Last week on our UX community Slack channel, we hosted a live AMA with James Royal-Lawson, the Stockholm-based UXer, optimiser, web analyst and podcaster.

James was educated as an economist, with roots in computing, and has been working with digital since 1996. He co-hosts the popular design podcast UX Podcast with Per Axbom, where they share knowledge and build awareness around the complexity and challenges of designing for humanity.

During the past 17 years James has worked on web and intranet management, usability, user experience, analytics and optimisation (in various forms) for dozens of Swedish and international organisations, both large and small. Since 2006, he’s been an independent UX consultant under his company Beantin AB. James is also currently writing a book about UX Analytics.

For this hour-long chat, James fielded questions on everything from building a UX portfolio from scratch to upholding ethical responsibility to paying off the UX ‘debt’.

Here are the highlights from James’s AMA. Please note, some edits have been made for clarity and spelling.

You originally trained as an economist. What parallels can you draw between your early training in that discipline and UX?

One of the big advantages that my economics background gives me is an understanding of how various economic concepts work; markets, business, consumers.

The parallels? Well, towards the end of my studies I specialised in what was called back then ‘experimental economics’ – these days I’d call it behavioural economics. I was very frustrated at university with how so many economic theories had ridiculous conditions attached to them which rendered them unrealistic in real life. Behaviour economics opened the door to observing and understanding how real people behaved in economic situations – cognitive behaviour, the way in which we aren’t always as rational as theories like to believe.

That laid the ground for my thirst for understanding user behaviour.

If you have a product that is facing multiple UX related challenges, ranging from usability to functionality, but mostly there’s a lot of ‘usability debt‘. How would you start approaching paying that usability debt? How do you fix the leaking roof so new stuff doesn’t face the same challenges?

Oh, lots of things here – first, I’d want to have an idea of what change I’d like to make – so that I could make the insights (the problems we’ve observed) actionable – start building a hypothesis including an expected impact.

Melissa Perri taught me in episode 120 of UX Podcast to prioritise things using a simple formula: strength of user problem multiplied by the value to business.

What I suggest is giving the strength of the user problem a value from 0 to… well pick your upper range but let’s say 6 as an example. 0 is when the change would make things worse for the user (this adds an ethical aspect to things) and 6 would be absolutely wonderful for them.

On the business side of things, 0 would be totally irrelevant for business goals and 6 would be exactly what our org wants to achieve.

Then you times them together and you have a number which you can use to prioritise!

The mathematical side of me loves this approach.

I see you’ve been UXing in Stockholm for some time, would be great to get you opinion on eye-tracking in the context of UX. Have you used it? What do you think of it? Can you see a relevant use case for it in UX research?

I have actually done a reasonable amount of eye tracking usability testing – although I must admit it’s been a few years now.

Doing usability testing with eye tracking doesn’t have to make the testing much more expensive; and I think it’s great value.

Doing eye tracking made me realise just how hopeless mouse-tracking tools are – or rather, how poor correlation there is between where you are pointing the mouse and where you are looking. The two only basically correlate when you are about to click.

Anyway – two big advantages I’ve seen with eye tracking:

  1. The retrospective think out loud technique is very useful for getting users to explain their thinking. This is where you let them, pretty much in silence, complete the task(s) then play the recording of their gaze back to them and talk to them about what they were looking at and thinking.
  2. Management are totally sold on videos of eye tracking. You can really get a point across – much easier that with a dry, long, formal testing report.

How hard a subject is UX analytics to write about? Considering that analytics can vary so greatly depending on the project and objectives . How do you put that down in writing without being vague as “it depends”?

Oh man. People told me writing a book is hard work, and it is. Especially when you need to work for a living at the same time!

One of the big problems, the elephant in the room if you will, I’ve had to fight with is trying to talk about analytics from a UX perspective without getting too much into specifics of the (Google) Analytics interface and set up – but it’s pretty much impossible!

I do a 1-day workshop/course about quantitative validation – in that I put a lot of focus on the process of generating insights and hypothesis using analytics as your data source.

One of the biggest challenges – problems – I see with how we, as UXers, use analytics data is that it’s far too easy to misread the data or presume it’s saying something that it’s not.

One of the most crucial aspects of UX analytics is checking your data. It’s always broken, you just need to work out how before you start jumping to insights and (costly) changes.

I am an aspiring UX designer working on my portfolio but I don’t have any real projects under my belt except for UX case studies of conceptual apps. How would you suggest I build a portfolio? 

Doing hypothetical case studies is a useful tool. I think it’s a good idea for you to have your process mapped out – how you work. For me, the end product isn’t really that interesting, what is interesting is the steps you took to get there. So perhaps you could take a real service or website and ‘work’ with it; explaining the steps you are taking as part of your process to reach whatever goal you have in mind with the hypothetical project.

How can UX designers be more aware of their ethical responsibilities and actually do something about any issues raised?

I genuinely think that we need to be better at saying no. I think we also need to be better at considering the short term and long term impacts of our design decisions – especially in the area of persuasion and conversion optimisation. Perhaps you achieve short term gains, but you are perhaps equally setting up a long term loss – eventually that user will work it all out.

Another aspect of ethics is oblivious design – where things we have designed end up being used in a way that we didn’t realised they could; or wasn’t possible at the time of design. Facebook swinging elections is perhaps one example; that really wasn’t what they planned or designed for… but it happened. We can’t predict the future, so dealing with this kind of ethical dilemma is tough – Twitter still hasn’t worked out how to deal with abuse, bots and trolling!

What has been your biggest lessons or key takeaways so far from hosting The UX Podcast?

It’s been hugely rewarding – when we started out back in 2011 we just wanted to try to break down the silos a little bit – to connect together the various groups that need to work well and understand each other in order to make great digital stuff!

Since then I’ve had the opportunity to talk to so many smart people, and learn a huge amount myself.

Our industry is constantly evolving, getting more complex, but that’s what makes it fun and challenging!

I have a situation where I disagree with my leadership on how to approach convincing a client to invest in UX. I come from the camp of anchoring the benefits to things they care about and ROI. My leadership favors a more esoteric and polished, “Let us explain why you need us” strategy. Where do you land on this?

You’re right. They’re wrong.

I’m not a fan of agencies – listeners to the podcast will probably be aware of that. The traditional agency model isn’t geared up to serve the needs of the client, it’s geared up for short-term wins – to land the deal. Ok, I’ve seen a few agencies during my time that have managed to hold their head above the water and keep real needs and benefits in mind – but ultimately they need money in to pay the bills.

Oh man, that was such a cynical comment!

I think, from reading you comment, you’re perhaps ready for a client-side challenge. Perhaps at an organisation that is showing signs of UX maturity, so you can help them on their way; from the inside.

You can continue the conversation with our very own UX community over on Slack. Here you can share your own experiences and seek advice from UX experts from around the world, ask and answer questions in our UXChat channel and take part in exclusive AMAs (like the one you’ve just read).