UX STRAT Europe is a three-day event, held annually in Amsterdam.
It brings together experience design professionals from across the globe, and explores the meeting of business strategy, user experience, product design and service design.
As a strategist working within UX, it offered an opportunity to meet peers, benchmark my own and Foolproof's practice, hear the challenges and successes that clients and agencies alike are experiencing, and provoke new thoughts and ideas.
A lot of ground was covered across the three days, but here’s a flavour of some of the themes, talks and insights that stood out to me.
Just do it
It's by no means a new sentiment, but several speakers called out the need to push forward when embedding UX and innovation practices within their organisation.
Richard Baker of GE Transportation was the epitome of this. Within an organisation that has over 5k engineers and only 25 UXers, and where an MVP can take three years. Richard has developed an approach that moulds to, and leverages, the organisation's (specifically engineers’) penchant for methodologies and processes - creating a well-oiled machine for getting the company to focus on users. It's worth noting the hard work that goes into doing this. It’s a hard grind but transparency, tenacity and forward momentum will deliver results.
From an innovation perspective, Remko Vermeulen of Telefónica Alpha delivered a refreshing perspective on delivering new ideas. He warned against "innovation theatre" (using technologies because they are en vogue). He advocated working in small teams, with a clear objective, and to measure what you can experience - quickly and efficiently.
"If you make something people like, that they'll pay for - that is the strategy" - Remko Vermeulen, Vice President of Product - Telefónica Alpha
Data informed design is forcing designers to broaden skillsets and processes
It’s not the first year that data has arisen as a major theme at UX Strat. This year it wasn't just 'What do we do with it?' but a reflection on UXers needing to broaden their skillsets and processes to accommodate it.
Rob Van der Haar described how things were moving from data inspired design to data informed and data-driven design. Shell's Olga Generozova described their efforts to create an organisation-wide data-driven design methodology.
Nur Karadeniz's talk, about a shift away from user-centred design towards a systems-orientated approach sent a few ripples through the audience. The abandonment of user-centred practices seems naive and unnecessary, but I agree with the idea that designers need to broaden their skillsets if they are to continue to play a role in building solutions for a more complex, often less human world. Those skills include systems thinking, ecosystem design, non-linear thinking and a deeper understanding of data.
David Vogel spoke about a project with Siemens to design smarter buildings. He described how agencies often find that their job is as much (if not more) about client buy-in as it is about unearthing customer needs. Keeping momentum up, providing stimulus for stakeholders and painting a picture of the future were a key part in making things happen. In David's words, "It doesn't mean shit if nothing gets built" and sometimes getting permission to build is the hardest obstacle of all to overcome.
Treat your design system like a product
As I sat in sunny Amsterdam I began drawing comparisons between 17th Century Tulip Mania and design systems. If you're a major company not thinking, doing and investing in a design system, you are almost certainly in the minority.
They can be powerful forces for good in an organisation. They can also be sinkholes for resources and good will. A big risk is that they’re folded into someone's job, rather than treated as a major product in their own right.
Steven Roest, who has been leading ING's unified design system initiative described how a cross functional UX team grew from an unofficial working group to be one of the most influential forces in the organisation - largely due to the design system. He described a vision to be on one technology stack, with one way of working, with a singular design language, and how the savings are potentially exponential - through efficiency and network effects.
Measure what matters
There was a distinct sense that there were big metrics - suitable for leadership - and day-to-day metrics to track progress against the larger goals.
Rob Van der Haar of Informaat described their process of building a dashboard for measuring experience across key touchpoints, based on Google's HEART framework, for financial services provider BinckBank. He also reflected on their approach to creating a journey dashboard using real-time-data, pointing out that when looking for off the shelf solutions and tools, most have been developed for marketing contexts rather than product-focused teams.
Clemens Lutsch of Centigrade spoke about their extension of the business model canvas to include an 'evidence' section, that includes space to consider evidence and verification, UX key performance indicators (KPIs) and the return on investment (ROI) of UX. He defined ROI as a performance measure used to identify the efficiency of user-centred design within an organisation, process, system, product or service design activity. I found it interesting that he proposed setting not only target KPIs (as in the ideal state) but also benchmarks for good performance and minimum acceptable criteria. He also made the point that you should only set KPIs if you have the power to see them through and not let KPIs be imposed upon you, without agreement.
Within Foolproof's workshop, a number of themes surfaced as challenges for organisations, including: getting buy-in and facilitating collaboration; working out what the objectives are in the first place; the desire for more knowledge and empowerment and simpler tools that can help tell the story about what's happening.
UX in engineering cultures
There were several talks that exposed the challenges of introducing and scaling UX within engineering-focused organisations. Richard Baker of GE Transportation described that to succeed, you need to focus on data, processes and simplification. This means getting buy in with structured alignment meetings and creating losing visions as well as winning ones at the early stages of an initiative. Richard spoke with honesty and clarity about their struggles and successes.
Spotify, another engineer-focused organisation, also described some of its processes. Olga Hörding, a Senior User Researcher described their challenge of creating a better understanding of existing and potential listeners. They did this through a variety of qualitative methods, such as diary studies and grounded theory, leading to the design of new Spotify Personas. These get used in various ways by different teams when informing new products or features. What was interesting was the time and resources that went into this project; a real commitment from the company. Also, despite the output being traditional personas, there was a recognition that an understanding of context was perhaps the most important component.
Socialisation to affect change
Another interesting part of Olga Hörding's talk was the way that the personas were socialised. The creation of print artefacts, such as workshop cards, made the work more tangible and applicable. Their use of open workshops also created buy in and serendipitous discovery (including by the Prince of Sweden who happened to be walking past during one session).
Other speakers also touched on similar methods to get buy in. Olga Generozova from Shell, Steven Roest from ING and Lisa Kleinman of LogMeIn also described programmes and artefacts to enable reach within their organisation. Engagement and communications are often overlooked components when introducing UX thinking, practices and tools into an organisation.
At the end of the conference there was a slot for lightning talks which contained some real gems. Nora Wenning and Jana Klasen from Pixum romped through their experiences and doled out advice like it was chocolate. They advocated Google Design sprints, use of an exit survey triggered by moving mouse to the X button that had surprisingly high completion rates and described their implementation of Carlos Rosemberg's Usability Testing Management Tool.
Further highlights from the Lightning Talks were John Schrag's talk 'VR: What is it good for?'. Apart from warnings about things like cyber-sickness and acrophobia - he described the exciting challenge of defining and designing a new practice: UX for VR.
In the world of VR, there is a line to be walked between society-shifting experiences and innovation theatre. In John's words though, "Users date cool, but marry value".
Overall UX Strat was informative and engaging while giving me the chance to validate my thinking. It’s great to see data being taken seriously in design. It was also to excellent to spend time with like-minded people who share a sense of purpose and a desire to push experience strategy further forwards.
Thank you UX Strat!
All presentations from this year’s conference are available here. If you are interested in knowing more about UX Strategy, you can read more here, or listen/watch to our interview series with leaders in UX Strategy.
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