As UX Lead, Amelia Schmidt ensures that the Equiem Portal's complex features translates into an experience that is intuitive and delightful. Get to know more about Amelia and our design processes here at Equiem in this interview.
Hi Amelia, do a quick intro for us. What’s your name and role here at Equiem?
I’m Amelia, and I’m the UX lead and front-end engineer on the Product team at Equiem. We build our product - the Equiem Portal - and my role is to head up the user experience design process.
UX design is an inherently collaborative thing, so in a lot of ways I don’t do the traditional “design” role that you might be familiar with - I spend a lot of my time doing research, interviewing users, running surveys and focus groups, and doing testing with real people. In between that I’m wireframing, prototyping, and working with the other engineers on their front-end code.
How long have you been designing?
To answer that question, I guess I have to ask “What is design?” and “What is a designer?”. I haven’t been formally in a design role for very long - but I’ve been in roles that incorporate design for years.
Before I officially moved to the UX lead role, I was a front-end engineer, that that involves making design decisions all day long. Before that, I did a mixed role at an agency that was a combination of design, engineering, writing and management. I did official UX training last year but I’d happily say I’ve been doing informal UX work for longer than that.
I think designers are people who are naturally drawn to design, and I’ve always been drawn to research, data-driven design and the scientific method, all of which underpin the core principles of UX.
What is your philosophy - what makes a good design? What makes a good designer?
I believe that good design is starting with a hypothesis, building the minimum thing you need, testing it, and repeating. Good design means continually iterating, re-testing and re-evaluating. Good design means taking off your design superhero suit and sitting down with a user and humbly listening to their story and using that as the basis of your mission.
Good design means ignoring trends and keeping your focus on designing a product that’s more useful and usable for the real life people who are going to be using your product. Good design is invisible and doesn’t call attention to itself for the sake of showiness.
Good design is every single element or decision having a reason that ties back to research and data. Good design is thinking of ways to solve problems that don’t necessarily fall under the scope of “user interfaces”. Good design is understanding that a website is just one piece of a broader customer experience.
Why is design so important for Equiem?
Because our Portal, our services, the content we publish and our onsite customer service all work together to create a unified customer experience. Design for is isn’t just about choosing fonts and making things look nice - although that is part of it and I love doing that - it’s about making a product that really fits in to our entire company’s processes and the processes that our customers have established as well. Our product is so broad and performs so many functions that without good design the whole thing would honestly fall apart.
What’s the difference between UI and UX?
UI stands for “user interface” and a UI designer is someone who designs what a website looks like. UX stands for “user experience” and a UX designer designs the whole set of interactions that a user has when they interact with a website (or the company in general). UX edges on service design, and also touches on content strategy and information architecture. UI design realistically is a bit closer to visual design, and UI designers are often more the creators of style guides. A UX designer might be more likely to be the creator of a workflow or structure. UX designers are often UI designers, where UI designers are not necessarily UX designers.
What does your design process look like? Walk us through the key steps.
As much as we can, all our design decisions start with our users. That means that we spend time doing research with any user group that might have some stake in the feature we’re working on. We do various forms of research, including interviews, focus groups and data analysis to get a sense of what our users’ needs are. Meanwhile, Ben our CTO is out there collecting business goals from our stakeholders and customers. We combine our user needs and business goals to get a sense of the UX “sweet spot” or a representation of the problem we need to solve.
We usually go through an “unpacking” stage which allows us to go through the existing features and bugs that already exist in the Portal that we may need to be aware of or explicitly address as part of building a new thing. We map out workflows - existing and proposed - and do further interviews about user pain points. This helps us get a sense of what potential consequences building a new feature might have and how we can improve our at least not worsen existing workflows. This stage involves lots of sticking things on walls and printouts and sticky notes. Persona creation and affinity mapping happens here too.
After that we build a hypothesis, as is typical of the Lean UX strategy. That hypothesis is the basis for any design mockups or prototypes and is what we test against over the course of the design and development work. We might also do some initial usability tests and data analysis here for the sake of benchmarking.
Once we’ve got a hypothesis and some benchmarks sorted, we’ll start iterating through design ideas and documenting them in whatever way is most appropriate. Depending on what I’m designing I might use one or more of a range of techniques to communicate the ideas to our stakeholders, users and engineering team - from sketching on paper or whiteboards, to wireframing in UXpin, to prototyping in code in the Portal platform.
I rarely need to provide high fidelity designs and usually I find they’re a bit dangerous anyway - they’re normally populated with fake content and it’s hard to show dynamic animations or screen size changes. Then they get sent for “approval” and someone signs off on it and they’re impossible to build because HTML never is the same as Photoshop. When engineers refer to hi-fi designs they tend to focus on getting things pixel perfect and don’t get enough information about user flows or interactive elements.
The UX design process doesn’t finish with deliverables though! I work closely with engineers throughout the build and sometimes help build it myself. There’s a lot of documentation required and everything needs to be recorded in some way, so I spend a lot of time writing, which I actually love.
Throughout the entire process we try to test and re-test, gather results and then feed it back to the engineers, so I am often found running usability labs, guerilla
Who is involved? How do you make decisions?
Lots of people are involved in our design process - it’s really collaborative. I like the idea of being a “design facilitator” rather than a “design hero”. The idea is that everyone has valuable input to the design process and it’s better to find ways to incorporate ideas from different parties (without falling into the “design by committee” trap) than to try to position yourself as an expert and design your masterpiece in a bubble. The masterpiece always lacks context and fails to address important goals and pain points.
So really, as many people are involved as is possible, including a mix of end-users, internal staff, stakeholders, customers, the CTO, the SSA and our engineers. We make decisions by testing against hypotheses - rather than deferring to taste or aesthetic preference, we choose the solutions that test best.
What tools or apps do you use to accomplish your goals in each stage?
UX design isn’t really about the best tools. Most good UX design ideas can be communicated with pen and paper or a whiteboard. In a lot of ways, the move away from high fidelity design assets frees up designers to do more thinking about real people and how they’re using the product.
The focus on pixel-perfect designs is really a great approach for print, but for web we’re moving away from that and more towards a focus on integrity of content, semantic markup and friction-free user experience. It’s a whole new paradigm that forces us to think less about “how does this look?” and more about “how does the this help the user achieve their goals?”.
I like to think that UX design could continue on with no fancy tools. They all help, but none of them are truly vital. UXpin helps me communicate page structure and interactions, but that could be done with pen and paper too. Google docs helps me write content and get feedback from the team, but we could do that with pens and paper and conversation. And Silverback helps me record usability testing, but we can also take notes or write reflections.
Perhaps the one tool that I am truly thankful for is the sticky note. I guess that’s how I know I’m truly a part of the cult of UX - the amount of sticky notes in my workspace is truly staggering, and we continue to add more. We should buy shares in 3M.
Tell us about the internship program.
I met Ellie through a friend of mine, Laura Summers, who works in a similar role to me in another startup in the med-tech space. We share a lot of values and I trust her opinion, so when she introduced me to Ellie I knew that I would be meeting someone with a lot of potential.
Ellie moved to Melbourne around a year ago from Iran where she studied software engineering, and has been immersing herself in the web and digital communities here ever since she arrived. She’s a keen learner and deeply motivated, and when I met her I knew should would really be a good fit for our team.
I’m passionate about encouraging women in technology and I am so happy to be able to mentor Ellie and help her grow her skills. She’s working with us as an intern for a few months and we are really keen to be able to place her on the team when that time is over.
What are you goals for 2016?
2016 is the year our product really grows up. Establishing strong user-centred and customer-centred design processes and really championing and defending the user within our product development process will help us build something that’s not just functional, but truly pleasurable and meaningful.
This really means that we will humbly take on the task of polishing. We have such an amazing product, and this year I feel like we will be polishing and making our product better to use for all our different stakeholders and user groups. That means making it scalable, secure and fast as well as beautiful. Continually improving our existing feature set is very important to me, and this year I feel like we’ll be able to truly take Portal to a new level.