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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.