"If you think something is clever and sophisticated, beware -- it is probably self-indulgence."
Before "user experience" was a buzzy term, Mike Mathis was designing websites optimized for it. And with such vast experience in design, coding, and even copywriting, we knew we had to pick Mathis's brain.
From the books we need to read to the advice that will keep us motivated, Mathis shares everything we need to know to excel as a UX designer.
DesignRush: What inspired you to go into UX design?
Mike Mathis: Well, I was a designer before UX design was a mainstream term.
Back then, I was designing, copywriting, and coding everything on my own. I was obviously a little more junior then, and I was always asking project stakeholders more about the audience. I wanted to live inside the head of the user. But the answers I was given were lacking in detail.
By the time I started hearing the term “UX”, I had built up this kind of yearning to design things differently. I read the first edition of “Lean UX” by Gothelf and Seiden, and realized immediately that I needed to evolve and become more research-based.
Grad school had luckily already prepped me for things like ethnography, survey writing, and qualitative and quantitative thinking. The field was a fit for so many reasons.
DR: What are a few of your favorite design tools?
MM: Design tools have been evolving and proliferating so rapidly these days, and for me, I’d say it’s less about the tools and more about the techniques.
If I were starting fresh today, I’d go straight to Sketch for digital design. It has gotten so much better in just the past two years. It’s built solely to create digital experiences, which means you can plug real content into it, fully leverage design libraries, whip up menus that change depending on the screen, and so on. Sketch plays well with inVision for prototyping, and Zeplin when it’s time to hand things off to dev.
DR: What are some designs or projects of your own that you are particularly proud of?
MM: These days, the best projects are the ones where I get to collaborate and inspire people.
I recently conducted usability research for a chatbot. It wasn’t much of a visual design project, and I sense that we are moving in that direction as a profession. But I found I still had the same yearning to know about the user and play my part in creating a great experience for them. The best part was presenting the findings. Quotes from ordinary users got to be seen by the whole company, including senior folks, and it made a big impact on our way forward. That’s why UX is so much more than visual design.
I also find myself mentoring some of the more junior or midlevel designers, and sometimes I even guest lecture about the subject at NYU. That to me is the most satisfying part of being a more experienced soul; helping others discover the field.
DR: You have the day off. What can we find you doing?
MM: Spending time with friends, family, and above all, my young kids. There was a time when I was a lot more active going to design-related classes and exhibits — but these days I’m going to the movies to see "Boss Baby." I wouldn’t change that for the world.
If I get any downtime there, I like to detach and do some illustration work. I’ve been working with Adobe Illustrator for years, and produce vector artwork you can see at iStock and Getty Images.
DR: Which blogs, websites, or apps to you check every day?
MM: When it comes to up-to-date content on various UX topics, UXpin is a pretty solid source of reading.
For research thinking, I love reading articles from the Nielsen Norman Group.
As I continue to evolve, I have also taken an interest in data science.
DR: What designers or brands speak to you?
MM: First, I see a difference between a brand’s marketing and its user experience design.
The Subaru brand won me over last year so I bought one of their cars. I don’t drive it very often, but I still can’t figure out an easy way to tune the radio. So there’s a difference between branding and user experience in that instance.
But a brand will speak to me if it works for me at a fundamental level. Banana Republic shirts fit me right and I like going to their shops. Gregory’s Coffee lets me sit there for a while and I can soak up the wifi. Nickelodeon keeps my four-year-old happy in not-so-limited doses.
Imagine all the different people who collaborated to build these brands. People with the title “designer” make up a very small portion of all those who are actually involved. So as a UX designer, you won’t be building a brand from scratch — but you can enhance what’s there.
DR: What motto motivates you in your work?
MM: “Rule of thumb: if you think something is clever and sophisticated beware-it is probably self-indulgence.”
― Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday Things
DR: Any final thoughts, comments, or words of wisdom you’d like to share with someone in the industry?
MM: We are living in such an exciting time. I remember when things were a lot more stable in the web design world — but now things are evolving so quickly and being a designer is a great way to get a foot in the door.
Don’t stop improving your visual design abilities, and remember it’s not all about pretty skins. Embrace research, data, and business thinking to increase your value. You already know it’s competitive out there, but you can make the choice to embrace it.
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