User Experience has changed a lot in the last decade.
At Smartlook we’re developing a suite of tools to help organizations make better design decisions. For example our website visitor recording tool allows teams to sit down and monitor user behavior in real time. The bottom line impact that this type of technology can have on your company is massive.
Today we were able to dive deeper into this topic, and many others, because we had the opportunity to chat with, Rich Barret, a creative professional with over 20 years of experience in the design field. Let’s jump into the interview.
Hi Rich, it’s great to have you with us today. You have an impressive career in UX design and strategy,and you’re also an avid writer. How much are design and writing intertwined? Tell us more about this connection.
Thanks so much for inviting me. I think design and writing complement each other quite a bit. Everyone talks these days about storytelling in UX. I think having a writer’s mentality is useful in thinking about empathy and imagining the peaks and valleys of a user’s journey. More importantly, every designer really needs to have a command of language because it’s helpful in how a designer presents and talks about their work. I work with a team of writers so I don’t usually have to write about a project myself, but I often find myself writing what might as well be a script for some of my presentations beforehand. Even though I rarely follow it all that closely in the end, it helps me a lot to think through the points I want to be sure I hit on.
On the flipside, every writer I work with is just as much a designer of our project as I am. They’re thinking through all the same things a designer does; they just don’t need to open up Sketch. I also think the things you learn to pay attention to as a designer – the importance of the small details, consistency, simplicity, guiding the user – these are all really useful things for any kind of writer to master.
Really, the lines between writers and designers are going to start to blur soon as we all start designing conversations for AI and voice interfaces.
How is analyzing user behavior affecting the writing and design processes?
I work as the UX Strategist for Ally Bank where we have a really strong group of user researchers who are embedded with the scrum teams and make sure everyone has what they need to understand our users and their expectations. I’ve had a lot of opportunities to either sit in on customer interviews or talk directly with users myself and it’s one of the most valuable things you can do as a designer. Just last week we invited a bunch of customers in to the office to have coffee and take part in some group word association activities that really helped us get a glimpse into the thoughts and feelings they may have when interacting with our services.
I often equate this part of my job to being a journalist. Going out in the field and getting qualitative research so that you have the proper background to design the right solutions is very much like a journalist interviewing a variety of sources to piece together every angle. We’re all Woodward and Bernstein, trying to break this big story by digging and digging until we uncover some insight that brings it all together.
You are also an illustrator. Your work is stunning. Are you able to draw inspiration back and forth from your illustration work to UX?
Thank you! I appreciate that. I started my career as an illustrator – or maybe it’s more accurate to say I started my career trying to be an illustrator. It’s what I went to school for, but it’s not an easy field to just make a career at right out of the gate, unless you’ve already developed a strong, unique style that has market appeal. I struggled with this for a while until I had spent some years on the other side of the equation, working for advertising agencies like JWT in NY where we would hire illustrators and photographers. I began to understand what clients are looking for and how illustrations needed to fit into the larger picture of an ad campaign or the design system of a particular brand. It helps so much in any work situation to be able to visualize and empathize with the people behind every aspect of a project. You need that holistic view.
Although in my current role at Ally I’m not doing a lot of hands-on design, I’ve had the opportunity to produce a number of illustrations there. I also continue to do the occasional illustration project for my own clients. I’ve recently illustrated a series of yoga poses for an app called 19 Minute Yoga and a whole bunch of illustrated event promos for NASCAR’s Instagram feed.
You are also an avid comics fan and author. You have many articles published for Mental Floss, mostly on the subject of comics. What can you tell us about the connection between comics and UX? Where is the crossover here? On the surface they seem like two different worlds.
It’s a great question and I have to say that I’ve thought about this a lot, since comics and design have been two big parts of my life for a long time now. I’ve moderated a couple of panel discussions at comic book conventions over the years on the subject of “Design in Comics”. When people hear “design” and “comics” they tend to think just about really graphic and simple comic book covers or the elaborate package design of certain graphic novels like Chris Ware’s Building Stories, but comic book artists, whether they’re conscious of it or not, are designing a reading experience that is more complicated than most of the user flows I’ve ever had to design. It’s just that no one calls it “design” and most comic book readers take the whole reading experience for granted.
There is so much going on in a well-designed comic book page that most readers don’t slow down and notice when they’re caught up in the story. However, they probably notice it when it’s not done well because the pacing just feels off to them.
A good artist will lead your eye from panel to panel while juggling all kinds of factors such as: aesthetics (is it pleasing to look at?); continuity (do the characters look like themselves from panel to panel? Are the objects in the room from the previous panel still in the same position in this one?); “camera” work (is there a consistent POV from panel to panel so that readers don’t lose track of where the characters are in this space?); composition (do the contours of the figures overlap in a way to create the proper depth and space? Is there room for the word balloons to fit comfortably and be read in proper context to the drawings?).
And then you get into all the stuff you choose not to show. Everything that happens in the reader’s imagination between panels that fills in the action. There are so many considerations to be made by an artist on every single page and a lot of it comes naturally to the good ones.
You’ve been quite active in the press, as well. From moderating a Star Wars panel in 2015 to talking about your graphic novel “Nathan Sorry” you’ve been present in a lot of public discussions. Is public speaking a part of your journey you’d like to focus on more in the future?
My time at Mental Floss, and even the live panels I’ve moderated, really got me interested in learning the art of conducting a good interview. I had the opportunity to interview some big names like Margaret Atwood, Chuck Palahniuk, Mike Mignola and others. I love to hear people talk about their process, what inspires them and the weird trajectories their careers have taken them.
It is interesting having the opportunity to be on both sides of it. I’m probably a little less comfortable on this side, talking about myself, but I do like to share the little things I know and I think my own career has had enough variety to make it interesting. As you mentioned, I wrote and illustrated my own graphic novel a number of years ago, Nathan Sorry. I was self-publishing it as both a webcomic and a (very) small press print publication. This was around the time that digital comics started to become a thing and I was able to get in on the forefront of those new platforms like Comixology, which is now owned by Amazon. I used to make it a point to talk a lot about what I learned in that process – in social media, online forums and on panels at comic book conventions – because we were all trying to figure out the viability of making and distributing comics this way and sharing what you had figured out made the whole system better for everyone.
At the moment, you are working for Ally, a financial service provider from the US. What is the impact UX has on the financial sector, and how does UX help out a financial service company up their game? In general do you find FinTech or financial service companies ahead or behind the UX curve?
I’ve been at Ally for about 6 years now and they’ve always been focused on the importance of UX for as long as I’ve been there, but I do think something has changed in the last couple of years. And I don’t mean just at Ally, but across many companies and different industries. Executives are talking about design more and recognizing its importance. I don’t know if it’s that McKinsey report from last year that measured the business value of design or what, but there’s been a noticeable shift.
Analytics and A/B testing help too. There have been projects I’ve been involved in where the only thing we changed was the visual design and it resulted in an enormous increase in revenue, which we could directly attribute to the new design. As a designer, even I was taken aback when I would see those numbers. This kind of thing gets noticed and before you know it you have executives sitting in on sprint demos, wanting to understand and by part of the process, and it’s a great thing.
I think in our industry, the small, disruptive fintechs have really helped our cause in UX. The big banks didn’t seem to put this kind of emphasis on design until apps like Acorns or Chime or N26 came along and suddenly everyone could see how visual design and a delightful user experience could be important. Ally was a disruptor itself to the big banks about ten years ago when it first came on the scene as an online bank, but now I think we’re about to enter a really transformative period in finance where every bank and technology company (hello, Apple) is racing to offer this robust, personalized financial experience.
Rich, your career is not only impressive, but it has many different elements that are complementing one another. You’ve been freelancing, in addition to working at some major companies. Which one do you prefer and why?
I think you get into a groove either way. After spending the first decade of my career working in advertising – for both a large global agency and smaller local shops – I worked out of my home as a freelance web designer and illustrator for a few years and it was great. I had three little ones at the time and it was the perfect way to be around for all of those early parenting moments. The work was really steady then and I don’t think I had any intention of taking a full time job again. But freelancing can be a bit of a nail biter and that gets really stressful with a family. Plus, I started to realize there were things I wasn’t learning by not collaborating with a team and not being able to work on large scale projects that enterprise organization provide. It’s hard to be on the cutting edge of new technology when you’re on your own.
Now, after working for a large company for a while, it’s gotten hard to think about going back to being on my own, but you never know. It’s nice to be in a career that has options.
We mentioned that there are a lot of technological innovations regarding UX design. What are your thoughts on the impact augmented reality (AR) is making on the UX design?
I’ll admit that I assumed AR would be relegated to gimmicks and gaming, but I’ve definitely come around to it recently. I especially like the way Ikea and Wayfair have used it to help in the home shopping experience by letting you position a piece of virtual furniture in your room. You can even walk around it in 360 to really get a sense of how it would sit in the space. I still think 90% of the way it will be used by most companies is going to be gimmicky though.
Rich, thanks for taking the time to talk with us today. Are there any last words of wisdom that you’d like to share with our readers?
This has been fun. I don’t have too much wisdom to share, but I think we’re entering some interesting times for the UX industry. AI is going to change almost everything about the products we design and even how we actually create the designs. We’re all going to have to adapt in ways that are hard to predict right now. I think keeping in touch with our personal creativity is going to be even more important.
Ten questions are not enough to explore the achievements and knowledge gained from a twenty year long career. However, in a short span of time, we did manage to learn a lot from you today Rich. Thank you. To our blog readers, if you’d like to learn more about Rich and his work, you can visit his website here.