Interview with Ian Law, Digital Experience Lead, US Foods
Ian Law has been in the UX/HCI field for over 6 years, first at Marsh and now at US Foods. He received his Masters in HCI from Depaul University. As the User Experience Lead at Marsh, he advocated for the user on all digital marketing products/projects and led the effort to create a Marsh design system. Now at US Foods, he leads UX research, design, and testing for the digital and e-commerce platforms to achieve business goals. Right now he is busy with enhancing the end-to-end experience between the two platforms. In his free time, he is the Chair of the 826CHI Associate Board, loves playing/watching soccer, and cooking at home with his partner.
Tell us a little about your background and current involvement with UX
Law: I credit a friend with first introducing me to the HCI/UX field. He started posting photos of funny-looking prototypes for toys and VR sets from his Carnegie Mellon graduate program on Facebook, and that piqued my interest. When I was ready to pivot in my own career, I decided on DePaul’s HCI graduate program. That’s where I fell in love with UX, especially research, prototyping, and testing. I became the de facto UX Lead at Marsh (where I was when I got the Depaul degree) and took on the herculean task of setting up the framework for a design system.
I am now the Digital Experience Lead at US Foods where I define the user experience of our eCommerce platform, our external public-facing website, and the flows between them. In my short time here (I started in October), I’ve facilitated research including surveys and customer interviews, I’ve done lots of wireframing, prepared a design sprint, and devised a design thinking process that incorporates with our agile approach.
How do you strengthen the cross-function community building?
Law: First and foremost, it’s about communication. That seems like the easy answer, and it’s certainly not groundbreaking, but it usually comes down to that. Whenever you look back at the aftermath of a project/product that went failed, it’s often related to communication. The importance of getting everyone on the same page, and going in the same direction, is key. Empathy for users is always stressed by UX professionals, but you need to bring that same level of empathy to the people you’re working with. If they don’t feel in sync with you, or feel like you aren’t including them along the way, they will start to resent you, and that resentment will build.
At US Foods, my colleagues are in one of two buildings. The product managers on the eCom side are in one building, and I’m in another. The short walk goes outside, and it gets cold in the winter, but I always make sure to schedule meetings in their building. Little olive branches like that can go a long way. Also, we make sure to socialize the work we’re doing often to get buy-in. That way, everyone feels like they have a view into it and can raise a hand if they have questions/comments.
What are your tips to obtain the design and senior management buy in to your research?
Law: I recently sent a survey around asking my colleagues to share their experiences, as consumers, of ratings and reviews (a la Amazon, Yelp, Airbnb, etc.). It was informal and more meant to challenge any of my own assumptions in my design process. I sent it to some members of senior management because they’re consumers too. I put together the results and shared with everyone (again making it clear there was no statistical significance) and received praise from those same members of senior management. I really think a big part of it was the quick turnaround with which I was able to produce qualitative and quantitative feedback on a simple subject like ratings and reviews.
You can be the de facto UX expert and come with prior research and articles, but if you can’t bring them something tangible that senior management can relate to, and convince them to cross that threshold, you’re back twiddling your thumbs trying to figure out a better answer to this question.
If senior management is going to go to their bosses and say, look, we need to invest more in UX, or research, or whatever, they know they need to bring results. The UX field is well positioned in that it can produce quantifiable and qualifiable insights and results. You just have to go out and gather that data (and maybe ensure, unlike I did, that there is some statistical significance).
As an industry, what should we be doing more of and less of to offer a better UX to our customers?
Law: I just read a great article from last year in the New Yorker about doctors rejecting their computers (aka the digital solutions offered by the Epic system to make their lives ‘easier’). I know, I know, I’m way behind on my New Yorkers. But what Atul Gawande is arguing is that this system that was put in place to make it easier for doctors and hospital administration and even patients to access/update their medical records actually makes it more difficult for doctors because of how much time it takes up and how it pulls them away from the face-to-face interaction with their patients.
Right now the instinct is still to design a digital interface, or some kind of digital solution, for everything. We blindly assume that the first step is digital, and in that space, we will be able to solve all of our challenges. Perhaps we’re jumping too quickly to solutioning before really thinking through the challenge that needs to be solved. And certainly, a lot of solutions exist in the digital space, don’t get me wrong, but there are still areas where technology cannot yet do a better job than humans (even if humans can’t do it perfectly either). There are still areas like medical records, where you’d think, ‘digitize them, no brainer!’ when in truth there’s still a major human element to consider and design for.
In a somewhat related note, I’m starting to agree with those who think we need to design for ways to remove ourselves from our phones/laptops/digital interfaces/ecosystems or at least slow things down. I know it flies in the face of some of Nielsen’s heuristics, and I’m honestly not sure what that world looks like. But it makes sense for designers/UX professionals (as we often already do) to truly be considering a user’s whole experience, including before and after they use our products/etc.
What do you think is the future of user experience?
Law: I do sometimes worry when I read articles about robots taking over our jobs that UX jobs, though they’re never mentioned in there, will in fact get gobbled up. A lot of UX is common sense - users know what they want; machine learning and AI will only improve to where it can anticipate users needs in the way that the best UX designers do now. And if I’m right that the trend is in fact to decrease our use of technology, then UX work will become more limited and thus easier to master.
But that’s pretty pessimistic and it rules out exactly what I was arguing for before (albeit from a different angle): the human element. Creativity and empathy will always be difficult for technology to emulate. Everything a UX professional brings to the job, and the intangibles to boot, make it ever difficult to be replaced.
But I wouldn’t be surprised if the future of UX is actually a double-edged sword for us: as it becomes more and more established and more and more of a given, there will be a tipping point where research is less necessary (more agreed upon norms), designing is less necessary (an abundance of templates), and testing is less necessary (more established user behaviors/motivations/goals). That transformation might still take a while, but the roots are present. Ultimately it will come down to gaps that only UX professionals can fill, but our jobs and responsibilities will certainly adapt and get further specialized.
Want to hear more from Ian Law? He will be speaking at UX Research and Insight Summit in Chicago on July 16th at 11:00 in the below panel:
Brand Strategy with UX in Mind
- UX strategy for improved end to end user experience
- What are the common gaps in user experience and understanding these gaps?
- UI and brand strategy best practices
- How leadership and organizational change can change the perception on what the user experience should be?
- How to produce quality insight at a strategic level?
Niketa Jhaveri, Director of User Experience, GE HEALTHCARE
Ian Law, Digital Experience Lead, US FOODS
Charise Hansen, Director, User Experience, Experience Design (XD), HILTON