A talk with Susan Farrell, a former senior UX specialist at Nielsen Norman Group and UX researcher and strategist at All Turtles product studio.
Welcome to the [Design Strategy Talks] series. Here, you’ll find different perspectives and insights from my colleagues around the world. The goal? To learn and improve your design process!
Susan Farrell just might be one of the most experienced UX specialists in the world who is still working today.
I stand on the shoulders of giants who have much more experience, many of whom are now retired. With 30 years in tech, primarily in a usability consulting context, I have had the opportunity to work on a wider variety of systems than most practitioners do.
After her fascinating intro, she gets straight to the point and provides us with so much good stuff, you’ll feel spoiled by the end of the interview!
Without further ado, here’s the design wisdom of Susan Farrell!
Who is Susan Farrell?
Susan began using computers when she started college in 1983. It was around this time that she decided to specialize in doing something creative on computers for a living.
She went from painting and graphic design to technical communication, desktop publishing, electronic publishing, UI and web design, and then specialized in what we now call UX – interaction design, usability testing and analysis, navigation and findability, content usability, search engine optimization, and user research. Phew, that’s quite a resume right there! 🙂
Susan was also one of the ‘online pioneers’. In 1994, she created her website Art Crimes, which was one of the most frequented sites during the first decade of the web.
Susan always had a strong appreciation for good design and a low tolerance for unusable furniture, tools, and inefficient processes.
“A well-designed tool or artifact is a joy, and it’s fascinating to tease out what makes something delightful or frustrating,” Susan says.
When she started designing and analyzing UIs, she realized that usability testing and UX research were the best ways to learn about why designs work and don’t work for people.
She started her UX career at Georgia Tech Research Institute, then went on to work at SGI and Sun. When Jakob Nielsen left the latter, she followed him a year later and joined Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g) in 1999, acting as their very first staff consultant. Doing UX research has been a very challenging, interesting, and eye-opening experience.
Helping improve designs to make them more useful and pleasant feels worthwhile.
After 18 years of design troubleshooting for large organizations at NN/g, she joined All Turtles in 2017. All Turtles is a mission-driven product studio that focuses on making new, small, and smart products that will hopefully make the world a little better.
In her role as UX Research + Strategy at All Turtles, Susan serves as an inside consultant to many product teams. The new products she works on may have no users at all yet, so a lot of her work is what she considers to be design research as opposed to user research or usability testing.
In her current role, she’s focused on meta research, UX interviews, usability testing (first-time-use and other qualitative studies), and expert reviews. Susan has also learned some new things about conversational UI, the value of object-oriented UX, and asking big, up-front questions. She also strives to instill practices and systems around continuous feedback over her time at the workplace.
On design strategy: “Should you build this at all?”
Susan thinks that design strategy should be based on design research. In her experience, however, design strategy is more of a theory than a practice, which is an expensive omission in software development.
Design strategy begins with asking important questions like:
- Should this be built at all? Should we build this?
- Who or what could be harmed by this?
- Is there a market or compelling use case for this?
- How would this fit into users’ lives and work?
- Which materials could this consist of?
Designing strategically means figuring out what to build, for whom, and how best to fit the product to the people.
It means asking and answering questions such as:
- Does the design solve a real problem?
- How many different groups are having this problem?
- Which attempts to solve this problem have failed already, and why?
- What are people actually trying to accomplish or avoid?
- What are their goals and motivations for doing this?
- What does the intended audience/customer/user know, do, and care about?
- What are the current pain points around having the problem?
- What does the end-to-end task currently include from a prospective user standpoint?
- Which of the product team’s assumptions are incorrect?
- Does the solution fit the problem?
- How can you prevent your solution from causing more problems for people in their contexts?
- How should you speak to the concerns of your customers and users in their own languages?
- How well is it working?
- How can the design be improved?
- How do people feel about this?
Susan’s adaptable list of strategic activities
According to Susan, no design strategy or process survives the reality of building a product unless you’re extremely lucky.
So, I like to have a high-level strategic approach, but be able to adapt quickly to changing conditions. I am called into projects at various stages and have to start in the middle or at the end of a development cycle more often than the beginning. Strategic activities may have to happen in opportunistic order, which might be normal for most UX researchers.
Ideally, Susan’s strategic activities for working on new products would include:
- Meta research: Research the existing research on the problem space.
- Investigating the list of questions above (and more like it) with representative users
- Competitor analysis: What are the product’s most successful two or three competitors offering? What do they deliver? Why do people (not) like it? What do users want and need that they are not getting?
- Interviews: Talk with representative users to learn more about their contexts of use and what they expect.
- Diagrams: Sketch the proposed or existing system using mind maps, flow charts, and object-oriented UX methods. It’s often critical to get the basic concepts and components on the design table, so that the team has a shared, concrete system model to start with. Models change over time and it might be incorrect or simple at first, but having a shared understanding of what you are building together solves a lot of problems in advance (rework, missing parts, dependencies, scoping, etc.). This diagramming activity is valuable at any point along the way because everyone’s misunderstandings, particularly yours, need to be corrected as soon as possible. It’s great to have a visual explanation that can be used to inform others about the product as well.
- Iteration: Push early designs to evolve by observing representative users interacting with them (a lot) to find areas that require improvement. An example would be doing rapid, iterative testing with several different low-fi prototypes in order to create a best-of-breed UI to take to high-fidelity and further testing.
- Scope: As a team, decide what to implement first and why:
- Make a map and a list of what you believe should be built.
- Choose a small, core piece of the system that demonstrates value to users.
- Test, iterate, repeat.
- Conduct qualitative research (interviews with hands-on usability testing) to discover objections, missing functions, and task-flow fit to real-world use.
- Test: With users, do task-based testing of critical aspects of the design.
Design strategy involves persuasion based on evidence
Design is a competitive advantage for any business, whether they know it or not. You don’t have to be design-centric to become competitive, but it really helps to stay competitive. Competitor analysis and usability testing make design advantages quite clear.
“Having a UX design department means that your in-house designers get to know your business and audiences, and that design can become the whole cake instead of just the frosting on top,” Susan says.
Although she doesn’t have a seat at the leadership table at the moment, she aims to think and work strategically, as well as trying to influence strategy when possible.
I try different approaches to see which work best for the people I’m collaborating with. Design-research strategy mostly involves persuasion based on evidence, because the goal of doing UX activities is to change the user interface and user experience. I try to change minds and points of view by sharing concerns, data, stories, examples of best practices, and by pointing out retrospectively when and what might have helped, had we actually done that
The most important thing is to not give up when you’re ignored, because if you keep talking and you’re right, people will seek out your advice at a more strategic time later.
Of course, some roles simply aren’t effective in some organizations, so don’t beat your head against any particular wall for too long. Find a place where you can be effective.
Susan’s key advice and common mistakes
Susan offered some advice on what she deems to be essential when it comes to design strategy:
✅ Ask questions and make explicit assumptions to promote clarity in the team’s thinking.
✅ Talk to the people who you are trying to help, early and often, to stay on track and avoid rookie mistakes in their domain. All too frequently, we’re hired to justify or repair something that started with a technical capability instead of a group of people with a problem.
✅ Iterate before coding as much as possible to save time, money, and effort.
✅ Usability test before the first release and whenever new features and tasks come along, in order to make sure that they work for your audience.
Susan also highlighted some common mistakes that you need to avoid. These are:
⚠️ Not doing research – software teams designing or coding before doing any research. Releasing untested designs and code, then relying on analytics and complaints to drive iterative corrections.
⚠️ Not understanding how to best deploy designers – sometimes, inexperienced decision makers still view design as the decoration of a package or a user interface, rather than as a deep, holistic, ongoing collaboration between those who need the artifact or service and the designers, developers, and tool platforms.
⚠️ Junior designers only copying the surface – recreating the visible part of the design that someone else created, without understanding the rationale and interaction design of the design pattern.
Very small heart icons without invisible padding around them on Twitter.com force users to slow down for precise mouse clicking, because these icons don’t have a usable click-target size. This UI element fails from surface-only design. As a result, people accidentally open a new page or overlay when they just wanted to interact lightly with a tweet. This accidental interaction causes people extra time and effort, and they often lose their place when reading (a usability disaster) when the page reloads automatically.
Such an unusual requirement for click precision causes people to make more errors, which can make users feel bad about themselves and the activity. Being punished when trying to mark a tweet creates a disincentive for performing this key interaction around which the entire platform is designed. This click-target-size problem is, of course, even more severe for some people with motor-skill or vision challenges.
UX practitioners need mentoring, no matter their expertise
Susan’s favourite source of knowledge is her community of peers. Sometimes they publish their research, which is very helpful. But as we know, it all depends on context, and technical capabilities change very rapidly. So in her opinion, expert advice about unique and new problems is the most valuable source of ongoing knowledge for UX professionals in general.
UX practitioners need mentoring, no matter their expertise. A great mentoring strategy is to become part of a community where experts talk with each other and exchange advice, tips, and methods
She recommends joining specialized communities. Try to find some in your industry domain, skill focus or platform, or those which involve researchers who also use your methods, so that what you learn will have immediate practical usefulness. Local CHI and UXPA chapters can be great resources. In rural and small town areas, Meetups are sometimes available. Members of the groups that you find can recommend more obscure groups that might be of help to you. Some communities can also be an excellent source of UX job opportunities, such as the various UX Slack groups (Research Ops, Service Design, etc.).
For individuals who are just beginning their UX careers, Susan strongly recommends reading books written by experts on usability, research methods and interaction design, as well as at least one HCI textbook and all of the free articles at nngroup.com, measuringu.com and UIE.com. After the foundational reading, wade into the literature focusing on the specialties that seem the most interesting to you. Most lightweight publishing mediums greatly lack the depth of expert content that a book has, and the authors might be fresh out of bootcamp trying to make a splash, so you get more knowledge per hour from time spent with books.
Susan thinks that it makes sense for a lot of people to take courses in their areas of specialty, and certification can help. In reality, though, you are what you read: no one can teach you enough in a course. After you’ve got some basic knowledge, go for mentors, internships or apprenticing, and practice what you’ve learned.
The 3-bullet recap
That was such a value-packed interview! Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom, Susan!
Alright, let’s do our usual 3-bullet recap:
- Answer important questions first and decide if you should really build this.
- Be prepared to adapt your strategy and execute strategic activities in opportunistic order.
- Try to change minds with evidence and data, and keep trying even if you get ignored at first.
If you haven’t had your fill of design knowledge quite yet and want more, more, more, sign up for my free design strategy email course. It’s been made with curious folks like you in mind. ;