The UX of Edinburgh

At the end of last month I had the pleasure of not only attending, but contributing to the excellent UX Scotland, a UX design conference held in a striking venue in the middle of a beautiful city.

Crucially, unlike a plethora of other design events, UX Scotland didn’t try to reach beyond its stated remit. Instead it addressed the ever-growing UX industry in a practical and comprehensive manner, packing over 30 sessions into the short space of two days. And being an unashamedly niche conference (a good thing), the opportunity was there to get talking to almost everyone else attending. I met some great people both at the conference itself and at the social evening, and swapped some project stories that were as galvanising as they were entertaining.

The speaker line-up was the right mix of headline grabbers and coal-face practitioners. Keynote speaker on Thursday was the redoubtable Jeff Gothelf who sadly I missed due to a late change to travel arrangements. Jeff’s recent book ‘Lean UX‘ is an electrifying read that has the potential to change how UX practice evolves.

Friday’s keynote came from Giles Colborne, whose own book ‘Simple and Usable‘ is a veritable UX call-to-arms and whose agency (Bristol’s CX Partners) is behind some of the most informative, practical UX books available.

Other notable sessions I attended included:
Stephanie Rieger, speaking about how the future tends to be very different from what might have been predicted, also tending to be much more usable
Oli Shaw, offering a swathe of tools and techniques to leverage design strategy
Ian Fenn, giving a whistle-stop tour of the qualities UX designers should demonstrate in order to practice more effectively
Mike Atherton on how brand-driven design sets the tone for the overall customer and user experience
– Lorraine Paterson, Patty Kazmierczak & Mike Jefferson describing the process of creating a UX design pattern library for more cohesive UX design across large organisations

It was agony at some points having to choose between one session and another, and I can’t help but think of great insights I may have missed. And one of the drawbacks of hosting a session was missing some of the great sessions immediately before and after my own.

My own contribution – The Persona Express workshop – went by in a flash, certainly the quickest 1.5 hours I can remember. Although well accustomed to speaking in front of an audience, be it presentations, stakeholder meetings or client workshops, this was the first time I had stood in front of highly informed industry peers in a workshop setting. And there were immediate takeaways from the experience. Next time I won’t make the beginners error of trying to fit quite so much in to such a short period of time. Although, nor would I drop quite so much material from the opening pitch: much of what I cut out appeared in one form or another at other sessions, and would have tied neatly into some of the conference’s major themes.

Feedback from the event was positive and, as I had hoped, I learned much both from putting the session together and from the contributions of participants. Total win.

Credit is due to all on the UX Scotland team – Jacqui, Ryan and Mark from Software Acumen – who put on a very impressive event, in a very special place, that brought together a diverse attendee list. I have attended a number of conferences where the visibility of organisers suggested that self-promotion was high on the agenda. Not so here. As with UX Brighton, it’s all about the event.

What I heard and discussed at UX Scotland is still rolling around my head. As any good conference should deliver, the lessons will have an immediate effect on my work. I feel very fortunate not only to have presented at the event but to have attended at all.

 

NB – The venue – Our Dynamic Earth – is difficult to describe. Visit the website and be assured that the images simply don’t do it justice, set as it is in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat, adjacent to Holyrood House place. Stunning.

The future’s Bright(on). The future’s UX.

I was privileged to attend UX Brighton in the first week of November. Not to be lumped in with the glut of web design conferences of various flavours around the UK, UX Brighton is different and – yes – in a good way.

Many conferences have higher profiles, others have slicker marketing and unrelenting promotional pushes. The brainchild of Danny Hope however, now in its fourth year, is an intense, single day affair that seeks to truly understand what it means to design for engagement and interaction with people. There was little in the way of ‘swag’, treats, buttons, stickers, and other such gimmickry. What matters here is the content, the minds that have been assembled and the knowledge imparted.

Shock of the new

If I’m honest? I was taken aback. The day offered such a wealth of food for thought I was left reeling at the sheer depth of this still-young industry. It also confirmed to me the myriad different paths that lead to a life in UX. Many of these were represented and apparent in a diverse set of talks, one recurring theme not surprisingly being the importance of research over dangerous assumptions and received wisdom.

It’s business time

Commercial reality is one of the main challenges I face day-to-day. Finding a place for UX thinking in already-squeezed project budgets is not easy when visual outputs are in demand from day one. Indeed the commercial imperative tends to be disturbingly absent from much of the design conference circuit’s output; under a facade of ‘inspiration’, much generalist, impractical nonsense makes its way into circulation. This was not to be the the case in Brighton, with UX clearly shown to be at the heart of achieving success and promoting mass adoption. “User experience”, as James Kalbach so pointedly put it, “is good business”.

Sticks and stones

In certain corners of the design industry something of a backlash against user experience work appears to be brewing, characterising it as a barrier to progress, obsessed with deliverables and documentation. The concept of ‘lean UX’ has emerged as a kind of response, but itself is a concept that I have to say I find incredible has gained any traction. The whole point of UX (IMHO of course) is that it should be baked in to the design process, not stand alone by rights. Every design process that has people and end users at its conclusion is, or should be, a UX process by default. Whether we call it simply ‘design’ or ‘lean UX’ is semantics. It’s designing for the user. Always has been, always will be.

I’ve heard the work I’m now involved with summarised as ‘usability’ design (sound familiar UX folk?). I’ve also heard it framed as being diametrically opposed to ‘creative’ design. Here’s the thing. If you are a designer – of anything – and you are not interested in how people are going to interact with your design, you don’t deserve the mantle. And by “interested in” I mean “interested enough to hear what other people have to say about your work”.

Happy endings

As a blinkered graphic designer in the early years of my career I locked myself in solipsistic world of Photoshop filters and typographic noodling, not really considering the end use of what I was producing. It only had to look cool, and what’s more, it only had to look cool to me. Design education had failed to instil in me the notion that there were people on the other end of the indulgent process I was lost in. That’s about as anti-UX as you can get. Happily, somewhere along my journeyman’s travels, sense prevailed.

The future’s bright(on)

I get the impression that those entering today’s web industry are more than a little clued in, and what the future holds is an industry with exactly the type of baked-in UX I mentioned above. The principle of research as a critical cornerstone of any credible design process is immutable. I see UX design as the act of going deeper and broader with that research, and always – always – countering assumptions with informed conclusions.

Oh – UX Brighton? Amazing!

Return to the garden

(or: Designers Assemble!)

 

I shouldn’t need to declare support (again) for the pursuit of responsive web design as the future for online design. What irks me though is not so much a sense that visual design is being compromised in order to achieve a responsive outcome, but that the fact is not being acknowledged.

For what it’s worth I’m writing from the standpoint of working in a sizeable agency on many projects where RWD is not a practical option based on such factors as functionality and user profiling. You can take much of what I offer here as my opinion only, but my firm belief is that it is not mine alone.

Yin without a yang

I’ve written before about the difficulties of implementing responsive solutions in a commercial environment. As evidenced in James Young‘s excellent collation of “problems from the coalface“, designers are having mixed experiences in the transition to RWD – a situation I feel is inadequately represented in online conversations. The overwhelmingly positive spin accompanying a responsive site launch creates a subtle (but tangible) pressure on conscientious designers to ‘step up’ and deliver RWD on their own projects. Which would be fine, but the inference that RWD is desirable at any cost.

So here is a conundrum for designers that I will pretentiously moniker ‘the RWD Paradox’:

Forced to choose, what is less desirable: a visually mundane but responsive website, or a highly engaging fixed width site?

Obviously I distort for effect, but I believe that this is the uncomfortable truth for a large proportion of designers trying to pursue a responsive approach. The underlying point of RWD is that all resolutions and viewport sizes are important; it’s not just preordained screen sizes that should be accommodated. That being the case, why do many responsive sites create visual anomalies at certain sizes that we would normally find unacceptable in any other context? And if this as a natural consequence of applying RWD, then lets at least admit it.

Think outside the box (model)

It has further been suggested by more than one industry colleague that RWD promotes ‘boxy’ design, where a facet of the site’s visual appeal – part of the ‘personality layer‘ – is sacrificed to easily scaled, easily manipulated blocks. This is clearly manifest in at least one high-profile brand’s recently launched site.

Now, this is not to suggest that RWD precludes great visual design. Not at all. There are many examples of a successful marriage of the two, but they appear to be in the minority compared to the plethora of single-column portfolios or blogs that have little relevance to large consumer-facing sites.

Ding-a-ling

Suppressing these issues will only exacerbate them. And yet we resize our browser windows, ooh-ing and aah-ing at every cute little piece of javascript that animates resizing images while missing an important point – users don’t care. Users want a coherent experience relevant to their situation at any given time. Designers and developers are the only people I know who sit and accordion their browser window to see how a site will respond. We’re too in love with technique because we know that somewhere, another designer or developer is going to think it’s cool. And folks, when it gets to the point when we are designing for other designers, that should ring some pretty loud alarm bells.

Return to Eden

So what should be done? We need look no further than relatively recent history for inspiration.

Dave Shea‘s CSS Zen Garden marked a sea change in online design. The site, if you are unfamiliar with it, accepts CSS submissions and applies them to a core HTML file, demonstrating in a simple and powerful manner how separating content from presentation creates a beautiful and effective flexibility. In 2003 it enlightened many designers, myself included, and put the argument for the jump to CSS beyond debate. More than that, it coalesced the design community in a way that circulating links on Twitter does not.

“Just sowing seeds..”

We need a new garden for responsive web design. Mediaqueri.es is great as an initial eye-opener for those unfamiliar with the idea of adaptive layouts, but we badly need something to give designers the opportunity to pool ideas and resources and begin raising the bar for RWD. Not a new idea I freely admit. However while it may have been hinted at, and the original Zen Garden used to illustrate adaptive potential, I have not found a straight call for a new ‘Garden’. So this is it.

We can and should learn from experience in order to forge a better future for web design. That, and be a little more open on occasions when quality has taken a back seat to technique.

Adapting to responsive

Responsive web design has reached the grand old age of two and remains the single most important shift in design and development for the web since the advent of CSS.

Broken record

I have written previously about the dangers of dogmatic approaches, emphasising that we should move in the direction of responsive design increasingly and methodically. RWD is not however a be-all-and-end-all. It is not a magic bullet for multi-device deployment. Responsive images remain a challenge, advertising doesn’t sit well with a fluid layout and, regardless of how simple the approach is pitched as, the creation of a credible responsive solution takes significantly greater time than a single-resolution site.

Here comes the future

And yet it should remain the goal. We are clearly impelled to move to responsive as an industry standard. Some of the loftier commentary recommending multiple versions of websites appears frighteningly blinkered in its naivety. We are headed only one way in the medium to long term.

One foot in front of the other

However an all or nothing stance on RWD is an equally retrograde move. Speaking as a (ahem) “seasoned” designer, shifting to an adaptive approach has been an essential stepping stone in understanding RWD as a whole. Is it better to learn responsive as standard? Of course. For any new designers starting out: take this route and don’t look back. For those who have been around the block a few times, coming to terms with full responsive as a new way of approaching projects is to put it simply, difficult. I have yet to meet a designer in industry for any amount of time with a different view.

Money, money, money

I work in a commercial organisation and to remain viable in a commercial environment, we need to deliver effective outputs that surpass expectations – within a budget. Recently we’ve committed to producing adaptive sites as standard and deviating from this only where individual projects demand it. Not committing to fully responsive for the moment, our rationale is that doing something is better than doing nothing; not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

It’s not what you do..?

As I have said before, we’re getting there and should enjoy the journey. But whether it is acknowledged or not (and it isn’t) there is a purist agenda at work in some corners of the industry. Challenge some of the more vociferous opinions and there is usually a conciliatory climb down, but the inference remains: if you’re not producing fully responsive work, you’re falling short. My problem with this is simply that it places technique over results. The means do not justify the end. There are a number of responsive sites featuring what I would regard as unacceptable design anomalies at certain sizes, and they should not be given a pardon simply because of the way they have been constructed. An adaptive approach may yet be more condusive to better overall design on certain projects.

Conclusion

To repeat myself (again), why create divisions where none exist. We’re all on our way. Those who fail to come to terms with the changing landscape in web access are condemning themselves to history. For those who are moving forward, there is more than one way to do so.

Putting the spotlight on ‘delight’

Disclaimer: I tend to react adversely to industry buzzword memes.

A new word has been gradually creeping into the design industry lexicon. Designers should now, apparently, design for “delight” – and once again a word has been introduced without context into the forefront of design debate.

I’ve avoided ‘cool’ for most of my professional career. I don’t do ‘awesome’. I don’t trust it. I don’t strive for it. But I like ‘effective’. Effective I can work with.

The most rational, level-headed thoughts on this come from CX Partners’ Giles Colborne. The points Colborne makes illustrate that we don’t really know what we’re saying. It’s all too easy to drop these phrases into discourse, but it’s quite another to try and measure or define it. And yet invariably a section of the design community, certainly within web design, will regurgitate this type of commentary and broadcast it without questioning what it actually means.

I don’t disagree with the sentiment; I agree fully that ‘delight’ would be a.. um, delightful reaction for users of our work to have. But to impose this on an industry that strives for effective results appears to be imposing very shallow measures on a complex profession. If we’re going to propagate something meaningful, what about “design for success” – how’s that?

“Delight” is a meme and a millstone. It’s another way of saying that we should design something cool. But cool is not a commercial imperative, and it’s place in the process is undefinable. So, at what point should ‘delight’ appear? Until definitions and metrics emerge I will continue to hold such opinion at arm’s length.

There is no magic ingredient for a successfully designed product. There is only process and effort. As with cool, ‘delight’ will be a by-product of an effective outcome.

‘Delight’ happens, just as ‘cool’ happens, most often through rigorous attention to detail and a rock solid understanding of user requirements.