Matthew Magain – User Experience Designer
Today’s interview is with user experience designer Matthew Magain who talks with us about the whats, whys and hows of his work, about his projects and even about the children’s book that he illustrated.
1. Hi Matthew, would you please tell us a little bit about who you are and what you are doing?
I’m a user experience designer based in Melbourne, Australia. I freelance under the business name of Useractive.
I’ve worked for big corporates like IBM and PricewaterhouseCoopers and for smaller startups like 99designs and Learnable. I also spent a few years working with the lovely folks at SitePoint, in a number of roles—technical editor, manager of online media, and creative director.
I do a bit of writing — I’ve written a ton of articles about web design for SitePoint over the years — and I dabble in illustration, and enjoy drawing sketchnotes at conferences (I was recently asked to sketchnote the keynote presentation of a Microsoft conference on stage, which was fun!). I recently combined these two interests and wrote and illustrated a children’s book, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. I’m launching it this week, which is exciting! I’m also working on an iPad app for the story too.
Away from the computer, I enjoy sports like basketball and squash, and I’m a husband and father, too — my two young daughters keep me pretty busy!
2. Which part of your work do you like most and why?
The thing I enjoy most about the work I do is that it is so varied, which keeps me from getting bored. I learned a long time ago that being challenged in a variety of ways is very important for me to have work satisfaction — it’s one of the reasons I was originally drawn to the web as a medium, because I get to be technical and creative in equal measure. As long as that continues to be the case, the web will be my medium of choice.
3. Could you tell us a bit about some of your favorite projects that you’ve recently been working on?
The biggest recent project that I can talk about is the user interface that I worked on for Learnable. Creating something that you believe has the potential to positively impact millions of people is incredibly rewarding, and designing the information architecture, interactions and UI for that web app was no exception.
Making it as easy as possible for Learnable’s instructors to upload their courses was one of the most challenging design problems I’ve had to solve. We looked at the WordPress interface for inspiration, as it’s has been used by millions of people to upload blog content. But the content of an online course is quite complex; the courses consist of a large number of media files in a specific structure, and navigating all of those files without making the user feel overwhelmed was tricky. We explored some of the conventions that are emerging in the mobile space — the way that content is hidden and shown in iPad apps, for instance — and user tested a bunch of different approaches before settling on one that works.
The other fun project that comes to mind is the toolkit that I designed for the guys at SmartyHost. They wanted a way to visually represent their discount program, and I came up with the idea of using a strength tester, like one that you might see at a showground at a fair in the country. I get a chuckle from the fact that SmartyHost customers see the strength tester rise up to the level of points they’ve earned when they log in to their toolkit. It’s a much more fun way to present that data than a table or a boring old chart.
4. Why is User Experience important for the success of a website?
Because when the experience is negative, it can backfire on you, big time.
We’ve all got stories about service providers who have let us down in a huge way (telecommunications companies seem to dominate these conversations lately). We remember those stories well, and we relay them to our friends with passion, because we can’t believe just how badly we feel that we’ve been let down. That’s powerful word-of-mouth influence, and it can do huge damage to your brand.
When you get the user experience right, though, people will also tell their friends, and they’ll do so with an equal amount of passion. When someone raves about a product or service, people take notice — a personal recommendation is a powerful thing.
Things like user research, workflow diagrams, wireframing and user testing are all becoming more widely understood and demanded by clients as aspects of a project that can’t be skipped. They ensure that the final design is usable and that the end-to-end experience is considered, not just that the site has a nice visual aesthetic.
5. What 3 tips can you give to our trainees to ensure a good User Experience?
1. Do user testing. Multiple iterations of it, at each stage of your project, even when you think you’re reaching the point of diminishing returns. This is hardly ground-breaking advice, but it’s just so crucial and skipped so often that I feel obligated to grandstand for a moment! There are so many projects where the mindset is “this part of the project isn’t all that important, and we don’t have the budget for it, so we’re going to skip the user testing bit”. And it always, always comes back to haunt you. Especially IT projects in corporate environments, where the majority of the players are either managers or developers, and screens are being designed by developers or business analysts because there’s been nothing factored into the budget to make the software a pleasure to use.
2. Use a design process. Understand it, evolve it, and trust in it. If you haven’t developed a process that you’re confident works for a range of projects, it’s time to start reading some books about user-centred design (I’m in the middle of About Face 3, by Alan Cooper, which is one of several titles that tackle the topic). It can be tempting to jump straight into Photoshop or even throw together some markup and start tweaking styles right off the bat. Trust me, your design will look better and work better if you seek out data to influence your design decisions — for example, user research, web analytics, personas, user testing feedback—and iterate. Each step informs the next, and I’ve discovered that putting effort up front is always worth it in the long run.
3. Find a mentor. Having a senior colleague who you admire and respect (preferably outside of the organisation that you’re working for), with whom you can discuss techniques, trends and your career path in general is invaluable for your growth as a practitioner and as a professional. It has been for mine! They will challenge you and encourage you and provide perspective that you just wouldn’t get working one job to the next, and it all results in becoming a better designer.
6. Which methods do you use to make UX design decisions?
There are lots of activities that influence and inform my design of a web site or application. They can generally be divided into two camps: quantitative methods, and qualitative methods.
- Quantitative methods include things like anonymous web analytics or data from multiple-choice surveys.
- Qualitative methods refer to feedback that has come through customer support, comments made by a subject during a user testing session, or notes from a contextual inquiry session.
Quantitative data is extremely useful if you need to make a case to a stakeholder, such as a project board member or the marketing department. Statistics like “Less than 5% of our users are using Internet Explorer”, “Two thirds of our users visit the blog section first” or “Half of our customers said they thought the online manuals were difficult to find” are hard to argue with, and can be useful to back up your recommendations.
However, I find qualitative methods to be more useful in terms of actually shaping the experience to meet the needs of the user. The reason is because qualitative data tells you why someone is using your website in a certain way. Your analytics might tell you that two thirds of your audience visit the blog section first, but you don’t know if that’s because they find that content the most useful, or because it’s the first tab in the navigation.
At the end of the day, they’re both important and complement each other.
7. What methods of user research do you prefer and why?
To be honest, user research is one area where I’m definitely lacking in experience — it’s a whole industry on its own! At the UX Australia conference last year I met a bunch of people whose full-time job is just doing user research, such as conducting contextual inquiry sessions, where you sit alongside someone to observe every aspect of how they do their job. In fact a friend of mine once worked for a mobile phone manufacturer — his job was to fly all over Europe over the course of several months, living with different families in various countries, observing how they used their phones.
I haven’t worked on any projects where the research phase has been that extensive, but I do try to perform at least a minimal amount of qualitative user research whenever possible. If there are users in the same city, then I’ll run some informal workshops where I’ll ask folks to come in for a chat about the website, and then take them out to dinner at a local pub. If it’s not possible to get face-to-face with real users, then I’ll try to contact some for a chat on the phone. And if I’m launching a new site which doesn’t have any users yet, I’ll find subjects to interview who meet the target demographic, and ask them about how they currently solve the problems that the project I’m working on addresses.
Failing an actual conversation, you can’t beat a good old-fashioned survey for convenience and hard numbers (give away an iPad as a prize, and you’ll have no problem getting responses). You do need to take survey data with a pinch of salt though — as I mentioned before, you’ll never get to the bottom of why people answer the questions the way they do; the data is purely quantitative. But it’s better than no data at all!
8. You’ve been judge of several design and web design awards and competitions. What are your criteria for a winner website?
Competitions like FullCodePress and the McFarlane Prize have a very structured process for determining a winner. There is usually a panel of judges, each evaluating the website on a different criteria — whether that be front-end coding, server-side coding, design, accessibility, or something else. The judges scores in each category are added up, and usually the highest score will win.
However there is one aspect that always influences judges in a contest like that, and the final decision is never always purely based on score. There is the question of how well a site fulfills the brief, and if your website delivers exactly what the client asked for, and does so in an elegant way, then it’s going to impress the judges. Of course, the best approach that I know of for creating a website that fulfils its brief is to involve the users of the site at every step of the design, but you’re probably not surprised to hear me say that!
9. What should every beginner in web design keep in mind by all means?
You are not your user. This is the biggest mistake that novice web designers make — they design for themselves. You only need to run one user test to see this fact for yourself, and you’ll never ignore user testing again. I thoroughly recommend Steve Krug’s books about web usability and running user tests. They’re both very short, easy to digest books, and the content is bang on.
10. Last question: Which websites inspire you, or have inspired you personally or in terms of work?
I’m not really one for trawling through gallery sites, but I do love some of the responsive design examples that have been appearing on http://mediaqueri.es/, like the Sasquatch Festival site, and Simon Collison’s folio site.
Also, web typography on the web is really coming into its own, and there are a lot of talented designers doing some great work in that field. I keep an eye on the “usual suspects” who have been blogging about web design for years — the likes of Jason Santa Maria, Cameron Adams, Cameron Moll, Dan Cederholm, and every now and then I catch up on articles from the likes of Johnny Holland Magazine, A List Apart and Smashing Magazine.
Other than that, I generally rely on the talented folks who I follow on Twitter to keep up on happenings.
Thank you for participating!
My pleasure. They were great questions — thanks, Laura!
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