Sophia V. Prater is the Chief Evangelist of Object-Oriented UX. Before starting her own company, Rewired, she has led UX efforts for clients including AT&T, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Athena Healthcare, Coca-Cola, the IRS, and the Australian Tax Office. Since 2013, Sophia has been teaching and talking to others about OOUX methodologies at events, conferences, within companies, and through 1-on-1 coaching. Recently she leads the Atlanta chapter of Ladies that UX and created the UX Hustle Summit Conference and regularly hosts the UX Hustle Podcast. For this Insights interview, we asked Sophia to tell us more about OOUX and activity programs she leads.
Tell us about your early experiences.
Sophia: When I was seven or eight years old, I was into drawing and designing experiences: theme parks, summer camps, playgrounds. I created places with lots of cool stuff in them, floor plans of my dream house, a bird’s eye view of a magical forest. My designs would include arrows to highlight paths and directions. I developed schedules and planning activities for each day. I designed my own games and forced friends and my parents to play with me. It was all about creating places and experiences through drawing little pictures.
You work in UX – has this always been the case?
Sophia: I navigated into UX but started with industrial design. During my high school art class, I was chatting with another student who was studying Industrial Design (ID) at a school in Ann Arbor. We were discussing career options. She explained that industrial design was based around product design, such as cars, teapots, or refrigerators. ID is about making products beautiful, useful, and marketable. This was something I wanted to explore.
After I graduated, I scored an internship with Electrolux in South Carolina designing large home appliances for six months. Following the internship, this was 2008 and the market opportunities were dwindling, and the signs were not good. They wanted to hire me full-time, but the economy wasn’t helping. It was a frustrating time but through a friend, I met a recruiter for Accenture. I think recruiters can sense out unemployed people. She asked me “what are you interested in?” and she said I have the perfect thing for you. but she sent me a job description for a UX design role. She was right, it was perfect, and after a lengthy interview process, I ended up as a user experience analyst with Accenture. This is where it all really started.
Tell us more about your early experiences with Accenture.
Sophia: My first project was to do a competitive analysis of prototyping tools. This was interesting, looking at business analyst tools, and looking at the best solution for the organization. I recommended Axure. This was adopted, and I developed a relationship with the people at Axure.
Tell us about your business today.
Sophia: My work is shared between Object-Oriented UX projects and training UX designers in OOUX. The teaching side has grown, and today I run short workshops with companies and agencies. Another big part of my work is developing the OOUX Certification Program. Recently I finished the second cohort of the program. This is where I’m focusing my energy. I want to create other leaders that can pass the knowledge on, creating an army of strategists to speak and train in UX.
”"Using Object-Oriented UX makes sure the digital environment contains objects that are valuable, recognizable, tangible, and actionable."
Can you explain what OOUX is?
Sophia: Imagine you’re walking into a coffee shop. This is a very strange coffee shop as you can’t identify what the objects are. You can’t tell the difference between the tables or the chairs. You can’t see the differences between tables or people. You may be able to identify a chair, but it might take some time to do this. Is the chair occupied or empty? You can’t tell the status of the chair. Who are the people in the coffee shop? Are they customers or employees?
It would be difficult to work in this kind of environment – how would you get anything done? How would you purchase your favorite cup of coffee, find a place to sit, and work on your laptop? How would you connect with someone you are meeting and sit down for a conversation?
In the real world, the way our senses work, even if we have a visual impairment, our brain can prioritize and figure out the objects in our environment. Working out where we sit, the relationship between objects, where there is a space I can use, where I get my latte. We can comprehend and understand the relationships between things. With this understanding, we can act on them. Can I buy this? Can I eat it? Can I kick this thing? Thirdly, you understand the attributes of these objects. Is the chair occupied or unoccupied? I can tell this person is another customer, a stranger, a barista. We are talking about the metadata of types of things.
This is something that is easy to do in the physical environment. Within the digital environment, designers need to make it easy for users to answer those questions quickly and intuitively. We must not take it for granted. What are the things that our users value? Not the components that belong in your design system, but the real-world objects. I often say: no one is coming to your site for your calendar picker. They are coming for the EVENT. We need to make those objects clear to our users, but we first must make them clear to ourselves, the designers.
We think of terms of objects. We understand environments (physical and digital) by identifying the objects within those environments. The digital environments we create are not beholden to the laws of physics. Using Object-Oriented UX makes sure the digital environment contains objects that are valuable, recognizable, tangible, and actionable.
”“technology doesn't always align with the way the human brain works. UX can help ensure tech respects how our brains work..”
As we increasingly move to online, what is the impact of UX design?
Sophia: Technology isn’t going anywhere, and we can see it’s infiltrating everything that we do. Now technology doesn’t always align with the way the human brain works. UX can help ensure tech respects how our brains work. The tragic alternative is we mold to technology, which is already happening. We’re already having to sort of adapt and work around it, using our cognitive energy.
What is the background of Object-Oriented UX?
Sophia: OOUX emerged alongside the advent of responsive design. My first involvement with responsive design started in 2012 when I was working at CNN.com on the election night experience. I realized that my thinking had to change and move from working on page-by-page and instead consider the system as a whole and its reusable parts. I realized that if I use reusable parts it’s better for design, development, and the user. This is where all the thinking started.
How is OOUX different from other approaches?
Sophia: When we communicate, we use nouns and verbs. In the traditional UX process, we focus, often soley, on the verbs, the actions, and procedures. OOUX is bringing the nouns, the objects, into the process, and into the beginning of the process. Actions are just as important, but interaction design needs concrete objects to provide reference. There’s some really interesting research on language learning that I recently wrote about on Medium, in an article called “Don’t Dead Him.”
Bram Wessel at Factor talks about an organization’s three layers: technology, display, and the one in between: the information layer. The information layer is the meat of the organization’s value sandwich. OOUX is all about designing a really effective, maintainable, future-proof information layer.
”“OOUX is all about designing a really effective, maintainable, future-proof information layer.”
Was there a reason you set up on your own?
Sophia: It was a big step. I had been trying to set up on my own for a while. Early in my career, I didn’t have the experience or the personal maturity to do it. One of my first clients was a start-up doing amazing work here in Georgia. They have now grown to over 200 employees. It was great to have them as a springboard client. The reality is I make a great consultant, a good teacher, and an effective mentor—but a terrible employee.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
Sophia: Watching the practice of UX grow. Bringing smart people into the space and seeing them develop their knowledge. The design process continually evolves and improves. I love digging into the psychology that can inform our design practices.
What do you think are the biggest challenges for the UX sector?
Sophia: The development community has had to go through a revolution working in code. It took years to go from procedural languages to the more efficient object-oriented languages. I believe we are going through a revolution with UX design. We are shifting from procedural into object-oriented design.
Another big challenge that I am excited about exploring is privacy. We need to help people understand what they are sharing and not sharing. The industry has a lot of work to do with communication and privacy design.
What advice would you give to someone who was starting a UX project?
Sophia: Don’t design your screens until you have answered the following questions. What are the objects in the user’s mental model? How do those objects connect? What can users do to these objects? What are these objects made of — what are their attributes? When you find yourself presented with a slew of research, an existing system, or even just a list of competitors, start with what I call “noun foraging.” Look for the nouns that are mentioned over and over—by users, stakeholders, marketing websites, in any relevant material you can get your hands on. Make sure you really understand those objects and how they relate to each other. For example, in working with a recent medical client, some of the first questions I asked were:
“Is a blood sample the same thing as a blood product?”
“Does an order only have one sample attached? Or can it have many?”
“Are hospitals and customers the same thing?”
Before you try to design anything, get a crystal-clear understanding of your objects.
What are your plans for the future?
Sophia: I will continue to refine and evolve the OOUX program. The aim is to design a wonderful experience that helps people learn. The other goal is to publish the OOUX book.
You can follow Sophia via her newsletter on OOUX and UX Hustle musings. Subscribe online here.
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