"Focus on the work and everything else resolves."
User experience is a tricky thing to master. After all, how do we make something beautiful while ensuring it's easy to use?
Jon Peterson might have a few answers. The senior UX designer at Harry's (and former SoulCycle UX wiz) sat down with DesignRush to tell us how we can combine design and a client's desires, why Sketch is his go-to tool, and advice for others in the industry.
DesignRush: What inspired you to go into UX design?
Jon Peterson: In a lot of ways, UX actually provided a label for something I’d been thinking about for a long time. In college, it was already clear that digital was changing the world we live in, in a really incredible and powerful way. But at the same time, I was also seeing just how frustrating and poorly thought out so much of the digital ecosystem was (and still is). This incredibly cool technology would be ruined because the execution fell short. It was crazy to me to see these companies create something with so much potential but then make it really difficult to use. And so often it was something that just seemed like a common-sense fix that anyone who used the product could see and tell the brand if they would just ask.
UX really put a name to what I wanted to do in terms of blending the left brain thinking of technology and sound product strategy with the right brain thinking of design.
DR: What are a few of your favorite design tools and why?
JP: Sketch is my go-to for everything. It’s such an efficient and intuitive design tool. The team behind it also does a great job keeping it updated, and the design community has been great to create so many amazing third-party plug-ins that make the tool so much more powerful. It’s much faster and more lightweight than Photoshop while being far superior to high-fidelity design than something like Omnigraffle. Sketch is really my main go-to. I’ve even found myself building presentations and other documents in Sketch.
Beyond Sketch, I keep wanting to find a really great prototyping tool, but I usually end up settling for InVision. I usually also have a few different chat clients going at any time too. At a minimum, I’m using Slack and GChat, and quite often, Facebook Messenger is in the mix too. It might seem weird to think of these things as productivity tools especially when they aren’t always, strictly speaking, being used for work. But I believe that staying grounded both digitally and physically in the world of our users is a huge part of good design. What better way to do that than to not only use the same apps and digital ecosystems our users are using but also to take time to absorb the culture and talking points that are impacting our users?
DR: Do you have any tips for designing with both a client’s desires and user experience in mind?
JP: I think the biggest thing is to try and dispel this myth that there’s an inherent conflict between the two. The truth is that good UX is good business. Companies like Apple, Google, and Amazon have shown that you can create intuitive, customer-centric experiences, and still make a fortune. In fact in the case of Apple, when you have best in class UX, you can charge your customers more than the competition, even if they have better technical specs than you. At the end of the day, we will all generally pay more for an experience that’s better if we can afford. Think about the apartments we live in and the restaurants we frequent. Consumers want the best possible experience they can afford, and it’s just as true for digital experiences as it is for physical experiences.
Unfortunately, I think some brands have a real fear of user-centricity. However, if you have a good product, you shouldn’t need to resort to offering poor UX or dark UX patterns to make money. When you take a short-sighted view there can be a real cost to UX, but I think in the long-run it more than pays for itself. So for example, if you make it easier for people to see how returns work on an e-commerce site, you’re probably going to see a spike in returns, and if you stop there, it seems like you’re cutting into your revenue, right. But the reality is that elevating your return policy might also lead to people buying more things and coming back to shop more often because they feel more confident making a purchase. So if you don’t factor in the big picture, it can seem like UX and business are opposed, but they really don’t need to be.
The relationship between a brand and a consumer is really a lot like any other relationship you might have with a boss, friend, or loved one -- if there are respect and transparency it will flourish. And bringing respect and transparency into design basically encompasses what UX is.
DR: You have the day off. What can we find you doing?
JP: Well hopefully you wouldn’t find me in New York City! The more I travel, the more I want to travel, and the farther afield I want to go. I haven’t been to a true wilderness area in years, so next on my bucket list would probably be somewhere a bit rugged like Patagonia, The Faroe Islands, The Azores, or maybe the Coast of Portugal. If I can’t get out of the country, I do enjoying wandering the rest of New England too -- the Catskills, Nantucket, the Hamptons, Maine. If I am in the city, I’m usually trying to check out a new bar or restaurant. I’ve made it my personal mission to be familiar with just about every good rooftop bar in the city.
Really I think a driving facet of my personality is curiosity. Seeing new places is probably the most fulfilling thing I can do. So if I can’t see a truly new part of the world, I try to see a new aspect or place in my city.
DR: Which blogs, websites, or apps to you check every day and why?
JP: I usually start my morning by checking Instagram and Twitter. Instagram is the network I’m most active on, so I’m checking that for new notifications and general visual inspiration. Twitter -- I’m checking just to get a sense of if anything crazy has happened in the last few hours. My Twitter feed is a weird amalgamation of design, tech, sports, and politics.
Later in the day, I’ll admit I take a look at Facebook, primarily to check for new events or concerts. Then I’ll check the New York Times for a more highbrow take on whatever news Twitter already broke for me. In the evening, I like to browse ESPN to check sports scores, and then I’ll wrap things up by checking GQ.com. I’m a pretty avid GQ reader, and in fact, it’s the only print publication to which I subscribe.
I’m an avid reader, but I don’t have time to check ReCode, Tech Crunch, Mashable, Fast Company, Medium, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, Smashing Magazine, A List Apart, etc. on a consistent basis. So I use my Twitter and Facebook network to filter down that content to me.
DR: Tell us about your first big project. What did you wish you knew before you started, and what did you learn coming out the other side of it?
JP: I’m a big believer in hustle and effort, but at the end of the day, my big break in UX was also brought about by a lot of luck. I was working at an ad agency in Minneapolis at the time as a digital strategist, and I wasn’t really getting to do much UX at that point. I might do a landing page wireframe or a competitive analysis deck, but almost all the real UX work was being done by our UX director. And then right after the holiday break, our UX lead, Timothy, had an appendicitis attack. Since it was an agency and everyone had been gone for two weeks over the holidays, there was a lot of UX work that needed to happen, and so I got my chance to prove myself in a trial by fire in a little project for Ford.
To be honest I don’t even remember the specifics of the project. I think now I’d view that one as a very small project that I could probably finish in a day or two. That project went well enough that when Timothy was back from the hospital, I asked to shift into UX on a full-time basis.
One of the big things I’ve learned in my career is to optimize upstream. Within any field of design, it’s easy to get caught up in the details of execution -- what icon should I use, where should this button go, etc. Those things are important, but the thing is a great interface can’t fix a bad process or a confusing app. No amount of tooltips, slick animations, or onboarding GIFs are going to make up for missing features, bad business policies, or subpar technology. So start by worrying about how something works and then think about how it looks.
DR: Any final thoughts, comments, or words of wisdom you’d like to share with someone in the industry?
JP: Good design is about reduction. Early in your career, even on the UX side, it’s easy to get caught up focusing on trying to solve things via addition like finding the perfect layout or adding some gimmick such as a pinned button or a cool hover state. But the truth is, the place to start is by saying how can we find a solution that doesn’t even make the user look at this screen at all? How can we get out of the user’s way in the first place? What if instead of making a really cool screen for the user to look at, we made sure that he or she had one less screen to view in the first place?
I’m a big fan of Dieter Rams and I often find myself coming back to his statement that good design is unobtrusive. I think there’s something that’s almost inherently obtrusive about the interfaces we have today. They pull us out of our real lives and into this digital space. When we design for the digital space, we tend to think about how to really grab the user’s attention, and I think that’s maybe a bit misguided sometimes.
Which is why I’m really excited about things like AI, voice assistants, and chatbots. Design is still going to need to be very much a part of that world, but the nature of what we’re designing and of how we think about design needs to totally change. At its core, design is still about communication, and that’s not going anywhere, but we have to learn to think about design in a new way. The current model of design says let’s show the user a visual interface and expecting him or her to react to it. Where design is going is saying how can our devices, start to react to what the user is already doing and do so in a contextually appropriate way that may not even need an interface at all. It’s a complete switch in roles.
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