The Magazine of the Usability Professionals' Association
By Markus Weber
For UX professionals, communication is the key activity essential for successfully accomplishing many of the tasks in the collaborative domain of UX design. Whether with users, clients, or other UX practitioners, “communication” entails much more than simply talking to respective receivers and making sure that the words come out right. The UX professional must be aware of certain pitfalls to avoid.
There are three contexts in which UX communication takes place:
1. Within the UX community
2. Between UX professionals and outside parties
3. In the context of a UX design project (a specific case of outside parties)
Within the Community vs. the Outside World
Whether communication occurs within the UX community or with outside parties—such as clients without a UX background—is fundamental to the success of a project. Obviously, we should be careful about using technical terms that may not be easily understood outside the UX community, but the influences of communication may also run much deeper and have a significant impact.
When dealing with our peers, UX professionals are basically “preaching to the choir.” The audience understands—or even shares—our trials and tribulations. In addition, there is hardly ever the need to prove the value of UX design, tools, and methods. The negative effect of such a feel-good communication culture can result in a lack of ability to communicate successfully with a critical audience. This becomes obvious when UX professionals complain that it is hard for them to gain buy-in from their respective organizations because their coworkers or managers simply do not “get” UX.
The fault, however, may not lie with the organization. Critical arguing skills are sometimes underdeveloped in the UX community—partly due to the enthusiasm of exchanges with fellow UX professionals online or at conferences. Enthusiasm within the community can sweep away the awareness that, for most people in the world, UX is not a goal in itself but should serve a certain purpose. If UX professionals expect to get paid for their work, they must be able to prove the value of UX design for the organizations they work for.
UX professionals should not shy away from critical arguments—not even when communicating within the UX community. By practicing in a safe context, professionals will benefit when communicating with the outside world, where it is often a necessity to sell UX to a more critical audience.
More than Words: Artifacts and Control over Communication
When successfully selling UX to an outside organization or customer results in a UX design project, a UX professional begins a constant exchange with diverse stakeholder groups. An important factor here is the role of artifacts.
Documents, wireframes, and other artifacts must speak for themselves to a non-UX audience. As soon as an artifact is delivered it can take on a life of its own with corresponding outcomes for communication. UX professionals need to take extra care when creating artifacts in order to avoid creating unwanted effects. For example, format a usability report to make it look professional. A “book will be judged by its cover” and the judgment may extend to the usability professional who created the report.
The situation can be aggravated when the UX professional is absent upon reception of the artifact, but also does not control who receives the artifact. Even when wireframes are delivered with the disclaimer that they do not constitute the final design, that disclaimer might go unnoticed when the artifact is distributed within the organization. This may result in serious consequences that are hard to contain once the communication has gone astray.
For example, a developer who receives the wireframes may assemble detailed feedback on missing functionality, not knowing that the functionality is beyond the scope of the deliverable. The result is frustration about a seemingly incompetent usability professional who doesn’t understood what the system is about, and additional frustration when the developer learns that the feedback was in vain because it was way too early for scrutinizing wireframes on that level.
Even though we cannot fully control communication, there are ways of minimizing the risk of miscommunication. Ideally, the UX professional can manage expectations during the initial phases of the project and during key phases throughout. Dedicated meetings with members of the project team should explain, preferably with examples, the purpose and limits of key deliverables—such as wireframes—to ensure the audience understands them, even if they are not present to explain them. Such an explanation is often skipped; UX professionals may not be aware that some people don’t understand the artifacts. Keeping in mind the audience who will potentially receive and interpret the artifacts, and the context in which the reception will take place, can help better manage expectations.
What is UX Anyway? Or, Get Your Concepts Straight
Whether within the UX community or the non-UX world, communication problems can start as soon as the term “user experience” is uttered. Two parties using the same words may not necessarily have the same concepts in mind; this is especially true with broad concepts in disciplines such as UX design. Heated debates may occur about user experience issues that fail to reach any agreement or conclusion when the parties involved are talking about different things.
For example, the discussion about whether a UX designer should also be able to write code keeps resurfacing in online forums. Proponents of the idea say that in order to be good at UX design, one needs detailed insight into implementation to envision feasible solutions, a view that might make sense for someone who thinks of UX design as web design. For UX professionals working on complex ERP-systems, however, the notion that they should be able to create the code can seem quite strange, since coding in that context is a highly specialized task that cannot be fulfilled by one designer writing HTML and CSS.
The idea that “we are all UX designers” may be a good call to action for the community, but the term “UX design” has to be clearly defined within a project, since it is too broad and entails such a wide variety of expertise and tasks. In any context, the components of UX design should be specified in order to ensure that team members agree on their roles and responsibilities. (Some colleagues doubt that the term “user experience” is helpful at all in a professional context; they point out that it is often used solely to imply “joy of use.”
With these types of conceptual problems arising inside the UX community, UX terminology cannot be taken for granted when communicating with members outside the profession. For a UX design project in which team members communicate over a long period of time, a project glossary can be a helpful tool for a shared understanding of key concepts. When in doubt, team members can refer to the glossary to ensure that they are actually talking about the same things (such as a “scenario,” “use case,” or “use scenario”) as their fellow team members.
UX Does Not Stop at the United States Border
UX design is not limited to a particular country, but the language of UX in many countries is heavily influenced by English. Even though there are local equivalents to terms such as “usability,” “user experience,” and “interface design,” Gebrauchstauglichkeit, Nutzungserlebnis, and Schnittstellengestaltung in German), international UX professionals sometimes involuntarily switch to the English terms, which often sound more professional than their local counterparts. Native speakers of English who communicate professionally with people speaking other languages may not realize the impact since using the English terms comes so naturally.
While this may not be much of a problem among UX professionals communicating with each other, communication with clients may be impaired. Even when clients understand the English terms, communication may suffer on a more subtle level. For example, some organizations, as an expression of corporate culture, react negatively to the use of English terminology. UX professionals making extensive use of English UX jargon may be viewed negatively, seen more as marketing professionals than UX service providers, no matter how sound their arguments. In the eyes of many clients, local UX professionals should be capable of using local terminology.
Leave Your Ego at the Door
Communication takes place within a social situation. As described by psychologist Paul Watzlawick, it has content and relationship aspects. Getting the content aspect right is a basic requirement for UX professionals; they should know what they are talking about. But to communicate, they must also know how to handle the relationship aspect.
Take, for example, a project meeting to discuss the results of a usability test. On the surface it’s about communicating results in a clear and understandable manner. At its core, however, the communication is about errors, problems, shortcomings, and remedies that are discussed with people who have a stake in the system and who may be responsible for those issues.
That not everyone in the room will have the same perspective on all the issues becomes especially clear in meetings attended by developers and management. UX professionals prepared to communicate only on the content level may suddenly find themselves in a situation that is out of control, where arguments are exchanged that are about more than the issues at hand. Developers blamed for the faulty implementation of a feature may respond by blaming management for deciding to have the feature implemented in the first place.
In such a situation, the UX professional is challenged to assume the role of a moderator who can resolve issues. In the worst case, arguments—even while valid—are rejected with the corresponding negative consequences for the project. If the UX professional lacks the proper social communication skills, getting all the facts straight will not be enough to ensure buy-in from all parties.
Communication always has cultural and social aspects that must be taken into account. UX training should include the communication skills required to address such issues. In the future, UX professionals could actually practice dealing with different types of communication partners and communication situations in order to become more successful as communicators who make a positive impact.UX
Markus Weber is head of Usability Engineering at Centigrade GmbH, Germany. His work ranges from user task analyses and interaction design to expert reviews and usability testing, which he has conducted for clients from many different sectors. Markus holds a diploma in psychology and received his doctorate after submitting a thesis in cognitive psychology on the usage of eye tracking in an e-learning context.
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This article was originally printed in User Experience Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 4, 2010.
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