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NUX4 Conference: Highlights from the day


If you’re not aware of NUX, let me introduce you. NUX is the Northern User Experience community. The committee organise talks across the North of England on topics related to design, development and user experience.

NUX4 is the fourth annual conference. With 600 attendees, this year’s conference was a very busy affair.

The crowds at NUX4

Enough background, here are my highlights from the day:

Facebook of note-taking: A story about an app that nobody needed

– by Tomer Sharon, @tsharon

The opening keynote was given by Tomer Sharon, senior researcher for Google Search. Sharon stood out for the style he delivered his lesson in – like he was reading from a storybook at bedtime.

He sat alone on a stool in the middle of the stage, reading aloud, while his story was punctuated with photos of the characters, Will and Dana, in action, projected behind him.

The style of talk encouraged the audience to sit back and listen, absorbing the lessons without the need to scribble notes – at least that is how I felt.

The gist of the story was two entrepreneurs, with an idea for an app. It would aid a habit they had, of sharing notes about their work with their family and friends.

They spent a lot of time developing the app from their initial idea and put together an extensive marketing strategy. Plenty of people downloaded the app, but that’s where it’s popularity ended. No one was actually using it.

So, the lesson here? Your idea should solve a [common] problem. Sharon shared this statistic:

“86% of startup ideas originate with personal pain.”

Like the characters in the story, Sharon says many well intentioned entrepreneurs, conducting A/B tests and optimising their idea are still just circling around their original idea.

It’s not enough to ask people what solution they would like though – very often people are bad at articulating what would actually help.

The three main lessons from Tomer Sharon’s talk:

  1. Do the right thing first, then things the right way i.e. identify a problem, find the solution and then make your product usable and visually appealing.
  2. Fall in love with problems, then with solutions. Note down problems you see and do a lot of research into the problem before devising a solution.
  3. Observe people, don’t just listen to what they say.

Clients Don’t Suck

– Evgenia (Jenny) Grinblo, @grinblo

The second session of the day was also the most talked about for the rest of the day. Evgenia aka Jenny Grinblo, is a user experience consultant at Future Workshops. Her talk focussed on how to execute projects smoothly with different kinds of clients.

Grinblo’s advice came in two parts: firstly, how to identify the sort of client and secondly, solutions for working most effectively with them.

Three types of client

Condition #1: Designs in the boardroom

Identifiable when:

  • They say, “I’m the user”.
  • Design decisions are based on opinion.
  • The stakeholders disagree.
  • When there are surprise features that aren’t in line with the product.

Remember the title of the talk, Clients Don’t Suck. Grinblo wants us all to try to understand our clients better. In this case, the client that designs in the boardroom probably does so because they’re not used to the research process.

To resolve this blocker:

  • Bring the user’s voice into the boardroom with audio or video clips. This stimulates empathy.
  • Conduct guerilla user testing and bring your findings to the boardroom.
  • Get the client to write down their assumptions about users’ pain points. This can reveal just how arbitrary assumptions can be.

Condition #2: The nit picker

Identifiable when they pick at small details like colours and features before answering the fundamental question, does this product solve a problem. (See how it echoes Tomer Sharon’s talk?)

To combat the nit picker:

  • Get the client to create a storyboard, where they visualise the problem and how the product will swoop in to save the day. Ask them to avoid imagining the problem on screen, imagine it in the real world.
  • Be ruthless with prioritisation. Get all concerned departments and parties to write down their priorities, it’s important that everyone’s viewpoint is understood. Then create one, cut down, list of priorities.

Condition #3: UX/UI-Webmaster-Yoga Teacher-Unicorn Seeker

This is the client who jumps around from task to task and has lots of ideas about what you should do. Why do they behave this way? Because they have no idea what you actually do.

A slide on Jenny Grinblo's computer

Bring the unicorn seeker back to Earth by:

  • Asking them hard questions. This should make them realise their own depth of knowledge is shallow.
  • Expose your decision-making i.e. show how you’ve come to your design choices. This will help your client trust that you have explored every avenue and have good reasons for each decision.
  • Scare them. This is for when your client is still hopping about with ideas, wants to rush through the research process or blocking your process in any other way. To scare them show what could go wrong later on (with stats on how many apps fail, how much it could cost them etc) if you don’t get the early stages right.

Jenny Grinblo’s scare tactics:

I chatted to lots of other attendees throughout the day and many of them said Jenny’s talk was the most beneficial to them or the most practical.

Connecting Digital to Analog

– by Brian Suda, @briansuda

Brian Suda is an informatician. Wiktionary definition:

“someone who practices informatics”

which is…

“A branch of information science and of computer science that focuses on the study of information processing, particularly with respect to systems integration and human interactions with machine and data.”

His talk veered well away from that topic though, instead Suda introduced us to the ‘papernet’. The papernet is where digital resources are created to be transformed into analog items. The whole talk re-ignited a passion for the wonder of paper.

Brian Suda with his diagram of Science and Art

Suda shared examples of his own efforts to experiment with the papernet, creating dynamic resources that work on paper.

A year calendar on a wallet-sized card:

In comparing analog and digital, Suda showed that some of the assumed limitations of paper may be false e.g. you can’t zoom with with analog.

This example of a folded travel guide shows how both the zoomed-out and zoomed-in views can be presented.

Even that internet staple, the cat GIF, can be done IRL (in real life):

What a legend.

Everybody Hurts: Content for Kindness

– by Sara Wachter-Boettcher, @sara_ann_marie

The closing keynote was given by content strategist, Sara Wachter-Boettcher. The content of Wachter Boettcher’s talk was extremely emotive and sombering.

She began by recounting her experience filling out a new patient form. The following question was sandwiched between the more standard and inane details of any form recording personal details:

“Have you ever been sexually assaulted?

There is no explanation of how your answer might be used. Reducing this question to a yes or no answer is also woefully inadequate. There is no opportunity to explain, no chance to indicate whether you want to talk about this.

This sketchnote captured the emotion of the talk:

The point is, we don’t always know what experiences people have had and how they’ll react. Sometimes they don’t either.

Follow the question protocols set out Caroline Jarrett and Gerry Gaffney in Forms that Work.

A question protocol includes:

  • Every question you ask.
  • Who within your organisation uses the answers.
  • What they use them for.
  • Whether an answer is required or optional.
  • If an answer is required, what happens if a user enters any old thing the get through the form.

When you think of your audience and users, how do you picture them? Maybe you’ve created personas. These probably don’t cover 100% of your users. When a user doesn’t fit your image, what will the experience you’ve created on your site feel like for them?

“Don’t dismiss users who have a bad experience as ‘edge case’, redefine as a ‘stress case’.”

It’s in vogue to design moments of joy, such as Facebook’s shared memories. This can go horribly wrong though e.g. if Facebook suggests sharing your most interacted with photo and it happens to be a loved one who has passed away.

Spend your users’ heartbeats wisely:

In creating content for kindness, what is kindest? Wachter Boettcher says

“Imagine the worst case scenario and design for that. Kindness is adjusting to our users’ needs, not asking them to fit ours.”

Supporting resources

Speakers’ slides

The conference schedule has been updated with slides of the speakers’ talks. I’ve covered only covered half the talks here but the other half were fantastic, so do go and check out the slides.

Sketchnotes from the conference

Sketchnotes from the conference by Chris Spalton:
Sketchnotes album from NUX4

For an alternative set of rather lovely drawings, there’s Aurora Melchor’s sketchnotes:

My experience with NUX

I’ve been lucky enough to speak at an event in Manchester, when helping out my friend and former colleague, Laura Gordon.

I was also fortunate to attend the first NUX conference in 2012. That event was fantastic and since then it has gone from strength to strength, attracting speakers and attendees from far and wide.

Thank you NUX committee for putting on a conference of this calibre in the North West, you can’t be praised enough.