Highlights from CANUX 2019

This was my second year at CANUX, and I’m always impressed by the caliber of presentations, and the overall conference experience.

This isn’t a conference to “learn about CSS grid” or other practical applications, rather I see it as an event to connect with like-minded individuals and be inspired and excited about our field. More often than not, the notes I took were simply starting points: things to think more about, or subjects to do more research into. To that end, here’s some high-level notes and thoughts stemming from the sessions:

Day 1

I was pretty excited to hear Cyd speak. I’ve been following her on Twitter for awhile, and her experience with Code for America and 18F is incredibly relevant as I’m currently a Code for Canada fellow.

Cyd Harrell with slide behind her that says ‘public servants make more design decisions than the entire design industry’
Cyd Harrell with slide behind her that says ‘public servants make more design decisions than the entire design industry’

The most thought-provoking part of this talk is considering the level at which we operate. Cyd talked a bit about the different layers that make up an institution (she referred to Jorge Arrango’s book Living in Information). The premise is that there are different layers of change, and they adapt at different rates. This is a GOOD thing. You can change decor in your house often, you may invest in tearing down some walls, but you should really leave the foundation intact. In the case of institutions, this isn’t to say that those deeper levels can’t change, but they’re not done as frequently.

Cyd Harrell on the canux stage 2019

When we look at emerging tech; different forms for us to deliver services, that may change as frequently as we swap out a throw pillow. The underlying service doesn’t change as quickly. There’s an inverse relationship between the speed of change, and the impact of the change.

So how are you spending your efforts?

Cyd referenced the sci-fi book “This is how you lose the time war”, wherein the characters made small changes at various moments in time, that changed the path of history. Nothing too obvious and huge such that they’d draw too much attention, just small things that sparked a chain of events. This was a great consideration, since I know I’m guilty of worrying that we’re only focusing on the form level and not making meaningful change. This talk inspired me to consider on which level we’re acting.

Sketchnotes by Eva-Lotta Lamm

This was a tough session to watch. Tarek is a Palestinian refugeee, a doctor and a member of the Glia project. The Glia project “uses an open-access research, development and distribution model to create high-quality low-cost medical devices.”

In his talk, Tarek talked about being on the ground in Gaza. He shared vivid images and videos showing the violence there, and the need for quality medical equipment. They can 3D print items like stethoscopes and tourniquets — but still run out of life-saving equipment every week because demand is so high.

Speaking to the designers and iterators in the room, he talked about some of the revisions they had to do on some of the equipment. Haven’t we all heard (or thought): the users just have to use it correctly! But you cant adopt that cavalier attitude when a few seconds fumbling with an unusable product can mean the difference between life and death.

The packaging for a tourniquet (the image on the left) was designed to open at the bottom, rather than the top. It was designed to be quicker to open, but it was unintuitive. When medical workers are in the field, the last thing they need is to ‘figure out’ a new way to do things.

Sketchnotes by Eva-Lotta Lamm

My words can’t do justice to Eva-Lotta’s talk.

It’s her sketchnotes that I’ve included in this write-up, and she’s inspired me to take up a little habit of sketching something every day.

Part of the message was that words are good at precision, and images are helpful for understanding concepts and relationships -Here’s a video illustrating (see what I did there?) this idea:

Bryce Johnson from Microsoft was the first of many speakers to refer to the Microsoft Inclusive Design principles and toolkit.

‘Inclusive design’ is a bit of a buzzword right now, and it was good to hear several speakers talk about the difference between them. The official Microsoft stance is that inclusive design is “a methodology, born out of digital environments, that enables and draws on the full range of human diversity. Most importantly, this means including and learning from people with a range of perspectives.”

Bryce talked about how the XBox Adaptive Controller was ‘designed with, not for’ gamers. Even the packaging was thoughtfully, intentionally designed.

This talk was about accessible video game controllers. A few hours before, we were talking about the importance of design in matters of life and death. At first glance, this project may seem trivial — but it’s absolutely not.

Livecaptioning from canux as the speaker discusses the impact of disabled veterans trying to assimilate back into civilian life” “society and you can’t even play fucking video games, your social life is just gone. Hearing these stories..”

In 2014, there were over 1.82 billion gamers in the world. Many of us enjoy gaming, as a way to relax, to challenge ourselves, or to engage with friends. Why should that opportunity be reserved for people with specific physical or cognitive abilities? Microsoft partnered with Veterans Affairs to design and test this controller.

Embedded video with title “Microsoft and VA partner to bring Xbox Adaptive Controller to Veterans with limited mobility” (YouTube)

Farai spoke about the importance of recognizing and celebrating culture and diversity. He even mentioned a mathematical formula that demonstrates that diversity reduces errors!

He sprinkled his talk with references to Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’ and Patrick Lencioni’s ‘Five Dysfunctions of a Team’, and advised that we recognize the cultural biases we bring to work. Not that certain approaches are better or worse, but just how they may be interpreted as rude or surprising by others.

I’ve been thinking about this talk a lot, because my time in software companies in the private sector in the US is very different than my time now in the public sector in Canada.

I always think these applied/case study type talks are going to be too niche for me, and then I find they’re the sessions where I learn the most.

Amy Ross is exactly how you’d expect a scientist from NASA to be: brilliant and just a little quirky. 🙃 She walked us through the different considerations and trade-offs in designing a space suit, and hammered home the importance of not just focusing on technical requirements.

Tweet that reads ‘“I can test hardware and show I meet requirements. The hard part is getting users to tell me they’ll use it”, attributed to Amy Ross, NASA Spacesuit Engineer #canux’

Amy shared a funny story about testing the suits with overly competitive athletes, who’d forget that it was the suits, and not their own physical prowess, being tested. She was an entertaining speaker, even as she drove home the fact they are working on life support systems. This is also serious business, but that doesn’t mean we get so caught up in our own design that we forget about the real people who’ll be using it.

The first day of the conference wrapped up with a keynote from Kim Goodwin. The overarching take-away was something Cyd had planted in our minds several hours before: that what we tend to think of as UX is just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much below the form factor for us to consider.

Speaker at canux in front of a slide that has the label “design system” at the top of a pyramid. Below that label is a line depicting what’s visible to the user, and then below the surface are other labels, including “corporate goals”, “terms of service”, “security policies”, “revenue models”, “technology stack”, “laws and regulations”, “training and incentives” and “algorithms and training data”.

Design systems are getting a lot of flak right now, and I think that’s because we expect more from them than what they are often designed for. Kim introduces this idea of a decision system that directs more than simple component selection.

At the base of the pyramid are human-centered values. Kim proposes a definition:

Human-centered:
- Moves some people closer to self-actualizing
- Moves no one (including non-users / community) away from self-actualizing

Everything that exists now, exists because it was designed that way. Generally, that’s because someone will benefit. Can we look at decisions not solely through the opportunity lens of “is this good for anyone” but also the risk lens of “will/can this makes things worse for anyone”?

Sketchnotes by Eva-Lotta Lamm

Day 2

Steve started us off in the morning with an admonition to focus on people, not technical problems. He shared some humorous things that exist in the world under the guise of ‘innovation,’ and lamented the fact that when something is poorly designed, no amount of messaging or training can fix it.

Large bin for collecting sleep equipment that looks like a trash bin, with three different labels requesting people not put trash in it. (Which they did regularly)

Of course, as a well-respected leader in the user research field, Steve had a few comments about the difference between user research (problem space exploration) and usability testing (solution evaluation). I wish I could spread just this one tiny nugget of an idea to everyone I meet… The *ahem* problem is that problem exploration is tricky, and it takes much more skill to observe and identify opportunities than it does to guess and test and tweak.

One last comment on this: I introduced myself to Steve afterwards and he said “you don’t look like your Twitter avatar”. I wasn’t sure how to take that.. but I did go ahead and upload a new picture the next day!

Wow! This presentation blew my mind, and I still have more research I want to do. Lining Yao works with the Morphing Matter lab at Carnegie Mellon. the lab’s vision is to “challenge the definition of traditional human computer interface which was constrained on a computer screen, and encode information and interactivity into physical materials.”

The premise is that we can 3D print, or bio-engineer, material that can be ‘programmed’ to respond to the environment. Excuse the quotes, I have no idea if I’m using the correct terminology.

One example was to create pasta that could be printed flat to save packaging, and then it would form into the desired ‘pasta shape’ when put into hot water. The initial prototypes were done with gelatin (as a vegetarian: yuck!) but they are now working with Barilla to work with real semolina flour from Italy.

Self-shaping pasta

Another example was fabric that could respond to the users’ sweat, developed with consultation with New Balance.

I was interested in this idea that these things could be 3D printed — that was the second example this conference of how the ability to do rapid custom print jobs can facilitate our ability to prototype and test things. I freely admit that most of the design work I consider is related to an interface on a screen. It’s a good wake-up call that we DO live in a material world (as Lining said to us, with nary a reference to Madonna in sight???), and we would do well not to confine our best practices and skills to that sole media.

Apologies to the afternoon speakers: by late Sunday my brain was getting pretty full.

By the time Alastair took the stage after brunch with what even the MCs referred to as a soothing voice, it was difficult to stay engaged. His idea of using jenga blocks and sticky notes to illustrate the concepts of user perception vs our ‘god view’ of the overall system structure was pretty brilliant.

Lego figure standing in a space filled with blocks. The blocks are label “perceivable” from the viewpoint of the lego person, and labeled ‘meaning’ from the viewpoint of someone standing above the entire scene

Alasdair also advised us to ‘create our own tools’ — another sign that we don’t have to be beholden to existing tools, systems or frameworks to do our jobs. The artifacts and tools in front of us aren’t perfect. They are man-made and can be (should be?) improved upon.

Emma’s talk centered on a public health/information campaign in the UK, which reminded me of the work I did when I worked at Worldways Social Marketing a few years back. It can be difficult to communicate the content in a way that’s informative and engaging, in an authentic way.

Meme of an adult trying to appear cool and fit in with teenagers, saying “How do you do, fellow kids?”

Emma’s answer was to engage in inclusive design: to design with — not for — the people they were trying to support. She introduced the audience to the Social Definition of Mobility: broken design, not broken people. This reminded me a lot of the book Mismatch by Kat Holmes. The premise is that ability or disability is only in relation to the environment, so disability is a mismatch between an individual’s abilities and the features of the environment.

Slide text at the canux conference: “We mustn’t further marginalize disadvantaged groups with privileged design” — Emma Howell

They fully recognized they didn’t know all the relevant vernacular — and even uncovered through engagement that there were differences in terminology across the country that they needed to consider. They got feedback from prospective site visitors to ensure what they were delivering aligned with how it was perceived.

Emma told a wonderful case study, in which she was vulnerable and admitted they made mistakes. They tried, and they learned.

But in the end, she was able to point to firm numbers of how their practices improved the site and user experience — they saw a 21% improvement in users finding the information they want. Imagine that: they engaged with their users throughout, they were willing to try things to learn, and they saw a positive result. Sounds like a great blueprint to follow..

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this. Immediately before the keynote, they held a drawing for a trip to UX New Zealand — and I won!

Tweet with text ‘holy friggen rabbit paws Andrea F Hill . She’s going to New Zealand! #canux”

So unfortunately, I was a bit distracted for the first part of this session!

Bill did a great job as the keynote, referencing and building on many of the talks over the weekend. He spoke about the importance of recognizing context, and making not just personas but also ‘place-onas’ that take environment and context into account.

He spoke of rental cars and bluetooth connectivity. How sure are we that our personal information is not still associated with a rental car we once connected to. But who owns that information, and the relationship (coupling and decoupling) between them?

That rang (pun intended) true for me: I once got in a rental car and the phone immediately started ringing. Within three minutes we’d received several calls that were assumedly for the person who’d rented the car before us (I’m still unsure why it was still paired, but it was).

He drew parallels across many of the sessions throughout the weekend; discussing the importance of building your own tools, considering the deeper impact of the work you’re doing, and considering culture, ability and context.

Bill left us with a final statement, which I think wraps up this conference nicely. We’re not designing products, screens or services. We’re designing the impact on the people affected.

Conference slide with text “Ultimately, we are deluding ourselves if we think that the products that we design are the ‘things’ that we sell, rather than the individual, social and cultural experience that they engender, and the value and impact that they have. Design that ignores this is not worthy of the name” from a presentation by Bill Buxton

In addition to the formal sessions, I appreciate the canux organizers for the thoughtfulness they put into the event. Live captioning, pronoun buttons, dietary-inclusive snacks, an introvert table reserved at the sit-down lunch. It fits with the conference. UX isn’t about pixels and screens. It’s about designing an experience that works for a diverse audience. I consider myself very lucky to have this caliber of a conference in my own city! ❤️

Tweet reading “CanuxConf steps it up again: offering pronoun buttons for all attendees” with a photo of a closeup of a button reading “she/her”

Sr UX Specialist with Canada Revenue Agency, former web dev and product person. 🔎 Lifelong learner. Unapologetic introvert. Plant-powered marathoner. Cat mom.