FaviconBreaking into the speaker circuit 6 Aug 2018, 7:19 pm

As somebody who both organises and speaks at events, I’ve got a good insight into the workings of the conference circuit. This is probably why I regularly get emails from people looking for advice on breaking into the speaking circuit. So rather than repeating the same advice via email, I thought I’d write a quick article I could point people to.

First off, breaking into the speaker circuit can feel intimidating. If you look at the line up of most international conferences, they’re packed with veterans speakers from well known brands. It’s easy to feel that the speaker circuit is already locked down and there’s no way to break in. However it’s worth noting that every veteran speaker was in your shoes at some stage. In truth, audiences get bored of the same old faces pretty quickly, so conference organisers feel a huge pressure to find new speakers from diverse backgrounds. As such, conference speaking is surprisingly egalitarian, and talent rises to the top surprisingly quickly.

Conference speaking can be a lot of fun, but before you start dedicating too much time and effort becoming a speaker, it’s worth thinking about your motivations. There are a lot of reasons why people choose to speak at events, and there’s no right or wrong answer. However the most common motivations I see include:

  • Having a unique specialism you want to share.
  • Giving something back to the community.
  • Having an excuse to learn a new skill.
  • Frustration by the status quo.
  • Not being able to afford to attend conferences unless you speak.
  • Building up your personal brand.
  • Increasing your perceived employability and finding work.
  • Promoting your company or consultancy services.
  • Travelling the world.

While all the above reasons are perfectly valid, focussing on the intrinsic benefits of public speaking like a desire to help people, share knowledge and to push the industry forward, will lead to a longer and more fulfilling speaking career. Conversely, if you focus on extrinsic reasons like building a person brand or landing that next job, you’re more likely to stop once those goals have been met. Either way, public speaking is incredibly rewarding, so let’s look at where to start.

I regularly get emails from people wanting to speak at one of my events. When I ask where they’ve spoken before and what they speak about, the answers are often the same; they’ve not actually spoken anywhere before, and don’t have anything specific they want to talk about (worse is when they ask you what you want them to speak about, when you have no idea what they’re actually good at). This is a relatively new phenomenon, and it seems that speaking has gone from being a means to an end, into an end in itself.

So my first piece of advice would be to think deeply about the topics you want to talk about. If you have a particular skill, passion or experience you want to share, that’s great. However there’s a misconception amongst a lot of people that you need to be an expert to speak. While knowing your topic is important, you don’t necessarily need to be the most experienced person in the Universe on your chosen subject.

There’s a strange irony that the most experienced people in a particular topic are often the worst communicators, while those relatively new to a field can be great at explaining things, because they’ve recently gone through the process of synthesising the information themselves. As such, great storytelling usually trump superior domain knowledge.

There’s no point being a great storyteller if you don’t have a good story to tell, so its worth thinking about the particular point of view you bring to the topic. Do you have recent experience in the subject matter? A project that went well of badly? A technique you’ve developed, or a perspective that’s slightly different from the norm. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about something that’s been spoken about before, as long as you’re bringing a new and interesting perspective to the conversation.

Its also worth mentioning that just because your topic have been done by other people, doesn’t mean that everybody knows the subject inside out already. There’s a tonne of new people entering our industry every day, so there’s always a market for seemingly obvious stuff. In fact, I have no problem finding people to talk about cutting edge techniques at my conferences, but I really struggle finding people to talk about foundational skills. So don’t think you have to have something unique before you start talking about it.

Another common mistake new speakers make is coming up with a new talk for every event. Public speaking is a learnt skill, so the more you do it the better you get. That means that the first time you do a talk will probably be the worst time, and as you do it more and more, you’ll get better and better. You’ll learn which parts of the talk work well, and which bits need tweaking. You’ll see where people laugh, and where they don’t, and use the feedback k to improve things the next time you speak. As such I generally find I have to do a talk three or four times before I’m happy with it.

A lot of professional speakers will have 3 talks on the go at any one time. They’ll have a talk that they’re just debuting, a talk that they’ve been doing for a while and really happy with, and a talk that was super popular a few years back, but they are slowly running down. The new talk will be reserved for smaller conferences or conferences looking for fresh material, the main talk will be for the big events looking for a surefire hit, and the older talk will usually be the one you’ll do for free at local events.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m seeing a lot of new speakers expecting to start right at the top, with the big international conferences. I’m not sure if there’s an x-factor type level of expectation here, but most of the good speakers I know started building their reputation and learning their craft by talking at small local meet-ups. After a few years they’d start speaking a local and sometimes national conferences, and only start being invited to speak at bigger international conferences after a good few years on the circuit.

This is similar to bands and comedians, who spend years learning their craft in local bars and comedy clubs, before getting the big TV spots and stadium gigs. As such, my advice would be to start small, get in loads of practice, and work up to the bigger conferences and events over time.

Public speaking can be a nerve-racking experience, and even the most experience speakers feel stressed before going on stage, In fact I have a few friends who are literally nervous wrecks in the run up to their talks, wondering why they put themselves through the stress, and swearing that they’ll never speak again. Yet the moment thay step on stage something changes, and as an audience member you’d never know the stress they were going through back stage.

A small amount of nerves are arguably a good thing, and can act as a performance enhancer. However there are lots of “tricks” that can help you combat the inevitable stress of public speaking; exercise in the morning before your talk, listening to music backstage to get in the zone, or just being quiet and peaceful before your session, in order to blank out any fear and self doubt. Whatever techniques you use, things do generally get better with time and experience.

My top tip for getting over nerves isn’t anything especially revolutionary. I just try to memorise the first few minutes of my talk, so when I get on stage I can do it confidently and eloquently. It usually takes a few minutes for the nerves to subside, and for you to hit your stride. So nailing the first few minutes, usually helps.

The other little secret is the best speakers often get coaching. Public speaking is a performance, and generally get’s better through active improvement. So training and coaching can help you structure more engaging talks, develop a good stage presence, increase your vocal range, and generally improve your delivery and confidence. So no matter what level speaker you are, whether beginner or expert, consider getting some external help.

When you’re ready to move from smaller local events to larger conferences, organisers are looking for three things, generally in this order.

  • Confident speakers who are able to tell a great story.
  • A really interesting topic that fits with the current zeitgeist.
  • Well known speakers or speakers from well known brands, that will help sell tickets.

Mostly, conference organisers are looking for people who can demonstrate expertise, so if you are reaching out to organisers to suggest your services, you need to understand their conference, the audiences it attracts, and the topics that will be of interest to them. If you’ve been to the conference before, let them know. If you haven’t been, maybe you should consider buying a ticket this year, and then suggesting yourself as a speaker next year. It’s always more flattering as a conference organisers when the person genuinely knows the event, rather than bulk emailing a list of conferences they got off lanyard. Even worse is when the person’s assistant or PR firm reaches out, as it demonstrates that person is to busy or self important to bother reaching out directly. This anonymous shotgun attitude always gets a black mark in my book.

If you’re already an experienced speaker with a good reputation, organisers will mostly know who are are, and what you talk about. If not, you’re going to need to give them a couple of possible talk ideas, along with a video or two of you speaking. If you don’t have videos of you speaking, it’s going to make your lives a lot more difficult as the organisers want to minimise risk and be sure that you’re going to do a great job. So consider recording a version of the talk when doing a run-through for colleagues or friends. Failing that, offer to drop by the event organisers office to run the talk by them in person. Organisers get dozens of unsolicited talk requests, so you need to make their jobs as easy as possible, by demonstrating how good you are and the value you can bring to their event.

When preparing talks, I usually allocate 1-2 hours of preparation for every minute of the talk. So a 45 minute talk would take me 90 hours (roughly two weeks) to pull together. The more you do it the quicker you’ll get. A lot of novices don’t realise the time it takes to put together a great talk, and will skimp on prep. In fact I see a lot of novice speaker (and embarrassingly some experienced speakers) bragging at speaker dinners about how little effort they’ve put in the talk. Even worse is when they get up on stage and say to the audience that they were finishing their slides off the night before.

While we’re all busy people, this unpreparedness is unprofessional and disingenuous to both audiences and event producers alike. So make sure you put enough time into the preparation of your talk, and run through it at least 3 or 4 times before you present to a paying audience.

Lastly, if you are a novice speaker, asking for a fee can be tricky. It’s amazing how many conferences don’t pay their speakers, or even cover expenses. In fact some conferences still expect speakers to pay for a ticket. While it’s tempting to speak for free, in exchange for the “exposure” you’ll get, this makes it harder for other speakers. Especially ones who are having to take time off work to speak at the event, or dip into their own pockets to cover things like childcare. So when you’re approached to to speak at a conference, it’s always a good idea to ask what package they can offer, and not necessarily take “no fee” as the first answer.

Of course you then have to decide what your fee should be. Whatever it is, you’ll be lucky if the fee covers your time out of the office, let alone the time it took for you to put the talk together. One way to look at it is to assume you’ll probably give the talk a half a dozen times, and spread the cost over a a number of events based on a rough day rate. Another way to look at it is to pick a fee that a low multiple of the average ticket price. At the end of the day there’s no perfect way to set and negotiate fees. It’s something that comes with time, practice and a certain level of experience.

I hope this article has given you a few ideas for whether public speaking is right for you, and if it is, how to go about breaking into the speaking circuit. In my experience, conference speaking is a highly rewarding thing to do, and its fun being part of a smart, supportive and diverse community of speakers. So I wish you all the best on your future speaking career, and hope to see you on stage at a conference soon.

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FaviconReoccuring billing, and forgetfulness as a dark pattern 1 May 2018, 7:16 am

Five years ago my company was pitching for a newspaper project, so I decided to sign up for a bunch of newspaper subscriptions, including the Times. I was really impressed with the thought and consideration that had gone into both their Web offering and iPad app, so used it constantly for about a month. Once the pitch had finished, I stopped using the service, and my attention drifted elsewhere.

Today, I received a threatening email from the Times saying that my last payment hadn’t gone through and if I didn’t do something about it, they were ominously going to “take action”. I immediately felt a knot in my stomach. Had I accidentally been paying for the subscription all this time? How could I have not known? I felt stupid, I felt gullible, I felt angry and betrayed.

It would be easy to blame me for my own stupidity, and a do take a good deal of responsibility. After all, shouldn’t I be checking my bank statements each month for erroneous payments? I’m sure a lot of people do this with their personal accounts, but I genuinely struggle to find the time. It’s even harder with company accounts. With so many transactions are going though each month, it’s easy to miss small anomalies. Especially when the person managing the accounts isn’t the person making the payments. When this happens, associations easily get divorced.

For the majority of online services I use, this isn’t a problem. I’ll sign up with an email address and be sent a handy invoice or billing reminder each time money is taken. This lets me know that I’m still a subscriber, and reminds me to use the service and get the value I’m paying for.

This wasn’t the case with my Times subscription. They kept dutifully taking money from my account once a month, without informing me this was happening. Understanding that memory is fallible, it’s inevitable that people will eventually forget some of the subscriptions they’ve signed up for, and without these billing reminders, people like myself will find themselves accidentally paying for services long after they’ve stopped being useful.

It’s entirely possible that this was simply an oversight from the Times, and there was no malicious intent. However it’s interesting to think that of the two possible approaches—remind or don’t remind—the former massively favours the customer as it prevents them from forgetting subscriptions, while the latter hugely favours the company as they constantly get to extract money from people who have accidentally forgotten their subscription, and would otherwise cancel. So you can’t help but wonder whether an ambitious product manager made a deliberate decision to avoid subscription reminders, in an attempt to maximise revenue.

Even if this was a genuine oversight, and not a deliberate dark pattern, I cannot be the first person to have forgotten they were paying for a service they weren’t using. Especially with the increasingly ageing population of Times readers. As such, I suspect the customer service team must get a handful of such calls each week, if not each day.

Oh, did I mentioned that the only way to unsubscribe was by phone, despite being able to sign up online. This is another well known dark pattern. Making it super easy to subscribe to something, but relatively hard to unsubscribe. As such. I’m sure a good portion of people phoning up to unsubscribe get fed up waiting 15 to 20 minutes for an answer, decided they’d phone back another time, then dutifully forgot again.

Being a known problem, this would be a relatively simple thing to fix. For instance, you could send customers a gentle reminder on the anniversary of their subscription. That way, if customers were to forget, this would give them an opportunity to re-enguage with your service, or cancel if they no longer wanted to use you.

A more sophisticated approach would be to notice that people hadn’t logged in after a set time, like 3 months, and put peoples accounts on hold. This is a really nice approach as it shows a duty of care to your customers, while still keeping the option open that they’ll re-enguage.

Of course this all depends on having the will to make these improvements, especially if the result could mean a drop in income. So for many companies it’s just more convenient—and more profitable—to ignore these edge cases and keep taking money from people you know no longer use your service. To that end, it feels like the fallibility of human memory is a dark pattern many companies are using for their own benefit.

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FaviconNorwegian A.I. Retreat 1 Oct 2017, 7:23 pm

Last week I took a group of friends and colleagues over to the Norwegian Fjords for a 3 day retreat. We’d all been working hard the past year, and were feeling pretty burnt out. So everybody jumped at the chance to breath in the clean Nordic air, marvel and the beautiful surroundings, and get a sense of inspiration and perspective.

We’d booked the wonderful Juvet Hotel, a place I’ve wanted to stay ever since seeing it used as the location for Ex Machina. We needed an area of focus for the retreat, and considering the location, Artificial Intelligence seemed like the obvious choice.

Once the preserve of Science Fiction, A.I. is starting to weave its way into our lives. At the moment there’s a lot of hype and speculation; over active marketing teams trying to convince us that adding the letters “A” and “I” to a product instantaneously make it better. While that isn’t always the case, it’s helping lots of start-ups attract more investment and increase their valuation.

At the same time there is also a lot of fear, uncertainty and doubt being generated by the media. Rarely a day goes by without some news story proclaiming an end of days scenario, only for that same publication to dismiss the fears as irrational a week later. It seems that if A.I is good for one thing, it’s boosting circulation.

With opinions fluctuating between utopia and dystopia, I was struggling to get an accurate view of the field. As such, one goal of the retreat was to gain a more realistic understanding of A.I. away from the media hyperbole. We did this by starting the retreat with a simple domain mapping exercise, to ensure that we all had a shared vocabulary and understood the general direction of travel.

My other hope was to bring more diversity of thought to the conversation, and break away from the usual circle of computer scientists and technocrats. Rather than domain experts, we were a group of interested parties, comprised of people from the arts, humanities, academia and design. We weren’t necessarily the people inventing this brave new world, but we would be the type of people called upon to make it palatable to the general public through story telling and design.

At the outset of most technological revolutions, the focus is understandably on the benefits it can bring. For industrial advances, these benefits are often in the form of reduced costs, increased productivity, and increased shareholder value. It’s only later that the social effects become clear.

As a group of user-centered designers and humanist technologists, it became evident that our interest lay in the effects A.I. would have on people and society as a whole, rather than the more immediate and obvious benefits to productivity and commerce. Over the course of around a dozen unconference style conversations, from brainstorming dystopian futures to discussing robot ethics, a pattern of concerns started to emerge. We’ve tried to capture the outputs of these discussions as a series of open questions, which we hope to share soon.

One big topic of discussion was the fear that A.I. and robotics may bring about large scale under-employment. Past technological revolutions have sparked similar fears, and humanity has always been able to adapt. Engines surpassed human power, production line technology automated mundane and repetitive tasks, and computers allowed people to outsource data storage and processing. Each time this has happened, we’ve be able to find new and meaningful work to replace the lost jobs, driving productivity ever forward. However could A.I. be difference? If we can finally outsource human cognition to the machine, is there anywhere left to go?

A related problem is the nature of the work we’ll end up doing as a result. A.I. has the ability to remove mundane tasks and let us focus on the fun and creative parts of our work. It also has the ability to create a generation of workers who’s sole job is to babysit machines, only stepping in when some sort of exception is thrown up. While this may be efficient, it’s not a great route to job satisfaction. As a result A.I. could very well eat into the middle of the jobs market, pushing some people up the skills ladder, and others down.

Another big problem was the realisation that as systems become more and more sophisticated, they become more difficult to understand. It’s no longer just a case of viewing source and checking the code, but also understanding the training data. If the training data is biased, because society can be biased, the results may be skewed and difficult to detect. This could result in new jobs like A.I. trainers and data bias consultants to ensure that new A.I.s are being fair with their decisions.

We briefly talked about robot skeuomorphism; how a lot of household robots are currently designed to look vaguely humanoid. This has certain benefits, such as signalling the robots capabilities to their users. If the robot has eyes, you presume it can see, if it has ears you presume it can hear, and if it has legs you assume it can walk. A lot of robots also seem to demonstrate rather childlike capabilities like big eyes and short stature, partly to communicate a level of simplicity and demonstrate that they aren’t a threat. At the moment the form is largely a consequence of engineers trying to create robots that can do similar tasks to humans by duplicating their movements. However over time I believe that robots will move away from the humanoid form and develop shapes which are better designed and more suited to their particular tasks.

We also touched on the area of ethics and morals. For instance should A.I.s be forced to adopt a human moral code, and if so, what would that actually be? If we did manage to create some form of super intelligence, would we have to grant them human-like rights, or could we still consider them a utility like a car or a toaster. If they were treated like utilities, wound’t that raise some rather uncomfortable questions?

On a slightly more mundane, but possibly more near-term scenario, should we encourage people to be polite towards A.I.s in the same way we are polite to people? Obviously the current crop of A.I.s wouldn’t really care if we say please or thank you. However by ignoring these common social behaviours, we may be baking in problems for the future. One of the attendees mentioned how they accidentally started talking to their partner like they were talking to their Alexa, while several parents noted their kids had started to behave in similar ways. Imagine a future where robots pets and helpers were common. Could we imagine a scenario where mistreating a robot pet change the way we treated actual animals? If so, would we eventually have to consider legislation to prevent robot abuse?

Obviously a lot of these questions are just thought experiments, and are a long way off at the moment. However I truly believe that when I’m old enough to need some form of home care, there’s a good chance I’ll be looked after in part by a robot. So many of these challenges may will be here In our lifetimes, and a few may arrive sooner than we think.

Of course the trip wasn’t just pondering theoretical questions. I was as much a holiday as anything else. So as well as lots of stimulating conversations over good food and slightly overpriced beer, we had plenty of time to enjoy our surroundings. This included a lovely forrest walk along King Olav’s Way, a hike up a mountain to visit a Glacier, and even a chance to see the Northern Lights. These shared experiences helped us bond as a group, while the beautiful scenery helped put things in perspective and provide the space to think.

Considering the short amount of time we had at our disposal, It’s amazing how much ground we managed to cover and how productive we felt by the end. We had started the retreat with the 20 of us sitting around discussing what we’d hoped to get out of the next two days. We finished on a similar note, explaining what we’d all taken away. Everybody had a different story to tell, but we all left with new connections, deeper friendships, a better understanding of the emerging field of A.I. and a newfound love of the Norwegian Fjords. So much so, that we’ve already booked next years trip. I for one can’t wait.

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FaviconTwitter and the end of kindness 13 Sep 2017, 8:36 am

When you see somebody with spinach in their teeth, the kind thing to do is to tell them privately. If you tell them to their face, in front of a group of friends and strangers, you get the same end result; the spinach gets removed. However in doing so you bring attention to the problem, and shame the participant in the process. So what could have been an act of kindness, quickly turns into an act of cruelty and public humiliation.

There was a time, not so long ago, when you would contact a company directly if you had a problem with a product or service. Maybe the product got lost in the post or wasn’t as advertised, maybe the hotel room wasn’t as expected, or the food didn’t come up to scratch. In these situations you’d tell the waiter or manager, drop the company an email, or call customer support.

These days, when you see a problem, the first reaction is often to reach for Twitter and share your frustration with the world. With large companies this often comes from experience. We’ve all had conversations with banks, utility companies and airlines, which have gone nowhere, so we end up venting our frustration online.

While it’s easy for companies to brush private conversations under the carpet, it’s much more difficult to do in public, so we’ve quickly learned that if we take our criticisms to Twitter, there’s a better chance they will get dealt with.

I’ve had this experience myself. After several frustrated phone conversations with my airline of choice, I took my complaints to Twitter. They immediately responded, took ownership of the problem and sorted it out straight away. I’m now on some kind of airline social media watchlist (the good kind), re-enforcing the fact that if I complain on Twitter my problem will get solved faster than phoning customer services.

In order to avoid a public relations disaster, complaining on social media encourages the best customer service from a company. This is something the large companies could have avoided, by delivering consistantly great customer service through traditional channels. As this hasn’t happened, publicly shaming companies has become the go to way to ensure a good customer service.

If this stopped with large companies, or companies who you’ve experienced an irreconcilable service failure with, I wouldn’t mind. However this behaviour has become the standard behaviour with everybody now, from big companies to small companies, from celebrities to friends. Rather than contacting people directly, we’ve started using public shaming as a tool to correct behaviour.

I see it regularly on Twitter. A friend or follower tweets you to highlight some small problem. Maybe there’s a broken page on your website, a typo on your recent medium post, or you accidentally referenced the wrong user in a recent tweet.

It would be super easy to email or DM the person, but instead you post to their public timeline. Most of the time you mean well, and are simply trying to help. However by posting publicly you draw other peoples attention to the problem, forcing people to act out of shame and embarrassment rather than gratitude.

People usually post to the public timeline because it represents the least amount of effort to do a good thing. You don’t have to switch panes in your Twitter app, go hunting for their email address, or ask if they’d mind following you so you can direct message them. You can get it off your mind as quickly as possible and move on.

However sometimes it feels like there’s an ulterior motive. That there’s a small amount of joy to be had from spotting the person you’re following has done something wrong, and flagging it up in public. That you get the public perception of doing a good deed (which is always nice) while making a small but pointed statement that they’re not perfect in front of their friends. It’s as though you’ve spotted the spinach in their teeth, but decided that the kindest thing to do was to point it out loudly in a crowd, in front of a thousand of their closets friends.

Personally I’d prefer to know rather than not know, so I’m definitely not suggesting people stop pointing out these small errors and transgressions. However I think we should think twice before posting these things publicly, and if time allows, reach out to your friend or follower directly first. That way you’ll avoid accidentally embarrassing them, or making them feel that they have to act from a sense of public pressure.

More importantly it’s the kind and polite thing to do. It’s also going to make that person think more warmly of you, as you’ve done them a favour without seeking any recognition, while maintaining their dignity and public reputation at the same time.

It’s only a small behaviour nudge, but from now on I’m going to do my best to approach people directly first, whether it’s large companies, small businesses, website owners, followers or friends, when I notice something is amiss. I urge you to do the same.

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FaviconThe Golden Age of UX may be over, but not for the reasons stated 5 Aug 2017, 10:52 am

Last week an article entitled The Golden Age of UX is Over popped onto my RADAR, after causing a bit of a stir amongst the design community. If I was being generous I’d say it was a genius title, designed to spark debate amongst UX designers. If I was being slightly less generous, I’d say it was a devilishly brilliant piece of click-bait, designed to drive traffic to an agency site. Either way I had a feeling the article would annoy me, so spent the next couple of days actively ignoring it. However temptation finally got the better of me and I ended up taking the bait.

On the whole I agree with the sentiment of the title that the “Golden Age of UX” probably is over. I say that as somebody who has been working in the space since the early naughties, set up one of the first UX practices in the UK, and curates the longest running UX conference in Europe.

The field of UX started life as a small but emergent community of practice, on the fringes of conferences like SXSW and the IA Summit. It grew through the blogs of early pioneers, and through the work of consultancies like Adaptive Path and Clearleft. The community accreted around new conferences like UX Week and UX London, which, in their early years, attracted almost the entirety of the UX communities in their respective locations.

I would argue that the quality of innovation, the quality of discourse and the quality of change in the UX space peaked somewhere between 2008 and 2012. This for me could arguably be described as the golden age of UX.

As with any gold rush, news of the find spreads quickly, and as more people rush in to make their fortunes, resources get depleted. By the middle of teens, UX hyperinflation started to occur. Every freelancer and every agency added UX to their titles, without really understanding what the term meant. “UX Designer” featured in lists of the most in-demand new professions and recruiters rushed to fill the gap, with often disastrous effects. While the number of people who self identified as UX designers carried on climbing, a deep and detailed understanding of what UX actually was started to ebb away.

The meaning of UX got muddied. Was it the same as UI? Was it another name for interaction design? Where did strategy, research and IA fit in? UX vs UI memes started to form on Twitter, arguments erupted about the existence of unicorns, and seemingly nobody could agree on anything anymore.

For years I fought to maintain a clear definition of UX, one that linked back to the community of practice from which it sprang. However the tidal wave of misunderstanding and misrepresentation became too big to fight, so I eventually gave up trying. UX had become so watered down and misunderstood that popular perception no-longer represented the community I knew. I became resigned to the fact that meaning changes based on usage, and if the majority of people see UX as this lightweight blending of prototyping and UI, devoid of any deep research, awareness of business needs, or commercial imperative, so be it.

It was this latter sentiment that annoyed me about the “Golden Age” article. Criticising a discipline based on cargo-cult thinking. In-truth, UX has always taken account of business needs and market forces, while Lean start-up was little more than a reformation of user centred design for a business audience. As a result, the article was less about the golden age being over, and more the dawning realisation that they may have confused a badly drawn map with the territory.

It’s also worth noting that most people tend to associate a “golden age” with their formative years, whether it’s movies, musics, or the discovery of a new career. So it’s possible that the golden age may be over for some, but for others it’s just beginning.

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FaviconDesign Leadership Slack Team 30 Jul 2017, 5:30 am

I recently started a Slack Team for Design Leaders. We currently have over 450 members; mostly Heads, Directors and VPs of Design from prominent tech companies and large traditional organisations. We’ve been very careful building the community. As a result the signal to noise ratio is remarkably high. Recent conversations have included:

  • Discussions around recruitment and whether design tasks are a good idea.
  • Various design leaders sharing their career progression ladders.
  • An ongoing debate around the perfect team structure.
  • Whether managing Millennials required a different set of skills (the general conclusion being they don’t).
  • The challenges of managing fast growing teams.
  • Tactics for your first 90 days in role.

The criteria for joining is fairly straightforward.

  • You’re a senior design leader of an in-house team.
  • You’re either the most senior design representative in your company, or a member of the design leadership team (at larger orgs).
  • You’ve moved away from delivery and aren’t a “player-coach.”
  • You’re a genuinely nice person who wants to contribute to the evolving filed of knowledge we’re creating.

If this sounds like you, drop me an email and I’ll hook you up.

Once you’ve joined, please feel free to lurk for a while and get a feel for the place. When you’re ready to jump in, please introduce yourself to the group, letting folks know a little about your background, the company you work for, the team you look after, and the leadership challenges that are interesting you at the moment.

We expect members of the Slack channel to respect each others privacy. If you do wish to disclose anything discussed here, please use Chatham House Rule and refrain from identifying individuals or their companies.

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FaviconThe Real Value of Original Research 17 May 2017, 9:24 am

User-centred designers typically start a new project with a research phase. This allows them to understand the product or service through the eyes of their customers, explore the limits of the problem space, and come up with recommendations that feel at least partially informed. All useful things from a design perspective.

Sometimes organisations baulk at the idea of doing research, causing the design team to launch into their typical spiel about the value of their approach. In my experience, these objections are rarely about the value of research itself, but more around whether original research is necessary on this occasion.

All organisations of a certain size carry out research as a matter of course. They probably have a marketing department segmenting customers, understanding customer sentiment, and testing new propositions through surveys and focus groups. They also have an analytics team tracking user behaviour, testing the effectiveness of campaigns, and pinpointing areas for improvement. In preparation for this project, the product managers and BAs almost certainly did their own research to help build the business case. They probably have more information than they know what to do with.

Most organisations feel they have a pretty good handle on what’s going on inside their company; they just need you to fix it. They claim there’s no need to do more research. Instead, they will provide you with access to their analytics package, the results of the user testing report they commissioned nine months ago, and copies of their marketing personas. This, combined with a briefing meeting should be enough to get your team up to speed.

On the surface this makes sense. After all, why pay for original research if you already have the answers you need? Better to save the money and spend it coming up with a solution, especially when resources are scarce.

This attitude is completely understandable, but it hides an unusual and counterintuitive truth about the value of design research. Design research is rarely about the acquisition of new knowledge and information. Instead, the real value of design research comes from the process of gathering and analysing the results. It’s this analysis phase where the data gets processed, information gets turned into knowledge, and understanding becomes tacit.

Existing research will have been gathered to answer general business questions, so it won’t necessarily provide the insights the design team need. Instead, design research is done with a specific product or service improvement in mind; it adds nuance to the problem at hand, and allows the designer to weigh up different options and understand how the various solutions may play out.

Knowledge gained from original research is far more impactful than that gathered elsewhere. Remembering the conversation you had with a frustrated customer becomes part of the narrative, and the resulting insight becomes internalised. This is a very different experience from reading a data point in somebody else’s report, which can easily be downplayed or forgotten.

In psychology this phenomenon is known as embodied cognition—the idea that you think through problems using your whole self, rather than just your mind. This means you learn more by experiencing something in person, than you do by reading about it in a book or report.

For most designers, original research isn’t about gathering facts and data. Instead, it’s the process they use to understand the task at hand. Like warming up before the big race, research allows you to engage body and mind, get the creative muscles working, and be flexible and limber enough to tackle the challenge ahead. It isn’t something you can effectively outsource to your coach or team captain. It’s a vital part of the pre-race process.

This was originally posted on UXMas.

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FaviconFirst Direct Trains Customers to be Phishing Victims 2 Mar 2017, 6:55 am

Banking security is a big deal and has been all over the news of late. Most of the coverage focusses on digital security and how to avoid having your account hacked. A common culprit is the Phishing attack, where a hacker sends you an email claiming to be from a trusted source, and asking for personal information like your password, mother’s maiden name, date or place of birth. Most security savvy companies have got wise to this approach, so on every email they will state clearly that they will NEVER request personal information like this.

So I was amazed when I got a phone call, with no caller ID, from somebody claiming to be from my bank. The caller said that before he could speak to me he needed to take me through security and ask me a bunch of personal questions. If you know anything about security you know that Social Engineering on one of their easiest attack vectors. With Social Engineering somebody phones up claiming to be somebody official—your finance department, your IT team, your bank—and asks you to divulge personal information they can then use to compromise your account. This is essentially the real world—or at least phone world—version of a phishing attack, and is something and good security team should be concerned about.

As somebody who cares about personal security I was shocked, so immediately called the bank to highlight this glaring security risk. However rather than caring about security holes, I was told that this was bank policy and if you didn’t want to answer the questions you could always go online or call up.

This is a terrible response as it essentially legitimises and habitualness the fact that banks can phone their customers up without notice and expect people to hand over personal information to a stranger. Security savvy folks like me would decline, but not everybody is as wary as I am. If First Direct trains its customers to hand out personal information to strangers on the phone, this opens up a massive security hole. Any fraudster can now identify First Direct customers (for instance folks who have interacted with the first Direct Twitter account recently), find their contact details online, then phone them up to extract personal security information, and then use that information to break into their account.

This feels like a crazy thing for banks to be doing. What’s more, it seems strange that banks should be conscious about this type of security weakness through digital channels, while actively encouraging it through their phone banking services. There are of course various ways banks could solve this problem, like making automated calls asking the customer to contact the bank using the number on their card. That way, the customer knows they are talking to the bank and can go through the usual security protocol. Instead, it seems that banks like First Direct are sacrificing good data security, for the sake of convenience, which should be a worry to all their customers.

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FaviconTalk Tropes and Conference Cliches 30 Dec 2016, 11:53 am

Over that last 12 years of attending, speaking and organising conferences, I’ve seen a lot of talks. Probably upwards of a thousand. I’ve seen talks that have inspired me, talks that have challenged me, and talks that left me welling up. During that time I’ve seen themes start to emerge; topics our industry find fascinating and love to revisit time and time again. Many of these topics I’ve used myself, and were I ever to write a “101 things I learnt at architecture school” style book for the interaction design industry, these tropes would feature heavily.

After spending two days binge watching talks in an attempt to find the last couple of speakers for a conference I’m organising, I was amazed how regularly these tropes appeared. I was also surprised how certain traits and behaviours kept repeating themselves across speakers. So I thought I’d jot them down, on the off chance people found them useful. Either as things you hadn’t heard of before and wanted to explore further, or topics and behaviours you wanted to avoid in a search for originality.

Top Talk Tropes

One of the earliest tropes I can remember is “paving the cow paths”; the idea of designing for observed behaviour rather than imposing strict architectures of control. This concept beautifully illustrates the fields of user centred design and lean startup. It’s also one of the pervading philosophies behind the web; that there is intelligence in the system, and it will find its way around any blockage. In the retail world, “cow paths” are also known as “desire lines”, and are used to maximise product exposure. In past talks I’ve used this example to explain why milk is always placed at the back of the store, and how casinos in Vegas are designed.

cowpaths.png

If desire lines can be seen as a highly optimised user journey, the “peak-end rule” is a similar short-cut our brains make for judging how we experience said journey. Research from the field of hedonic psychology has shown that we tend to judge an experienced based on two things; the intensity of the peak condition—positive or negative—and the end state. This is one reason why the most memorable customer experiences are often the result of something bad happening. We remember the intensity of the bad experience, plus the happiness caused by a positive outcome, and the differential between the two frames our perspective. That’s not to say that we should deliberately try to manufacture negative experiences. However it does suggest that people will judge experiences more favourably that have peaks and troughs of emotion, but ultimately end well, rather than an experience that was consistently good, but not noteworthy.

peak-end-rule.jpg

A related cognitive bias is the idea of “change blindness” as illustrated perfectly but the classic basketball video. Viewers are asked to count the number of times the basketball changes hands. So fixated are they on this task, a good proportion of viewers fail to spot the 100 pound gorilla in the room, both literally and figuratively. This goes to show that even when we think something obvious is happening with our designs, many of the people using our products literally don’t notice the things we’re carefully designed.

One tool to help craft these peak experiences is “The Kano Model”. This model classifies features into three different types; basic needs, performance pay-offs, and delights. I usually describe the Kano model in talks by using the analogy of a hotel. A hotel room just wouldn’t function without a bed, a door, access to a bathroom, electricity and a few other must have items. Theses are your MVP feature set. However in order to compete in a crowded market, you can add performance pay-off features like a bigger TV or after broadband. Over time, these nice-to-have features eventually become basic needs, which is why most MVP aren’t very minimal. It’s the third type of feature in the Kano model that interests interaction designers and product managers the most. The small additions which have an unusually sizeable effect. This could be the warm cookie waiting for you at check-in, the free bottle of champagne in your room, or something as simple as a handwritten note from the cleaning staff, letting you know what the weather is going to be like tomorrow.

Kano_model.png

All these items can be mapped as peaks on some form of journey map. They can also form part of the classic “hero’s journey”, another common trope. If you’ve not heard of the hero’s journey before, it’s essentially the idea that many well known stories follow a common archetype. Somebody is given a challenge, they set off on a journey, aided by a wise confident. They overcome a series of increasingly difficult challenges, only to return back to the start a changed person. Stories like the Hobbit and Star Wars follow the heroes journey closely, which is one of the reasons they have endured so well. Narrative storytelling is all the range in the interaction design world at the moment, in large part thanks to the work of content strategists. We’ve actually used the hero’s journey framework in the case studies on our new site, making sure to cast the client as the hero, rather than ourselves.

the-heros-journey.jpg

The preceding tropes are good, but I think my favourite one has to be Stewart Brand’s “Shearing Layers” diagram from his book, How Buildings Learn. The original diagram was used to demonstrate the different speeds at which buildings grown and evolve, as well as the friction caused between layers moving at different speeds. I tend to use this as a megaphone for organisations structure and learning. Add to this the idea of pioneers, m settlers and town-planners, and you have a powerful tool for describing why different teams, disciplines and functions within organisations often struggle to work together.

shearing-layers.jpg

There are dozens of other common tropes I could mention here, like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the classic three ringed Venn diagram with whatever the speaker does shown in the middle, or the classic illustration depicting lean start-up by showing a product move from skateboard, to bike, to scooter, then finally ending up as a car. I won’t bore you with my thoughts on that particular diagram here. Suffice to say there are a lot of common trends repeating themselves in the speaker circuit, and for good reason. However if you’re goal is to present something new and original, it may be worth picking something slightly more obscure.

Common Conference Cliches

As well as picking up and using a common set of tropes over the past 12 years, I’ve also adopted common traits and behaviours from other speakers. Behaviours like asking the audience about their backgrounds, or whether anybody has heard about the topic you’re about to discuss. It’s a way of building rapport with your audience, while making yourself feel comfortable on stage. However as audiences become more savvy, asking questions like “who here has heard about Lean” becomes increasingly meaningless, especially when their response is unlikely to change the direction of your talk. I’ve witnessed several awkward moments where a speaker asked an audience if they knew about a certain thing—when they clearly did—only for that speaker to launch into a 10 minute scripted description of what that thing was, making everybody feel like they hadn’t been listened too.

A similar faux pas is spending a sizeable portion of a talk introducing who you are and where you come from. A little context can be helpful, but I once witnessed a speaker give a 15 minute bio of pretty much every job they had had in their career. By the time they reached the meat of their talk, they had completely lost the audience—in some cases literally as around 50 people had walked out. The frustrating thing is the rest of the talk was amazing, or at least what I saw of it was, as the speaker ran out of time and had to cut the bulk of the talk short.

In this case I suspect the speaker simply felt nervous and wanted to justify why they had earned the right to be on stage to the audience. However from the audiences perspective the speaker had already earned their place on the stage and were expanding on information that was already in there conference programme. So rather than being interesting or helpful, it actually came across as self indulgent and disrespectful of the audience’s time. From that point on I decided never to introduce myself on stage, assuming that if people were interested they would read the schedule or check out my online profile. I’d urge folks to do the same, although if explaining your background is important, a great way to do it is part way in. I call this “The Hollywood opener” as you throw your audiences right into there middle of the action, and only introduce them to the main character once they’re hooked.

Making the audience feel uncomfortable is never a good idea, so having an understanding about the audience and their culture really helps. I’ve seen plenty of amazing speakers have great success with audience participation on their home turf, getting folks to stand up, stretch, introduce themselves to their neighbours, or discuss something that’s challenging them at work. I’ve seen those same speakers crash and burn in more conservative regions, where force social interaction makes people feel awkward. One particularly uncomfortable incident featured an exuberant North American speaker, a room full of stoic Europeans, and a compulsion to high-five everybody in the front row.

Ironically I’ve also seen audience participation go too well, with speakers allocating 30 seconds to something that should actually take 5 minutes of more. In that situation the audience is having such a good time chatting to their neighbours, having the speaker cut them off to get back to the talk can actually be quite jarring and a little insensitive.

One of the most challenging forms of audience participation has to be the Q&A at the end of a talk. I’ve seen some fantastic Q&A session that were actually more insightful and interesting than the talks that preceded them. However I’ve also witnessed my fair share of awkward sessions where a shy audience is cajoled into asking meaningless questions, just to break the silence and make the speaker feel liked and appreciated. More often than not these Q&A sessions suck the energy out of a carefully scripted talk; like a Director being forced to explain the plot-points of a move once the credits have rolled. They also get in the way of the audience members getting coffee, grabbing some food, making an important call or a much needed comfort break. So can also be a source of discomfort to some. As such I think it’s better to finish a little early than force an unwanted Q&A session.

This brings me to my biggest bugbear of late—not least because I’ve used this one plenty of times myself. It’s people making THAT joke about being “The only thing between you and food/beer”. It was funny the first couple of times I saw a speaker say that, and its’ always resulted in a titter of approval when I’ve used that line myself. However at a recent conference I saw two consecutive speakers make exactly the same joke, to clearly diminishing returns. As such I think THAT joke has now jumped the shark, so I’m going to do my best to stop using it.

Conclusion

It’s worth noting that there’s nothing wrong with any of these talk tropes and conferences cliches in and of themselves. They all have value if used appropriately. As such there is no judgement on anybody using them. After all I’ve used most of them myself. Instead I present them to you more as an observation from years of conference speaking, attending and organising, in the hope that both new and experienced speakers find them interesting. What you do with the information, if anything, is up to you. However I thought it was worth adding that caveat as you know how touchy people on the Internet can be.I’d hate for anybody to overreact or anything like that :)

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FaviconUX Design and Service Design are Growing Ever Closer 13 Oct 2016, 9:30 am

For the longest time I’ve maintained that Service Design was a specific discipline, distinct from UX Design. It’s true that they have a lot in common, like the way both fields approach problems through a user-centred lens. They also use many of the same tools, such as design games and personas. Even some of their distinctive tools, like the service delivery blueprint have similarities with our own user journey maps. But if you spent any time with a credible Service Design agency five or ten years ago, you’d easily spot the differences.

User Experience agencies typically came from a digital background, and were filled with information architects, interaction designers and usability specialists. We primarily focussed on creating products and services with a digital interface, along with the service ecosystem that supported them.

By comparison, European Service Design agencies did a lot of work on the delivery of public services—presumably because the public sector is so strong in the UK—while their US counterparts looked more towards the in-store experience. It wasn’t unusual to find a Service Design consultancy staffed with industrial designers, set-designers and commercial architects.

The two disciplines clearly shared the same ancestry, but somewhere along the evolutionary tree, they took a slightly different branch. Look at a typical UX agency and their portfolio will be full of publishing websites, mobile apps, and startups, while Service Design consultancies are more likely to show phone systems, airline check-in procedures, and better ways to deliver healthcare.

On the surface these outputs may look very different. However, as digital technology increasingly provides the platform on which these services are built, the differences are slowly being stripped away.

Just think about it. What is Uber if not a cleverly crafted service that matches car owners looking for a bit of extra cash to people looking for a ride? The interface may be digital, but make no mistake that this is a carefully choreographed piece of Service Design with lots of stuff happening behind the scenes.

Now look at the airline check-in experience. On the surface it may look like a traditional Service Design project. Dig a bit deeper however, and you’ll see that almost all of the people turning up to the desk bought their tickets online, checked-in via the airline website or mobile app, and either printed out their own boarding passes, or have them stored on their mobile phones. Surely this is a classic User Experience project?

As digital has become one of the primary ways of delivering a service experience, Service Design agencies have needed to become more digital, while digital agencies have needed to become more service oriented, to the point that it’s getting harder to differentiate the two. So much so that, at its highest level, User Experience Design has become indistinguishable from Service Design.

I’ve resisted this sentiment for a while, not least because I think the distinction still provides value to clients. However this value is rapidly diminishing as the industry continues to misunderstand and misrepresent what UX Designers do, incorrectly applying the UX label to interaction designers and digital generalists.

Government Digital Services took the decision to adopt the term Service Designer, because they understand the language of government is one of delivering services rather than products or experiences. I suspect many traditional companies feel the same way.

I expect to see more and more high end consultancies adopt the language of digital service design, as opposed to product design or experience design, to better explain what they do and separate themselves from the herd. What existing Service Design agencies will think of this trend is anybody’s guess. Will they embrace this new influx of digital service designers, or push back? Whatever happens, I have a feeling that this change is inevitable.

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