Don’t allow yourself to be abused by employers (What I would tell interaction design students, #4 in a series)

We are entering the season of college recruiting. Across the country, design schools are inviting potential employers to meet their students. Students are burnishing their portfolios, preparing their spiels, all the while trying to maintain their overburdened academic load.

One of the things that saddens me about many designers is how little professional self-esteem they have. As long as they get to occasionally work on cool projects, they’re willing to put up with remarkable abuse. I suspect many don’t realize that it doesn’t have to be that way. So, to all the students out there looking for work, when the recruiter offers you the opening, “What questions do you have about us?”, ask questions like:

How many hours a week do you regularly expect people to work?

From what I’ve seen, most design firms, particularly name design firms, expect team members to regularly put in 60- or 70-hour weeks. They do this either because: a) they bill you out hourly, and so want you to generate as much revenue as possible or b) they’re terrible at planning projects, and overcommit within a particular timeframe. The problem is, if you’re a full-time employee, you’re not getting any extra cash for work beyond 40 hours a week. So, the company is benefiting from exploiting your time, but you are not.

What kinds of activities will I get to perform in this role?

In school, interaction design students typically engage across a range of activities, including user research, interaction design, product strategy, visual design, and prototyping. However, most employers tightly align a job title with a job description. And that job description is the box within which you can work. So if you’re an “interaction designer” or a “UX designer”, you might be just a workflow-and-wireframes jockey, because user research is done by people with the title “User Researcher”, and Flash prototyping is done by people with the title “Web developer”. Design firms do this so they can task people as if they are interchangeable cogs in a machine. It makes it a lot easier for planning, but it’s stultifying as an employee.

So find out what freedom you’ll have in your practice.

What do you expect for an employee’s utilization percentage?

(This is more for design services firms as opposed to working in-house.) Most people, if they’ve never worked for a services firm, don’t even know what a “utilization percentage” is. It’s the amount of time you spend doing billable work. Utilization percentage * billing rate = company revenue. As such, employers want that utilization rate to be very high.

I feel that a 75% rate is humane. Any expectation above 85% is out of line (particularly if they’re working you more than 40 hours a week). Some companies have 100% utilization targets. That’s crazy. Basically, it means you’re turning the crank all day. You have no time for internal business. No time to read, think, grow. No time to experiment, try new things. When you’re going beyond 85%, you’re basically sacrificing your professional growth in order to line your company’s owner’s pockets.

Will you own any intellectual property I develop during the time I work there, even if it’s created outside of work hours?

Some companies, and I know this can be hard to believe, lay claim to an employee’s entire creative output, regardless of whether it happens during work hours. Now, I’m no lawyer, and if memory serves, these claims are not defensible, but would you want to work for any company that attempted this, whether or not the attempt stuck?

What support will I get for expressing myself publicly, and engaging with a wider community?

Unless you are a senior employee, most design firms offer no support for, and some actively discourage, their staff members developing public personas and engaging with a wider community. I’ve heard countless stories from friends who have had to fight their companies in order to submit talks to conferences, or contribute articles in publications.

(If you’re talking to a design firm) Are you a public company, or owned by one?

Public companies require levels of growth and profitability that lead to policies which often run contrary to delivering high-quality design in a sane environment. If you find out the design firm you’re talking to is public, or owned by a public company, be wary, and be certain you have satisfactory answers to the previous questions.

It’s about treating you like a person, not a revenue-generating asset

The questions I’ve posed here all boils down to whether the employer will treat you as a person, a human with wants, needs, aspirations, and desire for happiness, or do they just see their staff as a means to making money? (And, let me be clear — I’m all for making money, but there’s a point beyond which it just becomes greedy.) Never except the answer “It’s just business.” There’s no reason humanity and business cannot mix.

Stop with the bullshit school projects (What I would tell interaction design students, #3 in a series)

I’ve got a little series of advice/guidance/wisdom/hubris for interaction design students

I’m very much involved with Adaptive Path’s hiring processes, and as such I see a ton of resumes, peruse a scad of portfolios, and discuss futures with hordes of students soon to be graduating from a range of undergrad and graduate programs. As a “hiring manager,” what interests me most is your work. Do you have the skills to pay the bills, and how comfortable and confident are you when talking about your approach to solving problems?

Among my biggest frustrations is having students walk me through bullshit school projects. Bullshit school projects are those which are solipsistic (solving a problem that a limited set of college students face), and/or uninteresting, and/or overly formal, and/or simply lack meaning. If I’m going to be hiring you to work with clients to help address their challenges, I need to be comfortable that you have an ability to engage in real-world problems.

I think much of the blame for these projects lays at the feet of the teachers, who have ensconced themselves in the academy in order to avoid the real world. But students have a responsibility to demonstrate what they can do in a way that someone who doesn’t know them can understand their thought process, their approach, and their talents.

Perhaps the single best way a student can ensure she is doing relevant work is to take internships at companies. I met one undergrad who has worked with IDEO, Frog, and Nokia, and the work she showed me was largely drawn from these experiences, and gave me the confidence that she could deliver real-world design.

I’m not saying students need to think corporatist. One of my favorite student projects is the redesigned BART kiosk by Ljuba Miljkovic and Ben Cohen. BART didn’t ask them to do this (in fact, it demonstrates that BART unwisely spent money on a user interface so poor it could be vastly improved by two smart college students in a semester), but for a class project they realized it offered a remarkable opportunity. It hit on a real-world pain point (as anyone who has purchased a BART ticket knows), and demonstrated a thoughtful and practical approach.

And it doesn’t need to be a project that appeals to a big audience. As part of his MFA work at CCA, Matthew Baranauskas has done a set of tangible computing projects to create new tools to help mentally challenged folks express themselves in a variety of creative ways. While the number of people who could use these tools is quite limited, by addressing a space very different from his normal context, Matthew demonstrates his skills and vision in such a way that it’s clear how he would approach professional work.

So, if you’re an interaction design student, please don’t do yet another mobile app that helps you and your friends coordinate getting beers (or yet another web app that monitors a building’s energy consumption), or some context-free formal exploration of gestural interfaces, or something that simply demonstrates that you’ve learned a set of methods. Identify an interesting problem *in the world*, and attempt to solve it.

Mindset, not process; Outcomes, not methods (What I would tell interaction design students, #2 in a series)

I had originally planned to speak in SVA’s Interaction Design lecture series yesterday, but had to cancel because I’m needed in the SF Bay Area. So, I thought I might blog the things I would have said

In school, and, well, in most companies, product design and development is approached as a process. The problem with this is that people stop being able to see the forest for the trees — they get so focused on following the process that they lose site of why they’re engaged in the process to begin with.

What’s more important than process is mindset. And when it comes to interaction design, that mindset is having empathy for and understanding your users, and creating something great for them. If you and your colleagues have the right mindset, you’ll likely do the right thing, because you won’t be satisfied until your users are pleased. At UX Week 2009, Aaron Forth, the VP of Product for, spoke. (You can see his talk here.) One thing that Aaron points out is that his team didn’t engage in anything resembling a user experience process, but because everybody at the company, from the CEO on down, cared about the user, they weren’t satisfied until they produced great results.

In Jared Spool’s talk “Journey to the Center of Design”, he claims that companies adopting a “user-centered design process’ actually produce less usable designs than those that don’t. What happens is that companies offload critical thinking onto the process, and assume that if they follow the recipe, good things will come out at the other end. It just doesn’t work that way.

Speaking of what comes out at the other end, that’s all that matters. Results and outcomes are what’s important, not the methods you use to get there. If a rigorous UCD process is what gets you to great design, awesome. If sketching on a napkin, then bringing that into Photoshop works, great. The proof of the pudding is in the eating — if people are happy to use the design, and it satisfies whatever tasks/goals/etc they seek to achieve, that’s what matters.

So, at most, use methods and methodologies as a scaffold to help you think and work through your problems. But don’t adhere to a process. Just use whatever works.

Experience (and services and systems), not products (What I would tell interaction design students, #1 in a series)

I had originally planned to speak in SVA’s Interaction Design lecture series today, but had to cancel because I’m needed in the SF Bay Area. So, I thought I might blog the things I would have said

This is a subject I’ve talked about at length before, perhaps most notably in the essay, “Experience IS the Product… and the only thing users care about”, the slidecast “Experience is the Product”, and it was a main theme in Adaptive Path’s book Subject to Change. So I won’t go into in detail again, but it’s worth acknowledging that most people still approach product development very much from a features-and-functionality standpoint, and most design work gets so focused on the specific outcome that the designers lose sight of the ecosystem in which their work must fit.

In this increasingly complex world, product design is really systems design. A number of elements must be marshaled and coordinated. But it doesn’t make sense to design a system for the sake of it.

So, a system to what end?

I would argue, a system to support great experiences for people. And from figuring out how to support the delivery of great experiences, then design the interactions, identify the touchpoints, and build the systems that support that.