Home » Top 10 UX gems of advice for improving user experience on the web

Top 10 UX gems of advice for improving user experience on the web

UX Burlington, a daylong conference-style event held last month in our lovely backyard, was filled with speakers espousing brilliant ideas and the kind of user-interface and workflow management insights that would set your heart soaring.

Or sinking, depending on what the speaker shared on Friday, June 12, with the conference’s 150 attendees. Dealertrack, one of the event’s pivotal sponsors, was there to witness it all. The challenge really came to boiling the 4+ hours of presentations, and immeasurably stimulating discussions that followed (over piping-hot cups of fresh-ground Brio and Skinny Pancake treats) down into one succinct post.

So we did what we know – analyzed a data set to gauge, basically, the user experiences of the UX design conference.

The Method: With Twitter as the measurement source, we took the most re-tweeted, publicly shared insights from the conference, and ranked them according to volume of ‘Favorites’ (or, the little that Twitter users give something they love, that stands in for the Facebook or Instagram .)

Retweets from UX Burlington, therefore, are given greater weight (2 points) since a RT ( ) often requires a two-step process to share it and comment on it, and directly impacts a user’s own public feed. ‘Favorites’ ( ) are given just 1 point, because it’s a single-step interaction, that does not necessarily impact a user publicly.

Here they are: In order of the highest-loved, we have top 10 most adored insights from UX Burlington, which was held at the Main Street Landing Black Box theater. For your benefit, we’ve included a bit of context about the speaker and presentation, so you know what they were referencing in the remark shared.

1. Women make small [design] teams smarter

Rosen and RandallWho said it: James A. Rosen @jamesarosen

Shared by:  Meg Randall, @megrandall, Director of Operations,  LocalvoreToday, Burlington, VT  +

Michael Tedeschi @mike_tedeschi, founder of Interactive Mechanics, Philadelphia, PA

Tally: 20 , 19 (59 points)

What he meant: “Some recent research in the Harvard Business Review looked at what makes small teams smarter,” Rosen explained in his presentation, Making Design by Committee Work.

“They tested groups on brainstorming, decision-making, and puzzle solving. Any guesses as to what was correlated with higher performance?”

Yep, the collective intelligence of a group rises when women are in it, the Review reported last December.

Two additional factors he didn’t mention that determine small group – defined as 2 to 5 people – success: the social intelligence of each member individually (gauged by having them read emotions of people’s faces by looking at photos of just their eyes); and the equality of participation (ie. balanced groups do better than those with a few people who run the discussion.)

Other highlights of Rosen’s presentation, which can be seen here: Two guided meditations with the group of attendees, a few creativity-priming exercises that set you up to accept collaborative thinking, and some snark-free cat references thrown in, including “Cat Tuesday” as a function he added to show “featuritis” in design releases. Oh, and a great blow-by-blow of how the Pontiac Aztec exemplifies bad design-by-committee.

2. Great UX isn’t magic; “It’s the f*cking basics.”

Sha Hwang, Photo by Myleen Hollero
Sha Hwang, or @shashashasha. Photo by Myleen Hollero

Who said it: Sha Hwang, keynote speaker, web designer and architect, who’s done work for CNN, MTV, Flickr, and Adobe, who has recently been rebuilding Healthcare.gov.

Shared by: Sara Simon, web developer at Vermont Public Radio

Tally: 10 , 29 favorites (49 points)

What he meant: A thoroughly built, complete, pleasurable and easy to use design isn’t easy to create, but it’s absolutely essential, in many cases, even before a product’s rollout.

The old Healthcare.gov website, which he had been hired to help rebuild in 2013, had “brought the complexity of the law into the complexity of the interface,” Hwang pointed out in his keynote, viewable here. (His slides can be seen here, on Evernote.)

skitchAs designers and developers on his team set out to repair the system – and recover the nation’s faith in a healthcare program that had been created to make care accessible for all – he said they realized how much had been lost in the work of technologists that ties the architect to the end user.

“These are peoples lives. This is our money,” he said, about the site’s successful release, which made it simpler to navigate, cleaner to look at, and easier to use so much that testers worked on using the site without looking at it – using screen readers  –  before rollout. “In the end, we made the application process 80 percent shorter. And the number of uninsured dropped about a third, from 18% in 2013, to 11% in 2014.”

But he insisted, “what our team brought into the government was nothing unique at all. Nothing that any of us in this room doesn’t already have: A sense of empathy. A level of respect. A pride in our work and our craft.”

Instead of putting the speed and tech-industry standards of releasing a item out in a lightening-fast manner, to match what’s currently in fashion, they put the user first, at the forefront of their design efforts. “For most startups, and many companies, and firms in general, building online means speed and scale. But it also means a constant negotiation between the user experience and cost,” he said.

“All of this is fine if we consider ourselves to be building in an ecosystem, where everything is supposed to be constantly transforming….[But] that’s not true anymore. Products [now] exist at the scale of infrastructure.”

“In these cases, instead of the problem of the sacredness of the individual, we see the inability to feel the weight of one [person] at all.”

3. Designed personas are basically “fancy stereotypes'”

Jeffrey Pierce, Director, User Experience Strategy at Dealertrack.
Jeffrey Pierce, Director, User Experience Strategy at Dealertrack.

Shared by: Sha Hwang, a keynote speaker, designer on Healthcare.gov @shashashasha

Tally: 14 , 19  (47 points)

What he meant: “Proto personas are just a way of thinking about people in stereotypes,” Pierce actually said in his presentation, Scaling UX.

Or, for an accurate representation of what your audience looks like, and what their needs are, you need to get out of the building – or GOOB, in his acronym.

Prototyping caricatures – he used an example inspired by 70s men in Sears casual wear who pay for everything by checks –  has its place, Pierce said. But the biases built into the “fancy stereotypes” that show up in brainstorming sessions, are also mirrors of the design team.

Go out and interview people, asking “the who’s and how’s” not the “did’s and was,” in order to “keep them talking. And above all, listen.”

4. Dysfunctional products come from dysfunctional organizationsdysfunction in organization by jon kolko

Who said it: Rian van der Merwe, a Portland, OR-based author and product designer at enterprise company Jive. (Disclosure: Team members are currently testing this program for Dealertrack.) @rianVDM

Shared by: Eva Kaniasty, a presenter and UX researcher at Red Pill UX + van der Merwe himself. @kaniasty

Tally: 16 , 11   (43 points)

What he meant: Van der Merwe was quoting an op-ed published from earlier year by Jon Kolko, the Vice President of Consumer Design at Blackboard, in Harvard Business Review. (Blackboard is a learning management system that manages and hosts 6,000 colleges’ online courses.)  In van der Merwe’s address, Why Enterprise Software Sucks (And How to Un-Suck It), he’s discussing specifically, the downfall of legacy systems bought by, as his images depict, straight-laced corporate types who were looking for “control, compliance, configurability, and features” but the end user was the person who’s just trying to get a job done. Overly feature-heavy but unintuitive design, therefore, led crappy enterprise systems to go obsolete. (For the original slides, visit his Slideshare page.)

“As fewer people are able to use the software, fewer people want to use it, until no one uses it any more,” said van der Merwe. His solution?  More user research, breaking down corporate silos, and more empathy for the users.

 6. “Great user research response to the ‘faster horse’ quote, from @katiemccurdy #uxbtv2015” “We don’t ask people what they want…”

Who said it: Katie McCurdy, Burlington-area user experience designer at mHealth and Notabli
Shared by: Rian van der Merwe @RianVDM
Tally: 7 9 (22 points)

Great user research response to the “faster horse” quote, from
What he meant/What she said: In her talk, Katie McCurdy presented an oft-quoted innovation adage that’s been credited to Henry Ford.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

tigerquoteWhat she revealed in the next slide was that, first, it wasn’t actually something Ford said. And next, that the quote is so beloved because it clings to a long-held fantasy we hold about how innovation happens – that people don’t know what they want, you need to tell them. That great ideas have to come from outside the conventions that exist, and the populace’s way of thinking.

McCurdy’s issue with that is, it overlooks how much understanding, and empathy, needs to go in to truly brilliant user-oriented design. She likened herself and her work to the efforts

of a tiger – quietly listening, prowling, and ready to pounce at a moment’s notice when real truths and user problems reveal themselves.

A tiger with a talk bubble summed up her point:

“We don’t ask people what they want. We work to understand their fears, needs, contexts, problems, and emotions. That helps us solve the right problem in the most compelling way possible.”

Katie McCurdy said that. (For real.)

7. “If you can draw a circle, a triangle, and a square — you’re already better than HTML.”
@jeffrey_pierce on sketch resistance at #uxbtv2015

Who said it: Jeffrey Pierce @jeffrey_pierce
Shared by: Eileen Webb, keynote speaker on better designing for content creation. @webmeadow
Tally: 6 , 8   (20 points)
What he meant:  Stop frontin’ and start sketchin’! People like to be humble. Maybe they think it makes them more likable or something. But everyone can do the bare minimum with a pencil and paper, those basic shapes we all learned by age 6.

Sketching, in Pierce’s presentation, is also great because allows everyone to share ideas simultaneously and think in a many-step process – while capturing spontaneous ideas in response to problems as they are presented.

Furthermore, the human hand, attached to that big old creative brain, is fast, and more adept at creating these images than the programming that runs the entire world. Or – at least the World Wide Web. And our industry. If you’re not a coder, and have no idea what this implies, all you need to know is: boxes. Everything, it’s all just little boxes. Holla, </div>.

8. The best way to complain is to make things

Who said it: Sha Hwang, quoting James Murphy of LCD SoundSystem @shashashasha
Shared by: Maureen McElany, QA Engineer at Dealertrack, co-organizer of the event. @mo_mack
Tally: 6 , 4   (16 points)

What he meant: As one on a team of designers brought in to overhaul Healthcare.gov, many of them putting on hold jobs, families, and other parts of life that cease to function when you’re flying in to Maryland on the regular, Hwang said they had one unique commonality: as technologists, they all had the ability to build products.

So, instead of going in and acting as hired guns ready to plod into the government’s bidding, they built a war room of empathy-minded, user-centered design practices, and made and broke simple, bare-bones products, testing them constantly, and holding themselves up as test users every step of the way. The world of tech-startup thinking, where speed and panache come first, had no room in the face of a massive-reach, universal system that could save lives.

“While startups can afford to ignore people at their own risk, at their own loss, the power and responsibility of our government is that it can’t,” he said.  “We talk a lot about building tools for ourselves, about scratching our own itches. But I find it hard to get excited about that nowadays. Our struggles are easy. Where to eat. What bus to take. …the higher up we are on the hierarchy of needs, the lower we need to look. Because there’s much more work to do.”

9. Without UX, the entire development team works as prototypers, the entire user base as unwitting testers.

Who said it: Rian van der Merwe, quoting Silicon Valley product designer Marty Cagan @cagan
Shared by: Eva Kaniasty (@kaniasty), a keynote speaker and UX researcher at redpillux.com
Tally: 5 ; 4   (14 points)

What he’s saying: Ever get the impression, while surfing through your e-mail or Drive documents, that Google is deliberately trying to mess with you? Sometimes, it is. Recent changes to systems we’re using as a lifeblood for organizing our documents or heck, even watching our nightly TV shows, can throw us into a tailspin. The kind that makes you want to slam doors and walk out on a product you previously loved. What van der Merwe, who is a developer at Jive, a collaborative enterprise software (which he defined as software we use at work, for work,) is saying here is that making changes to untested software is EXPENSIVE! And while it might not look costly in the short-term, if users don’t continue to stay engaged, then failure to design a good product is building in that despondence, and eventually, the exodus that could be the product’s undoing.

Flickr/House Buy Fast

The cost of making changes during development is six times what it is during the design process. The cost of making changes after launch is 100 times more expensive of the cost during design. He said the quote came from Marty Cagan. (For a great conference post on Cagan at an Etsy presentation, check out this blog.)

“A lot of organizations use their entire engineering team as prototypers and their entire user base as unwitting test subjects for their prototypes.” He said instead of using lightweight prototypes to test on users, we too often use all our resources on a fully built out product, and “then we’re surprised when it doesn’t work.”

He urged instead that if we can afford to reiterate and reiterate to make many releases, then we can also afford to take the time and spend the research to make and design a product the right way.

10.   Whatever we make should feel like magic, not work

Who said it: Katie McCurdy, UX researcher and designer, Notabli and mHealth
Shared by: Meg Randall (on Katie McCurdy), Director of Operations,  LocalvoreToday, Burlington, VT
Tally: 5 ; 3   (13 points)

Katie McCurdy’s field of expertise is in healthcare clientele, and as such, she’s had roles in researching the life and workdays of medical practices and doctors that a recent app would help benefit. What her team noticed, was that most of the clients already had highly demanding, busy lifestyles, and did not need more work on their plate.4812954272_728726c2d6_z

So instead they aimed for magic as a prototype.


“We don’t want to create more work for them. Patients are also busy, managing their condition – we don’t want to create more work and add a burden to their days” either, she said. Appeal may attract first-time users, but for continued use, the software has to appear to solve problems, not be adding to a laundry list of chores.

For all the UX Burlington presentations, check out the site UX Burlington, or visit the conference’s Vimeo page.