A Handbook of UX Research & Design: interview with the author

My new UX handbook was published yesterday. Given that the Zoom-fatigue struggle is real and because I’ve called in so many favours recently, I decided that rather than asking someone to interview me about my new UX handbook it might just be easier to interview myself. So here is me talking to me about the book that it took a pandemic to get me to sit down and write.

Interviewer: Hey Andy, thanks for agreeing to speak with me today.

Andy: No problem. Thanks for asking me. 

Interviewer: So first up, what is this book about? Can you describe it in one sentence?

Andy: Oh OK. Yes, I think so. It’s a practical handbook that takes you through the entire UX Research & Design Process from start to finish: detailing how to research user needs and behaviours; then sort, theme and analyse data; before you generate ideas and create prototype services and solutions in response. I recognise that was quite a long sentence! Oh! I should have also said something about the wealth of practical case studies in the book which explore in-depth the application of the method in academic and public libraries around the world.

Interviewer: That’s OK. You just did. So, I guess, I’m keen to also find out why you wrote it?

Andy: Essentially because all my work got cancelled last year. Two working tours of Australia, a big event in France, more gigs in Sweden, Ireland and the UK, as well as the UX conference I run (UX in Libraries). Because I now freelance full-time, COVID grounded me at home completely and all I could see ahead of me was days and days of nothing. I could have got through heaps of Netflix and Prime series but after a few weeks of that I decided that for the sake of my mental health as much as anything I needed to do something constructive. In many ways, it was exactly what I needed. I never get the chance to properly reflect on or process the work I do with libraries. That’s partly because I’m a creative activist by nature and partly because pre-COVID I was always stupidly busy. I was lucky enough to be going from job to job and although I was happily writing recommendations and findings reports I wasn’t reflecting enough on the process or techniques I was instinctively employing. Suddenly the book seemed like the ideal way to finally unpack everything I had learned about UX work and lockdown presented itself as the perfect time to do it. 

Interviewer: It’s a huge book. 572 pages. Did you intend it to be such an undertaking?

Andy: Consciously no. Subconsciously yes. I have written several comprehensive books on some of my favourite television series that stand as the ‘go-to’ works on those particular shows, huge tomes that are longer than most PhD theses – ‘burglar stunners’ I call them. So, I knew that this book could end up being pretty huge too and, I’m not going to lie, I also had an underlying ambition to try and make this handbook the established statement on this work in libraries. ‘One UX book to rule them all’ and all that shtick!

Interviewer: And is it?

Andy: I don’t think that’s for me to say. I know it’s the best book I could put out at this stage in my career and that it is effectively a structured download of almost everything I know about UX. Over time I’m sure I’ll finesse and deepen my interest in certain areas, but for now the book is everything I want it to be, and that it can be, right now. And I suppose my reviewers certainly seemed to like it. That was lovely to discover that. After so many weeks and months of writing in isolation, to think about other people reading it and to learn that they felt it hit the mark was very affirming. 

Interviewer: Did you have any concerns about writing style or structure?

Andy: It’s funny but I hadn’t realised until I received some of the reviews that people would be surprised that the book is written in a readable and friendly style, like I was having a conversation with someone in person. But this wasn’t me strategically trying to be more engaging, it’s just how I tend to write, with the assumption that you need to grab people and maintain their interest by making the content practical, yes, but also personal, honest and truthful. This is partly because I’m the world’s worst reader – my attention span with books isn’t great so I use myself as a yardstick, as an example of someone who drifts off quickly and needs to be helped along. I guess the style also arises from the fact that I believe UX work should be about personality and emotion, and truly engaging people – be they users, colleagues or stakeholders – so that was always going to be my approach. I am not a fan of dry textbooks that flatly describe processes or of academic books that pontificate endlessly about definitions and use fancy words that you have to look up. It is in plain, but definitely not dull, English. This is a book on user experience so it just had to be useful, usable and desirable. It had to seek to offer an excellent reading experience.

Interviewer: And structure?

Andy: That developed organically as I went along. When I started, I knew that I would begin with a chapter saying what UX is and why it’s important and then move on to each research technique in turn, but I hadn’t originally worked out how I would divide the book up and what each section would contain. And then one day it hit me – ‘whoomph’ – that the book should use the framework of the UX Process I use and teach, which is based directly on the Design Council’s Double Diamond model. At that point, it became completely obvious that the book should be divided up into the 4 phases of the model: Discover (the user research); Define (data sorting and analysis); Develop (ideation); and Deliver (testing and iterating prototypes before delivering and investing in a new service or product). That the book follows a globally recognised approach was important to me – in terms of authority and being able to trust the process – as was the idea that I could help the reader through the book step-by-step in manageable chunks. I’m a very organised person in some parts of my life, terrifyingly so sometimes, and the book reflects that. 

Interviewer: Have you got a favourite section or chapter?

Andy: It was rewarding to finally write my definitive take on each research technique after years of teaching them on the road. In fact, I’ve already gone back to those chapters myself to read up what I should be putting in a presentation I gave at a Thai libraries conference! I also enjoyed finally putting all the examples of prototypes that I’ve built with library staff throughout the book to demonstrate UX in practice: the journeys to new or modified services, the successes and, just as importantly, the failures. However, what I rate most of all are my chapters on sorting and analysing user data and the subsequent idea generation process, mainly because many library staff are chronically bad at it or, worse still, don’t do it at all. I honestly think there’s some game-changing stuff in there. I’m also pleased with the ‘Managing UX’ chapter because there’s so much that has not been said about that yet. It felt like I was breaking new ground. 

Interviewer: I believe you have some external contributors to that chapter?

Andy: That’s right. Five library people whose opinion and experience I rate highly. Anneli Friberg, Anna Kågedal and Ange Fitzpatrick from the academic sector, and Daniel Forsman and Brett Patterson from public libraries. I knew that they would all bring their innate wisdom to the topic and help raise the bar on that chapter. I had a lot to say myself, but I was also aware that I needed more voices to do that subject justice. There are some central management approaches outlined in that chapter that I feel must be in place for UX to work, that will not and should not change, but I also see that chapter as the start of the ‘Managing UX’ conversation. I’d love to offer a high-level course to senior librarians on managing and embedding UX one day.

Interviewer: You have a reputation for being quite direct. I’m thinking about your opening addresses at UXLibs and er, well, you.

Andy: You noticed. Good. One of my reviewers commented ‘you don’t pull any punches’ and I was gratified to get that feedback. I do tell it as I see it in this book and that does involve calling out the library profession for the stuff it routinely gets wrong: the culture of waiting and not doing; the fear of failure and the pointless pursuit of perfection; the endless speculation and meetings culture that leads nowhere; the ‘librarian knows best’ attitude. I knock them all down. Not to shock the reader, or for fun, but because I genuinely believe that they are massive obstacles in the way of delivering more effective and successful library services. One reviewer said the familiarity and truth of my take on these issues made her ‘smile and cringe’ in equal measure. 

Interviewer: There are a lot of photos and icons in the book.

Andy: Yes. The photos help break the text up but I hope also demonstrate that UX is about people first. There are heaps of photos of library staff doing UX: trying out techniques, wrangling data, and building prototypes. I’m a people person and UX is a people thing. As to the icons I wanted a visual language that would emphasise and emulate what the methods involve. I originally planned to sketch them myself but I bowed out after completing just one icon to my satisfaction after 3 hours! 

Interviewer: Who is the book aimed at?

Andy: Naturally, I’m going to say that it’s for all library staff at any stage of their career, but that is also completely true. Even if a reader is not currently at liberty to put the whole UX process in place, there’s plenty they can still try in terms of research techniques, ideation and prototyping at a grassroots level. To those already with UX responsibility and knowledge it should fill in some gaps and also affirm that they are on the right path. And to managers and leaders it outlines their responsibilities to allow and make UX happen. Not everyone has the time to get their hands dirty, juggling 101 other things daily, but these people still need to understand and support the process. I feel certain that people are going to find the book and the process super helpful regardless of where they sit in their workplace hierarchy. And if I can engage library students with UX methods early in their careers then that’s also a great outcome. 

Interviewer: You’re really passionate about UX Research & Design, aren’t you?

Andy: I truly am. UX work has engaged me more than anything else during the 25 long years of my career in libraries. And I hope this book succeeds in communicating and inspiring that passion to others. I believe in this process 100% because I’ve seen it work in practice over and over again. 

Interviewer: Finally, how do I get a copy of the handbook and when is it published?

Andy: Good question. It was published on 1stFebruary and you can buy it now in print from Amazon or electronically from the ‘Books’ page of the UXLibs website: http://uxlib.org/uxlibs-the-books/. If it’s not currently showing as available on Amazon in your country, it might take a few days to populate.

Interviewer: Have we missed anything?

Andy: I don’t think so. Other than to say that it feels good to finally get this stuff out of my head and onto the page, and to be able to say to those people that suggest I should write a book that ‘I have!’ while smoothly swooping it under their nose. It’s going to be a bugger to travel with but it’ll be nice to have it out on the desk in front of me when I can eventually go back out on the road again. 

Interviewer: What’s next for you?

Andy: I’m giving two workshops at the online Designing 4 Digital conference later this month (it’s like a US version of UXLibs) and I’ve just embarked on two remote consultancies, one is with Stockholm Public Libraries – my third piece of work with them – and the other with the Library of Parliament in Canada. It’s a good job I got my arse in gear and wrote the handbook last year and not this one!

Interviewer: Thank you for your time.

Andy: My pleasure.

>> Download the promotional flyer for Andy’s handbook
>> Go to the books page on the UXLibs website for more information about this title
>> Buy from Amazon.co.uk
>> Buy from Amazon.com


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