It’s All About the User Experience: Essential Tips from UX Expert Sarah Weise


User experience remains a rapidly growing segment of the creative industry. Whether you currently work in this area or you’re aspiring to transition into UX, thought leader Sarah Weise has some tips for you.

While user experience design has been a particularly hot area in the past few years, Sarah Weise has been honing her craft as a UX expert for more than a decade. Weise is User Experience Director at Booz Allen Hamilton, a leading provider of management and technology consulting services. She has a keen understanding of the complex relationship between business, empathy and user experience, and the importance of making genuine human connections. Here, Weise offers her thoughts on the power — and future — of UX:

You have a master’s degree in business. How does your background and interest in business factor into your career in UX?

Sarah Weise

During my MBA program at Georgetown University, one of the professors who impacted me most was a former FBI hostage negotiator named Christopher Voss. After taking his Business Negotiations course, I worked with him on two studies to understand the effect of empathy on high-stakes negotiation. During this time, I volunteered as a listener at a suicide hotline, with over 250 hours of suicide calls. In a high-stakes negotiation, I learned that the speed of making a connection could mean the difference between life and death. On a website, you only have one-tenth of a second to make a first impression. Speed of connection matters, and I try to apply what I learned about empathy and connecting with people to every website I create.

User experience and marketing are wholly interrelated. For any website or product, we must understand and connect with our target audiences, and create value for those individuals. If we cannot do this effectively, people will not return — and all the purchased ads or SEO optimization in the world won’t fix it. Marketing today is not about advertising; it’s about creating content that your target audiences will find valuable. For anyone interested in pursuing an MBA, I highly recommend an evening program so you can apply what you learn in real time during the day on your job.

What advice do you have for graphic designers making the transition into a UX role?

I have three key tips:

1. It’s OK to be messy. Some graphic designers look at my hand-sketched wireframes and gasp in horror when I use them to test with real users. The quicker we can get to results, the quicker we can tweak the design. Even if the ideas in your sketchbook aren’t perfect, share them early and often.

2. Design in chunks. You don’t need the entire website designed before testing. It’s perfectly acceptable to test and release small chunks. In fact, I recommend it. We call it “realigning” instead of “redesigning.” It’s generally preferable to both you and your users. You get quick feedback, and customers aren’t thrown by changes.

3. Remember that users are not designers. No matter how poor a website, customers typically hate change. They also have trouble envisioning anything more than slight tweaks. When interviewing users, frame your questions to get at their underlying emotional and functional needs. Watch their behavior and weigh what they do over what they say. You were hired to be the designer, not the user. Take the spirit of your users’ ideas and weave them into the industry standards and best practices you’re implementing.

There is a growing concern that technology’s omnipresence is hindering real human connection. How are you mitigating this through your work?

In some ways, our digital world has built an artificial and impersonal lens between people. I, too, worry that my children will grow up believing that connections are no more than likes or shares. My team at Booz Allen Hamilton chooses to focus on making human connections. We need to understand both the business and the target audience before the design process begins.

When it comes to understanding the business, most of us are used to attending long, drawn-out meetings where there’s a lot of talking at you with no real results. People are buried in their phones and laptops, and not truly present. My team breaks that mold at the start of each project by assembling all the decision makers in one room for a hands-on visioning session, no electronic devices allowed.

We facilitate activities that get people talking with each other instead of at each other. Participants are moving around the room, sticking Post-its on the walls and collaboratively brainstorming and sketching. In these types of meetings, we’ve learned a great deal about the business goals, product, customer perceptions, and what stakeholders really think about how this “thing” should look. 

To deepen the connection with targeted customers, one people-focused activity my team often uses is image-based projective interviews. Thinking in images taps into a different part of the customer’s brain and gives us unique insights into the deep emotions that drive their behaviors. Ask your customers to bring 10 to 15 images that represent how they feel about a related topic, website or brand. Ask them questions as to why they chose those images and what they mean to them.

What are your top time-saving hacks for quickly learning about your users/target audience?

First, forget statistical significance. Keep it small, then iterate. You’ll start to see trends with three to five users. When you stop hearing big stuff and start hearing nitpicky things, stop the usability testing, make a few key changes, then test again. Don’t skip moderated usability testing in an attempt to save time. You’ll learn more from three to five moderated tests than you will from dozens of un-moderated tests.

Second, you don’t need a fully designed mockup to test. Wireframes and even sketches will do the trick. 

Third, while pre-written scenarios and questions may be helpful to compare test sessions, they are not required for usability testing. Ask users to walk you through what they normally do on a site or page, and you’ll learn a great deal about their top tasks.

Finally, big, beautiful reports collect dust. If it’s taking more than a couple hours, ditch the report template and opt for a bulleted list of the top five recommendations that will make an impact on the overall experience. Your clients are busy, so keep your recommendations short and sweet.

Hindsight is 20/20. What is the one thing you wished you knew when starting out in user experience?

When I started out in UX over a decade ago, I threw myself into the role of advocate and passionately argued for the user. Yet what I failed to realize is that advocacy is not enough. We must first and foremost internalize the goals of the business that hired us or the product that’s launching so we can advocate better for users within the appropriate context.

For example, let’s say we go to our end users, and they tell us they need bicycles. But the company we work for sells unicycles. By understanding the business or website’s vision, you can make recommendations that can actually be implemented. 

How are you inspiring the future in your role as UX director at Booz Allen Hamilton? What is the future of UX in general?

Design is much more than just a look or a user interface, and at Booz Allen Hamilton, we work to design experiences that go beyond layouts and graphics. My team strives to deliver minimal viable products as quick as possible, then make iterative changes as we learn more.

As I worked this morning, I asked my Amazon Echo to switch playlists. I didn’t leave my desk. Didn’t hunt for my phone. Didn’t turn on a device. It just listened and responded. I’ve been playing around with this new device for a few months now, and in that time, Alexa has become a part of our family. My 3-year-old has said, “Alexa, stop Maroon 5. Play Disney Pandora instead.” Am I in for it, or what? 

We’ve gone from laptops to mobile to now wearables. The screens keep getting smaller until eventually there will be no screen at all. Devices are interconnected so much that the term “product” may vanish altogether.

In my opinion, the Echo marks the future of e-commerce. Imagine if you could say from your kitchen, “Alexa, order more paper towels,” and in two days, the paper towels would come to your door. 

The point is, while there is no user interface for this product, there was a lot of design that went into it. How does it listen? How does it respond? What does it respond to? These are all design decisions that were certainly iteratively discussed and tested.

In addition to designing without interfaces, we are also designing for connections, data accessed through myriad devices. There’s an unprecedented amount of complexity in the designs that we’re being asked to create. And as any good designer knows, it’s easy to make something hard. It’s hard to make something easy.

Looking for a role in user experience? Check out TCG’s available jobs.