Questions are the answer

Ben Holliday’s UXBristol talk about ‘Asking Design Questions‘ really resonated with me.

As a consultant, you can often feel like you are supposed to have all of the answers.

I think it’s more about having all of the questions.

Every challenge presents a problem to solve.

You can’t understand the problem without asking good questions.

They are fundamentally important throughout the entire process.

You need to question your brief in order to understand it properly such as…

  • Why are you doing this?
  • Why are you doing this now?
  • What do you think are the reasons behind the problem you are seeing?
  • What is the cost of the problem to the organisation today?

Successful early meetings are grounded on asking questions such as…

  • What problem are you really trying to solve?
  • How will we know if we have succeeded?
  • Who should we involve?
  • What should we know at the end that we do not know today?

Questions, questions, questions.

Our research starts with identifying the big questions that are on our clients minds such as…

  • Why has our conversion rate dropped?
  • Do people understand and value our proposition?
  • What are the most challenging aspects of choosing a university course?
  • Why do people choose our competitors over us?

We explore the business context of our work by interviewing senior stakeholders and asking questions such as…

  • What are you trying to achieve as an organisation?
  • How does this piece of work contribute towards your vision?
  • What is the impact of this problem?
  • What do you want to get from this project?

Questions, questions, questions.

We explore these within our research with people by asking them questions such as…

  • When did you book your last holiday?
  • What are you looking for in a new car?
  • How do you go about choosing a new savings account?
  • How do you find out about planned changes to your local area?

Once we’ve completed our research we’re still asking questions such as…

  • What have we learned?
  • How can we communicate our learnings in the most effective way to the people who need to hear them the most?
  • How can we apply what we have learnt to improve what we are working on?
  • Which problems should we tackle first?

Questions, questions, questions.

When our work comes to an end we’re still asking questions such as…

  • What went well?
  • What would we do differently next time?
  • What have we learned?
  • Which of our initial assumptions and hypotheses proved to be true?

But it’s not just the project team who are asking questions.

Our customers are full of questions that they need answers to before they can complete their everyday tasks such as…

  • Is it good quality?
  • Do I like the look of it?
  • Do I trust them?
  • Can I return it if I don’t like it?

The best products and services second guess (and then answer) the questions of the people who use them.

What’s the most important question you need to answer to improve your own project, career, product or service?

Questions are the answer.

What are your superpowers?

I love asking people what their superpowers are.

It’s a cracking opening gambit, particularly over a few drinks.

I’ve learned all sorts of amazing things about the people I work with.

One colleague can guess the price of any banana by simply weighing it in her hands.

Another knows exactly where they are on their commute without looking out of the windows of the bus.

Since an early age I have been able to throw cricket balls unfeasibly long distances.

All good stuff!

It’s a really useful question to consider from a work perspective too.

Your superpowers are the things you find easy, that other people value and find very hard to do themselves.

Perhaps you find it really easy to build rapport with people or you might be completely un-phased by giving presentations to large groups of people.

Knowing what your superpowers are is a superpower in its own right.

I’ve started to adapt it further when interviewing senior stakeholders about their business strategy.

I simply ask “What is your organisational superpower that your customers value and your competitors find really hard to do themselves?”.

It’s a nice way to liven up what can sometimes be quite dry conversations.

Businesses should not only be trying to get better at the things they do badly, but also to optimise their superpowers – as it is these that their competitors will always find so much harder to match.

Take a moment to think about your own superpowers and ask your colleagues about theirs too.

You may never look at them in the same way again!

UXBristol talks are now online

We had a fantastic day of short talks at UXBristol this year.

Hopefully we managed to capture the essence of the event despite the online format – fingers crossed that we can get back to a face to face event next year.

Thanks again to all of our wonderful sponsors (Kaluza, cxpartners, Hargreaves Lansdown, ADLIB, Mace & Menter & Smaply) who made the day possible.

If you missed the event, you can catch up by watching the recording of the entire livestream or jump straight into specific talks as below.

Chui Chui Tan – Offering a better, localised experience for your global customers

This talk is about the steps you can take to make sure you can offer the best, localised experience to your customers in different markets. It covers why it is important to have a clear holistic understanding of your global audiences and their context. Practical tips will be provided to guide you through this process not only to inform your design, but also your marketing or other business strategies.


Ben Holliday – Asking design questions 

Design questions can be the real practical superpower of impactful UX and design work in all parts of an organisation.

In this talk, Ben Holliday will explore how anyone can start to ask design questions in the places and situations that they work in.


Flow Bohl – How to present design work to non-designers

A good presentation could get your design approved, or quickly dismissed if you don’t present it right.

In this talk, Flow will outline six useful steps to successfully present design work to non-designers.


Kat Husbands – Imposter syndrome in User Centred Design

Imposter syndrome: an insidious, inner critic. At best it sucks the joy out of a job well done, and at worst it can cripple your career.

Kat surveyed 100 user centred designers about their experiences of imposter syndrome and is here to share what she learned about where it comes from, who it affects the most, and of course how to beat it.

Tom Ridley – Beyond the Beeps: Designing with Sound

Tom demystifies the field of Product Sound (think: Alexa, your Microwave, that person on the train with their keyboard clicks turned on), and provide some fundamental principles, ideas and techniques, such that any design practitioner, without a shred of musical ability, could begin to explore product sound and put it to test.


Abby Covert – How to diagram

This talk aims to help rid the world of bad diagrams by teaching the purpose, process and craft of diagramming. Because your diagrams might suck, but they don’t have to.

Join us at UXBristol on 16th July!

The 11th UXBristol will be taking place, live on YouTube on Friday 16th July from 09:30 – 15:30 (BST).

The event is free, thanks to the generous support of our sponsors.

We hope to return to the MShed next year, but in the meantime are glad that we can keep the event running and reach a global audience!

We have a great line up of speakers covering a great range of topics in their 20 minute talks.

To get access to the conference slack channel and be entered into the tombola you will need to register for the event.

We look forward to seeing you there!

Master the basics of your business

Recently I listened to a the ex-England rugby player Will Carling talk about his time as captain.

He described a time when his team were experiencing a poor run of form.

He decided the team needed to reset by focussing on doing the basics well.

His thinking was sound.

His plan was to go back to basics and become better at them than anyone else in order to win more games.

First he asked his team to identify the basics.

Some argued for the line out, some for kicking, some for scrummaging.

They quickly realised they all had a completely different view on what the basics of a relatively simple game are!

What chance do you have of success if you can’t agree on what the basics are that you need to get right!

Every business has a set of ‘basics’ that it needs to master in order to succeed.

An airline has to have access to a fleet of well maintained planes.

An ecommerce business must offer a great delivery & returns service.

A photographer must have mastered the technical aspects of their equipment.

A business consultant must be able to build excellent relationships and trust with their clients.

Consider your own business.

What do you think are the basics that you need do brilliantly in order to succeed?

I bet you think it’s obvious but then when you give it some thought it becomes less unclear.

Ask your colleagues to do the same thing and compare your ideas.

If you all agree it’s good, you’re aligned.

If you all disagree then it gets really interesting!

Without this thinking and alignment how can you know where to focus your finite time and effort?

You can’t do everything, but you have to get the basics right to stand any chance of success.

Use this simple method to identify your riskiest assumptions

Imagine being the boss of the internet only car dealer Carzoo.

Your entire business model relies upon people being happy to buy what is typically their second most expensive purchase, without seeing it or test driving it first.

It’s really interesting to consider some of the assumptions that need to be true in order for this business to succeed ;

  • People will happily buy a car without seeing it ‘for real’ and test driving it
  • A money back guarantee will be enough to make people feel comfortable to spend thousands online
  • People will prefer shopping for cars in this way because car salespeople have such a bad reputation
  • People will be happy to buy cars online despite there being no physical dealership to go to if things go wrong

I wonder what research Carzoo did to explore these assumptions in order to get to the point that they were happy to launch the service?

As with every product and service, there are always a bunch of assumptions that need to be true in order to succeed.

On a recent project, we ran a really useful exercise designed to flush out our riskiest assumptions.

Critically, it also helped to identify how much confidence the team had in each of them being true.

It worked like this.

  • Ask everyone to list all of the assumptions that they feel underpin the success of your product or service (If people are struggling ask them to pretend they are funding it with their own money and watch the assumptions flow!)
  • Take each assumptions in turn and plot it on the following matrix by asking yourselves two simple questions:
  1. How important is it that this assumption is true for us to succeed?
  2. How much confidence do we have that this assumption is true?

A matrix that allows people to plot their assumptions based on how important the assumption is and how much confidence they have in that assumption being true.
Assumptions importance/ confidence matrix

The more assumptions that you have in the top left of the matrix, the more might be feeling that your business model might be build upon a house of cards!!

We used our top left ‘most important / low confidence’ assumptions as the key areas of focus for our user research in order to learn more about them.

We also chose other assumptions to explore from the top right of the matrix to check whether our confidence in them remained.

After the research we reflected on all of the assumptions and re-plotted some of them based on our new knowledge.

It’s important to note that it’s hard to validate assumptions completely as being ‘true’ or ‘false’, in reality you use research to look for signals that will give you more or less confidence in them.

A useful way of thinking about them is as ‘rolling assumptions’ in that you continually explore the most critical ones until others become more important.

The ‘assumptions board’ that this exercise gives you is a useful tool to update throughout the product lifecycle as it gives you a useful reminder of your riskiest assumptions and helps you with where to focus your future research.

Stop working on the wrong problem

I think ‘Build the right thing then build the thing right‘ misses a trick.

It makes you think too much about the thing that you are making and not enough about the fundamental problem you are trying to solve.

Peter Drucker, the ‘founder of modern management’, once said;

There is nothing worse than doing the wrong things right

Peter Drucker

It is sobering to acknowledge how many times we’ve all done ‘the wrong things right’.

I think we should focus instead on;

‘Solving the right problem with the right solution and delivering it in the right way (then continuously improving it)’

The continuous improvement bit is vitally important because things like products and services are never ‘finished’ they can (and should) always be improved.

Choosing the right problem to solve isn’t easy and can feel more like an art than a science.

I’ve used a few different approaches in the past and have tied myself in knots trying to devise complex methods to score problems to determine which are the most important ones to fix.

There is a much simpler method.

In a recent service discovery project I worked on, @_juliesun ran an excellent workshop using this simple ‘action prioritisation matrix’ to help us to prioritise where we should focus our efforts.

Action prioritisation matrix that we used to prioritise service problems by mapping them against the value of solving them vs the effort to do the work
Use this simple matrix to help you prioritise where to focus your efforts

You can use it to plot know problems as well as potential solutions to problems.

In this project having already identified the critical problems within the service, we used it to prioritise potential solutions to explore within our alphas.

It’s all well and good planning and prioritising things of course but vitally important to remember that the only way to learn what really works is by making things real and seeing what happens.

The faster you can test solutions to problems, the faster you can measure the impact they have on the outcomes you’re looking for.

This gives you the best indication of whether you are in fact working on the right problems and allows you to refocus your work accordingly.

So before you fall in love with what you’re going to make and how you’ve going to make it make sure you’re working on the right problem.

What ‘experience baggage’ are your customers carrying?

I recently finally cancelled my Abobe Lightroom subscription after years of putting it off.

I’ve been paying £9.99 a month for it ever since and not really using it.

Every month I saw the money leave my account and kicked myself for not cancelling it.

The problem was I knew just how difficult they were going to make it to leave and I just couldn’t muster the energy to do it.

I put it off because I expected it to be difficult, annoying and frustrating.

I must have looked at a reminder to cancel it on my to do list every day for years.

When I finally cancelled it I was amazed that it only took me a minute to do and was absolutely no hassle whatsoever.

My preconceptions of how hard it was going to be were unfounded but had cost me at least two years worth of subscription fees.

These preconceptions (both good and bad) are built from hundreds of previous experiences that we then bring with us to everything we subsequently do.

I’ve been thinking about this as ‘experience baggage’.

Woman looking at her phone pulling a suitcase
What ‘experience baggage’ are your customers arriving with? (Illustration from storyset.com)

This experience baggage moulds our preconceptions, anxieties and expectations of what an experience will be like and as such influences our behaviour.

As such it’s a critical thing for designers to understand and try and mitigate in our work.

By conducting user research you can identify the experience baggage your customers and potential customers are arriving with when they use your products and services.

Armed with this knowledge and insight you can then deliberately provide experiences that serve to dispel customers preconceptions that will surprise and delight them instead.

Now that I know it’s easy to unsubscribe from Lightroom for example, I’m more likely to re-subscribe in the future.

That’s the sweet spot of experience design, creating something that is both good for the customer and good for the business.

So consider what ‘experience baggage’ your users are arriving with and what you can do at all of your touch points to encourage them to leave it at the door.

Learn about the UX of Photography from optimisation legend Craig Sullivan

As a keen photographer I’ve always been keen to work out how I can crowbar my hobby into my day job.

An ideal opportunity arose many years ago when I noticed major usability issues resulting from the choice of photography on all of my design projects.

I realised just how hugely important photos were to how people made buying decisions and how they responded emotionally to what they were seeing and how that then influenced what they thought and how they behaved.

It felt like photos were the unsung heroes of experience design.

At this point I realised I was onto something and set about trying to improve the effectiveness of online photography and ‘photo UX’ was born.

This mission resulted in many articles, talks and even a book to provide help and guidance to improve the situation given that there was a surprising lack of information on the topic available online.

One person who has always done some really pioneering work in this area is optimisation guru Craig Sullivan.

I loved reading his work on measuring the impact that using different photos had on conversion rates and it was a joy to see someone else (who actually had some data!) was also highlighting the impact that photos can have.

I was delighted to see recently that Craig has shared one of his excellent talks on optimising photography during which he shares some great advice from years of experience and what he’s learned from having run over 20 million tests!

@optimiseordie insights from split testing with different images of people

In his talk you’ll learn more about :

  • What the “Rule of 3” for images is
  • Why stock photography performs badly
  • How to shoot photos of people
  • Why you should experiment with photography
  • How to challenge bad thinking or photos
  • How to make your own photography guidelines
  • About the only book on this topic
  • Why iconography generally doesn’t work

Craig’s talk on the UX of Photography is available on YouTube

Try the ’20 / 20′ productivity hack

Remote working can be pretty tricky in terms of motivation, productivity and fatigue.

The lack of variety in the typical remote working day means huge amounts of screen time for everyone.

This has resulted in eyesight problems, fatigue and headaches for many people.

I discovered a simple trick during lockdown that has really helped me with both my productivity and wellbeing.

Simply set a timer for 20 minutes and try and work solidly for that time.

After 20 minutes take a break away from your screen and focus on something that’s further away than where your screen was (The recommendation is 20 metres away so I just gaze down the garden for a bit).

This technique gives you nice concentrated periods of working time (you’ll be amazed at what you can do in 20 mins!) and also regular breaks to help avoid fatigue and burn out.

If you are feeling particularly keen you can also set goals for things to get done in each 20 minute slot.

Do give it a whirl and see if it helps you feel less tired and more productive.