Collaborate 2014: designing with empathy for all

At the lovely St George’s, Bristol-based UX agency Nomensa organised Collaborate, a one day conference about user experience and (interaction) design.

Nick Finck – The nuances of UX

Nick Finck started off with his talk “The Nuances of UX”. He focused on what he regards as the four things that make up a good user experience: details, simplification, process and research and showed various examples of each.


Details like the background colour of a placeholder for an image that is going to be loaded or a descriptive diagram component staying in position when changing the thing it describes, can be great details that improve the UX in a way users would only notice when it is taken out.


It is important to keep asking ourselves whether we really need whichever things we want to add to a web page. But we should not over-simplify, as that can lead us to miss important details, the work still needs to be done.


Most of our processes are feature-driven, our world is driven by version numbers. Features and version numbers, though great for marketing, rarely they are a means to improve the user experience.


It is important to look at how people use products. Making things merely understandable and usable is great, but we also need to focus on making them “bring joy and excitement, pleasure and fun, and, yes, beauty” as Don Norman said.

Technology is moving so fast that what we thought was a solution for our business no longer is a couple of years later. The most important variable is, as Charles Darwin found, adaptability.

David Peter Simon – Representing information across channels

One of my favourite talks of the day was the one by David Peter Simon about the future of information architecture and portable content. He emphasised the importance of structured content first, a concept well introduced in Mark Boulton’s article Structure First. Content Always.

David Peter Simon showed the significance of structured content with examples from the ecosystem Amazon Kindle, the create-once-publish-everywhere approach of NPR and the structured content of Facebook stories.

As I talked to a content editor during one of the breaks, I found “structured content” is quite a technical term. The difference between plain text content and structured content is that it is not just text, it has things like headings, emphasised words, links, images and lists. A job ad is usually not just plain text: it can be structured into bits like a job title, a location, a salary indication, a ‘apply before’ date, et cetera. A recipe will have things like a list of ingredients, a photo of the end result and a list of steps to follow. These are all things you could in principle display in a different colour of size, they signify different bits of content.

Structured content is the most portable thing of a website. A job ad will always have a job title, a location, etc, whether it is displayed on a phone, a desktop computer or even a smart watch.

An interesting example David Peter Simon showed was that of Facebook. Facebook, he said, “is the first service that can be used by anyone from very young to very old, because it has succeeded in structuring information in such a way that a mental model of the information is created so that it can be familiarised with, regardless of where it is displayed. It no longer requires cognitive load to recognise the content.”

Thinking about responsive web design can be misleading as it often means thinking about (code) techniques. Thinking about mobile can be misleading as it often means thinking about a specific set of devices we want to support. Thinking about structured content does not have such problems, and therefore it is a perfect first step to create truly device agnostic experiences.

Some links about (structured) content:

Joshua Marshall – Empathy as a core feature

Joshua talked about what is one of the biggest miracles of the past few years: GOV.UK! Until earlier this year he was Head of Accessibility at the Government Digital Service, the UK government department tasked with ‘leading the digital transformation of government ’.

After describing how the GDS and the new GOV.UK came about, Joshua discussed the place of accessibility in the project and on the web in general. Accessibility, he said, is about making it work for everyone. GOV.UK had 1.2 billion page views in the first year, that are a lot of people to annoying if it is not working right.

Accessibility guidelines in the GDS Service Manual

An important part of enforcing things work for everyone is established by the Design Principles, which emphasises user needs. It explicitly lists things like making it simple to use and inclusive. There is also the Service Manual, which has a brilliant part about accessibility, very useful for those working on any website, not just government.

The earlier you introduce accessibility in the project, the easier it becomes. In multidisciplinary teams, accessibility can be made the responsibility of each person in the team. With lots of semantics in the HTML standard and beyond (WAI-ARIA), accessibility is part of a modern web stack; old-fashioned looking websites do not follow from it, on the contrary.

Design like you give a damn. A more accessible website is better at enabling users to do what they need to do. It is not about you, it is about what you empower your users to achieve. Focusing on simplicity, usability and accessible UX makes everything better for every one of your users.

UX and accessibility both have empathy as their core value, so they should work together more.

Simon Norris – Digital first: a philosophy

The last speaker before lunch was Simon Norris, who doubled as the MC of the event. He discussed his concept of “Digital First” in three acts: past, present and future.

Simon started off by giving us an overview of major events in the history of the world wide web. Most of these events only took place in the past few decades, great to realise. He then went on to the now and discussed the importance of the ‘in between’. Some UX practitioners tend to think of UX as if it were as series of screens or wireframes, which makes us forget to think about the in between, which, arguably, is more important. He then discussed the future of UX, in which he discussed interesting concepts around ecology, arguing they cannot be designed, only shaped.

Maya Middlemiss – The users’ experience of user experience

Maya Middlemiss, managing director of a company that specialises in recruiting respondents for usability research, shared some insights of this interesting and often less discussed part of usability.

To recruit people to come into a user testing session can be anything from quite easy to very tricky, Maya said. It gets easier if it is for a well known brand and they agree to have their name disclosed to potential candidates, and it gets quite hard if it is for specialised products, especially if it is with regards to finance, as people are often more suspicious answering questions. On the test day, giving respondents simple refreshments, a glass of water or a sandwich, can help a great deal in making them feel welcome and comfortable.

Maya shared various videos of respondents that had experienced a user testing session, and were happy to share what their experience was like.

Dan Healy – Making things totes emosh and dead amaze: engaging millennials online

Next up was Dan Healy, who works as a user researcher at Nationwide building society. In his job he does a lot of research into marketing for millennials, or young adults. In his very energetic talk, he shared some insights.

There are lots of young people in the UK, and so far banks hardly pay attention to them in terms of marketing, usually focusing on their parents instead. Of Nationwide’s 16 million customers, 1.95 million are younger than 18, this is a group twice the size of Bristol’s population, too large to ignore.

An important lesson, said Dan, is not to try and speak young people’s language, that can only go miserably wrong. Instead, be scientific about it and use tools to measure readability of text. On some occasions, a couple of difficult word can make a whole page difficult to understand for (young) readers. Improving such text can improve the site for everyone, not just young people. Don’t underestimate the impact small (copy) changes can make on cognitive load of a text.

Ben Bywater – user research: from full fat to lean

Ben Bywater works at MixRadio, formerly Nokia Music and talked about user research. He had interviewed tens of user researchers to find out where they worked (client-side or agency-side) and how much experience they had in the field.

Ben encouraged us to be more pragmatic, calling pragmatism ‘the sweet spot between insight and resource’. It seems throughout the years the amount of time available for user research has declined, but user researchers have more influence on the end result. The best method to be more pragmatic is to do user testing. It can also be better do adapt more: agencies coaching in-house UX at clients. Increasing input can be good too, by establishing long term communities of users. Lastly Ben discussed measuring UX more, by using data analytics to measure the effectiveness of UX changes.

Thomas Wendt – the broken worldview of experience design

Building on the philosophical foundations of the German philosopher/phenomenologist Martin Heidegger, Thomas Wendt spoke about what he calls “Design for Da-sein”.

Phenomenology can be regarded as the study of human experience. “Dasein” is a Heideggerian term that means something along the lines of an individual’s mode of being in the world.

UX designers often assume users think rationally about their actions, but there can be a non-direction-ness in their behaviour. Websites like Instagram and Buzzfeed gain from this.

Another assumption is that users think, then act, but often that is not the case, said Thomas. Actually, I think we can see that in e-commerce websites: sometimes it can be easy to trick customers into buying something by using emotionally appealing arguments like ‘most other people also bought this’.

Thomas also talked about the importance of a designer’s intention. It is often portrayed as more important than everything else, but, he said, we should not prioritise it above adaptability, we could do without designer gods!

More reading:

Main theme: have empathy with users and design like you give damn

One of the recurring themes at Collaborate 2014 was that user experience is very much about having empathy for users and for all users. As a front-end developer this is a large part of my daily job. But as Joshua Marshall said, accessibility is a responsibility that should be shared across everyone in a team, as it should be part of every aspect of a web project. Not just in code, but also in user experience, visual design and, most importantly, well written content.

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