My consultancy journey

Many years ago when I was working as a post doc at York University, I made a rare appearance in the media. I was studying the effects of multiple sclerosis on colour deficiency with a view to creating a diagnostic test. BBC Radio York heard about this and asked me to bring in one of my tests and talk about the research on air.

I’m not sure that it made good radio, but armed with the Farnsworth-Munsell 100-hue test I demonstrated colour vision testing to an Alan Partridge-type daytime radio DJ in between breaks from 80s pop hits.

After my 5-minutes of fame, a local businessman contacted me and asked if I would visit him to discuss the colour coding used on fire extinguishers in his company. I’d always harboured an interest in consultancy and thought this might be a great way to supplement a meagre post doc salary. I attended my first sales meeting with a certain amount of trepidation but the meeting must have gone well as I won my first consultancy project.

It may have been just two days of work, but I learnt an important lesson from this assignment.

Lesson 1: It’s a lot easier to sell consultancy to clients if they have a personal interest in your work. Because it turned out that my first client was colour blind — and I suspect he was more interested in me assessing his colour vision on company time than in the detailed report I wrote on colour coding in fire extinguishers.

A few years later, I learnt a second important lesson about consultancy.

I had started my career in human factors proper at BT Labs in Ipswich. During that period, I remember coming across various ‘one man band’ consultants. I was impressed that these consultants were providing practical, human factors advice to large UK companies and even more impressed that the companies appeared to be acting on their advice.

But if I’m honest, I was also indignant.

I felt that a lot of these consultants had simply pulled the wool over the eyes of their clients because they didn’t have a PhD like I did.

I felt that their technical skills were rudimentary at best.

I felt envious because I thought I knew much more about human factors than they did, yet they were the ones making a go of it as consultants.

Until then, I had thought that consultancy was about big companies asking bright people to distil their knowledge into simple words that the company could then act on and exploit. In this view of consultancy, technical competence is everything.

But my experience was telling me something different. Although it took me a few more years to articulate it, I learnt Lesson 2: Technical expertise is a small component in making user experience happen. Technical expertise is what gets you in the door, but it’s not what makes a great practitioner.

To make the point more directly, let’s take a consultancy activity with which we’re all familiar: a visit to a medical professional. Clearly, when you visit medics you want to know that they have passed all their exams and are competent to dispense advice on illness. This is what gets a medic in the door (or you in the consulting room).

Now think back over the medical professionals you’ve met in your life and work out which one you think was best. The chances are that your decision won’t be based on the technical expertise or qualifications of the individual. My favourite was a very amenable GP: he seemed to take time to explain stuff to me and he spoke to me as an individual, not as a ‘patient’. He had a great ‘bedside manner’, if you like.

User experience professionals have a bedside manner, too. And it’s the bedside manner that’s missing from most of the current discussions around user experience competency. Technical expertise, although important, is not enough. We need to consider three spheres of user experience practice:

  • Technical skills.
  • Process skills.
  • Marketing skills.

The first sphere of practice: Technical

Any professional person needs a core set of technical skills, and the field of user experience is no exception. The UXPA say that a usability professional should demonstrate five competencies:

  • Plan and manage the human-centered design process.
  • Understand and specify user and organisational requirements and context of use.
  • Produce design solutions.
  • Evaluate designs against usability requirements.
  • Demonstrate professional skills.

This is a robust framework, given that the first four of these competencies is based on the structure of ISO 9241-210. At a more specific level, Jared Spool identifies eight core skills shown by individuals in effective UX teams: Information Architecture, User Research, Visual Design, Information Design, Interaction Design, Fast Iteration Management, Copywriting and Editing. To this he also adds what he terms ‘Enterprise UX skills’: skills that help individuals interact with the organisation in a productive manner. This includes skills like writing documentation, and a knowledge of social networks and new technology.

Although we might argue over the detail, this sphere of user experience is well served by university courses and by the various short courses available in usability. But UX training providers do not address the two other spheres of user experience practice: process and marketing.

The second sphere of practice: Process

Process skills are the activities a practitioner uses when managing clients and managing projects. This includes:

  • Active listening.
  • Helping clients implement change.
  • Making appropriate ethical choices.
  • Project management.

Active listening

Active listening means really seeking to understand the client’s problem and providing a solution that will fix it — rather than selling the client an off-the-shelf user experience activity like eye tracking that may look impressive but that doesn’t address the underlying problem. This sounds easy, but when you’re put on the spot as a practitioner it’s tempting to simply pull out one of the tools in your box and tell the client this is what he or she needs. It’s much harder to admit that you haven’t understood the problem and you need to ask more questions. As part of this, it’s important to understand the development world that your client really lives in — how things really work inside that company or design group. You need this information to establish the practical constraints for design change.

Helping clients implement change

Helping clients implement your research insights is important because in many user experience activities, the real work begins when the activity is finished. Running a usability test will never make a web site usable. Systems get improved not by reports or by presentations but by the design team changing the interface. So the next step after a user experience activity is to express the findings in a way that will encourage the client to take action. This doesn’t mean deciding to present the results in a PowerPoint deck rather than in a 40-page Word document. There is a skill in showing clients how to fix problems, captured neatly in Steve Krug’s aphorism, “When fixing problems, try to do the least you can do”. Rather than redesign the interface, his suggestion is to make the simplest change that solves the problem for most people. That’s the difference between an experienced consultant talking and someone taking their first steps in the field.

Making appropriate ethical choices

A good consultant needs to make the right ethical choices. From some clients, the pressure to do your research a particular way can be overwhelming. In some cases, the changes may be minor: for example, the client may want you to recruit participants for a user experience activity according to strict marketing demographics, like geographical location or age ranges. We know that demographic groupings are rarely important for usability — and even when they are important the small sample sizes used in usability research render segment-related conclusions meaningless — but since the final impact on the research will be negligible, there’s no need to argue every little point. The ethical issue arises when the client insists on more fundamental methodological changes that will affect the outcome of your research, such as running a focus group in place of a usability test. At this point, the good practitioner will resist the change or walk away.

Project management

Good practitioners know how to manage their time and manage the projects that they work on. It’s not important to know the difference between a Gantt chart and a PERT chart, but you do need to know how to estimate how long a project will take and keep the client informed if the schedule looks like it’s going to slip.

The third sphere of practice: Marketing

I’ve yet to meet a user experience practitioner that thinks of him or herself as working in sales. But we are, whether we like it or not. Typical marketing activities that user experience practitioners need to master include:

  • Explaining the cost-benefit of usability activities.
  • Formulating a proposal.
  • Generating new work.
  • Leaving a legacy.

Explaining the cost-benefit of usability activities

We can probably all rehearse the main benefits of a focus on user experience. But a good user experience practitioner will be able to ground these examples in the client’s domain. This means talking with the client to understand how success is measured and then collecting the data, or providing good estimates, to evaluate the benefits.

Formulating a proposal

New user experience practitioners tend to confuse writing a proposal with creating a research plan. A research plan simply lists the steps in the project, calculates how long each one will take and then provides an overall cost. Although this is an inevitable part of any research program, a good practitioner realises that a proposal needs much more than this because it is a sales tool. It needs to include a section that gives your client confidence that you really understand the problem to be solved and it needs to list explicitly the benefits that the client will receive as a result of the work. Formulating a proposal also includes revising your proposal based on feedback, negotiating with the client on what can and can’t be changed and, when there are several bidders, pitching to the client.

Generating new work

Generating new work is a necessary evil for both external and internal practitioners. To stay in a job, external consultants need to find new clients and sell more to existing clients. Similarly, internal consultants need to identify the next big enterprise project and ensure that the user experience flag gets flown on the project. There’s no point having expertise if clients don’t get to hear about it. Inevitably, this involves selling your skills. The notion of selling carries a lot of negative baggage, with clients wary of being ‘sold’ to and practitioners worrying that they won’t make the sale. But by being truly client-centred and by behaving authentically, you can overcome this situation.

Leaving a legacy

Practitioners need to build the business: this means growing a company (or the team you work in) and the industry as a whole. One way to achieve this is to use and contribute to the field’s body of knowledge. For example, there are many good resources on the web available to you to demonstrate the benefit of usability to clients. Good practitioners add to these resources by writing online articles, publishing presentations and encouraging people to reuse what they have created. Ultimately, you should be trying to build a legacy: to leave your company, your team and anyone you manage, stronger.

What are the implications of the three spheres of practice?

Adopting a model based on broad spheres of practice, rather than a narrow focus on technical competencies, raises a number of implications for ensuring competence in ‘process’ and ‘marketing’ skills. These skills:

  • Are not really amenable to the ‘chalk and talk’ style of teaching found in many University courses. So how will inexperienced practitioners develop them?
  • Are harder to measure than technical skills. So how can we incorporate them in any certification scheme?
  • May seem soft and woolly. So how can we persuade managers to train their staff in these areas of practice?
  • Are not part of existing appraisal and reward systems for user experience practitioners. This means practitioners may be reluctant to develop them, favouring technical skills that can be more easily traded.

Given that these skills require experience and practice, University courses could include a requirement that students spend a certain amount of time in practice before they can graduate. This requirement already exists in some other postgraduate courses: for example, University courses in counselling require students to accrue a certain number of hours in counselling practice (‘flying hours’ acquired during their course) before they can graduate.

Another alternative is for a professional body like the UXPA to develop a ‘practitioner in training’ scheme to ensure that graduates in user experience develop these skills post-qualification. The disadvantage is that this requires a significant investment in infrastructure — including supervisors, log books and CPD monitoring — and given the commercial focus of our discipline I’m not sure the appetite exists to make it happen.

About the author

David Travis

Dr. David Travis (@userfocus) has been carrying out ethnographic field research and running product usability tests since 1989. He has published three books on user experience including Think Like a UX Researcher. If you like his articles, you might enjoy his free online user experience course.

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David Travis Dr. David Travis (@userfocus) has been carrying out ethnographic field research and running product usability tests since 1989. He has published three books on user experience including Think Like a UX Researcher.

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