'Design is how it works’ – Steve Job’s philosophy brought to life at UX 2014 conference


This is the golden age of design, and startups as well as established corporate giants need to excel in the user experience to succeed in the 21st century.

Bangalore recently hosted a superb masterclass and conference on user experience, UX 2014, organised by Peepal Design and the global UX Alliance.

Design is no longer something tacked on to a finished product, but embedded in it at every stage – or, as the late great Steve Jobs put it so eloquently, “Design is how it works.” UX is now at the cutting edge of humanising devices and interactions in a world going increasingly digital, online, social and mobile. The field has spawned a whole range of new job titles such as interaction designer, content strategist and information architect.

Experts from the US, Ireland, India, South Africa, Brazil, Switzerland, Japan, Australia, France, Canada, Poland and Italy addressed over 300 delegates at the event. Here are my Top 15 takeaways from 15 of the experts who presented at UX 2014.

1. Align UX with business metrics

It is important not just to do design for design’s sake, or to merely appear trendy and cool, or to just keep customers occupied. It is necessary to bring business value into the design cycle, advised Frederic Gaillard, director of Axance in France. He identified four kinds of metrics in this regard: sales revenue, audience influence, productivity and project cost.

More specifically, UX should be shown to improve conversion rate, reduce abandonment, increase downloads, strengthen the quality of user comments, and boost the number of social media followers. UX should focus not just on ‘front end’ issues like appearance, but ‘back end’ issues like customer service.

Gaillard showed compelling UX impacts on Devred Clothing (Web sales became No.1, conversion rate increased to 92%, user satisfaction increased 144%), Concorde Luxury Hotels (guests could easily place phone calls via the re-designed Web site, and book restaurant tables as well), and Bispebjerg Hospital (QR codes on beds and fridges along with smartphone workflow apps improved asset utilisation and reduced drug loss).

2. Mobile is the centrepiece

The mobile genie has now left the bottle, and designers who were masters in the age of PCs and desktops now have to reinvent themselves for a world of smartphones, featurephones, tablets and wearable devices, said Morgan McKeagney, co-founder and director of iQ Content in Ireland.

Mobile has changed the practice of design, software and collaboration. This means there is increasing user demand for agility and speed. Less of an interface is more preferable, as wireless devices become increasingly embedded in the physical ecosystem and ‘UI’ gets replaced by ‘UX.’

UX will need to address not just the concerns of external users but internal stakeholders in employee workflow settings moving from basic corporate portals to BYOD (bring your own device).

3. Include UX approaches in project management certification

At a practical level, who else but a project manager (PM) can bring UX right down into business, customer and client solutions, asked Jean-Philippe Bourdarie, managing director of Axance in France. The UX Alliance is announcing a UX PM certification, to bring more structure into the field.

Level 1 UX PM involves being able to talk about UX, advocate inclusion of UX approach in design and projects. Level 2 UX PM includes setting up a full-fledged project with UX, and adding value to the project using a UX approach. Level 3 UX PM shows project managers how be a UX leader, and define a digital strategy with performance indicators for business and customer experience.

4. Address current needs but also anticipate future needs

User research should be translated into design concepts in such a way that the business team can meet current needs as well as anticipate future needs of customers and business, according to Stefano Zanini, senior user experience consultant from Italian firm Assist.

Organising a ‘Future Workshop’ helps come up with a common and shared vision for all stakeholders, he advised. The cycle of ‘creative imagination’ should include inspiration, sharing and elaboration of design. Elements such as scenarios, personas, diaries, extreme design and participatory design should be employed.

5. Use visualisation techniques to map UX impacts

Digging below the numbers, a number of visualisation and dashboard techniques can help understand UX impacts and user behaviours, according to Florian Egger, managing director at Telono in Switzerland.

Showing dendrograms and pietrees, he showed case studies of website design of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), International Labour Organisation (ILO) and International Air Transport Association (IATA). These tools can be used to map results and navigation flows and correlate them with user comments and alternatives. Such visualised usability testing improves existing designs and creation of new proposed designs.

6. Target the UX message to a broader audience

The UX community itself should communicate its organisational recommendations to a broader audience, advised Mercedes Sanchez, usability researcher from Brazil. UX reports and recommendations to an organisation should be shorter, more objective and visual, and less ‘educational’ in focus. They should directly address business goals and target the largest number of stakeholders possible. UX experts should not come across as snobbish or ‘holier than thou’ in the description of their work and recommendations.

7. Focus on business goals and not just digital content

Digital marketers often equate consumption of digital content with success in marketing. “The goal of digital marketing is not consumption of content but meeting business goals,” reminded Ashok Lalla, global head of digital marketing at Infosys. UX is an important part of digital marketing but should be aligned with the overall vision and mission of brand affinity and business growth.

8. UX helps you stay competitive

In a world of shortening shelf-life or products, global competition in design excellence, and near-perfect availability of market information for consumers, the pressure for companies to get it right and fast is intense. “If you don’t address UX issues, your customers may revolt,” warned Helga Letowt-Vorbek from UX firm Mantaray in South Africa.

9. Embed UX in transactional activities

UX sophistication is one of a range of growing trends in the digital age, along with the rise of Big Data and analytics. These approaches can all be integrated to address context, consistency and consumer needs. Real time insights can be integrated with UX elements to bring to fruit features such as dynamic pricing while buying tickets on an e-commerce or travel site, explained Sachin Mulay, general manager of corporate brand and applications marketing at Wipro.

10. UX applies to digital and non-digital domains

As the world of atoms converges with the world of bits, even traditional non-digital businesses are witnessing growing digital adoption by their consumers. For example, the Home Shopping Network in the US reports that Internet sales jumped from 25% to 83% of total sales, overtaking traditional print catalogues, according to Sidharth Mukherjee, director of strategy, research and analytics at Serco Global Services. Mobile e-commerce is also overtaking desktop e-commerce.

11. Test, learn, test, learn

UX should involve iterative spirals of testing and learning. Designers should map expected difficulty with actual difficulty in each cycle, advised Wojtek Chojnacki, strategy and development leader at Symetria in Poland. Designs, scenarios and basic assumptions should continually be questioned and tested.

For example, it is not enough to just follow mobile platform guidelines and meet compliance requirements – UX is much more. Assumptions about mobile behaviour should be questioned – for example, the heaviest use of mobile devices is actually at home and work. Testing of UI assumptions should involve not just users but also internal stakeholders such as brand managers, marketing heads and business leaders.

12. UX is about relationships

UX is a relationship business, and designers must build bridges and ties with clients and customers, said Robert Schumacher, executive VP at GfK User Centric in the US. In the long term, this also includes understanding demographic changes in society, and figuring out whom to include in user research studies, eg. increasingly ageing Western societies, growing Hispanic population of the US.

UX teams need to understand whether it is best to invite participants during weekdays or weekends, what kinds of questions to ask and what to expect, and how to meet local standards of compensation and timeliness.

13. Localise, localise, localise

Many interfaces and design paradigms do not translate easily across cultures, as shown in the contrasts between US and east Asian design. “Japanese are concerned about privacy; you can’t just ask them to record their video diaries for you for your design research,” cautioned Francis Fung, international UX business manager at Mitsue-Links in Japan. Even the way audiences respond to questions differs across cultures; Japanese do not want to be seen as rude in filling forms.

Fung showed the contrast between the US and Japanese sites of Expedia: the Japanese site has more colours and information packed into it and even has a cute dancing bear as a mascot. “There are four different alphabets you can use in Japanese. Addresses in Japan are listed with country and city first, and there are no street names in address forms,” explained Fung, showing how this can be a problem for e-commerce sites from the West porting into Japan.

14. Blend art and science in UX

UX is blurring the distinction between art and science, between engineering and design. Engineering teams are increasingly including designers, and UX teams are increasingly hiring techies. Ace designers are even included at the board level of some Fortune 500 firms, such as anthropologist Genevieve Bell at Intel.

15. Tackle the RX to bring UX into rural India

While much attention focuses on UX for urban users, it is important also to address the rural experience (RX) in countries like India, urged Osama Manzar, founder of the Digital Empowerment Foundation.

Design for rural Indian users needs to have empathy, empowerment and love in mind. Understanding rural life means appreciating the frugal lifestyle, collective society, agricultural focus, barter systems of exchange, oral communication and a slower pace of life.

“India has 70% of its population in rural areas. Their natural medium is oral and that is why mobile design has become so relevant for them. 90% of Indians are not accessing or producing online information, and that is where the digital opportunity lies,” Manzar said.

India has 3.3 million NGOs, 90% of them are not online. India has 1.4 million schools but less than 8% have computer labs, and less than 3% have Internet access. India has 26 million MSMEs but less than 20% are online, according to figures cited by Manzar. He showed examples of how this gap can bridged, eg via designing wireless mesh networks, apps for school workflow, community radio with mobile phones for feedback, and weaver communities using CAD-CAM software.

The United Nations has recommended that from 2015 onwards, socio-economic development initiatives should have even more of a focus on human aspects of community growth. Design firm IDEO has launched a free human-centred toolkit for social enterprises and NGOs worldwide.

In sum, the conference and masterclasses delivered a wealth of learnings to the attendees, even making it difficult for them to choose between the three parallel tracks!

The conference threw up a fascinating range of questions which can be addressed through research publications and at future such events. How can resource-strapped startups not lose out on the UX edge? What approaches work best in dealing with the ‘politics’ of UX in an organisation, when not all stakeholders sees eye to eye on the solution? What term works best to describe UX when users are no longer just users but co-creators of products and services?



Updates from around the world