While a lot of schools are starting to turn out students with degrees in User Experience, many of us came to it though other (usually related) fields.
This was my path
I grew up in a house with a father who was both a scientist (chemical engineering, mining engineering, and lab research) and lover of the arts. His connection with the arts came in diverse areas: painting, music, and to a lesser extent, film. Every moment of his life was seen through the context of the scientific observation as well as aesthetic appreciation. I picked up on this and found it something to emulate. Even when I was very young, my father answered my questions as if I were an adult. If I didn’t understand, then he would simplify it. I even remember having a conversation with him about what makes a good scientist. His response included such things as the scientific method, that there were many unknowns, that a good scientist tries to prove theories wrong, not right. Never to assume that a fact can be applied to an example in a way that ‘fits really well’ but not exactly and then presume that the result is correct. Be honest but skeptical in practicing science.
On the other hand, be appreciative in art. If you don’t like a piece of art (painting, sculpture, music, theater) and it is considered a masterpiece by many respectable authorities, then find out what makes it a masterpiece rather than ever dismissing it because “I don’t like it.” In other words, learn to separate what makes something great from my personal preferences. This last statement became the critical understanding of the professional practice of design for me.
I realized that anything that I was passionate about, I could learn. When I was in high school, I had a crush on someone who liked Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”. Because of that crush, I bought the orchestral score, and taught myself to read a conductor’s score in detail, when my musical training was minimal at best. It took me weeks and I spent sometimes hours a day working on it. This would be like someone, with only rudimentary reading skills, deciding, on passion alone, to read Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained to really know and comprehend it.
I went to college and started as a general biology major with minors in botany and music theory. I switched majors and minors numerous times during my college years: mechanical engineering, Russian language, cinema, graphic design. I finally left with my major in Graphic Design, but always continued to study science, music, technology, etc. as avocations.
After being a graphic designer for a while in Medical publications, I moved on to advertising and then to Xerox and into instructional design (first as a graphic designer, then eventually as an application developer. (I had taught myself the proprietary mainframe’s programming language from a book of commands.) Eventually, I took courses back in college (not for a degree, but for some structured formal training) in applied mathematics and programming. I did this so that I could ensure that my self-taught approach wasn’t riddled with bad habits. I also learned that while I could now write applications in Assembly and C and proprietary scripting languages, that that was not what I wanted to do. That should be left to someone who really loves coding and solving problems through well-conceived, well-documented and well-executed code. So now, in the 1990’s I was developing UIs for advanced computer based training systems and designing the ‘dashboards’ (the popular term at the time for wireframing and visualize design). Though I wasn’t aware of usability as a formal field, the concept seemed an obvious issue that needed to be addressed.
From there, I went to Pitney Bowes and was introduced to Jakob Nielsen through a few of his early books (“Usability Engineering“, “Multimedia and Hypertext: The Internet and Beyond“, and “International User Interfaces” to begin with and then there was Don Norman’s books and others that followed as well as some truly great mentors.) These were instrumental in my view of usability. They both confirmed many things that I had thought that I just figured out myself, and additionally added new ideas and methods that I was, up until then, unaware of. The idea, also of emotional impact of usability was something I was becoming aware of. Here was the idea that ‘fewest keystrokes’ and ‘fastest completion of a task’ where not the only thing to consider in acceptance and use of a product. The user experience is a cradle to grave set of attributes. It isn’t just the UI.
What followed was personally studying and observing both how human factors and ergonomic engineers dealt with gathering, and assembling data as well as how that data may be used and extrapolations could be derived (rightly or wrongly) from it. Also, as I started studying the psychological and cognitive aspects and correlating that information with neuroanatomical information (when applicable) only added to the power of the field of UX. Even when I worked at Gartner Group, doing visualization design for the senior analysts there to present at their world symposia, I realized that how data is presented can have a powerful effect on both its comprehension as well as its influence. So now I find that when companies want a UX designer, they often either don’t really know what UX is (usually in the sense that their perspective of it is a very narrow definition) or they think that it’s a way to fix what doesn’t work when the problem may not have to do with UX. More often than not, I find, in talking with people at various companies, the UX person they are looking for is really someone in another area of specialty that is associated with UX, but not specifically UX. They want a visual designer with UX experience, or a software engineer with UX experience, or web developer with UX experience, rather than a UX designer. If they look at a portfolio and it’s not ‘dazzling’ enough, then they really want a visual designer. If they look at the resume and want an expert in HTML5, CSS3 and JS, then they really want a web developer. I’m not, by any means saying that knowing these areas isn’t important, but if someone wants me as their UX designer, and questions like these become prominent in the interview, it has been my experience that this is the primary focus for the work and not UX. I don’t make that as a blanket statement, since understanding these skills can and often is essential to the job, and the company may have previously dealt with someone with no comprehension or capability in these areas. That’s easily determined though with a few key questions. These types of issues are, however, most prevalent with startups and smaller companies that have no one currently creating or addressing any focused UX design.
The other issue is that there is often a myopic view of UX design in that the UX designer needs to have lots of experience in the area of the company’s expertise. While this can be helpful, it can also be a hindrance, since that very expertise can easily create biases in the UX designer, unless the UX designer is absolutely vigilant in being aware of this. I can learn about any businesses products and function far faster than I can do the more important work of finding out about the company’s users and their wants, needs, expectations and observable interactions with the product. This user information is the foundation on which the UX designer bases the primary issues that need to be addressed. They are different with every company, even if two or more of the companies have competing products. An iOS user and an Android user are not interchangeable, even if the product must run effectively across platforms.
So when it comes to UX, I see facts as something I can be sure of, if there’s proof, but what the fact suggests something, no matter how obvious it may seem, it is not proof, and therefore, like all good UX designers know, is up to testing to determine its validity (which may be proof, or at least a higher likelihood of an expected result – and know the clear difference between those two.) In chemistry terms: It is the mixture of science and art (however well integrated it may seem) but not a ‘chemical reaction’.