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The Nancy Dickenson Interview: Copying Others Is Not The Answer

Recently, we had the pleasure of sitting down to pick the brain of Nancy Dickenson, talented UX designer and the Executive in Residence for Bentley University’s1 HFID Graduate Program. With a bit of back and forth, we got some wonderful insight into the UX field from this long-time field participant and shaper, who looks back over her time in UX design. [Links checked March/20/2017]

We are very appreciative of Nancy taking the time to answer our questions and provide this glimpse into the evolution of the field of UX. We hope our readers enjoy the interview as much as we did collecting the information for you. Get ready for an engaging conversation.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

Interview Link

Q: Nancy, where was your first job (in technology)?

At Apple Computer.

Nancy Dickenson

Q: Wow, what’s it been like watching Apple evolve over the years, having once been on the inside?

It was great to see how Steve Jobs’ return brought focus to the many smart, talented people working at Apple. The jury is now out on whether they’ll be able to self-organize without his strong POV leading the way.

Q: First user experience you designed (in whole or in part)?

The American Sign Language Dictionary CD-ROM.

Q: Last app you used today?

Yelp, TaskRabbit and Uber.

Q: How would you describe your style?

Open, passionate about new ideas.

Q: Why are you a user experience designer? What was it that drew you to UX?

UX is profession that we’re defining as we do it. I like that. The need for easy-to-use, useful products that exceed users’ expectations is as relevant today as it was when I started my career at Apple in the 1980s.

Q: Very good point! Do you find that most people understand UX or take it for granted? Has this changed over the years?

UX is increasingly becoming an accepted part of successful product and service creation and delivery. Whether you’re a product manager, developer or experience designer, everyone must engage in creative problem-solving and user-informed product strategy. Experience designers are no longer the only ones responsible for advocating for the user — the whole team is.

Q: What other less-related jobs have you worked in previous to design?

I sang in a band in the 1970s. Leading a band was my first lesson in managing creative talent (especially engineers!).

Q: Cool! What was the name of the band?

Nothing fancy: Nancy Dickenson Quartet. We played jazz at the Shadowbrook in Capitola and a lot of weddings. :)

Q: We’d love to learn more about your workflow and how you approach problem-solving. Could you tell us a bit about your personal process? How do you get started on a new project?

I start by seeking user insights that overlap with opportunities in the market. I follow this research with rapid idea generation and experimental prototyping. I call my creative problem-solving approach “Think, Make, Show.” “Think, Make, Show” is also a course that I taught for Bentley University’s Certificate Program in 2011.

Q: Good process! Did you make many converts to your process? In other words, did you get a good response from your students? Anything they were resistant to?

The phrase I repeat a great deal is, “Know the user, and know you’re not the user.” I didn’t pen the phrase, but unfortunately can’t remember who I got it from. Whoever it was, I thank them for it.

Q: When you work on a project, is there a particular element of UX design that you prefer to focus on, or would you just as soon work on any or all of it?

I am usually involved most with strategic direction, leadership, training, and management of experience design teams.

Q: So, at the head head of the pack, just like your days in the band. What’s the most important quality for a member of your team to possess?

The most talented designer is not always the most successful designer. Great UX folks start with being excellent designers (or researchers or writers), but then they go further. They are experts at gathering up-to-date knowledge of UX trends and industry competitors, and they are practiced, skillful communicators. These three areas together make a star UX professional: UX craft, relevant expert knowledge and skillful communication. The most successful UX folks on my teams embrace this idea and build learning opportunities around it.

Q: Speaking of your process, what hardware, software and other tools do you use?

Everything: Android and iOS mobile devices, Mac, PC, etc.

Q: What is your opinion of the fragmentation Android has created in the market? Do you see this as a positive or negative?

I love operating system disruptions! The complexity makes our heads hurt and brings us into a vibrant and creative period. From software application design to website design to service design to ecosystem design across form factors, each has opened up new opportunities for user experience to provide an ever more strategic contribution that delights users and helps businesses succeed.

Q: What would you consider the most misunderstood aspect of UX design?

Many companies confuse design thinking and design — design thinking is user-centered, strategic, creative problem-solving. That is a skill that all product roles should take part in. UX designers should be positioned to lead design thinking because they also bring their specific designer skills, knowledge and talent to both strategizing and executing great products.

Often, designers are not viewed as a strategic resource. As such, they are only invited into the product process during final execution, to “make the pages pretty.” Apple’s products have significantly changed users’ expectations — the technology and the design must now succeed together. By doing this, Apple raised its market capitalization to become the most valuable company in the world. No technology product company today can afford to cut design out of the product strategy conversation, but 98% of all companies don’t have a clue how to do it.

Q: You bring up a good point. What do you think we as an industry can do to correct this potentially costly error in judgment? How can we do a better job of making this point to businesses outside of our field?

Too often, companies think that copying Apple is the answer. I’ve heard executives say, “Go hire me a bunch of Steve Jobs.” That would be a disaster for 99% of companies. The answer is to focus on targeting the company challenges that UX is best suited to drive solutions for. For some companies, that might be giving UX authority to determine which new features will delight users and drive buzz (word of mouth), or which new features have the best chance of driving faster user-adoption rates and/or sustaining longer user-loyalty metrics.

Stay unique and original!5
Illustration by Rube Goldberg6.

Q: What are the main lessons you’ve learned throughout your work in UX?

To be, as Bill Gribbons often says, “a student of humankind.” It’s a great way to work and to live.

Q: What were the most remarkable “A-ha!” moments in your career? What were the most decisive moments that changed the way you approach UX projects?

Learning to be a facilitative leader of teams was a key turning point for me. In fast-paced organizations, nuanced delegation drives the right level of involvement, authority and motivation critical to creating successful, agile teams. These types of teams effectively balance the contributions of business, design and technology.

Q: Who would you say has had the biggest influence on you as a UX designer and why?

I have been very lucky to have many mentors, but working at Apple in the 1980s was the seminal event in my career. Michael Tchao was my mentor. He was, and still is, a rock star.

Q: If you could choose it, what would your legacy in the industry be? What is it that you want to be remembered for?

I hope that my legacy lies in playing a part in inventing and growing UX design and research from a concept into a profession. Through this, I hope to increase the number of smart people who find gainful, satisfying work as UX professionals.


Footnotes Link

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Rob Bowen is a staff writer for Web Hosting Geeks and Top Web Hosting, a longtime freelance designer, and burgeoning videographer and filmmaker whose creative voice and works can be heard and found around the web.

  1. 1

    “What is your opinion of the fragmentation Android has created in the market? Do you see this as a positive or negative?”

    Seriously? Were any of your other questions provided by the PR department of a major corporation?

    • 2

      lol, not sure what you mean. Android has fragmented the mobile market. It’s kind of the way the cookie crumbled. I’m an Android user who despises Apple and their embrace of DRM and proprietary nature. Was I supposed to say that as a qualifier?

      • 3

        I apologize for assuming that you were iShilling, but I have never been wrong previously when someone has used the word “fragmentation” in association with Android. But think about it, you had absolutely no problem inferring what I meant despite the fact that I used a mere 16 words, none of which were “Apple” or even began with an “i.”

        I have a ton of choices when it comes to buying a car. Do I want a Jeep or a Nissan? Coupe, sedan or SUV? Black, red, or Gotta Have It Green? 4 cylinders, V-6, or a V-8? Electric, hybrid or gasoline? So, is the car market fragmented? I’m sure that Henry Ford would have liked a term like that and an army of fanboys and girls running around mindlessly repeating it to denigrate his competition. Because that is what we are talking about here; competition and choice. The only thing fragmented is Apple’s share of the market, something that infuriated Steve Jobs, and in turn their fan base.

        Yes, different Android phones run different versions of the OS. and the phone manufacturers can introduce other differences, and *gasp* the end user has almost unlimited ability to add further customization. Other than the end user having freedom, how is that different than an iPhone? They have hardware that has to use old versions of their OS , at least if you want any modicum of performance. That would have occurred regardless of whether Android had become dominant or remained an open source hobbyist toy.

        I have been a Web Designer/Developer for nearly as long as such a creature has existed. There was never talk of fragmentation when IE came along to challenge Netscape, or when platforms caused things to render differently. These things were problems that required us, as designers, to find solutions. That’s our job in a nutshell. Different monitor sizes, resolution, color depth, etc. gave many of us fits, and still can at times, but should we complain about fragmentation of the desktop market? No, we should be designers and do our jobs and quit mouthing meaningless marketing terms like “fragmentation” or optimized for “retina displays.” I have my preferences, we all do. I dislike Apple quite a bit for myriad reasons, and I hate that IE and Safari eschew standards by utilizing the underlying OS to try and offer features in an effort to gain a competitive edge. I prefer Chrome over other browsers, and find Linux way more fun than other operating systems. But, you know what? Stuff I build needs to work on everything. That’s what I get paid to do.

        • 4

          I see what you mean, I guess. No shilling here, just perhaps poor choice of phrasing. As I am not directly in the UX field, I used the language I saw most often in my research. Hope you enjoyed the interview in spite of that. :)

        • 5

          Stefan Morris

          April 17, 2013 12:25 am

          I think you need to have a Coke and a smile and relax a little. You’re trying to provide ‘fragmentation’ examples to products built by different companies. I believe the reference for the fragmented ‘Android’ product is that if its an ‘Android’, it should be the same, or at least a standardized experience for consumption and development, regardless of which version.

  2. 6

    Fantastic interview! I’m actually looking at the HFID program at Bentley. It looks fascinating and to hear directly from one of the brains I might have the opportunity to learn from is great. One of the two things you mentioned that really stood out to me is focusing on design thinking and separating that from design in the minds of company leadership. And the other is your comment, “Often, designers are not viewed as a strategic resource. As such, they are only invited into the product process during final execution, to ‘make the pages pretty.’,” confirms my thought that my job is half design, and half advocating the need for more design thinking, earlier in our project cycle.

    Thank you!

    • 7

      Thanks! And stay tuned, for I interviewed one of their Professors, Bill Gribbons, for Smashing also. So it should come up in the rotation too.

  3. 8

    The headline of this article is simplistic to the context of the quote in the interview. While no one is saying copying others is the answer, it’s also not probable you could get 2 steves jobs much less 99 of them. Its also a terrible headline for such a fantastic interview. When there was so much rich material to draw from to craft a title, it’s odd you chose this.

    “Too often, companies think that copying Apple is the answer. I’ve heard executives say, “Go hire me a bunch of Steve Jobs.” That would be a disaster for 99% of companies. The answer is to focus on targeting the company challenges that UX is best suited to drive solutions for.”

    • 9

      While I cannot speak to why the title was chosen, as that’s an editorial choice, I will say I too was a little thrown by the choice. Thanks for the kind words, Nancy was a pleasure to interview.

  4. 10

    Justin McDonald

    April 13, 2013 5:50 pm

    Wonderful interview, and good insights here. I thought this quote was particularly interesting:

    “No technology product company today can afford to cut design out of the product strategy conversation, but 98% of all companies don’t have a clue how to do it.”

    This problem alone would make an interesting series, or even a book.

  5. 11

    I must agree the headline did not do justice for the article. This interview is awesome! Especially love the quote “Know the user, and know you’re not the user.”

  6. 12

    Aamir Shahzad

    April 15, 2013 11:11 am

    Great interview…i love the line…“Know the user, and know you’re not the user.”

  7. 13

    Geraint Williams

    April 17, 2013 5:05 pm

    Great interview, thanks – I totally agree that UX design needs to grow into a profession!


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