Four Kitchens

How I became a better designer at Design & Content: Part Two

6 Min. ReadEvents

Last month I attended the Design & Content Conference in Vancouver, BC. Perhaps you’re following along from Part One, in which I highlighted Samantha Warren’s workshop on style tiles. This week I’m sharing notes from my favorite sessions at the conference. Keep in mind that the session pages on the Design & Content website will be updated with session slides and full videos of each session will be available, for free! I’ll keep an eye out for session videos, and update this post with video links.

5 favorite Design & Content sessions

1. Everybody Hurts: Content for Kindness

Sara Wachter-Boettcher | Slides

During this session Sara highlighted several profound user-focused statements to keep at the forefront of any design decision making.

Key takeaways

  1. Don’t assume feelings.
  2. Don’t forget who’s in charge.
  3. Don’t overstep your purpose.

Examples of work that are notably guilty of forgetting to follow the above:

  • Facebook’s Timeline: Eric Meyer had a tragic year in which he lost his daughter. Facebook reminded him that his entire year was about her; losing her.
  • Glow, a period and ovulation tracker application, makes assumptions about how and why women want to track their periods. The application only allows women to chose one of three options to start tracking their period. You can use the app to: 1. Avoid pregnancy; 2. Try to conceive; 3. For fertility treatments. But what if you fit into none of those categories? You’re out of luck, and might feel somewhat insulted. The application makes several assumptions – many of which seem to forget who’s in charge. Glow should instead allow more options – e.g. “I’d like to track my cycle length”, or “ I’d like to track my sexual activity”. For more specific illustration (in screenshots of the application) see pages 25 – 42 of Sara’s slide deck.

Always remember to:

  • Ask yourself what assumptions you’re building into your work.
  • Ask users what they want: kindness is letting users decide for themselves.
  • Accept nuance in user replies. What do you, as the user, want to track? In Glow’s case, they made assumptions about how women want to track their periods. Facebook received backlash from sending people, whose names are real, an email stating – “Your Name Wasn’t Approved. It looks like that name violates our name standards”. Who is Facebook to tell me my name isn’t a real name, with no other recourse? This kind of automated system fails to recognize exceptions, (like being a real human) as well as adding insult to injury in failing to provide users actionable information on how to appeal Facebook’s arbitrary and presumptuous decisions. See page 46 Sara’s slide deck for screenshots. This issue was also covered by news outlets.
  • Imagine your user. What gender are they? Race? Age? Where do they live? How do they feel? What are they doing? Now ask yourself: what if you’re wrong?
  • Kindness is: letting users define themselves.
  • Adjust to the user’s needs instead of making them fit your own. Keep your user’s goals ahead of your own. MailChimp created a website dedicated to: voice and tone. This is a great resource for crafting considerate content and messaging.

When building forms:

  • Remember that every field carries weight.
  • Ask why the client needs this information to better inform question phrasing. Use a Question Protocol for vetting questions against user experience issues.

2. Design Renegade

James White | Slides

James’ session was a show-and-tell of awesome illustration and design work. He discussed how his most successful work centered around the notion of starting with a great idea and sticking with it, regardless of critical reception. After spending some time trying to create film posters and be recognized/hired for his talent, he decided to re-align his efforts and just do something fun. He had the idea of creating and selling square aspect ratio prints (Instagram-shareable) and his first prints were the (wildly successful) WWE StarKade series. Since then he’s adapted that same print model to other applications/interests (StarKade: Kurts and several others ). He also reflected back on years of work and discussed how he is now able to identify design patterns in his work; namely, starting with a character template and applying it to several different character illustrations (like wrestlers, superheroes). James is a really great speaker and produced a thoroughly entertaining talk.

Key takeaways

  1. Take a shot. Often times your ridiculous idea/concept for a project might be your best.
  2. Know your worth.

3. Banish Your Inner Critic

Denise Jacobs | Slides

Denise focused on expanding upon what is known as “the imposter syndrome” and how to banish feelings of not being good enough.

Key takeaways

  1. F.E.A.R. = False Evidence Appearing Real. Fear is the enemy of creativity.
  2. Imposter Syndrome Paradox is what you experience when you are actually competent and skilled. Perfectionism is also a symptom of competence
  3. Remember your successes.
  4. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else.
  5. If you’re procrastinating instead of doing a task, just get the task ready to start working on. Don’t do it, but get ready to do it.

Another great tip from Denise is to use Chrome extensions to help stay focused and less distracted. She recommends:

A farther-reaching (Mac-only) focus application/tool,, is a more rigid control mechanism to aid in limiting distractions and staying focused.

4. Accessible User Experiences

Parker McLean | Slides

Parker spoke from his own experience being visually impaired. He was one of the top speakers at the conference; extremely entertaining and funny.

Key takeaways

  1. Websites aren’t a great experience when they exist as text alone. How can we craft content and UX that convert low-vision users? We can progressively enhance them; starting by creating accessible content and UX first, and layering visual media on top. For example, if an image is required to add context to and/or assist in visually prompting the user to do something, question how to make the text clear first, then layer on imagery. Basically, the text shouldn’t need an image to make sense, or to flow in a manner that makes sense to screen readers or other accessibility applications.
  2. Test your websites using your phone’s accessibility options. How well does your website perform?
  3. So how can we make all websites we create accessible? Parker advises that we: 1. Involve stakeholders early on in the process. 2. Involve your whole team. 3. Set best practices for everyone to worry about. As a bonus, it wouldn’t hurt to talk about accessibility all the time.

5. Is Design Metrically Opposed?

Jared Spool | Slides

Key takeaways

  1. People spend too much time in meetings hypothesizing the whys of google analytics data instead of installing measurable data points to make actual informed design decisions.
  2. Page views, conversion rates, and bounce rates don’t mean anything if you don’t understand the why. Example: a login page might receive double the page views because there is an unknown problem with the login process that makes users visit the same page more than once.
  3. Jared observed organizational task separating at a “big box retailer” in which an invisible-to-analytics data point in the shopping cart checkout was losing the company $300,000,000 a year. Once his team observed real users interacting with the checkout process, they were able to identify the huge pain point/flaw, then add a measurable data point in analytics, and eventually resolve the relatively simple issue. It took qualitative usability research and quantitative custom metrics to identify and solve the problem.
  4. “I don’t understand what the metrics mean” is not acceptable. Continually question what the metric is trying to tell you.

Overall conference takeaways

  1. A lot of people aren’t paying enough attention to the user experience; including accessibility. We (as a community) can do better.
  2. Google analytics can mean very little at face-value. To help, ask why certain pages have more page views than others. Install metrics to better observe user behavior and improve user experience.
  3. Imposter Syndrome Paradox = you experience this when you are actually competent and skilled.

It sounds like this conference will be an annual occurrence in Vancouver – which is awesome! Based on this year’s speakers and content, I’d highly recommend attending next year. I found the mix of speakers to be great, overall. Steve Fisher and Brian Marchand did a fantastic job coordinating and facilitating the event, especially in getting all the speakers lined up. Kudos to the organizing team, all the sponsors, and extra high fives to the event volunteers!

Lead image credit: Brian Marchand