Theoretical knowledge provides us a model with which to approach problem solving, and can be used to validate an intuitive response. More plainly – it describes learning through the experiences of others. As we know, a practitioner is one who seeks to attain a deeper understanding of a problem space through the application of theoretical knowledge. As user experience designers, practicing our craft happens fairly automatically. Many of us spend a lot of time in the trenches of production-based activities. Depending on the scale of the project, we narrow-in on rich interaction problems, complex digital concepts or broad systematic strategies. Common to many problem-solving processes, it’s easy to get caught up in a specific context or fall into a pattern of prescribing solutions that can limit our own mental models.
Theory helps us understand why we are making or should make certain design decisions. By comparing like scenarios and extracting common patterns, we can then apply the patterns we extract to other contexts as a way of filtering our thought process amidst the chaos of deciphering a new problem space. For example design principles can be used to describe the overarching goals we are trying to accomplish with the mechanisms we employ in design. During several projects I’ve been a part of at The Nerdery, we’ve developed a set of design principles to act both as the theoretical guide and as measurable references. “User Orientation” has been used as a principle to describe the use of intuitive wayfinding within an application. In one instance it has translated to the idea of visual hierarchy of content, and in another it has taken the form of feedback when navigating between zoom levels on a graph. What we were trying to accomplish was similar but the form depended on the context of the project. Later on, the “User Orientation” principle was used as a success measurement. We could ask “Did we accomplish what we set out to with this feature?”
While we have access to a plethora of resources that can inform us on what to do and certainly why to do it, the application of theoretical knowledge has the greatest value in tandem with personal experience, or the practical application of theory, due the unique details present in that new space. When I started at The Nerdery as an intern, my theoretical knowledge of UX practices relatively outweighed my experience. Coming from a degree program with a focus on general design and one previous UX internship, I had little of the latter. I did, however, scour through available resources in attempt to fulfill these goals:
- Discover the basic tools of the trade (what activities does a UX designer do?)
- Discover the greater purpose that these activities are meant to accomplish
- Understand how one uses the tools
I found that I could more easily fathom satisfying the first two goals, but the third was a little murky from where I was sitting. This is precisely because I was sitting, when in fact the third goal can really only be learned through action. For example, reading that it’s important to tailor one’s wireframe annotations specifically to a developer, visual designer or client (and when it is appropriate do so) did not teach me the proper techniques for communicating the message clearly to the specified audience. I was only able to begin gaining practical knowledge by writing and rewriting annotations directed towards the visual designer until the message made sense for that channel. By using actual experience to internalize information I had read helped me better understand how I might effectively communicate my ideas in a wireframe document, and understand why I was spending time learning to do it. Consequently, I also learned that it may be necessary to repeat that experience a few more times in order to perfect it.
Exercise is Healthy
To gain holistic knowledge of UX practices it is of course healthy to exercise both theory and practice together. Shifting the perspective regularly and often as a way to validate one or the other is a good way to stay engaged in a moving, cyclical learning process. In this model, theory is akin to learning the language of UX, while practice would be that of knowing how to use the language to communicate an idea (Fred Beecher outlines a tactical approach to supporting this process for industry newbies here). As someone who is still quite new to user experience design myself, I would say theoretically, as a UX designer you can make use of this learning model to help grow your knowledge base wherever you are in your career.
Alison got her start in the UX field in 2011 and is a graduate from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, with a Bachelor of Science in Visualization. Alison started as a UX Interaction Designer at The Nerdery in 2012.