Are you a UXer?

I didn’t know it until yesterday, but yes, I’m a UXer, and if you are a ‘content editor’ – particularly if you specialise in substantive editing and/or rewriting – you may well be one too. Two questions immediately arise: what on earth is a UXer, and why did I write ‘content editor’ rather than the more familiar ‘copy-editor’? I’ll get back to you on the latter.

Let’s talk about UX

When I signed up to attend last night’s Guardian workshop ‘So you think you want to be a UXer?’ it was not the prospect of a major career change that tempted me, but the opportunity to find out more about how websites and, possibly more pertinent these days, ‘apps’ can be made more user friendly. That’s what UX is all about; it’s ‘user experience’ transliterated into geek-speak. And, as Martin Belam the workshop leader explained, it’s about ensuring that products do what users need them to do with the minimum amount of fuss. Ten out of ten to Martin: he managed to explain that without referring to a well-known brand of tinned DIY products!

In terms of digital products, UX is about the ‘whole thing’ – the look, feel, performance, time to load, functionality and (though we barely touched on this aspect) value for money.

UX is one of those things you will notice most by its absence. I am sure you can all think of hundreds of annoying websites where you can’t find what you’re looking for, or that stubbornly refuse to let you log in no matter how many times you are sure you have entered the correct email/password combination (and thanks to Martin I now know why they won’t tell you which part of that equation you got wrong).

Basically, if you want to create a successful digital product, you need someone to be responsible for the UX and, as we heard, it is no good leaving that to the techies, highly qualified though they may be.

But before I get into the take-away, here are a thank you and a couple of quick plugs.

Ticking the boxes

This three-hour workshop is one of a new breed of ‘communication products’ that the Guardian has realised are a great way of leveraging and repackaging the expertise of its staff (and associates), by which I mean they have realised people are willing to pay good money (£69 incl. VAT in this case) to attend masterclasses in a range of subjects (see also a plethora of creative-writing courses) which may or may not lead to a lucrative career or a fulfilling hobby. If that sounds unduly cynical, they have only themselves to blame – what Guardian reader isn’t cynical?

In fact, though I haven’t been to any other masterclasses (yet) I have twice enjoyed the excellent value for money family Cartooning Day (especially talks by Steve Bell), and kicked myself firmly for moving too slowly to get tickets for their Open Day earlier this year.

Boxes could therefore be ticked as follows:

  • location – good (Guardian HQ, round the corner from London Kings Cross Station);
  • organisation – good (booked through EventBrite);
  • cost – fair (good for three-hours CPD if your company is paying, which many were, and reasonable if you’re freelance but at least it’s tax-deductible);
  • venue – good.

The only box not ticked – and it’s a significant one for those of us travelling from a distance – was catering. No cup of tea? That’s bad. Worse; I had planned to get a snack before the event started at Kings Place, the swanky new concert venue next door, but their cafe was closed too.

I had warmed to Martin before the event, because I checked out his website and was delighted to see text – yes, plain old black-and-white words on a page, no whizzbangs or gimmicks, nice large font size and easy to find out who he is and what he does.

The three-hour presentation was joyously PowerPoint-free, full of interesting and amusing anecdotes, thought-provoking group exercises (I look forward to seeing the guy next to me pitch his business model on the Dragon’s Den) and a good reading list. And not a website screen-shot or app wireframe in sight. I even found out how to block a caller on my very-low-tech mobile phone (a function I had unwittingly employed to block my husband just last week). Result!

Shame I couldn’t stay for the post-match analysis, as I had to catch a train back to Guardian-voucher-land (attendees will know where I mean).

Overall, 9/10. Note for the organiser: it would have been 10 if there had been tea and biscuits.

Testing, testing

Martin quite rightly asked likely bloggers not to give too much detail about the content of the evening which, as an occasional visiting tutor myself, I definitely endorse. A taster is fair enough; but we freelances have to earn a living so please attend as many courses as you can folks [quick plug for my next outing for the PTC on 15–17 October]. And if you want to find out what a hippo has to do with app design, you’ll have to attend Martin’s course yourself.

But, what of the take-away?

One key lesson learned (i.e. the take-away … you didn’t think I meant curry, did you?) is that testing is crucial. Not only that, it’s affordable and doable, even for the lowest-budget app development project. Martin had some great ideas for low-cost testing (see paragraph above); he also pointed out that it is a very good idea to get the software developers to watch the ‘victims’ trying to get to grips with the product. An online survey may suggest that people find one particular function useful or clunky; seeing their faces when they are frantically scrolling around trying to find the right button to click speaks volumes.

This rang several bells for me for websites I’ve been involved with in the past, but also because the professional body of which I am an enthusiastic member (the SfEP) has just launched a new members-only forum that, three weeks since launch and despite lengthy testing among a group of willing volunteers, is finally shaking off the relentless drip-drip of niggly complaints and repetitious queries about log-ins and what sort of question should be posted where (and I admit to being a culprit). I know the SfEP team have worked extremely hard to put it all together and the teething time will pass, but their frustrations may be ameliorated by Martin’s tale of the deluge of ‘feedback’ that rained down on the Guardian’s development team when they launched an app version of the extremely popular Crossword.

I’m a UXer; are you?

For me, though, there was another significant lesson – actually, more like a refresher. Some may say that being a UXer is an exciting new career born out of the digital revolution, to which I say: “fie!” As soon as Martin began to describe the qualities he seeks in a UXer – an understanding/overview of the digital (publishing) world, the ability to communicate ideas and sell a concept, and most important of all, empathy – I realised that UXers are, to a considerable extent, editors rebranded for a digital age.

People assume that editors tinker about with words, checking spellings, house style and grammar; but good editors (as I tell delegates on the aforementioned PTC course) are the ones who sit between the producers (authors, designers, typesetters, programmers even) and the recipient (the reader who shall henceforth be know as the User) and stand up for the user’s needs. We are the kings and queens of empathy, coming unsullied to each new project to represent the needs of the user, always conscious of the imperative to avoid compromising the business requirements of the producer. With a ‘redraft a sentence’ here, and a ‘restructure a chapter’ there but always with an eye on the bigger picture – how much will that change cost, if we do X will we still be able to meet deadline Y …

These skills have always been essential to editors of all flavours (commissioning, substantive, copy-), particularly those of us who work on educational or informational materials. All the more so now, in the age of ebooks, apps and spin-off websites, elearning and mobile communications of all kinds. Basically, where ever there are words, we content editors are needed as intermediaries to help perfect the user experience.

There now, in the course of reading this article you have transmogrified, Dr Who-like. Didn’t hurt, did it?

We’re all UXers now!