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Key takeaways from UX Cambridge 2018

UX Cambridge was at St Catherine’s College in the heart of Cambridge

A few weeks ago I attended UX Cambridge, a 3-day UX conference in the heart of Cambridge, UK. It’s a great little conference which is not only very practical and hands-on, but is very much by the UX community, for the UX community. No keynote speakers being helicoptered in to deliver their talk at this event!

Redgate (the company I work for), was a sponsor for the event, and in addition to having a stand and lots of lovely Redgate goodies, we ran a ‘Design your own Fantastic UX Beast’ competition. Most of the Redgate design team were able to make it to the conference, with Matt Godfrey and Natalia Rey delivering a case study covering some of their work using the jobs-to-be-done framework (more about that later).

The Redgate crew at UX Cambridge

In addition to meeting old friends and making new ones, I had the opportunity to attend lots of great talks, workshops and tutorials. I thought that I would share my main takeaways from the 3 days. Slides and resources from some of the talks and workshops are available from the UX Cambridge website.

Some of the lovely Redgate goodies on offer

Emmet Connolly, head of product design at Intercom (a chat and customer messaging platform), delivered a thought-provoking keynote speech titled, “The tools we use: challenging dogma in the design process”. He spoke about how the tools and processes we use profoundly influence the work we create. In other words:

“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us”.

John Culkin, Professor of Communication at Fordham University

The way that tools influence the end product can be seen in physical design, and of course digital design. Emmet spoke of a senior executive at Autodesk being able to tell which version of AutoCAD (a computer aided design tool) was used to design a building! The same can be seen in web design trends, such as the trend for lots of unnecessary and often distracting animation as Adobe Flashbecame popular, and arguably the trend for flat design as vector design tools such as Sketch have become the web designer’s tool of choice. Choose your tools and processes wisely, because whether you like it or not your choice will profoundly affect the work you create.

Choose your tools wisely. If your toolkit includes Adobe Flash, your website might end up looking like this!

James Lang, head of user research at Google Publisher Products, outlined that the job of user research is primarily to enable the business to make better decisions, not just to better understand users. Indeed within his team, James emphasised that researchers spend only 50% of their time carrying out user research, and 50% of their time helping the business to make better decisions based on that research.

One tip that James shared for doing this is to emphasise the implications of user research findings, not just the findings themselves. One great way to do this is by using, “which means that…”. A simple example might be, “Users found the new screen confusing which means that… the support team are likely to see an increase in issues relating to this new feature”.

Brent Palmer, lead product designer at Carwow (an online car buying and comparison website), spoke of the importance of using big data to help guide design decisions. He spoke of the importance of not only collecting lots and lots of data, but also acting on that data at the right time. Act on data too early and you might be jumping the gun by making decisions based on a small data set. Leave it too long and you might have lost the opportunity to really improve things.

Josh Sassoon, director of product design at Thumbtack (a service matching customers with local professionals), outlined the importance of establishing and sharing a vision for products and services. A vision helps establish a shared understanding of a what a future product or service might look like and can really help to build enthusiasm within an organisation.

A design vision might be in the form of:

  • A narrative, such as a set of scenarios telling a future user’s story.
  • A storyboard telling a user’s story in the form of a short comic strip.
  • A low-fidelity prototype, such as wireframes or simple sketches.
  • A high-fidelity prototype or set of mock-ups.
  • A video telling a user’s story.

Josh showed some design vision videos he’d created whilst working at YouTube which were especially inspiring. He has an excellent 3 part guide to design visioning on Medium if you want to find out more about the power of design visioning.

Videos, such as this one from Thumbtack, are a great way to communicate a design vision

Our very own Matt Godfrey and Natalia Rey spoke about their use of jobs-to-be-done and why users don’t really care about products and services, they simply want an easier life. This is why it’s so important to understand jobs that users want to get done, rather than just their immediate wants and needs.

A great example that Matt spoke about is the groclock (show below). I have one of these for my children and they’re brilliant. The clock changes from stars at night to sun in the morning, so that young children (who can’t yet tell the time) know whether it’s time to get up or not. As Matt explained, parents buy a groclock not because they need a new clock, but because they have a job to be done — getting more sleep.

A groclock, handy for children and equally useful as a quick-glance clock for very hung over parents

Alissa Briggs, head of design at PlanGrid (a construction industry app), spoke about using strategy maps to help transform her design team at PlanGrid. The map (shown below) helps teams to collectively diagnose the problems they currently face, establish some future guiding principles and then identify some tactics for getting to where they want to go. The strategy map template is available on Allisa’s website.

Use a strategy map to help get to where you want to go

Joe Macleod founder of and End., the world’s first customer ending business, spoke about the importance of not just designing good beginnings for your users, but good endings as well. Companies and teams typically spend lots of effort designing the perfect onboarding experience for their users (think of the legendary Apple unboxing experience), but seldom if ever consider the off-boarding experience for users that want to end their use of a product or service. With people switching products and services more regularly today than ever before, this is becoming increasingly important. A bad off-boarding experience can be the difference between a user that comes back to a product or service, and a user who’s gone forever. You can watch a version of Joe’s talk titled, “UnEnded: how shards of broken experiences impact us all” from Service Design Global Conference 2017. Joe also has a book about this increasingly important topic called Ends: Why we overlook endings for humans, products, services and digital. And why we shouldn’t.

Apple design great beginnings for their products, but endings are not so well thought through

James Chudley of CXpartners (an experience design consultancy) ran a great workshop for crowd sourcing ideas for solving project problems. The process went something like this:

  1. Form small groups of 3–4 people.
  2. Everyone in the group writes the biggest project-related issue on their mind at the moment on an A3 piece of paper (the template is shown below). No name is written down so that problems are anonymous.
  3. Papers are collected and swapped with another group.
  4. The group discuss each problem and write down suggestions for tackling it before returning to the original (anonymous) authors.

The workshop was not only very useful, but I really liked the format. By ensuring that problems were anonymous, it made for a more open discussion and meant that participants were much more willing to share problems that they might otherwise keep private.

The simple template used for sharing project problems and ideas

Jack Rich, a product owner at Ocado technology (a service arm of Ocado, an online supermarket), shared his journey from design engineer to UX researcher, and then to his current role as a product owner (a.k.a. product manager). He outlined the importance of always taking a holistic view for your work, and of thinking about how it fits into the wider work going on within an organisation, including goals and strategy.

Jack also spoke of the symbiotic relationship between product management and UX. Both need each other to truly flourish. Like gin and tonic, or fish and chips, it’s only when UX and Product (along with engineering) work in harmony together that the magic truly happens.

Kamil Kuczynski and Martin Rio Sixto of Cambridge Assessment English spoke about their work setting up and then using a design system to rapidly design, build and evaluate web and mobile products. This is similar to our own Honeycomb design system, although theirs uses Adobe XD for creating the UI designs and React (a JavaScript UI framework) for building the front end.

Both Kamil and Martin spoke of the importance of designers working very closely with developers and of thinking about components rather than screens or pages. In the words of Stephen Hay (author of Responsive Design Workflow), “We’re not designing pages, we’re designing systems of components”. They said that the work of Brad Frost and his ideas around Atomic design heavily influenced their thinking. Check out Brad’s Atomic design book and the Pattern Lab website if you want to find out more.

Think about the components, not pages

Sara Wachter-Boettcher, author of Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech spoke of the importance of deliberately designing more inclusive products. She ran through numerous examples where seemingly-small design decisions had led to non-inclusive and even potentially divisive products. For example Google maps having to remove the cupcakes calorie counter (shown below) because it could be harmful for those with eating disorders, and even the ‘racist’ automatic soap dispenser at Facebook which only works for white hands.

Google maps didn’t consider the negative connotations that using cupcakes to quantify calories could have for some of its users

Sara outlined that rather than edge cases, we should talk about stress cases. We should think about the myriad of ways that someone can use and misuse a product or service, both intentionally and unintentionally, to ensure that we’re designing for real life. You can read an article from Sara and Eric Meyer about designing for real life. Sarah and Eric have also written a book, called Designing for Real Life.

Ben Brignell, a designer and illustrator, spoke about the importance of having design principles to help guide decision-making. He outlined that ideally you should have 3–5 concise, memorable and unique design principles, such as this one from our very own Redgate design principles:

We make our users more productive
We design software that radically simplifies or automates the tasks our users face. That saves them time, eases their working day, and ultimately makes them a lot more productive.

Ben reinforced that design principles are not just for designers, they’re for everyone. Design principles help create a sense of why, help break complex concepts down, help promote innovation and help prevent people from making stupid design decisions (although this is of course not guaranteed). Ben is collating and sharing design principles at principle.design. Here you’ll find over 1,000 example design principles to inspire you.

Alastair Lee, a co-found of Pilot Works (a digital product discovery consultancy), ran an excellent workshop about how to use MVPs(minimum viable products) to test important and often risky assumptions about a product or service. In Alastair’s own words, “Life is short and resources are precious. You need confidence that what you’re building will make a difference.”.

Alistair described the different forms that MVPs can take, including:

  • Sell it first — Marketing the product or service even before it’s available to evaluate interest. This is the approach that Tesla took with their Model X.
  • Prototype it — Build a semi-working prototype and test with real users.
  • Fake it — Manually fake it to start with. For example, using a real person rather than a chatbot to test out a new chat feature.
  • Slice it — Deliver a working, vertical slice of a feature or product to get feedback.

Alistair shared a useful MVP template (shown below) for helping to determine the right sort of MVP to use. You can also download Alastair’s slides.

A handy MVP worksheet for capturing assumptions, a hypothesis and metrics

Alisan Atvu, a user researcher, designer, educator and writer, shared some of the ‘kata’ exercises (a Japanese word for choreographed movements practiced either solo or in pairs) that he uses in workshops to help diffuse stress and conflict. He stressed the importance of ad hoc facilitation because you never know what will come up. It’s therefore useful to have exercises in your back pocket just in case things don’t go the way you want them to. You can view the slides from Alisan’s talk.

Movie Flash Template from TemplateMonster

Design vision video still by Josh Sassoon from Thumbtrack visioning video

Groclock by the gro company

Macbook Pro unboxing by By Lisa Risager from Denmark

Atomic design levels by Brad Frost

Minimum viable product picture by Henrik Kniberg

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How Redgate build ingeniously simple products, from inception to delivery.

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Neil Turner

Neil Turner

Former techy turned UX Jedi from the UK. Checkout out my blog (UX for the Masses) for more about me.

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