Can We Make A Difference? Takeaways From UX Scotland 2016

24 June 2016

It’s always exciting to visit conferences and attend talks from industry professionals. Opportunities for networking and learning new things are endless.

UX Scotland – the highlights

A few days ago I’ve attended UX Scotland – a gathering of user experience professionals. The thing with conferences is that one will always get a mixed bag of stuff. Some lectures are interesting and engaging; some aren’t. UX Scotland was not an exception from this rule and, whilst I enjoyed it massively, it was mainly due to its networking aspect.

I’d love to see events like this pushing the boundaries of user experience design a bit more. I am not entirely sure whether I can still get excited by responsive mobile menu design, or stories from the times of Jakob Nielsen. Nothing wrong with these, however, the world moves on.

In my opinion, we, as designers, should embrace the unknown and explore territories of true digital transformation on an organisational and even societal level, instead of looking at easing ways to purchase of yet another bank account.

Nevertheless, a number of short talks and workshops have impressed me.

Branding and UX

The first one, ‘Lean branding: rapid brand development for UX teams‘ was delivered by Bill Beard. This was a collaborative setting for discovering values and continuous improvement of a new brand (with bypassing of the overused and often poorly executed traditional brand guidelines).

Branding is not something that UX designers traditionally are involved in, yet this is hopefully going to change. Especially if we consider consistent approach to any service paramount, and if we recognise that the experience spans well beyond the digital interface.

UX is everywhere

Usability is everywhere (a doodle from the conference)

Chat Bots or UX Flops?

The ‘Let’s have a conversation’ presentation from Graham Odds highlighted how autonomous chat bots can assist users in undertaking tasks with the help of popular messenger applications. This would rely on natural language, hooked up to APIs of various transactional services such as banks, insurance companies or even restaurants.

Whilst I find the idea pretty neat, I am also worried about the aspect of the lack of ‘human connection’, so important to many. Additionally, I’d see this as a potential for yet another mass-surveillance method, this time with ‘robots’ imitating humans better than ever. Do we really want computers to become as conversational as we are? Perhaps this has happened already. Graham’s presentation left a number of opened questions in my head, and for this very reason I enjoyed it quite a lot.

Guerrilla User Research

The real highlight came from Jaime Levy who ran a workshop on conducting methodical guerrilla user research.

This method of engaging with target groups of customers is well-known to anyone who ever needed to design a product with only minimal budget. Jaime helped ‘debunking’ the myth of ‘an UX designer asking people for help in exchange for a cup of coffee’. She explained to the workshop participants that this work can be done to a great result and with the proper scientific approach.

As much as this might be obvious to many (it is to me), I was personally touched by this session, as Jaime comes across as the type of a designer that I admire the most — the one who will look for new ways and always try to push for moving away from comfort zones.

It was a great refreshment from listening to stories on design thinking, which by 2016 should be considered as a core, and not as an interesting add-on to any user experience practice. I can’t quote the note she has put in my copy of her excellent book directly, but I can certainly say it was as amusing as it was direct. The basic message is: move your four letters and start making a difference.

Let’s make a difference!

This takes me to the last point of this blog post. I believe that, as a whole, the UX landscape (especially in Scotland, probably extending well to the United Kingdom) is still rather a traditional one and not particularly courageous. Going to many events we can learn about techniques for making better web interfaces, or understand how we can ‘innovate’ corporate solutions by building yet another SharePoint website.

There are exceptions, of course, and there are many wonderful services created in all possible lean and agile ways. Yet, the majority of undertaken design work only sustains the system instead of modifying it for a greater good. Perhaps it’s even a wider issue and user experience design needs a serious kick? In the world where we are getting less healthy, where the shape of things to come is carved by wars and where increasingly more people struggle with basic interpersonal communication skills that are quickly getting replaced by smartphone screens, do we really want to keep shuffling pixels?

Can we influence or even change the future globally and not only on an organisational level?

I’ll leave this question open.

P.S. Special note goes to a company that delivered a neat notebook to every chair in the main auditorium, and with a pencil. Unsharpened and with no sharpeners around. Now that’s design thinking. I love the irony.

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