UX Learnings: Highlights from EuroIA2016

Together with my UX-colleague Sjoera, I visited the EuroIA conference in Amsterdam some time ago. 

I dedicated some time to write up the most fascinating learnings I took home:

The impressive Koepelkerk was where most of the magic happened (Photo: Peter Vermaercke)

1. It’s (more than) OK to be emotional

Users register their interactions with technology through their senses. And there are more senses than just touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing. Alastair Sommerville taught us about senses  we didn’t know we had. For example proprioception (kinaesthetic sense) enables us to touch our nose with our eyes closed. This sense also ensures that, without looking, you know where the buttons are in a car. Of course, some people have developed this sense stronger than others.

Another example is chronoception, our sense of time. As it turns out, our perception of time is not constant or objective. Do you know the feeling that minutes seem like hours, when you are waiting for a train? This is actually good news for designers: because it is not objective, your sense of time can be manipulated. For example in a train station, an architect can choose to use large windows to make time flow seemingly faster.  The effect is obtained because you can look outside, into nature, and subconsciously notice the subtle changes in sunlight as time passes.

People’s emotions also influence their interpretation of their senses. That’s why it is important to mirror the emotions of a user. You don’t want to have a cheerful, colorful UI filled with witty puns, when users are tweeting about the death of a loved one. But in other situations, it might be perfectly acceptable, so make sure your UI can handle the wide spectrum of emotions (or clarify it can only be used in a specific emotional state).

Sjoera and me exploring how you can create empathy and design for blind people in Alastair Sommerville’s workshop (Photo: Peter Vermaercke)

In another talk, Ellis Neder suggested capturing emotional data as well, but to enrich sensor data. He gave the example of Uber asking you to rate a ride. When your experience is a negative one, they can compare that to sensor data from your phone and find out whether the driver was speeding, or it was a particularly bumpy ride. In this case, they have to take action and confront the driver with his behavior. But it might be that you were just having a bad day, and the driver couldn’t help it. So by using this combination of sensor data and emotional data, this way Uber can act in an appropriate way to feedback they get from their users.

Natacha Hennocq also gave us new insights in the human brain. Apparently, the same area of the brain (hippocampus) is used for space and memory. Think for example about remembering where you left your keys, by walking through your house and re-tracing your steps. Very helpful!
But for futuristic VR-experiences, this might be troublesome. While wearing a VR helmet, your space and memory will get disconnected. You don’t physically move through the space, and therefore your brain will not make this wonderful connection. Let’s see how this turns out…

2. The Internet of Things might mean the disappearance of the screen, but user interactions still require UX work

When talking about the Internet of Things (IoT), people often proclaim that “no UI at all” is the future. Claire Rowland criticised Zero UI-advocates, claiming: “Zero UI is not feasible, nor desirable.” She explained that we shouldn’t hide the complexity, but instead be transparent in what is going on behind the users’ backs.
This is probably not the easy way for us as designers and coders. Like Larry Tesler already proclaimed: every application is inherently complex. It is either complex for the user to use, or for the designer/engineer to build.
Another challenge when creating experiences for IoT systems, is that  user’s expectations of IoT devices (or “things”) is different from other software. We don’t (yet) expect things to behave like software. We don’t expect our interactions with physical things to have flaws like latency (delay between request & response) or intermittent connectivity (sync periodically to save power). If you push a button on your coffee machine, you don’t expect it to start working with a delay, or it to be temporarily offline, causing you to have to wait another minute for your precious coffee.

3. Our choice of words, and how we call our users, influences how we design for them

Jorge Arango gave a wonderful talk about the design of Disneyland, from which you could draw your own parallels to other design problems. At the Disneyland, there are no employees, only “cast members”. There are no visitors, only guests. So the cast members put on a show, and welcome everyone that visits Disneyland like guests at home: welcomed with a smile, made comfortable immediately.
And this is a significant difference from referring to clients, or customers. The words we pick are very important, and should be picked deliberately, with a lot of care. “Our choice of words, and how we call our users, influences how we design for them.”

Jorge Arango speaking in front of the crowd, with behind him an early drawing of the 1955 Disneyland design.
Jorge Arango, and the 1955 design for the first Disneyland theme park

4. Conferences with a lot of workshops are tons more fun

And as a final note: The EuroIA conference was structured in a pleasant way. We started with workshops all morning, and then talks in the afternoon. This format worked really well, as you don’t get the usual talk-tiredness after hours and hours of listening.

Design team gathered around a table with post-its full of ideas.
What designers do in a workshop: post-its!

My personal favorite wasn’t even a workshop, but an activity called: The Original Design Slam. This is a kind of brainstorming-competition, organized by Eric ReissDorelle Rabinowitz and Matthew Fetchko. Each randomly put together team got 45 minutes to come up with a solution to a time machine problem, and give a killer pitch to convince business, design and government.
Sounds weird? Maybe. But it was tons of fun, and proves once again design thinking can be applied everywhere, even for time machines. And of course it never hurts to practice your presentation skills!

Tine presenting (part of) the design
The Design Slam Judges listening attentively (while dressed up from-the-future)
The winning team at the award ceremony
Our team pitching (and winning!) the Design Slam (Photos: Peter Vermaercke)

I hope you enjoyed this short summary of our EuroIA highlights. Let me know if you want to talk about any of this!