How do we create something pretty useful, not just pretty and useless?

Last month we hopped on over to NUX5 in Manchester, for a series of talks about user experience from some of our industry's opinion leaders.


We feel it’s important to stay up to date with the latest best practice in user experience and we make a habit of attending the NUX events.  As usual the ever-friendly NUX crew welcomed us in and promptly provided us with our conference day staples: lanyard, goodie bag, and a much-appreciated warm drink.

Familiar faces peppered the crowd as we filtered into the main hall, more commonly used as a musical performance space than a hangout for tech-geeks. Gavin Elliot, Lead Interaction Designer at the Dept. for Work and Pensions, our capable host, gently eased us into the day with his friendly Geordie tones.

A snapshot of what we took away from the event is listed below, along with some sketch notes:

Morning Sessions

Rules, Hunches & Coinflips

Up first was Boon Sheridan, a witty and affable UX designer from across the pond, with an opening keynote about pragmatic ways to find a path through the dense undergrowth of expert opinion, so-called “best practices”, and rules of thumb. In “Rules, Hunches, and Coinflips”, we learn to accept that sometimes there is no absolute right or wrong answer, and often the solution relies on context. This technique allows us to signpost our thinking, highlight our approach, and acknowledge our risks.

Boon’s amusing tale about hearing tests for cats showed us that simple, ‘old-school’ methods can be incredibly effective – we sometimes muddy the waters with complex technical thinking. Pen and paper are still powerful tools for wireframing and prototyping; and we should never forget the value of a phone call, face-to-face catch-up, or workshop to resolve an issue quickly and effectively.

For the love of Wicked Problems

Lola Oyelayo, a UX specialist, led us through the thorny world of ‘Wicked Problems’ – those complex problems where the interrelationship between issues can lead you to the solution for one problem, yet the cause of another.

Lola introduced us to the idea of the ‘Wicked Quartet’, where the devil is in the interplay between legacy technology, out-of-date financial practices, poor technical literacy, and artefacts caused by agile methodologies. Recognising these issues early we can anticipate them in our planning. A short burst or ‘spike’, can help to work through a particularly complex issue by getting a few people together to focus on a particular dilemma.

Mixing methods abroad: A case study

After a short break for coffee, we were welcomed back by Karina van Schaardenburg, a former UX researcher for Foursquare, who took us through her case study investigating unexpectedly high usage of their Swarm app in Turkey. Supported by the use of field studies, lab studies, and user surveys, Karina demonstrated the importance of listening.

The research taught them about distinctive concerns and priorities between genders, different use cases and physical locations where the app is used, how political tensions influence usage, and how Swarm fits into the ecosystem of other apps being used by local users. They met people in the actual locations and situations where they would use the app; from power users and venue owners, all the way through to casual, non-loyal users of the app.

By having people on the ground they gained valuable insight not only in terms of how people were using the app but areas where they could actively improve the experience for this localised group of users – increasing loyalty and usage. The range of research methods greatly influenced the overall effectiveness of the study, and Karina recommended some approaches to get the most of a tight budget.

Security and User Experience

Next up, we were in the safe hands of Glenn A. Gustitus to discuss Security and UX, presenting the idea of security user experience by design and through early engagement.

Glenn highlighted that some commonly implemented security solutions can actually introduce their own risks and problems (harking back to Lola’s earlier talk on Wicked Problems). By using some combination of a thing you know (a password), a thing you have (a smartphone), and a thing you are (a thumbprint), multifactor authentication can address some of the security issues you might encounter with the traditional security questions model. However, it is not all plain sailing – done well and your app can be a joy to use, done badly and people can lose faith in your service. Have you ever waited half an hour for an SMS verification and then two come along all at once?

Reminding us of the distinction between authentication and authorisation, Glenn demonstrated when to use step-up authentication to tighten access to more sensitive information. This enables security, and the related user experience, to be handled in context, rather than the all or nothing approach often used by typical login systems.

By sharing thoughts and ideas; communicating well between security, design and business teams; understanding the limitations of other disciplines; and building relationships and trust, there can be an opportunity to improve the user experience of security, and improve security through user experience.

Phew! – a busy morning, I’m starving!

We load up our plates, juggle our coats, bags, and drinks in the busy foyer and take a moment to reflect on the day so far. There was plenty of food for thought and after taking advantage of the abundance of chocolate eclairs, we flocked back into the theatre, ready for the afternoon session.

Afternoon Sessions

The Art of Things Not Done

Intrigued by the concept of ‘things not done’ and doing less, Sophie Dennis, Lead Service Designer for the Dept. of Work and Pensions, showed us how to get the most impact for our effort. The Kano model was not a new concept to us, but Sophie presented her take on this in a fun, digestible, and practical manner. Sophie’s basic premise was that in a scenario where there are constraints on time & costs, resources, and scope, we need to focus our efforts on creating the best experience given the limitations. A way to address this is to look at the effort vs impact for each feature and then prioritise accordingly.

  1. Low effort, high impact (quick wins)
  2. High effort, high impact (necessary and expected features)
  3. Low effort, low impact (do, if time)
  4. High effort, low impact (avoid, if possible)

Sophie argues we shouldn’t be afraid to cut neutral features from the scope, or use third-party solutions where appropriate; and it is worth considering the Peak-End Rule that people will generally remember the best thing, the worst thing, and the end. Naturally this means maximising the best things and reducing the impact of the worst things.

Another consideration is that the impact of a particular feature may change over time. ‘Expectation Escalation‘ can turn a once delightful feature into a basic expectation. These pragmatic approaches help to focus our efforts on the areas that will provide the most impact.

Let’s Have A Conversation

It’s good to talk… especially if it’s with Graham Odds, Head of User Experience at Scott Logic. Graham often works with financial institutions and has been investigating ways to use conversational interfaces as a less disruptive way to get things done. He reveals to us that, although a lot of companies produce apps, people actually use relatively few of these with any regularity. As messaging apps increase in popularity, there is growing interest in ways to engage with users directly. Services like WeChat and Slack are opening up to third-party developers, who can use APIs to enable rich interactions without even leaving the current app.

Feeling brave, Graham demonstrated experimental techniques, showing us how commands and actions within messaging apps can create great, useful user experiences for things such as banking, customer support and arranging nights out with your friends. The idea being that through the use of artificial intelligence, natural language processing, and trigger commands, what you do becomes the interaction, so tasks can be integrated much more closely into your existing conversations.

The technology is in its very early stages, but already you can see applications where this could provide a massive step up in user experience. My own financial adviser on tap? I’m listening.

The Velvet Rope

It might be somewhat daunting to be the last speaker of the day on a Friday afternoon, but Henny Swan, Accessible User Experience and Design Lead at The Paciello Group, took this on with ease. Her talk, “The Velvet Rope”, helped to navigate us through the sometimes delicate and neglected area of accessibility in user experience. Henny showed us how everybody can benefit from a greater emphasis on accessibility within UX.

Talking us through a case study where a blind user was having difficulty finding Eastenders through the BBC iPlayer, they quickly realised that rather than being solely a question of accessibility, there were actually greater usability issues at play. By working through these issues together, and seeing them as opportunities to push the design, the user experience was greatly improved across the board for everyone, not just for visually impaired users.

There can be a tendency towards technical adherence to guidelines and standards, without a fundamental understanding of the user experience. By using the key tenets of equivalence, people first, consistency, choice, control, and value Henny showed how we can produce some really great, inclusive experiences.

Summing up the Day

And so the day was drawing to a close. After a quick and gracious thanks from the NUX team and sponsors, we headed out once more into the foyer for some refreshments before hopping back onto the train towards home, after a long, but insightful day.

As software developers in a highly technological world, it’s easy to get lost in approaching problems from a purely technical perspective. If there is one theme that resonated throughout the day, it’s that we shouldn’t overlook the value of humanity in our solutions. Context is key, and we can create great experiences when we work together, and after all, aren’t we all people just trying to get things done?

Watering can image: The uncomfortable project by Katerina Kamprani

Images from the day