MWUX 2014: A Recap

Posted by: Calvin Chopp


Part of our business model at Elexicon is continued education and training through conferences and other group learning experiences.

I recently I had the opportunity to attend the Midwest User Experience Conference (MWUX) in Indianapolis. MWUX is a smaller conference, but it packs some great sessions with engaging speakers on topics like design and development, as well as the future of this industry, and what we can expect to see and ultimately contribute if we apply ourselves.

I was able to pick up on a few key themes during the conference, each of which I think will be useful for my own workflow, as well as our agency in general.

Learn, teach, repeat.

Many of the speakers touched on the concepts of learning and teaching. There were talks on managing your UX team, learning how to learn again, how to work well with developers, and how to become more valuable by how we articulate our designs and process.

Jared Spool opened the conference Friday morning with a thought-provoking talk on the nature of today’s designers, the design and technology industry as a whole, and what needs to be done on the individual level to ensure that we as designers are able to keep up with the demand on our industry.

Jared asked questions like, “Why don’t design students come out of school knowing about responsive design or how to create mobile apps?” and “ Why are we having a tough time keeping up with the pace of innovation?” Jared focused on how it’s not enough to know what you were taught, but that we need to take our learning to the next level: where we know the right questions to ask as well as the right things to research to further develop our skillset and hone in our toolbox for designing the technology, applications and digital products we imagine.

Jared’s point was it’s not enough to know what we do and how we do it today. To be successful in this industry, we need to make a commitment to lifelong learning, as well as teaching. Jared explained that one of the most effective ways we learn is through teaching — taking a concept or practice that we know, and sharing it with fellow colleagues or people interested in the field. Being able to articulate why we do what we do not only helps us in our own process, but it also helps us to establish value for the work we do for our clients.

This need for passionate designers, especially user experience designers, Jared explained, is more necessary than ever before. In the U.S alone, there are over 24,000 unfilled user experience jobs. In reality, it’s a two-fold problem. There are just not enough qualified people to fill these positions. And employers don’t fully understand what they need to be looking for to actually fill these positions.

HR personnel for these companies call the user experience candidates they’re looking for “unicorns”, because of their rarity and scarcity. Large companies are buying up design agencies that understand and have expertise with user experience. These companies grasp the need for, and value of, a strong digital identity, and what that means for overall customer care. They see that there’s something missing in their digital offerings, and that they aren’t outfitted to appropriately meet that need, but that it’s important enough to take such drastic measures.

Whether individuals within these companies have the foresight to see the need, or consultants or agencies are pointing out the gap, it’s undeniable that there’s a growing disparity between the ever expanding digital landscape, and a full understanding of how we as designers best use and harness these concepts for our clients. It’s more important than ever for us as designers to be on top of our game.

The screen is [not] the limit

Related to the ever-expanding digital horizon, another topic that a number of speakers presented on was the changing landscape of the devices and screens we design for.

This obviously isn’t anything new, with the booming popularity of responsive design, native apps and a technological landscape that appears to have no bounds. Whether it’s the new 5K retina display on the new iMac, the tiny displays of smart watches or other wearables, or the forecasted landscape of no physical screens at all (it’s closer than you think), we as designers need to stop thinking so flat.

I’m not talking ‘flat design’ either, so you Apple/anti-skeuomorphic design toters can cool your washed out muted red blood. When I say “flat”, I’m referring to the linear content and content transitions we’re accustomed to. Beyond the fact that the technology we’re designing for, be it a browser or operating system, can handle so much more than the simple content transitions of the past, we also need to take into consideration how we can use these transitions and layering of content to create a more dynamic, user-focused experience.

We’re at a tipping point with how we interact with content and data, and it’s equally important that we find that balance between using these new new features to enrich the experience, and not letting that experience distract from the content, or become confusing for the user to navigate.

We don’t know what we don’t know.

Now we come full-circle.

We don’t know what we don’t know, and more importantly our clients don’t know what they don’t know.

It’s pretty typical that clients come to their agency with a project, usually accompanied with a project outline, some sort of project scope, and if, they’re ambitious, maybe even a projected project timeline. Depending on the client and their background, this may be perfectly acceptable.

But when was the last time you went to the doctor, and told him why your knee hurt, and how much time you had available for your full recovery? Not a perfect comparison, I know, but you get the idea.

It’s important that we as design professionals help knead and shape our clients in such a way that they understand this is our specialty, and we need to help set expectations on project scope, realistic timelines and what we can do within the time that we have available. Doing so will help to create happier clients, happier designers and happier developers on your team, and in the long run you’ll help to create a more valuable product. You’re also boosting your own credibility as an agency by offering solutions and producing results.

By articulating your work, designs, and process confidently and with excitement to your client, you’re getting them excited about the work being done. If you’re not buying what you do, neither is your client.

Because we’re experts at what we do, and have committed to lifelong learning because we love what we do (right?), chances are we have a leg up on our clients regarding something that they could be either doing differently, or aren’t doing [yet]. That’s the thing that would bring value to them and their customers if done right.

In the end, whether you call yourself a designer, a user experience professional, or whatever title seems fitting or trendy now,  it’s your responsibility educate yourself, research what you do, as well as new and emerging services and technologies. You should be able to articulate what you do and present new services and products in a way to your clients that’s compelling and shows the value that would be added by incorporating them into their project.


The Liberation of Limitations

Posted by: Calvin Chopp


“When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.” — T.S Eliot

One of the things I enjoy most about being a designer is having clients who trust my ability to create something that represents them to their customers. It’s a big responsibility, and one that agencies shouldn’t take lightly. Part of this design process of getting a project off the ground is the initial phase of creating design options and different comps for the client’s consideration. In other words, choices.

Here’s the thing … growing up we’re basically taught that freedom is maximizing choices. The freedom of choice, right? You want running shoes? Here’s 50 different shoe companies offering 15 models in 5 different colors, each. The freedom to choose!

As a client, what could be greater than handing a project over to a competent designer, and giving them the freedom to “do your thing and make something great out of this”, letting them go to town creating the next big thing for you? The designer would have unlimited choices with branding profiles, the freedom to use their discretion regarding typography, mood boards and content transitions  — everything up to their professional expertise, which you’re paying for. Sounds great, right?

Unfortunately, the very freedom that clients often give can become the very bondage that slows the creative process, and ultimately blows up budgets and timelines. Or, on the flip side, leaves the client with a final product that didn’t quite live up to expectations, assuming any expectations were set.

Bob Garfield talks about the ‘tyranny of freedom’ and the ad industry’s obsession with breaking rules in his book And Now a Few Words from Me. He uses the example of a child, and how “lack of boundaries does not liberate, it enslaves…”. His point is what looks on the surface to be confining can sometimes be liberating, and the lack of boundaries can promote indecision for the designer.

It’s the client’s responsibility to set these boundaries. It’s the designer’s responsibility to help walk the client through that process and answer questions that, at times, the client may not know to ask.

To think outside the box, there has to first be a box.

Deep right? Bear with me — I’ll try to not get too zen, but it’s valid. It’s important to understand that creativity thrives on constraints. If you have a wide open plain of choices, that creates a load of pressure, especially given that almost every project comes with a budget and a set timeline, both of which already affect the project scope. When designers are given context  — restrictions and limitations — it stimulates creativity.

Here’s an example. I want you to sit at your desk, grab a blank sheet of paper, and I want you to draw something cool. Anything. Oh, and you only have 5 minutes. Feel free to email me your creations at calvin@elexicon.com. (No seriously, your submissions would make my day). Chances are if you took my example seriously, you’d sit there for half that time deliberating on what exactly to draw. The other half of the time would be spent quickly throwing together whatever it was that you settled on, and at the 5 minute mark, you’d likely not be incredibly happy with the results, or you’d second-guess your decision.

OK, now I want you to take the same 5 minute slot, and this time I’m going to give you a scene — a set of limitations. This time, its the zombie apocalypse and I want you to draw your war vehicle with all it’s weaponry that you’re going to drive to survive the hungry hordes. If you’re anything like me, your mind is immediately racing with all the guns and gadgets and armor that you’re going to attach to the outside of your car!

The example is silly, but this same concept rings true with project scopes and outlines that we designers receive from clients — the better we understand the project challenges and scope from the client, the higher the likelihood that we’re going to not only come in on budget and within the timeframe, but also that you’ll get more creative, better quality work.

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