Jared Spool’s talk at this years Event Apart conference, “It’s a Great Time To Be a UX Designer”, was both inspiring and reassuring. Here are the main takeaways he highlighted, while telling us a few great stories at the same time.

Many design approaches imitate rather than innovate — it is safer, cheaper, and takes a great deal less time. It is the innovation, however, that offers the higher reward. Jared defines innovation as filling in the gaps between a great user experience and a frustrating or unacceptable one, always focusing on the room for improvement: “Innovation is not adding new inventions. Innovation is adding new value.”

To illustrate this point, he told us a story about sick children who need to have MRI scans — and how scary the process can be, both for the kids and the parents. Showing a very stark clinical picture of a very intimidating machine, he then shifted gears. For the creator of this machine, it was unacceptable that 80% of children required sedation to complete a scan. It was time to fill in the gap between the great experience and the unacceptable one.

So imagine, Jared said, that if instead of a hospital gown, the child is given a pirate costume complete with a hat, and if they’re asked if they can help find some mermaids. The child is told about a pirate ship, and that they must follow the plank at all times to stay out of the water… all as they enter a room with Pina Colada-scented aromatherapy. The lights dim, the scan starts, mermaids begin dancing into the child’s view, and the child holds very, very still, so as to not scare them away.

What was once an 80% sedation rate dropped to less than 0.1% with this strategy. Although the story wasn’t about a website, this example shows the mindset: to always look for the room for improvement.

Jared then went on to talk about Experience Designers: a rapidly growing field as companies large and small realize the importance of engaging the user right away, and hopefully giving them something both unexpected and great. He believes that great generalists exist in this field, despite the challenges that come with needing to understand so many different areas to be able to be truly great at what they do. He clicked through a slide adding one area at a time to this list:

Information Architecture

Visual Design

Marketing

ROI

Information Design

Sketching

Business Knowledge

Technology

Social Networks

Presenting

Ethnography

Critiquing

Facilitating

Domain Knowledge

… and the list goes on. But the most important of all, according to the research that Jared and his team completed? Storytelling.

The ultimate takeaway advice after we watched this daunting list grow was to just keep learning.

Pick something you don’t do well from this list and train yourself. Practice your new skill, deconstruct as many designs as you can, seek out feedback, and teach others — because you always learn when you teach something.

I’m definitely planning to put down the mouse and pick up a pencil soon, and already looking forward to attending this conference again next year.