Emily Smith – UX Specialist
Today’s interview is with UX specialist Emily Smith who is talking with us about user experience, psychology, technology, strategy and her passion for all of these.
1. Hi Emily, would you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Hello! Of course, I’d love to. I’ve been making web sites since 2000 and have been doing user experience (UX) work exclusively for the last few years. I have worked on web sites, web apps, and iOS apps for both iPhone and iPad. I live in South Carolina in the US and helped start a coworking group here called CoWork Greenville. We give creative independents a place to work away from home while collaborating with other web professionals.
2. What are the main tasks for a user experience specialist?
It’s my job to help my team create a product that is valuable and persuasive to the people using it, while at the same time meeting the goals of the business that owns it. I work with designers, developers, content strategists, and marketers to do this.
The tasks I do can be broken down into researching and creating. Rarely does a project require that I do every task, so I pick and choose what’s appropriate for that particular product.
Examples of research tasks:
- Learning about the client. I interview stakeholders and other employees in their business in order to understand the business and goals. I parse what they want in a product from why they want it. If the product already exists, I will use analytics and other research to evaluate it.
- Competitive Analysis. I evaluate the competitive landscape online for my client and their product. I’m constantly discerning the value that is going to be provided to their customers and how that differs from similar products.
- Interviewing customers. I talk to people who actually use or will use the product.
- Usability tests. I structure tests in which I watch people (in-person and live-recruited from my client’s web sites) complete tasks in the product and take note of stressful moments, unmet needs, and opportunities to create joy.
Examples of creation tasks:
- Making Personas. I work with the team to create personas which represent core members of the audience; people we know the product needs to provide value for. These become the center of conversation for the remainder of the project.
- Content guidance. Ideally, my projects include a content strategist. In this case, we work concurrently building out wireframes and content so that they can each influence the other during construction.
- Site maps. Creating a visual map of the site structure.
- Wireframes. These black and white digital mockups create a blueprint for design. The research phase creates a road map for the product; wireframes let us start to visualize how we are actually going to make the product.
- Task flows and prototypes. Static wireframes only go so far in communicating our vision for the product. Where are the conversions? What paths do people take to get to target content? How will signup work? Using task flow diagrams and clickable prototypes I can create something everyone can experience and discuss.
I don’t just work during the beginning of a project. The nature of web work these days is much more cyclical and responsive, which means I am an active member of the team the whole time.
3. What fascinates you about the strategic part in designing and building websites and why?
There is no purpose behind a site or product without a strategy. The strategy is where my clients’ goals intersect with the product users’ needs and wants. Finding this sweet spot and creating a product around it is extremely gratifying for me. The rest of my work is a consequence of a solid strategy.
4. Having studied psychology, when and how did you find out that the web world would be the right place for you to be?
Actually, I knew the web was the place for me before I found my love for psychology. I was writing HTML in Windows Notepad in the 90s, saving all my sites out to floppy disks. It was exhilarating to me to write something in black and white and end up with a living, breathing site. During college, I worked in an agency environment doing web work. During that time, all of that knowledge about how humans work started to gel with my dedication to the web and my love for user experience was born. I use my degree every single day and am constantly focusing on continuing my education in both psychology and technology.
5. What keeps you interested in your work and why?
This is a great question because burnout is so rampant. Having suffered it myself, I can relate! These are the reasons I am continually interested in my work:
- Technology is always changing. I get to do a good deal of work on touch devices, which has presented a whole host of new challenges and opportunities. Web technologies themselves are rapidly evolving. We have new problems to solve but also new ways to delight people.
- Technology may be all 1s and 0s but my work is intimately connected with people. I would be bored if I were creating just to create, but I’m not; I’m doing this to help the people on both ends of the product. That purpose is essential for me.
- The web and app community is absolutely phenomenal. Sure, there are outliers, but almost everyone I’ve met wants to work together to solve big problems. “Geeks” get a bad rap for being insular and unable to relate to “normal” people, but that’s just not the case.
6. Please tell us a bit about some interesting projects you’ve recently been doing.
SouthernSavers is a couponing site I worked on that presented challenges because of its complexity and the basic tech knowledge of the user base. We found that people were intimidated by the couponing process and the site couldn’t provide value until that hurdle was overcome. We created a “Learn” section with several callouts to specific educational items throughout the site to help alleviate that problem.
I also have worked on point-of-sale iPod apps for large American retailers, which was interesting because it was such a unique product and came with lots of constraints that needed to be worked within.
I’m gearing up to work on an iPad children’s book project that I think will be extremely fun! I love books and the intersection of learning and technology.
7. Of all projects you’ve ever done, which one are you most proud of?
I recently worked on the iPhone user experience for a startup called Zaarly. It’s free on the app store. You tell Zaarly what you want and how much you’d be willing to pay and then people in your area can respond and deliver it to you. It’s like magic!
Working with a lightning-paced startup like Zaarly wasn’t at all predictable and has helped me become more flexible with my processes. The team is high energy, talented, and encouraging and I’m proud of what we worked together to create under tight time constraints. My next challenge is to help continually evolve the user experience as people start loving and using Zaarly!
8. What are the absolutely necessary steps or actions when planning out a website?
To know your goals and competitive advantage, understand who your audience is and why they should pay attention to you, and create something that is valuable and persuasive for that audience. You need to do whatever’s necessary to address those issues because otherwise you won’t have a clear direction and your project will flounder. Pay attention to details instead of speaking in generalities and use a project management tool.
9. Could you share some tips with our trainees on how to make their websites an enjoyable and worthwhile experience for users?
There are so many little things you can do to make web site more enjoyable. Here are a few:
- Use everyday language everywhere on the site and pare your content down, probably past the point you feel comfortable with. During usability tests I’ve done, that has been one of the most pervasive problems. If you’re not sure, do some tests and find out how your copy is working.
- Don’t neglect contextual links. Your main navigation is important, but providing links of value in the midst of related content is golden.
- Before rolling out a feature, ask yourself why it is being created. Who is it for? Why will they need it? From developers to CEOs, everybody has “neat” feature ideas that take time and money but provide little measurable value to the people actually using the web site. Creating personas will help prevent this discussion from being purely opinion and feeling.
- Start out doing a few things really well and then add complexity as the product matures. It’s much easier to add than it is to take away, and if your core concept is strong then your customers will wait (within limits).
- Degrade your site gracefully and test it on multiple platforms and devices (@media queries are your friend!).
10. Last question: What was the website that impressed you most when you first saw it?
For front-end wizardry and indulgent design, I’ll say Atlantis. This is my favorite of the “Lost World’s Fairs” sites that were made to feature IE9′s support of WOFF (web open font format).
As far as web apps go, I love Pinterest for overall concept and changing the way we go about curating things of interest in our lives.
Emily, thank you for this interview!
If you would like to know more about Emily, check out her website emilysmith.cc.
by Carl Heaton
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