Post-conference thoughts from Interaction16, Helsinki

IxDA’s Interaction16, held in Helsinki last week, lived up to the expectation of fielding current trends like virtual reality, internet of things, designing with algorithms, artificial intelligence, and driverless cars. And indeed, those topics did take centre stage, but with a different subtext than the ones I’m so used to seeing on my daily feeds. This subtext is about“designing the future for people”, rather than “what is the future enabled by more fancy tech?”. A slight but crucial difference. As I reflect on the conference, I’m reminded by this Don Norman quote,

Technology first, invention second, needs last

As designers, we often can’t invent our way into the future as we rely on the means to get us there. In general, technology arrives to us first as crude and unrefined solutions, and then as diverse forms of adoption, before we ever get to influence its evolution or integration into society. But a lot of that is now here, and we need to get stuck in.

Boston Dynamics robots look scary and sound “inhumane”

The message I heard across the keynotes and presentations is that designers need to get deeply involved in the technological sea change we’ve been talking about for awhile now, rather than remain observers from afar. There are two threads to this: Get more involved designing for the new forms of technology that are starting to permeate society (IoT, robots, artificial intelligence,…), and Build robust and widely adoptable solutions for today’s problems that support tomorrow’s experiences (, thick data, designing for refugees,…). The two aren’t necessarily related, but both worthy of our attention.

Designers are already here — just not evenly distributed

In her keynote, Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, laments: “where have the designers gone?” Although she’s been running IoT communities and events for a long time, designers are still under-represented. This includes myself, as someone who often organises monthly IxD events around IoT topics.

Another charismatic plea comes from Cameron Sinclair keynote — “Forget Virtual Reality!”, he says, “let’s work on Actual Reality!”. He criticises the fetishisation of digital communities over smart cities (a misnomer), on our need to support scale (to what end?), on our attempts to make our cities more resilient (against what?).

The two keynotes are true in the fact that while interaction design is becoming more widespread, there are still a lot of gaps and tons of work to be done. Leisa Reichelt said in one of the IxD Awards videos — we need to get the basics right first, and then move into the more interesting stuff. At the moment, we’re still at a point where keynote speakers are telling us what machine learning is. We’re still a long way off. And while interaction design has grown considerably, we’re still not distributed well across the areas of need. It reminded me that work doesn’t have to exist in the form of salaried employment all the time, and that we can aspire to Design as a lifelong vocation. We have to take charge if we want to realise the future we deserve (an apt phrase borrowed from this year’s Student Design Challenge)

Existential crisis for Joe, who wasn’t able to join us in Helsinki.

Pause, Reflect, Progress

We no longer come to conferences to debate the definition of interaction design (thank goodness). There are better things to debate, to think through critically, and to resolve. As designers, we continue to use language in new ways, but that’s necessary to solve problems with new mediums, contexts, systems and platforms. Matt Nish Lapidus’ cited Lev Manovich that we are now interfacing with a “culture encoded in digital form” — and that our interfaces are our new tools, rather than the tools we use to create those interfaces. This is a result of the pervasiveness of digitization, and so a reframing of our practice, as Marko explains, shifts from control to emergence.

“We don’t have good models to talk about AI” — Chris Noessel

Hopefully, we’ll be more careful in using terms and labels borrowed from technical domains that may limit our thinking. For example, Chris Noessel articulates that “agentive technology” is new from an experience point of view, as a moniker to frame our understanding of the nature and limits of artificial intelligence-based agency as a phenomenon, agentive behaviour, and our relationship with it.

Taking up arms: The future we deserve

The future may sound look really exciting and interesting (or even scary) on the flashy covers of Wired or on a news feed, but I’ve always been skeptical about that packaging — primarily because they lack depth in understanding of the human condition. But I shouldn’t be so hung up about everyone else’s version of the future. I swallowed a huge dose of Finnish pragmatism across the seven days, and Marko Ahtisaari’s opening keynote did make a point that we shouldn’t be futurists anymore. Now is the new Future, and it’s up to us to define it.

My Interaction16 sketchnotes are up on Flickr. Feel free to use, share, and comment under a creative commons license.

My Interaction16 sketchnotes

Introduction to Sketchnoting Workshop with General Assembly, 21 October

I’ll be running my introductory workshop on sketchnoting again on Monday evening, 21 October at General Assembly’s London campus in Farringdon. Ticket prices start at £20 for super early birds and go up to £30. The class is limited to 20 people.

The workshop is aimed at helping newcomers understand the strengths and benefits of sketchnoting and pick up practical methods to get going. It’s interactive, intense, and participants will get their hands dirty with opportunities to reflect on improving their notes and developing their own style and approach.

Materials will be provided – you’ll get to take home a tombow ABT dual brush pen and a MUJI gel-tip pen, as well as all the sketching paper you need to to get you started.

Here’s are some comments shared by previous attendees:

“really useful insight into structuring note-taking…”

“enabled me to improve my approach to sketch notes with better precision… an excellent job at distilling all aspects and even covering tools”

“highly recommended”

You can get tickets via the General Assembly site: Introduction to Sketchnoting for Improved UX Design

A sketchnote produced by a former workshop attendee

Sketchnotes as part of a maturing creative practice

A few years ago, I produced my first sketchnote at a visual note-taking workshop led by the lovely Eva-Lotta Lamm. Since then, I’ve done more than a hundred sketchnotes over two dozen or so events across 5 different countries with no intention of stopping.

I do it primarily for the challenge, the intimacy from being immersed in ideas, and I’ll admit, the compliments I get from onlookers, peers and experts. But the value I get out of it is so much more, because the most rewarding thing about sketchnoting is not about its product, but its process.

The best learning happens in real time

Active participation enhances our learning, but in broadcast situations like talks, panels, speeches and shows, it’s all too common to sit back and watch, listen, reflect, and question. Sketchnoting turns that on its head and allows you be part of that experience.

The flexibility of visual note taking over conventional note taking means you take more advantage of your senses, cognition, understanding and visual communication skills while you are in the moment absorbing everything. This involves things like:

  • prolonged concentration and being in a flow state
  • synthesising and visualising complex ideas in real-time
  • making connections that are non-linear and can flex around the narrative as its being presented
  • uncovering and visualising patterns and structures
  • leveraging aesthetics in visual communication

So while it’s nice to admire interesting sketchnotes as an output, but even better to experience sketchnoting for yourself.

Sketchnoting is a learnt skill

Visual notetaking is a skill that has to be learnt. You don’t need to be an art student to be able to do sketchnotes, but you have to be willing to stretch yourself a bit and visualise things that you “see” in your head onto paper.

This takes a bit of practice, obviously, but you can get up to speed by using some tips and tricks like Dave Gray’s approach to drawing things and people, choosing a framework or template to structure your notes, or using different types of pens to create depth and hierarchy in your notes.

Just like learning another language, and it shouldn’t take you too long to build up a basic vocabulary. Drawing portraits, abstract concepts and complex objects will of course take more time but at the end of the day, every little thing you draw is an investment you make in participating in the experience, which pays back in dividends.

Sketchnoting is a journey

I think sketchnotes is a lot like sketchbooking, where it forms part of your existing creative process and journey that develops over time. Just as artists use sketchbooks to develop their ideas, capture observations, and refine their thinking, sketchnoting allows a UX practitioner to be more focused, critical and reflective about what’s being learnt from the content.

It’s pointless, therefore, to see the whole picture by looking at someone else’s sketchnotes — just as you wouldn’t piece together the Mona Lisa by looking at Leornado’s sketchbooks. The output then becomes a byproduct of the note-taker’s experiences, thoughts and learnings. Some are more communicable, and some are more personal.

That shouldn’t stop you from making your sketchnotes memorable and interesting as that helps with socialising your ideas. At the end of the day, what matters most is what you take from it over time as you mature as a practitioner.

I’m really passionate about sketchnoting as a means to improve learning and visual communication. I run sketchnoting workshops with General Assembly from time to time – the next workshop is on Oct 21I’ve also produced a follow-up post on on getting started with sketchnotes for folks who have not tried their hand with sketchnotes and want a quick way to get started. Have a look!

Typography resources

As an addendum to my talk, “Typography is IA”, I’ve compiled a list of resources which I’ve found useful in my learnings and research. I hope you find them useful and enjoyable as much as I did.

Starting points

Useful reads and references

If you really want to go deep and geek out

Note that most of these tend to focus on typography for print. YMMV.

Or try the reading lists from the experts themselves…

Reading lists

Feel free to suggest more, or ask if you have any specific questions. Thanks!


Typography is IA – IA Summit 2013

An apprentice’s heart

I think the theme for 2012, at least for me, was about professional growth. As a result of my first full year as a permie at Sapient, I’ve dug more roots into projects and roles than before. Still, I continued my commitment to the community by organising UXCampLondon 2012, becoming an IxDA local leader, attending, supporting and speaking at numerous events, and building new and existing relationships.

The biggest lesson I’ve learnt is to be patient with myself. It’s easy to be pulled in many directions when I’m solving a problem, but some pragmatism does no harm to balance things. Plus, it’s impossible to be expert at everything. I’ve learnt instead to accept the context of the problem, but improve the way I work with people towards a solution. Old habits die hard – being a programmer for so long, I’ve gotten used to a more direct way of problem solving. This needs to change, as problem solving in design is a lot more organic and social.

So I’ve been looking at ways to build shared understanding. To begin with, I’ve started looking at deconstructing the various ways I approach problem solving, to see if any of them can be done socially i.e. not alone. I’ve experimented with sketchboards, scaffolding design documentation, paper prototyping, sketching out conceptual models – basically making things very visual, tangible and interactive.

I think that effective shared understanding is a result of three things coming together regularly:

  • shared artifacts – ‘objects’ that can be shared/owned/worked on socially
  • shared activities – solving a problem together
  • shared leadership – people who take initiative, execute to a vision, draw and connect others

This was the point of a talk I did in September. Needless to say, it can be quite stressful trying to solve the problem while trying to solve the way to solve the problem. But I see no other way – many UX briefs contain elements of wicked problems, many of which demand a pedagogical approach rather than a systematic one.

In response to this, I’ve decided to invest some of the experiences I’ve gained in the UX community into the creative domain at work. I’m hoping that all the various ‘problem solving approaches’ trapped inside everyone of us can be diffused across the group, just like what happens when we attend events, go to conferences, meet up informally, etc. I’ve also been drawing inspiration from things like activity theory, so it’ll be interesting to see where this goes.

My main motivation for all this is based on these assumptions

  • it’s impossible to know and learn everything
  • some approaches work better than others
  • everyone has a different way of solving problems
  • knowing how and why people solve problems a certain way provides new problem solving ideas, which one can adapt
  • this doesn’t destroy an approach or style an individual has developed over time

If there was one word I would use to sum all of these things up, it’s the word “apprentice”, because we end up behaving like apprentices as we move from one domain to another and solve more complex problems. Although we’ll approach mastery of our core UX skills over time, we’re also shifting from one problem domain to another especially in projects where problems are increasingly ‘wicked’ (in which there seems to be no shortage of).

I like what Stephen Anderson said recently during his Euro IA keynote; We should ultimately be doing what interests us and what we’re curious about. That, to me, is really about adopting an apprentice’s heart. And the challenge for UX (and for me) in 2013, just like any other year, will be a pedagogical one.

The Sketchnote Handbook

Update: you can get this book on Peachpit at a 35% discount if you use the code “SKETCHNOTE”. Download a free PDF of chapter 4.

The Sketchnote Handbook: The illustrated guide to visual notetaking, by Mike Rohde

Fellow sketchnoter and UX friend Mike Rohde has just released a book on sketchnotes, which contains lots of tips and advice about the craft of visual notetaking, copious examples, including contributions from other sketchnoters, including one from yours truly.

I was super excited when Mike contacted me to contribute something to his book, and I can’t wait to see the book for real. Mike contacted 15 other sketchnoters like Paul Soupiset, Francis Rowland, Eva-Lotta Lamm,  and Jessica Esch to contribute to the book to show the range of work across a broad range of skills and backgrounds.

initial concept in a quick sketch

It was fun translating the work from initial concept (shown above) to final designs (see below). I’ve gained a lot of value since I started visual notetaking a few years ago, which began at a sketching workshop by Eva-Lotta Lamm. It’s a great memory and understanding tool, social artifact, conversation starter, and is a really fun way of getting deep into a topic or idea.

Needless to say, this book from Mike puts a lot of this stuff into an easy-to-read format, and I forsee myself using it for reference and learning over time.

You can now order the book from Peachpit press, as an ebook, printed book or both.

If you’re looking for a sketchnoter to capture thoughts, ideas and work during a live session, do get in touch with me. :)

Thoughts about UX amateurism – a follow-up post

It’s been three months since I published my thoughts and feelings about UX amateurism and my constant struggle to define my position and understanding of user experience. I have now found that it’s better to refer to user experience as a state of mind rather than “a thing you do”. I admit that I still fall in the trap of using the word “UX” to refer to certain design practices, but I have stopped calling myself a user experience designer altogether, which I think is a good thing.

Since my post, I’ve started identifying myself as an interaction designer (and sometimes an information architect) and find that specialising my craft around behaviour (rather than everything under the sun) has helped me produce better work. There are many things involved in the design of interactive systems, and rather than biting off more than I can chew (although that is my name), it’s better to focus on collaborating with other specialists (content, tech, business requirements, strategy, graphic design, etc.) to produce a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

The mis-selling of UX

UX amateurism has resulted from an ugly mess of mismatched talent and demands, based on a poor understanding of effective modern design work and an overemphasis on marketing, branding, and “world-changing” experiences. There exists an extremely valuable pool of talent amongst us that contribute directly to UX but often don’t go by the term “UX designer”. Instead, they remain as visual designers, copywriters, content strategists, project managers, planners, front-end developers, producers, product managers, design researchers and so on – each of whom provide their own unique problem solving capabilities to the fore.

These roles are not new, but the emergence of digital ubiquity and disruptive innovation have caused many organisations to scramble for solutions, signing up for what is often packaged as user experience and cobbling together design teams without really understanding the drastic demands on its own operations and systems, not to mention its relationships with customers and end users. Meanwhile, “non-UX” practitioners have responded in their own way to push the boundaries of tools, processes, teamwork and technology.

Eventually, smart organisations and practitioners understand that it is not really about building better experiences per se, but better conversations. The primary struggle of industries today is not about delivering the ‘wow’, but about delivering relevance – because people are increasingly trading on trust rather than desire.

Transformation is everyone’s job, the future of UX

If user experience is a term that we use to trade our craft skills and services with, I feel that we owe it to UX buyers to match the “promise” of the term. And most of the time, these buyers will refer to UX as many things – a user-centred approach, a means to improve customer experiences, a product or service experience that is way better than the one before (the ‘wow’). Despite the single vision we can all see and agree on, the effort to achieve this is often gargantuan (you’re not really assuming UX = just an amazing app or website, right?). Hiring a team of “UX designers” isn’t going to solve anything unless the proper understanding, systems, culture, sponsorship and environment are in place. And if these things aren’t in place, it’s our job as practitioners to help build it up, if we all agree that’s where we need to go.

So yes, UX has taken over our hearts and minds, but we remain practitioners in our own domains. I feel that we’ve reached a point where the real transformative work still lies in front of us, if we really believe UX to be this truly amazing thing we can all achieve and celebrate. It’s time we look further afield and collaborate with others outside our specific domains.

And no, it’s not just about apps and websites.

A year at SapientNitro: U to C and back again

I recently passed the one-year mark at Sapient, and I’ve been wanting to write a blog post about it but have been procrastinating. Part of it was because I wasn’t sure if I had anything worth sharing to another UX practitioner that they didn’t already know.

The more I thought about it, the more depressed I got. Am I really learning anything or doing work that’s valuable? It was hard to put it into quantifiable terms. A hear people talking about the insights they’ve learnt from usability tests, designing a new reading experience for the iPad, writing books and inspiring articles, improving their UX process. I found it hard to say with conviction that I’ve learnt something new that someone other UX person hasn’t experienced so far or find valuable.

I began to ask myself why.

A lot of my work revolves around concepting, defining specifications and communicating UX strategy through wireframes, flows, user journeys and other deliverables I have no name for because sometimes I just cobble things together to make a point. But thinking in terms purely in terms of artifacts doesn’t answer the question of how effective one is in solving problems related to experience design.

So, I started thinking about the design process. Again, it was hard to put a finger on it. Some projects I work in run in a semi-agile format, with standups, sprint-like charts with weekly deliveries and design reviews fixed at specific times. Other projects I’ve worked on have been less structured. Again, I can’t say for sure what works best.

I also began comparing myself with the UX world beyond me. After my UX conference marathon which began in February 2011 with UX Hong Kong and ending in Interaction 2012 this year, my head was filled with all sorts of ideas about “The Future of UX”, “Lean Everything”, “Making Stuff”, and Unicorns. The more work I did, the more distant I felt from these ideas and lessons. Still, I soldiered on – believing that the inspiration had entered my unconscious and was working its way through my hands and tools.

I questioned the applicability of these ideas. How would a unicorn fit in a place like Sapient? How would Jeff Gothelf run a UX team here? Would any of our clients embrace The Future of UX? Would our clients really succeed if we convinced them decided to ship early and iterate through continuous testing and learning?

To an extent, I think my work has some evidence of that, but not entirely. Because a lot of these ideas have been put in specific frames, and those frames don’t exist in many places. It’s also very hard to flex organisations and practices around a new frame than it is to reshape the frame and change what’s inside it. Many of these frames are also owned and acted on by imaginary, ideal agents. In the real world, ownership and responsibility is far more subtle and complex.

Also, clients are very different than UX designers.

In fact, clients are very different from each other. And it makes for exciting as well as difficult projects. In some projects, I think a lot more about our clients’ business than I do about UX.

And then I start to wonder why UX people don’t talk about clients and their businesses.

That led me to realise that project success isn’t always measured by UX-related metrics – so a lot of my work (and thus, learning) is influenced by something other than UX. In fact, it’s measured more by Customer Experience (CX) metrics, which changes depending on which client you’re speaking to.

I had wrongly assumed user experience equals customer experience. It’s not. It’s like different set of cultures and beliefs, although they may share some anatomical similarities. This is probably why most business people don’t attend UX conferences.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that there’s a gap between UX and CX, like two brothers who refuse to talk to one another but are forced to live together somehow. And it’s like UX wants CX to be more more like UX, and vice versa.

So, then I asked myself if I’ve learned more about CX over the last year. I probably have, but it’s hard to say exactly what about CX I’ve learnt – partly because there seems to be no hard definition of CX as of yet. I could probably make one up and sound like I’m making sense.

I do know, however, that I’ve contributed to both my client’s understanding of UX and my understanding of the CX of their business. We’ve learnt to translate each other’s languages a little bit to hold a decent conversation.

So in summary, translating UX to CX (and back again) is what I’ve gotten better at doing in the last 14 months, and it’s something I’m thinking more about from now on. This makes sense to me, as I happen to work for an organisation that calls itself the world’s first customer experience company.

Related reading:

Customer experience vs. User Experience – Leisa Reichelt,
What is an experience strategy – Steve Baty, Johnny Holland
Understanding customer experience – Harvard Business Review

Learning from lame moral lessons on Facebook (the Joshua Bell story)

A lot of people are harping around this story of expert violinist Joshua Bell who went barely unnoticed as a busker at a Washington DC metro station and how we’ve lost sight of the beauty of music, how we don’t stop to recognize talent, etc. The real lesson of this story isn’t so much about stopping for a moment or missing out of life’s pleasures or even recognizing talent. It’s really about how we fundamentally are as human beings, how we naturally perceive things one way and not the other.

In short, this story is about the nature of human beings, not about the future of who we can become. If you really want to learn from this, begin to turn the points around as normal behaviour:

  • We ascribe greater value to things when they’re priced higher (i.e. Metro Station vs. Concert Hall, see
  • We are naturally self-centred, and we perceive things based on our social context (see Tom Vanderbilt’s modal bias article on cyclists vs. cars
  • We are also a social species, and there’s been a lot of studies done around crowd or group behaviour, and a crowded space like like a Metro station influence certain behavioural tendencies (
  • How we perceive each other as individuals also have a ‘framing’ effect (busker vs. talented musician), so the whole moral aspect to this this interplay of roles is really quite pointless (

If you want to learn from this story, don’t focus on the morals themselves as they can come from *anywhere*. Focus on understanding our who we are as human beings, imperfections and all – our behaviours tend not to change, but changing environments and contexts (which is easier to do) can help shape and align those behaviours toward good.

Either that or I should stop clicking on lame stuff people post on Facebook.