Senior UX Designer, Rachel Wong, attended UX London this summer to hear from experts in the industry about everything from building better design processes and digital sustainability, to what the UX community can do to help create a better world. She shared with us everything she’s learnt.
Building design processes
Vimla Appadoo, Director of Culture Design at Honey Badger, kicked off UX London 2023 with an honest, vulnerable sharing session about how she has implemented more people-first design processes in her organisations, that she believes to be essential for sustainable product growth, and provided some actionable recommendations for leaders to do the same in theirs. While not all of us are leaders, Vimla shared reflection activities that we can do as individuals, and also encouraged employees at any level to raise their voice in proposing some of these ideas internally.
Putting people first
Taking a culture-first approach to building design processes means putting people first.
In practice this means:
- Creating user manuals or team profiles.
- Being an ally for others, meaning you will help call others out.
- Finding commonalities and differences to inform behavioural guidelines.
The sphere of influence should start from you, and dissipate through your team, and across your business:
At the ‘you’ level, think about the personal things you bring to work that you consider to be core to you (principles, rituals, traits that are non-negotiable parts of you) vs flex (these are things that you are okay to compromise on or let go of). In a nutshell, what makes you, you?
It’s important to share this and for all team members to be considerate of others’ circles of comfort and be culturally aware.
Designing processes for sustainable growth
Rather than taking on a reactive approach that focuses only on clients, implement a culture that can actually help in sustainable product creation, through values > behaviours > principles.
Once you understand your team values, these become behaviours, and eventually guiding principles.
Often, we look for “culture fit” when hiring, but this is not enough. This approach limits the organisation to the same points of view and the same ways of thinking.
Instead, we can move toward the idea of culture add, where there is added difference (that goes beyond surface level of token diversity).
This doesn’t mean your company values are at risk of change – rather, the way that these values manifest will be different because there are now different people and perspectives influencing it.
Actions you can take today
- Review your internal hiring process:
- Have you ever thought about where you’re promoting roles? Where it’s promoted will affect who’s in the pool of candidates.
- Be transparent about how you hire and how you promote.
- Collect numbers and data about the types of people you’re hiring – “you can’t solve a problem you don’t know exists”, and make it an active effort.
2. Create safe spaces to enable voices to be heard:
- An environment that is psychologically safe will help in receiving honest feedback from employees.
3. Celebrate microcultures:
- For example, hosting show and tells, product/meta-product schools, etc.
- Sharing and contribution leads to feelings of ownership, which leads to change being made.
What is now becoming more and more of an important topic (and thankfully now an emerging industry), Hannah Smith, Director of Operations at Green Web Foundation, clarifies common misconceptions about what “digital sustainability” really means and how we need to critically assess and acknowledge the impacts of tech on the planet.
Hannah shared an astounding fact that if the internet were a country, it would be the 7th highest polluter in the world. The main takeaway from this shocking, yet crucial presentation was the idea that “what gets measured gets managed” – by highlighting data and using more accurate models, we can draw more attention to the need for action.
A fossil-free internet
What people often get wrong is that they think it’s just about servers and energy, but the calculation for electricity usage includes the data centre (preparing data), network (data transfers), device (presenting data), and hardware manufacturing (producing devices and infrastructures).
Some emissions and impacts are easier to measure (such as the above) and others are much harder (such as users’ use of the internet and its impact).
With more innovation, emissions also increase…It’s estimated that ChatGPT requires 500ml of water for every 20-50 questions answered
The golden question was: what if we already have all the tech innovation we need? And it’s not about making more stuff, but to equitably distribute what we already have?
- Start collecting more data: what gets measured gets managed
- Use green software – it requires less physical resources, less energy, and uses energy more intelligently by being carbon aware and scheduling operations.
- For example, a site could tell you “Energy intensity is high at the moment, you can’t collect your statistics today. Come back again later”.
- Spotting greenwashing and critically assessing industry sustainability claims.
- Using open data methodologies can help prevent greenwashing in the sector because sharing knowledge helps speed up change (i.e. making transparent the Cloud Carbon Footprint tool that was used to measure your websites’ carbon footprint).
- Truthful reporting and evaluating the full lifecycle of a product, not just saying: “we use green energy”, “we buy offsets” or “we plant trees”.
- Avoid what they call the “carbon tunnel vision” because sustainability is more than just decarbonisation.
Critically address the relationship between extractive industries and the tech sector
- Consider what we are enabling? When do we say no?
- Extractive industries are not just digging up CO2, they are built into user expectations for the things we build.
- The goal is information and communication technology that’s free of slavery and benefits all.
Busting design system myths
Stephen Hay, Creative Director at Rabobank, presented clear, simple concepts about design systems that helped us see the bigger picture and remember what’s important (no, it’s not pixel perfection of your components) when building one that can be considered useful and successful.
- Design systems are not glorified component libraries (a collection of UI elements). The latter is necessary, but not sufficient. The former is a meta system, a whole environment.
- Documentation gives clarity. Having the right pieces in place doesn’t mean they will work well. The way they should be used needs to be communicated as a set of guidelines, only then can your system be applied anywhere.
- Don’t strive for completion. There will never be perfection (just like ship products), and iteration should be embraced. Create a design system that’s welcome to change.
- Atomic design ≠ a linear process. Many designers will have heard of the idea of “atomic design,” but it’s not a process, it’s simply a mental model of the way design systems are created rather than something to apply in all situations.
- Design systems can’t predict the future. They can’t be everything for everyone. It’s better to focus on the majority 80% over the niche 20%, and use lower level building blocks so that it doesn’t dictate or limit your design.
- The purpose of design systems can be for beauty! Aesthetics are part of its function – and that’s perfectly okay.
Experience beyond screens
The future of experience design goes beyond screens. Or at least, that’s what Product and Experience Designer, Stacey Mendez quite convincingly predicts! In fact, we’ve also always believed that “experience” is something that is holistic and nonlinear. To embrace the future of design, we need to broaden our thinking when approaching any design and to try not to feel constrained by its form, because the possibilities go far beyond a particular medium.
Evolution of product design
1900s: physical objects for manufacturing (i.e. factory machines).
2000: digital tools for information (i.e. smartphones).
2100: objects, information and services for complete user experiences.
The future of UX is not digital UX, but much much broader.
Blockers in the industry preventing broader thinking
- Specialist language (business or design jargon) that makes it difficult to share with others what you do. Working in a multidisciplinary fashion, means many things may get “lost in translation”.
- Working in silos.
- Different tools and deliverables.
- Different timescales (i.e. agile vs stages).
- Testing singular parts in development rather than the whole .
How to make it work
- Prototype early on in a project with your whole team.
- Build a common understanding.
- Have a North Star with cohesive design principles that can be expressed across all disciplines and touch-points.
2. Knowledge transfer and sharing information
- Adopt a larger angle on inclusion and accessibility when thinking about usability.
- Align development and review times and have this built into structure and work processes.
3. Understanding the end user
- Build an understanding based on the natural behaviours of your users and predict their intentions.
Adding quality and value to users’ (and everyone’s) lives
Value-add can be functional or emotional:
- Functional: B2B/C, tactile, efficiency, speed
- Emotional: B2C, craft, storytelling, brand engagement
Companies who add value have a deeper sense of customer satisfaction and followers, greater ownership over a problem space, and increased team creativity.
Teams start to have a united focus on the experience (not the features), where departments are transparent with each other and collaborate, thus allowing greater peer empathy and appreciation. These fresh minds can then think bigger and solve problems in new ways.
Mansi Gupta, Founder of Unconform, opened up the important conversation of women-centric design – a crucial part of design discourse – because if we don’t talk about it, we can’t begin to imagine change.
Rachel shared: “It was really interesting to understand the levels of maturity when it comes to women-centric design, and all the more powerful that all of this was backed by research. I loved the examples that were presented, especially when so many of these were recognizable products and services that have always felt a little “off,” but in ways that are finally explainable. As a ethnic minority woman myself, I felt empowered by the tools that Mansi shared with us to talk about these ideas, and to challenge the status quo to start imagining what could be.”
The four levels of “women-centricity” in design; with number four being the end-goal
- These designs do not genuinely serve women, and expose surface level ideas that lack understanding.
- For example, colouring a product pink and shrinking normal-sized products to sell at a higher price.
- Glorifying “women’s empowerment”.
- Examples: Levi’s AI generated “diversity” campaign that failed to address the real systemic issues and instead did the opposite of that.
- De-prioritises the divide in gendered responsibilities.
- Views women as monolithic and ignores intersectionality.
- Have you ever wondered why voice controls like Alexa are always voiced by women as a default? How might this contribute to enforcing gendered biases?
- An example of impartiality is health AI responses that perpetuates biases by basing answers on one specific type of woman.
- “Femtech” that reduces reproduction to a “women’s thing” rather than something that concerns us all (i.e. menstruation).
- Designs that still only just scratch the surface (i.e. women-only trains are still not accessible, menstrual leave is permitted in writing but no one feels safe to use it).
- Women’s services as paid “add-ons” (i.e. on the Nike running app).
4.Holistic (the dream!)
- Genuinely serving the needs of women by first understanding them, then having appropriate allocations to cope with pain points (and not charging them as “extra”).
- Tala, a product that allows access to “credit” via a new definition of credit score. Often, because of gendered responsibilities, women have a lower credit score and are thus barred from services that they should have equal access to.
- Callisto, a sexual harassment reporting app that helps users collect proof to build a case that can protect victims.
- Sehat Kahani, a service that connects displaced women and girls with at-home female doctors through telehealth technology.
How can we get there?
Shift your mindset from focusing on what exists already to imagining what could be and challenging the status quo.
Make sure to implement must-have principles when designing:
- Safety – physical and psychological.
- Trust – fix the system, not women themselves.
- Non-linearity – account for biological differences in experience.
- Community – a role that builds resilience.
- Positive masculinity – actively create and promote a positive role for men.
- Have the courage to ask: “what about women?”
What if people weren’t the product?
David Dylan Thomas, CEO of David Dylan Thomas, LLC, offered the chance for designers to self-reflect and collectively imagine what the community can do for the world. He reflected on the state of the web and what it’s become, revealing the extent of the harm that the attention economy has had in making us lose our humanity, as well as the evil that blinding chasing “engagement” has resulted in. He challenged us to do better. And this call to search deep within ourselves and do the right thing is exactly what we all need if we’re to craft a better, more virtuous and more just world.
People have become the product
Over time, the web has become a mirror… social media, profiles, targeted marketing, our data-linked selves, all living in what we call the “attention economy”. We now see ourselves as a product in the same way that advertisers do.
The natural engagement of human behaviour looks like the image below, where the closer we get to the line of prohibited content, the more enticing content becomes.
It’s a very toxic behaviour that we’re encouraging from each other and that tech leaders like Mark Zuckerberg are capitalising on.
The quest for engagement has killed people – think of the 2017 Rohingya crisis where over 10,000 Rohingya Muslims were killed, incited by the hate speech that Facebook helped promote without fact-checking and moderating.
Take a look at indigenous communities systems of thinking. For example, the Blackfoot believe that wealth is not measured by money and property but by generosity. By that same definition, the “wealthiest” man in their eyes owns almost nothing because he has given it all away.
What if we reimagined a web that assumes everyone is good and worth helping? A web where engagement was measured by the number of people helped?
Thinking about the systems that our world is built upon is a dreadful realisation that everything is corrupt, but we can take steps to change it.
- Start by identifying your own values:
- Ask: am I getting closer to my values? What are the things I’d willingly leave money on the table for?
- What if the web reflected back to me the real me?
- Consider how your work brings you closer to or further away from these values:
- What are the things my company would be willing to leave money for?
- Co-imagine the future with the people hurt by the present:
- What if the web reflected back to me the people I can help?
As designers, we always come across the idea of “empathy” as an essential guideline to better understand the people who use our products and services. But, Imran Afzal, Principal Designer at Co-op Digital asked: “as we continue pushing onward in the name of “innovation,” are we forgetting what empathy is really about?” His talk questioned whether our relationship to empathy and how we put it in practice is becoming more fractured, more superficial.
If you’re a designer reading this and in need of reminding yourself why you got here and what we are collectively trying to do, sign up for one of Imran’s talks – he’s continuing to share these ideas outside of UX London.
A final word
Iman shared: “empathy is about finding echoes of another in yourself… empathy is a choice that leads to change”. A crucial reminder of what really matters when it comes to great design.