04 January 2019 - Ooh digital is a place on earth

Explaining user experience design with metaphors from construction

In November I shared some more UX Week takeaways in a talk at UCISA’s CISG-PCMG18 conference. It was ucisa’s bursary scheme that got me to San Francisco in the first place so it was great to meet the people behind it, along with 300 corporate information systems people and project/change management people from unis around the UK. Here’s the video of my 10 min talk, and I’ve expanded on it a little in the write-up below.

Image of Kat Husbands presenting at ucisa's CISG-PCMG 18 conference and her first presentation slide

My first recorded talk! Is this really my accent?



At UX Week I learned that designers love to do things in threes. By sheer coincidence, my talk was inspired by three things:
1. The theme of CISG-PCMG18: Building Foundations for the Future
2. My new favourite motto from UX Week: Build the Right Thing & Build the Thing Right
3. The University of Glasgow’s ongoing campus development.

Maybe being surrounded by cranes, hoardings and the excitement of big building sites every day has made me hyper-aware of the metaphors from construction that show up again and again at UX and tech conferences: people talk about blueprints, foundations, scaffolds, platforms, information architecture…

What if we fully commit to the analogy and think of our systems and services as literal places? How might that help us design them in user-centred ways?

At UX Week, three speakers went deep on this.


1. Digital as…public places

In his talk Living in Information (watch video), Jorge Arango looked at the broad, open digital systems intended for wide ranges of users — in HE that would include our Virtual Learning Environments (VLE), intranets and informational websites — and the places where people interact such as forums and chat services.

“These digital systems are more than products or tools…in many ways, they function like places: information environments that create contexts that change the way we think, act and interact…” — Jorge Arango

…so much so that we can directly apply architectural concepts.

Jorge originally trained as an architect then went into IT, and for many years was Director of the Information Architecture Institute.

He highlighted three concepts:
• Structure = design to support people’s existing mental models
First we need to uncover and understand those mental models through exploratory research such as user interviews.

• Systems = the key focus of design
Architects don’t just design buildings for their own sake: they design whole environments for people to use. User journey mapping can help us recognise that our place forms part of the larger system of our University. This technique also shows us how the places we’re designing link with others in the local and wider information environment.

• Sustainability = don’t pollute the information environment
We must consciously design content to avoid building in biases; avoid duplicating information; and be careful not to damage useful concepts by using in inappropriate ways.
 Jorge’s example of the latter: “Breaking news” used to mean ‘Everyone needs to know this right now!!’ But now #Breaking is broken.

Image of Joe Parris @KTVBJoe tweet about 100 goats on the loose in a #Boise neighbourhood on 3rd August 2018

#Breaking is broken


2. Digital as…homes

Focussing in on the more personal places like homepages, dashboards and portals, visual designer Claudio Guglieri discussed HOME: Our everyday relationships with digital.

“For a vast group of people, home is no longer a physical space…many of us find comfort in digital environments.” — Claudio Guglieri

At the time, this quote immediately made me think of our youngest students, the so-called digital natives. For many, University is a massive life change, perhaps their first time away from home. You can imagine how the only bit of continuity they can rely on for comfort might be the familiar platforms they brought with them on their phones and laptops.

This idea applies much more widely too: our research for UofG UX showed that students and staff of all ages default to digital for connection and communication, entertainment, travel, shopping and to access support.

To this we’re adding a heap of new digital homes, so it’s important to consider how ours compare to the commercial places people go to for everything else. If they could choose, would they choose to use our system? But they can’t choose — we have a captive audience — so let’s put lots of care and respect into the homes we build for our students and colleagues, with the help of another set of three concepts:

• Repetition = acknowledge that homes are for regular, repeated use
Optimise for speed and don’t waste people’s time; kill pointless splash screens; automate out annoying repetition.

• Evolution = minimise the impact of behavioural changes
Claudio referenced a brilliant article by service designer Christina Wodtke: Users don’t hate change, they hate you. Change is inevitable but don’t just barge in and rearrange furniture: communicate carefully to avoid nasty surprises.

• Ownership = reinforce people’s perception of control

Localise, personalise and allow people to customise (but also set good defaults). And don’t get between intention and action: Claudio talked about poorly placed ads interrupting tasks but the same advice applies to comms: a message is only effective in the right context and when it offers value relevant to a person’s needs at time they see it.

To help defeat our assumptions and inform our decisions, the most helpful pointer is contextual inquiry: we must observe people’s actual behaviour in their digital homes.
We might think “Surely everyone knows how to find lecture slides in the VLE, it’s as easy as drinking a glass of water…” Claudio Guglieri won gif-of-the-week.


3. Digital as…escape rooms

The third type of place comes from Laura E Hall’s talk Caring for Players in Real World Spaces and Beyond. Laura is a game designer, famous for her real-world escape rooms, where you get locked in with a group of pals and have to solve puzzles and decipher clues to escape before the time runs out.

“A good puzzle tells you how to solve it, inherent in its design.” — Laura E Hall


Our digital escape rooms include registration and enrolment, online coursework submission, expenses, uploading results — anything where our captive audience has to complete a complex task to a deadline…all of which adds up to STRESS!

Laura talked about cognitive overload and ‘deep focus’, where people can’t see the wood for the trees.

There’s a key difference though: Laura aims to design IN the right level of stress to make game challenging and fun, while we want to design the stress OUT. Fortunately there are 3 handy concepts we can apply:

• Simplify the process
This is where UX merges with service design. Does the process really need to be this complex? Can we remove or automate any steps?

• Simplify the interaction
Through careful content design, represent the process as simply as possible, providing exactly what people need to complete their task and nothing more. See gov.uk for 100s of excellent examples.

• Make it intuitive
It’s always a good idea to apply usability heuristics but in our digital escape rooms more so than ever. Consistency, validation and error prevention and recovery are essential, as is maintaining the match between our system and real world by using the same language our users use.

And of course multiple rounds of usability testing and tweaking are essential to help our students and staff escape with confidence.

Image from Room Escape Artist's review of the Edison Escape Room in SF showing pipes, turning handles and a cupboard with bottles

 Image from Room Escape Artist’s review of the Edison Escape Room in SF. Laura called it one of the best in the world so a group of us went on the free evening in UX Week: it was SPECTACULAR 


4?! Digital as…boundaries and junctions

Time to break the rule of threes — gasp! This one’s not even from UX Week.

At UX Scotland in June, Kevin Richardson — a UX consultant with a background in cognitive psychology — gave a fascinating workshop on UX and the Spaces in Between. He explained how UX design can make the most difference at points of interface, highlighting three areas of tension in the ‘interaction ecosystem’:
• Where an application meets a business process, especially legacy processes. ‘But we’ve always done it this way’ is no excuse for a poor user experience.
• Where a person has to pass information between two systems: for goodness sake automate it!
 Where a system meets the real world: why do students have to queue up for a print-out, which they then scan and email to their bank or council?


And finally…

The last quote goes to Mike Monteiro, the cantankerous UX evangelist, who sadly I didn’t manage to meet in SF.

“They don’t let just anybody walk in off the street and design a building.” — Mike Monteiro, speaking on the Voice of Design podcast

The same is true in digital: people want their places designed by professionals.

Whether we think of ourselves as architects, home-builders, game designers, city planners or just the IT crowd, every decision we make — or choose not to make — has an impact on the university experience for our students and colleagues, whatever type of place we’re building.

This blog first appeared on the UofG UX blog.

A copy of Kat’s slides from CISG-PCMG18 is available here.

Interested in finding out more about a ucisa bursary, then visit ucisa Bursary Scheme.