It’s far from grim up north

28 Oct

I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at Northern UX 2 on Friday 25th October, sharing the stage with some serious heavy hitters in UX and design like sparky Mark McNeill (@dancingmango), and the mighty Joe Leech of CX Partners (@mrjoe). I spoke about running workshops and how much they can contribute to getting a project started well, creating a spark and getting people involved in the project in a really productive and creative way.  You can find my slides here if you are interested – any questions feel free to ping me!

Ria Sheppard’s NUX2 slides (pdf)

Ria Sheppard’s NUX2 slides (ppt with notes)


Meet the new boss…

18 Sep

In February, I took my first management role.  I joined a new European product development team being formed in eBay, to create and head up the user experience design team, and one of the most exciting parts was that I would be recruiting and managing people for the first time.  PICKING PEOPLE!  TO MAKE A TEAM OF UX DESIGNERS! This was challenging new territory for me, though I thought I was pretty good at mentoring people and leading projects.  I knew this was a really great opportunity to grow; ever the optimist,I was hoping I could make the jump relatively easily.   So I bounded into town, and rolled my sleeves up.

Getting started

No sooner had I arrived than I was being asked to make decisions.  Did I want to keep the interview process the same?  Was I happy with the recruiters or did I want new ones?  Did I want to rewrite the job descriptions?   Cue panicked expression, swiftly veiled by capable ‘no problem, I am a thrusting professional’ face.  There were a few sweaty moments alright.  The simple truth was, I didn’t know enough about the team, the projects, or the company to make these calls, but at the time I felt exposed and a bit rubbish. That feeling abated fairly quickly, but I thought it would be nice to share my thoughts with anyone else who’s new to this game – hopefully it will make you feel a bit better.

What I needed to know

That it’s OK to ask You’re a new manager – the manager who hired you a) has been there, and b) knows you’re new – you told him that!  Here at eBay, I happen to be surrounded by friendly people happy to share their own learnings and experiences, so asking other hiring managers was a massive help.  Hearing about the worst interview experiences from other hiring managers does a lot to cheer the soul when you are new to this!

That it’s ok to find your feet There’s no need to change everything about the existing process at once.  Suck things and see.  For example, I didn’t change the job description until I had seen a bunch of CVs, and spoken to a good few candidates.  Once I knew which skills or attributes I WASN’T seeing enough of, I updated the descriptions and we sent them out again.

That your process can evolve   It took me a while to find the right balance between keeping the bar high and only spending time on high quality candidates, and keeping the process short enough that we didn’t miss out on great people cos other companies could get to offer more quickly. I changed the interview process a few times, introducing an initial face to face interview (mostly to check the candidate wasn’t from Venus), then removing it again in favour of a screener task which we can use to assess whether to bring the candidate in to meet the team.

That briefing recruiters is important, and worth doing thoroughly.  Seeing good quality CVs arrive really cheers you up.  A call with each recruiter to talk through everything you are looking for, including the ‘soft stuff’ like ‘speaks in full sentences’ and ‘has presence’, is helpful.  Preparing for that call also makes you think hard about exactly what you want.

What I learned about interviewing

A CV is a crucial part of assessment – so’s the portfolio.  I don’t invite someone to interview now unless I see something good in both.  Personally I have a problem with recruitment agencies who strip out the formatting that a candidate has applied to their own CV, as this gives me a lot of clues to how good they are at ordering information and communicating.  It still mystifies me why anyone would want to do that.

Stay cool – everyone has a few dud interviews, and I was angst-filled about the first few I had.  However, this did not mean I am a total failure at recruitment, and boy did i learn from the less successful ones!  Words of wisdom, from design maven Aline Baeck, lead UX designer in our team: “don’t be discouraged’.  Sage words.

Have faith – you will find people, and when you find the first one, your confidence will soar. (Thanks to Anusha Nirmalananthan, a top notch product manager on our team for this advice).  Making my first hire was a really great feeling, and she was right – I feel much more confident about finding the next one.

It’s not rude to ask questions and challenge people (With thanks to Greg Smith, head of user experience research and design, who doesn’t shy away from this bit!).  What role did YOU personally play, and who else was on the team?  What DIFFERENCE did you make?  There are a mountain of good guides to interviewing out there, but the key learning for me was to get to the nub of what the individual really did, and how effective it was, as quick as you can.

If you can’t get a straight answer, that’s a problem – sometimes we ask the same question 3 times from different angles, as still can’t quite tell who did what on a project  That’s not good, since communication skills are such a massive part of being a great UX designer.

Trust your gut – people have told me this over and over (particular thanks to Ben Hoskins, head of Engineering, for reassuring me that this is a real thing).  They also told me that, when you see a candidate who’s right, you will know straight away.  More importantly, if a candidate is NOT right, you will know.  If you find yourself swithering, or asking for a second opinion, you’ve probably got your answer.  I’ve found this to be true, which has made me a lot more confident in how I feel about subsequent candidates.

You’re not alone – leaning on more experienced team members was really valuable for me, and gave me reassurance that I would not screw things up too badly.  Every candidate, every interview, every time I was learning more about doing things better.

Looking ahead

In 7 months I have learned such a massive amount about the process of finding the right people, and I am still looking – we are still recruiting for a user experience designer.  It has been hairy at times, and certainly took me out of the comfy parts of my comfort zone.  But let’s face it…that was the point!  As well as looking for another team member, my next set of adventures will be in leading the team, and becoming a decent manager of people.  I have (as always) lots to learn, and so I am happy.

The world of work

31 Oct

Ah, ergonomics at university…the leisurely days, the whirling hygrometers… when the time rolled around to choose a project for the MSc grand finale, I was lucky enough to be offered one with Unilever‘s Global Portal team, based in the ancestral home of soap and hanging baskets, Port Sunlight.  For anyone who is interested in benign dictatorships, Post Sunlight followed the same mould as New Lanark in Scotland – create a utopian village for your workers to live in, which means happy workers, as long as they go to church, stay sober, and work hard til they die.  These days, Unilever is a collossus of consumer products; in fact you have probably used or eaten something from their factories today already.  I joined a team creating the company’s first global intranet, and so I was able to try out some of the principles I had learned from the MSc course on a web-based system, in a large and very diverse organisation.

Also, Unilever owns Walls, so there was a lot of free icecream.  I won’t lie, this was probably a contributing factor in my deciding to take a job there once I graduated.

Being a member of a global company has its perks: I was able to test with visually impaired employees in Hamburg, and to interview employees in New York about how they work with the many and varied systems.  I spent some time in Singapore, although to this day I can’t remember what crucial task I was supposed to be doing.  Another thing about large organisations is that people can be quite relaxed about travel budgets.  It had its frustrations too, a major one being the amount of influence you have on the systems you work with, and the ecosystem outwith those systems – perhaps more than most workplaces, the denizens of a large organisation have a LOT of IT to contend with.  They are punch-drunk with initiatives and new systems, each one hailed as the new saviour of productivity or convenience.  I stayed with Unilever for 5 years, and then moved to MoneySupermarket to tackle usability on a site which had grown incredibly quickly, in quite an ad-hoc fashion, to become the UK’s biggest price comparison site…there was less bureacracy, less structure, more speed and passion, and LOTS more for me to do.  In the time I have been here, usability has evolved into user experience, and I have learned a lot about the web, e-commerce, marketing, and SEO.  I have learned that in the top trumps of delivery, Agile beats waterfall, and that a confident collaborative nimble team beats a PRINCE2 project process, hands down.  I have also learned a lot (probably more than I might have wanted to) about financial products…

On starting

17 Oct

Next month, I am speaking at the Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors (IEHF) Ergonomics Careers Day 2012, a day aimed at students and newly qualified graduates of ergonomics and human factors and related disciplines.  That was me once, so I’m happy to accept the opportunity to talk to a roomful of students wondering what their next move after uni was going to be.  But what to talk about?

Getting into User Experience

My path into user experience started with a degree in psychology at the University of Glasgow, and 5 fateful lectures tacked onto the end of the cognitive course, where the supremely eccentric long-haired academic Steve Draper wished to tell us all about instruction manuals.  Or something like that.  All I DO remember is that the prescribed book was a golden gem, which I read from cover to cover, while listening to things falling into place all over my tiny brain.  The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman is essentially one man’s frustration that push doors have pull handles, expanded and expressed in one of the greats in the UEx library.

The Design of everyday things by Donald Norman

One man’s rage against the fact the cooker rings don’t correspond to the knobs properly.

This led me into reading about ergonomics, which I had heard of only in relation to office chairs; and BINGO, I knew what I wanted to do with my life.  Reading about ergonomics and the ethos of person-centred design lit lightbulbs and gave me a clear career path – more uni! A Masters! No need to go into the real world just yet!

Studying ergonomics

Some research led me to find that Loughborough University was considered the heart of ergonomics and human factors in the UK, and so I headed there to take up the Ergonomics MSc.  Like a wee sponge, I soaked up transport ergonomics, environmental assessments, and how to make sure you don’t accidentally send a nuclear plant into meltdown (key trick:  don’t place the ‘Initiate reactor meltdown’ button next to the intercom button).  It’s fair to point out that, much like my time studying psychology, I was not particularly sponge-like in my absorption of statistics, which I fear and revile to this day – mercifully, I have not needed to explain how an ANOVA test works to anyone, ever, so far.

The research in lboro was (and still is) focused heavily around safety critical systems, product design, and things of the real world, so I didn’t come across web usability as part of the course.  What I loved, though, was that the principles of human-centric design, and the principles around things like error prevention, held fast and true across the physical world, and the virtual one.  Of which more next time…

Autumn haiku

10 Oct

My first haiku, dedicated to Chlöe Morrish, poet par excellence and all round good egg…

Sketching makes things nicer

19 Sep

Here’s a lesson I had learned, and then forgotten until recently:  rough sketched pen drawings are much nicer than wireframes when it comes to telling someone the story of your design.  Now I knew this was the case in the early stages of a design, such that I always start with sketching, usually with other people in the team – it’s a great way to throw ideas about (and out!) quickly.  But on my current project, I am in a world of precision wireframes, where all the pages are following a well-defined grid, with lots of recurring bits and bobs (yes folks, the hugely entertaining part where you have had all the fun ideas generation, and only the detail and repetitious creation remains).  When you hit that stage of a project, it just makes sense to reuse the same deck of omnigraffle files, and before you know it, sketching and scribbling squiggly lines to represent ‘some content here’ goes out of the window.  But when you try to show those pristine creations to someone new to the project, particularly when that someone is a designer coming in cold at a later stage, you find that their eyes glaze over somewhat.

This week, I will be mostly grabbing the sketchy style templates from GraffleTopia, and keeping the ‘other other’ users for this project process, my stakeholders and colleagues in mind when I demonstrate ideas.

Update 20th Sept:  An interesting post on Smashing about sketching, and particularly using layers of markers to rough design ideas in.  I think that this is a skill not everyone might have but to me the principle is the important thing – sketching is a crucial tool in the UEx arsenal.

The Messy Art of UX Sketching | Smashing Magazine

Losing things

21 Dec

I have lost two family members this month – one canine, one human.  The funeral was cold, impersonal, and bleak – typical Church of Scotland really.  And I thought of this poem, which I only read for the first time on Monday – surely the job of a church is to provide this sort of image of comfort?


Eden Rock

by Charles Causley


They are waiting for me somewhere beyond Eden
My father, twenty-five, in the same suit
Of Genuine Irish Tweed, his terrier Jack
Still two years old and trembling at his feet.

My mother, twenty-three, in a sprigged dress
Drawn at the waist, ribbon in her straw hat,
Has spread the stiff white cloth over the grass.
Her hair, the colour of wheat, takes on the light.

She pours tea from a Thermos, the milk straight
From an old H.P. sauce-bottle, a screw
Of paper for a cork; slowly sets out
The same three plates, the tin cups painted blue.

The sky whitens as if lit by three suns.
My mother shades her eyes and looks my way
Over the drifted stream. My father spins
A stone along the water. Leisurely,
They beckon to me from the other bank.
I hear them call, ‘See where the stream-path is!
Crossing is not as hard as you might think.’

I had not thought that it would be like this.

Defining a method everyone can use

15 Nov

I’ve spent the last year exploring a variety of tools and literature associated with persuasion, and now I have started passing some of the better known techniques onto other people around the business, particularly those who are creating content and propositions.  Although it’s relatively easy to give a good overview of the main techniques and insights, it’s more challenging to distil that into a simple and accessible toolkit that anyone can use to enhance their usual design process.  In the end I have looked at fantastic source material and methodologies from the Human Factors International ‘Persuasion, Emotion and Trust’ course contents, Dan Lockton’s Design with Intent, and most recently Mental Notes from Stephen P Anderson, all of which take a slightly different angle and provide a slightly different framework.  My challenge is to take the great bits from all of this and make a simplified toolkit that suits our business and helps us grow into this way of approaching design.

At this stage, anyone who hears about the techniques are extremely interested, and can recognise easily the many places they have seen them used before.  How, though, can we make it easy to inject persuasion into any task we undertake?  What makes for an accessible and engaging methodology, with a light touch, that a team can pick up and run with easily?


Reinventing the wheel…

16 Aug

Yesterday I tried to get to grips with how a few key components of experience design could fit together in our company and have us all aiming at the same high standards, while letting individual teams test, learn and improve what we do.  I thought about it for 15 minutes, scribbled a diagram, and then had to have a lie down in a darkened room!  Here is my knotty problem:

How do we find a way of working that incorporates the following:  our brand identity, our hunger for multivariate testing and squeezing more and more value out of existing areas of the site, our recently set up component library driving standardisation, and an understanding of customer motivations and barriers, leading into an arsenal of persuasion, emotion and trust tools to overcome them.

See what I mean?  Your forehead is damp at the thought, isn’t it.  If it’s NOT, then perhaps you could give me a few ideas!

The lull before the library

9 Nov

As an inhouse team, we are usually insanely busy with the usual mixture of tiny, fiddly, irritating jobs and large, fulfilling and kinda cool ones.  But from time to time we find that the business is winding down, and the need for our skills winds down too.  This is great – for about a day, and then we start sniffing about to find other mischief we can get into.  During this lull, we have started working on a Pattern Library for the site, to help us get our house in order.

What is a Pattern Library?

A Pattern Library is essentially a list of commonly used components.  Even though there are only 4 designers and 2 UEx people in our team, we have created different variations of the same components as we have worked on different projects.  Now, as we strive for a consistent user experience across the site, we find that we have multiple wys of doing the same thing, and we want that to stop.

Step 1: capture the patterns

The first job was to trawl through the site screenshotting every ‘way of doing something’ I could find – these comprised the first patterns.  This was pretty much a one man job, and took about a day.  I started on the home page and found an item – a carousel.  I then mooched about on other pages capturing every other one of those we have, and put them all on one slide.  Repeat for every other pattern we have, and we had the core of our library.

Step 2:  Assess the damage – just how inconsistent are we?

For each pattern, I had a first go at rating how inconsistent each component was.  This was rated on graphical appearance, the interaction, the build style and quality, and lastly how critical this inconsistency was to the site.

Step 3:  Prioritise

When we reveiwed the patterns within the team, we wfound that some were bad and should be looked at right away, while others were not life threatening.  Important ones were The Basics, such as link colours and states, button colours, fonts, and how we treat our great deals.  A couple of the designers started working through these, defining colours, outlining instructions on how to create consistent components, and packaging all this into the beginnings of a style guide.

Step 4:  Work ’em through

Our lull has now been filled – the designers can take the patterns, review them and start to define a definitive design for each one.  We will then use a single PS file per patern, which means that we will always be using the corect version in new designs.


Using the Pattern Library

No sooner had we started thinking in this way, we found it a lot easier to challenge requests from the business for new and unusual functionality or design.  With a clear mandate from senior management to make the site consistent, we now have the toolkit to push back on new requests by following this simple process.  When someone says “I would like a thingummy bob that does X”, we think:

1.  Do we have a pattern that does X?

If yes:  use the existing pattern (no argument).  If no, create a new pattern and follow all the usual processes of wireframing, usability testing,  etc

The pattern library has really galvanised us into creating the standards that until now we have felt unable or unwilling to create.  This is a tool for our own use, and is designed to be supportive rather than set in stone.  But it has given us a bit of power to our arm in the fight for a consistent UEx.