How to transition from technical writer to interaction designer?

10 Feb 2008 - 4:48am
6 years ago
13 replies
1381 reads
martinpolley
2007

Hi folks,

I need your advice.

I am a technical writer, and I want to be an interaction designer. How do I
get there from here?

Do I need to go back to school or not? If so, what is the best course to
take? HCI at a more CS-oriented institution or an interaction design course
at a design school? (From what I can see, most IxD courses at design schools
require you to already have some sort of portfolio...)

(I live in Israel but I am a British citizen, so any school in Israel or
Europe is a possibility. N. America is not an option, unfortunately.)

For now, I am just reading as much as I can (this list, relevant blogs,
books, etc.), listening to relevant podcasts, etc. I am also trying to use
the little I have learned so far to give suggestions here and there to the
developers that I work with who are working on GUI stuff. (Unfortunately,
the main project that I write documentation for has a command-line
interface, so the scope for "helping" there is minimal...)

Thanks in advance for your advice,

--
Martin Polley
Technical Communicator
+972 52 3864280
<http://capcloud.com/>

Comments

11 Feb 2008 - 11:55am
Robert Hoekman, Jr.
2005

> I am a technical writer, and I want to be an interaction designer. How do
> I
> get there from here?

At my last in-house position, the Documentation team and the UX team shared
a suite. And there was one guy who would have made an excellent IxD. Making
him part of my team would have been as simple as moving his desk to the
other side of the room.

Of course, if you do it on a consulting basis, it's a simple matter of
putting "interaction designer" on your business card. ;)

But seriously. It's all about the portfolio. Prove you know what you're
talking about, and it doesn't matter where you went to school (or if you
went to school at all, for that matter).

-r-

11 Feb 2008 - 12:18pm
SemanticWill
2007

I think there is actually a gentle path from Technical Writer » Information
Architect » IxD because I see it as a journey from structured content to
structuring content (organization, flow), to flow and behavior (creating the
dialogue between people and system, people and people, people and
environment). I agree that you don't need a fancy degree - but taking a few
HCI and interaction design classes would certainly help in the "Why" and
"How" but if you do it on your own - start with the What. Decide on
something you want to design for yourself, a blog, personal site, whatever -
spend alot of time on well designed sites (web might be the easiest medium
to start with), and COPY. That's right - just find some well designed sites
- like Boxes and Arrows - and plagiarize (for yourself - don't actually post
someone else's design as your own) - the more you design like that - it will
be like muscle memory - and eventually you will be creating your own things.

On Feb 11, 2008 11:55 AM, Robert Hoekman, Jr. <robert at rhjr.net> wrote:

> > I am a technical writer, and I want to be an interaction designer. How
> do
> > I
> > get there from here?
>
>
> At my last in-house position, the Documentation team and the UX team
> shared
> a suite. And there was one guy who would have made an excellent IxD.
> Making
> him part of my team would have been as simple as moving his desk to the
> other side of the room.
>
> Of course, if you do it on a consulting basis, it's a simple matter of
> putting "interaction designer" on your business card. ;)
>
> But seriously. It's all about the portfolio. Prove you know what you're
> talking about, and it doesn't matter where you went to school (or if you
> went to school at all, for that matter).
>
> -r-
> ________________________________________________________________
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> February 8-10, 2008 in Savannah, GA, USA
> Register today: http://interaction08.ixda.org/
>
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--
~ will

"No matter how beautiful,
no matter how cool your interface,
it would be better if there were less of it."
Alan Cooper
-
"Where you innovate, how you innovate,
and what you innovate are design problems"
-------------------------------------------------------
will evans
user experience architect
wkevans4 at gmail.com
-------------------------------------------------------

11 Feb 2008 - 12:36pm
Matt Nish-Lapidus
2007

I agree with you completely Robert. But I know, as somebody who has
slowly moved into IxD from interface dev, that it's not always clear
what is meant by a "portfolio" in the IxD context. As a graphic
designer it's really easy to print and show your impact on that work,
but I don't find it as easy to show good interaction design in a
portfolio context.

Does anybody have any thoughts or suggestions on what makes a good IxD
portfolio?

On Feb 11, 2008 11:55 AM, Robert Hoekman, Jr. <robert at rhjr.net> wrote:
> > I am a technical writer, and I want to be an interaction designer. How do
> > I
> > get there from here?
>
>
> At my last in-house position, the Documentation team and the UX team shared
> a suite. And there was one guy who would have made an excellent IxD. Making
> him part of my team would have been as simple as moving his desk to the
> other side of the room.
>
> Of course, if you do it on a consulting basis, it's a simple matter of
> putting "interaction designer" on your business card. ;)
>
> But seriously. It's all about the portfolio. Prove you know what you're
> talking about, and it doesn't matter where you went to school (or if you
> went to school at all, for that matter).
>
> -r-
>

--
Matt Nish-Lapidus
work: matt at bibliocommons.com / www.bibliocommons.com
--

11 Feb 2008 - 1:10pm
Robert Hoekman, Jr.
2005

> but I don't find it as easy to show good interaction design in a
> portfolio context.

Storytelling is a fantastic solution to this. Present the deliverables from
a project in the context of a story, explaining how and why you arrive at
each one, and what effect they had on the project.

-r-

11 Feb 2008 - 5:41am
John Wood
2005

Hi Martin,
I made this tranistion, and feel it is a very natural one to make. I
don't know how much advice I can offer, but I can describe the path
I took and you can see if there's anything worthwhile in that.

I started with a transition to business analyst from tech. pubs
manager, which occurred because I was drafted in to research and
write lots of specifications on a large web project my employer
undertook. I was already sick of writing good documentation for badly
designed software, and seeing the requirements process up close I
could finally start to see why the software came out of the process
in such poor shape.

One day, we got a complaint from a customer about 'poor usability'
so my boss sent me off to discover what this usability lark was all
about. I read, a lot, went to a N/N Group conference and wrote a
report on what I had learned. This got me a license to buy a portable
usability testing lab and hire in some consultants, who I worked with
closely. All of this was to little effect in that the poor software
just kept coming - my employer needed culture change more than user
testing.

I left and went freelance, doing tech writing and a little bit of
usability consulting. All of the noise I made in my last job got me a
reputation as someone who knew about usability, though I must admit I
was a very raw back then.

After about a year freelance, I got a job user testing and designing
assistive technologies at an organisation for blind people. I stayed
with that for a year and a half, and got my first experience of
design work as opposed to merely critiquing other people's efforts.
I then moved to my current job, were I have been a consultant on
interaction design and related matters for about four years.

Reading through this, I'd say that making good contacts and being a
self-directed learner were the keys to getting to where I wanted to
be. I did start a course in cognitive psychology (which I did not
complete) which provided useful background. I'm sure a course in IxD
would be a good start, but I've interviewed job applicants from some
of these courses and was not terribly impressed. In fact we are now
resolved to hire self-directed learners with clear passion for the
role, putting relevant experience and education second and third in
priority.

I'm not sure this was much help, Martin, best of luck.

John

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Posted from the new ixda.org
http://www.ixda.org/discuss?post=25702

11 Feb 2008 - 6:08pm
Jim Leftwich
2004

Great topic, Martin. From the early 1980s on, I've known a few
really great Interaction Designers that had been, and still were,
Technical Writers. I think Robert brings up one of the reasons
writers can make great Interaction Designers - their storytelling and
narrative skills. I've also met filmmakers that were really good at
Interaction Design.

Probably because I was educated as a broad-based Designer (graphic,
communication, product, environmental), the idea of maintaining a
portfolio of my development work, (ideation, drafting, developmental
storyboards, flows, prototypes), and extensive final outcome
documentation was always stressed as a key part of one's work. From
the very beginning of my career, my ever-growing portfolio was always
how I leveraged bigger, more complex, and more diverse projects.

I've always favored organizing and binding my work. Most of my
projects have yielded several 1" - 2" bound books, which I've
created laminated covers for. With these I'm able to present whole
projects from ideation through iterative development and refinement,
and the final specification documents (flows, screens, resources,
etc.), and the resulting products and/or software that was
built/implemented. Over time, this can become quite a collection.

I have a few snapshots from some of these many projects collected
here:

http://www.orbitnet.com/iasummit2005/iasummit2005.html

When going to meet a potential client, I generally will bring along a
collection of project documentation that may be similar or
complimentary in nature to the field of the potential project.
Clients can then better see the whole process, scope, and complexity
of what goes into Interaction Design. They can see the flows and
interrelational architecture of function and usage, and most
importantly (I feel) - the great differences and diversity that
exists between different types of products, software, and systems.
They can see that every project is unique, and has unique needs,
patterns, and paths to successful solutions. Being able to show
this, more than anything I could ever say about my philosophy or
processes, has led to my being able to successfully sell my design
consulting across a wide range of projects.

I would strongly encourage all designers, and particularly young
designers to begin putting in that extra time to document your work,
processes, iterations, and outcomes. It will provide more respect
and confidence among those who could use your services than anything
else. And it will also serve as examples for you to draw on in the
future, as well as your collaborators, your colleagues, and the field
as a whole.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Posted from the new ixda.org
http://www.ixda.org/discuss?post=25702

12 Feb 2008 - 9:17am
SemanticWill
2007

"Do you see IA as a necessary intermediate step? Or is it starting out on a
parallel (and to me, less interesting-sounding) path?"

No. I don't think there is a yellow brick road to IxD that requires IA as an
intermediate step - but I do know that a rather large portion of the people
on this list have at times been IAs - or been required to produce IA type
deliverables like basic user research and personas, site maps, wireframes,
prototypes, task flows, design specifications, and visual design comps. At
the end of the day, we are practitioners, and many times the product or our
efforts are deliverables that have a lot of overlap with what might be
considered large portions of IA type work (for instance - we may not
actually do a content inventory, or develop a taxonomy - but if those
artifacts don't exist - we will have a very hard time indeed - so someone
must do them). We also may not create personas - but someone is going to
need to do them if we want to even think we are designing something based on
real users (fundamental to UCD), and not just making stuff up (designer
centered design? stakeholder centered design, anyone?). So back to the point
- we are all about the practice of the craft of IxD - and that means,
naturally - practice - and a craft is nothing if you aren't creating
deliverable [plug - check out Dan Brown's book "Communication Design" for a
great exegesis, background, and damn well written volume about all the types
of deliberables that can go into meaningful and well done user centered
design], then what are we doing? If a silver smith is simply reading about
silver theory and lecturing on silver aesthetics - then he isn't pounding
out stuff made from silver - is he! So anyway - reading about what we do is
good - but secondary to the act, process, work of producing stuff - like
flows, wireframes, designs, interactive prototypes, paper prototypes -
whatever it is.

On Feb 12, 2008 8:11 AM, Martin Polley <martin.polley at gmail.com> wrote:

> Hi Will,
>
> <snip>
>
> > I think there is actually a gentle path from Technical Writer »
> > Information Architect » IxD because I see it as a journey from structured
> > content to structuring content (organization, flow), to flow and behavior
> > (creating the dialogue between people and system, people and people, people
> > and environment).
>
> </snip>
>
> Do you see IA as a necessary intermediate step? Or is it starting out on a
> parallel (and to me, less interesting-sounding) path?
>
> <snip>
>
> > I agree that you don't need a fancy degree - but taking a few HCI and
> > interaction design classes would certainly help in the "Why" and "How" but
> > if you do it on your own - start with the What. Decide on something you want
> > to design for yourself, a blog, personal site, whatever - spend alot of time
> > on well designed sites (web might be the easiest medium to start with), and
> > COPY. That's right - just find some well designed sites - like Boxes and
> > Arrows - and plagiarize (for yourself - don't actually post someone else's
> > design as your own) - the more you design like that - it will be like muscle
> > memory - and eventually you will be creating your own things.
>
> </snip>
>
> That makes a lot of sense. Learning by doing. But this is more relevant
> for developing IA and visual/aesthetic skills, right? (Which brings me back
> to my previous question about whether IA is a necessary step.) And it also
> leads into another question -- which are the most important skills that I
> should be trying to develop? And out of these, which are the most important;
> what should I start with?
>
> Thanks very much,
>
> --
> Martin Polley
> Technical Communicator
> +972 52 3864280
> <http://capcloud.com/>
>

--
~ will

"No matter how beautiful,
no matter how cool your interface,
it would be better if there were less of it."
Alan Cooper
-
"Where you innovate, how you innovate,
and what you innovate are design problems"
-------------------------------------------------------
will evans
user experience architect
wkevans4 at gmail.com
-------------------------------------------------------

12 Feb 2008 - 8:41am
martinpolley
2007

Hi John,

<snip>

> Reading through this, I'd say that making good contacts and being a
> self-directed learner were the keys to getting to where I wanted to
> be. I did start a course in cognitive psychology (which I did not
> complete) which provided useful background. I'm sure a course in IxD
> would be a good start, but I've interviewed job applicants from some
> of these courses and was not terribly impressed. In fact we are now
> resolved to hire self-directed learners with clear passion for the
> role, putting relevant experience and education second and third in
> priority.
>
> I'm not sure this was much help, Martin, best of luck.

</snip>

On the contrary -- it was a great help. Especially the last bit about what's
really important -- passion first, *then *experience, *then* education. I'm
pretty sure I've got the first one. I just need get some of the other two
under my belt :)

Thanks a lot,

--
Martin Polley
Technical Communicator
+972 52 3864280
<http://capcloud.com/>

12 Feb 2008 - 7:46am
martinpolley
2007

Hi Robert,

<snip>

> But seriously. It's all about the portfolio. Prove you know what you're
> talking about, and it doesn't matter where you went to school (or if you
> went to school at all, for that matter).
>
</snip>

>
Thanks for the advice. It's nice to know that I don't have to devote two
years of my life to getting an MA just to get started in this thing. (Though
I reserve the right to do so later :). )

Thanks,
--
Martin Polley
Technical Communicator
+972 52 3864280
<http://capcloud.com/>

12 Feb 2008 - 8:20am
martinpolley
2007

Hi Matt and Robert,

Matt wrote:

> As a graphic designer it's really easy to print and show your impact on
> that work, but I don't find it as easy to show good interaction design in a
> portfolio context.
>
> Does anybody have any thoughts or suggestions on what makes a good IxD
> portfolio?

Robert wrote:

> Storytelling is a fantastic solution to this. Present the deliverables
> from a project in the context of a story, explaining how and why you arrive
> at each one, and what effect they had on the project.
>

Great stuff!

Thanks both,
--
Martin Polley
Technical Communicator
+972 52 3864280
<http://capcloud.com/>

12 Feb 2008 - 8:52am
martinpolley
2007

Hi Jim,

<snip>

> I think Robert brings up one of the reasons
> writers can make great Interaction Designers - their storytelling and
> narrative skills. I've also met filmmakers that were really good at
> Interaction Design.

</snip>

Writers, yes. Technical writers, maybe less so. The trend in tech writing in
recent years has been away from a narrative approach and towards a more
minimalist approach (give the reader only what they need so they can get on
with more important things). It's better for the user, but does not do much
for the storytelling skills of the writer...

<snip>

> I would strongly encourage all designers, and particularly young
> designers to begin putting in that extra time to document your work,
> processes, iterations, and outcomes. It will provide more respect
> and confidence among those who could use your services than anything
> else. And it will also serve as examples for you to draw on in the
> future, as well as your collaborators, your colleagues, and the field
> as a whole.

</snip>

Excellent advice, and something I will have to keep in mind in my impatient
rush forward :)

Thanks very much,
--
Martin Polley
Technical Communicator
+972 52 3864280
<http://capcloud.com/>

12 Feb 2008 - 9:37am
SemanticWill
2007

> I would strongly encourage all designers, and particularly young
> designers to begin putting in that extra time to document your work,
> processes, iterations, and outcomes.

Yes! To quote Dan B again - IxD should not just spring forth like Athena
from Zeus's forehead. Show iterations, mock-ups - whiteboard to paper to
visio to photoshop to html -- if you can - the complete lifecycle where
great ideas have to be left on the floor because of contraints, or because a
stakeholder didn't like fuchsia (and explain that the stakeholder didn't
like fuchsia - and that you showed research that said the target persona's
were 75% more likely to do some actionable item if the design was fuchsia
but you lost that battle and describe how bitter you felt afterward). This
is what I would do going forward - since you are just starting to gather a
strategy to move into this pain and angst-filled craft.
Good Luck.

"Where you innovate, how you innovate,
and what you innovate are design problems"
-------------------------------------------------------
will evans
user experience architect
wkevans4 at gmail.com
-------------------------------------------------------

13 Feb 2008 - 4:11am
martinpolley
2007

Hi Will,

At the end of the day, we are practitioners, and many times the product or
> our efforts are deliverables that have a lot of overlap with what might be
> considered large portions of IA type work.

Ah, I see. So if I understand you right, you're saying that it's not such a
big step as directly moving to IxD, but the overlap between the two
disciplines is significant enough for it to be worthwhile.

So back to the point - we are all about the practice of the craft of IxD -
> and that means, naturally - practice - and a craft is nothing if you aren't
> creating deliverable ... then what are we doing? If a silver smith is simply
> reading about silver theory and lecturing on silver aesthetics - then he
> isn't pounding out stuff made from silver - is he! So anyway - reading about
> what we do is good - but secondary to the act, process, work of producing
> stuff - like flows, wireframes, designs, interactive prototypes, paper
> prototypes - whatever it is.

Hearing you loud and clear. You can't develop a craft without *doing *it.

Thanks very much,
--
Martin Polley
Technical Communicator
+972 52 3864280
<http://capcloud.com/>

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