#LeanUXNYC Speaker Series: An Interview with Adrian Howard
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- semanticwill on March 19, 2013 inSpeakers

Adrian HowardI know there is no clear career path for many of us in product/ux/startup design – What is your current role, and how did you come to your current role?

I’m a co-founder and generalising specialist at Quietstars. I help people build great teams and great products by applying Lean, UX & Agile practices.

I got here by trying to make neat things using computers – which I’ve been doing since 1982 when I first got my grubby twelve-year-old hands on one.

Fortunately the developer vs designer schism wasn’t anywhere near as widespread back then. My heroes were folk like Jeff Minter and Sandy White. People who developed *and* designed wonderful experiences. My teenage sketch books were full of pseudo-code, storyboards & character designs. The idea that UX was “somebody else’s job” has always been alien to me – and I’ve ended up about half development and half user experience in my skill set.

In the late 90′s, I encountered what would later be called Agile. After ten years working in startups and agencies my initial reaction was that it would never work on any serious project.

(Yes. I do feel a bit stupid about that now.)

Once I saw agile teams in action, it became clear how effective they were at building and delivering products. Less clear was how to integrate UX and Agile practices to ensure the right product was built. Bringing Agile, UX & business together has been my focus of interest since then.

Over the last ten years, that interest has led me to a wonderful community of practitioners who share the same goals. I’ve learned lots from them, and hopefully passed on the odd useful titbit myself. After a while I ended up spending most of my time helping folk get started and get good with UX, Agile & Lean. It seemed sensible to focus on that full time.

And here we are!

How do you think Lean Startup has influenced your practice of product design and user research?

For me, the key new idea was the focus on the build-measure-learn loop. It gave me a common framework that business, UX practitioners and agile teams could all relate to. One that valued generative user research and applied it from the very earliest stages of product discovery, through development to delivery and beyond.

With traditional Agile processes, I found it hard for the business and the teams to see the value of more generative work. Agile wasn’t hostile to it per se, but there wasn’t an obvious place for it at the table either.

With Lean Startup, the focus is on learning as the unit of progress. That lets the whole team align around discovering business value – rather than pushing all that work behind roles like Scrum’s Product Owner.

I’ve been doing UX work with agile teams for years and the value of having cross-disciplinary teams working together isn’t new to me. What Lean Startup has helped me do is extend the reach of those teams to include business, marketing, sales, user research, and others.

What do you see as trends or best practices in product design in 2013?

There are no best practices! There are only appropriate practices for particular contexts. You can view the whole Lean UX approach as an alternative to a set of UX “best practices” that failed miserably when applied in contexts like Lean Startup.

The only best practice I want to see in 2013 is an understanding that context applies as much to the UX practitioner and their working environment as it does to the person using a product.

You need to design your process as much as you design your product. Blindly seeking best practices will serve you badly on both counts. You need to look deeper than that. Different working contexts require different design approaches.

(Let’s call it Context-Driven Design. Quick! Somebody write a book!)

As for trends – I’ll pick three that have been in my thoughts recently:

1) The number of projects that requires UX input is going to continue to outstrip the supply of new UX practitioners. We’re going to see more UX work done by people currently outside of the field. Helping manage that while producing great products is going to carry on being an interesting challenge.

2) The variety of devices that people use for work and play is only going to increase. The current problems in designing for mobiles and tablets are going to look trivial compared to building services that work everywhere: from the 1.26″ display of a Pebble watch through to the 62″ TV in the living room (Cennydd Bowles wrote a great article on [Designing with Context](http://www.cennydd.co.uk/2013/designing-with-context) that everybody should go read right now.)

3) UX is going to continue to move up the organisational food chain. Even IBM has a General Manager of Design now! That’s going to lead to interesting challenges for the profession. Currently the skill set of the average creative director and the skill set of the average C-level executive don’t overlap much. That’s going to have to change – we need to level up as we move up the org-chart.

And, of course, 2013 is the year for chartreuse backgrounds with pink highlights!

What do you hope to learn for yourself by speaking at the LeanUX NYC conference?

I’m especially interested in finding out how to bring people from outside the development and UX communities into product development teams. One of the reasons I’m talking about branding at the conference is to better understand how marketing fits into lean startups. There’s often a split between design and market research and that divide hurts more than it helps.

I’m looking for feedback and critique on our current approaches and ways we can improve our work and our clients’ work. Everybody is still discovering what the make up of a balanced product development team looks like. I’m hoping to have a better handle on that by the end of the conference.

If you had a few key tactics to help UX designers interested in convincing stakeholders on the value of research, what would it be?

Prove it. Show it. Get them to do it. Not necessarily in that order.

Prove it. Find something small that you can research and fix off the books. Use that success as leverage to get more resources. You can have all the solid arguments, research papers and case studies in the world – nothing will convince as much as the results of a research-based change that made or saved money for the organisation. Nothing.

Show it. We’ve a terrible tendency to present user research as a black box. We go away for days or weeks and come back with a pretty report and a presentation. Don’t do that. Make your processes as transparent as possible. Show everybody what research work is being done. Have public displays of the work in progress. Find ways to integrate research in progress with the rest of product development. People only value the work that they can see. Make sure you’re visible.

Get them to do it. There’s nothing like the direct visceral feedback you get from observing and interacting with the people who use the system. Don’t keep all of that to yourself. Take the rest of the team along. Get more people involved with interviewing (see my workshop at the conference!). Get more people involved with user testing. Even if it’s just as observers. You don’t have to convince people of the value of research if they can see it at first hand.

Also: If you’re interested in hearing Adrian talk, or give a workshop at #LeanUXNYC, tweet at him for a discount code. @adrianh