Tell me about Paul
I'm a user experience practitioner and leader with extensive expertise, from research, strategy, and concepting through to development, deployment and optimization. I've been effective in creating solutions that engage customers and employees alike, lifting conversions, increasing adoption, and in general providing high value to end users. This in turn helps organizations achieve their goals for revenue, customer loyalty, employee engagement, and operational efficiency.
What differentiates you?
I tackle the tough stuff: large platforms with complex data models and sophisticated flows.
I'm a behavioural scientist and design engineer. I define qual and quant research programs that expose fundamental insights about user experience while avoiding bias. I apply principles of cognitive psychology to create solutions that people understand and can use, and that nudge them towards ideal outcomes. Working with visual designers and developers, I create finely-crafted solutions that look and feel beautiful, and reinforce brands.
Why do you practice experience design engineering?
To me, there's nothing more satisfying than creating a beautiful, fit-for-purpose solution, wrestling down a complex challenge, and exceeding expected outcomes. I'm presented with a business goal: "We need to achieve the following...". I explore this: "Why"? "What's driving this"? "What's the underlying challenge, pain, or need"? The goal is to focus on what's really important. This process exposes the root causes, coaxing the team to reframe the problem in a way that widens the aperture of our exploration.
OK, so what's next?
Einstein is famously credited with saying, "If I had an hour to solve a problem, I'd spend 55 minutes defining the problem, and 5 minutes solving it." For me, that means digging deeper. Usually that involves going straight to the end users: the employees, clients, or consumers who are most directly impacted by the solution design. I plan a discovery approach that may include both quantitative and qualitative research techniques. I may create a prototype or MVP to gauge reaction and test key assumptions about a product. After I thoroughly explore the problem space and expose key insights about the end-user experience, I'm in a position to create the experience strategy. The experience strategy is pivotal; it defines what the solution has to do to achieve the desired business and experience outcomes. These are the marching orders. The next step is to design the right solution.
That sounds like a leap. How do you design the right solution?
This is where I shift from an analysis and synthesis mode into a creative mode. Drawing upon my knowledge of human cognition and behaviour, and of design principles and patterns, I explore design concepts with project stakeholders. Out of these concepts, I define an experience framework. A sound design framework will scale with stability over a series of releases and requires much less rework in the long run. And to be sure, before firming up this framework and the creative concepts, I conduct user feedback sessions using a formal UX- and usability-testing protocol. Measure twice; cut once! Once validated, I switch into an agile mode to design the detailed interactions, and to work with visual designers to flesh out the full experience.
So how do you ensure that the solution is right?
A good UX comes in all shapes and sizes, so the experience strategy has to clearly state the design goals and associated success metrics. For solutions used frequently by individuals, usually optimizing the design for proficient use – that is, focusing on productivity and efficiency – yields the best outcomes. Solutions with only occasional usage, for example, many customer-facing products, should favour simplicity and discoverability.
Does everyone buy into the need for good user experience?
Most people talk about creating great experiences for their customers and employees. But the reality is still many don't assign enough value to experience. Too many falsely assume, "if you build it, they will come." I ascribe to another philosophy: "If the user can't figure it out, then the function doesn't exist." Frankly, for most initiatives, that amounts to wasted investment because of low user adoption and engagement. Although not all organizations have to strive for the experience heights of Apple, there needs to be a sufficient level of attention to user experience to achieve business goals. There's ample evidence in the literature that those organizations that invest sufficiently in design see the results in cost reduction, increased revenues, loyalty, and engagement, and ultimately higher valuations.
The experience strategy is pivotal; it defines what the solution has to do to achieve the desired business and experience outcomes.
A sound design framework will scale with stability over a series of releases, and requires much less rework in the long run.
If the user can't figure it out, then the function doesn't exist.
How has the field changed?
I've witnessed the growth and evolution of UX from the early pioneering days of the '90's to the steady growth early in the new millennium, to the explosion of UX in the past decade. In most ways, the evolution is a good-news story. There's far more awareness and value placed on UX. There are fantastic tools for design and prototyping that help us fail fast, and that integrate well with front-end development platforms. And there are A/B-testing platforms and online tools for gathering user feedback, enabling rapid testing and optimization. On the other hand, those who are using the tools but have only light training in design tend to skip important steps, like the experience framework I mentioned above. You can create streamlined flows for all kinds of usage scenarios, but if you don't use Sprint 0 to set the foundation before you start building the walls and floors, your product will be a house of cards no matter how attractive it seems. And, no matter how much you plan to, you will never fix the foundation "in the next release". Never.
What does a great user experience look like?
All great UX designs have one thing in common: they allow the user interface to get out of the way so the user can focus on what they want to do, rather than how to do it. That's what we really mean when we describe an experience as, "intuitive." From a behavioural science perspective, a design that's "intuitive" means the user doesn't have to consciously pay attention to it. This leaves more mental resources available to focus on what matters to the user. And to be clear about this, the user doesn't care about the design; the user just wants to be able to accomplish what they set out to do. If you can gently nudge them along the way to avoid inherent bias, all the better.
Can you give me an example?
Consider Netflix. The home screen emulates the experience we all had at Blockbuster Video (remember them?), scanning shelves horizontally. On the plus side, the arrows allow us to navigate without paying conscious attention, because of the natural mapping to the cursor movement on the screen. This approach reduces cognitive load while browsing, since we consciously need to make only one decision: which category. On the other hand, if we're looking for something more specific than general categories, this interaction approach is ineffective. That's where search comes in. But Netflix allows only a text-based search; there's no way to search by other attributes that we might care about, such as duration, age of the title, viewer rating, etc. Most eCommerce sites do a really good job of this using a panel of filters. But Netflix doesn't provide this fine control, violating a fundamental principle of design: leave the user in control.
If you don't use Sprint 0 to set the foundation before you start building the walls and floors, your product will be a house of cards no matter how attractive it seems.
The user doesn't care about the design; the user just wants to be able to accomplish what they set out to do.
How do you deal with resistance?
Well, first I have to understand where the resistance is coming from. Because there are of course many goals when creating solutions, such as managing risk, development cost, time-to-market, and reliability. So translating experience objectives into these terms – risk, cost, and time – can be effective. I've developed a model that serves as a useful framework to guide organizations through the levels of UX maturity, from unenlightened all the way to institutionalized. By focusing on the pillars of methodology, standards, skills, metrics, and governance, organizations can cross this divide and embrace experience at the appropriate level for their brand and industry.
Biggest UX Pet Peeve?
Reinvention and dilution of the practice. There's a strong and deep history of knowledge, methods, and guidelines in this field, long before design thinking was popularized. And it's been well documented. Any time someone writes an article about an already-established concept, while using different terminology because of lack of familiarity, it just dilutes and confounds. "Co-creation" is the same as "participatory design", with less rigour. "Behavioural design", combining design with aspects of behavioural economics, is just sound experience design. Recent articles declaring that a knowledge of cognitive psychology can help us as UX designers makes me despair. Every UX designer should have a firm grasp of cognitive psychology to inform and rationalize their design decisions. This shouldn't be a newsflash to any UX practitioner. Could you imagine an accountant publishing an article to promote the use of math to be a good accountant? This is what's happening today in the UX field.
3 BONUS QUESTIONS
You've stuck around this long. Join me for the rest of the ride!
What do you do when you're not designing?
I could be playing ice hockey or soccer, waterskiing, or doing some yoga. Or perhaps jamming on some rock or blues grooves with my buddies. Or sharing a nice meal with my wife and good friends (even better if I have a chance to cook it). Maybe taking a bit of quiet time for some meditation.
Biggest pet peeve in daily life?
The lost art of writing. Somewhere along the way grammar became expendable. People started randomly using Title Case wherever they feel a term is Important enough. Proper punctuation? Forget it. The list goes on. And before you blast me for being overly pedantic, take note that every grammatical aberration becomes an unconscious barrier to understanding your message. If you need another round of email back and forth to clarify a vaguely worded thought, everyone's time is wasted.
How did you get your start in UX?
I was exposed to the field of human factors through some inspirational professors at University of Toronto, true pioneers in the field:
A patriarch of human factors education in Canada, Patrick Foley
A ground-breaking cognitive psychologist, and the man behind the legendary "cocktail party effect", Neville Moray
A pioneer in healthcare safety, John Senders
After studying with these legends, I was hooked; I never looked back. I went onto a rewarding graduate education at Virginia Tech, researching colour perception and image quality under a grant from Eastman Kodak. Imagine being at the formative stage of digital photography and high-definition television, and using human-centred methods to define what those technologies need to do to be embraced by consumers. This experience served as a natural stepping stone to the field of user-centred design (eventually evolving to UX).