Having worked in UX since its infancy, Vanessa Cho, Director of UX at GoPro, talks about the emergence, methods and challenges of the UX profession.
Vanessa, you’ve worked in UX for 17 years, since its infancy. In that time, how has UX professionals’ status in company hierarchies changed?
I am showing my age, but when I first started, UX wasn’t even a known industry term. You had a smattering of information architects, technical designers or researchers advocating on behalf of the customer, but these were often individuals reporting into Marketing, Engineering or Customer Support. Ultimately, they answered to other priorities.
Now, it’s understood that for a product to be successful, everyone needs to be passionate about understanding user needs and delivering the best experience for the customer regardless of role. As a result, UX is universally transcending organisational structures and job titles. Some of the best UX designers I’ve worked with have been engineers who were natural problem-solvers with deep customer empathy.
Even more remarkable is that UX can now be found as a respected department on its own. It has been a remarkable trajectory to watch.
GoPro’s UX designer team has grown a lot since you joined them. How important is UX design within GoPro?
One of the reasons I came on board is the unwavering focus and passion GoPro’s executive team has for building world-class experiences for our customers. Nick Woodman, GoPro’s CEO and founder, is our customers’ biggest champion and his energy is contagious.
This permeates the company and makes it that much easier to embed good UX into everything we do. We ask ourselves on a daily basis, “Does this reduce friction for the customer?” And once we’re satisfied that an experience is friction-free, we ask: “Now, how can we make it amazing?”.
In addition to having dedicated UX teams on both the hardware and software side, we’re currently codifying this in a set of design principles to unify those teams and drive our products and services. This rigor is good for business, of course. But frankly, we owe it to our customers, who are so passionate and loyal. They deserve nothing less.
Could you share a brief overview of your UX process? What methods do you use within the field of user research?
On one level, our UX process is similar to what is found in many Silicon Valley software companies. Working closely with Product Managers, we support the product definition phase by researching, concepting, prototyping and testing incessantly with our customers. Once we validate that a concept is of value, we move into a detailed design phase and then towards launch. We’re careful to include customer feedback at every step of the way.
What makes us different than most product design teams is that we’re uniquely structured to support this iterative process. Typically, product design teams are built in one of two ways. Either a team is comprised of specialists who deliver quality but often lack speed or growth, or it’s comprised of generalists who deliver speed but often lack consistently high quality across all UX functions.
For example, I have only worked with a small handful of UX generalists who can write really well. It is nearly impossible to do research, information architecture, content strategy, interaction, visual design, copywriting, and prototyping all exceptionally well.
Instead, we’re building a hybrid model that allows us to harness specialised skills while delivering at the speed and scale necessary for a company like GoPro. We embed a UX generalist within each product team, who can champion the customer experience and execute quickly. Simultaneously, we have a group of specialists – researchers, visual designers, content strategist – that work with each of the generalists to ensure the work is consistent, top-quality and on-brand.
While this model relies on strong collaboration and communication between individuals, it has been an empowering model for our team that scales well. It also helps that we have a kick-ass team of people to work with.
You talk a lot about how key it is to understand customer behaviour. How is that realised at GoPro?
A lot of companies are getting better at incorporating customer feedback into product decisions, and that’s always been a big priority for us. We have dedicated design researchers who do customer research to inform our design work and user testing to validate it, and we have a formal beta testing program as well.
But GoPro was started because Nick Woodman had a particular desire to capture photos from his surfboard and wouldn’t stop until he fulfilled it. So we’ve always been acutely aware of the need to not only understand our users but to actually be our users.
That’s actually the principle behind our most recent employee programme: “Live it, Eat it, Love it.” For two hours every week, employees are given the time to pursue an interest, have fun, be healthy and live the brand. Think of it as mandatory recess – no meetings, no work, no business calls allowed. The only rule is that we use GoPro products to capture and share our experiences. Because only by experiencing what our customers experience can we understand the good, the bad and the ugly of capturing, editing and sharing content with a GoPro.
We’ve logged hundreds of employee feedback tickets since launching “Live it, Eat it, Love it.” and everyone is able to bring their experiences during these two hours back to the work they do during the rest of the week. This is just one of the ways we’re building the best possible GoPro for our customers.
Our industry’s trajectory is limitless. If we do encounter challenges, we will tackle them like we tackle all of our design problems – with curiosity and excitement. The biggest threat to our discipline is if we let technology get in the way of having those vital conversations that are needed to help the field of UX thrive.
For example, while there is a plethora of amazing, sophisticated and dynamic tools now available for designers to collect remote feedback, those need to be balanced with in-person observation – watching people interact with our products and services in their natural environment, observing how they express their passions in the wild, and so on. We need to make sure we’re capturing the undocumented and the unexpected; only then can we deliver useful and usable – and truly delightful – experiences.