“Test or be damned” - Jonty Sharples at UX People

 by Martin Belam, 23 October 2012

Last week I helped host Zebra People’s UX People, a day long conference featuring talks and practical workshops from the likes of Cennydd Bowles, Christopher Lee Ball and Louise Oakham. You can download all my notes from the day in an ebook for iBooks, for Kindle or as a PDF. I’ve already blogged my notes on Christopher Lee Ball’s talk, and here is what I made of the presentation by Jonty Sharples, User Experience Design Director at Albion London.

“Test or be damned” - Jonty Sharples

“For 25 quid, you could hire Richard Blackwood and Daniel Bedingfield for the afternoon and still have change for an egg sandwich, a Panda Pops and the bus to Lewisham Travelodge. You'd have more fun.” - Ellie Gibson, Eurogamer

Part of Jonty Sharples’ UX People talk felt like therapy for the brutal scarring he had at the hands of games reviewers for a project he worked on in the late 2000s. A “me too” product clone of music-based games, the quote above is about as harsh as it can get.

But Jonty wasn’t in purely confessional mood, instead challenging us as designers to stop allowing imperfect and badly-formed products out of the door, by making sure we test them and test them and test them again. “We don’t design for ourselves”, he said “but for our users.”

“We want people to love our products and services” he said, so why do we allow testing to happen in a silo in some businesses, where it is taken care of by a “testing team”? It was a challenge I faced at the Guardian, where there was an excellent customer insight department, who could help with some forms of user testing, but they sat tucked away on a different floor. It was all too easy for product managers and editors to get away with not basing their decisions on research.

And Jonty spoke about how bloody-mindedness and jealousy can lead organisations to make bad decisions. The “Universal Camouflage Pattern” project of the US Army appears to be a classic case of, despite some testing, pursuing a project that isn’t fit for purpose because of organisational pride. Dazzle ships never had this problem.

Testing is vital, he said, when you worry that people are ignoring inconvenient data in order to see a product launch in line with a budget and a roadmap, rather than in line with a user need. Sometimes showing people video of the pain points is a means to an end. It proves quite easily that there are problems, and then you can ask for the money to go ahead and do a more robust series of tests.

“We are responsible for the design of products and services that hundreds of thousands of people use daily” he said, and if we think our job is done when we send off an email to the developers with a load of scribbled annotations then we aren’t doing our jobs properly. We need to test, and he showed a video of some interaction testing with a very complex paper prototype.

Jonty talked a little bit about the fidelity of wireframes, prototypes and sketches. He referenced Andy Budd suggesting that there is no hi-fidelity or lo-fidelity, there is only “appropriate fidelity”. Jonty said that “as soon as you shade it, colour it, or add drop shadow to it” people start making judgements about the aesthetic quality, not the content.

He also quoted John Rheinfrank: “a good part of my work is tricking companies into doing the right thing.”

There was a time, Jonty argued, that people thought because you called yourself “designer” that you were some kind of “seer”. That isn’t the case. We all know that designs don’t fall perfectly formed out of our heads. Test or be damned.


In my next set of UX People notes I’ll be writing about Mel McVeigh’s talk about building a UX team at Which?.

This is one of a series of blog posts about UX People 2012. You can download all of my UX People notes in an ebook for iBooks, for Kindle or as a PDF.

“Experience Principles” - Christopher Lee Ball
“Test or be damned” - Jonty Sharples at UX People
“Seeding UX into the DNA of an organisation” - Mel McVeigh

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