How mentoring at a hackathon helps focus on idea generation and develops potential

I love being a mentor, and recently I was part of a team who ProductForge invited to their three-day, competitive healthcare hackathon at CodeBase, Edinburgh to mentor the teams taking part and get engaged with the exciting projects that were going on and involved in idea generation and helping the teams come up with a single idea to focus on, then guiding in any way that we could.

Participants form small cross-functional teams to work on a product prototype with support from industry experts in the NHS and the wider technology community. It’s an opportunity for participants to develop new skills, network with professionals, meet potential employers or even kick-start their own company.

Image of hackathon participantsAs with any event of this nature, there was a tangible feeling of excitement – everyone was talking intensely, gesturing and sketching ideas. Some of the teams had pretty solid ideas of what they wanted to do, while others were still in the brainstorming stage – whatever their stage of idea development, the amount of energy, always impressive.

For those teams that had an idea to go forward with, I offered to run a breakout workshop focusing on UX design. For those that hadn’t picked an idea yet, we spent some time trying to help to focus their ideas on something they could work on.

Picture of hackathon particpantsThe workshop got the teams thinking about who they were creating their apps for, explaining that the smaller their focus target audience, the better they could target their research and the clearer they would be of their required functionality.

This message was made continually throughout the day, and it was great to see some of the teams altering their projects to focus on more specific user groups.

The whole day was a lot of fun, and everyone from our team was disappointed to leave at the end.

I’m one of many at Sopra Steria who spend time mentoring – especially with young people still in education who might need some help developing their full potential. It’s all part of our commitment to making a positive difference to the communities in which we live and work, and I’d recommend it to anyone.

Do you have experience in mentoring outside of your workplace? Leave a reply below or contact me by email.

Why do we design “mobile first”?

What does mobile first mean?

Mobile first design refers to the philosophy that the solution should be designed for smaller screen sizes before creating design solutions for larger screen sizes. This is based on the underlying idea that is it much easier to scale a design up than it is to try and squeeze elements into a smaller area.

This concept came from the development and design approach of responsive web design. This uses “break points” at specified widths in the document to display a different design or layout in response to the width of the browser in which the document is being viewed. This allows for the same codebase to display different layouts in response to the width of the document.

Why mobile first design?

When the responsive design approach first began, many designers were so used to creating designs to be used on desktop or laptop devices that they instinctively started with that type of layout when creating a new design.

This caused a lot of issues and complications, as the information being displayed in a large screen format didn’t display well when being forced into a much smaller screen space. Important information was lost, hidden down a long scrolling screen, or removed altogether as designers decided that users only needed limited information on smaller screens or mobile devices.

The approach of designing for the mobile first, or from the smallest screen size up, means that the designer has to think consciously about the importance of content in the information architecture. As the screen size increases the areas of content can expand and be realigned into layouts that make more use of the screen’s real estate.

Focusing on the information architecture from the beginning means that the most important and noteworthy information is presented where it is easily discoverable. Information of less importance is displayed in areas of slightly less importance, and so on.

This approach lets the presentation of the content in relation to its importance guide the layout of the system.

But the system doesn’t need to work on mobile?

“Mobile first” is simply a name. It was coined when the philosophy was first developed to clearly articulate the need to design websites for mobile devices such as phones and tablets before designing layouts for larger screened devices such as laptops and desktop. Even in such a short period of time the name has become antiquated, but is still in use, even when “smallest screen first” makes more sense.

Even though a system is not to be built to work on mobile devices, the philosophy of designing for the smallest screen that it could be displayed on first, before scaling up to larger screen layouts remains. Thinking about the information architecture in detail before beginning any design will always provide better results.

What are your thoughts on website design? Leave a reply below or contact me by email.

Demystifying UX: it’s just like riding a bike

What is UX design?

Ever since the term “UX” (User Experience) design started being used a number of years ago there has been a bit of confusion, especially with clients, as to what UX design actually means. We can explain the methods and processes that we use, but it has always been a bit of a vague description.

The main confusion tends to be that people think that UX design is just a fancy name for (UI) User Interface design. It’s very easy to see how this could seem the case. A lot of the deliverables that a UX designer produces can be very similar to that of a UI designer, but there is also a lot more work going on behind the scenes that is done to produce results that are not as easy to see.

How can we clear this up?

There is always a difficulty in creating a mental model of a digital product. Even with digital products that we use every day, such as email. We tend to default to the visual cues of the product, the email or the inbox, when describing its processes, even though there is a huge amount going on in the background.

One of the reasons for this is that digital products are intangible. We can’t easily lift open the lid and see how all the gears fit together, so this makes it difficult to describe how they work and what they do.

It is a lot easier to explain what a physical product does, because it’s a lot easier to show how it does it. It’s more straight forward to open the back of a clock and see how the bits fit together than to show someone code and explain how it fits together.

A better way to describe what UX design is, would then be to relate it to a physical object that everyone can relate to, and explain how the design of the product is changed to create an experience for the user.

The product

Let’s take a bicycle. It’s a simple product that has been produced for many years and that everyone can relate to. When someone mentions the word “bicycle” or “bike” there is instant recognition as the shape of the product forms in the mind. No more information is provided at this stage, but with what limited information is available, a model is constructed.

The products components

As with any product there are different components that come together on a bike to create the whole. Some of these components the user interacts with directly, while others are there to allow the bike to perform its function. The user interacts with the handlebars, which  turn the front wheel, which steers the bike. While the user does not interact directly with the wheel, the effect they supply at the handlebars directly influences the wheel, which causes a change of direction.

Using this analogy, the cyclist’s interfaces with a bike are all the areas with which they actually interact to perform the task of cycling. These include the handlebars, the seat, the brake levers and the pedals. The other areas of the bike are what could be described as the “back-end system”. These are the components that control how the bike actually works, and the tasks that it performs. Examples of these are the wheels and bearings, the forks, the gears and the chain or the brake cables and pads.

On a bike it’s very easy to see how all these elements connect together to form a whole product, and how a user can interact with the product to create their end user experience – cycling.

How can the experience of “cycling” be designed?

It’s easy to understand what cycling is, but quite an abstract concept to explain. There are lots of elements incorporated into the experience of cycling that go beyond just the experience of interacting with the bike as a product.

The experience includes the feeling of speed, the wind rushing past, the feeling of leaning into the turn going around a corner, the muscle soreness from pedalling and the feeling of cruising along a smooth piece of road. This experience is the culmination of a number of factors including the product, the cyclist and external factors such as the gradient, the type of surface and the speed at which they are cycling.

This means that it doesn’t make sense to say that we are designing “the experience” as much as we’re designing with the experience in mind. We want the experience to be positive, but we can’t force it to be.

Designing without UX

A product like a bike can be designed without using UX design. It would involve being provided with a brief from the client and creating it with the information available.

A designer could have seen a bike before, or cycled a bike before, or even designed a bike before, so they would have in idea of what a bike should look like, and how it should work. They would pull on that experience and create a prototype that fulfils the requirements set down and with which the client is happy. It has handlebars, pedals, a seat, wheels, gears, chains and brakes: everything that the user needs for the bike to work and for them to be able to cycle on it. The client makes a few changes to the design, and the prototype is created into a product.

This method of design can create a usable product, and can create the experience of “cycling” for the user, but we don’t know if the experience is a good one. There are a number of factors that were not considered and, as such, might mean the user having an unpleasant cycling experience.

Designing with UX

Some of what is mentioned above also applies to designing with UX. Once provided with a brief from the client, the designer may have a rough idea of what a bike could look like based on their previous experience. This would not, however, be the design that the client sees. There are other steps that will influence the design before then.

The first step is to ask the client why they want to produce a bike? Who are they making it for? Who is the target audience? What are the goals for the business when producing a bike? All companies need to sell their products to make profit so that they can continue to operate, although some have very different reasons for doing so.

For this example, let’s say that the target market is 16 to 24-year old males, and the company wants to make a profit by selling enough of their bikes, but they also want the target market to associate their brand with well-designed, solid products that perform at a high level. This information can be used to create “personas”, which gives the designer a reference point for all the design decisions that they make throughout the project. It is to ensure that they are designing for the user, not for the client or themselves.

Now that we know who target market, and the business goals for the product, we can start to research what the target market want from the product, and how competitors that already have the desired brand image have achieved that goal.

User research with the target market will discover that a large number of 16 – 24-year old males are interested in mountain biking. This includes cross country, trail and downhill mountain biking that can be done all over the country, and also at specific specialised areas in forests and national parks.

The competitor analysis of other companies in the area shows that those who produce quality, high-performing products use strong, solid and light materials, and have put their products through rigorous tests to prove that they perform at the highest levels. Research into these products give the designer an idea of what designs have proved to work successfully, and can influence the product that they are creating.

Using this information, the designer can begin to create a prototype that is tailored to the target market and the task identified, is using the appropriate materials, and is using known effective design solutions. The designer will also pull on their own experiences from previous products that they have worked on and incorporate them where appropriate.

This prototype is then tested with users in the target user group and in the environment where it is most likely to be used. It is unlikely that the first design created will be the most optimal, so the feedback provided from this testing is fed back into the design followed by further cycles of testing and design iteration until the design is the best that it can possibly be. Only then will the design be put into production and the final product created for sale.

However, this isn’t the end of the product life cycle. The designer should take feedback from those who have bought and used the product extensively to see how it can be improved, and release regular updates to the product, creating versions 2, 3 and beyond, getting closer and closer to providing the best cycling experience for the cyclist.

Just like riding a bike

It’s clear that the bike produced using the non UX method will create a bicycle – it will have handlebars, a seat, wheels and all the other components that make up a bike, but if it was used in the same scenario as the one that was produced using the UX design method, then the experience for cyclist will be very different.

So, UX is just like riding a bike, but the experience can vary quite a lot depending on the bike.

What do you think? Leave a reply below or contact me by email with your thoughts.