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UX Scotland 2018 write up

We’ve just come back from UX Scotland, the annual conference hosted in Edinburgh that attracts user experience and service design professionals from around the world. This year there was a good turnout from the higher education sector, not least from our university. In this post a few of us who were there share our thoughts…

The conference ran from 13 to 15 June and as usual was hosted at Our Dynamic Earth. The programme is available from the conference website, and includes slides and videos where available.

UX Scotland 2018 website

Cards presented in a frame reading: stimulating, valuable, collaborative, relevant, professional, organised

My description cards for this year’s UX Scotland conference

I asked everyone who attended from the University of Edinburgh to answer these three questions:

1. What were you looking to get out of UX Scotland? Why did you attend?

2. Your top 3 sessions and why

3. Something you’re going to put into practice or learn more about after the conference

So I’ll start with my thoughts, then move on to:

  • Gavin Anderson
  • Marissa Wu
  • Duncan Stephen
  • Sonia Virdi

My UX Scotland conference 2018

I attended the conference (as I have every year since its inception) because it’s the best, closest, friendliest gathering of user experience professionals available. World-class speakers, interesting topics and a great opportunity to network. This year my focus was on recruitment – I’ve got UX roles to fill and this was a great way to promote them and be available to chat with delegates – and on liaison with agencies – because I really want to build a list of contacts we can call on as demand for user research and design skills grows.

Join the University UX Service team

My top three sessions

Ask better questions – Chris How

Chris delivered a fantastic session about what makes good and bad questions, which is basically the core skill of the user researcher. He’s sharing his materials which is very convenient as I’m conscious the weak point in our internal UX training is on interview skills and I’ll be making very good use of his stuff. He also got us involved playing bad question bingo while listening to sports interviews from Radio 5 Live which was really entertaining. What I found really reassuring was that his tips for getting better at interviewing were pretty much what I’ve always advocated. My approach is rooted in how I was trained to teach and it was great to hear that these principles hold true, as I’ve always suspected.

The lost art of task modelling – Jesmond Allen

Task modelling is something that seems to have been left behind in recent years as more and more people have adopted experience (or journey) mapping as their means to communicate trends in user behaviour uncovered in research. Jesmond gave a really great talk, illustrated with interesting case studies, which took me back to when I was studying HCI with the Open University. This session certainly prompted a lot of thought about what I do and why, and I want to rise to the challenge of making more use of task modelling, not least because I can see how useful this can be when working with developers in developing user stories and prioritising activity.

Changing the remit – Kate Tarling

Kate shared her experiences with GDS, looking for patterns in services so that new conventions might be set around how services work. I found this really inspiring; I think most people are familiar with the idea of design patterns for interfaces but design patterns for services? If this comes to fruition it could be be truly transformative. Her closing summary slide did a great job of expressing why organisations need service design.

Honourable mentions also to Jess Cameron for her session on statistics in UX, and Steve Denning for his session on UX governance; both of which had loads of great material I’ll be returning to. Also Sophie Dennis whose session on UX strategy will probably have been the best thing of the whole conference but I skipped it as I’ve seen her deliver this before.

Something to put into practice after the conference?

I really want to dig into Jess Cameron’s statistics slides again and make better use of Excel to do the heavy lifting for me (I studied stats in less technologically advanced times). I’ll definitely be making use of Chris How’s interview skills materials as it’s an area in our own UX training I’d like to improve. And Steve Denning’s governance materials plus Sophie Dennis’ strategy resources are going to be really useful in the coming year as our in-house services continue to mature.

Gavin Anderson

Gavin is a senior member of the Helpline team, and a regular collaborator with the Website Programme around the ongoing improvement of student IT support experiences.

Gavin’s staff profile on the University website

Read blog posts about the ongoing collaboration between Helpline and the University Website Programme

Why I attended UX Scotland

I attended the conference to get a feel for UX techniques in the wider community, and to garner ideas on how to kick-start a number of areas of University content and practices that I feel are stagnating and not being as effective as they could be.

My top three sessions

UX Heresy – When simple won’t do

This very-well-presented talk from Rick Monro (@monro) emphasised the need to tailor content for your target audience. Not all content needs to be simple to ensure engagement.

Frequently, users of complex systems far prefer being presented with content that matches that complexity. Additionally, one does not need to be au fait with the content matter itself in order to be able to test its effectiveness, providing the tests applied are as pertinent as possible for those making use of the content.

Recommended reading: ‘Living With Complexity’ by Donald Norman and ‘The Laws of Simplicity’ by John Maeda

User-centred content

This hands-on session from Mike Dunn (@mikedunn) and Helen Triggs (@triggshelen) elaborated upon the regular practice of using multiple different personae to identify where a specific set of content shows weaknesses in its effectiveness.

Using Lego to introduce a simple physical element to the discussion in the form of the weighting of importance of particular factors, it focused on a fictional travel agency website and examined how different aspects of a site’s content can make or break whether a specific type of user will interact with it and thereby ensure (or prevent) the site’s ultimate success.

Takeaways: The inclusion of extra hands-on materials, as opposed to keeping the session more conceptual, really engaged the attendees. It also highlighted, however, the difficulty of creating content that will both appeal to and be effective for all types of audiences, something which is particularly important here at the University. Again, it reiterated that there comes a point when you can’t expect for your content to be all things to all people, and that you should do your best to make it as effective as possible for what you believe your core audience is.

Designing services using DesOps in the Industrial Revolution 4.0

The keynote speech for the Wednesday of UX Scotland 2018 by Peter Fossick (@Peter_Fossick) examined the increasingly-dominant role of agility and collaboration in UX practices in the Industrial Revolution 4.0, which has brought about the emergence of design operations (DesOps), a way of systemising design practices and using a new and distinct set of approaches and activities to work alongside and dovetail with DevOps (development operations) and BizOps (business operations).

Takeaways: I was very pleased to see how the UX tenets used in the major, multi-billion-dollar projects described in this talk are the same that we already employ in continuous improvement work in which we are already engaging in the IS Helpline and University Website Programme, namely:

  • People-centric
  • Collaborative
  • Data-Informed
  • Agile
  • Iterative
  • Operationalised

It also very much emphasised the need for these tenets to be put in place both at the very beginning of the planning stages of any new work, but also continuously harked back to at regular points throughout to ensure their adherence. The importance of including ALL stakeholders: the end-users of a service, the service owners and management, and everyone in between, is paramount to success.

What I’ll put into practice and learn more about

  • Engage service owners more actively and make them an integral part of the iterative process of continuous improvement.
  • Focus on simplicity where it is required, and complexity in its appropriate place.
  • Use takeaways from this conference to help inform and elaborate the IS Helpline’s own continuous service improvement evidence gather and process development that we undertake each year.
  • Read up on ‘Living With Complexity’ and ‘The Laws of Simplicity’, as well as Industry 4.0.

Marissa Wu

Marissa is the Web Interfaces Team Manager, with responsibility for the service management of the University’s staff and student portal MyEd.

Marissa Wu’s staff profile

Why I attended UX Scotland

In our team we manage three different web services for the University. The main part of my role involves product and service management for MyEd, the University’s web portal. Although my role isn’t specifically focused on user experience, it requires me to work closely with the UX team and have a good understanding of the techniques. My goal for attending UX Scotland was to brush up my skills in UX and learn about new ideas that we could apply in our work.

My top three sessions

The UX of management 

A lot of the time we consider leadership as an innate skill, rather than something that can be learned. This talk from Adrian Howard (@adrianh) looked at how we can use UX techniques in line management.

The focus was more for people who are just moving in to their first management role, but even with a couple of years’ experience under my belt I found a lot to interest me. Some examples Adrian covered included:

  • Using active listening and asking good questions in 1:1s
  • Crafting personas for job descriptions
  • Asking for stories in interviews
  • Using service design and workflows to plan career paths

This was a great talk as there were loads of takeaways that I felt I could use immediately. Although I was familiar with all of the techniques Adrian described, I had never really thought about applying them in a management setting. It was a good mixture of practical tips and thoughtful advice which challenged the way I looked at some of these tasks.

The lost art of task modelling

Although task modelling was once a common practice, it’s become less popular over the years. Jesmond Allen (@jesmond) showed some interesting case studies about how she has been using task models as a way of developing design strategies and getting better user engagement.

I found this quite interesting, as Jesmond focused on how task models can be translated into practical design decisions simply by gaining a better understanding of how users think.

For example, one case study she shared was for a specialty men’s shirt company. The steps that users took to think about and purchase shirts in the task model could be directly mapped onto a page hierarchy/user journey for the website.

Personally, I’ve not used task modelling much in my work. Jesmond’s talk inspired me to revisit this tool as I could see how we could be using it in a lot of our projects.

Let’s talk about strategy: what it is, why it matters and how to do it well

Having a strategy is important to an organisation, but I’ve always found that it can be quite difficult to understand how strategies can be applied in day-to-day tasks. How do you know whether you are following the strategy? What does that even mean?

This workshop from Sophie Dennis (@sophiedennis) gets into the nitty gritty of how to develop a well-articulated, useful strategic plan.

Good strategy, she says, should help us make decisions, give us purpose, help us to take control, and make us more agile.

In the first part of the workshop, Sophie went over some tests that we can use to identify bad strategy. For example, the “Yeah, right!” test (used for strategies which focus on lofty, unachievable goals).

In the second part, we deconstructed John F. Kennedy’s speech for landing a man on the moon and looked at what made it a good strategic plan. This talk included a lot of practical tools for developing a strategy, as well as useful examples and exercises.

I enjoyed it so much I also attended her second talk on day 3 (A new IA for

What I’ll put into practice

I plan to put ideas into practice from all the talks that I attended:

  • Trying out some UX techniques in my line management
  • Using a task model to map out a user task
  • Writing a better strategy for MyEd

Duncan Stephen

Duncan Stephen is an Editorial Development Officer in the Website and Communications team, specialising in digital content strategy, user research and design.

Duncan Stephen’s staff profile

Why I attended UX Scotland

I was excited to be able to attend UX Scotland this year for the first time. For me, this was an excellent opportunity to learn more deeply about user experience, an area I am keenly interested to develop my skills in. But as with most conferences, it was also a great chance to catch up with familiar faces, and make new connections. The opportunity to learn from leading UX professionals at an event right here in Edinburgh is too valuable to ignore.

My top three sessions

Asking better questions

One of the most entertaining sessions was from Clearleft’s Chris How, who taught delegates how to ask the right sort of questions in a user research interview. This was of interest to me as interviewing has been a core technique I have been developing over the past year.

Chris’s tips were very clear and sensible. I will definitely study them and use those tips to help develop my interviewing skills.

Once he had introduced the concepts, we started playing “bad question bingo” with genuine clips from a BBC radio programme broadcast just a few days earlier. An entertaining, practical way to brush up on interviewing best practice.

Let’s talk about strategy: what it is, why it matters and how to do it well

This session from Sophie Dennis helped demystify strategy. This is another key area I have been seeking to learn more about during my work over the past year. This session delivered in spades.

Sophie’s talk contained clear and concrete advice that immediately made sense, while also being new information. She mixed this with interactive elements, which kept participants engaged and enabled us to immediately apply the concepts we were learning about.

This included an exercise that involved studying the speech from John F Kennedy in which he outlined his plan to land a man on the moon. Sophie introduced us to the foundations of what makes a good strategy. Then she asked us to identify what made the “moon shot” a good strategy — even though you might expect it to fail what she calls the “yeah, right” test.

Without a doubt, this session was my highlight of UX Scotland. There is plenty of further reading and research I am going to do as a direct result.


By far the most important session of the conference was Cennydd Bowles’s provocative talk on post-UX. He explained how UX needs to evolve to stay relevant.

As UX practitioners, we won’t be able to rely on some of the templates we rely on now. For example, in the age of artificial intelligence things are going to get messy. We won’t fully understand why systems behave the way they do.

Cennydd Bowles called on us to design tomorrow, not just tomorrow’s products. He argued that UX and design have claimed political neutrality for too long. That is now breaking down.

I was particularly interested in his point that user-centred design prioritises the individual over the community. This is something I have been thinking about myself recently. Very quickly we become focused on individual behaviours, and we end up optimising accordingly. But we don’t have well-established techniques for assessing how our decisions impact society as a whole.

What I’ll put into practice

  1. Investigate task modelling.
    I haven’t included Jesmond Allen’s task modelling session in my top three above, but it was a very close-run thing. Task modelling seems to have been around for a while, but this was the first time I had heard of the technique. Jesmond’s session certainly helped me understand how this could be a useful method to apply, so I will seek to try it out in an upcoming project.
  2. Understand how to create a good strategy.
    I found Sophie Dennis’s session on strategy highly pertinent. She provided lots of references and a handout of further reading, so I will definitely read more on the topic.
  3. Ask better interview questions.
    Chris How’s tips on how to get more out of user research interviews looked very useful. I intend to use these tips and improve my interviewing technique.

Sonia Virdi

Sonia Virdi is the Graphic Design Manager. She heads up the Graphic Design Service, which undertakes design for print, website design and corporate identity work.

Why I attended UX Scotland

Research has always formed a part of the design process, visual or otherwise. Within the creative industries, this process can feel intuitive and unconscious. However over the last few years I have been consciously bringing this approach to all aspects of the “design” work I do, whether that be within IT or visual projects. Placing more emphasis on the research, discovery and design phase has helped me to think about projects more holistically – placing the user at the centre of what we do.

I attended day 3, Friday of UX Scotland, and found it a great event, meeting some very interesting people across the field. All the speakers were very open and willing to share their views. Indeed one of the speakers, Rachel Liu, came and sat next to me on the lunchbreak and we talked co-creation over some very nice wee burgers.

My top three sessions

Changing the Remit

This was a deeply fascinating talk from Kate Tarling (@kateldn).

Kate focused on how Service Design can improve organisations and gave some excellent examples and approaches that can be used to manage and design good services today. I felt that her talk resonated with me and the challenges that Information Services face to make our services clear to users (through things like the service catalogue) but also consistently delivered from end to end across divisions. One of the biggest challenges we face with our services is working in silos. This inhibits teams and ultimately creates disappointment and confusion to users. These were challenges that were highlighted within the branding workshops that I ran last year and I feel that there were many useful examples that Kate highlighted that I can take and use for this project.

I particularly liked her thought on what constitutes good service design such as:

  1. Enable a user to complete the outcome they set out to do
  2. Be easy to find
  3. Set the expectations a user has of it
  4. Encourage the right behaviour from users and staff

In summary she concluded:

  • Help organisations know what their services are and what they’re meant to achieve
  • Know if their services are any good
  • Know how to improve them and how to prioritise
  • Encourage organisationss to restructure around services
  • Create tools to help everyone design better services
  • Make better services through better service organisations

It is a challenge to get design valued in organisations, but my leaving thought was: If we could focus a little more on the above and a little less on sub brands we may get somewhere.

Backpack, our journey in creating a design system

Design systems are becoming very popular within the design and engineering communities right now. However, James Ferguson, Senior Design Manager at Skyscanner, showed that creating a design system is no easy task.

James explained the structure in which Skyscanner employees work: “we work under teams that are called Squads, which are grouped under Tribes”.

Each Tribe has complete autonomy over the way they do things, and therefore the way something looks, is built and delivered. This was something that I found familiar within our organisation.

The problem with this is that it leads to inconsistency as you move across the Skyscanner digital environments with elements such as search buttons being displayed and built differently from one part of the site to the other. Ultimately, this inhibits and is distracting to the users experience.

Therefore, one the ways to address this has been to create a design system. This is similar to the design system we are creating with EdGel. Therefore I found James’s experiences really insightful.

It was useful to see how James addressed the challenge of creating consistent colour schemes, fonts styles and buttons and produced a resource others across the organistion could adopt. By embedding designers within Tribes helped in showing teams how design systems can be used within projects.

One of the biggest challenges he mentioned with design systems is to get them adopted right across organisations and he feels that it is something that he is having to constantly highlight so that there is not a return to the old ways of doing things. This may help in the quest to get adoption of the EdGel system.

UX and the spaces in between

Before I got to this talk I knew this would be interesting just from looking at the title. As a designer you are always looking for the spaces in between as this is often where you find the most interesting ideas or innovative solutions. Indeed, this is what Kevin Richardson sought to highlight through his humorous, witty talk. Kevin pondered the idea that boundaries are areas where ecologies are in tension and saw a parallel between this and the work of the UX professional in identifying, understanding and resolving areas of tension.

He provided insight through a project that he had worked on where he was asked to improve the users’ experience of a hugely complicated piece of scientific software. He wanted to show that solutions may be resolved enough for a client by improving the usability or by addressing the design – but real innovation happens when you go beyond just providing what the client wants or thinks is expected. This is the “space” where he believes real innovation happens – the process of uncovering, coordinating and creating innovative and useful solutions that go beyond what users and able to describe or request.

This is something that I can see as being really important in the work I am doing on the User Centred Portal. As we start on the gap analysis we are starting to try and unearth the spaces in between – the areas of tension and how best these can be resolved.

Kevin believes this can be achieved by operating 3 levels of expertise:

  • The first is a set of tactical skills focused specially around the interface itself
  • The second is to expand the focus to include the user – the skills required to include both the tactical and the strategic
  • The third is to look beyond the specific user-application interactions. The focus is to explore the areas of business tension that exist at almost every user-system-process environment confluence.

Kevin made an interesting point about giving users the ability to customise systems themselves. He made a point that this was one of the worst ways to meet users’ needs by essentially not addressing their needs at all – just giving them everything and creating more confusion.

What I’ll put into practice and learn more about

I plan to put ideas into practice from all the talks that I attended. This will especially be useful within three projects I am working on.

For the brand project I will take Kate Tarling’s talk on Service Design as this also feeds into bringing change within an organisation and enabling everyone to pull in the same direction. For a brand to work successfully this is essential.

As I start learning more about EdGel, I will think about some of the challenges James from Skyscanner had in developing a design system and getting adoption across the organisation and beyond.

Finally, for the MyEd project, I will use the points made by Kevin Richardson in trying to find the areas of tension and addressing these to bring forward innovation.

More posts about UX Scotland

We’ve been attending and writing about the UX Scotland for a number of years now. If you’re in higher education, and especially at the University of Edinburgh, interested in user experience and making better services I’d encourage you to join us.

Previous posts about UX Scotland

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