UX (or user experience) design has come to the forefront in the last few years with the runaway success of touchscreens, and especially smartphones. Most organizations now understand that intuitive UX design is critical to the success of any product or service. In order to take advantage of the efficiencies that technology can deliver, the human element has to be factored in. No matter the benefits, if people can’t use it, the product or service will die.

But few organizations really have a focus on UX, and fewer still do it well. The struggle to create great user experiences is a cross-industry concern.

UXCamp Ottawa gave the Envision team a chance to take a deep dive into the heart of user-centred design. This past weekend (November 9 – 10), over 400 people from around the world came together at the Museum of Civilization to learn, share and connect. UX veterans and newbies from fields as diverse as software development, medicine, aerospace, and government services made the pilgrimage.

The program was wide-ranging, and the presentations engaging – even multiple power outages on Saturday didn’t stop the show for long. You’ve got to respect a speaker like Jonathan Snook who can deliver great content without slides or even a microphone!

Tales of The Unexpected

More than a few surprise lessons emerged from the war stories: some of surprise successes, some of ongoing challenges that anyone could relate to.

Joel Grenier shared a tale of a mobile app with almost no budget, part-time resources that still resulted in a tool that users loved – without relying on traditional menus. Why did it work? They stripped it down: the app had a simple purpose, and one clear initial screen explained the interface to the user. It was classic KISS (keep it simple, stupid) in action.

We learned how Leisa Reichelt’s team turned a rarely-used government services website (Gov.uk) into a time-saving, award-winning success. How did they do it? They made sure they weren’t designing for themselves, but for their users. Testing every single week with real live users, and making sure the research was tracked and acted upon kept them honest.

UXCampOttawa4 2013 - Russ Unger, Leisa Reichelt, Jesse James Garrett
Clockwise from top left: Russ Unger and friend, Leisa Reichelt via Skype, Jesse James Garrett, the entire gang.

At Play On The Idea Jungle Gym

Although useful takeaways surfaced everywhere, UXCamp was not a how-to on user centred design. UXCamp’s value lay in how the speakers broke apart the problems that UX designers deal with and examined the underlying ideas. Just like when you went to camp as a kid, we were there to play – but this time it was with raw ideas.

The overwhelming theme that emerged was that UX design goes much, much deeper than developing a good product for users in the here and now. UX design is not a product in a box, it’s an ever-expanding universe.

1. Like Russian dolls, a product being developed exists within a company’s lineup within a larger industry.

Bill DeRouchey asserted that while UX designers have great problem solving skills, they also need to make sure they’re considering product survival in the real world. When developing an interface it’s important to be able to notice when an issue goes deeper than design. Sometimes the problem is a business problem – there is a problem with the assumptions behind the product. “Naming the problem becomes half the problem.”

2. Soon we won’t be accessing interfaces on a phone, we’ll be living in them.

Juhan Sonin took us to a future of medical data interaction that is already on our doorstep (dozens of people in the audience were wearing personal health monitors). People may be tracking health information in a spreadsheet or app today, but soon our homes and even our cities will become massive data collection and presentation interfaces. But who will have access, and who will control access?

3. We are not just the designers and users, we are the product.

UX designers need to redesign themselves on an ongoing basis. Shay Howe, Jonathan Snook, Daniel Szuc and Russ Unger taught us that by embracing constraints and diving into the unknown designers can learn to create better user experiences. Sometimes a great UX design career is made up of multiple creative paths, not just one. When you try something new, your existing skills improve as well as the new one.

4. UX design is about creating our future.

Jesse James Garrett gave us the grand tour, from human microcosm to a boundaryless future. He demonstrated how UX design reaches into multiple human dimensions: perception, cognition, emotion, action. It crosses the boundaries between work, play, product and service. And if UX design touches so many aspects of who we are, then the tools we make now will shape who we become. “The work we are doing is creating human culture – we are writing the scripts that are shaping the 21st century.”

…And in 2014?

Next year when it’s time to sign yourself up for UXCamp Ottawa, I say do it. But don’t go there looking for the formula for the secret sauce, because there isn’t one. UX design is an art in a technologically evolving world. There will always be new problems and, as one speaker pointed out, “multiple ways to solve them”.

Go to UXCamp to connect with other people who enjoy playing with these ideas, and who are looking for better answers to problems. You’ll get a complete rewrite on your assumptions from the pioneers who have been doing UX design since before it was UX design. These people clearly get it: when you share what you learn along the way, the journey gets better for everyone.

UX Experts On Twitter:
UXCamp: @uxcampottawa
Jesse James Garrett: @jjg
Bill DeRouchey: @billder
Juhan Sonin: @jsonin
Leisa Reichelt: @leisa
Joel Grenier: @jgrenier05

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