Q&A: Talking UX Design with Chris Kaufman

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Chris Kaufman is a seasoned design and user experience executive, information architect, software designer and entrepreneur. Currently, he leads user experience and creative at Shift Digital, and is Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Rock City Apps in Detroit.

In this short Q&A interview, Chris shares some of his best advice for young companies looking to conduct better UX research for their products and services, with details on what he looks for in an ideal design candidate and how social media has changed the UX landscape.

What is the easiest way for companies to conduct user experience research if they are lacking in resources and time?

CK: User tests and focus groups can cost tens of thousands of dollars to conduct, so it’s important for companies to get creative with user testing and research when working within the constraints of a budget. I would never encourage foregoing user testing to save money − it will likely come back to cost you down the road. But there are some creative (and cost-effective) methods to gaining user insights.

Paper prototyping
Paper prototyping is an easy and extremely affordable way for conducting initial research. Users perform tasks by interacting with paper mockups of the software or web interface while receiving guidance from a test moderator. This stage in the process doesn’t require any design or development, so it’s a great way to work out initial user obstacles before investing too much in the concept. It’s also the easiest way to make interface changes on the fly while gauging responses from prospective users.

Ask your colleagues
One of the biggest challenges and expenses of UX research is the cost of recruiting and compensating test participants. If you’re fortunate to have enough people in your company who are unfamiliar with the project you’re working on, they can be great (and free) test subjects. Look for volunteers internally to participate in tests, or take your laptop or paper printouts to the break room and conduct quick, impromptu tests while people are grabbing their morning cup of coffee. Can’t find anyone in the office who would make a suitable test subject? Ask your family, friends and neighbors for their input.

Online user testing
There are several companies online that conduct user testing for a nominal fee (I personally use UserTesting.com).  I’ve paid as little as $30 for a very insightful tests, including video of the session and written comments. You simply provide a task/question list and demographic requirements, and the testing company does the rest. Tests are generally completed the same, or the next day.

What is the ideal profile for a UX designer for SaaS software companies?

CK: That depends on the company. I’m a big believer in hiring for personality over skill − not that skill isn’t important. But I believe that someone who is happy with their work environment, works well with their colleagues, and enjoys the type of work they’re doing, will have a far greater impact than someone who has a top-notch skill set, but may lack passion for their job.

Resumes are a great place to start the recruiting process, but I would never eliminate a candidate because they lack a formal UX or design education. Some of the best UX designers I’ve worked with have degrees in English, education, and even physics. Others never completed college. If their resume is well-designed, well-written, and carefully organized, it’s usually the first sign that they could be a good potential candidate.

You need to take a close look at the needs and values of your organization, and find someone who shares those values and will bring something special to the table. Some important things to evaluate: design approach, skill, and style, which will be apparent through their portfolio of work and previous experience. You’ll also want to know about their personality, philosophy and if they will work well with you and your team. If you have a large design team, it’s important to find someone who is good at collaborating and can still make a significant impact in the big pond. If they’ll be flying solo, you’ll want to find someone who can take projects and run with them with limited help from others.

How would a digital agency help startup and expansion stage companies?

CK: I often hear, “My company is too small to hire a digital agency,” or “It’s too expensive.” The reality is, when done right, partnering with a digital agency can translate to cost savings for startup and expansion stage companies. One of the biggest benefits lies in online media buying. Digital agencies have vast networks, resources and relationships in the online media space, which most companies don’t have access to. Agencies buy media in bulk (display, search, etc.) and this translates to savings that are passed onto clients who wouldn’t have the ability to negotiate discounts on their own. If you hire an agency for your media planning and buying, you’ll also have access to an account manager who will help develop your media strategy, prepare budgets, and solve problems when issues arise − without the overhead involved in hiring someone to do the job in-house.

“The feedback process is about producing better work and continuing to improve at what you do, and social sites are a great resource for gathering feedback.”

— Chris Kaufman

In addition to passing discounts on to their clients, agencies are able to integrate your entire digital marketing strategy. Designers and creative directors work closely with account executives and media planners to make sure ad creative is in line with your overall strategy and meets brand objectives. Agencies can design, build and maintain your website(s), provide customer support to your clients, and manage your lead flow and allocation − all in one integrated process. Hiring an agency gives a company access to a team of experienced professionals and leaders in their respective disciplines who can help you grow and build your business − a cost most companies couldn’t shoulder if they had to hire those individuals on their own.

How do UX designers integrate social media into their designs and strategies to ensure a complete experience?

CK: The answer to this is twofold. It’s important for UX designers to carefully consider the use and integration of social tools into their designs, and just as important, designers should be active in the social space in order to share, collaborate and learn.

Social media has had a huge impact on business in a very short period of time. It has completely changed the way people share, recommend, complain, and obtain customer service. A decade ago, when someone had a problem with a company or product, they would likely tell their close friends, some family members, and maybe a neighbor or two. Today, consumers have the ability to broadcast that same complaint to thousands of people with the click of a button.

On the flip side of this, those same consumers also have the ability to share positive experiences in the same fashion. If you’re not making sharing easy for customers, you’re missing the boat, and squandering a huge opportunity. It’s important for UX designers to consider how content is shared across the web, how the user will interact with those sharing mechanisms, and most importantly, where to integrate those tools into the interface so they are accessible, and encourage users to interact with them.

In addition to making sure social tools are integrated into interface designs, as a UX designer, it’s also important to use those same tools and networks yourself. We talked about affordable ways to conduct user testing earlier, and social media is a great place to get feedback. If you’re a designer and you’re not leveraging Twitter, Facebook, Dribbble, etc. to get feedback about your work, you’re passing up tons of constructive, free feedback. Run your work by your social networks, ask questions, get advice, and grow some thick skin − you’ll need it. The feedback process is about producing better work and continuing to improve at what you do, and social sites are a great resource for gathering feedback, even if you don’t always hear what you want to.

Chris Kaufman’s work has been featured by the Wall Street Journal, CNN, Today Show, Chicago Tribune, Fox Business Channel, MSN Money, NetBanker, SmartMoney, Smashing Magazine, USA Today, TypePad, The Kim Komando Show, NPR, Baltimore Sun, Real Simple Magazine, and BusinessWeek − in addition to dozens of design publications.

Additionally, his work has been published by Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Press, and has received accolades from numerous industry-leading organizations including the W3 Awards, Web Award, and the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). You can follow him on Twitter @kauf.