At least a virtual Pastel de Nata for you :)

Even thought this year we couldn’t enjoy lovely Lisbon with amazing black coffee in one hand and Pastel de Nata in other, the conference was nevertheless filled with great content. So I dove into workshops and talks at Virtual UXLx 2020 with a cup of tea, takeout food and in a comfy chair at home instead. Let me give you a curated sum-up of my UXLx 2020.

Systemic Design

My first day was dedicated to a whole day workshop about Systemic Design with Sabrina Tarquini from Belgian agency Namahn.

If you (like me) didn’t know what to expect from the term “Systemic Design” — imagine a framework combining other methods or mental frameworks:

  • systems thinking
  • design thinking
  • proposition canvases
Where does systemic design stand in comparison to other design disciplines? While service design deals with the
Sidenote — System thinking
You can look at pretty much anything around you (digital product, customer base, community, water cycle, the ecosystem, the universe,…) as a system. System is typically defined by a couple of things. There are the things the systems consists of or flow within the system (information, money, energy, water in various states) — these are called stocks (how much of something there is) and flows (where does it go?). And the other things are the causal relations between stuff in the system. For example if there are too many predators in the ecosystems, the amount of herbivores will go down. These relations can (and do) form causal loops: to continue in the previous example — too many predators will cause a lower number of herbivores which in turn will result in slower growth of their population, which will cause less prey for predators which will lead to slowing of their population explosion… You get where I’m going. There is a great number of variables in any system and even greater number of the causal relations between them.

I think most of the people reading this are familiar with the design thinking methodology. If not, here you can find out what it is and why is it so popular.

Proposition canvases are tools which can help you position a product or service around what the customer (or other stakeholder) values and needs.

The main advantage of systemic design is its ability to identify problems and design highly efficient solutions on a huge scale. Just to be clear we’re not talking project or organisational level, but society-wide-kind-of huge challenges. Real life examples included tackling healthcare accessibility challenges in certain demographics, creating and implementing intercultural policies in a network of cities or transitioning manufacturing business operating across countries and languages to sustainable practices at all levels. The example we worked with during the workshop was no small feat either — aligning small and medium businesses, research facilities, local governing bodies and universities on a path to innovation in quite traditional areas of wine making and distribution.

The whole workshop was based on a framework developed by Namahn and shiftN which consisted of 7 steps:

  1. Framing the system: understanding the “big picture”, current practices, trends and initiatives in the system)
  2. Listening to the system: a way to model, summarise and communicate your field research.
  3. Understanding the system: creating a system map — visualising the system, its structure and the interrelations between its elements.
  4. Defining the desired future: creating a value proposition and exploring the benefits we want to create in the future individuals, organisations and society.
  5. Exploring the possibility space: by creating Intervention strategy — understanding and exploring on which levels (how) you can intervene in the system.
  6. Designing the intervention model: the “interventions” (design concepts) that will enable change in the new system.
  7. Fostering the transition: creating a roadmap for transition — a tool to plan the implementation of the interventions, in a way that transformation happens step by step.

When I saw that the workshop will last more than 9 hours I was honestly quite worried how will it go. Will I stay focused for so long? Will I be able to take in so much information? Won't it get boring after while? Will it work in the virtual setting? And what about the interactive parts?

Thankfully none of my worries came true. I think the key to that was great timing and dramaturgy of the workshop that was obviously well thought through. Every block of theory was followed by an example which was followed by exercise in a group of 5 participants. Each group was assisted by knowledgable facilitator so the flow of exercises was fluid and every question could be answered and covered properly. And all exercises were tied together in one big narrative unraveling throughout the day. Another great kudos and thanks to Sabrina and Kristel for impeccable guidance and facilitation.

Although it's clear that the framework is most useful for solving wicked problems on a huge scale, I can certainly see that I will use it in my product — centered practise as well. Either as a big, holistic tool to diagnose and address previously hidden issues or just use its parts, steps and individual techniques. I am sure I will benefit from the rather different viewpoint the systemic approach offers.

If you’re interested in learning more about the toolkit just move on to Systemic Design toolkit for a comprehensive overview and tools 🙂.

Designing for how people think

The other workshop I would like to mention was John Whalen’s Design for How people think.

The workshop was framed right at the beginning with a thesis I think should be taught and repeated to UX designers on and on again:

User experience doesn’t happen on a screen, it happens in the mind. UX is multi-dimensional and multi-sensory.

With his background in Cognitive Psychology and John made an excellent case for why should designers pay attention to all those things people do unconsciously (which honestly turned out to be almost everything 😃 )

As he gracefully put it right at the beginning of the workshop:

John explained his concept in a way that was very easy to digest and process — basically every human has (figuratively said) 6 minds. Each of them takes care of a different area:

From John's presentation

Even though this workshop was a shorter one (approx. 4 hours) it didn’t lack participation and many intriguing questions — such as: “How do you distinguish image of chihuahua from image of blueberry muffin?” or “How is it that even if you say you lack a sense of orientation you find your way to bathroom to brush your teeth every morning?”

age-old question: is it chihuahua or muffin?

Regarding the individual “minds” and how they work, I’ll just leave you with a couple of questions, tips and interesting prompts you might want to consider or ponder upon the next time you’re designing something.

  1. Vision — most of the stuff we perceive as our “vision” is automatic and we have a little control of what’s going on. You as a designer can use this to your benefit by working wisely with variations in shape, size, orientation, position weight and color of the stuff you put in your design. You may also be familiar with a Gestalt design principles — similar framework deeply rooted in psychology and neuro–science. In your practice always ask what should attract your users’ attention or what are they looking for in the situation they’re in.
  2. Wayfinding — people use “mental metaphors” or simplifications to describe where they are in virtual space to make it more relatable to more common physical experiences. Make it clear to them where they are and how can they get there (or somewhere else from there).
  3. Memory — the way the human memory works is that it forms a number of abstractions from the stuff you perceive with your senses. However these abstractions are much simpler than the stuff you see or hear or experience. Every person creates their own “prototype” of the abstraction. Our job is to get to know their abstraction and fill it up with (useful or pleasurable) details.
  4. Language — make sure you and the user speak the same language. Of course, “Cerebral vascular accident” is the correct medical term but it won’t help someone looking for information about “stroke” in an emergency.
  5. Decision making and problem solving — we solve problems all the time. Be it something like: “Which blender should I choose from this listing?” or “How the hell am I (a guy well past his teens) supposed to navigate this snapchat app?” . Every time we do so, minds create something called “problem space”. This is a space containing all the information, boundaries and things our mind perceives to be necessary for solving a problem. (Imagine an escape room — a closed room containing all the clues and tools you need to solve its puzzle). However, many times our mind gets the definition of problem space wrong — the key element / information / limits is just outside the boundaries the mind just produced (i.e. Real world is nothing like escape room). It is super important that we — designers understand our users in this manner — where they think they are in the problem space, what they believe the goal is, and how they think they will move towards the goal state. Only then we can make their experience good and maybe even surprisingly pleasurable.
  6. Emotion — most of the stuff we do is not emotionally laden by itself — we attribute the emotion to stuff thanks to our context and the meaning we give it. Something might look completely mundane (filling in stuff in some corporate back office software), but if we tie that to our definition of self (e.g. “I want to prove myself at this work position because this position and title is very important to me” or just “I want to be perceived as responsible professional among my new colleagues”) it can trigger a lot of emotional response and cause a lot of stress. And when you’re in stress you will behave differently. Often times you’ll just make some shortcut to a solution that seems to be most probable to you (and which might not be correct or the best for you. (Note: if you want to learn more about this there’s a great podcast episode with John himself explaining this.) So, what does that mean for me as a designer? That I need to know the context of the person I’m designing for. Not just assume or guess, because I might (and probably will) be terribly wrong about that.

This workshop was a bit more playful both in delivery and individual exercises and it was a clear demonstration of John's years and years of experience in leading research interviews and workshops. Honestly just to observe the ease with which he led it was both humbling and inspiring experience. Regarding the content itself: some parts seemed like basic UX knowledge but every now and then an interesting question or concept popped up. I will definitely try to take in account and make use of the automatic responses and reactions John covered. And of course I'll keep reminding myself that: User experience doesn’t happen on a screen, it happens in the mind.

So this is it for my notes from workshops, I hope I transferred at least a bit of knowledge and inspiration I gained during those eventful days at UXLx 2020.

The UX Collective donates US$1 for each article published in our platform. This story contributed to UX Para Minas Pretas (UX For Black Women), a Brazilian organization focused on promoting equity of Black women in the tech industry through initiatives of action, empowerment, and knowledge sharing. Silence against systemic racism is not an option. Build the design community you believe in.