Category Archives: Teacher Responses to Student Writing

Teacher Response to Module #4: The Finish Line (Not Really)

Business Keeping

Grades and individual feedback on Canvas. Be sure you check as I have given each of you targeted feedback for your final project.

Key learning from this module

Prototyping =

modeling possible design choices for a client

+ justifying those choices via appropriate verbal or written communication

+ making a possible future for a digital product or service visible to a client

Usability testing =

identifying tasks a user should be able to accomplish via an application or prototype

+ having test users attempt these tasks

+ recording and/or observing their behavior

+ analyzing results to identify usability issues

What you’ve experienced in this class is but one leg of the UX journey

As hard as this may be to believe, this class has pretty much been modeled on one design sprint. A design sprint is usually a 2-week process for building (or rebuilding) one or more elements of a digital product or service.

So, yes: UXers in industry accomplish everything we’ve accomplished in this class in 2 weeks (or less).

And yes, I’ve done a design sprint or two like that. They are NOT FUN.

I mention this not to undercut any of the great work you’ve done in this class (you really have, seriously!), but to give you a picture of your possible future life as a UX designer in industry, should you choose that route.

That being said, the median salary for these jobs is about $75K a year, so they are definitely good jobs to have!

Please feel free to add anything you’ve done in this class to your portfolio

The way to build a UX portfolio is to save deliverables from projects (prototypes, usability testing scripts, content audits, etc.). You always need permission from clients to share these. I’m giving you permission to add anything from this class to your portfolio.

For the future professors in the course: if you want to write about some of the stuff you’ve done in this class, that’s also possible, but please talk to me first. There are certain things you won’t be able to write about, but there is much you could write about.

I look forward to seeing your final projects!

Teacher Response to Homework #4: Prototypes Are Not the Only Answer

Business Keeping

Grades on Canvas.

Prototypes are often treated like “the answer” to UX problems

It is essentially a ‘draft’ of the final product. It is meant to allow for final feedback before the end product is considered completely finished. It is by no means the final product. It is something meant to be critiqued and then fixed based on suggestions. – Emily

So, in my humble opinion, there is a bias towards prototyping too early in a lot of the rank-and-file UX design community, AKA the people doing the majority of the work. These folks work insanely hard and are often put in very untenable positions: they have to do “design sprints” that are often as short as two weeks in length and that are supposed to produce high-fidelity prototypes.

Essentially, UX in a lot of organizations looks like this:

  • Backend Developer: Does the heavy-lifting of programming an applications basic interactions
  • Frontend Developer: Does the heavy-lifting of designing a program’s interface
  • Graphic Designer: Makes non-programmable elements like logos, fonts, icons, etc.
  • Additional Developer or Designer who says they know about UX, but who is really just good at prototyping

Of course, at this point in the process of this class, I hope you can see the problem with this arrangement. Just because someone can make something that looks really nice, and convinces other developers it solves problems, doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for users. In fact: often the thing that looks the best to developers is the worst thing for users.

User insights really are the answer, though

Usability is the assessment of how “easy and pleasant” it is for users to interact with a website. There are 5 quality components of usability: learnability, efficiency, memorability, errors, and satisfaction. Utility is another important element of usability; does it do what users need to accomplish their goals in using the website? When usability is emphasized in the design process, it can drastically improve a website’s quality metrics. In other words, investing in usability increases key performance indicators (KPI) such as increase in sales or registered users or a decrease in employee training time. – Alexis

The fact that prototypes are often used to stand in for interactions with real, live users is symptomatic of the current state of web applications. There’s a reason why 97% of websites fail at usability. If everyone was talking to a UX person, consulting with them, etc., that number would be a lot lower.

They aren’t.

Here are some of the excuses I’ve heard from real, live people working as UX designers working in major, fortune 500 companies:

  • “I don’t have time to do usability testing.”
  • “I have a boss, just like everyone else, and they have a bottom line.”
  • “We usually come up with a prototype the day before we have to launch it, so I literally have one afternoon to interact with users before the meeting.”

This is not to beat up on these folks. They are not the problem. They are part of the problem, certainly, but they are really not the problem.

The executives of companies are the problem. When you have a guaranteed audience of 50,000 users, it’s hard to justify conducting time-consuming, expensive usability testing and user research. This is at the heart of the UX conundrum: in order to solve UX problems the right way, you have to invest money and time, and you have to engage in activities not typically valued by corporate culture: qualitative research, research that doesn’t immediately create an ROI (although the cost of not having a good UX is estimated to be very high), product design that is a remove away from what the final product will look like, etc.

It’s understandable, given this culture, that solid UX research often gets short shrift. This also doesn’t mean that graphic designers and web developers can be effective at UX, however. It doesn’t mean none of them can. It means UX is a skill set all its own and needs to be treated as such.

Teacher Response to Module #3: You’ve Been Bit by the UX Bug; Now Go Change the World

Business Keeping

Grades and individual feedback on Canvas.

Proof you’ve been bit by the UX bug

The exciting thing about this class is that I get to make UX designers. Most people come into graduate classes with some pretty good working knowledge of the subject matter. Everyone has done research before. Everyone has done technical writing of some form or other.

With UX, though, it really is a different way of thinking that isn’t introduced elsewhere in our educational system. I get to see people start to adopt this way of thinking. I’ve seen you all do that in this class and I couldn’t be happier with your progress thus far.

Now go change the world

At this point in a UX class, I often tell students that their job after the class is to go change the world. This may seem like the usual humanities idealist bullshit, but: I really mean it. UX is important. And it impacts more and more of what we do in our society.

So, now that you know something about it, your obligation is to help make things better in your specific neck of the woods. Here are some tips for doing so based on my experiences doing UX for the past 4+ years:

  • You don’t help people by doing free work. I’m certainly not saying: “become a full-time UX designer for your current organization on top of your regular job.” I pretty much did that when I first got to ECU and it was a huge mistake. Everyone was asking me for help and I got sucked into a million hours of unpaid service work and all it did was slow down my research, which is what ultimately gets you tenure as a college professor.
  • There is room within a lot of existing jobs for UX. That being said, my work with the NCCA has been great, and has created a lot of opportunities for me. And: I wouldn’t be involved in the project if it weren’t for UX. I’m not a geographer, but my value-add is that I can help them think about design in a new way.
  • At the heart of UX is the user, so whatever you can do to make things better for users of any stripe is a good thing. All this being said, if you’re in a position to make an application better for a certain type of user, you have to do so. Even if this is as simple as pointing out a flaw in a design that precludes a certain type of user. Or doing a 5-minute usability test to demonstrate why an application isn’t performing as well as it should be. Or helping a non-profit better manage their content.

Info and Content Is Still Made By Humans (For Now): Teacher Response to Homework #3

Business Keeping

Grades on Canvas.

Content strategy and info architecture are misunderstood… and very profitable

An information architect needs to know the overarching content needs of an
organization. They don’t need to create or even necessarily know the details of the
content (though they might do both) but they need to know how information should be
organized for efficiency and, most importantly, ease of use and retrieval by users. They
provide plans for containing content, sort of like how a building architect creates plans
for making a beautiful and elegant building. Hence the name, information architect.

– Kasen

Think about it: the Web is still primarily textual information. It needs to be organized, edited, channelled, delivered. This is very hard work that few people are suited for. How much bad, poorly organized content do you experience online on a daily basis? How much of it is useful to you? How much of it is what you were looking for when you searched for it or clicked on its headline?

This is a golden age for writers, in other words: people who understand written content and its importance for users of all kinds. There’s a reason that an entire institute was recently formed on this subject: Even marketers now have to be good writers.

This is also good news for us, the humanities majors! We were all born and raised on the written word. Designers are a dime a dozen nowadays, largely because of the prevalence of open source Content Management Systems like WordPress (which currently accounts for a whopping 22% of all registered web domains). These technologies are making it increasingly hard to sell your ability simply to make one website. Why pay someone to do that, when you can buy an entire CMS that allows you to make unlimited websites… for nothing?

Being a “web designer” now means being a developer which is something else entirely. Gone are the days when you could get by knowing HTML and CSS. Now you need to be a programmer. You have to master boolean logic, which, let me tell you: is tough.

But no one has yet created a content engine capable of replacing human writers. They’ve tried, but failed. Which is probably why fields like technical communication, UX, and content strategy are set to grow by leaps and bounds over the next decade or so. The needs for humanities-style thinking isn’t going away, despite what every pundit who has access to a microphone is saying. We just don’t understand where to send our graduates for jobs or what to call our majors (though TPC is a pretty good name ;-).

Teacher Response to Module #2: You’re Getting It

Business Keeping

Grades on Canvas. Check there for individual feedback as well.

Key learning from this module

Persona = User as character in a story called “design process”

UX is iterative

I say I have been doing UX for about 10 years, but I’ve been a researcher far longer than that. UX simply gave me a name for the collection of interests I had: usability, communication, content strategy, etc. I had always been a researcher interested in messy, complex problems with no simple solution.

When I found UX, I simply found a community of people who were interested in similar problems. At its core, UX people are people who realize that shortcuts and simple solutions rarely provide maximum benefits to clients and users.

There is no right way to do UX, but there are many wrong ways

At the same time, there are a lot of UX hucksters out there selling pretty, but unusable designs to unsuspecting folks. They usually come from graphic design or web design. They are used to there being a simple solution to problems, in other words: make something that looks a certain way.

This is not to bash graphic designers and web designers. We all need them. They are the people who make all the things we use on the Internet. They are also sometimes dead wrong about what the best thing for users is.

Because UX is tied to those pesky, non-sensical beings called “users” it will always partially be at odds with other professions. That’s your job as a UXer: to explain to other kinds of designers why the simplest solution is not always the best one. To explain to clients why throwing up a Wix site that has no classification scheme for information is not going to get them more business.

We are the muddiers of the design waters. And I can guarantee: every usable, brilliant design that users love and find useful has someone who gets UX behind it. Every. Single. One.

Final Steps for Module #2: Due 2/24/22


I think these are solid persona drafts. I’m excited to see the other deliverables that will be shaped by them.

There Are a Lot of Ways to Do Personas

As you can see from the drafts, there are various approaches to personas. Unfortunately, we don’t have a solid set of best practices outside of including general attributes such as:

  • Demographics
  • Frustrations
  • Goals
  • Bio / story

Outside of that, the ways of making personas are even widely divergent. Some practitioners I’ve spoken to create an amalgam of people when they create a persona. Some people surface one actual interviewee. I tend to the latter as it seems disingenuous to create a personally fictional persona. I think the temptation is too strong to just create the type of user I want to design for.

I Don’t Have a Lot of Feedback: These Look Like Personas!

I don’t have a lot of revision feedback on these. They look like personas! Maybe just go through your data one last time and ask yourself:

  • Are these really representative of a key user segment?
  • Are the goals and frustrations of your persona shared by the majority of other users in the segment?
  • Are there additional goals or frustrations shared by a user segment you might have missed?
  • Are there any other demographics that might have a larger bearing on their usage of the website you’re designing for (i.e., experience with technology, job title, etc.)?
  • Are these really representative of a key user segment?
  • Are the goals and frustrations of your persona shared by the majority of other users in the segment?
  • Are there additional goals or frustrations shared by a user segment you might have missed?
  • Are there any other demographics that might have a larger bearing on their usage of the website you’re designing for (i.e., experience with technology, job title, etc.)?

These are the types of questions I ask myself and my fellow researchers when we’re creating persona.

To Complete the Module

5) 2/24/22 by Midnight ET >>

Revise all your documents and hand them in. The point of receiving feedback from your peers, and also from myself, is to help you improve your writing. This process will be negated if the draft you submit to the course website is the same as the draft you hand in as your final. Revise, revise, revise.

  • An individual Cover Letter (including how you contributed to your team’s documents) and a copy of your team’s Persona are due to Canvas by Midnight ET

Teacher Response to Module #1: Planning, Schmanning

Business Keeping

Grades on Canvas, as per the norm. You also receive individualized feedback on modules, however, so be sure to check for that.

Overall: I thought these were pretty strong. They demonstrated what I expect to see in a UX project plan, which is detailed below.

Key learning from this module

UX Project =

client goals +

problem with application +

benchmarks for solving problem +

translation of all this into normal human speak for client

Hint: planning is for clients and stakeholders 😉

No one has ever given me formal feedback on this class that Module 1 feels like a bait a switch: you go to all the trouble to create an awesome-sounding UX project, and then I just make you go through the modules anyway. People have told me, however, that they feel unclear at Module 1 what they’re supposed to accomplish by the end of the class. My response: welcome to the club ;-).

The truth is, Module 1 is about learning to communicate a UX project to someone else, because that’s what UX designers do. They never work in isolation. And most of the people they work with (clients, developers, product managers, etc.) have no idea what UX is, not really.

So: the planning is really for everyone else. As a UX person, you should know what you’re doing and be thinking ahead. That’s a given. But, like other forms of communication, you can’t assume anyone else is in your head. That’s why you have to let them in on the process.

At the same time, trying to plan a UX project is kind of like trying to plan for the weather: you have a rough idea what conditions are going to be like, but they could change at a moment’s notice. And that can cause a real struggle with clients. You can’t tell them “well, we’re going to learn some stuff, which will teach us some other stuff, and so on and then after about 10 iterations we’ll have some idea…” Clients want solutions, and they want them fast. They want to see how the whole process will solve their problem, not add new complication.

Teacher Response to Homework #2: Building a UX Toolkit and Helping Clients

Business Keeping

Grades on Canvas, as always.

What’s in a UX toolkit? Everything you’ve ever done.

Buley uses the metaphor of the toolkit to describe a collection of UX methods, and I think it’s a good one, though it can be confused with technologies UXers use (like TryMyUI and UXPin). Essentially, though, UX designers don’t have a term for “everything we can do,” so I think UX toolkit is the best term for this I’ve seen. The UX toolkit you deploy in this project should be whatever methods you need to utilize to meet the needs of these human beings and their attendant technological requirements. Your UX toolkit will shift and grow from project to project, in other words, and from client to client. It will never be exactly the same, but you should have some sense of how each project will take shape and what people, methods, and technologies you will need for each project.

Here’s my toolkit (so you have a real, live example)

After a few years of experience, your UX toolkit will morph around the projects you’ve completed: So, you’ll see I really live in three different worlds as a consultant:

  • Usability
  • Content strategy
  • Writing
  • Digital marketing

Why those three areas? Because that’s what people have historically paid me money to do ;-). UX is a business-related field. Even if you’re working for a non-profit, you’re trying to help that non-profit reach organizational goals through digital means. Again: your toolkit is just the collection of methods you have historically used to do so.

This doesn’t mean you can know everything: Regarding the myth of the “Design Unicorn”

The ultra-flexible, project-based, and market-driven nature of the field of UX has led many hiring managers to start looking for “Design Unicorns,” or individuals who can do everything UX-related for an organization. When I first got on the UX bandwagon about 5 years ago, I was very pro-unicorn, but the more actual UX work I do, the more ridiculous I think it is.

As the author of the above-linked article states: I have never met anyone who can do all parts of UX equally well. This doesn’t mean that these individuals don’t exist, but: geniuses also exist–that doesn’t mean you’re ever going to meet one. The Design Unicorn mythology is dangerous as UX seeks to establish itself as a profession of equal weight to older job descriptions like technical writers, developers, and graphic designers. A lot of hiring managers just want to hire someone who can write code, write language, design pretty things, and: oh, hey, can you also do all that in line with what users want?

As one thought leader recently put it: “UX without users is not UX,” meaning UX professionals should be primarily defined by their ability to design things in a user-centered manner. All other skills should be secondary to that primary focus.

Context is essential to UX

One thing you should take from this module is that context is essential to the UX design process, by which I mean: if you’re designing an experience for users and you don’t understand the context in which they will be using the technology you’re developing, then that technology will most likely fail. Enter contextual inquiry, the go to method of researching user contexts.

According to Potts and Bartocci, contextual inquiry is “a field research method used in user-
centered design. It is also often associated with participatory design methods” (p.19). Designers
engage in contextual inquiry to observe users in the contexts in which they use a product or
service, e.g. at work, at school, in their home. Contextual inquiry allows researchers or designers
to observe users and ask questions in real-time to understand the user’s reasons for certain
actions or behaviors. Based on the actual behavior of users, researchers/designers can make
data-informed decisions to improve processes or create new ones to address users’ needs. – Alexis

One of the main problems with contextual inquiry, however, is that it’s very qualitative, meaning it can generate a lot of data. If you’ve ever interviewed a bunch of people before and tried to condense all that information, you know what I mean. Enter the persona, a way of depicting prototypical users.

A persona is a single depiction of a larger group of people that share similar habits, behaviors, and characteristics. For UX design it helps realize a target audience which should help with inspiration of the design process. – Brian

Final Steps for Module #1: Due 2/1/22


I think these are solid drafts. I’m excited to see the UX work that will come out of them. Consider the following as you revise.

Be Sure to Include Inputs and Outputs

It’s important in a project plan to indicate what is going into it and what is going out of it.

  • The inputs include: data, activities, and resources
  • The outputs include: data and deliverables

So, in other words, consider what this team (from a past class) did:

It’s very clear from this activity what’s going into and it and what’s coming out. Be sure to include this level of detail in your project plan.

Orient Your Client With an Executive Summary

Besides your formal plan, you also want a brief 2-3 paragraph Executive Summary that orients your reader (the client) to the activities you’ll be doing. Also draw on your comparative assessment to indicate what problems you see to address and how you will address these problems through the activities you will complete. Please note, this is in addition to a statement of the purpose of your plan. This is an overview and a connecting point between what you plan to do and what the client is currently doing.

Here’s an example from one of my own UX consulting projects:

[COMPANY NAME] has the truly innovative goal of helping your clients foster cultures of innovation. To make this innovation sustainable, you’re looking to develop applications that will extend the reach of your consulting efforts beyond human-to-human contact. You want these applications to encourage collaboration while not squelching innovation. Right now you are getting ready to launch a new module for an existing application, [PRODUCT NAME], that will help employees in large companies connect with each other autonomously.

This [SPECIFIC FEATURE] for [PRODUCT NAME] needs to tap into employees’ intrinsic motivations for connecting with others, but also needs to provide fun, extrinsic reward systems that match up with these motivations. Now you need a UX Toolkit you can deliver to a developer that will successfully communicate the user flows, personas, and stylistic considerations important to this new feature set.

We can help you with that.

Adopt an Overall Organization Scheme that Makes Sense

Project plans are complex beasts. Organizing them can be tough. I’ll just say: I think Team We McCan Do It has a great organizational scheme that also checks off all the requirements for the module. So, check out their draft and feel free to imitate their overall organization.

To Complete the Module

7) 2/1/22 by Midnight ET >>

Revise all your documents and hand them in. The point of receiving feedback from your peers, and also from myself, is to help you improve your writing. This process will be negated if the draft you submit to the course website is the same as the draft you hand in as your final. Revise, revise, revise.

  • An individual Cover Letter (including how you contributed to your team’s documents) and copies of your team’s Project Plan and Comparative Assessment are due to Canvas by Midnight ET

Teacher Response to Homework #1: UX – It Ain’t Just Usability No More

Business Keeping

Grades will always be posted to Canvas. Check for them there.

The Growing Field of User Experience

The reason I always assign Leah Buley’s book in this class is that it touches on so many of the different parts of this weird field called user experience. To quote one of you:

UX is a way to connect design with the people who will use the product. It is a set of tools that you
can use to find out what users want and need from a product, but also how that product will
functionally interact with users. These tools allow designers to get data from actual users (and potential
users) rather than relying on their own imaginations, use of a product, or outdated understanding. UX
doesn’t do much of the actual designing; UX professionals might, but UX as a field is more about testing
and collecting data. UX professionals might also do web design or programming, but when they are
wearing their UX hat, they are not necessarily doing either of those jobs. – Kasen

A lot of folks ask me: why don’t you just say “usability.” And I respond with this infographic (also available on the cover letters page):

An infographic on technology, business, and design and how they overlap to form UX or user experience

As this infographic depicts, usability is now just one small, but important, part of the UX field, a field which encompasses a broad array of skills, proficiencies, attitudes, and considerations, more than any one person can wield. UX professionals work in close collaboration with developers (meaning people who deal mostly with code), writers, graphic designers, marketers, and business managers. Often, they have one or more of these skill sets themselves.

The UX Toolkit

At the center, however, is the user and their needs:

  • User advocacy: One of the most important roles of UX professionals is that of the user advocate. The best way to encapsulate this role is that users are also clients or customers. They are people who come to a web or mobile application for something. Sometimes what they come for is free, sometimes it costs money. If they can’t find what they’re looking for, however, they’ll go somewhere else, and the organization behind the application will lose revenue, resources, and engagement.
  • Usability testing: We’ll do a whole module on this, but essentially usability testing is one of the main methods for detecting how efficient, memorable, and learnable an application is. That’s all it can really tell you, however. It can’t tell you qualitative things like how users feel about the application or what they like best about it.
  • User research: A broader methodology usually grounded in contextual inquiry, user research involves more qualitative interactions with users, such as interviewing them, conducting focus groups with them, and even observing them in their home or office.
  • User stories: The goal of user research is always to get stories, which are as valuable as results of usability tests, if not more. Stories tell you about the person behind the user. They tell you about the context they are coming from and what their goals are.
  • Validity: In order for an application to be successful, it needs to validate the needs of its users, meaning cater to them.
  • Reliability: As a rule, applications have many different types of users, meaning that UX professionals also have to make sure that the application is catering to the needs of a diverse array of individuals.
  • Ensuring products are user-driven: All of this is a recursive process. Products that don’t keep these goals in mind all the time lose money. I, and anyone deeply trained in UX, encounter applications every day that are unusable or not built for every user type. The cost of bad UX is also increasing as the economy becomes increasingly digital, and now based on smart devices like smartphones and even homes that provide tailored experiences. This means that products of the future will have to be increasingly user-driven to satisfy more and more discerning customers who have more and more products to choose from.