This is how the conversation typically goes with the exception that I usually give some real world examples that are very freaky, but given that I can't put my sales pitch into the public domain, I'm sorry for the disappointment. :-(
Person X: "What do you do?"
Me: "I'm a User Experience Consultant"
Person X: "That sounds interesting. What is that?"
Person X: Best case: "Can you give me an example?" / Worst case: Puzzled look that says "How am I going to get out of this conversation?"
Me: "Let me give you an example. We go out and do a number of types of research with different audiences. In observing and talking to these people we learn a bunch of different things, some big and some small. The small nuances are the most interesting. For example, in working with a large home improvement retailer we learned a lot about the purchasing contexts for power tools. We analyzed the quantitative and qualitative data from the research and made very specific changes in language and photography to raise the percentage of people who purchase tools as opposed to those who just browse.
Imagine you walk into a friends kitchen to make yourself a cup of coffee. Where do you look for the mugs? Near the sink? Near the coffee maker? Near the pantry? Near the stove? There is some thought process that each person goes through. A UX consultant learns about people to understand how different types of people will go about their search. We combine that understanding with the types of people most likely to come to that particular kitchen and put the mugs right where people will look for them. More than that, we tell businesses where each type of person will look for the mug and how to create or modify the kitchen so that the right people will not feel stupid or get frustrated looking for the mug when nobody is around to help them find one."
Person X: "Wow! That is interesting. How did you end up doing that?"
Me: "Well, I started out as a software developer who hated being on the phone. I had all these pesky users who would call and email me all these questions that I did not want to answer. I also hated writing technical documentation. It was all just so boring to me when what I wanted to be doing was improving the business. Being an engineer at heart, I figured that there must be some way to design the interface in a way that they will never call me again that did not involve me writing a full an comprehensive user manual which they would never read anyway.
So I went out and bought a bunch of books on human factors, eye tracking and usability and started trying to design the interfaces just for them. Then I got lucky enough to work with some great UX consultants who were willing to let me play in their sandbox.
10 years later, and this is what I love doing. I hardly ever code anymore. I focus on some fairly esoteric stuff in strategy and technology that's fun and challenging for me.
There are college programs for it now, but there really were not specific programs or degrees for it when I went to school. Not in the mainstream anyway. I kind of got lucky. It just sort of happened organically based on my context, what I was interested in and my own stubborn refusal to do support work."
One of the worst aspects of this conversation is that I have to explain it over and over again to my dad (so that he can brag about his "brilliant genius son" to all the other Jewish fathers at the retirement community in Florida) and
Which brings me to another aspect of what I do - craft experiences that people will want to engage in; i.e., craft desirable experiences through strategy (remember that esoteric thing that I said I focus on). But that is a topic for another day.
What I do: Like it
Explaining it over and over: Hmmm... I'm tempted to say Garbage...but I actually kind of get excited in talking about it because I like the fun insight stories so much...OK, I give up. Like it.
Explaining it to my dad over and over: Garbage. (Dad, be grateful I did not use the "Crap" rating ;-)