Every week on The UX Blog Podcast, Nicholas Tenhue interviews user experience professionals about current trends, hot topics, and their careers. Subscribe on your favorite podcast player!
Chris is the UX practice director at Silicus Technologies, a Houston-based turnkey cloud services firm. Chris and his team pursue a consumer-grade standard for usable and visually immersive enterprise software.
This is part 1 of a 2 part series with Chris Lahiri, we hear Chris talk about UX Certification. Stay tuned for part 2 where we hear Chris discuss the Unsung Tablet.
In this episode we hear Chris talk about:
- His own Lahiri Studios
- The boutique and agency design worlds
- Chris' time at Moxie, his largest agency role where he had the opportunity to work on several AAA level creative projects.
- The switch from opinion-driven design to data-driven design in creative decision-making
- The Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) Project, an open source project for mobile optimized content for quick loading and good user experience
- UX Certification and the value of the Certification of UX Training Achievement with Nielsen Norman Group
- Shitty UX/UI Analogies
Chris has also kindly given us permission to include examples of his work from his time as Director, UX and Creative Services as SCI Group:
Credit: Chris Lahiri, SCI Group, NCI. Stempowerment is funded by National Institutes of Health (NCI) via the Federal small business innovation program (R41CA168107). PIs McLaughlin, Peterson, Askins, Zhang.
Welcome to The UX Blog podcast. Bringing you up to date with the current trends, hotel picks and career advice in the field of user experience. I’m Nicholas Tenhue and you can visit us at The UX Blog.
Nicholas Tenhue: Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of the UX blog. Today I am joined by Chris Lahiri who is a UX practice director at Silicus Technologies, a Houston-based turnkey cloud services firm. Chris and his team spend most days pursuing a consumer-grade standard for usable and visually immersive enterprise software.
Today we are going to be having a two part episode. The first half, Chris will be introducing himself and talking about his journey through UX and then we’ll move on to talking a little bit about certifications such as the NNG Certification. Then in the second half, we’ll be talking about the Unsung Tablet.
So Chris, why don’t you start by introducing yourself to everybody out there?
Chris Lahiri: Sure. I got my start in a boutique agency in upper Michigan called Steam. They later kind of evolved into different companies, fire branding companies that are still there in Michigan. I think they are doing great work, visual design work and branding. I am referring to it as visual design; I think 15 year ago they refer to it as graphic design. Doing a lot of online brochures and that sort of stuff and macro media and their tools started to appear and bring motion and graphics and bring those in an accessible way to the web for people.
Just in these boutiques or situations where finally I had access to be able to do really cool motion graphics with the skills that were on my team and we had a great designer, Scott, who was just a fantastic inspiration to me. He’s still out there doing his thing.
Since then I was kind of inspired to pursue what they were doing, solely in a digital space. So back then, this was like early 2000s, I was working, pretty much, I was wearing a lot of hats. I graduated a degree in business administration and got my start thinking that I was going to do more of that sort of account side work in an agency but I found myself really attracted to the digital motion graphics, to the creative side of it.
Granted that it was a small firm, I had the opportunity to dabble with that and I kind of found my space and my niche. We’ve won some awards, about four or five years went by and I decided to put my resume out and see what would happen.
I am working to this day with a current client of mine who was my former boss at a company called PCG Campbell which was essentially Ford’s PR agency. From there I kind of worked with Ford, Volvo and several other Ford properties at the time doing digital executions, working with development teams, doing front end. It was hardly as formal as it is now. UX was hardly a term at that time and then slowly but surely that kind of grew and that space began to become more standardized and formalized.
After that, I got a big break with a company called Moxie Interactive; they were a publicist group firm in Atlanta, Georgia. They gave me an opportunity to work in Craig, properties and the Star Trek re-group with JJ Abrams and a few other things that help build my portfolio, kind of put me on the map.
Nicholas Tenhue: Wow that’s fantastic!
Chris Lahiri: Yeah, in an art direction sense, it was a lot of fun and Moxie is still out there in Atlanta, Georgia doing their thing, great agency, always kind of pushing the boundaries. They’re after a few other gigs, one of them was with a company in South Carolina that I was working with, BFG – Beverage Food Group.
From there I have made my way back to Atlanta to work with Black Cube, who was the agency record for AMG. So AMG is the Mercedes kind of sport division. They do the really high end, the AMG SLS kind of Mercedes.
So I worked with them and I put my blood, sweat and tears into that, if you go to Mercedes-AMG.com, you will see the result of the creative effort of that team and I was the Senior Art Director. I was responsible for their digital properties for a decent amount of time. That was kind of my last gig in the agency world.
I was really getting a lot of overtures from Silicon Valley, companies like Ebay, Intuit, and several others. I was starting to get more attracted to ecosystems, software ecosystems that kind of weren’t as campaigny feeling as the stuff I’ve worked on before. Like one time, something that will be put up for a quarter and then people will never see it again.
I really wanted to have something that I could kind of grow and nurture. I started to be really attracted to software for that reason. I kind of had the option to head over to the valley. I had some friends, a very good friend of mine, Greg Terr, who was at that time working for Ebay that wanted me to come out but after my father passed away, I wanted to be closer to my family so I headed out to Texas, put up a shingle and formally started my company as Lahiri Studios, landed three clients out of which one of them was really, just so intellectually stimulating.
The company was called Radiant, Jeff Mclaughlin and I, still good friends, work together, where here in Houston we have this medical center area where there’s a ton of very innovative and very creative things going on. He was working on games for health space in a very serious way.
It was just a great fit, I came on as their creative director for a little while and had a chance to work on a few tablet based kind of things. That’s where the show kind of started going so that’s where I started getting interest in mobile and tablets specifically.
From there, we kind of evolved that, Silicus kind of came into the picture a few years later when I had really established myself with IT. Radiant had been pretty much, at that point, the boutique. Radiant got kind of consumed by SEI which is a software group. I was formally at that point in the IT world and I love it. Since then, I’ve been working with Silicus now for a little over a year in the IT space here in Houston.
The UX IT community is relatively small, this is an oil and gas town. A lot of things go on in that space, and the med center is the other big space here and so I have had a chance to play in those two areas in software and I just had a blast.
It is exactly what I wanted. I wanted to work on things that were a lasting kind of ecosystem that I could contribute to, to evolve, to watch, and kind of be a part of as consumer taste changes, as technology changes. It was my chance to kind of get in to something that I really could feel like as a part of for the long term. So that’s kind of how the career kind of evolved.
Nicholas Tenhue: Okay, alright. So your journey through UX has been super varied and you have worked for a lot of different companies but at which point would you say that you kind of called yourself a user experience professional because it was quite a long journey right?
Chris Lahiri: Yes it was. It has been 15 years now going on 16. The terminology, the parlance of the agency world is what I have been using up until 5 years ago. So Designer, Senior Designer, Art Director, Creative Director and then I think it was about 4 years ago where UX started to really become a, a lot of people we’re paying lip service and still do to that in the sense but proper software UX and that sort of thing started becoming part of my repertoire when I started working with Radiant and Jeff Mclaughlin, so that was when I was working with MD Anderson and the University of Texas Health Science Center.
I was doing thing like formal usability testing, doing user interviews, we were getting a decent data exhaust of the products and working with the research team at UTHSC. This became a much more serious practice for me in just the sort of things that we were looking for while beyond just design, getting feedback was a big part of it.
There was a lot of user interviewing going on with the kinds of things that we were working with. So one of those was a responsive website for stem cell recovery, the patients were the young adult and teen category. Getting feedback on things like the name of the program, the logos, the experience of the site, just basically testing with tools like Axure which again was another thing that I had really gotten heavily into until I entered into this space.
So at this point, I am tremendously versed in those sorts of wire firing products and stuff. Doing a lot of that preliminarily to what was essentially just putting out design coms and get the agency style, choosing one of three that a client liked and then moving forward with it. This was something completely more sophisticated, completely more in-depth.
Sometimes it was remote usability where we would have user groups off-shore or off-site in some capacity and we were waking them through logging into a site, using certain modules of the site, getting their feedback on things like the ease of use, the readability of the fonts and those sorts of things.
All of those things were stones we did not leave unturned as I moved into the games for health space, in the end health sector, there’s a lot of things going on in that space. The nature of the beast in that industry to really cater to end user needs rather than super imposing a given design on a user group.
Now it is very much user-centered design especially in the end health space. There was some work in the own gas sector as well that we would do and that we’re carrying on in my new role as a Practice Director at Silicus where we’re looking at things like low bandwidth usage for people on the rigs and that sort of thing.
We’re looking at the user experience in a more rack and tumble environment per se. in the end health space it tends to be where a lot of UXs are readily understood and accepted and welcomed.
It was with UTHSC and MD Anderson that I got that opportunity to do some more user experience sort of work to the point that we’re now, you know, it’s essential in any creative execution.
Nicholas Tenhue: Right. It must have been quite a big change then from client preferences to purely sort of data driven decision making.
Chris Lahiri: Yeah absolutely, and it was refreshing. I think, in the agency world that I was in, I was lucky enough to be with a larger agency with Moxie for instance, I would say that their cloud and their relationship with the client went a long way in getting creative decisions made and us being able to say we’re the experts and that this is our track record here.
Where smaller groups, like these wonderful smaller boutiques I was with that don’t have that kind of cloud really have to fall back on things like you know. Of course we have great relationships with our clients but being able to show them our data and being able to just comparatively do an AV test or a multi-variant test and go this is what XYZ user had to say about this. This is a nice fallback to not per se having that cloud of a large 400 person agency like Moxie was.
So at that time, digital agencies still had a lot of say in the way things were done. They had to sort of cloud to be able to say what was the best way in doing things and their voice was generally taken as given.
We’re in such a data driven era now that that would quickly dissipate in I would say that within just a matter of 5 years, anybody is going to say “show me the number, show me the data”. I was lucky to kind of get ramped up within the last 5 years to not be able to say “Sure, we can back that up with an AV-test or we can do a diary study after the fact and get the data exhaust off of the product to see how the people will really react into it.” You know it’s really nice to be able to say stuff like that.
As far as creative decision making and those sorts of things, now, it is almost taken as given that we’re going to have to back it up with data.
Nicholas Tenhue: I think that nowadays, a lot of User Experience people complain that their clients don’t sort of understand the need for user testing and all of this data because we’re all clever people and we can sit in a room and make a decision but then you get into the trouble of the boardroom pontification whereas I think before was like the agencies and the contractors didn’t know how to get out there and collect the right data or formalize it and articulate it to the client in the right way.
It is good to see that a kind of change is happening throughout the agency world as well as kind of more software product, internal teams as well.
Chris Lahiri: Yeah, it’s interesting. The software space has always been kind of more formal and as I am seeing now, there is just a pace in the software world that I really enjoy that it’s more deliberate, I would say, and I really enjoy that. We have BAs and Systems Analysts that go tremendously deep into the user experience that it’s not just a cosmetic exercise.
We have one client where we’re working with Business Analysts and other people who are taking tremendously deep dives, writing extensive user stories on the products and I’m coming in supporting them with a front and visual sort of exercise as well.
So beyond just the UX team, we have Business Analysts and other people that are kind of part of the IT culture who are coming to the table and contributing to the UX practice as well, so that’s kind of cool too. We’re having a lot of that cross pollination now which mean the UX that we kind of take for granted as people coming from the creative space and then we have people understanding software as the hardcore kind of software user stories and the deep systems analyst kind of user experience that we especially have in the enterprise space.
One of our clients for instance, this was last year, I had the opportunity to work on a client that works on building animation software for a very large, we’re talking like McDonald’s and Chase Bank. Of course in the end of things, our consumer level own or have smart things installed in my home for instance. We have consumer level experiences with automation and building animation to some degree. This was that on a much higher level, on a much larger scale.
The minutia that goes into all the different things that keep the air conditioning going in a multi-storey, a hundred floor high-rise is pretty intense. We’re talking another level together of understanding technical knowledge that I had a chance to work with now, working at Silicus because we have got people who have been doing that for years here but never thinking of it in terms per se of a front-end UX and design experience.
It’s a level of UX, software specifically is a level of UX that I think it will harden the most seasoned of people coming from the agency world that will really force you to think deep and look around the corners when it comes to that level, Enterprise UX really does that with you.
Nicholas Tenhue: Well I guess you can really say that it’s half science and half art really.
Chris Lahiri: Yeah it is, there is that science side that is being brought to the table working with these new professionals at Silicus, it’s just some brilliant people. I am really happy to have that kind of opportunity to just sit down with them and work and see the way they work solutions through.
I’ve also brought a lot, when they gave me a huge spreadsheet full of user stories that I’ve had to look through and I brought Axure to the table, and visualize those in a wire frame, they were just like “Whoah! This is really cool!” and I was like, “What’s the big deal? This is how I think.” Right? I’m a visual thinker. Whereas they’re thinking in terms of documentation, turning these user stories into actual programmable software code.
So it was almost like magic to them to see and to go into Axure and just visualize, in a quick wireframe way, take all that and put it into something that, you know, as they say a picture’s worth a thousand words. It’s been an interesting cross pollination there as I’ve built the UX practice here.
Nick Tenhue: Right and I think it might be a bit dangerous as well to keep on expanding those user stories because then you go away from what they were originally meant for which is Agile and you go to more of a long list of requirements without any actual communication going on.
Chris Lahiri: Yeah and that’s another thing, I’ve had to bring the UX away from this waterfall thing. We’ve been doing waterfall forever in the agency world and now with how we’re doing, Agile is part of the course with software development.
Trying to bring an Agile UX methodology has been another challenge that I have been involved with and that has been an interesting one as well but not just having all of our frames done per se and then moving to the design and then moving to the same box prototype but having modularly creating this idea of an MVP and having something each iteration, each sprint has been an interesting and at times difficult process to try and get together. We’ve been trying to pursue that here and it has been interesting for sure.
Nicholas Tenhue: So you talked a little about your kind of experience with the hands-on stuff. I also saw that you had a certification from NNG, which is the consultancy that Donald Norman and Jacob Nielsen run. So I was just really wondering is, I have never spoken to anybody who has completed that track, so I was wondering what your thoughts on that were on the values and benefits that you can take away from a set of workshops like that?
Chris Lahiri: I think it’s wonderful. There are two, probably more out there, but two that were kind of prominent to me in the last couple of years and that was the CUA from Human Factors International and the NNG Certification from Nielsen Norman Group.
I think, this is just hearsay but I think the NNG certification is pretty up to date with contemporary technology. COA is getting there, I think, as well but when I went, and this was the session that they had in Austin last year, it was extremely informative and a great networking opportunity as well.
Essentially, they give you a series and each day is a week long course and each day you have a certain track that you’re on and a certain series of courses that you go and take. You’ll sit down with a class of about anywhere between 15-30 people, there’ll be some lectures and a break and some more exercises. Sometimes it’s sitting down and breaking off into groups and pursuing a certain exercise be it mind mapping or a card sorting exercise or whatever. There are tools and techniques that they are kind of trying to impart to groups they are working with as well as general principles of usability.
After all that is said and done, you kind of finish the course for the week, then you’re at your leisure, you are given the opportunity to take the exam. There is one exam per course, so if you take a five day course, there are five exams that you take. Then after you pass, I believe it is 80% or above, though it is open book, the questions are not directly word for word. It is very clear that you need to understand the material. You need to be able to analytically think about the course’s subject matter because there’s nothing in there that is word for word in the actual exam. It is testing your conceptual abilities.
Nicholas Tenhue: Okay that’s good. So it’s not just regurgitating.
Chris Lahiri: Yeah, so when people say open book they’re like “Oh this should be a blast! This is easy, I’m going to get this NNG certification and I’m good blahblahblah.” You know it really does have tremendous value in being able to, as a statement of your analytical abilities and your conceptual abilities.
I would say that difficulty-wise, I didn’t have too many problems with it. It was not a walk in the park per se, but anybody who is relatively seasoned and has a passion for this space should be able to achieve that certification relatively easily. If you’re just looking to go through an open-book, series of things, and just transfer one thing to another and it’s not a simple transfer, that’s for sure.
Nicholas Tenhue: Okay, that’s a fairly good review there I think.
Chris Lahiri: Yeah, in general, there are a lot of other groups too that profess to it. NNG has been around for a while. I am still getting publication material from them to this day, if you sign up for their email in their website and a lot of it is tremendously valuable.
Nicholas Tenhue: I think that probably is one of the most respected groups in User Experience.
Chris Lahiri: Definitely. So what I’ve done is, on top of that, when I came back since it is my role to be a Practice Director, is I’ve created examination material for the rest of my company based on some of the NNG materialthat you can license from them.
So we licensed five series of materials ranging from the ROI of UX to the mobile usability and several other things. It is thousands of pages of reading that I have been going through and creating a 25 question multiple choice series of tests for my off-shore team.
I manage a team of about, at this point, it’s 15 plus people at any one given time give or take, some contractors they come in and out off shore of designers and front-end developers. Once a year, I’ll go to India and meet and commune with them and administer these exams and kind of get them up to speed with the latest and that’s where NNG’s kind of trying to at least making that effort to be on bleeding edge with their material really helps.
Nicholas Tenhue: Right. This is sort of the reports that you can purchase from them and kind of self-purpose these questions from those?
Chris Lahiri: Yes. Reports and videos as well, we purchased a video on paper prototyping that was pretty valuable. Their contact can be anywhere from, as dated as 2012 to present. Some of it is older and some of it is more recent.
Nicholas Tenhue: Especially when it comes to the heuristics, I think they’re getting on now, well-over 10 years, maybe 20 actually, back in 1995 or 1998, I figured.
Chris Lahiri: There are younger groups out there, they’re not coming out to the top of my head right now, but I found that they’re still on top of their game in a lot of ways and are still very passionate about that space. Like I said, I get their e-mails in just about every other week; there is some sort of a topic that they’re exploring. The material that they will offer is still valuable so I have been pretty happy with the NNG certification, absolutely.
Nicholas Tenhue: We’re getting on a bit now so I think we have enough material for two episodes if we talk about the actual main topic about this show which is the Unsung Tablet.
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