The power of walls

I will build a great wall — and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me – and I’ll build them very inexpensively.” – Donald Trump

When these words were uttered, the reaction of many people, myself included, was disbelief. How could someone, especially with the power of running one of the largest nations in the world, believe that building walls was a good use of time, money and resources? The more recent pledge to build a wall in Colorado, which doesn’t border Mexico but rather New Mexico was met with ridicule. So much so that the official response was that it was a joke. Obviously.

What is he thinking, building arbitrary walls that don’t serve any tangible purpose?’, we might think. However, far from the madness that is USA politics and on a much smaller scale, I believe that those of us who work in the tech industry are surrounded by walls of our own.  

Walls by their very nature create division. A consequence of this is that we get very siloed ways of working. Unfortunately, this is something that I’ve come across time and time again in service and product design and delivery. Instead of true collaborative working, we see design being thrown over the wall to development teams; often with barely any handover, just an expectation to get on and build it.

In turn, development teams are often, understandably, disgruntled by designers who don’t take the time to understand the technical requirements and feasibility of their designs. And that’s not taking into account testers, who often are the last quality control check of the usability of the product being released. And then there are the stakeholders; clients or POs who may have no idea whether they should be supporting the designers’ or developers’ perspectives and reasonings.

Not only does this lead to frustrations, but it is often more time-consuming and therefore, costly. The result? It’s all a bit of a mess. Silos too easily create tribes and tribe leaders end up fighting for their own corner of how they think work should be done. Tim Brown of Ideo, in his book Change by Design sums this up with:

“In a multidisciplinary team each individual becomes an advocate for their own technical speciality… likely resulting in a grey compromise. In an interdisciplinary team, there is collective ownership of ideas and everyone takes responsibility for them.”

So how can we move from siloed teams and an ‘it’s always been done this way’ attitude and adopt interdisciplinary team working practices? There’s no silver bullet but there is a way to integrate walls into our work and use them to unite us.

User research and service design walls

At GDS (the Government Digital Service) the use of walls is widely encouraged as a medium for communication. Working on a government service has enabled me to experience the power of walls first-hand.

According to the GDS manual, an up-to-date wall also allows you to:

  • have a physical focal point for the team to look at and comment on during standups and other meetings
  • promote transparency and discussion by showing everyone in your organisation the status of your work
  • make decisions based on an overview of your work
  • manage and measure workflow and spot problems that are delaying you

Through implementing the use of walls for design and research, my team and the teams I collaborate with have found these statements not only to be true but to greatly improve the way we work.

Since we began designing a new feature for the service, the large wall where we sit has been used to document and communicate our work. It is a living form of documentation and communication; changing as designs, technical constraints and user research feedback develop.

The general workflow that we have found to be effective is:

  • Print user journey screen flows as large-format and stick to the wall alongside screen designs printed a screen per page
  • Introduce the wall to your product owner, leadership stakeholders, the development team (including QA testers), and other relevant teams e.g. security or policy. Give them post-it notes and allow them to comment on the designs
  • Have conversations with team members and stakeholders around the wall to iterate the design, gaining technical insights early and often
  • Use the wall to display user research planning and feedback
  • Continue to iterate and define the designs into development
  • Once screen designs are added to sprints, use post-its to highlight story IDs and which sprint the screens are being developed in

Everyone’s workflow will differ depending on their particular needs, so this is guidance rather than a set way of working.

The advantages we have seen with using walls in this way has been above all increased collaboration amongst a multi-supplier and multi-disciplined team. Countless conversations have happened around the wall. By making the process open, designs have been iterated, changed to better reflect technical processes and, on our best day, a number of user journeys scrapped in favour of an alternative approach. These design decisions wouldn’t have been made without the transparency of sharing early ideas.

As well as using walls to communicate designs, walls are a fantastic medium for displaying user research. The feedback medium has changed throughout the process, depending on what needs to be communicated to the teams.

Photo of user journey screen flow with annotations of research participant quotes and post-it notes with comments from developers
Placing user feedback and design recommendations onto the screens enables the teams to see key areas for iteration. My favourite participant quote reads “I didn’t actually read what I was supposed to do.”

As well as iterating designs based on team feedback, we mapped user testing feedback onto screen flows. Showing quotes from research participants in the relevant screens in the flows enables everyone to understand key areas of usability issues or successes. After screens and user journeys became more refined, we were able to display research findings in a more visual way. This Included creating graphics of key findings and pull quotes (my favourite form of communicating the opinions and feelings of participants).

Quote saying "You're spacemen talking to cavemen."

The wall is an ever-changing base of operations, it changes version by version. It evolves to reflect the development of the feature. It encourages open collaboration and discourages side conversations. By making it the focal point, teams and stakeholders gather around the wall for their meetings and discussions. The wall creates a democracy. Everyone is given equal opportunity for their ideas and opinions to be heard. Including, most importantly, the real people who use our service.

Designing a better future: New Adventures 2020

On Thursday January 24th a bunch of like-minded individuals gathered together for New Adventures 2020 – one of the most exciting and progressive design conferences I have had the pleasure of attending. Having been involved with the event in 2019, both as a speaker and running the Women in Tech Nottingham lunchtime takeover, I was interested to see how Simon and Geri would build upon the successes of 2019.

New Adventures came back with a bang last year after a six-year break and returned with a more mature perspective, mirroring the changes in our industry. I reflected on this in my write-up of 2019:

“My abiding impression from New Adventures 2019, was that we are starting to grow up. Both in terms of the conference itself; promoting inclusivity through diversity tickets, pronoun and social interaction stickers and a code of conduct; and in the messages and tone of the talks and speakers.”

This year, diversity and inclusion were woven even more deeply into the conference. In addition to the continuation of diversity and scholarship tickets, inclusive name badges, a dedicated quiet space, and the return of the Women in Tech Nottingham lunchtime takeover, 2020 added a gender-neutral bathroom and sanitary products in the women’s toilets. (If you’re not sure why providing sanitary products is important to inclusivity, read Anna’s blog). Gender inequality was also addressed through the excellent She Wins workshop: How to Negotiate with Confidence run by the awesome Clare and Kate.

Inclusion and accessibility were enhanced this year by introducing live captioning. This was provided by the incredibly skilled stenographer Andrew at White Coat Captioning and Thisten who provided live speech to text through their app. Providing captioning not only made the talks accessible to people with hearing impairments but also helped the audience pick up points they hadn’t quite caught. Or in my case, used to make sure the spelling in my notes was correct. 

Inclusion was a strong theme in 2019’s talks and the speakers this year continued to build upon it.

Cennydd questioned the limitations of user-centred design; asking whether as a practice it does enough for those on the edges and outside of the products we create. With the state of our world as it is, especially regarding climate change, we were encouraged to think bigger. To design beyond our immediate users and beyond even human-centred design. To broaden our horizons by adopting life-centred design. By thinking in this way, we start to mitigate the unintended consequence of our work and design beyond the now.

“Let’s not design with other people in mind, but design with other people.” – Cennydd

Akil encouraged us to draw on walls and use open ways of working to allow for collaboration and validation of ideas. As a GDS practitioner, I am a huge advocate of using walls for collaboration so couldn’t agree more. He also addressed how we can be mindful of the consequences of our designs by introducing us to consequence scanning and asking “What is the good, the bad, the ugly of producing this product?” As designers, we have great power over those who have to use our products or services. This theme was highlighted across the talks in 2019 and further explored by this year’s speakers. Akil succinctly summed it up with:

“‘Do no harm’ trumps ‘don’t be evil’.”

Liz and Laura approached the subject of diversity from two different angles. Liz is a disability advocate and talked about ‘designing with’ – disabled designers leading the process rather than designers empathetically designing for disabled people. She also highlighted problems with design-thinking and suggested that design-questioning is a better way to frame design problems inclusively.

Laura’s talk on building technology that respects people’s rights looked at another side of inclusivity: giving people, especially those who are limited in their digital access such as mobile users, choice over how their data is used. Giving all internet users the choice to easily control the use of their personal information is not only a legal requirement but also the responsible thing for us to do as technologists. Laura reminded us that the tech we use is our new ‘everyday things’ and as such, we need to make sure that we’re creating products that respect each individual’s right to opt-out of data tracking.

“We can’t continue to build products on assumptions of the needs of people who we don’t have access to.” – Laura

One theme that I was interested to see recurring across a couple of talks was empathy. As an inclusive design advocate, to me, empathy is a corner-stone of inclusive design. However, Cennydd and Liz argued, rightly, that empathy in itself is not enough.

“Empathy is a crutch. Radical inclusion beats empathy.” – Cennydd

Liz explored empathy and brought new ways of thinking about empathy as being problematic due to it prescribing emotions and silencing the recipient.

“They feel that they just have to feel empathy for us.” – Liz

This brings us back to designing inclusively and with people instead of for people. As a speaker on this subject at last year’s conference, it’s very positive to see the conversation being carried forward by so many of the 2020 speakers.

My takeaway from the 2019 event was that it seemed we had finally started looking outwards: identifying our responsibility and the associated consequences of our actions. This year’s event has only strengthened those messages across the design and technology community. There will always be challenges ahead but we the audience at New Adventures are at the forefront of these important conversations. Tatiana encouraged us to “learn how to unlearn” and that is why we need events like this. To unlearn old ways and embrace new ways of thinking. We can take the themes and discussions from the day and discuss, debate, and dwell on them and take them forward into our work. By doing this, we can all contribute to designing a better future.

Bringing others along

On International Women’s Day, I travelled up to Manchester to do user research with some of my client’s front line staff. People in this role are 99% men, including all my research participants. I sat in a small meeting room in a government building on the edge of the city and demoed an early prototype design intended to streamline their processes.

Research and co-design

The early feedback ranged from positivity through to uncertainty whether this would be a simpler method. But the advantage of this kind of site visit and speaking those who use the service is that it became an impromptu co-design session.

To give a little background, the prototype was designed by people in the same roles as the research participants. Two weeks prior, we ran a discovery and design workshop where we mapped the service and attendees sketched new designs. These were worked up into an early clickable prototype by our UX designer.

Design workshops involving people using the service are a relatively new way of working for our client’s organisation but hugely important. Having a prototype designed by the same people who are using it automatically makes the majority of research participants more receptive. Designs are less likely to be seen as forced upon them from on high.

Through our session, participants came up with some flaws in the design that we, even with staff and client input, hadn’t considered. Through some rough scribbles and a better understanding of how it aligns to their processes, the prototype is ready to be developed for further testing.

By involving front line staff and our clients at all stages of the design and development process, we’re bringing them along with us as stakeholders, not simply users.

This is why I love user experience and research. A design and development team cannot produce products and services in isolation. It’s highly unlikely that without going out and getting feedback from those who will use it day-to-day that the design will be fit for purpose.

Being a woman in tech

Having a session like this on International Women’s Day got me thinking about my own situation as a woman in tech. Here I was, facilitating a group of eight men. Some were very engaged, some hardly said anything, and a couple, unconvinced that their feedback would make any difference, were initially sceptical of me being there.

Old me, prior to moving into a consultancy role, would have found this intimidating but the more I go out and speak to people, the better my interpersonal skills have become. I’ve found over time, that because I love this kind of work, I relax. I didn’t think of myself as a woman facilitating men, but as an expert working with my client’s staff. From my perspective gender didn’t come into it.

I suppose this relaxed state comes from confidence. I’ve learned that I’m happiest at work when I’m unconsciously competent and experience over time has developed this. The benefit of being able to relax within research sessions is it encourages participants to be at ease too.

When you’re able to take away formality, the results are inevitably better. People tell you what they really feel, not what they think you want to hear. The session was productive, everyone was heard, we had a laugh, and I came away with something much better than I took in.

Building confidence in others

So my question, when thinking about International Women’s Day, is how to help other people, not just women but those lacking self-assurance, gain confidence?

Everyone is responsible
 for looking out for the user”
– Erika Hall, Just enough research

In the same way that everyone is responsible
 for looking out for the user, everyone is responsible for bringing people up with them. It doesn’t fall to just line managers and colleagues. It’s family, friends, online interactions, events, communities and more.

Which brings me on to the Women in Tech Nottingham (WiT Notts) lighting talks that took place on Thursday.

This tweet sums up how I feel about WiT Notts too. In the spirit of encouraging people, we opened up the March event for anyone to speak about anything, code of conduct permitting. There was a range of speaking experience from none to conference-level.

WiT Notts helper
The lovely Anna helping our attendees keep time

By encouraging a safe space, we had talks from people who had attended with no intention of speaking. With some audience coaxing, they got up there and delivered brilliant talks. It makes me very proud to be a facilitator of this. 

Bringing people up with you

There’s not always positivity for women in tech events and for International Women’s Day itself. Interestingly, I find that most disparaging people are women who don’t see the need. They, on the whole, are in high-level positions in male-dominated industries. They have gotten to where they have on their own so why would they need an event?

I’m glad they fought their way to where they are but unfortunately, they don’t always allow others to follow them. Some kick the ladder from beneath them rather than holding it steady. The further I go in my career, the more I want to encourage people and hold the ladder for them. I’m fortunate to know many others who feel the same way.

Being still a gender minority in my industry, historically the ladder has been mostly been held for me by men. I’m starting to see a change, though. The service design team I work in are roughly a 50/50 mix of men and women with a slight mix of diversity but mostly 25 to 40-year-old white Europeans. Within SPARCK 38% of us are women with 55% of new hires being female. This is really encouraging to see and be a part of.

There’s a long, long way to go before we get to diversity equality. It’s not just about gender. There’s a wealth of underrepresented people in tech, be it through ethnicity, disability, or age. It’s about bringing people up with you, whoever they are. Let’s be mindful of this in our work and make sure we’re holding the door open for those coming in behind us, especially the next generation. May they see inclusivity and diversity in technology as the norm, not the exception.

Little acts of rebellion

Jess White on the stage at New Adventures
Jess’s act of rebellion. Photo: Stefan Nitzsche

Last Friday evening, I spent time with my friend Anna reflecting on the tech industry. We discussed local tech events, from Nottingham meetups Women in Tech Nottingham (WiT Notts) and Tech Nottingham and the recent New Adventures conference to FOSDEM, which Anna had recently returned from. Anna’s experience of these tech events varied and what struck me was how her experience of FOSDEM was different from that of the Nottingham events with regard to female and gender minority diversity within the attendees of the event.

Hearing Anna’s mixed experience of these events, I started questioning whether am I biased in my understanding of women in tech? Because I co-organise WiT Notts, which we have seen grow and grow, and have been a (non-solitary) female speaker at a number of meetups and conferences over the last few years; am I seeing a more positive version of diversity at the tech events I attend than others do?

The events I’ve been involved with have focused on being inclusive but inclusivity isn’t as easy as it may first appear. Initiatives such as pronoun stickers, first introduced to me via DevOpsDays London and recently used at New Adventures, are a step in the right direction. However, these stickers are not without issue.

WiT Notts were very kindly given pronoun stickers from DevOpsDays London to use at our events. Whilst attendee feedback about the stickers is generally positive, I am aware that some attendees don’t pay attention to them or feel the need to wear them. We’re working on this little-by-little to help all of our attendees feel comfortable. If you’re unsure why these stickers are important, this article helps explain why everyone should include their pronoun in their profiles and at events.  

Inclusive initiatives aside, what else can we do to encourage women and other minorities into our industry? It’s something that we’ve been working on over the last few WiT Notts events by facilitating talks and activities that empower and build up the confidence of our attendees: female, male, non-binary or of other minorities.

How to talk really, really good

Last week Jess furthered this with her talk, How to talk really, really good. In it, she shared her experience of getting into speaking at events, along with some practical advice on how to get involved ourselves. Her talk was accessible and honest, she admitted to being nervous in front of a home crowd. From the feedback I received afterwards, that really resonated with people.

If we’re to see a shift in diversity in tech, we need to provide speaking opportunities and create safe spaces for female and minority speakers to practice. We also need to provide role models for the next generation coming into the industry. One of my colleagues messaged before WiT Notts asking if he could bring his 14-year-old daughter. She was more than welcome. When I caught up with him the following day, I was pleased to hear she’d enjoyed the event and was inspired by so many people gathering together to support diversity in tech – an industry she is considering joining.

This is why Jess’ talk was so important. We need women and other minorities to be visible in the industry, especially for young people who are deciding if it’s an industry that they want to be a part of.

Stepping out

In her talk, Jess referenced ‘little acts of rebellion’. I can think of no better example than that of one of our regular, and beloved, attendees Rizwana. Riz spoke at our first WiT Notts Lightning Talks event last June. She shared a poem about WiT Notts that I wasn’t expecting (not knowing that one of her many talents is poetry) and was really touched by. Through putting herself out there and stepping onto our stage only a few months ago, she went onto contribute a poem to the New Adventures conference publication which she opened the conference with. Words cannot express how proud I am of Riz and proud of Emma and myself for helping facilitate Riz’s journey in a small way. (She’d have excelled on her own, I’m sure, but I hope that we have given her a little nudge.)

Rizwana opening New Adventures
Rizwana opening New Adventures. Photo: Stefan Nitzsche

We’re running another Lightning Talk event in March. As organisers, we want to showcase a diverse mix of speakers and talks that demonstrate the expertise and passions of our attendees.  Public speaking isn’t easy though. It takes a lot of confidence to speak to an audience of friends and strangers.

This confidence doesn’t magically appear when you hold a microphone. I wish I could say it does, but in my experience, nerves still run high. Confidence can be gained. I have learned to relax into speaking, despite my feelings beforehand. Practice is everything – you may not be confident in your speaking ability, but if you’re confident in your material and the message you want to share, this really helps.

Get involved

My advice is to give it a go. Lightning talks are great as they are only five minutes long. You may find that you enjoy it. Equally, you might hate it. Both are ok, not everyone has to be a speaker. You can contribute by listening to those who speak. And more than listen, encourage. Pay attention to them, nod if you agree with what they’re saying, smile if they make eye-contact. This helps build confidence in speakers of all experience and ability. Be a friend to the speaker, even if they are a stranger.

Since the time I’ve been involved with women in tech, I’ve seen our industry move forward. Perhaps not as much across the board as I had hoped but the needle is slowly moving. A year or so ago, Charlotte Jee published a list of women in the UK who could speak at your tech event. This list has recently been updated with many more speakers than the original post. We’re starting to see more women speaking at and attending tech events and conferences and this is a great thing.

You can’t be what you can’t see”
– Marian Wright Edelman

If we want to empower women and gender minorities, especially of the next generation, we need to be visible. They need to see us. It’s up to us to support this in whatever way feels right. Whether you are a speaker, writer, podcaster or a consumer, be visible and a part of the industry. This is how change happens.

Resources

Here are some resources to help you with your speaking, should you wish to have a go:

Challenging assumptions

Painted arrow on the road

I’d like to think that our industry has moved on from the image of the lone designer – the artist sat in their studio working on a masterpiece design that they unveil with a flourish to the world, finished and without input from others: ‘Here is my pixel-perfect design. I have solved everything single-handedly.’

We certainly used to think this way and I am as guilty as any other designer for having worked like this. As an industry that embraced the terms ‘rockstar’ and ‘guru’, we were definitely not backward in coming forward. But then things changed. The prominence of user experience rose, scaling out to user research, service design, and customer experience. We started thinking much more seriously about accessibility. In short, we started to think of people using our products and services less as users and more as humans.

Human-centred design is no new thing: the term has been around for decades. For some designers, however, I believe it causes friction. To be human is to be vulnerable, fallible, imperfect. We don’t like to think of our designs being this way. The trouble is that our designs are used by people, and people don’t often use them in the way we intended. They find ways of using our products in ways we never imagined, and find weird and wonderful shortcuts to reach their goal – did they not see our carefully crafted user journey maps? Did they not understand they had to follow the linear path we envisioned for them? Why are they using it wrong?!

Right and wrong are, of course, purely subjective. As designers, we’re used to subjective opinions on our visual work and know how to respond. But do we allow for the same level of subjectivity in the use of our designs, or do we just guess how we think things should be?

Sometimes, assumptions are all we have to begin with and it’s OK to use them as a starting point. The issue is, however, if we don’t follow through with validating those assumptions, we potentially damage the experience and create barriers between us and the people we’re designing for. When we assume we know what they need, we’re making people passive recipients of our work, not active participants.   

Fortunately, we’re now likely to find designers working in multidisciplined teams where the needs of people using our products or services are important. We research, test and iterate designs, and undertake processes of continuous improvement. Through this approach, we’ve learned to test and validate assumptions. This is reflected in what we’ve done in the industry: we’ve changed priorities, had new conversations, and refined and improved our working practices. All while hurtling along at breakneck speeds, in this ever-changing, exciting space.

While we’re challenging and changing the way we create work with other people as the focus, how often do we stop to think about how it impacts us directly: when was the last time you questioned assumptions surrounding your own career? Do you have a plan? Do you know exactly where you want to be five, ten, twenty years from now? If so, and you’re happy with it, congratulations and good for you. You’ve thought things through much more than I. But, I’ll let you into a secret… I don’t want a plan.

Eight years ago, I was a graphic designer. It would have been easy to stick with this and not confront the assumption that this was my only path. Instead, having a newly found interest in web design, I started looking at my work differently. I went to web design conferences (New Adventures being one of them), read about the industry, and learned to code. I started thinking about how people would use my designs, not just what the visuals looked like.

I didn’t have a clear career direction during that time of change. I was uncertain about exactly what I wanted to do and what work would be meaningful to me. It’s taken time to realize what that is. I’ve moved through graphic, web and UX design to consultancy and user research. This journey has been a process of discovery: finding a spark in things that interest me and letting it burn into something new and compelling. In addition, building relationships with people who support, influence, inspire and encourage me to think differently has shaped me into who I am today.

Let’s not forget that we’re in an industry that doesn’t stand still. Who knows what new areas of design will come and where we’ll see opportunities to alter what we do? We can’t predict what these progressions might be. After all, many of us have roles that weren’t common five or ten years ago. And what about the evolution in technology? With the rise of AI, there is potential for parts of our work to become automated. How will this change design? Thankfully for us, whatever the future looks like, as designers designing for people, there will always be a need for human understanding.

We have a responsibility to the humans we design for. We should create purposeful and empathetic designs based on real-world situations and needs. Design should be adaptive and we should be too. We can’t predict the future and that’s why I don’t want a plan. I’m happy pointing in whichever direction stimulates, excites, and is meaningful to me – with the knowledge that this will change over time. In the same way that we shouldn’t always expect people to follow a particular user journey, we are not set on a singular path. Let’s allow ourselves the flexibility to deviate as and when we need to. As JRR Tolkien wrote, ‘Not all who wander are lost.’

The original version of this article was commissioned for New Adventures magazine, January 2019.

A New Adventure

Ethan Marcotte speaking at New Adventures

Last Thursday marked the long-anticipated return of New Adventures, a digital design conference held in my hometown of Nottingham. From the first teaser tweet which simply read “2019”, it became the main event highlight on my calendar. I was excited and delighted to see it come back after a six-year break.

New Adventures was the first industry conference I attended. As a designer with a background in print and editorial design, it taught me about the web industry as it was then. A year and a half after the 2013 event, I quit my full-time graphic design job and started running a web design company with my then partner. Later becoming an independent UX consultant before joining SPARCK at the beginning of last year. Attending New Aventures and other subsequent conferences and events inspired me to follow this career path.

Imagine then, how happy I was last summer when Simon asked to meet for a chat about getting involved with this year’s event. I thought that we were going to discuss Women in Tech Nottingham’s potential involvement. We did, and it was great to have WiT Notts contribute to the fringe events, but I was surprised and honoured to be invited to join the line-up of speakers.  

Thinking about the gap between 2013 and now, it seems that our industry has changed a good deal in quite a short amount of time. Although the World Wide Web has been around for 30 years, when New Adventures began it felt like we were very much in our infancy. As a relatively new facet of design, compared to print, for example, which has been around for centuries, we are extremely young. We’re still finding our way.

My abiding impression from New Adventures 2019, was that we are starting to grow up. Both in terms of the conference itself; promoting inclusivity through diversity tickets, pronoun and social interaction stickers and a code of conduct; and in the messages and tone of the talks and speakers.

Just as children move from a preoperative egocentric phase to maturing and understanding perspectives of others, I feel that as an industry we’re on a similar journey. We started off being heavily invested in ourselves through how and what: “How do we design for this new medium? How do we communicate online? What tools and frameworks should we use that support this?” These are important foundational questions that made sense to focus on at the beginning.

It’s now starting to seem like we’re slowly emerging from this self-centred approach and looking at a wider picture. I see a division here. There are many digital practitioners who practise human-centred design through UX and research but they are at the forefront of the curve. A quick Google search brings up an abundant number of articles on the top web design trends of 2019. There are still plenty of arguments about the best UI and prototyping software to use and ongoing disagreements over the latest and greatest front-end frameworks.

These are inward-facing conversations. They are for us and us alone. They are not solving problems for the people we’re designing for. To take an external perspective we must look not only towards the needs of the recipients of our digital products and services but start addressing how we impact those people.

New Adventures 2019 felt like a sea change. The key themes of the event were inclusivity and diversity, ethics and responsibility. The focus shifted from internal tools, trends and processes to bigger thoughts and questions: Ashley encouraged us to stop thinking like industry experts and find out how our customers think; Brendan asked us to put work out there that deserves to exist; Naz promoted diversity within teams to reach wider audiences and called upon us to do better; and Ethan addressed the power and privilege of design, questioning where we as an industry are heading.

It seems we have finally started looking outwards: identifying our responsibility and the associated consequences of our actions. We’re pushing past our early egocentric selves and are moving towards maturity. We’re still making our way along this path, learning from each other as we continue to grow. Ethan, rightly, encouraged us to approach this with hope. The talks at New Adventures showed a significant shift in our thinking and from the feedback, this year’s themes seem to have struck a chord.

My hope is that we see New Adventures return next year so we can see what direction these messages have taken us in. The call to action from the opening of the conference was “Now is the time.” I couldn’t agree more. It’s up to us to shape and build our industry, to help it develop and to make the web a better place. Let’s get to it!   

Permissive UX design

Some months ago, at Women in Tech Nottingham (WiT Notts for short), I prompted our attendees to have a paper snowball fight. Why you might ask, were we facilitating an exercise in which people hurtled scrunched up balls of paper at each other? Because it provided an opportunity for our attendees to meet and chat. As soon as snowballs were picked up and their owners found, the volume of conversation in the room rose way beyond that of previous events. My learning from this: getting people to throw things at each other’s faces is an instant way to get them talking.

To give a little background to this scene, it came about from us holding a Retrospective during a previous WiT Notts event. When WiT Notts was founded, we had a bill of two speakers. Partly because this allowed double the opportunity to showcase brilliant female and gender minority speakers but also because it is the model of many tech meetups.

It is hugely important to us, as organisers of the event, that it isn’t a one-way street. In order to create and maintain an inclusive event, we need to listen to our attendees to ensure it works for them. We found out that they wanted more opportunity to get to know each other and the time before and during the talks wasn’t long enough to do this. It was also apparent that, understandably, some attendees were not self-confident when it came to speaking to people they didn’t know.

One of our aims has long been to help build a community of like-minded people who support and promote women and gender minorities in tech. From the Retrospective feedback, we reassessed our format and switched to a single talk followed by a facilitated session. Now, we regularly host a light-hearted networking session, such as the paper snowball fight, people bingo, guided discussions and hands-on workshops. Crayons have also featured; they were surprisingly popular.

Last year we hosted our first lightning talk session which was one of my favourite WiT Notts events. We gave our attendees permission to try something new, to share something about themselves and to step outside their comfort zones. We’re now seeing the rewards of evolving WiT Notts. We’ve seen relationships form, new people welcomed and brought into conversations with our regulars and individuals’ confidences grow.

Which has led me to consider, why has this been successful? Aside from making an event which is a safe space, I think comes down to permission. By allowing people to throw paper snowballs, we gave them the go-ahead to speak to each other. They were authorised to talk to a stranger, more than that, it was encouraged (but not mandatory).

We all need permission throughout our day-to-day lives. Polite society wouldn’t function without it. We wait (hopefully patiently) for our coffee order to be taken, hold back until the bus driver waves us on, wait for a pause in conversation to allow us to speak. Imagine if we didn’t have this, we’d all be a bunch of degenerates. We require the consent of others, and ourselves, to help us move through life.

Online permissions

What about online: do we consider and build permission into our digital products and services? I don’t mean native app permissions. These have their place; when well-designed they help us move through an onboarding experience, and when badly implemented make us mistrustful of the product’s intentions – why, shopping list app, do you need access to my contacts?

No, I’m thinking broader than this. We don’t step into a coffee shop and state our order without being asked, that would be rude. However, I believe, we expect people using our digital products to be authoritative when interacting with our designs. We often treat our products as a one-way interaction. The person using it is in control of the direction they take through it. They act with full autonomy. In theory, this works. We want our designs to be so intuitive that people can just use them.

What if it doesn’t work though? What if people lack the confidence and understanding of what they’re expected to do? If we change the way we design to be more aligned with our real, non-digital lives, what impact would that have? Rather than assuming that people want autonomy, what if we assumed, in some cases, they don’t?

Confidence and digital exclusion

For a number of reasons, many people struggle with digital products and online services. A lack of confidence is one factor. In the UK there are 11.3 million adults who are classed as not fully digitally skilled. These people range from never having been online to having the means to go online but neither the inclination, confidence, or skills.

As digital professionals, we’re native users of the web. Not only do we know how things work because we understand the design patterns behind them; we’re confident navigators. When things don’t make sense to us, we sigh, roll our eyes and send screenshots of poor design to our friends and colleagues (or is that just me?). We blame ill-designed systems because we know that it is the system at fault, not ourselves.

This is where we’re at, but others lack confidence. When an online service doesn’t work as they expect it to, it is often themselves they blame. They’re just no good with computers.” In the past year conducting user research, I’ve met many of these people. As Donald Norman writes in his seminal book, The Design of Everyday Things: The vicious cycle starts: if you fail at something, you think it is your fault. Therefore you think you can’t do that task. As a result, next time you have to do the task, you believe you can’t, so you don’t even try. The result is that you can’t, just as you thought.”

If we start to picture the people using our products and services going through this thought process, how much more important is it to work guidance into our designs? By adopting a permissive attitude, can we start inviting people to interact online in ways suited to their confidence levels? Rather than expecting them to have a clear goal that they’re trying to achieve, what if we reframe it as a need?

Permissive UX

From permission grows empowerment. Perhaps with some experimentation, screen design can better support this. What if screens are not the answer? We’re starting to see a rise in adoption of voice assistants in people’s homes. Currently, this is technology that we demand things of, it’s subservient. But what if it was genuinely more conversational? What if it catered to people who lack confidence in traditional online interactions?

Can we instead start crafting experiences that better mimic our day-to-day lives? A system that encourages conversation instead of instruction. A system wherein people don’t have to have a specific intention to command but can afford to be lost. Where they don’t need a goal, they can simply state their need and that need is met.

We’re still in this emerging world of voice technology, machine learning and non-screen UI. I am by no means saying that this will be the answer; we need to go through many more design and research cycles to see if this is even the right direction. In the meantime, let’s think about how to give people the freedom, direction, guidance and permission to interact with our products and services in a way that is suited to them. Let’s allow them to be lost and help them to be found again.

What I learned from Women in Tech Nottingham lightning talks ⚡️⚡⚡️️

An attendee speaking at the event

Last night we hosted our first WiT Notts lightning talks event, it was a truly fantastic evening. At WiT Notts one of our goals is to give a voice to our speakers where they might not otherwise get heard. But more than that, to create an environment where people, especially women and gender minorities, feel welcome and comfortable to share their experiences with us.

There’s something kind of magical when you get a group of people to openly share with each other. The honesty of everyone’s talks, coupled with the encouragement and support of our attendees, created an atmosphere full of friendliness and inclusion. We all learned new things from each other. Some talks were of failure, mistakes made, and lessons learned. Some on knowing when to stop and understanding other people and their situations. Some about our passion for tech and our work. Some on inclusivity; on finding a place where you belong. And very passionate and animated (complete with bee impressions) talks from Emma on bees.

For me, the talks couldn’t have better-illustrated women in tech: passionate women sharing their stories; honest voices admitting difficulties but not succumbing to them; advice and support to others; and emotion-driving talks that made us laugh and in some cases, hit us right in the feels.

If I was looking for an example of women encouraging women, I couldn’t have hoped for a better talk than Charlie’s How to wing a presentation talk. (Definitely a woman after my own heart.) It was the final talk before the break and caused several of our attendees to get up and do an impromptu talk in the second half. Some of whom had never done public speaking before and had certainly not arrived with the intention of standing at the front of the room.

I think that’s an incredible power, to encourage others to get out of their comfort zone. To say it’s ok to be nervous, it’s ok for hands to shake a bit and voices wobble. Because people aren’t judging the delivery, they’re listening to the words. That’s the important part.

For an event whose other goal is promoting inclusivity, two talks really fitted this. Rizwana and Nina both delivered talks on finding a place to feel included. For Riz, it was a poetry meetup, she also performed an original poem, which was delightful. For Nina, she’d found herself in the (frankly terrifying from my perspective) world of Roller Derby. But both had the same message of discovering a place where they belonged, where they could build confidence and feel at home.

And that’s my personal goal. To create an event where our attendees feel like they belong, feel welcome and supported, feel part of a thing that’s bigger than all of us. I read an article recently on how women in tech events positively impact their attendees and I hope we’re doing that too. I think we are.

The thing that I love is that now we know each other a bit more. At the next event, we can ask Anna about her home automation plans, we can find out how Emma’s bees are doing, we can ask Jenny how her app project is going. It’s a platform to open up communication, community and friendship and I couldn’t be happier to be a part of that.

Our amazing speakers

I cherry-picked a few talks, but they were all fantastic. Thank you so much to everyone who spoke at the event.

Louise Paling: What is Agile? (through the medium of lego star wars)

Jenny Prokop: Why I failed at Kickstarter & what I’m doing about it

Anna Dodson: Lightbulbs and being lazy

Emma Seward: Bees!

Aimee Gamble-Milner: When I learned to stop

Rizwana Akmal: ‘Tis a poetry talk

Charlie Whyman: How to wing a presentation…

Helen Clark: Sharing user research

Claire Abbot: Things that are a thing!

Lucy Williams: Component-based web design

Aimee Gamble-Milner: Presentation tips I’ve collected

Emma Seward: More bees!

Nina Swanwick: Roller Derby

Women in Tech Nottingham at Hack24

Women in Tech teams at Hack24

Without a doubt, Hack24 has become one of the tech event highlights of my year; its only competition being the epic Tech Nottingham Christmas parties at the NVA. This year, my fourth year, was no exception. It was, however, different as I stepped away from being an attendee and donned a red volunteer hoodie.

As an organiser of Women in Tech Nottingham (WiT Notts), I was very pleased to find out that, once again, we were given the opportunity to enter two teams of attendees into Hack24 2018. As tempted as I was to take a seat at the hacking table, I wanted to be able to talk to other volunteers and attendees about WiT without feeling like I was abandoning my team. I was there, though, to support them in their hacks.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the WiT teams, Knit-Wits and WiT Happens, worked amazingly well together. This year we had a great mix of UX, front-end, back-end, full-stack, and ops – across a range of ages. Some members of the teams knew each other before the event, some knew each other vaguely from WiT Notts, but both teams didn’t know each other properly until ten days before the event. It didn’t show.

The level of teamwork, friendship, support and laughter coming from the WiT team tables was wonderful to see and it was so much fun hanging out with them. Often during a WiT Notts event I have to keep one eye on the time, food, social media, or looking after speakers, so I don’t get to spend as much time talking to our attendees as I would like. Spending time with these lovely ladies was a great treat.

I’m delighted that our WiT teams did so well. Not only were they the poster-child for teamwork, but one of our teams, the Knit-WiTs, won two of the challenges: The Thomson Reuters Do Good with Data and the MHR Easter Egg Hunt. Seeing a team of women who didn’t know each other well, creating an entry that solved a real issue for women made me extremely proud.

The Knit-Wits entry was an app that people could use report misogyny. Nottinghamshire police were the first in the country to enable misogyny to be reported as a hate crime, but the process is not made easy for victims. You be Brave, is an app designed to report harassment and abuse and capture the data. Check out the team’s entry video to see how the app works.

With only 1 in 4 women working in tech, having our attendees do so well in front of an audience of 200ish people, was absolutely fantastic. They are all superstars.

I’m grateful and humbled to be involved in heading up WiT in Nottingham. It’s a role I fell into rather than designed and it’s because I felt the need to be involved in giving female and gender minority speakers and attendees more prominence in the industry. There’s a long way still to go, but being represented at notable events like Hack24 is a really great thing.

In addition to the outstanding work of the WiT teams, the thing that makes me most proud to be a part of Hack24 is the collaboration and teamwork that it inspires in everyone. Andrew introduced the event with “There’s no such thing as an outsider at Hack24” and it’s true. I couldn’t wish for a more inclusive event.

Having hung around the Nottingham tech scene for a few years, and being an organiser of WiT, year-on-year I get to know more Hack24 attendees. (I literally knew two people in year one.) Volunteering was an opportunity to spend time with good friends and make new ones. The volunteers were all such lovely folk. I knew some vaguely, but spending hours with them has cemented them from wave across the room, to a full-on catch up the next time I see them.

If you’ve been to Hack24, you’ll know that it’s a rollercoaster of emotions. There’s palpable excitement, frustration when things go wrong (spoiler: things in hacks always go wrong), tiredness, late night ‘we’re all going a bit delirious’ silliness and more. It was fantastic to be a part of this.

All of this fun, friendship and collaboration would not be possible without the hard work and dedication of Andrew and Emma. They are the most selfless people I know and their input into the tech community in Nottingham has touched so many lives.

Meeting them has had a profound impact on me. Through attending Hack24 in 2015 and starting to go to Tech Nottingham I have made an amazing group of life-long friends; learned how to be a speaker; landed a dream job; gained confidence; and ended up as an advocate for women in tech. My life is richer for knowing them and I will be forever grateful to them for being the incredible positive influencers they are.

If you’re not involved in the tech scene in Nottingham, then I urge you to get involved. There really is an event for everyone, find yours at nottingham.digital.

Case study: Derby Museums

Redesigned website for Derby Museums, a Museum Trust with three different locations within the city

The client

Derby Museums is an independent charity organisation consisting of three museums in locations across Derby city centre.

The Challenge

The existing website was a template website that was no longer working for them. They wanted more control of their content and needed a refreshed look that better reflected their brand.

The navigation of the existing website was difficult to use both from a usability and accessibility perspective and visitors were struggling to find the information they needed.

My approach

Open and inclusive design

For this project we agreed with our client before any work was undertaken to document the process online. Our client was very open to this, having publicly shared other museum projects and it meant that both museum staff and visitors who were interested in the process could follow along with the project.

Screenshot of Tumblr page
All outcomes from research to design were documented on a Tumblr blog.

Research sessions

User research
The project began by conducting user research sessions with both visitors to a museum event (who were not always regular visitors). By speaking to visitors I gained vital information of what their needs and objectives were when using the website.

My team conduced research at a museum event that was aimed at general members of the public, rather than museum patrons. Interestingly when speaking to visitors, we received more honest feedback than museum staff conducting similar research. When people were asked if they visited the museum sites often, there were many cases of awkward ‘not as much I should’ responses. When asked the same question by museum staff, responses were much more positive.

We created various activities to better understand our audience. We had a simple survey for adults to tell us what the most important information they wanted on the website would be. I then made this information into graphic to share with the stakeholders. We also created child-friendly activities, including a drawing sheet so that younger children could tell us what they wanted to do at the museum sites.

User research day

Staff research
The staff session was really helpful in getting suggestions on what they would like to see on the website but, more importantly, gave insight into areas of the museum visiting experience that visitors didn’t like. This helped us to create content that addressed issues early on to make the visiting experience as positive as possible.

We conducted the research at one of the museum sites to make it as easy as possible for staff members to talk to us. We created an ideas/content generation wall where we recorded observations and ideas that staff had about the current website and visitor behaviour.

Once research had been done, we organised these ideas by category in a session with our stakeholders. The best ideas were then taken and included in the content plan.

Interviewing a member of staff

Wireframing and prototyping

Paper prototype
For this project I used paper prototyping rather than InVision. The reason for this was that our clients were very hands-on and wanted to be involved with the process. An advantage of working with paper prototypes is that our stakeholders felt that they could make changes to the layout as we could draw directly onto the design. Another advantage was that because they are hand-drawn, there are no styles so the focus was completely on the layout and functionality.

Photo of paper prototypes

I’ve explained the process more throughly in Paper Prototypes: What are they and why use them?

Having agreed the wireframe prototype with our stakeholders, I photographed them and, with the frontend developer created an annotated functional spec.

HTML prototype
Once the paper prototypes had been approved, we produced a simple html prototype so we and our clients could test the functionality and send it out internally for testing.

We collated the feedback and went through it with our stakeholders to identify the most pressing and important pieces of feedback to reiterate and retest.

UI design

Style tile
At the same time as coding the html prototype, I worked on the visual style for the website by producing a style tile. This showed design choices such as colour, text styles, button styles, image treatment etc.

Accessible UI
In order for the website to be as accessible as possible, I created a second darker style which has higher contrast. This makes text easier to read for people with certain types of visual impairments.

I also needed to adjust some of the brand colours to ensure colour contrast and readability of text over colours. I created tints and shades of the core brand colours so that dark or light text always passed WCAG guidelines.

High-contrast UI version

Responsive UI
Each module of the website was designed to look great on any size screen. I designed elements across several break points and these were accessible on the html prototype.

Modular UI design
The box at the top right indicates the screen size of the browser through the yellow highlight.

Design details

Opening times tab
From research with museum visitors, we had found that they found the opening times of the different locations difficult to find on the existing website. Also each museum site has its own set of opening times so visitors were not always sure when the museums were open.

Knowing that this was information that came out as the most important to users, I designed an opening times tab which sits at the top of the website (and perpetual footer link on mobile) so users always have quick access to the opening times.

The opening times tab appears in the header for easy access

Find the door
From research with museum staff, we discovered that the Visitor Services Assistants had received in-person complaints from visitors who had struggled to find the entrance to the museums (this had happened across all three sites). Having acquired this information, when we were planning content with the clients we came up with a “find the door” section of the visitor information page for each location. The more helpful information we can provide on the website, the better the visiting experience should be.

Screengrab of the find the door section

Easter eggs
We were tasked with adding Easter Eggs into the website to take it away from the corporate template and make it a fun experience to use. One of the Easter Eggs appears when a user clicks on the bug photo on the Nature Gallery page, little spiders and fly wander across their screen. After user testing this, we added a warning that users had to opt-in to so we didn’t accidentally terrify any Arachnophobic users!

Easter egg where the user clicks on the image and spiders walk across the screen

Outcomes

The existing website wasn’t encouraging visitors to donate to the museum. By introducing a supporter story page with information on how donations were spent, donations were up 133% within the first three months of launch.

Additional results included a reduced bounce rate, down 24.78%; page load time, down 67.66%; pages per session, up 38.43%; and, by adding an additional email sign-up form on the What’s on section, email sign-ups were up 3350%.