Unlike many conferences you may have been to in recent years, there are no sit down talks, no big lofty ideals of utopian, or dystopian futures or the dissemination of a new doctrine for the web.

Instead, UXBristol is a well rounded day of workshops; practical exercises to make you a better User Experience Designer.

What I especially liked is that, similar to a barcamp event; where everyone is involved. Lots of hands-on exercises and those teaching workshops were present within other workshops throughout the day soaking it all up.

I was pleasantly surprised by the number of recent graduates, or people new to the web industry who attended. Bristol has a fantastic scene when it comes to design, particularly architecture with the great work of Brunel present as you walk around the harbour; our location for the day. When I began working commercially in web design, there was never opportunities like this, spending a day with people learning how to conduct exercises that are immediately usable within your day-to-day activities would have propelled me further faster.

Each session consisted of three concurrent workshops, all with great content and just 50 minutes long, enough to keep you engaged and take the key points but leave you wanting to discuss more with one another during the breaks and make notes of things to go look at in more detail after.

Here are some highlights from the day.

There's no icon for that

I had a great time playing a version of Consequences with visiting lecturer at University of the West of England and Consultant at Usability Design Partnership Lon Barfield. His workshop showed us how icons easily get lost in translation, and what it means for an icon to become a symbol. This is a great warm up exercise which I have seen Ben Sauer run at the start of workshop days, it gets people thinking, and whilst most rounds end in a lot of giggles it is eye opening as to how much things can go wrong. On our table one of the icons doing the rounds reached me with what I could only describe as a sponge dripping water into a bucket with a star next to it. Struggling to know what this could possible mean, I wrote washing superstar. At its unveiling at the end of the round it had started out as no caffeine!

As we found with this example, it is very hard to create an icon for something which has no physical association. Think of notifications icons, or sharing as an example of how these icons become difficult in current UI’s.

Positive friction - it's all good

Andrew Grimes, broke down his A List Apart essay on Meta-Moments: Thoughtfulness by design. The idea of creating purposeful road-blocks, speed humps and diversions in your process to make people stop, look and listen is a jarring concept for any designer. Our efforts are often intent on making things streamlined, or frictionless, but what about times when it is in the best interest of that person to create a slight barrier for good?

I struggled with the exercise of designing a process with the use of each of these models at least once when I attempted to evaluate the Easyjet booking process only to realise that my solution was to create a massive ring road around all the trouble spots ensuring a smooth process where you didn’t have to sit in the traffic. In doing this, I did then notice that the way in which they provide road blocks on things like their insurance pages, is because if you did read the information, it may be in your best interest to understand what is at risk.

Butchering a workshop

Along with my co-facilitator and former Clearleft member Harry Brignull, we spent the lunch break preparing our room with the biggest roll of butcher tape I have ever seen along with masking tape and post-its (I never want to write out 100 post-it notes in an hour ever again), and yes, I did print out the wrong empathy map. We were aided by Alberta Soranzo and the excellent team that made the event happen including James Chudly, Stuart Church and Dave Ellender.

We didn’t know what to expect with the uptake and someone ended up with a room bursting at the seems with eager attendees, it may have been the most energetic workshop of the day thanks to my empathy map printing faux-par resulting in everyone rushing to the projector to envelope themselves in our personas thoughts before rushing back to their mapping boards.

By the end of the hour, all 6 groups had worked their way across the challenge of mapping out the process of organising a hen or stag-do (I’m sure many of you reading have either gone through this ordeal yourselves or subjected others to it!) using the correct pre-filled empathy map to connect emotional being to the actions required to make it all happen on the day. There was even a group who extended our map to include a form of aftercare, or The Aftermath as they had labelled the column, proving a best-man or maid of honours duty is never over.

Top UX Designer Tip #1

A few people asked why we had covered all the walls with butchers paper, or big sheets of brown wrapping paper as you may know it to be. It’s so simple that you’ll do it forever after this point, so I’ll let you in on the secret. If you cover the wall with paper firstly, post-its are guaranteed to stick; you’ve all encountered the drooping post-it dilemma as they fall the earth in slow motion messing up your sequence. But more importantly, you can un-tape the paper, wrap it up and take it back with you to decompile and evaluate further. This is the biggest win; providing you don’t leave it on the train in the overhead - tale we are all told starting at Clearleft, never to be repeated.

Learn by doing

Some people want to read endlessly to gain understanding of a problem. I spent years researching things before doing them. Even the purchase of a new camera would be harrowing due to buyers remorse, I thought that reactive behaviour all came from a severe case of FOMO. Now, I’ve taken that fear and embraced it throwing myself into things, because until you’ve tried it, how do you know? Workshop days like UXBristol, are a fabulous way of dipping your toes into the cool water of realisation that the best way to get results is by being inclusive, collaborative and giving something a go. What’s the worst that could happen?

We rounded off our session highlighting some of the ways in which this opportunity finding exercise can not just help start-ups define what they want their service to do, but also re-evaluating processes you may have in your apps and adding a little empathic thinking into the mix to better design the system.

Keep your eye on @brisusability for next years announcement and if you’re in the area try out one of their meetups including some great walks along the harbour wall.

If you would like to learn more about empathy and user journey mapping, perhaps you came to the worshop and didn’t get a chance to ask me questions, or maybe you’d like us here at Clearleft to help you run a user journey mapping workshop please get in touch andy.parker@clearleft.com.