Three things I learned at UCD2013: Designing for serendipity, music lessons for designers and Notdesign

UCD2013 was a labour of love for organisers and speakers alike, and this was felt throughout the two-day event. I’m not a hardened industry event regular, but I have got a couple under my belt and this one was something special.

Jonty Sharples entertained with his talk Notdesign

We had over 40 speakers giving talks and running workshops, most of them from the UK and about 40 per cent of them women. They came together to put on an inclusive, non-profit event that showcased user centred design in a unique way – one that was accessible to UCD newbies without boring the senior practitioners to tears (not an easy feat).

There were a few themes that kept popping up over the course of the event – Gestalt (a theoretical keystone of cognitive-emotional and behavioral processes in psychology commonly referenced in user experience and design) predictably made the odd appearance in talks, as well as the community’s shared love for the Airbnb landing page.

For me, though, the overarching unintentional theme of the conference was getting outside the box of what design “should be” (eg. an accessible UI should be high-contrast and not have text on images, good service design has x touch points and y should be digital) and getting to work designing in new and innovative ways by leaving your comfort zone. So many amazing presentations touched on that topic, but there were a few that particularly stuck with me in the hours and days that followed, which I will be exploring in a bit more depth here.

Sarah Sharples on designing for serendipity & the SerenA Project

Sarah Sharples, professor of Human Factors at the University of Nottingham, presented her research on designing for serendipity. It was a bit of a wild card choice for me because I had no idea what to expect, but something about it caught my eye, so I gave it a shot and I’m really glad I did. Her work developing the SerenA project, which was inspired by what she felt was a lack of ‘happy accidents’ in research due to new, focused-searching technology, had me riveted.

I felt myself nodding along as she described how something as simple as reading a book you happened to spot in the library, in an adjacent section to what you were looking for, could change the direction your research takes. That we now focus our searches only on directly relevant topics could be preventing us from taking the risks we need to innovate. As she went through her findings, the project itself, and the direction she hopes to take it – all I wanted was more. I eagerly await the release of more information from SerenA, and have a small project of my own to explore how being open to randomness and information from unexpected places can shape my work.

Julian Hirst: Innovation & Improvisation – Music Lessons for Designers

There were two very different presentations on Saturday that have stuck with me, both with similar underlying messages. Julian Hirst, CEO of Tobias & Tobias, ran a unique presentation centred around innovation and improvisation. It may not sound terribly different, but this presentation came with a twist – Julian brought two incredibly talented musicians up on stage with him to demonstrate the points made in his talk, a powerful way of underlining his message. The audience was so moved that hands dropped pens, and phones came out to record the skilful way that Aliocha and Shane played off one another’s improvisations while still maintaining the core of the original music. I saw a few swift eye-wipes around the room as well, which is rather unusual for an industry conference lecture.

Julian made two very important points with his presentation – 1) That improvisation can and does push forward innovation in design, and 2) That getting outside the box of what is or isn’t digital or ‘designy’ can result in a very powerful end product.

Jonty Sharples: Notdesign – What You Don’t Know

Jonty Sharples, design director at Albion, took a very different approach to a similar topic – where Julian’s presentation was audio-focused, Jonty went down a more visual route. The lights dimmed in our small workshop room and up went his slides – a series of topical images that perfectly accompanied his talk. His topic was ‘notdesign’, which was his way of saying that not all designers are Designers – designers come from a wide variety of backgrounds, something that should be encouraged and supported. From Stanley Kubrick to ‘The Breakfast Club’ to Shakespeare – he touched on pop culture, literature, and science in his presentation. Bring more people into your work, destroy your silos, and remember that the myth of a single visionary is just that, a myth.

He wanted everyone in the room to focus on what it was they didn’t know about design (no matter how many years of experience they had) and to open their minds about what design really is at the core. It was an uplifting and inspiring 45 minutes that left more than one attendee ready to get down to work. I, for one, wanted another 45 minutes of presentation at the end.

Helping to put UCD2013 together was a lot of hard work, but every late night email was entirely worth it for the richness and variety of presentations I got to partake in. The speakers brought their all to the conference, and their passion clearly showed. Now that the conference is over, I mainly find myself wondering how we can make 2014 even better. To do that, we will need some help, so please get in touch if this has piqued your interest and you’d like to lend a hand in some way!

Elizabeth Inskip works in UX Team Support at Futureheads Recruitment

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Elizabeth Inskip

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