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The value of folly: the UX Camp Brighton talk that (nearly) was

I very nearly spoke at last month’s excellent UX Camp Brighton. My talk was to focus on the user experience merits of cutting edge, high tech tat.

That’s right. I wanted to defend the sorts of gadgets which beg the question: “You made this… why?”

In the end though, I was felled by an epic cold, foiled by the failure of my demo, and distracted by my volunteering duties at the event. Excuses, excuses. Let’s face it: I mostly just wanted to enjoy the day without having to fret about my own talk. Then there was the pressing matter of participating in assorted banana abuse and three-legged bin bag races with Kat.

Besides, there was already a bounty of clever speakers on offer. Jiri’s talk on designing emotional experiences – complete with awesome slides – introduced me to a few qualitative tools I’d not heard about, such as the Geneva wheel. Kat covered some of the methodologies she used in her MSc dissertation on tablet ergonomics in office environments. Louise shocked, SHOCKED her audience with her Pound Shop Personas. Luis chatted to us about cognitive biases – specifically the adaptation bias. Luke took us on a grand tour of monitoring and analytics tools. Calliope lead an interesting discussion which ended up focusing on the UX of new product development. And the pogonolicious Danny had a packed room for his HyperCard demo.

Right, back to my non-talk. During the last Spring term at Sussex I discovered the work of Mark Hassenzahl, whose work explores the underlying causes of our positive experience with interactive products. Mark has shown that: pleasurable dealings with devices are closely tied to the fulfilment of basic psychological needs; and that products are far better positioned to fulfil those needs – such as competence, the need for popularity and stimulation – when they emphasize their “hedonic quality” over their “pragmatic quality”.

Naturally I took that to mean that when it comes to new digital toys “the more fun and pointless the better”. I set out out to blatantly abuse Mark’s research in my slides by defending a kaleidoscope of recently released, wonderfully pointless gadgets such as Olly, the smelly robot and iRock, the iDevice-charging rocking chair.

UXers are famed for bleeting on about products needing to “solve real problems”. But as with everything, it comes down to your definition of a “problem”. Sometimes a “problem” is simply the insatiable craving for something new, useless and fun.

Here are the slides:

Massive thanks to Patrick for organising a great event. Roll on #uxcb13!

Service embedding lessons from a lone UX designer

Earlier this month I wrapped up my stint as senior designer at Fresh Egg. Nervous and excited as I am about my very new role, it’s time for a quick look back at a varied, rewarding and remarkable 16 months with one of the biggest agencies in the South.

It certainly was varied. I worked with businesses of all sizes across a multitude of sectors. I tackled everything from new product development to large scale site redesigns to minor conversion optimization projects. I juggled expert evaluations, user study facilitation, experience mapping, interactive prototyping and A/B testing. Frazzling, but fun.

What about the remarkable part? Despite the strength of its dev and design teams, Fresh Egg’s business tips more towards its SEO and social media offering. To be fair, two years ago they would have fared pretty badly on any UX maturity scale. When I joined FE it was as its first – and sole – user experience nut. Despite this, I was placed in a position of trust and allowed to introduce a bevy of new ideas and practices. I was given free reign to turn meeting rooms into testing labs, plaster everything with postit notes and inundate the reception desk with a stream of study participants. Above all, I was given opportunity after opportunity to integrate UCD practices into new project pitches. For all of this I give Fresh Egg endless credit.

Trust and open-mindedness within the business were key. But what else was it about Fresh Egg’s culture, people and projects which allowed UX to be embraced as a service offering? Here are a few things which seemed to work, offered as tips to anyone who may find themselves in a similar situation:

  • Quickly find a small but rewarding case study. Hoard the results – particularly positive quantitative results
    Shortly after joining FE I worked with the insight team on a series of A/B tests which compared my design tweaks within a client’s key conversion path. A few days’ work translated into some very positive numbers and we had our first case study as well as a justification for future work.
  • Integrate with existing services
    The UX “sell” for Fresh Egg was fortunately tidy and natural. The SEO services brought the right audience to clients’ sites. Once there, the efforts of the UX and insight teams kept them there.
  • Teach and learn – internally and externally
    Sneaking in short presentations into team meetings went a long way in making others understand the nature of my role. But thanks to Nick, FE’s services director, we also hosted a number of evening community events on UX topics, which educated staff and positioned us as a user-focused agency. Attending and sponsoring UX events helped as well.
  • Piggy back on new projects
    New processes don’t have to seem new to new clients, who should have no reason to believe that user focus isn’t the status quo. Similarly, it’s easier to justify new approaches when working with a new domain or technology (say, mobile).
  • Have a champion
    Needless to say, without the support of Ollie, FE’s head of design and Nick, I doubt I would have made any headway at all.

A final note of reflection: I did leave the Egg with a feeling that I hadn’t given it my all. But to be fair I couldn’t have: my MSc took priority and I stubbornly refused to get anything other than the absolute most out of my expensive education. On a personal level, Fresh Egg was also a massive confidence booster. While my assertiveness and ease have some ways to go, I have Adam and Co to thank for letting me find my voice.

UX Brighton 2012: rounding up the references

The third annual UX Brighton has come and gone, leaving over 300 gorged, happy brains in its wake. The talks were typical of the conference: varied, absorbing, but above all relentlessly focused on quality content. As Jay tweeted: ‘all killer, no filler’.

I was gutted to miss some of the afternoon sessions – uni lectures beckoned – but I did manage to round up some of the references from the earlier talks. They’re ready for hoarding below or available as a shared Evernote notebook.

Alex Wright

Alex’s talk was a whirlwind tour of the web that could have been: ideas for universal networks of human knowledge which didn’t quite come to pass. Alex argued that these unrealised prototypes should not be wholly discounted: they offer us a sense of common history and, given a different context, may yet have their day.

Mark Backler

Mark took us through the practicalities and constraints of designing gestural (and voice) UIs for the Kinect. I’ve been hunting for the visual gesture builder Mark mentioned in his talk but haven’t had any luck! Stay tuned.

Guy Smith-Ferrier

Guy’s talk had all the joy and energy of someone lucky enough to share their most passionate hobby with several hundred strangers. His demo of EPOC’s EEG headset delighted the audience and offered a glimpse into the challenges of designing brain computer interfaces. I did hope he’d fetch volunteers from the audience…

The Emotive EPOC headset Guy used during the demo

Ben Bashford

In a world increasingly filled with intelligent, connected devices, how can we ease the pain of technological adoption and avoid the malady of future shock? Ben argued that the key is empathy – for people and smart gadgets alike.

Edit: with Ben’s help the list above should now be more exhaustive.

If you missed out on the conference completely, don’t fret: all the talks have been recorded. And if you attended and enjoyed yourself, tip your hat to Danny and Emmeline, the tireless power duo behind a great day for the industry.

Summer of seemingly arbitrary pursuits

Summer cracks on at pace. I thought I’d stop and have a think about what it is exactly I’ve been getting up to.

Pursuing higher aims obliquely is something I seem to do naturally. But I’m also aware that doing so often makes it look like I’m simply flailing about. Well, perhaps I am. I’ve been keen for distractions.

A few highlights from the past month follow below.


BBC Archives Fieldtrip

At the end of June, I helped navigate 18 Brighton geeks and enthusiasts across London to the BBC Archives in Perivale, where we met our gracious host, Mr. Bill Thompson. Some months previous, Bill had kindly agreed to take us on a tour of the shiny new archive facilities.

While there we marvelled at the climate-controlled vaults where BBC’s carefully curated back catalogue is stored (including part of John Peel’s LP collection); and watched as giant tape robots meticulously transcribed decades of recorded history into a digital format. And we heard from Bill about some of the inventive mashups being created from the archival content already digitized and about Bill’s efforts to bring awareness about the possibilities of the newly created data stores to the wider public.

Naturally, we also had our obligatory Dalek encounter.

UX Brighton – Mobile User Testing Edition

Danny and I held July’s edition of UX Brighton at Fabrica Gallery, where two fantastic speakers, Walt and Raj, covered the practicalities of running user testing sessions on handheld devices. We had a full house and quite a few new faces, including many students. I was a bit daunted by the prospect of being the newbie half of the organising team, but managing the event turned out to be a blast and we’re already scheming the next one.

Big thanks Walt and Raj for their time and effort; and to Laurence Hill, Fabrica’s head of audiences and communication, for letting a bunch of UX types roam amidst the (very beautiful) exhibit of Annemarie Sullivan’s work.


Consciousness Expo

On 30th of June, just prior to kicking off an annual academic conference, Sussex University’s Sackler Centre held a public open day about the latest research into consciousness. We went along to play with the exhibits (a fun-filled array of brain computer interfaces, optical illusions and Turing tests) and to say hello to Kate, Sackler’s lovely artist in residence. Later that weekend, we had a chance to trial Kate’s new work, a magical, one-on-one experience centered around one’s heartbeat, sense of presence and body autonomy. It proved very moving and unexpectedly therapeutic.

Future UI

I’ve started a little Tumblr blog of projects, products and prototypes that propose new interaction modes – or attempt to broaden existing ones. Not quite sure what its purpose is yet – possibly merely to satisfy my hoarder’s instinct.

Summer reads

I’ve chewed through a few novels and a couple of UX books, but the gem of my summer reading has been Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. A fundamental text on the absurdities of human thinking.

THE Project

Once the slow, rising tide of cynicsm about my topic of choice reached its ebb, I decided to abandon the idea of writing my masters dissertation on slacktivism. I’ll be changing focus entirely, most likely to tablet apps designed for autistic children.

All this being said, I’m still not sure what all of this is adding up to. I suppose the true highlight of my summer so far has been the concerted effort on my part to see more of the people I genuinely like and admire. I’m very lucky that those whose intellect sparkles more brightly than my own can tolerate my company.

UX fieldtrip: Inition Studios

Last week I joined a group of UX types on a trip to Inition Studios in Shoreditch. Inition are dedicated to all things 3D – from 3D printing to motion capture to visualisation and augmented reality projects – and they kindly let us loose on their marvellous toys.

We got to play with AR projects like this virtual car customisation tool developed for Ford:

Ford augmented reality campaign

We saw the latest lenticular displays and stereoscopic film rigs:

Inition stereoscopic camera and 3D monitor

And we marvelled at the hulking 3D printers:

Inition 3D printer

I spent most of my time playing with and watching others figure out the gestural UIs of Inition’s augmented reality projects. It’s interesting to see people try out new and previously learned ways of interaction on unfamiliar interfaces: swiping, pinching, tilting, taking guesses about what is and isn’t a touchscreen. The playful nature of the evening and of the projects themselves seemed to encourage this kind of exploration and learning – a great lesson to anyone trying to engage users in new ways of interacting with a system or product.

Great evening. Thanks so much to the lovely Alison for putting it together and to the incredibly friendly Inition team for having us. Hope we didn’t break anything but if we did: you DID provide us with free wine and beer in the proximity of your very expensive kit.

Embrace the strange: on meeting weird interfaces

I’m in Lisbon this week. When you’re in a strange, new place, you tend to meet new people. You also tend to meet new interfaces, often as a feature of some public device or in the guise of some kind of public information portal – which at times makes these new friendships a necessity.

If you’re a designer forced into encounters with these UIs, it’s only natural to lash out at their eccentricities and usability shortcomings. Yet I can’t help seeing these alien interactions as part of the adventure of being in an unfamiliar environment. Besides, it’s nice to find yourself denied total, intuitive control over a system once in a while. It’s nice to be baffled and made to pay attention.

And lately I’ve also found great joy in antagonising and testing these systems – the sort you get from baiting a racist uncle at a family gathering.

So here are my Portugese friends.

Interactive Floorplan, Vasco da Gama shopping mall, Oriente

Possibly buggy but nevertheless mystifyingly hybrid touchscreen UI – only the video could do it justice. The “touchscreen” insists on possessing your fingertip with a cursor (one that shapeshifts into a pointing hand, no less) for reaching your onscreen destination. I played with a few of these displays, and some appeared to suffer from a kind of cursor lethargy. This meant that you sometimes found your finger not quite aligned with the ghostly cursor and were forced to daintily guide it towards its goal. You then click somewhere in the periphery of where you’d like the cursor – not your finger – to hit. A heady blend of direct and indirect input.

Floor selection keypad and display, Olissippo Hotel
Upon checking into my hotel I was given instruction: the buttons for selecting the floor were on the outside of the lift. Interesting! Let’s watch:

The keypad’s physical buttons have no way of retaining their pressed state and the little screen above them goes blank after informing you which of the two lifts would arrive. This means that if multiple people are selecting their respective floors, all quickly lose track of where the lift would be going or if they had selected the right floor at all. I’d like to point out that this had the oblique benefit of encouraging bonding between the waiting parties. Perhaps there’s a case to be made for designing for frustration as a way of facilitating shared experiences of bafflement or suffering.

City guide kiosk, Lisboa Airport
The city guide kiosk is the first interaction honeytrap you encounter on arriving in Lisbon – it hovers just outside baggage claim, luring those who mistake it for an ATM or local transport ticket machine – its first shortcoming. At first glance the kiosk appears to be a touchscreen map offering directions and information about the city. But look down and you’ll find a brushed chrome, industrial-strength keyboard familiar in these types of installations. Behold:

Lisboa city guide kiosk keyboard

I love the harsh, sturdy feel of these kinds of keyboards – they were clearly designed to withstand frustrated bashing. The “mouse” is a giant, shiny ballgag of a trackball that shunts reluctantly in its metal slot, jutting the cursor jerkily to its onscreen target. Once you’ve used it to guide the cursor to its destination, you must seek out a secondary confirmation button – and affirm your selection with another click. After that, steel yourself: every action you undertake is greeted by the screen with a “Loading…” progress bar.

And there you have it. All interesting encounters, but I don’t think we’ll be swapping postcards this summer.

A designer meets open data

A few of us spent the Friday before last at the Open Data Cities conference, organised by local hero Greg Hadfield. The conference was ostensibly aimed at developers and public servants trying to liberate and transmute data into innovative services for the modern city – for me, however, the day proved filled with ideas for designers who like a challenge. I wish there’d been more of us in the audience.

People don’t think about the concept of “data” – especially not about owning it, generating it or gaining access to it through public services. People think about solving problems, getting things done and meeting their basic and higher needs. Socially engaged UX types who understand this are doing an amazing job of bridging the gap between “your data” and “your stuff” – see, for example, and We need more of them.

Below are a few highlights from my favourite talks of the day:

Tom Steinberg –
If you’re a good citizen, you’ve probably used one of’s online tools (such as and know how beautifully clear and intuitive they are. The herculean, near-criminal efforts of people like Tom to source and administer the data stores which underlie them is, as far as the end user is concerned, nowhere to be seen.

The first speaker of the day to wave the flag for user experience, Tom argued the value of open data can only become apparent to sceptics and detractors through tools that meet genuine needs. Case in point, Tom cited, the shining jewel in Barack Obama’s open government policy. Although far bigger than UK’s own government data portal, doesn’t begin to match its traffic figures – primarily because the vast data stores it offers have little to do with information people actually want. Tom’s key point: no city can be considered open if it doesn’t readily respond for real people’s requests for information.

Bill Thompson – BBC
Meet one of the great heroes of our age: Bill Thompson, who is leading the efforts to digitise the BBC archives and open them up to you to do with as we please. Bill’s recap of some of his team’s R&D projects sent my geek posse into giddy heights of excitement and we’ve now organised a trip to see the man himself at the BBC archives in June. There are still a few places left – get in touch if you’re interested in joining in.

Emer Coleman – Director of Digital Engagement, Government Digital Service
With open data often perceived as a “hyper-democratic” threat, Emer called for digital disruptors to grab at data stores as they become available and prove the value of shared information by building services that provide for the greater good. Emer’s talk reminded me of the best bit of advice anyone’s ever given me: “Don’t wait for someone’s permission to do something great”.

Anyway, fantastic day. There was also talk of transparency grenades, air quality eggs and Charles II’s Twitter feed.

A snippet of my craptastic sketchnotes below. A gentle reminder to myself that I desperately need to improve my scribbling skills.
Open data cities notes

Mobile user testing: the rigs and the challenges

As of two weeks ago I was still a complete noob when it came to testing mobile products with real users. Figuring out the best testing approach within the time, budget, setting and product constraints of the project was… well, kind of fun, actually.

The aim of this post is to catalogue some of the mobile testing rigs I discovered or played with along the way. It’s also to make note of various considerations to the user testing protocol which I think are unique to the mobile setting. As is usually the case with these things, I probably didn’t learn as much as I could have, nor did I arrive at some ideal scenario: everything will depend on the product, target audience, device tail being tested.

The setup I finally ended up with (or had to settle on) worked reasonably well. The caveats particular to my situation were as follows: we needed to test the product on-site and we had no real budget for procuring a fancy kit.

Mobile user testing rigs:

I got to play with one of these at the HCID interaction lab a couple of weeks ago. This all-in-one mobile rig is meant to be paired with one of Tobii’s eye tracking units and is really rather nice and really rather expensive – it’s probably what you want if you have deep pockets and want to look like a very serious researcher.

This little webcam was recommended to me by Tracy, who documented its application in a usability study here . It’s also what the folks at MailChimp have been using. At a measly £40, this guy is definitely a budget-friendly option and has the advantage of being easily adjusted and repositioned. I ended up buying one – in a sexy black edition – but sadly found the video footage was not of the quality we were after.

Not a video capture system, but a lovely, modular rig which you can fit onto the back of the testing device and equip with a camera. Mr. Tappy bas the wonderful advantage of allowing users to pick up and carry the test device. I really hoped to get my hands on a Mr. Tappy (ahem) but alas, Nick ran out of stock and I ran out of time. I would have been curious to see if the weight of the rig and its angling over the device interfered with the testing. Hat tip to Harry for the recommendation.

These familiar staples of lecture theatres are the surprising solution for mobile user testing an and were suggested to me by Patrick from Makemedia. They suit the budget-conscious, starting at a few hundred pounds.

  • Copy stand fitted with an HD video camera

In the end our own home-grown solution was a copy stand mounted with an HD camera. Copy stands (also known as rostrum cameras or animation stands) such as this one are usually equipped with a standard screw-in camera mount and are adjustable in height. The video footage was captured and edited with Morae.

Certainly that’s not all that’s out there. I’ve seen people do some crazy things with Skype.

Physical and ergonomic considerations:

OK, a whole flurry of things may impact how your tests will pan out. Here is the handful I made note of as future learnings:

  • Will the quality of the testing be affected if the user isn’t able to freely move the target device or assume a familiar, comfortable position? My little testing adventure wasn’t particularly affected by this, but a few users did have trouble with legibility of smaller UI elements because of the artificial placement of the device. Also, some talented people do think this is a big deal
  • If the product being tested requires the user to pick up the device and move it in order to trigger some form of interaction (think gyroscopic stuff like shaking), is your filming rig set up to capture the breadth of this type of interaction?
  • Will the quality of the testing be affected if your users are unable to use their personal device or its equivalent?
  • If you’re asking users to use their personal device, can you supply an equivalent on the day? Can you provide an equivalent with appropriate device preferences such as screen brightness, orientation or text size display?
  • Consider left-handed users and large-handed users. Also, some people who are perfectly happy having their face recorded will get seriously self-conscious about having their hands filmed. True story.

Phew. Hope this is helpful. We ended up with some good insights and a very happy client so we couldn’t have fluffed up that much. But I still want a Mr. Tappy.

Skeuomorphic interfaces and something about early Renaissance painting

Every blog post and article which mentions skeuomorphs seems to start with their definition, so I suppose I’d better do the same.

This is a decent example of a skeuomorphic UI:

Contacts on iPad

Or, something like this: the use in interface design of highly realistic and representational elements and textures which usually reflect on the previous, real-world incarnation of the object the UI is meant to embody. Leather textures and paper flip effects for calendars, realistic dials on music applications, etc.

Interface skeuomorphism apparently began to enter Apple’s design repertoire with the release of Mike Matas’ Delicious Library, spawning a group of developers now teasingly known as the delicious generation. Realistic interfaces have proliferated since then – see iCal and iPhoto for the iPad – and are actively encouraged by Apple’s iOS HIG. Steve Jobs was, at least anecdotally, a fan.

Sayeth the mighty HIG:

Often, the more true to life your application looks and behaves, the easier it is for people to understand how it works and the more they enjoy using it.

Designers and Apple observers, meanwhile, really really REALLY hate the company’s growing love of skeuomorphs as a perversion of everything its Dieter Rams-derived design aesthetic is supposed to stand for. Did I mentioned they really truly hate it? Let’s have a look at some of their arguments. Skeuomorphs are:

  • Tacky
  • Sentimental
  • Bad for usability
  • Bad for evolution of design in general
  • Unjustified or using objects users are possibly already unfamiliar with (see: rotary phones)

Apple’s HIG preaches back as follows: use skeuomorphs, but only if they don’t get in the way of users’ task completion. Otherwise, users will “delight in”, “enjoy” and “appreciate the quality” of your “beautiful” interface. “Beautiful” gets mentioned in the guidelines 17 times. “Usability” once.

My limp Libra nature prevents me from having a strong opinion about the matter one way or another. It’s not really an option, anyway – neither side has forked over any hard evidence of skeuomorphs’ emotional or ergonomic effectiveness or lack thereof. And, like any other design pattern, a realistic UI can be exceptionally badly implemented. I do, however, think that skeuomorphs’ richness, familiarity, and beauty are part of Apple’s secret Disney soul.

But then I also think of this:

Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck, 1434

This is the Arnolfini Portrait, Jan Van Eyck’s painting from 1434 and arguably one of the most famous works of art in the world. In it, Van Eyck sought to meticulously and realistically reproduce the texture and light of every object within the graceful interior. From the golden glint of the chandelier, to every fine hair on the smirking canine, to the fur-trimmed sleeves of the bride, the amount of detail is almost microscopic, almost, erm.. retina display. In the words of Robert Hughes, “all nature is sacramentalized by the sheer intensity of his gaze”. Not content to hold our attention with the beautiful minutia of his brushstroke, Van Eyck adds to the painting a mirror in which he himself can be glimpsed as if to say “you are here with me”.

The Arnolfini picture is all about immersing the viewer in its rich illusionism . It’s about creating a celebration of the sumptuousness and depth of nature and of the artist’s own immense skill. And I guess I can’t help seeing the same principles underpin some skeuomorphic UIs: it’s less about sentimentality or comfortable transitions from the real to the digital, and more about enchantment. Or something.

Unsurprisingly, illusionism in painting was taken down in the 60’s in much the same way skeuomorphs are being taken down now. The minimalist Donald Judd labelled illusionist painting a lie and called on painting to assert itself as a real object, pure in form.

A wild guess is that most people prefer Van Eyck’s painting to this

The experiencing self battles the remembering self

I’m a bit embarrassed that I had not heard about Daniel Kahneman and behavioural economics until I read Effie Lei-Chong Law’s article on the measurability and predictability of user experience. I dug up Daniel’s fantastic TED talk and finally understood why, at this year’s dConstruct conference, Don Norman spoke about designing memories rather than experiences.

Kahneman explains the vast gulf that exists between the experiencing and the remembering selves, and notes that the remembering self dominates – not only by choosing what and how to remember experiences, but also by acting as a force behind decisions about the future. The implications of this for product design and user experience research seem, at least superficially, two-fold:

  • How the user recalls her interaction with an interface will likely be shaped by whether that interface told a memorable story;
  • User studies must appreciate that relying purely on observing a user’s interaction with a UI or a product will not account for what she will take away from it – or how she will recall her experience with it.
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