UX Studies: An Interview with Philipp von Kiparski
Philipp von Kiparski has a Bachelor of Arts in Information Design from the Stuttgart Media University, Germany. His degree was based out of the Faculty of Information and Communication. Philipp has just completed his second internship as an Experience Architect here in Australia, at Different. I thought it would be appropriate to kick off this interview series with a recent graduate of a course focussed on user centred design. This interview was recorded on 28 January 2010.
Erietta: Tell me about your current role and your areas of expertise?
Philipp: Theoretically I’m an Experience Architect and a junior version of that I guess and I think what my areas of expertise … mostly comprise of are user research … the gathering of the data and how to structure this gathering cause there’s actually quite a lot of theory involved in how to gather info for which kind of results you look for. For example a very experimental approach compared to reviewing a product that already exists; you have to adjust your techniques each time and of course you also have to adjust the guys you are actually interviewing.
Of course [there’s] the whole process of actually getting something out of this collected data—the task modelling as a more interaction focussed method of getting information out of it or the affinity diagramming which is more of a qualitative basis that gets you more into these patterns that really help you to image people or the average people actually [using] this, and the expectations they have and how they perceive the product.
The next step which I’m familiar with but not as practised in is actually transferring all these collected data into a reconstruction of a product or the entire concepting of a new structure which basically is wireframing and interaction design and all that sort of stuff.
I’ve learned about, in school actually, quite a few different approaches than now I’ve been getting exposed to at Different. I learned a design approach from Rosson and Carroll which is called scenario based design. They have a really interesting approach of slowly iterating a scenario. Just one story and you stick with that story and slowly expand on it …
The actual concepting I haven’t had much exposure to that, at least in the internships. Paper prototyping … to get your first research findings confirmed, whether they actually work, whether you got the idea of the product right. I did a video prototype actually for a project in school that was a head up display for a car and I designed a video simulation for that which was a lot of fun and the testing for that went incredibly well. The participants were really able to imagine they were actually sitting in the car and that was very interesting. That’s as far as I get cause I’ve never been included in the implementation. That was the border so to speak … I don’t know what it comes down to when people start coding it, the problems that can arise there.
eri: You’ve talked about a couple of internships, is this your start with your professional UX career?
Philipp: I guess you could say that. The first intership was a mandatory part of my studies. In the fifth semester … you have to do a 6 month internship in some kind of company that can make use of this particular set of expertise and abilities … I reckon this would be my first professional experience apart from the fact that I didn’t get paid.
Philipp: I don’t know whether it counts professionally, but whatever. This was my first real exposure because interestingly my first internship was on the client side … at Bosch. They were all internal projects, and it was just a totally different atmosphere because they had time, and money and room to discuss. It was also much harder because within a company you always have the marketing department as being kinda the king … This makes it incredibly hard to actually get something through or get something passed them … Its also much more stiff and conservative atmosphere as compared to a consultancy which my second internship now was in which was a lot more flexible, more time pressure with less money and budget to do things. Always working against constraints and with what the client wants and all this stuff so its really interesting to see both sides.
eri: So tell me about the course that you did study and the qualifications gained in that course?
Philipp: The course was officially called Information Design and I think the priorities of this course were psychology: the psychology of information acquisition, the psychology of memory, the psychology of how humans try to understand things. Mental modelling is a big topic there for example. The other part was design. I’d say psychology was 40%, design was 40% and 20% was technical stuff like databases and coding and HTML and PHP and all that stuff. But that really got neglected which many were not really satisfied with because they were [planning] to get web design [skills] so they really needed PHP and HTML expertise. They were a bit disappointed but I wasn’t since I didn’t like it anyway.
The design stuff, we had real drawing courses as well as interaction design courses, interface design. We had web design courses … just those very specific things you need to know when designing an interface, like the fold, the order of items a viewer looks at first and how do you guide them with these tricks for navigation and all that sorta stuff … we also had tiny courses on business regulation and business law which was very cool to know so you have a basic knowledge of what you can call your own without anyone copying it. Just so you can have a basic understanding of … copyright … they also had library management and lots of economy information design.
eri: What were your favourite subjects in the course?
Philipp: Psychology. All of the different psychology courses.
eri: How much hands on experience did you get with research? How theoretical was it? How practical was it?
Philipp: Something that was really cool with my particular course of study was that it was heavily practical. From the third semester onward all our courses were solely project based so we always had company partners like Neckermann (a big e-commerce company), like Bosch, Porsche. We worked with all kinds of companies … so all our projects were maybe a watered down version of real projects but they actually were real projects. We were for example, analysing the web shop of Neckermann and were doing usability testing with them, with real participants. As far as I can remember each of those psychology courses always had a practical part were we actually did a survey or a usability test or online survey so we always had this exposure to practical stuff. I can’t remember a single course that was theory only.
eri: What subjects or skills do you think are most relevant to a user experience role and why?
Philipp: First and foremost I think you need to be really strong in your analytic skill. Without ever having heard about a thing before you need to be able to approach something, view it from all possible angles, see through it, see what’s behind the first layer, what it is comprised of , how it works, innately how it is related to other things …. having like X-ray glasses for everything. That not only helps you to understand the products you’re designing or redesigning, it also helps you to understand the people that are talking about it. That’s probably the second important thing to be really good at analysing the people side of things and be able to drill that down to their initial motivation to say something without leading them to say something that they wouldn’t have if you hadn’t asked that in a particular way.
eri: What do you wish you had been taught?
Philipp: All the crazy client management stuff. Because of course when you are learning everything in theory you always think of the best case, and if everything goes well, if you had enough time and money. But the practicality of the daily user experience professional is so much harder cause you constantly need to justify yourself, your methods and explain to everybody what you are and who you are and just defend your methods really. Of course if you’re dealing with clients they usually wouldn’t know anything about user research or usability engineering so you have to explain it to them as well and make them feel like it is something desirable so they’re actually buying [into] it and you need to guide them along the process and show them ‘these are the steps and you will get this deliverable and you will take part in this procedure to contribute to it’.
eri: What UX skills cannot be taught?
Philipp: … being analytical. What’s connected to that is making things easier. As Leonardo da Vinci said simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. Its not easy to make something simple. Just because you understand something doesn’t mean that you’re able to make it simple for anyone. There’s actually a lot of effort, a lot of thinking, a lot of creativity involved in making something very complex so easy that everyone can understand. Its both something that you have to have an innate talent for, being good at explaining as a basic skill, and you need a lot of practice and knowledge.
eri: So I’m going to throw in a bonus question, you’ve just completed this internship, what sort of job are you going to look for now?
Philipp: This particular set of activities that the Experience Architect here [at Different] has, everything from the user research, up to the very point where it goes to implementation, so its research and concepting … I’m not sure whether this is a common set of skills that a job role would include in Germany … they either have only researchers … or a designer that really does everything; that is able to do the user research, the concepting and the implementation as well. I’ll probably end up in a research company … The usability testing, the research, coming up with personas and all that stuff is actually something that I enjoy most. I’m not enjoying sitting in front of the coding software and doing the actual implementation. Its just boring and tedious. I feel like a machine when I do that.
eri: well good luck in your next steps, and thank you very much for the interview.
Philipp: No worries, my pleasure.