Highlights from O’Reilly Design 2017

Some “golden nuggets” from the talks I attended.

This past week (March 21–22) in San Francisco at the Westin St. Francis Hotel I attended my first O’Reilly Design Conference (this is the second year it’s been done).

Let me just say at the outset, as a frequent presenter/host of UX conferences, it was SO nice to simply attend and immerse myself in the flow of the event as a regular attendee, for once :-) Whew!

And overall it was a very well executed, professional event with compelling, informative talks that I found quite applicable (or at least somehow inspiring) to my work, at various “altitudes of perspective”, if you will. I greatly enjoyed the caliber of speakers and range of topics with plenty of networking opportunities! I highly recommend checking out the videos & slides (full set linked here: https://conferences.oreilly.com/design/ux-interaction-iot-us/public/schedule/proceedings )

Note: There were FIVE simultaneous talk tracks happening at once (I know, right??! O’Reilly may want to scale back next year…hint, hint ;-) which made schedules a bit hectic and selections challenging at times, so what I got out of this grand event is simply one personal slice, given all possible permutations of talks that you could attend!

Of note were the following, with some key “golden nuggets” for each that I took away as most pertinent. (The order is in which I attended from first to last)

Kat Holmes / Design for 7 Billion; Design for One

Loved this keynote which argues for designing for inclusion/inclusivity. Yes, there are those who are physically or otherwise disabled as part of their daily life, yet we are all at times disabled temporarily (ex: arms full of groceries while trying to open your front door). Indeed many of the innovations that emerged for inclusivity (like OXO, most famously) began as “love stories” — addressing a human issue with profound personal impact. Some additional points:

  • Learn from diversity.
  • Think about how to solve for one yet extend the benefit across a range of population members, by looking at humanistic universals: needs/wants/goals/values.
  • Consider how to involve others on a spectrum, who may be excluded on a temporary or situational basis, per the slide below:
Great way to be truly inclusive, consider the range of people benefitting.

Dan Hill / The UX of buildings, cities, and infrastructure

A truly fantastic keynote on the nature of designing for complex systems by tapping into what’s familiar, intuitive, and human. Visually engaging with great design principles framing how to tackle complexity. Dan’s final slide captured it all below. But there are 3 key points I resonated with most:

  • Design for “minimum viable magic” — such a lovely phrase!
  • Develop “soft eyes” — fun reference to ‘The Wire’, whereby soft eyes help you step back, and keep the bigger ever-shifting picture in mind, beyond what’s immediately noticed.
  • The modern evolution of designer from author to facilitator due to complexity of systems (pace layers, volatility, scale of impact, etc.)
Final slide summary of Dan Hill’s talk. Must study!

Aarron Walter / Hard-learned lessons in leading design

OMG this was just such a wonderfully presented talk, with eloquently stated understanding of the changes a product, a team, a process, and an organization/company endure over time, thus affecting a designer’s ability to wage influence and their (soft) skills development along the way. Some vital points for me:

  • Your biggest legacy will be who you hire.
  • Look for adaptability to change when you hire.
  • Yes it’s scary to hire someone smarter than you, but you should think of it as leveling up the team!
  • Bad political things happen when people feel left out — it’s so true, right??

Aarron also delved into various org models for design teams (centralized, embedded, hybrid, etc.), saying there’s no perfect model but there are various archetypes to study and learn about. Yet one thing is fundamentally true for ALL designers regardless of org model applied, per the slide pic below; you gotta build relationships!

Especially if they’re noise-cancelling ‘phones!

Peter Morville / The secret to strategic design: Mastering planning

I love Peter, such a great guy…with another stimulating talk loaded with rich material to study later. It’s too bad this was done in a smaller breakout room; it definitely warranted the grand ballroom stage! But it was fully packed and you could certainly feel everyone hanging on to Peter’s words, processing some heavy concepts around strategic design, planning, etc. He articulated ten theses on strategy & planning, summed up in the slide pics below.

But a nice golden nugget for me was his clever insight that “Planning is the information architecture of time.” — [insert Keanu Reeves “whoa” meme] Also, the more banal yet important point that “Planning is a skill, a literacy that we can all improve. Therefore it’s worth learning about and investing in.” — especially if we re-frame it as the IA of time, effort, impact, given the range of externalities to contend with. Indeed, time (and the strategies around it) becomes the central design problem to solve! Hmm…

For your evening meditation practice.
Great set of theses. Not sure about number 9 though!

Panel / Adventures in startup land

Finally, an all woman panel at a UX conference! Yay :-) And all of them were/are design leaders at startups. (Disclaimer: I worked for two of them recently) Great discussion featuring Amanda Linden, Catherine Courage, Kaaren Hanson, and Sara Khoury sharing insights from the hectic zany startup worlds they inhabited. Thanks to Micah Alpern for moderating!

Amazing ladies ‘splaining how to lead design in startups. YES!!

Certainly applicable to folks who maybe in startup-like teams/groups in larger companies as well, where things might be scrappy and unstructured (read: chaotic!). Some nuggets that got my attention:

  • You must consider “the forced entropy of the runway you have due to funding.” — via Sara Khoury
  • “We are the product of our own narratives.” — also from Sara, saying she literally had a sticky on her bathroom mirror she read every morning, self-affirming her ability and value
  • “Always ask WHY a design leadership role is being filled — is it because some VC said so, or are you truly wanting to build a design culture?” — excellent point from Catherine Courage
  • “It’s ALL FINE!” — Kaaren Hanson on the madness of a startup, and knowing that systems, people, processes, org structures all will change quickly and without warning. But hey, it’s all ok, just keep moving! (echoing Walter’s point in his talk about adaptability as a vital trait for a designer)

Philip Hunter / Amazon Alexa: What, why, and why now?

An entertaining yet insightful talk on voice-based interfaces, featuring the leader of the Alexa Skills (“apps”) team, with some fun demos of Alexa via Philip’s Dot device. A key point for me is there is a veritable craft of voice UI design, dependent on subtle qualities that may elude us in daily contexts. When they come together, “the exchange of meaning is what it all comes down to”. Indeed, thinking about this makes me wonder what it truly means to “converse” with Alexa (or Siri, or Cortana, or whatever), since a typical human conversation involves considerable emotion, bonding, with a staccato of interruptions, half-starts of clauses/phrases, an intuited sense for implied meanings with gestures, body/facial cues, etc. Highly complex! Good to think about for future iterations of voice interfaces…

Alexa, what makes a well-crafted voice UI?

Alan Cooper / Working Backwards

Maybe hard to believe, but this was the first time I’ve heard the eminent godfather of interaction design speak at a conference! He did not disappoint. Tremendous on-stage presence with a vivacious personality suiting the bleary-eyed morning crowd, Alan spoke of “working backwards” at a problem by questioning core assumptions first. Naturally, this tends to “piss people off”, due to conventional attitudes that shape our models and expectations (“we just want a pretty mockup”, etc.). But it’s vital to look/work backwards, so as to get to the heart of the matter and arrive at what’s truly needed to resolve a problem.

The godfather of interaction design, giving a talk you should not refuse.

Some truly golden nuggets from Alan:

  • “The world is not breathlessly awaiting your poorly conceived product.”
  • “Design is not a phase of the [product development] process; it IS the process.”
  • “There’s always unintended consequences in messing with complex systems.” (thus working backwards helps with seeing the Big Picture)
  • “Your ego gets [the product] built. Your humility gets it loved.” In other words, honor the customer and their situation, their true values/goals.
  • Finally, “Be a good ancestor” by doing right for the next generation of colleagues and consumers. (this was basically the mic drop moment!)

Dan Mall / Should designers…?

Ah, the perennial question of whether designers should code. Dan tackled this from the point of view of Gantt charts: the cadence and sequence of collaborations among Devs and Designers which tends to be more like roller coasters of peaks/valleys/flows, more organic with highs and lows of emotion and intensity of collaborations. He also highlighted how Devs could help Designers become more productive, by providing tools to enable better comms and understanding. Finally, a big nugget for me was the endorsement of the RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed) model of assigning roles within a dynamic team context of Devs, PM, Designers. (personally I prefer DACI — Driver, Approver, Contributor, Informed — but very similar ideas!)

Some ways to effectively foster collaboration for Dev & Design (and Biz) folks.

Jennifer Pahlka / Government services that work for people

A truly inspiring talk about the amazing work Code for America is doing to revitalize government services in support of folks from all walks of life, including and especially those vulnerable to government service breakdowns (like missed bench warrants, paperwork for food stamps, etc.). Government is daunting due to bureaucracy and policies but CfA has applied variations of Lean/Agile methods to enable real progress to amplify what government can really do for its citizens. Two excellent points from Jennifer:

  • “Decisions are made by those who show up.” Get involved and be active!
  • “For many people, the status quo is not worth protecting.” Indeed, that’s why she and CfA does what they do, to innovate and improve.

My favorite slide from a design methods POV is this one featuring their variation of the Lean build model:

Build trust, not just software. Truly a human value.

Dan Saffer / The robots are coming

Despite a range of technical snafus, Dan delivered a very amusing & fascinating talk on the design decisions that go into making a robot, per his recent experience at a robotics start-up that introduced the consumer friendly Kuri home robot. Some key points/questions that resonated:

  • Do screens on a robot (for example, where their “face” would be) somehow break the relationship with humans? How do we interact with a robot which has semi-iPad style interactions, too?
  • How do robots effectively “learn”? Is the behavior and reaction explicitly taught, learned, or extrapolated (and from what data set? who or what defines that?)
  • Automated trucking will be coming soon. This will impact many, many jobs and livelihoods, especially in key parts of US that voted for Trump. My personal theory/fear is Trumpism will get worse as an outcome of the roboticising (sp?)of our national and global economies :-/ Hmm.
Umm, no thanks. A little scary!

Brandon Schauer / Wielding the soft (and hard) science of service design

Brandon gave a nicely articulated overview of service design for newbies or as a refresher for folks, too. I really appreciated the connection of service design to “flow” — not the Zen state of autotelic experience, but the pathways and touchpoints among service creation and delivery, especially across diverse (and perhaps structurally or politically opposed) silos/departments. This final slide summarizes Brandon’s crucial points perfectly; truly worth spending time studying his talk/slides!

The key word here is “flow” for service design!

Amanda Linden / The future of enterprise software design

The last talk I saw and which really connected with me was this one by Amanda Linden, ex-Asana design chief, and now at Facebook, recounting her thoughts on building good, valuable enterprise software — hey, it’s what all the cool kids are doing nowadays! Amanda argued that it is indeed possible, and valuable, to have consumer type experiences for enterprise.

Amanda’s core qualities of a good enterprise UX:

  • Strong evocative brand that connects emotionally
  • Fabulous first time user experience (FTU)
  • Simplified navigation
  • Mobile-first approach
  • Technical performance that’s swift & reliable
  • Monetization (business models)
  • Customization is easy and useful

And let’s remember, while the tasks to be done by enterprise software are not emotional, the people using such software are emotional — which, by the way, doesn’t mean “hysterical” or “quirky” but feeling safe, satisfied, or confident are meaningful emotions to support!

All the feels.