What do we deliver?

I have been working on my portfolio recently, mostly because I read a nice portfolio rant at LondonIA (sorry, you must be a LondonIA member to read it). It basically said that in order to get a job you have to share some work in advance. After all, how are they going to trust you if we cannot see what you have done in the past? (we humans do this all the time: expectations are set based on previous experience).

Working on your portfolio has you thinking over about your professional career. It is a wortwhile exercise, but be prepared to embarrass yourself over your early work. We all learn by doing, and we all make mistakes. Focus not on what you did wrong, but on what you learnt by doing it wrong. That would be my advice.

One thing I noticed was my transition from a document-centered craftsman into an experience-centered one. When I started in the field I was very worried about the document itself (probably because I come from an engineering background where blueprints are suppossed to be an objective way of describing products), trying to document my work as exactly as I could and having it comply with my (complicated) company’s standards.

Little by little you can see I stopped creating specification documents and started going for sketches and wireframes more and more. I understood that experiences are my deliverables, and documents are just communication tools. We have to create them because we have to explain our reasoning to our clientes and co-workers, and because we have to translate our ideas to other people, and documents are a good artifact for that. But nobody makes money out of documents as such. And we have to create value. Well, at least if you want to make a living out of UX.

So, why many of us are obsessed with documents as deliverables? I was talking about it with a good ol’ colleague, and what I got out of that conversation was that people on big companies have to justify their salary, and the easiest way to do that is by creating documents. Bigger documents seem to justify bigger salaries. Meanwhile, people fighting for their lives in smaller companies and start-ups are more worried about earning their salary (i.e. making real money thanks to good user experiences) to stay alive.

My point: we are user experience designers, we deliver experiences. Do not obsess with documents, obsess with experiences (perceived by users). Documents are there to communicate, they are not our deliverables. Have them be great communication artifacts, but go with the least amount of effort that can communicate your ideas.

How long does it take to be “good”?

I have been working on my online portfolio these days (it is currently set to “private”, but expect it to go public next week). Browsing through your old files looking for samples of work is like a trip down memory lane. A bad trip.

I was looking at some of my past work, particularly my first steps into usability and UX, and thinking “mmm… this could work better that other way… I should have done things differently there… looks OK, but could have been great…”. You know the drill. I am the kind of guy who always thinks his last work was alright, but looking back I always see ways to improve.

I understand that it all comes down to experience and knowledge, and you get these with time (and effort). But I think that this is a question that arises often when you are starting your professional career: we are all juniors at first, but how long will it take before we can be “good”?

If you take a look at the industry, a lot of recruiters and professionals out there start calling people “senior” after five years experience. I think calling that “seniority” is way optimistic. I have met very few people I would call “senior” in my life, and it had mostly to do with effort (and obsession to some extent) than pure experience. You can learn a lot from breathing UX 24-hour a day, while keeping at so-so level if you just UX for a living. But all things considered, it seems five years looks like a consensus on time needed to be considered a professional.

Why does this “five years” stuff rings so much to me these days? Because I am starting to realise that I have been into pure UX for about five years, and I have been feeling this sensation of going through a “turning point” lately. I will not add “senior” to my job title, but I know my stuff, have my share of UX stories to tell, and have gone through some failures and some successes. So maybe five years are OK to become a professional at your job. I prefer the word “craftsman”.

But there was also another thing that had me thinking about this “five years”. If you know about me you would know that I really admire Chris Coyier. The guy knows about HTML/CSS/PHP/Wordpress inside out, has some appreciation of usability/UX, loves semantics… a really good front-end coder with design skills and always sharing his knowledge with us poor apprentices.

Thing is, I was browsing his front-end programming site (CSS-tricks) lately looking for some stuff, and came to find this article “My 5 Favorite WordPress CSS Tricks“, dating back to 2007. I read the first one and felt an immediate embarrassment. Urghhh… it was the same thing that happened when I was looking at my first works. His first advice was completely wrong, and I am sure it would embarrass the hell out of current-day Chris Coyier (it was about suggesting using an “em strong” CSS style instead of H’s, given that it is much easier to create bold italics than headers in WordPress html editor: a semantic hell). It seems CSS-tricks started in 2007, so it has been around five years since Chris Coyier started going “public”. So, in five years Chris went from some good hands-on knowledge of his field to getting all the finesse he displays know.

My summary? It will take you around five years to go from having some shallow knowledge about your field to becoming a good “pro”, if you put real effort into it. If you think that it is a lot of time, you can just keep wondering whether it is worth until tomorrow. It would then take you five years and a day.