The User Experience Professionals Association of Boston (UXPA Boston) is a local chapter of a national community of UX-affiliated professionals, and they held their annual conference this past week right in the heart of the city.
I encourage anyone interested in learning more about UX to join UXPA (it’s free!) and consider attending one of their many local events!
Practical Accessibility: Advice from the Front Lines
Jackrabbit does a lot of work in the nonprofit sector, and we occasionally need to go the extra mile to account for accessibility. This talk, featuring experts from a wide range of companies and organizations, focused on how UX can improve accessibility prospects, either without impacting or positively augmenting the overall site experience.
The panelists discussed their best practices for recruiting and testing users with disabilities. The point I found most interesting was the idea of testing the accessibility devices, and not the user – researchers shouldn’t go out looking to test blind users, for instance, but rather should seek out any users who use tools like a screen reader. Additionally, researchers should aim to strike a balance (both for practical and budget reasons) between heavy environment customization (in-home visits, on the user’s own device) and timing capabilities (customizing the experience as much as possible in the preferred research environment). The focus should be on making a site that is usable and intuitive overall, and not just compliant with the set guidelines.
The panelists also pointed out common mistakes they see sites make prior to going through an accessibility audit. These included:
- Color contrast
- Nested tables
- Non-keyboard-accessible frameworks and setups
- Design consistency across pages and sections
- Inaccessible forms
- Highly complex designs
The overall point was that accessibility is important, and is increasingly being taken into account by stakeholders and employers – but there is far more work to do. UX researchers are often the primary drivers of accessibility, and though it is essentially impossible to make a site 100% accessible, it’s always worth the work to do your best.
Mini-SPRINT: Arriving at High Quality Design Solutions in a Day
The next talk covered a mini-sprint, which is essentially a five-day process compacted into a single day – totally crazy, but this presenter made it seem feasible! He walked through the problems faced by researchers attempting this rapid-fire process, and then proposed a structure to keep all parties on track to produce great work and amazing solutions. A quick summary here:
Make your team aware of the setup and the super-quick timeline. Successful sprints have active, engaged team members and leaders. Do as much advance work as possible, and be sure to set up a precise schedule (down to the minute!).
Each team member does an introduction of sorts, citing their design likes/dislikes, and sharing any inspiration or existing design assets. This operates almost like a live mood board – it’s not the time to come up with the solution to a massive problem, but should directly address the challenge at hand.
- Session 1 – Define
Define the role that each person on the team will play. Establish the project leader and identify stakeholders. Then, everyone should disperse and sketch! Doodle and ideate with impunity, knowing that you only have to share the best of what you create. Then, towards the close of this session, bring together what you consider the best of your ideas, and come up with a single concept. This could mean that you “Frankenstein” some ideas, or use several ideas to feed into one new concept. This is what you’ll be showing to the rest of the group.
I would like to take this opportunity to note how much I appreciate that UX professionals as a whole seem to really understand and acquiesce to my need for a set snack and stretch time.
- Session 2 – Decide and Proceed
After everyone has presented their best ideas, make a “gallery” – pin all the sketches on a wall and let the team consider everything together. Contemplate, discuss, and use dots to create a heat map on each design. This is the time for a speed critique, where you can vocalize your thoughts, concerns, observations, and questions. Figure out what merits consideration, and then move forward with a single design that the whole group will refine together.
Because everyone needs two official, designated snack times.
- Wrap Up – Present and Commit
This is a time to reflect and celebrate your progress – a mini-sprint is a whole lot of work compacted into one workday! This is also when you’ll present your single refined idea as the best option with which to move forward.
I really enjoyed this talk – a mini-sprint (or even the more typical five-day sprint) is not something I’ve yet experienced, but I’m pretty sure it’s coming my way. As someone who prefers to plan and organize, I appreciate the minutiae and processes that the discipline as a whole puts into place in order to achieve amazing, high-quality, and ultimately useful results.
Baffled by Brilliance: Machine Learning as the Next Great UX Challenge
This talk was pretty far outside my knowledge comfort zone, but it was super intriguing from the outset. The speaker began by disabusing us of the notion that the age of the Terminator is upon us – “smart” is relative, and we are nowhere near giving machines the kind of intelligence that would put their mechanisms on par with our human brains.
The first thing we were made to understand is the difference between “machine learning” and “artificial intelligence”. Machine learning is the process that picks out a set of techniques that are being put to use in some way; AI is, really, more of an idea that would be derivative of machine learning. In practice, AI is typically a system that has machine learning at its core.
We see examples of machine learning every day. Every morning, I wake up and ask Alexa to give me my daily news; I tell Siri to give someone a call. These two ubiquitous products are prime examples of machine learning in everyday usage, but they also serve to illustrate its shortcomings. Pronouns, for instance, are a major stumbling block. An imagined conversation with a smarthome device:
You: Turn the living room light off.
ML device: The living room light has been turned off.
You: Actually, turn it on.
ML device: ?!?!?!
The speaker pointed out that a savvy development team could have the device always refer back to the previously-mentioned item as the pronoun referenced, but this too has its own set of issues – and clearly illustrates the difference between machine learning and actual intelligence. When working with machine intelligence, both UX professionals and developers need to be cognizant of and work within the known limitations of the product.
So how does this impact user experience professionals? For end users, machine learning needs to strike a balance between being far too familiar and predictive (think autocorrect fails) and actually being helpful. Additionally, there’s an encroaching creepiness factor that needs to be addressed; think about how an offhand Google search or credit card purchase can result in bizarrely personal targeted advertising, versus how helpful something like Netflix’s suggestions can be. Finally, humans are naturally curious and usually demanding, so when something goes wrong we want to know why. If a machine deviates from a pattern or produces an unexpected result, it can be jarring or even upsetting for the user. Part of the UX and development process needs to account for and possibly avoid as many aberrations as possible to create a smooth, useful experience.
…And So Much More!
I could go on and on about what I learned, who I met, and what I’m excited about, but blog posts are meant to be short and sweet. If you’re interested in UX, even if it’s not necessarily your role, I would highly recommend finding the closest UXPA chapter and joining. And definitely check out their events, especially the annual conference!