5 x 5 on the Edge with Ruth Ellison

Oct
3
2009

Ruth EllisonPhoto: Caronne

This is part three of the 5 x 5 interview series of the speakers presenting at the Edge of the Web conference in Perth next month. This time I’m interviewing Ruth Ellison, she will be presenting on Guerrilla user & design research: undertaking research on a shoestring at the Edge of the Web.

Ruth is a user experience practitioner originally from Perth, who has been lured over to the not so bright lights of Canberra, she has a wealth of experience in Information Architecture with a passion for accessibility and usability. Ruth also has this thing for Robots.

MWNB:
Ruth you have a bit of an eclectic background, you aren’t traditional trained in design. How do you think your background has contributed to moulding your unique skill set into what it is today?
Ruth:

Having an eclectic background has certainly made life interesting! Although my background did not involve the ‘traditional’ design professions, design is essentially about solving a problem. As designers, we have to identify the problem, strive to come up with the optimum solution and communicate the plan for solving the problem. I come from a formal background in information technology, information systems and human factors and I’m particularly interested in sustainable and inclusive design. I’ve found that having an eclectic and diverse background helps to provide alternate perspectives and approaches to solving the design problem. Being a designer is about having a curious mindset and approach to how we view the world and the way we go about solving design problems.

MWNB:
You have been working in the user experience area for a while now. What advice would you give to someone that isn’t that familiar with the user experience field and its various techniques but they would to learn more and maybe more into this area?
Ruth:

As cliché as it sounds, it’s really important to be passionate, have an overly curious mind (preferably your own) and a penchant for coffee meetings. Working in the user experience field may be a challenge but it is extremely rewarding. People seem a bit surprised that our work crosses over such a large number of domains, from traditional design professions, cognitive science, psychology, project management, usability engineering, understanding of technology…the list goes on. It’s this meld of knowledge that makes our UX work really exciting.

One of the best ways to learn more about the field is to get involved with your user experience community through events such as the UX Bookclub, UPA meetings, IA Cocktail Hours (we have a fantastic group in Canberra) and attend conferences. These types of events provide great opportunity to find out what’s happening in the field, learn from personal experiences and find out what blogs, books and twitter streams to follow.  What I find most valuable is the personal relationships and friendships that you establish at these gatherings. I love the satisfying and often mind-blowing discussions we always seem to have every time we get together.

MWNB:
There has been a lot of discussion of late indicating that maybe the field of information architecture (IA) is in fact a dying art. And that generalist user experience practitioner is slowly making the role of an IA especially redundant. As an IA specialist in this area what is your ground level take on this?
Ruth:

I don’t believe that information architecture (IA) is a dying art. IA is  about the “organisation and construction of shared information spaces” – Information Architecture Institute . While IA has been ‘traditionally’ undertaken by information architects, the actual process of organising, structuring and labelling information still needs to be carried out no matter what label you’ve given to yourself while undertaking this process. Ultimately, we’re solving a design problem, whether it’s at the screen level, a business flow or designing for a specific experience. This doesn’t mean that the IA speciality is redundant but that IA is a specific set of skills that we use at the appropriate point in time.

I like Eric Reiss’s recent comment on twitter about UX and IA: “Pitting UX against IA is like having your toolbox pick a fight with your wrench. UX is a cognitive container for a variety of skills”.

MWNB:
Accessibility is bit of the hobby-horse of yours, do you see the slow adoption of WCAG 2 within Australia as a major stumbling block to its general community acceptance and the elimination of the WCAG1 checkbox tickers.
Ruth:

The problem with WCAG 1 or 2 isn’t the slow adoption and acceptance by the general community. Rather, it’s our general perception and understanding of accessibility. I frequently come across people who have some level of  awareness of accessibility but there’s often this slightly-negative attitude of “doing accessibility because you have to”. There are still many project teams who focus on the perceived negative aspects of accessibility. I rather see the Australian community adopt a more holistic and inclusive approach to design, instead of treating accessibility as a series of checkboxes.

MWNB:
User research in web design is one of my passions; I know it is yours too. All too often we have to deal with projects, particularly in Perth where there is no budget at all for any user research. As a UX practitioner what methods and techniques would you use to overcome this major stumbling block?
Ruth:

It still amazes me to this day to see the number of web projects where no budget and time has been allocated to the user and design research of the product. There are misconceptions that undertaking user and design research will significantly slow down the project or cause it to go over budget. What people forget is the ongoing costs of having to redevelop the product or the costs associated with cross channel support of the product (such as increased contact points with the organisation) when our designs don’t meet the user and business needs.

To overcome this ‘no budget’ stumbling block, we may have to resort to guerrilla user and design research. The key principle is grasp any opportunity to do some design research! This often involve informal methods and techniques such as very quick iterative usability testing (I love testing in cafes, lunch rooms etc), short sharp interviews with key stakeholders and users, surveys and heuristic reviews.

The idea of investing more money into research is a big leap for many of the decision makers. We need to make the business case for user and design research by doing and showing – doing the research and showing the results to help influence the decision makers.

MWNB:
Thanks Ruth I’ll see you on the Edge

Tags: , , , , , ,

Looks like there is no conversation here yet, why not start one.