Things what I writ

I sometimes write nonsense about things to try and sound clever

Get personal with personas

“Tim is 44. He likes to create engaging experiences for users, and will spend far too long on the tiniest detail that he thinks makes a subtle difference.”

On this scale he rates highly. On this scale he rates pretty low.

Hopefully, what motivates Tim and determines his relationship with company X, happens to be something that company X happens to be releasing in the next version of product Y.

This places Tim on a matrix that fits in the bottom corner of the page we don’t know what to fill with.”

Persona pitfalls

If this sounds familiar, then you’ve also been on one of those projects where the creation of personas are merely a tick a box in the project plan, and not seen as an opportunity to really understand customer behaviours and motivations, to represent them as accurately as possible throughout the development of a product or service.

Tick box personas are worse than useless. They’re actually anti-personas; nominally a reflection of stakeholder expectations that woefully misrepresents real users.

But let’s be clear. Creating personas that enrich understanding, and guide our design principles is notoriously difficult, even allowing for due diligence on researching users and understanding:

  • behaviours
  • needs
  • motivations
  • peripheral influences
  • personalities
  • back stories

and so on. It takes time to develop, iterate and review personas. It requires a breadth of understanding and skill of interpretation that certainly I don’t pretend to have. I mean, I can create a persona in five minutes; but not a useful one.

Persona benefits

But if they’re done well, personas can really drive a design conversation. What I mean by that, since I just strayed in to slidespeak there, is that well-crafted personas help you understand and validate what’s important from a user’s perspective.

I recently spent some time with a colleague at Foolproof, Mara Protano, developing user journeys and sketching out concepts for a financial services client. Mara had invested a huge amount of effort in researching user types, identifying their experiences and motivations. This allowed her to design, refine, distil and validate a small set of personas that provided a clear reference for us as we began to consider scenarios and usage patterns.

These were proper personas, backed up by a room full of research, and they made a huge difference to the project. You can’t just populate a template and hope to be successful. You have to start with a blank canvas every time and be prepared to justify, argue, and back yourself up when challenged on your deliverables. With her depth of understanding, Mara was able to do this with confidence and clarity whenever we questioned our assumptions.

Persona development can be contradictory. We use personas to validate and stress-test user journeys, scenarios, navigation models and so on, but we often don’t stress-test the personas themselves to see if they withstand scrutiny.

Go persona yourself

To illustrate just how hard it is to create meaningful personas, and how easy it is for them to misrepresent, try this: create a set of personas for your own family (including pets), and then give them to someone who doesn’t know you. Ask them to draw a picture of your family and give it to somebody else who doesn’t know you. Then get that person to describe your family to you. It’s weird, but eye-opening. Imagine those individuals as, say, researcher, UX designer and creative designer, and you’ll see how easily poorly executed personas break down.

In UX, there isn’t an everything

At the Lightning UX event in London a few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to share the stage with some very clever people talking about designing for mobile. Except that I wasn’t talking about designing for mobile. I happened to be the speaker who forgot to read the brief. So I talked, lightning style, about something completely different

I chose to speak about the hopelessness of trying to keep up with new and re-invented user experience methods and practices. As UX further develops and evolves, it can sometimes seem that every week it attempts to eat itself.

As a UX professional with a relatively long service, this can be difficult to keep up with, especially when you’re just trying to do some work. For any relative newcomer to the profession, this must be like trying to herd cats blindfolded, whilst everyone in your Twitter timeline is riding around on fixed-gear bicycles, shouting at you about which cat you should herd.

UX Method Interpolation Theory

So to help me make appropriate decisions about what to do and when, I’ve developed by own UX Method Interpolation Theory.

In short, in UX, there are too many methods and too little time. Simply choosing the right methods at the right times is a reasonable strategy. In practice, if I’m feeling left behind with new methods or practices that I’m expected to know, I tell myself this:

  • You don’t have to know everything
  • You’ll never know everything
  • And actually, as far as UX goes, there isn’t, and probably never will be, an everything

Thankfully, I don’t have to go into great detail here, because, as usual, the Lightning UX folks recorded the whole thing and, if you’re inclined, you can give up 6:45 minutes of your time to see what I had to say.

Without giving too much away, I won’t be able to give this presentation again. Which is a shame, since I hoped to see some hands go up.

Digital Creatives at the Hot Source 7×7

Last week I was kindly invited to take part in the Hot Source 7×7 event hosted at our very own Foolproof Group offices in Norwich. Hot Source is a community collective of digital creative, natives, professionals, amateurs, enthusiasts, start-ups, business owners, in fact, anybody who might have anything to do with digital in and around Norwich

The last Thursday of every month, we gather together, have a couple of drinks, and invite a couple of folks to talk about something that means a lot to them and might be of interest to the rest of us. And very nice events they are too. This time around, we thought we might change the format slightly, to get a few more people up and talking and, on a warm summer evening, get a little more informal.

The short-form talk format is pretty popular these days and allows a pretty diverse set of subjects to be covered in a short space of time. In this case, seven speakers each had seven minutes to talk about something that mattered to them. As you might expect from such a broad community, the subject matter varied greatly, which is what makes these kind of events really dynamic. Tom Wood, who helped put the schedule together, seemed to strike a good balance with the speakers and subjects. Tom Wood, who helped put the schedule together, put me on last. I can’t think why.


So, after a few beers and some excellent charcuterie, things kicked off with a Mr George Wood, who was known rather personally to our Mr Tom Wood (Dad), who gave us an insight into the wonderful world of Minecraft, with a live demo included. Nobody wanted to follow that, but one by one, the other speakers gamely stepped up to talk about Google author profiles, the History of Advertising Trust, using the Gmaps API to create fabulous visualisations, 10 hateful things about user interfaces, and a great showcase of TV production that comes out of Norwich. And me.

Not wanting to disappoint, with me being in the ‘put him on last’ slot, I delivered what has subsequently been described to me as ‘some kind of performance theatre’, on the subject of why technology is great but is also rubbish. If I tell you it involved me talking to myself on a failing video conference for 7 minutes, then you can fill the blanks yourself. Hugely enjoyable. Questionably engaging.

In the end, the point of Hot Source is to provide a forum for like-minded people to meet, talk and discuss things that matter to us. It’s mostly digital, but that doesn’t mean we have some heavy-handed governance the precludes related topics. If it’s interesting, if it’s relevant, we want to hear about it. More importantly, gives people the chance to talk about it. If you’d like to get involved, head over to the Hot Source site for more.

Meeting Dave Gray

Dave Gray 1
dave gray 1 by Tim Caynes

I mean, he had really important stuff to do, like meeting with people from banks and a summit or two to present at, but, you know, it would be nice to just kind of hang out.

This pretty much describes Dave. Insightful, artistic, clever and thoughtful, but more than anything, just a great guy to hang out with. So when Dave announced he was coming over to London, I thought there was probably a way we could facilitate some kind of meetup, whereby we could invite a few folks over for a bit of a chat.

After assuring Dave that yes, more than three people would turn up, I quickly set about the logistics of getting the thing set up and in a few hours, everything was in place.

Fireside chat

The first thing you notice about Dave is that not only is he larger than life, he’s larger in life. I’m pretty tall. Dave is taller. The second thing you notice is that he’s just so enthusiastic about everything.

We chatted about his time in London, we chatted about the venue, we took a few photos, we chatted about lenses, we looked out the window, we chatted about architecture and it’s place in modelling communities and behaviours. We chatted about lots of things. In fact, we just chatted until attendees started arriving, and then they joined the chat. And then more joined. And we had beer. And chatted some more.

And that really set the tone for the evening. I’d set myself up as some kind of compere, but really, it just turned into something of a fireside chat, with 30 friends. Dave and I sat at the front of the room and I occasionally acted the debate host and fielded questions, but for the next hour or so, it was really just about Dave meeting new faces and just, you know, hanging out.

Of course, we did cover a wide range of topics, including gamification, connected companies, UX strategy, best and worst experiences, most trusted methods, and some great tales of corporate workshops. I’ll go into more detail on those in later posts, so look out for messages about those.

We finished pretty much as we started – just chatting together in the loft as the cleaners tried to clean around us. As people said their goodbyes, it was extremely gratifying to hear how much they had enjoyed the evening, particularly the informal, open format. I had similar conversations at the UK UXPA careers event the week before. It’s so nice to come to event like this and just, you know, hang out.

Who wants to hang out?

A huge thank you to Dave for being so engaging and entertaining, and to Raj at Sense Worldwide for helping us out with the excellent Sense Loft. If I had to sum the evening up, I don’t think I could do it any better than the photo of Dave within this post. A great time was had by all.

Moments of simplicity in experience design

As you work through the complexity of a problem, sometimes you’re lucky enough to have a moment of simplicity. I call these, rather cleverly, ‘simplicity moments’. Moments that enable you to make the creative leap from the place where you are, toward a vision of the place you could be.

It’s not always a eureka moment. It might not change the world. But it’s a moment of clarity that helps set your course.

Rob and I recently worked with a financial services client. We all knew their online process, which supports their core business proposition, was a horrible mess. In fact, it was so broken that they had only been able to address basic usability issues as part of an improvement program.

They needed help to understand their problem, before they could even begin to scope out a solution. Over the following weeks, the client joined us in our offices to work together in mapping out the current process, identifying pain points and thinking about our approach (see our sketches in the photo, above).

We weren’t interested in defining the deliverables, just concerned with agreeing on the problem. As we edged closer to understanding it, we threw a few conceptual sketches together to provoke a conversation about where we might be headed. This was when we had the simplicity moment.

It wasn’t a eureka moment. It wasn’t going to change the world. But in an instant, looking at the concepts we’d come up with, we knew we’d made the creative leap. And the client agreed.

From that moment, our combined vision for the whole project was easy to articulate and sign up to. Most importantly, we could begin to execute on our vision with a shared understanding of our goals across the whole project team, client included.

The simplicity moment is a wonderful thing when it happens. But you have to create the right environment for it to happen. Our approach and thought process means we invest the effort in understanding the problem. You can’t make the leap without it, and believe we can do this most successfully through direct collaboration with our clients.

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.

Lean UX: The UX you wish you were doing

Jeff Gothelf, Director of UX at, has a great proposition for what he is calling ‘Lean UX’, which reminds us what’s great about user experience design and how, potentially, we’ve over-specified it.

His central proposition is that it’s about time we got back to looking at experiences, rather than deliverables. Deliverables help us build commodities and describe solutions and actually, they can be pretty handy to work backwards from when we’re selling into a client.

The trouble is, deliverables can also define our outcomes and we often simply work towards those outcomes, filling in the boxes as we go. I can do that. I can do that on my own, in a dark room. And then I can ask users whether it’s any good. But really, we’re missing the experience design opportunity – to get those users at the heart of the design process.

All Jeff is really advocating is that we stop for a moment and remember what user experience design is about – solving problems. You don’t solve a problem by simply picking the right deliverable. You solve a problem by understanding the problem, engaging with the user and having a conversation.

Jeff’s method includes quick conceptualisation, early collaboration and a distinctly unselfish approach to design success, but what keeps it simple is that he doesn’t focus on artefacts, documents, or whether you want it in Visio or Axure. Because that’s not the point. It’s about:

  • Control: giving it up isn’t giving it away, you’re still the ‘keeper of the vision’
  • Momentum: keeping everyone engaged and motivated
  • Quality: not compromising on finding the solution
  • Feasibility: keeping an eye on implementation (but not the documentation!)
  • Filling the blanks: the more you talk, the more you see

To quote one of the quotes he quoted, “Speed first. Aesthetics second” – Jason Fried of

I’m paraphrasing here, so to get the full story, check out Jeff’s presentation.
Lean UX: Getting out of the deliverables business

View more presentations from Jeff Gothelf

If you want to hear him talk about Lean UX in person, he’s at a number of speaking events this year, including the IA Summit in Denver, but I should probably mention that there’s also a scintillating discussion of the value of thought in experience design happening at exactly the same time, so if his session is full, perhaps you could consider that one instead.