Dear UKUPA, pls UXify yourself.

Seeking feedback on how to get more members to vote in #ukupaelections - 300+ members and only ~30 voted so far.
There are 8 ukupa committee members, 11 ppl standing for election, 281 other ukupa members, only 30 in total have voted have voted? That's crazy!

Having been a relatively vocal critic of the UK-UPA and some of their current activities, I would hate for it to be said that all I do is snipe from the sidelines. I do have some suggestions as to how the UPA can address this issue, but it will take significantly more than 140 characters.

I think that focussing on the lack of members voting in these committee elections might be totally missing the point. Here is a classis situation where we’re focussing on tactical problems when, actually the issue is strategic.

What does the UKUPA do? A quick scan of their current website tells you this

UKUPA brings together UK professionals from the design, technology and research communities who share a vision of creating compelling technology that meets users’ needs and abilities.’

UKUPA website

Blah blah blah – what on earth does that actually mean? According to the predominant content on their current website it seems to mean they do job listings. And very little design.

But wait – the UKUPA are in the process of (very slowly) launching a new website. Perhaps it will give us more information about what they do?

Why, yes it does – it tells us that they have a committee, and they vote.

And, yes they certainly do vote. A lot.

UKUPA 'Beta' website

A quick scan of the discussion on twitter involving UKUPA will show you that pretty much all they’ve been talking about for the past few months is voting for committee positions.

Now, clearly *some* people are interested in the committee and who is on it but I think the (surprisingly small) membership may be sending a big message – shut up about your committee already. For every one person that’s on the committee there are dozens who are not. Making such a big deal of your committee is not really a particularly inclusive strategy. It certainly doesn’t make me feel warm and fuzzy about the UPA. It makes me feel like Not A Committee Member.

The very fact that it *has* a committee, to my mind at least, makes the UKUPA seem dated – many of the great things happening on the UX scene at the moment are grass roots initiatives that are so busy getting stuff done that the idea of a committee is ludicrous. Let alone a committee of 8 people!

That, combined with the fact that the name of the organisation centres on the term ‘usability’ I think is indicative of the problem you’re facing – relevance. What are you offering the UX profession that is worth handing over a membership fee? Do you really need a committee? If so, what are they actually doing?

You may well have good answers to all of these questions but these are not being well communicated. Spend time answering these questions and less time dreaming up prizes to coerce people to vote for a committee they probably don’t really want.

As I write this I am conscious of four things:

  1. the committee is very much a part of the UPA’s culture
  2. The UK UPA is part of a global UPA machine
  3. the UK UPA does provide valuable services to the UX community in the UK – in particular, the events they run each month are generally very relevant and well attended and provide a great service to the community.
  4. the UK UPA currently has 300+ members.

If we were running the UKUPA, what could we do with this information?

Here’s what I’d be doing.

Firstly, look at your member data, talk to your members. Find out from people:

  • how long have they been members? Are lots of new people joining up or are most people long term members?
  • why are people joining? are they looking to validate themselves in the profession by showing they are ‘members of the Usability Professionals Association’ or do they want discounts at events?
  • why are people not leaving? Can they not be bothered cancelling the standing order or do they feel that they are getting value from their membership? if so, what do they value?
  • why are people leaving? what are you not delivering that they want?
  • what do the members think the UPA could be doing better? What do they want the UPA to do for them?

Do NOT do this in a survey.

Secondly, look at your value proposition, branding and positioning

  • find out what image the UK UPA is projecting and ask whether it’s the right one. Talk to people who aren’t in the UPA, let them be critical (stop being so defensive)
  • think seriously about changing your name. ‘Usability’ isn’t helping you now and it’s not going to get any better as time goes on. (Yes, of course I know you’re part of the global UPA – that’s a whole other issue)
  • think about what value you’re providing to the UX profession and communicate that clearly. Talk much more about that on your website/twitter etc. and much less about the committee
  • re-think the whole committee thing – why do you have so many committee positions? really – why? who is it really serving?
  • spend less time organising elections and more time organising mentoring (not that I want to pre-suppose what you might find out when you’re doing your customer research)

Finally, deliver content and communications that match with an updated value proposition and update the website design so that it communicates those values effectively- both in content and quality of design.

As a general rule, the events that the UKUPA runs are excellent examples of content that is desired by the UX profession – that’s why the people vote with their feet and attend these events. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels the disconnect between the success and relevance of these events and the rest of the UK UPA machine?

As friends and colleagues of mine have put themselves up for committee positions in the UPA I’ve been tempted to become a member and support them with a vote but every time I consider it, I opt out.

From where I’m sitting, there’s no value to me professionally to align myself with an organisation that feels generally out of touch with the UX profession as a whole.

As a fellow event organiser, I know that UXers are crying out for more opportunities to come together and learn from each other – there are UX events every other week and every event seems to go to a waiting list – the need is there and the community is there.

I hope the UPA is willing to firstly admit there’s a problem and then be brave enough to UXify themselves. Then perhaps we ‘ll all become proud and active members. And then, when appropriate, respond to your calls to vote.

Until then, I’m out.

Designing for the wrong target audience (or why Drupal should be a developer tool and not a consumer product)

As you may know, I spent a few months this year working with Mark Boulton and the Drupal community to try to make Drupal 7 (their upcoming release) a Great User Experience. I’ve spent the past weeks reflecting on that experience and trying to understand what we learned from that project and with any luck this will be the first of several reflective posts.

It is all to easy to make excuses for why designing in an open source community can be tough. Certainly there are lots of communication challenges and we don’t necessarily have the right tools. Some people focus on the relationship between designers (minority) and developers (majority) in these communities – I think to do so is to focus on a symptom  of the problem and not the cause.

We faced many challenges with the D7UX project, but the greatest of all was to convince the community that the changes we were suggesting were actually going to result in an improvement to their project. There are many who steadfastly resisted our approach and who continue to do so.

It would be very easy to take this personally and to argue about the details of the way the design works (and I most definitely include Information Architecture when I say design). This would also be a fairly typical Drupal thing to do. Actually, I think almost all the issues stem from a much more fundamental place – defining the real purpose of Drupal and it’s real primary target audience.

From the very outset our goal with D7UX was to make Drupal more accessible to people outside of the Drupal community and less technical people – people who didn’t even know what PHP was let alone how to code it. Verity and Jeremy who emerged as part of this definition embody the target audience that the design work that Mark and I were doing in this project. This approach is representative of the goal to make Drupal more of a ‘product’ – an out of the box CMS solution that non-technical users can drive. This is key to the goal to increase the reach of Drupal, as Dries outlined in his keynote at the recent Drupalcon.

There is one big problem with this approach, particularly if it touches the very core of Drupal. The changes that are required to the interface to really achieve the goal that we were tasked with – to really make Drupal understandable to Verity & Jeremy has the consequence of making Drupal a less efficient and enjoyable place for Drupal developers to build cool stuff.

Drupal developers (and some designers!) who want to build cool things with Drupal are the core of the Drupal community. They are the people who make Drupal the incredibly vibrant community that it is. Without these people, Drupal becomes a shadow of it’s current self. These people are more than an important audience, they are the most important audience. What this audience wants is not Drupal as a product that Verity & Jeremy can use out of the box, they want a developer toolkit that gives them more and more flexibility and capability to build cool stuff, and to push Drupal way beyond the realms of a simple Content Management System.

And so we have this tension. Drupal as a ‘Consumer Product’ and Drupal as a ‘Developer Framework’. Currently, the official direction is that the project is going to attempt to be both. I think this is a serious problem.

The target audiences for each of these objectives are so far removed from each other in terms of their tasks & goals, their capabilities, their vocabulary, their priorities. An attempt to devise an interface to suit both will result in an outcome that I expect we’ll see in the release of Drupal 7 – that is a compromise to both parties. Verity is still going to need a lot of support to get anything done in Drupal 7. If Drupal 7 had been designed primarily as  developer tool, it would be a much more focussed and efficient tool for developers. As it is now, it is hopefully an improvement on Drupal 6, but certainly not the best that it could be for developers.

For Drupal to really succeed, a decision has to be made, and I think there is only one decision that can be made. Drupal 8 should be designed with developers as the primary target audience and the language, tools, interface should be designed to support them in their goals of building really amazing stuff using Drupal.

That doesn’t mean that there is not still a lot of work for the User Experience people in the Drupal community to do – there is still an enormous learning curve even for those new to Drupal who have great PHP and other technical skills. It’s going to be much easier to address that learning curve with a more finely targeted audience in mind – or more importantly, with the right target audience in mind.

So what of Verity & Jeremy? How will they ever come to know and love Drupal?

There are a number of ways that we can address the experience of non-technical users of Drupal and to ‘productise’ Drupal as a content management system. The most obvious is to design and develop an admin theme that is specifically targeted at these end users that can be applied by developers once the development work is done and the site is being handed over for administration.

I’m not sure where the incentive to design and develop this theme comes from (given that it doesn’t exist today it strikes me that there is a problem here incentive-wise).

There are also opportunities to be explored with installation profiles (see above though re: the fact that they don’t really exist now and no one seems motivated to work on them, where is the incentive?).

And, of course, we have the emergence of tools such as Buzzr from Lullabot and Gardens from Acquia, perhaps also products like Open Atrium from Development Seed can included in this list.

A tough decision but a necessary one

I know that for many people the idea of making a Drupal that Verity can love, making something that can actively compete from a UX perspective with the likes of WordPress, is a grand aspiration. So it is, but unfortunately I also think it is the wrong aspiration for Drupal core.

The sooner we focus on the core target audience of Drupal core – the developers – and commit to making a user experience that supports them in their use of Drupal, the sooner we’ll really have actually achieved a really Great User Experience for Drupal.

If that is really our goal, then let’s get focussed, let’s re-write the design strategy and principles, and let’s take the work we’ve done already and refocus it more tightly on the community we know and love. Focussing on the strength of Drupal and then looking for new and innovative ways to create and motivate the Drupal community to do a better job of looking after our Verity’s and our Jeremy’s.

10 Social Skills for Community Designers (things we learned from the project)

It was pretty obvious from the outset that we’d need some design and UX skills to get us from one end of the redesign project to the other. It was less obvious how important our ‘social’ skills would be – and unsurprisingly, we learned a lot about good and bad ways to share the design process with a community along the way.

Here’s a few ‘social skills’ we learned:

  1. you need to take responsibility for the way that your community behaves: it’s not in any way productive to associate the way that a community is responding to you by blaming the community or even the individuals in it. If you respond that way you’ll never be able to improve the situation. As with every relationship, the only person you can change is yourself. If you’re getting a bad vibe back, the first thing you should do is check your tone and content – what are you saying? how are you saying it? can YOU improve the way you’re communicating. The onus is on YOU to get it right.
  2. tokenistic involvement is a waste of time: if you don’t really care what the community has to say on a subject, don’t ask them. If you do want their input, take the time to design a way for them to interact with you in a way that gets the best from them. Be creative, put a bit of thought into it. Avoid polls and and use surveys with care – you might feel as though you’re involving the community because you have ‘numbers’, but do you have real involvement. Ask yourself what the community knows that you can benefit from, then consider the best way to help them share that knowledge and experience with you.
  3. ask for specific feedback: if you want to get good feedback from your community, tell them what you want feedback on. We *didn’t* do this much during the redesign – instead I was trying to keep it ‘neutral’ and not influence what and how people gave us feedback – we learned that by asking for specific direction we not only got excellent feedback on the issues we highlighted, but others as well. Without direction the discussion tended to be less helpful and was more likely to get personal (not in a good way!) This will also help you to get feedback on more than just the homepage.
  4. give examples: if you want a particular kind of response from the community, it is important to provide an example for them to follow and really great instructions to participate. For example, when we were doing the ‘crowdsourced wireframing’ I included a picture of one of my not very elegant wireframes so that people had a sense that their submissions didn’t have to look ‘designed’. If there are instructions to participate, make sure these are as clear as possible. Then make them even clearer.
  5. wait… wait… wait… engage! once you post something for feedback, go away and make a snack and do NOT get involved in the conversation immediately. This is probably the most difficult rule to follow and one that Mark and I had to coach each other on (and occasionally police! – step away from the computer!) throughout the project. If you dive in and start responding to the first few comments, what you unintentially do is skew and retard the conversation. Rather than exploring a broad range of issues and allowing key points to gradually evolve, the discussion focusses on whichever points you have responded to, everyone starts to focus on those few issues. The richness of the feedback is lost because you dive into detail too quickly. Rather, wait until at least a half dozen people have posted (or 12hrs has elapsed, whichever is soonest) and see what the trends are in the feedback, then start getting more involved in the conversation.
  6. admit errors quickly: the only exception to the rule above is if you’ve stuffed up. In this circumstance you should admit the mistake quickly so that the conversation doesn’t focus on your error. In one iteration of our redesign we accidentally omitted a very important call to action (I know… how could we?!) As you can imagine, that oversight dominated the feedback we received and by the time we responded (way too late!) things were getting a little frenzied. We should have been keeping a closer eye on the situation and stepped in as soon as we realised our mistake.
  7. don’t go dark, but don’t respond to everything: there is a balance in the correct volume of response that you need to aim for. It is really important that you don’t disappear (even if you get really busy) – the community needs to know that you are there and that you are listening. On the other hand, don’t feel as though you need to respond to every comment that is posted – unless you are only getting a handful of responses. As a rule, aim to respond to trends and issues not individual comments. Feel free to occasionally respond with a simple ‘I’m here and listening, I don’t have the answer yet’.
  8. lead by example: it’s an oldy but a goody – interact with the community in the way that you would like them to interact with you. Be polite and respectful. Others rudeness or bad behaviour is no excuse for you to let loose. It’s up to you to set and maintain the standard of communication you want the community to engage in.
  9. assume good faith: it’s a general rule of interacting with others online, but keep it at front of mind especially when you’re putting your own work out there for review and, therefore, more likely to feel a little defensive. Text is a tricky medium for communication – people might sound like they’re being mean or overly critical or agressive when they’re just not great at communicating (or you’re feeling defensive and read everything as an attack!), or being a little lazy with their words, or created unintentional meaning. Always assume that people are trying to be friendly and constructive and helpful if there is any room for doubt at all. In fact, even when it is evident that they *are* being a little mean, it is often useful to deploy this rule – play dumb and be extra nice. Don’t waste time fighting or being a smart ass, or just being mean, or engaging with others who are. Focus on the task at hand – doing good design.
  10. be a human: I think this is the absolute most important thing – don’t assume a Voice of God, don’t pretend to be infallible or to know everything. Don’t feel as though you have to use very big words all the time. Swear occasionally (if your community is ok with that). Admit that you are nervous (or outright terrified, if that’s the case). All of this is allowed and encouraged. Communities are made up of people, of human beings and you are but one of them. Use your real voice and speak honestly. Be open.

design is no place for democracy (things we learned from the project)

Continuing in the series of ‘Things we learned from the project‘, this post actually starts off in the comments of the last post (design by committee vs design by community) where Keith picked me up on the statement that design should never be democratic and asked ‘Could it be? Or at least closer? And how to do that?’

Ah, democracy. It is a beautiful theory, but only – as with so many things – when applied correctly. Democracy may be great for deciding on a government, it may be great for Pop Idol (hrm..?) there may be other places it is great and noble… but design just isn’t one of those places.

When designing with a community what you should be aiming for is participation not democracy. Make your design process as open as possible, but don’t be fooled into thinking that because people ‘voted’ for a particular design, that is is the best decision, or even a good one. It’s probably not.

There are two key reasons that I believe this to be true:

  1. Good user experience is hard to evaluate when not in use – when you give people a screengrab or even a prototype to evaluate, people will tend look at things from a visual design perspective (highly subjective), and often a ‘heuristic’ perspective (usability conventions, best practice, what ‘users’ do and like etc.).These perspectives are valid and interesting, up to a point – but they come nowhere near being as valuable as the observation of a designer, or actually observing someone performing tasks that they would do every day using your design and seeing how it works for them. I’d give that trumps over popular opinion any day.By putting a design out there and asking people for their feedback, you are actually giving them a really difficult task. It’s hard enough for those of us who do it professionally (and there’s plenty of research to show that our opinions can vary wildly) – it’s not really fair to expect your community to be able to make a good decision about whether or not a design will work well based on just taking a look or clicking through a prototype.
  2. Your community are domain experts, not design experts – the best thing your community can do for you is tell you what you need to know in order to design well for them. Most of the time, they are not designers. They don’t have design training. Why are we asking them to do design work?If I could find my copy of Bill Buxton’s Sketching User Experience (which I have conveniently misplaced on the day of London UX Bookclub, d’oh!) I’d find the part in it where he talks about how ‘reading’ design, interpreting sketches, is actually as much of a design skill as doing the design in the first place – it’s just one we don’t talk about and don’t place any value on. Part of the reason designers often snort at the feedback given to them by clients (or community members) is because of a lack of design literacy in their feedback. Well, of course. They’re not designers.

Your mission when designing with community is to facilitate the community to make good design decisions by working with the information and insight they provide to give them good design and help them understand the design strategy and how and why it works.

Giving the community a true and meaningful voice in the design process is so much more empowering and respectful of them than letting them vote for which design they like the best. Letting a community choose a design by popular vote is, in my opinion, relinquishing your responsibilities as designer.