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.

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%.

Voyage of discovery (sessions)

Storymap from discovery session

The big question for any website or digital product is ‘does it work for our users in order to drive and deliver our business needs and goals?’ It’s the users who turn into customers so making sure that your digital product is user-focused should be a big priority. Where should we start? How do we connect business and user needs?

This is where I raise my hand and tell you about design discovery. But before I tell you about that, let’s rewind the clock to my earlier days of web design. [Cue Wayne’s World style flashback]. Back then, maybe seven or eight years ago) many designers, myself included, were so keen to get started with projects that we’d go through the motions of a kick-off meeting where we’d get our client’s requirements and goals and then sprint off towards a solution. We had technical requirements, a chosen CMS, SMART goals and brand assets. Good to go right? We cracked on with sketches, visuals and dev and made the website that our clients wanted. The only problem though, was it the website they needed?

The advent of UX

At some point, between then and now, the industry (and I) started recognising that designing websites for businesses’ requirements didn’t mean that they actually worked. User Experience, although it’s been around for decades, started coming to the forefront of web designers’ minds. The priority was no longer designing what our clients wanted but what our users wanted too. That’s not to say that we weren’t designing for target audiences, of course we were. But we were designing for what our clients thought they were or wanted them to be; not necessarily who they actually were.

With this sea change came a new understanding for many designers. A new perspective of identifying user needs through research, empathy, perspective taking and a desire to please our users and our clients. Suddenly our kick-off meetings were too business focused and not user focused enough. We needed to adapt our projects to being user-focused. We needed to champion the users, but before we could do that, we needed to understand them.

User research is the first and obvious way to do this and is insanely valuable. But is it the first step? Can we truly identify users without an intimate understanding of our client’s business? Can we design the best solution for our clients and their users without knowing what our clients are trying to achieve? If the value proposition is hazy, then is understanding the users hazy too?

Design discovery

There is no design with discovery”
– Dan Brown, Practical Design Discovery

My role now now is to clear the haze before projects commence. I do this through discovery. There’s no one way to do this and the tools I use vary depending on my clients and their situations. This article highlights a typical framework I use to get my clients thinking about their business and how they communicate their value proposition to their users.

Invariably web projects require a mixture of stakeholders, all with slightly different objectives. We might have marketing, sales, CEOs, operations, customer services and IT stakeholders, to name a few. And they all see their own business through different lenses. When the business stakeholders aren’t in alignment, how can they possibly communicate clearly to their users?

Storymapping

While there are many ways of accessing stakeholder information, one of the tools I’ve found most effective is ‘Storymapping.’ This was coined by Donna Lichaw in her book The User’s Journey: Storymapping Products That People Love. I highly recommend it. As with some of the best UX tools out there, it’s super simple but very effective. UX designers are naturally empathetic and predisposed to aligning themselves with users’ emotions and needs but this doesn’t come easily to everyone. More importantly than empathy, perhaps, is the ability to shift mental perspectives. Perspective taking, ‘the active cognitive process of imagining the world from another’s vantage point’, encourages stakeholders to think from their users’ perspective. Helping them understand how their service supports users’ pain points.

Storytelling is not new in design and development. A core component of Agile development is User Stories. These encourage developers to think about functionality from the user’s perspective. Storytelling evokes a strong neurological response in people. By framing a discovery activity around it, the needs of the user go from facts and stats to emotional connections with the intended audience.

What is it?

Storymapping takes place as a short session in which we create stories for our user personas, mapping out how and why they are interacting with our stakeholders’ website.

As with all stories, there’s a beginning, middle and end. We use the idea of simple narrative to drive this forward. As with any good story, we need a protagonist and exposition. Who are they? What’s their current state? Once we’ve set the scene, we need an inciting incident, a problem or pain point they need to overcome; a trigger on why they might need the stakeholders’ service.

Then in the middle, the action happens, how will they approach solving their problem? What assistance do they need? How does the service assist them? Who is the villain? What are the obstacles and barriers standing in their way? What’s the climax of the story? How do they overcome their problem and defeat the villain? What’s the value proposition of the service that makes them say ‘yes, this is exactly what I was looking for?’

But we don’t leave it at that ‘aha’ moment. It’s one thing to get our protagonist to the climax of their narrative, but the story doesn’t end there. How do they return home a hero? How does our user, our potential customer go from interested, to invested, to ambassador? What’s the ending? How do we know their goals have been met?

What are the outcomes?

You’ll notice that this entire session is based around question asking. It’s about framing the problem, not bypassing straight to the solution. When I first started introducing this session, I was worried that my participants wouldn’t get it. Would they think it was silly? Would they think it was unnecessary?

Thankfully, that’s not the case. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Of all the perspective taking exercises I’ve facilitated, this has had the most engagement from participants. It’s not an easy exercise. It makes people think, it makes them ask difficult questions of themselves, it highlights internal lack of alignment and understanding. It reveals holes or distractions that stop users achieving their goals.

This could feel negative, but it’s not. As an exercise, revealing these issues means that we can fix them and ultimately improve not only the new website or product, but set in place improvements to the stakeholders’ business and service. It also highlights the positive. The result of one session with a client introduced a much clearer value proposition and benefits to potential customers; many of which were not communicated on their existing website. This allowed us to write much more value-led copy for their new site.

Shared understanding leads to better communication

There’s a wealth of information that each stakeholder holds and storymapping gets it out of their head and onto the wall. It helps stakeholders declare their assumptions to minimise assumed knowledge. It gets everyone on the same page. It also allows me as a facilitator to ask the difficult questions, the ones that internal teams sometimes avoid due to hierarchy. It’s essential that everyone feels an equal in these sessions.

There aren’t always opportunities, or the structure, in everyday life for people within an organisation to talk to each other about their customers. Having an interdisciplinary group of people in a session allows stakeholders to share stories of their customers and ask each other questions. Oftentimes we have a mixture of people from big picture, visionary, thinkers to those who are front-line and customer facing. Having these people bring their own experience of their audience and business together enables us to better understand the intents of the interactions between customer and company; user and website.

Front-line staff are often the best source of information for capturing and understanding user needs. They are the ones who field complaints, offer support and hear objections to their product or service. Customer service and sales representatives often know more about their customers than those in leadership positions. Having these people in storymapping sessions is vital. There’s much to learn from them and they often offer information about pain-points that’s unknown to leadership roles.

The representation of customers enables us to put the users’ pain-points at the heart of the session and identify what the business does to address those. Storymapping, at the highest level, outlines how customers think about the website and therefore the service offering. Along with the benefits of shared understanding, it forms the basis of design improvements. If the content of the website doesn’t clearly state the value proposition, we can rewrite it. If the next steps for the user are not clear, we can rework the user journey. If the product or service doesn’t address pain-points, we can help clients create a roadmap of improvements to their offering.

Storymapping is one of the first steps I take in discovery. But it’s only the beginning. It’s the exercise that gets everyone in alignment before diving into other discovery sessions such as ‘How might we’, goal setting, content idea generation, user journey flows, and into Information Architecture planning and wireframing. It sets the stage and stops us skipping to the solve. It’s one of many tools, but one that I’ll be using time-again.

My user experience design journey; a reflection

Helen speaking at Tech Nottingham

At this time of year, it’s often a good opportunity to look back on the past and see where we’ve come from before looking to the future. My first full immersion into UX was NUX3, (Northern UX conference) in 2014, an all-day event focussed on how an understanding of people can help you define, design and build better experiences.

I had just quit a full-time graphic and web design job to start a web design company with my husband and I was in the early stages of starting to call myself a UX designer.

For those that aren’t familiar with the term ‘user experience’ or ‘UX’, it is the process of enhancing the user satisfaction on a website/app/product by improving the usability, accessibility and pleasure in providing interaction with the product.

Sat pondering at the conference, I started off feeling positive about the talks, but as the day progressed, I realised that I was completely out of my depth. By the end of the day, and upon reflecting on the experience, I felt deflated.

I chastised myself for thinking I was a UX designer. I’d just had business cards produced with UX designer as my job title and I wanted to throw them away and revert back to visual designer, where I belonged.

I was just me

That’s not to say that there was anything wrong with the conference itself, it was well-rounded with great speakers. But at the time, at least from my perspective, it seemed that UX was a team sport.

The speakers were from DWP, Salesforce, and dedicated UX consultancy companies, who were talking about the work they were doing with large organisations. I was just me. How was I going to be able to convince our much more modest clients that they needed to invest in UX?

Who was I going to learn from if I was the only designer? What was I going to do to get from this place to some form of, yet to be defined, success?

UX became more prevalent

This year the story is a little different. Recently I attended NUX6 and had a completely different experience. Rather than feeling out of my depth, I felt that the talks validated my own thoughts, my plans and my learnings. Rather than confidence-breaking, it was confidence-boosting.

So what’s changed? How have I changed over the last three years? Or is it the industry that has changed? Was I mistaken three years ago that UX was just for the big leagues?

We could certainly argue that UX year-on-year has become more prevalent, more requested by businesses. “We need some UX” is now on many businesses’ minds, even if they’re not completely sure what this “UX” thing is.

Organisations such as Government Digital Service (GDS) who led the way on transforming Gov.uk, plus design teams at Co-op Digital and BBC.co.uk, to name only a few, brought the concept of UX to the forefront of digital design. Their focus on UX has probably drip-fed through to the smaller businesses and companies, generating interest like never before.

The early days

So in 2014, I had a problem: how was I going to convince my clients that they needed UX and they needed me to deliver it? Looking back there’s not a single point in time that I can identify as ‘now I’m a UX designer’, it’s been a more organic process than that (and that imposter syndrome still creeps in every now and again).

Each project we took on in my own business got a little bigger and allowed a little more budget to do more until we got to the point where we could do user research, detailed IA and user testing.

Despite working on bigger and better projects, I was always conscious that I was the only designer in our two-person team. Was I even doing things right? As designers, we need peers. We need other designers working in different situations, with different clients, stakeholders, and in different environments to learn from and share knowledge with. When I started our company, I didn’t have those peers and it was hard going.

Getting ‘out there’

In 2015, I submitted a talk on inclusive web design to the Port80 conference. Buoyed by a successful project where we’d learned a lot and created some new ways of working for us, I felt the need to share it. To my utter surprise, it was accepted. This was a turning point in ‘becoming an expert’. Maybe I knew what I was doing after all. Or at least convincing in my application. Probably a bit of both.

Being accepted as a conference speaker opened more doors than I had ever anticipated. I was asked to speak at DxN, then, a fairly new design event in Nottingham where I was speaking the same night as Andy Clarke, who is a very well-known web designer, speaker and author (no pressure!). Since that first invitation, I’ve been back twice (they’re probably getting sick of me now) to deliver other talks, one on delightful design and the other a follow-on talk on inclusivity. I was also approached by leading web design magazine Net to publish an article based on the Port80 talk.

Earlier this year I was delighted to be listed on the top 343 female tech speakers in the UK. It was a surprise and a privilege to be listed with fantastic female speakers across the industry, some of whom I’ve seen speak at other events. Last August I was invited to an event in London to meet the other women on the list and promote women in tech; which, as an organiser of Women in Tech Nottingham, is a subject close to my heart.

Speaking in the here and now

Over the past year I’ve presented a few different talks at a range of events from conference; to meet ups; to, most-recently, guest speaking to the designers at the Co-op digital headquarters.

I still get nervous. It’s a big thing to put yourself in front of people and talk. So why do I do it? It comes back to peers. I want to share what I learn and I want to learn what other people know. As the only UX designer, I need access to that knowledge. This has lead to me being a regular event attendee. I go to design events, tech events and co-organise Women in Tech.

Sometimes I hear talks so far away from my day-to-day role, or so technical,  that I don’t really understand them, but I want to be exposed to new ideas, even if they go above my head. Through events, I’ve also built up an amazing community of UX designers. We share what we’re working on and provide each other with encouragement and support. We push each other to be better designers. I wouldn’t be where I am today without those peers and friends.

The power of going it alone

The biggest change that I can attribute to being the person I am today, was going it alone. Running our own business allowed me the freedom to choose what to learn and how I was going to work. After two and a half years, we wound the business down and I decided to move into a consultancy role where I was contracted to design a new product. For the first time, it was just me. I had to make my own decisions and be confident in leading the project.

Over the last few years, reading and learning had been an important part of my development, but now, it was essential. I had to know what I was doing. This was daunting but also liberating. I was the hired expert to deliver in whatever way worked best for the team, the stakeholders and the product.

Changes at Katapult

After a few months of consultancy, I joined Katapult as their UX lead. This was a switch away from product design and back to client-facing work. This was a big decision as internal product design and client-facing design are two very different ways of working, The principles are interchangeable, the processes can be the same. But whereas product design involves working with an internal team focussing on building and iterating a product; client design work is about quickly understanding client and user needs, not knowing at the outset what the best digital product for them will be.

As such, at Katapult, we begin any large-scale project with a discovery phase. This usually involves a one-day session including a variety of workshops to enable our team to understand our clients and their users’ needs. But also to help our clients clarify the project and business goals, their users’ goals and to ensure that the different stakeholders are in agreement of the scope of the project before it goes into production.

I recently changed role from leading the interaction design team to moving back into a consultancy role. This is to allow me to focus on the initial discovery aspect, facilitating workshops to ensure we’re designing the solution to the right problem. As a client-facing designer, I have to be able to talk to clients in a way that they trust my expertise and that of our team.

Speaking has helped build confidence, but it was running my own business that has made the biggest difference. I can speak to my clients as peers. I understand their business needs as I understood my own. Empathy and perspective taking are key components to being a UX designer. There are many analogies that can describe UX design, but for me, I think of myself as the bridge. I connect our clients’ goals to their users’ goals. I advocate the users, but I understand and support our clients’ needs too.

We never stop learning

I can’t overemphasise the importance of trust in digital design. Users need to trust that the business or service isn’t misleading them, clients need to trust that the designer understands their business, their customers and what they’re trying to achieve, and the designer has to trust themselves to deliver something that’s going to meet those expectations.

As designers, we never stop learning and wanting to improve ourselves. There’s many areas of UX that I don’t have an intimate understanding of and wouldn’t call myself an expert in, so that’s where I’m heading. I’ve come a long way over the past three years, but there’s still a long road ahead. The future is always unknown and there’s always more to learn.

First published at katapult.co.uk

Open and inclusive web design

The most difficult challenge posed by any web project is that of getting the web team and clients to work really well together. Often, all those involved – clients, project managers, designers and developers – have different ideas and expectations. With so many opinions about what the end product should look like and deliver, websites can suffer from “too many cooks”, with a resulting confusion of content and ideas.

Frustration can ensue for both web team and client when neither has a clear understanding of the other’s aspirations and expectations. Each party can feel as though the other is not listening to them and, when the resulting website is assembled through compromises, neither side is completely satisfied with the outcome. This is not what I want web design to be like. The process shouldn’t be about them and us. So what can we do to avoid it?

For a recent project, we decided to throw open the doors of the web design process and see if we could make a better website by making everything open and public. Our client, Derby Museums, already work on projects using Human-Centred Design, so they were really keen to work this way. From the get-go, we decided to document the process online. We set up a Tumblr page and uploaded user research, meeting agendas and outcomes, updates, sitemap, wireframes and visual design. We shared the link on social media and encouraged visitors to get involved and follow the development of the redesigned site.

Our method of open and inclusive design featured a lot of research, both with the public and members of staff. We spent a day at an event at a museum site speaking to visitors about their needs for the website and charting and sharing the results.

We also spent a day speaking to staff at one of the museum sites. We felt it was important to be at their place of work so they could easily come and talk to us about their ideas. We recorded every suggestion and worked out which ones were going to be included in the redesign.

Focusing on listening to our client’s visitors and employees was an essential part of this project. Our web team worked closely with our client and made decisions based on all suggestions and research feedback. We avoided compromises forced by late suggestions and lack of research, ideas were agreed and decided by the core team.

Being inclusive doesn’t mean that you end up with a website designed by committee. Dangers arise when people outside of the team feel left out of the process so that, if they are in a position to make changes, they often will. If they can’t make their opinions known, then they might resent the redesigned website. Just letting people know that we genuinely wanted to make the best website for everyone meant that they wanted to help.

There have been some really positive outcomes of working openly and inclusively. Our design team had really honest conversations with visitors and staff who could speak to us anonymously, letting us know their problems with the current website and ideas for improvement.

We also had great suggestions from front-line staff. They are the ones who talk to visitors, know what they like and have to deal with complaints. In other sectors, it might be a call centre, sales team or reception staff, but it is worth talking to the people working here as they often receive different feedback from customers than your commissioning client.

One problem we were told about from front-line staff was that visitors were struggling to find the entrances to the museums. A simple solution to this was to add ‘find the door’ to the website, a short description and photo of the entrance so that visitors get this information in advance. It might not seem as though signage to the museums’ locations is the responsibility of the website, but if we can improve a visit to the physical site by giving the right information on the website, then we’re improving experience overall.  

In order to make truly effective websites, we need great communication. How can we design something without knowing what the needs of the users and potential users are, as well as the needs of the client organisation across the board, not just the person or team commissioning the project? It might be a little harder and take a little longer, but I feel that designing openly and inclusively is what we need to do to make the best websites for our clients and their users. (And it’s a lot more fun too!)

First published in Net magazine issue 284, September 2016

Understanding user goals to design better websites

In retail the saying goes, “the customer is always right”. Whether or not this is always the case, this sentiment often makes its way over to web design. If we treat our clients as customers, are they also “always right”? Possibly. But when web designers treat their client as the customer, they’re in danger of overlooking the end user.

To design truly effective website for clients, the designer must design for the client’s audience and that means understanding the audience’s needs. Often web projects begin with a brief from the client that covers the client’s goals for the website. This is obviously important as the website must support the business goals but it shouldn’t make up the whole brief and direction of the project. Finding out the audience’s needs should take equal prominence as they are the ones who will ultimately choose whether to buy that item, sign up to that service or go to that event. Oh and here’s the thing: often client goals and audience goals are poles apart.

So how can a web designer create a website that works for both the client and their audience? An important stage of the web design process is research. When web designers design websites based only on their client’s brief without conducting their own research, they only understand part of the story. Maybe the client is profit-focussed and the audience is information-focussed. The client expects that the audience will find value with them and spend money, but they haven’t given compelling reasons to the audience to do this. By designing websites based exclusively on the client’s goals, the website has not been designed to meet audience needs, so is likely to be less effective.

So how should a web team go about conducting their own research? In a large agency, this would be done by a UX (User Experience) specialist or a team of UX designers. But small teams or individuals should also being doing this, it might just be done more simply. Sometimes it seems that UX is a luxury that only large agencies can afford, smaller companies can be scared of doing UX if they don’t have a dedicated designer. But there are a number of easy things that any web designer can do to make sure they understand their client’s audience.

Talk to people

To begin to understand the client’s audience, all it really takes is investing time to get to know them. Speaking directly to your client’s audience is the best thing that you can do and there are a number of things you can do get gather information. If your client has a physical location then go there and speak to their customers or visitors. A huge advantage of this, I’ve found, is that the audience is more likely to be honest with you, as a third party, than with your client. I found this whilst researching at a client’s event, the answers I received about the organisation were different to those asked by employees of the organisation. Another advantage is that most of the time, people are pleased to be asked for their opinions, it shows that you and your client care. This makes people feel more involved and less likely to dislike the redesigned website just because it is different.

If your client is only online, there are still ways to get feedback from their audience. Ask your client to send out a survey, speak to their audience on the phone, or ask their audience what they want from the new website over social media.

In additional to speaking to your client’s audience, another group of people to talk to is frontline staff. This might be a sales team, call centre staff, receptionist, visitor services assistants or staff that deal directly with your audience in another way. These people have a deep understanding of your client’s audience. They speak to them directly, field their complaints, hear about successes, failures and everything in between.

For a project I worked on for a local museum, I spent time at the museum speaking to staff. A visitor services member of staff told me that sometimes visitors struggled to find the entrance to the museum, this had happened on multiple occasions. Not being able to find the door didn’t give the visitors an initial positive experience and they complained to the member of staff. After hearing this, a really easy solution was to add a ‘find the door’ section to the visitor information on the site. It included a photo of the entrance and a brief description of how to access the building. Now, it might not seem to be the responsibility of the web designer to address problems like these within the client’s organisation, but improving a visitor’s experience by providing more helpful information on the website means that the visitor has a better experience overall. As a side note, I was in an art gallery a few days after we thought about ‘find the door’ and overheard a visitor complaining that they couldn’t find the entrance. Through audience research, you may uncover something simple, but it could be a common problem that no-one else has noticed yet.

Questions to ask

So now you know who to talk to, what do you ask them? The main outcome you are looking for is finding out what the audience wants to do on the client’s website, the user goals. You can ask open, but not leading, questions such as “What’s the most important thing you want to do when going on the website?” or “What’s the main reason for using the website?” You can also create a survey where you list key pages on the website and ask people to number the pages in order of the most important to them. Ask questions to narrow down the user goals into 2–4 main goals. If a common answer to “What’s the main reason for using the website?” is “To find out when events are on near me” then this would become a main user goal for the website.

In addition to finding out what the user goals are, it is also important to find out problems that the audience has with using the existing website or with the organisation itself. Addressing these problems before the planning and content stages take place means that they can be addressed in the website redesign to help the audience have better user experiences with the new website.

Once the key user goals have been established, they can be mapped to the business goals. We can look at how they work together and if they are very different how we can start to align them. For example if the client’s goal is to get people subscribing to their services, but most users are looking for information before buying, then high pressure sales is not going to be effective for either party. Perhaps instead, the client provides a free trial of the subscription to let their audience try it out. This puts control in the user’s hands and they can choose to subscribe if they find the service useful. In this case both goals are being met and the client is more likely to get the sale.

These are just some simple ways to research your client’s audience, you can do much more detailed research but if you are not primarily a UX designer, then this should be a good start. Further documents can be produced such as user personas and journey maps, I’d recommend doing this, but for a small team having the audience research will be very helpful to the project as it develops.

After the research stage has been done, the design brief should be written by someone in the design team, it should address the client’s initial brief but it’s ok to change the brief (of course you’ll want your client to sign off on your new brief) based on your research. The design brief should include: the client’s business goals; the user goals; the target audience demographic, age, gender, location; look and feel; content requirements; technical requirements; plus anything else relevant to the project.

Having good, solid research means that the design brief that the team works to is based on real user needs and addresses goals for the website from both the client and their audience. Having research can also be really helpful in later stages of the project. When the wireframes are being tested, everyone can keep the user in mind. Does the website layout and structure aid user goals? When the visual design is being discussed, the end user should be central to the consideration. This can make it easier for the client to step into their user’s shoes and see the website from their audience’s perspective and not just their own, meaning that the visual styling is not in just the client’s or designer’s taste. In short, good research can help build more effective websites for your client and their audience and help backup design decisions throughout the process.

It’s time to throw away lorem ipsum

Use proto-content and highlight unfinished content.

Whilst a lot of web designers advocate a content-first approach (myself included), it is not always possible to get content from clients to fit with the project schedule. If the client is providing their own copy rather than hiring a copywriter, then delays in the process can be common. So what can the web design team do to keep the project on schedule and ensure that the design of the site will work with the final content?

I recently heard Robert Mills, Content Strategist at GatherContent, recommend using proto-content in the wireframing/prototyping stage of a project. The simplest form of proto-content would be content from the existing website, especially if you’re working on a redesign. But what happens when new content areas are identified? Until recently, I would prototype a website using existing content and then use lorem ipsum for new sections. Admittedly, this has caused confusion with users at the prototype testing stage where they have been puzzled as to why “the page is in Italian”.

Obviously lorem wasn’t helping this person understand the message of the webpage and also distracted them from the feedback that we were looking for on the functionality of the design. (One could also argue that the prototype was not fully functional because it didn’t have relevant content, and I feel bad about that now.) Having better understood the case for proto-content, I will no longer be using lorem ipsum.

So what should the designer do to replace the customary lorem ipsum? This is where Robert suggests the designer should be writing their own proto-content. Having identified gaps in content within a redesign, the designer could write a basic version of the new section copy. It doesn’t need to be perfect as it will be replaced by finalised copy at a later date but it means that we can user test the prototype with content that actually makes sense to the user.

Another advantage of working with proto-content is that the visual design takes realistic content into account. There is a GatherContent post about this by Liam King, Designing content-first for a better UX where he demonstrates that when the designer designs with lorem, they make everything fit as they want it to. Once the design is developed and the content added, things move and don’t line up, text no longer fits neatly into allocated spaces, and content is then either cut to fit the design, or the design needs to be edited to work with the content. If the designer has only been brought into the first part of the process, they don’t necessarily have the control to make changes to the design at this stage so visual changes are made by others whose skills lie in different areas. This is not a great way of working, so proto-content solves this problem.

After we’ve told lorem to sling its hook (by replacing it with proto-content) user testing, wireframing and visual stages won’t be delayed by missing content. But how do we identify whether the content included in a prototype is final text or placeholder (i.e. proto) content? We should have a content plan document where this can tracked, but I think there is a case for making it obvious in a visual way on the development site too. Not only to ensure that the website doesn’t go live with placeholder text but also to highlight content areas that are incomplete. Before I designed for web, I worked in print and we had a little trick we did to highlight placeholder text so it wouldn’t accidentally get printed: make it magenta. If there was any magenta text, the copy was not final and the design wouldn’t get printed.

This is an easy idea to translate to website design. Where there is placeholder copy, I use a css style, applied by a WordPress shortcode, to highlight it as such. To further develop this, I’ve also applied the same theory to highlight images as placeholders. There are many ways this could be done but perhaps the simplest is to reduce the opacity of the image and add a border to highlight that it is not finalised. Highlighting proto-content and images gives a quick visual representation of which content areas on the website are finalised and which are outstanding.

Highlighting proto-content on the development website

To make sure that all of the content gets replaced before the site goes live, I’ve also added a warning that the page contains placeholder content at the top of the screen so it is obvious to anyone viewing the development site that there is outstanding content, as this could easily be missed if it is below the fold.

A warning at the top of the page indicates that there is proto-content on the page

I’m now a convert to proto-content and will no longer be using lorem ipsum but I think that styling the placeholders in the developing website is also important to give clients (and the web team) an instant glimpse on what is final and what they need to focus on.

A better way to vote?

Could design come to the aid of democracy?

As a member of the design and tech community, last Friday was a dark day indeed. As someone whose career has always been within the creative industries, I worry that the tear away from Europe will have devastating effects on arts and culture. The UK seems to have little regard for the creative industries despite the fact that last year they contributed £71.7bn in gross value added (GVA) to the UK economy, and export over £10bn to Europe (I guess that won’t be happening any more).

In the first few days after Brexit, we’ve seen promises backtracked on immigration and NHS pledges, the demise of the UK economy with figures worse than 2008, blatant and completely unacceptable racism and the rise of #Bregret.

Now, all of these things are upsetting, but it’s ‘Bregret’ that depresses/angers me the most. Some people believed the lies of the Brexit campaign saying they felt “conned” and “robbed of their votes”. One guy “didn’t think (his) vote was going to matter too much because (he) thought we were just going to remain.” And then I found a comment from ‘JE’ on the Daily Mail (urgh) comments saying “People dont (sic) HAVE to know why they voted: they still have a right to vote.” Really!?!

Whichever side they’re supporting, people must know WHY they are voting. Democracy isn’t about making a 50/50 choice without understanding the facts. If you don’t know why you are voting, why should your vote carry the weight as those who are well informed and have reasons behind their vote?

There’s nothing I can do to change the results of this referendum, but as I designer, I can share my idea of a better voting system. It’s 2016, I think we’re ready for electronic voting (which would avoid the whole pencil conspiracy). There seems to be a very real sense that some people didn’t actually know what they were voting for. I think it’s acceptable to ask people to demonstrate they understand what their vote is for. After all you can’t take a driving test without knowing the theory so why can you make a decision that has thrown Europe into turmoil without having some comprehension of what the issue is? Here’s my idea:

If the answer given is anything other than the description of the vote (which is on the polling cards!) then their vote would carry less weight than if they answer correctly. (Disclaimer: I’m not a political scientist so would suggest the above as a starting point on which to test and iterate.) Now obviously there is no way of knowing whether this would have impacted the final count but it might mean that JE from London who doesn’t know why he’s voting wouldn’t be representing the population of voters who did their research and made informed, sometimes difficult, decisions on the future of our country in Europe.

Here’s a little video of my suggested voting interface: