Lost in translation

I had the privilege to present a tutorial/talk at UX Cambridge 2015 with Boguslawa Kaplan about the importance of language in UX. Boguslawa is a professional interpreter. Interpreters have an impressive working memory as they interpret on the fly. The skill is truly impressive and one, which has much overlap with user research. Thus I proposed this session in order to gain a better understanding of the overlap. The slide deck is at the end of this post but I just wanted to highlight a few things I learned along the way about the use of language in user research and what we could learn from professional interpreters.

  1. Prepare for the language in your session. Interpreters will study/research in advance of a session to ensure that they are familiar with the vocabulary. When words are ambiguous they ensure they understand all the variations of that word and make quick decisions on the implications of an interpretation. So too user researchers should prepare for specialist language in advance.
  2. Interpreters pay specific attention to the intonation. Intonation is the music of a language – the rises and falls used when pronouncing. Intonation can have a dramatic effect on a phrase and the intonation you use for example when asking questions could bias the research.
  3. When interpreters are uncertain or sense there could be ambiguity then they tend to be less specific. Hence, it is better to be less specific rather than giving a false interpretation. Likewise this wisdom translates into user research.
  4. Communicate research without evaluation. There is a real danger of biasing research by the language we choose to use. For example, if we observe a participant in a usability test hesitating at the checkout and we report “she seemed to struggle when checking out” we are inferring something that might not be there.
  5. Separate data collection from analysis. This will ensure that you limit any bias and other researchers can do analysis without being biased by your analysis.
  6. Non-verbal communication is a big part of communication. This is especially true when communicating emotions as the researcher Albert Mehrabian discovered. This probably indicates why most people prefer to meet in person rather than over video-link communication.
  7. The context is especially important, as it will inform analysis. For example, B explained how in a mental health setting she kept all the grammatical errors as it was essential for the therapist to hear them in order to make a diagnosis.

Rethinking the Agile board

Workshop materials
Workshop materials for the Agile board rethink.



The Agile board has been in use for years and is a primary resource for daily communication within an Agile team. Over the years I have seen many variations of the agile board both in physical and digital format but the premise is always that it is a board with some form of card/post-it note to indicate tasks. I have always wondered whether this is the best form for the board or whether we have merely adopted it because it was the first design that came along. For instance, why can’t we have a horizontal table or a dedicated “war room” as a metaphor?

I recently facilitated a workshop at Agile Cambridge with Ernst Kretschmann with the intention of exploring other design options with participants. The workshop was designed into four agile iterations of:

  1. Identify the key issues using Affinity mapping.
  2. Develop some ideas that address those issues.
  3. Prototype an alternative board design.
  4. Pitch your idea to the rest of the workshop.



Participants were first asked to identify all the pros/cons of the existing agile boards they used via affinity mapping. This exercise highlighted some issues we were aware of but also issues that we had not thought of.  Some of the key issues were:

  • Lack of progress on cards which were in the “doing” column e.g. you can’t see how many story points have been done.
  • Collaboration on stories between team members is not visually apparent on a board.
  • Often stories get passed between phases e.g. they go to testing and then come back but its not visually clear what is happening with that story.
  • Visibility of the board is always a problem. The digital disconnect when teams are geographically dispersed.
  • Maintenance of the board can be tedious.

There were many more….



For the second iteration we showed participants a hint of what is possible without trying to influence the design too much. Potential alternatives already exist such as the Bit Planner calendar built with Lego bricks. Participants really got stuck into the redesign and used much of the materials we had provided as inspiration. The four teams decided to purse the following ideas:

  1. Using the metaphor of  hurdlers in a race, where each competitor stands in for a story.
  2. A motorway built up in Lego, where each carriageway is reserved for one story.
  3. Planets are used as a metaphor for iterations.
  4. A multi-coloured plasticine creature represents each story. The creature is evolved while the story progresses, with colours symbolising collaboration and a finished creature means that the story is done.
The planetary orbits team coming up with their great idea.



In this iteration, participants built their initial ideas and developed these into tangible designs. We provided a range of materials to inspire and aid the building process. As expected the original ideas deviated as the build went on and improved considerably.

Minecraft screen
Minecraft as a design material.



In the final iteration, participants explained their creation and what problems they tried to solve.

Group 1: Runners in a race

Using the metaphor of runners/hurdlers in a race, where each competitor stands in for a story. The runner is built up with Lego Duplo blocks in several horizontal coloured layers, where each colour stands for one collaborator on the story. The hurdles visualise transitions and handovers. The track had a shortcut exit as a window of opportunity to change the story, split it, park it or amend it.

Group 2: Motorway race

The motorway race provided each team member with a track. As a story moved across their track one could see what progress was being made on the user story even while they were working on it.

Group 3: Quantum atomic model iterations

The orbiting planets turned into orbiting atoms. Stories could transition across orbits.

Group 4: Plasticine animal gamification

The plasticine creation allowed users to build a plasticine model as they travelled across the agile board. More plasticine would equal = more work and collaboration.


Pitching the Lego duplo build.


Plasticine creations for user stories. They get built as the story progresses through the “pipeline”.


Motorway stories… each team member has their own track.

I am running these workshops for teams to help them identify and solve communication problems related to the agile board. Get in touch for a quote.

Biodiversity, climate change, information visualisation and UX

These four topics are not often used in the same sentence. In fact, these communities rarely meet. The EcoViz Tansley workshop brought people together to discuss how the Biodiversity and Climate Change communities can use visualisation and UX. It was fascinating hearing directly from the scientists and domain experts about the challenges they face when reporting science to policy makers. It was clear that they struggled to communicate the complexity and significance of their science. Visualisation plays a key role in communicating difficult concepts.

We were also introduced to some interesting ideas and tools such as CartoDB by Andrew Hill which enables anyone to map their geographical data.

Alan Smith’s talked about the work being done at the Office of National Statistics to make statistics more accessible to the public through Visual.ONS. Also there was nice work being done by Vizzuality mapping global deforestation through Forest Watch.

Will Stahl-Timmins gave a great talk about some of his experimental research where they were measuring the effectiveness of info-graphics versus just a plain text. The results of the experiment (926 participants) seem to show that people gained more knowledge from the info graphic. It is good to have this evidence based approach.

I particularly enjoyed hearing Mike Saunby’s tales about the MET office and his adventurous hackathons.

All in all there was so much information and so many interesting people to meet that there are too many to list here. This cross-pollination of design and science is certainly a great format to generate creative solutions to difficult problems. It also creates empathy both ways and perhaps opens up opportunities for designers to work closely with scientists that did not exist before.

Designing for seniors

A few years ago I undertook some user research for a project aimed at helping seniors make the most of mobile technology. It was a fun project because I researched a group that I had not come across in my professional UX career, namely seniors. We interviewed a handful of seniors in a local independent living accommodation block with a broad age range. They had a range of technology skills, some quite impressive while others had never used a computer before. All of them were keen to learn more because they felt like they were being left behind. After all, their toddler grandchildren could operate a smart phone why couldn’t they?

Recently, I bought my parents a tablet to allow them to Skype their grandkids thousands of miles away. It has been an instant hit, but seeing them struggle with it reinforced all the issues we uncovered during the research. What follows are the highlights that surprised me the most.

1. Fear.
There is an incredible fear of irreparably breaking the device. As the device is so powerful providing all these “apps” there is a perception that it is easy to break.

2. The tech language is impenetrable.
For many, who are not digitally native the language used to describe products and actions are foreign. Some of the seniors I interviewed described how they tried to “google” for information but would often find something unrelated. They described how frustrating it was as they knew the information was there but could not lay their hands on it. They also described how daunting it was hearing all these terms and not really knowing what it all meant for example, Twitter and Facebook.

3. Many apps are daunting.
Most people (regardless of age) find all the “app” options daunting. Simplifying the user interface by reducing the number of apps and using a specially simplified launcher (in our case BIG Launcher) greatly improved the usability of the tablet for my parents.

BIG Launcher tablet small
A photo of the BIG Launcher app designed specially for my parents.

4. Reduced manual dexterity makes touchscreen a pain.
As people age, they have reduced manual dexterity because of local structural changes in the hand (muscles) and neural control [1]. Both my parents who appear to have pretty good manual dexterity in most things (e.g. using T.V. remotes) really struggled using the touchscreen. Either they did not touch it for the right length of time or they would shift their finger while touching. However, using a stylus seemed to solve most of these problems. The size of the touch target also has an effect on the overall success of the touchscreen.

Tablet Stylus
Using a stylus was much easier than using a finger.

[1] Carmeli E., Patish H. and Coleman R. The aging hand. The Journals of Gerontology: Series A (2003). Volume 58, Issue 2Pp. M146-M152.

UX Scotland 2014

This year I was keen to attend UX Scotland as I had heard so many good things. Jenny Cham and I went up there to give a tutorial on “A survival guide for UX in complex environments“. Software Acumen pulled out all the stops to make this conference an enjoyable and informative event. The Our Dynamic Earth conference venue offered a spectacular view of Arthur’s Seat.

Attendees attempting some hands on activity.
Workshop participants enjoying some hands on activities during our workshop entitled “A survival guide for UX in complex environments”.

Eewei Chen gave the first keynote on “Stupid is as stupid does“. Highlighting our responsibility as designers to ensure we find solutions to problems without losing who we are as humans. It certainly provided food for thought and gave some excellent design examples such as the Disney magic band and the Nest thermostat.

Next up Jenny and I gave our tutorial session. We had a jam packed room with over 30 participants but we ensured we kept things interactive and lighthearted with some paper plane building followed by some hands on canvas sort activities. Lorraine Paterson and Mike Jefferson gave an experience report on “How to embed UX in large organisations: teaching the elephant in the room to dance“. The advantages of providing a design pattern library and how that shaped the adoption of UX were useful nuggets to take home.

Esther Stringer and Claudio Franco gave an insightful talk about “User Research and Testing with Children“. Having never conducted research on children this talk will put me in good stead in the future. The talk outlined key stage developments in children and advice on appropriate tasks for each age group. The Market Research Society and COPPA US regulations provide guidelines for researchers. Specifically on the area of gaining legal consent from a responsible adult.

Joshua Marshall gave us an excellent keynote on accessibility and outlining the great work they have done at GDS for gov.uk. It certainly generated a plethora of questions and interest. The accessibility theme was followed up by David Sloan with his workshop “Design thinking for accessible user experiences”. There are many challenges in designing towards equivalent user experiences for people of all abilities. One area where this is particularly difficult is in big data visualisation. Joshua and David pointed to sonification as another medium where this information could be communicated. Doug Schepers from the W3C has a good illustration of this on this example sonification chart.

Food Hackathon

Laser printed orange of Vitamin C
Laser printed orange with vitamin C

A few weeks ago I was invited to attend a food hackathon at Microsoft Research in Cambridge. Vaiva Kalnikaité creative director of Dovetailed and Tim Regan from Microsoft Research Cambridge jointly hosted it. As an introduction to the workshop Vaiva and Tim had played around with laser printing on fruit and vegetables (see pictures).

Laser printed aubergine with vitamin C bar chart.
Laser printed aubergine with vitamin C bar chart.

Caroline Hobkinson, a food artist, introduced us to how taste can be manipulated by environment, utensils and even sound. For example, listening to high frequencies when eating something may make it taste sweeter whereas lower frequencies will make it taste bitter. They had experimented with a QR code which would link us to a frequency which would enhance our taste experience (see picture below). Potentially one could reduce sugar intake by experimenting with these techniques.

Food Hackathon QR code
Food Hackathon QR Code that sweetens food

Yvonne Rogers gave a presentation on the latest research including the HAPIfork (Haptic fork) which would try to slow you down when eating by using haptic feedback. She also made me realise that we should consider carefully what we want to achieve by introducing interaction into food. A video was shown with the Makey Makey kit which was being used with elderly people to interact with fruit to produce music.

Of course, the highlight of the workshop for me was Gabriel Villar’s 3D fruit printing machine which was commissioned by Dovetailed. It extends a molecular-gastronomy technique called spherification and allows you to print droplets. The fruit printed resembled raspberries but the flavour can be altered by using a different flavoured juice for example strawberries. This could potentially allow you to print fruits in different forms playing with the flavour to enhance the experience.

Towards the end of the workshop we were divided into teams to develop a prototype that would enhance a food experience. Our group developed an idea to enhance an older persons eating habits by developing a box called “Dinner for Two”. The box provided messages to be printed onto food ingredients, the meal to be cooked together and eaten together via a video and audio link. It was a most enjoyable rainy Saturday afternoon in Cambridge especially with all the delightful treats along the way by Jack’s Gelato, Hot Numbers coffee and Boutique Mama Bombon chocolate.

The silos of Visualisation design and UX

I just finished facilitating a UX/visualisation workshop to EUPORIAS with Jason Dykes and Stephann Makri. Jason’s talk made me realise how important visualisation is; bringing new meaning to data and enhancing our understanding of what that data means.

Visualisation has a large role to play in scientific interface design. It has the potential to unleash the vast amounts of knowledge available especially in bioinformatics. There seems to be a significant overlap between visualisers and UXers in the methods used but very little cross-pollination between the disciplines.

A while ago, Moritz Stefaner brought to my attention this paper; “What does the user want to see? What do the Data want to be?“. Pretorius et al. argue that in some domains users do not have a clear cut idea about the questions they have in mind or what they want to see in visualisation. The visualisation in this example is evolved over many iterations using techniques of both visualisation design (focussing and completely understand the data) and user experience (comprehensive research about the users). I think it is a good illustration of how using techniques from both communities can be very complementary.

Incidentally here is a video illustrating the power of visualisation about the Barclays Bike hire scheme produced by Jo Wood and Jason Dykes et al.

"Summary of five million bicycle journeys made in 2010/11 in central London as part of the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme. Origins and destinations of each journey recorded and animated along a curved trajectory.
This animation shows the effect of changing the length of the 'trail' left by each journey (starts to increase from 15 seconds into the animation). By changing the prominence given to more common journeys (from 45 seconds onwards), structure emerges from the apparent chaos of journeys. Three major systems become apparent (from 1 minute onwards) - Hyde park to the west, commuting to/from King's Cross St Pancras to the north and Waterloo to/from the City to the east."

Wearable tech in the laboratory

Wearable Tech in the lab 2

Image courtesy of Jenny Cham.

Much hype has surrounded wearable technology in the last few months bringing it very much into the mainstream. Researchers are paving the way for us to wear our technology in ever more interactive and pervasive ways. In addition to the more widely known computer glasses (Google glass) and smart watches there are even more diverse applications such as electronic textiles (Smart Fabrics) with its origins in patient monitoring (Bonato P. et al). Electronic textiles present so much opportunity. Imagine patients wearing a shirt that monitors your heart rate, breathing etc.. non-intrusively warning doctors when patients are ill. Of course, this does present many ethical issues such as data privacy.

There are also interesting applications of gesture control such as the Myo armband which allows you to use gestures and movements to control your computer. Taking a different approach, Chris Harrison‘s projects provide an interesting perspective on computing and wearable technology. The Touché project allows one to use your own skin or any everyday object as a touchscreen. Similarly the WorldKit project uses a depth camera to allow you to use any surface in a room as a touchscreen simply by waiving your hand. For example, you could just draw your volume control onto the arm of your sofa to control the volume of your T.V.

These applications provide immense opportunities for some of the users I have worked with. During many of my projects at the European Bioinformatics Institute I researched how laboratory scientists used our services. It struck me how most of the scientists I interviewed/observed still wrote down results in a laboratory notebook and then laboriously transferred some of the information to their computer. Many projects have tried to introduce electronic laboratory notebooks but it has struggled to take off. I think one of the reasons for the lack of take-up is the clunkiness of carrying and caring for your device in a laboratory setting where you are often dealing with a range of chemicals and machines. Scientists often work across a large area of the lab where machines are shared between groups.

So how could wearable technology transform the life of a lab scientist. Well lets imagine Eunice our PhD lab scientist of the future.

She has an electronic laboratory coat which not only measures the room conditions such as a temperature etc.. but also keeps a check on her health making sure she is not spending too many long hours in the lab.  The smart laboratory coat can also detect any hazardous chemicals and warn Debra of any dangers in the lab. Furthermore Debra stores all her notes on the “cloud” which she accesses using any surface in the lab (WorldKit). When she wants to note something down or lookup the required concentration of a chemical, she just waves onto a surface to make a “screen”. She is now always easily able to access all her information. Instead of using clunky interfaces to control the machines she is able to use her own programmed gestures throughout the lab to control the machines she needs for her experiments. She can keep track of all her experiments as all the machines are online and she can monitor their progress day or night.