Ignite UX Michigan is coming back in March 2017! Planning has barely started—we’ve gotten as far as saying “yes, we want to do this again” and “yes, we’d love to have some great people helping us again.”
Every year, we try to work on improving different aspects of the event, and once again we have some tactical opportunities to address like improving the space the event occupies and tweaking the proposal review process.
The big thing for me this year, though, is starting to really focus on the long term sustainability of the event. Every year, we’ve had more people get more involved in event planning. I want to take that significantly further, with the goal of making this an event that any one person can step back from. I think we can do it.
On March 22, 2016, I spoke at TEDxYDL in Ypsilanti, Michigan. This is the video of my talk. The script that I basically used is below.
Look at this door. How do you use it? You push it. What if you didn’t read the sign, or can’t read it? The design suggests that you should pull it.
And there’s this guy. It’s a microwave. Do you know how to get it to heat up a plate of leftovers? Well, it doesn’t work like any other microwave you’ve ever used. No microwave works like any other microwave you’ve used.
And websites can be pretty bad, too. This site does a pretty good job nowadays, but 16 years ago, they had a bit of a problem finding a place to stick all those tabs at the top.
There’s a lot of stuff in this world that’s hard to use. Websites. Computer software. Hospital bills. All those remote controls you’ve got lying around. These things that are hard to use make you feel like a fool. If you only take away one thing from the next few minutes, it’s this: It’s not you. It’s the design. These things should have been designed better
My job is to try to make things like doors, microwaves, and websites easier for people to use.
Nowadays, my job title is “user experience architect.” And the work I do is called “user experience design.”
Let’s unpack those terms.
The user experience is the sum of all of the actions people take and feelings they have when they’re using something. This could be a website, or a computer program, or a phone, a car, a can opener, a building. Anything. The user experience is made up of every part of using that product: the words, buttons, colors, the box something came in, the customer support hotline. Everything.
Now, user experience design is based on going out and seeing how people actually use websites or whatever your product is, or how they’re going about their lives without your product, and then using that information to design or redesign a user experience that meets their needs. It puts humans at the center of design.
Let’s look at an example. I was working on a page where people would read journal articles when they were doing some kind of research. We brought regular people into a lab to test this page and find out how easy it was for them to use, and we interviewed people about how they do research, and a pattern emerged: the most important action people want to take on this page is to download a PDF copy of the article. How do you do it on this page?
Of course, if you’re looking for it, you’re going to find it eventually, but if you’re not used to this website, you have to look around for it. The link is small and mixed in with other stuff. That’s why, when we had the chance to rebuild the page, we streamlined it. We made the things people wanted to do bigger, and tucked away the stuff they didn’t use somewhere else so they wouldn’t get in the way. And, of course, after the redesign people found it easier to find that download PDF button.
Designing stuff based on human capabilities isn’t just a matter of making sure you don’t get annoyed by doors and websites, though. It can be a matter of life or death.
In Stockholm a few years ago, they tried something different from other cities to make their roads safer – they started with the assumption that people aren’t perfect. They make mistakes. And that it’s the designers that are responsible for designing a road system that prevents people from dying.
For example, intersections with traffic lights have a lot of dangerous, high speed accidents when people run red lights. In Stockholm, they took dangerous intersections and replaced them with roundabouts, forcing people to slow down and pay attention. Rather than just hoping that everyone would see the traffic light, they changed the way the road worked so you couldn’t have the high speed accident.
They committed themselves to designing a city based on human needs and abilities – and it worked! Stockholm has the safest roads of any major city in the world, and are a model for other cities.
Designing to meet human needs and abilities also means designing things to accommodate a range of disabilities. When we design products and the physical world around us, we can’t leave people out, so we have to make sure our designs are universally accessible.
Let’s take blindness, as an example. There are people that use the Internet just by listening to it. That means a page like this kind of sounds like this
When it’s read out loud to you. To design for people who can’t see, you have to make sure your website makes sense to people that can only hear it.
People that really specialize in the accessibility part of user experience design gain a deep understanding of the technology and design techniques that support people with a range of different disabilities—not just blindness.
Taking this approach to design isn’t just good for people. It’s good for business. A study by Forrester indicates that “the top 10 companies leading in customer experience outperformed the S&P index with close to triple the returns” and “every dollar invested in UX brings 100 dollars in return.”
In the end, the most important thing for you to remember from this talk is that:
It’s not you, it’s the design.
Technology, services, organizations, and society should be designed to meet human needs and capabilities, whether those people are young, old, using something for the first time, distracted, or have disabilities.
When you’re having trouble using a website or a microwave or reading your hospital bill, it’s not your fault. The people that made those things should have done a better job. Design matters. And so as we shape the world with the technology and the society that we build, it is imperative to put humans at the center of the design.
Ignite UX Michigan 2016 happened. It was an amazing experience.
This was our fourth year, and our second year at Live. We moved there from Conor O’Neill’s because we simply ran out of space and needed a bigger venue. Attendance at this year’s event was about level with last year, which, I have to admit, is a bit of a relief—we didn’t have any space for more people!
Every year, we try to accomplish a few new things:
In our second year, we took a one-off event and repeated it, began our partnership with A2Geeks (who provide some important financial infrastructure), and began to incorporate volunteers in a serious way.
In our third year, we moved to a new venue, expanded our sponsorship base, further expanded our volunteer team, and brought in a new chair.
And finally in our fourth year, we did the whole event again in a mere six months, as we moved permanently from Fall to Spring. All that, and we had a code of conduct for the first time, our first dedicated MC, and a green room for speakers to relax and store their belongings.
What does the future hold? It’s hard to say. There are still some follow-ups to do after this year’s event—mainly, getting the videos online, but also some administrative tasks. I’ll be relieved to spend a couple of months not thinking about this event before it’s time to get started on 2017.
Ignite UX Michigan is over for another year. We had this year’s event on Tuesday at Live in Ann Arbor. We counted over 160 people this year – more than the official count for last year (140). Every year, I have this feeling like we’ve managed to catch lightning in a bottle. It’s amazing to see such a crowd, and all these excellent speakers.
And after a good night’s sleep, it’s time to get up and get back to work – there is a whole bunch of wrap-up to do after this year’s event, and then we have a short turn-around before 2016. We’re permanently moving the event to March, starting with the next event, which means there isn’t a lot of time to rest up. It’ll be all right. It’ll be better than all right, in fact! I’m really looking forward to what’s next.
Not much longer now until Ignite UX Michigan 2015! We’ve got 12 great talks lined up this year. We’ve moved from Conor O’Neil’s to Live so we can try to accommodate the crowds we’ve had in the last two years. I’m super excited.
The two most important things about Ignite UX Michigan are that it is a free event and that we promote diversity in our list of speakers. Being a free event has meant that getting sponsorship has been important, and once again we have some generous support from companies in Southeast Michigan. Diversity is an ongoing project and I welcome feedback and, better yet, help in making that happen.
This year’s event is also taking place about a month earlier than in 2013 and 2014. That’s because, starting in 2016, we’re moving permanently to March-ish. That timeframe will probably be a better fit for involving students, although it’s going to make for a tiring sprint. It’ll be worth it, though.
If you’re in the area, I hope you can make it to the event! It’s free and awesome.
For the third year in a row, we’ve made it through the speaker selection process for Ignite UX Michigan. As before, it’s kind of a heartbreaking process. Having been rejected from every conference I’ve pitched a talk to for the last 2 years, and having been accepted by two out of dozens, I can sympathize with the people that we can’t fit into our lineup. Being involved in the selection process also really drives home how good all of these proposals are.
We’ve used the same basic selection process three times. It’s designed to be as fair as possible, but the concept of fairness, unfortunately, depends a lot on how you define it. Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how we can make it more fair next time, and how to further the goals of the event.
What Are We Trying to Accomplish?
The two highest priorities for Ignite UX Michigan are:
Being a free event
Having diverse speakers
The speaker selection process doesn’t have a lot to do with the first priority, freeness, but it obviously is highly relevant to the goal of speaker diversity. Diversity pretty much has the dimensions that you’d expect—gender and race. Closely related and of great importance to me is diversity in terms of “do you see this person speaking at conferences all the time?” The UX field sure has an in crowd. On the plus side, if you’re disappointed to miss one of the headline speakers at a conference, you can just catch them at another conference later on in the year. You always see the same people speaking. On the minus side there may be some other voices in our field that would be really good to hear from.
Of course, there are more aspects of diversity than what I’ve just discussed, and they’re important ones, too. Something dear to my heart that we can’t address in Ignite UX Michigan is class diversity
The scariest part of taking a stand and saying that diversity is important is that, once you start worrying about it, you see the ways that you can and do fail. The work is ongoing. I’d love to talk about what we can do to get better.
The Current Selection Process
Well, how can our process let us down when it comes to diversity? To get people to propose talks, we make public announcements about the submission process, and we try to encourage specific people to propose talks, but it’s obviously very likely that there are plenty of people that just never get the message in time. That’s already a limiting factor—we’re more likely to get proposals from people that are plugged into the community. To a large extent, we get what we get, and the most practical idea I can think of for increasing diversity at this stage would be to just keep engaging with the community to try to spread the word about our event.
Then, we feed all those proposals into the selection process. I would characterize the process that we have used for the past three years as not specifically promoting or detracting from diversity. The process is:
The 12 highest-rated talks are selected, with the following adjustments:
We average the ratings for each talk
The reviewers fill out the survey. For each proposal, they rate it from 1 to 10, with 10 being the strongest vote in favor of a talk. Each proposal is rated separately (as opposed to ranked against each other). The reviewers are volunteers who do not know who proposed talks, insofar as trust people to be honorable about this.
The facilitator creates a survey that lists the titles and descriptions of all of the talks. This survey doesn’t include the names of the people that proposed talks and, in a perfect world, has no way of identifying who submitted the proposal
Although people can submit more than one proposal, we only take one talk per person
In 2014, a talk I proposed was selected, but I didn’t want to take the space of another speaker, so we chose the top 13 instead
In cases of a tie, the proposal with the lowest variance wins
Why choose this approach? Well, we want a diverse set of speakers, true, but we also don’t want to have a speaker selection process where we use our judgment to hand-pick our lineup. Using judgment risks us choosing who we know, and that’s how you end up with the same people talking at every conference. So we use the blind-review-with-math approach, and hope that 1) our pool of proposals is diverse to begin with and 2) that an impartial selection process will produce acceptable results.
I’m interested in improving the process, I’ve thought about it a lot, and I’m not sure exactly what the best approach would be. Some ideas that have come up are:
Apply weighting to proposals:
Like, if you spoke at the previous year’s event, your proposals get a not-insurmountable penalty—the logic being that good proposals will still get accepted, but it’ll be a bit less likely.
Apply a bonus to people who have never spoken at a professional event before (or never spoken at a national conference)
I am strongly reluctant to start asking people things about themselves, like gender, but we could:
Set aside a certain number of speaking slots for students
Have people classify their talk into one of X categories, and then have a certain number of slots for each category
Of course, neither of these things necessarily help with diversity, but the student thing is perhaps promising
Instead of using low variance as a tie-breaker, instead use high variance—this means that we’d favor the talks that people disagreed on
Along those lines, we could fundamentally reimagine the review process so that diverging opinions is a primary factor
This is tricky but important stuff. When we started Ignite UX Michigan, we didn’t even know if people would submit talks. Our process was something we came up with after we got more proposals than room for speakers and an attempt to come up with something relatively fair. How can the selection process promote the goal of diversity? I’d love to get more ideas and, perhaps even more importantly, find people that are interested in helping us get better.
A few weeks ago, I went to Portugal for the first time to attend UX Lisbon. It was a good conference, and not just because I gave two workshops there!
The conference had three days—the first and the third consisted solely of half day workshops, and the second day was a continuous series of talks. I gave my analytics workshop on the first and third day. It was exhausting but worth it. You get things out of teaching that you just don’t get any other way. I had the chance to do a lot of thinking about how to present the material and that’s going to pay off soon.
The lineup of speakers on the second day was great. I find that lately, I want to see short talks that will provoke thought rather than practically useful talks, because there just isn’t that much room to impart practical information in 30-60 minute timeslots. Lisa Welchman and Josh Seiden kicked off the day with two solid talks. I wasn’t familiar with Lisa before the conference and information governance is at a nice intersection of being super interesting and super important. The downside of a talk like this, and other ones that call for us to engage in changing the world, is that they assume a level of power that you rarely see in the world of UX.
I had the chance to see a short talk by someone from Facebook, talking about how they managed the transition of forcing people to download Messenger, and how disabling a feature in the Facebook app was actually an improvement for users. I politely listened—there’s no sense in heckling someone when they’re giving a talk.
Why have Ignite UX Michigan? Because diversity is important.
When you look at UX conferences, you see a lot of the same people headlining, over and over. There are more people that are worth hearing from in our community, and we’re not going to hear from them unless we make an environment where it’s possible.
Making an environment with more voices means extending opportunities to speak to more people, obviously. While Ignite UX Michigan doesn’t have that far of a reach, what we can offer is an opportunity to gain experience speaking, to try out one’s ideas on an actual audience. I would love to see Ignite UX Michigan as an early stop on someone’s speaking career.
I’m presenting a workshop, twice, called “Web Analytics for User Experience.” It’s the next generation of material I last presented at UXPA 2013. I wasn’t fully satisfied with the direction I went in for that workshop, so when I was invited to UX Lisbon, I decided early on to take the gig very seriously and to start over on the workshop.
I’m satisfied with what I put together. Web analytics is a big, complicated topic. The tools themselves are the most boring part. The magic is in thinking about quantitative data, which is something that UX people don’t necessarily get a lot of experience at. But we can be quite good at it because we tend to be pretty analytical people.
This is my first trip to Portugal and my first trip to Europe and my first time leaving the country in years! It’s going to be exciting.
On Thursday and Friday, April 30th and May 1st, I was at Agile & Beyond (or, as I mentally refer to it, Agile & BEYOND!) in Dearborn. The conference doubled in length this year, making for two solid days of pretty good talks on Agile and Agile-friendly topics.
The question of how to integrate with Agile has been at the top of the collective UX mind for years, at this point. There seems to be an insatiable appetite for people asking and talking about how we can work in Agile. Maybe it comes down to there just being new UX people encountering Agile for the first time, year after year, as their organizations adopt Agile or the UXer enters the workforce. Maybe it also comes down to the flexible nature of Agile – as a methodology that embraces adaptation, perhaps it’s more slippery than many other concepts.
While UX is talking about Agile, Agile sure doesn’t seem to be talking about UX, at least based on the sessions of this conference that I went to. If this conference was all I had to go on, there doesn’t seem to be any need for effective user research or any recognition that design is something that gets better when people deeply engage with it. When there was talk of usability, it was as though it was a commodity (“and then get some usability at the end”), and there was some talk of personas, as though they are a thing that magically appears.
Ultimately, this lack of visibility is on us. If people don’t recognize what user experience specialists can bring to the (figurative) table, then we simply have to make it more clear.