“What Comes After UX?” - Cennydd Bowles at UX People

 by Martin Belam, 25 October 2012

Last week I helped host Zebra People’s UX People, a day long conference featuring talks and practical workshops. You can download all my notes from the day in an ebook for iBooks, for Kindle or as a PDF. On currybetdotnet I’ve already published my notes on talks by Christopher Lee Ball, Jonty Sharples and Mel McVeigh.

Here is what I took away from a very thought-provoking talk by Cennydd Bowles about “What comes after UX?”

“What Comes After UX?” - Cennydd Bowles

I was in Denver for the IA Summit a couple of years ago when Cennydd was giving the closing keynote address - “The fall and rise of user experience”, which is well worth reading in full as a reference point for his talk at UX People. I’m not going to write up all that Cennydd said, because he is planning to publish an essay version of the UX People talk himself.

I admire Cennydd for the honest way in which he approaches talking at these kinds of event. I very much value getting the chance to hear a senior practitioner talking to address other senior practitioners directly. When Cennydd said the phrase “glass ceiling” I found myself involuntarily nodding in agreement with him. He said that essentially once you’d been doing this kind of digital design role and had got to being a “Head of UX” or “Director of UX”, there wasn’t really anything next in many, many businesses. There are, he said, “a whole heap of roles for the junior to mid-level UXers, but once you hit ten or fifteen years, where do you go?” Roles in strategy and product design seem destined to remain in the hands of those with traditional career routes and qualifications.

The trouble with a deeply personal talk like Cennydd’s though, is to determine the extent to which you can extrapolate possible futures for the discipline from the possible futures of one person.

When Cennydd talks about needing to push ourselves to have a broader skillset, I think it is easy to underestimate how daunting that is to people who are comfortable that they’ve found a niche dong what they enjoy. Over the years I’ve had to force myself to get better at - or at least have more understanding of - the heritage of print design, the value of typography, and lots of other traditional design craft. They supposedly got thrown out of the window with the invention of Mosaic, when <H1>, <H2>, <H3>, <p> and <a> were the only information design tools to hand.

But try telling a content strategist knee-deep in spreadsheets, organising a massive website, that they need to start thinking about the drop-shadow on the logo too, and I think you’ll get a lot of withering stares. Or disappointed people trying to get good at designs skills and ability that they just are going to always struggle to have.

Cennydd was very strident about the need for UXers to be able to code, and I’m 100% with him on that. I think if you are designing things to go in the browser, yet aren’t the least bit curious about how they get in the browser, then, frankly, you are doing it wrong. I’m not suggesting you need to be able to code end-to-end applications, but the ability to wrangle a basic set of HTML, CSS and JavaScript feels like a bare minimum requirement. Especially as we hit a more responsive future.

In my “Responsive IA” workshop I usually demo some prototypes I’ve put together using Twitter Bootstrap and by nicking CSS using the Google Chrome “Inspect element” function. Using Bootstrap, once I’ve laid out one screen, the responsive template means I start to get the other screen sizes for free - or at least a version of them to get started with.

But then that is a very personal reflection.

I’m comfortable with spreadsheets and coding and sketching and diagram software. I’m less comfortable given a creative brief and the pressure to make choices about colour, texture, style and all the other visual elements that also go to making up a “user experience”. And so it is easy for me to be on a soap-box beating the drum for coding, whilst shying away from originating colour swatches.

What Cennydd did say though, which I thought was extremely important for the audience to hear, was that the trend amongst the bigger players in Silicon Valley was not to hire specialist UX people, but to want to hire people who had more of a “UI/UX thing”, and could do the research and the interaction and design and code the damned thing.

Cennydd urged us to consider “user-centred design” as just one of the ways to get products designed, not the only way. He said “self design” and “genius design” could also be appropriate at times, and we shouldn’t ignore that they exist as tools. He also said that as a profession “we are curious people, but we need a bit more bravery. I’d like to see more of us taking stupid risks and making beginner’s mistakes again.”

He worries that the UX discipline has become a bit stale, a bit too comfortable. He urged the audience to go out and “do something scary” - like sign up for a course in a related discipline you are not confident in, or go to a really techie conference where you feel out of your depth. He said we’d all benefit from dedicating 100 hours to learning a new skill that we weren’t great at, like coding or typographical design, than spending 100 hours refining our understanding of UCD. Cennydd published a reading list to go with the talk with suggestions for books to get you started on another areaof craft.

He finished with a challenge that he had tweeted out a few days previously: “What do you want your Twitter bio to say in three years? What are you doing about that?”


Cennydd’s thought-provoking talk closed the morning session at UX People. The afternoon was divided into four workshops, one of which was me running sessions looking at “Responsive IA”. To get a feel for the kind of ideas that I was exploring, you could read the talk I gave a few weeks earlier at EuroIA in Rome: “Responsive IA: IA in the touchscreen era”.

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

1 Comment

It would be SX - Social eXperience =D

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