Now, I am passionate about many things. Digital being one of them. So much so, that my non-digital friends call me a geek. But I was out-geeked this Tuesday when I attended the inaugural Great UX Debate, organized by SapientNitro London at the Google Campus in London.
The first global UX Debate took place in Dublin in February, and the response was so enthusiastic, SapientNitro London took the reigns of organizing a UK one.
Five of the UK’s most passionate UX (that’s user experience to you and me) practitioners have volunteered to be exposed to a debate in front of an audience of 100+ like-minded folk. Now this seriously is a gathering.
On entry to the Campus, which is actually across the road from the address on the invite due to Google’s paranoia, I’m greeted with what looks like a student party. Tables are laden with takeaway pizza and bins are full of bottles of beer in iced water. The audience is mainly 25-30, 50 per cent are bespectacled and 75% are male. Of the men, I spotted only three wearing shoes, the rest were dressed in the obligatory skinny jeans and trainers.
Talking about UX may seem like an intricacy too far, but despite my derogatory geek comments, UX is the pin that holds many transactions together. How many times have you been led to a site from an offline ad only to discover the experience when you got there was so terrible you abandon your purpose? In the early days of Lastminute.com, the founders carried out some research which showed for every £1 they spent attracting people to the site, if a user didn’t have a good experience; it cost £7 to get them to come back.
The panel tonight consists of Daniel Harvey, creative director of experience design at SapientNitro,; Marcus Mustafa, global head of UX at LBi; Jane Austin, digital director, IG Index; Jason Mesut, head of UX, RMA Consulting and Chris Averill, managing director, We Are Experience. All chaired by Giles Colborne, managing director of CX Partners and author of Usable Web, Mobile and Interaction Design.
All ticket holders for the event got the option to submit a debate question around information architecture, interaction design, user-centred design, user research or customer experience strategy.
The first topic to be talked about is a chicken-and-egg type question, which comes first design or research?
Chris Averill, from We Are Experience and Marcus Mustafa, from LBi, are the first to tackle it. After discussing whether design should reign and that if it’s a bad idea, then it should die in public, Mustafa is adamant that it’s “better for ideas to die at a desk than in the public domain.”
Jane Austin, from GI Index, is a little more flexible. “You need to see what needs people have and see how they will use it in the wild,” she says. Colborne interjects with a comment about research and asks whether she refutes the need for research, to which she replies, “It depends.”
The research question seems to be something the UX community is at odds at. Jason Mesut, from RMA Consulting, shares his experience of working with UX developers who obsess about research. “I have a problem with them,” he says. “Sometimes you can’t understand everything about a problem, you just have to get on and do it. The other side is that you get people who just crack stuff out, and don’t really rationalize it very well. You don’t need the research to rationalize it but sometimes it helps. It can contextualize the thinking. You need to have the experience to be able to cut the corners and use just enough research.”
Chris Averill, of We Are Experience, has a different view. “Don’t confuse research with insight,” he says. “Insight leads to great products and great experience. If you understand what people want, research leads to insight. Don’t rely on research, but if you don’t have insight, you have nothing.”
“I’ve seen more than my fair share of paralysis from research,” interjects SapientNitro’s Daniel Harvey. “There is a risk in forgetting that we are sometimes the customer and sometimes the user. The whole myth of Apple not testing is just that; a myth. It’s just that they’re not beholden to it. It’s not always safe to assume that it’s the clients who are fighting for the research. A lot of clients look at the relationship with their agencies and say ‘you’re the experts, what do you need to do research for?’.”
Austin agrees, saying; “We’ve got a dedicated research team, and we do a lot of innovation. The other thing we do is put a lot of things out there and see how they work. It’s actually insight we’re looking for.”
Another question comes from the floor, whether there is a need for UX designers or isn’t it something anyone can do?
Harvey is the first to respond. “I think [UX design] is a way of seeing and thinking, “ he says. “The best people in the field are those who are born naturally curious. Yes, there are people who have things they’re good at but we need people like that to thread the idea through the team.”
At this point, Mesut throws caution to the wind and confesses. “I hate the term UX,” he says. “It’s becoming meaningless. People are using it to describe user interface.” He then goes on to explain the difference and to admit, “UX can be done by planners”.
Colborne interjects with a question for Averill asking who actually was responsible for UX. “Not everyone can be a UX designer, most of it’s designed by people who want to get famous,” he says. Having never met a ‘famous UX designer’, he goes on to make a good point that the ‘most awesome UX designers are product designers’.
Averill’s comment about product designers and Mesut’s complaint about interface designers coveting the UX brand fires Austin up, who admits that her company struggled to find good UX designers. “We only got anyone who was an interface designer, which they get hung up on,” she says. Mustafa agrees. “The question is that all the people involved are user design oriented,” he says. “You can design for an experience but you can’t design THE experience. Curiosity is the key to user experience. Product designers give good user experience because they think about curiosity and aesthetics.”
After a brief sojourn into wireframe-related discussion, the debate moves back to UX. The next question from the floor is about code, and whether UX designers need to know it. Averill’s out of the box quickly with some strong views. “I have a huge respect for people who can write code,” he says. “But, I wouldn’t ask my bricklayer to design my house, in the same way I wouldn’t ask my architect to lay bricks.”
Harvey agrees. “You need to know the medium and materials to make what you want to do,” he says. “You need to have the knowledge of the capability of what you can do, but you don’t need to know code.”
Appreciation of what you’re working with, according to Austin. “It’s respectful to know what you’re working with, and not ask for things that are not going to work.”
It’s on the subject of code, that Mustafa comes out with the killer comment. “I believe the only reason to know code,” he says. “Is so you can win arguments with developers.” This raises laughs from the audience, who clearly appreciate the frustration of those development-led rows.
The rest of the debate focuses on technical questions such as wireframes and a brief conversation about OS systems, but the conversation comes back to UX when responsive design is mentioned. A couple of the panellists talk about how customers are in control, but Averill probably puts it best when he says, “Responsive design is understanding why people are doing what they are doing, and why.” He goes on, “I have huge respect for old technology, and it’s easier to filter content. I don’t want responsive design. I want it [websites] to work on what I’m viewing it on, where I’m viewing it.”
From this part of the debate it’s clear that the future is about adapting content to what consumers want. As one commentator put it, users want the service to work differently, on different occasions, but not feel different. Recruitment is also discussed, and the general consensus is that recruitment companies need to up their game and stop sending UI developers for UX jobs.
At which point the debate, which hasn’t exactly lit the fire of passion hoped for or expected, ends. All the trainer-clad, skinny-jeaned, pale-looking attendees head for the nearest pub. I collar Giles Colborne to get his feedback, and he admits that having a more varied panel could have made it a bit more animated.
I leave intrigued to log on to the Twitter hashtag. At the beginning it was announced that they weren’t going to post the Tweets live on to a Twitterwall as the last time they’d done that there had been some rude comments. On logging on, it seems the most offensive thing that happened was a few of the attendees getting annoyed at wireframes being involved in the discussion. Given that the Twitter feed machine was spewing paper like an ATM with a bug, I’m guessing the tweet that said “it’s like Question Time for usability geeks” led to a Twitter cull.
Either way, the debate looks set to continue. If you’d like to be involved in the next one, follow #UXDebate on Twitter.
Picture by Danny Harrison @dbpharrison