Clearleft | Blog The latest news from Clearleft en-gb Thu, 24 Sep 2020 15:18:34 +0000 Thu, 24 Sep 2020 15:18:34 +0000 Clearleft turns fifteen Thu, 24 Sep 2020 14:52:00 +0000 2020 marks Clearleft’s fifteenth birthday. A milestone like this is cause for celebration, and celebrate we must especially amid what is a desperate year for many. This week in particular is momentous, especially for those of us who have been on the journey since the very beginning.

Early in 2005 Andy, Jeremy and I decided to take the plunge and start our own company. We announced our plans for Clearleft in March at South by Southwest and incorporated the company in May. But this week back in September 2005 is when it all began in earnest - we’d quit our full time jobs and started working together for our first clients.

Right off the bat we were an international company - our first project being a social photography platform for a company in Slovenia (thank you EU). We also commenced work on two separate university projects, for Lancaster University Management School and London South Bank University. This was something which has proved a theme throughout Clearleft’s history - so far we’ve worked for at least nine different universities, and continue to do so.

It’s been fascinating looking back through our early clients. We worked with a lot of exciting new dotcom start-ups - they were still a thing in the mid-2000s - as well as many third sector organisations. Charities and the public sector were a feature of our first business plan, and ever since then we’ve strived to work with organisations where we can make a difference to both the outside world and within the company. Another source of pride is just how many household names we’ve worked with over the years - and in really significant ways - Spotify, WWF, BBC, John Lewis, 3M, Gumtree, Channel 4, Penguin Books, Virgin Holidays and the Natural History Museum to name just a few.

Our first business cards stated that “we make websites better”. This modest goal deliberately hinted at our dedication to user-centred design and forward-looking front-end development. That commitment still stands, but a significant difference is that we now look to improve things from the inside: working closely with in-house design teams, we try to make them better too. In hindsight this is an approach we’ve long recognised makes a longer term impact, as demonstrated by our pioneering approaches to design systems and what is now known as design ops.

Right from those first months together in 2005, we’ve had improving the practice of design at the forefront of our minds, from Jeremy’s early Ajax workshops to Andy’s curation of the first d.Construct conference only three months in, and with UX London just three years later (a huge gamble at the time).

Ask anyone who’s worked with, or for, Clearleft and they’ll say it’s all about the people. While growing from three people, to a team closer to 30, we’ve managed to attract and retain the very best. Not just the most experienced and skilled, but the most dedicated and nicest people to work with. If we’ve done anything right over the last 15 years it’s been that.

And as we negotiate our way through this tumultuous year, it’s the strong relationships we’ve made with our clients and their people, which are seeing us through what could otherwise be tough times.

Fifteen years of Clearleft beerleft brew which we sent to all the team to celebrate
Our special 'Fifteen' Beerleft brew we sent round to the team

On that note I would like to raise a glass to friends and colleagues from the past 15 years, and to the next 15 years of Clearleft as we move towards a new phase in our history (more on that soon).

Tiny lesson: Netlify redirects and downloads Mon, 14 Sep 2020 10:39:00 +0000 Making the Clearleft podcast is a lot of fun. Making the website for the Clearleft podcast was also fun.

Design wise, it’s a riff on the main Clearleft site in terms of typography and general layout. On the development side, it was an opportunity to try out an exciting tech stack. The workflow goes something like this:

  • Open a text editor and type out HTML and CSS.

Comparing this to other workflows I’ve used in the past, this is definitely the most productive way of working. Some stats:

  • Time spent setting up build tools: 00:00
  • Time spent wrangling the pipeline to do exactly what you want: 00:00
  • Time spent trying to get the damn build tools to work again when you return to the project after leaving it alone for more than a few months: 00:00:00

I have some files. Some images, three font files, a few pages of HTML, one RSS feed, one style sheet, and one minimal service worker script. I don’t need a web server to do anything more than serve up those files. No need for any dynamic server-side processing.

I guess this is JAMstack. Though, given that the J stands for JavaScript, the A stands for APIs, and I’m not using either, technically it’s Mstack.

Netlify suits my hosting needs nicely. It also provides the added benefit that, should I need to update my CSS, I don’t need to add a query string or anything to the link elements in the HTML that point to the style sheet: Netlify does cache invalidation for you!

The mp3 files of the actual podcast episodes are stored on S3. I link to those mp3 files from enclosure elements in the RSS feed, which is what makes it a podcast. I also point to the mp3 files from audio elements on the individual episode pages—just above the transcript of each episode. Here’s the page for the most recent episode.

I also want people to be able to download the mp3 file directly if they want (or if they want to huffduff an episode). So I provide a link to the mp3 file with a good ol’-fashioned a element with an href attribute.

I throw in one more attribute on that link. The download attribute tells the browser that the URL in the href attribute should be downloaded instead of visited. If you give a value for the download attribute, it will over-ride the file name:

<a href="/files/" download="">download</a>

Or you can use it as a Boolean attribute without any value if you’re happy with the file name:

<a href="/files/" download>download</a>

There’s one catch though. The download attribute only works for files on the same origin. That’s an issue for me. My site is but my audio files are hosted on—the download attribute will be ignored and the mp3 files will play in the browser instead of downloading.

Trys pointed me to the solution. It turns out that Netlify can do some server-side processing. It can do redirects.

I added a file called _redirects to the root of my project. It contains one line:

/download/*  200

That says that any URLs beginning with /download/ should redirect to Everything after the closing slash is captured with that wild card asterisk. That’s then passed along to the redirect URL as :splat. That’s a new one on me. I hadn’t come across that terminology, but as someone who can never remember the syntax of regular expressions, it works for me.

Oh, and the 200at the end is the status code: okay.

Now I can use this /download/ path in my link:

<a href="/download/season01episode06.mp3" download>Download mp3</a>

Because this URL on the same origin, the download attribute works just fine.

This was originally posted on my own site.

SofaConf 2020 talks are now live Wed, 09 Sep 2020 13:16:00 +0000 This June we brought together 18 speakers from the world over with 1000 attendees, for five days of incredible content, entertainment and a good number of impromptu pet photos for SofaConf.

SofaConf was our first foray into online events and we were delighted by the positive feedback we had from attendees and speakers. Amidst all the challenges 2020 has presented to our communities it felt great to be able to bring folks together and share amazing content from industry leaders directly from their living rooms to ours…

We’re now able to publically share all the talk videos and live Q&As from SofaConf. Whether you are interested in product design, content design, research, service or interaction design we’re sure you’ll find these brilliant talks and discussions inspiring and full of valuable learnings you can action.

We’d like to extend a huge thank you to all our speakers and our wonderful compères, Rachel McConnell and Andy Budd for such a great show. We’d also like to thank our wonderful sponsors, Google, InVision and Intercom for their support in making this event happen.

Day 1: Product Strategy

We kicked off on Monday with Product Strategy - our four stellar speakers gave tips and techniques to get the most from your product teams, prioritise and plan effectively, and achieve consistently great outcomes.

Melissa Perri, The Secret Weapon To Finding Focus

Josh Seiden, Outcomes Over Output

Haroon Aslam, Advanced Facilitation: Using a Designer’s Toolbox to address Organizational Strategy

John Cutler, Healing The Designer/Product Manager Divide

Day 2: Research

Day Two was all about Research, an area with particular relevance in this era as we increasingly move our work online. Remote research techniques aren’t new, but now we’re reliant on them, how do we make them even better? Our speakers were on hand to share their learnings and case studies.

Leisa Reichelt, Things We Learned About Ourselves And Our Research Practice From Our Internal COVID-19 Surveys.

Kelly Goto, Fieldwork From Home

Rachel Price, You’re on the Air, I’m Listening: Facilitating Remote Research

Quote from Leisa Reichelt reading "Half of the company has no idea what the research does and how it contributes value"

Day 3: Service Design

Our third day brought together experts in Service Design who explored creating simpler experiences across fast-moving organisations and embedding behaviour change and scale service-design thinking. They shared stories from their experience as well as actionable tools and insights.

Lou Downe, Good Services: Building User-Centred Organisations At Scale

Marc Stickdorn, 20 Tips - How To Embed And Scale Service Design In Organisations

Akil Benjamin, AK Experiments

Dr Sarah Drummond, Full Stack Service Design

Day 4: Content Strategy

Day four was curated by ex-Clearleftie Rachel McConnell and was all about Content Strategy. Whether you’re a designer, team lead, product owner or content expert, if you are interested in taking your content to the next level, these talks and discussions are for you! The Content Strategy day brought together world-class content designers and strategists to show how they create impact, integrate content into the design process, and scale the role of content. It’s worth saying we were so sad not to be able to hold Content Design in 2020 (it would have been on the date we held SofaConf) and although we couldn’t bring together the brilliant line up we had in store, it was great to be able to bring these three incredible content experts together with Rachel at SofaConf.

Amy Hupe, Designing Content For Emotionally Distressed Users

Jonathon Colman, How We Destroyed Content Design

Kristina Halvorson, In conversation with Kristina Halvorson

Day 5: Interaction Design

Our fifth and final day focussed on Interaction Design. Whether you’re creating new experiences, or optimising existing ones, you’ll find great tools and insights from these talks and discussions as our speakers share their advice for problem-solving, testing, and effective design.

Ross Chapman, Remote Sprints

Simeon Wishlade, How To Lose Less In AB Testing

Richard Banfield, Organisational Underwear: How To Successfully Collaborate With Cross-Functional Teams

Lex Roman, Practicing Growth Design

Quote from Richard Banfield saying "Trust is like a bank account, you have to make small deposits"

And then some...

We shared some of our favourite talks curated from past conferences which we thought would be interesting and relevant. These included Director of User Experience Design at Google Magaret Lee’s talk from 2018 ‘Insights from a Reluctant Leader’. And Farai Madzima, UX Lead at Shopify talk from 2019 ‘Cultural Bias in Design(ers)’.

Some of our speakers across the event joined us to answer a few questions about themselves, their role and their talk topic before the event which you can read on Medium.

SofaConf wasn’t all talks, we also had social sessions, entertainment and some yoga classes from the lovely Jeff Phenix especially designed to help counteract the effects of sitting at a desk all day long. We’ve shared his two short classes, one which is designed to be done seated and the other more of a vinyasa flow class.

Finally, we have had all these films closed captioned as part of our ongoing commitment to improve the accessibility of our events.

We hope you enjoy the content from SofaConf, we are currently plotting and planning our next online event so do join our mailing list if you’d like more information.

Tiny lesson: Project Canvas Thu, 03 Sep 2020 11:19:00 +0000 Miro has changed the way we work. It seemed logical to convert our much-loved Project Canvas template from 2015 into an open-source board and share a short Tiny Lesson on how we use it.

What's a project canvas?

Being able to concisely articulate the purpose, audience, vision and goals of a project is crucial. Yet it’s harder than it sounds. Other well-known canvasses can feel too large and grandiose, or far too granular. This project canvas — like Goldilocks’ porridge — is just right. It provides key information that is summative, visible and, crucially, relational. Through open dialogue and collaboration, the canvas helps to create a shared understanding around the brief and goals of the project, aligns the entire team, exposes unknowns and assumptions and provides a strategic purpose to the project at hand.

Project Canvas Miro board
Our Project Canvas Miro board

When should I use it?

A project canvas is a great kick-off exercise, as a collaborative and remote workshop. The canvas highlights and makes visible the relationships, dependencies and intentions that are often intangible or muddy at the start of many projects.

However, the canvas shouldn’t be used once and thrown away. Using a Miro board makes it revisitable at any time. Ideally, the canvas should be updated as and when needed, with new project intel, stakeholders or if the scope changes.

Sounds good. So how do I start?

There is no linear method for using the project canvas. It is laid out in three separate altitudes that provide varying levels of strategic detail, and four pillars that address the purpose, audience, vision and goals for your project. You might want to start with the ‘known knowns’ such as the audience, stakeholders and team. Or you might want to start large and uncover the proposition and vision. It’s entirely up to you.

Here are some tips to get the most out of your project canvas:

  • Involve the widest team possible - get your team and stakeholders involved.
  • Look to uncover and unpack assumptions.
  • Use as a way to create alignment and reduce opacity, build a shared understanding.
  • Treat it as a summative, high-level view of your project at hand.
  • Show the meaning and intentions behind the project, it helps provide the bedrock for a successful outcome.

To learn more read our original blog post on canvassing a project.

Start using the Miro board here

When the going gets tough, the tough get training Mon, 17 Aug 2020 10:32:00 +0000 Just because your training budget has stopped doesn’t mean your training should. Instead of making cuts to staff training, I want to suggest some alternative and cost-effective ways to achieve similar results.

In times of economic uncertainty, one of the first things to get cut and last to get reinstated is the training budget. Upskilling staff is often perceived as an unjustifiable expense. A luxury, an extra, a perk only to be rolled out during the good times.

Yet team members who feel invested in with up-to-the-moment skills are likely to be the catalyst for the growth of your business.

Make learning a habit

Whether you are a military unit, a dance troupe, a sports team, or a rock band, training is the way to become match fit or performance-ready. For any team, the results you achieve have a direct correlation to the practice you put it.

At Clearleft we have a long-standing culture of learning. It’s one of the things that personally appealed to me before working here and has carried on since.

One of our values is ‘Learn and share. Share and learn’. This gets lived out in numerous ways:

  • We put on prestigious conferences from the recent remote SofaConf to UX London, Leading Design and dConstruct.
  • Our practitioners coach students on digital design courses, this year running sessions pre-lockdown at Ravensbourne University London and remotely at the University of Greenwich.
  • You’ll find us involved with and regularly talking at meetup groups such as Codebar, Ladies that UX and nUXers Brighton.

So what can you do when training budgets are frozen and your team are working remotely?

Here are three ideas for some cost-efficient but still effective ways to engage and upskill your digital team.

School room Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

1. Start with a list

There’s no shortage of useful training materials online, much of which is free. More often, the challenge is narrowing down what to learn and then finding quality resources to use.

To give yourself focus, ask your team for a long list of their learning objectives. Get them to review their development plans and to plunder any bookmarks and lists of topics they have identified. Go broad and go big.

Once you have a longlist ask the team to prioritise a selection. It’s useful to get the team to think about the skills to polish up on now that will be useful to improve the quality of their upcoming work. Don’t think too far into the future.

We recently ran three remote training sessions for a global software company. The first two sessions covered product design and research techniques which had been identified as areas for training. However, we purposefully left the agenda for the third session unspecified so the participants could decide what they wanted additional coaching in. Giving the team a say was a powerful way to empower them in the development of their skills.

Armed with your list of potential training topics, start to curate the resources to use. Now, this doesn’t have to be as daunting as it might sound.

Three ways to quickly find quality content are:

  • Ask for recommendations from the team, your network and from the hive mind on social media.
  • Think about who you know who you could offer to do a reciprocal skills swop with.
  • Pay a person or company to curate a list of bespoke material for you based on your requirements.

Creating a calendar of training sessions will help your staff develop the habit of training and for you to ensure there is a variety of both topics and delivery styles.

2. Training together but apart

Going to a conference, sitting in an auditorium and listening to a speaker was as much about being part of a shared experience with the audience around you.

To (almost) replicate this remotely, set a time and place for your team to collectively watch or listen to a presentation and then discuss it afterwards. This is most effective when everyone is consuming the media at the same time and even better if the follow-on discussion or activities have some structure. Zoom, Meet, Teams are all ideal for streaming talks and collectively conversing afterwards.

As a starting point, if you want some inspiration dive into the Clearleft video archive.

On Clearleft’s Vimeo channel, you’ll find 178 videos from the conferences we organise. You’ll find amazing talks covering a vast swathe of topics from Leading Design, UX London, Patterns Day and Ampersand.

Alternatively, the audio archive from 10 years of dConstruct is an audio treasure trove of 3390 minutes of insightful thinking from the brightest minds in the digital design industry.

3. Give some training

Another idea is instead of receiving training why not give some training? Every project team I’ve worked in – both agency colleagues and client’s teams – have such untapped potential to teach something useful to their teammates.

At Clearleft we have a range of formats for sharing tips and advice.

At the end of the week wind-down, people are encouraged to show and tell project work, demo tools and share techniques that they’ve been using. It’s informal, short and requires little preparation.

Up a level from this, we regularly hold brown bags. These have continued even whilst working remotely. The format is simple. Over lunch, someone will talk through something of interest. The eclectic nature of the talks keeps the format interesting.

Some examples of sessions include project teams giving highlights of their projects, Cassie recently walked through the rebuild of her SVG animation rich website, we had clients from the Natural History Museum talk about what goes on behind the exhibition halls and a designer from OpenTable showing us their process for A/B testing.

Getting a little more formal we also do longer form training sessions within the team. These provide the opportunity for someone to provide a more considered or in-depth presentation on a topic. Recent subjects have included facilitation skills for running remote workshops, and a run through by Katie of a talk she gave on service design at Future London Academy.

The value of training

Ongoing training is vital in maintaining and developing a highly-skilled team. The rate of change in how digital products and services are delivered benefits teams who adopt a culture of continuous learning.

Training doesn’t need to be expensive to provide value to both staff and the business.

In the current climate of forced remote work, and the potentially isolating effect this can have, training offers an opportunity to bring your team together to collectively and collaboratively develop skills together.

Season one of the Clearleft podcast Thu, 13 Aug 2020 14:38:00 +0000 The Clearleft Podcast has finished its inaugural season.

I have to say, I’m pretty darned pleased with the results. It was equal parts fun and hard work.

Episode One

Design Systems. This was a deliberately brief episode that just skims the surface of all that design systems have to offer. It is almost certainly a theme that I’ll revisit in a later episode, or even a whole season.

The main goal of this episode was to get some answers to the questions:

  1. What is a design system exactly? and
  2. What’s a design system good for?

I’m not sure if I got answers or just more questions, but that’s no bad thing.

Episode Two

Service Design. This is the classic topic for this season—an investigation into a phrase that you’ve almost certainly heard of, but might not understand completely. Or maybe that’s just me. In any case, I think that coming at this topic from a viewpoint of relative ignorance is quite a benefit: I have no fear of looking stupid for asking basic questions.

Episode Three

Wildlife Photographer Of The Year. A case study. This one was a lot of fun to put together.

It also really drove home to just how talented and hard-working my colleagues at Clearleft are. I just kept thinking, “Damn! This is some great work!

Episode Four

Design Ops. Again, a classic example of me asking the dumb questions. What is this “design ops” thing I’ve heard of? Where’d it come from?

My favourite bit of feedback was “Thanks to the podcast, I now know what DesignOps is. I now also hate DesignOps”

I couldn’t resist upping the ante into a bit of a meta-discussion about whether we benefit or not from the introduction of new phrases like this into our work.

Episode Five

Design Maturity. This could’ve been quite a dry topic but I think that Aarron made it really engaging. Maybe the samples from Bladerunner and Thunderbirds helped too.

This episode finished with a call to action …with the wrong URL. Doh! It should’ve been

Episode Six

Design Sprints. I like how the structure of this one turned out. I felt like we tackled quite a few angles in less than 25 minutes.

That’s a good one to wrap up this season, I reckon.

If you’re interested in the behind-the-scenes work that went into each episode, I’ve been blogging about each one:

  1. Design Systems
  2. Service Design
  3. Wildlife Photographer Of The Year
  4. Design Ops
  5. Design Maturity
  6. Design Sprints

I’m already excited about doing a second season …though I’m going to enjoy a little break from podcasting for a little bit.

As I say at the end of most episodes, if you’ve got any feedback to offer on the podcast, send me an email at

And if you’ve enjoyed the Clearleft podcast—or a particular episode—please share it far and wide.

This was originally published on my own site.

Using your status as a speaker to promote others Thu, 13 Aug 2020 11:59:00 +0000 Being invited to speak at a conference is a privilege, and we can use that privilege in a number of ways.

For newer speakers, the most obvious benefit of speaking is to advance your career. Speaking at an event confers a certain amount of legitimacy and status. The fact that you’re on stage and other people are listening to you implies that you’re somebody who deserves to be listened to. That your ideas hold value that the other people in the audience will benefit from them. This is a great thing to have in your back pocket at interviews, and is sure to impress the person doing the interviewing.

Speaking at a conference also helps raise the status of the company you work for, which is why so many companies are keen to encourage their staff to speak. If you say smart things, the audience will naturally ascribe those thoughts to both you and the company you work for. They’ll think “company X hires really smart people” or “I like the way folks from company X think”. This leads to tonnes of ancillary benefits for the company like finding new customers, attracting new talent, and generally raising the brand even further.

If you come from a recognisable brand, this works the other way around as well. While folks may not have heard of you, they may have heard of the company you represent. This will create a bit of a halo effect around you as a speaker, and confer some of the company’s brand value on to you. “I like the work company X does, this person is from company X, so I’ll probably like them and their work too”. In truth, this is often the way new speakers break into the speaking circuit—by utilising the value of their employers brand.

New speakers (as well as more experienced ones) also get to benefit from the connections they make—especially with other speakers. They may also get exposed to new job offers from employers in the audience who were impressed with their spiel. As such, there’s a lot of very good reasons why individuals can benefit from this sort of exposure.

Of course it’s not all about the person speaking.

The very best speakers will usually have something important they want to say. Something they feel really strongly about, and wish to share with their peers in order to make their lives better. Maybe they’ve just come up with a clever technique that makes folks’ lives easier and want to share it with as many people as possible? Maybe they’ve seen people making the same mistakes over and over again that’s easily avoidable if they just do this one small trick? Or maybe they’ve been the brunt of some sort of challenge or injustice and are looking to highlight these problems and drive a deeper systemic change. Whatever their motivators, making a platform is a powerful thing, and something not to be squandered.

As a result of the Black Lives Matter movement, a lot of experienced speakers are looking for ways to do more with their privilege; to use the power, connections and opportunities they’ve been given to raise others up. One simple way to do this is to pepper your talks with references and quotes by peers from under represented groups. I’ve seen this done a number of times and it can be super effective.

However the more obvious solution is to step aside and recommend speakers from underrepresented groups who could take your place. This is a wonderful, altruistic thing to do. To offer up your place to somebody else who you know would value it more than you. This approach works, but maybe not as often as it should. Unless the people we recommend get picked, we haven’t made any significant change; we’ve just made ourselves feel good. Fortunately there are a few small, simple things we can do to improve our hitrate here.

The first thing to do is to understand why the conference organiser has reached out to you in the first place. Was it because of a specialism you hold, a talk you’ve done in the past, or a project you worked on; or was it simply down to the company you work for and the position you hold?

Many conference organisers—especially smaller ones— may simply be looking for a speaker from a well-known brand to help them sell tickets. In this case, it’s really easy to suggest an alternate speaker. You simply say something along the lines of “Unfortunately I’m not available but my colleague X would love to speak”. If you’re lucky, that’s all you need to do.

However, these pesky conference organisers probably want to make sure that the person you’re recommending is actually a good speaker and not just a report who mentioned wanting to do more public speaking in their last evaluation. As such it’s usually a good idea to send a link to a recent talk from that person, rather than just a list of names. If it comes with a personal recommendation, even better. Something like “I’m afraid I’m not available but I saw X do an amazing talk at Y recently. I think they’d be perfect for your event, so would you like an intro?”

Sometimes conference organisers aren’t just looking for any old speaker—amazing I know. Sometimes they’re looking for somebody with a specific angle to talk about a specific topic. In these instances, it’s helpful to understand what role the organisers were wanting you to fill, and recommend a speaker you know can do similar. “I’m afraid that I can’t make this event, but I saw X give a really good talk on the same subject as me at Y recently, and I was really impressed. In fact, I was thinking of using some of their ideas in my next talk. Want me to make an intro?”

From a conference organisers perspective, this is probably the perfect recommendation. You’ve had personal recommendations from somebody you trust. They’ve seen the person speak, can vouch for them, and have shared a link to see for yourself. They’ve even said that they’ve been so inspired by that person that they’re going to use some of their ideas in future talks themselves. This person is somebody I definitely want to speak to.

This is great, but what if the people you want to recommend aren’t as established as you?

Maybe they haven’t even spoken before. You have an inkling that they’ll be good, but you don’t really know.

If you have somebody on your team who wants to speak at a conference, before giving up your seat and thrusting them into the limelight—or under the bus—it may be worth investing a little more time in their development. Consider spending some time in your one-to-ones to pull out the topics they’d like to speak about. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had folks tell me they’d like to speak at one of our events, but then have no clue what they’d speak about (TOP TIP: “Oh, whatever you want me to speak about” isn’t a good answer). Once they’ve got some ideas starting to develop, help them write a talk description, help them put together an outline, help them write a first draft and give them feedback. Find opportunities inside the company for them to speak first, and try and record their sessions if you can. Many a great talk started life as an internal brown-bag session, got honed at community meet-ups, and only then found its place on a conference stage.

You see, developing one of your team as a new speaker is more than just throwing out their names in an email. It’s about investing in that person and helping to transfer some of the skills that have made you such a good speaker over to them.

Another great way to develop new speakers is to suggest that you do a joint talk. The conference still gets to have you on the bill for all the reasons they reached out in the first place, but now they get a second amazing speaker as a result. You get to confer some of your legiticancy on them, and they’re going to learn a tonne about being a great speaker from you in the process. This effectively takes ALL—or at least most—of the risk away form the conference organiser, while using your platform to raise somebody else up. As such it’s a win-win for everybody involved.

This works especially well if the conference is looking for you to talk about a specific project. Sure you may have overseen the project—and claimed much of the Kudos from that Medium article you wrote about it a few months ago—but you know that your team put the hard work in. So suggesting a joint talk where you frame the project, and then have your colleague jump into the details, can work really nicely. In fact I know several well established speakers who started their speaking careers in this way. Very soon they’d eclipsed the person that got them on stage in the first place, and had developed their own stand-alone speaking career.

It’s often harder if the people you’re recommending don’t work for you. However it’s worth thinking about why exactly you’re recommending them. Maybe you haven’t seen them speak, but you read a really smart article they wrote a few months ago. Or maybe you’re aware of the work they did on a specific project. Any background you can give about why you’re suggesting them as a potential alternative is better than a list of unqualified names. If you’re unable to confer a sense of equivalence to the conference organiser—that you’re confident that the person you’re recommending would do an equally good job as you—the chance of that person being selected is fairly slim. So the more evidence you can supply to underpin your recommendations the better.

2020 Women in Software Power List Wed, 05 Aug 2020 09:01:37 +0000 The Women in Software Power List celebrates and showcases the female rising stars in the UK’s coding community.

Created by Makers Academy and in partnership with ComputerWeekly, Google for Startups and Level39. This year’s theme was Changing the narrative. Independent judges helped whittle hundreds of initial applications down to 30 women who are considered rising stars in the software sector across various industries and who have made a significant contribution to software development in the past 10 years.

Cassie working at her desk in the Clearleft office in a colourful shirt

We hope that initiatives such as the Women in Software Power List will encourage more women to play a part in developing tomorrow’s breakthroughs and therefore helping to shape all of our lives for the better. There’s so much talent in the UK, and through our Power List, we are extremely thrilled to identify some of the best, high-calibre and game-changing women who are advancing our community for the common good.

Evgeny Shadchnev

By publishing the list, Makers aims to make some of the role models in the software industry more visible and accessible. You can read the full list here.

Cassie codes colourful homepage with a desk illustration

Cassie has recently also launched a highly acclaimed personal website which won a CSS Design Award and is now a frequent speaker on the International circuit. We certainly see her as a rising role model for others.

Delivering training remotely – the same yet different Tue, 04 Aug 2020 15:14:00 +0000 I find training people in UX, research and digital design skills both a rewarding and fascinating part of my role at Clearleft.

Over the years I’ve done a fair amount of remote training sessions. However, my preference has always been for delivering in-person classroom-based training. Well, times have changed. For me, this has been an opportunity to reconsider the best ways to run training at distance.

I recently had the privilege of running some training sessions with the design team at Duck Duck Go. We covered product design and research techniques. Beyond having a great search engine that puts privacy first, they are also a really interesting team that has always been distributed. The training sessions were attended by 10 people, in 4 continents, across 8 timezones.

As with the best training sessions, as a facilitator, I learned some new things from the attendees. In particular, I got their tips on maintaining engagement and energy when working apart.

With training in mind, here are three differences to consider when going remote.

Less attention and more disruptions

In a training room, you have a high level of control of the environment. You can arrange the seating, lighting and equipment to best suit the activities you have planned. As you move from one activity to the next you can switch the room around to meet your needs.

Going remote requires letting go a little. Rather than trying to control every aspect of the environment, learn to embrace more chaos. Being more on the edge and improvising when needed adds positive energy to the sessions.

Even with everyone in front of a screen plan for breaks in attention. Audio will drop out, the live stream will freeze, someone will have a knock on their door and their cat will be making an unscheduled appearance. Build in some time for all of these occurrences and more.

Instead of beating yourself up for the few inevitable technical glitches reframe around the positives. After your session, make a list of what went well before thinking about the ‘even better ifs’.

Ice breaker remote training activity where we asked people to pin their mugs to the Miro board
Finding remote ways to get to know your attendees

Getting comfortable with deafening silences

As a facilitator, there is a loneliness to remote training. In a physical setting, when the attendees were heads-down in an activity, I’d prowl the room and pick up on how people were getting on with the task at hand.

No more. Now I set up an activity and then … nothing. With people muted or working away in breakout rooms there is an unnerving silence.

The same happens when you’re giving information or instructions. In a physical space, you can feel if what you are saying is making sense, if people have questions, and how engaged they are.

When you are training in a virtual space it’s hard if not impossible to accurately read the room. You have to put more faith in your material. Trust yourself that you are making sense and your gags are getting a response.

If the people you’re training are heads-down in an activity, don’t fill the void by chattering away. It’ll break their concentration. Equally, resist the temptation to fill the time by looking through Slack or social media. Stay present, just quiet.

Countering the energy drain

Concentrating on a computer screen for an extended period of time is hard. Being static, sitting down, headphones on and staring into a panel of glowing glass is exhausting.

Facilitating and attending remote training drains a person’s battery more quickly than being in the same space together. For the training for Duck Duck Go, we deliberately broke the sessions into smaller chunks and spread them over 3 days with none of them longer than 3 hours.

Remember to be kind to your participants. Make sessions shorter. Switch between different styles of activities. Vary group sizes (the breakout room feature on Zoom is excellent for this). And include more frequent breaks.

One of the best pieces of advice I got when I started planning coaching sessions was to start with the breaks and then add in the activities around these. Even if you are the most compelling tutor, people who are tired, thirsty and desperate for the toilet just can’t concentrate on what you have to say.

Having the team at Duck Duck Go span so many timezones presented an unexpected concentration-sapping challenge. Running the training during the early evening (at least for the timezone I was in) left me spending the last hour of each session catching tantalising smells from the food my partner was preparing. You don’t have to deal with that situation when coaching in a training room!

It’s the same but different

The good news is most of the skills you have as a facilitator and most of the material you use for face-to-face sessions easily translate for remote training. It’s more of an evolution of the activities, resources and ideas rather than a revolution.

The more I do online training the more I think there’ll be a time in the near future when I’m writing a companion article to this one. But next time it will be on new things I’m learning when readjusting to coaching in a classroom in front of attendees.

If you run remote training sessions I’d be interested in hearing what you think the key differences are and what changes you have made to deliver successful learning outcomes.

The nature of change Mon, 27 Jul 2020 09:38:00 +0000 We are likely standing on the brink of an era of either dramatic collapse or radical regeneration. From our collective perspective in the thick of change, it’s impossible to tell which path we are on and how we can ensure the right path succeeds.

However, for the esoteric systems thinkers, agents of change and restless digital transformers amongst us, an idea called the Two Loops theory could be a useful model that serves as a timely reminder of some easily overlooked aspects of how change occurs.

The Two Loops model describes the process of change in complex living systems observed in nature. The theory goes that by learning from the cyclical characteristics of the natural world we can more consciously and intelligently manage change of any kind, whether it be individual behaviour change, organisational transformation, or something much bigger.

Given the turbulent times we find ourselves in, perhaps there is no better time to connect with deeper, more universal truths, and find a constructive way to transition away from our current situation and onto greener pastures.

Paradigm shifts

The theory goes that an ecosystem can be thought of as a complex and constantly evolving ‘hyper-organism’ of change. Everything within an ecosystem moves along an irreversible timeline: Each and every part or element of the system begins in a state of ascendancy or growth, before its descent into decay. Decline is inevitable, as predictable as death superceding life, by following the laws of thermodynamics and entropy.

When enough complementary elements of the system grow and coalesce at the same time, a critical mass of change emerges, creating the possibility that one day the system will recognisably transform from its current state to this newer offspring - a ‘paradigm shift’ in the system itself. Although the new paradigm isn’t immediately or universally adopted, it is because of the ongoing process of growth and decay that the system already consciously or even unconsciously reacts and adapts to this next possible incarnation. It’s dominant characteristics continuing to evolve over time despite any collective intent or resistance to such a change.

This difficult to articulate concept is simplified in the model as one loop that ascends and descends like a hill (the ‘incumbent’ state), followed by a second loop which descends and ascends like a valley (the ‘insurgent’ state), hence ‘two loops’. The two loops aren’t directly connected to each other to represent the fact that this transition between states, the paradigm shift, needs to be bridged and nurtured to succeed.

Two Loops theory of change: Migrating from todays status quo to tommorows
Two Loops theory of change: Migrating from todays status quo to tommorows

This innate knowledge of how the natural world works is so intuitive it almost feels foolish to articulate it. We all learn as children that flowers bloom, bees pollinate and nutrients feed the soil to fertilise new life. So obvious. So what?

Well, on reflection, it seems odd we rarely apply the same logic to the systems of organisations we work for, or the civilisations we live in. What is interesting and useful about Two Loops is the conscious recognition of a few key principles:

  1. The ongoing transition between growth and decay of a given system is cyclical, without exception. Enough sensory awareness of an imminent paradigm shift helps forecast the demise of the system’s current state, and acts as a conscious precursor to prepare for the rise of its successor.

  2. Enabling a paradigm shift in a system to be a harmonious transition requires stewardship; both the nurturing of the new, alongside an equally considerate retirement of the old. Change is more naturally inclined to be slow and painful rather than an immediate change from one state to the next, so dealing with the pain is important.

  3. Most astutely is the recognition that Two Loops helps us reflect on our disillusioned state of existence. Fraught with tension due to the ongoing denial of unavoidable truths that come with living in a shared, all-encompassing natural system, pitting unsustainable pollution, consumerism and population growth alongside finite fossil fuels, mineral resources and species diversity in decline.

Growth and Decay

Regarding the first principle, the dominant mode of thinking within society today, especially within the business world, can often be biased towards the mathematical or mechanistic. A reductionist logic encourages us to believe that if parts of a system are broken, we simply fix the broken parts and the system will return to ‘normal’. The same system, but better. Optimised.

If we believe that the ebb and flow of the natural world carries a broader, more universal logic, this fixation on fixing would be a fallacy.


In a natural world governed by entropy, nothing is static or can be maintained. ‘Normal’ is at best a temporary state. Two Loops can help better prepare for the ongoing inevitability of a new system paradigm, rather than unduly investing in an ailing status quo.

Nurture and Retire

We are also too often trapped by binary thought when it comes to conceptualising change. Seeing things as existing in a single static state, either new or old, rather than on a transition of ongoing change between the two. We dwell too long or too cautiously in the old when the new is too intimidating or unknowing to easily adopt. Or inversely, we sometimes obsess on the novelty or opportunity of the new because of the boredom or decrepitude of the old.

Nowhere is this binary thinking more the case than in economics and politics. Looking at the last 40 years, Two Loops theory is a helpful lens to interpret how critical moments of change were hijacked to accelerate the demise of “undesirable” paradigms (to those who instigated them), such as Latin American socialism or Chinese or Soviet communism, whilst simultaneously injecting new ones, such as corporate neoliberalism, in the form of aggressive economic reform. The handprints of this proactive substitution of the State for the Market, under various guides, are evident on almost every major global economic shift in the last 40 years. In no case did any of these transitions avoid very real casualties for the sake of an orderly migration from old to new. Needless to say, this is quite a heavy and extensive subject so I recommend a read of The Shock Doctrine if you’re interested in finding out more.

In this regard, Two Loops helps us appreciate the successful transition from old to new is more of a gradual flux than the simple flicking of an on/off switch.


The next paradigm

At this point of incredible turbulence in our society, politics and environment, it’s difficult to reject the notion that we’re living at a time of significant change, and we’re almost certainly already at the point of, or imminently approaching, a paradigm shift. As highlighted by Two Loops theory: yesterday’s great solution is today’s problem.

Perhaps then this is why there is nothing ‘usual’ about the current state of ‘business as usual’. In an era of significant change to the norm, this means constantly challenging what is accepted as normal and questioning the prevailing wisdom of normality. The stakes are high given the dominant characteristics of the next paradigm are still up for grabs and could fall so dramatically between utopia and dystopia.

As designers now is the time to be more conscious than ever of our role in helping contribute positively to the problems behind the problems behind the problems we’re solving. Essentially, to direct our energy and momentum towards helping solve problems of ever increasing magnitude. As the systems we contribute to designing become unfathomably complex, Two Loops may help us better reconnect knowingly with hard-earned yet oft-forgotten wisdom. Helping avoid us finding ourselves unwittingly back in an era in which coexistence with the raw reality of nature and the ‘natural world’ is no longer a luxury but an unavoidable necessity.

The ouroboros. “The all is one”. An ancient Egyptian symbol for eternal cyclic renewal
The ouroboros. “The all is one”. An ancient Egyptian symbol for eternal cyclic renewal

It's my belief that history is a wheel. Inconstancy is my very essence, says the wheel. Rise up on my spokes if you like, but don't complain when you are cast back down into the depths. Good times pass away, but then so do the bad. Mutability is our tragedy, but it is also our hope. The worst of times, like the best, are always passing away.

Boethius’ Rota Fortunae (524) via Frank Cottrell Boyce (2002)

Author note: These thoughts were originally captured early in the coronavirus pandemic, and preceded the recent Black Lives Matter protests. I’ve revisited them since to question and reflect on what are essentially amorphous and relatively abstract thoughts about consciously coping with change, during what looks now even more like a significant paradigm shift in our times. During a period of huge complexity, optimism and pessimism, fear and anger, and hope and tragedy are never too far apart. I happily welcome a conversation about the specific nuances of the perspectives raised here and how they relate to specific events and individuals, such as those that have happened to George Floyd in Minnesota and the protests around the world since.

Conducting project retros as customer journey maps Wed, 15 Jul 2020 11:22:00 +0000 A retrospective helps the immediate team understand where things went well and what can be improved. Once the project is finished or changes, team members disseminate and can take their learnings into their next tranche of work.

Yet in some cases and contexts, retros uncover aspects of a project that need to be shared with a wider audience. Stakeholders, project sponsors and HiPPOs might have been distant from the work being done ‘at the coal face’. By sharing the retro’s outcomes with the wider business, you can help ensure future projects avoid — or adopt — particular aspects of your project.


Customer journey maps

If you’re not already familiar with customer journey mapping, it’s a great activity for helping to visualise a user’s experience over time as they use a particular feature of your product or service.

Journey maps not only help to build a design team’s empathy with users, but they also help identify gaps, pain points and opportunities for improvement. It was this aspect that we saw a fit for our particular retrospective.

Customer journey map
A customer journey map at Clearleft

Building empathy with an internal design team

In this case we cast the design team as the users in a journey map, and the session mapped our experience as we progressed through a multi-month project. We put the wider business — the senior stakeholders, HiPPOs and sponsors — into the research hot seat, able to view and understand what a typical project looks like, what and where things went well, and where things could be improved.

As with any retro, hindsight provides clarity. Standard retros end on ‘what can be improved’ or ‘next steps’, and this was no different. We collectively offered ideas and opportunities that — should we do the project again — would save time, money and revenue to the organisation.

Here’s how

Here’s how we conducted a retro as a customer journey map:

1. Jog the memory

First, we tasked the project lead to map out all major events along a wall, horizontally. The team helped fill in any gaps. This became our project timeline. In our case the project spanned multiple months, so we created a new row above the events, marking calendar months.

2. Map the activities

We then had the team share any and all activities conducted during each event, collectively. We time-boxed this activity, and provided ample time to recall many activities over the course of months. As always, we required one topic per post-it.

3. List the pain points (what can be improved)

Next we tasked the team with sharing the pain points they encountered throughout the project, aligning as close as possible to the activities above. As above, we allowed ample time for this activity as (like in most retros) this is often the most cathartic. The team (individually) answered the questions:

  • What went badly?
  • What can be improved?

4. Recall the happy moments (what went well)

Addressing the negative events first in a retro borrows from the peak-end rule, whereby an experience is judged based on how they (the participants) felt at its peak and at its end.

We had the team individually list out all the aspects of the project that went well. As with many retros, the happy moments often equal the amount of negative moments, which is often a relief for project managers and product owners. In this activity we tasked the team to consider:

  • What went well?
  • What were the wins?

5. Find the opportunities

With any customer journey mapping session, the opportunities row is often a gold mine for new product features, ideas and concepts. Our retro was no different.

As a group we listed any and all opportunities for change, mapped to either happy or painful moments alike. These opportunities might have been small (consistent stationary supplies), medium (better wall space ) and large (consistent access to stakeholders) . Whatever size the opportunity, we captured it.

It’s this row that turns the retro into something to be shared with our senior stakeholders and HiPPOs audience. It creates tangible value by providing a compiled list of needs and requirements for future projects.

Bonus round: As a future task, we intend on mapping the team’s emotional journey across the project. Doing so will allow us to visualise how impactful the peaks and troughs were and how they might correlate to productivity, tasks, pain points and happy moments.

Creating a shared understanding

The outcome of this retrospective was to create organisational empathy with the design team, and to deliver new opportunities to the business that might allow future projects to run more efficiently.

Every project is unique, but many — especially those in large organisations — tend to follow similar trajectories and challenges. Through the consistent use of project wash-up retros as journey maps, we hope that other design teams can merge these two proven methods and deliver value to the wider business. Better efficiencies, a shared understanding of what challenges crop up through projects, and how best to tackle them are among the benefits of this type of exercise.

This post was originally published on UX Collective’s Medium by Jon.

Putting design principles into action Wed, 15 Jul 2020 08:43:42 +0000 I was really looking forward to speaking at An Event Apart this year. I was going to be on the line-up for Seattle, Boston, and Minneapolis; three cities I really like.

At the start of the year, I decided to get a head-start on my new talk so I wouldn’t be too stressed out when the first event approached. I spent most of January and February going through the chaotic process of assembling a semi-coherent presentation out of a katamari of vague thoughts.

I was making good progress. Then The Situation happened. One by one, the in-person editions of An Event Apart were cancelled (quite rightly). But my talk preparation hasn’t been in vain. I’ll be presenting my talk at an online edition of An Event Apart on Monday, August 17th.

You should attend. Not for my talk, but for Ire’s talk on Future-Proof CSS which sounds like it was made for me:

In this talk, we’ll cover how to write CSS that stands the test of time. From progressive enhancement techniques to accessibility considerations, we’ll learn how to write CSS for 100 years in the future (and, of course, today).

My talk will be about design principles …kinda. As usual, it will be quite a rambling affair. At this point I almost take pride in evoking a reaction of “where’s he going with this?” during the first ten minutes of a talk.

When I do actually get around to the point of the talk—design principles—I ask whether it’s possible to have such a thing as universal principles. After all, the whole point of design principles is that they’re specific to an endeavour, whether that’s a company, an organisation, or a product.

I think that some principles are, if not universal, then at least very widely applicable. I’ve written before about two of my favourites: the robustness principle and the principle of least power:

There’s no shortage of principles, laws, and rules out there, and I find many of them very useful, but if I had to pick just two that are particularly applicable to my work, they would be the robustness principle and the rule of least of power.

What’s interesting about both of those principles is that they are imperative. They tell you how to act:

Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.

Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

Other princples are imperative, but they tell you what not to do. Take the razors of Occam and Hanlon, for example:

Entities are not to be multiplied without necessity.

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

But these imperative principles are exceptions. The vast majority of “universal” principles take the form of laws that are observations. They describe the state of the world without providing any actions to take.

There’s Hofstadter’s Law, for example:

It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

Or Clarke’s third law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

By themselves, these observational laws are interesting but they leave it up to you to decide on a course of action. On the other hand, imperative principles tell you what to do but don’t tell you why.

It strikes me that it could be fun (and useful) to pair up observational and imperative principles:

Because of observation A, apply action B.

For example:

Because of Murphy’s Law, apply the principle of least power.

Or in its full form:

Because anything that can go wrong will go wrong, choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

I feel like the Jevons paradox is another observational principle that should inform our work on the web:

The Jevons paradox occurs when technological progress increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, but the rate of consumption of that resource rises because of increasing demand.

For example, even though devices, browsers, and networks are much, much better now than they were, say, ten years ago, that doesn’t mean that websites have become better or faster. Instead, it’s precisely because there’s more power available that people think nothing of throwing megabytes of JavaScript at users. See Scott’s theory that 5G Will Definitely Make the Web Slower, Maybe:

JavaScript size has ballooned as networks have improved.

This problem would be addressed if web developers were more conservative in what they sent. The robustness principle in action.

Because of the Jevons paradox, apply the robustness principle.

Admittedly, the expanded version of that is far too verbose:

Because technological progress increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, but the rate of consumption of that resource rises because of increasing demand, be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.

I’m sure there are more and better pairings to be made: an observational principle to tell you why you should take action, and an imperative principle to tell you what action you should take.

This was originally published on my own site.

Tiny Lesson: A postcard from the field Wed, 08 Jul 2020 11:59:00 +0000 Sharing your progress with others is so important when trying to build momentum around a design project.

The close rapport you build up with the core project team is absolutely fundamental to this, but it’s critical to never underestimate the importance of keeping the wider stakeholder group informed and on board. On a recent project with a large corporate, I was reminded of the power of sending a weekly postcard. This can simply be circulated to stakeholders as a more approachable and shareable version of a status update.

The first postcard can be sent before the project actually starts to say hello, outline the scope and your key activities. After that, a typically weekly postcard provides a short snapshot of:

  • Where you are in the overall programme plan
  • The key activities that took part that week, along with the key insights and outcomes
  • The activities to look forward to next week
  • Key team members and contact details
Project postcards

I’d suggest keeping it deliberately short and sweet and where possible adding some photos and images to bring the project to life. I’d also suggest using a light-weight programme like Keynote or Powerpoint so as not to over-engineer it.

This technique is not new, in fact, I remember using it on a project over a decade ago, but with the recent move to more distributed teams it has made this weekly habit more useful than ever.

No longer are we able to have a war room in a clients office or put artefacts up on their walls as a permanent reminder that the project is happening. So a little visual snapshot arriving in their inbox at the end of each week can prove to be a helpful prompt.
During our roles mapping session at the beginning of the project, we allocate an individual involved in the project to be responsible for its creation each week, with input from the rest of the team of course. Once the format is created it can be completed in a very short space of time each week, literally a matter of minutes.

In my experience, this technique proves particularly useful when working for a large organisation with sprawling stakeholder groups. On occasion, it has triggered some pivotal stakeholders to get engaged with the project early on, which is always incredibly useful and can manage the risk of them getting involved too late on.

So why not give it a try on your next project?

Announcing the Clearleft podcast Mon, 06 Jul 2020 14:06:00 +0000 I’ve been working on something new for the past few months and now I’d like to share it with you…

The Clearleft Podcast

The Clearleft Podcast.

Now I know what you’re thinking: aren’t there enough podcasts in the world already? Well, frankly, no. Unless you also concede that there are enough books and records and films in the world already too (to be fair, this is a reasonable thought to have when you’re navigating Amazon, Spotify, and Netflix).

In any case, this podcast is going to be a bit different.

In our field, the usual podcast format is in the form of a conversation: a host or hosts interviewing a guest or guests. Those are great. I’ve certainly enjoyed being the guest on many a great podcast. But I wanted to do something a bit more like an audio documentary.

If you’ve seen a lot of documentaries you’ll know that there are two key factors to getting a great story:

  1. the source material and
  2. the editing.

That’s what makes the Clearleft podcast different.

For the source material, I’ve interviewed my colleagues at Clearleft as well as our peers in other companies. I’ve also gathered great material from conference talks—we’ve got a wealth of wonderful insights from multiple editions of events like UX London, Leading Design, Ampersand, Responsive Day Out, Patterns Day, and dConstruct.

A lot of work has gone into the editing. It probably works out at about an hour of work per minute of podcast. I know that seems excessive, but I really wanted to get a snappy feel for each episode, juxtaposing multiple viewpoints.

The focus of the episode will be around a particular topic rather than a person and will feature lots of different voices woven together. The really challenging part is threading a good narrative. It’s kind of like preparing a conference talk in that respect—I’ve always found the narrative thread to be the hardest but most rewarding part of putting a talk together.

It’s simultaneously exciting and nerve-wracking to put this out into the world. But I think you’re going to enjoy it.

Visit the website for the podcast and choose your preferred method of subscribing. There’s the RSS feed, but the Clearleft podcast is also available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Deezer, TuneIn, Castro, and Overcast.

The first episode will go live later this week. In the meantime, there’s a short trailer to give you a taste of what’s to come.

The episodes will be grouped together into seasons. I reckon a season will around six episodes long. So you can expect the first season to be released over the next six weeks.

Hope you like it!

This was originally published on my own site.

Designing with fluid type scales Wed, 01 Jul 2020 12:31:00 +0000 Breakpoint-based type sizing has always felt a bit arbitrary to me. It seems like equal parts guesswork and compromise, where the better we want it to work, the more stuff we need to design. It strikes me as inelegant and inefficient.

Over the past few years I’ve been lucky enough to work with some very smart designers and developers who have helped me hone my thoughts and ideas into a more tangible approach to fluid responsive design – particularly with regard to typography.

Although every project has different requirements, type size variation on a phone is usually relatively conservative, given that there’s limited horizontal space available. On a large laptop or desktop display it’s often desirable to use much more dramatic type scales to make the most of the extra space. The question is how to accommodate both screen sizes while respecting everything in between.

The big idea that triggered this train of thought now seems very simple:

  1. Define a type scale for a small screen
  2. Define a type scale for a large screen
  3. Tell the browser to interpolate between the two scales, based on the current viewport width.

This results in a set of type sizes which is always “in tune” with itself and feels at home on any device, without needing to manually specify sizes for x number of arbitrary breakpoints. For example we can just say H2s are always “size 4” and trust the calculation to generate a suitable size heading for everybody.

A chart showing scaling fluid fonts
Visualising what this means

In the example above, I defined a typographic scale of 1.2x at 320px (mobile-ish) and 1.333x at 1500px (desktop-ish). At any viewport width in between, the set of type sizes is proportional, although I haven’t needed to manually specify any additional values. I dropped a line at 1024px to show the automatically-calculated font size values at that viewport size. For this example I generated the values using a Google Sheet but this can be elegantly replicated in CSS as described in this excellent blog post by Clearleft developer Trys.

Here’s how these values can translate into design:

A simple example showing typography automatically “breathing” into the available space in a tablet-ish viewport size.
A simple example showing typography automatically “breathing” into the available space in a tablet-ish viewport size.

Trys has created a live version of the above example so you can see it in action: Watch the type breathe as you resize your viewport.

Exactly how you define your two type scales will depend on your product’s fonts, visual style, content, layout, audience, etc. This approach is not a substitute for good design, rather it encourages focusing design effort into the creation of a robust system. This should help to speed up future activity and decision making, as well as bake in consistency by establishing a “palette” of related type sizes.

The user benefit to this approach is that typography will always look “right”, regardless of the device being used. This is not always the case with the standard approach, where your brand new tablet might land you on the wrong side of the nearest breakpoint.

This was originally published on the Utopia website.

Transitioning to design management is hard, risky and requires a lot of luck Thu, 25 Jun 2020 13:26:00 +0000 There are three common paths into Design Management. Either you start at the bottom and work your way up, you take on a stretch project that elevates you above your peers, or you hit a glass ceiling and are forced to jump ship.

I know a lot of people who have followed the first path. They joined an early-stage start-up as its first designer, and four years later are running a team of 40 people as Vice President.

It’s easy to see how this happens. As Designer number one, you’re responsible for hiring designers number two, three and four. For the first 18 months or so you’ve moved from being a regular designer to a lead designer. You understand the design system, and know why certain decisions were made, and everybody comes to you for advice.

When it’s time to hire your fifth, sixth and seventh designer, you’re the one who ends up writing the job spec, doing the interviews, and onboarding the new hires to the team. Once folks start, they report to you, and when they want a pay increase, it’s you they come to first. You probably don’t have the title of manager yet, but you’re effectively doing the job of one.

A lot of career advancement comes that way. You accidentally find yourself doing a particular job, and the title, salary and job description follows 6 months later. Eventually, you’re doing so much people management that you move out of production, hire a couple of leads who eventually become managers themselves, and now you’re a Head, Director or VP of Design.

This is a wonderful career trajectory and looks amazing on a CV. However, it’s a super hard career trajectory to plan, as a lot of it revolves around joining the right company at the right time. This doesn’t diminish the hard work and effort you put in. It’s just a hard route for others to follow with any certainty.


The next approach is more common inside larger, more stable teams. As a designer, you’ll see some sort of opportunity, improvement or trend that you’d like to explore. These tend to be internal focussed opportunities like the creation of a Design System, or the formation of a DesignOps team.

Using your natural sales and leadership abilities, you’ll secure some time and budget. If you’re lucky, the project will be a success, and you’ll end up being put in charge of this new initiative. The powers that be will see this drive and other leadership roles will soon follow.

This is a great way to prove yourself as a leader, but it comes at some risk. Convincing your company to do something new is always a challenge, and if you fail you’ll lose the trust of your superiors and your status in the organisation. As such, this can be especially hard to do for people from more diverse backgrounds, who may not feel as confident in their ability to leave and walk into another job with ease.

Unfortunately, these opportunities are few and far between, so there’s an element of being in the right place at the right time. There’s also a big element of office politics going on here.

As leaders, it’s our job to find these stretch assignments for our teams, but there’s a good deal of evidence that these sorts of assignments aren’t evenly distributed. That promotion worthy stretch assignments get given to white men more than women—who are often given maintenance assignments—or people of colour. As such it’s important for design leaders to make sure that these opportunities are distributed evenly and judged fairly.


The third most common route into management is through promotion. You’re a great Designer or Design Lead, who continuously goes above and beyond the call of duty. Your design work is stellar and your peers consistently approach you for advice. You know how to navigate projects through your organizations successfully, and your stakeholders appreciate your diligence and hard work. The only problem is, there are no leadership roles available.

While most people assume that they’ll eventually be promoted into a leadership role, this happens a lot less frequently than you’d think. Unless the company you’re working at is growing quickly, you’re effectively waiting for your boss to leave; and while individual contributors seem to move roles fairly frequently, managers stay much longer. As such, the only option is to jump ship.

If you’re lucky, you’ll land your first leadership role at a company with a long history of Design Leadership, a group of peers to learn from, and a governance structure in place. However, that often isn’t the case for new managers. Instead, they’ll often find themselves being hired by companies with little background in design, as a Player Coach.

On the surface, the Player Coach role sounds ideal. You get to learn new management skills, while continuing to do the design work you know and love. The problem is that management very quickly becomes a full time job, especially when you discover that you don’t have basic things like standard job descriptions, team charters, or progression frameworks in place. You spend so much time working on these fundamentals that your design work and people management skills begin to slip. Very quickly you find yourself stuck in the new manager death spiral, and start wondering whether you did the right thing. Maybe life would be easier if you went back to being an IC.

I’ve seen this cycle repeat itself more times that I care to say. Fortunately, this feeling will pass. You’re not a bad manager. You just found yourself in an impossible situation, so it’s time to move on. The best thing you can do is use this experience to land a design management role at a much larger company with an experienced design leader, a supportive group of peers, and all the necessary governance and infrastructure in place.

As you can see, none of these routes into Design Management are especially easy, and a lot of them require being in the right place at the right time. However It’s important to be aware of these common tropes, so you can take advantage of them when they present themselves, or know when to step away when they don’t.

This was originally published on Andy’s website

10 ways design leaders are maintaining happy teams Fri, 12 Jun 2020 12:31:00 +0000 The new normal we find ourselves in has changed the way we run design teams, prioritise and measure success. Last month we hosted our fourth Design Leadership Panel where we discussed the challenges that come with managing teams that have been forced to go remote.

From the panel discussion, we’ve assembled 10 themes, tools and thoughts which emerged that we can all apply to how we lead and manage teams now, and moving forward in the future.

Many thanks go to our panel featuring Dan Cordor, Head of UX & Design at Gumtree, Stuart Gomersall, Head of Digital Technology at Lloyd’s, Christine Pizzo, Studio Design Lead at Digital Products, an Accenture Studio, Dan Potenza, Head of UX at MoneySuperMarket Group and Katie Taylor, Head of Experience Design at Wellcome Trust.

Maintaining happy teams intro slide

1. Steal processes from different groups

Learn, borrow and steal from other disciplines. At Accenture, Christine has borrowed the concept of mob development and applied it to the design team. She has found it stops the ‘designing behind a desk’ mentality, is more casual and interactive, with constant casual conversations bringing natural learning from more senior peers. We love a design jam on Figma here at Clearleft, and this is an approach Dan at Gumtree uses with his team also, bringing that sense of collective creativity.

2. Assess leadership speaking down

Over-communicate yes, but make sure you mix the voices up. At Gumtree there was already a company culture of transparency, by ensuring they over-communicate at a team level, it naturally gives visibility from above without the need for more updates/briefings. At Accenture, Christine has made sure the weekly company scrums are not just leadership talking down. Getting different people to run stand-ups is a great way to get the rest of the team talking for you or with you.

3. Use real-time tooling judiciously

Breaking down barriers, and getting the closest experience to being in the room is essential. At MoneySupermarketGroup Dan has run entire product inceptions with 50-60 people across the company co-contributing to a Miro whiteboard successfully defining a proposition. But there is a danger for them to get out of hand without physical constraints - imagine translating your vast Miro boards into a real space. Remember to be concise.

4. Find the right boundaries

It’s a tricky juggle to get it right. Dan Potenza, Dan Corder and Katie had some key thoughts to check before you act -

  • Find the right balance for people and don’t push them too much. Have the awareness as a people leader that there are external stresses.
  • Ultimately look after your own work/life balance. Your family, your health needs to come first and work should, quite rightly, come second.
  • Ask what do I need to be where for, and when/where am I at my best? Ask those questions before defaulting.

5. Maintain professional development

While it may not be the first thing you think of, many of our attendees were concerned with maintaining career momentum during this time. Christine believes it is a really important time to look at it, and to create those personal growth tools and processes. At MoneySupermarketGroup they have a soft skills review yearly. This is not about scoring everyone, but helping their team open conversations - are you interested in this? Do you get your energy from here? Again this is not pushed, but available through 1-2-1s as an ongoing agenda item if people feel differently during this time.

6. Remove the formal

Avoiding the calendar based fear. There are many ways our leaders recommend making leading a team more relaxed. Katie at Wellcome Trust asks her team ‘how do you want to chat today? You choose.’ She’s found it helps to build trust and create a real relationship where your team feels comfortable to say that they’re not up to something. Accenture launched a ‘COVID connection plan’; effectively a phone tree of check-ins. Asking who has the best connection with these people? They then check-in and make a note of who needs help or is fine. This helps her by knowing everyone is being talked to at a glance, and no one is being left behind, without the need for anything more formal.

7. Translate

It’s an incredibly important time to check how your messages are landing as a design leader. For Christine, it’s not about adding additional worry for everyone but being realistic about where the business is and what we can all do about it. Make sure everyone knows how they can help and why we’re asking for things that are critical. And ask in a way that doesn’t make them fearful. Dan has found himself listening far more and picking up on signs at MoneySupermaket Group, allowing a silence in order to let people get to something they may want to bring up.

8. Iterate constantly

With parameters changing on a day to day basis, we are all having to iterate constantly. One way is to increase your commitment to research to give that sense of certainty and confidence. At Gumtree, Dan’s team had the ethical discussion on whether it was the right time to ask how the pandemic has changed how their customers transact with them. Stuart at Lloyd’s has found a similar thing, finding himself and his team asking questions they otherwise wouldn’t. Which he hopes is a positive cultural shift that sticks around for a long-time to come.

As well as increasing our research we can also iterate on team structures and skills. Christine has found when finding people underutilised or on the bench, it’s a perfect time to think about repositioning them a little or allowing them to upskill into areas that will help the business in the long term.

9. An accelerant to tackle the tricky stuff

In many ways, these times have accelerated conversations, approaches and processes that are hard but need to be addressed. Christine has found it stretches us in a way that’s challenging, but we as leaders still have to grow. Often the hardest discussions are the ones where you grow the most. Many leads may have never had to do that, so it’s good we are all tackling these conversations now, of what might happen.

10. Old-style management Vs new-style leadership

Recent times have brought a whole suite of skills that design leaders may have had, but never exercised in this way. Stuart at Lloyd’s flags that there needs to be value to interactions as they are more cognitively exhausting. Leading by example, he’s found himself feeling it’s important to challenge even the CEO/CIO to try and reduce down meeting times to encourage the rest of the team to do the same. Katie has also found that after an initial rush to have more meetings at Wellcome Trust she is now advocating for a more asynchronous leadership style.

Our next panel discussion will be in September. You can register your interest here.

A universal theory for DesignOps Mon, 08 Jun 2020 09:50:00 +0000 As we say up front on our website, Clearleft help organisations, designers and leaders “realise [their] digital potential”. Through events, research, design and strategy we enable innovation, build capability and foster an appetite for change.

Sounds so easy, right? Well, of course not. We’re aware that this is much easier said than done. No-one has perfected design down to a tee and many organisations face challenges in how they design. For us at Clearleft, and maybe for you too, this can sometimes be frustrating. Aren’t we supposed to have this design thing sorted by now?

Design as competitive advantage

Design as a capability for innovation and competitive advantage has been on the radar with business leaders for many years now. Way back in 2004 two designers, Tim Brown and David Kelley of IDEO, made the cover of Business Week. That’s over 15 years ago now, from a pre-iPhone era. Essentially the digital equivalent of the Old Testament.

Between 2005 and 2015 we’ve also had organisations such as the Design Management Institute (DMI) creating the Design Value Index (DVI), an experiment conducted to measure how much value design creates for businesses. The DMI invested $10,000 dollars in design-centric companies – those who had made significant investment and structural support for design – such as Apple, IBM, Nike, and Disney. The $10,000 fund was then compared against one of the major US stock market indices to track performance of these design-centric companies against the broader market. While the market grew by almost 80%, the DVI-listed companies grew by nearly 300% in the same period.

The Design Value Index (DVI) by Design Management Institute (DMI) (2005 - 2015)
The Design Value Index (DVI) by Design Management Institute (DMI) (2005 - 2015)

This result surely demonstrates that design is valuable. So why aren’t we living in a design utopia? Why do most companies feel as though they have an immature understanding of design? That very few stakeholders are fully invested and committed to it?

Based on our experiences at Clearleft, we see a few common recurring themes in the struggle designers are facing within organisations. Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Scenario 1: The Hooli problem

The first organisation, Hooli, has a really sophisticated technology setup. They know everything there is to know about Agile, DevOps and continuous delivery, having optimised their development cycles within an inch of their life. They’re as fast as they can possibly be, with hourly updates as needed, and numerous updates daily. But look a bit closer and something isn’t quite right.

Firstly, the design team is hugely outnumbered in comparison to their engineering colleagues, and even though they sit together as part of a cross-functional team they have no clout and no say. Design is in service to Technology and Engineering, and isn’t represented in any significant way higher up the food chain of the organisation, in the boardroom and where the big decisions happen.

Also, because everything is done so fast, paradoxically nobody has time to worry about whether or not they’re shipping things the customers want or need. There’s a rudimentary amount of usability testing but fixing anything that crops up isn’t factored into the release schedule. The user experience suffers as stuff gets pushed live without any proper consideration to the quality.


Their motto is “Design just slows us down”. This is Design by Engineering.

Scenario 2: The Wayne Enterprises problem

Wayne Enterprises are an established market leader looking to push the boundaries within their sector, and keen to disrupt their industry by bringing new and exciting products to market. They have a lot of investment, they pay huge salaries, and money isn’t a problem. But as they are a publicly-traded company, they are obsessed about the impact any decision has on their shareholders, and as a result their culture is obsessed with the short-term impact on the bottom line.


Because of this, their team of highly (over)paid contract designers struggle to get any buy-in on anything. The team is paralysed by the demand to provide evidence for every single subjective or qualitative improvement in the user experience. Because brand loyalty and customer satisfaction are difficult to both quantify and affect in a short timeframe, none of the more ambitious customer-centric projects ever get off the ground. Nobody is interested in committing the budget unless they can quantify the returns. Despite all the ambition to innovate and disrupt their market, the rhetoric is hugely misleading — they are trapped by numbers and risk averse.

Unfortunately, this means the design team only ever optimise around what they know. Poring over analytics and hypothesising how to improve conversion by marginal percentages. They’re at the mercy of the local maxima – optimising existing design solutions until they’re drained of any more gains, while missing the bigger opportunities to reimagine something with greater potential.

Their motto is “I can’t see the ROI of design”. This is Design by Business Case.

Scenario 3: The Cyberdyne Systems problem

You may have heard of Cyberdyne. They’re a highly secretive but much publicised startup working on some ‘exciting’, progressive and innovative AI solutions to automation. An ideological organisation earnestly believing it is making the world a better place. (Big fans of the lockdown.)

Design here is both tactical and practical. Designers are used to add the final touches to marketing websites, presentation decks and so on. Designers don’t have any say in the design of their AI systems. Their logo probably wasn’t even done by a designer because it looks terrible. The sad truth is that there is no organisational malice behind these actions.


Their motto is: “Less thinking. More colouring in.” This is Design by Naivety.

Design’s Iron Triangle

The three companies described above obviously aren’t real, but exaggerated archetypes we can surely all identify with. Their problems, however, are very real, and seem to be universal to design:

  • Is design efficient enough? How much time and resources does it take to design?
  • Is design profitable enough? How much money do we need to spend on it to see a valuable return on investment?
  • Is design effective enough? Is the quality and scope of what we’re doing enough to satisfy customers or users? To meet their needs, goals and ambitions? We can change the colour of a button sure, but are we even making a product they’d use? Are we designing the right thing?
Good design needs to be efficient, profitable and effective
Good design needs to be efficient, profitable and effective

And of course these are universal considerations of design, because they’re also the same universal success factors to balance in any organisation: time, money and quality.

The Iron Triangle of time, money and quality
The Iron Triangle of time, money and quality

Changing one factor has an impact on the other factors. For instance, if you have a much bigger ambition of scope or quality to what you’re trying to achieve, that comes with a bigger price tag or a greater effort. Equally, spending less time will save money but impact the scale of what is being delivered. You may have heard of this as “pick two”: You can have it fast, cheap, or good, but not all three. You may have heard of this model as the Iron Triangle or the Project Management Triangle.


No-one has achieved the perfect design team, or process, or outcome, because the constraints demand that you can only ever optimise for two of the three factors.

  • Do you want it fast and cheap by sacrificing the extent of its qualities, whether that be scope, scale or finish?
  • Do you want it fast and to a high standard by paying more?
  • Or do you want to achieve the most ambitious quality and scope whatever the cost, at the price of it taking longer to deliver?

It’s no coincidence that a similar triangle of interdependent constraints exists elsewhere.

Critical Success Factors

It was Bill Moggridge and IDEO in the early 00’s that first coined the Design Thinking mantra of the three factors considered vital ingredients to the success of any product or service.

  • Feasibility: Can we make this happen?
  • Viability: Can the company profit economically from this?
  • Desirability: Do users or customers or people want or need this?
Design thinking triangle

You could also call these technology needs, business needs and user needs. Most companies typically assign responsibility for each of these factors to specific areas of the business: Engineering, Product or Strategy, Design or Marketing, respectively.

Within the conceptual model of this Iron Triangle lies a potential model to help explore the challenges and tradeoffs good design needs to thrive.

Engineering teams are responsible for technology needs, ensuring solutions are feasible. Because the team’s primary constraint is the effort (i.e. time) required for the solution, they have the biggest influence on how efficiently the organisation solves design problems. Who hasn’t heard the development mantra “anything is possible given enough time”?

Product or Strategy teams are responsible for business needs, ensuring solutions are viable. Because the team’s primary constraint is the cost, or cost-benefit ratio, of the solution, they should have the biggest influence in how profitably the organisation solves design problems. In other words, how it maximises value from what it does.

Finally, Design or Marketing teams are responsible for user needs, ensuring solutions are desirable to potential or existing customers. Because the team’s primary constraint is the quality, or qualities, of the solution, they should have the biggest influence in how effectively the organisation solves design problems, in terms of meeting customer expectations and ensuring the best product-market fit.

Designops triangle unpacked

When these constraints are not in harmony, which they rarely are, you see a symptom of one or more of them negatively affecting the design outcomes. Organisations typically assign accountabilities at a departmental level, and when they do so they are giving focus to one of these constraints at the expense of the other two.


Organisations which face Hooli problems are struggling to get Design to work with Engineering and Technology teams in an efficient manner. Design is perceived as taking too long.

Organisations with Wayne Enterprises problems are struggling to get Design to work with the wider business to demonstrate how it can create new value and competitive advantage. Design isn’t obviously and transparently benefiting the bottom line.

And organisations with Cyberdyne problems have yet to appreciate or maximise customer-centric design at all. Design is just an aesthetic veneer before you put a product to market. The understanding of design itself is immature.

Organisational structures and hierarchies have a dramatic effect on culture and, by extension, the challenges relating to design. Culture is the greatest influencer on an organisation’s ability to be mature at design. Therefore in order to know how to tackle design challenges where you work, and to improve the outcomes of design, you first need to start with reflecting on the collective behaviour of your organisation – the culture. A good method of doing so would be to imagine where it fits on this triangle of balancing factors between efficiency, profitability and effectiveness and start nudging the culture in a more harmonious direction that will improve your design maturity.

But how? Let me have a think…

7 learnings from a virtual onboarding Tue, 02 Jun 2020 08:45:04 +0000 During these strange times, we are re-learning to work as teams at a distance, and this comes with challenges. But onboarding a new designer is an entirely different beast.

Being introduced to the new environment while not being in that environment can be a roller coaster of mixed feelings. It can also be revealing about a company.

As I started my role as a UX designer in full-on lockdown mode, I had the unusual experience of becoming part of Clearleft in this peculiar and unforeseen way.

Everyone has an onboarding plan, a welcome pack for the newcomer, or a number of automated rituals that are more or less effective in shortening the distance between a well-acquainted, tightly-knit team and the stranger standing in front of them.

Being no design leader, and having experienced onboardings only twice before, I wondered how many other people—designers, project managers, HR leads—are going through the same remote ordeal, on different sides of the barricade. As the remote office newbie I wanted to share some considerations that anyone preparing for virtual onboarding may learn from.

1. Be ready, possibly in style

A company is almost exactly like a person. It has its character, a voice and body language, its personality, its beliefs and values. One way or another, the company-person needs to be introduced to the newbie.

The way Clearleft does it is simple yet pretty elegant: a dedicated microsite, nicely matching the branding and website of Clearleft. Step by step, I was walked through the core and soul of Clearleft, all the way to any kind of practical information. I couldn’t really use the details about how good the coffee machine is in the office, but it’s all stuff that adds up to the understanding of where I’ll be working and what I’m getting into. Plus, it’s a reassuring fact to see the level of detail your company would go to just to welcome you onboard.

2. An organised company is an organised newbie

A place for everything, and everything in its place. The welcome website (welcsite?) pointed me towards a number of drives, folders, sheets, and documents that listed vital, important, and useful logistic things.

Clearleft prepared a specific onboarding Drive too, aligned with the microsite. This option is by far simpler than a swanky onboarding site, but it presents its own challenges: file duplication, taxonomy confusion, un-shared folders…we know the list. Asking rookie questions about where one would be able to find this file is a guaranteed chills-inducer for most companies. Lesson learned: better keep organizing tools clear and clean.

Alongside file managers, contacts and tools lists should be ready. This is a life-saver, especially when you start your first project after 3 days of being onboarded. And it’s much easier if there are etiquette and protocols next to each tool. There’s nothing that makes a newbie more anxious than being afraid of kicking his boss out of a working tool.

Tip: If you have a resource/training folder, share it immediately with the new colleague: they’ll sure be happy to access expensive books and documents while being locked up at home.

3. 1-2-1s

This is one of the tricky ones, because:

  1. nothing replaces a good ol’ chat in a coffee shop or around a pint, and
  2. that’s more video calls for the whole team.

Still, they need to happen, possibly as individual chats. The only thing worse than a video call is a video call with 29 people playing the hangouts bingo of “I didn’t quite catch that” or “Can you hear me”. What had been prepared for me was a calendar dotted with 25-minute intro calls with colleagues, with no specific order or pattern to it. That was great because it surfaced individuals rather than teams (in a place like Clearleft there is nothing like siloed teams) and because it allowed everyone to put their own twist into their job and workplace description.

Tip: Everyone I spoke to recommended I dig up a blog post or case study from Clearleft archive to get me into the mindset of the company.

4. Talking about...everything

Half of my 1-2-1s ended up being the most random and chaotic conversations I had in a formal onboarding. The calls with two of the founders ended up being longer than expected, very lightweight while talking about the company for only a third of the time. That was fine - even better. Hierarchies can be scary, even in horizontal companies. You both like typography? Speak about it for the whole time, it’s worth it.

5. Over-ask (over-communicate)

Another thing that everyone at Clearleft did was to constantly reassure me about support and, given the lockdown-remote combination, the fact that it was fine for me to raise my hand and ask, request and grab people on Slack. It might sound obvious, but during onboarding (and especially for a remote one) being constantly reminded that “It’s OK to ask” helped a lot.

6. Beware comms overload

But where to ask? Behold the labyrinth of Slack channels, groups, @here, and direct communication. I personally follow the funny-named like gospel since I’ve found it. But it might not be enough for all the nuances of a company’s internal chat. Do I post it in #general or #random? If basic Slack hygiene routine is in order (and bonus: they’re explained in onboarding documents), these trivial problems won’t apply, and it will save everyone unwanted notifications and clogged channels.

7. Get thrown in the mix

Every time I’ve been onboarded I jumped straight into a project. “It must be hardcore to start working immediately”, everyone said. Well…it wasn’t. I think it’s one of the best ways to start blending with the inner functionings of a company. The first client meetings and workshops might feel daunting (and they are!), but that’s when smart onboarding and access to resources comes into play. I felt ready for the challenge, and I knew where to find what I needed to kickstart my job.

Tip: This is where precise and reasoned planning can be used to assign roles and (as mentioned before) reassure the newcomer that it’s fine to spend some time riding the bench.

It was thanks to planning that my remote onboarding experience didn’t turn out to be a nightmare. As everyone was continually checking on me, I realised that, in fact, everything was good.

Yes, there were apocalyptic encounters at the office to get my laptop and equipment (6 meters distancing and masks), but I was also greeted by a case of company brewed beer as the office was shutting. And probably the best thing about a remote onboarding: never, ever, getting a name wrong thanks to the little, underrated, but incredibly effective name at the top of every video call.

What companies get wrong about launching new products Tue, 19 May 2020 10:54:17 +0000 Kicking off a new product? How do you go about finding the right team for the job?

There’s a logic in the tech industry—popularised by books like The Lean Startup—which explains that the goal of any start-up is to achieve product-market fit; the perfect nirvana of a product that people want, that solves a real problem, and customers who are willing to pay.

It takes a lot of time, effort, talent and money to reach true product-market fit, and the majority of companies fall by the wayside. That’s often because they run out of time, run out of money, or lack the talent needed to get them there in the first place.

There’s another piece of tech industry logic, which is variously described as “ship early, ship often”, “move fast and break things” or “build, measure, learn”. It’s a combination of learning by doing, and the realisation that speed and momentum are key.

I generally hold these concepts to be true, with a few minor caveats. I’m always surprised that there’s a third and final piece of tech company wisdom that seems to undermine these two philosophies. Something that actively slows production and the search for product-market fit. What’s this concept you ask? It’s the fixation on doing everything in-house and building the perfect team.

I get where this is coming from. VCs invest in talent as much as ideas, so they want to know that you have the team to deliver the goods. The problem is, building the perfect team is a lot harder than you think.

Tree vector created by
Tree vector created by

Assembling a team

The first problem is simply finding good people. It can easily take six months to assemble your founding team and get them up to speed; to get them forming, storming, norming and performing. It’s also hard to know what good looks like, especially if you’re a first time founder or from outside the industry.

There’s a mistaken belief that talent is widely distributed and largely equivalent. That one designer, product manager and engineer is much like another. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve seen founders go through multiple design, engineering or product leads before they find the right person. This all costs time and money. Often that’s time and money the founders don’t have.

It’s also worth noting that teams aren’t a static thing. In fact the team you need to invent a new product is going to be quite different from the one you need to scale, monitise and maintain the product. And because there are a lot more companies in the scale, monitise and maintain phases, they’re much easier to find.

So if you’re kicking off a new product, how do you go about finding the right team for the job? I think there are three opportunities available to you that are faster and better than trying to recruit a permanent team.


The first option is to go freelance. To find individuals who have a proven track record inventing and scaling new businesses. These people tend to be pioneers. They enjoy the challenge of solving new problems so probably aren’t looking for a permanent position. They know their worth and will be reasonably expensive on paper, especially if they’re looking for equity.

It will take time to find these people. But if you find a good freelancer, they’ll undoubtedly know other people they’ve worked with and trust. This can help reduce the time it takes them to get up to speed, avoiding the forming and storming phase, and jumping straight to norming and performing.


If you don’t have the time and contacts to build out and manage your own team of contractors, the next most obvious solution is to hire a pre-built team with a proven track record, in the form of an agency.

While agencies may feel more expensive than permanent staff when you consider day rates, you need to add on the time you’re saving by not having to recruit, onboard and bring these teams up to speed. There’s also a tendency for agencies to work faster, so they’re regularly able to deliver in 6 months what would take an in-house team a year or more.


The final option is to look towards a new breed of “sweat equity” investors. Rather than offering you cash, these investors will agree to design and build your product for a share of equity. Like all investors, these companies are taking a huge risk so would typically expect a higher reward. Usually something in the region of 20-30% equity.

This is a really interesting new model, so it could be worth a try. However because it’s so new, it hasn’t really been stress-tested yet. So there’s a chance that the teams may not be as good as they claim to be, but unlike a relationship with an agency, it’s much harder to offload an investor you don’t like. If you are going to go down this route, it’s worth doing your due diligence, and see if they have the track record to back up their equity stake.

Choose carefully

Whatever approach you choose, it’s always important to balance time, money and risk. Building an in-house team takes longer, and therefore presents a higher risk. Get it right and it can save you a lot of money, but get it wrong and you’ll hit the end of your runway fast.

Using contact or agency talent helps reduce the time, risk and managerial overhead, but it comes at a cost. The equity funding model is a new and exciting approach, but yet to be properly proven.

Balancing business and user needs Mon, 18 May 2020 10:24:00 +0000 Clearleft hosted the third in our Design Leadership panels in February, the second panel discussed the complex nature of balancing business needs with those of the user, and the challenges faced.

We were joined by Conor Ward, Director of Design at BT, EE and Plusnet, Daniel Souza, Design Operations Director at Babylon Health, Ana Jakimovska, Chief Product Officer at Culture Trip and Andy Budd, Chairman at Clearleft

You can sign up to join our next (now virtual) design leadership panel here.

Clearleft design leadership panel sitting infront of a blue screen

Scaling design

The panel explored the nuances of scaling design, and how Design Ops is integral to bridging the gap between business and user needs. On one end of the spectrum, we had Culture Trip, who Ana referred to as a ‘start-up, scale-up in hypergrowth’. Similarly, Babylon Health is growing rapidly, investing heavily in Design Ops as they become more complex, dealing with more and more markets as they scale. For both companies, however, it’s not about growth but more about how design at scale can improve the business’ relationship with the product.

When you move from start-up to scale-up you start to make better proposition decisions. You have a more mature relationship with the product teams, and you find more balance between cost reduction and a good experience.

Daniel Souza

On the other end of the spectrum, BT are an older, more traditional company. They are very much operating at scale with a digital team of 1,000 and a 200-strong design team. However it’s a challenge to foster a scale-up and start-up mentality within an older organisation. Since joining BT as Director of Design, Conor’s goal is to bring together the various design teams into a single digital team, reporting to the CEO. By removing some of the bloat found in traditional organisations, he has been encouraging more of an entrepreneurial mindset.

Org structure matters

When it comes to organisational structure, people are always looking for the ideal model. Balance becomes increasingly important. Simply adding one more person to the team, or one more product to the stack can see it quickly destabilise. Org structure can be a bit like building on shifting sand… although a reorg may fix a bunch of problems now, it can also create a myriad more later. Similarly, one designer embedded in a team can feel completely overwhelmed. The attempt to solve this by centralising the design team can see the whole team end up becoming a siloed resource. It’s not easy.

Organisational hierarchy is inherently problematic, it seems.

At BT, Conor is embracing the fuzziness by trying to make operational models and structures without looking at the exact skills and types of people available. Asking first ‘how do we want teams to work together’ followed by ‘how are we going to give them line management and support’ and working from there is a good start.

At Culture Trip, they tend towards simplicity, using mental models and narratives and embracing what Ana refers to as ‘the messy middle’.

The messy middle can work great if there are enough boundaries and goals, and it supports the right relationships between people. If you put too much process in you can starve innovation and self-initiation. Org philosophies need to change, and the messy middle is OK but design leaders have to support that

Ana Jakimovska

Avoiding pitfalls

In order to change the mindset in larger, more traditional companies, it seems to start with good communication from design leaders. Conor has taken three steps to elevate design to a business level:

  1. Define who design reports into ‘at the table’. Set design as a peer to Product, as well as Engineering and Data

  2. Change the language. Rather than the leadership team they are called the ‘Digital Enablement Team’

  3. Re-define Design itself. Think ‘how do you define design’? How can you make it as wide as possible, encompassing product design, content design, user research and Design Ops?

The breadth of these steps means they can’t have a typical design process at BT. Instead they have to adopt a user-centred process with wide guard rails. The importance of language cannot be underestimated either, as we’ve spoken about before with Martyn Reding.

Babylon tries to avoid using terms like innovation and BAU altogether, arguing that when everyone has a shared mission on patient outcomes, they can flex to deliver them in different and new ways.

Ana also recommends clear guides around innovation to avoid a business obsession with the ‘new’:

I don’t believe in feature bloat. Building new things the whole time is overrated. Focus on what is the core value you bring to the user — making that really good first — rather than this obsession with innovation and new things.

Ana Jakimovska

Designers moving into product

There is a lot of tension now between Designers and Product that hasn’t existed before. Is this because product managers have the business acumen and language, able to have the conversations that design can’t?

More designers are moving into Product (particularly in the US) in order to influence at an organisational level. Arguably now more than ever, Design has to prove it can deliver business-level outcomes, with user outcomes as an added benefit.

Babylon, for example, has seen huge benefits in Design Directors becoming Product Directors. They are seeing unexpected levels of collaboration between Product and Design, which in turn elevates the product by removing tension and friction between teams.

Empowering teams with metrics

A bit like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs we often see different levels of metrics. The first level is no metrics; everyone works from random decisions. The next, but arguably more dangerous level, is individual team metrics which can often cause conflicts. The third level is a company-wide alignment — not necessarily the same metric, but connected ones. Andy Budd argues that nirvana is ‘having metrics so embedded in your values and culture that you don’t need to rely on them so much anymore’.

For Conor it’s about short-termism vs long-termism. Some companies have a culture or leadership that’s looking at quarterly stakeholder value whereas some choose to treat the customer properly, play the infinite game over short term gain. It’s up to both Design and Business leaders to set the right environment for both metrics and culture.

Ana as a Chief Product Director sees her role in three ways to:

  • Deliver the best product for the users via other people
  • Enable the environment for people to thrive and be their ‘best selves’
  • Communicate strategy and choice of metrics in a way that creates empowered teams

The panel’s advice? Find the metrics that get the best results for the business. Provide clear boundaries within which teams can work, and offer the right support, resources and buy-in to make it happen. Where possible embed ‘user value’ within a metric to hit that nirvana of empowered teams.

Have you found this useful? Watch the video of the full panel here and make sure to join our next panel on the 27th May.

Hard to break Mon, 18 May 2020 09:16:00 +0000 I keep thinking about some feedback that Cassie received recently.

She had delivered the front-end code for a project at Clearleft, and—this being Cassie we’re talking about—the code was rock solid. The client’s Quality Assurance team came back with the verdict that it was “hard to break.”

Hard to break. I love that. That might be the best summation I’ve heard for describing resilience on the web.

If there’s a corollary to resilient web design, it would be brittle web design. In a piece completely unrelated to web development, Jamais Cascio describes brittle systems:

When something is brittle, it’s susceptible to sudden and catastrophic failure.

That sounds like an inarguably bad thing. So why would anyone end up building something in a brittle way? Jamais Cascio continues:

Things that are brittle look strong, may even be strong, until they hit a breaking point, then everything falls apart.

Ah, there’s the rub! It’s not that brittle sites don’t work. They work just fine …until they don’t.

Brittle systems are solid until they’re not. Brittleness is illusory strength. Things that are brittle are non-resilient, sometimes even anti-resilient — they can make resilience more difficult.

Kilian Valkhof makes the same point when it comes to front-end development. For many, accessibility is an unknown unknown:

When you start out it’s you, notepad and a browser against the world. You open up that notepad, and you type

<div onclick="alert('hello world');">Click me!</div>

You fire up your browser, you click your div and …it works! It just works! Awesome. You open up the devtools. No errors. Well done! Clearly you did a good job. On to the next thing.

At the surface level, there’s no discernable difference between a resilient solution and a brittle one:

For all sorts of reasons, both legitimate and, as always, weird browser legacy reasons, a clickable div will mostly work. Well enough to fool someone starting out anyway.

If everything works, how would they know it kinda doesn’t?

Killian goes on to suggest ways to try to make this kind of hidden brittleness more visible.

Furthermore we could envision a browser that is much stricter when developing.

This something I touched on when I was talking about web performance with Gerry on his podcast:

There’s a disconnect in the process we go through when we’re making something, and then how that thing is experienced when it’s actually on the web, which is dependent on network speeds and processing speeds and stuff.

I spend a lot of time wondering why so many websites are badly built. Sure, there’s a lot can be explained by misaligned priorities. And it could just be an expression of Sturgeon’s Law—90% of websites are crap because 90% of everything is crap. But I’ve also come to realise that even though resilience is the antithesis to brittleness, they both share something in common: they’re invisible.

We have a natural bias towards what’s visible. Being committed to making sure something is beautiful to behold is, in some ways, the easy path to travel. But being committed to making sure something is also hard to break? That takes real dedication.

This was originally published on my own site.

SofaConf 2020 - a technical write-up Wed, 06 May 2020 23:00:00 +0000 We’ve just launched and you should definitely come along! The tickets are incredibly reasonable for a one day conference, let alone a FIVE DAY conference, with an amazing roster of speakers!

We build a good number of event sites at Clearleft, including: dConstruct (we all remember this absolute peach), UXLondon, Leading Design, and Ampersand. Each has its own personality, intricacies and challenges.

Choosing a backend stack

With just eight weeks to go till the conference, we discussed how we would build this site. Our usual go-to is CraftCMS. We have a pretty well-oiled setup for deploying PHP sites (yeah, PHP still works in 2020, crazy-right). It works well, and we’re pretty snappy at building with it.

There is a downside though. With the content and frontend tied together, we end up blocking the fantastic content writers until we’ve done our job, which often leads to a frantic few days for them before launch.

We therefore wanted to separate the two elements. Headless CMS’s are very much a solved problem, and after a recent round of thorough research on CMS options, we had a good idea of what was out there. But for all the brilliant features and options offered by Contentful & Prismic, there was one more attribute to consider.


CraftCMS can output HTML, but it can also output JSON. We can stick to the CMS our team is familiar with, but consume the content in a totally different, modern codebase!

However, there is a trade-off here. We’ve doubled the number of systems we need for every conference. When the next event comes around, we’re going to have to host a PHP site AND a separate frontend.

The solution? Write a generic multisite event system atop CraftCMS, allowing future event CMS’s to be created in the click of a button, without any code! Decision made at 10am.

Sidenote, time was incredibly tight on this project, but we were ambitious and driven to get this right. A herculean amount of effort was put in by the whole team to pull this off, and it was an honour working with them.

Sophia and I spent a few hours mapping out the entities and endpoints required for the system. With her wealth of events knowledge and my ruthless determinism to make things as generic as possible, we landed on a list of models & fields to create.

Post-its with entities and endpoints

Every event has tickets, a schedule (usually over several days), talks/workshops, people (speakers / MC’s / curators), ‘hygiene pages’, and general conference settings. So starting with that as the basis, I created a new multisite Craft instance and began building the CMS.

Craft does have a GraphQL API, but there’s nothing wrong with a classic bit of JSON. The element API works really nicely and we could build custom endpoints very quickly. By the afternoon of day one, we had speakers and schedules into the CMS, and exposed on two endpoints.

The project config file was a lifesaver for this project. It gave us ‘migrations through commits’ and proved incredibly useful for deploying changes without interruption over the past week.

We deployed the CMS and handed the keys over to the events team to begin adding content - in record time.

Choosing a frontend stack

As big fans of the principle of least power, it was essential we had a solid base of HTML for the site. So the choices were:

  • Server render (like PHP) - given we’d stepped away from Craft for the frontend, this seemed like a backwards step. It also exposed the API as a point of failure, something I wanted to avoid
  • SSR (like Next/Nuxt) - we’d need a Node environment, and again, point of failure
  • Pre-rendered/JAMstack (like Gatsby/Eleventy/Hugo) - this seemed to tick all the boxes

Of the pre-rendered options there was really only one contender. Gatsby arrives with a gigatonne of unnecessary JS for a site like this. Hugo sadly can’t create pages from data files. So we opted for the coolest kid in the class right now, Eleventy

/* _data/speakers.js */

const fetch = require('../_utilities/content');

module.exports = async function () {
  try {
    return fetch('speakers').then(({ data }) => data);
  } catch (e) {
    return [];

And a wrapper around node-fetch

/* _utilities/content.js */

const fetch = require('node-fetch');
const https = require('https');

const httpsAgent = new https.Agent({
  rejectUnauthorized: false,

const API = process.env.API || 'https://events.local';
const CONF = process.env.CONF || 'sofaconf2020';

module.exports = function (path, query = '') {
  return fetch(`${API}/${CONF}/${path}.json${query}`, {
    agent: httpsAgent,
  }).then((x) => x.json());

Next, I created a file called speakers-pages.njk as per the create pages from data documentation.

layout: layouts/base.njk
  data: speakers
  size: 1
  alias: speaker
permalink: 'speakers/{{ speaker.slug }}/'

<div class="flow">
  <h1>{{ speaker.title }}</h1>
  <p>{{ speaker.role }}</p>
  <a href="{{ speaker.companyWebsite }}">{{ }}</a>
  {{ | safe }}

I visited /speakers/andy-budd, and hey presto, we had a basic speakers page! From that we fleshed out the structure of the site for the data-generated pages (hygiene pages, schedule and speakers), and single pages (tickets, home, venue). After a day of hard work, we had a skeleton site ready and a CMS, all while the design was still in the infancy.

The next day, I made a start on the utopia implementation and design tokens, then cracked on with a first pass at the speakers grid.

Speakers grid with Amy Hupe, Andy Budd, John Cutler, and Jonathon Colman

Eleventy exposes the fetched API data as a global variable, so looping the speakers into a grid was as succinct as:

<div class="speakers-grid">
  {% for speaker in speakers %}
    {% include '_includes/components/speaker-preview.njk' %}
  {% endfor %}

Blobby masks are all the rage right now, but I’d not created one before. However, my learned colleague and friend, Cassie had just built a client site that was oh-so-blobby! Using a @supports query, we can serve a circular image to browsers that don’t support masks, and enhance up for the ones that do!

.speaker-preview img {
  border-radius: 100%;

@supports (clip-path: url(#speakerMask)) {
  .speaker-preview img {
    clip-path: url(#speakerMask);
    -webkit-clip-path: url(#speakerMask);
    border-radius: 20px;

Soon after this point, I was seconded back to a client project, and I handed the frontend over to Cassie. Thanks to the decoupled site & CMS, she focussed on absolutely nailing the frontend with mocked data. I then spent the first hour of each day adding and tweaking endpoints as required. It was a great way to play to our strengths and use our time wisely to get this site ready as soon as possible.

Deployments & collaboration

Rather than rely on an API & database for every page load, a JAMstack site gathers up the content at build time. So we needed a way to trigger a build of the site. Netlify; our host for this project, allows you to trigger a build via a POST to a webhook - a unique URL to your project. Ideally we’d add a button to do this within Craft, but given the very tight timeframes and MVP mindset, we went for a Slack integration.

The build hook builder on

You can set up Slack integrations with zero code through their website. When Slack sees the words launch-sofaconf in our internal channel, it fires a POST to Netlify, which rebuilds and deploys the site. 25 seconds later, the site is live! A button is probably more useful, but there’s something really fun seeing your colleagues tweaking the site and making deployments!

Jason & Sophia triggering the build

As well as getting the CMS live quickly, we deployed the frontend almost immediately, allowing us to collaborate:

  • We adapted the frontend during the build as the live content arrived
  • There was no ‘big reveal’ or surprises, as everyone involved could see the latest version of the site
  • We could deploy CMS changes without disrupting the team or imposing content freezes.

Added bonus

Finally, Eleventy and Netlify made it incredibly straightforward to max out Lighthouse.

100 across the board in Lighthouse

This was originally posted on my website.

Tiny lesson: the question protocol Wed, 06 May 2020 10:38:00 +0000 The question protocol is a simple but effective technique we always use at Clearleft when we’re designing online forms. It’s a way of doing detective work to fully understand the real purpose of a form in order to maximise the effectiveness of it design.

The biggest effect you can on a form’s effectiveness is to ask the right questions, and only the right questions. Every piece of information you ask for is another hurdle for your user to get over before they complete the process.

When designing a form, you can ensure you are gathering only pertinent information by always invoking the question protocol. The question protocol forces you — and your organisation — to ask yourselves why you are requesting a piece of information from a customer. Getting to the bottom of why you’re asking a question means determining precisely how you will be using the answer, if at all.

Each piece of information you ask for has two costs:

  • Firstly it is an impairment to accurate completion of the process;
  • Secondly there is a time and money cost of collecting, storing and processing any additional information, and handling situations where the information is false or inconsistent.

With this in mind, the question protocol asks the following of any information that you are asking:

  1. Why do you need this information?
  2. Who will use the information, and what decision will be made or action taken based on the information collected?
  3. How will you validate the information that is submitted?
  4. What happens if the submitted information is false or made up?
  5. What’s the impact of the information not being submitted?
  6. What happens if the information goes out of date?
  7. Can a customer update their submitted information? Should they be able to?
  8. Are you allowed (legally and ethically) to collect this information?
  9. How is it shared? With whom? What are the privacy implications?
  10. How securely does it need to be stored?

Asking those questions should lead you to answering the ultimate one: “Is the question really necessary?” In the long run following the question protocol can save money and improve conversions and process completion.

You can watch our other #TinyLesson videos here

Introducing SofaConf, the new low-cost stay at home conference Tue, 05 May 2020 23:00:00 +0000 While Clearleft are first and foremost a design consultancy, we’re huge fans of conferences and events. We love attending them, we love speaking at them, and most of all we love producing them.

We love bringing people together from around the world to meet, socialise, share ideas, build friendships, and learn from the experience of others. Most of all I think we love the sense of connectedness and community.

This desire to learn from others and share what we know is one of our core values. It’s also part of our mission to advance the practice and impact of design. Events are in our DNA.

The past few months have been especially hard for us. We’ve had to cancel travel plans, withdraw from speaking opportunities, and postpone several of our own events. It’s funny how much one relies on community connectedness, until it’s no longer there. So we’ve been jonesing for a good online event and couldn’t wait to get cracking with producing one of our very own.

That’s where the idea for SofaConf came from. We didn’t just want to create an online version of one of our traditional conferences. Instead we wanted to create a new event from the ground up, with the online experience in mind.

A big part of the in-person event experience is the location. Both the venue itself, and the city it’s in. We love using non traditional spaces, from dance schools (UX London) to brutalist design classics (Leading Design). Sadly this isn’t something you can recreate online, nor should you want to. But the online environment is equally important.

We’ve spent the last 2 months trialing every online event platform we could, and I have to say that as product people we’ve found it hard to find a platform that suits our needs. Some tools are better than others, but it feels like a market ripe for improvement. Fortunately we’ve partnered up with a relatively new platform who are up for doing things differently. So while they’re not quite there yet, they’re one of the few heading in the right direction. As an agency with UX at our heart, we look for the partners who will work with us on making the most of the customer journey. There might be hiccups along the way, but we work tirelessly to try and get it right for all involved.

Another important aspect of a great conference are the speakers and the content they bring. One of the things I’m most proud of with our events is their curation. If you come to a Clearleft event you know that you’ll be seeing amazing speakers with polished presentations, and an interesting perspective to share. I think it’s this mark of quality that keeps folks coming back to our events year after year.

Sofaconf daily themes
Each day of the conference focuses on a different theme

So I’m thankful to all the wonderful speakers who have put their faith in Clearleft to pull off our first ever online event.

The last component to a good conference is obviously you, the attendees. After all, without you it would just be a bunch of speakers standing on an empty stage—or in this case talking to an empty online conference room. We’re doing everything possible to make this more than a series of Zoom calls joined together with a loose theme.

Sofaconf speaker headshots
Some of the SofaConf speakers

We also realise it’s a tough time for many in our industry at the moment. Many designers, researchers, content writers and product people have had their hours cut, been put on furlough, or found their roles made redundant. At the same time there are a host of graduates about to enter the job market for the first time. Under these circumstances we wanted to make our event as affordable as possible, as well as ensuring we had a some scholarship places available.

The pricing also reflects the fact this this is our first online event, and our reliance on new tech platforms and transfer speeds. We’re working on getting it right, we want it to be the absolute best and we’re really looking forward to getting cracking. As with all new ventures, there may be a tweak or two needed here and there, so please bear with us if there is!

Fortunately, while our operational costs and commitment to paying speakers and suppliers remains the same, our unit costs in the form of venues, catering and AV have come right down, which allows us to play with our pricing. We launched ticket sales with a mega early bird price of £39 +VAT and currently our last chance tickets cap out at a remarkably low £65 +VAT.

To make this work we need to sell a tonne of tickets. Probably 20 times more than we’d normally sell for an in-person event. So we’re going to need the community’s support.

If you’ve been to one of our events in the past, however long ago, and would like to join us, please buy a ticket. If not for you, you can always give it to somebody in need. Maybe a student, a junior designer, or somebody who you know would really appreciate it. We are also able to offer some tickets as part of our scholarship programme. If you’d like to apply for one of these tickets please fill in this short form by Friday 29th May and we’ll be in touch by Friday 5th June with more information.

We’d also be grateful if you could spread the word on social media…

As well as putting on a wonderful event to lift spirits and bring the product design community together, we also wanted to have a positive impact on the current situation. So if you can afford it (and only if you can afford it) we’re suggesting that folks add an extra £7 donation to help support key workers during this difficult time. The uptake has been really impressive with nearly 70% of attendees adding a donation. We’re also looking for an event sponsor to match these donations, so if you’d like to get involved, please drop us a line.

We can’t wait to see you all there…until then…

Navigating remote at Clearleft Mon, 04 May 2020 21:04:00 +0000 It’s not easy, working in lockdown, juggling caring needs, client projects and everything in between. So we wanted to share what we’ve been doing to help.

With remote working in the current circumstances, we all need to be more flexible and accommodating. We wrote a few things so everyone at Clearleft knows It’s OK for them to be working a bit differently. We’ve also been discussing what we’ve learnt overcoming the challenges of working remotely with our clients. Since lockdown, we’ve run remote design sprints, workshops, project kickoffs and design walkthroughs. We’ve certainly found a few things help and we wanted to share them with you.

Work to the lowest denominator

As tempting as it is to dive into a complex remote set-up, basing the technology on the person with the worst set-up is essential in order to level the playing field. We’ve been checking not just everyone’s tech set-up, but also, importantly, tech preferences.

Even if all the tech seems OK, we lean towards having backups for both video calls and collaborative tools so we can quickly switch from Zoom to Google Hangouts or Miro to Mural, without losing precious time.

Build in asynchronicity

Asynchronicity allows for work to happen at a different pace, and fit into different remote working commitments and needs. As highlighted in level four of Matt Mullenweg’s Five Levels of Autonomy “You evaluate people’s work on what they produce, not how or when they produce it. Trust emerges as the glue that holds the entire operation together.”

During design sprints, we may choose to share the activities that we as a group need to organise, and re-convene in an hour or two to share the outcomes. This can also ease some of the fatigue, and provide respite from being always on video.

Similarly, planning concurrent, complementary activities to complete on a project remotely can create a nice energy. It builds a creative connection between the team and disciplines where we’ve lost that design studio feel.

Consider your options

We’ve been trying to ask ourselves - could a phone call do instead? For one-to-one conversations that don’t require a screen, we’ve fallen back in love with the trusty telephone. They are also a great chance to do a standing or walking meeting and give our eyes a break.

Where a video call would be beneficial but the team may not be available at the same time, we’ve been using embedded videos. Loom (embedded video) is great for those asynchronous conversations. We’ve been using it to talk through wireframes and share work across time zones, and have found it invaluable in helping with flexible working. It’s definitely something we’ll continue to use long after this burst of remote working ends.

Start the workshop before the workshop starts

For workshops and sprints, we’ve been providing a link to Miro (or collaborative tool of choice) with small warm-up exercises to the client team in advance. This helps avoid new information overload and helps people get used to the tool, even if they haven’t used it before. It helps save tech admin time, and makes participants feel more at ease.

In the same vein, we always build-in a small activity at the start of a workshop or sprint to practice the basics, test the tech and bond the team. We’ve had clients designing their top trump card, doodling their everyday superhero or uploading a pic of their favourite mug. Visit Gamestorming or Session Lab for more ideas.

Gamestorming diagram
Gamestorming explains activities have three phases. Vary the style of activity (and avoid death by post-it note)

Create your own watercooler moments

We’ve found that opening up the video call 5-10 mins early is a great way to supplement the watercooler moments you would normally have in-person. Having an off-topic, human conversation before ‘talking shop’ helps to get to know clients better, and build better relationships.

If you’re using Miro, consider creating a breakout area/kitchen board complete with coffee and plants to capture those offline chats and thoughts that happen over the coffee breaks.

Increase preparation time 4:1

Take the time and effort to design the virtual workshop room with exercises and virtual post-its. We now create separate boards or constrained frames in Miro so people can’t look ahead, akin to reading the next chapters in a text book before you’re there. This helps retain focus which helps both the facilitator and the team. You could also consider having a front-of-house and back-of-house Miro board that you can copy and paste from and into, as you go. We know it’s all too tempting to scroll ahead and look around the artboard at the next activity.

Splitting a one week sprint over two can feel like you’ve made less progress, but when you’re remote it’s about quality, not speed. So make time to build-in extra clarity around working time and expected outcomes, each step. Aim to end a day with no outstanding tasks to complete alone.


From meetings to workshops, an extra level of facilitation can make all the difference. We’ve been making sure our meeting etiquette is on top form, from having a clear agenda to being wary of Zoom fatigue and checking if certain times of day are more convenient due to personal needs.

For workshops and sprints, make sure to include rules (and permissions) of the workshop in a slide at the start - for example, phone off, do not disturb on, raise a hand to speak, thumbs up to agree, feel free to sit back and listen rather than sitting forward and looking at the screen.

Every workshop lives or dies by two factors:

  • What information and ideas the audience provides
  • How the audience feels (energy and attention)

Your job as the facilitator is to maintain education, energy and attention.

We’d love to hear what you’ve learnt over the recent months and how you’re supporting each other and clients @clearleft

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of A/B Testing Sun, 03 May 2020 23:30:00 +0000 Like many designers, I have a complicated relationship with A/B testing.

On the one hand I think it’s a very powerful tool that can help designers cut through opinion battles, test hypotheses, and get the most effective solutions into the hands of customers quickly. However, we also run the risk of removing human judgement from the equation, prioritising company KPIs over customer needs, and iterating towards local maxima.

A chart showing of the dangers involved in iterating towards a local maxima.
An Explanation of the dangers involved in iterating towards a local maximum. Also known as "putting lipstick on a pig."

The Benefits of A/B Testing

The benefits of A/B testing are fairly obvious. You have a couple of simple design or product improvements you’re looking to make, but aren’t 100% sure which will yield the best results. One of your team feels very strongly about one direction, one of your stakeholders feels strongly in the other direction, and the rest of you can’t be sure either way.

In these sorts of stalemates, politics invariably comes to play. Who has the most sway in the organisation, who is the best at arguing their case, and who can’t you afford to piss off? If the person in question is particularly good at arguing their case, could they argue the counterpoint just as convincingly? In which case, is there really a clear and obvious solution?

In these situations two things can happen. Either one person gets their way, leaving the others feeling frustrated that their opinions haven’t been heard, or worse, no decision gets made and this conversation is set to repeat itself ad nauseam. I’m sure we’ve all been there.

A good example of this sort of decision is the humble ratings widget. Imagine you’re in a product team trying to decide whether a star or a number system would be better. If you go for the star system, should you use four, five or six stars, and should you allow only portions of a star to show? If you choose a number system, should it be a 5, 10 or 100 point rating, and will you accept decimals?

You could do some desk research to see if there’s a research paper on the subject, but how do you know this will work with your particular audience? Or you could simply copy what your competitors are doing. After all, they’re bigger than you so surely must have done the research?

This is the situation that Sim Wishlade from OpenTable found himself in recently, and he writes eloquently about the research they undertook and the finding they made in a Medium article entitled, When 3/5 doesn’t equal 6/10. As you can imagine, the obvious solution isn’t always the best solution.

When 3/5 doesn’t equal 6/10 Exploring the perception of user ratings
When 3/5 doesn’t equal 6/10. Sim Wishlade explores the perception of user ratings

When Opinion Fails

As Designers we see ourselves as experienced decision makers with a keen sense of what works and what doesn’t. Repeated A/B testing goes to show that we’re not quite as accurate as we’d like to think. We like to explain that customers are terrible judges of future behaviour, without realizing that we fall prey to the same biases. It turns out we’re actually pretty poor judges of future user behaviour.

In his talk from The Next Web back in 2013, Dan Siroker explains some of the tests he carried out for the Obama Campaign. He poses a simple question to the audience. Which of these videos, which of these header images and which of these calls to action proved to be the best. As you can imagine, the audience got the answer spectacularly wrong, as did their own designers.

Why Don’t Designers Test More?

If even the best designers make these sorts of mistakes, why aren’t we testing more? I think there are a couple of answers to this.

The first answer is a process and tooling problem. While it’s relatively easy for an individual designer to initiate a quick usability test independently, A/B testing requires tooling and coordination. You need to pick an A/B testing platform, you need your dev partners to implement it, and you need to have both the time and capacity to do something with the results. As you can see, there are a lot of places where something like this can fall down.

For a start, picking and implementing A/B testing solutions takes time and money. So who is going to be responsible for evaluating and procuring this system, who is going to manage and implement the system, and who is going to pay for it? Most product teams find it hard enough shipping their existing backlog, without adding more work for themselves.

If you do manage to put a testing framework into place, implementing tests will require coordination between your design, engineering and analytics teams. I’m sure QA will also have something to say here. Considering the relationship between design and engineering can be challenging at the best of times, is it any wonder that designers prefer to stick with a more qualitative testing approach they can manage largely on their own?

The other problem is one around power and self-image. Designers have always been at the bottom of the pecking order when it comes to product teams, as they neither have the muscle of the engineering teams (in the form of headcount), or the influence of the product managers. So designers are very conscious of anything that may devolve further power away from them.

Admitting that they don’t know the answers to even basic questions like “should we use star or number ratings?” can undermine what little power and status they already have. Handing some of that power over to a more analytically focussed team can be even more challenging, especially if recent history is anything to go by.

41 Shades of Blue

No, we’re not talking about some new E.L. James series here. Instead we’re talking about an incident that happened at Google many years ago, and has subsequently gone down in designer folklore. In the early days of Google, design didn’t yet have a “seat at the table” and designers found it difficult to thrive in an environment dominated by testing. Every small decision needed to be tested and validated, including the precise hex value of a button. In a now famous article, designer Doug Bowman explained how their testing culture had driven him out.


This article resonated with many designers who felt that they had to prove every small decision from first principles, and their agency as a designer was being diminished as a result. While Google later justified their decision, I can understand this point of view. It often feels like questionable decisions get pushed to production by other departments with little or no due diligence, but when a designer wants to make even a small change, they have to provide incontrovertible evidence that it’s the right thing to do.

Building a Culture of Experimentation

The key thing therefore is balance. Creating a culture where A/B testing isn’t used as a battering ram to win arguments, and ensuring the right things get tested.

One company understands testing better than most, and that’s the folks at In his excellent Google Conversations talk, then Director of Design Stuart Frisby, explains how he went about creating a culture of experimentation amongst his team.

The Potential Pitfalls of A/B Testing

While designers should be doing a lot more A/B testing than they currently are, there are some pitfalls to be aware of. Not least the idea that every solution that performs better is therefore the right solution.

It’s easy to see where this attitude comes from. Teams are taught that it’s their job to improve customer experience, and that the way to do this is to optimise for specific KPIs and OKRs; usually relating to acquisition, retention and customer satisfaction. So teams set out to move the dial, safe in the knowledge that if they hit their targets, everything will be okay.

You can see a glimpse of this mindset in this excellent story from Anna Blaylock at Netflix. On joining the Netflix team, Anna wondered why the product didn’t let prospective customers see all the content on offer before signing up. From a designer’s perspective, this seems like a sensible thing to do, and so Anna set about devising a test.

As you can probably imagine, the test came back negative. It turns out that more people sign up to Netflix if they don’t get to see everything that’s on offer in advance. Anna likens this to the difference between reading a restaurant menu and eating the food. The experience of using Netflix is so much more than just the list of films and TV shows on offer; anything else is a distraction. If I worked at Netflix, I’d probably have a similar take. I’d know the product was amazing, in part because I built it, and so all I needed to do was remove as many barriers as possible, to let others fall in love with it as well.

However I believe there could be another reason why registrations went down. What if some users wanted to make an informed decision about the content and decided that there wasn’t enough value for them? Maybe they were looking to see if their favourite show was on that particular platform, or they were trying to judge whether Netflix had more of the content they liked than Amazon? So maybe showing users the catalog before singing up was the “right” thing to do, even at the expense of sales.

I think this is one of the challenges with A/B testing. It’s easy to assume that optimising around a specific metric is inherently good, and do everything in your power to hit those numbers.

Now this particular incident is fairly innocuous, which is why I picked it. However I do believe that when unchecked, A/B testing can lead to serious problems.

The World We Live in Today

It’s safe to say that things are a little crazy at the moment. Global pandemics aside, all sorts of fringe beliefs seem to be gaining traction of late, from flat Earth theorists, to people burning down 5G masts, and much much worse.

While a lot of people blame “The Algorithms” what they’re really talking about is an extreme form of multivariate testing. Seeing what content is most effective at driving engagement, and providing more of it. Modern platforms may be running dozens, hundreds, even thousands of tests a day. Many of these tests are automated, the decisions aren’t fully understood, and aren’t necessarily passed through some sort of ethical lens. As long as the metrics are going up and to the right, everybody is happy.

[I sometimes joke that while engagement metrics are going up and to the right, so is the tone of the conversation]

I worry that in their quest for efficiency, many of the big players have over-instrumented their design processes; removing human due-diligence, and hiding behind their OKRs in their unwavering belief that more means better.

I mean, I think we can all agree on the transformational experience of travel (carbon footprint aside). But what about the additional stress you’re causing with your cleverly worded prompt explaining it’s the “last room left at this price” and that “5 other people are looking at this room right now”? It’s not exactly a dark pattern (assuming the information is true) and I’m sure the wording tested well, but is it the “right” thing to do?

Similarly I think we can all agree how useful the recommendations are on video streaming platforms. However is it really beneficial to the user when they intended to watch one video, but end up watching three? The biggest competitor to these streaming platforms may be sleep, but is that something to optimise towards?

Now I appreciate that A/B testing—and its cousin, programmatic recommendations—aren’t solely to blame here. But the scale at which this is happening inside companies has become difficult to counter. Especially when hiding behind the argument that all we’re really doing is optimising for the same set of KPIs we’ve always been doing; we’re just getting better at it.

So while I think designers should be doing more testing than they currently are, I also think it’s important to know when not to automate decision making. I’d encourage you to start playing with the technology, and maybe even consider moving somewhere with a mature testing culture when it’s next time to switch jobs.

But it may also be worth asking the interviewers the following question:

“When was the last time you decided not to ship a change that A/B testing demonstrated performed better, and why?”

That way you can at least tell whether the dog is wagging the tail, or the tail wagging the dog.

Principles and priorities Mon, 27 Apr 2020 14:36:52 +0000 Using design principles to embody your priorities.

I think about design principles a lot. I’m such a nerd for design principles, I even have a collection. I’m not saying all of the design principles in the collection are good—far from it! I collect them without judgement.

As for what makes a good design principle, I’ve written about that before. One aspect that everyone seems to agree on is that a design principle shouldn’t be an obvious truism. Take this as an example:

Make it usable.

Who’s going to disagree with that? It’s so agreeable that it’s practically worthless as a design principle. But now take this statement:

Usability is more important than profitability.

Ooh, now we’re talking! That’s controversial. That’s bound to surface some disagreement, which is a good thing. It’s now passing the reversability test—it’s not hard to imagine an endeavour driven by the opposite:

Profitability is more important than usability.

In either formulation, what makes these statements better than the bland toothless agreeable statements—“Usability is good!”, “Profitability is good!”—is that they introduce the element of prioritisation.

I like design principles that can be formulated as:

X, even over Y.

It’s not saying that Y is unimportant, just that X is more important:

Usability, even over profitability.


Profitability, even over usability.

Design principles formulated this way help to crystalise priorities. Chris has written about the importance of establishing—and revisiting—priorities on any project:

Prioritisation isn’t and shouldn’t be a one-off exercise. The changing needs of your customers, the business environment and new opportunities from technology mean prioritisation is best done as a regular activity.

I’ve said it many times, but one on my favourite design principles comes from the HTML design principles. The priority of consitituencies (it’s got “priorities” right there in the name!):

In case of conflict, consider users over authors over implementors over specifiers over theoretical purity.

Or put another way:

  • Users, even over authors.
  • Authors, even over implementors.
  • Implementors, even over specifiers.
  • Specifiers, even over theoretical purity.

When it comes to evaluating technology for the web, I think there are a number of factors at play.

First and foremost, there’s the end user. If a technology choice harms the end user, avoid it. I’m thinking here of the kind of performance tax that a user has to pay when developers choose to use megabytes of JavaScript.

Mind you, some technologies have no direct effect on the end user. When it comes to build tools, version control, toolchains …all the stuff that sits on your computer and never directly interacts with users. In that situation, the wants and needs of developers can absolutely take priority.

But as a general principle, I think this works:

User experience, even over developer experience.

Sadly, I think the current state of “modern” web development reverses that principle. Developer efficiency is prized above all else. Like I said, that would be absolutely fine if we’re talking about technologies that only developers are exposed to, but as soon as we’re talking about shipping those technologies over the network to end users, it’s negligent to continue to prioritise the developer experience.

I feel like personal websites are an exception here. What you do on your own website is completely up to you. But once you’re taking a paycheck to make websites that will be used by other people, it’s incumbent on you to realise that it’s not about you.

I’ve been talking about developers here, but this is something that applies just as much to designers. But I feel like designers go through that priority shift fairly early in their career. At the outset, they’re eager to make their mark and prove themselves. As they grow and realise that it’s not about them, they understand that the most appropriate solution for the user is what matters, even if that’s a “boring” tried-and-tested pattern that isn’t going to wow any fellow designers.

I’d like to think that developers would follow a similar progression, and I’m sure that some do. But I’ve seen many senior developers who have grown more enamoured with technologies instead of honing in on the most appropriate technology for end users. Maybe that’s because in many organisations, developers are positioned further away from the end users (whereas designers are ideally being confronted with their creations being used by actual people). If a lead developer is focused on the productivity, efficiency, and happiness of the dev team, it’s no wonder that their priorities end up overtaking the user experience.

I realise I’m talking in very binary terms here: developer experience versus user experience. I know it’s not always that simple. Other priorities also come into play, like business needs. Sometimes business needs are in direct conflict with user needs. If an online business makes its money through invasive tracking and surveillance, then there’s no point in having a design principle that claims to prioritise user needs above all else. That would be a hollow claim, and the design principle would become worthless.

Because that’s the point with design principles. They’re there to be used. They’re not a nice fluffy exercise in feeling good about your work. The priority of constituencies begins, “in case of conflict” and that’s exactly when a design principle matters—when it’s tested.

Suppose someone with a lot of clout in your organisation makes a decision, but that decision conflicts with your organisations’s design principles. Instead of having an opinion-based argument about who’s right or wrong, the previously agreed-upon design principles allow you to take ego out of the equation.

Prioritisation isn’t easy, and it gets harder the more factors come into play: user needs, business needs, technical constraints. But it’s worth investing the time to get agreement on the priority of your constituencies. And then formulate that agreement into design principles.

This was originally posted on my own site.

In-House and Agency sitting in a tree Mon, 27 Apr 2020 10:50:00 +0000 It’s ironic that since starting Clearleft, we’ve been advising our clients not to become too reliant on agencies like our own.

We remind them that they need to develop both internal capabilities and organizational memory, so that when their agency partners leave—as they always do—they’re not left with a critical skill or knowledge gap.

We start every project with an awareness that we’ll leave as soon as is practical, and it’s our job to make sure the client and their team are in the right place when we do. We’re not here to get you addicted to our services, as many other agencies are wont to do, and pump you for every last bit of budget. Far from it. Instead our goal is to help our clients improve the speed and quality of their output as quickly as possible, and then get out of the way.

We do this by acting as “player coaches”. By embedding in teams, raising standards and setting pace. Now I’m probably the least likely person at Clearleft to use a sports analogy, so apologies if it’s not your bag. But I liken our impact on a team to when David Beckham went to play with LA Galaxy. His very presence caused all the other players to up their game as a result.

Measuring skills

We often start our engagements with a skills audit, to understand the existing skills and experience of the team, and where we can add the most value. This can feel intimidating at first. Especially for design leaders who are tasked with building the perfect team. What will we uncover, and will it potentially make them or their team look bad?

More often than not we discover teams with a high level of competence across the board, but lacking depth in a few key areas. This is often for good reasons.

One of the main reasons is simple pragmatism. If you’re running a team whose job is to iteratively improve an existing project, they probably don’t need (or get to flex) their new product innovation and prototyping skills. That doesn’t mean that they can’t add value. Just that they’ll be more efficient, more effective and learn more on the way if they’re paired with a team that does this every day. This is especially true on week-long design sprints, or six-week innovation sprints, where time is tight, and efficiency and replicability are key.

Running a design sprint with a screen and laptop
We've quickly pivotted taking our design sprints remote

Sharing experience

We’ve also been garnering a lot of interest in our design system experiences of late. It’s not that your typical in-house teams lack the ability to deliver a first-rate design system. In fact, I bet they’ve been reading up about design systems for the past 18 months, and can’t wait to get stuck in. But if it’s the first or second time they’re doing this, there are a tonne of common pitfalls they can avoid, as long as they know what they’re looking for. Those pitfalls can slow adoption to a crawl, and force you to go back to the drawing board.

So while it may feel like an unnecessary expense to bring in outside help when you have a team waiting to go, there can be an extraordinary difference between delivering value in 6 months versus 16.

Opening up opportunities

Product teams are all about “build, measure, learn” these days, so it’s ironic that the biggest gripe we hear from internal teams is their lack of learning. The first 18 months of a new job is all about learning the company business model, culture and jargon. It’s exciting and keeps folks engaged. Once you’ve been there for a while, the next 12 months can start to look very similar to the last. A lot of the teams we partner with feel like they’re stuck in a bit of a slump, and are secretly on the lookout for their next move.

In fact we worked with a team recently who were in exactly this space. In the first week, our lead designer was politely told not to get their hopes up because “nothing ever changes around here” and “most of us are looking for our next gig”. Jump forwards 6 months and the team were still there, and loving their work. It turned out that while the company they worked for did present a challenge, the number of opportunities we’d been able to unlock had shown that it was a challenge they could take on and affect in a meaningful way. On the day our designers left, they were taken out for lunch, bought leaving presents, and treated like another member of the team. A wonderful testament to the impact we can have, if ever there was one.

Just enough agency

I think there’s a myth still circulating inside large companies that you either have an agency or an in-house team, but not both. In truth, agencies can be a great enhancement to an existing team. Just as long as you pick the right agency (hint: Clearleft are pretty good at this).

In some ways a good agency is like seasoning. While you can get away without it, the right amount of seasoning brings out the individual strengths of each ingredient, and makes everything perform better. But too much seasoning can ruin a whole dish, so you need a light touch.

Five steps to an effective content strategy Tue, 21 Apr 2020 18:24:00 +0000 Content strategy, as I’ve written before, isn’t a magical document you can hand over to a team and expect results. It takes time to create one, and you’ll need to take several people along that journey with you. Here’s how to get started.

Strategy is a combination of things which together will help you achieve an outcome. When it comes to content strategy, these things could include (but may not be limited to):

  • Process
  • Tools and systems
  • Resource and skills
  • Measurement
  • Content foundations (such as guidelines and voice and tone)
  • The drivers (business goals and user goals)
  • It’s a combination of the ‘what’, and the ‘how’ that makes a strategy successful. But how do we work out the ingredients that will go into our recipe? I like to think of this in 5 steps, 4 of which you may be familiar with if you work in product design teams.

    pink staircase
    Photo by Max Ostrozhinskiy on Unsplash

    Step 1: Identify your co-designers

    You can’t create a strategy in isolation. Well, you can, but it will be very difficult to get buy-in from those who will need to sponsor and implement it. Believe me, I’ve tried.

    Think about the co-designers of your strategy as the key stakeholders you need onboard: these could be content team members, senior team leads, directors, product owners, or even the CEO. These people will be involved in your workshops and will help shape the output, so make sure you have a broad enough selection. You should also identify the stakeholders you’d like to interview about their current perception of content (more about that in a moment). These should again be a broad mix: think about your customer experience team, marketing, product owners, design leads, etc. You’ll be discovering the view of content in your organisation, as well as who you might need to spend more time influencing.

    Step 2: Discover

    Discovery is about getting to the root of the problem to find out where your opportunities are. So in the case of content strategy, it’s about understanding which of those ingredients listed above you’ll need to focus on. To do this, you need to understand the current content landscape: what’s happening that shouldn’t be, what isn’t happening that should be, are the right people, tools and processes in place, and how can content be made much more effective to meet user needs and achieve business goals? This will involve:

  • Stakeholder interviews (what they think content is, what they think about the content customers see, but also their perception of internal processes, current strategy, skill gaps etc)
  • Process and tools workshops (mapping out current processes and workflows, roles and responsibilities and understanding current tools and their limitations)
  • Data and analytics reviews (what is performing well, what isn’t, where are customers coming from, what are they doing on site?)
  • Collating brand and marketing strategies (to understand their goals)
  • Collating business goals and strategy (what targets does the business need to hit?)
  • Understanding users through testing (how do they behave on site, what are their pain points, what do they need that they’re not getting?)
  • Mapping out the current content journey (to understand what users see from the brand, and in what order)
  • Step 3: Define

    Now it’s time to take everything you’ve learnt, and look at it with your core strategy ‘designers’. I recommend a workshop (or series of workshops) where you look at the alignment between business goals and user goals, then where your current content needs to be improved to help both achieve their goals.

    I then recommend creating a ‘north star’ for your content, and some guiding principles. You’ll then have some criteria to judge existing and future content against.

    Identifying where your content needs improving will result in a number of actions. The next stage is to determine what needs to be in place to make this happen. Do tools, templates, systems, or ways of working need to change?

    Step 4: Develop

    You’ll now have all you need to develop your strategy and roadmap. Taking the workshop output, use your own judgement and knowledge to outline your recommendations. Develop your north star and principles into some kind of tangible artefact — posters work well.

    Turn the actions into a roadmap (what can be done now, and what needs more time? Are there dependencies), assigning owners to each if you can.

    Think about how this work will be shared in the next phase, and pick a format appropriate to those people you’ll need to influence. Most of them should have been on this journey with you, but there will always be a few outliers. How do they best receive information, are they visual or do they like a lot of detail?

    Step 5: Deliver

    Now is the time to start sharing your strategy and roadmap with your wider business. How you do this will depend on the stakeholders (and the number of them). One-to-one sessions might be more useful than group show and tells for those who may need a bit more background on your process.

    Be sure to provide context, and share the journey you’ve been on, so the rationale for your recommendations are clear. It’s also a good reminder for those that were on the journey with you that this is as much their work as yours!

    Overlay gap Mon, 20 Apr 2020 15:52:00 +0000 A problem shared is a problem halved. And the web has a big problem with awful overlays.

    I think a lot about Danielle’s talk at Patterns Day last year.

    Around about the six minute mark she starts talking about gaps and overlaps.

    Gaps are where hidden complexity live. If we don’t have a category to cover it, in effect it becomes invisible. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Unidentified gaps cause inconsistency and confusion.

    Overlaps occur when two separate categories encompass some of the same areas of responsibility. They cause conflict, duplication of effort, and unnecessary friction.

    This is the bit I keep thinking about. It’s such an insightful lens to view things through. On just about any project, tensions are almost due to either gaps (“I thought someone else was doing that”) or overlaps (“Oh, you’re doing that? I thought we were doing that”).

    When I was talking to Gerry on his new podcast recently, we were trying to figure out why web performance is in such a woeful state. I mused that there may be a gap. Perhaps designers think it’s a technical problem and developers think it’s a design problem. I guess you could try to bridge this gap by having someone whose job is to focus entirely on performance. But I suspect the better—but harder—solution is to create a shared culture of performance, of the kind Lara wrote about in her book:

    Performance is truly everyone’s responsibility. Anyone who affects the user experience of a site has a relationship to how it performs. While it’s possible for you to single-handedly build and maintain an incredibly fast experience, you’d be constantly fighting an uphill battle when other contributors touch the site and make changes, or as the Web continues to evolve.

    I suspect there’s a similar ownership gap at play when it comes to the ubiquitous obtrusive overlays that are plastered on so many websites these days.

    Kirill Grouchnikov recently published a gallery of screenshots showcasing the beauty of modern mobile websites:

    There are two things common between the websites in these screenshots that I took yesterday.

    1. They are beautifully designed, with great typography, clear branding, all optimized for readability.
    2. I had to install Firefox, Adblock Plus and uBlock Origin, as well as manually select and remove additional elements such as subscription overlays.

    The web can be beautiful. Except it’s not right now.

    How is this dissonance possible? How can designers and developers who clearly care about the user experience be responsible for unleashing such user-hostile interfaces?

    PM/Legal/Marketing made me do it

    I get that. But surely the solution can’t be to shrug our shoulders, pass the buck, and say “not my job.” Somebody designed each one of those obtrusive overlays. Somebody coded up each one and pushed them into production.

    It’s clear that this is a problem of communication and understanding, rather than a technical problem. As always. We like to talk about how hard and complex our technical work is, but frankly, it’s a lot easier to get a computer to do what you want than to convince a human. Not least because you also need to understand what that other human wants. As Danielle says:

    Recognising the gaps and overlaps is only half the battle. If we apply tools to a people problem, we will only end up moving the problem somewhere else.

    Some issues can be solved with better tools or better processes. In most of our workplaces, we tend to reach for tools and processes by default, because they feel easier to implement. But as often as not, it’s not a technology problem. It’s a people problem. And the solution actually involves communication skills, or effective dialogue.

    So let’s say it is someone in the marketing department who is pushing to have an obtrusive newsletter sign-up form get shoved in the user’s face. Talk to them. Figure out what their goals are—what outcome are they hoping to get to. If they don’t seem to understand the user-experience implications, talk to them about that. But it needs to be a two-way conversation. You need to understand what they need before you start telling them what you want.

    I realise that makes it sound patronisingly simple, and I know that in actuality it’s a sisyphean task. It may be that genuine understanding between people is the wickedest of design problems. But even if this problem seems insurmoutable, at least you’d be tackling the right problem.

    Because the web can’t survive like this.

    This was originally published on my own site.

    Guerrilla Testing - Tips for better results Sun, 12 Apr 2020 23:00:00 +0000 In our last post we described the merits of guerrilla testing compared with other research methods. In this follow up post we share some tips for getting better results.

    Now that we’ve selected guerrilla testing as an appropriate method for our research, how do we make sure we get the best results?

    When dealing with the tradeoffs of time and rigour, it’s important to be as prepared as possible on the day. Here are some of our rules of thumb for before, during, and after test day.


    A refined and rehearsed discussion guide adds structure to your tests. We have found value in front-loading our most important questions and leaving the ‘nice-to-know’ toward the end. Doing a dry-run with colleagues will help to trim down the script, weed out ambiguous questions and flush out prototype gremlins.

    The day before, it’s worth checking the weather and dressing to suit. Nothing’s going to shut down our test day quicker than hypothermia or heat stroke. Striking a balance between smart and casual clothes helps with first impressions. If we’re targeting a particular audience or visiting a location with a specific dress code, go with the flow and try to blend in. Our overall aim is to instil a sense of trust and credibility.

    A day of research fieldwork can be long and tiring. It’s important to be a supportive wing-person and keep spirits high so you can go that extra mile if you need to. Our research kit bag is like another team member. It has our back when the going gets tough. Alongside our essentials, we make sure to have a few extras to brighten the mood and revitalise the team. Here are a few things we wouldn’t leave the office without:

    • Spare battery, charge block and cables. Don’t let the tech let us down.
    • Painkillers, chewing gum and lip balm. Because we’re worth it!
    • Go-to snacks of choice. Everyone has their favourite so make sure you know your team’s weakness, savoury or sweet.
    • Screen wipes and antibacterial gel. Our participants won’t want to handle a grubby looking device and neither will we.
    Contents of guerrilla testing kit bag.


    Choosing where we conduct our research is an intentional decision based on prior thinking. Online maps help us to explore areas of interest and potential places our audiences will be congregating. Maps also help us choose a place to set up base for the day. Coffee shops are a firm favourite for guerrilla testing. If you do intend to use a coffee shop, it‘s worth calling ahead to get permission to run sessions on the premises. The prospect of a continuous flow of customers can be appealing to businesses. They might even have a dedicated room you can use for extra privacy.

    The ideal location is somewhere with a lot of footfall and not much flow. We’ve had success in public parks, gardens, and museum forecourts. These places are quiet and intimate. We’ve had less success in train and bus stations. Although a high volume of people congregate there, they tend not to give you their full attention and they might have to leave suddenly.

    Approaching people out in the field can be awkward for both the researcher and the participant. Be respectful of their context and show genuine interest in talking to them. The reality is that they may be on a lunch break, on the way to an important engagement or just want some headspace. Choosing who to approach will require all of our researcher ‘spidey sense’. There are a number of visual cues that help us decide if someone is likely to give us their time. Here a few examples:

    • Body language - If people are closed-in on themselves or avoiding eye contact, chances are they don’t want to be disturbed.
    • Activity - Avoid people who are eating, performing a complex task, or engaged in a conversation. You may want to approach people after they have completed a task if it relates to your research but use your common sense.
    • Groups - Approaching a group of people can increase your success rate but conditions apply; match the ratio of the group size to researcher (1:1), split up for efficiency, and above all stay safe.

    When someone does give you their attention, smile, be confident and concise. We find one person approaching is less intimidating than two. Have your partner sitting somewhere within eyeshot with all the test equipment ready. Introduce yourself and give just enough context to inform them without overwhelming them. If they accept, use the time it takes to walk to your partner to ask a few questions and add a bit more context.

    The reality is that you will be turned down a lot. This is normal. To flip the perspective on rejection we like to turn it into a game. The rules are simple:

    1. Both researchers alternate in approaching people.
    2. If a researcher is rejected they get a point.
    3. Once you have reached your quota of research sessions, the researcher with the most points wins!

    It goes without saying that winning the game is secondary to the success of the research. Still, the game helps to soften the blow of rejection especially for less experienced members of the team.


    At the end of the day, discuss what did and didn’t work well. Make a note of which locations proved most successful. Include participant criteria, day of the week and time of day. Recording this information helps us to decide where and when to visit next time. For example, Monday lunchtimes are particularly precious to London city workers after a morning of back-to-back meetings. Then, at 4pm on a Friday, you’ll inadvertently be blocking their beeline to the pub.

    Great over good

    The advantage of guerrilla testing is that it can be conducted over a short period of time and on a shoe-string budget. Preparation is key for making these brief interactions with our audiences as impactful as they can be. Follow these steps for better research outcomes.

    Why usability testing is not enough Tue, 31 Mar 2020 14:03:00 +0000 As we launch our 2020 survey we unpack why research (and empathy) deserve a deeper focus.

    Last year our survey found that almost all of the design teams that don’t contribute to their organisation’s goals are only doing small pockets of research or none at all.

    There’s a small number of design teams who are conducting research at least regularly but are unable to translate those efforts into business results. A closer look at our data showed that most of the research these teams are doing is usability testing to validate their designs.

    Usability testing can be a great step for less mature design teams to start engaging with their users due to its practical and visual nature. It can enrich their design process as it allows them to have a better understanding of the interaction between people and an interface. Then, designers can use that knowledge in order to evaluate, validate and/or improve their work. Recordings from testing sessions are also useful to show stakeholders and the wider organisation the value of engaging with end-users in the design process.

    Although extremely valuable, evaluating a design is not enough if design teams want to make a greater impact on their organisation.

    When we evaluate a design we mostly focus on how people fit into a product or service, not as much on the ways in which that product or service fits into the broader context of people. That means we get a narrow understanding of the relevance of our design in people’s context or might not even understand if it’s relevant at all.


    In order to better contribute to their organisation’s goals, design teams need to have a deeper understanding of their audiences and contexts. They need rich and relevant information about people, their behaviours, views, needs, goals, and the roles that products and services play for them.

    As we learnt from our survey, the most effective design teams have integrated design and research capacities. Therefore, research should be a regular activity that informs design on different levels. Not just an evaluative activity.

    At the same time, designers need to have a clear understanding of their organisation and its context. In this way, they’re better prepared to participate in strategic definitions that are impactful and valuable for both, business and people.

    We have just launched our 2020 survey that builds on these findings - it should take around 10 minutes and we’d really appreciate adding your voice and sharing with your wider team.

    Yet another remote working tips post Mon, 30 Mar 2020 13:17:00 +0000 As you might imagine, the last few weeks have been all change for the Clearleft folks. BOY have we learned a lot about each other and our new way of working.

    All in all It’s been a fun process. We’ve been taking ‘Through the Keyhole’ tours of each other’s homes. Introduced to pets, children, and our ever-evolving workstations.

    Fortunately, we’re no strangers to remote working. While we love meeting face-to-face with our clients and their users, it’s not always convenient or necessary. Daily standups, remote design walkthroughs and research sessions are all part of an average client project. Going fully-remote has only added another string to our bow.

    So in the spirit of our values – Learn, share, learn, share – we wanted to share our process and tips for working remotely.

    Getting all the important introductions done

    Culture and wellbeing

    Clearleft HQ is a social, open-plan office. It feels like a home away from home with plenty of interesting watercooler moments. It’s easy to see who’s in and what they’re working on. These were all things we wanted to maintain after going remote.

    #CICO Slack channel - Thanks to Sophia we have a dedicated channel for checking in and out of work. Much like the morning ‘hello’, a chat over lunch, and a parting ‘sayonara’ at the end of the day. It feels like the heartbeat of the team and has become one of our most popular channels.

    Watercooler hangouts - We thrive on sharing and learning from one another. Tuning in and out of office conversations is something we were keen to continue once distributed. To encourage these moments, we’ve created dedicated Google Hangout links so anyone can drop in and out during the day. We have specific Hangouts for project teams but also for people who just want to hang out in the ‘kitchen’.

    Support network - We’re an already tightly-knit team both on and off projects. It was important to keep the banter going, now more than ever. There’s been a noticeable increase of gifs, emojis and Photoshopped-images being added to Slack. A blooper reel of the recent BERT test Tiny Lesson emerged. Sophia has been running virtual sourdough baking lessons. We’ve also kept our Friday afternoon social shindig. These things have kept spirits high and brought us together in new ways.

    Ways of remote working

    There’s been a deluge of remote working resources, blog posts, and tools shared over the past week. We’ve been adding the best ones to the Clearleft knowledge bank. Here are some of the more useful and surprising ones we’ve come across.

    Luis’s in-depth resource for remote work introduction and guide is well worth your time. Ashley’s tips on virtual workshops resonated with us, as did this remote workshop guide by the good people at #designandclimate. We also really enjoyed Dr John Curran’s article about reducing anxiety of virtual meetings. Rob Whiting has a growing resource of remote research. Cate and Nicole have a great webinar on remote management.

    The remote collaboration tools we’re using most at Clearleft are:

    • Miro - We’ve been using the virtual whiteboard app since back when it was called RealtimeBoard. It’s been particularly useful for maintaining a consistent working space and when working between our own and client’s offices. It’s also been a gamechanger for clients that don’t have the privilege of wallspace. Now remote is the new-norm it’s our go-to space for collaboration.

    • Figma - We’ve been using Figma far more recently for walking clients through the design process. Where previously we have wrapped up progress in a polished presentation deck, we’re now seeing value showing the process in all its iterative glory. View-only logins allow clients to have ongoing oversight.

    • Whereby - There are so many telepresence solutions to choose from nowadays. Sometimes the solution with the lowest barrier to entry is the most useful. Remote user testing and in-depth interviews are a good example of such scenarios.

    • Dovetail - We’ve used Dovetail a few times now and our fondness for it grows each time. What we love about Dovetail is its present feature. This is particularly useful for presenting back to internal teams and clients.

    • Google Hangouts & Zoom - We use the suite of Google products at Clearleft so Hangouts are our go-to internal telepresence tool. For everything else, we use a separate tool. Usually governed by our client’s current practice, we adapt to their ways of working as soon as we can. Personally, I prefer Zoom for research activities. Offering breakout rooms, a wide range of integration options, local and cloud recording features.

    remote workshop using a Miro board of post its
    The Miro board used during our Zoom workshop on remote workshops

    Tips for better outcomes

    Here are some of our tried and tested tips for better remote working outcomes.

    Katie says: “Be one step ahead of the tech. Consider using other methods of presenting with less risk. We’ve recorded presentations using Quicktime and layered over audio. It’s easy to stitch multiple videos and audio files together from different presenters. Then upload it to a video hosting service and share the link.”

    Trys says: “Keeping people actively focused during a remote workshop is crucial for better outcomes. That’s why I built a web version of the Design Sprint countdown timer.”

    Chris says: “Preparation is key for better research sessions. Send tech setup instructions as early as possible to avoid wasting time during the session. Have a plan B ready if everything goes to pot e.g. a list of questions ready to post into a chat window. If time is working against you, be ready to ditch a task or two rather than rush your participant. Have your camera on if you can to help build rapport with your participant.”

    Benjamin says: “Harness the biophilia effect for a more positive working environment. Research studies show that ‘environments rich with nature views and imagery reduce stress and enhance focus and concentration’. If you can, position your workstation to face a window, introduce a plant or some flowers to your desk. Even images of nature can help, so consider replacing your desktop or screensaver with images of nature.”

    How we can help

    We’re continuing to help our clients during this challenging time. Helping them adapt to a new way of working, and understand and address emerging audience needs.

    If you are looking for help, please get in touch below.

    Prioritising Requirements Mon, 30 Mar 2020 08:00:00 +0000 In any development project, there is a point at which one must decide on the tech stack. For some, that may feel like a foregone conclusion, dictated by team appetite and experience.

    Even if the decision seems obvious, it’s always worth sense-checking your thought process. Along with experience and gut-feelings, we also have blind-spots and biases.


    Through several group and individual prioritisation exercises, requirement gathering, tool profiling and weighted rankings, we can remove bias from our decision making and better evaluate the tools we use.

    Use our requirements spreadsheet template as a starting point for your costly and crucial technical decisions.

    How we prioritise

    We’re big fans of prioritisation exercises at Clearleft, and regularly help to steer clients in their technical and product decisions. As an agency, our role is not to dictate solutions or steamroll our agenda, but to listen, interrogate and question before using our experience to empower teams to make their best decisions.

    We recently helped a not-for-profit decide which content management system to use. Rather than dive straight into the build, we took a step back, using a technical discovery phase as an opportunity to ask questions, learn and come to a well-informed decision together.

    Although this was used to decide a CMS, the same approach works well for picking front-end frameworks, CSS methodologies, and design/research tools.

    Types of requirements

    We start by breaking down the decision into four chunks:

    1. Non-functional requirements: “How the system should work”
    2. Functional requirements: “What the system should do”
    3. Costs
    4. Risks

    Although tempting to dive straight into the juicy functional requirements, it’s really helpful to begin by framing the problem-space with non-functional requirements.

    Non-functional requirements

    Often referred to as the ‘-ility’s’ (by virtue of the fact many end in those letters), non-functional requirements are just as important as functional requirements. Here are a few examples:

    • Usability
    • Maintainability
    • Reliability
    • Scalability

    They can be pretty ‘wooly’ and subjective, making them quite difficult to quantify. But they are very useful to help frame how successfully a functional requirement has been achieved. For example, every CMS may have the ability to ‘write content’, but some CMS’s may have a text editor that is far more ‘usable’ than others.

    It’s also worth noting that non-functional requirements come with trade-offs. By prioritising one, you usually take a negative hit on another. For example, by prioritising a non-functional requirement of ‘Security’, you may decide to impose strict password requirements, or require two-factor authentication. While that helps achieve the secure goal, it also makes the system more complex from a code point-of-view (less maintainable), but also more complex for the user (less usable).

    Exercise: Ranking exercise

    Take the following list of non-functional requirements, and write them on post-its, if you can think of any others, write them down too:


    Response times, TTFB, traffic peaks and troughs, will dictate caching plans and approach


    Does this system need to scale over time?


    How many people can use the system? User accounts.


    Where can this system be accessed from?


    Trust in the system & time between failures


    In the event of a failure, how quickly can the system be restored?


    Can this system be supported, and is it cost-effective?


    What is the risk of the system being hacked? User account and passwords


    Does the system need to be approved, inspected, tested or regulated?


    How easy is it for the maintainers to monitor the system, and spot critical issues?


    How important is environmental impact of the system?

    Data integrity

    Audit trails, revision and checking


    The system is prioritised based on usage patterns. User testing and an analytics plan is helpful


    Should the system slot in with third-party services?


    How price-sensitive is this project? If costs increase, will it be problematic?

    Run through each one, and ensure everyone understands the difference between them all, particularly in how they differ for your project. Scalability and capacity may sound similar, but they will have very different meanings for each project.

    If you’re in a small group situation, rank the requirements. Don’t worry too much if some come out as equally important at this stage.

    In a larger group, you may find dot-voting to be a more efficient way of ranking the most important requirements.

    Pull out the top four or five, discuss them, and write them up in a bit more detail, outlining how they will affect your system.

    Functional requirements

    Functional requirements describe “what the system will do” - or perhaps more accurately, “what the system should do”. These are objective and quantifiable statements that either a system can, or cannot do.

    Here’s a few examples:

    • The system should allow you to upload images
    • The tool should lint our JavaScript
    • The product should have user-editable content types
    • The project should be under £100/month to run

    Exercise: MoSCoW

    Carry out a MoSCoW prioritisation exercise to evaluate and group functional requirements for this system.

    • Must have
    • Should have
    • Could have
    • Won’t have

    By placing each requirement into one of these groups, we gained a sense of importance for each feature. With all the time in the world, everything could be a ‘must’, but that’s not at all practical - be honest about what is achievable for this project.

    Use your prioritised non-functional requirements as a way to justify each decision. If you’ve ranked ‘security’ as a low priority in the first exercise, and then find that in this exercise, ‘two-factor authentication’ is being put forward as a ‘Must have’, it might be worth reevaluating your non-functional requirements.

    Again, post-its are the way to go here, put the four headings on the wall, and group the requirements below them.

    Group the four headings with post-it notes

    Tip: It’s a good idea to pre-prepare a bunch of post-its with common or more obvious functional requirements beforehand, then add to that list as you go.

    Feel free to delve into the rabbit warrens when they arrive. If your pre-prepared requirement says: “users should be able to log in”, interrogate that a little further; start asking questions about roles and permissions, about how many users you may have, and how many concurrent users need to access the system. You may uncover some interesting assumptions from within in the group.


    Open source software is fabulous, but not always right for every project. For some systems, relying on a tried and tested paid solution may well be more appropriate. Depending on the non-functional requirements you previously gathered, uptime SLA’s, and guaranteed support might be more important than price.

    Some software has upfront costs, some has monthly or annual subscriptions. Sub-sections of the system may also have their own costs; plugins, add-ons and transaction fees come to mind.

    If you are relying on open source software, strongly consider donating back, it helps keeps the authors in business, and in-turn, working on the project that powers your system.


    There are always risks to consider when making a tech stack decision. We joke about there being a “new JS framework every week”, but the age of the product may well be a deciding factor. Too new and you could encounter teething problems, too old and you run the risk of the project being discontinued, or support being challenging to find.

    The ecosystem and community of the solution should also be considered. If there is a healthy community of supporters, maintainers, and authors, the risk of project discontinuation is reduced. It will also be easier to find external support when required.

    Finally, you need to consider your own experience. In our most recent case of picking a CMS, it might’ve been that a system written in Java was the most appropriate, but if no-one on the team has experience in that language, or your hosting infrastructure doesn’t allow for it, that’s a huge risk to undertake.

    Exercise: list your solutions

    Start gathering a list of the possible solutions. Go as wide as you can and include a few wild cards, even if they feel totally inappropriate, they may well surprise you. It’s worth asking your network, colleagues and on Twitter. The more options you have to profile, the better.

    Main exercise: Ranking spreadsheet

    It’s time to start ranking our solutions against our requirements. We like to use a Google Sheet for this sort of thing, but feel free to use Airtable or a simple piece of paper!

    To help you along, we’ve created a Google Sheets template that you can use to get you started.

    Download the template

    Along the top, we list our solutions, and down the side our requirements, costs and risks:

    Create the four requirement sections of the spreadsheet

    In the world of software development, anything is technically possible given the right time, budget and team. A simple boolean yes/no isn’t a fair assessment when profiling systems against functional requirements. We need a more nuanced profile, and go for a 5-point scale:

    • -2: Incredibly complex or time consuming to fulfil
    • -1: Complex to fulfil, requiring a lot of custom code
    • 0: Possible, but would require custom coding
    • 1: Achievable, perhaps adapting an existing system feature
    • 2: Very achievable, and available out of the box

    The same -2 to 2 scale can be used for non-functional requirements too.

    Work through each system, one at a time, ranking it against the requirement. Bring up the project documentation as you go - it’s a great way to get a flavour of how well written their supporting information is, should you choose that solution.

    Try to be as objective as possible when scoring. By breaking out each project feature into requirements, we’re trying to reduce our overall and individual bias.

    For costs, work out the year one and two costs. It’s good to be as aware of the ongoing costs as it is the upfront ones. Factor in plugins, add-ons, donations, maintenance and hosting. You may find it helpful to also break it down to monthly figures, if that will aid stakeholder buy-in. Once you’ve completed the cost breakdown for all the solutions, rank them accordingly working from 0 down. In a group of ten solutions, the cheapest should score: 0, and the most expensive: -9.

    Risks are subjective, and in some ways they should be. Consider age of solution, ecosystem and experience, and rank them from 0 and down.

    Totalling up

    Once you’ve completed all the ranking, it’s time to tally up the results.

    Begin adding values to the spreadsheet

    Non-functional requirement multipliers

    Using the earlier results from the ranking exercise, reverse the order to work out the multiplier. The most important requirements will have the largest number, going down the least important with a multiplier of 1. If you ranked some requirements equally, keep their multipliers the same. You’ll end up with a list a bit like this:

    • Usability × 6
    • Accessibility × 6
    • Security × 5
    • Reliability × 5
    • Maintainability × 5
    • Recoverability × 4
    • Environmental × 4
    • Affordability × 4
    • Performance × 4
    • Availability × 3
    • Interoperability × 3
    • Regulatory × 2
    • Capacity × 2
    • Manageability × 1
    • Scalability × 1
    • Data Integrity × 1
    • Locality × 1

    To amplify the most important requirements, we multiply each score by its position in the scale. A solution that scores negatively on one of the higher priority non-functional requirements, like usability, will therefore take a larger hit than one that isn’t hugely scalable.

    Functional requirement multipliers

    We can use a similar multiplier for functional requirements:

    • Must have × 3
    • Should have × 2
    • Could have × 1
    Total up each section, multiplying the results by their rank

    Cost and risk multipliers

    Multiply the final scores for each solution by 2.

    The results

    Adding up the totals from the four requirements section should give you a score for each possible solution. Sort the solutions in a descending order, where the highest score is the most appropriate option.

    If some of the results seem wildly off, double-check your multipliers, it may be for your project that costs should be multiplied by 4, rather than 2. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach here.

    We then wrote a few paragraphs for the following sections:

    1. The main contenders (top 3-4)
    2. The middle of the pack
    3. The inappropriate options (bottom 3-4)

    Explaining why the solutions were more or less appropriate is incredibly important for when you present these findings back to less technical stakeholders. Don’t skip this step, we found the act of synthesising and writing up the results to be a hugely useful part of the process.

    Next steps


    The results should by no means be viewed as conclusive, but should help frame a discussion about the various options, and might just pull a few surprise options into consideration - it certainly did for us.

    Download the prioritisation template.

    This was originally posted on my website.

    How to spring-clean your content Wed, 25 Mar 2020 14:57:00 +0000 While spring is traditionally time for a clear-out, we often shy away from the boring ‘tidy up’ tasks. In the current climate when we might have some down-time as projects get paused, it seems like a good opportunity to pick up some of those jobs we’ve been putting off.

    Cleaning up your content essentially means starting with a content audit to establish what you have and what kind of state it’s in. If your site has grown organically over time without much of a strategy behind it, the chances are you have a lot of fragmented and inconsistent content, as well as content that’s out of date or not used at all by your customers.

    Regaining focus and creating strategy for content takes time and effort, it’s not an overnight job. But understanding how your existing content needs to be improved is a great starting point.

    In its basic form, a content audit allows you to assess your content against set criteria and work out what the action you need to take with the content. Some suggested criteria are listed below, but you may decide to pick just a handful of these depending on time, access to data, availability of brand guidelines etc.

    Page views

    How many people are actually viewing this page? Does this account for a high volume of traffic?

    Bounce rate

    How many people are leaving this page and not going anywhere else on the site. This might be a good thing (for example if the page is providing a phone number or a link to another site this might be the expected outcome) but if you’re hoping they go onto another part of your site but they’re not, then you’ve uncovered an issue with your content.

    Findability on site

    Can the page be easily found from your main navigation or is there a clear route to this content?

    Findability on Google

    How high does this page rank in search? Going through this exercise is a great way to also audit the metadata and snippet text (but more about that later).

    Tone of voice

    Is the content of the page reflecting your brand voice?


    Is the content still relevant and up to date? Are there any typos or technical inaccuracies?

    Alignment to principles

    Does the content reflect your brand principles or design principles? For example if one of your principles is ‘Human’, you’d expect your content to sound human, be active (rather than passive) and feature real-life examples or people.


    What is the main thing you want users to do on this page? Does the main CTA reflect that? And are people doing what you want them to do from this page?


    Is your content clear and simple? Is it structured in a way that’s easy to understand, or are users struggling. It might be obviously unclear, or you may have to dig deeper into user behaviour to find this out, for example by doing some more in depth usability testing.

    How do I start my audit?

    I’ve found that boring old spreadsheets work best. Sorry! I know some people use tools such as Airtable, but you’ll have to import the raw data first.

    Begin by extracting a list of your site pages with a tool such as Screaming Frog and export the data into a spreadsheet. Remove the columns you don’t need and clean it up a bit. It’s also worth adding in a column to show what displays in search.

    Begin by extracting a list of your site pages with a tool such as Screaming Frog and export the data into a spreadsheet. Remove the columns you don’t need and clean it up a bit. It’s also worth adding in a column to show what displays in search. Now create a column to add the stage of their journey a user is at for each page and the user’s goal for this stage. For example you might have ‘browse options’ as the stage, and then the user goal as ‘pick an option’.

    Then create columns for the criteria you’re assessing against, so you’ll end up with something that starts to look like this:

    Field labels on spreadsheet
    Field labels

    For the criteria you’re judging against, set some parameters and some conditional formatting. For example, for ‘Tone of voice’ you may want to say ‘Yes’, ‘No’ or ‘Somewhat’, with the cell becoming red for ‘No’, green for ‘Yes’, and amber for ‘Somewhat.’. Using this kind of RAG (Red, Amber, Green) rating system for your criteria will then help you see at a glance which pages are not up to par and will need to be optimised.

    Spreadsheet fields showing red, amber, green
    Your rating system coming to life

    The review process

    Your page assessments will take time, and if a stakeholder is responsible for the content it might take some time to ask questions, or identify the purpose of the page. It’s a lot easier when a content team have created (and are responsible) for all of the content as they have most of the answers.

    I recommend picking off a few pages at a time, and you might want to prioritise your high-traffic pages first. It’s also worth adding a column for comments (what is the page doing well or not doing well?), you can also note any particular typos or issues you spot here. Also add a column to note the page owner, and the action that needs to happen next. Typical actions for the page might be:

  • Remove (page is no longer relevant or not being used)
  • Optimise (it needs updating or improving)
  • Merge (with another page that might have a similar purpose or similar content)
  • You might also want to add ‘Investigate further’ as an option for pages you don’t know enough about.

    How do I prioritise actions?

    If there are a number of pages that can be removed then clean those up right away. For the rest of the content, if it’s important for users and will positively impact your business when optimised, then prioritise it. If it’s not really adding value to users, then the existence of the content should be questioned with the content owner (you now should be able to demonstrate this through your rigorous assessment so make use of your audit in conversations). If you’re the content owner, then have a stern chat with yourself about how this content came to exist!

    Add a column to your sheet for High, Medium or Low priority to your spreadsheet so you know what you need to tackle now, next and later on.

    The other benefit of carrying out an audit is that it can help identify content gaps. You’ll find assessing the content against the user’s goal gives you a different perspective. Are you really giving them what they need at this stage of their journey? If not, add that to your comments column and record an action to improve it.

    Venn diagram showing user needs and business needs
    Where user needs and business needs overlap

    Your audit is going to be a long slog if you have a big website so think about attacking it in chunks, and set a target of maybe 30 pages a week. This makes it something that’s manageable to do in between other work or split across content team members. The more unruly your site, the longer this will take.

    The good news is that you now have a model for any new content. The criteria in your audit sets out a benchmark for future content requests — what’s the purpose, what will success look like, does it follow brand principles and style, etc? But content briefs…well that’s a whole new blog post!

    Once your audit is complete, you’ll have a clear, prioritised list for cleaning up your content, making your site content simpler, more relevant, and much more impactful.

    More about content audits

    Some very wise strategists have written great articles to help you learn more. Try these for starters:

    How to plan a content audit that works for you — Lauren Pope

    How to embrace (and gently encourage) the content audit–Kristina Halvorson

    Design Maturity Assessment Thu, 19 Mar 2020 11:02:00 +0000 In our 2020 survey we are looking for your support to further understand how design works in organisations around the globe. How mature is design as a discipline in your organisation?

    Last year when we launched the Design Effectiveness Survey our goal was to start exploring the conditions under which design could best make an impact on an organisations’ goals.

    By surveying designers across the world, our report found three things which greatly increased design’s impact:

    1. Design teams being empowered by executive management to identify and pursue unrequested ideas,
    2. A physical working environment which supports collaborative design activities,
    3. Undertaking regular design research.

    The power of collaboration, empowerment and research helped form the basis for a new tool we were developing to assess the digital design maturity of a well-known manufacturing brand.

    We wanted to be able to quantifiably measure the state of digital design practice within an organisation across five indicators:

    • Collaboration — the ability to build shared understanding & alignment,
    • Empathy — the organisation’s curiosity in customers and human-centred design,
    • Impact — design’s contribution to business success,
    • Trust — the organisation’s empowerment, influence and belief in design,
    • Purpose — how design is deployed to help solve significant challenges.
    The Design Maturity Assessment showing the five factors and a circle for the score out of 100
    Design Maturity Assessment scorecard

    We immediately saw the benefit of encompassing all five factors of design maturity into our 2020 survey. This survey will help us get a flavour of how present and important these factors are in organisations across the world and allow us to create a global benchmark.

    We would appreciate your support in completing and sharing this survey with your team, friends and partners. We are interested in your opinion whether you are in the design team directly, or involved in design from a distance.

    The report will be shared with everyone who completes the survey.

    Going remote Tue, 17 Mar 2020 12:53:00 +0000 As of 17 March 2020, Clearleft have taken the decision to close our office and send our employees home, where we’ll be working remotely until the end of April 2020.

    We are committed to the health and well-being of our colleagues, and in these challenging times we feel this decision will benefit staff and the wider community alike.

    Rest assured this is strictly a precautionary measure. Fortunately, we at Clearleft are well set-up and accustomed to working remotely, both as a team and with our valued clients in the UK and beyond. Whilst the current situation will certainly change our approach, it won’t change the outcomes we achieve with our clients.

    We must all do our part to help contain the spread of COVID-19, and we will continue to evaluate our options as the global situation develops. We hope you and your loved ones are safe during this unprecedented time.

    Guerrilla Testing - What it is and when to use it Mon, 16 Mar 2020 13:39:00 +0000 In this article, I’m going to give an overview of the flavours of guerrilla testing we use most often at Clearleft to encourage you to carry out research whatever timescale and budget.

    For some, guerrilla testing is a dirty word. A victim of its own success, its overuse has given it a bad rap. Thanks to the ever-growing research community ReOps, research is gaining more room at the table. Isn’t it about time we celebrated the strengths of guerrilla testing?

    What is guerrilla testing?

    Guerrilla testing is a low-cost method that helps you quickly answer straightforward research questions. It forces you out of the office and gets you face-to-face with the general public for a short but valuable amount of time.

    Guerrilla testing differs from more structured and in-depth research methods in a number of ways.

    In-depth listening sessions and usability testing go deep to uncover rich and nuanced insights. They need a dedicated period of time for recruitment. We qualify potential applicants against strict audience criteria. This ensures those involved in the research reflect the motivations and needs of the wider audience.

    In comparison, guerrilla testing is shallower in its depth of insight. It shortcuts the recruitment process by using members of the public. Even with this tradeoff, we still want people to be as representative of the audience as possible, so a little more thought and effort is needed to find them.

    Longitudinal and ethnographic methods such as diary studies can span weeks or months. We use these methods to understand the bigger picture of people’s lives and the extent to which products and services support them. However, when our research questions are smaller in scope and we need answers quickly, we can use guerrilla testing to receive answers within hours or days rather than weeks or months.

    More in-depth and longer research studies also come at a financial cost. Alongside time, the cost is one of the most common barriers to conducting research with customers. But it needn’t be. Guerrilla testing is inexpensive to set up and run. When used properly it’s far better than no research at all.

    Research methods for different costs and learning speeds.

    Guerrilla testing offers a handful of benefits, especially for those organisations that have yet to adopt research as part of their design process. Guerrilla testing…

    • Enables teams to break out of the cycle of debating assumptions and into the context of their customers,
    • Introduces the value of customer insight for research-immature organisations,
    • Alleviates the anxieties of time and cost for research sceptics,
    • Helps to move designs more quickly through the decision process,
    • Offers a low friction way of quickly answering questions and avoiding decision making paralysis and stalemates.

    When to use guerrilla testing and why

    At Clearleft, we use three distinct flavours of guerrilla testing; intercept interviews, prototype testing, and light-touch ethnography.

    Intercept interviews

    With intercept testing we approach people in the context of their task and ask them to answer a few questions. To increase our chances of a successful intercept, contexts and tasks should be low-risk. Participants browsing a selection of supermarket jams takes far less mental effort than operating complex equipment. Armed with a handful of snappy questions, we can include a quick design exercise like the 20-second gut test. Intercepts should last 10-15 minutes. As with all research, we believe it is good practice to offer a token of appreciation. A £5 gift voucher is more than enough.

    We used intercept interviews to understand how people respond to product propositions for a well known tech startup. Over the course of the project we spoke to 16 people.

    Prototype testing

    Prototype testing is a pared-back usability test. It’s used to identify a small number of usability issues. The maturity of the prototype shouldn’t prevent you from testing: paper sketches, clickable wireframes, existing websites and native apps are all acceptable. This task-based test lasts around 10-15 minutes. Again, offer a gesture of thanks for people’s time.

    We used prototype testing to quickly and cheaply test early design concepts for Virgin Holidays. We spoke to 10 people in total but started seeing patterns after 5 tests.

    Light-touch ethnography

    Light-touch ethnography combines insight from environment-focused research methods. Methods include competitive testing and unobtrusive measures (learning through physical traces and indirect participant observation). They help us to understand what people are using and the environments in which they use them. We get out of the office, we step into our audience’s shoes, and we gain an immersive empathic first-hand experience.

    We used light-touch ethnography to quickly understand the range of touchpoints customers would engage with for a well known retail giant.

    In-store competitor research.

    Real-world examples

    Here are a few real-world examples of when we’ve decided to use guerrilla testing or not:


    • Understanding what parts of a UI support and hinder a search journey.
    • Understanding if people can successfully complete a bookmarking journey.


    • Understanding the end-to-end process of long-haul holiday planning.
    • Understanding how people plan and shop for groceries over time.

    Guerrilla testing will help you quickly answer a handful of questions at a low cost but it’s not enough to form a business strategy.

    Go forth and learn

    To learn at the required speed and depth we need a range of methods at our disposal. When time and budget are working against you, reach for a method like guerrilla testing that allows you to make the progress you need.

    This post was originally published on my own website

    Using content strategy to present your research findings Thu, 12 Mar 2020 11:30:00 +0000 One of the good things about being a content strategist is that you get to offer practical help to other disciplines (as well as learning heaps from them in return).

    We couldn’t do our jobs without research, and so when researchers ask for content help I am always happy to oblige!

    Structuring research findings can be really tricky — you need to be able to tell a story but also make sure you address your original brief. It’s a presentation, but one which could have serious implications on your product if you don’t position it in the right way. After some presentation training I’d had a while back, it got me thinking about how you could apply similar principles to compiling research outputs. There are some mandatories for playing back your research, but also different ways to position your findings. Here’s my advice on what to include:

    doodles of research findings on paper
    When you have all the stuff but just don’t know how to tell the story


    To make sure your introduction really sets up your findings, here’s what to include:

    • What’s the background to the project, why did you carry out the research, what was your objective?
    • Did you have a hypothesis or some assumptions to prove/disprove?
    • Who were the participants?
    • What were the methods used?
    • Where was the research carried out? Was it carried out in different markets?


    The bulk of your playback should be what you discovered. This can be hard to know how to position, so here are three different ideas for presenting back your findings:

    1. Present each key finding followed by the supporting observations.

    This is one of the most common techniques but while it can be tempting, don’t list every single quote or insight, just two or three that strongly support the finding. Also it’s worth only having a handful of the most relevant findings in the bulk of the presentation, and keeping the rest in an appendix.

    2. Present the hypothesis followed by some findings that either confirm or conflict with it.

    As a researcher, your role is to present back the findings but not to come up with solutions. One way to keep your presentation objective is to simply list each hypothesis, with the findings that either confirm or conflict with it. Again, stick to just the strongest quotes and observations to evidence, quality will always beat quantity.

    3. Present the ‘vision’ for the product followed by the reality.

    Perhaps a more unique and thought-provoking way to present back research is to remind stakeholders of their product vision, but then show an alternative user perspective. Your observations/insights will either strengthen the vision or show an alternative view, and this can be quite powerful for stakeholders to see, and influence their direction.

    List the key (strongest) supporting observations/quotes as before, and keep the weaker ones in the appendix if anyone needs more detail later on.

    In any of the above methods, audio or video clips are always stronger than quotes written out on a page, but do be aware of how you’ll be playing back. It might be a good idea to include the written quote as well as a video or audio clip to avoid technical constraints.


    Summarise three or four key messages from the findings — not all of them. And stick to the most compelling content or problematic issues.


    You can include more detailed quotes, observations or insights (or links to videos) for those that want more detail in this section.

    Don’t forget about the story you want to tell. While you need a conclusion, your role is to present the insights, and not to jump to recommended solutions, unless you’re recommending further research of course! Slides should be simple to read, with clear headings and well-laid out content.

    The strength of your research depends on a clear, compelling playback, so invest extra time to practise your presentation with another team member before the main event (maybe your friendly content designer!). And don’t forget to proof-read!

    This post was originally published on Medium

    Researching the research Fri, 06 Mar 2020 14:00:00 +0000 I’m helping to run a research repositories workshop in March. Find out more about the project and how you can help.

    For those who don’t know about the ResearchOps community, they are “a global group of people who’ve come together to discuss the operations and operationalization of user research and design research”.

    Similar to the DesignOps community, their aim is to further the practice through the process and technological advancements.

    The community is built on three core beliefs:

    • ResearchOps is an emergent consequence of knowledge work at scale
    • Scaling the operation of research requires specific skills and attention to corporate memory
    • Our collective experience holds the keys to building capability within the profession

    The community regularly holds global workshops to discuss and collaborate on specific projects.

    The rise of Research Ops is something we’ve been exploring through our panel events.

    re+ops research ops community logo

    Everything in its right place

    The most recent project to emerge from the community is the research repository project. It is exploring how research is processed, stored and retrieved. The current definition of a repository differs widely across the industry. Solutions range from live products to home-spun ‘hacks’. For these reasons, the project is starting broad to understand the nuances of the process.

    The overall aim:

    • Evaluate the pros/cons of having a research repo with regard to a variety of research methods
    • Gather a folksonomy for each method and develop a structured taxonomy for human research
    • Review strengths/weaknesses of governance in terms of practice and policy
    • Create a list useful requirements for repo builders to prioritise their roadmap.

    Over the next few months, there will be workshops held worldwide to feed into the project. The core of the workshop will be an experience mapping activity. Currently, 55 organisers in 20 countries have signed up, making it one the biggest projects to date!

    I’ll be helping to run a Brighton workshop later this month. If you are involved in the practice of research we’d love for you to see you there!

    Telling the story of performance Tue, 03 Mar 2020 13:14:00 +0000 Competitor analysis and performance are a match made in heaven.

    At Clearleft, we’ve worked with quite a few clients on site redesigns. It’s always a fascinating process, particularly in the discovery phase. There’s that excitement of figuring out what’s currently working, what’s not working, and what’s missing completely.

    The bulk of this early research phase is spent diving into the current offering. But it’s also the perfect time to do some competitor analysis—especially if we want some answers to the “what’s missing?” question.

    It’s not all about missing features though. Execution is equally important. Our clients want to know how their users’ experience shapes up compared to the competition. And when it comes to user experience, performance is a huge factor. As Andy says, performance is a UX problem.

    There’s no shortage of great tools out there for measuring (and monitoring) performance metrics, but they’re mostly aimed at developers. Quite rightly. Developers are the ones who can solve most performance issues. But that does make the tools somewhat impenetrable if you don’t speak the language of “time to first byte” and “first contentful paint”.

    When we’re trying to show our clients the performance of their site—or their competitors—we need to tell a story.

    Web Page Test is a terrific tool for measuring performance. It can also be used as a story-telling tool.

    You can go to if you don’t need to tweak settings much beyond the typical site visit (slow 3G on mobile). Pop in your client’s URL and, when the test is done, you get a valuable but impenetrable waterfall chart. It’s not exactly the kind of thing I’d want to present to a client.

    Fortunately there’s an attention-grabbing output from each test: video. Download the video of your client’s site loading. Then repeat the test with the URL of a competitor. Download that video too. Repeat for as many competitor URLs as you think appropriate.

    Now take those videos and play them side by side. Presentation software like Keynote is perfect for showing multiple videos like this.

    This is so much more effective than showing a table of numbers! Clients get to really feel the performance difference between their site and their competitors.

    Running all those tests can take time though. But there are some other tools out there that can give a quick dose of performance information.

    SpeedCurve recently unveiled Page Speed Benchmarks. You can compare the performance of sites within a particualar sector like travel, retail, or finance. By default, you’ll get a filmstrip view of all the sites loading side by side. Click through on each one and you can get the video too. It might take a little while to gather all those videos, but it’s quicker than using Web Page Test directly. And it might be that the filmstrip view is impactful enough for telling your performance story.

    If, during your discovery phase, you find that performance is being badly affected by third-party scripts, you’ll need some way to communicate that. Request Map Generator is fantastic for telling that story in a striking visual way. Pop the URL in there and then take a screenshot of the resulting visualisation.

    The beginning of a redesign project is also the time to take stock of current performance metrics so that you can compare the numbers after your redesign launches. is really great for tracking performance over time. You won’t get any videos but you will get some very appealing charts and graphs.

    Web Page Test, Page Speed Benchmarks, and Request Map Generator are great for telling the story of what’s happening with performance right balances that with the story of performance over time.

    Measuring performance is important. Communicating the story of performance is equally important.

    This was originally published on my own site.

    Tiny Lesson: How to run a BERT test Sun, 01 Mar 2020 13:55:00 +0000 A BERT test allows you to measure how people emotionally perceive your brand through digital products such as a website or mobile app.

    In this lesson, we share how you can run one as part of your next concept test.

    Watch the video, or read the transcript below.

    How to run a BERT test

    BERT stands for bipolar, emotional, response, test.

    You’ll need some Artefact cards or Post-It notes, some Sharpies, and a laptop to analyse the results.

    Start off by generating a longlist of adjectives that describe how your brand should be recognised.

    Next agree on which adjectives are most important to your brand. Tone of voice and branding documents are a great starting point. Agree on 5-6 adjectives to include in your test.

    Now create an opposing or related adjective to create a pair. For example, confident and reserved, premium and budget.

    To create the test, make a 1×7 grid. Add 1 adjective at either end of the grid, leaving the middle 5 blank. Repeat this for each pair.

    During the next round of usability testing include a BERT test at the end of the session. The participant works down the form selecting a point between the 2 adjectives that they feel best describes the ‘personality’ or ‘feel’ of the product. When testing with multiple concepts, include a BERT test for each one.

    Once all the tests have been completed, enter the results into a spreadsheet. The analysis will show the strength of agreement across your participants.

    Now regroup and discuss the results. Which concept performed best? How did internal and external opinions differ? Focus on the worse performing adjectives in future design iterations.


    Download the spreadsheet here.

    The changing nature of product teams Fri, 28 Feb 2020 13:47:00 +0000 Clearleft hosted our third lively morning of debate on the theme of ‘From idea through to delivery’. The first panel discussed how product teams balance business-as-usual with innovation.

    Our first panel featured three digital-first businesses. They’re all 5-10 years old and at different stages of building out their product function.

    You can watch the full panel video here.

    Tension between bottom-up and top-down ideas

    The panel discussed how to level the playing field when it comes to innovation. They all found that the structure of design and research teams plays a key role. An active CEO is also a factor.

    • At ClearScore they know the product is working, but to achieve the active CEO’s vision requires dedicated teams. So rather than random offshoot initiatives, they use standalone teams. They give those teams a bit of space and let them innovate.

    • Receipt Bank are operating in a post-founder world. They needed a whole new cadence of generating strategic visions. It has taken organisational change to shift to an evidence-based approach when they are creating and validating user problems. But some are easier problems than others:

    Very different conversations happen between user problem spaces and optimising checkout flows. The former is still not defined.


    There has to be a set discovery process in place, but that seems much easier to define when optimising the existing process rather than the unknown.

    • At OVO they have been growing their research capability to drive innovation and reflect their focus on human-centered design:

    Understanding customer needs is integral and often provides the balance between proving hunches and finding existing problems or opportunities to solve from users.


    Changing from hunches to hypotheses allows CEO vision and user insights to be validated in the same way.

    Clearleft breakfast panellists

    The spectrum of a product design team

    When prompted on the balance between innovation and business as usual, Annmarie finds two types of designers. There are some who love a challenge and thrive in the unknown. They’re good at identifying problems and coming up with the solutions. Others are not so comfortable with uncertainty. Both are okay:

    This idea of a unicorn I don't think exists. It's okay to be a designer that just loves crafting a great experience that is usable.


    At Receipt Bank, Divya has focused on the balance of people in the team that you hire: comfort with uncertainty vs. discomfort with uncertainty.

    Perhaps there is not enough recognition of the maintainers?

    There is a tendency to reinvent the wheel. We’ve come to a point in digital design where there isn't that much scope to do new things, which is great in some ways, but not in others especially with new hires who come into their career with the desire to create something new.


    When looking at the combination of creators, architects and maintainers, Frank acknowledges that it’s “much harder to create something from what is existing, rather than something from nothing”. For example, it’s easier to create a brand new design system than create a design system from an existing product.

    Scaling product teams

    OVO has gone from five to 30 designers in a very short space of time. They went from being the disruptor to being one of the Big Six. That’s a phenomenal change within a culture that is very agile and digitally focussed. It has taken a lot of work to maintain the culture of being lean: doing discovery and exploration alongside systemised design.

    Designers keen to maintain this culture set up a community of practice. Designers connect across different products, meet regularly and share what they’ve learnt. This maintains a feeling of “we’re all in it together” rather than part of a machine.

    Receipt Bank, on the other hand, has an HR function alone that is 20 people strong. It’s hard to maintain your culture as you scale from a lean 10-20 person start-up to a 100 person product org. Divya learned it is important to “be honest and upfront about it or you will create a false, forced culture”.

    You also need to be realistic about where you are on your product team journey.

    Frank mentioned that one of his first mistakes at ClearScore was thinking he had to hire separate researchers, prototypers, UI and UX designers:

    In a small start-up company, we actually needed more generalists.


    This taught him that it’s more important to find people that are right for the current stage of growth rather than sticking to your vision of how the product team ‘should’ be structured. Now that they are a bit larger, they have been able to branch out to more dedicated skillsets.

    Annmarie noticed a spectrum of hiring needs:

    There are those great at discovery and insight, and others that are amazing at brand and applying it to product. It's okay to specialise in one or the other. I have yet to meet someone that covers both.


    Closing the design and business gap

    • While the design team at OVO is there to discover new things, they also have to deliver on revenue. This can come from both ends of improving the customer experience. You can find solutions to customer problems that can drive new revenue streams that haven’t yet been discovered. Or you can increase the existing revenue stream.

    • Receipt Bank are actively moving away from revenue as a goal. They are moving towards task completion as a goal. They want goals that are more motivating than money-making. This involves some smart measurement of activity.

    • The product team at ClearScore have Objectives and Key Results for design teams. These OKRs quantify the magic and delight of design. But they also ensure that the designers are building something that is contributing to the business goals.

    Clearleft panel audience

    We will be running another breakfast panel in May in London - please register your interest here if you’d like to attend.

    Getting your priorities right Thu, 27 Feb 2020 13:59:00 +0000 A handful of things in life are inevitable. On this list you’ll find taxes, death and—if you work in a project team—having more ideas than you have time to deliver.

    Whether creating products or services, working for an agency or for an in-house team, the list of potential features and ongoing fixes is always outpaced by the available time to explore, build and release them.

    In ‘Good Strategy. Bad Strategy’ Richard Rumelt says sagely: “strategy is at least as much about what an organisation does not do as it is about what it does”.

    With this in mind, here’s a roundup of some simple techniques for prioritisation. These can help project teams take control and manage their backlog. After all, your time is too valuable to make decisions on what to work on next by deferring to the hippo (highest paid person’s opinion) in the room or by the toss of a coin.

    Plotting value versus effort

    Value versus effort matrix

    Let’s start with a deceptively simple but incredibly robust method: the 2x2 matrix. In this example user value is plotted against production effort. However, any two competing dimensions can be used.

    It’s an ideal technique to use when you have lots of data points. Seeing the spatial relationship between them will help you identify where the quick wins and long-term value can be found.

    We often use this technique with clients to collectively decide which recommendations we will prioritise from an expert review or findings from user research and which suggestions fall into the quadrants of busy work or time sinks.

    The matrix can be created in a lo-fi way. All you need is brown paper, masking tape, and each item written on an individual post-it® notes to make the information easy to plot and re-plot. Equally, you can use a collaborative digital tool such as Miro. This is ideal if the team doing the prioritisation is geographically distributed.

    In either case, prepare the information to plot in advance so you can use the time in the workshop to map what goes where. People often fall into the trap of trying to make everything high value. To counter this force a decision on relative priorities by insisting that the sticky notes cannot overlap one another.

    Voting for precedence

    Precedence voting chart

    Use this technique when you need to decide what to prioritise from a competing shortlist of possible options.

    In essence, you systematically compare each idea against every other one until you end up with a ranked and scored list of priorities.

    I was introduced to this prioritisation technique by John Sunart who credits Norman McNally for introducing him to it.

    Although the activity takes time, it is worth it if you need to evaluate the relative merit of ideas from a set of options. Give yourself at least 40 minutes for half a dozen deciders to work through a set of six options. Increase the time by five minutes for every additional option, and don’t go over 10 competing options without energy gels at hand.

    The process is relatively straightforward:

    1. Get to around six competing choices. You could dot vote to shortlist.
    2. Draw up a grid. Write in the ideas being evaluated on both the x and y axis. Blank out ideas competing against themselves.
    3. Call out two competing features and ask your participants for a show of hands if they think the first feature is more important, relevant or doable than the second.
    4. Count the hands and add the score to the chart (in two places) for the first and second feature under consideration.
    5. Move across the rows from left to right until all the boxes have numbers in.
    6. Add up the numbers in each row and rank the ideas from the scores.

    This activity works best when the focus is on voting rather than discussing each option. To help keep the activity on track, circulate a brief description of the ideas for consideration to participants in advance of running the workshop.

    Checking there’s innovation in your mix

    The How? Now, Wow! matrix

    Another matrix, this one is ideal to sense-check the makeup of your product roadmap. It will quickly show if you are over-indexed on business as usual and if the team has time set aside for exploring potential futures.

    The How? Now, Wow! matrix is included in Gamestorming, a perennial favourite on the Clearleft bookshelf for finding practical workshop activities.

    Ideally, you are looking for a blended programme of work with items in each of the three named quadrants. It’s a useful method to periodically revisit to evaluate if your team is spending its time appropriately looking across the different horizons of the now, the next and the future.

    Placing your bets and backing the favourites

    The original twitter doodle from Hias Wrba (@ScreaminHias)

    I serendipitously came across this a few years ago via a retweet from a friend. The doodle from Hias Wrba (@ScreaminHias) perfectly encapsulates that not all decisions are (or should be) treated equally.

    Some product decisions are low cost and low risk. Getting on with building them offers more value than having another meeting to debate them. Other options with a higher level of uncertainty and/or risk can best be answered by doing research to provide more insights to give confidence in your future decision making.

    I’m a big fan of having the value and cost scales plotted in humanly understandable terms (going from a beer, a holiday, a month’s salary, a car, a house). Because of these scales, I find this a great tool to use when you want a team to start thinking about their work in terms of competing decisions with financial implications. This matrix also works a treat in workshops to move people from circular conversations to quickly deciding the next best steps for the ideas being evaluated.

    Counting on a repeatable formula

    A table showing a mean score for a number of ideas
    The (Value ÷ Effort) x Confidence calculator

    We’ve used this formula and variations of it on numerous projects. Most recently we introduced it to a client’s customer experience team. They managed multiple websites and wanted a framework that could be used to evaluate requests from numerous stakeholders. They found having a score, from a robust formula, replaced emotive reasoning with a more rational approach to their prioritisation process.

    The technique came to my attention via an article written by Jared Spool who in turn credits the method to Bruce McCarthy.

    The toughest part of using this method is to define your terms so everyone is clear on what you mean by value, effort and confidence.

    For example, value could purely be user value, or business value, or a blend of the two. You might be more focussed on increasing brand reputation rather than revenue or improving the usability of your product over retention rates.

    Likewise, you might articulate and estimate effort in terms of person-hours, the combined capital and operational expenditure, or the blood, sweat and tears the team will shed.

    Confidence is a subjective measure. It can come from having robust user research or having already done a technical proof of concept, or for less risky and innovative suggestions, from best practices or trivial technical requirements.

    The important thing is that everyone has a shared understanding of the terms being used.

    Once you’ve agreed your terms it’s then time to review the scoring system. We tend to keep things simple. Value and effort have a shared three-point scale (1=low, 2=medium, 3=high). For confidence, we use a numeric value between 0 (for no confidence) and 1 (absolutely sure) with incremental steps of 0.25 giving an increased level of certainty.

    Now you’re ready to add the numbers and formula into a spreadsheet with an additional column at the front for features for consideration.

    We find the use of a visible, shared spreadsheet particularly useful when dealing with multiple stakeholders. It enables prioritisation to easily be done over many sessions and for the list to be seen as a living document.

    Making prioritisation a priority

    Prioritisation isn’t and shouldn’t be a one-off exercise. The changing needs of your customers, the business environment and new opportunities from technology mean prioritisation is best done as a regular activity.

    There isn’t a single right way to prioritise your work. Different methods help in different situations. Try out some of these methods to see which best helps you. The important thing is that your teams know what they are going to tackle next and why.

    Utopia Tue, 18 Feb 2020 18:10:53 +0000 Utopia is not a product, a plugin, or a framework. It’s a memorable/pretentious word we use to refer to a way of thinking about fluid responsive design.

    Trys and James recently unveiled their Utopia project. They’ve been tinkering away at it behind the scenes for quite a while now.

    You can check out the website and read the blog to get the details of how it accomplishes its goal:

    Elegantly scale type and space without breakpoints.

    I may well be biased, but I really like this project. I’ve been asking myself why I find it so appealing. Here are a few of the attributes of Utopia that strike a chord with me…

    It’s collaborative

    Collaboration is at the heart of Clearleft’s work. I know everyone says that, but we’ve definitely seen a direct correlation: projects with high levels of collaboration are invariably more successful than projects where people are siloed.

    The genesis for Utopia came about after Trys and James worked together on a few different projects. It’s all too easy to let design and development splinter off into their own caves, but on these projects, Trys and James were working (literally) side by side. This meant that they could easily articulate frustrations to one another, and more important, they could easily share their excitement.

    The end result of their collaboration is some very clever code. There’s an irony here. This code could be used to discourage collaboration! After all, why would designers and developers sit down together if they can just pass these numbers back and forth?

    But I don’t think that Utopia will appeal to designers and developers who work in that way. Born in the spirit of collaboration, I suspect that it will mostly benefit people who value collaboration.

    It’s intrinsic

    If you’re a control freak, you may not like Utopia. The idea is that you specify the boundaries of what you’re trying to accomplish—minimum/maximum font sizes, minumum/maximum screen sizes, and some modular scales. Then you let the code—and the browser—do all the work.

    On the one hand, this feels like surrending control. But on the other hand, because the underlying system is so robust, it’s a way of guaranteeing quality, even in situations you haven’t accounted for.

    If someone asks you, “What size will the body copy be when the viewport is 850 pixels wide?”, your answer would have to be “I don’t know …but I do know that it will be appropriate.”

    This feels like a very declarative way of designing. It reminds me of the ethos behind Andy and Heydon’s site, Every Layout. They call it algorithmic layout design:

    Employing algorithmic layout design means doing away with @media breakpoints, “magic numbers”, and other hacks, to create context-independent layout components. Your future design systems will be more consistent, terser in code, and more malleable in the hands of your users and their devices.

    See how breakpoints are mentioned as being a very top-down approach to layout? Remember the tagline for Utopia, which aims for fluid responsive design?

    Elegantly scale type and space without breakpoints.

    Unsurprisingly, Andy really likes Utopia:

    As the co-author of Every Layout, my head nearly fell off from all of the nodding when reading this because this is the exact sort of approach that we preach: setting some rules and letting the browser do the rest.

    Heydon describes this mindset as automating intent. I really like that. I think that’s what Utopia does too.

    As Heydon said at Patterns Day:

    Be your browser’s mentor, not its micromanager.

    The idea is that you give it rules, you give it axioms or principles to work on, and you let it do the calculation. You work with the in-built algorithms of the browser and of CSS itself.

    This is all possible thanks to improvements to CSS like calc, flexbox and grid. Jen calls this approach intrinsic web design. Last year, I liveblogged her excellent talk at An Event Apart called Designing Intrinsic Layouts.

    Utopia feels like it has the same mindset as algorithmic layout design and intrinsic web design. Trys and James are building on the great work already out there, which brings me to the final property of Utopia that appeals to me…

    It’s iterative

    There isn’t actually much that’s new in Utopia. It’s a combination of existing techniques. I like that. As I said recently:

    I’m a great believer in the HTML design principle, Evolution Not Revolution:

    It is better to evolve an existing design rather than throwing it away.

    First of all, Utopia uses the idea of modular scales in typography. Tim Brown has been championing this idea for years.

    Then there’s the idea of typography being fluid and responsive—just like Jason Pamental has been speaking and writing about.

    On the code side, Utopia wouldn’t be possible without the work of Mike Reithmuller and his breakthroughs on responsive and fluid typography, which led to Tim’s work on CSS locks.

    Utopia takes these building blocks and combines them. So if you’re wondering if it would be a good tool for one of your projects, you can take an equally iterative approach by asking some questions…

    Are you using fluid type?

    Do your font-sizes increase in proportion to the width of the viewport? I don’t mean in sudden jumps with @media breakpoints—I mean some kind of relationship between font size and the vw (viewport width) unit. If so, you’re probably using some kind of mechanism to cap the minimum and maximum font sizes—CSS locks.

    I’m using that technique on Resilient Web Design. But I’m not changing the relative difference between different sized elements—body copy, headings, etc.—as the screen size changes.

    Are you using modular scales?

    Does your type system have some kind of ratio that describes the increase in type sizes? You probably have more than one ratio (unlike Resilient Web Design). The ratio for small screens should probably be smaller than the ratio for big screens. But rather than jump from one ratio to another at an arbitrary breakpoint, Utopia allows the ratio to be fluid.

    So it’s not just that font sizes are increasing as the screen gets larger; the comparative difference is also subtly changing. That means there’s never a sudden jump in font size at any time.

    Are you using custom properties?

    A technical detail this, but the magic of Utopia relies on two powerful CSS features: calc() and custom properties. These two workhorses are used by Utopia to generate some CSS that you can stick at the start of your stylesheet. If you ever need to make changes, all the parameters are defined at the top of the code block. Tweak those numbers and watch everything cascade.

    You’ll see that there’s one—and only one—media query in there. This is quite clever. Usually with CSS locks, you’d need to have a media query for every different font size in order to cap its growth at the maximum screen size. With Utopia, the maximum screen size—100vw—is abstracted into a variable (a custom property). The media query then changes its value to be the upper end of your CSS lock. So it doesn’t matter how many different font sizes you’re setting: because they all use that custom property, one single media query takes care of capping the growth of every font size declaration.

    If you’re already using CSS locks, modular scales, and custom properties, Utopia is almost certainly going to be a good fit for you.

    If you’re not yet using those techniques, but you’d like to, I highly recommend using Utopia on your next project.

    This was originally published on my own site.

    Fluid custom properties Fri, 14 Feb 2020 13:55:00 +0000 A core theme of the seminal introduction to responsive web design was an acceptance of the ‘ebb and flow’ found on our inherently fluid web.

    But despite a broadly accepted view that device-based breakpoints are flawed, and a myriad of solutions proposed to solve the problem, it’s fair to say we still mostly think in terms of pre-defined breakpoints.

    Writing truly isolated components and tailored breakpoints; where we reevaluate our original CSS decisions as the viewport gets to a size that breaks the component, is great in theory, but challenging in practice. Ubiquitous language in a team, and a natural desire to consolidate magic numbers tends to lead to either a set of easy to remember numbers: 30em, 40em, 50em, or more generic ‘small, medium, large’ mixing breakpoints. Both approaches create jarring ‘breakpoint jumps’ rather than a natural easing as a screen changes.

    When there is shared styling between components, our instinct is to group the components in some respect. This tends to fall into one of three camps:

    • Writing large selectors, or relying on Sass @extends, despite its flaws and horizontal coupling.
    • Peppering our HTML with utility classes like .mt18 and .pb24.
    • Duplicating the common styles and accepting the performance hit.

    These all work at a single width, but begin to fall apart as more screen sizes get involved. Here are some of the most common next steps to patch the issue:

    • Adding @media breakpoints to the utility classes and renaming them to something more generic.
    • Create multiple utility classes with breakpoint-specific suffixes, adding all of them to an element.
    • Continuing the duplication with identical @media breakpoints in each component.

    None of these are ideal – not only are we duplicating code or coupling horizontally, we’re still thinking about device-specific breakpoints. It’s a problem, and it affects all aspects of our work – spacing, rhythm, layout and typography.

    We need to think fluidly.

    A proposal

    Fluid custom properties combine CSS Locks, CSS Custom Properties, and the concept of hills (yes, hills). They allow us to write fluid CSS without writing any breakpoints.

    A fluid custom property is a font-size representation of a gradient or slope, set between two screen sizes, and stored as a global CSS custom property.

    With a predefined set of fluid custom properties at the heart of a project, we can hook onto them to create natural, breakpoint-less spacing and typography that gradually interpolates across screen sizes.

    Relying on these global rules brings consistency across a project, and helps to ensure every component looks ‘just right’ on all screens. There are no nasty ‘breakpoint jumps’, just buttery smooth interpolation.

    They significantly reduce code duplication and keep code succinct and readable. Rather than coupling horizontally, shared styles are linked vertically to these global, project-specific constants.

    All the complicated maths is abstracted away, leaving you to work with natural numbers, browser text zoom preferences are respected, and they work naturally with ems.

    They’re also entirely opt-in; the brilliance of custom properties is that they do nothing to your webpage until you reference them. This makes it a great way to retrospectively add fluid sizing to an existing site.

    Let’s dig into the three concepts in a little more detail:

    CSS Locks and interpolation

    Linear interpolation is a mathematical technique used to calculate the value at a position between two points. In the CSS and animation world, Interpolating or ‘tweening’ is the process of smoothly changing a value between the two points over two screen sizes. We can achieve this effect with CSS locks, a technique coined by Tim Brown.

    Below is a CSS lock that interpolates between a font-size of 1em and 2em between the two screen sizes of 20em (320px) and 50em. The locking is handled by the media query directly below it, without it the growth would continue at the same rate forever.

    p {
      font-size: calc(1em + (2 - 1) * ((100vw - 20em)/(50 - 20)));
    @media screen and (min-width: 50em) {
      p {
        font-size: 2em;

    Writing a lock by hand is pretty verbose, so Sass mixins are regularly turned to. This has the huge advantage of making your life as a developer easier, but the distinct disadvantage, like all pre-processor features, of distancing yourself from the final CSS output. Once you’ve been bitten by the fluid bug and seen its virtues, it’s very easy to end up with several hundred CSS locks, and thus several hundred media queries. That’s a lot of code.

    CSS custom properties

    There are plenty of wonderful guides to CSS custom properties, so I shan’t go into too much detail. Here’s a CSS custom property definition and usage example.

    :root {
      --brand: #FF4757;
    a {
      color: var(--brand);

    Not only are they a great way to extract common values out to a central location, they can be overridden using the cascade, and used in calc() functions. Using custom properties for typography and vertical rhythm has been well documented, but they can be used for so much more. We can combine CSS custom properties with locks to great effect…

    Refactoring the lock

    Let’s rewrite the CSS lock we used earlier, harnessing the descriptive power of custom properties. We start by extracting the configurable parts of the lock into a :root definition. The vast majority of CSS locks run from 20em/320px, so we’ll keep that in the lock for brevity. Then we can substitute the values within the declaration and media query, multiplying the appropriate values by 1em:

    :root {
      --max-value: 2;
      --min-value: 1;
      --max-screen: 50;
    p {
      font-size: calc(
        (var(--min-value) * 1em) + (var(--max-value) - var(--min-value)) *
          ((100vw - 20em) / (var(--max-screen) - 20))
    @media screen and (min-width: 50em) {
      p {
        font-size: calc(var(--max-value) * 1em);

    Sadly, we can’t use custom properties in the media query definition, so we have to repeat the 50em. But ignoring that, we’ve extracted all the other ‘bits’ of the calculation into a single source of truth. The CSS lock now looks even more unwieldy than it did before but – crucially – the bits we actually need to access are much easier to read.

    Even more refactoring

    With traditional CSS locks, you need a media query for every lock, but as fluid custom properties rely on cascading custom properties, we can solve this really elegantly in one line.

    CSS locks use the 100vw unit to represent the varying screen size, but this doesn’t have to be the case. We can extract that value into its own custom property: --f-screen.

    When we’ve reached the ‘lock point’, rather than update all the CSS locks we have on the page, we can update the value of --f-screen to be the width of our --max-screen. This one line change holds every lock in its maximum state.

    :root {
      --max-value: 2;
      --min-value: 1;
      --max-screen: 75;
      --f-screen: 100vw;
      --f-bp: (var(--f-screen) - 20em)/(var(--max-screen) - 20);
    p {
      font-size: calc((var(--min-value) * 1em) + (var(--max-value) - var(--min-value)) * var(--f-bp));
    @media screen and (min-width: 75em) {
      :root {
        --f-screen: calc(var(--max-screen) * 1em);

    This is a rather neat refactor, but it’s still only working at a selector-level - we can still step it up a notch or two. But before we can talk about that, we need to talk about hills.

    Hills, grades & slopes

    When travelling by road, we can refer to the steepness of a hill by a gradient or grade. They’re often given in terms of a ratio: 2:1 or a percentage: 30%. The higher the percentage, the steeper the incline, and the more likely you’ll need to get off your bike and walk up the hill.

    A CSS lock can also be visualised as a hill. The screen sizes define the where the hill starts and ends (or the foot and summit), and the two values (say, 1em and 2em) dictate the gradient. When plotted onto a graph, it looks a little like this:

    A graph demonstrating a CSS lock
    A CSS lock, visualised

    In this example, we’re interpolating between two specific values: 1em and 2em, a relationship of 2:1. This is great, but a bit limiting. What if we wanted to interpolate between 2em and 4em. Fluid custom properties encapsulate that relationship into a fluid multiplier that lets you re-use that angle in various ways across a project.

    The implementation

    Below is the CSS for four fluid custom properties than run between 320px and 1200px.

    :root {
      --f-summit: 1200;
      --f-screen: 100vw;
      --f-foot: 1 / 16;
      --f-hill: (var(--f-screen) - 20rem) / (var(--f-summit) / 16 - 20) + var(--f-foot) * 1rem;
      --f-1-25: ((1.25 / 16 - var(--f-foot)) * var(--f-hill));
      --f-1-5: ((1.5 / 16 - var(--f-foot)) * var(--f-hill));
      --f-2: ((2 / 16 - var(--f-foot)) * var(--f-hill));
      --f-3: ((3 / 16 - var(--f-foot)) * var(--f-hill));
    @media screen and (min-width: 1200px) {
      :root {
        --f-screen: calc(var(--f-summit) * 1px);

    Let’s break it down section by section.

    --f-summit: 1200;

    This property denotes the largest screen size in px. This gets converted to rems internally to ensure text zoom preferences are respected.

    --f-screen: 100vw;
    --f-foot: 1 / 16;
    --f-hill: (var(--f-screen) - 20rem) / (var(--f-summit) / 16 - 20) + var(--f-foot) * 1rem;

    --f-screen holds the width of screen (100vw) until we reach the summit. Extracting this make sets us up to be able to succinctly lock all the properties in one go. All fluid custom properties are ratios based off of 1, and --f-foot represents that.

    --f-hill is the media query part of the lock, running from 320px to our --f-summit. By extracting this out from the back end of the CSS lock, and into its own CSS custom property, we can cap all the custom properties in one go - more on that later.

    It’s worth noting I’ve intentionally baked in the assumption of that start point. Extracting that out to another custom property is perfectly valid if it fits your use-case better.

    --f-1-25: ((1.25 / 16 - var(--f-foot)) * var(--f-hill));
    --f-1-5: ((1.5 / 16 - var(--f-foot)) * var(--f-hill));
    --f-2: ((2 / 16 - var(--f-foot)) * var(--f-hill));
    --f-3: ((3 / 16 - var(--f-foot)) * var(--f-hill));

    These are the fluid custom properties themselves. --f-1-25 represents a gradient of 1.25:1. The names are down to personal preference, I like the clarity of exposing the gradient angle in the variable, but you may prefer more generic names like --f-shallow or --f-steep. Equally, you may find a name like --f-gutter would be more appropriate.

    Side-note: custom properties aren’t evaluated until they are used, so there’s no need to wrap each one in a calc().

    @media screen and (min-width: 1200px) {
      :root {
        --f-screen: calc(var(--f-summit) * 1px);

    Finally, we have the aforementioned screen width lock to prevent the values from growing to silly levels.

    Using fluid custom properties

    The actual values stored in fluid custom properties are tiny, so they need to be multiplied up to useful numbers. The multiplier you choose represents the pixel size of the value at 320px. You can calculate the final size by multiplying it against the gradient.

    Let’s look at a specific example, setting the font-size on the document body.

    body {
      font-size: calc(var(--f-1-25) * 16);

    This declaration will interpolate between 16px and 20px (16 * 1.25 = 20), without a breakpoint jump. All screens will get an appropriate font-size somewhere in between those two values.

    Now we’ve written that, we can use ems in the normal way to get relative fluid sizing off the body.

    h3 {
      font-size: 1.5em;

    This will size h3 tags to be 24px on small screens, gradually changing up to 30px on larger screens.

    Working with steeper gradients

    Here’s an example for a hero banner. These are normally pretty painful to write, involving multiple padding breakpoint jumps as the screen expands. But when we use a fluid custom properties at a steeper gradient, we can achieve it in one line:

    .hero {
      padding: calc(var(--f-5) * 40) 0;

    This gradient of 5:1 interpolates the vertical padding between 40px and 200px as the screen gets larger.

    The flexibility of different gradients give us a multitude of options to build with. If you’re after tight spacing on mobile and ample on larger screens, choose a steeper gradient multiplied by a smaller number. If you want similar spacing on both, increasing ever so slightly, take a shallower gradient and multiply it by a larger number. You can even use negative gradients to make reductions on larger screens!

    Fluid custom properties can be applied to margins, border-widths, padding, font-size, grid-gaps, transforms and all manner of other properties.

    Common patterns can be consolidated in other CSS custom properties to reduce the number of calc() function calls. There’s also no reason why they can’t be applied to design tokens or utility classes. These common calculations can then be surfaced in a design system to ensure maximum usage and understanding on a project.

    This post was originally published on

    Leading Design 2020 Fri, 07 Feb 2020 10:53:00 +0000 We’ve got exciting things afoot in the coming year. Through our Leading Design events, we equip design leaders, whether they’re newly in post or have that hallowed seat at the table, with everything they need to take both their careers and their leadership to the next level.

    Our events team had our own retreat to take time to reflect, learn and spend time on understanding the needs of design leaders, that’s why we are excited to announce our Leading Design events over 2020.

    Leading Design logo

    Leading Design Conferences

    Our conferences bring together experts who lead design teams, oversee design direction and know what it takes to successfully create design culture in organisations. You’ll hear their practical tips, take part in hands-on workshops, and get a chance to meet peers from all over the world.

    After four years of successful sell out events in London and most recently in New York, we decided to head to the West Coast - San Francisco. We’ve assembled a wonderful group of design leaders who will cover a wide range of topics to help you make the most of your Design Leadership journey. Even though we have sold out you can add your name to the waitlist and of course keep an eye out for the talk videos post conference.

    European folk, do not fear we will be having Leading Design London the 4-6th November, 2020. We’re launching tickets on the 9th March so if you are interested in getting early bird tickets let us know here and we will be sure to drop you an email when the tickets go live.

    Two people with glases of wine at the Leading design Meetup in New York

    Leading Design Community meet-ups

    Leading Design isn’t all talks and workshops - we’ve created plenty of opportunities for you to meet like-minded design leaders, swap stories, and build relationships we hope will last the rest of your careers. Our community meet-ups are a place to meet other design leaders in a safe, relaxed, supportive space – to share, learn, and have fun. This year we are hosting a number of Leading Design Community Meetups across the globe - London, San Francisco, New York and more!

    Find out more about our meet-ups and all the dates here.

    P.S If you are going to be at SXSW - Andy Budd, LD Conference curator and founder of the LD Slack Community will be arranging a causal drinks meetup on Thursday 19th March. If you’re around and want to meet other design leaders register your interest here.

    Juvet Landscape Hotel

    Leading Design Retreats

    As a design leader, you’re responsible for a team, the direction they take, how they carry out their work, how they innovate, and how they make progress in their individual careers. That’s a lot of responsibility to hold and sometimes when looking after others we neglect ourselves. Our retreats are a perfect opportunity to re-focus on your own self-development and prioritise your own journey.

    Find out more about our Retreat in Norway in September 2020.

    Stay connected

    Follow our Leading Design Medium account where we have recently interviewed Margaret Lee (Director, UX Community & Culture at Google) reflecting on her own personal journey as a leader and how she came to reconcile her own true self against conventional expectations.

    For all the latest Leading Design updates and announcements you can either:

    Well, that’s all for now folks, we can’t wait to see you all in 2020!

    Design systems roundup Wed, 05 Feb 2020 13:16:00 +0000 A provocative post about design systems prompted some excellent responses.

    When I started writing a post about architects, gardeners, and design systems, it was going to be a quick follow-up to my post about web standards, dictionaries, and design systems. I had spotted an interesting metaphor in one of Frank’s posts, and I thought it was worth jotting it down.

    But after making that connection, I kept writing. I wanted to point out the fetishism we have for creation over curation; building over maintenance.

    Then the post took a bit of a dark turn. I wrote about how the most commonly cited reasons for creating a design system—efficiency and consistency—are the same processes that have led to automation and dehumanisation in the past.

    That’s where I left things. Others have picked up the baton.

    Dave wrote a post called The Web is Industrialized and I helped industrialize it. What I said resonated with him:

    This kills me, but it’s true. We’ve industrialized design and are relegated to squeezing efficiencies out of it through our design systems. All CSS changes must now have a business value and user story ticket attached to it. We operate more like Taylor and his stopwatch and Gantt and his charts, maximizing effort and impact rather than focusing on the human aspects of product development.

    But he also points out the many benefits of systemetising:

    At the same time, I have seen first hand how design systems can yield improvements in accessibility, performance, and shared knowledge across a willing team. I’ve seen them illuminate problems in design and code. I’ve seen them speed up design and development allowing teams to build, share, and validate prototypes or A/B tests before undergoing costly guesswork in production. There’s value in these tools, these processes.

    Emphasis mine. I think that’s a key phrase: “a willing team.”

    Ethan tackles this in his post The design systems we swim in:

    A design system that optimizes for consistency relies on compliance: specifically, the people using the system have to comply with the system’s rules, in order to deliver on that promised consistency. And this is why that, as a way of doing something, a design system can be pretty dehumanizing.

    But a design system need not be a constraining straitjacket—a means of enforcing consistency by keeping creators from colouring outside the lines. Used well, a design system can be a tool to give creators more freedom:

    Does the system you work with allow you to control the process of your work, to make situational decisions? Or is it simply a set of rules you have to follow?

    This is key. A design system is the product of an organisation’s culture. That’s something that Brad digs into his post, Design Systems, Agile, and Industrialization:

    I definitely share Jeremy’s concern, but also think it’s important to stress that this isn’t an intrinsic issue with design systems, but rather the organizational culture that exists or gets built up around the design system. There’s a big difference between having smart, reusable patterns at your disposal and creating a dictatorial culture designed to enforce conformity and swat down anyone coloring outside the lines.

    Brad makes a very apt comparison with Agile:

    Not Agile the idea, but the actual Agile reality so many have to suffer through.

    Agile can be a liberating empowering process, when done well. But all too often it’s a quagmire of requirements, burn rates, and story points. We need to make sure that design systems don’t suffer the same fate.

    Jeremy’s thoughts on industrialization definitely struck a nerve. Sure, design systems have the ability to dehumanize and that’s something to actively watch out for. But I’d also say to pay close attention to the processes and organizational culture we take part in and contribute to.

    Matthew Ström weighed in with a beautifully-written piece called Breaking looms. He provides historical context to the question of automation by relaying the story of the Luddite uprising. Automation may indeed be inevitable, according to his post, but he also provides advice on how to approach design systems today:

    We can create ethical systems based in detailed user research. We can insist on environmental impact statements, diversity and inclusion initiatives, and human rights reports. We can write design principles, document dark patterns, and educate our colleagues about accessibility.

    Finally, the ouroboros was complete when Frank wrote down his thoughts in a post called Who cares?. For him, the issue of maintenance and care is crucial:

    Care applies to the built environment, and especially to digital technology, as social media becomes the weather and the tools we create determine the expectations of work to be done and the economic value of the people who use those tools. A well-made design system created for the right reasons is reparative. One created for the wrong reasons becomes a weapon for displacement. Tools are always beholden to values. This is well-trodden territory.

    Well-trodden territory indeed. Back in 2015, Travis Gertz wrote about Design Machines:

    Designing better systems and treating our content with respect are two wonderful ideals to strive for, but they can’t happen without institutional change. If we want to design with more expression and variation, we need to change how we work together, build design teams, and forge our tools.

    Also on the topic of automation, in 2018 Cameron wrote about Design systems and technological disruption:

    Design systems are certainly a new way of thinking about product development, and introduce a different set of tools to the design process, but design systems are not going to lessen the need for designers. They will instead increase the number of products that can be created, and hence increase the demand for designers.

    And in 2019, Kaelig wrote:

    In order to be fulfilled at work, Marx wrote that workers need “to see themselves in the objects they have created”.

    When “improving productivity”, design systems tooling must be mindful of not turning their users’ craft into commodities, alienating them, like cogs in a machine.

    All of this is reminding me of Kranzberg’s first law:

    Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.

    I worry that sometimes the messaging around design systems paints them as an inherently positive thing. But design systems won’t fix your problems:

    Just stay away from folks who try to convince you that having a design system alone will solve something.

    It won’t.

    It’s just the beginning.

    At the same time, a design system need not be the gateway drug to some kind of post-singularity future where our jobs have been automated away.

    As always, it depends.

    Remember what Frank said:

    A well-made design system created for the right reasons is reparative. One created for the wrong reasons becomes a weapon for displacement.

    The reasons for creating a design system matter. Those reasons will probably reflect the values of the company creating the system. At the level of reasons and values, we’ve gone beyond the bounds of the hyperobject of design systems. We’re dealing in the area of design ops—the whys of systemising design.

    This is why I’m so wary of selling the benefits of design systems in terms of consistency and efficiency. Those are obviously tempting money-saving benefits, but followed to their conclusion, they lead down the dark path of enforced compliance and eventually, automation.

    But if the reason you create a design system is to empower people to be more creative, then say that loud and proud! I know that creativity, autonomy and empowerment is a tougher package to sell than consistency and efficiency, but I think it’s a battle worth fighting.

    Design systems are neither good nor bad (nor are they neutral).

    Addendum: I’d just like to say how invigorating it’s been to read the responses from Dave, Ethan, Brad, Matthew, and Frank …all of them writing on their own websites. Rumours of the demise of blogging may have been greatly exaggerated.

    This was originally published on my own site.

    Tiny Lesson: How to run a premortem workshop Mon, 03 Feb 2020 15:54:00 +0000 A premortem is a great way to help mitigate bad outcomes on a project. It helps project teams identify risks and put actions in place to avoid them from the start.

    In this Tiny Lesson we share how to run one for you and your team.

    Watch the video here, or read the transcript below.

    How to run a premortem workshop

    Allow half an hour. You’ll need a few pens, some post-its of different colours, some wall space, and of course, some willing participants.

    First, ask the team to think about what’s happened in 12 months time, (you can adjust the duration to match your project or product roadmap). then imagine if everything that could’ve gone wrong has gone wrong. Give them about five minutes, and ask them to map all of the things they can think of onto the wall, explaining as they go along. Assign a note-taker to capture any salient points.

    Once they’ve done that, start mapping them into themes. If you can, group the items and give each theme a heading, such as people or processes or systems or ways of working. This will really help later on.

    Next work through each of the post-its, ask the team to think of ways to mitigate these bad outcomes and stick all the ideas they have over the top. Again, explaining each as they go along.

    Now you can take this output and create your action plan. If you can, it helps to assign timings or an owner to each action, and then share the plan with the group.

    This way, everyone’s aware of anything bad that could go wrong, and what you can do to stop it, and you’ll have a much better chance of success on your project.

    We used this technique recently at the start of our project with Virgin Holidays.