Preaching Good UX: Joe Natoli

User interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) are popular terms in the design and product industry. UI and UX, oftentimes tied together, are commonly seen as secret ingredients you add to a product to “make it pretty.”  Oftentimes, people don’t really quite get them. Joe Natoli has made it his mission to educate people on what UI and UX are really all about, calling himself a UX evangelist.

Through online courses, several articles, his podcast Making UX Work, and various books, Joe wants to make sure people know UI/UX are not a thing you add, but processes to ensure user satisfaction and usability. These do not only apply to products and software; UI and UX principles can be applied to any area of customer service.

I asked Joe about misconceptions of UI and UX, his career and resources to learn more.

You are an expert in UI/UX, but how do you describe what you do?

First, I’ve never been comfortable with the tile of “expert.” I don’t have any magic powers, and I am not the smartest guy in the room. What I do have is close to three decades of experience working with and learning from unique people in unique, challenging situations. Do anything long enough and you learn a whole lot about what works and what doesn’t.

I do, however, believe that one of my strengths is the ability to simplify and clarify what UX and Design really is, and how people and organizations can make those things their allies, integrate that thinking into everything they do. I’m able to make it real, understandable and applicable for them, cut through the ego-driven jargon and artifice that often passes for UX knowledge or expertise.

For clients, I explain that UX isn’t a discrete activity, a specific part or step in the software development process — it’s the entire process. User experiences are the result of everything everybody does, from the people requesting features and functionality to those who decide whether or not those things are possible to those who design and build.

UX is created regardless of whether or not there are UX or UI designers on staff; it’s either intentional or unintentional. And when it’s unintentional, it’s usually bad. So I refer to UX as a value loop, a cycle where both parties have to be satisfied. Good UX delivers value to the people who use a product, and when that happens, value should come back to the organization as well.

What are some misconceptions about UI/UX?

That it’s a step in the process, something that we “do” at specific points in the product design and development process.

People believe that it’s limited to the product itself, which it isn’t. UX is created from every interaction a user or customer has with your organization, which includes things like how customer service answers the phone or responds to social media messages. How easy or hard it is to find self-help information on the corporate website. How long someone has to wait on hold when they call a help line, hearing “your call is very important to us….” every 5 minutes.

People also believe that it’s a “magic bullet” of some kind, that if you designate people and activities as UX or UI, then you can check the box. But more often than not, bad UX is the result of the decisions people make inside an organization, both within and outside the product team. It can be the result of teams or individuals working in silos, not truly collaborating, sharing expertise, or communicating well. Political battles, fear and morale issues that lead to poor decision making. Company cultures where the urgent always trumps the truly important.

Those activities are outside what we think of as “UX” or product use, but they have massive impact in whether or not a user experience is positive or negative.

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What has been one of your greatest challenges and how did you tackle it? 

Dealing with imposter syndrome, which I still do, even though I am in a situation where I can pick and choose what work I take on from global-sized organizations. Even though they come to me, and never question my rates. Even though I have 120,000 students worldwide taking my courses.

I say all that not to impress you or anyone else; I say it because I want everyone reading this to understand that no matter how much you achieve, you cannot expect your fear or self-doubt to suddenly disappear. That’s an unreasonable, unrealistic expectation. So instead of waiting to be fearless, you have to make peace with that fear and go forward anyway.

Part of that is this idea that we have to be 100% original, which also isn’t possible. I think what we all do is to take the gifts other people have given us, and adapt, reimagine and reinterpret them in some way that’s uniquely ours. You may be saying or teaching the same things someone else is, but you’re doing that in a way that only you can.

So you have to learn to trust your voice, your approach, to trust in the fact that what you’re doing has merit. Otherwise you’ll never start.

So taking that big step forward — whether it’s speaking up in a team meeting or taking a risk on a new interactive feature or starting your own business — isn’t a matter of being fearless. It’s a matter of feeling more fear than you know what to do with, but going forward anyway.

What is the main takeaway you want people to have from your courses or your book? 

That UX is not something you do with your hands — it’s the result of how you use what’s between your ears.

I believe that far too much of the “advice” people get on design and UX is unrealistic; it sounds great on paper, but it fails miserably when put into practice in the real world. The one where most businesspeople don’t care about best practices and principles. The one where results — were we get the outcome we’re after — is the only thing that matters.

I think most processes and tools and methods people on my side of the fence promote and suggest are too complex, too rigid and require a perfect-world scenario where you always have enough time, budget, people and executive approval.  So everything I do is meant to be an antidote to that: things that work in the messy reality we all work in.

Can you recommend a few resources (books, websites, etc.) which have helped you and could help others in the field, or who want to learn more? 

Sure. Of course, I have to include a few of my own, because the feedback I get daily from designers, UXers and developers tell me they’re useful and helpful:

Think First, my latest book: I wrote this book to simplify and demystify a great deal of what it really means to apply UX to product development, and what you really need to consider when working with clients and teams. The reason I wrote it was because I got angry — so much of what’s out there talks waaaaay over people’s heads and insists on complex processes, tools, and methods to “properly” practice UX. I think that’s bullshit, so I wrote a book explaining why (and what to do instead).

Making UX Work Podcast: I interview everyday UXers (no rock stars) about what they do every day, how they do it and the challenges they face.

Give Good UX Company of Friends: This is my private Facebook Group. With over 6,000 members, you can learn an awful lot from the good, generous folks there (and I answer questions as well, live and in posts):

Website, Blog + FREE eBooks: I do my best to write articles, create videos and provide free e-books to answer the questions I get from people in the field every day.

Online UX TrainingThese are UX training courses on my own platform.

Udemy UX Video Courses: These are UX training courses on Udemy.

Next, I believe every person related to product development, design or UX in any way should absolutely read the following books cover to cover:

The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, by Alan Cooper; Don’t Make Me Think, by Steve Krug, The Design of Everyday Things, by Dr. Don Norman, The Cluetrain Manifesto (various authors) and Universal Principles of Design (various authors).

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