ThoughtWorks Technology Radar Workshop

On 24th January, James Lewis (Principal Consultant) and Ian Cartwright (Technical Principal) of ThoughtWorks visited us at EMBL-EBI to help us create the organisation’s very first technology radar.

James Lewis oversees team brainstorming – the first step in creating a tech radar for EMBL-EBI

What is a tech radar?

It’s a snapshot of which technologies are upcoming and trendy, stable, and those in decline.  It is created every 6 months by ThoughtWorks, an IT consultancy.

The radar is split into:

  • Adopt
  • Trial
  • Assess
  • Hold

It also has quadrants covering different categories of technology, but the boundaries are often blurred:

  • Techniques
  • Tools
  • Platforms
  • Languages and frameworks

To explain more I refer you this article, webpage with a video and a podcast (inserted below):

We began the process of creating our own tech radar yesterday…

Ian Cartwright (standing back left) helps one of the teams in the breakout session

I sketchnoted the event for posterity.

Sketchnote of the tech radar introduction presented by James Lewis and Ian Cartwright of ThoughtWorks

The sketchnote of the workshop (below) shows the six steps that James and Ian used to help us create a radar.

Sketchnote of the “create your own tech radar” interactive workshop led by James Lewis and Ian Cartwright of ThoughtWorks

The initial steps involved individuals posting their own ideas of which techniques, tools, languages and products they would like to see on the radar.

Step 1: individual brain dump of ideas before grouping them later

The next steps were potentially trickier, since James and Ian had to facilitate bringing many diverse ideas and perspectives into a single radar as the output.  To achieve this, teams first discussed their ideas as a group and posted them up to a matrix template (see the sketchnote below).  For the EMBL-EBI radar, the divisions and categories were adapted to include “retire” and “products”, so the overall options available were adopt, trial, assess, hold and retire.  And in the quadrants we had: techniques, tools, languages, etc. and “products“.  This is designed to capture third party offerings or other established tech that the organisation has, and needs to be considered to get a full snapshot.

Expert facilitation is needed to herd cats

Once each team had a completed their own matrix of ideas using the template, the radar was compiled by individuals in turn suggesting their team’s idea to the whole room.

“If you want to speak put your hand up”, said Ian, “You will get your opportunity to speak!”

Many of us in the room had to be reminded of this policy during this phase of the workshop, but it really worked.  The only difficulty for Ian was to remember the order of the hands rising so people could be correctly queued.  One other useful trick during the collating stage was to re-write the post-it notes on the consolidated radar boards, so that the team boards remained in tact to be referred to later.

Daniel Vaughan (right) helped to organise the workshop via the Meetup Group “Genome Campus Software Craftsmanship Community” and the EMBL-EBI Technical Seminars Programme

To complete the capture of the content for a ThoughtWorks-style radar you probably need 2 or 3 days, but we only had an afternoon.    With James and Ian’s help we made a great start, but we’ll be revisiting this exciting new approach again soon.  We’ll also be checking out the ready-to-go visualisation tools to display and share our radar with others.

Thank you again ThoughtWorks for James and Ian’s visit to us!  We hope to see you again soon.  And thank you to the participants for the energy and knowledge you brought to the discussion.


Daniel Vaughan and the Meetup Group “Genome Campus Software Craftsmanship Community”

EMBL-EBI Technical Seminars Programme for funding

ThoughtWorks for providing facilitation

Maria Bacadare, EMBL-EBI Events Organiser

Rodica Petrusevschi for the photos, EMBL-EBI External Relations


Why make a tech radar, and what is it? (

Build your own radar (

Is your company ‘design-capable’?

If you have to prove the value of design, you’re not in a design-capable company! Some tips on getting good design done in your organisation.

How to be a design-capable organisation

In June, I attended (and sketchnoted) a “smart salon” panel discussion at the Museum of London, which addressed the status of design in organisations. It was about how to make organisations ‘design capable’, not necessarily design-driven or design-led. This free event was hosted by the Smart Design agency and was attended by people from diverse industries and sectors – I saw name badges showing pharmaceutical companies, banks, financial services, retail/e-commerce companies, not-for-profits and lots of others.

One panel, many perspectives

The panelists at this event included representatives from five organisations, who spoke about the strategic management of design activities in their companies. They were:

  • Clive Grinyer, Process Improvement Director, Barclays
  • Marianna Wickman, Global Head of UX and Design, BBVA
  • Angus Montgomery, Creative Writer, UK Government Digital Service
  • Darren Morgan, Senior Global Design Manager, RB (Reckitt Benckiser)
  • Catalina Cernica, Head of LEO Innovation, Leo Pharma
  • [Moderator] Sean O’Connor, Partner, Smart Design London
Smart Salon Discussion Panel

Smart Salon Discussion Panel

What did we learn?

Five key messages emerged throughout the discussion:

  1. A design-capable company doesn’t need to measure the value of design;
  2. When design is new to an organisation, there are misconceptions about what it is, and how it benefits the business;
  3. The design function in an organisation can take different forms, but a hybrid approach of ‘design studio’ and ‘dispersed designers’ tends to work best;
  4. Design must challenge the business;
  5. If there is no design, there is no project!

1. A design-capable company doesn’t need to measure the value of design

To get the discussion going, the moderator invited the panellists to share their challenges measuring and demonstrating the value of design in their organisations. Some of the answers were surprising, for example, paraphrasing Clive Grinyer of Barclays:

“Our digital app is great – we measure it by net promoter score; but otherwise I have given up measuring the value of design. Since the design function at Barclays is no longer a discrete unit, rather it is dispersed throughout the business, it isn’t needed to be measured. Once great design was delivered we never looked back. We gave up measuring the value of it.”

Marianna of BBVA echoed the sentiment:

“It’s a bad sign when you are asked to measure your UX success. You wouldn’t ask this for something like project management, or other management processes.  You shouldn’t ask it of design.”

What these points highlighted was that the level of maturity of UX design capability determines how managers perceive its function. For example, stakeholders in organisations where design is done well seem to take it for granted: it becomes second nature and its role in delivering great products/services and well-designed internal processes is not questioned. So it does not need to be quantified and presented per se.

From this observation it may be fair to assume that if your organisation is asking you to measure the impact, or benefits, of design/UX design, it may indicate that there is a long road to travel before your organisation can be truly design-capable.

2. When design is new to an organisation, there are misconceptions about what it is and its benefits to the business

Companies with less mature design capability can employ different strategies to give it a boost. When Leo pharma’s Catalina Cernica, whose organisation is comparatively new to digital design and UX, was asked to comment on this, she said  (paraphrasing):

“We are taking baby steps in design. The pharmaceutical industry is now going beyond the pill – kicking and screaming! At Leo we have a digital app to go along with our products; this is new territory for us.”

Catalina mentioned that design was sometimes perceived only as an idea-generating operation, and was told in the past that her design team “was not here to solve problems, just to generate ideas”. This suggests that when starting out with design in an organisation, there can be misconceptions about what it actually is.

Similarly, Marianna told the audience that she always explains what is meant by “design” before presenting any idea/pitch to colleagues who are unfamiliar with UX and design. Clearly, there are still occasions when colleagues understand design to be limited to visual appeal.

My take-home from this discussion was that communication and perception of design are handled well in a design-capable organisation.

3. The design function in an organisation can take different forms, but usually a hybrid approach of ‘design studio’ and ‘dispersed designers’ tends to work best

Since the discussion was about management of design in organisations, the moderator naturally asked the panellists about the way in which design functions are structured in their companies. Clive Grinyer explained:

“Barclays don’t have a ‘design team’.  The design agency ‘feel’ does not connect with the banking business. Instead, design happens throughout the business.  Previously, post-crash, we had a new design team, and scooped up creative talent to Canary Wharf (which wasn’t easy to sell to creatives!) But it grew and we hoovered up the best people. Now, design is integrated and embedded. That’s why my job title is Process Improvement, which is a core business role, even though I have come from a design background.”

To counter Clive’s point, Angus Montgomery of the UK Government Digital Service, said it is important to build a business where designers want to work. But how are they doing it at GDS?  Would designers really want to work at a bank or government department?

Maybe not, but it can be made an inspirational place to work by writing about case studies and speaking about valuable design projects – this makes the organisation aspirational. Angus said:

“You don’t want the design culture to get lost in the organisation.”

Marianna BBVA’s added:

“We want a ‘design destination’: a design studio feel. We have a design education scheme going internally. We want to educate colleagues, why design matters to the business. Getting the right talent is easier with a design studio in the business.”

Does a design-capable company have a dedicated design studio, distributed designers, or some mix of the two?

Marianna summed up how to structure your organisation’s design capability: There are three options (the best choice depends on the organisation):

  1. Have a dedicated design team, a.k.a. “design studio”, internally.
  2. Have designers distributed throughout the organisation, effectively embedding design deep into your operation. You might not even call the people who do it ‘designers’.
  3. A hybrid of 1 and 2.

So why is a hybrid your best bet? Because having designers embedded means you are taking design thinking deep into what your company does/is. Good design will therefore influence all the decisions that you make – for internal processes, making products, delivering customer services, etc. By having a dedicated design team as well, you have an aspirational place for designers where they can try out new ideas, share best practice, compare tools and approaches – and, importantly, recruit great design talent.

What about third party companies and design?

Even with the hybrid model, it can be helpful to get outside influence to challenge norms. Darren Morgan spoke on this point:

“We encourage work from external partners or design agencies, because this can challenge the thinking of departments in the business. This can be harder for agencies to do. But it’s a good way to get new ideas in.”

4. Design must challenge the business

Clive presented his method for recognising ‘design-incapability’:

“A company that does not want to be challenged by its design function is NOT a design-capable company. In reality, there are few companies that can actually be design-capable – unless the founders are designers, or designers rise up to the top management positions.”

5. If there is no design, there is no project!

Even if your organisation has become design-capable – when there are no human resources for design work, the project should not go ahead.  Simple.

Marianna put it clearly:

“The most impactful thing we are doing at BBVA is say “NO!”.  When a company says no to thorough design work on basis of lack of resources, we simply won’t do the project. Unless you have the right talent to do the project we don’t do the project!”

Summing up…

Design capability can only come when leaders of organisations are wise to the benefits of design. To achieve this, we either need to have designers rising up to become managers (leaving typical design activities to others), or hire managers who are already effectively ‘design-evangelised’.

In all scenarios, grass-roots designers – wherever they may be in the company hierarchy – must continue to deliver exemplary work so that the value of design as a function will be recognised and, hopefully, in time, become endemic. Good design by market rivals or peer organisations may also spur on improvements in design work.

Discussions, conferences, workshops, and events such as the one reviewed here, all help to get the word out that design is important to the bottom line. If good design can deliver clear benefit to organisations, even to those historically design-poor and technology-oriented like banks and pharmaceutical companies, then people need to know about it!

We need to get creating more design-capable establishments, right now.

To read mode, the discussion moderator, Sean O’Connor has posted his highlights of the event at the Smart Design blog.  Thanks to Smart Design for hosting such an interesting (and free) event!


Sketchnote of the panel discussion

Smart Design Blog article

Smart salon event

Smart design

Video clips

Taken from the Smart Design Blog article

Disclaimer: The quotes in this article are from memory, so capture the overall sentiment of the discussion rather than exact phrasing from individuals.

Designing our Vizbi 2016 conference poster

Practicing what we preach

How we applied iterative design principles in preparing our poster for Vizbi 2016

Francis Rowland and I gave a tutorial on Rapid user-centered design for data visualization in Vizbi 2016. In this tutorial we introduced hands-on techniques, common to user experience (UX) design, which help us to produce effective visualizations of scientific data. We emphasised the principles of trying to account for our audience’s perspective, of exploring different options, and of testing these options with actual users.

But perhaps it is interesting to explore how do these principles apply to more common challenges…  such as preparing a poster for a conference? Continue reading

The critique cross

At the UX Cambridge conference in 2014, my friend Alisan Atvur talked about techniques for managing designers and managing managers, which I enjoyed very much.

EDIT: October 2015 –

Alisan now has a short video that explains this concept.

One of the tricks he told us about is what he calls “the critique cross” – a very simple tool for inviting and managing design critique in a structured way. Since he hasn’t written about it yet (as far as I know!), and since I frequently refer to it and tell colleagues about it, I thought I’d take it upon myself to share the detail.

Four aspects of critique, split into four quadrants around a cross (after Alisan Atvur)

Alisan Atvur suggests four simple aspects of critique, to keep it focused and manageable

If you need to provide or receive useful critique on something – sketches, a prototype, an interface, physical or digital – it is useful to do that in a structured way.

What Alisan suggests is that we consider four main aspects for the critique. These four aspects are associated with each quadrant around the cross you see in the image above, read clockwise from the top-left.

  1. Dwell time” – how much time do we have to talk about this (5 minutes or an hour… it makes a difference)
  2. User context, goals, needs” – what problem are we trying to solve here? what are the user needs?
  3. Logic” – what design decisions have been made, and why? What are the suggested solutions?
  4. Design principles” or “Business goals” – what else has guided our decision-making, in terms of what we’re trying to achieve.

In his original talk, I think Alisan actually suggested “Emotion” as the fourth quadrant. What emotion are we trying to produce in the user; what experience are we aiming for? I think this is a fine option but in practice, I’ve found it equally useful to reiterate any design principles that we have generated from research within a project.

So there you have it, a straightforward way to manage design critique.

Useful questions to ask when designing data visualisations

For the third Cambridge Visualisation of Biological Information meetup, organiser, Will Spooner, invited Greg McInerny and me to talk about “best practices in bio vis”. While Greg covered wisdom, mistakes, and deception in visualisation (particularly in figures used in academic papers), I wanted talk about how we can apply UX design practices to visualisation challenges. Rather than just give a talk that lists and describes methods and techniques from UX design, I tried to focus on WHY you would use any of those approaches; why would you bother to learn and apply them, on top of everything else you have to do? I framed things in terms of important questions you might want to ask whilst going through the process of designing data visualisations, so that we can try to gain clarity and develop your understanding.

Continue reading

UX design, bioinformatics and cars

Guillaume Filion is team leader at a genomics lab in Barcelona. On his personal blog, in January 2015, he published the article “If Cars Were Made By Bioinformaticians” which one of my colleagues pointed out to me. Regardless of the self-explanatory title, it is actually a wry, satirical view of how bioinformatics tools and software are developed.  It made me laugh (particularly the bit about “having many options”) but it also got me thinking.

As a user experience designer at one of the world’s leading bioinformatics institutes (and proud of it) I thought I’d offer my perspective. Here’s the summary version:

  • Don’t worry about a clever name; spend the time to understand what people need to do, to test your assumptions (don’t make bioinformatics Ford Edsels), and to figure out where your software or tool is going to fit in
  • Speed and accuracy are important factors, but these should fit with the needs and perceptions of the users. What is “good” for them?
  • Focus on outcomes and value, not on huge lists of features
  • Constraints make good design decisions possible
  • Consciously design bioinformatics tools with the appropriate degree of complexity and for the love of BLAST, please handle errors elegantly

Continue reading

EuroIA 2014 and activity diagrams

[May 2015] – I’m tending to refer to these things as “[key] activity descriptions” these days, since the “diagram” bit could sometimes be confusing. You could also refer to it as an “activity canvas”, too. Anyway…

I had the privilege of giving a quick talk at EuroIA 2014, entitled “Maybe there’s more to this than user-centered design?”. As you might have guessed, I think there is more: I wanted to explore and share some thoughts I had about how we approach UX design in complex settings like scientific service design (and others besides). In recent project work, I’ve been using modified activity diagrams to help me characterise apparently important activities. I thought this might be useful for other people, too.

Picture of activity diagram template

Picture of activity diagram template – click to download a PDF version

Continue reading

UX Bristol 2014

I was really pleased to be back in Bristol on July 18 for UX Bristol 2014. I’ve been a couple of times before, and I might have enjoyed this one the most. I learned a lot, and there are various topics and discussions that I want to follow up on. I enjoyed sessions on estimating, repertory grids, design sprints, and brand-building basics.

A photo of Bristol's harbour and the M Shed

Participants have a selection of four one-hour workshops to attend, and the day wraps up with a few short talks. I have sketchnotes for the things that I attended, and I’ve included those below. There are also great live blogged notes online, too… quite by coincidence, I seem to have attended the same sessions as the live blogger!

Continue reading

UX lightning talks 2014 – Cambridge Usability Group

I was lucky enough to be involved in organising the UX lightning talks event for Cambridge Usability Group again this year. Towards the end of March, I sent out a call for people in the Cambridge UX community who would like to give a 5-minute talk about their work. Tips and tricks, stories from the trenches, thoughts, ideas, questions… anything. They didn’t disappoint, and on the night, to a sell-out * audience, everyone shared ideas and told stories based on their experience.  Just for a bit of added excitement / headache, I gave a talk as well. We hosted it at Microsoft Research, and Red Gate Software kindly sponsored drinks afterwards at a nearby pub.

I’ve managed to pull together notes for the talks, in order of appearance…

Continue reading

Evaluation: role-playing the UI

While this might not be as strict (or serious?!) an evaluation technique as, say, heuristic analysis or usability testing, having two people act out the roles of the user and the user interface (UI) of system can, I think, be very revealing.

It’s a little bit like some of the more elaborate “paper prototyping” scenarios I’ve seen, but I first heard of this in a talk by Stephen P Anderson, at UXLx 2010. Perhaps the best thing to do is see Stephen describe it at another event in Norway.

Continue reading