Cutting from the same cloth

August 16, 2013

I’ve written on this blog before about my Dad, a joiner by trade. A recent tweet has given me cause to write about him again.

Dad died just as I was waking up as an adult – not in my teens, but in my twenties, as I finally started to think about design as a career rather than a meander through a series of jobs. I was a late starter, but thankfully, eventually came to have great pride in the profession.

Over the years there have been, and continue to be many days when I have imaginary conversations with Dad, trying to work out what his advice might be on matters both professional and personal. Dad would not have claimed to be universally liked, but he commanded respect; more than anything, people trusted him. And while we had any number of differences over the years typical of a father-and-son relationship, I would never have questioned Dad’s judgement. He was ‘true North’ on an ethical compass, to me and to many others.

One element of the legacy he left me was that I strive to exercise the same judgement and sense of integrity whenever I can.

Bill Monro had huge pride in his work and his tradesman’s background never left him. His role in later years, that of a Clerk of Works, brought him into contact with any number of trades, all of whom he could relate to because of his background in the Belfast shipyard and later the construction industry. He said that doing anything was worth doing well. Doing it thoroughly. Doing it properly.

As I move deeper into the area of user experience design, I often wonder what Dad would make of it, when so many even within the digital design industry have issues with the concept. I remember the difficulty I had in explaining what a Graphic Designer was; I can’t imagine what he would have made of something called ‘User Experience’.

And yet I know that to Dad the idea of building something without first specifying it thoroughly would have been a completely alien concept. As a joiner the old maxim of measuring twice, cutting once was an unflagging principle. I like to think that by talking in terms of thorough research, comprehensive planning and effective execution we would have found much to agree on.

I have a suspicion, though, he might have raised an eyebrow at user experience even being a thing: “You mean understanding the problem and making the results fit for purpose..? Hmm.” To Dad’s generation, these fundamentals were the minimum price of entry. Customer experience would have seemed an equally perplexing idea; surely good customer service is a prerequisite to trade?

I get a degree of comfort from connecting what I do to the skills and motivations my Father had. And so this post’s title is not a misquoting of the old idiom, but a suggestion of common purpose. Amidst the talk of a return to craft in web design, I have a personal motivation in wanting to achieve it.

The UX of Edinburgh

July 5, 2013

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.

User experience, not user control

May 15, 2013

Amongst the bizarre interpretations I’ve seen applied to User Experience is the notion that UX is a coercive or manipulative pursuit. You can just see the eyes of cynical marketeers* light up at the thought that some form of Jedi mind trick might be available to lead consumers trance-like to a destination not of their own choosing.

Granted, dark patterns have emerged, for those who feel that unethical practice is the way to go. But the idea of control is a false premise.

The language of user experience design has made the transition into the marketing lexicon of web design. It’s become the phrase du jour in many client conversations, too; businesses quite naturally want to know what a more informed approach to design can deliver for them. The return on investment in UX is undeniable.

In the heat of a pitch, or to satiate a demanding client, it can be tempting to paint UX design as an exact science, a precision sport. And it isn’t.

It is the path of sanity in a world of ‘inspired’ guesswork and ego-driven design indulgence. Better of course to hypothesise, test and iterate during development than to rely on guesswork, only to find out a design is ineffective when it should be making a difference for your organisation.

Any claim to control the user’s experience is however a false one, akin to claiming that traffic flow is ‘controlled’ using traffic signals and road signs. People are not predictable animals. We may be engineers of the user experience; we can guide, inform, facilitate, enable, assist, and more. But we cannot control.

As a UX practitioner, to suggest otherwise is dangerously over-promising.

 

 

* Were such a thing were to exist…

Defining Empathy

March 19, 2013

As a student of the giants of our industry, I’m naturally a huge advocate of empathy and write often – on Twitter at least – about its importance to the UX design process.

So while it may be an imperative for effective user experience design, how should empathy manifest itself?

Last week I caught up with a friend I hadn’t seen in far too long, one of the smartest people I know. An ex-social worker who studied behavioural psychology at university, he is naturally curious. He has always shown a genuine interest in anyone he meets; he wants to know their story.

When we talked about the work I was now involved in, I mentioned that he would be ideally suited to the discipline and we talked about people, their expectations and motivations.

During the conversation he mentioned a trait that his mother – herself a social worker – had brought him up to practice. This was Unconditional Positive Regard; the simple acceptance of another’s behaviour which provides that individual with support to achieve personal growth.

It struck me that this had huge relevance. While we are identifying the motivations and needs of others, are we not required to show positive regard for whatever these might be? If (in simple terms) we are attempting to connect individuals with their goals then it falls on us also to treat those goals and associated needs with respect.

So “Positive regard” appears to go with the territory. If we are then to deliver on the promise of a positive user experience for all of our desired audiences, does the element of respect not also need to be unconditional? This sounds like the very definition of human-centred design.

As UX designers, behavioural psychology is one of many areas we often find ourselves straying into, looking for meaning. Simple concepts like this can throw new light on our work, and further validate our approach whenever we doubt ourselves.

Needless to say it was an interesting conversation with my friend. I look forward to many more in the years to come.

Perception Chain

February 11, 2013

As an enthusiastic exponent of Dave Gray’s Gamestorming approach to idea generation, my copy of the book shows signs of wear that belie its short life. If you are unfamiliar with Dave’s work it’s worth taking a look through the site… even better, buy the book. For me it has become an invaluable part of the UX toolbox, containing a wealth of material ideally suited to stakeholder engagement, customer research and much, much more.

One of the regular features in workshops I put together is the Understanding Chain. You can read full details here, but in brief it’s an effective mechanism for identifying (amongst other things) what really matters to an organisation’s core audiences. Questions are brainstormed by workshop participants, then ordered and structured into a narrative, ultimately looking for weak links in the chain – either the overall toughest questions or those that simply aren’t being answered.

Claiming credit for a modification may be going too far; all of the activities that Dave has assembled are inherently hackable and can be tailored to most contexts. But I thought this recent example was worth sharing.

The Understanding Chain had been used in the first of two client workshops, resulting in a number of customer questions identified as the most common and hardest to answer. Central amongst them was – unsurprisingly for a multi-faceted service company – “What do you do?”. With the second workshop involving a similar mix of participants from across the business, we needed something that would begin to connect questions to answers.

With a few minor alterations the Understanding Chain became a ‘Perception Chain’. Rather than “what questions are your audiences asking”, the line of enquiry switched focus to the messages that contribute to perceptions of the organisation:
– What messages does each audience hear?
– How is each message communicated?
– Where does it originate from?
– What need is the message seen to meet?

The messages were categorised in a manner similar to the questions in the Understanding Chain, but in this case the categories used were:
– Ambient (general perception based on word-of-mouth or brand awareness)
– Broad-brush (general marketing messages)
– Targeted (aimed at specific audience)

When the messages had been identified and categorised, the group was asked which was the most potent or impactful. This worked very effectively in conjunction with the questions output from day one; it was a natural step to ask the group if the messages their audiences hear answer the questions they are asking.

This can help to identify gaps in the marketing mix, and – crucially – begin the process of finding a singular message capable of cutting across audience boundaries. It has the potential to get to the very essence of a brand, or to make sense of an organisation’s diverse service offering.

With some small tweaks, the Understanding Chain brought a whole new aspect to understanding customers’ needs – just what our workshop needed.

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