Top 5 books 2019

A tough year to pick a top five from, but here goes.


Tragic Design

Jonathan Shariat and Cynthia Savard Saucier

Shariat and Saucier explain how poorly designed products can anger, sadden, exclude, and even kill people who use them. Through a series of historical case studies, the errors of design become woefully apparent. The designers responsible certainly didn’t intend harm, so what can we do to avoid making similar mistakes? For a taste of where the book goes, and how high the stakes for bad design can be, try Googling “ford pinto design flaw”. One of two books on the list where I was fortunate enough to interview the authors for the UX Belfast meetup during 2019.

https://www.tragicdesign.com

Tech Humanist

Kate O’Neill

Ethics and human-centredness in design have been a noticeable emerging theme in the last two years. Here, Kate O’Neill highlights the importance of meaning and purpose in tech. “The Tech Humanist proposal is to ensure that business objectives and human objectives are as aligned as possible so that as automated experiences scale, they scale human values with them, and a sense of what is meaningful to humans surrounds us.” Highly recommended for anyone seeking greater meaning in their work.

Factfulness

Hans Rosling

What a refreshing read. We can become despairing sometimes at the state of the world. And yes, a lot of what we understand in the world is wrong. However, this book by (now deceased) author Hans Rosling illustrates how much the world is improving over time. How quality of life is improving for those in the bottom tiers of society. Yes, there’s a lot wrong with the world, but this book teaches us to appreciate where and how things are getting better. And how we must bring critical thinking to our view of the world. Rosling’s children are continuing his work – see https://www.gapminder.org for more information.

Meeting Design

Kevin Hoffman

This book needed to be written, given the amount of collective time we invest in sitting in rooms together, physically or virtually. This book treats meetings as a design problem, and offers highly practical advice on agendas, facilitation and actions. Favourite quote: “Meetings are usability tests for organizations themselves”. ‘Nuff said.

Ego is the Enemy

Ryan Holiday

A great treatise on objectivity and not becoming attached to anything you feel defines you, either as an individual, or as an organization. “…at some point in time, every industry will be disrupted by some trend or innovation [which] the incumbent interest will be incapable of responding to. Why can’t businesses change or adapt? A large part of it is because they have lost the ability to learn, they stopped being students. The second this happens, your knowledge becomes fragile.” Sobering stuff, and a useful prompt to re-assess some core beliefs about oneself.


Work-related books only this time round. So much great fiction featured during the year also, but these are the books that really stuck with me.

‘She Rocks!’ Awards 2019

Last week I was stunned to receive a nomination in the Women Who Code Belfast ‘She Rocks!’ awards.

The Honorary Changemaker award was introduced this year “to recognise men who have actively committed to the advancement, sponsorship or championing the progress of women in tech. We rise by lifting others, and allies are a vital component in our mission to inspire women to excel in technology careers.”

I appreciate that these awards focus on recognising positive human qualities in and around the tech, making it all the more of an honour to be included. I hope that the decisions and actions across my career have been worthy of the nomination. And it’s a reminder to keep trying to be a better ally.

Silo mentality: where great customer experience goes to die

decrepit machines

Despite working in experience design, I don’t go around looking for opportunities to criticise products or services. Like most people, I just want to get on with what I need to do and accept that occasional lapses in service are bound to happen now and then. Ten minutes in to a recent hotel stay, however, I was already making notes.

  • After taking my name, the receptionist promptly disappeared through a door and left me standing for 5 minutes. What they had omitted to say was that they were checking if the room was ready.
  • The room key card I was issued didn’t work, requiring a return trip to reception to report it. Then a wait for another to be prepared.
  • A wifi password supplied in the guest welcome pack didn’t let me connect. The correct one was written on the keycard holder, something I was expected to discover.

It turned out to be a perfectly enjoyable stay. In those first few minutes though, I was questioning the wisdom of booking. It was a small example of how seemingly unrelated lapses by a vendor added up to poor overall customer experience.

Some 10 years ago, I switched my bank due to a series of let-downs. I was prepared to go through the pain (at that time) of moving current and savings accounts away from a bank of 12+ years. During a protracted series of phonecalls, one explanation offered for the difficulties I was facing was: “that’s another department… we don’t deal with that here.” 

Departments are a reality in any organisation of course. But as conduits of conflicting priorities or processes, silos are self-serving, destructive entities. Variations on Conway’s Law litter our daily physical and digital interactions. Customers are not interested in how your organisation is structured. When it becomes visible to them, it is usually at the cost of a cohesive experience.

A common problem is that teams working on a product or service know intimately how everything hangs together; they are well versed in the complexity of what’s being created. This awareness can surface as a tendency to see difficult challenges as insurmountable obstacles. Very often, process is wheeled out as a defence of current practices, or a cure-all elixir. Cross-departmental initiatives are hard work, which tends to make them unattractive. The result can be a culture that simply accepts ways of working that do not deliver value. 

Naturally, this is all rich, raw material for designers, and service design in particular. Time and again as a design consultant the most radical thing I could do was to reflect what customers were going through back at the organisation. A lack of focus on, or understanding of, creating value for customers is a fundamental issue.

A customer-centered perspective can be the unifying force in the relentless struggle against imposed friction, while also providing a guiding light for new initiatives. Leadership should look to clear the way for ideas to thrive across divisions. Individuals or teams are required with sufficient drive and resilience to face down inertia and defensiveness, even the rampant virus of cynicism.

Siloed organisations are machines of aimless intent, efficient only at generating endless reasons why customer and user experience can’t be made better. Silos are anti-customer and anti-value.

Hard work it may be, but the option not to get rid of such barriers is all but gone. Ultimately every organisation needs to decide – consciously – whether defending silos and siloed thinking is more important than creating and retaining customers.

UX Belfast at Belfast Design Week 2019

As a Belfast Design Week fringe event, a collaboration with Ladies that UX Belfast, with a notable guest author and great local content, it’s no surprise that this week’s UX Belfast meetup was the largest to date.

Charlotte Tracey got the talks going with insights into the power of data and immersed us in the world of qual and quant data.

Our guest author Jonathan Shariat was nothing less than gracious and generous, in spite of an AV glitch leading to 20 minutes of dead air. Jonathan brought to life the background and content of ‘Tragic Design’, the O’Reilly Media book he has co-authored with Cynthia Savard Saucier. All agreed that the book is required reading for designers wanting to create positive change in the world. A donation was made to Jonathan’s nominated charity, AbilityNet, to thank him for his time.

Ioana Enea closed out the evening with an entertaining talk on her experience of improv and how it has enriched her work as a designer.

Thanks to Jonathan, Ladies That UX Belfast, Puppet for hosting, and to co-host & former colleague Marie-therese McCann for the original idea.

This is my seventh year of running the UX Belfast meetup. It continues to gain momentum and draw new faces, as the design community in Belfast surges. Particular thanks are due to Belfast Design Week for demonstrating what a broad and diverse design community it is. I’m proud to be a small part of it.

The Humble Designer

One of the (arguably few) benefits that comes with having some gray hairs is the maturity to reflect on what you have learned over the years, and how you have learned it.

The early years of my career were not distinguished. I lacked direction and was not particularly interested in developing myself. I eventually woke up around eight years in. Those lost years often give me the uncomfortable feeling of playing catch-up all the time.

For the last 15+ years I’ve worked persistently at personal and professional development. I cringe now when I think of the younger me; the lack of interest both in my profession, and in others. It is this same sense of shame which helps me feel more qualified to answer a question I am asked increasingly often: what qualities make for a successful career in design?

For the last few years, the answers I’ve given have been, simply, humility and curiosity.

For the purposes of this piece I’ll restrict the definition of ‘design’ to the field of human-centred design. But I firmly believe these can apply to any number of disciplines.

As a junior designer, it’s easy to feel pressure to have all the answers ready and waiting. This tends to be reinforced in meetings as the question “So, what are we going to do?” comes up. Heads turn to the designer. “Well? You’re the designer – what’s the answer?!” is a question to haunt designers throughout the early years of a career. The subsequent scramble for easy answers can lead to any number of tragic outcomes.

A humble designer has the ability to say “I don’t have the answers. But I know the questions we should ask.”

Two books in recent months have left a huge impression on me: Humble Consulting and Factfulness. To my great delight, both books stressed the importance of both qualities.

‘Facfulness’ is a compelling and optimistic look at how much the world has improved during the 20th and 21st centuries, and how far humanity has developed. Very much against the current zeitgeist of everything appearing to be awful, it supplies data which undeniably shows that life is getting better for the majority of humankind. We are far from utopia, but the book stresses the importance of dealing with facts to understand the world around us.

“Most important of all, we should be teaching our children humility and curiosity. Being humble, here, means being aware of how difficult your instincts can make it to get the facts right. It means being realistic about the extent of your knowledge. It means being happy to say “I don’t know.”

In ‘Humble Consulting’, Edgar Schein presents humility as a strength in approaching complex challenges, and something which nurtures the kind of collaborative relationships required to achieve breakthroughs and desired outcomes. Early in the book, Schein describes three types of humility, one of which – Here-and-now Humility – “results from our being dependent from time to time on someone else in order to accomplish a task that we are committed to. This will strike some readers as academic hairsplitting, but it is the recognition of this third type of humility that is the key to humble inquiry and to the building of positive relationships.”

The humility to accept that you don’t know – and the curiosity to fill the gaps in your own knowledge – makes you not just a better designer, but a better colleague and a better professional; one more capable of working within a team to achieve shared goals.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The casual arrogance that comes with partial knowledge is ruthlessly conveyed in the early peak of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Knowing where you sit on that continuum, through a capacity for self-awareness, is essential. The best designers will know themselves to be somewhere in the dip, but working hard to ascend the other side.

I’ll listen to anyone with an opinion on the qualities of a good designer. There’s room for all kinds of approaches and skillsets. However I will say this: the absence of humility and curiosity may not deny a designer a successful career. But absence of those qualities will deny them a truly fulfilling one.