Another f*cking blog post

Well, I’ve got a wee bit of license to use this attention grabbing subject title, as this is a heads up on a Twitter campaign to raise awareness for people living with Tourette Syndrome.

SurrenderYourSay is a powerful and smart campaign by the Tourette Syndrome Foundation of Canada (TSFoC) in partnership with Saatchi and Saatchi.  TSFoC has a history of unconventional and interesting campaigns to combat this and increase awareness of this disorder.  In this campaign you give over control of your tweets, and experience what it’s like to have Tourette Syndrome. The tweets are intended to mimic what it’s like to suffer from Tourette Syndrome and are inspired by verbal tics said by real people. Therefore under their control your tweets may be weird, inappropriate or even offensive.

Tourette Syndrome is not all that well understood, and for this reason it’s often stigmatized.  TV and media has played its part in how it (mis)portrays Tourette Syndrome. So if you’re feeling brave do head over to SurrenderYourSay and support them. Hand over control of your tweets for 24 hours, spread the word and help make everyone understand Tourette Syndrome.

I’ve surrendered mine, @wandster, so if you’re interested in the campaign but for whatever reason don’t want to hand over control, then keep an eye on mine from 09:00 on Wednesday to see how it plays out. There’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to spot the campaign tweets from my usual strange and inappropriate tweets!

Advice for the next generation of entrepreneurs…

What do you say to the finalist teams in this year’s Apps for Good Awards? Not much really. They have all crafted an idea for an app that showcases their abilities to use technology to solve real life problems.  And in doing so they’ve gone on an amazing journey that has seen them demonstrate their understanding of the target audience and mobile technology, through to communicating their value proposition and how to monetize their app. All pretty impressive stuff. Even more impressive given the brains behind these innovations are from primary and secondary schools. So all that was left for me to discuss with 5 of the finalists last week, was how to pack the most punch in to their elevator pitch by guiding them on how to tell a compelling story in just 60 seconds.   Hopefully they took away some useful pointers.

What follows are some of the tips I shared with them… (the examples below all reference the team’s ideas and apps that have been shortlisted for the finals).

Help your audience to visualise the story you are telling

You have literally seconds to paint a picture. Yes, a picture says a thousand words, but some carefully chosen words can paint a pretty powerful picture. You’re not painting a Monet, but just enough for the audience to quickly visualise the opening scene of the story you are telling. So as you introduce the main character (persona) and set the scene, try to imagine the picture you are painting for your audience. Consider how changing something as simple as “Laura is learning to play an instrument” to “Laura is learning to play the piano” helps the listener to visualise it.

Create the drama

You’ve set the scene. Now you need to get your hooks in and create a bit of drama. This is where you communicate the problem you are solving.  Imagine you are delivering an Eastenders style cliffhanger – it needs that level of impact.  For example, “Our app will help make a huge impact on Sandra’s children’s lifelong relationship with food by encouraging healthy eating habits.” You can almost hear the drum roll…

Drop some big numbers

You have set the scene and delivered the drama. At this point the audience is most probably nodding their heads, “yes, seems like a good idea.”  Now you need to land a jaw-dropper. Go for the kill by dropping a large number that puts in to perspective the potential your idea has to really make a difference.   For example, “Ten percent (10%) of the British population are dyslexic.” Boom! Of course, make sure the numbers are accurate!

How will your idea solve the issue

A good story has a resolution.  You have a character, a setting and plot, have built some tension (with your big numbers) … now you need the resolution. This is a one-liner of epic proportions.  This is not what your idea will do, but how your idea will do it.  The difference is in the detail.   For example, go from “our app will help children with dyslexia to plan their day…” to “the app will provide tools, that puts the user in control, allowing them to plan and manage all aspects of their daily routine.”

There will most likely already be apps competing in your space.  With so many apps being created daily, it’s difficult to find a problem that someone isn’t already trying to tackle, regardless of whether they’re doing it well or not.  But it’s not always about being the first.  It’s about having that x-factor, a certain something that gives you the nod over the others.  A good way to set out what sets your app apart from the others is to complete this sentence, “our app beats the socks off the rest by ….”

How are you going to drive app engagement?

About 22-25% of apps are downloaded and used only once. What is it that will make your app get a return visit? Make sure you communicate why your users will keep coming back to use your app.

For example, “Our users don’t want to miss out on the latest hair style trends. They’ll come back to stay on top of the latest trends, comment on latest styles, and get advice from their friends before their next visit to the hairdressers…”  This helps to communicate how your app has a real sense of stickiness.

Make your app easy to use

There is a growing culture of impatience.  The ‘Impatient Nation’ demand instant gratification.  Apps therefore need a high convenience quotient.  What does all this mean? Well, if your mobile app doesn’t allow your user to quickly and easily achieve their goal then you risk losing them.   But saying your app is simple and easy to use isn’t quite enough!  This goes back to the first point about helping the listener to visualise your idea.

For example, “All Daniel needs to do his select guitar, and pluck the bottom-E string. Within seconds Daniel receives advice to turn the tuning key for the bottom-E string…”   This is a powerful way to help your audience to understand not only how your app works, but how easy it is to use.

Talk the talk

You’ve designed a mobile app, so make sure you use language that helps the audience to further visualise your app being used. Drop in references to mobile gestures such as pinch, zoom and swipe or discuss what happens when you rotate your phone. And highlight any features of the smartphone that your app uses such as the camera or GPS. As well as helping the audience to be further immersed, this also demonstrates your understanding of the mobile environment.

Make your app enjoyable to use

An app that is useful isn’t enough. It also needs to be usable. And still that’s not enough. We’re emotional people that like to be engaged.  Apps need to be delightful to use too, so help the audience to understand how your app delivers an emotional punch.  You can achieve this by providing engaging content and functionality, focusing on aesthetics, or incorporating elements of game design. So don’t focus purely on your apps functionality, but just as importantly communicate how users will be ‘engaged’ by your app.

Games are inherently more engaging, and reward mechanisms are a powerful gaming mechanism. If you are using such reward mechanisms to encourage users to eat their greens, or provide badges or other indictor of progress for say tuning your guitar in your fastest time, then get these powerful mechanics across when you present your idea.

Make sure your story flows

Everything you have covered until now needs to flow.  Good flow is one of the most important elements of good storytelling. Good flow minimises the cognitive effort to breakdown the information, by just adding layer upon layer to the original picture you helped to visualise.  If the flow stalls or stutters then the visual image starts to fade. You need to keep the flow and keep the listener engaged throughout…

There’s my pennies worth.  Now that’s all left for me to do is congratulate the finalists and wish them all the best for next week’s judging session.…

Step away from your feckin’ computer!

…and pick up your ProMarkers, Sharpies or any pen of choice.  Sketching is an essential part of the design process.  Fact. Technology plays a significant role in our daily activities but you need to pick up a pen and draw before diving in to the pixels. A great experience draws from a rich & diverse set of disciplines, and sketching is the best way to achieve great designs in a rapid, multi-discipline and collaborative way. Nothing frustrates me more than UX Practitioners that don’t sketch and UX Practitioners that say they can’t sketch.


As Ella Fitzgerald (and later Terry Hall) sang, It Ain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It). It’s the process of sketching wherein lies the power.  The proliferation of tools for UX folk has drawn some people away from the more effective hands-on approaches.  These new tools will enable you to craft your experience, but the journey that you take to get there is the difference between delivering a good and a great experience.

As for those who hide behind the excuse that they can’t sketch.  That’s baloney! Providing you can draw a few lines, boxes and even circles then you can visualize your idea as well as the next person. You don’t need to have advanced sketching skills.

Everyone can and must sketch.  If not, then you’re in the wrong profession. No other tools IMHO achieves all of the following:-

It’s inclusive. A sketch is democratic, in its creation and in its understanding. Anyone can do it. Sketching breaks down barriers by making everyone equal. A diagramming tool requires expertise.

It’s collaborative. Sketching is a good way of bringing people together and getting a faster feedback loop.

It’s disposable. If it doesn’t feel disposable then people will be reluctant to provide feedback and accept change.

Encourages feedback.  A straight line implies order and therefore, something considered or perhaps final where the wobbly hand drawn line is open, flexible, to be aesthetically ignored.  Because it looks rough, people are less afraid to criticize or offer suggestions. Low fidelity is more appropriate when higher level of feedback is required. Polished concepts cam put up barriers to feedback.

It’s Rapid. Sketching is a quick way to develop ideas and to explore different ones.  Even the fastest Omnigraffler can’t beat pen & paper!

It’s an effective communication tool. A doodle is worth a thousand words.

Shows the Design evolution.  It’s good to be able to look back at the original sketches that the final designs evolved from.

Engages the project team & client. A sketch frames an experience without getting caught in the detail.  It engages the client in the broader meaning of a solution and not the detail/minutiae. The project team and client needs to be engaged right from the offset as this helps forge a close respect and relationship which in turn produces better results.

Puts you in to a creative mindset.  Simply picking up your sharpie can put you in to the creative mindset.

It’s transparent. It’s all about nudity. Showing a sketch is naked idea presentation, which can show confidence in your process and concept; there’s nowhere to hide. The feeling of unfinishedness puts the focus more on the idea and the essence rather than inaccuracies or omissions.

Sketching is an essential tool in every UX Practitioners toolkit, and should be used at early concepting stages, when feedback and collaboration is most critical.  Formal deliverables can come later once the design options have been explored with pen & paper.

Note: Some of the above has been reproduced from one of my posts several years back.  I’m currently having a spring clean and closing down all my previous blogs, and therefore ‘borrowing’ a few bits here and there before they get lost forever.

Design Considerations for Building Mobile Apps

Today I participated in my first Apps for Good session with a class from Holly Hall Academy in Dudley. If you’re not familiar with Apps for Good then go read about this fantastic programme that encourages school children to use technology to tackle problems for social good.

Today was an opportunity for the young’uns (13 yo’s) to pitch some of their great ideas (via Skype) to Sophie Freiermuth and myself. We were impressed with their ideas, ranging from an app that provides advice on sexual health issues to one for finding out more on bullying and harassment. There were even ideas to find your perfect hairstyle and one that teaches you the Japanese craft of origami. We then shared insight and tips to help these young entrepreneurs to further develop their ideas.

I’ve summarised some of the key design considerations we discussed with the children below, with a few extra points (not covered) thrown in.

Think about the place of use
Mobile provides exciting opportunities because it allows users to interact in more places and in a more engaging way, and at different times of the day.   It’s important to understand the environment in which your customer may interact with the application. 

For example, consider what it means to your application if your target user will typically use your app in a public space to discuss confidential topics such as sexual heath or bullying. A voice-only mode may not be discreet enough, so considering the context will recognise the need for alternative ways to interact.

Provide functionality to help your target audience achieve their goal
Don’t make the mistake of discussing what functionality to offer before you have clearly defined what the goals are for the target audience. This avoids common failings such as feature bloat, where features are placed ahead of better experiences.  It is easy to create a rich feature list but the challenge is to understand the customer and pare down this feature list so that it does fewer things, better and in a simpler way, and all with the purpose of helping the users to achieve their goal. A good motto to keep in mind, “do a few things, and do them damn well.”

Storytelling is a powerful way to communicate design ideas. The narrative will validate the importance and effectiveness of your app in solving a real need.  One group told a compelling story of the build-up to a new haircut, of their fears and reassurances, which helped to ground their app in a real context and ultimately resulted in them only suggesting content and functionality that mattered.

Observe and learn from what engages you
Mario Kart is a masterpiece in game design. One tactic that Mario Kart uses to create stickiness is to reward you for winning a cup by unlocking new levels, characters or vehicles.  It helps to understand the small individual mechanics like this that make the game so much fun.

The children should learn from the things they find fun and engaging, and see how those design principles can then be applied to their ideas.

Are you giving your audience something of value? 
A successful app addresses real customers.  For every application that is the result of a rigorous user centric design approach there will be one that fails to consider who the users are, their behaviours, and how they will interact with the application. Keep asking yourself, who is your target audience and are you giving your target audience something of value.

The children should take every opportunity to talk to their target audience, be it other school children, teachers or parents. Research is a wonderful thing. They need to go get Guerilla.

Understand user behaviour
Apps tend to be more transient experience than traditional online experiences.  Customers use them briefly and move on.  These considerations are vital when designing apps. Long complex tasks are unlikely to be completed as users are distracted or disengaged. This is why mobile apps are seldom built to rely on long attention spans.

Observe, observe, observe.  Watch people’s behaviour and talk to them as they go about their business. Ethnographic research is important to help you understand how people interact with mobile apps.

Make the app easy to use
Even when these applications do address customers’ needs, many applications fail because of a poor design execution. Key characteristics that are fundamental to a mobile app include simplicity, ease-of-use and responsiveness.

The screen size provides obvious design implications. A usable application is one where the user can focus on the essentials.  It’s about stripping out the unnecessary to create a simplified user interface, which is easy to read.  The design objective is to keep the user experience focused on the task.  Screen clutter distracts and hinders the user from performing the intended action.  This is less about minimalist design but more about focused design.

Is your app finger friendly?
The mobile browsing experience is a different beast to the online browsing experience. With such a gestural interface, precision mouse control & clicks are replaced by the finger.  This enables users to interact in a far more natural and intuitive manner, responding to gestures such as tap, flick & pinch.  Successful implementation requires supporting standard gestures such as tap, flick and pinch appropriately and providing immediate feedback.  Gesture support manifests itself in the interface, as the layout is optimized for fingers, providing a finger tappable area for all tappable elements.  Fingers don¹t have the same level of precision as a mouse, so make sure all interactive elements are sized and spaced to optimise gestural interactions.

Provide an experience that is enjoyable and delightful to use
Users have high expectations for mobile apps and expect them to be enjoyable to use  - so whilst they are purposeful they need to delight. A delightful experience creates an emotional connection and a customer who is emotionally engaged will interact longer.

Make sure you app is intuitive
From the moment the launch screen appears it must be immediately apparent to the user what the application does and instantly understandable as to how to interact with it.  Users are impatient and if it takes too much time figuring out what to do then the user will tune out.

Know your phone
Most smartphones have a camera and GPS, and some have a voice assistant such as Siri.  Whilst you shouldn’t use features just because you can, do get to know your phone to make sure you fully understand what it can offer you.

The group with the idea for a sexual health app, made great use of an intelligent personal assistant to provide an easy and intuitive way to ask questions.

A phone has its limitations
Users have high expectations of performance.  Therefore design your application with bandwidth in mind. Desktop Internet experiences provide a visually engaging experience without the same bandwidth constraints, therefore images and rich media are heavily used. However, when it comes to mobile design, these rich elements can do more harm than good if they provide a sub-optimal experience.

Hopefully the school children found the session useful.  I found it fun and inspiring, and I look forward to the next session.  Thanks to Andy Steadman (from Holly Hall Academy) and Myrian Schwitzner (from Apps for Good) for organising.

Making UX Happen

Last night’s UKPA UK workshop on Making UX Happen reinforced my view that the User Experience community are guilty of many of the failings that we label as “the client doesn’t understand us.” Yesterday at times felt like the UX equivalent of alcoholics anonymous, as UX practitioners slowly stepped forwarded with confessions that there is more they could be doing to make UX happen.  My response to “the client doesn’t understand us,” has always been “well, you clearly didn’t do enough to help them  understand.” We regularly hide behind our rich toolkit of methods, great consumer insight and design thinking that all has its focus set firmly on the end-user. We drop our guard when it comes to understanding the client. The client has needs, behaviours and attitudes – and we need to focus in on these if we want our discipline to be better understood and to be ‘agents of change’ in driving business transformation. We have consumer empathy in abundance, but we lack empathy for our stakeholders and the business. We need to grow up and recognise that our primary aim is to fulfill the business objectives set out by our clients. Too often we are focused purely on producing the project outputs that were specified in the project plan, ignoring the other elements that are fundamental to the projects success. But these outputs don’t matter if they aren’t adopted by the stakeholders. We are responsible, along with the wider project team, for their adoption.

Do we understand all the stakeholders that can impact and influence a decision? Do we know who to engage, when to engage them, and how? Are their expectations of our customer-led approach and of the final experience correctly aligned? If we don’t know who to engage, or don’t have a strategy for engaging and communicating with our stakeholders, then this severely reduces our effectives, and increases the likelihood that our vision of the experience will not happen. Stakeholder analysis and management, communications strategies and plans, and expectations management may all sound like dull business talk, but these are techniques that we need in our toolkit now. Terms such as Power-Interest analysis and RACI matrix should be as much part of our vocabulary as personas and wireframes!

Thanks to UXUPA UK for hosting this event, and thanks to Jason Mesut, Timothy Loo and Marcus Smet for running a very worthwhile session.

I’ll follow up with a more in-depth post on more of my takeaways from last night’s event.

What does it take to design experiences

As I scrawled the estimates for a routine design phase on a whiteboard, a colleague was intrigued by the way I broke down my estimates. It’s a frustrating aspect of agency life that many people think of designing experiences in terms of wireframing. I adopted a simple technique to help break through this production mentality and buy the team ‘time to think’ – a rare commodity at the best of times!

It’s simple…I estimate each component, screen or section against three attributes; Talk, Explore & Communicate. This additional granularity enables me to provide more accurate estimates. It also helps the wider team to better understand what the design process actually entails. I loosely define these attributes as follows:-

This is how much time I need to gather all the necessary information before I have the majority of information required to explore the design options. Depending on the complexity of what I’m designing, a water cooler moment might be enough, or I may need one or more workshops to make sense of the requirements.

Design is not a straight path and not every design challenge has a single solution. I need time to explore the different design options. This is the heart of the design process, where I think through the design problem, applying lo-fi methods to explore and refine ideas in a fast and iterative manner until one is reached and agreed on. Computers are not invited.

And finally, this is where I communicate the information architecture and interaction models in sufficient fidelity to be implemented. It’s important to pick the right comms tool for the job, be it final designs annotated with post-it notes, omnigraffle wireframes or interactive Axure prototypes.

This isn’t rocket science, but I find this simple technique results in more accurate estimates. A single number against a screen often gets squeezed as the wider team fail to understand some of the complexities and the design thinking involved to craft something that meets the business goals and make the customers happy. I got in to this game to craft customer experiences that make a difference and this technique is a small step in shifting the focus to where it needs to be.

The Year of our Wellbeing

We are saying more, we are consuming more, we are doing more. But the day is still just 24 hours long. That sucks. As we become more connected and more engaged online, there is a risk that we become more disengaged offline. Technology is increasingly demanding more of our time.  We are getting hooked on the number of Connections, Friends, Retweets, Social Influence scores, Likes, and much more. Social addiction risks getting out of control. And I’m just not sure this is making our lives any better.

2013 will see more people question their quality of life in the digital economy.  This year will see the rise of apps for good. Apps that encourage activities to improve their wellbeing will dominate the download charts.  A walk in the forest, story time with the kids, a phone call to an old friend, drinking more water, an early night to bed…these old fashioned values still have a place yet they are losing out to the lure of shiny immersive gadgetary.  They are even more relevant than ever in this digital economy.  The well-being index will rise above so-called measures of social influence.

This digital world isn’t going anywhere, but we are consuming it in excess as if our lives depended on it.  Like a kid let loose in a sweet shop, we’re grabbing all we can with no thought for the repercussions downstream. The more time we spend connected, the more we are neglecting ourselves and others. This year will see a trend in apps that will help us get the balance right and enjoy our life in every dimension.

Just Say NO to Wireframing

I’m not against the process of Wirefaming. Wireframes are a valuable communication tool in every Experience Designer’s toolkit. It’s the term itself, Wireframing, that we need to push back on! This word is commonly misused and the cause of considerable frustration for those of us that design experiences. Yup, we Design Experiences. The problem is that in many organizations Wireframing has become synonymous with Design.

The misuse of this word highlights a fundamental lack of understanding of what us so-called User Experience Designers do and distorts the perception of how we do what we do to people less familiar with our craft. Worst of all, it instills a production mentality, of a conveyer belt that churns out wireframe after wireframe after wireframe…

If you are asked to wireframe something, correct them and ask whether they want it Designed instead.  This is not semantics, but a critical re-education of what Experience Design entails. By calling it what it is, Design, we invite a conversation beyond a diagramming and communication tool, a conversation which focuses upstream where the ideas and thinking live.

Design is not a straight path. Exploration allows us to think through the design problem to get the right design out of the many possibilities.  And you cannot design an experience in a vacuum – it relies on cross-discipline collaboration. This doesn’t happen in a diagramming tool. This is why we use Design Techniques such as lo-fi sketching to explore design options, invite commentary and gain design consensus. This is the heart of the design process, and it’s where the magic happens.

Once we’ve explored the design options, the final step in the design process is to communicate the experience; the interactions, behaviours, layout and much more. Many factors influence our choice of communication tool, and it’s important to agree the most efficient way to communicate the designs so that more time can be spent truly designing the experience. Wireframes are one of many tools available to communicate the experience. Wireframing Is NOT Design but it may be part of your design process

It’s still early days for our industry and it’s important we take every opportunity to help people understand what we do.  If we fail to explain our craft today, then tomorrow could be a dark n’ miserable world for User Experience practitioners.

[Image of the Grange Hill 'Just Say No' Campaign borrowed from Pink Label Marketing]

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