Monday, March 28, 2005

Cooking Up Some UX Stew

I love what I do. I mean, I love what I do.

But sometimes I hate it.

I've wondered if this was due to some kind of neurotic or masochistic streak in me, that I enjoyed beating myself up for a living. But thanks to a fascinating post by Jeffery Veen today, I'm feeling much better. I mean, misery loves company, right?

In thinking a bit about Malcolm Gladwell's best-selling Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Veen describes his design method in this way:
I build up a tremendous amount of background data, let it synthesize, then "blink" it out as a fully-formed solution.
Now that sounds so smooth and elegant, but it's not. Here's Veen's typical process:
  1. Talk to everybody I possibly can about the problem.

  2. Read everything that would even be remotely related to what I'm doing. Hang charts, graphs, diagrams, and screenshots all over my office.

  3. Observe user research; recall past research.

  4. Stew in it all, panic as deadline approaches, stop sleeping, stop eating.

  5. Be struck with an epiphany. Instantly see the solution. Curse my tools for being too slow as I frantically get it all down in a document.

  6. Sleep for three days.
Hey, me too!

I added bold type to step four because to me this is the crux of the process. And I picked that word "crux" with great care. Dictionary.com tells us that "crux" is "Probably short for Medieval Latin crux (interpretum), torment (of interpreters), from Latin crux, cross." Torment. Yep, that's right. This period of torment, of stewing is the cross that I (and apparently Veen) must bear as a UXCentrist.

The research phase of UX design is thrilling. Hitting the books. Mining the Web. Scouring the SIG archives. Endlessly interviewing Clients with exclamations of glee at key discoveries. Surveying users and poring over the stats. Designing and conducting card sorts and usability tests. Observing and talking with users. Writing summary reports and making presentations. Man, I love that stuff.

And when it's time to put this wealth of knowledge to work, I hit the wall. I pace, I fill up wastebaskets with false starts. I curse. I stare at my display for hours. I snap at the dogs. I read and reread my notes and reports, hoping for some kind of miracle. I question my abilities, my credentials as a UXCentrist. I expect my Clients to sack me and demand refunds. My blood runs cold. I despair.

Finally, after days of torment—blink!—it happens. The epiphany, as Veen describes it. Suddenly, I'm a genius! I crank out site maps, wireframes and other deliverables like a dervish. Multiple solutions (once so rare) leap to my mind so fast I can't get them down on paper. I'm obsessed, even manic about my work, chortling as it rapidly takes shape. Clients express their amazement at my pace.

Wow. What a ride. What a great way to make a living!

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