So, how did you get into the web industry?
I came into it in a very weird way and I came to it sort of late. So I’ve been working specifically in this industry for probably twenty years next year. In 1998. I started out as a young graphic designer at a little new media company in Derby. Within about a year that company was taken over by a much bigger company and they wanted to create a services division.
They saw the writing on the wall and thought flogging people hardware wasn’t going to be the thing of the future. It was the height of the dot com boom and all of that. So very rapidly I had to acquire a whole bunch of other skills apart from the graphic design skills I already had.
“I was actually a professional actor for about twenty years.”
Within a year I was running an embryonic UX team. I had six people under me and so I had a very steep learning curve. I had to get on board with a lot of stuff that was happening almost at the time that it was happening.
I’ve been doing this for about as long as it’s existed really. UX is only about 20 years old. Of course, back then it was all about usability and making websites accessible. It’s grown massively and I hope to think I’ve grown with it into the fields of persuasion and designing for emotion and the whole user experience discipline.
Before 1998 I was actually a professional actor for about twenty years. I became an actor in 1978. The reason for the change is I got a bit bored with acting, I’d fallen out of love with it a little bit. I was looking for something that was a bit more challenging, and perhaps a bit more lucrative, if truth be told. Every actor has to have a second string to their bow and mine was illustrating. I worked primarily as a sci-fi and fantasy illustrator. I did lots of video games and did work for Games Workshop in the early days.
“I turned up with a folder full of pictures of superheroes and Orks.”
I was quite an early adopter so when the web came along in the late 80’s I had a website and taught myself HTML. So I was well placed when the call came. A friend of mine who was a developer at this small media company asked if I wanted to come and be their graphic designer. So I turned up with a folder full of pictures of superheroes and Orks. God knows what they made of me. But they offered me the job and 20 years later here I am and I still haven’t been found out.
But yeah I had this really steep learning curve and so I started reading Nielsen and Don Norman and then that branched out into people like Dan Ariely. The whole designing to persuade idea rather than just designing. I started to realise that there was this whole behavioural science and psychology underpinning to the whole thing. And then I was reading about visual perception and how we see, neuroscience and how we make decisions. All of that stuff directly feeds into what we do when we’re creating a really great user experience.
One of the things that struck me was how strangely familiar it all was and that sounds bizarre because it’s such a huge sidestep from being an actor to being a UX designer. And yet lots of this stuff I was reading and learning about, from a completely different perspective I’d already got little bits of it. I think it’s really interesting that actors in a way are user experience designers. They’re creating, believable, truthful, well rounded characters for an outside audience to experience.
What you do as an actor when when you put your characters together you sit like we are now in a coffee shop and you observe people. Creating user experiences is exactly the same thing because you go out and you talk to your audience and you observe their behaviour.
So when did you first become aware of the UX discipline, or usability as it was then?
Oh very quickly, we did a big job for a big public sector company and part of the brief had a paragraph in it where it said ‘the solution should be accessible and useable by’ and then a list of specific people with various different disabilities.
“The earlier you can find and fix those issues the easier they are to fix.”
It became clear to me that we weren’t designing for people like us. We were designing for this vast range of people. So I became a bit obsessed as I grew this UX team that we kept that commitment as a fundamental underpinning of what we did. I realised that accessibility and usability isn’t something you can bolt on afterwards, which was what was happening back then. People would try and ‘retro-fit’ usability and accessibility on after they had designed the solution.
We would bake it right into the start of a project. The earlier you can find and fix those issues the easier they are to fix.
We did a job with Bunnyfoot a couple of years back where a client wasn’t getting many sign ups to an on-demand TV service. So they commissioned us to do, what amounted to a bog standard usability test really. We did one-to-one user testing and three participants in I realised there was nothing wrong with the sign up process, the problem was people were not getting the proposition.
They didn’t understand what they were signing up for essentially, particularly the two levels of subscription. The content available in each subscription seemed counter-intuitive to what they were expecting.
So we stopped testing the sign up and tested the proposition over three days and got some solid evidence for them to take back and they ended up rethinking the whole proposition. Imagine if they hadn’t done that testing. It probably saved them millions. Test early and test often.
How would you characterise the UX industry at the moment?
I think there are a lot of people claiming to be UX houses or claiming they “do UX” that are just design agencies and they’ve read a book by Jacob Nielsen. I don’t mean that to sound arrogant, it’s just that UX is the new big buzzword now. Even senior management has heard the term and recognise it as a benefit and so it’s become a way of selling services.
I think it shows how seriously UX is taken now that some of the very big blue chip companies are putting together their own internal UX teams and labs. One of our services at Bunnyfoot now, for instance, is building UX labs for companies.
In-house teams vs agencies, how is that changing?
Its interesting, up until about a year ago we would be brought in to do market research, personas, wireframes and all the way through to visual design. The whole User Centered Design (UCD) process. What we’re seeing now is that in-house teams will take care of most of that and specialists like Bunnyfoot can come in and operate at a more strategic level.
We can advise and steer clients on emerging technologies like AR, VR, the internet of things etc. IT is not going to be something that lives in a box anymore or even a phone, it’s going to be immersive, in our environment. That has extraordinary implications for how users interact with systems.
“It’s the incidental “delighters” that make the difference between an average product and a product people love.”
The big thing at the moment is creating emotional responses to designs. In Japan there is a whole branch of Japanese engineering called Kensai engineering. Quantifying how products invoke an emotional reaction in us. Noriaki Kano, who is a brilliant thinker in this area, has developed a ‘customer satisfaction model’ in which he suggests that the most important thing for a successful product is not so much the fundamentals but the incidental “delighters” that make the difference between an average product and a product people love.
You’ve been here 8 years with Bunnyfoot, how has Sheffield’s creative industry changed in that time?
The Initial impetus for a northern office was to avoid a London-centric schewing of results in user testing data. We looked at various places like Nottingham, Derby and Sheffield and even back then Sheffield was the place to go. Electric Works was being built as we were setting up, you had Hallam, the University of Sheffield, the Digital Campus and there was a huge buzz in the air about digital and technical innovation. I think that’s continued. We make new contacts every week. I think Sheffield is the hub of whats going on in the wider area, you have to go to Manchester and Leeds for an equivalent excitement about digital innovation.
Is there anything Sheffield can do to improve?
I’m not sure there is, there is quite an active UX community in Sheffield. Sheffield UX is popular. One of the things we want to happen, and is happening, is to have more contact with the two universities.
Most impressive product you’ve worked on?
Back in 2002, we were asked to create an automated digital library system for the Houses of Parliament. It was a vast thing. I think it cost about £9.5 million pounds, it was delivered on time and they were all amazed as they were so used to IT projects running over by years. Not all that went to us, far from it. We partnered with Autonomy, who are an intelligent search engine that uses fuzzy logic.
They were hesitant about spending all this money on Autonomy because that was the expensive bit, over a million pounds. So when we pitched for it one of the Autonomy guys brought his laptop and hooked up a live feed from the commons. You could watch in real time as the speaker in the chamber spoke, the system was indexing every single word he spoke. They watched this happen and immediately saw that they had to have it.
I think that’s still one of the products I’m most proud of. It took about two years to build and and they’ve been using it up until last year. I was only responsible for the UI of course, there were lots of incredibly clever architects and engineers and developers who built it. But I still remember that surge of relief and pride when it went live and we started to see the indexing.