NUX4 – a roundup

Guest post on the NUX4 Conference in Manchester from Ian Parr (@devolute)

I was fortunate enough to attend a previous NUX conference, back in 2013. It was one of those conferences that I can happily say had a positive effect on my career as a UX practitioner, and so expectations for NUX4 last week (on the 23rd of October) were reasonably high.

Compèred by the ever-able Industry Conference architect Gavin Elliot in the thankfully comfortable Royal Northern College of Music, NUX4 was a full-day 1-track event. There were 600 attendees which I think highlights current interest in User eXperience both generally, and in the North specifically.

Tomer Sharon of Google kicked things off with what felt like a soap opera – complete with music to set the tone! His delivery provided a refreshing start. He told us the tale of Will and Dana, building The Facebook of note-taking. Testing with family members gave inadequate insight and they quickly found that their product completely changed after more substantial user research. Accompanying users – and their kids – into the real world and considering what problem they were really trying to solve forced them to pivot their application into a new direction. The key was to do the right thing first and then do it in the right way.

The provocatively titled Clients Don’t Suck from Jenny Grinblo was next. A tiresome ‘Clients from Hell’ attitude has become a cliche in many design agencies and her talk was a personal highlight. Jenny offered 9 practical tips to deal with common blockers that stifle effective UX work. These were split across 3 separate scenarios: Design in the Boardroom, Nit-pickers and Dealing with stakeholders unaware of what UX really is. The latter was referred to as “The UX/UI – Webmaster – Yoga Teacher – Unicorn Seeker”, which is great CV fodder, in my opinion. Within these scenarios were a range of challenges that I’m sure many of us have experienced before. My favourite piece of advice was to get a user voice into the boardroom in order to trigger empathy amongst stakeholders.

Further practical advice was provided by Stavros Garzonis – this time on running Co-design sessions to bridge the client-user gap. Whilst beneficial when done right, Stavros was clear that involving all parties (users, clients and UX) in such sessions can potentially be utter chaos; hence his emphasis on the need for proper planning. He showed us the best points in the Design Councils’ ‘Double Diamond‘ process at which to conduct co-design sessions. He also suggested that the work can start outside of the workshop: besides creating templates to support exercises, users could prepare stories beforehand.

Alberta Soranzo reminded us of the power of Design to change behaviours. She lead with the story behind the artificial inflation of diamond prices throughout the last century and the increased worldwide popularity of engagement rings. One tip was to check out the Behaviour Change Strategy Cards. After lunch we were provided with further historical context by Connecting Digital to Analogue. Brian Suda reminded us of the benefits of paper that still exist today; he took us through a range of projects that have tried to combine these benefits with the obvious benefits of the web. My favourite example was the pocket map that allows for smartphone-esque ‘zooming in’. Brian really likes paper!

Interusability: Designing a coherent system UX for connected products looked at how mental models from older hardware could fit with new devices, like smartphone apps. Whilst I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, Claire Rowland left me less trusting of interconnected products like home heating/lighting systems than I had been. We were reminded that the little printer hardware (referred to fondly by Brian in the previous talk) had now been rendered absolutely useless by the death of the company responsible for it. Claire looked at user expectations and how to deal with the ‘interstitial’ states when designing for the IoT by giving appropriate feedback. She advised us not to just copy the visual appearance of the physical hardware, but to instead play upon the strengths of the device.

The final topic of the day was from Sara Wachter-Boettcher: Everybody Hurts: Content for kindness. Treating the time a user spends with our work as if we are “spending their heartbeats” is a great attitude. Sara used personal stories to illustrate how interactions with users could be improved – particularly in form design, where every field carries weight and making assumptions about users doesn’t always constitute “designing with kindness”.

My take on this was that whilst sometimes commercial pressures can affect such thoughtfulness, where it can be considered then it should be and all visitors will appreciate their heartbeats being ‘saved’.

This was a rather emotional and honest talk, which I felt fit well with the whole day. If there was a theme to the conference it was this ‘warts and all’ openness without any of the ego that one sometimes finds at events like these.

Overall, the day felt incredibly worthwhile. This conference was run by the team of volunteers that make up the Northern User Experience community and was supported by sponsors across the industry. It continues to be an asset to the community that we see developing across this part of the country. Slides from all the talks can be found on the NUX4 website.




Ian Parr helps people create or improve their online presence.
He can be found on Twitter at @devolute

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