Beauty, Maps, Ecosystems, and Hemingway - Interact London Day Two


During the first day of Interact, attendees had the opportunity to hear about Unicorns, Hippos, Accessibility and UX Strategy, amongst other interesting topics. The second day of the conference started beautifully with a talk on the neuroscience of aesthetics by Anjan Chatterjee, Professor of Neurology at the School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.  

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There are specific parts of our brain that react to beauty, and they do so any time we are facing something that is beautiful: even when we are not aware that we are making a judgement, our brains react to beauty. In his talk, Anjan also stressed that our brains experience similar reactions when judging something good and something beautiful, even when beauty or goodness are not part of the studies. When applied to products, this relates to the notion that if something is beautiful it is therefore perceived to be good. Finally, he remarked on the relevance of context and how previous knowledge impacts how we perceive images. For instance, he told of a study in which researchers observed how architect's brains were getting more pleasure from looking at images of buildings than people who did not have knowledge of architecture. In the field of product design, this explains how the reputation and branding of a company may have an impact in how we perceive their products.

The next speakers on stage were Mike Harris and Juliet Richardson, both UX Consultants at Nomensa. They believe that practitioners need to look at the interactions between people and technology more broadly.



UX is not only about placing buttons, it is about how we affect people’s interactions with technology. Although technology has arguably acquired a somehow bad reputation, it has many positive outcomes, so it is important to not to be very nostalgic. Harris and Richardson argued that it is necessary to try to understand people and technology better, and identify their strengths and weaknesses. This way, people will be able to use technology to help them with the tasks they do not do so well. Designers should not just build something because it can be built, they should build it if it can have a positive impact on people’s lives.

Mike and Juliet were followed by a case study of how ecosystem thinking is applied at, a Norwegian classified advertisement site. Sofia Hussain, Interaction and Service Designer for described their approach.



It consists of thinking across fields to solve users’ goals. For instance, the final goal of someone who buys a house is to settle there. There are several services that contribute towards that goal: people will need to buy furniture or contact a painter. In ecosystem thinking, different journeys are brought together, offering options to customers at the right time in a seamless way. applied ecosystem thinking to improve the user journey to buy and sell a car, making the process easier for the parties involved.

On the first day of Interact London, Jane Frost stressed the importance of asking the right questions to obtain reliable results in research. Craig Sullivan, Optimiser in Chief at Optimal Visit, devoted his energetic talk to good quality research, focussing on AB testing. Sullivan warned against “stupid” testing:



“When you collect bullshit data you will have sewage streaming all the way up to the executive dashboards”, he said, bringing laughter from the audience. He stated that it is necessary to have a clear purpose, to set up analytics properly, to be aware of the impact of different break points of responsive sites over results of AB testing, designing good tests, testing on different devices before launching and ensuring that the sample is relevant.

The following speaker, Ben Scott-Robinson, Head of Brand and Experience at Ordnance Survey, shared a case study on the challenge of designing a mobile map application that matches the unique experience provided by Ordnance Survey's iconic paper maps.



Scott-Robinson explained that there are plenty of mapping products that deliver a good user experience in terms finding places, but Ordnance Survey wanted to help people to get to know a place as well. They also intended to create something modern that captured the rich history of the organisation at the same time. They reviewed competitors, conducted research to define user needs and sketched and tested paper prototypes, some days creating up to three iterations. One of the features drawn their extensive user research was a black interface that used less battery, a great concern of users when using similar apps.



Roger Donald, Head of Transformation for NHS Choices was unable to join us so his colleague Joe McGrath (Delivery Manager at NHS Choices) expertly took us through the case study. He was involved in the challenge of updating the NHS Choices website, which is very popular and being employed as a help tool, rather than as a health encyclopaedia. McGrath stressed the importance of the emotional state of the site´s visitors when they are looking for information: if a parent believes his or her child has chickenpox, he or she approaches the site with great stress, which affects information seeking routines. His team conducted user research with parents whose children had recently had chickenpox. The resulting pages had more chunked up content, pictures, and were more task-oriented than the previous ones. The model is being applied to the pages of similar conditions that people look up in the site.

Ben Scott-Robinson, from Ordnance Survey, approached maps from a case study perspective. Angela Pesta, UX Director at ebookers (formerly the Head of UX at Tesco PLC), devoted her talk to the complexity of maps and their decisive role as a UX tool. The process of map-making, which has evolved through time, was a revolution in thinking: representing complexity with symbols in a sophisticated way. While first popularized as a geographical tool, mapping is a metaphor that UX and other fields have adopted. These varied mapping tools need to be flexible to be useful on different projects for diverse audiences.


The following speaker, David Domínguez, Senior Designer at eBay, found a connection between creative writing and user experience design. Both writing and UX, he explained, require us to be creative, deal with the forces of business and deal with the needs of people. Domínguez shared some advice by Ernest Hemingway on writing that can be applied to User Experience Design: be as truthful as possible, validate as you go along, plan your next move, sketch different options, create emotions, and let your subconscious guide you when you get stuck – for instance by relaxing or doing a different activity. And finally, “make it less but make it better”, Domínguez pointed out. “You need to know when to stop adding features”, he stressed.



The closing talk was delivered by Steve Portigal, Founder of Portigal Consulting. Portigal has extensive experience on UX techniques and practice, but his talk – like the workshop that he delivered as part of Interact - revolved around soft skills that can make practitioners better at their jobs. “When you are doing user research, you often have plenty on your mind”, he explained. Mindfulness, which means being aware and connected to the present moment, “can have a positive impact on the practice of a UX researcher”. Mindfulness can help us be more aware of our own feelings, thus contributing towards gaining more empathy. Recognizing our biases or judgements when they come up can also make us more objective researchers. Portigal described how meditation is a way people achieve mindfulness –and stopped his talk for 60 seconds to do a brief meditation session. However, there are different ways people can feel presence, such as running, cooking or drawing.


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This was just a summary of the fascinating insights to take in from these two days of talks. The conference was diverse, engaging and we learnt a lot from it. Although it has only just ended, we are already looking forward to Interact London2016!

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