UX

The Full Stack Folly

First there were full-stack developers. I wonder which bright person came up with that idea? Someone from the annals of a procurement department whispered into the ear of an over ambitious freelancer perhaps. No matter, whoever be the culprit, the damage has been truly been done. Combining multiple coding skillsets into one role has become the norm. As you can take, I am not a fan for full-stack developers. Why you ask? Well its simple logic, it is very difficult to compress the kind of skillset of different developers into one person. It’s like asking a person to learn different languages and then write prose like Shakespeare with it. While there may be things shared across languages like grammar, sometimes two languages are poles apart that one person mastering two or four is madness. Today it seems UX faces a similar paradigm and problem. Though not quite in the same boat. I call it the Full-Stack Folly. Master of all, resources of one.

How much experience do you need anyway?

When it comes to coding, the depth of experience does matter. Sure your front end works (spotlessly most of the time) but if you happened to lift the hood, you might just faint if you haven’t got a coder who knows his craft.

Apart from the expertise of writing clean code, there is also a problem of the number of hands that can finish the job and the time it would take. Imagine that you need to put up a WordPress site and you have a lot of PHP work and HTML work to be done. Even if you did have a Full-Stack developer who knew both, there is no way he is going to take half the time. In fact, he is probably going to take more than twice that. The plus point perhaps could be argued to be closer integration.  

If you look at job ads for full-stack developers and look at the kind of experiences that companies demand and the years of experience requested you realise that something doesn’t quite tally. Not only are they supposed to be mavens of their craft across a plethora of coding languages, they now need to be well-versed in things that aren’t really the developer’s job. Like design for example. Or UX. Or client management. Or pitching projects. The list goes on, and on. Unrealistic.

That said, it’s not all bad. A full-stack developer is ideal for the position of a digital team lead. The logic being that they probably have the practical understanding needed to skirt the scoping of projects and being able to cherry pick the right resources to execute them. This is the person you want in charge of your development team. Not quite a creative technologist, but a mastermind behind executing and rolling out your everyday digital work. A mastermind behind driving CMS projects, front-end development and who can handle the odd app or microsite or two.

Why UX today is no better.

I am beginning to feel that UX today faces the same kind of problem that Full-Stack developers, HTML coders and every other programmer has probably faced early in the recent past. Many teams are trying to collapse UX roles into other roles, most notably design. While UX might not have traditionally been the purview of designers, shrinking budgets and scope mean that this load often falls on the person you really want focussed on churning out eye-catchy and user friendly designs. What’s more the bean counters may feel that UX is more talk than show. How do you quantify the man-hours put into ‘hallway UX research’ where you haven’t recruited external panels and need to bill the effort to your highly discerning clients? It’s like telling your client that the four jpegs that were produced for a digital campaign ate up half the client’s budget (based on a true story I’ve been told). But wait, we’re charging you for how we think we should make the jpegs in addition to all the hours and craft taken to execute the jpegs as well.  

So who should do UX anyway?

Ok let’s say you can’t quite find the perfect candidate that has been doing user research, running focus groups and working out wireframes and proto-types for years. What do you do? The established approach regardless of whether it makes sense is that the already overworked designer should add more value to his plate. Giving them less time to perfect their craft. The rise of the full-stack UX designer isn’t imminent, it’s here. Most agencies feel that they can train designers to take on the additional UX duties.

There is a dash of practicality and pragmatism as well. I think it boils down to the final prototypes being shown to the clients. It could be argued that the designers are more well- equipped to churn these out and they are more spatially aware of the final output requirements.

But since UX is primarily research I would consider an alternative is to get the digital planners to do this. Tad tricky if the planners have lofty ideals and don’t want to get their hands dirty with wireframes and proto-types. While planners can help with the initial research, designers will need to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with them for the final proto-types and outputs. Might not go down well if key design choices are established through UX research by the planners and boxing in the creative output to a particular framework. After all the senior creative management tends to be territorial. Even the best of them. I should know I’ve spent enough years as a creative to tell tales.

In the end will it be how much money can be milked from UX will determine the kind of talent a company may employ. Dedicated UX practitioners aren’t exactly Unicorns. Nor are they cheap with the current focus. Those that bring both UX and executional prowess are the top of the pyramid. Head hunters are likely to find that the middle of the pyramid are people who have played many hats in small digital teams with UX being one of them. The bottom of the pyramid will be freshly minted UX talent. Which in a few years time will be challenged by the demand for voice and VR / AR talent.

The shape of things to come

The Full Stack Folly at the end of the day is the balance between expertise, money in the bank and the volume of the work. There may already be full-stack’ UX positions but not exactly the blend you envisioned. Yes they might be designers. They could also be writers, or account management folk as well. It really depends on what their past experience has been on the projects that they have worked upon. Which is why head-hunters ask for portfolios that show the entire thought process of wireframe to final execution. Truth be told I wouldn’t be surprised if this talent is probably reverse engineering this now as they don’t have wireframes of old. Hiring managers however should be encouraged to evaluate each talent’s digital understanding and role in both research, planning and execution.

While Full Stack UX talent may become the norm just like their coding brethren the reader can take heart. After writing this article I came across another article about why Polymaths are successful and I must reconsider that some of those arguments can translate into a case made for the Full Stack talent. However it ultimately  all depends on your production deadlines and needs. You can rest assured that there will be always opportunities to farm out work to UX research agencies and freelance UX researchers for a more detailed analysis or when the pipeline is full. An opportunity for the army of digital nomads waiting out there.

The UX Gambit

You’ve heard it, or likely seen it in an article or on a cover of a web design magazine. Or if you happen to spend your time within the halls of Ad Land today. There’s a curious thing about these halls. Every now and then they echo with certain catch phrases that seem to keep coming back to you. For an industry devoted to creating new fads, it is also very susceptible to them as well. Is UX one of these fads, and why is it so popular in Ad Land these days? Everyone seems to be talking about the User Experience – UX. You can’t quite help not running into it if you are in any way connected to the world of designing things for the web today.

Contrary to what you may think because of its recent time in the limelight, there is nothing new about User Experience design (UX), Design Thinking or Customer Experience design (CX). These are not concepts that sprung out of the blue in 2016 or 2017. Yet these are the three things that are likely heard whispered with baited breaths in boardrooms and around the water coolers of Ad Land.

As a budding digital copywriter who started his digital craft after the turn of the century, I found there were few places where one could learn about designing better sites. This was before online courses were so accessible and affordable. That’s when I first stumbled upon the likes of Jaccob Nielsen and heard of Dan Norman. Books like ‘Don’t Make me Think’ and ‘The Design of Sites’ were my first reference points in the early days of my career. It was within these tenets that I came across the basis of what we talk about usability and all that makes for a better UX in design today.

But perhaps things have changed I thought. Digital after all is constantly evolving and changing. To put this to the test I enrolled myself in a UX course on Usability and another on Design Thinking by the Interaction Design Foundation in Denmark. What I’ve discovered so far was a lot of the old combined with some of the new. It’s true that UX and Design Thinking by the likes of companies such as IDEO, (who designed one of the first Apple products) didn’t spring up overnight and rather the product of the nineties. But it is also true that their work has paved the way for more research in the field. The rise of mobile as an evolved medium has also re-written some of the rules of old. So while we are evolving the field, why is there so much hype and buzz about the field today?

The state of UX today

UX as it is practiced today blends theory steeped in user psychology and design patterns with practical experience learnt from designing sites. Experience that has been forged from the mistakes of sites that just don’t work and the victory case studies of those who have become household success stories. UX as bandied about by Ad Agencies combines usability guidelines with research testing of prototypes and garnering opinions from end users before stepping into full-fledged production. It provides existing designers with an existing palette of principles and options for rapid prototyping and iterating that build on the agency’s existing build credentials.

Are UX evangelists gold diggers?

The reason why UX is so popular today perhaps is the money angle. UX promises to become a new revenue stream for agencies, especially those with established digital credentials. Digital is a highly competitive and evolving market. In a country like Singapore where overheads are high and margins Low, UX is another line item for agency account managers to justify additional revenue for projects pitched. Developing markets however would be hard-pressed to get their clients to invest in UX when the focus is building and getting things out in the market as one offs as fast as and as cheap as possible.

How and why would this work? Look under the hood and you realize that most agencies operate really slim teams which are biased towards design and are frugal on the development side for good reason. Agency more oft than not outsource to develop their website projects since it’s just too expensive to have their own in-house specialized teams. This is because websites often need multiple coding skill sets. The full-stack developer who knows a bit of everything, much craved for, is often a jack of all trades a master of none. A typical website today requires multiple specialists and a jack of all trades or two. Typically a designer, a copywriter, an information architect or UX specialist, a HTML / CSS coder, a PHP developer if it’s on WordPress, and then their might be a need for scripting languages for custom functions, API implementations or getting off-the-shelf functionalities to work together and a project manager to keep track of all the moving parts. That’s a lot of people and for just one project. While some of these functions are the core to every digital build, others are not. Instead of having under-utilized resources, agencies therefore need to outsource these functions. What’s more having certain specialization in-house will mean an agency will favour and try to push certain technologies for projects, even if there were better and alternate ways to do it.

The undeniable paradox about UX

While agencies should have been using UX guidelines while designing sites till date in the background, the cost of the same was not necessarily passed off to the client. Today certain agencies of repute are able to bill up to 60% of their revenue from digital projects on UX research and testing. The spin being that the sites are now being designed in better ways. The reality is that while UX prevents common pitfalls and blind spots, it by no means guarantees a ground-breaking digital experience. History has taught us that the end customer is quick to tell us what they don’t like. What they can’t quite convey is what they really like or want. Take the case of the automobile, the famous quip is that if customers were asked for what they wanted they would have said faster horses, not a mechanical one that was the automobile. We have the likes of Benz and Ford to take that Creative leap to give us easy access to the car, which was by no means a result of profound UX theory. So what this means is that agencies are not only attempting to charge for a refined final product that they were going to deliver anyway, but earn a little more by charging premium for what essentially should be what is akin to a standardised manufacturing process.

The UX game plan

So how does one earn money from UX? It works something like this. Most of the UX work can be done in-house using existing resources or by supplementing with a freshly minted UX specialist. Most test groups are actually agency folk, so agencies don’t really need to fork out extra money on panels unless they explicitly hire a research agency and this is billed to the client on actuals, or a client provides access to a sample of their client base. The in-between is agencies using online UX testing tools that get user feedback similar to online research panels that answer surveys for rewards. This will use a website to test mocks and use eye tracking and voice recording to garner impressions about the projects. Yes there is a time cost in investing in UX, but shouldn’t the agency be doing it already you wonder. Truth is when it comes down to the line, on a shoestring budget, prior expertise is often a substitute for doing UX in an agency environment. Digital consultancies and IT firms on the other hand do not seem to suffer from this paradox. Probably because clients approach these companies with an altogether different mind-set as compared to signing up an agency for a UX project.

Why you really need to pay for your UX

Why are clients willing to pay for UX? After all when buying a website or an app from an agency as a client you expect it to work right out of the box when it is uploaded to your server the first time round. I mean you don’t walk out of a shop with a TV, toaster or laptop that kind of works do you? Well it’s partly the insurance mindset. UX research insulates rather than protects both the agency and the client from the effects of a bad build and the nasty shock of investing so much money in a project that doesn’t garner returns in terms of visits or user engagement. In the age of agile and scrum, UX is touted as an excuse to get the client to buy in into iterations, a license for products that don’t quite work as you expect when it’s rolled off the production line. After all we can iterate in the next round can’t we to get it right? UX is especially critical for large projects, which take a long time to roll out. So while you might skimp on UX for a microsite for a one off marketing promotion or event, when it comes to building a long term content or sampling platform and you are spending millions on rolling out the same across APAC or the globe, then you want to know that the agency has done its due diligence in testing the UX before it makes an expensive mistake in the build and offsets this cost to the client. It is because of this that clients are willing to fork out the dough to ensure that the proof is in the pudding and the fat is out of the frying pan.

Does size really matter when you are looking for UX advice?

UX is great then for the established digital agency. But what about the new comers? The large agencies trying to do the digital dance for the first time? The start-ups? The fledgling digital teams tucked away in little offices in obscure lanes hoping to make big bucks. The problem is that when these new agencies, Davids who take on the large agencies compete on price they absorb a lot of the UX cost. The result is that larger agencies are being undercut by boutique agencies. UX is often the first thing that is going to be asked to be slashed off from the bill to save costs when a large agency sits down with a client to negotiate the bill. But if it’s never on the bill, its a little value add that helps sell in a product. Not quite wool to pull over the client’s eyes but the icing on the cake. A reassurance that it has been test driven like a car is test driven before final delivery. After all our clients are more digitally savvy and often are migrating from existing platforms. No new babes here. They have a better idea of the kind of technical specifications and build features they require. They have come to expect the fluid and flawless user experiences that they are used to when they download a new app from an App Store of their choice. They have an idea of how much a build should cost and how to get it at the cheapest price. What’s more they may be aware that if the agency proposes to do a heuristic evaluation of the UX with trained talent, it may help in weed out at least 36% of the UX problems that a design may have, while throwing up some red herrings as well in the process. It takes a skilled agency that has build experience to guide the client to see wood from the trees.

Why UX is the best thing that happened to digital teams

It is nonetheless heartening that there are clients that are willing to invest in UX. This was unheard of in India just ten years ago. Not only are clients willing to pay premiums, more importantly they are providing for the time to prototype, to test and iterate mocks before a build hits a server. Agencies are also evolving from the three design mocks from pitch to production mentality. This shift in mind-set is perhaps the most critical thing that UX is indirectly contributing to the field of digital design today. It provides a breath of fresh air to internal digital teams who are always struggling against the clock, juggling multiple project elements, firefighting bug fixes and facing last minute design changes and fixes. A focus on UX will help agency teams build better, and hopefully suffer less angst from clients during the final launch phase by getting sign offs on proto-types and paper mocks and getting UX evaluators and focus group feedback early in the process. What’s more when UX is done right, we will definitely see the quality of the digital experiences rolled out to be better all around us in the years to come.