Cennydd Bowles on Undercover UX Design

By Cennydd Bowles

Scrunchup interviews Cennydd Bowles on Undercover User Experience Design, which he co-published with James Box.

Listen to the interview

Audio transcript

Photo of the book cover

Anna: So, joining me today is Cennydd Bowles, who works at Clearleft and has just written a book called Undercover User Experience Design. So Cennydd, could you tell us a bit about your background?

Cennydd: Sure. I’ve been doing User Experience work for about eight or nine years now and like most people in the industry, I started outside of it. Particularly back in those days there weren’t really many generally accepted routes into UX; it was still very much a new field.

So my background was a Physics degree, which is not particularly common amongst designers, followed by a Masters in IT and it was in that Masters that I really got the UX bug or the human factors bug, whatever you want to call it. Anything really around designing systems for people. And from there I worked in Government for quite a while, about five years, trying to figure out a way to live out my passion for UX, my growing passion for UX, in a company that didn’t really get design.

Government’s not particularly well known, obviously, for valuing design. So I tried to figure out how to get people interested in making our website better, making our information services more user friendly and accessible and understandable. Did that for about five years, then moved to London and worked for a company called uSwitch.com, it’s a price comparison site, and was lead UX designer there for a couple of years and that was before I joined Clearleft, which is about two…two and a bit years ago now. So that’s a sort of potted history.

Anna: So what exactly is User Experience?

Cennydd: Well that’s a particularly current question. I like to view UX design as a discipline focusing on designing things, so that could be systems, it could be websites, in fact most of the focus of UX is at the moment in the kind of digital domain, but designing these things in a way so that user needs are given kind of top priority, so designing systems that make sense to people so that they’re usable, so that they’re useful, and so that they’re enjoyable as well.

I think originally where UX came from was really the field of usability, which obviously everyone throughout our industry has heard of, but I think we’ve moved on somewhat from that. The days of having a site that’s simply usable, that’s not necessarily what we want, so UX is really just looking beyond that, so sure, it’s usable, but is it actually worthwhile? Does it offer anything valuable? Do people want to come back and then tell others about it? And that goes beyond just a usable site, so it’s looking at all of the aspects that make people value a service and trying to design things or design those systems in a way that makes sense. And also helping the business to understand why it’s good to put user needs at the top of the list, so that they can make better decisions and obviously in the end, make more money.

Anna: So what benefits would an organisation get for hiring a UX designer?

Cennydd: Well it depends on the context. I’m not going to lie to you and say that every company needs a UX designer, because clearly that’s not the case. But what a UX specialist will bring you is a level of focus and a level of empathy that a lot of people who are quite ingrained in a particular way of doing business can end up losing over time, I think.

We’re all familiar with when we work for a company for a while, we start to become ingrained in the practices and the language and so on. And it’s hard to see things from a customer’s perspective. This is why you see organisations like software companies or universities or any of these companies using language and talking to their customers as if they know everything about the domain. Sometimes they are, but most of the time they’re not. And this is why you see acronyms all over the place. You see bad websites and uninstallable pieces of software, because everyone has assumed the same level of knowledge and interest of customers that they have themselves.

So the benefit of a UX designer is they can understand, or they can bring their understanding of psychology of user needs, of design theory, and bring all those together and say, well, based on what we know about our customers, here’s actually the sort of thing that we need to be doing for that. Here’s the language we need to be talking; here are the steps we need to guide them to get them up to speed with this software application or whatever it might be. And a lot of that actually in business itself, practically what a UX designer might be doing is asking kind of dumb questions; questions that sound dumb, but actually are quite appropriate and actually kind of critical issues, so UX people are an inquisitive lot, and they’ll ask lots of difficult questions, and that can rock the boat and there can be tension.

I guess some people don’t like the boat being rocked, but ultimately they will help a business re-focus on what’s important and why they’re actually there, which is obviously the people on the end of the line as it were.

Anna: So where do UX designers fit in, in the scope of a project? Are they mainly at the start or do they work on the site throughout the development?

Cennydd: Yes, they should do the latter. There’s something we talk about in the book which is kind of a UX adoption ladder, so we talk about what business that don’t understand UX are typically like, and then how they start awakening up to the benefits of this thing.

The first step is typically that you have maybe a keen UX person within the business who isn’t employed just to do that; they probably hold another role; it could be a designer or a developer or a marketer or a writer or something like that. And they’ll basically rant enough so that they’ll be asked to give something a once-over before it goes live so if there’s a new bit of the website or a new bit of an application, they’ll be asked, “Oh can you just take just take a look at this, we’ll just check it, and then we’ll push it live”, and that’s better than nothing, but that’s not really how UX should be done, so it really should run throughout the whole process.

So what we should be doing really is starting with looking at user research, right at the start saying, “Well who are we even making this for anyway? What’s the needs of this site? What are we even trying to do ourselves?” Then using that information to build prototypes and to test the system throughout to see what works and what doesn’t. Throwing away what doesn’t work and then re-vamping it and building it in this kind of cyclical fashion until you have something you’re confident with, so UX really has to go all the way from the beginning, right up to the very end, right up to launch and beyond that I think as well.

Anna: OK, so going back to your book. What’s the Undercover bit got to do with things?

Cennydd: Sure, well this really came from the experience I talked about previously, which is where I first had to adopt these tactics when I was working in a business that didn’t really get design; that wasn’t really geared toward design: it was geared toward providing services and advice to businesses. And so I had to find ways to get people excited about design without them really knowing that they were getting excited about design. Because it wasn’t doing any good, me storming up to the Chief Executive and saying, “I may just be a 23 year old graduate, but I think design is the answer to everything.” That’s not going to work. So I had to try and sneak things in. Not in an under-handed manner, but just doing some design work and showing it to someone, saying, “Hey, what do you think, I wonder if it could be like this?” Or saying “How about we get some users to have a look at this, some of the people who are actually going to be using the site and so on, and just trying to get them excited because that was really the only way I had to make progress.

And now if we fast-forward to the present day, I do quite a bit of work as a UX mentor and it’s very much a growing field. There are lots of people wanting to move into it, but one of the problems I think some people are facing is that we don’t all work for Apple. There are companies that really aren’t, again, geared to understand design, and we have to find ways to make our own knowledge and our experience count in these organisations. And that’s really why we wrote this book, because this is all about the way that you can try and sneak these things, this kind of user-centred focus into a business, without creating too much of a disruption, and without making enemies along the way, because it’s extremely easy to do that; I’ve done it, so it’s kind of things I learned the hard way, or things we learned the hard way, just as much as it is practical advice from the start.

Anna: It sounds like it’s going to be quite revolutionary, sneaking in bits of UX into web projects. Do you think there’s a possibility that anyone could lose their jobs after reading it?

Cennydd: If they do it wrong, sure: if they do it poorly. One thing we’ve been very careful to do is throughout to say, “This is a fairly tricky point. There is potential for conflict here.” And as I say, I made these mistakes myself, so I’ve upset marketing teams and things like that by saying their copy was useless or whatever it might be, and really that’s not the way to get results. The way to get results is to work with people, not against them. However much we may not understand their viewpoint, we need to try and empathise with them as much as we can; put ourselves in their shoes. So I think anyone who gets themselves in serious trouble after reading our book has seriously misunderstood the approach we’ve taken, which was much more collaborative and much more kind of defensive I guess, to an extent, rather than aggressive sort of slash and burn policy. It’s how to gently steer people towards it. But that said, you’ve got to make change, and to coin that horrible cliché, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. To get these kind of changes into a business, yes you will upset a few people, but the trick is to handle that with as much diplomacy and as much business sense as you can, so if there is a conflict, at least you can back up why this is necessary and why things need to change.

Anna: Which part of the book did you enjoy writing the most?

Cennydd: That’s a good question. Every part of the book is exciting to begin with as you write it. Sure, it’s terribly exciting to read as well, but as I moved onto every fresh chapter, we found newer things we wanted to say, so lots of research went into this clearly, lots of drafting; lots of re-drafting, and the writing process itself, every time you jump onto something new, it kind of perks up your interest again, and then by the end of that chapter, you’ve exhausted it. Hopefully you’ve got everything, every last drop of value you’ve wrung out of this thing and we’re quite looking forward to moving onto the next section.

That said, I’m quite keen on Chapter 3, which is all about generating ideas, which is something I think that’s rather under-represented in the UX field. We somehow go from doing research to suddenly designing the site, and that’s not really how I think the designer’s brain works. It’s certainly not how my brain works. I need to say, well, scratch out some ideas so lots of sketching, lots of throwing things around and saying to your colleagues, “Well hey, what about this one. Does this work?” It’s collaborative design as well, because you need sometimes to get the buy-in of your stakeholders. You can’t just ride rough-shod over the process and say, “Here we go; I’ve fixed everyone’s problems” if you haven’t got the authority to do that. So that was an interesting section to write, because I think it’s relatively, as I say, under-explored in UX literature, and hopefully the readers will get something from it as well. Even if they don’t, it’s a nice short chapter with lots of pictures and lots of advice on how to draw well.

Anna: That’s the most popular

Cennydd: Yes, it’s the thing that people like reading, so fingers crossed for that one.

Anna: Is there anything that you wanted to get in the book that didn’t make the print?

Cennydd: Yes there is. Initially we were hoping to back the book up with a relatively extensive chapter on some of the fundamental theory of UX design, so talking about things from library and information science, a bit of cognitive psychology would go in there, a bit of design theory and so on.

It turned out that that was really rather ambitious and we were quite limited by page count as well, because we wanted to make this a short, punchy, readable book, and I think that if that had gone in, we wouldn’t have been able to do justice to that section, because there’s a heck of a lot of theory obviously to any design, and particular UX design I think because it’s so broad. And it also would have made the book a bit longer, maybe a little bit less readable, and probably a bit more expensive as well, so we decided to drop that, and who knows, in the future maybe we’ll revisit that, but there’s plenty of other literature out there as well that can help people understand some of the fundamental theory of design, so our angle I’d say was much more practical than that, so there’s a case for saying, not sure how it would’ve fit anyway, because we’re talking about lots of impressive sounding scientific theories. Again that’s not the sort of thing you go to your boss and say, “Look; such and such scientist says we should do it this way.” Because they don’t care! The book is very much focused on that kind of pragmatic approach.

Anna: So how smooth was the writing process?

Cennydd: It wasn’t too bad.

Anna: So you chose to co-author it.

Cennydd: Yes, so James who’s my colleague at Clearleft, we actually hit upon the idea last year, last October, saying “Oh we think there’s a book in this.” And I’d had some advice previously from a BarCamp session actually by Gavin Bell who’s written a book for O’Reilly fairly recently, in which he said, “There’s kind of two cardinal rules of writing your first book; the first one is don’t co-author with someone”, which I can understand why he said that.

Anna: Which you completely ignored!

Cennydd: Which we did completely ignore! The phrase I’ve been quite fond of saying to people who’ve asked is that I think we were tempted at the start to say that, it’s co-authoring so we should each write half a book. It doesn’t work out that way at all. You each write an entire book, and you have to get that whole book signed off by someone else, i.e. each other, so it took a very long time.

Fortunately James and I, we work together, we’re friends, our relationship is very good, so there weren’t really many big hiccups. We had some problems with deciding exactly who the right audience was and sometimes we were talking about things that were maybe interesting to us, but not relevant to the end-users, so there was lots of…rather to the end-reader. There was lots of editing and slicing things out and re-phrasing and so on, but that’s the sort of stuff that comes with writing a book anyway, I would assume.

The only other interesting difficulty we had was the printing process, which was entirely new to us. Being web-types, we understand the world of RGB. We’re less familiar with the world of pantone and CMYK, so some interesting challenges getting all our diagrams done in time and the sections that we had commissioned from the wonderful Chris Summerlin as well, and trying to get those in. Took a little while, but we got there in the end, so it was extremely hard work, but I don’t think there was anything disastrous in it. I think it was actually surprisingly smooth for a first book.

Anna: So what advice would you give to someone who’s breaking into UX?

Cennydd: Well I would advise them to read the book obviously!

Anna: Obviously!

Cennydd: I would say…I mean it depends on the company and their age and their personal goals, because I think it is harder for a younger designer to have the same impact as say a 30, 35 year old designer. Even if they have the same level of experience; just because it requires a diplomacy and a tact that often only can come with experience, and this is nothing against the younger designer, but it’s just quite hard to know the right way to handle people I think in a professional context unless you’ve spent a bit of time doing that.

I would say that they should really have a five year plan where they want to be. I think one of the things we recognise particularly in the book is that not everyone’s going to stay where they are for five years, so we’re not going to try and pretend that we want this one company to be as successful as Apple, and that one person can make the difference.

It’s all about knowing what do I want to be doing, and what changes can I make where I am, and what changes am I going to have to go somewhere else. So plotting out a bit of a career course, but without chopping and changing too much, so you’ve got to stick at things. So making this sort of cultural change in the business can take a long time. It can take years, so it’s really probably one of the most valuable pieces of advice I could offer is not to become impatient, and just to plug away with dedication and not get your head down, because it’s very easy to lose morale and to lose spirit, and you think you’re getting nowhere. But it’s often when you think you’re getting nowhere that you’re actually making the biggest inroads, so it’s that kind of commitment and that persistence I think that shows the best dividends.

Anna: So do you think young people would be better off working for a company rather than working for a UX agency?

Cennydd: That’s a really difficult question. Mostly UX agencies will only hire graduates. And often Masters graduates at that. Most of the courses that are related to UX are at the Masters level at the post-graduate level; particularly down in London there are a couple. So people without either the academic qualifications or professional experience are probably not likely to be able to jump straight into a UX agency.

Although that said, the market is very strong at the moment for candidates, so there are a lot of people looking for UX designers, and not enough good UX designers to fill that gap. But there is a lot to be said for working in just a regular type business, and if you’re interested in the web, hopefully they have a web component you can be involved in. But understanding how power works in an organisation and things you can and can’t say and how to effect change in an organisation; any company can teach you that, so you shouldn’t feel that you have to jump straight in as a UX specialist straight away. And the field’s changing so rapidly as well, as is everything on the web, that by the time you’ve spent a couple of years doing it, you might actually realise that it’s changed slightly, or your passion lies in a slightly different place, so any company I think has the potential to be improved through UX design, so I wouldn’t say there’s a big rush to launch into a dedicated specialist agency.

Anna: So finally, do you have a link to your book?

Cennydd: Sure. Our website, which is undercoverux.com, that’s got a couple of pages on there it’s got things like a table of contents, it’s got some testimonials that some very kind colleagues and friends of ours within the industry have given us about the book, which is wonderful, and obviously we’ve got the links to check out the book on Amazon or to buy it from alternative sellers, so we’d be delighted if people wanted to click through onto those.

It’s pretty reasonably priced at the moment, so it would be great if people want to click through and obviously buy a copy and tell everyone all about it. And tell us what you think as well, because we’re not in this for the fame or the money. We’re in this because we want to try and help the industry move forward, and it would be great to see whether we’ve been successful in that.

Anna: Well thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today.

Cennydd: Great stuff. Thank you.

Cennydd Bowles

Cennydd Bowles on Undercover UX Design

Cennydd Bowles is obsessed with making the web a better place and has several years’ experience of doing just that on e-commerce, government and community sites. As a user experience designer at Clearleft, he thinks, writes and practices information architecture, interaction design and usability like there’s no tomorrow.