A criminal past

My name is Patrick Stuart Monro, and I have a criminal past.

Some weeks ago this thought occurred to me:

It had begun to feel that so much of what I was saying, whether on Twitter or off it, sounded like that old stereotype of the ex-smoker whose every utterance forms an unrelenting diatribe against their former habit.

Moving deeper into the wold of user experience research and user-centred design has turned my professional sensibilities on their head; I’m a poacher-turned-gamekeeper. From an inauspicious start at a design sweatshop, successive developments brought me to increasingly align with principles that should have been ingrained from day one, but were not.

I envy those who realise early in their design careers – perhaps through effective education – that people should be at the centre of their work, those who will consume the outputs from it. My early career was a series of exercises in aesthetic futility, recurring attempts to prove something about myself that rarely manifested itself in user-centred design of any variety.

Graphic work particularly was more often than not an exercise in Photoshop promenading. Maybe I would shoe-horn in a new typeface that I liked the look of, usually in wilful ignorance of the ultimate audience or purpose.

That said, no-one suffered, no-one died. Every piece of work I produced was signed off by a client as fit for purpose (not necessarily an endorsement of it being effective of course), and the work I was doing was no better or worse than numerous design projects created every day around the world.

What my tweet made me aware of was that I wish at times I could address my younger self (doesn’t everyone?), and begin to plant the seeds of responsible design earlier.

An opportunity has become available to do something approaching this, as a contributing lecturer to the Interactive Multimedia Design course at the University of Ulster. I can at least begin to make amends for my own lack of understanding (something I can’t solely attribute to poor levels of design education) by passing on some of what I’ve learned in 20+ years as a designer, albeit far too few of those spent as an effective one.

I find it cathartic to admit that I really haven’t been the designer I should have been for most of my career. But – as with all personal transformation – admitting aproblem is the first step. Followed by taking each day as it comes, and working to improve, one day at a time.

And I use each day to distance myself as far as possible from that younger version of me; the one who didn’t appreciate the privilege of working as a designer, and the responsibility that it brings with it.

I remain an eternal student of design. There are those in the industry (the ‘design’ industry in its widest possible sense), both globally and locally, that I look to now to help me make up for lost time. And it’s time I acknowledged them.

And with that, the subject of a future post becomes clear.

Thankful.

I’ve been fortunate to work alongside many, many talented professionals in my career, including designers and non-designers alike. While I benefitted from the influence of each, I also know I could have learned so much more had I been more perceptive at the time. Shamefully, I’m not sure I have let all of them know how helpful their influence was.

While all of those people have helped me to understand new things, or old things in new ways, none of them qualify as a fully-fledged mentor. The lack of a singular mentor figure has increasingly niggled at me, causing me to ask whether I had suffered because of it, where others had the opportunity to learn the craft of design. I like to think however I have made up for this in other ways; I have put in countless hours, compensating for what I see as an incomplete oeuvre.

There are a number of individuals that I feel represent the best design thinkers of our time, and thankfully their thoughts and writings are available to read online and off, available to all.

Dave Gray Dave’s book Gamestorming, I can say without any hint of hyperbole, changed my professional life. My entire approach to client meetings and project research altered as soon as I got to know this book. 2013’s ‘The Connected Company’ is a modern design classic. For what my opinion is worth, I believe we’ll be referring back to The Connected Company for my years to come such is its insight into the changing world of business and the challenges that need to be addressed both now and in the coming decades.

Roger L Martin Roger Martin’s books ‘Designing Business’ and ‘Playing to Win – How Strategy Really Works’ are must-reads for any design strategist. Martin is a tremendously articulate, motivating and understated speaker. I highly commend his address to graduates of the Rotman School of Business (of which he was Dean) to you.

Jim Kalbach I was fortunate to see Jim speak at UX Brighton 2012, subsequently following him on social media and refer to his blog regularly. His thoughts on design’s place in the development and adoption of new products have brought to me head-slapping moments of clarity.

Unsurprisingly, a degree of synergy has emerged between the thinking of the three individuals mentioned above, and their work complements each other perfectly.

In the field of UX specifically, some of the professional heroes I’ve acquired need no introduction – Don Norman, Susan Weinschenk, Alan Cooper et al.   

Long before UX became the standard buzzword it is now, DesignByFront were banging the drum for user-centred design, very much a lone voice in the wilderness in Belfast and perhaps the whole of Ireland. The considered approach they brought to client work was eventually focused into product development – and Typecast was born. Front also was something of an incubator for great design talent, with many individuals now dispersed throughout the design community in Northern Ireland who either started their careers, or passed through Front early in the careers. Paul and Jamie were pioneers.

Locally, there are many individuals I look up to  who continue to inspire day to day. I see Chris Murphy, Paul McCormack and Tim Potter at the University of Ulster, building the next generation of designers through truly effective education.

I watch Richard Weston, so much more of a design craftsman than I ever was or could be, and read his blog on design finds and observations with glee.

I look to Darragh Neely, building a design agency now in its nineteenth year of operation.

Rory and Anita at the Creativity Hub, designing, innovating and marketing globally in breathtaking manner.

And there are many, many more I could and should mention, particularly a plethora of designers in the very early stages of their careers who make me shudder at just how together they are already, and the great things they will undoubtedly go on to achieve.

I think of all this, and find myself simply thankful to be working at a time when all of these people can be an influence on me, and I can channel that back into my own work.

Get off the bandwagon and push

I loathe the term ‘UX’. It reeks of modish but shallow industry acronyms that come and go with changes in the wind. It devalues what user experience research and design represents, reducing it to a buzzword that is suddenly everywhere and which doesn’t even begin to communicate the value that, as with all design, it can deliver to businesses and organisations.

This was brought to my mind again during two enjoyable conversations in the past week with individuals just beginning their career in user experience design; one a recent graduate, the other a highly accomplished design professional making a shift to a new UX position.

Both admitted to wondering, as recently as a couple of years ago, what exactly UX had to offer – along the lines of “Is this not just…y’know, design?!” Having made the transition not too many years further back down the road I knew exactly what they meant.

I recall clearly the sense of indignation I used to feel at what user-centred design claimed to deliver – design fit for purpose for specific end users (forgive the over-simplification). “I do all that already” I thought, falling into that most narcissistic of designer traps – entertaining the thought that, by simply being a designer I was already doing everything right. Painful to think back to it now.

I can only imagine it must be galling for some UX veterans to watch as the discipline that they pioneered gains popular adoption, and in the process drawing to it the mainstream of the design world who now view ‘UX’ as some kind of new rock n’roll. After all, many will have been voices in the wilderness for years, while the rest of the design world mocked the overly considered approach that user-centred design demands. As it happens, user experience design now has a seat at the table, but we’re in esteemed company as just one of many diverse design disciplines.

Every industry will have its leaders and those who follow after; and both of these groups have particular responsibilities. The former must observe – and encourage – the expansion and diversification of the field which they helped to create with grace, and allow the new arrivals to help shape the future of this field.

The latter, though, have a greater responsibility. As commercial demand for the outputs and insights of user-centred design grows, so too does the imperative to ensure that UX practice truly evolves and flourishes. To put it another way, if UX represents a bandwagon of any kind, then the bandwagon cannot be allowed to slow down because we’re all clinging on just for the ride.

Common to both old and new practitioners is the need for humility. I’ve always loved this blog post from David Gillis; it articulates thoughts that I’m not sure I’ve read before or since.

The sheer complexity of the design challenges we face demands open-mindedness—a willingness to test and modify assumptions, to make mistakes and be proven wrong.

And, I would add to that sentiment, a willingness to contribute once we have learned from our experience.

We work with timeless principles; however the way in which we research, document and execute our work must keep evolving; no industry rests on its laurels. This is not the sole responsibility of those who made it into an industry at all. It is a joint responsibility with everyone who lays claim to the moniker of ‘UX’. Pioneers and Latecomers (and I will  include myself in the latter category), need to add to the toolkit – work out new deliverables, develop new insights and engender new thinking.

Anyone in an industry is entitled to a free ride every now and again, but we should  be prepared just as often to make effective contributions to the future of the industry, ensuring it is defined by integrity and humility. In short, get off and push.

 

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!