Category Archives: Mentoring in UX


Ethnography. Only the curious need apply

How can a product team gain empathy for their customers and draw meaningful insights if they aren’t driven by their own curiosity?

I’ve been helping client teams to plan and conduct their own design research, ‘going ethno’ with small teams to meet and study their end users in context. Initially I had my reservations, (and many live on) but…

…it’s been a learning experience on both sides:

I generally encourage clients to ride shotgun with me during fieldwork. It’s an engaging way for them to meet their customers, get inside their heads and fall in love with their problems.

Increasingly these teams want a lasting version of design research goodness – learning how to do it for themselves – often as part of a broader move to a customer-centred mindset, and as a rule I’m all-for passing on my approach and techniques.

But where to start? I’m self-taught through running dozens of these projects without a scrap of training, or ever reading a book, so how should I go about passing this goodness on to my clients?

With a mild dose of impostor syndrome, I initially tried up-front ‘ethnography 101’ style coaching, role-playing, ‘primer’ exercises, guerilla research and even wrote ‘how-to’ field guides covering interview and recording techniques etc. – only to be disappointed.

So, why weren’t all these client teams as interested in their own customers as I was?

In search of a tutorial silver bullet and a way to get these clients into the right mindset, I’ve read, gifted, recommended, quoted and paraphrased from all four of these books for my clients:


If in doubt – consult your manual?

These books are great fodder for the aspiring or even seasoned researcher, reminding you that what you do actually is ‘a thing’ …(and you can even call it ethnography) but having tried a few methods of ‘coaching’ I’m not convinced any amount of reading can move the needle on your clients’ curiosity-meter.

…in fact latent curiosity seems all-too-rare regardless how much permission and context you provide or how well you prepare teams upfront to ‘go ethno’.

Exposure to customer-world can ignite this desire to learn, but even well-intentioned members of a product team can fail to gain empathy with their customers or draw meaningful insights if they aren’t driven by their own desire to learn.

Yes, that glimmer of curiosity in your clients’ eye is worth more than all the ‘how to’ books ever published, and on these assignments, my goal is to bring that out in my client. Tossing the books aside, I’ve found it’s way simpler than I thought.

The glimmer of curiosity is a platform to build their skills on, and my response is to go with less ‘how to’ and more ‘let’s do’:

  1. Lay a few ground rules, (rather than a lecture or lesson)
  2. Dive into a live project. (something they care about, not a hypothetical example)
  3. Review and share learnings as you go.
  4. Fuel and follow your team’s curiosity.

It seems all the tips, techniques, handbooks and best intentions aside, it seems real world experience sorts the ‘men from the boys’ in terms of building this desire to learn.

…But the changing and unpredictable nature of peoples’ behaviours and now knowing what you’re going to learn is addictive, and the curiosity and drive to dig deeper can spread by osmosis. So if you’re in a ‘coaching’ role, show them the rewards and they’ll want to make the investment in learning the skills.

So… what about you…?

How have you managed to up-skill your clients in user research?

Has this been deliberate, at their request, or a useful bi-product of attending your fieldwork?

The books I read and shared from were:

Interviewing users. Steve Portigal

Practical ethnography. Sam Ladner

Talking to humans. Giff Constable

Practical empathy. Indi Young

Advice for a career change into UX

Often I’m approached by Kiwis wanting to make a sideways leap into UX and always try to help out via either introductions or advice. They usually ask about qualifications, what they can study to give them a leg-up, or where they might fit into the vast spectrum of what UX has come to stand for.

…and I can empathise with them completely.

UX is hoovering up talent from many adjacent disciplines and the job market has become a lolly scramble, with dozens of mysterious job titles and areas to specialise in.

Who wants to be a designer?, when you could be a Multi Channel Experience Architect?*
*Actual job title as advertised in 2012

In 2006, as UX was becoming ‘the new black’ of design, a brave usability company** in London hired me over candidates who must have looked waaaay better on paper. Following my instincts, I shut the doors on my design business to explore this new world.

It was sink-or-swim …at the deep end. I was the only person in the agency who didn’t have an MBA, masters or PHD in design, HCI, research or psychology.

The gamble paid off for both of us, and over the years I’ve always tried to mentor others. It feels good to help and usually takes a phone call to get a feeling for where the person is at – what they are excited by, so I can make my advice relevant to their situation.

Invariably people ask about studying, qualifications and their CV…

I’m clearly biased towards experience and ‘soft skills’ rather than qualifications and believe that people buy people, not a folio or CV – these should open the door for you, but it’s the story you tell once you’re in the room that matters.

You’ll need ‘case studies’ – examples of projects you can talk people through – explaining the process, the steps and logic behind it.

Try to cover these:

  • What the challenge was?
  • How you addressed it?
  • What the outcome was and how it benefitted the business / customers?

And bonus points for these:

  • What you learnt / would do differently next time?
  • How you see yourself applying what you learnt to projects for their clients.

These project stories are a stage from which you sell the skills and experience you’ve gained…

…but the person you’re talking to will see past the methods and techniques to ask themselves this question:

“Am I comfortable to put this person in front of our most valuable client?”

And if you’re lucky, this one too:

“Which project could I put this person on tomorrow and know they’ll be a good fit?”

Where you are at? …Where you want to be?
UX skills and activities run a spectrum from Research & Exploration at one end, to Design & Evaluation at the other. Do you want to be a generalist or a specialist? or a T-shaped person? Push the skills and aspects of yourself which you’d like to build on, but express the areas you’d like to move into;

If you want to do interaction design, cranking out page layouts then your CV / Folio should show that you can do this.

If you’re more interested in researching customer behaviour, improving customer experience, understanding the flow of a customer through a system, then your CV / Folio should have some sort of example of the process – this might be a journey map or photos taken when you were in the depths of your process.

I sometimes point people to this excellent set of slides

…Assembled by a guy who has recruited dozens of UX practitioners from across the spectrum into agency roles or as freelancers. (He was also hired by the same brave company)

Give back.
If you’re well into your career and have anything to add, know of any courses or study options, please add them to the comments below, or mail me and I’ll add them to this list.

**The company who bravely hired me was Flow Interactive, who are now part of Foolproof, Europe’s largest UX agency, (I was once told) and whose sister company in South Africa have been absorbed by PWC.