It’s been a hell of a year…

Zoe beams with happiness holding a baby chick
Zoe beams with happiness holding a baby chick
In the running for highlight of the year – meeting a baby chick before Lockdown closed the city.

A lot has happened since I posted my New Year’s resolutions here way back in January. Some things have been really positive – I started working at Collectiv Food not long after that post, and it’s been a really challenging and rewarding time in my life. The world went a little crazy though, and old stories of Ragnarok, Armageddon, the End of Days or the Apocalypse probably caused less anger, fear and confusion than the UK locking down because of COVID…

I feel really fortunate that I have been able to work through it all. I’ve had to adapt to working in a remote team, finding new ways to run workshops, test prototypes, and run agile sprints with our dev team spread around the country, and visible only through the lens on a Zoom call. It’s been challenging, but also hugely rewarding, and I’m so proud of what we are achieving.

One of my long forgotten resolutions was to continue writing here, documenting my journeys in UX, and it’s about time I caught up with that!

2020 Vision

In my last post I focused on looking back at what I have achieved in 2019, both in terms of building my UX Design skills and in my personal development. Looking at this new year, and the new decade, I anticipate many more achievements and changes. 

I’m not usually one for New Year’s resolutions. Much like Valentine’s Day, it feels like saving up the good stuff for once a year as an excuse to forget about it the rest of the time. I prefer to check in on myself and my goals much more regularly. So what are my goals right now as we power through the first winter of the decade? 

  1. Build up my UI design skills by doing at least one design challenge a week
  2. Collaborate with a dev team to see my designs go live
  3. Advocate for the user consistently with my stakeholders
  4. Try out at least 2 new design/ prototyping tools
  5. Attend at least 2 UX meet-ups a month to broaden my design horizons

These feel like 5 achievable goals that I can check back against in the spring and update with my next direction. Now I’ve written them down this should keep me honest in following them through!

24 Days of Christmas

Or the year I became a UX Designer

2019 has been a really significant year of change for me, and to really appreciate how far I’ve come, I set myself the challenge of doing a retrospective in line with advent. Each day from the 1st to the 24th of December I took the opportunity to celebrate the people I’ve had the pleasure of working with, the UX skills I’ve developed and the challenges I’ve overcome.

Day 1: The first day on the Flatiron School London campus with these bright, beautiful, creative people. It was an absolute pleasure going on the journey to become a Designer with you all. Joana Santos, Sharon Sasidharan, Anna Dubov, Aleksandra Walczak, Iryna Rudenko, Josu Iturbe, Shiv Bhatt, Adam Boast, and Dominic Goodman I cannot wait to see the amazing things you will achieve.

Day 2: Going way back to the beginning of 2019, there is not enough I can say about how great it was to be part of True Search‘s first Francophone contingent. Thomas Chorliet, Myriam Vacher, Maëlys Herbère-Mogck, Maitane Serna and Samira Dabbagh l’équipe de rêve! Although I’ve missed you all since jumping ship, it’s great to see you bossing it into the New Year, Bon Courage for 2020!

Day 3: 2019 has been a big year for training and developing for me – I took the leap to retrain and change careers, pursuing a new path in UX Design. Earlier in the year though, I played the role of trainer rather than trainee, and I wanted to take a moment to celebrate the companies that back their people in supporting one another. I think it’s a great practice that at True Search we were given the opportunity to train new members of the team whilst being supported in our own personal and career development through mentorship.

Day 4: Today I’d like to celebrate an amazing colleague I was so lucky to work with this year. Josefin Holmberg is an inspiring person to work with: a mentoring, motivating, galvinising, powerhouse of great humour, deep knowledge and thoughtful advice. In any team, all voices were heard and valued, and all successes were shared. A lot gets said about women supporting women in the workplace and in our careers, there are a lot of opinions out there. Over the years I’ve been supported by so many incredible colleagues and leaders, but I just wanted to say a little thank you to someone who showed me how I want to be throughout my career.

Day 5: Before taking a big leap into UX design this year, I got the chance to get creative on a very different kind of design project. True Search’s London team had grown so fast from 2018 into 2019 that we were quickly running out of space! We needed to expand, and soon. This gave me an interesting opportunity to jump from coordinating search projects, to managing the redesign of the new space, coordinating with the designers and contractors, visiting showrooms, and hunting down solutions to fit a wide range of present and future needs. It was a really interesting process working together with Saracen Interiors Ltd, and it was great popping back to the office to see the results.

Day 6: Back at the beginning of the year I had a big decision to make – whether I was brave enough to give up the security of my job and take a leap into a new career in UX design. I did a LOT of research – reading blogs, textbooks, trawling youtube, but in the end the thing that made my decision easy was an event hosted by Tech Circus’s UX Crunch. At the “Manipulation by Design” event, Professor Karen Pollitt-Cham FRSA, Daniel Harvey, Philip Bonhard and Lauren Pleydell-Pearce tackled some of the ethical and practical challenges in designing products that directly impact people’s lives every day. The talks were fascinating, utterly convincing, and pivotal in persuading me that these were the sorts of challenges worth taking on. The following day I applied for my place on the Flatiron School UX/UI course, and I haven’t looked back since.

Day 7: Something small but significant to celebrate today. Back in March I found out I got my place on the inaugural UX/UI design course at Flatiron School London. It was a really good email to get!

Day 8: Part of making a big life change is leaving something behind in order to make space for everything new. For me this meant leaving the amazing people at True Search behind. I learnt a huge amount during my time with True, and was so lucky to work with a team of driven, funny, creative and dedicated colleagues. Luckily it was a “so long” not a “goodbye” and I know I’ll be seeing you all soon!

Day 9: I’ve been told by some people that I come across as self-confident, comfortable with strangers and chatty, which is true most of the time. I do have my shy moments though, and I’ve had to work hard to overcome them during the Flatiron School UX/UI design course. The central focus of UX and UI is in the name: the designer must advocate for the user. That’s not possible if you can’t talk to the users. If you can’t pull existing customers or recruit the right demographics in because of time or budget constraints, Guerrilla Interviews are your friend, but going out and tracking people down on the street is nerve-wracking. I’m really proud that I kept at it and overcame the fear of approaching strangers (and being brushed off a LOT).

Day 10: A new career means developing new skills. The first time I opened Sketch App I was a bit overwhelmed. Now it’s one of my favourite tools in the UX/UI design arsenal – pixel-perfect, vector based and FAST!

Day 11: Hand in hand with Day 10’s , once you’ve got the hang of Sketch App Rocks for building your wireframes, its time to tackle the interactive prototyping! There are dozens of different tools and softwares out there, but my 3 faves (so far) are: 

InVision (for speed and collaboration) 

Axure – UX & RP (for real-feel and micro-interactions) and 

Principle (for beautiful UI smooth animations). 

Have a little play around with this little design challenge I did the other week.

Day 12: I want to celebrate how good it felt to finish my first end-to-end UX/UI design project at Flatiron School. It is far from perfect, and I still had so much to learn (and will continue learning for the rest of my career!) but this first design project was such an achievement. It represents hours of thought, consideration, analysis, and bullying Sketch into doing what I wanted it to. Would I do it differently now? Probably. Am I proud of what I did? Absolutely!

Day 13: As part of the Flatiron School (and Designation) UX/ UI Design course we complete four end to end design projects intended to be as close to real world projects as possible in a training environment, the height of which is a design project for a real-world client. I was really lucky during my course that not only did I get to work with Gabriel Isserlis the founder/CEO of, but Islington Council also got involved when they found out the student brief we were fulfilling for their website. It was a huge achievement to present our research and final designs to a representative of the Islington Council digital team, Yusuf Khan at the end of the 5-week project.

Day 14: One of the surprise benefits of joining the Flatiron School campus in London is the community events and activities that the amazing team at WeWork Finsbury Pavement organised each week. While we were there they partnered with Paws in Work, a great organisation that brings litters of puppies into work spaces, allowing colleagues to de-stress and helping with the socialisation of the puppies before they leave the litter for their forever homes. It was definitely one of my favourite days of the year.

Day 15: Short but sweet (a little like our time together): it was an unexpected pleasure to be asked to mentor the UX/UI students in the cohort behind us. My end-of-week chats with Christian Rogers were always eye-opening, and it was great watching how his projects unfolded and progressed. I really look forward to seeing what he does next!

Day 16: Back in October our cohort at Flatiron School was lucky enough to be welcomed in by Chris Thelwell to get a sneak peek into how EY Seren run UX/UI design for their clients. It was a really interesting insightful visit, we definitely could have benefited from their user testing interview rooms!

Day 17: With these wonderful people (pictured below) I went to hear how UX gurus Zoé Guiraudon and Alex Lee (sadly not pictured) deliver tailored UX research and design projects to solve their clients’ unique business challenges, whilst keeping the end user front and centre. I was thoroughly impressed by Foolproof‘s ethos and practices, and I especially appreciated that research is considered a core practice worth investing the right amount of time and money in.

Day 18: The last of our little workplace tasters organised by Flatiron School was quite special. We were invited in to meet the CXO Lucy Blackwell and her team at FutureLearn. It was really eye-opening, seeing a company that has put UX at the centre of their product, and the company’s growth from the beginning. The seamless partnership between design and development was really impressive, and definitely a model that should be more widely implemented. The confidence built within the team was tangible, in no small part from having a User Experience advocate in the C-suite, keeping their students’ experience in focus across every touch point. There are a lot of lessons that could be learned in building a product- and user-first business like this.

Day 19: Time to celebrate the training wheels coming off, and our design team really taking ownership of, and responsibility for our own design processes. The biggest selling point for me of the Flatiron School UX/UI Course was the fourth design project we would work on: the Client Phase. We were presented with a really interesting and challenging brief to strategically design a future concept for – an Airbnb style marketplace for rehearsal spaces connecting artists and creatives to hosts. Pictured is our 2-hour long first meeting with Gabriel Isserlis, where we got well acquainted with his business and his vision, and began to build out our hypotheses that we would go on to test against his users’ experiences. — If you would like to know more about this project and its outcomes you can read about it here.

Day 20: Today I want to celebrate my Flatiron School UX/UI colleagues. Coming from all different backgrounds, and bringing a wealth and variety of experience into this course, we all put in 6 months of intensive work. At the end we were able to stand up as professional UX and UI Designers, in front of a very full room of total strangers, and present our design processes and solutions for our clients, and nibs etc. Ltd. Not all of us were comfortable speaking in public in the beginning, but you would not have guessed it. We even had an answer to the software engineer (who shall remain nameless) question: “but isn’t all design just subjective?”

Day 21: In the autumn I was introduced to Ewan Collinge and Léo Mercier, co-founders at Crowdform, a London-based Digital Product Studio. It was a real pleasure discussing UX, life in China, and some fascinating projects with both of them. I wish them all the best in 2020!

Day 22: I’d like to talk about the Tervuren Elephant in the room at Biglight Studio. A month ago, I attended a really interesting #uxcrunch meet-up with the studio. We were taken through a full product lifecycle, from Antony Cousin‘s introduction to the in-depth initial research methodologies, through Rory Woods‘ raucous breakdown of when, why and how to implement design systems, and culminating in Andrew Lytton taking us through the ongoing optimization work Biglight carries out for their clients. It was a really interesting and entertaining evening, great to be invited into the Biglight space to see how you work and hear their philosophies!

Day 23: Big shout-out to to the Silicon Milkroundabout London tech job fair today. I was lucky enough to snag a ticket for the product and design day this November. It was such a great opportunity to meet teams, both from really well known and respected organisations like BBC UX&D, notonthehighstreet, and Moonpig, and also start-ups set to break the mould like Marshmallow, Cleo AI – we’re hiring and Collectiv Food. This event is intense and a little overwhelming at first, but it was so fun and interesting to hear about different design teams, and the amazing challenges on the horizon in 2020. 100% would recommend!!

Day 24: WE MADE IT! And not just to the end of my rundown of 2019… For me, this year has been characterised by change (saying goodbye to True Search), challenges (a new one every day of the Flatiron School UX/UI course), and tremendous achievements (big and small). Along the way I was blessed to get to know these amazing, funny, hard-working, generous people. It was an honour to graduate with you all from the first London cohort, and I can’t wait to see the wonderful work you go on to do.

Optimising airports

This December I flew to Switzerland to visit my brother and explore the famous Christmas Markets. Not the most UX oriented topic at first glance (although I could now, have previously and probably will in future, argued that UX research and design principles can and should be applied to basically anything…) but this was the first time in years that I have checked a bag at the airport, and Heathrow T5 now has a self-service bag drop. 

Why is this significant? 

Because a computer has effectively taken another job? Because the UX was under-developed? Did it lose our bags?

(Not really: it was a pretty quick easy process, we still got our stuff at the other end, and is along similar lines as self-checkouts at the supermarket in terms of digital displacement…)

It was mostly the conversations I overheard at the airport on the way home, the “old-fashioned” airport where a person still checked your bags in for you. I heard one couple, probably in their late 30s, grumbling that it was so much better and faster in heathrow. I heard an older woman remark to her partner that it was so much nicer that they got to speak to a real person here. I observed two large groups and one young family get very confused about which bag went where, which passport the lady needed next, and where they went afterwards. 

This all got me thinking, how much of the process can you, or even should you, keep the same when transitioning to self service? How do you make it less intimidating for the less “tech-savvy” users? Can you make assumptions about how familiar most users will be with the steps required? Will it look like the existing bag drop (conveyor belt etc.)? Will it be as easily accessible for users with mobility issues (as the early supermarkets often weren’t)?

To be honest I don’t know, but I think it would have been a really interesting UX challenge to tackle!

A bit more desk-research

Desk research photo

Heuristic evaluations and content audits

As part of the desk-research toolkit, there are a few methods that are particularly valuable for improving and optimising existing products. Conducting an heuristic evaluation and/or a content audit can build a real time picture of the state of the content at the outset. 

Heuristic evaluation:

An heuristic evaluation assesses a site or product against Jakob Nielsen’s 10 Usability Priniciples:

Jacob Nielsen's Usability principles:
Consistency and standards
Match between system and real world
Clean & Functional Design
User control and freedom
Flexibility and efficiency of use
Recognition over recall
Visibility of system status
Prevent Errors
Help users recover from errors
Help and documentation

I’ve found it useful conducting an heuristic evaluation at the beginning of a new project, but it is also a great way to keep an on-going design project in check. If you keep asking yourself as you design, how does my solution comply with these ideals (in other words, WWJND!), then when it comes to user testing, there will be fewer avoidable design faults to correct.

Screenshot of Heuristic Evaluation

Content Audit

This is exactly what it sounds like – audit and compile all content from across the full product in a spreadsheet, organised by there it is located in the product. These can end up being extensive, and for complex, long-established, informative sites they can take a very long time to complete. However they are one of the best methods for rationalising and prioritising content and site-maps, and also spotting holes or duplicates in content. 

I went to a really interesting meet-up where a design team from Cyber Duck were explaining a project they had recently finished for Sports England, a Government adjacent organisation. The Lead UX Designer placed a lot of emphasis on how valuable their content audit had been given the size of the site. It may be long and tiresome to do, but it’s definitely and important tool for dealing with so much data.

Screenshot of content audit

Evolving corporate Mammoths the Upstart way

A lot of the value that UX and UI design can add to a product is through optimisation rather than “blue sky” or “green fields” projects. This isn’t to say UX doesn’t have a valuable role in innovating and expanding the realms of possibility, but the insights that a UX design process can leverage in the digital transformation process are game-changing even when they seem small.

Taking it back in time 20 or so years, “experts” had little idea how radically new technologies, especially the World Wide Web would impact how every aspect of our lives and societies function (as this article amusingly demonstrates)

If experts couldn’t predict it, the average person had no chance. And the average organisation had operated in the same way, following inherited protocols and processes for decades if not centuries. In less than two decades all of that has changed, and in true Darwinian fashion only the strong and adaptable survive.

Neanderthals face down a woolly mammoth

So how does a mammoth (like a 100 year old bank, or a highstreet giant) big, old and on the edge of extinction, adapt and evolve into a more sprightly Elephantidae form? Ten years ago, the answer was slowly, inefficiently and at great expense. Now the outlook is a little more optimistic, and it largely involves mimesis – the attempts to mimic and emulate successful practices that came out of the disruptive upstarts who made the mammoth aware of its shortened life-expectancy in the first place: namely agile, scrum, lean, start-up… any other watch-word that sounds millennial-friendly and is synonymous with skinny, fast-moving, athlete upstarts. 

These terms are thrown around a lot. In UX that’s not such a bad thing though. At the centre of UX research and design is the User, and Users change as fast (or probably much faster) than the technology they use. The worst thing for a product design, is for it to be held back from the market, and miss the Zeitgeist – the specific and timely needs of the users it was specifically designed for. So if a design and development team can increasingly make valuable improvements in real time, they might persuade their users that maybe this mammoth is a young upstart at heart.

Understand your market, know the competition (AKA never skip domain research and competitive analysis…)

Design team discussing research plan
Design team discussing research plan

UX and UI designers are experts at empathising with users – who may be customers, students, patients, or employees using the product we are designing or optimising. Although many of us bring expertise from a past life into our work, it’s likely that we will not know a huge amount about the sector or vertical we are working in when we take on a new project. This is a significant knowledge gap when it comes to forming initial hypotheses and planning how we will conduct research for the project, so before an interview takes place, or pen touches sketchpad, it’s really valuable to do a bit of desk research.

UX research aims to build a balanced picture of the needs and wants of the user, collecting quantitative (concrete, often statistical) and qualitative (experiential, inconcrete, anecdotal) data, at both macroscopic (high level, big picture, large scale) and microscopic (fine detail, smaller scale) levels of scope. Many of these research methods are implemented (with slight tweaks) from social scientific research methodology. 

Domain research:

There are a few questions you can keep in mind when conducting domain research:

Are there any emerging trends in the specific market?

Is the need for this product on the rise?

Who is currently dominating this market?

What are people using?

Is this a saturated market?

Should this be mobile or web first?

Competitive analysis:

For competitive analysis it is really helpful to take a few direct competitors – especially ones that are currently leading the market in some way – and a few indirect competitors who are succeeding in an area we would want this product to succeed in. The analysis itself is a binary assessment of the content, style, format, and processes these competitors have in place. 

Domain research and competitive analysis contribute to our understanding of the product’s position in its market and sector (at a macro scale) by gathering concrete (quantitative) data, helping the researcher and designers to contextualise the product. The competitive analysis is particularly useful in picking up design features that already work and noticing gaps in the market – which can really inform the direction we want to take the product in.

Solving the right problem, solving the problem right.

Design process
Design process

There are so many ways of approaching a problem. Every person has a unique preference informed by their personality, their background and experience, their training. There is never just one solution to a problem, however, it can be a great shortcut to have a methodology to lean on, draw from, and inevitably deviate from. 

As an anthropologist I learned and practised the methodologies of academic social research: ethnography, participant observation, interviewing, surveys, demographic research, cross-cultural analysis. Transitioning into UX Design I draw on all these skills, and I have developed others: heuristic analysis, competitive and domain research, affinity mapping, card sorting, usability testing, concepting, wireframing, iterating… With each new project I select the methodologies that seem best to fit, and usually apply them within the British Design Council framework: the Double Diamond.

In this blog series I’m going to dive deeper on the metaphorical tools in my design box, how I’ve applied them, and where the benefits and drawbacks lie. But just to kick us off, what is the Double Diamond? 

First announced by the British Design Council in 2005, the Double Diamond was conceived as an easy visualisation of successful design processes that can be applied to solve problems in or out of design. (If you’d like to know more about how they developed it, this article is a great read!) At its simplest, it shows the phases of the design process, starting with research to “discover” the problem, then analysis to narrow down and “define” it. Once defined, you move into an ideation phase to “develop” the possible solution(s), and through a process of testing and iteration, the project is “delivered”. 

As a framework for approaching and managing a project, I find this elegant and more importantly adaptable. It can be run through entirely in a day, over a week, or several weeks. At any point you can circle back to expand the scope or narrow the parameters as necessary, and it provides a structure that you can track progress against.

As I go through the UX methodologies I use, I will relate them back to this framework in particular, as it shows simple ideas can sometimes be the best!