By Dickon Laws, Head of Experience Design at Ogilvy UK
 

The UX Brighton conference: illuminating why research is more important than design for successful product development.

“Great designers focus on making great products. Brilliant designers focus on the thing that makes the product brilliant” Danny Hope (@yandle), the founder and curator of UX Brighton has certainly said many incisive things at the conference over its past eight editions – I say that, but this was my first time at the event – but this statement, made mid-way through Friday’s 2018 edition, is clearly a defining thought when it came to his decision to focus this year’s theme on advancing UX research.

For those not familiar with the event, it’s the barnstorming annual conference version of the UX Brighton community that Danny founded in 2008; set up to discuss, disperse and advance UX intelligence in the area.

I was keen to attend this year for two reasons: firstly, it’s one of those events that has a reputation as being leftfield of the mainstay events of the industry. It’s not SXSW. It’s not MWC. It’s not Wired. It’s not UX Strat. Its neater, richer, better curated and although it has a purist vibe, is seriously accessible and inclusive (it is UX Brighton after all!). If it were a restaurant or a pub (and let’s face it, Brighton has no shortage of either) it would be the one that was always busy with locals. The one you know must be good. And with the attendance of the 2018 edition jumping up by around 30% from 2017, it’s reputation is clearly spreading.

The second reason I was drawn to it was the 2018 topic: Advancing Research.

 

"We all have a tendency to use research as a drunkard uses a lamppost - for support, but not for illumination." - David Ogilvy

 

At Ogilvy, research is hard-coded into our culture. As closely associated to our heritage and identity as say the colour red and our ‘we sell or else’ mission. David Ogilvy in fact started his career as a researcher and used that craft as the cornerstone of some of the agencies most classically effective work.

These days our obsession with it manifests itself in different ways. The most pertinent being the significant investment we are making in advancing our own UX research capability with new talent and Research Ops being introduced into the agency's Experience Design practice.

In part, that’s come from a trend we feel is becoming more and more of a challenge. That of the industry's desire to move quickly and be agile, overpowering the importance of actionable insights and effectiveness, resulting in what Eric Nouri – our Lead Experience Researcher – calls the habit of ‘Identify the solution, then looking for the problem’.

As an industry, we need to resist the temptation to cheat. Trying to short cut insights and let subjective, introspective opinion be the judge of great solutions. It happens all the time. In pitches. In client workshops. In creative development. Even in measurement frameworks when teams should be sense checking we’re solving the right problem and measuring it in the right way. We must redress the balance or we’ll risk the foundation of our industry: effective creativity.

With that in mind, from the lineup of guests Danny had invited to speak at this year’s conference, we shared similar outlooks;

Kate Towsey (@katetowsey) spoke on the burgeoning Research Ops community: the capability that helps business put research processes, tools, talent and business cases into place and organizes them in the right way.

Katy Arnold (@katyarnie) from the Home Office, speaking on the challenges of getting a business (or clients) to take UX research seriously and understand the value it brings.

Will Myddleton (@myddleton) from the Government Digital Services team addressing research heresis and how to manage the obsession and compulsion to test everything, all the time.

It all connected strongly to where Ogilvy’s experience practice goals are. There is also much that our clients and our internal operations can benefit from.

As with all well curated conference talks, there was no shortage of soundbites’ and captivating sessions. For me, the five key takeaways that will help Ogilvy shape our continued investment in research were;

1. Testing and research is not about providing guarantees

It’s about reducing risk: Will Myddleton spoke about the pitfalls of continues testing and counter-productive insecurities about testing everything, all the time. The lesson Will gave through his talk was to remember you are making products. Make sure the riskiest thinking is going to work, manage the risk around it, and the rest will follow.

2. A reminder why Benchmarking is so crucial 

The ‘We went from X to Y because of Z’ narrative is the stuff the boardroom loves. If you want to get stakeholders further up the food chain to continue to support investment in research, make sure you have an effective Benchmarking programme.

3. Atomic Design has a sister

Atomic Research! A bit like riskiest assumption testing, you can research rapidly at an atomic level and build quick scalable insights (check out Daniel Pidcock @danpiddy on Twitter for more intel on this)

4. Ethical Design is being taken seriously

Ethical Design is an area we’re exploring as we go deeper and deeper into persuasion design. The insight from Katy Arnold that all Government Digital Services (GDS) UX designers and researchers have ethics training as part of their induction was a real seminal moment as we try to walk the line between doing effective and ethical work.

5. Research Ops

We’re not on a lonely planet! Doing research well and with pace, rigor and in an unbiased way is every agencies challenge. Success depends on the way you operationalize your tools and people to do that well. Nice to know that the Research Ops community is growing and we’re not on a desert-research-island!

 

For me, I think the overall sentiment of the conference was about progress beating perfection. Research can so often be turned into an exhaustive, academic process but the message from the speakers was one of pace, confidence and just being smart about it.

Within experience design practices we talk a lot about ‘test everything, all the time’ but its operationally draining and often you get stuck in testing loops with momentum sucked out of projects.

The message from UX Brighton was clear. Don’t research and test everything. Focus the same energy on identifying the right things to research and test. That approach to generative and evaluative research will give you the velocity and outcomes you need.

As Danny Hope said, brilliance comes from not focusing on making the products, but focusing on the things that make the products effective: the research. Something we all know but at times lose sight of in our search for agile, cost efficient solutions.

UX Brighton: Great conference. Well deserving of its reputation. Topically timely, inclusive and incisive. I would be disappointed not to have the chance to attend next year.