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the glorious IA summit

it feels like it’s been a lifetime since I returned from Baltimore after the glorious IA summit at the beginning of April. it’s the event that leaves you feeling like that when its over, like the end of a long hot summer where you gambolled through the shimmering and abundant fields of learning, dancing like a teenager with your new best friends dipping your toes in the stream of enlightenment and talking like you don’t know the words for the things you have to say, watching the proud and beautiful stags of truth barking atop the mountain as if to say THERE IS NO TRUTH, JUST THE ONTOLOGY OF TRUTHS, COME HEAR ME, FOR I AM THE STAG OF BEAUTY AND I SPEAK OF THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO MAKE AND BY THE WAY SINCE I’M A PHYSICAL MANIFESTATION OF ALL YOUR ENDEAVOURS I REALLY AM THE MISSING LINK BETWEEN THE COGNITIVE AND SPATIAL DEFINITION OF CONTEXT THAT DEFINES IT ALL. HURRAH!

or something like that. to be clear, there is a reason I allocate 100% of my available budget to attend this one event each year. it’s because I get a year’s worth of worth from it. I mean, I go to quite a few smaller events throughout the year and meet splendid and lovely people and see inspiring and challenging speakers and learn so much about things that are totally relevant to me. but the IA summit is quite different. without wishing to get weirdly evangelical and creepy about it (and not the dan willis kind of creepy), I believe it’s an event that changes lives. overstating it? maybe. but I know that attending for the last few years has changed me for the better. and I’ve spoken to many people who have attended, often for the first time, who are so touched and moved and surprised and enlivened by their attendance that they can’t quite express what it is that it’s done to them. I’m not about to qualify what ‘better’ means, because that’s not the point. I don’t do definitions. but what better means to me is what counts. the change for the better is what I recognise in myself and how I attribute that change to my attendance at the IA summit is up to me. nobody can alter that.

in the grand scheme of things, with so much going in the world, and so many demands and so little time and so much to do and so much to say and so many responsibilities and so on and so on it is perhaps easy to say fuck’s sake it’s only a conference for people who get weirdly obsessed about the structure of things and why are you getting so worked up about it there’s more important things to worry about but whatever. let me bark this at you. THIS EVENT IS AN OASIS OF AWESOME. IT CHANGES LIVES. I AM THE STAG OF TRUTH SO HEAR ME ROAR.

thank you to the beautiful people, old and new, that make the change happen. I love you. if anyone would like to tell me to calm down, don’t bother.

Practice makes perfect UX at the UK UPA

Andy Budd - Perfect UX

I like UK UPA events. There’s something very reassuring about carrots in a bowl and speakers worth listening to. Last Thursday’s ‘Profiling the Perfect UX Practitioner’ was a particularly good event, pulling together a great list of UX practitioners to talk about UX practitioners to a room full of UX practitioners. While that sounds like it could be the point where we actually end up eating each other, it was actually the point at which we start questioning each other, which is always healthy.

There was no danger of it being a dull affair. Most of us have seen Andy Budd or Jason Mesut speak before and know that even though painful honesty borders on willful disruption it’s a dramatic tension that makes it not a little bit exciting. Put these menaces together with ‘not intentionally provided as a counterpoint but actually it works quite well that way’ Stavros Garzonis and Aline Baeck and you have a pretty good spread of disciplines, experiences and specialities that might, arguably, add up to the perfect UX practitioner, thereby rendering the whole evening redundant.

But that’s the thing. There’s not really any such thing as the perfect UX practitioner and we weren’t really there to try and determine what that is, any more than we were there to determine who has the brightest trousers, even though, as it happens, that was a really easy one to call. To summarise: it depends. With knobs on.

If there was a recurrent theme regarding the problem with defining pathways to becoming a better, more well-rounded UX practitioner, is was dichotomies. That is to say, perhaps it is the current open migration paths into UX from, say, engineering, development, psychology, for example, that are essentially dichotometrically opposed to the establishment of practitioner pathways since you have to already be pre-disposed within those disparate paradigms to an affinity with the values of user-centrednessness. Or something. I may have lost track there for a moment when I realised dichotmetrically opposed reminded me of thumbs. Anyway, there were dichotomies.

Also worthy of circular arguments was the notion of certification for UX professionals so that we all know who’s good at it. Notwithstanding the fact that none of can agree on what it is. Admirably, the German UPA chapter are looking seriously at certification, which, I’m sure, will be looked at closely to see how it might affect perception of value, ability or perfection in the long term. I asked Oliver what he thought of it. He kind of shrugged.

And it wouldn’t be a discussion about our ability to demonstrate capability without touching on, and then deep diving into, and ultimately wrestling naked in front of the fire about UX practitioner portfolios. Porfolios are good. If you think they’re good. Even though your good might not be my good. But let’s all agree they have value. In the way I value straight lines, but someone else values sketchy ones. You see. It depends. But let’s also agree that if you want an opinion on the basic thresholds of portfolio benchmarking and what, from sheer volume, might be considered the relative merits of showing deliverables vs. telling stories and demonstrating thinking, reacting, shifting, agiling, then Jason is the man to tell you to leave the wireframes at home.

Ultimately, the sum of the parts of a strong team are often what makes the whole of a perfect practioner and it’s being part of those teams that will most likely incubate the hard and soft skills required to effectively practice in the UX profession. There might be, and probably are, practitioners out there that come close to having it all, but you won’t be that person with 2 years in the industry and an impressive job title. That’s not to say that the perfect practitioner necessarily comes from the small pool of 10+ year UX veterans who like to remind you that they actually did the original user research on punched cards for jacquard looms or something, but, to be honest, longevity in the field simply affords you the benefit of experience. It’s hard to argue against it.

I enjoyed all the panellists. I enjoyed all the attendees. I even enjoyed sitting on the floor for most of the evening so I could take photos of Andy’s boots. My favourite moment? Grinning inanely while Andy ranted animatedly about how terrible the state of somethingorother was and how you should just forget about doing it when patently plenty of people in the audience were already doing it. My least favourite moment? Having to run off and leave everybody having a nice chat over fava beans and a nice chianti, because I had to rush to get a train to Norwich because we don’t all live in London you know.

Looking forward to the next one.

Watching the prospectives at London IA

I was lucky enough to talk at the May London IA event a few days ago. Even better than that, I got to share the stage, well, I say stage, I shared the bit of floor at the front of the loft, with the most charming man in the world, Giles Colborne, and the most charming woman in the world, Johanna Kollmann. Unfortunately for them, they had to share the small walk around in front of the projector area with the most charmless dancing dad Soho misfit in the world, me. I’m prone to a bit of self-depreciation, but really, it was as much as I could do to breathe in for 30 minutes while I was up there before collapsing into a Stella at The Endurance and a subsequent face full of Ginsters on the steps of Centre Point like a lost corporate team-builder from the M4 corridor.

We’d gathered for a redux of the IA Summit, which took place in New Orleans earlier in the year. Johanna and I had presented at the summit at the same time – 8:30 on Sunday morning – and hadn’t seen each other speak, so it was great for us, and Giles had very kindly offered/volunteered/I dunno, been threatened with something to do a recap of a few of the highlights from the conference. It was going to be a good night even if nobody else turned up.

But turn up they did, and based on a quick show of the hands that people showed when asked, it seems that the vast majority of the attendees had never been to a London IA event before, which was very inspiring. Either that or they just didn’t like Martin waving his iPad at them saying “who’s been to one these before? Hmm? Matthew and I organize these you know! THEY’RE FREE!’ Either way, a lot of new faces is, to me, a very encouraging thing. Let’s be honest, you can go to events in London that are the physical manifestation of the echo chamber and although the people are extraordinarily nice and I would like many of them to be real friends that know what the sound of my voice is like, these events are excellent places to learn things you don’t know and see people you may have read say things out loud. Far be it from me to sound like some kind of curious Werthers Original style UX granddad shedding a small tear into my slippers when the young uns look up at the stage that isn’t a stage with those beady eyes of youth, pondering your gibberish like some unbounded grasshoppers, but it’s encouraging to see them sat in that loft, just BEING KEEN. *sniff*

So thank you to Martin and Matthew for organising and inviting me along, and thank you to Giles and Johanna for being charming and fascinating, and thank you to everybody who turned up and was polite and keen and asked lovely questions, and thank you to the weather for hailing on my legs as I cowered under a newsagent awning just before arriving, and thank you for listening, etc.

Slides from the IA Summit (On Slideshare):
Making sense of messy problems: Systems thinking for multi-channel UX by Johanna Kollmann
Designing the Mobile Wallet: A Case Study by Tim Caynes

Ride the lightning

Notwithstanding a pithy reference to a metal experience that reminds me of the second half of the vinyl rack at the record shop where I used to work, tonight I rode the lightning at the event that uses the name but in no way conjures up images of axes and diminished 3rds because it’s got UX at the end and so rather suggests there might be crumpers and iphones and projectors and bottles of water and stuff which there was, for tonight was lightning UX and I spake of random percentages, gears of fear and communicating only through michael jackson thriller dance moves. There may have also been occasional references to mobile wallet design challenges amongst which and of I mused upon that included cognition of conceptual architectures, complicated contexts of use, and user confidences in and around the whole bloody wallet thing what they don’t even get ffs. Grrr.

I was, however, merely one of the peas in a UX pentapod that had been popped forth to live and breathe the warm air of a university basement and deliver a missive so sweet that it must just be our very last thing we do in a 10 minute burst looked upon by the sparkling eyes of the eversokeen. Within the delicate constraints of the framework – like rolling down the grassy hill of a summer’s day, passing the baton of freshly plucked UX grass between us like it might be the day all summery rolling down hill baton-passing days might be like – the five of us took that which was close to our hearts and set it into the ether upon the wings of hope where, in my case, it kind of crashed about a bit in a series of profane outbursts vaguely resembling a topic whereupon it flew too close to the flame of relevance and singed it’s little wings a bit.

In other words, I talked some stuff about designing mobile wallets and I made a lot of numbers up and the four others speakers on the bill were very good and actually when we opened it up to questions that got quite interesting and if anybody wants to ask me about the perception of flawed security models in the deployment of mobile payment frameworks or how you draw a thing which says PAY NOW then I’m more than happy to follow up with you. Point your stick toward @timcaynes. Come see me at the IA summit. I am UX.

Hacking NFC

Not strictly speaking hacking the protocol or platform or whatever you want to call it, because that might require rather more technical knowledge than I have left and implies something that is probably illegal, but hacking, in terms of using the near field communication infrastructure to muck about and produce something akin to a chocolate fireguard that you can show other people and say ‘look! I did a chocolate fireguard!’, as they add the finishing touches to their ‘tap-to-space travel’ demo.
Last week, the UK’s first NFC hack event was launched in Norwich. It’s a pretty ad hoc affair, under the Hot Source banner, that Proxamaare supporting by making their NFC technology platform available to anybody who wanted to enter a team. All you have to bring to the party is your creative minds and a willingness to stand in front of the other 17 teams at the end of the month and show them what you’ve managed to build. And show them you can. With an NFC-enabled phone, access to Proxama’s hardware and software, tags and tech, you really can build an NFC-enabled technology solution. You just write that HTML5 stuff that displays a monkey, loyalty card, free gift or whatever, when your programmed NFC tag is tapped with your phone. Of course, since your team defines the experience, owns the code, has the idea in the first place, you can do much more than monkeys. If you want to write a bunch of HTML that’s loaded in webkit, or the Proxama app, and then have that web content do something else, like, say, integrate with your ecommerce platform, turn on the lights, leverage location services on your device and send a message to the queen specifying exactly where the bloody cake is to be delivered already, then you can do that, just with a tap of your phone on the programmable tag.
You see what’s possible here? It’s not just about using your phone to pay for a banana. I mean, the platform could support that if you wanted to do that, but, like, you can already do that. The idea of the hack event is that armed with the technology platform, you create something new, innovative, quite possibly ridiculous, but definitely original and potentially commercially viable. And, if it is, all well and good. Take that idea away with you and make it commercially viable. Proxama aren’t going to steal it, it’s your IP. Do with it what you will. What the event is about is demonstrating what you can do with the NFC platform. And I’m leading the Flow team. There’s also a Foolproof team, but, you know, I don’t give them much hope for winning the competition. I mean, I can’t see how anyone is going to top my shark tank escape game. It’s simple – you get dropped in a shark tank with your NFC phone and have to tap on the hidden tags to open the escape hatch. You either tap all the tags, in the right order, within the time, or, well, the demo gets really interesting. I haven’t decided which team member is going to demo it yet, mind.

Learning workshops at a workshop workshop

Last night I plodded through the rain from a full day of usability testing to attend the latest UXDO practical session at Fortune Cookie in Clerkenwell. I took a lot from the previous better writing session with Martin Belam and Cennydd Bowles, and was looking forward to this session on better workshop facilitation. A workshop workshop, if you will. One of the main draws of the event was, again, the quality of the speakers that Sjors Timmer had managed to line up. This time, Leisa Reichelt and Giles Colborne were leading the session. Any time I’ve seen them speak, either on a stage, or at a bar, they always have something valuable to pass on and have a great, engaging style that really draws you in.

Having scribbled my twitter name on a post-it note and stuck it on myself (UX event protocol these days) I joined the session a few minutes late and notwithstanding Jonty’s assertion that he was drinking all the beer, I managed to pick one up and get stuck in. Which is the point of the UXDO sessions – to just get involved with your peers and learn what you can from each other. As Leisa mentioned, many of us have run successful workshops and are happy facilitating, but there’s always an opportunity to share those experiences, listen to others and discover new techniques and approaches that might take you just slightly out of your comfort zone and help make you a more well-rounded practitioner.

The thrust of the evening was, for the 25 or so of us, to identify what the barriers are to us being successful in facilitating workshops and how we might come up with solutions to help us overcome or address them. That was done over a 2 hour sprint of a workshop by way of brainstorming, affinity sorting, defining problem statements, comparing, ranking and collating, discussion and identifying solutions and rolling it all back together again. We threw in a bit of KJ method and shared tips and techniques along the way and, in the end, came away pretty satisfied with our outputs. At least, I was pretty satisfied. I mean, it was a pretty unrealistic workshop set up, but it was really successful in exposing methods, focusing objectives, setting expectations and understanding the kind of issues that might need considering in most workshop scenarios.

Leisa and Giles are even writing the whole thing up, which is an admirable commitment to the UX cause. Thanks to them for facilitating a great evening of learning and sharing. I even managed to crash the UX after-party (pub), since I didn’t have to travel back to Norwich, and had a rather nice conversation about the UX of allotments with Leisa and shared a ‘we seem to be the last ones here’ moment with Boon and Jeff before heading back to the hotel in Euston to watch an extraordinary football match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid on Spanish TV, which was rather less well facilitated than the workshop, it has to be said.

Usability and the Business Analyst: Smuggling UX at the UK IIBA

There’s a new contraband changing hands in clandestine boardroom exchanges in the most powerful businesses in the land. It doesn’t fall off the back of a lorry, or get swept up on the beach, following the sad demise of some stricken thought tanker, however. No, this new currency is traded under the cover of business analysis. This illicit commodity is user-centred design.

I recently attended an event run by the UK chapter of the International Institute of Business Analysis, hosted at Credit Suisse, in their rather nice offices at Canary Wharf. The event was a panel-based discussion of how user experience and business analysis might gracefully collide, somehow becoming something more than the sum of their parts. Put another way, how does user-centred design affect the business analyst?

The panel

On the panel were erstwhile and engaging practice professionals from both sides of the collision: Cennydd Bowles and Chandra Harrison, with many years in user-centred, experience and interaction design (other design practices are available) and Jake Markham, who built the business analysis and design practise up at Credit Suisse. It was chaired by Nick de Voil, from De Voil Consulting, who conveniently bridged the gap between user experience and business analysis.

Nick Dunlavey of Information Architects, who had invested significant effort in pulling the event together (largely crowdsourced via twitter, incidentally, in case you’re wondering how a meeting of UX and BA professionals in an investment bank gets put together), kicked off proceedings in the plush 7th-floor theatre with an admission. He has been smuggling UX into projects. Appropriately, he’s been using Cennydd’s Undercover User Experience Design book as a reference to do that, and thought it would be a good idea to try and link usability and the business analyst.

To set the context for the discussion, Chandra and Jake took some time to talk about, respectively, what user-centred design and user experience is and where we are with it right now, and the development of the business analysis skills and competencies framework for Credit Suisse.

Understanding user experience

Chandra gave a whistle-stop tour of UX, from its mostly overlooked early development in product design to its subsequent and most recent focus on user satisfaction, via world war one biplanes, personas and skills matrices. She was careful to describe user experience as ‘just a term we use at the moment’ and to be clear that ‘user experience’ is not a profession, but, rather, it simply describes ‘what users experience’. What we really do, as practitioners, is apply user-centred design as an approach to system design that supports those experiences. As it turns out, most of the tools and techniques we use to do that are very similar to the tools and techniques that business analysts use, but, critically, we talk about them in very different ways. It might be rather too simplistic to say that business analysts focus on business and user experience designers focus on users, but it’s definitely the user that is the differentiator. The depth of understanding and appreciation of user behaviours, gained from years of observation and dialogue, is what user experience brings to the business analysis party. And then eats all the canapés.

Business analysis and user experience

Following Chandra, Jake was also keen make an admission before he began his talk. He is also a ‘professional smuggler of user experience’. Since Jake is responsible for defining the activities of the business analysis and design group at a company like Credit Suisse, this is good news indeed. In talking us through his own history at the company, we got an invaluable insight into how a global investment banking business is defining its business analysis function and how closely that may be aligned to user-centred design practices. Ultimately, the business analysis function is about identifying needs, collaborating on requirements and facilitating solutions, but it’s focused clearly on the bottom line for the business and the customer. Conversely, the user-centred design function is about identifying needs, collaborating on requirements and facilitating solutions, but focused clearly on user needs. This means that there are clearly opportunities to embed used-centred methods into the business analyst skills and competencies framework and satisfy goals for business benefits and enhanced user experiences.

As I read the definitions of the four roles that have evolved from Jake’s business analysis taxonomy, I was simply changing the job titles for those we use in user experience and the descriptions were pretty consistent. For Business Architect, read Information Architect and you’re nearly there. In line with a comment Cennydd later made about the demise of specific ‘user experience’ roles, I don’t really see the need for the fifth, UX-specific role Jake suggested they might need. Rather, the user-centred design methods and practices should pervade across all roles.

In the middle of all this, Jake also put up a slide that had some enormous numbers on it that spoke to the scale to which a global investment banking business like Credit Suisse operates, at which point I had to check I was wearing the right glasses.

Questions, answers and opinions

On to the panel session itself, and thanks to a brief introduction by Nick, I think I now know what a lasagne panel is. I can’t imagine why I never knew before.

The debate was eloquent, lively and, with the inclusion of Cennydd, was determined not to just turn out stock answers or platitudes. For the most part, the panel vehemently agreed when questioned on things like the business benefit of usability, quantitative measurement, accommodating user requirements without scope creep (BAs love scope creep), and the perception of user experience design operating exclusively in the digital space, on web and web apps. One of the emerging themes was the business benefit of creating ‘value through change’ rather than working to functional requirements. I can’t say I grasp this concept well enough to say whether I agree or not, but if it means understanding user needs, and designing, possibly disruptively, for that, then I’m all for it.

I’ll be honest, I took more notes when Cennydd spoke than when others did, since he catches the zeitgeist of my profession better than anyone else right now, but I did admire Chandra’s enthusiasm and deliberately wider view of usability and Jake’s measured, literate and erudite responses. However, Nick de Voil probably expressed the relationship between user experience and business analysis best:

User experience practitioners have permission to ask people how they work, operate, and do what they do. This approach has emerged as accepted practice in the last few years and it is this that makes them a powerful ally for business analysts.

As I have spent a number of years as a globalisation manager for a large corporation, I was amused to see that nobody wanted answer a question on globalisation strategy. I think we all know you might as well ask for alchemy on toast. I was also reminded, from previous work with another investment bank, that if someone from a global trading division asks a question, you need to be ready. They are scarily efficient in their questioning and can spot flannel through walls of lead.

If you thought about going to this event because it had ‘UX’ in the title, but didn’t go because it had ‘BA’ in the title, you missed a trick. Both our professions require a broadness of understanding that can only be developed through immersion, discourse and appreciation. Many thanks to Nick Dunlavey, the UK IIBA, Credit Suisse, and, of course, the panellists for a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening evening.

And there was caviar. You’ll go next time, won’t you?

listening post: holy ghost! – say my name

Writing to be read: A workshop on being a better writer

Martin Belam and Cennydd Bowles have written popular and successful books, articles and blogs on user experience. On Tuesday evening, I attended a writing workshop, where they shared tips, tricks and best practise for ‘better writing’.

I write too much. When I write about an event, I fill the page with clever, but meaningless sentences. Seeing the details of the workshop, I thought it would be a great way to learn from others and share opinions on what makes a better writer. It ended up being all that and more. It was an insight into methods and practices that Martin and Cennydd use in their own writing, highlighting that personal approaches to writing differ, but common creative techniques and some rigorous editing can nearly always improve output.

First off, Martin shared some of the tactical armoury he has developed through his own writing. He focused on tips and tricks for writing to be read and was able to provide some excellent examples of the dramatic impact simple devices can have. Some of his advice was common sense, while some was quite crafty. Some was plainly evil, but, nonetheless, common practice, when writing with particular targets in mind.

Cennydd, on the other hand, wanted to help us understand that after writing, the real work starts. Editing your content is just as important as writing it. Through a series of classic examples and anecdotes from his own experience, he gave practical advice on analysing and improving your own writing, through careful, considered editing. In common with Martin, Cennydd also was keen to make the most important point of all: if you can’t speel, please don’t write, especially if your grammar do suck.

It was thoroughly enjoyable evening, with practical, actionable advice. Clearly, there is no one ‘right way’ to become a better writer, but if you can learn from others’ experiences, you can, at least, take steps in a better direction.

[This post is an edit of the previous post ‘This title is clever but pointless and inefficient’. It is an attempt to put some of the learning from the writing workshop into practice and so it’s not a great post, more of an exercise. If you prefer one or the other, leave a comment. You might not like either of them, which is more likely]

listening post: the soft moon – circles
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