UX Brighton goes for a spin

On Tuesday, Brighton’s regular(ish) UX Brighton meetup took on an automotive theme for the evening. As a strong personal interest of mine, I’d been hoping to create an event around automotive design for a while, and after discussing the theme with UX Brighton founder Danny Hope, he agreed to let me curate this month’s meetup.

With Alex helping to organise the venue and ticketing, we managed a great turnout at the Lighthouse in Brighton. Here’s a quick run-down of the evening’s talks (which I’ll hopefully follow up in more detail soon).

Dashboard design and the cockpit experience

Our first speaker was Phil Higgs, design manager for the User Experience Design team at Jaguar Land Rover. Phil oversee’s a team responsible for the instrument cluster and dashboard design for the JLR group, including the development of future concepts and experiments with future technologies.

Phil Higgs from JLR

After sharing how he came to interior design from a background in video games, Phil shared the processes employed in the industry, and the close relationship between designers, engineers, and materials manufacturers. One of the biggest challenges for automotive designers in the time-to-market for their work. Even the smoothest projects take between 3-5 years from studio to showroom, meaning technology choices are usually far out of date by the time they reach the customer.

Knowing which technologies to pursue is one of the many challenges facing those working on the in-car experience for global vehicle manufacturers.

Moving on from the current processes and challenges, Phil shared some of the future innovations in dashboard design; projected surfaces, advanced voice commands, gestures, and augmented reality navigation systems we’re likely to see in car cockpits in the next few years.

The future is automated

Following Phil was Nick Reed, Principal Human Factors Researcher at the Transport Research Laboratory. Nick has been researching the future of automated vehicles for several years, and shared his research techniques and findings, as well as the opportunities for UX designers to solve some of the problems posed by automation.

Nick Reed from TRL

Nick started with a video showing the crude simulators of the past, comparing this to the immersive technology currently used by TRL to test the effects of autonomous driving on operators and passengers. Of the methods of automation, the most promising for reducing road congestion is the ‘road train’; vehicles connected together electronically, following a lead vehicle who dictates destination and speed.

Vehicles join the train for a toll charge, joining the line of vehicles behind the lead driver. Once connection is confirmed, the operator can leave the controls while their car maintains speed and direction. Due to the connections between vehicles, stopping distance can be safely controlled meaning the space between cars can be greatly reduced. This is the real driver for automation; road capacity. Although fuel efficiency can be improved through the use of road trains, it makes only a margin difference at motorway speeds. With populations (particularly in the developing world) growing, the demand for personal transport is outstripping the rate of road building and improvement.

Road trains come with a number of interaction challenges; indicating train availability to the driver, managing payment, safety alerts, and fault tolerance all require years of research and development before legislation will allow the first automated systems to roll out.

I’m hoping to get time to write-up my thoughts on the topics raised in more detail soon, and a couple of writeups from attendees Luke Hay and Jane Dallaway cover some of the topics in more detail.

Thanks again to all those who came along!

One Day With a Kindle

When the Kindle first launched in 2007 I couldn’t imagine wanting to own one. Along with other e-reader detractors, I couldn’t foresee myself replacing the physical sensation of the turned page with, well, anything. Even less convincing was the appeal of storing thousands of books on a single device when I was rarely found switching between texts, usually giving them full attention from cover to cover before taking up a spot on my bookshelf.

However, like my attitude toward the ownership of music, my feelings about ownership of the written word have changed.

I don’t buy CD’s, I stream through Spotify.

I don’t print photos, they live on my Macbook or Flickr.

The same applies to how I consume books, magazines, and journalism.

Thanks to the likes of Twitter and Klektd I’m also exposed to a more diverse range of topics online. I rarely read what I’ve discovered immediately though, instead I ‘favourite’ potentially interesting content with the best intentions.

Very often articles are bookmarked in my lunchbreak and revisited outside of office hours, usually on my iPhone or Macbook. It’s the latter that I find the more frustrating way of reading; sitting on the sofa or at my desk staring into that familiar horizon of tabs in Safari feels unhealthy (since I already spend a minimum of eight hours each day focused on this view) and antisocial. And of course, the potential distraction of all the information in the world is only a new browser tab away.

Old habits

Like most of us who now absorb the majority of our written content online, a relaxing read through the browser is often a challenge. Mentally battling with questionable layout, poor typographic choices, or extraneous visual clutter around the content I’m trying to focus can be a strain on my eyes and brain.

This isn’t a new frustration. Although things are changing for the better thanks to improved web typography, mobile first/content-out thinking and responsive design, the inevitable wait for techniques and methodology to become mainstream, marketing agendas, and the publishing industry’s uncomfortable move away from antiquated delivery models will no doubt create friction in the short-to-medium term.

However, tools like Instapaper and Readability mean a more relaxing format is available in the interim. I’m a big fan of these services, but have until now only enjoyed them through a variety of the glowing rectangles I spend too much time staring at.

So I got one that doesn’t glow – I’ve bought a Kindle.


First impressions after unwrapping the Kindle were of refreshing understatement. I love the calm look of it’s greyscale finish and choice of matte materials, feeling just the right size and weight to hold comfortably, and with the next/previous paging buttons falling neatly to either hand.

There are no glowing buttons, no friendly noises on startup; this is a passive device, and it successfully fulfils the aim outlined in Amazon’s welcome letter installed after setup, that the Kindle should “disappear in your hands – to get out of the way – so you can enjoy your reading”.

But the really amazing physical part is the e-ink screen. It’s like an optical illusion, especially when viewed from the type of angles backlit displays are unreadable. It genuinely gives the impression of ink on quality paper, further allowing the user to forget they’re reading on an electronic device. Switching it on for the first time also gave me a warm glow of nostalgia; it’s appearance reminding me of my very first design tool, the Etch-a Sketch!

Although by far it’s biggest selling point, the screen seems to need the most explanation when sharing my New Favourite Thing with friends. It’s already covered in fingerprints, everyone I’ve shown assuming their mental model that ‘mobile screen = touch’ fits here too (there is a touchscreen version available in the US, but like the Kindle Fire, it doesn’t seem it will hit UK shores any time soon). The lack of backlight also puzzles some as much as the absence of other features. But to criticise either is to miss the point – and allure – of something so wonderfully focused on doing one thing really well.

Whereas using the physical device is a pleasure, managing the Kindle through the Amazon website is a taxing affair. It’s too easy a target to pick apart here, but it can’t be long before Amazon realise the Kindle needs a dedicated website which doesn’t adopt so many of it’s parent site’s foibles.

Readability First

I’ve been using the excellent ‘Send to Kindle‘ feature in Readability to export articles from the web, with them ready for me to enjoy in glorious e-ink within a few minutes. Observing my own behaviour while collecting articles to read has been disconcerting; I’ve paid only fleeting attention to the visual design put into the pages encapsulating the content I’m after. This may be the novelty of testing my new toy, but it’s sure to become a more regular pattern in my behaviour.

Bypassing any ‘design’ to liberate just the content I want (on a device which affords no real method of getting back any of the context the designer intended) has brought to focus the powerful changes in behaviour many have been warning; users can – and will – work around what you serve them to get to what they really want, and there’s little publishers or designers can do about it.

I’ll be keeping an eye on how my own browsing and reading habits change over the next few months, but I’m already finding myself filling those waiting moments in my day with a read from my Kindle’s increasingly diverse article list rather than a cursery refresh of Twitter or BBC news on my iPhone.

This can only be a good thing.

UX Camp Brighton 2011

Last Saturday was the hottest October day on record. Instead of lighting the barbecue on this unusually balmy Autumn day, I opted to spend it in a design studio with fifty other geeks to debate, sketch, and share knowledge across the many facets of user experience design; it was well worth the sunny sacrifice!

UX Camp Brighton was the closing event of the Brighton Digital Festival, and the first BarCamp focused specifically around the subject of user experience design to have been held in the city. Kindly hosted by the friendly folk at Cogapp, the schedule would see sessions ranging from the history of camera UI to debate around the meaning (and usefulness) of the ‘UX designer’ job title.

The BarCamp format itself is wonderfully simple.

  1. Get in early to grab a free ticket (this inaugural event sold out in under thirty minutes).
  2. Think of a topic for presentation or discussion.
  3. Turn up on the day and jot a description of your session on a Post-It.
  4. Add your session name to the time/room grid (there are typically 5-8 rooms available per time slot).
  5. Attend sessions that catch your eye outside of your presentation slot; contribute, share and discuss when invited to.
  6. Present your own session at the time on the grid, making sure not to overrun.

I’d never been to a BarCamp before. Although often tempted, questioning whether I’d have something original enough to present had always held me back from taking part. However, with some encouragement from a colleague who was co-organising the event that my idea sounded suitable enough, I decided to bite the bullet and set to work on some slides.

It was great to see such a diverse range of talks on the board after the scramble for slots; choosing is the only tricky bit with the BarCamp format. With five sessions running concurrently throughout the day, attendees are encouraged to spread themselves around, perhaps taking a punt on something they wouldn’t typically select.

I’d already earmarked a couple of sessions to try and catch from the Lanyrd schedule, including Alex Goluszko‘s presentation about camera UI (which included a fantastic selection of vintage equipment to play with), and Andy Hume‘s ‘The cult of friendly URLs’. Very different topics, both equally enlightening.

Alex and Andy’s talks were the bookends of my day, so in-between sessions I took a quick glance at the grid to choose which room to hop to next. I managed to catch a couple of open discussions, including one focused on the continuing debate around the definition of UX itself, hosted by Cennydd Bowles. It proved just as tricky to conclude as it has on Twitter for several months, but Cennydd’s belief in the value of Digital Product Designer on our next batch of business cards feels like a comfortable and confident step in the right direction.

My own slot arrived just before lunch. For my first BarCamp I decided to combine two areas of interest I would feel comfortable I could speak convincingly about – interaction design and the automobile industry; I’m a bona fide car geek. My talk discussed some of what the automobile industry does well in the area of user experience (service design, engineer/designer relationships), picked off a few easy targets as examples of what it does badly (dangerous dashboard design, iDrive), and ended by discussing some of the opportunities for UX designers in an industry which is changing rapidly.

I really enjoyed the experience, particularly the brief Q&A which followed in which several other examples of successes in automotive UX were explored. I hope to write up some more thoughts around the subject of my talk at some point, but If you want to take a look at what I discussed on the day my slides are available on Speakerdeck.

From a practical point of view, one of the standout talks for me was by Rob Pearson, who presented some fantastic techniques for quantifying subjectivity. As a designer who spends the majority of my time focused around the visual end of the spectrum, I know this can be a particularly tricky area. The methods Robert presented to place some metric around the emotional response to visual design are simple. The client completes a questionnaire made up of opposing pairs on a scale (e.g. contemporary vs traditional), and by choosing values either side of the ‘neutral’ middle for existing and proposed designs, a visualisation of this data can be plotted against the client’s ‘ideal’ value to measure the success of our work. UX designers are in the business of providing evidence to support decisions, and this simple solution brings just that to an area of design where taste and subjectivity can too often make or break success. I highly recommended checking out Rob’s slides from his talk.

My first BarCamp experience was an entirely positive one. Not only was the friendly and inclusive atmosphere great for meeting new people, it also fostered a comfortable environment for discussion and debate, and I left with a head full of ideas and techniques I’m eager to share.

Roll on UX Camp Brighton 2012.