Future London Academy’s UX and Digital Design Week took place on August, 15–19, 2016, in London. Throughout the week, we visited a variety of design studios and companies and learned a lot about the way they work, including their projects, products, processes, management, and culture—and all the things that shape it. This August, FLA elevated the course program to a whole new level, with a truly stellar lineup, including ustwo, Unit9, DesignStudio, Facebook, Fjord, Foolproof, cxpartners, AKQA, Skyscanner, Telegraph Media Group, Barclays, and Badoo.
In this review, I’ll provide an overview of the course, describing its
The first time this course happened, in 2013, it was an initiative by a group of students from Russia who wanted to visit prominent design studios in London. Ekaterina Solomeina later improved and scaled that idea, founding Future London Academy. FLA now organizes several annual, week-long programs: UX and Digital Design, Design Thinking and Innovation, Service Design, Future of Branding, Interior and Experience Design, and Photography.
Ekaterina, Moe S. Hussain, and I acted as hosts throughout the course. Each day, we welcomed attendees and delivered opening remarks, led attendees to a different company through the beautiful streets of London, introduced each speaker, guided attendees through the activities of the day, and offered closing remarks, encouraging attendees to gather together for a chat in the evening, at a nearby, lovely, 400-year-old pub.
A key feature of the course was that attendees visited design teams where they work, at their companies’ offices. This was a great opportunity to see how they work from the inside. Designers presented a lecture or workshop. Then, everyone participated in a free-form chat about their projects, work methods, culture, and all other aspects of great design. This format is very different from a conference’s presentations. Companies can talk more openly and show more of their internal work. Plus, attendees have much more time for questions because the speakers are not in a rush.
The primary venue was a house in Shoreditch where some of the attendees resided during the course, and some mornings, we had a warm-up lecture right in the house. But each day featured different venues: the offices of the design teams who were presenting the content that day. Many product companies and design agencies are based in Shoreditch, which is one of the hottest tech areas in London. Attendees took up residence in Shoreditch as well, so on some days, we walked to the host companies, as Figures 2 and 3 show. This added to the overall experience.
It was inspiring to see design teams’ creative spaces, which are a contributing factor to teams’ ability to create great products. Figures 4–5 show some of the offices we visited.
Content & Presenters
The UX and Digital Design Week course covered some of the biggest talking points of the past few years: UX strategy, the connection between brand and user interface, in-car user interfaces, virtual reality, virtual assistants and the algorithms that make them work, design management, and building a design culture. We received expert advice relating to a variety of contexts, including cutting-edge product companies, traditional organizations with competent design teams, small design studios, and big service agencies. London has so many bright minds and great companies! It’s one of the strongest cities in Europe for every aspect of design.
I took voluminous notes and a tremendous number of photographs. Here are some highlights from the talks.
Design Process and Culture
Attendees learned a lot about various companies’ design processes and the cultures that support them.
Drew Huddleston, Executive Director, User Experience, at AKQA, acknowledged, “Change is a process, not an event.”
Nearly all companies use design sprints when working on complicated functions and products. The benefits of design sprints for moving a project forward are more or less obvious, but not everyone is aware of their impact on design culture. For example, Facebook uses them as a tool for training managers. Each manager must be a design-sprint facilitator at least once.
The impact of a company’s internal design culture is particularly tangible in big, successful companies such as Facebook, which is very decentralized and employs product-design processes that offer maximal flexibility. While you might think that such a complex process should be meticulously controlled, in fact, the shared ideology of their “hack culture” gives the process its integrity. Want to make a product? Just take it upon yourself, find a couple of colleagues, and it might all just work out! As the result of effective infrastructure and leadership, the work of small groups comes together in a finished product. This approach is also evident at ustwo. On all three floors of their London office, we observed non-stop experiments and bursts of creative thinking that might eventually lead to breakthroughs. (By the way, I recently wrote a two-part article for UXmatters that features design culture: Part 1 and Part 2.)
Cross-functional teams are the basis of all project work. While this idea is not new, it’s always interesting to see exactly how team communications work—for example, Facebook’s XFN (Cross-Functional Network). Badoo uses an approach that is similar to Twitter’s. Teams focus on functions such as payments or messages, as well as platforms such as iOS, Android, or Windows Phone, but all of their work has to be synchronized. Skyscanner and Telegraph Media Group use the same approach as Spotify. Jane Austin, who was then Head of UX at Telegraph, said, “Your team needs to trust that it is safe to think.”
Noel Lyons, Director of Digital Design at Barclays, told us that user experience is everyone’s responsibility, not just the designer’s. No matter how great a UX designer’s work is, if Engineering later implements it poorly, the final user experience of the product will be rubbish. By the way, Noel doesn’t like acronyms such as UX or UI. They’re less understandable to other specialists, so he prefers to simply speak about design.
Co-design brings together the product team, the client, and the user. This is one of the best ways of enabling the creation of strong, even remarkable products, without losing that spark before their final realization. To enhance the immersion experience and the visualization of the process for everyone who is involved, some companies actually recreate the user’s environment. James Hurst, Principal at DesignStudio, believes, “Beautiful details need big ideas. This keeps both the left and right hemispheres in good physical shape.” DesignStudio actually built Airbnb apartments in their studio. AKQA set up a gym to work on an app for Nike.
Foolproof has a strong UX strategy framework that Tim Loo, Executive Director, Strategy, has been talking about at conferences for the past few years. Tim said, “UX strategy—with its outside-in philosophy and toolkit—has emerged as a strategy-planning process for reconnecting a business and its brand values with real customer wants and needs; then driving alignment through a team and across the silos of an organization.” It was really interesting to hear Tim speak live. Although you might need to spend an hour jotting down notes while watching his presentation to overcome information overload!
When someone asked, “What would be a typical process for working on a project?” Celia Romaniuk of Fjord said, “There are no typical projects.” When working with their clients’ in-house design teams, Fjord helps them build their inner strengths, understand the value of design, and learn to structure their work properly. The work Fjord produces has a long life, so it’s important that the client is aware of that. You can help clients put a design team together, but if you don’t teach them the right attitude about design, the team might not survive.
Noel Lyons of Barclays thinks the worst reason for using an external design studio is that the in-house team doesn’t have time to do the work themselves; the second worst, that the team is not competent to do it. The best reason for working with an external design studio is the desire to expand the in-house team’s horizons, hear fresh ideas, and develop new expectations. What helps in bringing in UX people from the outside is their naiveté, their yearning for new projects, their eagerness to get their name out there, and their incredible passion for their work—even if they’re not that knowledgeable about the domain. In-house teams should collaborate with these outsiders as closely as possible—avoiding agencies that often outsource work to their service partners. It’s better to work with the latter directly. It’s much better to look out for small, interesting design studios.
Methods and Practices
Some of the lecturers shared their best practices for how to run UX projects successfully.
Steph McNee, a Research Lead at Facebook, told us, “With participatory design, you’ll find that, while users’ ideas might not be good, their reasons for them are valuable.”
While many companies are creative in their problem solving, it’s always helpful to take a fresh look at their methods. For example, DesignStudio constantly comes up with new ways of approaching work sessions with their clients. They use magic tricks to present seemingly incomprehensible processes that actually have an explanation—the project’s goal is to discover it. They use improvised placards containing potential users’ thoughts to see whether they strike a chord with the client. There are plenty of methods like these, whose goal is to link the main message to an obvious and memorable anchor that will later help teams to remember key principles relating to a design project.
Last year, at FLA’s UX and Digital Design Week, I noticed companies’ prolific use of wall spaces and temporary stands for mockups, mood boards, storyboards, brainstorm results, and other project artifacts. This year, I saw even more of these, in more diverse formats. For example, Skyscanner has done scrupulous work on its design system, and the design department displays a full breakdown of that system. Foolproof has created a war room for each project, where they work with the client, developing the initial idea by understanding the users and devising solutions that are suitable for them. At AKQA, they used most of their wall space for mood boards, mockups, kanban boards, and other artifacts.
Steve Pearce, Global Head of Design at Skyscanner, asked, “How can we identify traveler types which are more useful for designing at scale? How can we create journey models which adapt to the diversity of trip types?”
Design Systems and Guidelines
Attendees learned a lot about different aspects of building holistic products that let users experience their brand values through their user interface.
For me, the most interesting topic was the connection between the brand and the user interface, which was particularly clear in case studies about Airbnb, Skype, Skyscanner, Nike, and to a certain extent Barclays. These companies’ products demonstrate a simple, but powerful message. Typically, companies express their mission in one word or sentence that communicates the company’s main value proposition and is prominent in everything it does, including its identity, advertising materials, and user interfaces. Notably, at DesignStudio, there is not a separate team of strategists who make this work; it’s the humble designers. What is the soul of the product? The user’s mental model. This is one of the main questions all product designers should answer to help them create a “minimum lovable product.” For those who work in identity design, this is a common knowledge. However, there aren’t many examples of a successful link between the brand and the user interface—perhaps Skype, Google Material Design, and a few others. Only if a design team is aware of a company’s main message can they ensure that the details of a Web or mobile application reflect it, and the user experience enhances the brand experience. For Skype, the message is “Together;” for Airbnb, “Belong anywhere;” for Barclays, “Helping people achieve their ambitions—in the right way.” Skyscanner wants to transform itself from a simple price calculator into a travel consultant, while Nike has achieved an intimate level of understanding of athletes.
Skype’s logotype and identity are based on round shapes because the human body doesn’t have any straight lines. The main message of the brand, “Together,” focuses on humanness. Therefore, all design elements had to be round. Skype also has very memorable sound effects whose origins were in the sound of the human voice. Another component of Skype’s identity is powerful, memorable motion design. They started using this long before it became trendy, so it was rather radical at the time. For quick prototyping and testing, Skype created a custom plugin for AfterEffects, which exports an animation’s properties to JSON, allowing them to use these parameters in any environment—whether for Web or native development.
Skyscanner is working on its Backpack system—initially called the Organic Design System, or ODS—which is based on the atomic-design methodology, but is, in large part, dedicated to common principles of interaction design and user-interface design and provides a signature experience. Skyscanner undertook a massive user study and has created a “traveler’s genome” that is the backbone of their customer journey map—or, in their case, more of a customer journey cycle. This vision determines all of their decisions concerning any interaction with the user interface. They first introduced a B2B version of the design system, which allowed them to test key features before integrating them into the final product design. To work on that version, they brought together a team of designers called GLUE—similar to Spotify’s squad.
Nowadays, digital product designers work on new paradigms, platforms, and industries, which broadens the standard Web and mobile skillset. Here are some insights about current interesting trends.
ustwo has done a variety of projects for the automotive industry, including the dashboard for Citroen C-Cactus and apps for Ford, Jaguar, and other car brands. This all began a few years back with their original research and resulting concepts, which helped them make a name for themselves in that space. Ever since, ustwo has gotten more and more real-world projects. Car manufacturers are looking for new ways of selling and renting cars, and one of the key trends is a transition in people’s general understanding of mobility. These manufacturers are purchasing and investing in car-sharing companies and taxi services and working on autonomous car fleets. Individual car ownership is showing little growth, so we’ll see many changes in the industry around alternative means of getting access to cars and transportation in general.
Unit 9 is one of the strongest companies in virtual-reality (VR) user experience. Because of their experience and understanding of this space, their story can teach us a lot about the subtleties of user interactions in this new environment. Yates Buckley, Technical Partner at Unit9, told us, “Virtual reality is built around how humans expect to use tools.” He is planning to publish a video of his presentation, which covered three aspects of VR user experience: 360º video, games, and educational-entertainment projects. The latter were especially interesting because the human brain can learn pretty quickly in virtual environments. For example, thanks to virtual practice sessions, young surgeons’ rate of mistakes during their first operation has fallen from 15–50% to just 1%. AKQA created a simulation of a complex stunt in which a parachutist flew between two columns, using a projection. This simulation tricked the parachutist’s brain and, thus, prepared him for the real jump. In the US, many sports teams use VR helmets for training, which let the athletes experience the key moments of a game. Bodily sensations are often the same in reality and VR. Thus, users’ bodies are better prepared for the real experience.
Giles Colborne, CEO of cxpartners, prepared a formidable presentation on modern smart systems that understand the algorithms their designers teach them. These systems won’t take over the jobs of workers who are keen on self-development, but they’ll become another handy tool for them. He advised, “If you come up with an idea, you need to know enough about algorithms to have a sensible conversation with an engineer.” Giles had planned to tell us about four areas of algorithm application, but because of some issues, he had time to mention only two of them: the simplification of user data and the search of data patterns. Take a look at his full presentation.
Fjord’s purchase by the big consulting firm Accenture in 2003 became an opportunity for them to up their game. Accenture’s CEO was a supporter of the studio and design in general, so he gave Fjord a place at the decision-making table and backed them up in all sorts of ways—even though he didn’t quite understand the designers themselves. (“Aren’t you all just pot-smokers?”) Group Design Director Celia Romaniuk said, “There are plenty of both good and bad people in the company. If you stick with the former and don’t think about the latter, everything will work out.” In the end, Fjord became a catalyst for change at Accenture by demonstrating what is possible, so other departments have adopted their philosophy. Although Fjord is trying to integrate with Accenture as much as they can, for the sake of keeping their own culture, they’ve introduced only selected practices that are commonplace at Accenture. They don’t use grading system, and their marketing and other activities are separate. It’s important to devote attention to design management and its benefits. As a result, people will become more design literate, and design really can help drive organizational change.
AKQA’s system for working with new technologies is awesome. Andy Hood, who is responsible for this system, actively monitors Kickstarter, conferences like CES, and startup accelerators for ideas they can use on real projects. Then, AKQA picks ideas they can immediately suggest to their clients. Because this gives their clients the opportunity to enter a space before their competitors do, they are keen to experiment. In Andy’s experience, the Gartner Hype Cycle graph shows the habits and behavior of people who don’t immediately accept novelty rather than technology’s potential and possibilities.
Attendees received a course program and some useful gifts. However, it was hard to obtain speakers’ presentations because the information they shared with attendees was not yet ready for publication. (Attendees had to sign many NDAs.) The opportunity of seeing everything was well worth it.
FLA does not maintain information about their past events on their Web site, shown in Figure 11.
Course attendees resided in several nearby houses. This made the venue feel somewhat like a campus. We always had breakfast together at the main house and had enough time for informal socializing, sharing our impressions of the event and striking up great new friendships. As shown in Figures 12–14, a comfortable, friendly environment is conducive to focusing on learning! It adds to the overall course experience, too. It’s nice to share a lovely cup of tea with another great mind.
Since many attendees were in London for the first time, the organizers allowed plenty of free time for touring the city. I love London! It’s a terrific mix of classic and modern culture. There was a graffiti tour on Tuesday, which included many hallmark works such as one from the “Exit Through the Gift Shop” movie about Banksy, shown in Figure 15.
At the end of the week, on Friday, all attendees gathered for an after party at Badoo’s office in Soho, which has several roof-top terraces. It was time to relax—experiencing a dozen tightly packed lectures within a week was a bit exhausting.
This year, the course attracted the biggest, most international group yet—21 attendees from Japan, South Korea, Turkey, Israel, India, UK, Finland, Holland, Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. Their professions ranged from design managers and digital designers to developers and product designers. All wanted to learn new skills. During our discussions, people shared some unexpected views on everything we’d heard during the company visits, which helped us to look at things from different angles. It was great spending time in such inspiring company.
By the end of the week, all of us became friends—some of us even visiting each other’s countries after the course.
Among all of the design events I’ve ever attended, this event was certainly one of the highlights. The speakers and their studios, the way the course was organized, and the diverse attendees provided a lot of inside knowledge and a great experience.
In 2017, FLA’s UX and Digital Design Week will take place on August 14–20. Although FLA has not yet finalized the lineup of speakers, there are already a few big names from 2016. I hope this year’s course will be no less impressive!
Yury leads a team comprising UX and visual designers at one of the largest Russian Internet companies, Mail.Ru, which is part of the Mail.Ru Group. His team works on communications, content-centric, and mobile products, as well as cross-portal user experiences. Both Yury and his team are doing a lot to grow their professional community in Russia. Read More