High-level Knowledge Acquisition as a Part of UX Design

  By Stori WalkerSenior UX Designer, projekt202

An essential skill for UX designers at an agency with clients from various industries is the ability to become a subject matter expert in a short period of time. Yes, I’m using the word “expert” very loosely here. Of course a designer can’t become a true expert at something like surgery or railroad engineering or particle acceleration in a short time, but we constantly face the challenge of having to rapidly ramp up our knowledge in sometimes very esoteric fields to fairly high levels of understanding. In order to design an interface for wound care specialists, for example, we have to become well-versed in that specialization, the workflows within it, and its standards and terminology.

Fortunately, there are several tried & true methods for acquiring an in-depth understanding of new subject matter. It all boils down to memorization.

First, let’s review how memory works.

Information enters our memory through the 5 senses, shown here with their fancy names:

The sensory information can become part of our short-term memory in chunks of 7 + or – 2 pieces of information. Supposedly our short-term memory has an average lifespan of 20-30 seconds, which explains why you sometimes forget that new acquaintance’s name shortly after it leaves their mouth.

The goal in learning a new subject is to encode, store and retrieve the new information from our long-term memory. Long-term memory is permanent, but we’ve all had that experience of trying to remember a song title or person’s name and hit that wall of “It’s on the tip of my tongue…I know I know it!” Which brings up a good point: access to information is not at all the same thing as having the information. In other words, it’s fine to reassure your client that you have access to someone who knows the answer, but it’s not the same as already knowing the answer, especially when design deadlines loom. This is an important distinction to bear in mind when ramping up in a knowledge area that’s new to you.

Here are some techniques that we use at p202 to get new subject matter into our memory. Hopefully you’ve used most, if not all, in your past efforts to learn about something new.

  1. Motivation & focus This first technique is not so much a process as it is a state of mind. It’s impossible to become knowledgeable about a subject if you can’t get motivated enough to have a real interest in it. Even paying attention can be challenging when you barely understand what’s being said or described. A good designer or researcher considers the value of learning about data encryption to the users’ whose lives will be improved through the design of a better product for them. It is essential to be able to focus on learning arcane details with the ultimate goal of having this knowledge be at your fingertips when designing for workflows and user tasks that deal with those details.
  2. List of questions, answers, & more questions If you’re not a fan of list-making, you may want to reconsider. As you are filling your mind with new information, it’s beneficial to keep a running list of questions to ask when the time is right. It’s also a good idea to document answers when possible in case they only hit your short-term memory. Having these questions and answers documented ensures that you can pass them along to teammates and lowers the risk to the project in the event you move on to other projects.
  3. Mentors, Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) Most often your client and/or your client’s customers will be your SMEs. Sometimes, your peers may also be experts if they have had prior exposure to the subject matter. Lean on these resources! Ask questions. Get them to explain things until you understand them. To foster these relationships, it’s good to respect their expertise, build trust, and above all, be humble.
  4. Understand users, workflow basics, standards, vocabulary/terminology The most basic trick to learning about a new industry or work specialization is to conduct generative research with the people who actually do the work. We usually build an internal glossary of jargon and terminology to help us during the project. Reading 3rd party documentation is also essential, especially with regard to learning about standards and industry best practices.
  5. Design scenarios One of the best ways to build information into long-term memory is by telling a story. Oral storytelling was the way humans passed information before the advent of written history. Scenarios function the same way in design projects. The process for creating design scenarios based on user research deserves its own blog post but I’ve found it to be the most helpful of all of these techniques. It not only helps you learn new information, it also exposes areas where your understanding is weak so that you can target your questions appropriately.

To some extent, UX designers must be Jacks & Jills of many trades. We would appreciate hearing about any other techniques you’ve found useful in getting new information you’ve learned to stick in your memory.