Yesterday was the fourth Northern User Experience conference in Manchester. A hugely impressive event, particularly considering it’s organised by an army of volunteers. 600 UX practitioners (and some people considering moving in to the industry) were in attendance, which probably meant that no actual UX work was being done in the north of England.

I took something away from every one of the seven talks; here are just a few highlights.

Fall in love with problems

Tomer Sharon is a User Experience Researcher at Google in New York. His keynote speech was terrific. Three mantras resonated with me:

1. Do the right thing, then do things right.

(Basically, get super clear on the problem you’re solving first, before attempting to build anything.)

2. Fall in love with problems, then with solutions.

(A similar idea – make sure the problem is perfectly articulated and, until it is, don’t get distracted with solutions. Put the problem you’re solving at the heart of everything you do.)

3. Observe people, don’t just listen to what they say.

(User research! Critical to the process. Surveys and focus groups alone won’t cut the mustard.)

NUX4NUX4, Manchester, November 2015

Communicating the UX process to clients

Jenny Grinblo from Future Workshops was another experienced and entertaining speaker.

Jenny stressed the power of bringing user voices into the boardroom. That might mean video clips or audio clips from user tests – something I can attest is an important and powerful part of the process. What I didn’t realise is that seeing or hearing users’ feelings direct stirs chemicals in the brain. Which chemicals, I can’t recall, but anyway, there’s science behind the idea that a video is worth a thousand reports.

Often UX practitioners’ clients are more comfortable with ‘how’, not with ‘what’ or ‘why’. So they might focus on minor changes to an unsuccessful product, rather than being immediately willing to delve more deeply into the root problems. It’s up to us to help guide them to the underlying problems.

Storyboarding is an effective way of communicating user needs to businesses. That means telling a story of the ‘what’ and the ‘why’, eventually reaching the ‘superhero’ moment of the solution, i.e. how the product is solving the problem. Six months later when ideas are still flying around, the initial storyboard helps ground discussions back to solving the problem that was agreed at the initial stages.

Ruthless prioritisation is key. In other words, not only identifying the tasks and requirements of different user groups but also making the utmost effort to prioritise them, and compare the priorities of different groups.

Communicating the UX process to businesses can be difficult. Asking difficult questions (e.g. ‘how will this product make money?’), explaining the decision-making process and – as a final resort – scaring the client in some way (perhaps pointing out what will happen if the wrong decisions are made), can help.

It’s ok to feel uncertain (phew!)

I took away some interesting insight about user workshops, something on the horizon for me in the coming weeks and months.

The principle of encouraging divergent (no holds barred) thinking before converging on specifics appeals to me as a way of encouraging interaction. As does grouping similar user groups together for different workshops, for clarity on the different users’ needs. I’m also keen to use an inordinate amount of post-it notes… always good to see photos of other UX-ers relying on humble notes and pens.

Workshops aren’t the whole story (they’re no replacement for user testing), but it was great to hear more about how effective they can be, and the best way to manage them.

It was also reassuring to hear that it’s ok to feel uncertain and overwhelmed by the process at times. But as UX practitioners, if we trust in the process, it will all come good.

Kindness is designing for the worst

The final keynote was an unexpectedly touching and affecting talk by Sara Wachter-Boettcher, a UX consultant based in Philadelphia.

Sara referred to personal experiences to stress that unnecessary and poorly-worded questions, and inappropriate interfaces, can not only make a user feel excluded but also rejected and isolated. She referred to a period-tracking app that assumed all sex was happy and consensual and an unnecessary question on a form which asked about sexual assault.

The moral of the story is: always design for ‘stress cases’. In other words, consider all your users, particularly the worst off, and make sure the content and design is appropriate for them. That’s the UX of kindness.