Expert Interview: For Donna Spencer, UX skillsets beat toolsets every time


Donna Spencer wants people to remember that UX is a way of thinking and a set of skills - not just a bunch of tools.

If you have more than a passing interest in User Experience (UX) and you’ve been anywhere near Australia’s tech industry in the last couple of decades, there’s a strong chance that you already know who Donna Spencer is. Presenting, writing and event organising have all made her recognisable. Less visibly, she was always delivering for clients and employers at the same time. Her dedication to the craft is what makes her worth listening to.

Donna’s written five books about UX work, covering people-focused topics like how to facilitate design workshops and technical nitty-gritty like information architecture. “They’re practical books for people on the ground doing hands-on work. Practitioners, rather than people on the outside trying to figure UX out,” she says.

She also founded the annual UX Australia conference and its two smaller offshoots, all of which she ran for nine years. It’s because of Donna that thousands of Australians have attended hundreds of workshops and presentations, with some literally world-leading figures onstage. (The conference continues to run today with a new team behind it.) Especially in the pre-pandemic years, Donna was an absolute fixture of the UX community in Australia and beyond.

One of Donna Spencer's five books is a practical guide called Facilitating Design Thinking Workshops.

Recently she’s changed her priorities. “I had a Covid break, and then an ‘I'm not in town anymore’ break,” she says.

So today we’re not talking with Donna Spencer, author, or Donna Spencer, conference organiser. “I’m not selling anything,” she laughs, “Just chilling out.”

Even Donna Spencer, high-profile UX consultant, is in the past - today she’s in-house with MakerX (”we’re a startup who makes software for other startups”) as their Principal Product Designer. But Donna Spencer, UX expert, is still in the house.

As tools change, communication stays crucial

Away from the centre of everything, and with some time and space to reflect on the industry she’s been so heavily involved in for a long time, Donna is keen to discuss how UX work gets done. The deep-thinking approach that she champions is falling prey to splintering specialisations and an increasing reliance on tools.

"In the olden days we’d keep research and wireframing work together. We’d design templates and annotate them with a lot of notes."

“About 25 years ago, I got started in what we called ‘usability’, then ‘information architecture’, then ‘UX’, which became ‘service design’, ‘UX/UI’, and ‘product design’...anyway, it’s been a long time! I've certainly seen the field change,” she says.

“One thing that I have definitely seen over the last few years is a move from UX being done by a fairly small group, often consultants who deliver one project, to most UX work being done in-house. And often that in-house UX work is splitting”.

Donna says, “You’ll see UX research as a really distinct discipline with a distinct body of work, done by researchers who don't ever do any visual design or interaction design. Then UX designers or interaction designers figure out how a system flows, how the screens go, and what happens for an end-to-end experience. Separately from that you have UI [user interface] work or visual design work. In a lot of organisations these things are in completely separate teams.”

UX research tells you what problems your users want to solve, how they think about those problems, and how they interact with your company and products. Ideally, it directly fuels every step of your product or website design. Add an understanding of the systems that you’re building with, and the infrastructure that you’re building on, and you have a very strong foundation.

When research and design are done by different people in different teams, that foundation weakens. So why are companies letting this happen? Donna says that the reasons are complex.

Product management has changed, agile development has changed in large organisations, which meant teams got really fragmented.

"When you deliver in a very feature-led way, somebody needs to do the design work for each feature. But people don’t like being split across projects since it involves a lot of context switching and overheads like attending multiple teams’ meetings. People don’t like it. So, in general, teams started asking for full-timers on each project,” Donna says.

Lo-fi tools, hi-fi communication

“Tooling has changed as well. In the olden days - ha, ha - we used to do this stuff together, potentially with visual design as a separate stage since it's not a skill that a lot of researchers and UXers have. But we’d keep the research and wireframing-level work together. We’d design templates and then annotate them with a lot of notes to say how the template works - it copes with these situations, it goes through these states. Often I’d do mini diagrams of the states, like user permissions for example.”

Designers at an arm’s length from the original research, and with today’s tools at their fingertips, take a different approach.

Donna says, ”What most people do now is work in Figma at high fidelity and just create, like, 20 screens that show each user permission, each state and each interaction. No notes, just screens. Now, to create 20 screens takes a lot more time to design, maintain, and communicate.”

Donna worries that her profession might end up being seen as “just masses of UX designers working on multiple screens in Figma all the time,” when there is a lot more to it than that.

Wireframes are inherently low-fidelity, which almost means that they require annotation or explanation. To communicate design as an idea is different to presenting final screens - it’s an intermediary step where deeper thinking comes through. This is lost when you go straight to high-fidelity tools like Figma. Donna thinks that designers’ behaviour has been changed just because those tools are available - not because we’re producing better products. And she’s not convinced that we’re saving time, either.

“My perspective is that because they started working at high fidelity, designers started going screen-by-screen. The first time I saw it I was, like, ‘why did you create 20 screens when you could have made one?’ And the answer was, ‘I don't know, that's just how I did it’. It’s a change I first saw when I was contracting, initially about five years ago. I might be in three organisations in a year, and soon it was happening everywhere,” Donna says.

As tooling gets easier, more people come in and think, ‘yeah, I can do this stuff, I can pick up a template and components and make a design’. Whereas when tooling was harder to use, you’d analyse what needs to happen and communicate that in words, rather than just making screens.

With organisational structures splitting UX work into silos, and employers preferring narrow specialisation over UX generalists, Donna worries that her profession might end up being seen as “just masses of UX designers working on multiple screens in Figma all the time,” when there is a lot more to it than that.

Putting first principles back on the podium

Donna sees some design practices as becoming little more than grab-and-go exercises (“I can grab a settings page or a catalogue page from a set of templates. Grab a component library and start copying and pasting,” she says). After years of building a profession and a community around a much deeper approach to creating products, she is keen for the next wave of designers to be less grabby, and more about high quality experiences. In her words, “thinking from first principles”.

"What tasks do people need to do? How do we get their knowledge from where it is to where it needs to be?"

Donna says, “Something that I have observed working with people - not all teams, not all designers, but it’s what I’m seeing - is less asking of questions about what we need to do. What does this design need to achieve? What content do we have access to? How does the content or the data move through the process or system? What tasks do people really need to do? How do they need to do them? How do we get their knowledge from where it is to where it needs to be?

“When you don't do that analysis, you’re not thinking from first principles. ‘I'll make a settings page and then I'll make a product page’, well okay, but have you thought about your users’ intent? Have you thought about what really needs to go here, and how this fits within a context?”

First principles in UX are not only about your product and your users. There are also principles that apply much, much more broadly. “A lot of the time there’s less understanding of user cognition and how people see things on screen. How they read, how they interpret information. I can't talk for a whole industry or for everybody in all jobs, but I'm not seeing so many discussions that involve what we know about brains and how they make decisions anymore.”

There are different costs when UI designers are also short of technical information.

Donna says, “I'm seeing people make things that are literally impossible, like screen designs that aren’t supported by the data model.”

Big-picture product strategy relies on understanding and analysis of structure, but a lot of product teams think that UX is a person who makes screens.

If you run a product team, there’s a message for you here: “Product managers don't know what they're missing!”

What you’re missing is the broad-based approach to UX that has made it so indispensable in the first place.

“When large companies split people into teams they’ll often narrow skillsets down into silos. Rather than looking for 10 really good generalists they’ll want a few specialist researchers, some specialist interactions designers and, say, a UX writer. Every time I hear ‘UX writer’ I’m just like, “Really? At that level of detail??’ I can write good copy, I can figure out a button label! I do not need somebody to write my interfaces,” Donna says.

“Again, this might be a difference between corporates and startups. Because in small start-up teams, you just do all the things. I’ve said to my team at MakerX that the way I see it, there are four of us working on a project. We are four smart people, and we’ll do the things that need doing. We're not going to draw lines around who brings which skills. We're just gonna do things.”

Growing skills within a workplace

Whether done by one person or a full team, UX work requires both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ skills. Job descriptions usually focus on the latter, which Donna labels “technical skills”.

“What you really want is people who can do the work and talk about the work. People who can ask questions, dive into problems and really unpack them. The best people have all of those analysis skills and communication skills. But hiring does tend to go for more definable technical skills. It’s not quite a constraint, but it’s something that comes out of the recruiting process.”

It would be a pity if the proliferation of job titles and mini-specialisations - which have opened UX to people who haven’t built a broad skillset yet - ends up pigeon-holing people and stunting the UX profession. After all, one of the joys of Donna’s career is its breadth.

She says, “I can do requirements analysis, product strategy, foundational user research, development of high-level conceptual screens, then detailed screens, user testing. These things are all possible from one person! That’s not to say that one head would be enough inside a large corporate, but one can be enough in a startup working on a constrained product. I think it's possible to do it all, minus the very specific skill of visual design. Analysis and visual design are almost opposite thinking methods.”

As well as encouraging her own UX team to share all the work rather than split hairs, Donna also pulls other teams into her orbit so they gain exposure to user-led thinking. “When we're doing design planning and getting feedback, we do it with technical folks too - we all get into it. Sure, the technical people may not always say much - but sometimes a developer will look at something and say, ‘Donna, that's really poor usability,’ if there’s something I didn't think about very well.”

The more a developer, or any other collaborator, understands their own impact on users, the better. It allows them to do more to improve the experience that you all create. But Donna is clear about where responsibility ultimately lies.

It’s not that everybody's responsible for UX, but everybody does contribute to the user experience.

“So, if you make a technical architecture decision that leads to some constraints or opportunities, that affects the user experience. They can mean that the user has a really snappy experience, or every time they do something they get a waiting indicator. That technical decision contributes to the way a user will experience the product.”

How much UX is enough?

Exactly what it means to be responsible for the user experience can differ a lot, depending on the product that you’re making. In extreme cases, bad UX can carry massive costs. That’s when you want to make sure that the responsibility sits with someone who can definitely deliver. Donna has advice for working out how seriously to invest in UX.

“As a business owner or leader, or if you’re making the decision to bring in UX people, you need to figure out how risky this thing is,” she says.

“Almost any project to do with people's finances, for example, is high risk. People could lose their money.”

There can be different sources of risk to consider. Some of them come back to how familiar your users are with your product to begin with.

“How unknown is it? If you want a straightforward information-sharing website for your company, that's a known thing. There are millions of them, people have experience with them, so you know what to ask for. You could definitely get a good quality outcome from somebody less experienced.

“Compare that to working with a brand new, complex technology. Something where there aren’t many examples of it being used out in the world. Or something difficult to understand, which users don't have experience with. Or a situation where you need to bring users from very little knowledge to very high knowledge.

“When I’ve worked with new technologies that people don't understand, wow, it’s been hard. I have to get users with no knowledge to a point where they have a good mental model of what they're working with and can make good decisions. The complexity is high and the consequences can be high as well,” Donna says.

Risk can also come from the category or industry that you are working in.

Donna says, “Almost anything to do with people's health or finances, for example, are high risk. Doing a bad job could have severe consequences. If your product isn’t comprehensible to the people who use it, negative consequences can get very severe.”

Different sources of risk can add to each other as well. “Imagine if you don't know anything about investing and you're working on an investing app. And then you’re doing something blockchainy for the first time in your life, too. That’s high risk. People could lose their money.”

When the consequences of poor UX are high, it’s time to invest in expertise. “You do need somebody who has a lot of good experience, and who knows how to think about the problems you want to solve. That person will understand what direction to go, what questions to ask. They’ll know how to work from first principles,” Donna says.

Building strong UX teams - there is no blueprint

Once you know what amount of UX expertise you need, how do you go about hiring and assembling a team? “God, it’s really hard to answer that,” Donna says, “because there’s always so much context around projects, like who's already on the team.”

Rather than defining narrow or specialised roles, Donna suggests that you think about skills. There will be gaps that you know need filling, but the first catch is that if you’re not overly familiar with UX, “you may not know what to look for.”

Especially if your UX hiring is in the early stages, you want to bring in someone who can help the entire organisation understand the practice.

Hire good generalists who know their job really well and can explain what UX is - how they work and how they think. Someone who is really reflective can give you an understanding of what this thing could look like if it's good.

“Of course, those people aren’t necessarily easy to get. The people who are easier to find will be less experienced, the ones who use a tool to throw some screens together. They’ll be cheaper, and you might get a great outcome. Or you might get a really poor outcome. Either way, they don't know what they don't know yet - and neither will you.”

High-value work has always been human work

These days it’s hard to talk about bringing new skills and abilities into any workplace without letting AI into the conversation. AI fits into Donna’s view of tools in general - they can help you create a design or another artefact that fits an established pattern, but they leave out those all-important first principles.

“It’s already easy for a company to grab something like a template for an ecommerce store. Why would they hire designers to do that? We've done that work before and we already have solid patterns in the world. It’s all known. Those design patterns are low-value now, and they could potentially be done faster and easier with new technology,” Donna says.

Step away from known problems, though, and “I do think that there is, and will always be, a solid need for people who are good at doing analysis and can work out problems.”

There’s another side of AI that Donna thinks about more. She’s dedicated to understanding processes, and ways of thinking, and data models - all in the pursuit of improving the way machines help humans get things done. AI isn’t open to that sort of analysis, which is a concern.

“My bigger problem with AI is that we’re creating algorithms without understanding what happens inside that black box. What are the consequences of that? My concerns are less about ChatGPT doing us out of work and more about how people can’t understand what happens in there. We don't know what the consequences of that will be,” Donna says.

Understanding what happens is, after all, what UX always comes back to. No matter how slick a screen looks, Donna Spencer is always going to ask if it’s built on an understanding of the people who will use it, and the process it fits into. It’s a simple-sounding question that keeps sparking valuable new discoveries, even after 25 years in the business.

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