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.

Voice interface is still overpromising and underdelivering

Cortana speakerAround 15 years ago Flash technology was in the ascendancy. One of the odd conventions to emerge at the time was the ‘Flash intro’. Very often, to build your anticipation for the website awaiting you, you would be entertained with what was essentially an opening title sequence. And if you were really unlucky, on the other side of it was a website fully rendered in Flash.

What you wanted was content; what you got was an extended journey through a designer’s ego trip (and yes I should know, I was one of those designers). The basic premise of a Flash-built website was that tricking out the interface would make for a better user experience. That assumption turned out to be wrong.

With Siri, Alexa et al entering our lives, our interfaces now have personalities. If a digital misunderstands our requests we are likely to learn about it through a witty quip. TV ads featuring virtual assistants often make a particular show of droll one-liners emanating from the device.

But as Neilsen Norman Group research shows, voice interfaces are falling far short of user expectations. It seems that priorities need to be reassessed.

A little less conversation

As part of a project last year I began designing for command line interface. With no previous experience, a terminal window or console can be a daunting place. Initially I was puzzled why user prompts and feedback in this world were so clinical and abrupt. Why would command line users not want to be addressed in a more human fashion? The answer lies in task efficiency.

Command line interface evolved from single-line dialogue between two human teleprinter operators. Over time, one end of the human-human dialogue became a computer, and the conventions remained. These interfaces provide users a more efficient method of performing tasks. In short, command line users are just like the rest of us: that is, trying to perform a lot of tasks in as short a time as possible, without surplus dialogue or clutter getting in the way.

This method of working is totally in keeping with our tendency towards ever more concise communication. Email is on the wane due to the long, unwieldy threads it encourages. The rise of chat apps such as Slack is due in large part to the tendency towards more concise messages. We’re making less mobile calls, opting instead for text messages using abbreviations, acronyms and emojis.

Many rivers to cross

As designers we are not always trying to mimic a conversation. We are creating an exchange which delivers for the user as efficiently as possible. To re-cast all human-computer interactions as conversations is to misunderstand our relationship with machines and devices.

The obstacles to success with voice UI are many. Users need to think more than once about the commands they give. They are required to speak in a manner that often isn’t natural for them. Even relatively simple queries may need to be broken down into smaller questions before reaching anything like the right answers.

When barriers are placed between a user and the outcomes they want the end result is predictable: they will simply opt out. A report from The Information suggests that only 2% of Alexa speakers have been used to make a purchase from Amazon in 2018. Additionally, 90% of the people who try to make a purchase through Alexa don’t try again.

We are still some distance away from the dream that voice UI promised. Perhaps this is voice’s Flash period, where the user needs to work hard to access the content they want. And I’m willing to bet that most frustrated users would be willing to trade every ounce of their virtual assistant’s sassy responses for just a little more efficiency.

The fact is that voice UI is still pretty hard work, no matter how hard Siri or Alexa try to entertain us.

UX Scotland 2018

One of the UK’s premier UX conferences once again delivered the goods in 2018, with an impressive roster of speakers and talks. As ever with conferences put together by the team at Software Acumen, the scope and remit of the schedule pushed the boundaries of the subject matter over three days.

I was reprising my role as a speaker, with a session outlining some of my work at Puppet on day one of the conference. From then on, I was able to relax and take in some fantastic education and information from the assorted collection of practitioners.

Highlights were difficult to pinpont, and in many ways it seems unfair to do so. That said, with up to 3 concurrent tracks, the number of talks to take in was limited, so here’s what I managed.

Soren Engelbrecht
How to create a user-centered ‘digital ecosystem’ across devices

Adrian Howard
The User Experience of Management

Gregg Bernstein
Be more certain: a practical approach to research practice

Llara Geddes
Leveraging customer service expertise to improve UX
(no slides available)

Jessica Cameron
Statistics for UX professionals

Honorable mention: Chris Taylor
We need to talk about data

So those were my talk highlights. Delightfully, my talk managed to make others’ shortlist of highlights, and I’m going to blow my own trumpet here and link to them.

Gavin Anderson of the Univeristy of Edinburgh offered summary of my talk was extremely gratifying, in that he picked out some points and themes that I hadn’t even planned in the talk. Thank you, Gavin. https://website-programme-blog.is.ed.ac.uk/ux-scotland-2018-write-up/

I also managed to sneak into Cole AD‘s shortlist of highlights http://cole-ad.co.uk/ux-scotland-conference/

Something else I was happy to be able to do this year was set up a series of shared Google docs to crowdsources notes. While the uptake on these was low (very low…), I was happy to do it, having benefitted from Vicky Teinaki‘s initiative in 2016. Fwiw my notes are available from here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1kMuFdzOO0FJErEIz6n-DcdlKPS7cM-fp55MKg89M5hw/edit?usp=sharing

I’ll be back at the conference. Certainly as a participant, and if I’m fortunate, as a contributor. The lineup never fails to deliver practical insights and ‘a-ha’ moments. Kudos to Software Acumen for another quality year.

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

Empathy, deconstructed

Psychology is just one of many areas designers can sometimes stray into for guidance or assistance. Anything which reminds us that we are flawed humans, attempting to design useful things for other humans is a good thing.

Carl Rogers’ Person-Centred Therapy (PCT) makes for interesting reading for the modern design professional. Rogers’ innovative approach, now over 50 years old, ran counter to the remote and detached forms of psychotherapy prevalent at the time. Specifically, PCT contains a number of principles that align with key qualities of effective design thinkers and problem-solvers.

The approach features three core conditions, each of them with direct relevance to the creation of positive user experiences.

One of Roger’s core conditions is unconditional positive regard (UPR). UPR is “the basic acceptance and support of a person regardless of what the person says or does”. Substitute person for user and you have a pretty good foundation for user-centred design. As design luminary Don Norman has put it, “what we call ‘human error’ is a human action that … flags a deficit in our technology. It should not be thought of as an error.” Which sounds like UPR in so many words.

Another condition is congruence; “the willingness to transparently relate to clients without hiding behind a professional or personal facade”. The parallel in design might be a desire to facilitate top tasks, and present easy paths to goals without the clutter of marketing or sales to present obstacles.

The essence of user-centred design is appreciating users as humans with needs, goals and limited time on their hands in which to achieve them. And why must we humanise the user? In order to practice the human quality of empathy – coincidentally the third of Rogers’ core conditions.

There are increasing amounts of lip service given to empathy in our professional & social feeds. It sounds worthy and is difficult to argue against. What we don’t often see are answers to questions about how to leverage it, how to make it practical.

The imperative of empathy for designers means identifying with others enough to create something which, no matter how small, makes their life easier. UPR has huge relevance; as designers we should demonstrate a positive regard for whatever our users’ motivations and needs might be. To create meaningful product experiences which connect users with their goals, it falls on us also to treat the pursuit of those goals and associated needs with respect.

Good design demands empathy and insight. UCP provides some simple ground rules for beginning to flex that empathy muscle.