Published: March 2011
My guest today has a finger in many pies. He’s a user experience designer, many people will be familiar with his gorilla, the iconic photograph that appears on the usability testing application Silverback, which runs on Mac computers.
Andy Budd, welcome to the User Experience podcast.
Thank you for having me, Gerry.
Let me start by asking you, is dConstruct running this year in 2011?
It is, yeah. We’ve been running for I think six or seven years now. We started in 2005 and it runs every year on the first Friday of September.
And dConstruct, correct me if I’m wrong here, but I think you advertise as being basically a low-cost conference, is that right?
It is, yeah. When we initially started it up we’d gone to South by Southwest and really, really enjoyed it, and when we came back to the UK we realised there was nothing similar on in the UK. There were actually no web design conferences at all, and one of the really nice aspects of South by Southwest is its price; I mean it’s a couple of hundred dollars. And so we wanted to put something on in the UK that basically allowed as many people to come along as possible. We really wanted to kind of popularise the web design industry; get people who are not only from large companies [whose] bosses are picking up the bill, but something that everybody from students or freelancers could come along and attend.
So we’ve deliberately kept the cost down. We do that by making it a one-day conference which also means that people don’t have to stay overnight, they can just travel down in the morning also there’s not a lot of cost in having time off of work and, yeah, we price it in a way that hopefully gets a really broad mix of people from big corporate clients all the way down to students and freelancers.
We’ve started doing a third conference this year called Ampersand which is a typographically-focused conference because another thing that we do is we’ve started up a small start-up called Fontdeck, which basically allows graphic designers, web designers to embed fonts on their websites. And so we’re very interested in typography as a company. We go out and do day trips to sort of typographic presses and all that kind of stuff. And yeah Rich, Rich Rutter, who’s my business partner, wanted to set up a typography conference. So that’s coming up in June/July.
Now you’ve also got a great line up for UX London which is in… March or April, is that right?
It is, yes, I’m going to get this wrong now, I think it’s April 11th to 13th. [Actually April 13th to 15th - Gerry.]
Well the reason for the conference in part is; we started UX London, it was born out of dConstruct. About three or four years ago we did a UX-themed dConstruct. So each year each dConstruct has a different theme and one year the theme was designing the user experience. So we got folks over like Jared Spool, like Jeff Veen, Peter Merholz, and we weren’t expecting much because at the time, you know, we were one of the few UX companies in the UK. But when we set up this dConstruct conference suddenly all these people came out of the woodwork. It was amazing, it was actually fantastic, so we thought it would be sensible to try and put something on purely to address this kind of hidden community.
Whereas dConstruct is much more about inspiration and kind of just, you know, allowing people to sort of share really interesting, crazy ideas, we decided to make UX London much more practical. So we do have a single day of conferences, you know thirty minute, forty minute sessions. But the real bulk, the real meat of UX London are the half day workshops.
Now I know it’s difficult and probably unfair to single out anyone in particular, but are there any speakers that you’re particularly excited to have at UX London this year?
Well I think there are. I think the person that we’re really excited about having over is Alan Cooper largely because he’s not been to the UK for like ten years so he is really one of these people who, he has a huge standing within in the industry and across industries as well. People forget he was a fairly renowned programmer before he sort of, he moved into the human factors area of what we do. So he has got that crossover appeal, but he’s hugely into influential and very few if any in the UK have actually seen Alan speak. So I think, yeah, I think Alan is a really sort of big draw. I think another one is Robert Fabricant from Frog design. We’re very excited to get Rob over.
Okay, so UX London is certainly something for people to check out. I’ve actually got a lot of time for Alan Cooper. He was an interviewee on this show some years ago now and I think he’s a very bright, clever and insightful person.
To move away from that topic a little bit, what is the state of the UX profession in the UK currently? Where is UX at?
Well it’s interesting… early 2007 when we set up, when we started thinking about UX London and when we started dConstruct, I had a possibly warped opinion of what the UX community in the UK was like because we looked over the ocean, we looked over to the US and most of the well-known speakers were coming from the States, most of the authors were coming from the States, pretty much every article you would see written on a UX website was hailing from America, and so it really felt like the UK was particularly impoverished. But also I always had this kind of sense that the UK was several years behind in terms of maturity.
However, I don’t know if that’s necessarily true. I think the UK was always several years behind in terms of promotional power but I actually think in a weird kind of way the UK and London particularly probably have one of the highest densities and highest populations of user experience designers. But I think the kind of the network and the approach to the business is somewhat different. Most of the people in the US who are fairly prolific writers and authors and public speakers also work in small agencies or freelancers. So there is an imperative for them to be very, very vocal and push the field of practice forward and get noticed because that attracts customers.
In the UK, until quite recently, it’s not been traditional to find UX people within agencies, or if they were an agency they were the one, lone IA/UX/project manager kind of person. Even then I knew a few people that had that role, 10, 15 years ago. But we actually have a really rich history of interaction design, information architecture, usability and user experience design; in part from our universities. We’ve got a lot of good universities that have taught HCI for a really long time. But also a lot of our large institutions. If you look at the BBC, the BBC has a massive number of practitioners. They have an information architecture department, they have an interactive design department: pretty much every section of the BBC whether it’s music or radio or whether it’s future technologies, they always have UX people working on these projects and have done for a really long time.
I think the same is true for some of our other large industries. Obviously the UK is very banking focused. A lot of banks have internal staff. So I think the problem is less been about the number of people working in the industry and more about the kind of cultures that they work in. There’s very little need for these people to be incredibly public by writing articles and stuff because, you know, they’re being employed by large employers where their CV is much more important than possibly international reputation.
So I think actually the User Experience community or the User Experience practice in the UK is actually quite solid, quite historical, quite mature. But I think what we are lacking, sadly, is those kind of thought leaders, those people who will get up on stage and say to the rest of the world this is what we’re doing.
So again, this is kind of one thing that we wanted to try and achieve with UX London. I don’t want to sort of bang on about UX London too much but we wanted to kind of inspire people to get up there and start talking about what they do and. I’m not saying that it’s all our result because you know there’s Leisa Reichelt running the book club, there’s you know Matthew Solle a couple of years ago set up a London IA group, so there are communities where people come together and talk and share their ideas.
There’s also been a lovely flourishing of kind of low-cost UX conferences as well. I mean UX London is quite expensive, but there’s conferences like UX People and UX Brighton. I believe Bristol also are running their own UX conference as well now to promote this stuff and over the last six months you’ve seen Leisa Reichelt publish or be in the process of publishing a book on UX strategy, you’ve got Cennydd and James from Clearleft who have just written their Undercover UX book. We’re seeing more and more people from the UK starting to write, to travel to these conferences.
So I think we are gaining, slowly gaining that kind of international recognition which I think our industry deserves and which I think is slowly sort of coming to us. Giles Colborne is an excellent example at cxpartners with his Simplicity book and I’m hearing more and more people wanting to write and wanting to speak and I think it’s only a good thing.
Back in April of last year, April of 2010, you said in an interview with 52 Weeks of UX, “I am designing websites. I would love to be able to get to the level and ability where I can truly say I’m designing an experience for somebody.” Do you recall saying that and do you recall your state of mind and would you like to talk about it a little bit?
I do. I mean, you know, I love the term “user experience design” and it’s a really handy kind of umbrella term to use for what we do. However, if you actually unpick what it’s trying to say, the term is trying to say that our system designers have control over the experience that people have of our products inside their heads. And we can’t do that. Some industries can; you know, Hollywood is incredibly good at creating these linear narratives where the pacing of the plot and the design of the soundscapes and the narrative and all that kind of stuff allows directors with a fair degree of control to decide when people are going to be happy, when people are going to be sad, when they’re going to be emotional, when they’re going to jump out of their seats. And I think with that sort of art form you are able to craft an experience which is quite controlled and in which you have a pretty good understanding of what people are, how people are going to react. Even then it’s very difficult to craft that experience, you know, if you’ve someone kicking your seat or noisily eating popcorn or texting who’s sat next to you.
So even then there’s quite a lot of uncontrolled factors. I think on the web, all we can really do is we can nudge people towards, or slightly control some of the aspects of how the experience might be, but I think it’s really naive of us and I think it’s a bit pompous actually in some regards to say that we’re designing the experience, because there are so many factors which are out of our control.
Also, frankly, you know, I do use the term, “user experience design” but I think it sets the industry up for a fall a little bit because if we spend all of our time explaining to clients… or even just the term making clients think that we can create this controlled experience, when the experience goes live and it’s not controlled at all; it’s choppy and it’s vague and it’s grey and it’s really difficult to get a handle on, then I think a lot of clients could potentially feel let down, because, you know, the salesman goes in and explains this great experience design process and the result is not a cohesive experience. It’s a very choppy, fragmented experience.
So I think it’s a difficult term. I used to laugh at the industry spending hours and hours trying to define itself and I’m not wanting to do that, but I think that I am moving more and more away from the term “user experience design” and more back to things like “interaction design” or even “digital product design.” That’s an area which I think is very interesting at the moment.
As an industry I think product design is actually a really, really good metaphor for us to use. I’m finding a lot of companies are now hiring head of product roles, they’re having a much more product-centred focus on what their projects need to do and I think the User Experience community is a natural ally of the product manager. And so I think we need to, I guess try and move away from somewhat siloed thinking. I think a lot of user experience people live in a, and particularly information architects, live in a very narrow box, a very narrow definition of what they do and what they don’t do and I think having an understanding of a website… in terms of a product, it makes you think differently. It makes you think about the need of the organisation more. It makes you think about how you market and promote the product. I think it makes you realise that you have to not only design the product but be able to in part build the product and prototype. You know, if you look at product designers, that’s what they’re doing. Product designers tend to be multi-disciplinarian designers who can turn their hand to lots of different things.
Interestingly, I went to a couple of graduate shows in London last year. I went to the interaction design show. I was walking around feeling increasingly depressed as I saw one really badly designed website after another. You know, designed in Flash, people using 1990′s style metaphors of… in every student show I see there’s at least one or two students that have a 3D representation of their desk and if you want to see their photos, you click the photoframe and if you want to contact them you click their address book and it was really depressing.
So you know or maybe these guys are only 21, 22, they’ve not been doing for long you know got to give them some credit. And then I went to a product design course and I was blown away. These guys got, understood prototyping and they were doing engineering stuff, they were actually building physical models. They understood sketching and they were able to sketch out their ideas and actually had books full of their initial prototype sketches. They got branding and these guys were like creating names and logo marks and a whole kind of brand and stories behind their products. They were then being able to go out and effectively market it and sell it and I was just thinking… and these were exactly the same age, exactly the same people, but they’d been taught about design from a different perspective and a more holistic way rather than a more siloed and somewhat academic way.
So I think it’s an interesting space and I think more and more companies are moving in that direction but possibly not fast enough. I do think there’s a tendency for professionals to move away from terms that describe themselves when those terms start to become polluted. So, you know, I think the web design industry moved quickly away from the term, “web design” when there was no differentiation in the minds of a lot of customers and even a lot of peers between someone, you know, a fourteen-year-old in their bedroom using a hacked copy of Dreamweaver versus a team of people that have got 15 or 20 years experience building a multi-million pound web site. So I think the same is actually happening, sadly, in the UK with experience design. You know five, six years ago Clearleft were one of a handful… well as far as I’m aware, we were the only company in the UK who were calling themselves experience designers. I’m sure there were lots of other experience designers out there and there were plenty of usability companies, and information architecture companies.
But now every single agency I see has suddenly transformed itself into a user experience designer, and they’ve done that by putting “user experience design” on the homepage and removing graphic design and web design. And I’m talking to people now at conferences who six months ago hadn’t even heard of user experience design and they’ve suddenly become user experience designers somehow. So I think there really is a devaluation of the term. I think that makes it really difficult for professionals to distinguish themselves from amateurs.
Couldn’t agree more. Maybe we should have something like a Hippocratic oath that says first do no harm, you know, so we can at least not put out horrible user interfaces.
Well the problem is it’s stopped being a way of defining a set of practices and started becoming a marketing tool and that’s always where things get dangerous. Over the past two years there’s been a massive turnaround. Now pretty much every client we see understands what user experience design means, understands what they want, understands it’s important. But because clients get it now a lot of the kind of the lower tier designers are jumping on the bandwagon, saying, oh well there’s a demand hence we will fill the supply. But there’s a very different thing from being a web designer that has a copy of Balsamiq and can knock down together a few wireframes versus, you know, an agency who specialises in user experience design and can deliver a whole thought through package of work and strategy and research and all that kind of stuff. So, you know, there is a frustration there which I think is being felt by a lot of people in the industry.
To change topic again, the gorilla in Silverback… I’ve used Silverback a few times, it’s the usability testing application that you wrote for the Mac and when you fire it up this gorilla comes up on screen as the icon and I’d never, to be honest, paid all that much attention to it.
Then one day I got it [laughter], and is that the worst visual pun of all time?
Well, it’s pretty bad. It’s very bad. But then again, as you say, not a lot of people get it. So there’s obviously, you know, there is that “Aha” moment when people go, ah guerrilla testing, gorilla testing, um…
Took me about two years, Andy.
Well exactly so obviously it’s not that bad because it’s not that obvious.
Andy Budd, thanks very much for joining me today on the User Experience Podcast.
It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.
Published: March 2011