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.

UX Belfast 2019 is go

UX Belfast 2019 got off to a tremendous start with two prominent practitioners of human-centred design.

Kate O’Neill, author of Tech Humanist, joined us from New York, taking questions from the Belfast audience and expanding on the ideas put forward in her book.

Rebecca Walsh CEng gave us valuable insights on the discipline of service design, and the work that she and Big Motive are involved with.

Both guests highlighted how UX and CX are only subsets of the larger concern of human-centred design. As Kate has put it: “a dignified, respectful relationship with all the human stakeholders in the economy goes a long way toward creating a sustainable, successful future for us all”.

On a personal note, it’s been gratifying to watch UX Belfast grow from its bookclub roots into a regular fixture in the Belfast design calendar. Much more challenging and stimulating content is planned throughout for 2019. Sign up for updates at uxbelfast.org

Thanks to all who came along, to Kate and Rebecca, and to Puppet Belfast once again for their hospitality in such an ideal venue.

The selected charity this time was Code Your Future. Learn more and donate at codeyourfuture.io

Top 5 books 2018

A little late maybe, a handful of books I took a lot of enjoyment from during last year. This is a general list, rather than strictly professional but I’ll make no apology for that 🙂

Technically Wrong

Sara Wachter-Boettcher

One of two books on my list which are selections from the UX Belfast meetup. Technically Wrong is a catalogue of technology failures, highlighting where ethics and basic human standards are often absent from the tools and services we create. While publication preceded the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica story, Facebook is firmly in the book’s sights, along with many other luminaries in the world of social media. This is a short but alarming read, and one I would suggest as essential for anyone working in technology today.

Humble Consulting

Edgar H. Schein

A relevant read for any number of professions and disciplines. The author emphesises the need of asking basic, fundamental questions about purpose and – most importantly – creating a culture where this is welcomed. Schein presents humility as a strength in approaching complex challenges, and as something which nurtures the kind of collaborative relationships required to achieve breakthroughs and desired outcomes. Lots of case studies are offered from a distinguished 40+ year career consulting with organizations large and small, by a former professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Living in Information

Jorge Arango

Another selection for UX Belfast. Jorge Arango is a qualified architect who made the move into Information Architecture. He presents a thoughtful but powerful call to action for technologists to make better choices about the ‘places’ we create with online services and tools. Drawing parallels with physical spaces, Jorge urges us to build sustainable, nurturing places which are capable of benefitting society as a whole. The book is one of a number published this year that attempt to stimulate debate around ethics in technology, and how those ethics work their way into our creations.

The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst

Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall

In a nutshell, the true story of a man slowly going mad while attempting to fake a solo circumnavigation of the globe. Crowhurst was a fantasist who managed to get enough to buy into his self-delusion to the point where he couldn’t turn back – literally and figuratively. The book documents Crowhurst’s journey from keeping accurate logs, to faking position and logs, and ultimately into hopeless rambling as the pressure of maintaining a lie to the world overwhelmed him. Both tragic and riveting.

Disappearance at Devil’s Rock

Paul Tremblay

First point: this book has a terrible, pulpy title which belies the subtleties of the storytelling. Paul Tremblay has a distinctive skill of being able to suggest weird and unsettling events, without describing them in detail. What actually occurs is open to the reader’s interpretation. But what we are left with is a compelling drama of a family trying to deal with tragic, highly unnatural (and possibly supernatural) events. Genuinely haunting.


That’s a cross-section of everything I got through during 2018, tempting though it would be to focus on professionally-related books only. As a compulsive book-buyer, I was forced to begin recording all of the books that were in the waiting list. Prompted by this, for a couple of years I’ve been tracking my reading on Trello. That system is worth a full separate post!