Interview with a… UX Consultant

We’re delighted to welcome Chris Atherton, a super-smart user experience consultant from the UK, to our job interview series which delves deeper into the content and comms roles that Firehead recruits for. What does being a UX specialist involve exactly, what experience is desirable and what are the pay scales? All will be revealed…

Chris AthertonWhat is your job title?

I’m a freelance user experience consultant, currently working on a two-month project for Mendeley, a London-based startup that makes really cool reference management software. After that, I’ll be looking for similar contract or salaried work from December.

What does being a UX consultant involve?

My job is to help tech companies make their products (software applications or websites) easier and nicer to use – generally by designing, running and interpreting usability tests.

What is involved in a usability test?

Beforehand…

  • I chat with the development team about what they want to test, from wireframes or prototypes up to a pre-release or released version. We discuss possible user paths through the software and may design specific, realistic tasks for the user to carry out, so we can see whether these are achieved and whether any difficulties arise.
  • I recruit users or would-be users of the product, and sit with them while they work through the tasks, asking them what they’re thinking and feeling as we go along. I’ll often record the sessions, as it is useful for designers and developers to view people’s expressions and see where users click.
  • I often ask users beforehand about their expectations, what they think is going to happen, as this can provide insights into their mental models of how the product works, and potentially inform the product’s information architecture.

Afterwards…

  • I identify the key issues that need work and provide video, a report and/or wireframe sketches to the development team to inform the next iteration of the product.

My recommendations might concern relatively superficial interface elements – for example, buttons – or relate to deeper issues, such as the underlying information architecture or clarifying the product’s value proposition. But I also get involved with other aspects of software development, too: quantitative crunching of site analytics, writing and undertaking qualitative analysis of user surveys, improving copy to make it clearer and so on.

To me, ‘user experience’ covers any aspect of the product that’s going to affect the end user; it’s not just about usability testing.

What kind of background do you need?

Lots of UX people come out of a design background but they’re more likely to fill UX designer positions.

What I do is user experience research, bordering on information architecture, which requires more analytical skills and where it’s perhaps more usual to have come from a behavioural sciences background. Some UX consultants have a Masters degree in human-computer interaction, for instance. I have a PhD in cognitive neuroscience, a branch of psychology that uses brain-imaging techniques to explore how people think.

In usability testing, you have to be quick to make the participant feel comfortable so they open up to you, and also be alert to any difficulties they are having. As a general rule of thumb, if they stop talking and start frowning, you know you’re on to something useful.

I think it also really helps to enjoy wordplay, because it makes you more aware of potential ambiguities in the product’s written copy, and in the things users say.

What are the downsides of UX consultancy work?

The learning curve when you arrive at a new company is very steep: you have to understand the product early on so you can design and run meaningful user testing. But I love getting to know a new product and a new team, and that moment when you go: “Ah! I get it.”

What advice would you give someone trying to get into UX work?

Get a paid internship. I interned at Skype for three months, and learned an enormous amount. I learned how a software company runs usability experiments, and that my academic background was actually directly translatable into the business world. But avoid unpaid internships that are basically just free labour.

Startups that are successful enough to have user experience problems are fertile ground: these companies are still small enough that every person’s voice counts so right away you get to make decisions that really will affect the product.

Can you give us an idea of pay scales?

Salaried UX positions start at around €32,000 but go much higher, while contract rates in London go upwards from €300/day.

Do UX consultants have job mobility and security?

User experience work seems to be booming at the moment. One big distinction is whether you work in-house on one project or for a digital agency on many. The work can also be salaried or contractual – there’s a lot of short-term contract work in London, for instance. Outside the UK, Berlin seems to have a lot of opportunities, especially startups.

In terms of location, it is possible to work solely from home but I like the flexibility of both home and office, combining rich interactions with the development teams with home-based writing of reports or reviewing session recordings.

Any training and development advice?

I might be biased but there are worse places to start than an undergraduate degree in psychology, although you’d want to supplement that with practical training and experience.

In terms of books, Measuring the User Experience by Tom Tullis and Bill Albert covers a lot of the same ground as experimental cognitive psychology, and if you just need to get started quickly running usability testing, then Steve Krug’s Rocket Surgery Made Easy is great. And of course, everybody knows the ‘polar bear book’: Information Architecture for the World-Wide Web by Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld.

Career progression?

The sky’s the limit! While qualifications do matter to some employers, it’s generally more about what you’ve worked on, and the range of experience you’ve had that you can bring to a new project.

It’s worth making sure that prospective employers understand what you do, however: a lot of people hear ‘user experience” and expect that you will be a designer.

What’s your motto/guiding principle when you work?

“It’s not about me.”

Chris Atherton is an experienced UX specialist, information architect and behavioural scientist, currently based in the UK. She tweets about UX, visual communication and shiny things on Twitter @finiteattention.

Looking for UX talent?

If you are a client in need of a UX designer or consultant, please get in touch with us at Firehead. We have many talented people on our books who are available for part-time or fixed-term contracts or full employment positions across Europe. Visit Client Services to read more about what we do. We’d love to talk to you!