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UX Australia 2019: Tara's top 3 takeaways

Steve Baty opened this year's conference with this statement:

"We need to ask ourselves some big questions and challenge how we have been trending over the last years. We have some real issues that we as a community can play and an important role to address through our day to day work and what we choose to work on."

I braced myself slightly and my instinct wasn't misplaced - this year was definitely laced with large spoonfuls of existential dread... and my inner voice kept piping up annoyingly in the background with "the robots are coming... the robots are COMING!"

This feeling didn't subside quickly; the opening keynote was from Aral Balkan - who is described as a cyborg rights activist. He proceeded to rip off the band-aid and talk Surveillance Capitalism. It's not like his examples from Silicon Valley's technology giants came as a total surprise, we know data is the new gold - and the dangers that loom - but it was still totally eye-opening.

Not only did he lay it out plainly, in a way I simply couldn't look away from,

"If Google tomorrow gave you a private experience, they would go bankrupt because that's how they make money, by eroding your privacy."

he also showed us a different way. From private messaging alternatives to networks that we build ourselves. Check out the 'small technology' movement he started whose aim is, "to protect personhood and democracy in the digital network age".

Collectively, all the UXA'19 speakers I saw were authentic, engaging and polished, and here's my top 3 takeaways:

1. 'Break the Rules', Phil Delalande

Phil asked us why we don't ask "Why" more often?

After citing the major disruptors (AirBNB, Uber etc) who have challenged entire industries with this approach, he acknowledged that whilst we might aspire to do the same it can be difficult sometimes.

In the organisations we find ourselves there can be lots of 'rules' to navigate before we can propose a design - they come in the guise of legal, business, framework and vendor rules, as well as those the project delivery team define as "requirements".

His message was simply to understand when to push back and 'break the rules' to achieve better results, and he provided a few great examples across strategy, product design & delivery.

What I liked most about Phil's talk was this slide - great advice for us to find the balance between being "uselessly agreeable" and "a jerk no one can work with".


A question to keep asking ourselves in our work:

"Am I going with the flow and being complacent or are there areas where I can be doing more in the user's interest?"

View Phil's presentation

2. 'Synthetic Intimacy', Trip O'Dell

Trip caught my attention straight off asking,

  1. "How many of you might say, "it's complicated," when I ask you what your relationship is with your phone?" YES
  2. "How many of you worry about the time your children spend on screens and how that is shaping their ability to shape relationships?" DOUBLE YES
  3. "How many of you are uneasy about Alexa and Siri, and how they might intrude on the most private parts of our lives?" TRIPLE YES

If not already, we will soon work on products that utilise voice and Artificial Intelligence (AI). The designers' dilemma: we build things to make peoples lives easier using technology, but at what cost?

"Voice and AI are powerful and also potentially dangerous... it is easy for computers to become our special invisible friends."

He talked a lot about how the human mind works, and how we are wired to create relationships. He demonstrated this with the verbatim of his children trying to befriend Alexa as if she were living inside the can, "Alexa is like my best friend".

It was interesting to hear how the Amazon 'personality team' intentionally designed Alexa to be friendly, but not too personal; to only speak when spoken to - "because it is a computer, not a person".

"As much as we would like it to be polite or friendly... you have difficulty when you treat humans like objects regularly in society, and treating objects like humans becomes problematic as envisioned in shows like 'West World'".

So there was that dread again... and a call to accountability for what we make. To ask, how does this thing I'm building benefit the person I am creating it for? To use design ethics, so that "technology is always in service to the people".

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"Using your talents responsibly as a designer goes beyond user need. You are also accountable for the ethics of that illusion. The problem with being a wizard, an axe can be used to heat a home or to commit murder. Human-centred means humans. first. always".

View Trip's presentation

3. 'Engaging in disability as a creative practice' Liz Jackson

Liz is a disability advocate and founder of the WITH Fellowship, a program that facilitates designing with, rather than for, disability by partnering disabled creatives with top design studios. She was my favourite speaker.

She has an axe to grind with brands (Nike, Xbox and Lego) who try to 'ingratiate' themselves with the public using stories of disability, and rightly so.

Lego recently tweeted about their new product, Braille bricks "to help blind and visually impaired children learn braille in an inclusive way." Turns out Lego didn't invent Braille bricks, the family of a blind man in the 1980s did. And the video they tweeted had no audio, only visuals - so it was pretty blatant marketing about, rather than for disabled people.

She then talked about 'Design Questioning' as her response to 'Design Thinking', and the flaw she sees in only 'Building Empathy' (the first step in the method).

"If you speak to a disabled person who has been through this process, you will find that it can feel a bit less like empathy to us and more like designers are gleaning our ideas and our life hacks and selling them back to us as inspirational 'do good' without giving us credit."

Wow. How obvious right? But I'm embarrassed to say I hadn't thought about it like that before.

Liz cited plenty of inventions derived from disabled people inspired by their own need that we all use today, from the bike to the OXO grip peeler. But made the point that,

"Disability ingenuity has been known to change the world (but) we are positioned in our language to be recipients."

Historically, disabled people have been seen as the recipients not the drivers of good design. We heard that the common story is that Sam Farber invented the OXO grip because he saw his wife having a hard time peeling a carrot, when in actual fact it was Betsy Farber (his wife) who was the designer.

"Disabled people are the original hackers. We spend our lives cultivating an intuitive creativity because we are forced to navigate a world that is not built for our bodies."

Liz exemplified that disabled people are predisposed to creativity by telling us that 20+% of a top design schools' first-year intake were disabled, however, they seemed to drop out the fastest.

The WITH Fellowship is part of Liz's response to this concern and a fundamental belief that we incorporate disability studies into design schools. She wants,

"To create a space for disabled students... but also those students that don't identify as disabled but really want to work in this space... to find each other and work together so when (they) enter the workforce, nobody thinks they are designing for anybody else, instead they think they are designing with."

Liz taught us to think about disability, not as a problem to be solved, but rather as a discipline and a creative practice.

Learn more about Liz on her personal website, The Girl with the Purple Cane.

View Liz's presentation

My thanks go out to Steve and the team at UX Australia for providing us with a bounty of food for thought - and the awe-inspiring designers that I saw who are doing honourable work and setting the standard in UX design, most notably Reachout.com, The Constellation Project, STREAT and Meld Studios with Norcott Innovation.

Steve closed the event by saying,

"You may have heard a lot of existential dread over the last 2 days and it can be the discomfort that moves us to action. We have the skills. Let's get the will. Let's take action."

Although the warning bells rang heavy at times, UXA '19 was an inspiring event. I left feeling responsible for what I put out to the world, poised to question where necessary and to design ethically and inclusively.

// Airteam are committed to designing for social good. We welcome projects where we can make a difference.

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