The one-day program comprised two tracks, bookended by opening and closing keynotes. The organizers summarized the entire schedule on a single card, with enough room left over for a simple code-of-conduct policy. Unfortunately, they listed the sessions only by speaker name and presentation title, and these spare listings weren’t always descriptive enough to help me decide which of the two tracks I wanted to attend. Nonetheless, I never felt I’d made a wrong choice.
Each session ran close to an hour, giving speakers ample time to flesh out their topics and answer a reasonable number of questions during the Q&A that followed. During the morning and afternoon blocks, there were only short breaks between the sessions, leaving lunch as the only substantial time for group networking. Personally, I liked the tradeoff the organizers chose because the conference moved rapidly, while the sessions themselves never felt rushed or incomplete. Keith and his minor army of blue-shirted volunteers kept the schedule on track, managing the close of each session in explicit collaboration with the speakers.
Forge was set inside the extraordinary Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. Even the walk up to the front door was thrilling, as I passed though elaborate courtyards that were bounded by old, brick facades that imposed a sense of grandeur and history. The museum’s entrance lies past the university’s front gate, at the back of its central garden, just beyond a large reflecting pool with live fish swimming in it. The context set an impressive tone for the day.
The tracks took place in two rooms that were separated by a quick walk through an exhibit of Native American artifacts. The first room was a large auditorium under a dramatic domed ceiling; the second, a much smaller and more intimate space that was filled to capacity for every session I attended there. The acoustics in both rooms were great, so every word came across loud and clear.
The breakfast spread went well beyond mere nibbles without resorting to scrambled eggs. There was high demand for the fresh fruit, potatoes, and cakes. I’m guessing many attendees avoided the bagels topped with lox and onions for pragmatic reasons. But since I wasn’t there for the face-to-face networking, their loss became my gain. Lunchtime included sandwiches, mushroom flatbread, fancy homemade chips, and oatmeal cookies—all terrific.
Opening Keynote: The Age of How
Presenter: Michael Lebowitz, Founder, Big Spaceship
Michael Lebowitz kicked off the conference by asking how we define design and what sorts of environments allow design to thrive. He proposed that agencies and other organizations should flatten their structures, defining roles expansively enough that people don’t feel pigeon-holed by their titles. He dubbed his approach organizational-structure elasticity, and it encourages employees to stretch in ways that apply their talents broadly.
The Main Points
- Everything that isn’t made by nature is designed. But saying something is designed is not the same as saying it has merit. There is such a thing as bad design. We need to be concerned about the cultural forces that affect the outcomes of design efforts.
- UX design is itself an expansive concept, and the roles that UX designers play are fuzzier than we usually admit. Assigning a title to a role is limiting. This sometimes keeps agencies from fully seizing the opportunities in front of them. For example, Michael has known UX designers who do audio design and do it well.
- When Michael started in the industry 20 years ago—before we had narrowly defined titles—he had to draw on diverse skillsets to do the job. He was the Producer of the Bravo Web site, and he did everything from coding to graphic design.
- The organizational structure at Big Spaceship reflects Michael’s world view, which was shaped by his early career. At Big Spaceship, they don’t have departments or hierarchies. Instead, they have six core disciplines: Strategy, Design and User Experience, Technology, Social Media and Content, Data and Analytics, and Accounts and Production. No one has a hierarchical title such as Creative Director, (Shouldn’t everyone be creative?)
- At Big Spaceship, designers don’t sit with other designers. They form teams comprising all of the disciplines, who sit together.
- Success requires elasticity. When we assign people to narrowly siloed roles, we’re tying them to the tracks. There used to be plenty of Flash designers. When the iPhone was announced, they became obsolete overnight. The people affected by this change didn’t just have to find new jobs; they had to form new conceptions of themselves.
- UX design is not about outputs; it’s about outcomes. It’s not about a Web site; it’s about what the Web site does. If you’re focused on the wrong thing, you’ll be disrupted when change inevitably comes.
- Believe in people, not roles or technology. Those things change, so they’re an unstable foundation for your practice.
- Value frameworks over processes. In the industrial world, process is about the elimination of defects, replication, and efficiency. Design does not exist in that world. Frameworks allow people to come together, creating serendipitous and beautiful results.
- Don’t be precious. Don’t be about the perfect, little thing that you’ve created, or the perfect, little idea you have. Let someone else make it better—because someone always will.
- Beware of big-P Professionalism. It’s what makes people shave off abilities and limit themselves to those things that comport with their understanding of a role.
Michael’s egalitarian viewpoint brings a welcome focus to the central importance of the human agent in design. The conventional, corporate-speak vocabulary—resources, FTEs (Full-Time Employees), subordinates, requisitions, deliverables, subordinates—dehumanizes the workplace and chills creative thinking. Michael struck a nerve on these points and made a compelling case for his elastic approach.
But he also seems to want to have it both ways: despite their rebranding, his six “core competencies” are hard to distinguish from roles as they’re conventionally defined. Michael explained that such labels are necessary to avoid confusion in the office around who’s doing what, while also acknowledging the contradiction. The problem may not be the roles themselves, but people’s feelings that they are personally defined by them.
Please Check Back as This Story Develops
Presenter: Renda Morton, Product Design Director, The New York Times
Renda Morton spoke about her team’s recent design work on The New York Times digital experiences. Her talk unfolded as a broad historical narrative. She opened with an image of the first issue of the newspaper from 1851, progressed to the first iteration of The Times Web site, and concluded with sketches of upcoming enhancements to their mobile apps. The heart of the presentation centered around an ambitious and costly redesign of the site and how they pivoted from that experience to create more successful mobile products. The important takeaway was that extraordinary efforts demand extraordinary evidence.
The Main Points
- Historically, The New York Times has worked hard to meet reader demand. They built a national distribution network to deliver stories directly to their readers’ door.
- The Web turned the concept of distribution on its head. Delivery became trivial, and the newspaper’s burden is now how to drive demand.
- The first The New York Times Web site launched in 1996. They assumed people would just come to the site to get their content, so they made no concerted effort to bring people there.
- Over time, they came to believe that their articles were the substance of the online experience. They saw less value in the home page and wondered whether it even made sense to invest in building a holistic experience for different platforms.
- The design team held group sessions to set their priorities and decided that the aesthetics of the article pages was critical. Improving their template would help people connect culturally with the newspaper. They believed they wouldn’t have to work as hard to drive demand.
- They embarked on a two-year effort that radically changed the look of their article pages. They worked hard on fine details like typographic styles that fit the tone of the articles. They decluttered the pages and designed ad spaces to stand out. They created a complex layout system that takes into account both the size of a device’s viewport and what ads a page should serve. They cut page-load times by two thirds. They were confident that this would give them the results they wanted.
- But the outcome was disappointing. The changes didn’t have the effect they wanted. There weren’t suddenly more people reading the articles. Subscriptions didn’t grow, nor did advertising revenue.
- They had been misled by their reading of the data. They missed the facts that 10% of their users were contributing 90% of their revenue, and these users overwhelmingly depended on The New York Times home page. These people value the editorial staff’s curation of the news. Achieving growth wasn’t about the article template at all. It was about building an audience of loyalists.
- So they pivoted and started applying their new learnings to their mobile apps. Traditionally, their apps had just delivered the content from the desktop home page in a smaller format. The designers started playing around with new approaches.
- They turned their attention to addressing specific institutional obstacles that news organizations encounter—such as the lag time that occurs while reporters wait for sufficient corroboration of a story to justify their reporting developing news. For example, The Times didn’t cover reported sightings of Edward Snowden around the world as he was fleeing the US, so readers turned to other outlets that were covering the story. The team decided to try creating blurbs that used hedged phrasings that would pass editorial standards. This idea evolved into the “Watching” section of the current home page. It worked, increasing traffic and keeping people on the home page.
- Ultimately, they introduced the NYTNow app, for which they substantially rethought what news is. They built the app around three themes: intimacy, relevancy, and efficiency. The NYTNow app is much less formal than The Times—for example, one story they published was “A Sloth Took a Selfie.” The app typically addresses readers in the second person, providing packaged features such as “Your morning briefing.” There are hints of commentary in the eyebrows that introduce the headlines. But it’s also still The Times, delivering the most important stories to readers.
Renda’s story will be familiar to almost all UX designers who’ve gone through a massive site redesign, only to find that their efforts resulted in only marginal benefits. I deeply appreciated the honesty of this case study; it’s a story that people in the field need to hear and learn from. The NYTNow app represents a real victory. By applying the lessons the team learned in the wake of the failure of their initial Web site redesign effort, they’ve effected profound change and evolved a modern conception of what news should be. This was an important presentation that everyone working on an in-house UX team should hear.