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ByMichele Ide-Smith

UX Cambridge round up

When I first heard that UX Cambridge 2011 was being planned I was thrilled on two levels. Our city’s first dedicated UX conference offered a  great opportunity to learn new skills on home turf and meet up with fellow practitioners in the area.

I’m part of a group that organises UX talks in Cambridge and in the last year have noticed a steady growth in the local UX community. UX Cambridge was well attended by over 100 people and both days were jam packed with great sessions ranging from experience reports and case studies to tutorials, workshops and fishbowl discussions. The conference drew in some experienced practitioners from further afield and some new faces who hadn’t spoken in public before.

As with any conference, it’s impossible to get to all the sessions you want to. So here’s my summary of the talks I went to by Leisa ReicheltJeroen Van Geel and Alisan Atvur, for anyone that missed them.

Leisa Reichelt – Keynote on Strateic UX

Leisa’s keynote started with some reflection on her own experiences of consulting. She shared stories of big projects where the UX function has become marginalised rather than being aligned with, or driving, business strategy. Even the methods that UX practitioners use can be viewed with suspicion, for example working collaboratively and transparently and using wall space in an office to stick up post-its and sketches.

As a result of her experiences Leisa has developed a strategic framework (illustrated below) which she uses on all client projects, to ensure vision and customer experience in the most holistic sense is considered.

A framework for strategic UX by Leisa Reichelt

Leisa highlighted the similarities between the goals of UX and Customer Experience professionals. But she questioned why Customer Experience roles are often at executive manager levels in organisations, whereas UX roles often do not have a similar voice in key decisions about business direction, at a strategic level.

Leisa proposed that UX practitioners should take on the role of ‘facilitators’, assisting organisations to deliver a truly customer focused product. Her concluding advice was to say no often, but don’t get yourself fired!

I feel grateful that my own experiences have been more positive than Leisa’s. In my previous organisation I helped develop a customer experience strategy with my colleagues in customer service. We also worked collaboratively with our research team to mine customer data and develop customer personas. If you work client side it’s vital to reach out to any areas of the business that deal with customers, and work collaboratively to develop a shared vision and optimise customer experience. But it’s easier said than done, especially if you’re a UX team of one.

Leisa’s slides are available on Slideshare.

Here are my sketchnotes of Leisa’s talk:

Jeroen Van Geel – The Childish Washer and the Happy Website

Jeroen (aka “Chief Kahuna” at Johnny Holland Magazine) gave an insightful and amusing talk on personality in product design.

Jeroen showed a few examples of websites where the design conveys personality. He bemoaned how, as UX designers, we are often guilty of using design patterns too extensively, without considering how this impacts a website or web application’s personality. This was well illustrated with several screens of identical looking car websites!

Jeroen referred to the Media Equation – a theory of communication that claims people treat computers (and computer applications) as if they were other people. I’d not heard of the Media Equation before, but Jeroen explained how businesses use this to their advantage – by encouraging their customers to start a relationship with a brand.

He suggested that UX designers consider the following personality traits:

  • People prefer like-minded personalities;
  • Undiluted personalities are preferred over complicated ones;
  • Flaws add to the believability of the personality;
  • We judge in the first moment.
Jeroen used a simple example to illustrate how a website design can play to personality traits. He showed us the striking contrast between the White House home page in the last week of the Bush administration and the first day of the Obama administration:

The photo of Obama is deliberately personal – he looks straight out at the viewer.

The topics covered in Jeroen’s talk may sound very familiar to anyone with a background in brand management. However the point that Jeroen made, in conclusion, was that UX designers need to consider the impact of personality both in the research and design stages of projects, in order to design meaningful experiences for consumers.

Jeroen’s slides are available on Slideshare.

Here are my sketchnotes of Jeroen’s talk:

Alisan Atvur

Socrates, from Wikipedia

I love talks that draw inspiration from other disciplines to offer a different viewpoint and insights. Alisan’s talk did not disappoint. He focused on critical thinking in design, using inspiration from the Ancient Greek philopsopher Socrates. Alisan outlined how UX designers can apply Socratic reasoning within the design process to deliver better design solutions for users.

They key points in Alisan’s talk were:

Remove sophistry

In Ancient Greece, the Sophists were intellectuals who were held to use fallacious rhetoric, in order to demonstrate some power over their students. In other words the Sophists used

“a deliberately invalid argument displaying ingenuity in reasoning in the hope of deceiving someone” .

The Sophists were also criticised by their peers (Plato in particular) for charging students. Socrates, by comparison, gave free tuition and proposed the use of a logical reasoning in order to remove assumptions about knowledge. In drawing this analogy, Alisan suggested that UX designers should be “authentic to a fault” and generative, not reactive.

Use The 6 Socratic Questions

Anyone who studied design at college will be used to the concept of design critique. There are several good articles about design critiques around, e.g.  CooperUIEThink Vitamin and A List Apart. Alisan proposed a slightly different critical thinking method. He explained how Socrates used 6 questions to encourage his students to question their logic. Alisan suggested UX Designers could make use of the Socratic questioning technique to improve their designs and demonstrated various techniques that could be used:

  1. Clarify concepts – Alisan said it was important to destroy buzzwords. He advised using ‘if’ and ‘then’ arguments in order to ensure concepts are well thought through.
  2. Challenge assumptions – Alisan suggested using a collaborative game to challenge assumptions about users and understand your target users better. The game involves creating three columns on a whiteboard as follows: 1. All people will…., 2. Some people will…,  3. A few people will… Using post-its everyone should stick up their assumptions about how users will interact with your product. Work together to move these around until you have consensus on what users will do. Alisan said that quite often you start by assuming all people will do something, but at the end of the game many of the post-its in the ‘all’ column will have moved to the ‘some’ or ‘few’ column.
  3. Use evidence as the basis of argument – Alisan referred to the ‘A-B-C’ method of analysing behaviour and belief systems which was developed by Albert Ellis, an American Psychologist who created the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy technique. Alisan suggested that UX designers should use the A-B-C model to analyse why users exhibit certain behaviours. This involves looking at the Consequences (C), the Behaviour (B) and tracking back to analyse the Antecedent or motivator (A).
  4. Examine different viewpoints – Alisan suggested designers use a technique called ‘WIR-E-S’ to examine where a design fails. This involves using three columns to analyse a design e.g. 1. why a design is ruined (WIR), 2. provide an explanation (E) and 3. suggestions for improvement (S).
  5. Assess consequences – Alisan suggested measuring improvement to design using a metric like ‘PRODI’ or ‘Predictive Return oDesign Investment’. The Design Council has a useful article about design return on investment.
  6. Ask questions about the questions – for the final Socratic question Alisan suggested using the ‘golden circle‘ technique discussed by Simon Sinek in his TED talk to analyse the how, what and why of what your organisation does.

 Be Social Gadflies

Socrates described himself as a social gadfly whose role it was

“to sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth”.

Alisan proposed that at times it is the designer’s role to advance the user (human) condition and, like the Socratic social gadfly, whip the user into action and change the way people think.

Here are my sketchnotes of Alisan’s talk:


UX Cambridge wouldn’t have been possible without the excellent organisation by Mark and Jacqui from Software Acumenand the sponsors: Red GateTelerikLoop 11Bristol Focus and Songkick (who provided a generous bar tab on Thursday evening!). Other event supporters included Rosenfeld MediaInfoQ.comSoftware EastSkills Matter, the Cambridge Usability Group and Creative Front.