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Seasoned UXer David Sherwin is the instructional design expert aligning teams around user experience in this Q&A

Seasoned UXer David Sherwin is the instructional design expert aligning teams around user experience in this Q&A

As Co-Founder of Ask The Sherwins, David Sherwin uses instructional design techniques to enable organizations to create innovative design solutions. Through UX research, participatory design and prototyping, David creates bespoke training and educative opportunities for design-driven teams.

With 20 years’ experience in interaction, product and participatory design under his belt, David explains to Justinmind how instructional design helps teams improve their UX in our Q&A.

Hi David! With 20 years of UX, product design and leadership experience, could you tell us how you went from a BA in English Language and Literature to UX and Interaction design?

When I was in sixth grade, I wrote in my school’s literary magazine, “When I grow up, I want to be a software designer or a writer, or both.” So early on, I had an idea of what I wanted to do. But I didn’t know how to get there.

When I went to college, I chose systems engineering as a major, because I thought it was a path to software design. But then I realized that while I loved working with systems, my passion was in the design of interfaces more than in engineering. This was decades before there were programs around the world that taught UX or interaction design, so I turned to my other love, writing, and took graphic design and art classes to round out my undergraduate education.

After school, I freelanced doing graphic design to pay the bills. Once I got to a studio, I did a lot of branding and marketing work, but I started working on digital projects because I knew how to do the interface design and front-end coding. I got strong mentorship from creative leaders that had deep UX design and research training. From them, I learned to connect my experiences from college to UX and interaction design disciplines. At one point, I wanted a thorough understanding of interaction design. Within about six months, I got an offer to work at frog. By the end of my time there, I was leading teams and working across studios to help with practice-building in design research and social impact design.

What’s the UX culture like at Ask The Sherwins? What type of user experience research do you do? What metrics get used?

Much of the research and prototyping work that we do is through helping product and service design teams do organizational design, developing bespoke training programs, and working more hands-on with educational products and programs. We’ve also helped lead research efforts on a few projects to model best practices.

Because we’ve been doing work in the education space, we pull from an instructional design toolbox. We look at the sorts of things that teachers measure in academic programs on a lot of our projects:

  • When we’re introducing a new concept or tool, do learners comprehend what we’ve provided?
  • When they put it into practice, do they feel confident giving it a try?
  • Are they actually competent in that tool?
  • Can they communicate to others how to use it?

Does prototyping come into the design process? How do you iterate on client feedback?

We’ve used paper and digital prototypes to solicit input on part of an educational product or training program, or to validate or disprove elements of revised workflows for teams. We also use service prototyping and participatory design techniques to collaboratively create potential solutions with users, and then work with design teams to analyze what they’ve learned to develop products further. This year, we’ve been teaching a lot more around creating social services, in-person educational programs, and physical products. For those things, you can’t always use methodologies like Lean UX, because the feedback loops for an experiment are way too long and whatever you’re testing requires a high level of evidence-based rigor.

Even if we’re not going Lean, if we’re prototyping with a team, we’re really clear about our hypotheses, and our clients are often generating those hypotheses with us and running the experiments.

For client feedback, we invite clients into the process from the very start, and we are clear about our working assumptions from day one.

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You taught storytelling in user experience design for four years at California College of the Arts, most recently with your partner Mary in their master’s program. For you, what is the importance of storytelling in user experience design?


There’s recent research in psychology and neuroscience right now (I’m thinking of Paul Zak, for example) that shows that if a story is properly constructed and delivered at the right time, it can change people’s attitudes, beliefs, and behavior. For that alone, the proper use of storytelling in the UX process is a big deal. We all know why you tell stories.

But in UX, I think we get a little lazy about story. The tools that we say are “storytelling in UX”, things like personas, journey maps, and user flows, they don’t convey complete stories with characters and settings and a clear conflict and narrative arc. They’re just bits and pieces of story information distributed across different deliverables. You have to infer a lot. And that’s what we do as human beings—we constantly make story-based inferences as we go about our daily lives.

Designers can’t fully control how these inferences are perceived by their audiences. But if we’re doing a good job as story creators, and bringing in elements of classical story construction from the arts, we can create some of the effects that we’d intended on our teams and our clients.

This is a difficult skill, and it requires deliberate practice. In some of the classes and workshops that we teach, we spend way more time focusing on creating stories in the classical sense, rather than teaching UX tools—because designers will have to hack and adapt those tools in different ways to support what they need to get across on their projects.

[bctt tweet=”We forget that storytelling is a manipulative art.” username=”just_in_mind”]

I am very cautious about when I choose to use stories in my research and design work.

If organizations are trying to create better products, what are your thoughts on outsourcing the UX design process?

When we’re working with design teams on their organizational design and developing new capabilities, we have a lot of dialogue about this subject.

Really, there are only a few reasons why an in-house design team should reach out to an external partner for the UX design process. You’re over-capacity on your commitments, you need specialized capabilities you don’t have, or you need a neutral party to facilitate your organization and stakeholders to a beneficial outcome. In working with frog, many of our projects fell into the latter category, because we were upstream in the product development process.


It’s tempting to work with studios or contractors to start building up a UX practice, and then transfer that into an in-house set of hires. That works in the short term, but it’s got long-term consequences. When they build a practice, UX designers get to see everything. They develop deep relationships with stakeholders, and if you’re contracting it out, your company misses out on all of that trust and working knowledge. You have to decide if it’s worth that loss.

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What is the biggest challenge you have encountered when revamping a company’s design workflow or process?

When working on a workflow or UX process, it’s tempting to do a Big Process Redesign all at once, because everything can be better if you just change it all, right? Designers get this mindset when working on products and services, where you can influence every bit of what gets into the product.

But you can’t design an organization like that. Everything—people, process, tools, and systems—is interdependent in a company, and you have to choose what aspects you’re focusing on, and how they might influence each other. You can only change so much in a month for a team, so prioritizing changes helps a team focus and feel like you respect their effort. No matter what you’re trying to improve, it always comes back to people. You’re working with people, and there’s no such thing as a small process change. It’s like a speed bump: small to look at, but its local effects are powerful.

Another trap we’ve seen companies fall into is leading with solutions rather than insights around problems. If there are issues in your workflow, don’t just propose solutions and start putting them in place. Approach process improvement within your organization like you would a user research study. Identify observed needs, describe them accurately, and invite your team into defining what problems need to be solved. Harness your team’s creativity in generating ideas to test, from within the team. Tools and techniques for doing this are part of our next book that’s coming out October 2018 from Berrett-Koehler, called Turning People Into Teams: Habits, Rituals, and Routines That Redesign How We Work.

Emily is Marketing Content Editor at Justinmind

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