Meet the UX Designer: Nick Slough
In the vast and ever-expanding world of UX and UI, gaming offers a thrilling on-your-toes, on-the-go gauntlet for designers; a VR-, AR-, MR-mash-up of different dimensions and styles of play, influenced by crazy cool advances in hardware and software. Nick Slough believes in the bright future of games. Four months ago, the Bay Area-based UX/UI consultant co-founded Beholder Design with Ian Wall; the two-man start-up leverages a shared network of creative pals to take on game-related client projects, and plans on tackling a balance of personal projects, too. We spoke with Slough about holodecks, unfiltered user feedback, and the sound of silence.
What drew you to UX/UI design, and how did you get your start?
My mother was a graphic designer, so I got an early start. She and my dad, who was a chef, always supported my creativity. We had an Apple IIsi when I was a kid, and I would fool around with Illustrator until Photoshop became my lifeblood. At first, I was drawing stupid things: from dogs to dicks to monsters with 50 arms. I studied at a few art schools but wanted to try something different; I’ve always been go-go-go, looking for my next challenge.
I started a business when I was 17 doing web design (it wasn’t successful…). I inked comic books and thought my future might be in illustration until Flash came out and changed my world. That got me into animation. I spent time in advertising at Leo Burnett, then doing huge games at Blizzard like Heroes of the Storm. Now I’m at Beholder, and we’re establishing and managing our new workflow.
How does Adobe Creative Cloud fit into your creative process?
I’ve never been a big sketchbook guy. I’ve got my Wacom tablet and usually, I’ll just head straight into the digital realm.
Then when XD came out, I was like: “Great! Ideation!” I don’t ever want to lose steam on my ideas, so what I really enjoy about it is that it’s the fastest program for me. Period.
How do you get into the mindset of your users, and/or potential users?
In gaming, watching people play with your product is probably the best way to get feedback because it’s unfiltered; users are going to fuck things up in the grandest and glorious ways, and they will not hesitate to let you know about how they feel. And those are good moments because you learn so much!
When I was at Blizzard, games were so popular that we would release them with an Alpha patch, which would enable us to continue working on them after they’d launched. In five minutes, we could go to Twitch, stream someone playing, and get the rawest, candid feedback. Sometimes they’d discover something that was clearly a bug. But sometimes something we thought was finished was clearly… just not. We’d hear lots of curses; like Internet comments come to life. It’s brutal, but you get a thick skin.
For most websites–barring revisions or functional fixes–you launch it and that’s the end. Games are so complex; there are so many permutations, and they continue to need service once they’re live. They continue to evolve, and you get to alter your creation.
Let’s look at one of your current projects. What was your process like creating Paragon, a free multiplayer online battle arena game?
Paragon puts teams of five “heroes” other teams of five “heroes,” who battle each other to destroy the core of the opposition; it’s a super complex game, with levels on levels of info. We weren’t actually building anything from scratch. Beholder was hired to help jump in and redesign what was called the mastery system; we call this kind of project “surgery” because we needed to carefully simplify specific elements of the game without touching–or screwing up–the rest. It was mostly UX and art, but we also did some consulting for them as well.
A lot of game design requires a lot of back and forth–”Functionality should be like this,” or “I don’t get that”–and XD makes that process so easy. Every screen you see on our Behance page had a corresponding XD wire frame and clickable prototype. The program’s clear, simple nature allowed us to iterate quickly and efficiently.
What excites you most about the future of UX/UI design—both in terms of creating it, and engaging with it?
When I was a kid, I loved the holodeck on Star Trek. That idea of going into a room that allowed you to jump into a brand new world was fascinating to me, and still is after all these years. Now, virtual reality is absolutely still in its infancy; people haven’t figured out exactly what to do with it yet. But I feel like there’s a future where hardware isn’t tethered to a PC; maybe it’s even a chip implanted in your head. Of course, that raises a ton of ethical questions, but I think those crazy ideas come with fantastic possibilities.
What bit(s) of wisdom can you share with creative folks who are interested in becoming UX/UI designers?
Don’t stop learning.
Don’t have an ego; you’re never as good as you think you are.
If you look back at your old work and it sucks, good. It should. You’re not growing if it doesn’t.
If no one on your team is disagreeing, no one is thinking.
If you’re getting into UX, don’t just draw boxes. Learn to draw; learn to program; learn 3D; learn other skills that are wrapped around UX. There is such a broad spectrum of ways to convey your ideas, and ultimately that’s what you’re trying to do.
Whose UX/UI work do you look at and go: “WOW”?
I don’t really follow any UI/UX people. UI doesn’t really “WOW” me in the same way art and music can. You have artists like Gmunk, Ash Thorp, Erik Natzke, Beeple, and Joshua Davis who all do rad shit. I see that and try to integrate that level of creativity into something that has to be functional. In the end, a great UI isn’t all about my vision, it has to useable. If I can integrate the DNA that makes great art and hide it into a functional design, then I feel like I have leveled up my craft and gotten away with murder.
Best tunes for getting into a creative flow?
I generally find music distracting when I work, so I prefer silence. If I do play something, I like pulp TV or podcasts: Startup from Gimlet Media, Shark Tank, The Joe Rogan Experience, How It’s Made, etc. I find it easy for me to pop-in and out of that content. I’m horrendous at walking and chewing bubble gum at the same time.
The best design resource on the planet is Google Image Search. Pinterest is also a great way to create mood boards quickly.
I really like learning about my experiences to drive my creativity and stay fairly lean on following industry news. I have so many friends at other game companies, and I love engaging with them in conversations about industry buzz, business models, and design techniques. I learn so much through debate and exposure to other designers. At the current stage in my career, I find changes to my approach have a much greater effect than changes in my technique.
I also take photos of everything and anything that I think is cool. The pattern on a rug, the texture on a wall, or the light refraction from your pint of beer. You have a camera in your pocket all of the time. Use it. Also, begin to become curious and analyze the design of everything around you. Is the civil engineering of this on-ramp designed well? Why would you make this a pull tab and not a button? How well designed is the packaging in that new set of headphones you purchased?