Designers and conferences

I’m recently returned from a fairly high profile design conference. There was a mixed bag of speakers, with wildly varying presentation styles and different advice for those of us in the crowd. That variety is important to ensure there’s something for everyone, however whilst I often come away inspired, it is not always in the way I believe the organisers intended. This week I learned a lot about what makes for an engaging talk and an equal amount about the pitfalls to avoid.

There seemed to be many speakers at this event who decided to aim high, talking not about how to design better experiences but instead asking holistic questions about our impact on society, or in one case, a rather tenuous link to our evolution of as species through our technology. I applaud the ambition, but a disappointing many who went this route over-reached and did not make their content relatable and relevant to the professionals in the room. Where direct advice on design practice was offered, it was often distilled into easily tweet-able quotes or Dieter Rams-style 10 lessons. Whilst this was better, what was occasionally overlooked was the need to give us a taste of the successful projects and experience that would make those lessons convincing. Without context or evidence of application, these ideas lacked weight.

The still-young UX industry, much like industrial design before it, eagerly borrows scientific terms from the social and neurological sciences in an attempt to well, sound clever, and get taken seriously. I’m reminded of how industrial design appropriated ‘ethnography’ from anthropology to describe field research in a manner that evoked precision and process. After several of these style of talks in a row, there is a lingering feeling the audience are caught in a game of one-upmanship – each speaker trying to convince us of their expertise through vocabulary and meaningful looks alone.

One potential advantage for the UX design world is that it is able to learn lessons from longer established design fields. The skills, philosophies and struggles of the UX industry are little different to those of the industrial, furniture or automotive professions over the years, particularly when it comes to being taken seriously and used effectively by business and the technical disciplines. Our cousins in other design fields have walked this path before, and yet there seems to be relatively little awareness of how for example, industrial designers have established themselves over the decades that might enable us to shortcut the process.

At one point in the day, the phrase “UX practitioners are agents in the progress of humanity” was put up on screen and tweeted by audience members. I cringed. It was an attempt to be profound, but for me, the real point relayed was that designers are still trying to work out their place in the industry. It’s tough and we all need reassurance from time to time – conferences are a great way to swap tips with your contemporaries and gain inspiration. Quotes like the above however, merely come across and pretentious and dare I say it, a little insecure. They ultimately do us more harm than good in the world of work, alienating our colleagues and perhaps even calling our professionalism into question. It is by proving our worth and delivering aforementioned user experiences that we win respect and make said progress.

Thankfully there were also a healthy number of talks that really inspired, and these I noticed had much in common. They conveyed awareness of UX design’s place in both people’s lives and business – not as a misunderstood, pioneering craft, but as a modern and effective way of working and collaborating that really delivers the goods

These speakers taught many of us valuable lessons, not by attempting philosophy but by showing examples of real projects they and their teams had done, presented via clear narrative so that the audience understood what work was undertaken, how it was approached and why. They introduced us to their users, showed sketches, prototypes and workspaces and told an engaging story. They talked about their personal experiences of user experience design not as a practice in isolation, but a means by which designers work with and alongside developers, customers, brand and marketing professionals and senior management. No successful experience is ever delivered without collaboration and understanding from the entire team.

The best speakers also showed humility, offering a ‘warts and all’ accounting of their own experiences, and telling us about their successes, failures and lessons learned along the way. By illustrating their own journeys and decisions, they offered a wealth of relatable information for the audience to pick apart. Audience members that I spoke to afterwards all expressed how much they learned by example, picking out their own insights, rather than having apparent lessons abstracted and removed from context.

Whilst some speakers at this event initially disappointed me, the trip was redeemed for me by the honesty of hard-working professionals. They impressed me with their story-telling skills and transparency, willing to share the details of their journeys and admit what they knew then and know now. Their focus was on learning their craft through doing, and earning the respect of colleagues by proving they can deliver. As long as we have UX designers with this attitude, I think we’ll go far.

Matt Corrall