Some definitions

a group of related parts that move or work together
Content Management System
Software that enables an organization to seamlessly create, edit, review and publish electronic text.
Something used in performing an operation or necessary in the practice of a vocation or profession.
Content Management Tool
[No definition found]

They’re content management systems because they require people—Content Strategists, Writers, Editors, Community Managers—to move or work together with and around the software. No people, no system. No system, you’ve just got a tool.

So please stop coming to me telling me that a redesign of the content in your CMS will solve all your problems, if you’re not going to bring the people into the system to keep it running.

You might as well tell me that the hammer I set on the counter will rebuild the kitchen on its own.

Usability testing: a therapeutic touch

Usability testing, playtesting, and therapeutic listening.

A few weeks ago, I saw that tweet and retweeted it with a note about how that’s also true of usability testing. Which makes sense: in both settings, a creator is trying to understand how other people use a thing. But it also exposes something that they have in common with psychotherapy.

For a long time, when coworkers tell me I’m good at moderating usability testing sessions, I’ve shrugged off the compliments with “I’ve had a lot of therapy.” And I couldn’t totally articulate what one had to do with the other: something about listening, and the way good therapists have listened to me?

But Rob’s comments rang a bell, because of that short list of details. How many times have I flailed through trying to talk about something that was tearing me apart inside? How many times have I done the opposite of what was good for me to make it better?

And therapists — the good ones — don’t always ask “why?” head on. The ones who’ve helped me the most have to some extent let me go out on my limb for a while but also asked small questions.

  • When does that happen?
  • How do you feel when X?
  • What did you want to happen?

So much of that has sunk into my professional practice, especially in usability testing. My strength as a tester is a certain willingness to sit with the user in their discomfort and to just ask little gentle questions to keep them talking. Don’t make them explain why it doesn’t work or what they would do given a different option.

When I’m in therapy, it’s my job to make the changes, with a helping hand from my therapist. After all, I’m the one who got myself here. So eventually I need to figure out why it hurts and try things to make it better.

But it’s not a user’s job to figure out any of that. They didn’t create the problems that caused the pain. Just let them talk through what hurts. It’s on us to do the work afterwards.

Pixel pushing

“Can you tell me the difference between UI and UX?” I asked them.

The interview, up to this point, had kept poking me on UI. But they needed a UX leader. That’s what the job description specifically demanded. That’s what the recruiter had told me: They needed someone who could push hard against the current experience paradigm and demand better, not just push pixels. Why were they insistent on asking UI questions? I figured I’d ask them, as obliquely as I could.

“I don’t know. I mean, I need to be educated.”

I didn’t pursue the question; the job didn’t interest me anymore. I have had this fight my entire UX career. And while I’ve fought and won that battle so many times… I didn’t want to fight it again.

I’ve had a few of these “broken record” moments in interviews. Organizations need UX. They insist they need UX. But when you start poking at what they think they need, they say, “well, we need someone to make it pretty.” But that’s not UX. That’s visual design.

I’m not belittling visual design in the least — it’s an essential part of UX design. But it’s just one part of UX design, which itself is a subset of design.

Caring about how your UI looks is like caring about how your car’s dashboard looks. Your dashboard may be quite lovely, but if the car is always breaking down and it’s unsafe at any speed when it is working, what’s the point?

If an organization can’t delineate between UI design and UX design, it could mean they haven’t thought enough about what they’re out to do with their product. Some have a deep sense of product vision and/or a great product management team and/or a deep empathy for their customers. But we know how uncommon those companies are. Most companies are just slogging through old processes, making the next sale, living to see another day.

To learn the difference, they would need to have a moment of clarity, where they realize no matter how pretty they try to make the user interface, it doesn’t solve their customer’s true pain points. Sometimes it takes having a UX designer tell them their UI won’t save them. But usually that results in the UX designer not getting hired, or getting pushed aside.

I felt bad for whomever took that job I interviewed for. From what I could tell, the organization felt like they had a good vision. But they couldn’t articulate it for me. It was clear they were struggling with user interaction, information architecture, and information design — the nuts and bolts of what we call “UX.” The things that make your nice car dashboard feel like it’s part of a great car, not a beautiful thing with no connection to the horrible car experience around it.

Great design is more than just pushing pixels. It’s also about creating an experience that ties all the elements together in such an elegant way the person using it doesn’t even notice it’s designed.

I hope the org finds the UI designer they need. But I also hope they can find someone who can be their design thinker as well. Maybe it’s the same person. But so long as they think they’re pixel pushers, they may never see it.