Last weekend, Geoff Alday and I traveled to Columbus, OH for the Midwest UX Conference. The conference was co-organized by the IxDA Columbus and Columbus UPA and drew around 250 folks. We wasted no time finding other attendees to chat UX with. (And also enjoyed some of the finer things Columbus nightlife has to offer … like dueling pianos.)
The secret lives of links and user research
The conference kicked off on Saturday with a keynote by the founder of UIE, Jared Spool. Jared spoke about the secret lives of links. He mentioned that blue is their default color, and yet the hardest color to see. Men over 40 gradually lose the ability to distinguish blue; women do as well a few years later. Also, since links are underlined by default, this changes the shape of the descenders — think g, j, p — and makes words harder to read.
A session about the edge of user research followed. Veronica Erb, a user research specialist based in D.C., shared how she traveled to Rwanda to interview teachers using her company’s educational software. She did without a proper testing environment and had to learn the philosophy of nta kibazo [naa chee-ba-zo] to “roll with it, or no worries.” (She also shattered our childhoods by saying Hakuna Matata isn’t really said by anyone but Disney.)
Erik Dahl worked with farmers in Brazil to understand how they share knowledge through patterns, norms, behaviors and signifiers. Brad Nunnally shared stories of the difficulty of distancing himself emotionally from his research as he went into the homes of people dealing with cancer and financial instability, and how, sometimes, you just can’t stick to the script. The final speaker, Larissa Itomlenskis, helps educate and empower teens in impoverished areas through creative play in design. This was really touching: she uses Google’s SketchUp software to help them build their perfect place. Often the children build rec centers or dream houses.
Gaining an understanding of our users and our work’s meaning
The afternoon was all about gaining understanding. Erin Jo Richey spoke of the answers you need in order to understand web analytics. She covered her top 10: bounces, stickiness, search logs, user segments, integrated surveys, click paths, goal funnels, loyalty, micro conversions and measuring engagement. Wendy Stengel tried to get us excited about statistics by illuminating the differences between nominal, ordinal and interval variables by showing how only men demonstrate signs of friendship in Star Trek. (Until that moment, I didn’t realize Counselor Troy and Dr. Crusher really weren’t that tight.)
Eric Wiley & Vince Frantz explained their mental modeling techniques for breaking down clients’ needs into simple nouns and verbs, and grouping them into similar tasks, getting to root motivations. Last up was Kimberly Callery, and I’m convinced she must run a day care for adults. Her techniques of creativity through play help team members work through their ideas to discard the ones that don’t make the cut. Viewing from the outside might look like craft hour with snacks but the process helps save money by getting folks on the same page faster with more experimentation.
Evolution and control
Saturday’s program closed with a keynote by Marc Rettig, of fit associates, called Design for Life. Marc talked about the evolution of the UX era and the desire by UX folks to work in social/global issues. Marc challenged us to find a way to practice UX in a way that helps create a healthy society. By managing every project to impact society in some way, we become more aligned with human concerns.
Sunday morning opened with a keynote by Dan Willis from Sapient. Dan talked about how all we really need to know about our users we learned in high school. I found one of the analogies quite interesting: control is an illusion. We may try to control the users within the experiences we design, but really they control the content and the context. Dan left us with this closing thought: Design is what it does, and what it does is solve problems.
Meet the nine-headed monster
Later, in a session about “getting it done,” Lis Hubert spoke about her experience with UX + Agile in a talk about Agile’s secret step: discovery. This initial planning sprint helps determine what areas need to be a bit more solid before iterating. It sets up the framework for the developers, and for stakeholder buy-in, saving a lot of frustration. Emma’s own Geoff Alday talked about taming the nine-headed stakeholder monster. (Bet you didn’t know it had an official name.) He identified nine archetypes: user, customer, sales, marketing, support, executive, The Others, developer and designer. If you feel like some of your coworkers “just don’t get it” because they’re coming from a different vantage point, Geoff’ll tell you to get over it. You’ve got to care about honesty, listening and collaboration, because miscommunication means your users suffer. (Way to go, Geoff!) Last up, Jay Morgan talked about injecting a healthy dose of UX problem-solving into company culture to improve everyone’s experience.
The conference closed with Jesse James Garrett, co-founder of Adaptive Path and the man who coined the term AJAX. Jesse talked about how the nature of UX work has evolved: web > software > digital media > technology > products > services > environments > multi-channel experiences. How can UX encompass so many different things? Design goes beyond the medium. Design beyond medium equals experience.
A little bit of recreation
On our last night, we hit up Schmidt’s Sausage Haus in Germantown. Much sausage, pretzel and potato was had by all, followed by a cream puff the size of softball. It was amazing.
Additional writing by Geoff Alday