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Practice user experience and interaction design with your peers

I feel there should be a practice group for UX and interaction designers: a regular workshop where members can practice designing, discussing, critiquing and presenting user experience and interaction design projects. I’ve given the idea some thought and this is what I’ve come up with.

Professionals practice

We don’t always get the variety of projects we’d like. Junior designers need practice with unfamiliar design patterns. Senior designers need practice leading groups. Lead designers need practice mentoring. Directors and architects need practice with new interfaces and technologies. When it’s time to move on, we all need a yard stick independent of our employer’s titles or agency’s client list.

A design practice group can support all of this with regular meetings, ongoing exercises drawn from our experience, and collection of the artifacts we create.

Regular workshops for professional development

Come as often as you can. Meet and coach your peers. Learn by doing. Practice the aspects of user experience and interaction design that are important to you and your career, at your own pace.

As of December 14, 2009, I’m earmarking every other Monday evening, from 7–9pm, beginning January 4, 2010 for design practice in Austin, TX. I’m not adverse to meeting more often if demand warrants. If you’re in Austin, TX, you should subscribe to this calendar to track meeting dates (locations TBD). If you can’t make one week’s workshop, perhaps you can still make the other. Schedule just doesn’t work? (Maybe there should be a lunchtime meeting downtown?) Not in Austin and want to start your own local group? My name is Vitorio.

Each workshop consists of one or more exercises: brainstorming, proposals and critiques.

Practice brainstorming

Designs aren’t fully formed on the first try. I need to iterate multiple times over multiple ideas before I get something really good going.

In a brainstorming exercise, one or more people or groups sketch interfaces with markers on paper, per an RFP provided at the meeting (not in advance), in a limited amount of time. Here’s an RFP provided for a similar sketching exercise during a Microsoft Sketchflow demo, and some of my sketches and later refinements.

Three examples of sketches

Brainstorming RFPs can define any problem that takes place on a single screen. A sign-up form, an in-car display, a video channel menu, a shopping cart, a banking summary, these are a single screen of information that you could sketch several ideas for in, say, a fifteen minute window.

Each person or group presents all the designs to the rest of the participants in turn, discussing the inspiration and existing knowledge that informed their decisions. The person or group selects 1–2 to be graded and refined, and the rest can also choose an extra one to be refined.

Three examples of sketches

The exercise is then repeated, with the person or group developing their 1–3 sketches in greater detail. The presentations are repeated, and the rest of the participants evaluate the final products based on UX, adherence to the RFP, innovation, practicality, and their theoretical implications for the rest of the application or site.

Practice proposals

Consulting is a craft, too. Even internal design teams need to facilitate discussion and get “buy-in” for designs.

In a proposal exercise, a member assembles a set of wireframes and talking points based on a more detailed RFP, and presents them to the workshop.

Three photos of talks given at the DrupalCamp Austin '09 barcamp, via http://www.flickr.com/photos/36970061@N06/sets/72157622701877351/

Workshop members play the roles of UX mentor, facilitation mentor, presentation mentor, and the roles of the various stakeholders as defined in the RFP. RFPs could be a real problem (sponsored?) or an elaboration of the result of a brainstorming exercise.

The member is evaluated on their UX, their facilitating of discussion around the designs and getting buy-in from the assembled stakeholders, their presentation materials and in the quality of their delivery. The discussion happens live, but the final evaluation for each is presented later.

Practice critiques

Design reviews can be difficult. Artists, designers, writers and other stakeholders all see and care about different aspects of the presentation. Practicing reviews gets us closer to a consistent set of metrics and criteria to discuss and grade interaction designs, user experience and usability.

In a critiquing exercise, evaluations of earlier brainstorming and proposal sessions are presented to the group.

For brainstorming critiques, each member speaks briefly on their evaluation in each criterion, for the final presented designs, including where they agreed and disagreed with the designer’s choices and why.

For proposal critiques, each mentor presents their evaluation based on the role they played, and the mock stakeholders present their feedback as a group, including whether they came to a consensus and achieved buy-in.

Individual members can also critique the individual evaluations made on a proposal. These can be part of the discussion during the presentation of the evaluation, or as a separate critique made at a later meeting.

Collect artifacts

We save each artifact created. Each RFP, all your original sketches, your final designs and their critiques would be recorded. Every proposal presentation and all the mentor and faux stakeholder feedback are kept.

After a few months, you’ll be able to see the types of choices you make, the design patterns you stick to, the criticisms that keep coming up. You’ll know where you stand with your peers and what you need to do to grow as a designer.

Your peers will be able to track the criticism you give and coach you on constructive delivery.

The group will be able to see what areas it focuses on and decide how to fill out the areas where criticism isn’t as strong or knowledgeable.

As other workshops make their artifacts available, we’ll be able to assemble a common critiquing language. We might find new design patterns to document. We’ll define common design projects that can help designers learn various patterns. These patterns and skill sets could lead to standard criteria for defining levels of accomplishment within the group.

Does this explanation make sense?

Are there already organizations which do things like this? (I do take part in my local UX Book Club and IXDA meetings.) Could these meetings work in practice? Is there value in these exercises as described? Are there other types of exercises or group structures which would be more beneficial? Are there metrics and criticism styles which should be tried?

My name is Vitorio.

Questions?

What if I just want an occasional peer review of my wireframes for work?

It’s hard to hand a wireframe for an internal or consulting project to a stranger and get meaningful feedback. Practically, they need context and discussion to understand the use cases and your background. Legally, they probably need an NDA. Professionally, that’s a little like spec work and you should probably be hiring them for that.

Instead, you can offer the RFP for a Brainstorming session, one that relates enough to the problem you’re having that you can get meaningful feedback without violating NDA.

A company looking for UX assistance could also provide RFPs for both Brainstorming and Prepared design sessions, as long as they understood the workshop and the members would maintain public copies of the RFP and results.

I’ve never done a design critique before. How are you judging these?

Undetermined beyond what’s written. You don’t need to know specific metrics ahead of time to do a design critique. Let people discuss and criticize whatever aspects they want. The meeting is recorded, and the criteria can be pulled out later. Discuss the criteria that came up. Come up with new ones. Do another critique. Repeat.

This structure sounds familiar.

It’s patterned after Toastmasters International:

Toastmasters International (TI) is a nonprofit educational organization that operates clubs worldwide for the purpose of helping members improve their communication, public speaking and leadership skills. Through its thousands of member clubs, Toastmasters International offers a program of communication and leadership projects designed to help men and women learn the arts of speaking, listening, and thinking.

The local clubs meet on a regular basis for members to practice various skills useful in public speaking, including giving speeches, speaking extemporaneously, listening, and providing each other with feedback and evaluation.

A Toastmasters club adopts a “learn-by-doing” philosophy, wherein each member learns at a pace suitable to his or her developmental needs.

Members prepare and deliver speeches in front of the club. Each speech project builds upon the last, and there are sets of projects for different types of communication.

Other club members grade the presentation on various criteria, and review the evaluations themselves on the quality and effectiveness of their constructive feedback. Feedback is delivered in a “praise, improve, praise” or “commend, recommend, commend” pattern.

In addition to the prepared speeches and evaluations, members also deliver improvised speeches. The topic is not known until the member is called upon.

Awards and titles are presented upon completing areas of the curriculum, with the final title of “Distinguished Toastmaster” conferred when both the communication and leadership tracks are fulfilled.

Toastmasters International has awards and titles and achievements. What are this group’s?

Undetermined. User experience and interaction designers have a hard enough time with standard titles and qualifications. I think coming up with one or more tracks and the qualifications necessary to progress through them would be a valuable metric for professional growth. It’s a separate discussion from whether a regular design practice workshop is a valuable and viable idea, though, and isn’t necessary to start holding design practice meetings.

Where will updates to this idea and artifacts be available?

Here. Bookmark and visit back on occasion, would you?