For the research and innovation of design practices, we need to go to the places where the knowledge production takes place. These are the design practitioners who work on a daily basis with the demands of digital innovation. According to Dan Lockton from Carnegie Mellon University and Carine Lallemande from Eindhoven University of Technology, it is necessary for research to overcome the “industry-academia divide” by attending industry events and by running workshops with practitioners (Lockton & Lallemande, 2020).

We share this view, and seek to collaborate closely with practitioners in the work of finding better ways of making visible how ideas materialise in the design process. The authors of this blog post are Danny, a long time UX designer, and Ruth, a design academic and design teacher. For our research project, we came together at UX Brighton, a small meetup style community event, in Brighton last week. The style of the event requires attendees to sign up in a public Google document to the 12 places available, and then arriving on the day with food, drinks, and a topic of concern. People come with design concepts and other questions they seek to run past others in an attempt to gather ideas, inputs, and help, in order to move forward strengthened by the community feedback. So, on the day participants arrived with prototypes of half finished projects, questions that were thrown into the group to go round the table, problems in the design process, and some even brought solutions to problems in the design process.

It was particularly interesting to hear the problems from design practice. One participant reported about the different teams in her organisation all working with different personas. In collaboration, the teams then need to ‘translate’ personas into each others’ settings (“I think your Josh might be our Elaine”), which makes it hard to design the product in a user-centred way.

Another problem raised by a participant was the slow turn-around time between user tests, writing up findings, and iterating the prototypes based on these findings, making the process of improvement complex. Others suggested that remote testing tools might be useful to get test results returned immediately, allowing team members to begin reviewing the tests and deriving improvements quicker. However, this requires either one person to be in charge of both – testing and iterating – or a close collaboration between the people responsible.

Several participants mentioned that their organisation was “development-led” (led by the software developers) as opposed to “user-led”, and that there exists a strong “engineering culture”, whereas a culture of user-centred design was desirable. These questions pose the challenge for the designers to introduce and “sell” the concepts of user experience to their organisations, and why UX matters to the success of a product or service. We discussed whether, in order to do that, it was necessary to have “evangelists” for UX among the “higher ups” in organisations, or if there were ways to work from the bottom up. It seems even harder when there are many software engineers, far outnumbering the few/singular UX designers within teams. A possible solution suggested was the demonstrating through user tests how people fail to use products, and showing in this way the need for user-centred design. Another possibility, if user tests are not part of the budget, is the exploiting of existing routes to gathering user feedback such as customer-facing support staff and sales personnel, who know the strengths but also the weaknesses of the product well through ongoing direct exposure to the everyday problems and the delights and frustrations of users.

Danny (one of the authors) introduced the concept of “Top Tasks Management” by Gerry McGovern, which can “reduce complexity by identifying what really matters to customers” (McGovern, 2015). The key purpose of using Top Tasks is to make sure there is a focus in design work on what people do, rather than on who people are.

At the end, Ruth (one of the authors) presented the current state of the “reconfiguring artefacts” research project. Immediately there were protests against the shiny format of a keynote presentation, but the group was very welcoming towards hearing a little bit from the academic world. Also, there was interest in the concept of the research which seeks to include practitioners in researching approaches to design that work better. Ruth explained the research, and showed how in order to understand our design processes better, we need to make visible how we work with the material constraints of prototypes, drawings, and maps in order to get our ideas across. Calling these material helpers “imaginaries”, she asked the designers about their experiences, and whether they had seen certain materials supporting them better in realising their ideas within organisations. The response revealed that there are many thoughts on the ‘material format’ of getting ideas across. One participants said that “fancy drawings” do get a better response when suggesting solutions. In other situations “real code” can have a lot of impact in getting a suggested solution accepted, because it shows tangibly and reliably how something can work. Mentioned was the example of the – now best practice – solution to use images for the visual representation of a user interface on screen, and to replace the “img tag” with text in the code for web crawlers or technology assisting visually impaired users.  This idea was shown by building and demonstrating it. There was also the controversial idea that there should be a “level playing field” created for idea generation and implementation. However, we agreed that while it was important to give everyone opportunity to shape a design, it should not happen by curtailing someone’s means to show an idea. For example, it wouldn’t be helpful to prohibit a person to visualise an idea only because she is great at drawing. However, the need to manage the input into the shaping of designs emerged as an interesting topic. We hope to continue this investigation with the design community and to ask these questions in more detail.

The UX Brighton community meetup is an important site of knowledge for design. The meetups are there to support individual designers, but it also cultures critical discourse within the community. To be “disagreeable” is a good thing, according to two members who had a disagreement. It means to be able to look closely, and to shape a view that can bring a conversation further, can help someone else rethink their own viewpoint and get to a new position from where a problem might be better solvable.

Lockton, Dan, & Lallemand, Carine. (2020). Meeting Designers Where They Are: Using Industry Events as a Research Venue for HCI and Design Methods Development.
Gerry McGovern. (2015). A List Apart., accessed 20th March 2020.