Amateur UX can lead to half-assed UX. And these common mistakes:

1. Tend to copy designs inappropriately  – mostly out of context.  A radial menu for a touchscreen loses the benefit when it’s on a mouse & keyboard interface. What works for one website doesn’t necessarily work for all. Especially if they have different goals — and amateurs don’t typically think of user goals first. And amateurs don’t test their design, which can verify if the copy works in your context.

2. Follow fashions and trends, and not OS guidelines – There is a sad follow-the-leader aesthetic if you search for examples of good design; all very same-y.  Used to be gradients, glossy buttons (candy colors) and rounded corners; now it’s flat squares and hidden affordances like typography instead of buttons. Web sites now are all about the ‘hero image’ and parallax scrolling (ugh, I’m going to be sick..). Microsoft Office design doesn’t follow it’s own UX guidelines; in some cases the guidelines catch up (the ribbon), but often they’re one-and-done (task panes? Clippy?)–so you run the risk of being outdated once they shift right before your release.

3. Tend to design for feature-at-a-time and not the bigger picture – Experienced UX practitioners take a system view, and think about extensibility when creating a framework. Amateurs will consider the task at hand, and design specificity; not consider how to fit the task into a larger pattern. Often you end up with more complexity — more tabs, menu options, popup windows, screens, etc. where every feature has it’s unique interface.

4. Don’t collaborate – The mindset of a good UX professional is humility and collaboration. I don’t have all the answers, but I can find them by asking the right questions with the right people. Novice designers sometimes fall into the ‘hero designer’ (or rock star or ninja) expectation.  I like what Jeff Gothelf says (it doesn’t just apply to lean or agile):

Hero designers are problematic in agile environments because agile is distinctly anti-hero. It promotes the concept of the team (not the individual designer or developer) as the smallest unit of labor, and it focuses on that team winning and losing together. A hero designer will undoubtedly upset that dynamic by wasting energy and time on unproductive conversations. Hero designers struggle to collaborate and share their work productively.

5. Only produce a single concept – A general rule is to come up with at least 3 design alternatives; at least one is a ‘wild’ idea, to stretch you. Then you can evaluate and mix/match parts to come up with a stronger final concept. Amateur designers, either due to ego or rigid thinking, will tend to jump right into detail design on the first concept they think of. Inability to react to criticism can be shown by the extent to which they will defend the one concept, beyond the point where it is clear it fails to work.

6. Don’t iterate – Related to #5, plus #7 below, they produce the design and throw it over the wall, then move on to the next set of features to detail.

7. Don’t interact with users (testing or research) – This is a common one, thinking that ‘Design’ = produce design solutions; rather than the process of assessing needs and evaluating the design solutions. The amateur mindset that ‘I use computers/apps/web, therefore I am a user and I can use this design’ replaces the curiosity of getting out of the cube and talking with customers. Now, some don’t know the UX research methods, ok — what is worse is ignoring users with the attitude that they are going to love what you the hero designer will give them.

Why 7? Don’t all blogs have to be lists?  Those were the first that popped into my head when I asked this on Quora.  You might have ones of your own. Another one I just thought of is amateurs don’t consider what can be implemented or not (or consider project schedule, with respect to design complexity).

Why does this worry me?

UX community is a big tent — all are welcome. Many in the field even gleefully promote it as not requiring credentials, education, background, even experience. Like this particularly moronic article recommending you hire ‘digital natives’ over those with experience. (I guess this was written before the finding that US digital natives had the poorest problem solving skills in the world. Well, we beat Poland! …no I’m not gonna touch that one…). Quora seems to have a new question every week along the lines of ‘how can I become a UX designer in a week without any experience or skill‘..

Various times in my career I’ve lobbied for more UX hires, and was told to train the other guys (product managers, engineers, developers, marketers, etc) to do what I do. Aside from being insulting–i.e. what I do isn’t that unique/skilled/important that we couldn’t train somebody to do it, and part-time at that–it’s not that effective. There is a difference between having somebody live and breathe UX as their primary responsibility, versus think UX as they’re doing all the other tasks they have to do in their ‘real’ job (if they have time for it). So I’ve had opportunity to work with novices and have seen these issues.

I don’t oppose training novices; in fact I train the LUMA Innovation through Human Centered Design workshop within the company.  We want everyone to be aware of UX, how it contributes and integrates in the development lifecycle, and how to apply key methods–so they can participate in collaboration that is necessary in HCD.  And several engineers who have been exposed to UX through the training have gone on to specialize in HCD; the key is they took it on themselves to learn more and fully embody the UX mindset and advocate for the user.

Sidebar: UX as a Profession

I recall a heated discussion on a usability testing listserve, after which Jared Spool  famously quit, where I argued we needed a professional body of knowledge and certification, similar to what Project Management Institute did for project managers, to define ourselves as a ‘real’ profession. The ironic twist is recently Spool co-founded the ‘unicorn institute’ (they changed it to Center Centre because the name was already taken) to provide a UX certification  diploma…for $60K. Nowhere on their site will you find the C-word; but they’re doing pretty much the same thing as the Bentley UX Certificate.

Anyway, so here we are without professional certification (the for-profit ones you get after taking a number of expensive workshops don’t count, and BCPE I can’t get since I didn’t study ergonomics); so I guess we’re all amateurs to some degree, but what is important is being ego-less and realizing your limitations — then striving to do better and learn. Even an experienced professional (like myself!) has to be open to learning and improving.


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