October 2014

Volume 29 Number 10

Don't Get Me Started : Raising Higher Education

David Platt | October 2014

David PlattI haven’t been this excited about my fall teaching schedule in more than a decade. I’m rolling out a new class at Harvard University Extension School called CSCI-E34, User Experience Engineering. It’s an academic adaptation of the industrial UX material that I teach through IDesign. Its subtitle, which is also the title of my forthcoming book, is “The Joy of UX.”

I have 77 students registered as I write these words (late August), with a week left in the registration period. That figure really shows the emerging recognition of the importance of UX, which I’ve been shouting about since I started writing this column nearly five years ago. Last year I declared the 2010s the Decade of UX (msdn.microsoft.com/magazine/dn342880). It’s starting to roll.

My students will work throughout the term on a single UX project of their own choosing, developing their materials as I teach each topic. The end result will be a complete UX design package: personas, stories, preliminary layout and storyboards, UX testing plan, telemetry plan, security analysis, and prototype implementation. In addition to gaining hands-on experience with each stage of the design process, they finish my class with a killer package to show prospective employers.

Interestingly, about 25 percent of my students are female, at least judging by their names on my class roster. (I don’t know many men named “Lisa,” although silverbacks like me might remember Johnny Cash’s classic song, “A Boy Named Sue” [www.youtube.com/watch?v=WOHPuY88Ry4].) That’s the highest percentage of female students I’ve ever had in a class. As a father of two daughters and no sons, I think that’s great. The industry is finally paying attention to what my daughter Annabelle wrote in this column last month (that didn’t take long, did it?).

My class doesn’t teach graphical design, otherwise known as decoration. I wrote about that here two years ago (msdn.microsoft.com/magazine/hh394140). Craigslist single-handedly brought down the entire newspaper industry with killer content and ultra-simple usage, and no graphical design whatsoever. (I am, however, providing a very good graphical designer as a guest speaker to rebut this contention.)

My class doesn’t teach implementation, either. UX isn’t about programming. It’s about figuring out what ought to be programmed. That’s an entirely different problem, to which you cannot easily Google a solution, as you can to, say, implementing a color gradient.

Because the world needs good UX people quickly, I’ve adapted an idea from the Army. Wounded soldiers need immediate medical attention (the “golden hour” of trauma medicine), so the Army provides each platoon with a medic. The medic isn’t a fully qualified doctor, although the soldiers customarily address him as “Doc.” The medic is trained in the Army’s protocols for stabilizing wounded soldiers—opening airways, stopping severe bleeding, starting IVs and so on.

Similarly, UX questions that arise in development projects require quick answers. You can’t have untrained developers doing it on their own (“Code 0x80040005 – Unknown error”).

My class aims to create UX medics, so that every development team can afford one. The UX medic will know the basic concepts of UX design and their most common applications—for example, knowing that data is the key to most UX questions, and how to start obtaining it. She will know how to generate a user persona quickly and accurately, to help the development team grasp the slippery concept of “the user.” She will know how to do a usability test quickly and cheaply so it doesn’t hold up the project, or get skipped to keep it from holding up the project. Above all, she will know how to iterate the UX, starting early and continuing throughout the project.

If you have a UX guru or a team of them (as the Army has actual surgeons), their time is in very tight supply. They will benefit greatly from having trained UX medics on the project teams to handle the small stuff immediately, and to package up the hardest stuff for them to handle.

As the Army provides its medics with protocols, so I’ve prepared directions and templates for my students, the forthcoming UX medics. With characteristic modesty, I call this assemblage the Plattski® Protocol™. Seventy-seven students (and counting) are about to start learning it.

I’m really looking forward to spreading the Joy of UX.

David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.