An interview with Russ Unger

By Ed Vinicombe on Jan 23rd, 2016

Russ Unger is a specialist in the field of UX with a wealth of experience in our industry. He is co-author to some of my favourite UX books, "A Project guide to UX" & "Designing the Conversation" which have helped me and my own career enormously. On top of this Russ is co-founder of http://chicagocamps.org/ which is an excellent way to get more of the community involved with local events that won't cost the earth! I caught up with Russ for a few questions and insights - enjoy!

Battling to bring clarity and definition to our roles as UX designers within the business environment can be an ongoing struggle. How best do you communicate to stakeholders from around the business the value of what your UX work brings to the table?

Right now, there appears to be a much greater need for designers than there are designers to fill the need, and I think it’s important for us to keep moving forward, to keep applying our talents toward those who either understand the value of design, or they want to understand the value. These are the businesses that we want to work with and the education process happens continuously and on both sides--as we learn how the business works, and how the users interact with it, the business learns about the users with us and that helps them make good decisions about what they deliver.

In my honest opinion, the term ‘User Experience’ is vague. I like to think of User Experience as the moment a customer first interacts with your business to the moment they leave. Everything in between is UX (research, sketching, visual design, testing). Is the job title ‘UX Designer’ too ambiguous for the industry? Why not just ‘Designer’?

I think it is a little vague, and I think it’s also a bit more of an umbrella term today. That said, while I think that “User Experience Design(er)” may fade away in the semi-near future, there’s also some brand recognition to it currently. Any time someone says, “We need someone from UX” or “We need a designer” I will ask “What kind?” and, that’s okay--I’m happy that design and designers are in demand. Understanding what the true needs are from is part of what we do, anyway, and this, to me, is merely part of the process.

When you get down to it, any type of designer has more than one skill that they bring to the table. If anything, I’m more interested in a broader set of skills in the designer’s inventory than I am worried about what their label is. A service designer who is a kick-ass information architect? Awesome! Where someone lives in an org chart shouldn’t prevent them from being able to do work that they’re passionate and/or good about.

I do think that as design organizations scale they should recognize the capabilities that they can start to build out into more focused areas of expertise--based upon the various cross-functional talents that they have on the team and the types of work that they are being requested to take on. As those capabilities get put to use, it gets a little easier to understand how to plan and hire for future growth.

My team and I regularly reference one of your books, “A Project guide to UX Design’. It’s great! What are your feelings towards that book now and do you have any plans of writing another?

First and foremost: Thanks! It’s really nice to hear that you find the book valuable! Carolyn Chandler and I put a lot of work into (and had a lot of fun!) making that book happen, and then into making updates for the second edition.

I really like Project Guide--some folks wonder why certain parts of the book exist and some folks don’t always recognize that it’s really targeted more toward beginners to intermediates. Contracts & Proposals comes up a lot and I lobbied for that chapter because when the book first came out the economy was tanking. A lot of folks were finding themselves in the “working freelance for a bit” mode and I felt this could be valuable--fortunately, I have had some great feedback that it was, as well. It’s always nice to hear that some colleges have been using it as part of their curriculum, too--if anything, that’s a pretty high honor to me!

Beyond those points, I think it could be time to consider a refresh in the semi-near future.

If you’re asking if I have any plans to write another book that isn’t another version of Project Guide, I’ve also co-authored “Designing the Conversation” (facilitation) with Brad Nunnally and Dan Willis, and “Speaker Camp” (preparing for and speaking at conferences) with Samantha Starmer. I’m also co-authoring a book with Chris Avore on design management and leadership tentatively titled About (Design) Leadership (ref: http://rosenfeldmedia.com/books/ux-leadership/), and I’m really excited to get started on this one. Chris and I have some pretty great, pretty different experiences that gel together nicely, and the feedback we’ve received on the topics we’ve proposed tells us that we’re on the right track!

You reference Geert Hofstede in your book, “A Project guide to UX Design” when analysing power distance in companies. I can assure you that I have worked in companies where there is a vast power distance and it does cause disparity and friction. How would you go by rectifying this and help bring colleagues closer together?

Carolyn wrote the chapter on Project Ecosystems and chose that quote. :-) It’s a great quote, and what I’ve been learning is the value in hearing voices and facilitating decisions based upon feedback. I’m lucky to get to work with some pretty amazing people who make everything we do better.

The hiring process is a great example here. I’ve worked in places where a manager may be solely responsible for hiring decisions and can more or less hand pick their team. To some people, that starts to become the norm and possibly some of the reasons that they aspire to positions of power or authority. While those levels of control may make some people feel comfortable, I’ve learned that it really just allows folks to miss opportunities to build a better, more diverse organization.

I’ve seen my role in hiring really shift toward facilitating a final decision more than making a one with less input. Several people are involved in different steps along the way, and the team has a pretty strong sense for its own strengths and weaknesses, which helps it do really fantastic job of filling those gaps while keeping a strong focus on diversity. When you put that trust and faith in people on the team, they can deliver some pretty amazing results.

Tell us more about your work at 18F in Chicago. What are you striving to achieve there and how are you doing it?

First, for those who aren’t familiar with us, 18F is a team of designers, developers, and product specialists who are helping the United States Federal government deliver modern digital services. We collaborate with clients from diverse federal agencies to rapidly deploy tools and online services that are open source, reusable, cost efficient, and easier for people and businesses to use.

You can learn a lot more about what we’re doing --and how--by visiting the 18F website at 18f.gsa.gov and then taking a look at our blog. Pretty much all you could ask for about what we’re up to, and more, is right there.

Me, I’m fortunate enough to get to be a part of our Experience Design team and I get to work with an amazing group of talented Interaction Designers, Service Designers, Researchers, Visual Designers, Front-end Designers, and Content Designers who make sure we’re focusing on user needs. It’s a lot like you’d expect it to be, and at the same time, it’s nothing like any place I’ve ever worked. It’s a great place to work, and the people make it that way.

Most importantly: we’re all working to put the needs of the public first, and that’s a pretty fantastic mission to have. Our work is open, too, which is fairly unique, at least compared to private sector work I’ve done prior.

There is a plethora of tools and websites that make your life easier as a designer. Could you share some that you’ve been using the past year?

In the past year I’ve spent a lot of time in collaborative online documents and spreadsheets, as well as a solitary offline flowcharting and wireframing tool. Beyond that, I’m a big fan of whiteboards, pencils, Sharpies, post-its, and paper. Those are the things thank make your life easier as a designer first and foremost, and if you put those digital tools first I think you may be missing a critical step.

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