UX lightning talks

These are my notes from the Cambridge Usability Group UX lightning talks event. This was held at Microsoft Research Cambridge on July 29, 2013, and the post-event trip to the pub was kindly sponsored by Red Gate Software.

UX lightning talks audience

A capacity crowd for the Cambridge USability Group UX lightning talks, hosted at Microsoft Research Cambridge and sponsored by Red Gate Software.

In Cambridge (UK), there is a growing community of UX designers, people from overlapping industries, and people just interested in it. Trying to bring these people together is Cambridge Usability Group (of which, I’m a co-organiser, I should say!). On Monday, July 29, the group ran an evening of lightning talks – short presentations from 8 different speakers, strictly limited to 5 minutes each. And it went very well.

The group organises monthly events to help share ideas and encourage discussion about topics in the very broad field of UX design. The idea of the lightning talks event was to introduce some of the Cambridge-based people involved in UX design, and to showcase some of their work. Here are my notes from the talks, since I think a lot of the points in them will be of interest to you, dear reader!

ROB KERR (@ux_press)

Rob is a UX designer at IBM. Some time ago, he also spoke at an EBI Interfaces event.

The point that he wanted to get across is that evidence trumps opinion, and that there are always simple ways you can hack your UX design process to get some evidence.

He gave a couple of examples. Firstly, deciding on the meaning of an icon that would go in a UI. We could do something like an “open sort”, where we would simply show icons to several people (colleagues are fine), asking “What does this mean?” or “Which one of these indicates ‘expand’?”

We could also do a closed sort, where we supply the options (the meanings) and ask people to place icons in whichever category makes most sense to them.

Rob’s second example was of button placement in a UI. This might be something key, like a Save or Download button. We’ve all been there – arguments over little things like that.

We could spend (waste!) time, testing alternative layouts for some sort of conversion. Rob’s rather clever approach was to get people to look at a UI that features everything *except* the button in question, and ask “Where would you expect to find this button?”

Using click tracking software, Rob was able to get a heatmap of where people would expect to find that button, and use that as evidence to settle any arguments. Nice.

DAN SHANE (@danshane)

Dan is not really a UXer; he’s a software developer at ClearCom. But he is also the person who makes the most effort to bring a design process to the work that he and his colleagues do. One method he has been experimenting with recently is the (rather awesome!) design studio (as championed by people like Todd Zaki Warfel and Will Evans).

The basic format is Idea generation (+ sketching) > Critique / Explanation > Iteration.
It is a way of generating lots of possible solutions for a given design problem and users, critiquing, comparing, combining and iterating until we have something viable.

The are problems, though…

It can be hard to get the right people in the room, either because of their reticence or because they are in another country.

Combining live and remote participants is hard (impossible?).

People tend to find it hard to properly critique things, and will often end up trying to munge solutions together into something that pleases everyone. This is no good.

Politics (as always) can cause problems. Also, some people think “Well. the design is done now that we’ve had a design studio. Just get on and build things!”.

Then there are the challenges of being a facilitator who is also involved in the project.

[Francis: ] A little while ago, I had the opportunity to chat with Will Evans about some of these challenges. In general, I’ve been thinking about how to get better (and help other people get better) at giving and receiving critique for a while now. Will had some great comments on this, though. From my notes of that discussion: 

As well as the 2×2 mentioned in the articles (“Here are two concepts that are really interesting—interesting enough to steal. Here are two concepts that could be interesting, but there are issues that need to be further fleshed out.”), Will also likes to use Ritual Dissent as a method.

[This is good if I ever get time to organise UX critique sessions in Cambridge… ! – FR]

Obviously, always critique with business goals and user info in mind.

Fear the endowment effect (status quo bias), and getting locked into one solution too soon. This can happen easily in teams of people, where they naturally try and seek consensus.

Pairing vs teams – this is one way to try and avoid that group consensus thing.
Also, make sure each person gets to talk – they should take it in turns to present, critique and feed back to the room. Regularly moving people around the room, creating new pairs, can be a great was to seed ideas with others.

[Kind of reminiscent of the speed dating / speed sketching sessions I’ve run in the past – FR]”


Niki works at SwiftKey, helping to make better Android apps.
He showed us how he uses both remote and in-person usability testing to evaluate their products.

In terms of remote testing, they aim to invite between 50 and 100 testers to look at closed beta versions of apps. These are unsupervised, unpaid, and SwiftKey have little visibility over what’s going on. Testers are asked to write reports and provide feedback. The quality and quantity of this varies. Testers are predominantly men

In comparison, in-person testing happens with fewer participants. They are paid, sessions happen in a controlled environment, using SwiftKey equipment, and last about an hour. This gives them more control and allows them to observe users and ask questions, of course. It is more time consuming.
Participants are a more even mixture of men and women from different demographics.
Developers are encouraged to observe these sessions.

So why do both kinds of testing?
Because you get wider, deeper feedback. Different settings + different participants = different feedback.


Steve us a UX designer at GE. He talked to us about an interesting challenge that he and his colleagues face… The Lag. That is, the time lag between releasing a product and actually getting any real user feedback about it. Some times this can be a matter of months; sometimes, a matter of years!

The problem is that, for some of the complex applications that GE produce, the lag occurs because customer have to go through a process of upgrade and customisation.

Now, the team at GE are trying to take a different approach. With the introduction of Agile project process came “sprint showcases”. There is much more focus on what one might call lean UX now, and on getting a most viable product out there to evaluate and start working from.

In the future, this might mean the development of smaller, more focused, lightweight apps being sold alongside other GE products.


Stephen is a UX designer at Red Gate Software. Traditionally, he would have worked alongside developers who were coding and creating prototypes in VisualStudio. Things might be produced and tested… and fail horribly. This would obviously cause a lot of anguish when things had to be re-coded!

Now, Stephen and his colleagues are experimenting with a more “startup” way of working on projects, with much less division between “designer” and “developer”.

Specifically, they have begun using HTML5 + CSS to create prototypes of desktop software. These are represented in a Chromium browser.

At first, Stephen thought this would be a nightmare because *he* had to work on the HTML prototypes. However, after getting over the initial hump (and using the Bootstrap framework to really accelerate things), this quickly proved to be an efficient approach.

Less bottlenecks; fewer upset developers; easy changes; skill-sharing across a small team. The implication for the future is that the whole company could move to this approach, and share common CSS stylesheets among teams, helping to streamline product development.

IRENE MELO (@irenemelo)

An analyst at Cambridgeshire County Council, Irene’s work covers a broad range of UX-related activity. Starting with an early interest in computer came and computers in general, Irene is now responsible for all aspects of a UX design cycle with in the Council. She was keen to stress how important it is for a public service body to think about and in fact start with their users.

A big part of that is data analysis, gleaning something from the logs that are gathered about user activity. That gives her evidence for where effort needs to be made, quite often. Through her work, the Council makes a lot of effort in terms of web accessibility, and has one awards for it.

Interesting statistic – only 15% of users visit the Council website homepage.

SARAH LACY (@sarahofsandwich)

Sarah is mainly a games designer, but mixes it with UX design, where she sees a lot of overlaps.

Something that she uses a lot in her work is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s well-known concept of flow state. Some of the design decisions she might make in game development will be directly influenced by this, and what both the developer and the player want to achieve at a particular point in a game. [It reminded me of how we might use the Kano model to make feature choices – FR ]

One of the key things that Sarah thinks about is that games players are inherently motivated. So how might we think about and design for motivation in other places?

In games, there are Goals, Rules, and Feedback… concepts that we can apply in other areas of design.

Something else that we can borrow from games design is the idea that players (users) have a sense of Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. We need to design to support these things if we want to instil a good experience.

PAULA DE MATOS (@paula_dematos)

Paula, an independent UX designer, was our final speaker. She told us about the Get Tech initiative that she is involved in. The project aim is to learn more about how senior members of society interact with the digital world.

We’re all familiar with mobile tech and portable devices. We generally think that they’re pretty easy to use. But that isn’t the case for most seniors. There is a steep learning curve and they have to invest a lot of energy in it. What’s more, they learn in a different way, preferring to read all the instructions before even switching on a device. Often, this just serves to confuse them even more!

Big problems include unfamiliar vocabulary, poorly written instructions, and difficulties with physical interaction (touchscreens with arthritis… !)

however, there is still a lot of enthusiasm among seniors for digital technology. Things like Skype, photos, and Google Earth are very popular.

At the moment, Get Tech is working with a small community of seniors in Girton. In the future, they want to look at larger interactive workshops and the promotion of “digital champions” among the seniors’ communities.


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