Possibly Useful Skills

I’m responding to a podcast again this week – in their April 4, 2017 show, the What’s Wrong with UX folks touched on “4 Possibly Useful Skills for Designers.” https://www.usersknow.com/podcast/2017/3/19/4-possibly-useful-skills-for-designers

The discussion interests me because, as I’ve said before, I serve kind of a jack-of-all-trades role around here. My primary skill is writing, but I serve more as a project manager and general website administrator. Along the way, I’ve learned to troubleshoot HTML and CSS and just enough JavaScript to be dangerous.

The hosts – Laura Klein and Kate Rutter – seem to come at it from more of a design / product management background. Naturally, the largest part of the conversation is about coding. They agree it’s nice to know code, but generally there’ll be someone who is a better coder.

Klein says the main benefit of coding knowledge is that you know what’s possible. It allows you to keep the engineers honest when they tell you what can or can’t be done. And you can make an intelligent contribution when you’re talking about (in her example) whether you use LinkedIn’s login system or build your own password manager.

“You have to know enough about tech in general to even ask that question,” says Laura.

“I’m not talking that you would to know the specifics of integration, but you learn how to think about it, and what questions to ask, and how to go to the Googles and ask, ‘What the hell is going on here?’” agrees Rutter.

That’s kind of where I’m at with coding. I’m never going to be a coder myself, but I know enough to have an intelligent conversation with one.

And that’s why I’m studying UX – UX is the “possibly useful skill” I’m learning alongside my other skills. After being a generalist for so long, I would like to be genuinely good at something specific.

Burned at the Stake

I used this as one of my “pins,” but I wanted to say a bit more about this.

A few weeks ago, I read Jakob Nielsen’s essay “A 100-Year View of User Experience.” In it, he expects the UX profession to grow to be 1 percent of the world’s population by the year 2050. Pretty cool, I thought, and moved on with my day.

Then, I listened to the UX Podcast, where hosts Per Axbom and James Royal-Lawson pointed out that Nielsen is actually predicting two UX futures, and one of them is dystopian.

At one point, Nielsen says the UX profession will “turn to solving the advanced economies’ productivity problems, expanding the goal of the UX profession beyond the current obsession with addicting users to their social media feeds.”

Then, in the next paragraph, Nielsen says “The other 99% will thank us as they will finally master technology instead of being oppressed by it.”

The podcast hosts were skeptical.

“How is he confident that we will move from making people obsessed with social media to solving the world’s problems?” asks host Per Axbom. “Either people will actually thank us, or they will be hating us.”

“Can we survive the journey that he’s predicting without being burned at the stake before then?” wonders Royal-Lawson.

I have a personal theory that everything in modern life is addictive.

  • I spend a lot of time turning off notifications for apps on my phone – I can see how they keep you chasing that next hit.
  • When I was in college, I could check email in the basement of my dorm, or in one of the stand-up terminals in the student union. I remember checking my email in one building, then being compelled to check email again when I got to the next building. The hit of dopamine was that strong.
  • I read a book recently called “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.” The upshot is that the food industry A/B tested food for the last 50 years, and have learned how to jack up the quantities of the title nutrients to keep us “craving.” It’s not too far from the A/B test I’m running on my website.
  • In the last few years, slot machines have been designed to ring out if they have a “near miss.” Of course, a miss is as good as a mile, when it comes to slots. But it keeps people thirsty for their next strike.

Anyway, it’s not a huge concern for me at the moment. I’m trying to get people hooked on college programs that could improve their life. But still – it’s something to think about.

A or B?

I mentioned we relaunched our website last month, and now I can report that we’re doing our first A/B test on the new site.

We’re testing two versions of our Request for Information button. Our traffic is currently split between these two pages:

  1. https://www.cscc.edu/admissions/index-1.shtml – RFI in the middle of the page
  2. https://www.cscc.edu/admissions/index-3.shtml – larger RFI at the bottom of the page

Stay tuned, we should have a winner in a few weeks.

A/B testing is something I want to do a lot more of. It offers the possibility of statistically valid customer insights without having to, y’know, talk to a bunch of people.

I subscribe to Behave.Org (formerly WhichTestWon), a semi-weekly newsletter of A/B tests. You guess which one you think is the best, and then see the winner. It’s totally humbling – I get about 60% of them right.

This is our first A/B test in about four years, since we started the web redesign process. We did about a half-dozen A/B tests on the old site, and I must admit we never implemented a change that had a statistically significant effect.

I’m not sure how to account for that. I reckon choosing a college is a pretty robust process, with a long “sales cycle.” So maybe it’s not susceptible to micro changes in UI. But I keep plugging away, keep looking for some way to move the needle.

I fancy myself a person with pretty decent taste. But, like, how do you know for sure? I feel like we spend a lot of time making decisions democratically, or by seniority. Hopefully this’ll give us  some data on how to make things better.