RE:Design/UXD Conference, San Jose 2013

Day 1

I am attending a two day conference focused on User Experience Design. At the end of the first day I can clearly say this was a valuable event even if every presenter tomorrow is really awful. You can find more information at the conference website ( I will run through the sessions and attempt to communicate those points I found especially poignant. Much of this will be iterative, in that the presenter had a point, I may have heard it as they intended it or applied my own analysis to it. Either way, I should qualify that all of these ideas are not mine but at the same time many of these ideas were not the presenters’. That should be clear as mud!

What Can Experience Designers Learn From Rock Stars – Tim Richards (@nanotim) – Blitz

Graphic Design and Branding – Andy Gilliland – Punchcut

What We Can Learn From Connected Objects Around Us – Jeff Devries – Motorola Mobility

Learning From James Bond, Experience Designer – Danny Sill – IDEO

What We Can Learn From a Bad Remodel – Steve Tatham – Disney Imagineering

Reframing UX Design as a Profession – Peter Merholz (@peterme) – Groupon

The discussion of group dynamics was very timely as I look at the development of my teams at Oasis Digital. We need to be able to work collaboratively and we need to work solo. A big challenge has been having that solo work fit back into the collaborative effort. We need a shared language to be consistent. Each team member learns to communicate within the team but continues to use that shared language when they work alone. If we push to stay consistent, then individuals can innovate within the language of the team.

We also discussed the need to have the core message down cold. When you know it inside and out then true passion and innovation can shine through. The best musicians will play a piece thousands of times so that they know it completely. That way when they perform they can meet the audience at the experiential level and communicate without worrying about the content. We should know our process and our message without hesitation. If we do that then we can meet our customers where they are and provide them with more valuable service.Screenshot 2013-04-30 at 10.11.53 PM

We also need to guard against doing it ourselves. Those around us cannot learn if we do not teach them. This is difficult when faced with deadlines and requirements, but if adhered to then the benefits are substantial. In a modern organization we need to be flexible with the parts we play. There are no menial tasks or work that is below us, there is the team and a goal. The team members have a responsibility to all push toward the goal together.

When presenting an idea we need to speak with passion and honesty, we should not apologize for limitations. We need to put our thoughts and ideas out to the world. Good design has persuasive power and we need to master our craft.

There was also discussion about the need to separate the idea from the execution. I like the quote “save yourself from yourself”. Often we can be our own worst enemy and destroy our own ideas. We load them down with requirements and additional ideas which can lead to a loss of the original point. We should iterate on the execution (how the idea is realized), not on the idea itself.

Simple is often the best approach once the shared language of the team is established. You should be able to distill core ideas to fit on a bumber sticker. This is not sales, it is communication. This flows into another point that was made which was we should design for behavior instead of designing for information. The ways users are interfacing with information are distributed across platforms and devices. We should be looking at the behavior in each context.

When a music artist wants the audience to “go nuts” they “drop the bass”. This is a universal message that invites the audience to participate. You can hear this principle in much of the music played during warmups at sporting events. A lot of dance music will make heavy use of this idea as well. As designers we should “drop the bass” in our systems. No, we should not incorporate Dubstep into our designs, we should invite users to use our software. We can do this through emphasis, colors, and simplicity.bigstock-Group-of-people-Crowd-infront-43018951

The merger of structural thinking and visual asthetics is very important. We need to give content form and order. There is currently a convergence of physical spaces and screen spaces. A convergence of physical and electronic devices. We should start designing using good design principles and stop just putting the logo in the upper left.

Other design disciplines can teach us a lot. Industrial and Automotive design can teach us about feedback, the prioritization of information and sightless interaction. Landscape architecture can teach us about designing for space, considering flow and managing multiple user interactions. These are very important as we bridge the physical and the virtual. We can use these ideas to develop a consistent design experience that trancends interface options.

The way we store masses of information has changed the way we think and process. The way we use all of this input and store it outside of ourselves is a phenomonal change and we are only scratching the surface of its implications. We need to consider this change as we design a UI. Users today simply interact with applications differently than they did 5, 10 or 20 years ago. We will not be going back so we need to look forward.

We need to think from a systems perspective. We can learn a lot from systems that work (subways, ecosystems, beehives). We should not try to reproduce the same experience on different devices. We should make the experience make sense in the context of the use. This context changes between travel, home and work. There is a progression of interactions that is changing over time (keyboard/mouse > touch/voice > gestures/eye-gaze). These changes are additive, because we now use voice does not mean we stop using a touchpad or mouse.

Society keeps swinging between many devices and a singular multipurpose device. Not too long ago we all had phones, mp3 players, gps devices, etc. Now most adults have a smartphone and none of the rest. With the advent of the new physical devices (fitness tracker, smart watch, Google Glass) will these collapse into a singular device or will they have enough value on their own to persist?

Reverse mentoring can be powerful. Today, youth are coming in with skills and understanding that surpass those with experience in some very critical and narrow areas. Much like teachers had to move from being the knowledge experts in schools to guiding exploration by students we need to empower young coworkers to share what comes so natural to them. We need to adopt that role of guide to help them where they need it (most functional aspects of life), and not be threatened by their skills.

All developers should be concerned with the user experience. This is not the domain of an isolated team member. There is a shortage of designers so companies tend to use their design capacity for product execution and forget ideation and product definition. A good UX designer becomes a conductor and leader for the team. It is very easy for a team to get off the “good” path.

Day 2

Day 2 in San Jose, and I need to give the same disclaimer as yesterday.

“You can find more information at the conference website ( I will run through the sessions and attempt to communicate those points I found especially poignant. Much of this will be iterative, in that the presenter had a point, I may have heard it as they intended it or applied my own analysis to it. Either way, I should qualify that all of these ideas are not mine but at the same time many of these ideas were not the presenters’. That should be clear as mud!”

What We Can Learn from Disruptors – Carrie Whitehead – Zappos

What We Can Learn from Maps – Eric Rodenbeck – Stamen Design

What We Can Learn from a Voter – Adam Stalker/Daniel Ryan – Obama for America

What We Can Learn from Gaming – Christina Wodtke – Publisher, Boxes and Arrows

The Experiential Difference – Jesse McMillin – Virgin America

conf_uxdThe story of Netflix and Blockbuster are a cautionary tale for any business. 5 years ago Blockbuster was in excellent financial position, expanding markets, a solid business. The markets and Blockbuster scoffed at the upstart Netflix and its business model. The truth was, complacency had invaded Blockbuster and today they are bankrupt while Netflix, despite missteps, is growing and positioned well for the future. The moral of the story is incremental improvements to business are important and powerful but CANNOT substitute for innovation. We need to look ahead, see patterns, see opportunities, and innovate.

We need to design for one task to touch many channels. Retailers like Amazon have to consider this. Users might browse on a tablet, phone, pc or tv. They might review products on the tablet and complete orders on the pc. They might manage gift lists from their phones or make media purchases there through apps. They might stream movies on their accounts from their tvs. All of these are part of a single task arriving from multiple touch points.

Quick technology geeked out moment and an example of good design: I am editing this post on my Chromebook Pixel. I have my notes open in Evernote in a window to the left of my editor. I can scroll in the Evernote window by placing the mouse over the background window and moving two fingers on the touchpad. I can do this without changing focus from my editor. I can scroll in Evernote while typing in my blog editor. Excellent design!

bigstock-Infographic-elements--set-of--42710947Mapping data sets is both an old discipline and one that in many ways is brand new. Over the millenia maps have been key to many things. They told stories about the land they described. Cartography is collected as a highly prized art form. Maps today have been reduced to a simple tool. Very little depth is present. Sure, you can make it look different with the treasure map layer on Google, but there is not a story there.

When we consider data in various systems we can choose to look at the numbers in tabular format or visualize data in graphs, charts or tools. If we take this a bit further and “map” the data in multiple dimensions, unusual patterns are visible, new questions are raised, and a greater understanding of the data is possible. The human interface for interacting and exploring this data still needs to be developed. Hollywood has its ideas, and we all know how realistic that is. It is clear that we are very close to being able to tap into historical data at a level that was impossible previously.

When we do map data there is an opprotunity to return to the storytelling of mapmakers of old. We can intentionally weave a manager’s job description in how the data is presented and manipulated. We can provide the “rest of the story” to a busy executive wondering how effective his workforce is many levels of management isolated from him. We can empower users with predictive inputs to help them make wise decisions in their businesses.

Big data no longer means collecting snapshots, it means collecting everything. The election in 2013 was an unprecedented opportunity to both track and influence social networks. The Obama campaign partnered tightly with Facebook and Google to provide daily inputs that directed the campaign. Every night 66k election simulations were run and analyzed, data was constantly challenged and tested, and changes in strategy were implemented. They had deep access to millions of voters’ data, during an emotional election season, with a crescendo of activity culminating in the election. What a researcher’s dream.

One use of social media was really surprising to me. The campaign had a list of undecided voters. They mapped those voters on Facebook in many ways. What photos were they tagged in? Who were they friends with? Who did they share with? Where did they live? Then they would measure the influence of their supporters with those voters using the same metrics, and score the “influence factor” of that supporter. Then they would send messages from the campaign giving supporters instructions regarding who to talk to. By this method and the election day vote efforts they estimate they swung 5 million voters nationwide. This is greater than the margin of public vote victory for the president.

American politicsTwo other efforts, “The Life of Julia” and the explanation of Obamacare were both very successful. On both of these initiatives 75% of the users stuck through the application all the way to the end. This is a very high retention rate. The Obamacare app moved people through the legislation from 4 different inputs, through 500 paths, to 8 conclusions. Both of these applications flowed against the resistance we have to clicks in design.

One last conclusion from the campaign discussion was the way they drew people into donating. The entrance page for donations was very simple, the user simply selected an amount. There was much information that needed to be filled out but the user was not presented with this until they decided to give. The user rarely backed out once they made that decision. They found this far more effective than the past approach of presenting users with forms prior to the donation moment.

Game designers identify user types when building a game. These consist of killers, achievers, socialites and explorers. Another list is expressers, competers, explorers, and collaborators. There are similar patterns at play in a business when interacting with their enterprise applications. Executives, managers, workers, and administrators all have similarities in both personality and job description to these categories. If we map both personality and job against a category of user we can learn something about how to build an interface suitable for their use. It appears there is fertile ground in this area that could yield increased productivity.

In a media-cluttered world we crave things both immersive and memorable. We need to remember that when building systems. We cannot incorporate whimsy and humor in everything we do, but there will be opportunities to do so. Our users and clients will thank us if we do.

Now that I am through the conference I feel like I can put down the firehose and absorb this information. What a valuable experience, and a conference I would highly recommend.