Usability in Ireland: An interview with Morgan McKeagney

Gerry Gaffney Global UX Leave a Comment

Download (mp3: 3.94MB, 22:59) Gerry Gaffney interviews Morgan McKeagney from IQ Content, about usability in Ireland. How can UX practitioners maximise their value to clients, and survive tough economic times? If you don’t have a multi-disciplinary approach, says Morgan, “somebody else will eat your lunch”.


Transcript

Gerry Gaffney:

This is Gerry Gaffney with the User Experience podcast.

My guest today is Morgan McKeagney who’s the director of the Irish Internet Association. He’s got a background in e-learning and localisation. He’s worked as an instructional designer and analyst, he’s got a BA in International Business and Modern Languages, of which he speaks a few, and he also has a Masters in Economics from Trinity College, Dublin.

He’s also co-founder of IQ Content, a company based in Dublin. According to the website, IQ Content is a group of usability, accessibility and content experts dedicated to creating better websites. Morgan, welcome to the User Experience podcast.

Morgan McKeagney:

Thanks very much, Gerry, pleasure to be here.

Gerry:

What’s the level of maturity and awareness of user experience in Ireland at present?

Morgan:

Well, I think it’s changing rapidly and I think there was a point, maybe two or three years ago, where traditionally Ireland would have lagged behind the bigger English speaking markets, England or the US. But it’s been very, very interesting actually. We set up in 2000. We were kind of screaming in the wilderness for about five or six years, but really in the last two years UX has really come front and centre stage and there’s been, there’s actually an incredibly vibrant scene that’s kind of mushroomed out of nowhere in the last year or so. So it’s actually, it’s great, I think it’s, almost it’s been the tech community or the UX scene is almost being counter cyclical in the sense that we’ve had this horrendous collapse in our economy but there seems to be a kind of a bubbling up of creativity and technology and UX is very much playing a part in that I think.

And I guess anyone who follows the news would know that the economic news out of Ireland is particularly depressing and has been for, I guess, the last eighteen months or so. We basically had a massive property and banking bubble, credit bubble which has exploded spectacularly… We had the worst performing bank in the universe in the shape of Anglo-Irish Bank, and the country is really suffering. Now that said, there have… I think the tech sector is like a shining light in a lot of ways, you know, it’s a beacon in an otherwise sea of depression and gloom. So there are really good things happening in tech and I think that does point towards a brighter future. But things are definitely tough at the moment, yeah.

Gerry:

You’d never guess it, I went to see your offices there in the city centre in Dublin and I spoke to Lar and John and a couple of the guys and, you know, you moved from down the Docklands where I think you were until fairly recently into a very nice office right in the heart of the city. So things are obviously not going too badly for you guys.

Morgan:

Well, no. I mean, our business is actually booming and has been for… really for the last four or five years, so we’re 30 people now and we’re hiring and we’re expanding and we’ve got lots and lots of interesting work, and we actually can’t meet the demand, and so it doesn’t kind of make sense. We have lots of very, very big, smart multinationals in Ireland, in the tech space… we’ve got Google, we’ve got PayPal, we’ve got LinkedIn, we’ve got Facebook. We’ve got a lot of R&D going on in the multinational sectors. We also have a corporate sector that has been behind the curve with online and web-based stuff that’s trying to catch up. So, you know, there is stuff happening in our space, which is great.

Gerry:

You occasionally hear cynical comments about the likes of Google and Facebook being based in Ireland and, you know, there was some coverage in the press recently about Google’s financial arrangements, saying basically that it was only in Dublin purely for tax convenience measures and it wasn’t a real industry. How do you react to those sorts of comments?

Morgan:

Well… I can see that there is obviously a fair, a large proportion of money, you know, corporate money laundering that goes through Ireland, there’s no doubt about that. But there is also some really, really good, important work being done. So, for example, Google set up their main R&D centre for maps is now based in Dublin, which is clearly a great win for us. We also have Citi, which is the massive international financial services company, has one of its four main R&D hubs in Dublin and a lot of really, really interesting work is happening out of there as well.

So I think there is an element of that happening, there’s no doubt about it, but there is some, there’s a fair proportion of real work happening too and I think… you know, you’re an Irishman yourself, Gerry, and I think there is something in the Irish DNA or makeup that makes us good at technology and good at creativity and good at problem solving and getting stuff done and I think that actually we’re pretty good at this stuff and so there are real substantial reasons why people are here, over and above just the low corporate tax rates.

Gerry:

Yeah. So when I was in the offices the other day, or a couple of weeks ago now, it was obvious you guys were doing well. Is that true of the user experience sector in general, or is it just that you guys are doing particularly well and nobody else has got any work?

Morgan:

Oh no, I think it’s broader than us. I think it’s the sector in general. We set up in 2000, as I said, and I think if you look back at what’s happened in tech and what’s happened in Ireland, we had a really, really big technology bubble that kind of exploded around 2000, 2001, you know, at the same time as the dot.com bubble kind of went belly up, and that hit tech really badly in Ireland for a number of years. Then in parallel while tech had a significant downturn, there was lots of, you know, this internet thing’s only a fad. There was no investment going into web stuff.

In parallel then, you had this property boom that was going on. So you had an awful lot of resources and headspace that was being dragged into this bubble, basically, and technology was almost sidelined I would say for a period of time. Well what we’re seeing now is that it’s actually coming back quite strongly.

For example just last week in Dublin we had Defuse Dublin, an event which brought together thirteen speakers, really fantastic talks, very, very eclectic. Our own John Wood was talking about what designers can learn from the German Army, which was kind of an interesting take on things. It was packed out, literally, they couldn’t fit people in the door. So I think this is happening, and we see that our competitors and people we have worked with, our peers, they’re all pretty busy. So I think it is, it just seems to be counter-cyclical and it seems to be a sector that’s doing well in spite of all the rest of the stuff.

Gerry:

Now I think some of the Defuse Dublin presentations are online, are they not?

Morgan:

They are: so John and Randall from IQ are talking. Randall’s is certainly there because I’ve seen it, I’m not sure if John’s is up.

Interactions, the IxDA international conference is coming to Dublin in 2012 which is a great coup as well for us.

Gerry:

One of the things, Morgan, a lot of people would say is that usability, if you want to use that term, is an optional extra. You know, it’s kind of like support and training and lots of other things. If you’ve got a tight project plan and the budget is tight you can say, well, let’s get rid of those, let’s get rid of those usability guys. How come that it hasn’t turned out to be that way, do you think?

Morgan:

Well, I think that might have been the case a number of years ago. We’re actually finding in our own experience and with our own clients that lots and lots of people, they’re on their second iteration of a web project. They’ve probably done things really badly the last time, they’ve probably run over budget, they’re probably dissatisfied with the outcomes that they’ve actually had from the process. So I think that because as people have become more internet savvy themselves, their own expectations are growing because of their own experiences and the fact that the web is becoming very central to people’s day-to-day lives, so our expectations are high.

I think it’s changed. I think usability isn’t really an added extra now, but has become a key component in delivering a successful outcome. And so I think there is a change happening there. And I think on the other side we’ve got better at selling user experience and usability. Certainly we have in the sense that I think sometimes the UX community can talk to itself a bit too much, and we’re kind of obsessed about ourselves and our own practice, and sometimes we lose sight of why we exist. And we exist to help our clients be more successful, we exist to help their businesses make more money, to help their companies become more efficient, to help them connect more effectively with their customers. So I think selling usability as a high-minded activity doesn’t work, but I think if you can demonstrate the business imperative to do this right and the metrics around it then, you know, it is a bit of a no-brainer for people. So I think that it’s changed, would be my experience of it, Gerry.

Gerry:

I guess a few years ago – we had the experience and I’m pretty sure it would echo what happened over there – that you had to… you were always trying to explain or justify what you were doing. But now it’s kind of at that stage where clients either get it, in which case they’re doing it or they’re buying it, or they don’t get it, in which case they probably never will.

Morgan:

Exactly, exactly, and I think that’s a really good point. You know, one of the things that we’ve learned is just there are certain people that will get it and you can deliver certain, you know, successful projects with certain types of clients and certain types of customers. And there are other companies that will just never get it and you really are banging your head against a wall.

Gerry:

So what type of engagement model are you guys doing? Do you go in and do the whole UX thing, or do you try and up-skill the companies that you work with, the clients that you work with?

Morgan:

Over the years we’ve kind of, we’ve changed and expanded the way that we do stuff. Originally we would have basically been kind of the producers of reports, saying, you know, this isn’t working well and this is how you need to fix it.

Over time … there’s many occasions where clients have said to us, you know, we love the wireframes but we’re really underwhelmed by the way it turned out in the finished design. So we’ve had to, we’ve kind of, by necessity, vertically integrated. There’s basically four or maybe five broad areas that we work in. The first would be strategy really, pure strategy, helping clients figure out how can they use this channel to make their businesses more effective. Then user experience design where we help them understand their customers, understand the business and then design those experiences and build them out. So that would include interaction design right through to visual design and front end development, so the delivery of working HTML templates.

We have a content practice area as well where we focus on helping clients create and manage their content more effectively, because we see that that’s just as critical a success factor in delivering of good experiences, and we have an analytics business as well where we actually help clients figure out what’s going on on their sites and their applications and what they need to do to make them work better.

Gerry:

And in fact I had Brian Donahue from IQ Content on this show [MP3, 7.83 MB] back, in fact, just three years ago now, 27th November, 2007, I’ve just looked at the date here, talking about analytics. So you guys were at that for some time.

Morgan:

Yeah, Brian is actually, you know, he was a pioneer even though he didn’t know it himself. We sent him off to learn more about analytics and he did a fantastic job and he’s really built it, turned it into a core competency here in what we do.

Gerry:

What you’re saying implies that you’re working for corporate clients who’ve got reasonably deep pockets, perhaps not the banks so much as they used to have but what about the smaller companies, you know, the small organisations or retailers who have got a web presence, are they doing their own usability or what’s happening there?

Morgan:

Well, it’s a really good question and it’s… You know, our focus is very much on the larger corporate clients. There’s massive demand in the SME market and it’s something that’s really… you know, it’s a tough one because online is clearly a really important challenge for smaller organisations, but it’s also expensive to do it right.

So they’re trying to do lots with not so much maybe in terms of resources. So what we’re seeing from those guys is that they’re just very engaged in the community. You know, they’ll be going to IxDA events, they’ll be going to seminars.. We have the Irish Internet Association here runs lots of stuff specifically aimed at the SME market, so there will be guys who are just kind of up-skilling, they’ll be trying to do forty-seven different things at the same time. And then there’s some really good companies here who would be smaller companies who have focused in on start-up market or the SME market.

Contrast, for example, you guys may have come across, really, really strong application development company based here in Dublin. And so there are small companies who are serving that market but it’s a challenging one because SMEs, they have massive requirements, they have very little time and they have very little money… So there’s no silver bullet for them but there are support systems there as well I think.

Gerry:

Do you think the experience thing that’s happening in Dublin is similar, just purely with regards to UX, is it similar to what the situation is in Europe? Because from outside Europe often it seems to be very fragmented, you know, when you compare it with – particularly when you compare it with the US obviously it is fragmented. Is Dublin different to the other European capitals or is the same sort of thing going on there?

Morgan:

Fragmented in what sense, Gerry?

Gerry:

I guess you get the feeling if you’re in the US or if you’re even in China you can, you know, you can ring up someone and organise something and you kind of know what it’s going to look like if you rent our rooms, for example, to do user research in or if… I don’t know, there’s a degree of homogeneity about what happens in other places that Europe doesn’t seem to share partly I guess because of the multiple languages.

Morgan:

So the question I suppose is, is Dublin more like, you know the classic question, is it more like Boston than Berlin?

Gerry:

Yeah. I guess, yeah. That’s right. [Laughter.]

Morgan:

Ireland has always had this great thing where it’s… You know, it’s a small place. So I suppose that smallness means that we’re quite connected which means that, the positive side of that is that ideas spread fast and… communities assemble and dissemble pretty quickly. So that brings a vibrancy to it. It certainly is it is a good place to do business. It’s a good place to try and get stuff done. There’s a lot of smart people here.

The other side is, I’m actually a massive fan of Europe and I think there are wonderful things happening in Continental Europe, and the UK is absolutely buzzing. So we recently finally formally signed up to the UX Alliance which you’re probably familiar with, Gerry. So we’ve had a fair bit of contact with companies in France and Germany and the UK and right across Europe and I’ve actually been genuinely quite impressed by the quality and the vibrancy of those communities.

That said, you know some places are harder to do business. I remember, you know, we were running a project in France and it took us two days to run the project, the research in France which only took a day in Germany or, you know, in the UK, because you weren’t allowed to work as hard in France as you are in Germany you know? [Laughter.]

Gerry:

Do you think that the experience that Dublin’s been through in terms of the hard financial situation at the moment, do you think there are any lessons there for practitioners in general as to how they can continue to be employable when times are tough?

Morgan:

Yeah, I think that’s a really good question. When we set up in 2000, 2001 it was a really, really grim time and as well in the sense that we just found it really hard to even explain to people what we did. So from the very start we had to just kind of scramble to make a living and scramble to be successful, to just survive.

So a couple of things I think that are important. I think I mentioned this earlier on, I think UX and usability practitioners can sometimes be a little bit too obsessed with UX and usability, and not obsessed enough or focused in enough on the client and the business impact of what they do. So I think metrics and measurement are absolutely essential. Our work should be very, very tangible and should have a very measurable impact on the bottom line of our clients, and if we can’t measure that or we can’t communicate that we’re doing something wrong. So that’s one piece of advice I would say, focus in on metrics and measurement.

The other thing is speaking the language of conversions. I think sometimes we’re a bit design obsessed and I think that’s, you know, that’s a really nice thing as well, it’s kind of touchy feely and it’s creative. There’s the kind of hard side of UX is about conversions, it’s about getting more people to do stuff that businesses want them to do, and that again has a real impact on the bottom line. So I think if practitioners can focus on the conversion side I think they will become more successful because… they’re zooming in on the thing that matters most to the client.

Client and results focused, so again, I think I’ve said that already… And the other thing that we’ve learnt is it’s probably not enough anymore to just produce reports and wireframes. What we’ve found and what we’ve happened upon is the importance of having a multi-disciplinary team, the importance of having complementary skill sets. So, for example, here in IQ we have a really, really strong development team. We’ve a really strong analytics team, we’ve a really strong content team, we’ve a really strong design and customer research team. And all of those teams work very tightly together. If you only bring one part to the table it’s probably not enough and somebody else will eat your lunch.

So whether that means informally hugging up with people who have complementary skills and working together, formally or informally, I think that’s a good way to go as well because each of these competency areas will drive demand for other service areas and you basically need all those skill sets to do a good job now. That would be my kind of two cents on that…

Gerry:

So do you see yourself as a business person or as a designer? What do you see yourself as? Or do you see yourself at all?

Morgan:

That’s a good question. I don’t see, I probably see myself most as a kind of, as a businessman really, as an entrepreneur, as a bit of a chancer perhaps. [Laugher.] But what turns me on is really genuinely the adventure of building the company. And it has been a great adventure and you know we’ve had, it’s a journey that’s just been a really interesting journey and it just keeps opening up new vistas of stuff to do. I love design and I think design is a really, really and will always be a really important element in our business but I’m also very strong that design isn’t enough, and design for its own sake can sometimes be a little bit masturbatory or kind of self-serving.

You know, the cautionary tale I think for our profession is the architecture profession, you know, where architects have kind of lost sight of the bottom line or they let other people take elements of their core business away from them which has left them really vulnerable and left them kind of undervalued in what they do.

So yeah, I do bang hard on measurability, on business results, on a focus, on strategy and delivery for the client. I think that stuff is just so important. And the client will bring you places that are outside of the core design remit. You know, I think it’s an accident, I think the UXD place is a crossroads where people have come to from lots of different backgrounds and I think it probably will diverge in the future and I think it’s the clients will bring us to different places.

Gerry:

To change the topic completely, I was in Dublin in December ’08 and then again in September of this year, in September of 2010 and the city has become a cycling haven sort of what appears to be overnight. What’s behind that? I just had the opportunity to do one fairly brief ride where I hopped on one of the Dublin bike hire things and went down to Connolly station from Merrion Square or something, but it’s become such a bicycle friendly city overnight. What happened?

Morgan:

Well I think we all have been, we’re all bicyclers inside us, you know, given the opportunity we’ll jump on the bikes.

A couple of things happened… first of all we got a Green party in government and it was the only way that they could show that they were actually in government was if you had bikes around the place. So they drove it hard, which was great. And then we had a scheme that was like a public/private partnership between JCDecaux, the big advertising guys, and the Dublin City Council guys, and they designed a really good system. I think it was a system that had been designed originally for Paris whereby there’s bike stations around the city and you can borrow the bike for an hour and put it back and it’s very cost effective and a really nicely designed system. You know, a classic system, not just the bikes, but also the way everything worked together, and it’s just been a roaring success.

There was real fears that, you know, the bikes would end up being vandalised and thrown in the river and all the rest of it, and it just didn’t happen… I think the first week after the scheme rolled out a bike disappeared. It was the first bike that had disappeared but it turned up 48 hours later. It was just that somebody had decided to cycle to Belfast on it, taken it out of the jurisdiction. So it’s been a great success and it’s lovely, and there’s actually a bike station just beside our office, so if anyone, it’s bike station No. 1 on Chatham street and Clarendon street. So any listeners, if you go to that station come in and have a cup of tea with us on the way.

Gerry:

There you go. There’s an offer you can’t refuse. Morgan McKeagney, thanks very much for talking to me today on the User Experience podcast.

Morgan:

Thanks very much, Gerry, thanks for having me.

Published: December 2010

A note on the transcripts

We make verbatim transcripts of the User Experience podcast. We then edit the transcripts to remove speech-specific elements that interfere with meaning in print (primarily space-fillers such as “you know…”, “um…”).

Gerry GaffneyUsability in Ireland: An interview with Morgan McKeagney

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