Christopher Grant Black

Founder & Managing Partner
at New Order Design Studio S.L.

UK, France, Spain

Lydia Samsonowa

Owner & Creative Director
BENTEN8, UX-Consultancy


Russia, France, Germany

Aleksandra Shalakitskaia

R&D manager at SAMSONOWA & Partners
Prepared and conducted the interview

Russia, Austria, UK

What are we going to talk about?

Today, when everything has already been written and said, the most valuable thing that remains is the personal human experience. Whatever we do, we can always find a lot of information on this topic on the Internet: some tutorials, guides, and even special courses. But none of this can ever replace stories and experiences of real people. The best way to learn something is by interacting with people.

At SAMSONOWA & Partners we usually work together with clients and help them bring new products to the market. Developing innovative solutions always includes user experience. Literally, we have to focus on the experience of the users with our product in the future. User experience discipline (UX design) becomes an important part of the process, so we decided to deepen our expertise in this area. Today we speak with two UX design experts about their experience and view on UX.

 

Aleksandra:
Hi, Lydia and Christopher, thank you for joining us today!
First of all, could you please introduce yourselves and share your stories on what brought you into the UX world and how it became your job?

Lydia:
Thank you, Aleksandra, for having us here.
I have probably a slightly atypical career in UX. Initially I’m a fashion designer, I lived and worked in France for 10 years before my life took a turn into the UX path. Under some personal circumstances, I had to come back from Paris to Germany, to our little town of Heidelberg. Then I had to figure out what I’m going to do here. Fashion in Heidelberg wasn’t really an option. So, I decided to start my own company as a Graphic and Web Designer, all of which I self taught during my fashion years. 10 years ago I was approached by some people from SAP to create apps for iPads, iPad just came out and that was the beginning of the “Apps” as we know them today. So, that was kind of my cold waters of UX. I just got thrown in and from then on I just loved it. And once I was inside and I liked it, I kept learning, and learning, and learning. And I never stopped till today.

Christopher:
I think in terms of atypical profiles of UX designers, I follow a similar pattern, although coming from a different side. I come from the field of mechanical engineering. In the 2000s I was developing plastic components for valves and fluid handling systems. Although I enjoyed the detail-oriented tasks back then, it was sometimes tricky to understand WHY I was doing all those things, what was the main purpose. So, this was my motivation to leave. Thereafter I went to London to study innovation engineering and then moved to Munich. It is then that I was introduced to the field of UX, but not by directly applying my design knowledge or expertise into a digital environment. It was the UX from a broader perspective, developing experiences in a holistic way. My very first project was a banking project that addressed the entire experience of end-users. So this settled in my mind and became my everyday job. Typically, though, if you’re talking about user experience, you’re talking about human-computer interaction, user interfaces. It has to do with a digital environment in some way or another unless you’re in handcrafted engineering, or craft.

Aleksandra:
Lydia, you mentioned that you learn continuously.
Do you mind sharing with us what UX topic occupies your mind right now? Did your UX background change the way you perceive things around you?

Lydia:
I see there are two questions. I start with the first one. I came back from parental leave on the 1st of March 2020, 10 days later, due to Covid-19, the lockdown started in Germany. I really missed working and was very happy finally to be back at my old job. And all of sudden there I was back home, with my two kids also being at home in the lockdown for three months. So much to my back to work “instance”. It was quite a hard thing, a hard phase to get through. So what is really on my mind right now is that I have the feeling as I came back, everything has changed around me. It seemed like even the UX “language” changed. I realized that people don’t talk about apps or style guides anymore, everybody is talking about design systems. And again, it feels like cold waters for me. I have so much to catch up with. It’s like I’m starting from scratch again. So basically, I have the feeling that understanding UX, the new trends in it, is my kind of obsession right now. 

Now answering the second question, UX in my personal life. Well, Chris probably has a similar experience on that matter. When you once started to understand UX, you can’t go back. For me, it’s a problem because I became extremely critical about absolutely everything. I got picky. I have the feeling that I can do things better because I see the flaws in the usability of many things around me. When we bought our fridge, I was wondering if they had UX people designing it or at least consulting them on designing it, since the interface with very limited functionalities is just horribly designed. 

Aleksandra:
So it’s definitely changed the way you feel about life. Christopher, what about you?

Christopher:
Well, I think what Lydia described is what happens to most designers that really love what they do. They spend day in and day out trying to figure out the best solution for any given problem, whether it is an ergonomic physical system or a question of on-screen affordance. And yes, you do become critical. But I realized that it’s no longer something that pertains to designers alone. My brother, for instance, and my sister, do not work in UX or design, but they do know what UX is. As we’ve become more educated with all these courses available online, UX  is no longer a narrow professional niche, but something that many people know about. It means that people from different fields do understand UX and it allows them to assess their own experience with different products, formulate their needs and desires better. 10 or 15 years ago when we interacted with some device or app and we felt frustrated, we assumed that it was our personal problem. But now we would say that this device or app just has an inconvenient design. 

This is why today Apple products come under so much fire. Even though we keep buying them, we do criticize them because we’re more informed. We’re more sensitive to things and our expectations are off the charts. Our expectations not only as designers but also as consumers. Along with expectations, our capabilities and instruments are also growing. We’ve gone from paper sketching to Figma being the new religion in terms of tools. I believe tools will change all the time and focus will change all the time. What doesn’t change is this common-sense approach to design, the way of thinking and acting based on your values and the values of your users. In the end, it’s all about the mindset.

Aleksandra:
It sounds really interesting. How would you personally define good and bad UX design and what’s the difference between them?

Lydia:
Well, I do believe it depends very much on the context. A good experience for you isn’t necessarily a good experience for me. Nevertheless, I do believe that my goal as a UX designer is to create a good interaction for as many users as possible and help them achieve their goals as quickly and painlessly as possible.

If you go somewhere, if you buy something, you do it with a purpose – you’re trying to achieve something. If I can help you easily discover how to accomplish your goal and make achieving it convenient or even fun, you’ll be pleased with the interaction and feel satisfied that you’re making progress. To me, that’s how you measure good user experience.

Christopher:
I agree with you, Lydia. I think that could actually be written as one of the book definitions. As you said, there are a lot of written definitions of what is good UX and most of them are right, to be honest. We can just make them better year to year by adding or changing some words to adapt them to an increasingly complex world with increasingly more sophisticated services and user experiences. For example, maybe a word like “coherent” or “cohesive” might be added at a later stage because we are going to end up interacting with products or brands in so many different ways. And we may want to ensure that all user touch-points in service feel somewhat coherent and belonging together – well wrapped in one branded experience, whether it’s a smell or something you’re touching on a screen or something you’re handling in your hand.

Aleksandra:
You are right, what is convenient for one person might not be the same for someone else.
Moving to the next question, do you think that a perfectly designed experience should be universal for all users?
Or is it the opposite – a good UX should be highly personalized, tailored to the individual?

Christopher:
You cannot expect everyone to have the same needs, but you can cover many. In the 2010s Apple came and tried to create a smartphone with a universal design – and they set the bar in many ways. But later, tech companies offering UX started to further personalize their solutions. I think the more we go forward with UX, the more powerful we become, the more tailored products and services we will see. For instance, you can already see that in voice assistants, the way Alexa or Siri reply to us. I mean, in the near future, if you and I each have Alexa at home for a week, and then compare them, they won’t speak the same way. They’ll speak with a different tone, ask different questions, use different vocabulary, which in fact means a different individual user experience. But from Amazon’s point of view, it could be one UX design that could be adapted to our personal and individual needs.

Lydia:
I totally agree that universal, perfect UX is unlikely to happen soon, but we are moving forward with technology being extremely human-centric. And the thing is, that we are now trying to achieve with technology what humans can do. Like the AI for example, we are trying to create a mature technology which can think like humans, recognize things like humans, etc. And so I think at some point when we reach this level of smooth, intelligent technology, then we might talk about good universal UX, because it will be an imitation of human-to-human interaction. It means that if I go to Tokyo in the future, the technology will be at the point that I will feel at home. I won’t feel like I don’t speak the language, they don’t understand me, etc. So it will be an experience of this familiarity. It’s all not far in the future, but we are not there yet.

Aleksandra:
So, is it correct to say that the main goal of good UX is to make people’s experience easier and simpler?
Or maybe the goal is different and I’ve just described a small part of it? How would you define the greater goal of designing UX for the future?

Christopher:
I think that’s a very good question and an interesting one because there is a moral side to think about. Sometimes “convenience above all else” might not be the right answer in many, many fields. Convenience has been the keyword for so many apps and services that have popped up in the last 10 to 12 years. It’s a rat race, to make things convenient all the time, we figured out that it’s not the right option. Shortcuts on social media buttons or services like the famously controversial Dash button for Amazon. It’s quite an old example, but so prevalent still today to display what might not be the right thing to do. As designers in general, and I use the word designers to describe whoever is involved in the development of a new business, service, or product. There is a moral obligation of considering carefully what the impact of the service or product is. Convenience might help to create a rapid turnover and increase your bottom line. But it might not be the right thing from a human-centric perspective, as Lydia said. I really do believe that convenience for the sake of convenience or simplicity for the sake of simplicity is not the answer. As a UX designer, you should think twice about the things you’re about to do. And that’s important. Sometimes it is much better when the users can calm down, and fully understand what they are doing now and what they should do next to get exactly what they want from the product or service. Fewer clicks doesn’t always mean, better experience.

Lydia:
Again Chris, I just would like to add a little something to what you just said, because you nailed it. You said everybody has a moral obligation. This relates to the very first question of this interview. What keeps me busy right now and what I consider the greatest goal for UX: sustainability. It became this huge wave and an absolutely necessary one but I have the feeling that this wave didn’t hit us, UX designers, yet. I’m not talking about the businesses that use UX in order to push forward either a sustainability website or a sustainable e-commerce. What I’m talking about is having sustainability as a leading KPI in whatever you are designing. I’m not saying those designers don’t exist. I’m sure there are some who do that and have done it for decades. 

But it’s not mainstream yet that sustainability is an absolute must – the way we were trying to achieve convenience as we did for past decades, or the simplicity that you are talking about, the sustainability, unfortunately, is not there yet. If you have this discussion with UX, how to build a product, and I’m not talking about small apps – I’m talking about big businesses and industries, we are not there yet. So I know that some designers are conscious of it and I know that there are people, like Norman Crowley, for example, a super interesting guy, who took that to heart to actually tackle climate change. He’s one of those people who is being driven by sustainability. But the mainstream isn’t there yet. If we consider the way societal inclusion of minorities became just a natural part of the way we work, sustainability deserves much more scrutiny. So this is something that keeps me busy, thinking about how to apply sustainability to my work.

Aleksandra:
Well, it’s quite a tough question. I wish we all had a simple answer for that. Finally I’ve got one question for you.
Do you remember an interesting case or a funny story from your experience about UX?
Can you please share it with us?

Christopher:
Oh, sure, I can think of a few. Some of them I experienced directly and some of them were told to me by colleagues and users. I can think of one that I experienced personally while testing a user interface on one of the ATMs that I developed. Basically, we tested it with several users, most of all concentrating on super tech-savvy young guys and girls. Initially, our designer tested the product and she got quite critical as a lot of things didn’t work as it should have. But then I remember this one guy came in and we just had to look at how surprisingly smoothly he was going through this usability testing. You know, what’s cool about usability testing sometimes, is running a short user interview at the exit. This time the exit interview was especially interesting. We asked the guy his subjective opinion over what he had seen, done, and experienced. The guy was like: “Yeah, it was cool. A great service!”. And at the end, when I asked him to compare this machine to other items that he used in the past, it came out that it was the first time he ever used an ATM. He was always using his checkbook previously. I was like: “Isn’t it 2014 now?!” Of course, it blew everybody else’s minds away. The guy who never used an ATM machine made zero mistakes in our test. So that’s the kind of stories that you don’t expect. 

Another story displays that the truth is often not what users say, but what they do. Once we had a food-related project, in which we were talking to all kinds of food experts, cooks, and so on. Within this project, a colleague of mine was interviewing a woman, who was the utmost super vegetarian. So she would not eat anything of animal origin. “Strict” was the word that would define her. My colleague accompanied her to the grocery store to immerse into her food routine. She picked a beautiful basket full of fresh greens, fruits, and vegetables. Then they went home and the woman chopped the vegetables while my colleague was taking photos of the process. And suddenly he spotted an open can full of sausages right on the cupboard. My colleague asked if she had a dog in the flat, but she responded that she basically feels like having sausage sometimes. So, this woman appeared to be a vegetarian, but sometimes, you know, would indulge in guilty pleasures.
Indeed, sometimes people don’t realize what they really do. It’s all very funny and sweet because you get to see a little bit of a glimpse of humanity. As a UX designer, you should never judge (otherwise you are making imposing design decisions on top of the user). As a designer, you may only observe and analyze, and that’s what really makes this job cool. This is not mine, but we do become “professional people-watchers”.

Lydia:
I suppose User Test is indeed a good source of funny stories. I’m thinking about this virtual dance teacher app (Woah.ai), which went public in the past few weeks. When in your career you go through different businesses and services, like Urban Management, Big Data Analytics, etc. and you find yourself testing a dance app, this might bear surprises. So imagine having extremely talented developers with 20+ years experience, coding and then testing their own work. We’re talking here about developers standing in front of their phones and testing the most popular dance moves, like woah, twerking etc. That’s what I call a commitment to the product. This picture alone in my head makes me laugh.

Aleksandra:
Lydia, Christopher, thank you very much for these funny stories and for such an interesting discussion today!
Lastly, I have a small favour to ask. Could you please reveal your sources of inspiration for our readers?
It could be for beginners, or professionals. Something that you personally find interesting.

Lydia:
The inspiration comes generally not from UX related topics or sites. Very often, when I start working on a new project, I get my inspiration mostly from personal experiences, situations or conversations. When it comes to resources on specific topics, then obviously the internet is the number one tool.
For those who are new to that topic, here are some interesting and relevant UX sources:

I’m also a member of Interaction Design Foundation, which has an impressive record of content and members, including the very famous Don Norman, Daniel Rosenberg, Bill Buxton, etc. So it’s worth a glance at their portfolio.

Christopher:
As an interesting reference I would recommend Interaction Design Foundation as well.
As for the inspiration I would suggest: