My summary of UX open 2015

UX open logo

There are few events that ever affected me in a way that this year’s UX open 2015 did. It is an unconference for people interested in all things user experience (UX) organised by the wonderful Martin Christensen and Maryam Ammouri for the fourth year in a row. Now I think my rather emotional response to the impression UX open has left on me is justified – the energetic participation and welcoming atmosphere was something every attendant seemed to be able to testify to and appreciate.

And even more than reliving the event by watching the photos and going through the links to the lightning talk presentations, I am looking forward to reading the organisers’ evaluation of the event in more than 140 characters. Here are a newcomer’s two cents.

(For the sake of consistency and continuity of this post, I will refer to the speakers, workshop leaders and other participants of UX open, whom I had the pleasure and honour of meeting and chatting with, as “UX people”.)

Across the 16 lightning talks, uncountable discussions in open spaces, engaged fish bowl panel discussions and most pleasant conversations over coffee and lunch, I have picked up on these four common themes.

The definition of UX

UX people cannot seem to agree on what user experience is or should be. (Surprise!) The different definitions seem to correspond to people’s different perspectives depending on their professional and academic background, current assignments and nature of work. Ranging between a way of doing things to a way of thinking things to not a “way” at all, the definition of user experience is rather far from being widespread, common and agreed upon.

As a result of this disagreement, however reluctant it may be, UX people can neither seem to agree on how to call themselves. The variations of titles represented at UX open are if not scary, then unsettling at least. One of the fish bowl panel discussion participants expressed it in the style of, “it’s funny how we work on making things easier for people to understand, though we can’t make what we work on easier to understand”. What I noticed they do agree on, however, is that it is okay to disagree on the titles.

UX is about people
UX is about improving and creating a better world, solving problems and satisfying needs.

UX people seem to also agree on why user experience is important, or at least that it is important. The first lightning talk presentation by Jens Wedin accounts for “the state of UX” in Sweden. The results of Jens research on the landscape of user experience from the perspective of UX people themselves show clearly that they are on a mission to improve and create a better world, solve problems and satisfy needs.

UX people are encouraged not to build for users, but rather with them, listening and learning. Whatever the definition, one thing seems to be certain. User experience is more about people than it is about programs, more about principles than it is about procedures, more about practices than it is about processes.

The scope of UX

UX people are keen on sharing methods and tools that help them do their work well. Whether it is finding ways of engaging users or working on analysing the gained insights, they are mindful of the differences in approaches and eager to learn from one another.

Gripen cockpit
The principles of UX are now being adopted in and by other domains and in the non-digital realm.

One aspect of user experience touched upon in some lightning talks and open spaces was what user experience encompassed. During recent years it has become referred to as a discipline within the web and the digital realm. Its principles are now being adopted in and by other domains, be it for the design and development of warplane cockpits or non-digital artefacts like services, meetings, environments and processes.

The necessity of UX

One of the biggest challenges that many UX people seem to share is the executive and other stakeholder buy-in. While they expressed frustration with some organisations’ inability and sometimes unwillingness to see the value of user experience, many showed understanding and patience with stakeholders’ having to learn and develop at their own pace. Still, acceptance of user experience as a factor of bringing value to users and customers is on the rise in many organisations. However, it is also often seen exclusively as a facilitator of rising sales figures.

The acceptance level of the value that the focus on user experience can bring into the organisation seems to be different depending on whether UX people are hired as consultants or employed in-house. Both groups point out, however, that user experience is often but a fragment of business and operations development that a company is in real need of. Oftentimes, UX people’s skills are about empowering teams within organisations to work efficiently, to communicate clearly and to deliver an effective product or service based on user- and customer-centric approaches. If the purpose of a project is to build a wall, user experience is the mortar rather than bricks.

Fish bowl
Will tech exist in the future? Yes. Will users exist in the future? Yes. Then yes, UX designers will also be needed. – Unn Swanström, @unnderbar, Netlight Consulting AB.

One of the most remarkable discussions during the fish bowl panel was that on whether user experience will exist and be needed in the future. Many agree that even though it is an expertise of few and a necessity today, user experience is on its way to shift focus and be the responsibility of many tomorrow. Nevertheless, it is safe to assume that the need of facilitating the focus on users’ needs within organisations, advocating for their participation in the end-result of an undertaking, as well as enabling teams to create useful and usable products and services isn’t going to run dry any time soon.

The ethics of UX

UX people are also heedful of differentiating right from wrong. They admit to often treading the fine line between what is best for business and what is best for users. The balance that is hard to achieve, and whose absence is also hard to notice.

Friction in UX
Deliberate friction is a means to encourage users to make conscious decisions on their way to achieving the goal. – Per Axbom, @axbom, Axbom Innovation AB.

Per Axbom’s fantastic lightning talk on the dangers of what he calls “fairy tale-like user experiences” justly received the longest round of applause than any other talk of UX open. Brilliantly blending humour with serious business, Per questions the importance of building an easy-to-use website for a knife-through-butter frictionless user experience and at the end of the day manipulating users’ cognitive ability. Instead, he challenges UX people not to become obsessed with conversion rate optimisation as he argues for and urges the need of deliberately creating obstacles on users’ paths. This way we can encourage users to make conscious decisions and satisfy them in their experience stretching beyond the screen interaction and make sure we strike the balance between business goals and users’ needs.

Design for extremities
By designing for extremities, we contribute to more sustainable products that include more people. – Sara Lerén, @HeedTheNeed, inUse AB.

The notion of accessibility and inclusive design picks also on the ethics of user experience. Sara Lerén’s iconic lightning talk touches on the subject of designing for extremities as a means to create benefit for everyone. She argues user experience is about paying attention to marginalised minorities, instead of generic masses, in order to deliver the benefit of what UX people’s work contributes to creating. The benefit that can be enjoyed by all. Having a clear purpose upfront and targeting depreciated groups is a strong example of making sure a product or service is usable and used by many, standing the test of time.

Sara makes a case for inclusive design as opposed to mainstream and exclusive design. As an example, she questions traditional norms of asking for one’s gender in an online form and only providing two options – male and female. She argues that if there is a well-grounded reason for you to know the gender of your users, you must not make an assumption of everyone fitting in one or the other category.


My expectations coming to UX open 2015 were skyscraper-high. What I saw, learned and experienced made me soar above the highest building in the capital city. I am glad I could be part of an event made possible by the participants themselves. This conference format has proven to me to be most effective. Now, this is my picture of UX open. I am eager to see you paint and share yours.

Swede vs. Swedish citizen

The Swedish flag

Today is National day of Sweden. In many places across the country, part of the celebration is a ceremonial welcome of new citizens. “New citizens”, “people who have become new citizens.” Now and then, however, you hear and read references to “new Swedes” being welcomed by their Swedish home municipalities.

“Swede” is more of a trait of ethnicity than that of citizenship. And there’s a clear distinction between the two. Citizenship is what you can choose. Ethnicity is what you’re born into. By choosing to associate myself with the country of Sweden and becoming a Swedish citizen, I cannot alter my ethnic origin.

Ethnicity has to do with belonging to a group (or several groups) of people of common descent, language, history, not necessarily bound by territorial constraints. Citizenship has to do with associating oneself with a group (or several groups) of people constituting a state, a country, united under a government and on a particular territory.

True story. I was born in Latvia to a Russian father and half Ukrainian, half Russian mother. Ethnically, I am Russian, but by citizenship, I associate myself with the country of Latvia. I do not call myself “Latvian”, which in my opinion signifies one’s cultural and linguistic upbringing, but rather “a Russian from Latvia”. Since late 2014, I hold double citizenship – of Sweden and Latvia. I will not start calling myself a Swede for the very same reason described above.

The word “nation” has the same roots as “nativity”. The Latin word nāscī means “to be born”. Naturally, nationality is closer to ethnicity than it is to citizenship (that is if my thoughts on the above two concepts which I am trying to explain in this post are correct). Nevertheless, “nationality” has gradually come to imply what country one is a citizen of, which is now the predominant connotation in the English language. In Russian, the word retains its original implication, which is why, when prompted, I sometimes take a second to realise what it is I am expected to state as my nationality.

Photo credit: The Swedish flag by Daniel Goude (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Seeing events, observing intentions

Pomegranate 6 by Kim McKelvey (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

On the window sill in our kitchen, there sat a bowl of pomegranates. I had carefully plucked each seed out of the fruit’s mushy pulp. (Now, I know there are other ways getting the desired part out that are less time-consuming, but I have my way and it works well.)

My four-and-a-half-year-old daughter saw the lid-covered bowl of pomegranate seeds and asked me if she could open it. “Go for it!” I said without a second thought as to her intention. She started to open the lid, and I watched her, as her delicate little fingers ran around the edges of the bowl. When she was done with the enterprise, I told her, “Good, now you can eat them, one by one!” To which she simply and quietly answered, “No.”

She started backing, clearly willing to leave for the living room, as if her mission were accomplished and she had a new endeavour awaiting. Startled, I asked her why she wouldn’t eat the pomegranate. “Daddy,” she answered unapologetically, “I never wanted to eat the seeds. I just wanted to open the bowl, so you could eat them.”

We often think we know what our customers want from us in form of products or services. Just as often, however, we fail to realise that what we think we heard them say is the necessary analysis of their needs on our part. We might have come a long way recognising the importance of basing our supply on the demand rooted in needs and not in desires. But is that enough?

During your user research (or rather user recognition, for lack of a better word), do you simply see them touching your product or do you wilfully look at them interacting with it? Do you deliberately yet passively watch your audience from afar or do you heedfully observe them?

When my daughter asked me if she could open the bowl of pomegranate seeds, I assumed her reason for doing it was to eat them. If only for a moment, my misconception about her intention left me startled.

How often do we assume our customers’ intent is A, just because they exhibit behaviour B? What we think we see our customers do, or sense them express, is an idea that, if grounded in inaccurate speculations and defective conclusions, can yield devastating results to our business.

The valuable, and sometimes vital, discipline of user research is best left to be served by a professional who consigns your audience to scrupulous analysis and not superficial description.

Fresh wounds and evanescent scars

When a cut is fresh, your perception of everything else is blunted by the acuteness of pain. In pain, your foremost need is that the cut be tended to, with care. Everything else is non-existent—your attention is focused on the immediate. Shallow cuts may do with a bandage, while deeper cuts require a more thorough treatment. The same is true of the wounds underneath, the cuts to the soul.

Grieving is a sign of life. It is a natural reaction to the loss of a part of you. It is the realisation that the cut was unnecessary. Losing someone you love is always a cut too deep to stop the bleeding alone. You need someone close to help you treat the wound. A host of neighbours.

When I lost my father to brain cancer 19 years ago, my world was shattered. He was the rock I stood on, and suddenly the ground shifted and my foundation was no more, leaving me hanging by a thread. The unforgettable moments I spent with my father during the first eleven years of my live could not compare to anything I have experienced since his passing.

Grieving is the realisation that the wound is going to leave a mark. Sometimes the scar is dim. Sometimes it is ready to burst at the minute impulse. But the pain fades. Reluctantly, it makes it easier to breathe, it makes room for a tearless start.

In grieving, we learn to adopt what has been taken from us. Peace, energy, joy. We learn to resolve to live a life worthy of the ones we lost, forming and shaping it into an eternal tribute. Because we know they would be blessed if we did.

Weeping with neighbours

My father died of cancer when I was 11, my siblings younger and my mother embarking on a heavy journey of raising three children on her own. So, I sometimes think that it is natural for me to complain about life being unfair.

I am aware that complaining about what life throws my way is pointless. However, I find myself worrying about futile things every now and again. Lacking substance, they aim to fill my mind and heart, crippling my senses and preventing me from living.

Then come cold and sharp reminders of the finiteness of life, which make me be grateful for what I have.

Rebecca Alison Meyer died of cancer on the 7th of June, the the day she turned 6. She was called Little Spark by her father Eric A. Meyer. He shared the troubles his family has been going through on his blog and Twitter.

I have never met Eric or Rebecca. We are strangers. And yet, during the past week, the world has not been weeping with strangers. We have all become neighbours, brought closer by this little spark. (In honour of Rebecca, many people used hashtag #663399Becca on Twitter and elsewhere, to show support to the Meyer family.)

When I see purple, I think of Rebecca. I do not think it is ever going to change. Purple was her favourite colour. For me, purple is Rebecca now.

Rest in peace, sweet child!

Throwing in the sponge

For the past three weeks, I’ve written 2,100 words for the #blogg100 challenge trying to repeat the feat of last year. I’ve even “tightened the rules” this time: one 100-word blog post a day—no shorter, no longer.

Both satisfied and with a heavy heart, I am throwing in the sponge. Hey, I’ve had my moment of happy (thank you, @beep!). But everyday blogging does not suit me after all. It’s not that I have nothing to say. It’s the regular commitment that I’m unable to maintain for now.

Instead, I will be focusing on longer, more thought-out occasional posts. Cheers!

This is the final post as part of the #blogg100 challenge—100 blog posts à 100 words in 100 days.

There should not be a need for

I get many e-mails from applications I’d signed up for and forgot about. If I don’t use a service regularly, I like to delete my account. Sometimes it’s easier said than done. Forth comes is a directory of direct links to delete your account from web services.

Built by Robb Lewis and Ed Poole, it’s a handy directory of links to pages where you can delete your account from web services. Moreover, the tool provides colour codes to indicate the difficulty level of account deletion. shouldn’t exist. Deleting an account from web services shouldn’t be that big of an issue. Unfortunately, it is. And the popularity of the tool is undeniable.

This post is part of the #blogg100 challenge—100 blog posts à 100 words in 100 days.

Building a product the users’ way

Rattle by Daniel Goude (CC BY-NC 2.0)

So I did a quick test on my youngest daughter yesterday. I wanted to test her preference of hand to hold a toy rattle in. Left is wrong, I learned, and right is right—she’d switch hands every time I placed the toy in her “wrong” hand. After a while though, she got tired of the experiment and refused to take the toy at all.

Users will always try doing things their way, not yours. If you don’t heed their way, they will become disinterested, frustrated, or worse yet, hostile.

Place your product in users’ lap and observe. Act thenceforth accordingly.

This post is part of the #blogg100 challenge—100 blog posts à 100 words in 100 days.

All links should be blue

Blue links
Photo cropped. Original: Links. by C/N N/G (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The less effort it takes for users to recognise an element on a web site the better. If a button looks like a button, the users are more likely to associate it with something pushable and to actually push it. Right?

It’s only partially true. What users recognise, and subsequently take for granted, is patterns. All patterns are culturally fabricated. The target audience is the key to decisions on both aesthetics and functionality.

If users expect links to be blue, they’ll look for blue to click. Building on what rocks their boat is the surest way to get it right.

This post is part of the #blogg100 challenge—100 blog posts à 100 words in 100 days.

Be prepared for the unpredictable

Cold Shower
Cold Shower by Steve (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The other day, when my daughter and I were on our way to the kindergarten, she told me she didn’t want to play with one of the girls there. She was clearly upset about something. After lunch, as I picked her up, she told me she loved the girl. The same girl!

Your customers are like that. Their feelings are unpredictable, their actions are irrational, their mood is fluctuant. You may try to prepare a response to every situation. However, you must prepare for the sudden change as well.

The best response to this kind of situations is authentic empathy.

This post is part of the #blogg100 challenge—100 blog posts à 100 words in 100 days.