Book review: “Undercover User Experience Design”

When a colleague first told me about “guerilla user experience design”, I immediately started visualising people wearing balaclavas working on websites whilst hiding in shady corners. I then read a book titled Undercover user experience design written by Cennydd Bowles and James Box. Lots of organisations still seem reluctant to embrace user-centric design, citing time and budget as the most common restraints. Bowles and Box have aimed to provide their readers with a “pragmatic guide” which provides practical suggestions and tools to ‘everyday‘ user experience (‘UX’) questions or problems.

The whole point of “undercover user experience design”, I learned, is that there are lots of cost- and time effective ways to ‘stealthily’ introduce user experience design into a company. For instance, where the authors elaborate on good interviewing techniques, they suggest an extra skill for ‘undercover interviewers‘ namely the ability to engage in small talk. This way, the interviewee doesn’t even have to be aware that you’re asking user experience related questions about a website.

Similarly, the book suggests simple methods to do a “content audit” of a website and it provides online tools that will help non-UX professionals to create simple but useful sitemaps. Overall, the main things I learned from reading “Undercover user experience design” are:

  1. There are three main design stages – The book distinguishes three main stages of UX design, “generating ideas”, “making it real” and “refining your solution”. Each stage contains a defined set of tools and approach to achieve your (UX) objectives.
  2. Undercover UX doesn’t have to be a permanent mindset – Bowles and Box only see undercover UX as the first step of the “UX adoption ladder”. This stage is meant to get other people in the organisation to understand and to get into UX, after which it will become much easer to move onto “emergent UX” and “maturing UX”.
  3. UX is a mindset not a process – As important as some UX deliverables are, Bowles and Box stress that it’s all about instilling a UX mindset and not about churning out sitemaps, personas, wireframes etc.

I feel the book does a really good job in explaining the wide range of user experience design tools that are available. However, it still seems to expect a relatively high threshold for people wanting to instill user centric design within their companies. Halfway through the book, I started wondering whether at least some of the non-UX professionals reading this book would worry about being able to put the various suggestions into practice. Bowles and Box nevertheless do a great job in providing a comprehensive overview of approaches, tools and reading tips but seem to assume a minimum amount of confidence (and time available) among its readers.

If you are the kind of person who likes a challenge and who isn’t daunted by learning new tools and techniques, then “Undercover user experience design” is the perfect book to get you (and your business) started into UX. However, if you feel like giving up after the chapter on techniques to describe digital interactions, please don’t worry because the book will at least help you to ‘talk the talk’ when you’re speaking to a UX professional or enthusiast.

Main learning point: user experience design doesn’t necessarily have to be very expensive or time intensive. “Undercover user experience design” is all about introducing UX from the ground up and demonstrates that’s it all about getting people to think through a user experience lens.

Related links for further learning:

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