A discussion on LinkedIn centered around the reasonable observation that

“we need to provide human-machine interface design training to engineers”

Even though the question and its framing don’t mention the term “user experience”, I believe that it goes very much to the heart of the issues surrounding UX these days.

Below is an extract from my contribution to that thread, with some additional comments:

Usability isn’t just a coat of UI paint

Much of my UX work has been on what I call “heavy lifting’ projects (where the focus is on ‘doing things’, rather than marketing snazz).  I’ve often worked in an arena which might be called ‘product development‘ and my role is seen as working with the programming/engineering crew.

Although I enjoy – and am even fairly good at – graphic embellishment, I’ve always had a utilitarian/functional bias, as regards the interactive arena.

I mean, actually “doing something” is kind of the point – Isn’t it?


Self service‘ isn’t such a popular concept these days.  We seem to be more invested in highly automated, one-click, silver platter solutions, where the decision is made by a BigData number-crunching dumbot.  Don’t get me wrong:  I think those invasive tools are terrific.  But they’re also often seductively manipulative … or simply wrong.  The loss of human agency in the UI is a little scary.  Or maybe just lazy.

Let’s assume that acting consciously and deliberately has value.

UX as “a given”

Back in The Bad Old Days (before ‘user experience’ existed as a brand), usability was often an assumption – but in an indirect, hand-wavy kind of way.  “It’ll happen”, “We can fix that when we go to market”, or “We’ll hire an artist … later”.  This approach was largely fueled by ignorance, lack of respect for the skills, and magical thinking.

This was especially true of the tech & IT side of the business.

the IT view

Even with their longstanding commitment to “make things work”, engineers have been a little late to the game as regards UX.  It always existed as a specialized area of endeavor: HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) – or CHI – has existed for years as a “special interest group” area, and in many ways it pioneered the early credibility of UX within the computer world.  Yet it has not exactly embraced the term “user experience” in describing itself, nor do we see the robust cross-pollination with the growing UX arena that we might expect.

Too bad.  There’s a lot of potential there.

the Marketing/Creative view

UX got co-opted by Marketing fairly early on. The marketing side of the business tended to view ‘user experience’ as more of a branding and styling issue, which fell conveniently under the Creative department.  That’s understandable:  visuals are inherently easy to grasp.  And so UX came to be described (shallowly) as visual “design”.

This is a good time to haul out the classic insightful quote:


“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’  That’s not what we think design is.  It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

Steve Jobs, CEO Apple Computer, Inc.as quoted in “The Guts of a New Machine”

the Other views

Other mindsets within the business have each contributed their own interpretation of UX.  There are a bunch of them – all valid and all worth discussing.  But that’s not the focus of this thread.

Just because it’s “easy to use” doesn’t mean that it was “easy to design”.

Thumbnail Suggestions

Okay – Back to the original question:  “How do we provide HCI/UX design training to tecchies?”  Here are a couple of thoughts that apply well – I believe – to the engineer mindset.

  • Most development groups & engineers respond well to the dashboard/control panel metaphor for ‘hands-on’ exercises.
  • Context drives the ‘design thinking‘ (lordy, I hate that term) part of it. Provide the background story for coming up with viable solutions – roles (who), stakeholder requirements, scenarios, ‘day-in-the-life’, etc.
  • The Call Center is a great reference point for real-life, day-to-day needs (esp. things that haven’t been fixed yet).  It’s often a source for Frequently Asked Questions.

Engineers and tecchies refocus our design onto the underlying workflow.

This is especially critical when we design for utility.


How about a ‘design challenge’ that focuses on the biggest ‘point-of-pain’ or ‘primary satisfier’ based on insights from major stakeholders from outside of the Engineering arena:  Marketing, Customer Support, Administration, and – of course – End Users?

Be prepared:

Opening the design exercise up to additional perspectives may result in a questioning of the existing application workflow or back-end process. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Frame it

Generally, the UX exercise of ‘stepping back’ helps both provide a new perspective and invigorate solutions-oriented thinking.

Well, there’s a lot more to it than that.  But I think I’ll stop here.

© The Communication Studio LLC