UX Crash Course: Stupid Question 5 of 30

As we get close to the end of the first section of general UX questions, I thought we should look quickly at a question I get surprisingly often:

“How do I explain my UX job to my grandmother?”


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Most of the stuff you will make as a UX designer is either a bit ugly/boring/technical to a normal person (i.e. — wireframes), or invisible (information architecture, psychology, etc.). 

So you can’t just point at something beautiful and say “I made this” like most designers can. Lucky bastards.

This question is really about how to understand new ideas, and how to avoid awkward silences at Christmas dinner. 

Is there anything UX can’t do?!


The stupid answer (that I use in real life):

“Joel, what did you say your job was?”

“I make the internet.”

“Oh, that’s lovely dear.”


The real answer: 

You can explain anything to anyone, if you understand what they already understand.

Your grandmother will probably understand a catalogue, and a typewriter, and a paper form. And even newspapers have a “layout”.

So you can say something like:

“The internet is like ordering from a catalogue, but instead of sending your order in the mail, you just point at what you want, and then type your information into the computer. My job is to make the layout of the products, information, and the form easy to use.“

If you were actually a catalogue designer in the 1970′s, you could use almost the same words. 

And that’s the trick.


Why this isn’t a stupid question:
It’s hard to think like someone else.

Learning to describe complex things in a simple way is an important skill in UX.

Whether you design digital things that look like real-life things, or explain new things using old examples, or use sock puppets and Kim Kardashian references, you will probably present new ideas to clients, bosses, and users in most of your projects.

When Apple released the original iPhone, it was a very different way of interacting with information. Or with a phone, for that matter.

To normal people, there was no such thing as “apps”, or “multi-touch-screens”, or “smartphones” before that.

A regular phone had a shitty little screen, the internet on it was terrible, and the “killer feature” was — wait for it — making phone calls.

Crazy, huh?

So Apple’s note-taking app looked like a real notepad.

The app controls looked like real buttons and dials.

And the snozberries tasted like real snozberries!

This allowed new, non-technical users to intuitively understand how things worked without a lot of explanation. 

Turn the page. Push the button. Rotate the dial. Same as always.

And like Steve Jobs said, everybody knows how to use their own fingers.

Even Einstein’s original paper on the Theory of Relativity began with a simple example that anyone could understand, and his audience was a bunch of experienced theoretical physicists!

Never underestimate the power of a simple example.


And say hi to your grandmother for me. If you know what I mean. ;)


Tomorrow we will answer the most common general UX question: “How do I convince my boss that UX is important?”