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Simon Coyle

Usability Matters

Art Director
Simon is the Art Director at Usability Matters - a studio specializing in User Experience. He also worked at various design studios and agencies prior to joining UM. We talked to him about the role of a visual designer in a UX studio and the path he took to get there.
HT

What is / Who are Usability Matters?

SC

Usability Matters was established in 2002, making it the first User Experience design firm in Canada.

HT

How did you arrive at UM as art director?

SC

There was no grand plan. I arrived in Toronto from Northern Ireland in 1995, when I was 18. The following year I started working for a local music magazine and helped them lay out and code their web site. After cutting my teeth there, I got into design professionally. I’ve worked with agencies, in highly corporate environments, raucous small shops, the back rooms of printing companies, in the middle of a working newsroom. It hasn’t been glamourous.

I was attracted to Usability Matters for a couple of reasons. First of all, I liked the idea of being a creative embedded in a company of UX designers, it appealed to my contrarian nature and I get bored without at least a little conflict. Secondly, this is the most structured and disciplined company I’ve ever worked for, nobody flies by the seat of their pants here. It frees me up to expend my energy in the correct places.

HT

For most designers, client budgets don’t allow for a full research phase. Mostly it’s restricted to a historical investigation and a look at a client competitors. How does going the extra mile and doing things like In-Depth user interviews and focus Groups help?

SC

Because users are impossible to predict, and that was a big lesson I learned when I started working at UM. You can use all the common sense in the world, make the most wonderful educated guesses, and still be surprised by how a user actually reacts to what you’ve created. Anything other than rigorous, real-world user testing is just hoping for the best.

HT

You guys have a strong and well established process for working with clients. How do you take them through the whole process in your studio? How does a project flow through the studio?

SC

It’s hard to say, because I can’t think of a typical project to point to. Right now we’re working with a group of filmmakers to turn their work into a sprawling interactive documentary, we’re conducting user research on behalf of a telecom company to design the flow of their automated phone system, we’re creating an identity and social network for a niche sporting company… the project defines the process, there is never a one size fits all solution.

HT

When working with clients how do you balance the needs of their users with the needs internally of a large organization?

SC

Clients generally know what they’re getting with UM, they come to us because they value their users and understand how critically important the research we provide can be. But to answer your question: Ideally, we shouldn’t have to. The needs of the user should be the top priority of any organization, and if that’s not the case then it’s obviously an impediment to a successful project.

HT

You generally don’t execute the designs you create. Instead you plan and structure the architecture and user experience. Do you manage the build? What is the hand-off process like?

SC

Most of the time a client will have a preferred vendor in mind for the build, the rest of the time we’ll recommend tried and trusted providers. Saying that we manage the build might be overstating it, but there is always an appropriate amount of oversight. Given our heavy focus on research and user testing, a lot of time-consuming and costly work tends to happen up front, so it’s important to maintain the integrity of those results from beginning to end. We tend to set aside some time and budget for the hand-off, usually it’s just meetings with the production team and making ourselves available throughout the build to answer any questions they may have.

HT

What you guys do is relatively abstract today, even more so back in 2002 when you were founded. How did you first engage and educate people about the services you provided and do you feel that today it’s an easier sell?

SC

In 2002, when web sites were the limits of digital design, I was certainly skeptical of UX. In 2015, immersed in dense interconnected systems, and innumerable devices with which to interact with those systems, I can no longer imagine a scenario where UX is not a mandatory part of the process.

But look, there’s UX and there’s UX. It’s a broad category, and it’s easy for a studio to take what they used to call Web Design and compartmentalize it into UX and Visual Design, because that’s what the client expects to see on the list of services. And they can do that without fundamentally changing what they do. And maybe there’s nothing wrong with using UX as a catch-all for information architecture or interactive design, but it can go so much deeper than that, it can be so much more valuable. We like to say that our clients are our clients’ users, so that’s who we advocate for. I’ve never seen an unhappy client with happy users. But going directly to the user can be an involved process, even the most mundane logistical aspects of it. Maybe I’m just being optimistic, but I think we’re at a point in time where the value of the kind of research we do here has already become self-evident.

HT

Data tends to drive a lot of decisions nowadays, particularly at Startups, but do you ever leave room for a gut feeling decision?

SC

That’s an interesting question. Usability Matters is full of very smart people who are all highly analytical, and I consider it part of my role here to stick up for gut feelings and intuition. In a research-oriented environment such as this, it can easily be forgotten that something which isn’t quantifiable can still have value. Solid user research and adherence to best practices can create great experiences, but it’s hard to provoke something beyond that by rational means alone.

HT

What is your favourite part of the design process?

SC

Not strictly what you asked, but I adore identity design. Taking something as complex as a brand, and finding a way to express that complexity via a single symbol, then refining and refining and refining until it’s down to it’s essence, for me that’s the closest design ever gets to art. As a designer, the most exhilarating moments come about when, without any conscious effort, two or three unrelated ideas which have been rattling around inside my head find a way to coalesce into one. Or when a symbol I sketched from a dream six months ago turns out to be the perfect thing for a project today. There is a process, but at some point during it you have to give up control to something ineffable, it’s like magic, and it’s the unpredictability of it I find exciting. Designing sites, interactive experiences, they can be enjoyable to work on and immensely satisfying, but identity design is really where I find the high points.

HT

As more and more businesses move online and create both internal and external products, what do you feel is the most important role of user experience?

SC

Given that I’m an Art Director and not a UX Designer, I wouldn’t want to give the impression I’m speaking for anyone but myself on this one. My view is that people generally want to interact as little as possible with a given system. They don’t want to make friends with it, they don’t want to join the conversation about it, they just want to use it and get back to the things they actually care about. So I think the best UX is the one that grasps what a user wants to achieve, lets them achieve it in the most logical and straightforward manner possible, then gets out of the way until it’s needed again.

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