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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?

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]

overloading my function

since waking up in a real job where I do proper work and stuff, I’ve been spending less and less time expounding on such hot topics as situational awareness or pressing buttons in a manic fit and when I have managed to construct a few over-long run-on sentences, I’ve mostly been doing it for my current employer who has kindly let me do so in between the other bits of time when I’m actually doing the work. which is to say, I’ve not been writing here for a while. which is fine, because I’ve been busy, and I’ve been expressing my ideas and thoughts somewhere else.

now I’ve settled into some kind of cadence with regard to writing, and since the blog I write for my employer is a shared blog, and there’s any number of brilliant minds there who can contribute, I’m currently compiling drafts of thoughts of ideas that will never get published unless I funnel them into an appropriate bucket, which is where this am is, right here. so that what I shall be doing.

just try everything

there is an option during an interaction with a particular screen, page, interface, device, port, socket, panel, window etc., that can be so effective that its a wonder we don’t do it from the outset and avoid all that well-thought-out user experience nonsense. its the option I most often select when I’m beginning to feel the vein on my forehead and there’s small beads of ‘stay calm’ sweat forming on my temples. more often than not, its when I’m trying to find the enhancements panel in window media player, or wondering why on earth something that used to be quite so simple in windows XP needs to be quite so appallingly difficult in vista, but quite often, its at the point when I have piece of hardware A that need to somehow interface with hardware B in order to successfully deliver experience C.

its normally at that point I just try everything. this is actually more successful with hardware issues since notwithstanding the screwdriver/electrical outlet scenario, most should-be-compatible-somehow hardware interfaces allow you do mash them together in any number of ways before doing it the right way. things don’t really get broken much and there’s not very often a knock-on effect to other resources. consider my vein-throbber today. I was only trying to wire in my previously perfectly serviceable 5:1 speaker system into the back of my new desktop system – both dell. of course, since the last computer, they’ve changed the sound card interface and so it all looks a bit different, although its all a bit the same, its just that the 6 jacks plugs and 1 I/O cable for the front left, front right, rear left, rear right, center, subwoofer (I have to say them all out loud like that because the old soundcard configuration utility spoke them out like that like some teutonic sat-nav for audio hardware) now don’t have the same number of sockets and boards and interfaces and things like that to plug into. but they have some of them. needless to say, crawling around the back of a PC with a torch when you’re supposed to be analysing financial consultancy data outputs doesn’t really have a long attention span, so the temples are glistening pretty quickly. I tried a few insertions and extracted myself from under the desk, hitting my head in the process, to see what was coming out, but it was variously a fuzzed warbled cross-phased back-to-front tinny bass calamity of an Aimee Mann track. 3 or 4 swaps and re-insertions and head bangs and torch positionings later, there really wasn’t any progress, and the markings on the interface panel that were supposed to somehow help me out were just making it worse, since they just appeared to be crop circles to me. its at that point I decided it was probably worth the risk to my 800 quid desktop if I just tried everything and anything and just wrapped this sorry exercise up.

needless to say, as soon as I just randomly flapped about with whatever cables and plugs I had in my white-knuckled fist at the time and crammed them into the nearest probable orifice, then hey presto, goodbye caroline. I should have just done that in the first place and saved myself the bother. which is what I subsequently did with windows media player. so craftily obfuscated are the enhancements that rather than navigate a series of contextual menus or follow a meaningfully and meticulously signposted user journey to the graphic equaliser of beelzebub, I just randomly clicked all the buttons on my mouse at stupid speed across all the panels in the media player container. and it worked. I saw a fleeting reference to a fly-out menu that said ‘enhancements…’ and followed that menu thing all the way to frequency nirvana.

so now I’ve got my sound balanced exactly how I want it, and my speakers are working just fine thank you. once I’ve rebuilt the music library I deleted in the process, it’ll be great.

listening post: nothing – I deleted it all

even more gainful

since I last extoled the virtues of an employer, I’ve mercilessly cast them aside in favour of an even more virtuous employer. that’s not to say the last one wasn’t virtuous, for it was, and I liked it, but my new and current employer held all the cards in terms of my experience, development, and personal circumstances. if I were to have written myself a perfect job description (which I often did) while I was on the 6:10 train to user experience land (London) every day (which I was), it would have looked something like this:

  • user experience consultant
  • 10 years+ experience
  • permanent
  • salary like what I had before
  • involved in strategy for growth
  • oh, and in Norwich.


that was, effectively, the holy grail of job descriptions for me. so, it was with some surprise that I was contacted by Michael at localrecruiteragency to let me know that there was a role available that was indeed exactly that job description and was I interested. needless to say, I asked where their hands were so I could bite them off immediately. once we started talking, it was obvious (to me) that this is where I should be, and thankfully, they thought I may be worth a punt, so here I am. which is nice.

joking aside

I rather like using real-world, but made up, examples in prototypes, wireframes, mockups and other user experience bit and pieces. I think it provides a reviewer with a content familiarity that means they are not distracted by confusing ‘Sample 1, Sample 2, Lorem Ipsum 7’ style placeholders. I mean, are those labels important, or is a reviewer expected to try and read a bit of Latin to get some context around the content blocks I’ve scattered around? Much easier to use a few scannable labels and text areas to allow a reviewer to filter and forget, rather than expect them to somehow instinctively understand that the drop-down list of ‘Attribute 1’ to ‘Attribute x’ that you’ve presented them with is just to suggest an interaction style and that the data isn’t important. Just ignore the data. No, it isn’t actually going to say ‘Attibute 1’, that’s a placeholder. Well, it will probably be ‘Edit’, or ‘View’ or something. Look, we’re getting away from the purpose of this review. etc.

However, there is another reason to use real-world, but made up examples, which is not directly out of the usability engineering manual. Its where you put the jokes. That’s not to say the placeholder text for the latest portal home page prototype for your financial services client should start with ‘There was an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman…’, but there is a little bit of me that wants to leave the occasional blipjoke lying around for anyone determined enough to look at the 3pt type in the sub menu of the fly-out on page 17. Its a bit like that bloke in Blade Runner leaving a little origami joke in a abandoned lift shaft. It doesn’t matter if you miss it, but there’s a nice little subtext to be discovered if you want to.

It goes back to my final year usability engineering presentation at university which included that Framemaker clip art of people with no faces, and all I could think of doing to lift the tedium of my Jakob Nielsen thesis was to add a speech bubble which said ‘I’ve got no face’. At that point in the presentation proper, I left it unreferenced, projected on the wall, as I wittered on about interaction models for process management application interfaces on UNIX, and I saw the sideways glances to each other of my tutors and the slight curl of their ‘snapped to geometry’ mouths and I knew they’d discovered it. They sat so far forward in their chairs from that point on that I could see the labels in the necks of their C&A shirts. I knew I’d got a first.

Actually, I cocked up my computing maths module, so I only got a 2:1, but hey, who asks about your degree once you’ve finished it? Anyway, back to the jokes, for this morning I came across a rather nice one, which prompted me to blurt all this nonsense. If you take a look at the Thunderbird 3 Features page, there’s a little example image of what those evil phishermen get up to and how Thunderbird protects you from it. What I rather like about the example is who its protecting you from. Correct me if I’m wrong, but someone had a little smirk putting that example together.

listening post: foals – spanish sahara

wireframe storyboards

someone told me the other day, well, it was Chris actually, that they liked the wirefames I was working on because they told a good story. they’re not the actual words he used, it was much more thoughful and pondering on the back foot than that, but that was the gist of it. either way, that comment resonated with me, if I allowed to use a word like resonate, or resonated, because it captured the essence of what the wireframes were about. I’ve produced wireframes many times in the past that do just describe the physical location of application elements and the specific interactions that are required to be supported. you know, like, ‘this button can only have 2 words in it, it is next to the other button, and when a user presses it, the four horsemen of the apocalypse gallop over he horizon, which we will probably implement using AJAX’. that kind of thing. my preference, however, is to develop wireframes that do that, to a lesser extent, but are much more like storyboards that describe a sequence of events in a way that can be easily visualised. now, I’m not talking about a set of images that describes Avatar 2 – All Your Trees Are Belong To Us, but the storyboard metaphor works at a much simpler level where I can walk stakeholders through a visualisation of the key interactions, including detailed UI elements, that, I think, makes understanding the interactions and changes in state much easier to grok, if I’m allowed to say grok, which I just did, kind of out loud. they’re closer to design comics than wireframes, except they have wireframes in them. but with speech bubbles.

it doesn’t work for everyone. I’ll work on these with interface designers and application developers who will undoubtedly need to understand exactly how I anticipated that left-hand tab device working when it appears, in my wireframes, to overlap the chrome, or something, and ‘wanted a wireframe, not a bloody AHA video’, but hopefully, providing the context within which the interface elements sit and the describing their interaction through the storyboards, it all makes more sense than just presenting a page with a static diagram on it and saying ‘build that please’. I’ll soon see.


listening post: aha – take on me

android user experience

see what I did there? no? it doesn’t matter, you’re not even reading this.

since I’ve recently twisted my own arm into spending more than 2 quid a week on my mobile phone, which was actually 2 quid a week on a sim card which was hoofed into a handset from 1999 running symbian s60 which I didn’t like when I was using it and like even less now that I’m not, I’ve been wondering how I might somehow get into experience design for mobile platforms. I’ve been designing for web and web-based channels for donkey’s years and more recently working on complex applications for trading platforms, but I’ve not really delved deeply into mobile as yet, other than the wap sites we pushed out for Sun Microsystems many years ago which amounted to 17 links in 5 languages that didn’t really go anywhere, but we did make the logo really much smaller than we were supposed to, which, in itself, was a triumph of vectors and transparency.

a few weeks ago, I was interviewing for a user experience design position with Qualcomm, which was to be working on their next-generation mobile platforms alongside and incorporating brew, plaza and lots of other nice things that you rarely see in carphone warehouse, but that position went the way of many other full-time permanent user experience positions. that’s to say it didn’t go anywhere at all. I was phoned before the second interview to say that the position had somehow vapourised internally by law of the corporation and that they were very sorry but it just doesn’t exist now so you can’t do it. despite it not coming to anything it did at least pique my interest, since I did my usual copious research on the subject in order to perform well at the interview I didn’t end up doing.

what has piqued me even more, if there are levels of pique, is that when I started my current position at Tobias and Tobias, working for financial services clients in the city, was the fact that not only does almost every single person on the train, on the tube, walking down old broad street or sat in bishopsgate, own, and is permanently conjoined with a smartphone of some descrption, they own, and are often conjoined with a smartphone of some other description. at the same time. and three on the go is not as uncommon as you might imagine, or at least I imagined. for at least 70% of these people, bleating into an iphone is their preferred interaction, for which the pied piper of hand things is undoubtedly most pleased, but other smartphones are available. you know that. right? and with all these smartphone appendages dangling in front of me, I feel like I’m missing a trick if I don’t get some kind of experience designing for those platforms.

now I’m one of those people doing the train, tube, hammersmith, broad street, bishopsgate, liverpool street, tesco thing, I thought I really should get some kind of proper phone which lets me monitor trades on an AMOLED screen or something. or at least doesn’t hang for a full minute when I send a text. since I also have a tendency to avoid technology trends (meaning, usually, I can’t afford to be an early adopter), I had, a long time ago, discounted an iphone. actually, I like iphones, but anything that requires me to use bloody itunes just doesn’t make it onto any list I have. apart from the list of things I won’t buy that I have. and, since I’m already a google person, I was already looking for a phone built around a mobile platform that integrates all my googlist activities which of course is the moble platform that google make. it was really just a question of handsets and platform versions. which, granted, isn’t an insignificant consideration. suffice to say, after I’d bought a pile of ‘what mobile’ magazines the size of a small child and reviewed acres of adverts with the occasional technology blog in the middle, I’d determined that the HTC Desire with Android 2.1 was the very thing. which it is.

I really rather like Android. I really rather like HTC’s Sense UI, although it really doesn’t do an awful lot after you’ve worked out you don’t need to flip between 7 home screens that often. and I really rather like the Desire, even though its a bit, well, brown. all three together, notwithstanding the usual caveats around battery life, seem to support an all-round user experience that suits the way I want and need to use my smartphone to do the things I bought it for. my most basic requirement was for excellent support for multiple email accounts that exist on multiple servers. I was also looking for excellent social network integration. I was also looking for excellent clocks. truth is, limited as the Android apps store is, there’s just enough there to enhance the user experience by one or two degrees. mind you, the apps bundled in 2.1 and the google support built-in, means that I’m pretty well set up without needing to go anywhere near the app store. unless I want better clocks. for which there is probably an app. called ‘better clocks’.

in a nutshell, which is kind of what my new phone reminds me of, first impressions of the Android user experience on the HTC Desire are very favourable. I’ve had a week to do the thing where you turn everything on and then turn everything off again. I’ve tried all combinations of widgets, programs and shortcuts. and turned them all off again. I been through every single setting screen and religiously observed the state and behavioural changes that occur as a result and determined whether I like those changes. I’ve settled on a default configuration for everything. I’ve installed the advanced task manager to kill everything I’ve left running, because, excellent as multitasking is and nice as it is to have updates and notifications going of all over the place all the time, is does rather reduce the usable uptime.

next step is to work out how I might begin to design and build something that runs on my own phone, just to go through the development process. with all that spare time I have. I’m writing this on the train you know. and my tea’s gone cold.

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