25 things I learnt at UX Cambridge

St Catherine's College Cambridge

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending UX Cambridge at the charming St Catharine’s College in Cambridge (shown above). I was there to present and run a workshop, but more important I was there to catch up with fellow UXers, to attend as many UX talks and workshops as I could and to generally breath in the UX infused air of a great community driven conference. I learnt a lot in the 3 days that I was there and in homage to the famous book titled, 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School by Matthew Frederick I thought that I would share 25 of those lessons with you (sorry, 101 would have been a stretch too far).

For more write-ups, slides and notes from UX Cambridge 2015 take a look at the UX Cambridge coverage page on Lanyrd.

1. Community-driven conferences rule

UX Cambridge is a really great conference. Why? Well aside from the fact that it’s just down the road from where I live (always a bonus), it’s mostly because like a lot of the smaller UX conferences it’s community-drive; it has talks and workshops run by the UX community, for the UX community. I certainly find that I learn a lot more from fellow practitioners than from the sort of ‘celebrity’ speakers you tend to get at bigger conferences.

2. Now is a great time to be working in UX

A message that came out loud and clear from many of the talks and from many of the conversations I had with fellow UXers is that now is a great time to be working in UX. As your granny might say, “you youngsters don’t know how good you’ve got it”. UX has finally gained traction in many organisations, the UX community has really found its voice and there are more opportunities for UX professionals out there than ever before. Nice.

3. Stories make for great presentations

I’ve written before about the power that stories can bring to your presentations (10 ways to improve your UX presentations). Lots of presentations re-enforced this message by featuring great storytelling, and great storytellers. Tell a great story and you’ll invariable have a great presentation.

4. Good UX design is as much about understanding business needs as user needs

In their keynote talk (Working beyond the brief) Anna Kirah (Making Waves) and Meriel Lenfesty (Foolproof) spoke of the importance of considering not just user needs, but also business needs. UX rarely needs reminding that we need to consider the needs of users, but doesn’t always give the same care and attention to the needs of the business (you know the ones signing our pay checks). Anna and Meriel outlined the importance of digging deeper when a brief is received. Of continually asking, ‘Why?’ and (whisper it quietly in case an account manager is nearby) of asking challenging questions in order to uncover motivations, discrepancies and underlying business needs.

5. Design has transformed from an afterthought to a pre-requisite

In his keynote talk (The Centrality of Design) Josh Brewer spoke of how design has moved on from being parachuted in at the end of project in order to put some lipstick on the proverbial pig, to being involved at the very start. From being an afterthought to a pre-requisite. Good UX and design is now recognised as being key to the success of a product or service, which makes good UX designers key to the success of a product or service.

6. It’s not about UX having a seat at the top table, it’s about UX having a presence at the top table

In his keynote talk Josh Brewer used a great quote when talking about UX having a seat in the board room – “My 18 month old has a seat at the table – it’s called a high chair”. The point is that it’s not just about UX having a seat at the top table, it’s about UX having a presence at that table. For UX and design to become a core part of a company there needs to be buy-in from the top (and bottom) and there needs to be buy-in from across the board.

7. 90% of a UXers work is evangelism

I’ve written before about the importance of selling UX (How to better sell UX) and the importance of continually evangelising about the need to consider the user’s experience. Even if now is a great time to be working in UX (see lesson 1), many of the speakers made it clear that the job of selling UX will never be complete. Evangelism is a large part of a UXers role, and I suspect it always will be.

8. Alignment is key for UX to be successful within an organisation

Another helpful reminder from Josh Brewer. UX can’t operate in a vacuum (at least not without adequate breathing apparatus). UX needs to be aligned with tech, with marketing, with customer service and with all the other parts of the business that make the magic happen. Like the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers, it’s only by all working together that we can create a truly kick arse UX Megazord.

9. Co-creation is a great way to embed UX within an organisation

A number of talks touched on the importance of co-creation (both with users and business stakeholders). Co-creation is a great way get buy-in for UX, and to embed UX within an organisation. Simple activities, such as sketching out ideas with senior stakeholders can really help to open their eyes to the benefits of UX, not to mention help to build those all important business relationships.

10. You should follow principles, not process

In her presentation (Tales of integrating design into agile) Cory-Ann Joseph of Paddy Power talked about some of the lessons she and her team had learnt when the organisation moved towards an agile development process. Cory spoke of the importance of following principles over following a strict process. For example, the principle of the end product looking and behaving the way you said it should. By all means empower teams to find the right process, but ensure that they stick to the agreed principles.

11. Good UX leadership is hard, really, really hard

James Chudley of CXPartners spoke of the challenges of being a UX leader (UX leadership), especially the challenge of suddenly going from being a ‘doer’ to being a ‘manager’ (funny how we reward people that are good at their job by not letting them do it anymore!). If you’re a UX leader then well done – it’s not an easy job. James’ top tips for any UX leaders, or would be UX leaders out there is to protect your team (James said that a colleague proudly referred to him as the team’s sh*t shield!), to take a back seat but not be too distant, to praise your team whenever possible and to always get the first round of drinks in (OK, that last one might have been from me).

12. It’s important to set a good example to your team

James Chudley re-iterated the importance that leaders set a good example to their team. I’m not a religious man but I certainly agree with the advice that you should, “Do to others as you would have them do to you”. A leader that radiates enthusiasm, that trusts their team and that gives praise when praise is due is more likely to foster the same sort of characteristics within their team.

13. UX is a team sport, it’s everyone’s responsibility

Ben Holliday of the UK Government Digital Service (GDS) spoke about how a design led process helped them to deliver better digital services to the public (Why design matters: how a design-led process delivers better digital services). Interestingly the GDS try to avoid the term ‘UX’ in their job titles (a team will typically have an interaction designer and researcher) because they recognise that UX is everyone’s responsibility. He outlined the importance of getting the whole team involved in UX design and research. As Ben pointed out, the job of a researcher and designer is not to research and design, but to help the whole team research and design.

14. Always start with what’s important

Ben also spoke of how the hardest part of any project is deciding what to do. Of deciding not just what’s important, but also what isn’t important. Ben suggested a simple four step process for taking a design-lead approach:

  1. Work out what’s most important
  2. Design something (that’s important)
  3. Test, learn (is it really important?), iterate
  4. Move on to the next important thing

15. Don’t forget that prototypes are for learning, not releasing

The third step of Ben’s process is to “Test, learn, iterate”. A prototype will invariably be required to test a design out and Ben reminded us that a prototype is created to learn from, not to release. Embrace quick and dirty prototypes because ultimately you should be throwing your prototypes away (as painful as that might be), not using them as a base for releasable code.

16. Consider content from the start

Sarah Richards spoke about the importance of considering content from the start (Content design to keep people out of jail). She reminded us that you should always involve content specialist from the start and that you should start designs with content in mind – even if it’s an early draft of the content, or just an idea of the content. Lorem ipsum is for wimps, real designers use real content!

17. Understanding is what’s important, not reading

In her talk Sarah also outlined that your goal with content online will nearly always be to maximise the understanding of the content whilst minimising the effort it takes to read the content. Give users less to read (unless of course we’re talking about reading for pleasure) and make the content as easy to understand as possible.

18. To work out how to deal with complexity it’s useful to be able to see it

Chris Atherton spoke about the importance of being able to visualise the complexity of a problem so that you can see the proverbial wood from the trees (Stop trying to paint the hallway through the letterbox! UX techniques that help teams help themselves). Chris’ advice is to stick stuff up on walls (or lay it out on the floor if you don’t have any walls handy). Stick up designs. Stick up user journeys and customer experience maps. Stick up content. Stick up user stories and product maps. Create a holistic view that everyone can easily zoom in and out of just by taking a step forward or back.

19. Documents are a terrible way to communicate something

Chris Atherton also lambasted written documents as a terrible way to communicate as they require readers to mentally retain a lot of information as they read through a document. As Chris says using written documents to communicate something complex (like a design or set of requirements) is like trying to paint the hallway through the letterbox. Chris’ advice is to maximise talking in order to minimise documenting and to visually document a problem (see previous lesson) so that the whole complexity can be seen.

20. The journey to creating design patterns is more important than the design patterns themselves

Very Zen like this one. Caroline Jarrett and Tim Paul spoke about creating design patterns for government services (A community not a library: design patterns for government services) on the Gov.uk website. One of their key lessons was that whilst design patterns can undoubtedly save a lot of time and effort, they’re certainly no replacement for good UX designers and the main benefit comes from the collaboration and community cohesion that forms around creating and discussing the patterns. Co-creating design patterns helps to get buy-in and encourages adoption of patterns so don’t impose design patterns, co-create design patterns.

21. Avoid drop downs like the plague

Caroline Jarrett and Tim Paul also shared some of the design patterns that have been created for Gov.uk. One interesting piece of advice they had is that drop downs should be avoided where possible. Drop downs are not intuitive (we all assume that everyone knows how to use drop downs but they showed a video of a user struggling to use even a standard dropdown), they hide choices, they often don’t play nicely with mobile and are not always very accessible. Caroline and Tim advised using radio buttons or auto suggest free text fields (think Google search) rather than dropdowns whenever possible.

22. Progress bars are not as important as you might think

Caroline Jarrett and Tim Paul also shared an interesting case study from GDS. GDS have a design pattern for progress indicators. Their advice is to use a progress indicator to reassure users that they’re making progress and to give an indication of how much further there is to go. However as an experiment they removed the progress indicator from the Carer’s Allowance claim process. The Carer’s Allowance claim process is a complex 10 or so step process, so you’d have thought that a progress indicator would be useful to users. But do you know what happen when it was removed? Nothing. Na da. Zilch. Removing the progress indicator had no discernible impact on the KPIs (such as completion rate and time to completion) so they figured that they should follow their “Do less” design principle and remove the progress indicator all together.

23. Break long forms up and focus on one thing per page

Caroline Jarrett and Tim Paul shared a great quote in relation to online forms, “I’d rather the users were bored than confused”. They advised that complex forms should be broken up into smaller chunks and that each page should only focus on one thing. They also re-iterated the importance of getting rid of as many questions as possible. Each question has the potential to confuse users, so the fewer questions you ask, the lesser the changes of a very confused user.

24. Remote user testing is hard, but invaluable

Louise Croft Baker and Rachel Littlefair of the UX agency spoke about their experiences of carrying out remote user testing (Remote user testing: the good, the bad and the ugly). It seems that their experiences are very similar to my own. Remote user testing is great when it works as it allows you to easily recruit and test with users in their own environment, using their own device. However, moderated remote user testing (via screensharing) is still all too prone to technical gremlins and unmoderated user testing (using platforms such as usertesting.com, whatusersdo and userzoom) can be very hit and miss as no one is there to help run the session. Remote user testing is an excellent way to quickly and easily get user feedback, but it seems that there will always be a place for good old fashioned face-to-use user testing.

25. Dogfooding (using your own products) is both good and bad

My final lesson comes from a round table discussion I had with fellow Cambridge UXers. We were discussing the merits of dogfooding – of using your own products (rather than eating your own dog food, yuck!). It seems that dogfooding can be both a good and a bad thing. Good because it helps to build empathy, can be a useful test bed for products and often highlights the short comings of a product. Bad because as you’ve no doubt heard before you (and your colleagues) are not your users and dogfooding can therefore build somewhat of a false picture. Unless you’re some sort of eccentric billionaire you’ll be building products for your customers, not yourself, and you should always keep this very important distinction in mind.

See also