Talk That Talk: UX Cambridge 2018 Recap

Design for voice is on the horizon — better start looking out

@UXCambridge on Twitter

From the 12th to the 14th of September this year, 2018, I had the honor of visiting the beautiful and prestigious city of Cambridge, UK, for the very first time. Not just for pleasure, but to speak at the UX Cambridge Conference taking place inside the historic St. Cathrines College right in the city center.

UX Cambridge is a practical UX Conference aimed at professionals in the fields of design, technology and management that’s been happening regularly for many years now. When I first came across the event last year I was instantly intrigued by the professional setup and organization, as well as all the great reviews about last years line up and the good vibes. I instantly knew I wanted to be a part of this. I was all the more excited when I got accepted to give a talk at the event and then eventually made my way to the island.

Expectations: Surpassed

When I arrived at the conference site I was stunned by the historic places all around. It truly feels like being inside a Harry Potter movie.

Then, as the conference got into full swing, I was blown away. From the get go the quality of speakers and their messages was amazing. Emmet Connolly kicked off the event with his keynote, showing us how the tools we use for our jobs directly influence the decisions we make and the outcome we achieve. Reflecting that message, the advent of Sketch definitely shaped the collective style of web and app design — for better or worse. Something to think about.

From then on the event, at least the sessions I chose, turned out consistently strong. The line up of international speakers from all over the world delivered knowledge and fostered discussions and exchange like I haven’t seen in a conference before. Here are just some of my very favorite sessions in chronological order:

  • James Lang, who heads up the user research teams for Google’s publisher products, laid out how to focus on impact, rather than quantity, when doing research. He went on how to turn insights into products, and how sometimes less research can achieve more.
  • David Hoang, Head of Product Design at One Medical in San Francisco, delivered a thorough workshop on human-centred design leadership that was as insightful as it was funny. He shared helpful techniques to handle complicated situations in professional relationships and added some personal anecdotes to the mix, making the lessons both interesting and actually stick.
  • The oddly named Maps and Markers by Alissa Briggs, Head of Design at PlanGrid, was quite possibly my favorite talk at the event. Alissa shared how she systematically transformed the design team at PlanGrid to both do impactful work and actually be heard by others in the company. Along that, she shared their idea of a Vision Map, a tool to follow through on strategic initiatives big and small. All of this knowledge was delivered with a sense of excitement and whit that made the talk something special.
  • All of the Keynotes! If I get into each one in detail here this will become really long. Yet surprisingly all of the 4 keynotes were big names and great content, so I want to give them a quick shout out. 
    Joe Macleod brought us a new perspective of UX by focussing on the end of a customer relationship, and how this will be good for your business. 
    Sara Wachter-Boettcher shared her eye opening observations on how wrongfully exclusive, rather than inclusive, many mainstream tech products actually are. Along that energizing talk we got copies of her book Technically Wrong, thanks! 
    Finally, Alisan Atvur shared the learnings of his career as a UX researcher and design educator through a thoughtful analogy of comparing facilitation activities to martial arts practice. Surprisingly, that made a lot of sense!

Let’s Talk!

Representing USEEDS°, a UX focused digital agency from Berlin, I came to Cambridge to share our experience, challenges and learnings on designing voice based interfaces. Over the past two years, we at USEEDS° were lucky enough to gain some experience here by working on voice projects within a variety of industries and applications.

Though still fairly new and not spread far and wide into the realm of actual brand interaction like we have on the web, voice UI’s are sure to get some spotlight at every event held by one of the five tech giants dictating progress for the rest of the industry. Eventually, interacting by voice will become the norm and an additional medium of interaction, living side by side along all of the screen based interactions we’ve embraced over the years.

When the technology works well enough, voice interaction wins due to it’s unmatched efficiency and accessibility over any other current mode of input. At that point it becomes but another design problem, not unlike the ways of designing we’ve grown used to and honed our skills in.

Adding voice to your repertoire as a designer will eventually be critical. It represents the next logical step on the way to the ultimate responsive design. The content or functionality you’re providing has to work under all circumstances, in any medium, and in the way the user wants to access and interact with in any given moment. Adaptability is key, even if that means we need to change our thinking on what design means.

Sharing what we’ve learned

To many designers who are used to designing for screens, this can seem alienating and complicated from the distance. That is why we wanted to share some of our learnings and eventually ease the transition for anyone open to broaden their skill portfolio by a new medium. To achieve this future we deem ultimately desirable, we need to spread the skills and have the design community as a whole embrace designing for this new medium. After all, no one can do this alone.

Having recognized the potential of voice computing early on, we at USEEDS° dove right in. Over the past year or two, we were lucky enough to work on multiple voice projects ranging from apps set on top of popular voice assistant platforms up to completely custom voice assistants and conversational interfaces in phone calls.

For my presentation, I drew most examples from a project in which we developed and designed a voice based interface for financial services. Starting out, we shared the general approaches to both finding a voice as a designer and eventually turning it into functioning code with your team. Getting deeper into the weeds, we explored how to find worthwhile use cases in this rather sensitive environment of personal finances and how to navigate security hurdles on both the front- and backend.

Focus on the people

What’s key to developing solid and helpful voice user interfaces shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. It’s the same relentless focus on people and a solid design process as with any people facing product. Only when you understand who is using your product, what they need from it, how they expect it to work, what situation they are in, you can start to figure out how you should build it.

That’s the way we approach every project here at USEEDS°. This understanding, that you don’t have to — and can’t — know the answer from the get go, made us confident in our decision to go after the seemingly unchartered territory that is voice design. It was the right decision.

This is the same realization that helps us achieve excellence in any project. There is no feeling of “we have worked in finance before, so this will be easy”, because every new project has it’s unique challenges. There’s new stakeholders, new strategy, new users with new skills or new prior knowledge.

Letting go of preemptive assumptions and embracing the unknown not only get’s you the right results, it let’s you take on any challenge in any industry. This has proven true over and over again and allowed us to tackle challenges in everything from finance and insurance, to mobility, VR and now voice.

I’ll see you, Cambridge!

I hope that I was able to share both, our insights into voice design and also a more generalist approach to any type of design, with the audience at UX Cambridge. But on top of all, I’m thankful that I was able to participate in making this event the success it turned out to be.

The energy and excitement throughout participants and speakers was something truly special. Big applause to Allison Beaumont and the whole team for putting all of this together!

As a closing note, for me this was actually the very best thing about UX Cambridge. I met so many interesting people, heard about problems, ideas, initiatives and solutions. And made some great new friends.

After all, it’s all about the people!