UX London in review

What a week. Turning thirty is an event on its own, without the hard work of running and speaking at a major conference. However, either despite or because of the stress, UX London was a fantastic experience and one I can’t wait to repeat. Due to hurried tweaking of my slides I missed several workshops, so here’s a rundown of the opening day.

The talks

Opener Peter Merholz implored us to expand our mandate from digital user experience to other touchpoints across the entire customer experience. This shift towards service design requires a patient collaborative and strategic approach, familiar from recent ‘getting a seat at the table’ discussions.

Many design-led companies are blessed with a visionary, customer-focused CEO: think Disney, Apple, Southwest. Leadership begets culture. Culture begets user-centred service. Those of us who lack such a figurehead can kick-start a design culture by espousing a clear set of design principles – a topic that arose numerous times. We must also encourage others to see design as more than aesthetics and stereotypes. Instead, design should be an activity: a means of getting ideas out of people, and of honing those ideas until they are useful to customers.

Eric Reiss revealed that Brits are now the angriest people in Europe, and clearly wanted to emulate our success. In a continuation of the service design theme, he poured scorn uponWine.comeBay and that easiest of targets: airlines. By illuminating the theory and history of customer service, Eric also pointed out how easily we are ruled by complacency. A company can have 90% satisfaction with no discernable increase in loyalty. 83% is nothing to be precious about.

Quoting liberally from Matthew Frederick’s increasingly popular 101 Things I Learned In Architecture SchoolLuke Wroblewski explored the Yahoo! homepage redesign by way of the parti, a site’s central concept stated in the language of design.

Pointing to parti’s “non-architectural” derivation (market factors, resources, company strategy), Luke led us through the quagmire of 10,000 stakeholders and 590 million users. In the midst of the politics, parti remained a sanity check for UI components – “do they bring us closer to our concept?” – an elegant way to avoid the religious and political debates with which we are all so familiar.

Dan Saffer channelled Dreyfuss in his new talk, proselytising the benefits of behaviour as a major competitive advantage, both more appealing and harder to replicate than me-too featuritis. Since the interface is the product, we should look beyond form (we’re looking at you, Motorola RAZR) and focus on motivations, expectations and actions. Our behavioural system needs close attention to the details of feedback and transitions, coupled with a laser-like focus on the product’s key function or ‘Buddha Nature’.

Carefully appointed to the graveyard shift after lunch, Jared Spool‘s brand of humour had the desired effect. When not regaling us with tales of incompetence and poor process (his workshop later yielded the classic “You can always look at what your competitors are doing. That way you’ll always be a step behind them!”), Jared focused on intuition. As did Don Norman later, Jared sung the praises of complexity, where users have sufficient knowledge to embrace it. A design is intuitive if the gap between user knowledge and target knowledge is small; therefore we can improve our designs by increasing the former and reducing the latter. A powerfully simple message cloaked in trademark wit.

Jeff Veen covered ground previously trodden by Tufte, but was at his most interesting revealing some of the design decisions involved in the development of Google Analytics. Skilfully sidestepping the inevitable Doug Bowman question from the audience, Jeff gave a fascinating insight into the design process at the Googleplex. It turns out that a t-shirt reading “Math is easy, design is hard” does not go down well on the campus.

Even amid this array of talent, Don Norman was still for many the main attraction. I was lucky enough to sit opposite Don at the previous evening’s speakers’ dinner and found him to be a genial, quietly spoken man with a ferocity of opinion unsurprising to any reader of his classic books. Opening philosophically (“It is now time for questions…”), Don made the case for complexity in a deeply intelligent and observant address. Tesler’s Conservation of Complexity means a certain level of complexity can never be eliminated, merely shifted around a system. We shouldn’t fear this. Without complexity we become bored. Without complexity we wouldn’t have music and games. Therefore, seek simplicity but distrust it.

We were, of course, treated to an analysis of everyday things including light switches and, yes, doors. But the graphical user interface came in for the most critical insight. Norman believes that we are approaching a point at which the GUI is no longer scalable (consider trawling through icons of 15,000 photos on your hard drive). No doubt bringing a smile to Google’s face, Don believes search will become the dominant paradigm of the next age of UI.

Further thoughts

While the level was deliberately high to act as balance to the practical workshops that followed, I left with some conflicting thoughts. Monday’s talks were excellent, expansive, and expansionist. It’s important that we understand the context of design, but I firmly believe we must balance strategic interest with staying true to our own Buddha Nature: designing stuff. While there are occasions to broaden our scope, we should be mindful of diluting our message through landgrab. Our biggest mistake would be to believe our own hype too much; we are still seen as web designers, not saviours of the corporate world. We must prove our value if we are to be valued.

I also question our use of examples. As is typical of a UX conference, examples of what not to do abound. They’re a pure form of entertainment: funny and flattering to those in on the joke. However, there’s benefit in talking about good examples too – yet our portfolio is wearing sadly thin. Tivo (never popular in the UK), ClearRX and the ubiquitous iPod can only take us so far, and I hope we can soon talk about other successful examples of user experience design. If we can’t find any, perhaps we aren’t as effective as we hope?

However, these are all minor thoughts lingering after what I think was an excellent opening for our new conference. There are things we want to improve for next year (I’m particularly keen to involve a greater diversity of speakers), but we think the important stuff was more or less right. We hope others agree.

To close, an anecdote from Dan at White October. At the beginning of Leisa Reichelt‘s workshop, it appears she asked her audience to introduce and tag themselves, in the traditional BarCamp way. The most common tag? “Inspired”.

Cennydd Bowles