UX Wales v Design Swansea

Sometimes when I speak at events I write up a whole script, especially if I'm trying to cover a lot - or I need to make sure I stick to a time limit. This is the script I wrote up for the event in Swansea, where my talk was entitled 'UX in a Product Design world'.

Hi, I’m Alistair, I’m an Interaction Designer at PDR, we’re part of Cardiff Met University but mainly a commercial design consultancy - I’m not going to give loads of background to that but you can ask me about it later if you want to know more.

I've met a few people around the room and there's a wide cross section including some back end developers, video producers, branding, product and web designers. I trained as a product designer, by which I mean physical 3D products - I’ve done some other bits and pieces, freelance graphics, basic web stuff and service design too, and have now settled in my current role.


At PDR I now find myself working at the intersection of physical products, digital products and services and I want to make the humble suggestion, that this is where you can truly design a user experience. Even sitting at this point on PDR, no project is perfect, but every now and then I get to work on something which includes the development of the three areas to an extent where I genuinely feel we’re designing a whole user experience. We’re working on a project like this at the moment, Im going to do the horrible thing and say I can’t tell you anything about it, but it is equally exciting and nervewracking. I think this is because we know it's not often that such a project comes along like it.

You might already gather that I’m starting to head outside the lines of UX as it's often talked about these days, but hopefully you’ll see where I’m coming from as I go on.

Also, to be clear, I’m not here to tell anyone what to call themselves, it's quite fashionable to question definitions of different job roles, we seem to be becoming obsessed whether I should be called a UX designer, an Interaction designer, of maybe a UI designer, or maybe a product designer. I'm not doing that but I’d would suggest though, that User Experience and Interaction are wider issues than they are frequently discussed. Instead of moaning about it, I want to hopefully open your eyes and excite you about the possibilities outside of our screens.

If you read or listen to people like Don Norman, Jon Kolko, or really anyone writing about these kinds of fields about 10 years ago, it was widely accepted that interaction with screens was only a portion of our interaction with products. These days, especially within the industry - by that I mean, ‘What I see on Twitter’ - this has shifted drastically.

I think that's quite interesting- this is sort of how I see it.


Originally, because products were primarily about the physical, you put time and effort into the physical - digital was such a small part of these products, if at all. Because of this the specialisms of Front end industrial design, design engineering, and Colour Material and Finish have developed. Different people pick up specific parts of the process.


We’ve moved to a time where digital has dramatically increased in importance, and so people invest significant money and time in developing digital design capability and the understanding how people interact with screens in great detail.


You could argue that we’ve reached a point where the emphasis is primarily on the digital. The speed of growth in digital certainly gives the appearance of outstripping the design of physical products. So, in the same way as there are specialisms in product, we’re seeing these arise in digital too. At the moment I think there is uncertainty about whether the industry should look to generalists or specialists, but as the field grows, if we look at other fields, specialism has come along with the growth on the industry. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on that though.

I think there’s a few reasons digital is growing so fast:

  1. Speed:

    When it comes to digital, the speed with which we're able to translate design concepts into glossy, functional things is amazing. Especially when it comes to the web, It's possible to take a design from a sketchbook to the entire internet connected world within an hour. This might be anything from a web app at a hack event, or a tumblr of a fun hashtag on Twitter.

  2. Cost:

    The cost of developing physical products is huge, but this isn’t the case with digital - you don't need 10k of tooling to have a website - and the actual thing is centralised, it's not like everyone needs their own version of your website to carry around in their pocket. You host it in one location and everyone accesses it remotely.

  3. Piggybacking on other people's hardware:

    You might say that that these days less products need to be designed because we don’t use dedicated devices anymore - the obvious example is phones, I wonder what are all the designers of stills cameras, video cameras and music players doing these days? Now, If you’re designing an app, you don’t design the product it runs on, you use existing hardware, be it Apple, Samsung, HTC etc.

The combination of these things means that the industry is growing at an exponential rate, new people getting involved, which is great. As a newer industry it's easy to get carried away with the exciting future, without looking at potentially useful lessons from other industries, so here are my suggestions from my limited experience.


Your work is never done in isolation:

I think that all design industry’s are in danger of living within their own bubble, if you work in the web industry it would be easy to assume that the only thing ever designed is websites. If you design apps, that the only thing ever designed is apps...etc

I spent today in London, at New Designers a show of graduate designers because we’re are looking to hire interns at the moment. What I was really looking for were students who understood their work was part of a bigger system and made some references to that wider context - whether they attempted to design it or at least designed in recognition of it.

Say you work in Digital, your work is currently always presented on hardware designed by someone else, let’s say in California, manufactured in Shenzhen and then filled with bloatware provided by the phone brand.

You can’t ignore this context, and it needs to be considered. I think the reason I’m coming at this point from an industrial design point of view, is that it's much easier to do this when you have control over as many aspects of the design as possible. Let's say designing a medical device, at the most basic level, being able to design the interface and product in tandem helps - being able to conduct research into the environment of use is even better.

Device labs are maybe the most obvious example of adopting this into a digital workflow - I’d be interested to hear how others designers think about this, come and talk to me after - or ask a question if we’re having the time after.


Prototype, Prototype, Prototype

We think about prototypes a lot at PDR, I mean a LOT. I'll just give a quick overview.

Different fidelity prototypes will get you different feedback. We, and many others have found that if you present different prototypes of the same thing, you will get different feedback from users.

If you use low fidelity, sketch prototypes, the feedback will be focussed on the overall idea, the product or service as a whole. The people you’re testing with can see that they’ve got an opportunity to impact at an early stage, they can see you haven’t invested a huge amount in it and they aren’t distracted by other things like visuals, animations or interactions.

On the other end of the spectrum is therefore high fidelity prototypes, users will use and critique these as basically the real thing - because you’ve made them look and work like the real thing. The feedback will be on button styles, shading, colours, micro interactions etc. But at this level you lose the critique of the underlying concepts.

I think we easily understand that higher fidelity equals more detailed feedback, but we’re quicker to forget that it is to the detriment of other kinds of feedback.


People don’t do what they say they will do

It’s fairly widely recognised that as humans we have Values in Use, what we actually do, and we have Values Espoused, what we claim we will do. These names come from Chris Agyris and Donald Schon. So these things we say we will do and the things we actually do don’t often match up, what makes this even worse is that we as people don’t recognise this. On top of this is that we always expect ourselves to be more virtuous, or nicer than we actually are.

This really important in a couple of ways for early stage design projects - it means that guerilla/cafe style testing is a real minefield. Grabbing someone halfway through a hackathon and asking them if they’d use your new app that allows them to submit information that helps refugees, or flags businesses that cater to those with special needs, they’re so likely to validate your idea, it sounds lovely, they want it to work and help people - but we know that their espoused values will not ultimately match up with their values when it comes to actually having to use the thing themselves, they're unlikely to go out of their way to adopt it into their routines.

So, how we work with this knowledge at PDR? Well, we combine research techniques. For a recent project for a big kitchen goods brand, one of the products we were looking at were food processors.

We took a three stage approach to the project, the first was going as researchers to stores selling food processors, around the uk. We worked as a team, one interviewing staff in one store and then swapping to another store to act as a mystery shopper. We knew the shop staff in the interview would tell us certain things about how they advised customers, the questions they asked them etc. But we also knew that these probably wouldn’t actually reflect the way they did interact with us when they thought we were customers, the different kinds of questions they would or often wouldn’t ask. So we wanted both sets of data.

The second stage was to invite people into PDR and we had a selection of products on show, including one of our client’s - first asked them to spend a time looking over the products, which we observed in our lab, then we did a semi structured interview with them, probing into the reasons behind what they did and what they were looking for - again seeing the disconnect between what they thought were the ‘right’ answers and what they actually based their decisions on.

Finally we went to people's homes to observe them unboxing and using the product for the first time - seeing exactly how they used and discovered the product. Seeing whether this in context observation matched up with what we had uncovered throughout the other stages of the project.

These are of course from a product point of view, but hopefully it has value for anyone thinking about design process in any field.


I think overall that no matter how powerful and dynamic digital and the web is and will undoubtedly become, the really exciting things happen at the intersection between design fields, first and foremost because our design work will always exist in a wider context.

I’d be really interested in chatting to as many people as possible - I’m pretty interested in lots of things - I know sometimes it's awkward to chat, so to make it easier I've got a list of conversation starters with me :)