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April 18, 2012

POV: Interview with Jérôme Cordiez, UX Architect

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Welcome to The Agency Post. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

My name is Jérôme Cordiez. I’m 32 years old and live just outside Brussells in Belgium. I'm the founder of LovelyCharts.com and am an independent UX architect at thisislovely.com. I’m married, have an awesome daughter and I share my home office with a 80kg Great Dane named Hagrid. I design apps.

According to your website, you were classically trained as an architect - for real buildings. What caused the shift to user experience architect (UX)?

Serendipity? More seriously, it was not an overnight switch. First, I got interested in computers as an expression medium: I started with CAD programs, then got into Photoshop and video editing to help me communicate about architecture projects, and I eventually ended up adding interactivity with Flash.

Then I basically grew up with Flash. From 2001 to 2007, I worked as a “multimedia something,” doing design and development work, mainly in the field of online marketing, producing advergames, rich minisites and interactive modules and widgets.

Pretty cool and fun stuff, but honestly, it was not always all very useful. So, at some point around 2007, I got frustrated, bored and decided to completely give up on marketing stuff to focus exclusively on applications. I wanted to work on things people would use for real, that people needed and that would help them do what they had to do.

That triggered the start of my career in UX: I joined Adobe as a UX consultant and started working on Lovely Charts on the side.

Incidentally, this somehow reconciled my career with what I initially wanted to do — architecture. Software design and architecture actually have a lot in common. It’s about designing solutions to real problems, taking user needs into account, technical limitations or opportunities, business objectives, environmental constraints, etc. Solutions that not only solve problems and satisfy functional requirements, but also carry a vision and emotions.

I find that extremely stimulating intellectually speaking, and extraordinarily rewarding too, when goals are achieved and users are happy — it’s just awesome!

What sorts of projects have you worked on throughout your career? What were your favorites? Most challenging?

nato-diagram I’ve had the chance to work on all kind of projects, from scrappy startups to multi-million [dollar] software projects, across all kind of industries... Financial apps, eCommerce, HR and ERP systems, Flight planning modules, Data visualization, drawing tools, mobile apps...

If I had to name one project, I would pick an application I worked on while at Adobe, a Mission Support System for NATO, that is now used to facilitate all the mission planning and scheduling for AWACS aircrafts. Not only was the whole experience amazing and the app itself very exciting (interactive maps, timelines, scheduling modules...), but knowing that every day, NATO missions are planned within an application I helped design is just awesome.

What are the core skills and concepts that art directors and developers should understand about UX?

That UX is definitely not about making things pretty. Don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe that visual design is a key element of UX. Branding is important and pleasure is a vital emotion, but it’s only a part of a whole.

How should agencies be incorporating concepts of UX into their workflow?

One thing I feel rather strongly about is that UX designers should always be involved as early as possible in the project, and should be on the front line, interacting with both the end users and project stakeholders. I’ll never understand agencies who send BAs and PMs to client meetings, but not the ones that will actually design and build the thing.

You’re also an entrepreneur. What inspired you to create Lovely Charts?

Besides the motivations behind the product itself (see below), I also wanted to work on a product of my own, as a learning experience, and I thought of it as a nice showcase opportunity for my consulting services. This turned out great. I learned a TON, and it actually landed me a job at Adobe, plus a bunch of other missions afterwards. There’s been a lot of discussion in the past around the fact that agencies and service providers should not work on their own products. I obviously completely disagree.

http://vimeo.com/32450225

What was the process involved in designing the program? How did you test and conclude that users would benefit from the program? How did you decide what features to include or omit?

Lovely Charts all started with a personal need and frustration: I wanted a tool that would help me create diagrams I wouldn’t be ashamed of putting in my presentations, easy to use, at a reasonable cost. So basically, I made it for myself, designed and implemented what I missed in other solutions, and left out what I didn’t need/use. User feedback then helped me refine the tool and decide what features to tweak/add.

That being said, I also firmly believe in having a vision and that sticking to it is crucial. Making an app is not just about providing features X, Y and Z, but it is also about defining a brand, establishing key values, deciding upon the type of app you are making for what category of users. This is key when defining the roadmap, and it helps a lot when deciding what to work on next.

Were you ever tempted to give the product away for free and use advertising to generate revenue for the program?

I’ve given it some thought, but I don’t think it would work very well. A diagramming tool is typically something you need only occasionally: You do your stuff when you have to, then move on. It’s definitely not the kind of tool you’d use every day, so even though the absolute number of users is significant, engagement is typically relatively low.

Plus, and that’s a larger problem I have marketing-wise. The app itself is very horizontal, I have users across pretty much all industries, web designers, developers, teachers, analysts, engineers, consultants, lawyers, etc. So, even if I were to serve ads, I’d probably have a hard time trying to qualify the audience to make an ad-supported model work. Finally, and that’s more of a personal preference, I don’t necessarily like the idea of subsidizing tools through distracting advertising that will use screen real estate I could use for something useful. If I need a hammer, I’d rather pay for it than getting it for free but with a giant banner attached to it.

Do you have a philosophy or guidelines for creating programs or software for users? Do you find that less is more in creating programs and interfaces? What level of user do you design for, or how do you go about finding out the level of expertise of the audience?

Wow, lots of questions here! My most important guideline is: Always say NO to feature requests. Seriously, I strongly believe no feature should ever be designed or implemented without prior thorough understanding and acceptance of why it should be. That doesn’t mean designers shouldn’t listen. Quite the opposite actually, I think saying no to features is a great way to get a conversation started!

What is something you wish people understood more about UX?

I’ll leave it to Steve Jobs: “Design is not what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

What do you think makes a great UX architect?

If I had to hire a UX architect, I’d probably look for two things. First, empathy, the capacity to really listen and understand both business objectives and user needs. Then, as an inseparable second, the ability to synthesize and apply those within a solution. Obviously, imagination and creativity give bonus points.

How do you collaborate with other UX architects, copywriters, designers, developers and others?

I like iterative projects that foster active collaboration between everyone involved. There’s nothing I hate more than silos where you throw your work over the fence for others to deal with. Never forget UX is a team effort: Poor copywriting will ruin the best user interfaces and excessive bugs will make the user experience suck, no matter how well thought out it was initially. Plus, issues will always arise at implementation time, and developers will often be the first ones to notice. Therefore, mutual respect, understanding and communication are critical.

What advice would you give to someone who is interested in following a similar career path?

That’s a tough one! I think I’d probably recommend working for an agency/consulting organization at some point in your career. Freelancing is great, but there’s so much to learn in working for an established firm: larger projects, experienced collaborators/mentors, workflows, methodologies etc. And no, big corps are not necessarily boring and full of incompetent people. Also, working on a product of your own, being on the other side of the fence, is a great experience I’d encourage everyone to try at least once.

Most Inspirational Book: This will definitely sound cliche, but I enjoyed Steve Jobs’ biography. I thought it was terribly written, but the story itself is very inspiring. I also loved Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos.

Music that gets you into your “Zone”: Nothing specific. It depends on my mood, the work I have to do, and the range of stuff I can listen to is very very very wide.

One reason you love what you do: Only one? I could probably make a big list, but I’ll give you two: 1. Discovering and learning about different businesses/industries/people all the time. I absolutely LOVE that. 2. Producing useful stuff that people will use and enjoy using. Highly gratifying.

Connect with Jerome on Twitter @jeromecordiez or on LinkedIn.

 

Feature image courtesy of Flickr user alangrlane.

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