User Experience (UX) is a thriving discipline that has enjoyed a huge increase in recognition over the past several years, giving rise to high demand for UX skills and know-how.
Kat Davies works right in the thick of things: as Head of User Research for Natural Interaction, a Bristol-based independent UX agency, she is involved a wide variety of UX projects across a range of sectors.
Here is a day in her life…
(As always, take a look at the Econsultancy Jobs board if you’re on the hunt for a new role!)
Econsultancy: Please describe your job: What do you do?
Kat Davies: I’m Head of User Research at Natural Interaction. I lead teams and projects covering all aspects of UX, and ensure that we stay effective and innovative in our research practice.
For example, we’ve recently completed a project for Unite Students where we undertook a comprehensive research project to interrogate their booking experience. This then developed into a high fidelity prototype and rebuild of the online booking journey with a much slicker, and clearer experience for its users.
My role was to oversee the research plan to ensure it covered all user groups, as well as running the quantitative aspects of the plan, including a large scale survey and analytics review.
Additionally, I’ve been reviewing and optimising the way we capture our research notes and analysis, looking at software and processes which help us to combine insights from interviews and usability tests run across the team to produce a holistic and nuanced set of findings for our clients.
E: Whereabouts do you sit within the organisation? Who do you report to?
KD: I report to the CEO and jointly manage a team of 3 UXers. We build teams according to the needs of each project, so I work with a variety of different people and skill sets internally and client side, including designers, developers, interactive media and other UXers.
E: What kind of skills do you need to be effective in your role?
KD: UX projects require a mixture of methodical and analytical thinking, but you also need to be strong in reflection and empathy in order to accurately capture and represent the thoughts and needs of those the project is meant to benefit – both client and end user.
A background in digital design, psychology, systems thinking or business analysis can be useful. It’s also important to be able to manage a complicated and ever-shifting workload across multiple projects. Nothing ever seems to happen quite to schedule.
E: Tell us about a typical working day…
KD: A day can look very different depending on where we are in a project, but there’s still a consistent aspect to each.
I might be doing research activities like interviews, user testing or analysis, or we could be in the middle of a design phase where I’m focused on wireframes or the details of the information architecture. Either way, I’ll still have some admin activities to keep on top of, and I’ve usually got a talk or blog post on the go too.
There is some travel involved, but it’s not the focus of the job. I’m usually visiting client offices for a meeting, or meeting an end user in their home environment.
I like the variation from being at my desk, but it’s still largely an office-based role, even if I’m not sat down all the time. There’s plenty of opportunities for discussion and collaborative working too – it’s how we operate as a company.
E: What do you love about your job? What sucks?
KD: I love the chance to learn about all kinds of different environments and industries. We work with clients from across different sectors including e-commerce, automotive and travel, and I enjoy really getting under the skin of a business or set of users and picking through all the detail. I’m now a second-hand expert in diverse fields such as tourism in west Wales and taxi driver recruitment.
I’m also really impressed by the supportive environment that my company, and the industry in general, offers in terms of flexibility of hours, for families, travel and work/life balance. It isn’t the same everywhere and I’m hugely grateful for the attitude to work: just get the job done, do it on time and do it well, rather than feeling chained to set hours.
The harder parts are the uncertainty around projects and timescales. They often seem to end up being restructured and then it can be a mammoth job arranging everyone’s schedules – but it’s the world we work in and we always manage.
Also, we can too often see UX as a silver bullet – a ‘this will solve all your problems’ attitude, coming both from clients and as an industry, when the reality is that UX should teach us that the world is always more complicated than it seems.
E: What kind of goals do you have? What are the most useful metrics and KPIs for measuring success?
KD: Our goal, ultimately is to meet the client’s business objectives by making end-user interactive easy. I group success metrics into two categories: conversion metrics and customer feedback.
The first covers all of the client KPIs and metrics like average basket value, customer sign ups or any other reason that they invested in the project – whatever is important to them is important to us.
Secondly, there are the end users themselves, usually customers of the client, shoppers, services users etc. What do they think about the changes? Has it improved things for them?
User feedback is important during the research and design process, and remains vital after launch. We work in an iterative industry. There is always something that can be improved.
E: What are your favourite tools to help you to get the job done?
KD: Mostly, a laptop and a reliable internet connection. A lot of my desk work is around capturing and processing information, usually in documents and spreadsheets. We’ve got a few templates that we always use for interviews, analysis and journey mapping so in effect these have become our tools.
There are a few specialist bits we need though. A wireframing tool for designing prototyping in is a must, and I also use it to sketch out ideas because I am not one of life’s drawers. It’s quick for me to jot down an design idea in digital form than to mess about with marker pens.
We also use video capture and recording software for our interviews, plus statistical analysis programs for when we run surveys. And a reliable printer certainly makes life easier!
E: How did you get into user research, and where might you go from here?
KD: I started out in the graduate business (i.e. not technical) stream of a large IT company. I quickly specialised in information architecture (IA) and this role was soon subsumed into the emerging UX industry. I learned on the job really, along with everyone around me, although many had experience in research and design before the UX label arrived.
These days, I’m interested in the crossover between UX and data analysis. UX research has traditionally been a largely qualitative field, but more than ever we have access to evidence and data which can make our research statistically significant, and provide the kind of robust figures which are of interest in other business areas like sales and management. Analytics packages and large-scale surveys are my main tools here.
I’m also interested in how to make data, figures and general numeracy more accessible to the public via design, e.g. in money management or science communication.
E: Which user experiences do you admire?
KD: I love the work the Office of National Statistics (ONS) has done around presentation of figures and data. It’s hard to present something which is naturally complex in a busy digital environment, often on small screens, and they’re doing a great job.
From a personal perspective, I also really like the Trainline app. They put a lot of effort into combining disparate sources of information to make something that’s valuable for a commuter.
E: Do you have any advice for people who want to get into UX?
KD: Many large IT companies routinely hire graduates and while these aren’t usually specific UX positions, you’ll get exposed to all aspects of digital and IT which is important for a successful career – and to see if it’s actually UX you want to do.
For those already in digital who are keen to transfer to UX, recognise that UX is also a mindset, and you can probably start running some user research activities in your current role if your employer is supportive.
There’s a lot of cross-over between design, development, marketing and product management roles in digital, and many people get into UX without realising it, or by stealth. There’s plenty you can do without “UX” in your job title.