Any views expressed within media held on this service are those of the contributors, should not be taken as approved or endorsed by the University, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University in respect of any particular issue.

My UX Scotland conference presentation: Change through education

Last month, I presented a session at the annual UX Scotland conference. It was a great honour to appear on the same programme as people with a world-wide reputation in the field such as Jared Spool and Dana Chisnell. In this post, I’ve included my slides and a transcript of what I said.

In this session, I was looking to reflect on my experiences of promoting user experience (UX) in an organisation (and indeed in a sector) that hasn’t perhaps in the past valued or prioritised the discipline in quite the way others do. I wanted to provide some insight into the challenges of higher education, as it’s not an area commonly talked about in UX circles. Finally, I wanted to share some opinions and experiences that come from the perspective of a background in training and education, which is not so typical among UX specialists.

Profile of my talk “Change through education” on the UX Scotland 2017 website

Slides for “Change through education”

UXscot17 – Change through education from Neil Allison

Transcript for “Change through education”

Hello. Thanks for joining me here today.

I’m going to talk about my experiences in developing a user-centred culture in the organisations I’ve worked in. And a bit about user experience (UX) maturity.

Who I am and what I’ve done in the past is a big influence on my approach. I’ve not come through a typical route to a role in UX. I’ve never been a visual designer or a developer. Qualifications came after a long time as a practitioner.

Early in my career I was a teacher. And from this starting point, I’ve had a range of roles: I moved into higher education student recruitment, then to web marketing, then to CMS support management and eventually formally into user experience.

Good education professionals are UXers

So, a gradual evolution of my career. But I’d say education and user experience are common threads throughout.

I think user experience design comes naturally to anyone who cares about the education of others.

I was designing user experiences and doing usability testing before I knew what any of it was. And observation of interaction is an integral part of your appraisal as a trainee teacher.

So when I encountered such things later in my career with websites and software none of it was revelatory; just the instinctive thing to do.

Of course teachers have a range of metrics to appraise their effectiveness and the UX their manage.

So having never been a developer or a visual designer, I’m more interested in people and process.

And I firmly believe in engagement, education and empowerment.

I’ve worked in a number of public sector organisations at home and abroad over the years, and for the last 10 with the University of Edinburgh.

About the University of Edinburgh

Founded in 1583, we have almost 38000 students, roughly a third Scottish, a third rest of UK and EU, and a third from the rest of the world.

About an eighth are research students, the rest taught at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

We currently have annual income of over £900m, but actually only 28% comes from tuition fees. So while educating students is an important part of what the University does, actually its reputation and activity around research is more important in terms of money coming in.

This poses interesting challenges in terms of service provision to what most people think of as our main target audience.

You may think of the University as a single entity, but actually it’s more like a group of businesses operating under a franchise.

And within each academic business unit, sub-units exist. For example:

  • The School of Physics with its connections to CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) and the Higgs Boson,
  • Divinity which is also the seat of the Church of Scotland,
  • The Vet School, including the Roslin Institute where Dolly the Sheep was created

The value of the business is in the activities of incredibly talented individuals. Their research and their publications ultimately set the status of the research profile of the organisation. And this in turn attracts investment, and collaboration with other researchers, and research students.

If you think about why a research group of international standing exists, it’s down to a person or a small collection of people. If they’re attracted to another university, the projects they’re working on, the collaborations and networks, often the PhD students they supervise are at risk of moving on too.

So in many ways the power is in the base of the organisation. It’s the activity of our research community that establishes the status of the organisation on a worldwide stage – and it’s a strong reputation.

What does this mean in the context of user experience management? It means it’s challenging. There’s no mandate like say, in national government. An organisation that’s been doing very well for centuries really is a good candidate for the metaphor of turning the tanker ship.


  • Some areas of the organisation are more motivated to enhance user experiences than others
  • There can be a perception that overcoming the complexity of the organisation proves you’re worthy of admission – ‘You’re bright, you’ll cope’
  • We’re a siloed organisation that the student must traverse to achieve their goals
  • In terms of UX, we’re only beginning to address a lack of time, specialism and drive to effect real change.

But having said this, at a grassroots level, there can be a tremendous desire to do things better, to do things faster, to demonstrate value.

So, could we be the next Blockbuster Video? The next Kodak? A giant in their sector disrupted by new entrants empowered by digital innovations?

Possibly. And there’s a lesson here that we can learn from how big players in faster moving fields have fallen. Higher education tends to move more slowly than other sectors, but this is giving us an opportunity to scan the horizon a little more and hopefully not get caught in the way others have.


UX in higher education

Only 3 years ago I was presenting at a higher education web and digital professionals conference – “What’s with UX in HE?”
At that time I was saying that I was probably the only person in the sector in the UK with UX in their job title.That’s no longer the case. Not by a long way. I couldn’t say how many colleagues in higher education are truly UX professionals with either qualifications or decent experience. So, here we are in 2017, the time for UX in higher education has finally arrived. And I think that Edinburgh is in a strong position in this regard, relative to the other 122 universities and colleges in the UK.

Having said this, UX is still pretty much a mystery to the majority. “We need to do UX” is a new mantra, but how are professionals perceived?

Maybe like Lisa Richest put it while at GDS: “…like tree huggers but for users…”

And this is where education comes in.

Change through education

I’ve spent a fair while telling you my story and about my organisation. Why? Because just like any great UX design, context plays a critical part.

I’ve spent a decent part of my career helping non-specialists build and maintain websites. The University has literally thousands of them. Not a great place to be from a user experience perspective but as I mentioned I work in a highly devolved environment.

Trying to tell people what to do, to convince them to follow guidance even, can be difficult in this culture.

So I set about building a reputation. Of trying to prove that things we were advocating was rooted in evidence.

But I couldn’t do this alone. Not least because I was one person and had CMS-related responsibilities (mainly in training and support) while also trying to raise the profile of user-centred approaches to getting things done.

As Lis Hubert puts it: “Everybody is responsible for the user experience”. And I wholeheartedly agree.

I had to bring people along with me. Ultimately, I believe the user experience is everybody’s responsibility.

How did I set out trying to make UX everybody’s responsibility?

  • By doing stuff
  • By sharing stuff
  • By teaching stuff

The most important thing is to do stuff. Involving colleagues in what you’re doing is vital because seeing is believing.

Writing reports I’ve found got me virtually nowhere. But getting stakeholders playing a part increases investment in user insight and collaboration, and the experience they had lives on beyond the scope of the project being worked on. It takes persistence, calling in favours, bribes and friendly badgering but ultimately once your colleagues have experienced it, they’ll come back for more.

Some won’t of course, and without a mandate there’s not a lot you can do here other than focus on the positive, work with the people who are enthused and don’t bang your head against a wall.

I’ve always liked to share stuff. Read a good article? Seen a great video? Heard a pertinent podcast? I would forward it on to people I’d been working with, or who’d expressed an interest in something I’d talked about, or expressed a problem they were wrestling with.

But how to gauge whether I was having any impact? How could I tempt them in to learn more?

I started blogging, on a personal basis at first, so that I wasn’t accountable to anyone and because I was doing it on my own time, as often as not. My blogs were simple – a note about what I’d read or heard – reminding me why it was worth revisiting and a summary for a colleague to tempt them on to explore fully.

Why bother with this? Two reasons:

  1. I could track engagement, and I found that every month 50-100 unique visitors were from within the University network. Not bad in an organisation of about 8000 staff, around 1500 of whom are involved in IT, marketing and web publishing.
  2. Visitors typically clicked through to the main article, and then stayed to read more; on average they were viewing 3 pages.

I set up a mailing list and invited colleagues to join if they wanted join a virtual UX community. Around 250 have done.

And possibly because of my background in education, I’ve always sought to enthuse and empower others by teaching them to do what I do.

This may be a bit of a narrow view, but I don’t feel you can really excel in user experience research and design, if you aren’t capable of influencing stakeholders in person. Having a compelling narrative and bringing them round to work with (or participate in) the insight you’ve facilitated. You can present findings back, but I find it’s much more engaging to bring them on the journey with you.

My aim has never been to turn colleagues into UX professionals.

I use an analogy to try and get the message home. (It makes sense to my older colleagues at least!) Back in the days before PCs on every desk, before word processing being a core skill, organisations had secretarial staff. We had typing pools. If you needed something printed and distributed, you turned to the specialists to get the job done.

UX is like typing for the 21st century. Sure, there are specialists who can do it more quickly, more accurately, better. But fundamentally everyone can do it on some level, and does do it.

Jakob Nielsen’s article about how usability is much like cooking is also a good one I think.

“Usability is like cooking: everybody needs the results, anybody can do it reasonably well with a bit of training, and yet it takes a master to produce a gourmet outcome.”
Jakob Nielsen

When your organisation is on the lowest rung of UX maturity, you don’t need gourmet. You need as many people as possible making beans on toast. And that’s what I did. Borrowing heavily from Steve Krug, I trained hundreds of colleagues in low-fi usability testing over a number of years.

I involved as many people as possible in the usability testing that I was doing. When working on staff-facing products I’d call on favours from people I’d supported or trained so that they could get insight into what doing and how we were getting “feedback”. And even when not, if the target audience was more difficult to access, as Steve Krug says: “Recruit loosely and grade on a curve”. In an organisation with low UX maturity, this is bang on.

“Recruit loosely and grade on a curve”
Steve Krug

Because this isn’t just about getting insight into user attitude and behaviour relating to a product or service. It’s about exposing people you want to influence to new ways of thinking and doing. You might say that the testing is invalid. But I would counter:

  • What would’ve happened if I hadn’t tested? Would no testing be better than this? Because in an immature organisation, no testing is the more likely scenario.
  • Would these people’ve been asked for an opinion anyway? Instead of being asked what they thought, they were demonstrating what they’d do.
  • Could getting stakeholders to role-play on competitor sites help to shape and change their thinking?

Shared experiences and stakeholder participation

And more importantly than undertaking testing and participating. Taking part in collaborative observation of tests (either live – stressful! – or recorded) is a far more effective and efficient way of taking action on the most pressing usability issues.

It’s well documented why usability issues go unfixed, and how participation increases engagement and empathy.

Find out why usability problems go unfixed – my blog post summarising Jarrett and Krug’s research

I’ve spent a lot of time in the past 5 years doing this – both as part of the UX activity of projects I’ve been involved with and helping other teams get started themselves.

The shared experience of a project team observing a series of usability test videos can be an incredibly positive shared experience. I found this goes way beyond the benefit of the test results. The shared experiences were drawn upon in conversations happening months later. And the patterns in behaviour across multiple sessions opened stakeholders eyes to new ways of thinking about their users and the context in which their product exists (i.e. it’s not the centre of the universe).

But shared involvement, and active participation goes beyond testing stuff in- and post-development. I know that some researchers and designers would baulk at involving stakeholders in this way, but when you think about the aim of educating and moving the culture of an organisation, activities like collaborative sketching and proto-personas are really powerful.

Collaborative consensus is sometimes more important than user engagement. Getting everyone aligned is more important than having true user insight that no one will pay attention to.

You may not be engaging with users directly, but what you are doing is encouraging stakeholders to externalise their preconceptions, their ideas and agendas. Techniques like these are a non-confrontational, non-threatening way to cut across organisational silos and management hierarchies, and democratise prioritisation and assumptions.

It’s these assumptions and preconceptions that can be most damaging to the acceptance of user research. When research findings and recommendations don’t align with a senior stakeholder’s worldview it can be difficult to action evidence-based changes. But if these assumptions are externalised early on, and they’re expressed as hypotheses, I’ve found that I’ve gained a lot more traction for user research.

It’s perhaps surprising that a research-led organisation such as a university should be averse to using research to inform decisions. But I think that’s in part down to human nature. Leaders are there to lead, after all, aren’t they? But my research-led organisation has been receptive to a couple of Jeff Gothelf’s Lean UX tenets: “Requirements are hypotheses” and “Test your riskiest assumptions first”.

“Requirements are hypotheses”
Jeff Gothelf

When an organisation is not very mature when it comes to UX, there’s not a lot of money floating about for it. Every penny needs to be shown to deliver value. And by developing proto-personas and expressing feature requirements as hypotheses to be tested, we formulate research focus collaboratively and focus on things that the business is interested in knowing.

Looking to the future

Right at this moment, the University is looking seriously at its future digital environment. More seriously than probably ever before. I’m contributing to a multi-million pound investment at the University, which seeks to transform their approach to key service areas – student administration, HR, finance and estates.

My task at the moment is to establish a team, processes, tools and standards that can bring user focus to these initiatives and transition to a business-as-usual function over 3 years.

This challenge continues to be cultural as much as anything else. I have some senior sponsorship – I’m being funded after all – but in a devolved and complex organisation much will depend upon influencing the tanker to turn in good time.

And in that regard, I’m not really doing that much differently to what I’ve ever done. Still doing, still sharing, still teaching.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time looking at organisational maturity. I’ve seen some great sessions here at UX Scotland over the years, and really like Tomer Sharon’s work in this area.

Tomer Sharon on a UX research maturity model

But this relatively simple and direct model is one that works well with the people I’m trying to influence. The ones who are beginning to believe that they need to “do UX”.

And this is where I’m heading.

Some tips from my experience

My advice based on experience to date would be:

  • Design inclusive activities that address issues the team and stakeholders encounter. Understand the UX of the team, the stakeholders and the business first. It’s how you come to understand how to leverage greatest impact from your end user insight.
  • Focus on easily repeatable techniques, ones that should be repeated regularly. So stakeholders have opportunities to practice themselves.
  • Take every opportunity you get to evangelise and tell success stories – tune your narrative to the audience.
  • Learn from others. There’s little need to innovate. You’re not the only one with organisational challenges.
  • Access to data – make it easy. Google analytics, top task data, enquiry data, support calls. Having access to data is a good way to help validate research done by non-professionals.
  • Express your work in terms of monetary value. However much the immature organisation says they care about the user, they don’t. They care about things like risk mitigation, cost savings, new opportunities.Where you calculate the impact of your work, you’ll almost certainly have gaps; make assumptions and be open about these. If you explain your thinking as you work out your estimate, once the big end number has grabbed attention and they start working back through your calculations you’ll highlight what the organisation doesn’t know and encourage investment in finding out.

Get in touch

Let me know what you think of these opinions. I’d love to hear from others championing UX within their organisation.

And if you’d like me to present or deliver training in your business, get in touch.

Neil Allison’s profile and contact details

Leave a reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


Report this page

To report inappropriate content on this page, please use the form below. Upon receiving your report, we will be in touch as per the Take Down Policy of the service.

Please note that personal data collected through this form is used and stored for the purposes of processing this report and communication with you.

If you are unable to report a concern about content via this form please contact the Service Owner.

Please enter an email address you wish to be contacted on. Please describe the unacceptable content in sufficient detail to allow us to locate it, and why you consider it to be unacceptable.
By submitting this report, you accept that it is accurate and that fraudulent or nuisance complaints may result in action by the University.