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A Deep Dive Into User Experience (UX) with Paul Boag

November 12, 2019 | Nikola Kožuljević | | Smartlook

At Smartlook we’re always trying to come up with clever ways to enhance User Experience (UX). Readers of our blog will know that we offer technological solutions to help solve common UX problems such as our mobile app analytics tools or our website visitor recording tools.

However, technology can’t solve UX problems alone. To effectively solve UX problems we need to deeply understand the problems we’re trying to solve. In order to do that, it helps to be able to plug in to thought-leaders in the UX space who have successfully tackled problems similar to ours.

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Today, we have the opportunity to do just that. We recently chatted with Paul Boag, a User Experience Designer, Service Design Consultant and expert in digital transformation.

Paul has worked with like the BBC, European Commission and UCAS. He is also a published author with 5 books under his belt and he speaks at conferences around the world on the topic of UX. So let’s jump into the interview!

First off, thanks for joining us today Paul! You’re a pretty influential person in the UX industry with more than 20 years of experience. To begin, why don’t you tell us a little bit more about  your journey becoming a user experience specialist?

In truth the story of me becoming a user experience consultant was one of obstinance and nosiness!

I trained as a graphic designer, but from my very first job I worked as a user interface designer. For years I was quite happy designing interfaces, but slowly I started to become frustrated.

Increasingly I found clients or colleagues telling me that something wasn’t possible. I was forced to compromise the user experience because of politics, technology, culture or business.

Then there was the fact that websites I would design would be let down by poor copy or a lack of post launch support.

I quickly discovered that the interfaces I designed existed in a broader context and that this context often shaped the user’s experience more than the interface itself.

I started to question the constraints placed upon me and express opinions about how the broader experience could be improved.

Unwilling to be limited by my defined role, I started to learn about and contribute to other areas such as marketing, copywriting, development and business strategy. As I learned more, I got increasingly drawn into shaping the broader experience, not just what was on the screen.

You have a lot of experience working as an experience designer throughout most of your professional career. What was the moment, for you personally, when you realized that UX was going to be huge and that being an expert in the field is where you wanted to put your energy?

There was no one moment to be honest, and whether or not it turned out to be huge was irrelevant to me. I didn’t even have a desire to be an expert as such.

In my eyes, the role of a designer is to solve the problem placed in front of them. That isn’t always the obvious problem, but rather the underlying issue.

As a designer, I quickly found that the problems I was being asked to address couldn’t be solved my just looking at the interface. I had to look beyond the screen. That was the goal. There was no strategic decision to switch. In fact I still design a lot of interfaces today. I just don’t stop there.

You are quite the avid writer yourself, with several publications already under your belt on the topic of user experience. One of your books “Client Centric Web Design” teaches designers to nurture mutual respect between themselves and their clients. Can you expand on why you believe this is so important?

Because no website or app can succeed based on design alone. In fact I would go further, I would argue that without an actively engaged and informed client, no website or app will succeed in the long term.

It is the client who has to shape the vision and more importantly see that vision through over the long term. If they haven’t been on the journey of creating the digital service they cannot run it properly.

However, there is another reason too. Engaged clients are better educated and more invested. That makes them much easier to work with. Clients who help create the app or site or whatever, are less likely to reject it and more likely to defend it to others. That can seriously reduce the time wasted on iterations and amendments.

You also mentioned that UX designers should include their clients in every step of what they are doing. Do you have particular stories that you can share with us when this approach hasn’t been used?

I am sure we all have the same stories. Stories of clients demanding endless iterations or making decisions which seems ludicrously out of touch. Clients who change their minds part way through a project or have totally unrealistic expectations.

We have all battled with scope creep, sign off and ill educated clients.

The root of all these problems are the same — we fail to involve the client so they do not understand the project well enough.

Working as a UX designer seems to involve possessing skills in communications, marketing and psychology. How would you advise up-and-coming designers on the right approach in obtaining these skills? Besides your own, are there any other resources out there that you recommend?

My advice is simple, stop wasting time reading material about subjects you are already expert in. You don’t need to read another article about design or spend hours trawling Dribbble. Instead we should be reading about related subjects.

In terms of where to start, I recommend learning more about psychology. Psychology underpins everything we do as designers, but also helps working with colleagues and clients too. It will also help you sell your work!

There are many great books on the subject, but you might want to start with 101 Things Every Designer Needs to Know about People.

Not only are you an author 5 times over, but you also spend time maintaining the content on both your blog and Twitter profile. You also coach companies on their internal user experience campaigns, and you do all of this while operating your own agency. On top of doing all of this, you also find the time to speak at conferences around the world. How do you find the time?

I get this question a lot and it confuses me because I really don’t work that hard! In fact I would say I am lazy. However, perhaps it is that very laziness that works in my favour.

I always reuse stuff I produce. If I write a blog post it will get turned into a series of social media posts and maybe even a podcast. Multiple posts might become a presentation or even an ebook.

I also turn everything into a streamlined process so I can produce stuff with the minimum of effort. I have a specific approach to blog posts for example, that means I can confidently turn out a post in a couple of hours.

Finally, there is just the fact I have been doing this a long time. Like anything, the more you do something the better and faster you become. Its that simple.

You have 20 years of experience in the UX industry. I assume you’ve seen your fair share of newbies enter the market. What do you think are the most restraining or worst habits that beginner UX designers have when they are first starting out? How would you advise they shake these bad habits?

That is a tough one because everybody is different. However, I would say that those starting out often think in terms of absolutes. They think that there is definitive best practice that must be followed and tend to be very vocal when things don’t go to plan.

However in the real world things are messy. What might be a good idea in some situations isn’t always and even if you are right about what needs doing, sometimes it is better to keep your mouth shut!

Always remember that having the support of clients and colleagues is more important than absolutely following the latest technique or gurus advice.

There are many tech giants today that we see making big waves when it comes to UX design. Is there anyone specifically flying low on most radars that we should know about?

Tech giants are often good at user interface design but tend to suck at user experience. For example, have you ever tried calling Amazon or getting support for Google Mail?

By contrast I once worked with a company who sell frozen ready meals to old people. Despite being more expensive and having a more limited range of products they competed with the large supermarket chains by offering a better overall experience.

They knew that the elderly hated having strangers deliver to their door and so they police checked all their drivers and guaranteed the same driver every time.

They knew that old people relied on their services so they promised to deliver in all circumstances.

They knew that the elderly struggled with digital and worried about paying online so they enabled customers to order direct from the driver and pay with cash on delivery.

In short they think about and improve the whole experience, not just the interface.

Apart from Boagworks, you also founded Headscape with a couple of your colleagues back in 2002. Despite not being as active as you once were, the company is still active and has been operating for more than 17 years now. What would you attest its longevity to?

At this point I should say that it is because of our amazing work or that we prioritise a great customer experience. However in truth I think it comes down to not aggressively pursuing growth at all costs.

We decided early on that we wanted to build a lifestyle business. In other words, we wanted a business that let us do what we wanted to do and work on what we wanted to work on. We resisted our egos and so limited growth to just what we needed to achieve those aims.

That has meant that when times get tough we don’t have expensive offices or other huge overheads. By staying small we can adapt and remain agile.

Before we let you go today, could you share some tips with those individuals looking to get started in UX? If you were able to sit down with a younger version of yourself and coach yourself, what three main pieces of advice would you give yourself to help increase your chances you’d get off on the right foot for 2020 and beyond?

Unfortunately this isn’t a question I or anybody at my point in my career can answer. That is because when we were getting started it was a completely different world. A world of dialup modems, Netscape Navigator and table based designs.

We had to find our way without any guidance and actually that was liberating. We were forging new ground and making it up as we go.

In some ways the same is true for those entering the industry today. The web today is so different to the web of my era that there is nobody you can turn to for advice but yourself and in my opinion that is a good thing.

You shouldn’t do what I or anybody did. You should make your own mistakes, forge your own path and not be constrained by what went before.

You will mess up loads, just like we did, but you will learn from that. As Winston Churchill said — success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.

Fantastic Paul! Great ending. Thank you for taking the time to chat with our blog readers today about your experiences in the UX industry. To our audience, if you’d like to learn more about Paul you can follow him on Twitter or head over to his website here.

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