Could the Design Advocates Please Stand Up

John Buckley

A few years ago almost every UXer that I came across referred to themselves as a ‘Design Advocate’. I used to think it was quite an odd, and slightly pompous, thing to describe yourself as, something akin to "thought-leader"; one of those terms that you should leave for others to bestow upon you.

This term has dissipated in recent years, most likely due to the fact that the User Experience Design process has since become mainstream within the tech community. Design led start-ups are tearing up Silicon Valley and every web design agency has embraced UX (either in practice or in name). The advocates have spread the good word with such fervour that UX is now more a buzz word than it is a process. There has been an explosion of UX courses in our third level institutions and, in November alone, there have been two UX themed conferences as well as several UX meetups and events taking place in Dublin. 

Mission Accomplished

Maybe it is time to expand our advocating outside of these UX meetups though. This awareness and interest we’ve garnered in recent years has been largely contained within the tech community – partly because we keep talking to one another. There are only so many times leaders in the design community can be rolled out to tell other UX professionals (or students) about the benefits of User Experience Design. We all know. We wouldn’t be at these events if we didn’t already understand the power of the user centred design process.  We’re simply advocating the benefits of UX to one another at these UX events. My director elegantly refers to this phenomenon as ‘brown nosing’.

Let me preface this by stating that I am a co-ordinator of DublinUX, the capital’s leading networking event for UX design professionals. Each month we give speakers the opportunity to share their thoughts and experiences with peers (and attendees to eat pizza and complain about the latest iOS updates). So evidently I believe in the value of these UX meetups. I see DublinUX, and similar events, as being ideal channels to share deeper insights which raise the collective knowledge and ability of designers in Dublin. At the same time these events act as a vehicle that can help develop the next generation of Gerry McGovern’s, who will be able to speak internationally and represent Irish design. Now that the community is largely on-board with our processes, let’s utilise these UX events to share the ‘how’, not ‘why’.

The UX process has been adopted by the product and tech communities. Advocating has effectively spread the word and elevated the role of the designer, and our digital worlds are all the better for it. However, the onus is now on UX designers to break out of our comfort zones once again and preach to those who are unfamiliar with the value we can add. We are all fed up with senseless interactions within our physical surroundings. We are fed up with poorly thought out services which we must interact with. Politicians espouse policies that are rarely thoroughly ‘designed’ with users in mind, and we all must live with decisions made by management of companies and governmental bodies. Daily, I hear designers grumble about the improvements we could make if we were engaged with.  

Engaging with Those Outside of Our Field

Earlier this year, I led an exciting collaboration here at Frontend with students from Ireland’s top UX courses to work with us on a conceptual project for the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Syria. Frontend has been campaigning for 3rd level institutions to embrace UX since the late 90s and this collaboration started out as a response to these colleges finally launching relevant programmes. We reached out to the UN’s migration agency, International Organisation for Migration (IOM), to understand both the high-level and operational challenges facing them and partner bodies, particularly in the provisioning of healthcare.  

IOM is one of the leanest agencies in the UN’s family and directs an impressive amount of their funding into their emergency response and ongoing migrant support / repatriation programmes. Due to this focus, resources for forward planning or problem solving are scarce (they do however have a small department which utilises commercial partnerships to increase these capacities).

As our project progressed it became clear that IOM were becoming increasingly engaged and engrossed with the process. Following a student bootcamp, a team of us from Frontend travelled to Geneva to present the outcomes to a diverse senior team. The concepts surprised those in attendance and they noted that some of the ideas presented had great potential and requested we work together to develop them further.

What started out here as a conceptual project with students, grew organically into outputs which have the potential to affect the lives of millions of the world’s most vulnerable people. And not just migrants, a labelling aspect of the ‘Future Vision of Migrant Healthcare’ project is being earmarked by IOM for submission to the WHO’s ‘Global Health Cluster’ as a best practice for all major IGOs and NGOs who provide emergency health provisions worldwide. 

As well as that, during a panel discussion on global health at the G7 Summit in Kobe earlier this year Dr. Davide Mosca, Director of IOM’s Migration Health Division, highlighted this project as an example of public-private partnerships benefiting IOM’s ability to respond, and provide healthcare assistance, to migrants. Their Head of Emergency Healthcare Operations, who collaborated with us on this project, claimed that from their engagement with Frontend there is a growing belief internally in the power of human-centred design “because the way we are currently solving problems does not work”.

A New Generation of UX Advocates

To have that kind of impact on a UN body is amazing for a small agency like Frontend, for the students and colleges involved, and most notably for a relatively fresh UX designer such as myself (the IOM collaboration was the first project I led since joining the team at Frontend). Conceptual projects can become reality when you have someone like the UN in the room, but the real win here was bringing these senior stakeholders on the human-centred design process with us and showcasing the true power of UX to powerful change makers who have never been exposed to UX before.

At a follow-up event in September Dr John Mathers, CEO of UK Design Council & Design4Europe, noted that this engagement was exactly what the UX community requires to expand beyond our tech confines. We’ve become complacent. Designers cannot expect business leaders, government bodies and policy-makers to know about us or understand what we do. We need to return to the hustle and sales tactics that saw our skillset permeate the tech industry - we need to start advocating for our skillset beyond our industry.

The shift is starting to happen, last year ‘Design Thinking’ was featured on the cover of the Harvard Business Review. The medical world has adapted PX (Patient Experience), and closer to home events such as UXDX and DesignFix are facilitating UX conversations beyond our community.

At its most basic, user centred design is nothing more than a method of problem solving, whether that manifests in a UI or in service design. There is a growing realisation that we can add value to almost any decision that needs to be made. This change is painfully slow and it can be frustrating for designers to see missed opportunities. But we cannot keep waiting around for these people to come to us; it is up to us, the design community, to reach out and make the case for user experience design. It is up to us to once again assume the role of design advocate.

John Buckley is a User Experience Designer with Frontend.com, he regularly speaks at UX events and recently led the ‘Future Vision of Migrant Healthcare’ project mentioned above. To explore this project, and watch a six-minute video on the collaboration, visit www.frontend.com/futurevision

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