little like this:

Me: Can I upload this to Dribbble?

Chris: Sure, but why?

Me: I think it’ll look good.

Chris: Have you been designing that just so you can put it on Dribbble?

Me: …

Taking a step back, I realised the mistake I had made. I had been designing something that would look good in a 4:3 panel, and I had been doing this on most of my designs since I got a Dribbble account.

From this point on, I focused on client- and user-needs and my designs projects have been more successful as a result. Dribbble is a useful resource for learning, sharing work, getting feedback, and finding new projects, but designing for Dribbble was a mistake.

Nobody appreciates a lack of humility

When I was a bit younger, I thought my opinion on designs should be defended to the death. After all, I had put my heart and soul into this so I should fight my corner. But I shouldn’t have.

Getting direct feedback from users, clients, and a pool of talented designers at cx meant that I had to back down. Whilst I’m being paid for my expertise and I may have solid rationale, there is always a time and a place for accepting that what I’ve done may not be right just yet.

User experience is deeper than layout

I didn’t really know what ‘UX’ as an umbrella term meant when I joined cx, and I’m not sure I really do now. What I do know is it’s more than sticking ‘UX’ in a Dribbble or Twitter biography.

User experience design goes deeper into user research, ethnography, information architecture, experience mapping, and much more. It isn’t just about layout. UX is an umbrella term that covers many specialist roles, most of which should never ever be ignored or underestimated.

Finally, I want to say thank you to cxpartners for giving me the opportunity to become a better designer. You should go and work for them.