12 QUESTIONS WITH MATT GOULD

UX luminary Matt Gould provides cutting-edge strategy and design services to a diverse and discerning range of clients – from hungry start-ups to international corporations. The Auckland Director of acclaimed User Experience firm Lushai, Matt is also a design coach, co-founder of user experience training company UX Gym and co-founder of the user experience design conference UX Homegrown. Here, the local legend takes time out of his busy day to chat with us about what it’s like to work in the vanguard of this rapidly-evolving field.

How did you get started in the industry?
Fell down a slippery slope. When I started training as a graphic designer I built a website for a photography project at design school. Gradually I became more interested in the design problems of the website than I was in the actual photography. Once I started working as a graphic designer I started learning about interaction design so I could be a better web graphic designer. That same gradual shift of interest I’d experienced in design school pulled me from graphic design for the web, to interaction design to user experience design.

What were the biggest hurdles you faced and how did you overcome them?
I think that first gig is the hardest in any design field. In my case, because I was moving through different fields, I've had several 'first gigs'. Generally, I would tell everyone that I was whatever kind of designer I was aspiring to be, then leverage whatever experience I had that was relevant to my new field. So for example, when I was working as an interaction/graphic designer and wanted to move into UX, I started telling people I was a UX designer, and in interviews I focussed on my experience (what little there was) relevant to that new role.

How has the industry changed over the years?
Ten years ago you had to work really hard to convince people to invest in a user-centred, experience-based approach to design, as opposed to a marketing or engineering-led approach. These days, enough people have experienced the results of UX design and are actively looking for it - you only have to convince them that you are the best person or organisation to deliver it. There's still a fair amount of convincing that goes on though, especially in New Zealand. There’s a lot of awareness of the value of UX design in the corporate, government and not for profit world, but less so in SMEs. Awareness of UX in New Zealand’s design world is still less than in the States or London, although it has grown massively over the last two to three years. 

Also in the last few years we have managed to ditch the perception that an evidence-based approach to design and a creative-based approach are somehow at odds. More people acknowledge now that a good UX process includes sound research and creative risk taking.

What inspired you to start up Lushai?
Like many people who start an agency, it was a combination of frustration at old ways of doing things, and thinking there was a need in Auckland for a small UX agency made up of senior people who could deliver world class design without the baggage of a large operation. But actually it was my business partner (and old boss) Lulu Pachuau who founded Lushai back in 2008. I had no experience running a design company and Lulu is very much a like mind when it comes to UX, so instead of starting an agency from scratch I created a presence for Lushai in Auckland, leveraging Lulu's experience and expertise. I treated moving back to New Zealand from London as an opportunity to stop complaining about how things could be done better and to actually start doing them better.

What project are you most proud of and why?
That's really hard to say. I've worked on some government projects in the UK that had a big impact so I should be most proud of them. But actually the projects I always feel the most satisfied with are the ones where we get a good result for our clients and users in challenging environments, projects with complex requirements or challenging delivery conditions. 

Perversely, one of my proudest moments was consulting on one of my most mundane projects. I remember facing a lot of scepticism and opposition and having to argue really hard to get some design changes into a large UK retailer’s website. After I left I was racked with self-doubt and started to wonder if senior management had been correct and would one day hunt me down and say 'You ruined our business'. About a year later, I found out that the changes had been successful, in fact, really successful. I felt very relieved and proud - but also, because I had spent so much time full of self-doubt, slightly amazed. Delusions of grandeur there, I think, in my belief I could single-handedly ruin a business that size.

Where do you see websites heading in the next decade?
The UX world is littered with confident predictions of 'the next ten years' that turned out to be false. It's amazing actually that over the last ten years the basic way people access information through the internet hasn't changed that much: on websites through a browser.

But to add my guess to the pile, I expect to see a mix of things we never predicted and old technology that just hangs around. The basic foundation of the web will stay more or less the same; the same basic structure of information recorded using an agreed semantic standard and accessed through a website on a browser. I think we can also expect to see old and useful technologies hanging around and being used in clever ways. Look at the continued innovation we see with text messaging and email as an example.

However the kinds of information, website and browser might be radically different. Just as information stored on the web has grown from just text to images to video and from static websites to rich web apps, future information might be virtual environments or intelligent agents. Browsers might be unrecognisable once adapted for a VR headset, video contact lenses or your bathroom mirror. And the websites we need to create for them, in terms of aesthetics and how you navigate them etc., may be unrecognisable. Even in occasional periods of settled design like the one we are in now, we are constantly revising our design ideas as we adapt to changes in the way people use technology, and to emerging platforms connected to the web.

Also I confidently predict with 100% certainty that in ten years you will have websites lasered directly into your brain using a Trump-laser connected to a Trump-contact lens.

What makes a good UX professional?
So many things! But successful UX people tend to have enough empathy and imagination to understand and design for people who might be very different to themselves, and enough imagination and technical thinking to be able to solve problems by creating understandable and usable systems. Generally, you need enough humility to know the answer to a complex design problem probably isn't just sitting in your genius brain waiting to be revealed - but enough swagger to push through a vision once you have followed a good process to get the answer. A high tolerance for post-it notes helps as well.

How important is formal training? How has design education changed since you started out?
Personally I think any kind of formal training is invaluable, whether it's a degree that teaches you how to think, critique and communicate, or a technical education that teaches you how to make and fix things. Both of these experiences are great foundations for UX. In a good design degree you should get both. In any kind of decent formal education you get a massive amount of critique in a very short period of time, and the opportunity to flex your ideas in a way that becomes difficult in the working world.

As to how important it is, it depends on you. Many people have built great design careers without any formal education. But it's a great foundation, and most of all studying design is fun. So if you're young then it feels like a no-brainer to me.

Weirdly, design education hasn't changed that much since I started out, and that was a thousand years ago judging but the sound my knees make when I run. In New Zealand there is still very little available in terms of formal UX education. There are bits and bobs of UX you can add onto your design degree, or your computer science degree or even your business degree. There are also private short course offered by the likes of General Assembly in OZ and our own uxgym.com. And of course some really exciting stuff coming up from ACG Yoobee in terms of UX this year! This space is changing very quickly so it will be interesting to see where we are in five years.

What are the biggest challenges for people starting out in the industry today?
It's that first gig. How can you prove you would be a good UX designer if no one will give you UX work because you can't prove you are a good UX designer? The best thing you can do is use a user-centred design process in your study or current work as much as possible, and document that process to use as examples when you apply for work. Then you need to network like crazy. There are opportunities out there for junior UX people, but they tend to pop up with very short notice. You just need to make sure that you are in people's head space when opportunities arise. On the plus side, it's a very welcoming community. Most agencies will be happy to meet you for a coffee.

Can you tell us about an exciting project you are currently working on?
The curse of UX is that you are often not allowed to talk about current work! But we are nearing completion on a project for a New Zealand charity that I think is going to make a big difference in how they operate. It's particularly exciting because there is a focus on sustainability of the project - training them up to make good ongoing design decisions. It feels like a really solid result and I can't wait for them to experience the difference it will make to their operations.

Where do you see yourself in ten years’ time?
That is an excellent question. Older. Balder. Inexplicably taller.

Who in the industry do you most admire and why?

Many, many people locally. I feel like the quality of New Zealand's UX practice is as strong as anything I've experienced overseas. I'm too afraid to single people out for fear of missing someone important. It's also hard because UX is so collaborative and interdisciplinary that it's sometimes difficult to figure out exactly what someone's contribution is. Internationally, I've always had a soft spot for Don Norman (http://www.jnd.org). My favourite books of his are 'Emotional Design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things' (http://www.jnd.org/books/emotional-design-why-we-love-or-hate-everyday-things.html) and 'Living with Complexity' (http://www.jnd.org/books/living-with-complexity.html).