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Notes: From Persuasion to Usability. Design Meets the Internet

A talk from Ben Terrett for the RSA, 23 September 2015

Ben Terrett (former Director of Design at GDS) gave a talk recently containing facts, ideas and expressions that I think deserve highlighting more clearly and accessibly than in just an RSA YouTube replay. Seriously. This is an important talk that I implore every designer to watch. Every copywriter too. In fact, everyone and anyone involved in the design of a system that people have to interact with.

Notes are transcribed by me. Some points are paraphrased. At times the narrative of the talk may be broken, but the point remains. Apologies to Ben if I’ve misquoted anything.

GDS Saved £1.7 billion in 2014

They relentlessly focused on user needs

Design Principle 1. Start with needs*
*User needs, not government needs.

Beautiful icons tested poorly, so they were removed.

On the 50th anniversary of the road sign system and typeface (where Britain set the standard):

When [Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert] designed that typeface 50 years ago, they tested it to be read at 70 miles per hour in the dark in the rain when you’re speeding past a road sign, so it sort of figures that it would work very well on a website. That’s how they tested typefaces 50 years ago. They would do it on an airfield. And they would drive lorry loads of people at a sign and see how fast they could get before they read it. We do it slightly differently now, but we still test typefaces, and we use that one because as I say, it was the most readable.

It’s not UX it’s slightly different…

UX has become a term on its own and it’s too often used as a noun. And what happens in our industry, is that people have a big project, let’s say it’s a year long, and they say “it’s OK, at the end, we’ll do a month of UX, and that will fix all the problems with user experience”. And it won’t fix all the problems with user experience, at all, because user experience is the responsibility of everyone.

So if your website or digital project, if the problem with that is that the servers are slow, the thing that will fix that is maybe getting another contract or buying faster servers. But if the UX team aren’t in control of that, they’re not in control of the user experience. So we believe that user experience is the responsibility of everyone.

This is interesting because in many organisations, in most large organisations today, the biggest problem is fixing the things that everyone knows are wrong, and most people know how to fix, but they just can’t fix, because the organisation is siloed and joined up.

And they’re often really simple things. They’re not complicated problems, they don’t need fancy new ideas. They’re just what we call, fixing the basics.

Being able to fix these problems puts design firmly in the boardroom… but in my experience designers struggle with this… and I’ve got some advice for the designers among you listening to that. A pro tip if you like:

The CEO doesn’t care about fonts. If you enter the boardroom and you say “I can save you money. I can make your services easier to use.” Then the CEO will be all ears. And they’ll let you choose whatever font you want.

But too often designers come at it more from the approach of fonts, and the language of persuasion, rather than the language of usability and how we can make things better.

If you say you can make things better… then you deliver that… that earns you trust. Because delivery earns trust.

Henry Ford “You can’t earn a reputation from the things you’re going to do”

The Creative Director is a bottleneck.

On Waterfall vs Agile:

The waterfall approach is: There is a problem, or someone has an idea. You write a policy. That might take six months, it might take a year. You write a series of requirements. You go to procurement. That will take a year. Maybe take two years. You build the thing. That’s another year. You launch the thing. You’re already three or four years away from where you started. Maybe the problem doesn’t exist any more. Definitely, the problem will have changed. Only when you launch do you consider user needs, and often it’s too late, and they’re wrong: those projects fall over. And we all know what happens.

The agile way of working… is where you start with a very small discovery session, maybe a couple of days, maybe a couple of weeks. You very quickly build alphas and betas, slowly putting more of it public as you get more confident, but testing it with real users, getting real feedback all the time, and slowly scaling the project up. This is how I think design teams should work.

How do they work at GDS?

All the designers at GDS can code… understand HTML and write a bit.

Everyone starts by sketching… no Photoshop mockups… we’re making the thing, not a picture of the thing. So we go from paper and sketch to real code as fast as we can.

I don’t sign work off like an executive creative director, because we’re too agile for that… we make about 8 changes every day… it would be impossible and silly for somebody to sign all of those off. So the teams publish their own work. They decide if it’s good to go live… A peer review system has emerged.

The design process is agile…

We’re also open… we have a series of principles and a series of guidelines, and code that goes along with it and they’re published on gov.uk, anyone can see them… but that’s a very agile process… it’s a very open design process.

Openness is an essential part of leadership now

Lots of ideas and strong leadership is better than one big idea. …Lots of creatives are taught that the big idea is everything and in my opinion that’s wrong and that’s changing.

Summing up…

The design industry has become obsessed with novelty and obsessed persuasion… The internet is forcing it to change… Design needs to focus on user needs… To concentrate on fixing the basics

Trust equals delivery
Design should be more agile
And design should be more open
Because usability trumps persuasion

Thanks Ben.

Louise Downe is taking over from Ben at GDS.



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Mathew Wilson

Photo taking, stuff collecting, digitally planning, design consulting, partner @withassociates