When first introduced to UX design, I heard the word “design” and immediately dismissed the idea. I assumed that, to be a designer, I’d have to have spent my life as an artist. What I quickly learned was that a background in studying human behavior was the most valuable experience I could bring to the table.
Many of the skills necessary to the UX design process are ones I used when I was a speech-language therapist. Here are the transferable skills that supported my career change into user experience design:
Step one of any UX project is putting yourself in the shoes of the user. Ideally, you should immerse yourself in your user’s world. Understand their pain-points, figure out the needs of all stakeholders, and use empathy to take a different perspective.
Working in human services requires professionals to come to the same level of empathy and understanding prior to designing any type of treatment plan. A great example of this was a three-year-old client I had—I’ll call her “Lola.” From the moment Lola stepped into my office, I began my research. I spoke to the most important people in her life—her parents, teachers, and doctors. I found out that she had an older brother who loved baseball, so it was important that she could connect with him on that topic. I visited her preschool classroom and sat with her while she struggled to get her needs met by her classmates. Her parents told me about her constant frustrations and tantrums when she couldn’t communicate effectively—a pain-point for both her and them.
I began my work with Lola by navigating her world with her so I could best understand how to solve her communication problems.
Like any UX project, working with a client in a human services field requires testing in order to figure out the person’s current pain-points and abilities. As both a UX designer and a therapist, it’s important to ask the right questions so as not to lead the user/client, and to pinpoint the specific issue you’ll need to target.
When it was time to begin testing with Lola, I sat on the floor and pulled out my briefcase of formal testing materials. In front of her, I placed a ball and a baby doll.
Where’s the ball? I asked her. She pointed to the baby, looked at me, and laughed. I marked it wrong in my notes. However, her laughter revealed that she was playing a game with me. She did, in fact, know where the ball was, and I had to figure out a way to get her to show this.
I asked my question differently. I had to phrase it precisely in order to get the information I needed from her (a skill I later learned would be crucial as a UX designer). I attempted another approach to the question. This time, I placed a baby doll and a toy car in front of her.
Where’s the ball? I asked. She looked confused, demonstrating her knowledge that the ball wasn’t in front of her, wondering why I would ask her such a bizarre question. She began searching through my bag of toys, pulled out the ball, and proudly showed it to me, as if to say “Don’t you know that THIS is the ball?” I changed my notes to reflect that she does, in fact, understand the word for ball.
To reach any long-term goal, it’s important to create actionable metrics. The purpose of these metrics is to help you map the steps towards your goal, learn if you are on-track to reach your goal, and iterate on your solutions if necessarily. As a UX designer, I create metrics to determine the performance of specific solutions to users’ problems. These metrics may relate to the number of people using a product, the number of people purchasing my product, the number of button clicks, etc. If we aren’t reaching these goals, we need to test and figure out why. These metrics need to be specific, actionable, and reasonably attainable.
With any sort of behavioral treatment design, similar goals and metrics need to be determined. For example, after Lola’s evaluation, I began to design her treatment plan. I had gotten input from the people in her life, I had learned about her everyday pain-points, and I’d tested her skills to ensure that my treatment would in fact make her life easier by improving on these current challenges.
Based on what was necessary for her to best navigate her world and what children should be able to do at her age, I created my first goal for her: Lola would have to spontaneously (without a prompt) imitate two-word combinations in 80% of opportunities.
The goal was actionable, specific, and reasonably attainable. Additionally, I was sure to include smaller, short-term goals that would help me bridge the gap between her current abilities and her long-term goal. If in a few months time I saw that we were off-track, we would have to re-test in order to either iterate on our initial metric or make adjustments to the design solution.
Once I’d created long-term goals that would allow Lola to more easily communicate with her peers and family, I had to design my treatment. This included thinking about several factors, including her attentional abilities, interests, cognitive level, etc. (this list goes on and on when working with a young child).
The next time Lola entered my office, I pulled out my toy cars. We took turns wheeling the toy car back and forth in order to build her trust and make her comfortable working with me.
As a UX designer creating a new product, it needs to be built in a way that similarly increases users’ trust. I have to remove doubt for my users by giving them the information they need to make an educated decision and by making my site feel human. This makes the decision to use my product easier and more enjoyable for them.
Once Lola trusted me and began enjoying herself, I took my turn with the toy and said, “Car go!” She tried to grab the car from me and push it forward, but I put my hand on it to stop her. “Car go!” I prompted her. She soon realized she wouldn’t be able to play until she said it back to me, so she yelled, “Car go!” I reinforced her new behavior with immediate feedback. “HOORAY!” I responded, “You did it!” This immediate feedback is an important part of behavioral treatment design. Similarly, feedback is an important part of product design. Users need to know that when they perform an action with your product, that the action was completed. When the user gets a confirmation that their form was submitted, for example, it makes for a much better experience than if they’re left to wonder if their action was correct or a purchase successful.
From that moment on, Lola said “car go” each time she pushed the car. Eventually, she could use these two-word combinations for other parts of her life. She began to explain to her teachers “Mommy go,” when she was crying as her mom left her at school, and she could tell them “red ball” when a classmate took her toy from her. Her life became easier and less frustrating because she could communicate her needs.
One of the most important lessons I learned while working in the human services field was to have empathy for my clients. From the moment I began studying behavioral science, it was ingrained in me that the best way to solve a person’s problem is by understanding their world. My treatments for these clients had to be thoughtful—with clear and deliverable metrics—in order to keep me accountable to the goals I’d set for Lola.
These same principles hold true for people in all sorts of human service fields. While UX design may seem worlds apart from human services, the transferable skills from teaching, social work, and counseling in fact make these professionals natural designers. People are often surprised that I seemed to have made such a huge career jump; in retrospect, I now see that I was training to be a user experience designer all along.
Learn more about UX / UI designers and other front-end roles by downloading Startup Institute's free ebook Portrait of a Web Designer.
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