My takeaways from World Usability Congress 2018

Charlotte Sferruzza
Design @Onfido
Published in
9 min readOct 23, 2018


Last week I participated in the World Usability Congress in Graz, Austria. WUC is a great place to meet people who have a fresh perspective on UX design and insightful experiences from all over the world.

Instead of falling into an ocean of UX buzzwords, I was happy to see that a lot of talks were digging into the basics of UX: why do we build this product? How do we know what we do makes a difference?

I found it particularly interesting for designers, researchers, developers and product managers. Here are the key takeaways I’m coming back to London with.

1. “Create a culture of making impact over trying to perfect details”

Kevin Lee, Head of Design at Visa, made this point during his opening keynote Change is the only constant: how to scale the impact of design.

He shared his method to create a culture of impact in your team.

  • Prefer impact over accuracy, practical over theoretical, and emotional engagement over collaboration
  • Focus on the whole user journey, not only the few touch points of your product. “Context is all that matters”.
  • When working on a B2B product: partner with your clients to identify and study their user journeys
  • Create Design Systems that provide UX standards at scale. This is how Visa presented their design system.
  • Create emotional engagement from your team through co-creation. Don’t debate, don’t persuade: create together.

2. “Immerse people in a digital reality to make them understand it”

Marciel Cabahug, Chief Design Officer at SAP, showed how SAP represents reality using modern software development in her talk Simpler and richer: unleashing human potential through design.

  • Experience in all dimensions. This is what Marciel explores with SAP inscribe. This new paradigm aims to break the barrier between the digital and physical world. But it also requires to learn new interaction models.
  • Track cognitive overload, adapt the UX to people’s focus and support them on every task. SAP works with Emotiv to develop headsets to help people be more productive at work. Tracking people’s productivity can be risky and negatively perceived. Nobody likes the idea of being monitored at work. Marciel highlights that it needs to be presented as an opt-in option for users.
  • Design for people: create natural interactions, enable human augmentation, design for ethics and keep humans in the loop.

These products can be beneficial for users but they still present important challenges:

  • The Big Brother effect
  • Issues with scalability and globalisation (human interactions in different cultures)
  • Challenging context of use (i.e. wearing a headset all day)

3. “UX design is all about collaboration”

Ranjeet Tayi, UX lead at Informatica, presented the importance of UX in today’s world in his talk Human with machine: harnessing power of UX for securing data.

We need to use design thinking in risk management contexts. Today, the biggest fear is data breach. Sensitive data is all over the place and became the new currency. Regulations grow and change and UX needs to adapt.

UX design needs to help define, detect and protect data

  • Collaboration in UX is essential. This idea reminded me of this great talk from Paul Adams, VP of Product at Intercom.
  • Bring everyone to workshops, everyone is a designer
  • Add the “evil person” to your personas (i.e. the hacker) to understand the whole context of your product

4. “We don’t design products and interactions, we design cultures”

Julie Blitzer, Lead Designer at Design Group Italia, explained her perception of a cross-cultural, multilingual, localised, and global design.

She started by defining what culture means to her. Culture is often mixed up with language. Culture and language are indeed part of each other, but they can’t be interchanged.

It’s essemtial to understand culture through UX research. Enable empathy with these 3 questions (Bill Verplank, Empathy in interaction design):

  • How do you do?
  • How do you feel?
  • How do you know?

The common problem in cross-cultural design is the disconnection between action and meaning (Huaton Sun, Cross Cultural Technology Challenges).

A cultural user experience is a situated activity added to a constructed meaning. Understanding high/low context cultures (Edward T. Hall, Beyond Culture) is essential:

  • Low-context cultures are defined by individualistic values, linear logic, clear, deep and direct communication, rule oriented, task-focused, verbal-based understanding, sender-oriented style. Cultures with western European roots, such as the United States and Australia, are generally considered to be low-context cultures.
  • High-context cultures are defined by group-oriented values, spiral logical, less verbally explicit, less written, less formal, relationship-focused, context-based understanding, interpreter-orientated style. Asian, African, Arab, central European and Latin American cultures are generally considered to be high-context cultures.

We think we are designing relationships between people and products, brands, services, touch points, but in reality we are designing cultures.

How to ensure cross-cultural design?

  • Get out of the building
  • Include non-native speakers in your research participants
  • Designers can work best when they are not the subject matter experts. Don’t hire only people experts in a specific field.
  • Archetypes, not stereotypes (i.e. “the organiser” is a better persona than “the soccer mom”, “the follower” is a better persona than “the student”)

5. “Keep your team happy to create great products”

Julie Kennedy, User Experience Lead at Capital One shared her thoughts about design teams in her talk Build, inspire, keep design teams (happy).

Here is the anatomy of a design team according to Julie. The team should start with a designer who becomes Head of Design and creates a team composed of (sorted by hiring priority):

  • A UX Designer (then becomes team lead, then design manager)
  • A Visual Designer
  • A UX Researcher
  • A Content Strategist
  • A Design Producer (Design Ops)
  • A Design Strategist — works across all teams, identify long-term solution that can be explored

A few tips for hiring:

  • UX unicorns don’t exist
  • Write specific job descriptions
  • Create a design team mission statement and design principles

How to keep your design team happy?

  • Deliver value. “Real artists ship”, said Steve Jobs
  • Ensure quality with a shared design system and process patterns
  • Create regular design routines (i.e. weekly reviews)
  • Create a stimulating physical environment
  • Ensure flexible hours
  • Set up a user testing lab
  • Give team time away from the office for them to learn continuously
  • Invite external people to talk at your company
  • Measure team qualities (self assessment + external assessment)

6. “Measure user experience to build an excellent product”

Russ Wilson, Design Director at Google shared his thoughts on how to measure UX in his talk Achieving product excellence through measurement. For Russ, an excellent product is a product people love, can’t live without, and is at the center of your business strategy.

What to measure?

  • Start with product goals and choose metrics to achieve those goals
  • Measure adoption, retention, revenue, and engagement
  • At Google they use both HEART and SUPER frameworks (which is more enterprise focused)
  • Use them as guides, not everything has to be measured
  • Multiple metrics = less misleading

When to measure?

  • Measure your baseline (where you’re now)
  • Measure ideas (test concepts)
  • Measure new deployments (evaluate releases)

How to measure?

  • In-product surveys (NPS, satisfaction, performance perception, etc.)
  • Instrumentation, log analysis. Google look at their user journeys through their suite of products.

To wrap up

  • Start with goals
  • Use flexible metric frameworks
  • Measure before, during, and after
  • Measurement reduces risk — the more you base product decisions on real data, the more likely you are to deliver excellent products

7. “Use virtual reality to enhance experiences”

Virtual Reality (VR) is quite far away from my domain of expertise, but I found Ana Garcia Puyol’s talk very interesting. Ana is the Director of UX at Iris VR, working to support the architecture and construction industry.

Why should you use VR?

  • VR creates a common language between different roles (i.e. business and clients)
  • VR limits costly errors in architecture by creating a shared environment

How to design for VR?

  • Learn from workflows from the physical world
  • Add magic to the real world. Turn a dry and serious client discussion into a fun and joyful experience

How to brand VR?

  • Iris VR has a strong and interesting brand
  • They use brutalism to talk to architects. They mix it with realistic human representations to stay away from the futuristic Minority Report aesthetic of VR.
  • They used Le Corbusier’s Modulor scale to create their font sizes and spacing. It’s a nice easter egg for architects.
  • They show people with headsets, but people doing things. “Show the goal, not the tool”.
  • They used their own product to design their trade show booth

8. “Product discovery is essential to build a great product”

Wolf Bruning, UX Designer at Otto, gave us 13 principles for an efficient product discovery.

Product discovery is more important than ever, in a world where 9/10 products fail and 9/10 features don’t generate value.

  1. Make sure you solve the right problem. Product discovery reduces costs. Explore, create, validate. Fall in love with the problem, not the solution.
  2. Seek different perspectives on the problem. Keep discovery meetings small (6 to 8 people) with large update meetings and small work sessions.
  3. Be user-centric. Do user research with UX designers, web analysts, test analysts.
  4. Ensure mutual understanding of the problem. Use the 5-why method to dig into problem. “Never delegate understanding”, said Charles Eames.
  5. Create mutual goals. Make sure everybody in your team understand your goals. Test your goals: write them on a whiteboard. Ask each member of your team to write what it means to them on a post-it. Compare and adjust.
  6. You’re responsible for the whole product and user experience. Layout your product universe. Map your whole customer journey.
  7. Be open for unexpected outcomes. But stay focused on solving the identified core problem.
  8. Balance time between discovery, validation, iteration and delivery. Deliver as soon as possible.
  9. Break up big problems into multiple discoveries and deliveries
  10. Balance scope. Don’t stop at the MVP.
  11. Iterate a lot. “You only understand the problem after you built a solution”, said Dan Brown.
  12. Focus on outcomes, not outputs
  13. Be courageous. Don’t build a feature if it doesn’t bring value.

9. “In safety-related design, it’s people that create safety”

To finish, I attended Safety-related design, a talk by Zeljka Pozgaj, Design Lead at Frequentis AG. She described how to deal with human errors when designing for 24/7 highly reliable services.

The smallest human error can have huge consequences. Who’s responsible?

  • 86% of all incidents are results of human performance. But it’s never about end-users or one person only. The solution is always to improve the organisation processes.

Zeljka highlights the difference between human error culture (why do we make errors?) and safety culture (how do we deal with errors?).

To understand human performance, we need to understand the human brain. How do recognition, reaction, decision-making mechanisms work? All user groups have the same brain mechanism, it’s not subjective. “All humans are the same species”.

Perception: visual and audio

Perception is gained by experience, we’re not born with it. How we perceive depends on what we’ve experienced and what we’ve learnt.

Optimise your designs for perception:

  • Create a perception template
  • Focus on information users need for a task
  • Focus on responsiveness to that information

Attention allocation

Human attention works on 2 networks: the default mode network (breathing, driving, not task focused) and the attention network (task-focused).

80% of our day is mind-wandering. How to design for it?

  • Mind-wandering is spontaneous, not predictable, uncontrollable
  • Limit interruption distractions
  • Maintain attention
  • Train observer to identify warning signals (when attention is lost)

Context is important

  • A sick child at home can remove all attention span for an entire work day
  • For safety, people should tell their teams about personal problems. Their team should support them. It’s their responsibility to identify their own weaknesses in order to make everyone safe.

Memory (sensory, short-term, long-term)

We learn and remember best through pictures and animations

Part of our brain monitors our performances

  • Self corrections occur frequently
  • Fatigue decreases the capacity of this correction system
  • Users should make errors in order to activate their monitoring system and learn. Include error making in your UX. Don’t ask users to make error, make them fail (in training of course).
  • It’s people that create safety

Those 2 days of conference made clear to me that the hot topics of today’s UX are team work, specific attention to culture and behaviours, and how to grasp the impact of user experience on the products we build.

I found this particularly refreshing to go back to UX basics: be truly people-centered, deliver value, and question processes every day.