Q&A with UX Guru Eric Reiss: “We don’t put lipstick on pigs”
Eric Reiss, UX guru and one-time president of the Information Architecture Institute, brings a unique (and salty!) perspective to UX today. Justinmind caught up with him to find out what makes him and his agency FatDUX tick.
Eric Reiss, author of Practical information Architecture and Usable Usability, has just about done it all in UX and online communications. Stage director (the best UX training around according to Eric), early years adventure game writer, information architecture expert, advertising copywriter, former Professor of Usability and Design at the Instituto de Empresa Business School in Madrid, and now CEO of UX agency FatDUX, Reiss is a regular on UX talk circuits thanks to his storied experience and no-nonsense charm.
From the Copenhagen headquarters of FatDUX, Eric and his team come up with interactive experiences for both the online and offline world. He can’t talk about his clients in detail thanks to non-disclosure agreements, but he is happy to point out that delivering great user and client experiences takes more than sprinkling “some pretty pixie dust on top of a crappy site.”
We caught up with Eric to hear his take on what’s right (and wrong) in UX today.
You’re based in Copenhagen, Denmark, one of the happiest countries in the world – what’s it like working in UX there? I assume everything provides an outstanding user experience…
Well, to be honest, I’m not really sure the Danes are as happy as advertised. One theory is that it’s somewhat shameful to be unhappy – and if you are, you don’t want to tell anyone as this places an obligation on them to do something to make you happier. So, these surveys tend to produce a rather skewed answer.
Denmark is certainly a well-functioning country, although occasionally somewhat pedantic in terms of processes and procedures. For example, Denmark’s cradle-to-grave welfare system provides a great deal of security, but also brings with it a lot of bureaucracy. That said, I’ve lived here for 40 years and wouldn’t dream of moving. The UX of Denmark is generally very good.
Unfortunately, when it comes to actually designing UX, most Danish companies are still pretty clueless, generally because most of the popular definitions of UX are not particularly helpful or actionable. This is a problem I see in many other countries, too. Companies give lip service to UX, but don’t always do the things necessary to improve their products or services from a UX perspective.
You’ve had a bit of an unusual career trajectory, from ragtime pianist to President of the Information Architecture Institute. Can you give us a rundown of your career and how these experiences come together to make you successful in UX?
I originally trained as an actor and director at Washington University in St. Louis. I came to Denmark in 1976 when I was offered a directing position at the Danish Royal Theatre. So, performing has always been a key part of my DNA. But I’m also a fairly competent writer, and communications have provided the red thread throughout most of my career.
I became fascinated with computers back in high school in 1968 and even bought a half-share in the world’s first personal computer in 1975, an Altair 8800. It couldn’t do much, but it was very cool. In 1983, when the first microcomputers came out, I wrote the first Danish-language adventure game for the ZX Spectrum. By the late 80s, I was working at an advertising agency and multimedia was suddenly the “next big thing” in communication. This is when everything started to gel for me – my understanding of computers, my communication skills, and my view of UX thanks to my theater background.
Can you tell us more about what FatDUX does and why it is successful in an increasingly crowded UX agency field?
FatDUX designs user experiences. That’s where the “DUX” comes from. This involves everything from digital design, to physical product design, to service design and beyond. We have several offices throughout Europe and associates on almost every continent. But we keep our offices small – sometimes only one or two people. Yet by tapping into the FatDUX network, we can pull together exactly the right team to handle a specific project. Hence, most of our projects involve several offices, which gives our clients access to the A-Team no matter where they might be physically located. Happily, with the advent of Skype and other similar technologies, distance-working is easier today than ever before. And we have the local presence needed to provide the necessary physical face-time with our clients without breaking the budget.
Keeping the size of the offices small also means that we managed to survive the economic downturn after 2008 without any significant layoffs – this at a time when five or six UX agencies were going under each month, even in major markets such as London and New York.
This model has served us extremely well, but we’ve also learned a lot the last decade. That means we are constantly reevaluating our business model and working to improve it.
Can you give us a peek into the FatDUX working process when, for example, doing a UX overhaul of a website for a client?
The process is really not particularly unique to us: Discover > Design > Deploy. But we do tend to approach these phases in a very straightforward and practical manner. Our design methodology is simple: DWYNTDTGTSD – Do What You Need To Do To Get The S**t Done. And we emphasize knowledge-based design rather than opinion-based design. That’s why the discovery phase is so critical. We tend to turn down projects where the client just wants us to sprinkle some pretty pixie dust on top of a crappy site. We don’t put lipstick on pigs.
Perhaps the most important difference at FatDUX is that we insist on speaking with the key stakeholders/influences who head the client company. Too often, we’ve seen great UX projects that were 100% user focused which have not been implemented because of two reasons: the client didn’t understand what they had received in terms of recommendations and deliverables; the UX designers didn’t fully understand and address the business goals of the client.
Empathy for the user is fine. But too often agencies forget to communicate with those higher up in the client organization. Empathy is needed in both directions.
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Do you use prototyping tools? If so, how do you find the experience?
I don’t actually use any tools personally since my work is usually strategic stuff these days. But I often see the prototypes built by others. And I am not particularly impressed. Perhaps it’s because there was no interest in moving beyond a simple clickable prototype. And I have yet to see a prototype that reflected several different platforms – mobile in particular.
That said, I think detailed prototypes, though with minimal functionality – not just mock-ups – are invaluable for learning how people work with a new product or to test the validity of a new concept. Of course, a lot of stuff can be done with simple paper prototypes, which are great learning tools, too.
What challenges does the UX industry face right now?
I think there are several key issues right now – and most of them have been around for a long time. Pardon me if I rant a bit.
First, most of the definitions of UX are not particularly useful. It’s easy to nod in agreement with something like the ISO definition:
“a person’s perceptions and responses that result from the use or anticipated use of a product, system or service.”
Of course, ISO goes on to talk about emotion, usability, and a hodge-podge of other issues, but the point is, is this actionable? What does one actually DO?
My own definition, which has served me well for several decades is simply this:
“User experience represents the sum of a series of interactions between people, devices, and events.”
If you chart these interactions out – what today is commonly called a touchpoint analysis or sometimes a user journey, you’ll find that the interactions fall into three categories:
• Active interactions (e.g. clicking a button or talking with your spouse)
• Passive interactions (e.g. viewing a pretty sunset – stuff that triggers dopamine production)
• Secondary interactions (e.g. how the chef prepared your meal back in the restaurant’s kitchen)
It’s our task to:
• Coordinate the interactions we can control (e.g. dressing appropriately for a meeting)
• Acknowledge the interactions we cannot control (e.g. the weather outside)
• Reduce potential negative interactions (e.g. carrying an umbrella if it looks like rain)
In terms of prioritizing the elements that contribute to the UX, you can chart it out like this:
So, basically, if something is important to the business and it is something you can control or augment, this is the place to start.
What I like about this definition is that the business community understands it and it is actionable. Most important of all, it is NOT limited to just the digital world; UX has been around since the dawn of time.
Second, UX has become something of a buzzword the past 10 years or so. Advertising agencies are using it to get digital design projects, even though their primary area of expertise is look-and-feel. At the other end of the spectrum are the development houses which use UX to lure clients into expensive software implementations. The true UX houses are few and far between – and a lot of the so-called UX agencies that have gone out of business were often nothing more than enthusiastic WordPress developers.
I also hear that “user experience is really…” customer experience, service design, or [whatever]. The truth is, being a “customer” implies a financial transaction of some kind. Hence, I am the customer for my cat’s food, but the cat is the user. In other words, all customers are users but not all users are customers – that’s why customer experience is a far more limiting term.
When we talk about service design, this is generally a more visible aspect of UX than much of the work carried out in the digital arena. For example, putting a better coffee machine in a hotel room is visible whereas tweaking the information architecture of a website is far less so. But again, that doesn’t mean that service design is the same as UX, even though the methodology and tools are very similar.
Despite arguments to the contrary, I think the term “user experience” is very good and I regret that it is either interpreted very narrowly or misunderstood entirely.
Third, I see a lot of different professional groups who would like to take ownership of UX. But I strongly believe that while we all design UX, none of us are truly UX designers. For me, UX is the umbrella under which all of these many disciplines reside: content strategy, information architecture, service design, graphic design, product design, industrial design, interface design, development etc.
We all need to learn to get along; the infighting just muddies the water and makes the concept of UX even more difficult for the business community to understand.
Finally, we need to differentiate between true innovation and things that are merely fashionable. I’m thinking here about flat design and other developments that are not going to have a particularly long lifetime.
Responsive design is another of these issues. It started with “mobile first” a few years back, but this was often interpreted as “mobile only.” Yet the experience on a laptop screen can be much better than on a smartphone. Alas, much “responsive” design today is a feeble attempt to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator. Does a full-screen website benefit from a “hamburger” menu or “accordion” pages? No, not at all – hamburgers hide your navigation; accordions prevent fast scanning and skimming, and may hinder printing. Moreover, different mobile operating systems have different navigational conventions – swipe on iOS, press and hold on Android.
We need to stop thinking about seeking a “one-size-fits-all” solution. I truly do not believe this exists.
What are the biggest mistakes you see UX professionals making? How can they be avoided?
Clearly, there are too few UXers who have ever spoken with a user. It is almost never enough to blindly trust the research carried out by others. If you are working in UX and you cannot demonstrate curiosity, passion, and empathy, you’re probably in the wrong business.
Also, you can’t become a professional by just reading a few books – empirical experience is incredibly important. For example, you can read Julia Child’s classic cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” but this won’t make you a chef. This is why people with medical degrees have several years of internship and residency before they are considered fully trained.
I receive lots of unsolicited job applications from folks fresh out of school who haven’t the slightest clue how to actually DO much of anything. They should be seeking internships with companies that have high-quality, established UX departments rather than demanding top-dollar salaries and fancy titles just because they have a master’s degree. But that’s another rant…
What would be your best advice for any UXers thinking about setting up their own agency in the next couple of years?
Eric Reiss: First, you need to ask yourself if you are truly interested in UX or if you have a more specific skill, such as graphic design, that you want to promote. Second, are you prepared to spend significantly more of your time running your business, dealing with project management issues for difficult clients, and selling your services to potential new clients than you will be doing on actual billable work? If not, don’t open your own business. And finally, if you don’t like dealing with people directly but would prefer to hide behind a screen, setting up your own agency is simply not the way to go.
That said, if you ARE a good salesperson, like personal interaction, and are willing to put up with the crap that goes along with owning your own business, then go for it! Maybe you’d even like to join us sometime. Your future is only limited by your imagination.