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UX Australia 2017: Designers as puppetmasters

Dave Former Business Development Manager 30th Aug, 2017
Close up of some conference participants watching a presentation

Autism, chat-bots, empathetic design, cultural de-categorisation, inclusivity, designing cities, saving lives…UX design is a cakewalk.

My experience at UX Australia 2017 in Sydney was episodic, suspenseful and lacking closure (in a good way); a precursor to a climax that the UX community has yet to write. This was the ‘Dunkirk’ of conferences.

This was the ‘Dunkirk’ of conferences.

I say this in a positive sense. The two days of presentations that I attended were invigorating to someone like me, who is (relatively) new to the industry. I can’t imagine the effect was any less profound for UX veterans who must have felt as if their field had just grown a new set of legs.

Movers and shakers

If you thought ‘boutique’ UX designers were too busy seeking out new sports jackets to don over their t-shirts to be considering the ‘Big Issues’, think again. That said, the prevalence of this attire did alienate me slightly. In a room full of designers, dressing like an investment banker screams, “Do not approach!” Rest assured, I scaled it back for Day Two.

Despite the fashion stakes, the presentations were mostly excellent, and ran the gamut of the importance of getting conversational Artificial Intelligence (AI) right, or as human as possible, to showing how a simple chart or graph heading in hospital patient analytics can be the difference between life and death.

Running through each presentation, and evident in the conviction of each speaker, was a real sense of unity.

The effect of this thematic disjointedness was initially overwhelming, until I realised this disparity was surface-level only; running through each presentation, and evident in the conviction of each speaker, was a real sense of unity. Here was a group of people who care deeply for the influence their work has on society, and the ramifications of design principles on vulnerable members or groups in the community.

Talking points

The importance of creative and inclusive design

UX designer Sharon Mackay’s opening keynote touched on aspects of her work from designing panda bear enclosures at a Canadian zoo to developing an integrated urban renewal strategy for South Australia’s tourist-deficient capital, Adelaide.

Sharon explored why creative and inclusive design needs to be emphasised as much as, if not more than, practicality. To demonstrate this, Sharon juxtaposed an image of a bland, generic inner-city street with an entrance to a university campus adorned with plants, maximising natural light and overflowing with space.

The conscientious designer wants to create an inspiring, practical and inclusive experience.

Her key point: the conscientious designer wants to create an inspiring, practical and inclusive experience; empty rooms don’t have to be packed to the rafters, lifeless and efficient.

Listen to Sharon Mackay’s opening keynote on the UX Australia website


Defining value in human-centred design

Ethnographer, researcher and designer Michael Palmyre’s interesting albeit theory-heavy talk on human-centred design, at its core, ran in the same vein as Sharon Mackay’s. He suggested, or rather stated, that ethical design is in complete conflict with capitalist ideology.

I would argue, as Michael probably would too, that any agency with enterprise clients is feeding the beast. Designers can, however, work to enhance inclusivity and engage audiences that otherwise wouldn’t be. This is the responsibility and plight of the user experience professional.

Review Michael Palmyre’s presentation on the UX Australia website


Designing for difference

Perhaps the most startling embodiment of the importance of inclusive design was Ashlea McKay’s session. Ashlea, a UX researcher from PwC Australia, was diagnosed with autism at 30, and has since come to terms with her autism, readily pronouncing it as integral to her identity.

Ashlea urged designers to build experiences that harness the advantages of individual neurodiversity, and denounced the spectrum categorisation of autism. She argued that everyone is presented with different and significant challenges whether they are considered as ‘mild’ or ‘severe’ on a pre-fabricated spectrum, and each case needs to be catered for in different ways.

Ashlea explained how assisted experiences, such as clear signage, coloured visual paths or the prevalence of space (in a physical context), can impact an autistic individual’s experience substantially, and support sensory overload rather than try and counteract it. As she put it: You wouldn’t ask a person in a wheelchair to stand up and walk up a flight of stairs.

You wouldn’t ask a person in a wheelchair to stand up and walk up a flight of stairs.

I was fascinated by Ashlea’s talk. Her message was resoundingly one of empathy delivered with sparkling clarity.

Review Ashlea Mackay’s presentation on the UX Australia website


The artist

Some of the artist’s sketchnotes from UX Australia 2017And what’s a design-focused conference without a healthy dose of great, communicative design?

For good measure, a very talented fellow who I didn’t get to meet was sketching talks on butcher’s paper, visualising them in real time.

This was a great example of a skill I can’t begin to fathom. Amazing, really.


Navigating contradiction’s maze

Fittingly for an event that encouraged questions to be asked about the industry’s footprint on the wider community, a few contradictions reared their heads.

Once debates cease, an industry will come to a grinding halt.

Information Architect Donna Spencer’s largely ad-lib and memorable presentation on the consequences of using categories argued the case for de-categorisation in design and policy. Yet this was followed jarringly (and entertainingly) by experience design director Adam Faulkner’s interactive session on culturally inclusive design, which included live polling relayed from audience members’ smartphones to the big screen – and categorising every participant by a percentage.

Some of the UX Australia 2017 participants watching a presentation

My U1 Group colleague, UX consultant Elise Margetts, gave a terrific presentation on behavioural spillover, a phenomenon whereby performing one goal-directed behaviour can increase, or decrease, the likelihood of performing another similar behaviour. Elise used fitness tracking apps as an example of a catalyst for positive spillover.

Yet before this, Tobias & Tobias Principal Consultant Ash Donaldson’s presentation on ethical frameworks had alluded to fitness apps as encouraging dangerous behaviours in those who may be susceptible to obsessive behaviours or eating disorders.

Narrative clashes are a good thing and a great sign. Once debates cease, an industry will come to a grinding halt. It seems UX is steaming ahead at full pelt.

Leaders versus followers

At the start of this review, I labelled the UX Australia 2017 conference as a build-up. I’ve been to many an insurance forum, having once worked in the industry, and I’m certain the majority of attendees thought that they were performing a vital role in the lives of the millions of accident-prone people who might, one day, make a claim on their insurance policy. While an optimistic stance to take, it’s one that has been embedded into the daily wordsmithery of the insurance salesman since the dawn of, well, insurance.

There is no such script for the UX professional – rather, a reliance on creative progression. That’s not intended as an indictment on workers governed by corporate principles, but it serves to remind us that adhering to these principles isn’t always fashionable, or particularly useful.

I’m quite convinced that the people I met, or listened to, at UX Australia want to instil change, and the difference is they know that it’s possible. We all walked away from the conference ready to do important work, and that work won’t just end. It was unexpected, energetic, full of new ideas, promoting moral debate, and questioning and re-appraising what we might consider the norms of experience design. If I’ve positioned UX Australia 2017 as a moment of enlightenment then I should illustrate why.

It was unexpected, energetic, full of new ideas, promoting moral debate, and questioning and re-appraising what we might consider the norms of experience design.

I’d been buried in a world of digital marketing, advertising and research for quite some time, and had years added to my age in days at sponsor-laden conferences which spruiked programmatic buying, warned of Big Data as the catalyst for the end-of-research-as-we-know-it, and often spoke of the human experience in 1s and 0s.

To be surrounded by close-to-a-thousand UX professionals with a vision to do good was not something I was expecting. But what a welcome surprise.

UX Australia 2017 was held in Sydney from 8-11 August 2017. Find the full program of presentations on the UX Australia website.


About The Author

Dave Former Business Development Manager

Prior to joining U1 Group midway through 2017, David worked in the Australian and UK Market Research industries respectively, servicing leading financial institutions by delivering consumer insights and pricing strategy consultation. Before this, David spent four years within the Australian financial and insurance sector itself. He has a Bachelor of Business, Marketing and a Management double major from Newcastle University (NSW) and a passion and experience in winemaking.


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