How to Get Into User Experience: Chat with Patrick Neeman of Usability Counts

Patrick Neeman

Are you obsessed with creating new things? That’s requirement number one for a career in User Experience. Strong communication and writing skills and the ability to work on a team also come at the top of the list for Patrick Neeman.

Patrick started as a Journalism major at Cyprus College and is currently Director of Product Design at Apptio in Bellevue, Washington. He’s also the creator of the Usability Counts site and the UX Drinking Game. We catch up with Patrick to learn more about User Experience and how you can find a job in this field.

What initially attracted you to the field of UX?

I started out as a print designer. A friend of mine who I worked with on a political campaign was starting an internet company and invited me to join. This was back in 1996. That first company failed, so I started at another company doing wireframes and site maps. I discovered that I really enjoyed this process of building the concept of something rather than just putting the lipstick on it.

I had a manager who had a degree in Human Computer Interaction (HCI), and that’s how I got into the field of UX, though at the time it was called Information Architecture/User Interface Design. I didn’t have any formal training. I was lucky to have a manager and work environment that allowed me to learn as I went.

If you’re interested in learning more about the different aspects of UX, I’d recommend reading “The Five Competencies of User Experience Design” by Steve Psomas.

How has the field changed since you started?

The field has changed in that there’s a lot more process and a lot more deliverables now, but essentially the work is the same. You do research, come up with an idea, test it, and keep iterating.

Some of the titles and ways you communicate ideas have changed, but the essential idea itself of developing a product that encourages user adoption and user engagement is the same.

Everyone does some form of UX, but they don’t necessarily do it well. It’s worth mentioning that some of the ugliest websites out there have the best user experience—like Craig’s List. And this is not unique only to websites. Dieter Rams is an industrial designer whose work is really minimalist but at the same time elegant in how usable it is.

What do you like most about working in UX? What are the biggest challenges of working in this field?

The results of my work are something that thousands or potentially millions of people can use, and it can save companies millions of dollars. The bigger the audience, the more pride I have in the work I do. I like to think of it like a drinking game in a bar where I can bet someone that I’ve had a hand in designing a site that they use—I would almost never lose that bet.

The challenge is people not understanding what we do and the fact that the work is tied back to real people. I’ve worked with CEOs who say things like, “I want to design it for me,” but they don’t understand that they’re not the target audience. That can be really disappointing. Sometimes it’s really hard to convince people that designing for themselves is not the best idea. Everyone wants to make it their own, even if it shouldn’t be.

You created a website called Usability Counts that provides a lot of advice and resources for people who are interested in starting UX careers. What motivated you to create the site and what were you hoping to achieve with it?

One primary motivation was that I was looking for a job. The advice I give to job-seekers now is to be a special little snowflake. Starting that site meant that I’m the “Usability Counts guy” and the “UX Drinking Game guy.” I knew I had to brand myself well, so I figured I’d start this site, and since I was consulting at the time, there were a lot of things I could write about. That ended up leading to other positions.

I’m also a proponent of the “T-skill set,” which means that you have a wide set of skills, but one area that you know about very deeply. In my case, I wrote widely about UX and narrowly about career development. After my experience working for Jobvite, I felt I could speak with authority about it. And now that I’ve put together about five or six UX teams, I have the authority to speak on how I hire UX designers and put together a team.

Finally, I also wanted to give back to the community. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have the experiences that I have and I wanted to give others the opportunity to learn more about this field.

Which qualities, education, or experience make the best UX designers?

  • Being able to communicate and write well
  • Knowing how to sell your ideas
  • Having the ability to collaborate with a team
  • Being flexible
  • Having a passion for the field, creating your own products—you need to know that this isn’t a 9 to 5

For skills and the process of creating wireframes, if people have deficiencies in these areas, it’s easy to get them up to speed. It’s those inherent qualities that are much more important.

What advice do you have for college students who are interested in entering the field of UX?

Do side projects! This shows me your passion for the field and that you’re willing to take the extra step to become good at your craft. There are lots of ways to get involved: Startup Weekend, hackathons, and meeting other people at school.

Keep in mind that they don’t have to be huge ideas. My friend and I put in 16 to 20 hours worth of work on a project the (Find My Bookmarks plugin) and it got featured on Lifehacker. Doing something like this shows that you can create ideas and go to market with them.

How did the UX Drinking Game come about?

Eric Ries wrote this book called The Lean Startup, and basically I’ve been doing lean startup since 2002; I just didn’t have a name for it.

The UX Drinking Game started when I would type a few drinking game ideas on Twitter and engagement was really high. So I sat down one weekend—I started on Friday and had it up and running by Saturday. And I got 2,000 users by Sunday. This was with no promotion whatsoever. It was eventually made into an app, and it’s really helped me to get so many contacts and meetings. I could walk into any UX meeting in the world and pretty much someone there would know who I am.

Even my current job, when I came in for an interview, my manager was like, “Oh, you’re the UX Drinking Game guy!” It’s part of the lore of “do a side project and get noticed, get branded.” My friend Winnie Lim is working at Medium, she will always be known for that, and that’s huge.

Homework time! Patrick talks about the importance of making yourself stand out through your side projects and designs. Start thinking about what kinds of side projects you could start and take the next steps to get them going. Remember that you don’t have to do it all by yourself—get a friend involved and see what you can come up with together.

To learn more about Patrick, check out Usability Counts, the UX Drinking Game, and follow him on Twitter @usabilitycounts and  @uxdrink.

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