Things Learned From IndustryConf 2016

IndustryConf took place this year on 20 April, at Castlegate in Newcastle. There were 150 attendees, seven speakers (out of 88 CFP submissions!) and was led by Gavin Elliott, Lead Interaction Designer at @DigitalDWP. I’ve highlighted some takeaways from the conference, and have linked to sites, talks and references from each of the talks where possible.

Relationship advice for your app

Jennifer Brook, @jenniferbrook

In Jennifer’s thoughtful and passionate opening talk, she addresses the following questions:

  • How do we create relationships with a new audience?
  • How do we increase engagement?

Her approach answers these questions by applying ideas from the Non-Violent Communication (NVC) framework. One idea from this framework that stayed with me was that sometimes we are unaware of our own needs or how to articulate them. Therefore, we need an examined strategy. She illustrates this point with the following example:

If you want pizza and I want cake, those are two competing strategies and they lead to conflict. However, if we rephrase those strategies into needs, we could say something like, “You want comfort (what pizza represents to you) and I want joy (what cake represents to me), our underlying needs are in harmony and can be more easily met.

She adds further examples, such as the idea that if a community is feeling frustrated, it’s possible that their need for understanding is not being met. Or that if you’re feeling annoyed by ads, your need for calm isn’t being met. The common goal here is to find the need that is not being met. As such, Jennifer made a promise to herself to never work on a project that didn’t start with a need. She found that beginning projects this way — with qualitative research, intrigue, a question, rather than with an answer or a strategy — ensured the project’s success. People’s needs were being met and this fostered better relationships.

Flexing your layout muscles: A pragmatic look at Flexbox

Stephanie Rewis, @stefsull

Stephanie Rewis is the Lead Developer at SalesForce and gave us an excellent look into Flexbox, as well as a insightful peek into how and why they do things the way they do at SalesForce.

She began with a seemingly simple question: “What methods are we going to use for our layout?” I say ‘seemingly’ because there are several options to choose from: position: absolute, float, display: inline block, display: table, display: flex

She made a strong case for Flexbox, taking us through some design challenges and how to get around them. She also highlighted her rationale for these solutions, often citing some inspiring ways that they operate at SalesForce, such as:

  • Holding CSS office hours, where developers can meet and work through CSS issues.
  • Their accessibility mandate, which guides design decisions, e.g., list ordering; visual order should match what is read aloud.

Stephanie also shared a wealth of links to tools and sites. Here are just a few of what I was able to jot down:

User Research Challenges and Solutions for the Enterprise

Rian Van Der Merwe, @RianVDM

Rian is a product manager at Wildbit — a friendly, enthusiastic company that creates developer tools for better workflows. In his talk, Rian covers some difficult factors to consider in any enterprise project, such as balancing user needs and business goals. What the company needs often changes as the business grows, which can make it necessary to add user research into the process. However, getting support for user research is usually difficult because stakeholders may feel that it takes too long or that it costs too much. Rian shares several approaches for getting beyond these time/cost hurdles:

  • Ask stakeholders, “What could happen if we don’t do research?
  • Show stakeholders that research often shrinks to fit the project. The key is to start small, use prototypes, and request feedback.
  • Stress that it’s expensive to build products without research, as the time saved up front always comes back to haunt you (i.e., technical debt).

Design like you’re right, listen like you’re wrong.” — John Lilly

The next section of Rian’s talk focused on how to sell the value of user research. He elaborated on the following key ideas:

  • Design-focused companies outperform by 219%.
  • Research results in reduced costs, because changes happen earlier in the process.
  • User research leads to faster development cycles, “If research slows down the development process, you’re doing it wrong.”

In this final section of the talk, Rian focused on how we can improve insight generation for user research:

  • Plan for non-buyers — we might get the first sale, but not the renewal. This is because the person that the product is sold to is not necessarily the person the product is used by.
  • Focus on core methods and don’t get too fancy with it.
  • Measure success; this may include assessment research, surveys, analytics and the like.
  • Lastly, record and document the work.

Lessons learned from building a collaborative video app

Jonah Jones, @jj196

What is usability? Ironically, the ISO definition of usability is unusable. Jakob Nielson’s definition of usability might be more helpful here:

“Usability is a quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use. The word ‘usability’ also refers to methods for improving ease-of-use during the design process.”

Jonah stresses that there is more to usability than the pixels on the screen — there is a psychological aspect that we should consider. This can manifest as barriers for users to participate and share. Three of these common psychological barriers were revisited throughout this talk:

  • Audience: who is this content for? who will see this?
  • Quality: will it be good? will it be judged?
  • Context: how and where, when do I present this?

Through their research in developing Rift, Facebook’s prototype collaborate video sharing app, the team found several psychological barriers to users spontaneously creating videos. They learned that many user concerns hindered the process; questions such as What should I create? Should I edit it? How long should the video be? Will it be Likeable? . Then, in 2014 an event changed the team’s perspective on that — the Ice Bucket Challenge. This was a spontaneous meme that easily navigated around the audience, quality, and context barriers, resulting in a huge uptick in video sharing.

Although ‘Rift’ never went public, the lessons learned from their research can be applied to all creative endeavours:

  • Set the tone of the UI: how your app looks gives clues to users about how they should use it.
  • Have a clear purpose: let your users know what it is and what it is for.
  • Remove psychological barriers: be aware of the challenges in engaging with your app and seek to reduce or eliminate them.

Start Using ES6 Today

Wes Bos, @wesbos

ES6 is the newest version of JavaScript and could improve your code. Or, as Wes puts it, “Features that make life soooo much better.”

Starting off, Wes shared two new ways of declaring variables: let and const. Both are block scoped, but const cannot be changed, re-binded or wiped out. As such, you should use const by default; use let if you have to use a variable that can change. And just don’t use var.

Other features covered:

  • Template strings! This makes for easier concatination and means you can run your JS inside ${}, making for much neater, more readable template code. Neat!
  • Function definition using Ruby-like arrow syntax =>. A handy difference being arrow functions not creating their own this value; in an arrow function this is always inherited from the enclosing scope.
  • Also, new array functions, default function arguments, implicit returns and more.

Lastly, Wes gave a quick run-down of tooling; what you need to start using ES6 today. And then an array (sorry!) of the more advanced features in ES6 — destructuring, anyone?

As you can tell, this was a fairly technical and code-focused talk — something that is always welcome, and gets us thinking about what we do best and how we can do it better.

Emotional Intelligence in Design

Beth Dean, @bethdean

Beth is one of those incredibly productive superhumans who seem to be able to do it all effortlessly and to talk about it in an engaging and hilarious way. She makes and designs comics, toys, user experiences, t-shirts, posters and likely much, much more. Her talk at IndustryConf addresses one aspect of this that flows through all of her work — the relationship between software and feelings.

She begins by pointing out various ways that people don’t stop being human when they go online. May seem like an obvious point, but we all can cite examples of how easy it can be to forget. Through her witty and insightful retelling of her work and life history in tech, she advocates the following themes:

  • Practice practical empathy
  • Try to amplify voices with people you work with.
  • Ask yourself, “How would [x] work for someone experiencing [y].”

“Stop saying ‘edge case’. When you say edge case, you’re really defining the limits of what you care about.” — Eric Meyer

My Favourite Form, Really

Caroline Jarrett, @cjforms

Caroline Jarrett loves forms. She really loves forms. In this talk, she uncovers some hidden pitfalls in form design, taking use through several layers of the process. A great form works well across all of these:

  • Interaction design: Looks/works like a form and is easy to use and read.
  • Content design: Asks questions, expects answers and is easy to understand and answer.
  • Service design: Allows someone to achieve a goal and forms a relationship; it is easy to get it done and move on.

Stressing points made in previous talks, there needs to be an overlap between user needs and business needs. The value of personas in empathising with user needs is crucial. Using the example of a college application form, the audience broke into small groups to imagine scenarios for a fictional ‘Jennifer’. By making assumptions about who she is and why she’s applying to college (e.g., “because her parents are making her do this and it’s the last day of registration”) we were able to see areas of concern in the form design that we otherwise wouldn’t have uncovered. From there, it allows us to ask, “What’s the most important thing needing fixing?”

“If you’re a dolphin, are you more like a rhino or a shark?” — Caroline, on problems with binary categories (e.g., gender) in forms

The excellent day ended with a Q&A Roundtable with the day’s speakers, led by Gavin.

Q. What is design becoming?

  • “More inclusive.”
  • “We’re designing things that don’t have a look to them.”
  • “The next billion users are going to be different than the first billion.”
  • “As designers, we haven’t always been good at linking what we do to business results.”

Q. Is design hard?

  • “It’s harder than we think.”
  • “Bad design is super easy. It’s really easy to polish the wrong thing.”
  • “We master our tools without understanding the full context around that.”

Thoughts on hiring:

  • “We need a much better method of recruiting, of writing job descriptions.” — Stephanie Rewis
  • “The most important thing is believing in the mission of what you’re trying to achieve” — Jonah Jones
  • “The best thing you can have in your portfolio is your biggest failure” — Beth Dean

Thoughts on business culture:

  • “It really needs to be everybody’s problem if you want to make a great product.” — Jonah Jones

Sadly, this will be Industry Conference’s 4th and final year. Gavin has clearly poured his heart into this event and it is evident in its overwhelming success time and again. However, he shared with us that he felt that he needed to put his energy toward other things. It will be a shame to not be able to attend IndustryConf again next year, but I’m excited for whatever lies beyond.