UX Belfast, October 2018

October’s UX Belfast saw the mesmerising Jorge Arango take questions and talk us through his new book ‘Living in Information’ – a compelling mix of practical advice and thoughtful reflection on the responsibility of designers to create what Jorge terms ‘generative’ online environments.

To thank Jorge for his time, the meetup made a donation to his selected charity, The Long Now Foundation. For more information visit http://longnow.org

Puppet Belfast once again provided food and drink in what was our largest meetup to date.

Plans are afoot to evolve UX Belfast to better serve and represent the UX community in Belfast, offering talks and insights into the work of local professionals while keeping one eye firmly on books, learning, and professional development.

UX Belfast meetup, May 2018

The Belfast UX bookclub meetups continue, and 30 May gathering had author Sara Wachter-Boettcher taking questions and providing insights on ’Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech’.

Images from UX Belfast meetup, May 2018
Images from UX Belfast meetup, May 2018

This marked the twentieth UX Belfast meetup I’ve organised and, significantly, the best attended. A partnership with Women in Tech Belfast for the evening contributed hugely to that milestone. That said, interest in the group is rising rapidly, with over 220 members on the Meetup.com page at time of writing.

Sara’s book made Fast Company’s Top 10 Business & Leadership books of 2017, and Wired’s Top Tech books of 2017. Although a relatively short read, Sara has managed to gather a shocking number of case studies and examples where technology might be successfully delivering ‘engagement’ with users but letting humans, even society, down in the process.

Further information on the book, as well as Sara’s work as an independent content and UX consultant, can be found at her website http://www.sarawb.com.

Huge thanks to partners for the evening, Women in Tech BFS. Thanks also to PuppetBelfast for providing the great venue and refreshments, Slice app for the copious amounts of pizza and to WW Norton UK for discounts and copies of the book to give away.

To thank Sara for her time, a donation has been made to local charity, WomensTec. For more information visit http://www.womenstec.org

UX Bookclub Belfast, Feb 2018

This time round we had Donna Lichaw (@dlichaw) talking about her book The User’s Journey: Storymapping Products that People Love.

Donna has a background in screenwriting, and carried over the idea of mapping out story from the world of film as she transitioned into products. In the book we’re offered examples from film & TV (Back to the Future and Breaking Bad fwiw), then examples of how that transposes to design.

The storymapping model ©2018 Donna Lichaw

The storymap always follows this pattern (above), the challenge is then to populate the story with the most critical elements of the user experience. N.B. Although Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ is referenced, that isn’t the central model or focus of the book.

Examples of effective application of the technique included Donna’s own experience with FitCounter, where rate of retention during onboarding doubled, despite extending signup from 5 to 15 steps! Another example given is the signup experience of Twitter during it’s major growth period.

During Q&A Donna suggested storymapping was another tool that could work alongside more traditional methods; in practice I anticipate it will take significant buy-in from an early stage, right across the team. Potentially it might impinge or negate completely many accepted UX practices. For instance, some terms that Donna makes use of might be a formula for ambiguity in the UX vs agile conundrum, not least the definition of “stories” itself.

That said, Donna didn’t get caught up in semantics; the book is simply advocating for increased shared understanding, using story – in a holistic sense – as the agent to establish clarity for project goals. It’s a relatively short read, and makes a compelling case for storymapping to bring something fresh to product discussions. It’s but a short step away from experience mapping and traditional user stories; a consolidation of disparate elements under the banner of story.

If you have time, this is an excellent video of Donna’s presentation at Mind The Product in London, 2016.

Check the resources Donna has provided on her website.

Donna Lichaw appears at UX Bookclub Belfast

A quick history of UX Bookclub Belfast: started around 10 years ago and hosted by an agency named Front. They were acquired by Monotype in 2012 at which point myself and few others took up as organizers, until early 2016 when it ran out of suitable venues… and interest. FF to late 2017 and we held the first rebooted bookclub (now with added Meetup.com!)

I’m a designer. What do I know?

From time to time something comes along to give you a gentle nudge, prompting you to reassess your knowledge as a professional. Such an occasion came last month in the form of the ever-enjoyable UX Bookclub Belfast.

People are liars (apparently)

The book being discussed was “100 Things Designers Should Know About People” by Susan Weinschenk. Compiled from a series of blog posts, “100 Things…” features some eyebrow-raising revelations on the apparent true needs of users, versus what people say they want. The book prompted a number of comments along the lines of “I’m a designer. I knew a lot of this stuff already… but I’m not sure how.”

Is there a designer in the house?

Professional practice in any number of design disciplines, graphic and UI among them, is not absolute, differentiating them from law, medicine or accounting for example. However design should not be subjective. The weakest possible position a designer can adopt in communicating with a client is a “just trust me, I know best” stance. Any sense of the designer-as-artist can result in needless, subjective discussions. In other words, either have a good reason for deploying a particular colour or prepare for a discussion over who’s favourite colour is best.

The appliance of science

One of the many positive developments to have occurred during my time as a professional is the proliferation of scientific thinking in the industry. The influence and contributions of thought leaders such as Donald Norman, Alan Cooper and others cannot be overstated; what they have brought to the table is a shift in rationale from the old, instinctive design sensibility to a more effective, research-driven approach. So we have gone from arguing that a button with rounded corners simply “looks right” (instinctive) to stating that it has affordance and benefits from the Aesthetic-Usability Effect (scientific). What’s more, data supports the fact that attractive things work better.

That’s… logical, captain

Without question this type of approach demands more from the designer: craft, study, insight. It can also supply some much-needed constraints within which creativity can flourish, rather than relying on the artist’s muse. Arguing a point based on data and evidence is less likely to result in needless exchanges with a client over the amount of [insert client’s favourite colour here]. That’s not to say it will never happen, but our position as professionals is strengthened when we can actively demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the rules of the game.

Reboot

We might assume to “know” so much gained from experience or absorbed from years of industry-related reading but regular reassessment of what we assume to be firm knowledge can only be healthy. Plus it is much more conducive to a sustained and successful career in design. Taking the opportunity has never been easier, with the web as a central hub for debates and discussions that lead to shifts in our industry and each of us with a front row seat.

Cliché, okay

Hackneyed it may be, but designers cannot afford to stop learning about the components of professional practice, particularly those of us who have had extended tenures in the field. Old thinking needs to be identified and regularly weeded out. We need to challenge accepted truths time and again, reassess our own subjective views and progress our work and contribution.

Gratuitous Star Wars quote

To paraphrase Yoda, we need to unlearn what we have learned – and then relearn it, sometimes daily.

Laws of Simplicity

The recently rejuvenated UX Bookclub Belfast, brought to us by the good people at Front, had “Laws of Simplicty” by John Maeda as its September selection.

I wish this had been written when I was a student or graduate designer. I come from a generation of designers where the goal was generally to embellish, embellish, embellish, and that was evident in the the wave of websites which emerged when designers finally decided to engage with the web in the last couple of years of the nineties. This should certainly be a must-read for all design students. Here are a few of my random thoughts and quotes from the book:

The first edition came out in 2006; throughout the book Maeda makes repeated reference to the iPod as a paradigm of simplicity principles. I would love to know if this reverence extends to the iPhone which is – to me – a hugely complex device, one which seems to base its appeal almost exclusively on aspirational aspects, albeit its functionality is split into a large number of smaller, simpler modules.

“Good design relies to some extent on the ability to instill a sense of instant familiarity” – this is very true when one thinks of patterns in UX design, and yet some designers are ashamed of conforming to conventions. Doing ‘what everyone else is doing’ is generally perceived to be a bad thing, and yet it makes a vital contribution to usability.

“Ambience is the proverbial ‘secret sauce’” – very true in web design. Sometimes you can feel like you have very little room to make your mark in a ‘typical’ web project, whether the constraints be financial, or dictated by brand guidelines etc. Many small victories can be achieved through tiney details which contribute to the overall ambience.

“Synthesizing the ambient experience of simplicity requires attention to everything that seemingly does not matter”. Daaammmn. Favourite line in the book by far! I may not get a tattoo of it, but it deserves framing at the very least.

Maeda makes the point that “simple = cheap” to his mother (and others). I would suggest that simple = cheat to some; that somehow simplicity is less design. Sadly a viewpoint that is too often adopted by short-sighted clients!

“Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding to the meaningful” – and here we have a key differentiator between simplicity and minimalism, which tends to be about reduction at all costs, something I’ve commented on before.

Overall, great book. The last couple of pages suggest to me that simplicity does not just appeal to us as designers, but as humans. For instance, I don’t believe that anyone wakes up in the morning and thinks: “Hmm. I think I need to make my life more complex today.” More exciting perhaps, or more fulfilling, but we will naturally be drawn to simplicity as a goal. And yet, I know I continue to fill my life with “stuff”, be it gadgets that I will never unlock the full potential of, books and magazines I may never read, which do nothing but add to the complexity of my life. Maeda lets us know that simplicity is a choice.

Without over-simplifying what Maeda offers, the book forces us to reconsider what is truly helpful, emphasising that more does not necessarily mean better.