UX New Zealand 2017

Charles Smart

UX New Zealand was a design conference in Wellington. There were a lot of great talks but I’ve summarised four that stood out to me below. I’ve tried to distill what I think was the core message from each talk.

Low friction isn’t everything — Ian Howard from LittleGiant

In the current design world, designers spend a of time thinking about “best-practice,” how to minimise task completion time and reducing mental load. These concepts make a lot of sense, especially with regard to utility apps where the main goal is to get a task done as quickly as possible. It’s hard to imagine a situation where getting through your emails faster and with less effort wouldn’t be a desirable thing. However apps are no longer simply utilities. They are hugely personal content delivery platforms and, approaching the design of these personal experiences with the same approach can lead to impersonal and low-quality experiences.

For a real world example: when you buy a pair of shoes from a boutique shop, the check-out experience is radically different from a supermarket. It would be bizarre to buy an expensive pair of shoes and then put them on a conveyor belt for purchase. Yet this would be the fastest way to go through the check-out experience. Instead we expect a slower but more personal experience, in this situation a small increase in what designers would call friction leads to an improvement in experience. Friction isn’t automatically a bad thing, and the constant drive to reduce it no matter what leads us into homogenous, bland design — when you browse Netflix, is the goal to select a movie as efficiently as possible, or is there enjoyment to be had in the act of discovery itself?

Security should be the path of least resistance — Serena Chen from BNZ

As we trust more and more of our personal data to our phones, cloud security becomes increasingly more important. Yet security is often viewed as an impediment to good design where users get an increased the number of steps to log in to an online banking app or a need to make passwords that are impossible to remember. As a result, a lot of these security measures are opt-in when they should be the default. Adding an opt-in security measure and an educational message is something we know will be ineffective, as a majority of customers will only use a setting if it is automatic. It is, therefore, our job as designers to ensure that using these necessary security measures is the path of least resistance for customers. Security and design don’t have conflicting goals, there simply needs to be more thought put into security considerations by designers to improve the current methods. It’s our job to provide the security, not the user.

Design has an ethics problem — Ash Donaldson from Tobias

There was a lot of talk regarding ethics throughout the conference, from ensuring our designs are inclusive (such as considering characteristics like colour blindness), to considerations needed when designing for mental health services, to whether design in inherently unethical. UX designers think of themselves as the advocate for the customer within a business, but as software becomes more embedded in peoples lives and businesses and designers strive for ever more engagement design finds itself in an awkward position. While design has always needed to find the balance between customer needs and business goals, these two considerations have become more at odds recently as research into the damaging effects of excessive time spent on our phones and on social media has become more apparent. Is it unethical to aim for behavioural addiction in an app? Do we need to ensure that our designs provide “stop routines” rather than the prevailing approach of endless streams of content and entertainment? How do we manage these conflicting ethical concerns with business goals? This is something the design industry will have to continue to grapple with.

Voice UX will be personal — Mark Wyner from Freelance

Chatbots and voice-based interfaces are in vogue at the moment, and like any new medium they require a vastly different design approach that considers more than just visual characteristics. Talking is something exclusively human, very personal and quite intimate. This means that voice-based designs are likely going to have to be much more personalised, localised and contextualised than current interfaces. We all have eccentricities in the way we speak, and we base a lot of how we talk on our shared context and level of trust with the person we are talking to. 
A good example is saying,“Hey Siri, can you ask Mum when she’s coming to visit? Actually no, I’d better give her a call, can you call her.” This is the kind of thing that is very easy for a human to understand but currently too difficult for a robot to figure out. However, when we talk to our phones there’s still an expectation that they will understand these nuances. While a lot of this will be a technical challenge, designers will need to work to establish clear context, understanding and limitations when using a voice interface.

Another important point is whether or not a voice based interface needs to be two way. Does Siri always need to talk back? Many voice interfaces are also paired with a screen to display information. Indeed some studies indicate that receiving audio information requires more mental effort than visual information, at least for complex information. Designs for vocal interfaces do not have to stick strictly to a two-way conversation model, with multi-modal hybrid approaches potentially offering the best of both worlds when done well. An example of this would be the Google Home device, which uses the lights on top to show when it’s listening and sends detailed information to a paired phone when needed.

My summaries of these topics just skim the surface of what were detailed talks, but hopefully they provide something to think about. Talk recordings from UX New Zealand are generally posted a few weeks after the event, so keep an eye on the website (uxnewzealand.com) in the coming weeks if you’d like to dive in a bit deeper.