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.

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.