Things what I writ

I sometimes write nonsense about things to try and sound clever

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.

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]

This title is clever but pointless and inefficient

This is the post I would normally write about being at an event in the city with a collection of like-minded individuals who were compelled to attend to on the promise of solace at their smiting of writing with encouraging words from the scribers of note that can say what they wrote with articulate summary, a sprinkling of chummery and, not least some encouragement, wrapped up in wit, delivered in earnest, with meaning, to whit, I give you a paragraph to be used as example, to print and to squint at in lieu of a sample of how you could simply just dribble away like a gibbering goon for the rest of the day.

Except, I now know better.

This evening I attended a workshop run by Martin Belam and Cennydd Bowles, which, ostensibly, was about being a better writer. That sounds like a rather lofty and grandiose concept, but, you know, I like those. Realistically, the workshop was more about personal approaches to writing, learned writing skills, need-to-know and evil-to-use devices for being read, and a heavy dose of editing. Oh, and spelling. And grammar. Which, I plainly flout irreverently and irreconcilably and even irresponsibly. In fact, there were so many golden nuggets of ‘better writing’ advice that I didn’t even have time to flippantly flap about it on the twitter.

Not really knowing what to expect from the evening, I did approach it with an open mind, and an open bottle of Corona. I was hoping that I might get some opinions other than my own on what might constitute good writing and take those opinions away to inform my future output. I did get that, but I also got a rather delightful insight into the methods and practices of two writers that I rather admire. If were to make some dubious football analogy at this point, which I am going to, I’d suggest that Martin’s approach was that of a wily, crafty, tactical midfield genius, who has a great eye for an opportunity, knows all the tricks and can pick out the killer pass most of the time. He’s always the first man to be picked, notwithstanding his occasional tendency to argue the toss with the gaffer over formations. On the other hand, Cennydd would be more of a silky, clinical, methodical kind of player. While apparently effortless in his command of the ball and organising the team (for he does wear the armband), he will be the one on the training ground under the floodlights at 2a.m., repeatedly kicking a ball at a wall until he can predictably hit the same brick every time.

All of which is just a way to say that when describing how to be a better writer, you necessarily end up describing what you’ve done to try and be a better writer yourself, and this will be different depending on who you are. Martin and Cennydd described quite different experiences and approaches, but they shared a common aim. Clearly, there is no right way to become a better writer, there are many right ways. However, what this evening demonstrated is that if you want to focus on a few of the many, some of those right ways are more righterer than others.

Tomorrow, as an exercise, I shall mostly editing the life out of this post before publishing it again. It will be like harvesting antimatter with a sock.

Expose yourself – design workshops in the real world

When I uploaded my slides from the recent IA Summit in Denver to slideshare, I had particular problems with uploading the speaker notes, which, still now, are not available. I’m a great believer in using simple slides as a visual enhancement to a spoken narrative, and so when those slides are posted on their own, there can be some strange interpretations.

In particular, I have one slide in that presentation which simply says ‘Expose Yourself’. On its own, it could be read as something of a mid-life crisis admission in a magistrates court, but in my defence (pun intended), it’s actually part of a series of slides that try to explain the benefits of opening the black box of design, to encourage collaboration with clients and stakeholders to maximise brain power and increase efficiency.

I recently worked on a project that had a quite specific definition of the design deliverables that were likely to be required, before we’d even understood the problems and thought about solutions. This sounds bad, but really, it isn’t. When we’re defining a statement of work that clients can agree to and sign off, especially for newer clients, we’re not yet in the position to sell them a period of time that’s largely undefined, that we’ll somehow magically fill with analysis and design. Pragmatically, we have to describe something tangible for delivery, based on our previous experience of similar projects, that is meaningful and understandable. Critically though, that ‘tangible something’ has scale – and that is where it gets interesting.

On the project in question, the design deliverable was pretty well-specified from the outset. But following the results of focus groups, it was clear that we needed to spend some serious thinking time trying to understand what the deliverable really needed to be – which was potentially quite different from what we’d anticipated. The scale of our ‘tangible something’ was measured in days, and in order to set our new course, we had to agree on the best use of those days. In this case, we proposed that to understand that, we should get all the project stakeholders to bring their thoughts and ideas to the table and that we spend a day working together on defining our goals and objectives and thinking about how that looks when we talk about structures, clusters, boxes and arrows. Yes. A design workshop.

Design workshops can be super-effective for clarifying objectives, surfacing ideas, analysing research outcomes, using up flip charts and making swift progress through design challenges. But they are not for everyone. They’re not for all clients. They’re especially not for all designers. While more than one head is almost always better than just one head to solve a problem, there can be a reluctance on the part of professional problem-solvers to allow others to collaborate with them on that most cerebral of tasks. That’s why I say you have to expose yourself. Let clients, stakeholders and anybody else who might have an opinion be part of your process and maximise the benefit of all those brains being in the room. When you’re steering a new course for your project ship, it should be all hands on deck. If you want to hit new project targets, you should have all your brain-wood behind one arrow. If you want to continue with ridiculous project metaphors, you should all, well, actually, forget that one. The point is, design workshops really work, and if you’re not doing them, especially when you need to corral project stakeholders and think about design direction, then I really think you’re missing a trick. In this case, the workshop enabled us to clearly define the design requirements, scope out the next phase of work and turned on at least a hundred lightbulbs over people’s heads. In the end, just talking through design propositions in the workshop radically altered the client’s expectations for how their business could position themselves in the marketplace. We’re going to do another one soon, where I’ll expose myself some more, but better to be outed in the conference room of collaboration than stuck on my own in the black box of design.