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Midwest UX Reflection: Looking Back to Move Forward

Tags: User Experience

Opening the Midwest UX weekend, keynote Steve Portigal shared crowdsourced war stories and extracted key actionable learnings most of the audience could relate to. This set the stage for a weekend of much-needed reflection. The reflection permeated the entire conference, not just with personal anecdotes but also bringing historical references to the forefront of conversation.

In the technology industry, saying we move fast might be the biggest understatement. From the user experience perspective, we are often looking ahead to understand new ways users are leveraging digital in their lives, rather than reviewing past examples that could prevent us from failing. Three ways looking back can help us are by (re-)establishing fundamental guiding principles that still apply, providing perspective that helps removes bias and giving context to the bigger picture of what role our product or experience play in society.

Establish Guiding Principles

Whether you have a formal degree or have been self-educated, we have all been exposed to the same set of fundamentals along the way. As we practice our craft, we also are taught to embrace failure so we can learn. But, there are many unnecessary risks or issues we end up taking that could have been prevented by understanding what has been done before us. Two separate sessions referenced principles created by Jakob Nielsen that can AND SHOULD be applied today, but that we often forget about.

10 Usability Heuristics for User Experience – Jakob Nielsen

Anna Abovyan at speech technology M*Modal demonstrated how the 22-year old heuristics applied to voice interactions. Looking at the evolving interfaces available to us, how can we first apply our historic guiding principles to the technology? While there may be some gaps, we might be surprised how relevant they are and how, when applied, we can minimize risk.

Provide Perspective

Sometimes we find that what we are working on, in fact, isn’t as revolutionary as we believed. Among myriad historical examples, we were introduced to the first voice interaction toy that was developed in 1922, Radio Rex.

Radio Rex - First Voice Controlled Device - Circa ~1920


Another impactful point of reference came with the concept video shared by Phil Balagtas of the first glimpse of what looks like an iPad in 1987. These, along with many others were proof that we have been working towards these technologies much longer than we know.

Knowledge Navigator (1987) Apple Computer


But Midwest UX didn’t just provide a perspective on technology, but on humanity. In Ramya Mahalingam’s talk about cultural relativism, she shared many stories of how companies like Best Buy and Walmart failed to lift and shift their presence to new countries.

Whether it is establishing a business or marketing products, we need to look at stories of success and failure to be able to learn what the impact is from the users’ personal perspective.

As we heard external stories from people of different genders, ethnic backgrounds or sexual orientations, it forces us to be removed from our ethnocentric views of the problem or project at hand – and makes us look bigger.

Give Context to the Bigger Picture

It is very easy to get excited or too deeply engaged with what we do 40+ hours a week and blindly move forward. When we are forced to understand how the project/brand applies to a larger ecosystem of users or technologies, sometimes it is too late. One account of how a Russian research project didn’t consider cultural differences in the term “spa” forced us to re-examine how even the smallest terminology can impact results.

We are challenged to think bigger and take additional steps when applying marketing and tech across the globe – but also within social circles. Several times we were reminded of the impact a personalization algorithm on Facebook could create in extreme social bubbles. This is a story about the power of the products that we build and their influence on us as humans.

We are all working off a different set of core knowledge and life experiences that should be dynamic and evolving as we work toward doing better work. In our passion for thinking outside the box, we often don’t have a good grasp on what (or who) we are working with.

You can’t think outside the box if you don’t know what’s in the box.

So how do we assure that we are learning from the past?

Work Toward A Well-Educated Team, Informed Product and Introspective Human Being

As many professionals want to push forward and always be working on the next big thing, there is a need to ground ourselves in the past. In this, we must strive to:

  1. Educate your teams on the history of the industry, technology and research that you are dealing with.

  2. Conduct project/sprint retrospectives on both good and bad projects alike. Let the team transparently share ways to continuously improve.

  3. Share your learnings across the company/community so we all can benefit. Don’t make the same mistake twice within your organization.

  4. Look inward to evaluate your own knowledge gaps and always be curious. Our self-awareness paired with the desire and ability to continuously learn is powerful in evolving our work.

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About The Author

UX Consultant

Adam is a seasoned UX practitioner in Cardinal’s Columbus office focusing on digital strategy, research, analytics, and UX architecture. Adam looks to apply his experience across the business and help expand Cardinal’s UX offerings.