The Golden Age of UX may be over, but not for the reasons stated | August 5, 2017
Last week an article entitled The Golden Age of UX is Over popped onto my RADAR, after causing a bit of a stir amongst the design community. If I was being generous I’d say it was a genius title, designed to spark debate amongst UX designers. If I was being slightly less generous, I’d say it was a devilishly brilliant piece of click-bait, designed to drive traffic to an agency site. Either way I had a feeling the article would annoy me, so spent the next couple of days actively igniting it. However temptation finally got the better of me and I ended up taking the bait.
On the whole I agree with the sentiment of the title that the “Golden Age of UX” probably is over. I say that as somebody who has been working in the space since the early naughties, set up one of the first UX practices in the UK, and curates the longest running UX conference in Europe.
The field of UX started life as a small but emergent community of practice, on the fringes of conferences like SXSW and the IA Summit. It grew through the blogs of early pioneers, and through the work of consultancies like Adaptive Path and Clearleft. The community accreted around new conferences like UX Week and UX London, which, in their early years, attracted almost the entirety of the UX communities in their respective locations.
I would argue that the quality of innovation, the quality of discourse and the quality of change in the UX space peaked somewhere between 2008 and 2012. This for me could arguably be described as the golden age of UX.
As with any gold rush, news of the find spreads quickly, and as more people rush in to make their fortunes, resources get depleted. By the middle of teens, UX hyperinflation started to occur. Every freelancer and every agency added UX to their titles, without really understanding what the term meant. “UX Designer” featured in lists of the most in-demand new professions and recruiters rushed to fill the gap, with often disastrous effects. While the number of people who self identified as UX designers carried on climbing, a deep and detailed understanding of what UX actually was started to ebb away.
The meaning of UX got muddied. Was it the same as UI? Was it another name for interaction design? Where did strategy, research and IA fit in? UX vs UI memes started to form on Twitter, arguments erupted about the existence of unicorns, and seemingly nobody could agree on anything anymore.
For years I fought to maintain a clear definition of UX, one that linked back to the community of practice from which it sprang. However the tidal wave of misunderstanding and misrepresentation became too big to fight, so I eventually gave up trying. UX had become so watered down and misunderstood that popular perception no-longer represented the community I knew. I became resigned to the fact that meaning changes based on usage, and if the majority of people see UX as this lightweight blending of prototyping and UI, devoid of any deep research, awareness of business needs, or commercial imperative, so be it.
It was this latter sentiment that annoyed me about the “Golden Age” article. Criticising a discipline based on cargo-cult thinking. In-truth, UX has always taken account of business needs and market forces, while Lean start-up was little more than a reformation of user centred design for a business audience. As a result, the article was less about the golden age being over, and more the dawning realisation that they may have confused a badly drawn map with the territory.
It’s also worth noting that most people tend to associate a “golden age” with their formative years, whether it’s movies, musics, or the discovery of a new career. So it’s possible that the golden age may be over for some, but for others it’s just beginning.
Design Leadership Slack Team | July 30, 2017
I recently started a Slack Team for Design Leaders. We currently have around 200 members; mostly Heads, Directors and VPs of Design from tech companies like Spotify, Etsy, AirBnB, and Facebook, along with more traditional organisations like Virgin, Tesco, BBC and Capitol One.
We’ve been very careful building the community. As a result the signal to noise ratio is remarkably high. Recent conversations have included:
- Discussions around recruitment and whether design tasks are a good idea.
- Various design leaders sharing their career progression ladders.
- An ongoing debate around the perfect team structure.
- Whether managing Millennials required a different set of skills (the general conclusion being they don’t).
- The challenges of managing fast growing teams.
- Tactics for your first 90 days in role.
The criteria for joining is fairly straightforward. Are you a Head of Design, Director of Design or VP of Design*, for an in-house team? Are you generally a nice person and interested in sharing your thoughts and experience on the subject of design leadership? If so, drop me an email and I’ll hook you up.
Once you’ve joined, please feel free to lurk for a while and get a feel for the place. When you’re ready to jump in, please introduce yourself to the group, letting folks know a little about your background, the company you work for, the team you look after, and the leadership challenges that are interesting you at the moment.
We expect members of the Slack channel to respect each others privacy. If you do wish to disclose anything discussed here, please use Chatham House Rule and refrain from identifying individuals or their companies.
Members of this group are generally kind, considerate, constructive and helpful. Heated discussions may occur, but they should always be done with respect and a desire to advance the conversation. If you witness any disrespectful behaviour, please inform myself or one of the admins. We aim to resolve any conflicts peacefully and in a positive manner. However on the rare occasion this isn’t possible, we may ask individuals to leave.
- Head, Director or VP of UX also applies.
The Real Value of Original Research | May 17, 2017
User-centred designers typically start a new project with a research phase. This allows them to understand the product or service through the eyes of their customers, explore the limits of the problem space, and come up with recommendations that feel at least partially informed. All useful things from a design perspective.
Sometimes organisations baulk at the idea of doing research, causing the design team to launch into their typical spiel about the value of their approach. In my experience, these objections are rarely about the value of research itself, but more around whether original research is necessary on this occasion.
All organisations of a certain size carry out research as a matter of course. They probably have a marketing department segmenting customers, understanding customer sentiment, and testing new propositions through surveys and focus groups. They also have an analytics team tracking user behaviour, testing the effectiveness of campaigns, and pinpointing areas for improvement. In preparation for this project, the product managers and BAs almost certainly did their own research to help build the business case. They probably have more information than they know what to do with.
Most organisations feel they have a pretty good handle on what’s going on inside their company; they just need you to fix it. They claim there’s no need to do more research. Instead, they will provide you with access to their analytics package, the results of the user testing report they commissioned nine months ago, and copies of their marketing personas. This, combined with a briefing meeting should be enough to get your team up to speed.
On the surface this makes sense. After all, why pay for original research if you already have the answers you need? Better to save the money and spend it coming up with a solution, especially when resources are scarce.
This attitude is completely understandable, but it hides an unusual and counterintuitive truth about the value of design research. Design research is rarely about the acquisition of new knowledge and information. Instead, the real value of design research comes from the process of gathering and analysing the results. It’s this analysis phase where the data gets processed, information gets turned into knowledge, and understanding becomes tacit.
Existing research will have been gathered to answer general business questions, so it won’t necessarily provide the insights the design team need. Instead, design research is done with a specific product or service improvement in mind; it adds nuance to the problem at hand, and allows the designer to weigh up different options and understand how the various solutions may play out.
Knowledge gained from original research is far more impactful than that gathered elsewhere. Remembering the conversation you had with a frustrated customer becomes part of the narrative, and the resulting insight becomes internalised. This is a very different experience from reading a data point in somebody else’s report, which can easily be downplayed or forgotten.
In psychology this phenomenon is known as embodied cognition—the idea that you think through problems using your whole self, rather than just your mind. This means you learn more by experiencing something in person, than you do by reading about it in a book or report.
For most designers, original research isn’t about gathering facts and data. Instead, it’s the process they use to understand the task at hand. Like warming up before the big race, research allows you to engage body and mind, get the creative muscles working, and be flexible and limber enough to tackle the challenge ahead. It isn’t something you can effectively outsource to your coach or team captain. It’s a vital part of the pre-race process.
This was originally posted on UXMas.
First Direct Trains Customers to be Phishing Victims | March 2, 2017
Banking security is a big deal and has been all over the news of late. Most of the coverage focusses on digital security and how to avoid having your account hacked. A common culprit is the Phishing attack, where a hacker sends you an email claiming to be from a trusted source, and asking for personal information like your password, mother’s maiden name, date or place of birth. Most security savvy companies have got wise to this approach, so on every email they will state clearly that they will NEVER request personal information like this.
So I was amazed when I got a phone call, with no caller ID, from somebody claiming to be from my bank. The caller said that before he could speak to me he needed to take me through security and ask me a bunch of personal questions. If you know anything about security you know that Social Engineering on one of their easiest attack vectors. With Social Engineering somebody phones up claiming to be somebody official—your finance department, your IT team, your bank—and asks you to divulge personal information they can then use to compromise your account. This is essentially the real world—or at least phone world—version of a phishing attack, and is something and good security team should be concerned about.
As somebody who cares about personal security I was shocked, so immediately called the bank to highlight this glaring security risk. However rather than caring about security holes, I was told that this was bank policy and if you didn’t want to answer the questions you could always go online or call up.
This is a terrible response as it essentially legitimises and habitualness the fact that banks can phone their customers up without notice and expect people to hand over personal information to a stranger. Security savvy folks like me would decline, but not everybody is as wary as I am. If First Direct trains its customers to hand out personal information to strangers on the phone, this opens up a massive security hole. Any fraudster can now identify First Direct customers (for instance folks who have interacted with the first Direct Twitter account recently), find their contact details online, then phone them up to extract personal security information, and then use that information to break into their account.
This feels like a crazy thing for banks to be doing. What’s more, it seems strange that banks should be conscious about this type of security weakness through digital channels, while actively encouraging it through their phone banking services. There are of course various ways banks could solve this problem, like making automated calls asking the customer to contact the bank using the number on their card. That way, the customer knows they are talking to the bank and can go through the usual security protocol. Instead, it seems that banks like First Direct are sacrificing good data security, for the sake of convenience, which should be a worry to all their customers.
Talk Tropes and Conference Cliches | December 30, 2016
Over that last 12 years of attending, speaking and organising conferences, I’ve seen a lot of talks. Probably upwards of a thousand. I’ve seen talks that have inspired me, talks that have challenged me, and talks that left me welling up. During that time I’ve seen themes start to emerge; topics our industry find fascinating and love to revisit time and time again. Many of these topics I’ve used myself, and were I ever to write a “101 things I learnt at architecture school” style book for the interaction design industry, these tropes would feature heavily.
After spending two days binge watching talks in an attempt to find the last couple of speakers for a conference I’m organising, I was amazed how regularly these tropes appeared. I was also surprised how certain traits and behaviours kept repeating themselves across speakers. So I thought I’d jot them down, on the off chance people found them useful. Either as things you hadn’t heard of before and wanted to explore further, or topics and behaviours you wanted to avoid in a search for originality.
Top Talk Tropes
One of the earliest tropes I can remember is “paving the cow paths”; the idea of designing for observed behaviour rather than imposing strict architectures of control. This concept beautifully illustrates the fields of user centred design and lean startup. It’s also one of the pervading philosophies behind the web; that there is intelligence in the system, and it will find its way around any blockage. In the retail world, “cow paths” are also known as “desire lines”, and are used to maximise product exposure. In past talks I’ve used this example to explain why milk is always placed at the back of the store, and how casinos in Vegas are designed.
If desire lines can be seen as a highly optimised user journey, the “peak-end rule” is a similar short-cut our brains make for judging how we experience said journey. Research from the field of hedonic psychology has shown that we tend to judge an experienced based on two things; the intensity of the peak condition—positive or negative—and the end state. This is one reason why the most memorable customer experiences are often the result of something bad happening. We remember the intensity of the bad experience, plus the happiness caused by a positive outcome, and the differential between the two frames our perspective. That’s not to say that we should deliberately try to manufacture negative experiences. However it does suggest that people will judge experiences more favourably that have peaks and troughs of emotion, but ultimately end well, rather than an experience that was consistently good, but not noteworthy.
A related cognitive bias is the idea of “change blindness” as illustrated perfectly but the classic basketball video. Viewers are asked to count the number of times the basketball changes hands. So fixated are they on this task, a good proportion of viewers fail to spot the 100 pound gorilla in the room, both literally and figuratively. This goes to show that even when we think something obvious is happening with our designs, many of the people using our products literally don’t notice the things we’re carefully designed.
One tool to help craft these peak experiences is “The Kano Model”. This model classifies features into three different types; basic needs, performance pay-offs, and delights. I usually describe the Kano model in talks by using the analogy of a hotel. A hotel room just wouldn’t function without a bed, a door, access to a bathroom, electricity and a few other must have items. Theses are your MVP feature set. However in order to compete in a crowded market, you can add performance pay-off features like a bigger TV or after broadband. Over time, these nice-to-have features eventually become basic needs, which is why most MVP aren’t very minimal. It’s the third type of feature in the Kano model that interests interaction designers and product managers the most. The small additions which have an unusually sizeable effect. This could be the warm cookie waiting for you at check-in, the free bottle of champagne in your room, or something as simple as a handwritten note from the cleaning staff, letting you know what the weather is going to be like tomorrow.
All these items can be mapped as peaks on some form of journey map. They can also form part of the classic “hero’s journey”, another common trope. If you’ve not heard of the hero’s journey before, it’s essentially the idea that many well known stories follow a common archetype. Somebody is given a challenge, they set off on a journey, aided by a wise confident. They overcome a series of increasingly difficult challenges, only to return back to the start a changed person. Stories like the Hobbit and Star Wars follow the heroes journey closely, which is one of the reasons they have endured so well. Narrative storytelling is all the range in the interaction design world at the moment, in large part thanks to the work of content strategists. We’ve actually used the hero’s journey framework in the case studies on our new site, making sure to cast the client as the hero, rather than ourselves.
The preceding tropes are good, but I think my favourite one has to be Stewart Brand’s “Shearing Layers” diagram from his book, How Buildings Learn. The original diagram was used to demonstrate the different speeds at which buildings grown and evolve, as well as the friction caused between layers moving at different speeds. I tend to use this as a megaphone for organisations structure and learning. Add to this the idea of pioneers, m settlers and town-planners, and you have a powerful tool for describing why different teams, disciplines and functions within organisations often struggle to work together.
There are dozens of other common tropes I could mention here, like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the classic three ringed Venn diagram with whatever the speaker does shown in the middle, or the classic illustration depicting lean start-up by showing a product move from skateboard, to bike, to scooter, then finally ending up as a car. I won’t bore you with my thoughts on that particular diagram here. Suffice to say there are a lot of common trends repeating themselves in the speaker circuit, and for good reason. However if you’re goal is to present something new and original, it may be worth picking something slightly more obscure.
Common Conference Cliches
As well as picking up and using a common set of tropes over the past 12 years, I’ve also adopted common traits and behaviours from other speakers. Behaviours like asking the audience about their backgrounds, or whether anybody has heard about the topic you’re about to discuss. It’s a way of building rapport with your audience, while making yourself feel comfortable on stage. However as audiences become more savvy, asking questions like “who here has heard about Lean” becomes increasingly meaningless, especially when their response is unlikely to change the direction of your talk. I’ve witnessed several awkward moments where a speaker asked an audience if they knew about a certain thing—when they clearly did—only for that speaker to launch into a 10 minute scripted description of what that thing was, making everybody feel like they hadn’t been listened too.
A similar faux pas is spending a sizeable portion of a talk introducing who you are and where you come from. A little context can be helpful, but I once witnessed a speaker give a 15 minute bio of pretty much every job they had had in their career. By the time they reached the meat of their talk, they had completely lost the audience—in some cases literally as around 50 people had walked out. The frustrating thing is the rest of the talk was amazing, or at least what I saw of it was, as the speaker ran out of time and had to cut the bulk of the talk short.
In this case I suspect the speaker simply felt nervous and wanted to justify why they had earned the right to be on stage to the audience. However from the audiences perspective the speaker had already earned their place on the stage and were expanding on information that was already in there conference programme. So rather than being interesting or helpful, it actually came across as self indulgent and disrespectful of the audience’s time. From that point on I decided never to introduce myself on stage, assuming that if people were interested they would read the schedule or check out my online profile. I’d urge folks to do the same, although if explaining your background is important, a great way to do it is part way in. I call this “The Hollywood opener” as you throw your audiences right into there middle of the action, and only introduce them to the main character once they’re hooked.
Making the audience feel uncomfortable is never a good idea, so having an understanding about the audience and their culture really helps. I’ve seen plenty of amazing speakers have great success with audience participation on their home turf, getting folks to stand up, stretch, introduce themselves to their neighbours, or discuss something that’s challenging them at work. I’ve seen those same speakers crash and burn in more conservative regions, where force social interaction makes people feel awkward. One particularly uncomfortable incident featured an exuberant North American speaker, a room full of stoic Europeans, and a compulsion to high-five everybody in the front row.
Ironically I’ve also seen audience participation go too well, with speakers allocating 30 seconds to something that should actually take 5 minutes of more. In that situation the audience is having such a good time chatting to their neighbours, having the speaker cut them off to get back to the talk can actually be quite jarring and a little insensitive.
One of the most challenging forms of audience participation has to be the Q&A at the end of a talk. I’ve seen some fantastic Q&A session that were actually more insightful and interesting than the talks that preceded them. However I’ve also witnessed my fair share of awkward sessions where a shy audience is cajoled into asking meaningless questions, just to break the silence and make the speaker feel liked and appreciated. More often than not these Q&A sessions suck the energy out of a carefully scripted talk; like a Director being forced to explain the plot-points of a move once the credits have rolled. They also get in the way of the audience members getting coffee, grabbing some food, making an important call or a much needed comfort break. So can also be a source of discomfort to some. As such I think it’s better to finish a little early than force an unwanted Q&A session.
This brings me to my biggest bugbear of late—not least because I’ve used this one plenty of times myself. It’s people making THAT joke about being “The only thing between you and food/beer”. It was funny the first couple of times I saw a speaker say that, and its’ always resulted in a titter of approval when I’ve used that line myself. However at a recent conference I saw two consecutive speakers make exactly the same joke, to clearly diminishing returns. As such I think THAT joke has now jumped the shark, so I’m going to do my best to stop using it.
It’s worth noting that there’s nothing wrong with any of these talk tropes and conferences cliches in and of themselves. They all have value if used appropriately. As such there is no judgement on anybody using them. After all I’ve used most of them myself. Instead I present them to you more as an observation from years of conference speaking, attending and organising, in the hope that both new and experienced speakers find them interesting. What you do with the information, if anything, is up to you. However I thought it was worth adding that caveat as you know how touchy people on the Internet can be.I’d hate for anybody to overreact or anything like that :)
UX Design and Service Design are Growing Ever Closer | October 13, 2016
For the longest time I’ve maintained that Service Design was a specific discipline, distinct from UX Design. It’s true that they have a lot in common, like the way both fields approach problems through a user-centred lens. They also use many of the same tools, such as design games and personas. Even some of their distinctive tools, like the service delivery blueprint have similarities with our own user journey maps. But if you spent any time with a credible Service Design agency five or ten years ago, you’d easily spot the differences.
User Experience agencies typically came from a digital background, and were filled with information architects, interaction designers and usability specialists. We primarily focussed on creating products and services with a digital interface, along with the service ecosystem that supported them.
By comparison, European Service Design agencies did a lot of work on the delivery of public services—presumably because the public sector is so strong in the UK—while their US counterparts looked more towards the in-store experience. It wasn’t unusual to find a Service Design consultancy staffed with industrial designers, set-designers and commercial architects.
The two disciplines clearly shared the same ancestry, but somewhere along the evolutionary tree, they took a slightly different branch. Look at a typical UX agency and their portfolio will be full of publishing websites, mobile apps, and startups, while Service Design consultancies are more likely to show phone systems, airline check-in procedures, and better ways to deliver healthcare.
On the surface these outputs may look very different. However, as digital technology increasingly provides the platform on which these services are built, the differences are slowly being stripped away.
Just think about it. What is Uber if not a cleverly crafted service that matches car owners looking for a bit of extra cash to people looking for a ride? The interface may be digital, but make no mistake that this is a carefully choreographed piece of Service Design with lots of stuff happening behind the scenes.
Now look at the airline check-in experience. On the surface it may look like a traditional Service Design project. Dig a bit deeper however, and you’ll see that almost all of the people turning up to the desk bought their tickets online, checked-in via the airline website or mobile app, and either printed out their own boarding passes, or have them stored on their mobile phones. Surely this is a classic User Experience project?
As digital has become one of the primary ways of delivering a service experience, Service Design agencies have needed to become more digital, while digital agencies have needed to become more service oriented, to the point that it’s getting harder to differentiate the two. So much so that, at its highest level, User Experience Design has become indistinguishable from Service Design.
I’ve resisted this sentiment for a while, not least because I think the distinction still provides value to clients. However this value is rapidly diminishing as the industry continues to misunderstand and misrepresent what UX Designers do, incorrectly applying the UX label to interaction designers and digital generalists.
Government Digital Services took the decision to adopt the term Service Designer, because they understand the language of government is one of delivering services rather than products or experiences. I suspect many traditional companies feel the same way.
I expect to see more and more high end consultancies adopt the language of digital service design, as opposed to product design or experience design, to better explain what they do and separate themselves from the herd. What existing Service Design agencies will think of this trend is anybody’s guess. Will they embrace this new influx of digital service designers, or push back? Whatever happens, I have a feeling that this change is inevitable.