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12th - 13th October 2016, Wallacespace Spitalfields, London - Buy tickets
A summary of MEX, March 2015
By Marek Pawlowski

Change is a fickle notion which plays with our perception of time. In digital, at least, it is characterised by the very human tendency to over-estimate short term impact and under-estimate long term meaning. At the 15th edition of MEX, an initiative and event now in its 10th year, we found ourselves in search of techniques which can enhance digital user experience in the present and trends which might result in significant, long-term change. Through its own longevity, MEX has become well suited to this type of exploration by drawing on a useful depth of prescience and learning from its fair share of misguided hopes.

Our title for the 2 days was 'Under the skin of user experience', hosted by Marek Pawlowski, founder of MEX, and Andrew Muir Wood. It was a theme which spoke of our desire to go beyond paying lip service to the importance of UX and actually advance the art of user-centred methodologies. At the same time, it asked a second question: how is the human relationship with digital technologies changing as they get physically closer to our skin in the form of wearables and, indeed, become fully woven into the fabric of our lives - at first metaphorically and, perhaps in time, physically too.

Marek Pawlowski, founder of MEX, (right) and Andrew Muir Wood (left)


Marek Pawlowski, founder of MEX, (right) and Andrew Muir Wood (left)

Setting out on this path with the eclectic crowd of investors, strategists, developers and designers required a shared assumption: the term 'mobile' no longer simply describes a class of devices, but rather an attitude of mind that technology is something which accompanies and surrounds us, and in some cases, now moves itself without human intervention in the form of robots and artificial intelligence.

Opening creative exercise by Think with Things


Opening creative exercise by Think with Things

We were conscious that progress would only be made on novel themes like this if participants embraced novel ways of thinking. It was for that reason that the audience arrived for the first session to find a room empty of chairs and absent of the usual screen of projected slides. In their place, the Think with Things team had laid out thousands of objects, and a series of questions inviting people to use the materials they found to solve challenges linked to the event themes. The atmosphere in the room was fascinating to watch: a large group of people who'd never met each other, suddenly confronted with a shared experience of an unexpected and, initially, uncomfortable scenario: all the traditional conventions of a conference room were missing.

Drawn to the glow of an old-fashioned OHP


Drawn to the glow of an old-fashioned OHP

After a couple of minutes, the first brave souls began to investigate the objects and their enthusiasm was infectious. Within 5 minutes, the whole room was buzzing with participants collecting, sorting, sharing and using the objects individually and in groups to address the various challenges at stations around the room. One zone employed an old-fashioned overhead projector to create shadow maps on the wall. Participants found this particularly compelling and its glow drew nearly everyone least once during the session, as they considered how physical objects could be used to interface with virtual worlds.

Isobel Demangeat (right) and Julie Anne Gilleland (left) of Think with Things


Isobel Demangeat (right) and Julie Anne Gilleland (left) of Think with Things

The session concluded with Isobel Demangeat and Julie Anne Gilleland of Think with Things explaining the science behind their methodology. The playful nature of the exercise was designed not only to provide an unusual and relaxing start to the event, but to tap into the creative side which is released by playful exploration. The structure focused on a few carefully chosen constraints - like the objects available and the space in which they could be used - but otherwise was devoid of the rules and pre-conceptions which often decide the fate of digital product design exercises before they've even started. It was the first of several exercises at MEX to help participants not only acquire new knowledge, but new methods of creative and critical thinking.

Dr Norman Lewis of PwC


Dr Norman Lewis of PwC

Dr Norman Lewis, who leads PwC's crowd sourced innovation service 'One', was the first in a series of speakers intended to set out a vision for what digital experience might feel like about 4 years into the future. He identified a growing tendency for risk aversion among companies in digital industry, which increasingly choose short-term, frivolous service propositions over those requiring the sort of large scale, long-lasting investments which characterised previous periods of progress - like the space race. Norman reminded participants that 'apps' as we know them today are just how we're currently choosing to solve a limited range of problems for one class of device. To access the next stage of digital growth, we must look for interaction models which break outside of individual devices and apps, tapping into the power of networked knowledge and pervasive connectivity.

Ben Scott-Robinson of Ordnance Survey


Ben Scott-Robinson of Ordnance Survey

Ben Scott-Robinson, Head of Interactive at Ordnance Survey (OS), Britain's mapping agency, shared some of the challenges his team is facing as they explore what mapping and location mean in the digital age. On the one hand, Ordnance Survey is a national institution, beloved and relied upon by millions of outdoor enthusiasts - not to mention official agencies needing the most accurate maps. On the other, a new generation of customers has grown up with digital mapping as their default experience. It has presented OS with a challenge shared by established brands across numerous industries: how to leverage heritage and expertise, while balancing the needs of existing and new users. Ben explained how breakthroughs began to happen when they forcibly stressed the difference between design sessions to drive iterative improvements to existing mapping approaches and more experimental thinking about what new digital location experiences could mean. Enforcing this discipline within the user research and design stages, and learning from their mistakes along the way, helped OS to build something inspired by user needs rather than a 'me too' competitive response to other benchmark mapping apps.

Kajsa Sundeson and Samir Fors of Ocean Observations


Kajsa Sundeson and Samir Fors of Ocean Observations

Kajsa Sundeson and Samir Fors of design consultancy Ocean Observations provided insight into wearables, health and wellness. They drew on their service design work with healthcare providers in Sweden, designed to empower patients to receive better arthritis treatment. Just as this project put users back in control of their own health experience, so too should health-focused wearables prioritise a personalised user experience, where instead of the arbitrary metrics we see today, users would receive insights derived from a wider range of sensors and cloud intelligence. They questioned whether figures like '85 percent' could ever be meaningful in relation to something like sleep tracking and, in fact, just ended up making users more stressed because they didn't understand how they could improve. The session finished with a series of principles to guide health-focused digital experiences, centred on personalisation and connecting tracking with useful action.

Rory Southworth of UCLAN's Innovation Clinic


Rory Southworth of UCLAN's Innovation Clinic

Participants also heard a series of lightening skills sessions throughout the two days, delivered by Rory Southworth of UCLAN's Innovation Clinic. He employed a rapid format to update everyone with the latest user research methods from academic and commercial projects, starting with advice on interviewing techniques on the first day and building towards generative research methods for understanding the nuances of user behaviour and unspoken attitudes and desires. Tips included not being afraid to stray from planned structures when seeking deeper discussions with users and allowing the conversation to evolve into areas which might provide clues as to unarticulated needs. He also advised on the practical benefits of mixing interviews with real world observations and co-creation activities, talking about balancing research teams to avoid gender bias and giving users planned 'training' exercises to help get more from sessions.

Facilitated creative teams in action at MEX


Facilitated creative teams in action at MEX

Alongside this mixture of large-scale creative exercises, future vision talks and best practice techniques, MEX participants also joined small teams for a series of in-depth challenges. Each team had a MEX-appointed facilitator, assisted by a pair of designers from Brunel University, and worked on solving a problem related to one of the event themes: locate, robots, proximity, health and consume. The goal of each team was to arrive at a series of concise and re-usable principles to guide experience design in their respective subject areas.

Creative teams at MEX on a field trip to the British Library and Sir Isaac Newton's talking statue


Creative teams at MEX on a field trip to the British Library and Sir Isaac Newton's talking statue

We had worked with each facilitator in advance to make every team different: while some went in search of NFC-enabled statues of Sir Isaac Newton at the nearby British Library with facilitator Alex Guest, others were asked to plan crimes of the future to understand just how serious the consequences of poor experience design could be in fields like robotics and AI.

Louisa Heinrich, founder of agency Superhuman


Louisa Heinrich, founder of agency Superhuman

Louisa Heinrich, founder of agency Superhuman, took on this theme in her talk, providing examples and searching questions about how users' expectations will change when digital experiences are no longer confined to the virtual sphere and are capable of taking action in the physical world. She asked participants to consider the complexity of how a human walks into a conference room and then decides who they will sit with. When we imbue digital products with human characteristics, like voice interfaces or humanoid form, we give users false expectations as to that device's cognitive capabilities. When we design movable machines, we must design for the reality of what they can achieve today, not what we hope they might be capable of tomorrow.

Jonathan Mitchener of Innovate UK


Jonathan Mitchener of Innovate UK

We also heard from Jonathan Mitchener of Innovate UK, which funds, supports and connects British businesses to accelerate sustainable growth. The application of user-centred design principles to the technology industry is the subject of several Innovate UK funding competitions and programmes, part of a refreshingly long-term outlook which recognises the difference this approach can make to national development. MEX has been working with Innovate UK to help foster collaboration with the user experience community, highlighting in particular the opportunities for Innovate UK to fund experimental work before it is ready for commercialisation through feasability studies and multi-disciplinary projects which better focus on user needs by breaking through traditional job type and industry silos.

Patrizia Bertini demonstrating Lego Serious Play at MEX15


Patrizia Bertini demonstrating Lego Serious Play at MEX

The second day again started with a session designed to broaden how practitioners think about solving design problems. Patrizia Bertini, who consults at Wipro Digital, gave a masterful demonstration of Lego Serious Play (LSP), a technique employed by organisations like Google and NASA to improve collaboration and creativity. Participants who saw the Lego bricks laid out could be forgiven for thinking this was going to be about toys alone - far from it. Patrizia used her time at MEX to attempt a unique feat: running a live Lego Serious Play session with 4 participants, while simultaneously explaining to the whole audience how the methodology applied to experience design. As each exercise unfolded on a large table at the front of the room, Patrizia described the psychology at work and, through questioning the 4 'players', revealed insights into how tendencies acquired through typical working practices get in the way of effectively designing digital experiences.

Participants creating ideas through play


Participants creating ideas through play

She focused on how we need physical metaphors to understand the abstract - it is why we refer to love as a 'journey' and arguments as 'wars'. By bringing physical objects like Lego into conversations about design, we are better able to achieve the abstract breakthroughs which lead to transformational product design.

James Deakin of Fjord


James Deakin of Fjord

10 years after Fjord co-founder Olof Schybergson spoke at the first MEX, Technology Design Director James Deakin was back to expand upon Fjord's latest trend research. In another of the future vision talks, he talked about how the demanding nature of today's digital interfaces, with their interruptions and cognitive overload, is leading to 'digital dieting', where users actively seek relief from these pressures. In Singapore, for instance, there is an app which asks users to place their phones together while they are in conversation and gradually grows a beautiful tree across their shared screens, encouraging them to leave their phones on the table and not play with them while they are physically together. In other parts of the world, users are playing the 'dinner party challenge', where phones are placed in the centre of the table and the first person to compulsively reach for theirs ends up paying the bill for the meal. However, Deakin also believes invisible forms of digital experience enhancement will bring unexpected benefits, suggesting that interfaces don't need to be visible to be useful: data analysis which leads to pre-emptive warehouse stocking, ensuring the products you want are available instantly, may have greater utility than fancy UIs.

Sam Livingstone of Car Design Research


Sam Livingstone of Car Design Research

Sam Livingstone of Car Design Research and David Mingay of creative agency Ustwo gave a joint talk, in which they shared lessons from a refreshingly open project to prompt new thinking about automotive interfaces. Livingstone described how automotive UIs tend to be supplier-, rather than user-led and too information dense. They lack basic things like visual hierarchy because suppliers are currently feasting on digital possibilities, seduced by technologies like touch, without considering more important factors like ergonomics and the in-car environment. The premise of the project was to question why we are still rendering existing analogue dials on digital screens, when there are no theoretical limits to what we could instead.

David Mingay of Ustwo


David Mingay of Ustwo

Mingay continued by explaining that, for an agency like Ustwo which was new to automotive, they wanted to propose the project as a conversation rather than a finished solution. To that end they drew in collaborators like Car Design Research, annotated all of their outputs to explain their thinking and shared the code and results in the public domain to help evolve it further. Ustwo, which is enjoying notable success in both client work and its own in-house apps like the Monument Valley game, has adopted a model of creative development which holds insights for many who fall under the 'digital agency' umbrella.

Jerome Le Feuvre of News Republic


Jerome Le Feuvre of News Republic

In the same vein of challenging conventional industries, Jerome Le Feuvre of News Republic, talked about how the fundamentals of news reporting have remained unchanged for the best part of 100 years. We may now read the news on the screens of our smartphones, but the elements of headline, date, location and byline have remained consistent. However, News Republic - which manages the feeds built-in to devices like the HTC One and works with many of the world's largest media organisations - is now thinking about a future in which news can be truly adapted to the needs of individual users. Notifications, for instance, could be considered a media class of their own, and delivered in different ways to different users to match their behaviour.

Jonny Burch of Osper


Jonny Burch of Osper

The final talk came from Jonny Burch, Head of Design at Osper, a start-up bank which is transforming the way children and their parents manage money together. When your product is aimed at an age group where 'cool' in an important concept, you must make attempts to understand what this really means. Jonny did just that in his talk, addressing a deceptively complex subject, and arriving at useful principles as to how 'cool' is created. Visual design is often mistaken as a source of cool, but is not necessarily the underlying reason. In the case of Osper, they found 'cool' wasn't about creating a debit card with funky graphics, but rather the functional benefit of helping those who couldn't previously shop with debit cards to do so on their own. Another common characteristic came from identifying points of principle and standing up for them - whatever they were - because being genuine created a sense of 'cool'.

MEX15 was intentionally both broad and deep. Talks ranged from robot actors to user interview techniques, while sessions were sometimes quick and concise, and at other times involved extended bouts of intense creativity. There was this sense that if you are continuing to hide in traditional silos - whether you call them 'mobile' or 'apps', 'healthcare' or 'news' - you're in danger of designing for an age which is quickly passing. The new frontiers of digital experience are to be found in the smallest objects (for instance, we heard stories of ingestible, connected particles which can enhance wellness tracking) and the biggest systems, where networks allow experiences to respond to user behaviour on a previously unimaginable scale. These challenges should prompt us to question existing methods of experience design, for it is difficult to arrive at new outcomes using old techniques. Most importantly, they should remind us to apply the widest angle lens to the way we look at new technologies, allowing us to see the full picture of how they might fit into users' future lives.

The full MEX15 report, including videos of the talks, results from the creative teams and bullet point insights from every discussion, will be sent to participants in due course, and is available on pre-order for those who weren't able to make it to the event.

Thank you to our event partner, Innovate UK, and sponsor, Ordnance Survey, for their support. Find out how to become a MEX sponsor here.

An event like MEX happens because our speakers, facilitators and Brunel designers invest considerable time in preparing new thinking - we're grateful to them all for their contribution. We'd also like to give a special mention to both Think with Things and Patrizia Bertini for making us consider how we think and providing such engaging ways to start each day; Matt Weatherall for the speaker interviews he conducted in the background; and Rory Southworth for his concise, valuable set of updates on research methods.

Photography by Stuart Whitehead, who did another wonderful job of capturing the mood at MEX. See the full gallery here.

MEX Summaries | March 2015 | March 2013 | September 2012