Clearleft | Blog The latest news from Clearleft en-gb Fri, 18 Oct 2019 11:07:08 +0000 Fri, 18 Oct 2019 11:07:08 +0000 Are you designing a product or a service? Fri, 18 Oct 2019 10:09:00 +0000 Traditionally, the distinction between a product and a service was relatively clear.

While a product is a tangible thing that can be measured and counted, a service is less concrete and is the outcome of using skills and expertise to satisfy a need. However, the digital space has certainly blurred the lines between products and services, so it’s no longer sufficient to define a product as something you can “drop on your foot” (The Economist, 2010) In fact, it’s actually quite difficult to explain the difference without getting tied up in quite complex linguistic knots!

In the digital space we talk a lot about products; many organisations have Product teams with Product Owners supported by Product Designers working towards their product strategy by progressing through their product backlog. There is a lot of debate about what makes a good product and how to deliver them, but what about the services that underpin them?


So how do you determine if you are working on a product or a service, below is a tool to help you do just that…

Are you designing a product or a service?

This model highlights that although you might be positioning yourself as working on a digital product more often than not it’s a vehicle for service provision. Afterall, people only want a product because it gives them an experience and an outcome.

The model also highlights that in some cases the entire service is embodied in a digital product, think of the likes of Netflix, Uber or Spotify. In these cases, there is a massive opportunity for ‘Product Teams’ to influence the entire service experience, thinking not only of the end-to-end customer journey but also the front-stage and back-stage workings. This would involve exploring not only the customer interactions but also the operating model, the content workflow/approvals, the business model and even down to the governance structures.

So my advice, therefore, is to recognise when your product embodies a service and push your remit to explore the entire design challenge.

Defining the problem Tue, 15 Oct 2019 09:32:00 +0000 We’re 7 weeks into our three-month internship program and lots has happened. Once again we want to share the techniques and path we’ve taken to reach the double diamond midpoint.

In our last blog we talked about our interviews with GPs, nurses and front line staff, and the use of How Might We’s to frame the design opportunities in four key problem areas. These challenges are experienced by Henfield Medical Centre but research shows us they are shared across primary care.

Guerilla research

To move forward with more in depth research we narrowed our focus towards the two interrelated areas: self-care (how can self-care information and uptake be better integrated in the GP patient journey) and the practice of triaging patients (could design improve the efficiency of triage?). Although we had important insight from the practice side we wanted to speak to people in the community. We visited Henfield, using guerilla research techniques to gain fast insight. We were left struck by the different understandings of self care and attitudes towards the role of GPs.

Synthesising the opportunities

Back in the studio we hit a decision wall, and we thought that was the time to elicit some advice from more experienced Clearflefties. Encouraged to diverge our thinking again to check we had considered all the opportunity areas we ran a How Might We’s rethinking session. We individually wrote HMW statements before theming these and dot voting. Here we met our first plot twist, bringing the topic of ‘reassurance’ back to the drawing board (the reliance on GPs for sometimes unnecessary reassurance).

We crafted problem statements in these target areas so we were clear on our users, user needs and impact of the problems. But we needed one problem statement to move forward with! With different views in the team we mapped out the opportunities in these areas, as well as the challenges we faced if designing for these. From this we used the ‘NUF’ technique, comparing our initial broad concepts for these problems in terms of how new, useful and feasible they are.

From the research there were some clear personas of patients that we hadn’t yet mapped out on paper. So using our best friend the post it, we assessed what we considered relevant to understand in the context of this project and brought these groups of people to life against these metrics. These included typical self-care practices, attitudes to GP care and of course needs. It was important to clarify the different needs and goals of users before designing for one.

Playback and next steps

Nearing the end of discovery we wanted to bring the rest of the team in the project in greater depth, so we hosted a ‘brown bag’ lunch. Something us designers need to be able to do in the ‘real world’ is present our work to stakeholders. As such we prepping as one would for a client playback, beginning with storyboarded the project journey so far. This helped us take the high level view of the process before surfacing all the findings, methods, quotes, insights and learnings along the way that enriches the picture.

All of this research has helped us move into the design phase! We’ve run a design studio with fellow colleagues, and ideation sessions with stakeholders. We realised we needed more data to be confident in our designs so alongside starting the idea development phase we are gathering more user insight via a survey. This is also giving us access to people to interview or test concepts on before moving to implementation.

You can follow us on twitter @clearleftintern for regular updates on the project.

The rise of research ops — a view from the inside Thu, 10 Oct 2019 23:00:00 +0000 Earlier this week Clearleft hosted a lively morning of debate around ‘Accelerating Your Digital Design Maturity’ featuring leading industry voices from Tesco, Babylon Health, Sky, Twitter, Google Ventures and UCL.

In front of an audience of 70 design leads, two panels explored the challenges and approaches their organisations have around getting closer to customer needs and delivering better products faster, or to use a couple of industry buzzwords: research ops and design ops. We wanted to share some key insights from the former.

Kate Tarling discussing Research Ops in our first panel

What is research ops?

Research ops are the processes necessary for understanding customer needs and integrating research into an organisation’s decisions. It is the latter part that can be most challenging.

It stands to reason that research ops should ensure that researchers have what they need to do their job. That might include the right software, labs and other tools, training and professional development. It should also include consistent methodologies for different forms of research, along with all the legal and administrative systems and paperwork required.

But that’s a baseline. Where research ops really comes into its own is in establishing research across the organisation. According to Daniel Burka (Director of Product and Design, Resolve to Save Lives), research ops needs to “be both selfish and selfless” meaning it must be objective in its pursuit of insight and understanding, but then open and active in socialising the results.

Design research vs. market research

In many large organisations there is an insights team tasked with market research. This kind of research has been around for many years and has earned a mature place within companies. Conversely design research is relatively new. Some of the techniques may be similar, but the purposes tend to be different, and practitioners in the two camps can have a tendency to look down on one another, with design researchers dismissing market research’s focus groups and the insights team not seeing why they should spend time watching usability testing.

Of course both have their place and the panel stressed the importance of the insight team joining design researchers combine their efforts in understanding the desires of the market and the direct needs and difficulties of customers.

Do we need specialist researchers?

Unanimously, yes, there is definitely a role for specialised researchers. A trained researcher will be able to put together a programme of research and design sessions with users that are as unbiased as possible, non-judgemental and objective. But more than that, Tomasz Maslowski (Head of UX & Design, Tesco) pointed out that an experienced researcher “doesn’t just play the notes but hears the space between the notes.”

So while it’s really helpful that designers, developers, product owners, executives and others are all taken into the field at various points, the skill of the specialist research is to distill what people say into what people mean. The non-trained ear can be prone to confirmation bias and pick out the soundbites and opinions that supports their theory or position, or not take what they are hearing into context or proportion.

Research should collaborate and communicate

You could say that about any discipline, but Dan noted that if you put research among designers then they can hear where designers are unsure about decisions and bring that into their research.

Dan points out that a potential problem with product design is assuming that users care about the product when what they really care about is what a product can do for them. Researchers can help expose this if they are working closely with designers, rather than the design or product team simply giving research a list of questions to get answers to. “They should be the team’s questions, not the researchers’ or the designers’ questions”. Quite often the more useful research questions lead not to answers but more questions.

This is why research is far less effective when done in isolation. It’s time for researchers - and research ops - to “get scrappy” and think about how to get learnings into the wider team, and up to executive levels. Examples include running mandatory “customer closeness” sessions enabling all employees to see first-hand customers using products.

Ultimately the panel concluded that research’s job is to mitigate risk and confirm (or deny) opportunity, and these are aspects that the whole organisation needs to understand and use.

Many thanks to Daniel Burka (Director of Product and Design, Resolve to Save Lives), Tomasz Maslowski (Head of UX & Design, Tesco), James Stevens (Director of Group Product Design, Sky) and Kate Tarling (Digital and Design Leadership, Fly UX) for their generous time.

In part two we’ll cover the second panel and ask what design ops is and whether we should care about it?

Join us next time

We’ll be running another free breakfast panel for design leads in March 2020. If you’re interested in being on the panel or in the audience, please let us know using the form below and we’ll get back to you with details nearer the time.

(we won’t contact you about anything else but if you’d like to discuss how we could help you mature your research function do get in touch).

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Critique your shortcut to better designs Fri, 04 Oct 2019 13:22:29 +0000 Want to create better designs? Interested in becoming a better designer? There are few shortcuts to better design but introducing regular structured critique to your design process is one of them.

In my role as a UX consultant, I’m often helping clients improve the impact and efficiency of their design work. In reviewing how design is done I’m surprised that there is frequently an absence of routine critique sessions.

The good news is that critique is an easy habit to adopt and develop. I’m going to give a few tips in this article to show it’s quick to do, rewarding to participate in, and will lead to immediate improvements in the quality of your design work.

Critique of early concept ideas with the team from Virgin Atlantic

Does the word critique make you cringe?

When I ask design teams who don’t do critiques why it’s not a fixture in their working work they tend to pull pained expressions. Digging deeper and asking what comes to mind with the word critique and the associations are exclusively negative.

I commonly hear mentions of Statler and Waldorf the old cranky upper balcony hecklers extraordinaire in the muppets, or Dorothy Parker and her acerbic poison pen, Simon Cowell and his judging panel of cronies and Anton Ego voiced so sardonically by Peter O’Toole in ratatouille Pixar’s Ratatouille.

Critique, when done properly, provides a safe space to get feedback from peers. If it doesn’t improve the designs or help you grow as a designer then you are doing it wrong.

If you remember one thing: Critique ≠ Criticism.

Why make design crits part of your practice?

A good peer-review process acts as essential quality control. Getting feedback early and often enables you as a designer to benefit from the wisdom of your colleagues.

It’s a tried and tested practice used in varying forms in other creative endeavours to help challenge, shape, and enhance work. When making movies, dailies (the previous day’s outputs) are watched by the cast and crew to improve their performances, actors receive notes from directors and producers in rehearsals and during the run of a performance, novelists receive comments on manuscripts as they move from draft to draft.

In all these cases feedback is a baked-in part of the creative process. It starts early and continues through iterations from lo-fidelity to polished product.

A design critique should be time spent well for both the person seeking feedback and those giving it.

As a designer, the activity gives an opportunity to stress-test design ideas by seeing what questions it raises. It also improves design quality by gathering suggestions for enhancements and reduces risks by getting a sense check of the work with time to make any adjustments.

Equally, for participants, giving feedback should be rewarding – as you get to see how your colleagues approach design problems and get to sharpen your critical thinking skills.

At Clearleft, we’ll use the expertise of our colleagues when we are looking to get input on project work, devise new workshop activities and prepare conference talks etc. Anything you are creating will benefit from you having to explain your design decisions and from the feedback from a fresh pair of eyes with a new perspective.

Critiques of work are better when done more often and earlier rather than less and later.

Critique of a mobile prototype with the team from

How do you run a productive design critique?

It feels embarrassingly simple when written down. But that’s the point. Critique is simple to do if you bear in mind a couple of essential things:

1 Set a time and place

Invite the colleagues you feel can give you some considered feedback. A mix of designers, subject matter experts and insightful others. Aim for 3 to 5 people to provide a range of views while having enough time for everyone to be heard. Set aside 30 to 45 minutes as people will appreciate a calendar meeting that isn’t an hour long.

Of course, this step is easier if you have critiques booked in as a regular ongoing ceremony.

2 Facilitate the session

Help the people you’ve invited to give you better feedback. Start by briefly giving some context on the problem you are trying to solve and any key insights or constraints that are useful for them to know. Then tell them what you are looking for feedback on. Keeping it targetted will help them focus and give you more actionable suggestions.

Then show your designs. Sometimes it helps to do this with a commentary walking people through the designs. Other times a timed silent gallery allows people to view the work and consider their responses. You want to foster an atmosphere that encourages considered advice rather than knee jerk reactions.

3 Get some feedback from your peers

This is the point at which the tension seems to rise the first few times you do a critique. It’s helpful to set a few ground rules to make everyone feel more comfortable and make the session more productive. You want to create a space that allows people to be constructive rather than combative.

Remind people why they are there: to use their expertise to help improve the design.

Remind people to use language that questions or offers advice rather than dictates. Move from ‘you should …’ to ‘you might want to consider …’.

Remind people to separate critique of the person from the product. My go-to phrase is ‘Be hard on ideas. Be kind on people’.

To balance feedback I like to get everyone, in turn, to contribute one thing they like in the design that they feel meets the brief and then one thing they would suggest changing.

I’m a fan of helping the attendees frame their feedback by starting their replies with:

I like how … (to pull out a positive thing to keep), and Even better if … (to suggest something to reconsider or change).

Once you’ve captured the feedback and if time allows dive into a discussion on the areas you want to explore in more detail. However, be careful not to dive into creating solutions on the spot. This is not the purpose of the session and is unfair on the person giving you the feedback and you as a designer to have an immediate fix. Questions in the session and solutions later.

What are you waiting for?

One of the key activities that lead to better quality designed products and services is to do regular critiques. When run well they help designers to articulate their work and to canvas valuable insight and input from colleagues.

For teams who don’t yet do critiques, what’s stopping you from putting one in the calendar to improve whatever you are working on now? After all, any habit needs to start with the first time.

How to be a good speaker Thu, 03 Oct 2019 13:43:00 +0000 I’m in the process of curating our UX London and Leading Design events, I watch around 200+ conference talks a year. Here’s a quick checklist of things I find work well and work poorly.

Don't worry about having a unique concept

I see too many smart people put off of public speaking because of this. It’s perfectly reasonable to take an existing concept and layer on your own perspective and experiences. This humanises the topic and makes it interesting. Also, remember that what’s obvious to you isn’t obvious to everybody. There are always new people joining the industry.

Also don’t feel you need to write a new talk each time. Like music or stand up comedy, talks get better with practice. As a side note, I saw the same talk 5 times over the course of 3 years. Each time I took something new away because I was in a different place in my career.

45 minutes is a looooong time to keep somebody's attention

No matter how interesting the subject, a monotone delivery make it hard for your audience to stay engaged. Use your voice (speed, pitch, volume etc) and body (gestures, stage) as a tool to keep things interesting. Try to minimise the “ums” and “ahs”. This comes from practice.

Try to avoid the “speaker square dance” when you shift your weight from one foot to the other. It’s distracting and makes you look nervous.

(These are all things I still do, to my annoyance).

Try to avoid “listicle talks” if possible. You know the type. Here are 7 or 12 things I think are important, and I’m going to go through them one by one. It’s a handy formula, but it make people conscious of time. “Crikey, they’re only at number 4”.

A few things to avoid

Try to avoid giving a big bio at the start of a talk. I know it’s a great way of you “justifying to the audience” why you’re on stage, but folks generally don’t care. Often it’s better to start right in the middle of a story, as it makes the audience tune in.

Typical speaker jokes like “I’m the only thing between you and beer” can be risky. Especially if you haven’t been listening to the other speakers and they’ve already said that about lunch or coffee. I also worry about normalising over consumption of alcohol at conferences.

Asking your audience to perform a task can be risky, especially in front of Brits and Northern Europeans, who would rather curl up into a ball and die that risk the social awkwardness of talking to their neighbours. However… Once people get talking, it’s actually hard to get them to stop. If you do have an activity planned, make sure you leave enough time for it to be a meaningful connection.

It’s super common to make jokes about finishing off your slides last night or not getting to bed late because you were out drinking While it’s good to be vulnerable and human, if played wrong, the message this sends is that you don’t care about the audience.

If you are going to present a concept or opinion style talk, you’ll probably need to give some back story. Try to keep this short as I’ve seen plenty of talks that are so much back story, they run out of time to cover the more interesting topics.

The best talks have a really clear story arc

Things that make sense when you read them in your head, often don’t gel when read aloud. So make sure you practice your talks out loud half a dozen times to make sure it flows. A surprising number of “natural” speakers have a speaking coach.

I think it’s usually better to assume a reasonable amount of audience knowledge. For instance, If in doubt assume folks know what a Design System is rather than spend 20 minutes explaining it to folks. Better to spend that time talking about what you do differently.

Nerves are natural

If you’re a little shy at conferences, speaking is The Best way to break the ice. Nobody talks to you before the talk. Everybody wants to talk to you afterwards, largely because they have a way in. As such, public speaking is bizarrely good for introverts.

Nerves are natural. Everybody gets them. Some of the best speakers I know are an absolute wreck before going on stage, swearing they’ll never speak again. Then they get up on stage, really enjoy the talk and can’t wait to do the next one.

You can’t really banish nerves, all you can do is manage them. You may think the whole audience can tell that you’re nervous. Generally, nobody has a clue. You are your own worse critic. Remember nerves are really just excitement and excitement is a good, performance enhancer.

Be visible, be reliable

Many conference organisers like to have seen people speak in advance, so if possible try to record your talks, even if they’re internal presentations or at local networking events.

Organisers appreciated that you’re busy, but also appreciate it if you can respond back to them in a timely manner. One of the reasons we see “the same old faces” is because those speakers are reliable.

There are more conferences and events than ever before. As such there’s a huge demand for new voices, especially from underrepresented groups. I encourage you to take advantage of this opportunity and put yourselves forward.

I’ve shared this thread and some follow-up resources on Twitter - please add you own.

One last thing (I promise). Speaking is fun and provides a great sense of accomplishment sharing what you’ve learnt to help other people.

However, conference speaking isn’t necessary to advance your career. Some of the best, most successful people I know don’t do talks. Don’t feel pressured into speaking.

How to measure content Mon, 30 Sep 2019 13:45:00 +0000 Good content is often seen as something that’s hard to measure. It’s (a sometimes small) part of much broader system and is so closely intertwined with design. But sometimes as content designers, we’re asked to demonstrate the effect of our content.

If you’re changing content as part of a whole page design, then you won’t be able to test the effect of changing the content in isolation. But when you’re only making changes to content, with the right analytics and behavioural insights you should be able to measure the effect of that change.

Visualising results will help you tell your story. Photo by Carlos Muza on Unsplash

What you measure will be determined by the impact you’re trying to have. And the mistake people often make is not setting a target for their content up-front. Without a target metric or purpose in mind, it’s impossible to review your content to see whether it did what you wanted it to. Firstly because you don’t know what you wanted it to do, and secondly, because you didn’t work out upfront what you could measure, and how.

To set good targets upfront, you need to know the problem you’re trying to solve. Once you know that you can think about how you’ll know when you’ve solved that problem. You’ll also need the capability to measure. Without access to data or analytics it becomes much harder (but not impossible) to measure effectiveness. Ideally you also need to combine quant data with more qualitative insights. Data will tell you what but not why.

Here are a few ideas of how to measure content for different problems:

1. Awareness

In this instance you want people to be made aware of your product or service or draw a user’s attention to particular important information. The key metric here is visibility — you need more people that see or find your content. The isolated content changes you could make to drive traffic include:

  • Navigation labels
  • Page headers
  • Meta-data
  • Clearer preceding call to action labels
  • Hyperlinks or related links
  • Clearer categorisation of help content (if your content is help-related)
  • Exposed or surfaced help
  • Social sharing links

How will you know if it’s worked?

Metric-driven measurement for this could include page-views, click-throughs, site traffic, social shares, fewer calls to your contact centre or live chats on a particular topic. If it’s navigation labels you’ve changed, you could also run tree tests.

For more qualitative data you could run some basic guerilla research — giving participants a task to find a particular piece of information. You could also ask your customer call centres to anecdotally record whether related queries or complaints have increased or decreased after a set period of time. Depending on the volume of traffic your site receives it may take a while to see strong results this way.

2. Engagement

Better engagement isn’t just about time spent on a page — there are many other ways we can measure it. Often when we want to increase engagement it’s because we want to keep people onsite for longer, so they’re more likely to buy or stay loyal to a brand. But sometimes we just need to make sure they’re reading what we want them to read because it’s important, or we want them to interact with something or provide information. Changes to content might include:

  • Product or pricing information
  • Help content
  • T&Cs or legal information
  • Forms
  • Article content
  • Proposition messaging
  • Videos
  • Social media posts

How will you know if it’s worked?

Metrics you might look at could include page dwell-times, video views, likes or shares, page bounce rates (you would be hoping these decrease). You should also look at how many users are clicking through to other parts of your site (vs leaving the site), form completions, or data or comment submissions.

Qualitative insights are always useful, even when you do have data, to understand user behaviour. Consider usability testing, or reviewing heatmaps, which will help you see which bits of content users are spending the most time on. But use heatmaps with caution as they don’t often tell the full story and not all analytics tools let users know they’re being monitored.

3. Comprehension

It’s all very well driving more traffic and engagement, but if users don’t understand what they’re reading, then they won’t understand what they’re buying or signing up to either. Confusion can lead to a loss of custom, complaints, and negative sentiment.

Content changes can be tested on many parts of your site to improve understanding, such as:

  • Product or pricing information
  • Help content
  • Legal wording and T&Cs
  • Special offer wording
  • Questions in forms
  • Service emails

How will you know if it’s worked?

From a data point of view you could monitor calls to your call centre, live-chat starts, on-page feedback submissions and click-throughs to help. You’d expect these to decrease. You might also be able to look at brand sentiment through social media channels or complaints data.

Testing comprehension through usability testing is great. Set participants a task, then once they’ve completed it ask questions to see what they understood from the content your testing. Cloze tests or highlighter tests are also a basic way to test comprehension.

A/B tests are a great way to test content changes (image courtesy of FezBot2000 on Unsplash)

4. Conversion

Copy changes can be one of the most effective ways to increase conversion. Here are some of the things you might want to test or optimise:

  • Call to action labels
  • Marketing proposition messaging
  • Price and product information
  • Help copy in forms
  • T&C wording

Help copy in forms and T&Cs are often neglected, but if a user has anxiety about not knowing what’s expected of them, or what they are signing up to, they can drop out at the final hurdle. Making sure your copy is clear and honest is the best way to build trust and improve conversion.

How will you know if it’s worked?

Click-throughs, page progression, quotes or leads, sales, renewals, and newsletter sign-ups are all quite standard metrics to use depending on the copy you’re changing.

Qualitative insights are much more useful to see exactly which copy is causing a user to drop out of a journey. For example on web form, identifying the field or bit of copy that’s causing users to panic or feel frustrated and leave the page, will give you the insight you need to iterate that copy. This can be done by watching users interact with the site, as well as by looking at tools such as heatmaps.

Conversion is often driven by a combination of factors, but usability, comprehension and task completion are important elements, and working on these metrics can have a positive impact on conversion rates too.

To find out why page 4 was seeing such comparatively high drop-outs you’d need to get more insight

5. Task completion

Getting someone through to their task as quickly as possible can be a key goal for many sites who want to ensure an efficient and effective user experience. The balance you must find is one between speed and comprehension. Some experiences shouldn’t be fast; for example purchasing insurance too quickly could lead users to feel wary about having everything covered. If you’re aiming for speed your content needs to be super-clear and transparent. The other way to measure task completion is whether someone could complete their task or not. Content you might test for task completion could be:

  • Online self-service (for example amending account details)
  • Purchase or renewal journey
  • Navigation labels to help users find information (for example help content or a phone number)

How will you know if it’s worked?

If you’re looking at completion time, as with all metrics, you’ll need a benchmark to start from, which means you’ll need to have gained some ‘average time to task’ metrics through user-testing. This gives you a way to assess whether your content change has improved this time. Some great work has been done by the GDS team on benchmarking.

If you don’t have metrics to start from, then usability testing is your best way to test, but you’ll be looking at whether the participants are able to complete the task at all, which arguably you could learn from site metrics.


You might be able to A/B test different versions of the same copy element (so some of your users see one version and the rest see the other). If you can’t run such tests, you might just have to make a change, monitor the results over a set period of time, then revert or iterate if you don’t get your required outcome.

One of the great things about content is that it’s often a relatively easy and cheap way to make small changes but see big results. If you do see big results, then share them widely. To create content advocates, you need to demonstrate the value — so create reports, dashboards, or a ‘successful content tests’ Workplace channel…whatever it takes to tell your story.

This post was originally published on Medium.

Geneva Copenhagen Amsterdam Tue, 24 Sep 2019 17:16:50 +0000 Back in the late 2000s, I used to go to Copenhagen every for an event called Reboot. It was a fun, eclectic mix of talks and discussions, but alas, the last one was over a decade ago.

It was organised by Thomas Madsen-Mygdal. I hadn’t seen Thomas in years, but then, earlier this year, our paths crossed when I was back at CERN for the 30th anniversary of the web. He got a real kick out of the browser recreation project I was part of.

I few months ago, I got an email from Thomas about the new event he’s running in Copenhagen called Techfestival. He was wondering if there was some way of making the WorldWideWeb project part of the event. We ended up settling on having a stand—a modern computer running a modern web browser running a recreation of the first ever web browser from almost three decades ago.

So I showed up at Techfestival and found that the computer had been set up in a Shoreditchian shipping container. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was supposed to do, so I just hung around nearby until someone wandering by would pause and start tentatively approaching the stand.

If you’re at in Copenhagen, drop in to this shipping container where I’ll be demoing

“Would you like to try the time machine?” I asked. Nobody refused the offer. I explained that they were looking at a recreation of the world’s first web browser, and then showed them how they could enter a URL to see how the oldest web browser would render a modern website.

Lots of people entered or, but some people had their own websites, either personal or for their business. They enjoyed seeing how well (or not) their pages held up. They’d take photos of the screen.

People asked lots of questions, which I really enjoyed answering. After a while, I was able to spot the themes that came up frequently. Some people were confusing the origin story of the internet with the origin story of the web, so I was more than happy to go into detail on either or both.

The experience helped me clarify in my own mind what was exciting and interesting about the birth of the web—how much has changed, and how much and stayed the same.

All of this very useful fodder for a conference talk I’m putting together. This will be a joint talk with Remy at the Fronteers conference in Amsterdam in a couple of weeks. We’re calling the talk How We Built the World Wide Web in Five Days:

The World Wide Web turned 30 years old this year. To mark the occasion, a motley group of web nerds gathered at CERN, the birthplace of the web, to build a time machine. The first ever web browser was, confusingly, called WorldWideWeb. What if we could recreate the experience of using it …but within a modern browser! Join (Je)Remy on a journey through time and space and code as they excavate the foundations of Tim Berners-Lee’s gloriously ambitious and hacky hypertext system that went on to conquer the world.

Neither of us is under any illusions about the nature of a joint talk. It’s not half as much work; it’s more like twice the work. We’ve both seen enough uneven joint presentations to know what we want to avoid.

We’ve been honing the material and doing some run-throughs at the Clearleft HQ at 68 Middle Street this week. The talk has a somewhat unusual structure with two converging timelines. I think it’s going to work really well, but I won’t know until we actually deliver the talk in Amsterdam. I’m excited—and a bit nervous—about it.

Whether it’s in a shipping container in Copenhagen or on a stage in Amsterdam, I’m starting to realise just how much I enjoy talking about web history.

This was originally published on my own site.

The discovery phase of our healthcare brief Mon, 23 Sep 2019 10:32:00 +0000 As we introduced in our first blog post, our brief is focused on Primary care and their ambition to ‘Do more with Less’. Whether enhancing the network of primary caregivers, improving efficiency and/or reducing the load on clinicians and staff.

It’s a huge problem area for us to understand and we want to share what we’ve been up to so far.

We have Clearleft at our disposal, whether via meetings, playbacks, our ‘open surgeries’ or over granola and coffee in the morning, however, we have the autonomy to shape our project to some degree.

Discovery playback session with our Clearleft stakeholders

Our fantastic project manager Alison keeps us moving forward at the pace we need to, amongst many things. We agreed to split the 13-week project into three distinct phases; Discovery, Design and Implementation, using the Double Diamond to guide our work through these phases. With a complex problem space, we planned for a slightly longer discovery phase, and to define our focus over five weeks.

Our double diamond

Kicking off discovery

The brief touched on some of the difficulties experienced by our stakeholder GP surgery, these included rural transport, continuity of care and provision of out-of-hours services amongst many others. This helped us not go into the project cold, but we were keen to meet with doctors face to face and delve into their day-to-day life as GPs, as well as introduce ourselves.

We wanted to gauge what the most limiting challenges are. We were interested in who they partner with, the impact of third party innovations in healthcare, and how they operate as part of the newly formed Primary Care Network of Chanctobury. Not only did we listen and learn, but the meeting generated some empathy for the varied challenges in Primary care.

Narrowing down

An affinity mapping exercise back at the office helped us see the themes in what we learned, and helped us mentally get some clarity amongst a sea of new acronyms. We also began building an experience map of people and Primary care journeys.

There were a number of challenges we started to uncover.

  • Transport of people in rural communities to other regional services, especially older people, is pen and paper based and lacks easy volunteer driver organisation.
  • Unsurprisingly, IT capabilities and integration underpin many inefficiencies.
  • Staffing issues, especially turnover and new staff training of front line staff is a pressure on resource and service.
  • New groupings of surgeries, with the Chanctonbury PCN being no different, are just starting to embed ways of working together.
  • Demands on GP surgeries for problems that can be treated at home or with over-the counter remedies
  • Raising awareness amongst patients to direct people to out of hours services at different local practices
  • Mental health in rural communities and impact of isolation.
An experience map of post its on brown papare
Experience map

We wanted to talk further with a wider set of staff. We were very grateful to have the opportunity to return and meet with front line staff, nurses, doctors and the practice manager to talk more around our targeted areas.

We planned the lines of enquiry while allowing for a fluid conversation, and used the app Otter to auto-transcribe the 2.5 hour session for us to refer back to. Initially planned as separate interviews, on the day staff joined us when they were able to step out, so the session naturally became a more informal group interview and discussion.

At Henfield medical centre posing our research questions and faciliatating discussion around the problem space

Exploring the problem space using 'How might we' statements

Compiling our insights we were able to create a first round of ‘How might we’ statements to help identify problem areas that may be helped through design in the time frame we have.

‘How Might We’ (HMW) statements are useful when wanting to frame the broad areas of challenge that you might want to design for. Very deliberate in its wording, ‘How’ reminds us that we don’t know how this can currently be addressed, helping create a sentiment of curiosity and openness to the challenge. ‘Might’ invites the team to consider lots of different ways to come to a solution, which may or may not be used. ‘We’ reminds us of the collaborative nature of most design projects. It provides gentle guidance for the team without restricting too early. These were our first round:


How might we improve self-care rates in rural areas to reduce demand on GP and front line staff time in triaging?


How might we help the surgery and newly formed PCN work with partners to manage community health?

Triaging system

How might we support or scale the Henfield Triage process?

Awareness and communications

How might we help the surgery and PCN better work with partners to manage patients’


How might we help the surgery better communicate with the local community?

Learn more in our first Vlog:

Next steps

We’ve gained incredible new perspectives from experienced Clearlefties in project playback sessions and ‘open surgery’ sessions. We will be going back to our pilot area Henfield, to talk to local users about their experiences and perspectives of GP health care, utilising some of Clearleft’s Guerilla research techniques.

You can follow us on Twitter here to help and follow our project. We’d love the support of the design and research community.

Tiny lesson: rapid builds, email signatures and Airtable Mon, 23 Sep 2019 08:00:00 +0000 We’re fortunate enough to have some rather snazzy email signatures, kindly created by Benjamin. He’s been lovingly crafting these by hand; diligently updating them each time an event concludes or a new Clearleftie joins.

This seemed like a fun and helpful task to automate, and after a morning of hackery, I had a working version of the signature generator deployed and ready for an internal test.

There are a couple of interesting technical decisions which we’ll delve into, but before that, let’s talk about building at pace more generally.

Quick web things, quick web wins

One of my passions is rapidly testing ideas on the web. Development pace is one of the biggest things the web has going for it over native applications. A HTML file, domain, server space and a couple of hours is all you need to get something online.

It’s worth saying upfront that rapid builds are definitely not for everything. In fact, they should be used sparingly for prototypes or side projects that aren’t business-critical. Like the good, fast, cheap venn diagram, quick builds are inherently flawed, but they do still have merit.

I really love a thorough plan and technical spec, but there’s something wonderful about rapidly spiking a problem and not worrying too much about the details. It’s how Sergey, JS Pedalboard, Javasnack and several marginally popular F1 parody websites came about.

The stack isn't really important

Spikes are a great way to try a new technology and learn by making mistakes. The only pre-requisite I’d suggest is to use a stack that you can deploy easily. There’s nothing worse than getting something working locally, then finding you can’t host it without an AWS degree or pricey hosting infrastructure.

In the past, PHP was my jam. It’s still so much easier to host than Node.js, and you can build quickly without getting too bogged down in implementation details. These days I’m tending to lean on static site generators like Hugo and Sergey (shameless plug), before deploying to Netlify.

For this project, I opted for Preact and a small vanilla Node build script. Preact CLI boilerplated the site very quickly, and after a few minutes of stripping back the extra cruft, I had an ES6, reactive and hot-loaded development environment ready. I then ran a quick ‘hello, world’ deploy to confirm it would all build on Netlify.

With that in place, it was time to actually build the darn thing.

From the very rough plan in my head, it appeared there were two main parts to this project:

  1. The template generator - Preact
  2. The data source - JSON & Airtable

Generating code with code

Email signatures are notoriously awful to code, but fortunately Benjamin had done the hard work already! I grabbed an existing signature and converted it into a little method that squirted the parts of a ‘person’ in, mixed it with some sensible defaults, and returned some HTML (well, JSX).

const person = {
  forename: 'Trys',
  surname: 'Mudford',
  team_name: 'trys-mudford',
  avatar_name: 'trys-mudford-small',
  role: 'Front end developer'

renderSignature = person => (
  <div style="min-height:50px;line-height:17px;color:#505050;min-width:350px;font-family: Arial, sans-serif; font-size: 10pt; line-height: 1.5;">
    <a href={data.defaults.team_url + person.team_name}>
        style="float:left;margin:2px 6px 32px 0;width:90px"
        src={data.defaults.avatar_url + person.avatar_name + '.png'}
        alt={person.forename + ' Profile Pic'}
      <strong>{person.forename + ' ' + person.surname}</strong>
      <br />
      {person.role} |{' '}
      <br />

The next step was to import the list of staff from a JSON file, pick out a selected team member and render the above template. Thanks to JS imports, this was nice and clean to achieve:

import { h, Component } from 'preact';
import data from './data';

class App extends Component {
  render() {
    const person = => x.team_name === 'trys-mudford');

    return (
        {person && (
          <section class="person">{this.renderSignature(person)}</section>

Next I moved the hard-coded user identifier up into state, and added a <select> field to control it.

state = {
  teamName: ''

setTeamName = event => {
  this.setState({ teamName: });

render() {
  return (
      <label for="who" class="screen-reader-only">
        Pick a team member
        <option value="">Who are you?</option>
        { => (
          <option value={person.team_name}>
            {person.forename} {person.surname}

Finally, I added a touch of state restoration with the help of localStorage. When a user returns to the site for a second time, their previous staff choice gets prefilled, saving one click. The goal of this site is to save us time so this feature is; although by no means essential, surprisingly useful.

const STORAGE_NAME = 'signatureTeamName';

state = {
  teamName: localStorage.getItem(STORAGE_NAME) || ''

setTeamName = event => {
  this.setState({ teamName: }, () => {
    localStorage.setItem(STORAGE_NAME, this.state.teamName);

With that, plus a bit of styling, the frontend was complete.

Airtable API

The above was achieved with a static JSON file, which was super rapid to build with. As an MVP, this all works and could genuinely be used in production - there’s no shame in avoiding databases altogether. But part of the fun in rapid building is trying new things out.

Airtable is like Excel on steroids - and a spreadsheet seemed like the most straightforward way to get data into this system without getting tied up in databases and servers. I considered Google Sheets, but their API authentication was too cumbersome, so Airtable won the day. As I said, pick tools that deploy easily!

Once I had an API key, I created a file called fetch.js and ran node fetch.js in the terminal. This runs whatever JS is in the file - like a Bash script for those of us who don’t know Bash. Data fetching in Node is still less than ideal, but I’ve got a handy little method that converts the in built https library into a promise:

const https = require('https');

 * Generic HTTP Get request promisified
 * @param {string} url - the API endpoint
 * @returns {Promise<Object>} - the response
function get(url) {
  return new Promise((resolve, reject) => {
      .get(url, res => {
        let data = '';
        res.on('data', chunk => (data += chunk));
        res.on('end', () => resolve(JSON.parse(data)));
      .on('error', err => reject(err));

The response from Airtable is an object with a records array. Each record is a row in the spreadsheet which in turn has a fields property. Each item in this object is keyed to the name of the column, and represents a cell.

I started out writing some fairly dodgy but working™ code to take the rows, loop them and add them to a new array. That array was then converted into a new JSON file ready to be consumed by the Preact application. Once I’d confirmed that was all working, I refactored a bit and ended up with this:

 * Parse Airtable response, running through a transform callback function
 * @param {string} url - the Airtable endpoint
 * @param {transform} transform - the transform function to run through
 * @returns {Promise<AirtableRecord[]>} - an array of records
function fetchFromAirTable(url, transform) {
  return get(url)
    .then(res => res.records
      .filter(x => Object.keys(x.fields).length)

function fetchStaff() {
  return fetchFromAirTable(
    record => ({
      forename: record.fields['First Name'],
      surname: record.fields.Surname,
      team_name: record.fields['Team Name'],
      avatar_name: record.fields['Avatar Name'],
      role: record.fields.Role

(() => {
  console.log('Fetching data from Airtable...');

  return Promise.all([fetchStaff()])
    .then(([team]) => {
      let data = JSON.stringify({
      console.log('Writing results...');
      fs.writeFileSync('src/data/index.json', data);
      console.log('Build complete');
    .catch(err => {
      throw new Error('Fetching failed', err);

Instead of pushing the transformed data into a new array, I relied on the wonderful Array methods we have available in JS. Using .map() with a callback worked as a really neat way to extract the data transformation out into the calling function, simultaneously keeping the data fetching code nice and generic.

Scaling this to work with ‘events’ as well as ‘staff’ was a case of creating a new method, adding the appropriate API URL, and writing a new transform function.

Build time scraping

One option would’ve been to hit the Airtable API directly on the client-side. This has the advantage of always being up to date, but has a few downsides:

  • Additional point of failure on the live site
  • Dependant on Airtable keeping their API format consistent
  • Rate limiting & pricing considerations
  • ‘Dangers’ of exposing all the spreadsheet data
  • Definite dangers of exposing API keys
  • CORS hell

The approach I took was to fetch the data once at build time, create a new JSON file and read that in to Preact. It’s the same technique I used on the 2018 incarnation of Paul the Octopus.

The biggest benefit of this approach is how well it fails. If: Airtable change their API design/auth, someone updates the spreadsheet format drastically, or the sky falls in, new releases will simply not build and the current release will continue to stay live. I’ll get an email alerting me to the failed build, and I can investigate in my own time.

Hiding secrets

With any quick build, you need to decide what’s worth optimising and what’ll ‘do’ for the MVP. If you get bogged down optimising prematurely, you’ll never ship anything. If you cut too many corners, the product will be unsalvageable. The trick is to avoid painting oneself into a corner.

Environment variables are one of those things that are worth setting up early doors. They’re not exactly exciting, but retrospectively adding them is even less fun. Plus, the very act of adding them to a project forces you to consider how the site will be deployed.

Hard coding secrets into a repository isn’t a hugely clever idea, so it’s good practice to create an .env file, pull in the dotenv module, and rely on environment variables from the start.

Come up with a plan

You don’t have to fly totally blind with projects like this. It’s worth coming up with a small plan, even if it’s only in your head. For this project, the plan looked a bit like:

  • Decide on a stack
  • Bootstrap the site
  • Render a plain HTML signature
  • Make a template to render a signature from an object
  • Extract user details & defaults into a JSON file
  • Fetch something from Airtable
  • Save that thing as JSON
  • Trigger the fetch at build time

If you have a reasonably big idea in mind, it’s worth breaking it down into smaller features first. This ‘backlog prioritisation’ exercise might sound pretty formal for a single day build, but I find it helps me stay focused. I quite like GitHub projects & Trello for this task - I’ll make ‘MVP, nice to have, backlog, in progress, done’ columns and divide the features accordingly. The MoSCoW method is a decent alternative approach.

Guessed requirements

The final thing I wanted to touch on was guessed requirements. It’s an inevitability that the thing you build will have some rough edges and won’t work perfectly first time out. But that’s okay, you’re not building a business-critical system, you’re building a ✨ fun web thing

With this project, I got a bit carried away and added a ‘copy the code’ feature. It ran the renderSignature method through Preact’s render to string library, before copying it to your clipboard with execCommand. There were some interesting success/error states to consider and I had to use refs to select DOM nodes within the application.

The only problem was, the feature wasn’t needed.

Gmail and Apple mail both work from the default browser selection and clipboard, and don’t allow you to paste HTML. So the feature was swiftly removed. It could’ve been avoided with some basic specifications, but it also wasn’t a big deal. The feature took about 30 minutes to add, and was a nice problem to solve.

The fact that it didn’t make it to launch matters little, it was still useful to learn and code, even if I was the only beneficiary.

This was originally posted on my website.

Applying a system mindset at both a service and product level Thu, 19 Sep 2019 09:10:44 +0000 Over my career, I’ve applied my design skills in a number of different realms.

I’ve been called an ‘Ergonomist’ designing a national transport system, I’ve been called a ‘Service Designer’ designing an end-to-end airport passenger experience and more recently at Clearleft I’ve been called a ‘UX Designer’ designing a relationship management product for a large investment bank. However, the one thing that has stood me in good stead throughout my whole career is taking a system’s approach to all problems - no matter whether they are at a service or product level.

I'm not a fan of the phrase 'digital service design'

The benefits of taking a system’s approach at a service design level is well understood. The whole premise behind service design is that an experience should be designed across all customer touchpoints - including understanding how the tangible and intangible components influence one another within the whole system. It’s one of the reasons the new term of ‘digital service design’ has never sat well with me as, unless the service is 100% digital, dividing the service design between the digital and non-digital parts defeats the object.

At a product level, your brief is typically more focused on an individual/subset of product(s) or service ’touchpoints’. However, it’s absolutely critical not to lose sight of where this component sits within the broader service strategy - what is your role, what is your relationship with other touchpoints and how might your design decisions influence other areas of the service.

Ultimately, the experience is defined by all touch-points, not just the ones you are focused on.

The risk of not maintaining a systems mindset

Not maintaining this system mindset at all levels is one of the reasons in my experience that it’s all too easy for the original service strategy to get lost at execution or take a life of its own. One of my favourite quotes of all time is this one by Steve Jobs which highlights that the journey from idea to product is rarely a straight one:

You know, one of the things that really hurt Apple was after I left John Sculley got a very serious disease. It’s the disease of thinking that a really great idea is 90% of the work. And if you just tell all these other people ‘here’s this great idea’ then of course they can go off and make it happen. And the problem with that is that there’s just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product. And as you evolve that great idea, it changes and grows. It never comes out like it starts because you learn a lot more as you get into the subtleties of it. And you also find there are tremendous tradeoffs that you have to make.

Steve Jobs

Successful innovation relies on both service and product-level design working hand-in-hand. This is importantly a two-way relationship that requires everyone to understand that executed well the whole can actually be greater than the sum of all the parts.

A new way to talk about content strategy Fri, 13 Sep 2019 09:03:00 +0000 I don’t know about you, but I need methodology and theory to be really simple, and also visual. ‘Draw me a diagram’ is often my go-to line. I find it very hard to make the abstract tangible and practical without clear diagrams and examples.

For this reason I sometimes struggle to articulate content strategy to clients and colleagues. It’s essentially the substance, tools, people and process that get you to your outcomes — or how to focus your efforts to achieve your goals. And that’s important, because without focus you’re just building ‘stuff’ without purpose.

But when it comes to breaking that down into tangible things that a business can do, I just couldn’t find a diagram that said what I wanted it to. So I’ve created my own.

Content strategy as a process

It made sense for me to think of a strategy in the form of a process – the steps to get from here to success. So the steps I’ve come up with are:

1. Focus

What are you trying to achieve as a business, and what do your users need? Thinking about your user goals in terms of business value can help to align these.

For example, if customers are seeking more information on a particular topic, by providing that info you can keep customers onsite for longer and increase the chances of them buying. You meet their needs and by doing so, sell more.

While the overall goal you are trying to achieve through content is probably sales or loyalty, think about the more granular metrics that contribute towards this about might be more relevant to user needs.

Once you’ve drawn out the areas to focus on, you can define a content mission statement.

2. Foundations

In order to create effective content you need to lay the foundations. This consists of:

  • your values (which are aligned to your content mission)
  • voice and tone
  • the substance and structure of your content, ie. WHAT will you be creating or refining?

Once you know what you need to create, it’s easier to work out how to get there.

3. People

It goes without saying you’ll need someone to create or refine your content. Perhaps multiple teams and disciplines need to be involved? Setting out the roles and responsibilities is particularly important when you don’t have a defined content team. Who needs to provide product information, and who has overall accountability for the content once it’s live? No accountability isn’t just dangerous from a quality point of view. If no one’s reviewing the existing content once it’s live then you’re accumulating content debt.

4. Process

The next thing to focus on is your production and build process. This could be very simple if you’re a team of one or embedded in a product team. But if you’re in a large, fragmented organisation it’ll be more complex. Creating briefing templates or setting SLAs (service level agreements) might even be necessary if you’re managing a vast number of stakeholder requests. The great thing about defining metrics and KPIs is that you now have a criteria to prioritise content against. If it’s not contributing to business goals or metrics then is it really a priority, or do you need to include other objectives options in your brief such as ‘legal requirement’?

If you have a CMS it’s best practice to document the workflow and list out creators, editors etc. Even if this is just to keep track of who has access. You’ll need to make sure there’s a process for removing users when they leave the business or adding new users when they join too.

Under process I’d also include style guides and QA checklists. Part of any content production is ensuring it’s governed in such a way that whoever produces it achieves a high quality and consistent piece of content. When multiple content creators exist you’ll need guidelines to make sure this happens.

5. Measurement

Much like the agile process of test and learn, we must make sure we’re tracking against our targets. Whether this is through analytics and data, or more qualitative feedback such as usability testing, we need to revisit what’s gone live. In the case of a large website with multiple content producers, it’s advisable to review the content at regular intervals and check it’s still accurate and fit for purpose.

6. Maintenence

Once our content is live our work isn’t done. Iterating content, testing new versions (through AB testing) and optimising for usability isn’t just advised, it’s essential if we want our site to be the best it can be. We all like to think that when we hit publish that it’s the best work we’ve ever done. But the chances are that looking at your site with a critical eye will highlight lots of room for improvement.

Content strategies are only achievable with buy-in from senior stakeholders, which is sometimes tricky. My top tip is to include them in the strategy creation process. Start with stakeholder interviews to understand what they think the company should be trying to achieve through content, and bring them into any workshops you run. In a recent presentation by Gather Content I heard:


so the appetite for better content is there. But better content doesn’t just happen — it starts with a better strategy.

This post was originally published on Medium

Tiny Lesson: 3 useful Figma features Thu, 12 Sep 2019 10:47:00 +0000 I recently started designing and prototyping in Figma and I want to quickly show you three useful features I’ve discovered. Those are smart selection, colour styles, and prototype master connections.

Smart selection

When you select elements which are evenly spaced, Figma recognises that these are related and allows you to adjust the spacing for all of them at once. You can also swap the position of these elements without disturbing the spacing. You can read more about smart selection on Figma here.

Colour Styles

In Figma you can save any colour as a style and apply it to fills, strokes, and text to ensure consistency throughout your designs. Any updates you make to your colour styles will be immediately reflected in your file or project, anywhere you’ve applied that style. The real-time updating means you can tweak colours and test colour combinations really fast with your actual components. This is the way that colour styles should work in a design tool, but it could also be a really cool way to help you with some specific tasks, like adjusting brand colours to meet accessibility requirements, or I could see this working really well to help with designing a themable template.

Prototype connections

If you have a component which appears on multiple pages, like a website header or footer, connections added to the master instance of that component will work in all of its instances. I think at the moment this only works if the master component is on the same page as its instances but it’s still really useful and can save a lot of time. Here’s some more information on creating prototypes in Figma.

Those are just a few of the nice touches Figma has introduced that I’ve found useful. I’m really enjoying using the app – it’s a pretty exciting tool and I’m learning something new about it every day. It’s definitely my first choice design app at the moment. It’s cross-platform and there’s a free tier, so have a look, and let us know what you think.

Getting started Mon, 09 Sep 2019 10:53:23 +0000 I got an email recently from a young person looking to get into web development. They wanted to know what languages they should start with, whether they should a Mac or a Windows PC, and what some places to learn from.

I wrote back, saying this about languages:

For web development, start with HTML, then CSS, then JavaScript (and don’t move on to JavaScript too quickly—really get to grips with HTML and CSS first).

And this is what I said about hardware and software:

It doesn’t matter whether you use a Mac or a Windows PC, as long as you’ve got an internet connection, some web browsers (Chrome, Firefox, for example) and a text editor. There are some very good free text editors available for Mac and PC:

For resources, I had a trawl through links I’ve tagged with “learning” and “html” and sent along some links to free online tutorials:

After sending that email, I figured that this list might be useful to anyone else looking to start out in web development. If you know of anyone in that situation, I hope this list might help.

This was originally posted on my own site.

Hello from the Interns Thu, 05 Sep 2019 08:30:00 +0000 We’re pretty excited to be part of the Clearleft 2019 Internship Programme. We’ll be sharing our design process with you throughout our journey – but before we do, let’s introduce ourselves and the project.

Clearleft has seen past interns produce some great solutions, such as a connected audio player and a product to empower citizens in planning applications. This year we’re exploring the opportunities for user-centred design and technology to enhance primary care in the NHS (GP services).

The NHS is undergoing both a digital transformation and operational one with the recent grouping of surgeries into Primary Care Networks (PCNs). This will enable efficiencies and greater resilience, but it’s early days. Alongside this the NHS continues to feel pressures from growing patient demand and falling GP numbers.

This project brings doctors and designers to the table with a shared purpose of uncovering opportunities and designing for good to support our much loved NHS.

A bit about us

Beyza has a background in industrial design and recently finished her master’s degree in Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Technologies from Strathclyde Business School. She has expertise in medical device design and UX, and has founded a start-up in oral health technologies. She was also the design manager at Ege University design centre, supporting innovation in the medical sector. She’s excited to join this programme to improve her UX & UI skills in healthcare technologies.

Holly is a UX Designer with an interest in health and nutrition, in particular in the growing research area of the human microbiome and disease. She has trained in biomedicine and volunteered for the mental health charity Mind. After 12 years crafting solutions and engaging users in reducing carbon emissions she successfully completed a 3 month immersive programme in UX Design. She’s excited to have joined Clearleft in her home city where she can build her skills alongside a team of talented designers.

Lacin is a researcher and multidisciplinary designer. Having completed an interior architecture degree she continued her studies by doing a masters degree in Design where she started to become interested in design research. Her research focuses on sensory design, biophilia and immersive environments within the healthcare industry. She is very excited to collaborate with talented people from various backgrounds and learn as much as she can about the design and research process in an agile environment.

Discovery to implementation

This is a three month project. We’re lucky to have a project manager, helping us to keep to our trajectory. Five days in we are deep in the discovery phase of this vast problem area, speaking with local doctors. During the second month we will be exploring different designs for our target problem before the final stage of implementation in which we will be bringing that solution to life.

You can follow us on twitter @clearleftintern and we will be posting regular blog posts here on the Clearleft site. If you have any comments or want to share any experiences or ideas in this area you can email us.

Debunking some design sprints myths Thu, 29 Aug 2019 14:33:00 +0000 We regularly use design sprints to help clients to accelerate design, unblock problems and investigate new ideas. We’re big fans of design sprints when done well. However …

… we also find there are some common misunderstandings about the technique pioneered by Jake Knapp and the team at Google Ventures.

During UX London Jerlyn and I ran a Design Sprint 102 workshop. As part of it, we tested 5 myths we often hear by getting people to run to different sides of a room to show if they thought a statement was true or false.

We discovered there was little consensus in the attendees’ answers.

So which side of the room would you go to? For each of the five myths below do you think the statement is true or false?

Chris running a design sprint workshop in a large glass room at UX London
Chris and Jerlyn running the Design Sprint 102 workshop at UX London 2019

Myth 1: Design sprints only work for digital products

Answer… False

Design sprints are delivery medium agnostic. If you have a business challenge that you want to give focus to by exploring, creating and testing possible solutions then a design sprint can be a valuable approach.

We’ve used design sprints to reimagine a Council’s omnichannel service delivery, to redesign billing information (including the paper version) for a utility company, as well as on many digital products.

In his Sprint book, Jake Knapp talks about using the process for making and testing a new chocolate bar. Ex-Clearleftie, Cennydd Bowles has an [ethical design sprint] ( to shape policy and procedures.

The size and nature of the design problem are more important than if the solution is digital, physical or a mix of both.

Myth 2: Design sprints are a cheap 
way to do quality design work

Answer… False

It’s easy to see the appeal to business decision-makers in the strapline from the Sprint Book. Who doesn’t want to ‘Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days’.

In organisations where there is a perception that design takes too long and innovation is costly then a design sprint may appear to be a silver bullet.

However, design sprints can be incredibly wasteful if you don’t focus on the right problem. Afterall they involve a lot of concentrated time from a team of skilled people.

The true value in a design sprint is in exploring new possibilities and learning quickly the ones that offer value to pursue further and the ones to let go.

Myth 3: You can test your prototypes
 with whoever you can find

Answer… True but …

The final day of the design sprint is set aside to test your ideas. This is where you learn what is useful and desirable for the intended audience.

Our top tip is to build as little as you can to learn as much as you can. Aim to be prototype ready not production ready. It’s okay if your artefact for testing is held together with sticky tape and string.

When it comes to who to evaluate your ideas with always test with people who belong in the space you are exploring. Shortcuts in recruiting lead to a shortfall in insight.

When testing for usability you can get away with a less strict recruit. When testing for desirability and validating user needs then make sure you research with people who’ll use your product or service.

Myth 4: Design sprints are a great way to show your organisation the value and benefit of design

Answer… True but …

As fans of design sprints, we certainly advocate using them as a low-risk and relatively low-cost method for exploring potentially high-value ideas.

We have many examples of design sprint successes both in developing new products and services but also in engaging stakeholders in the value design and design thinking offers.

However, it is easy for teams and stakeholders to become addicted to the energy and excitement a design sprint generates. There is often a danger that this leads to becoming blinkered to other design techniques.

Design sprints are best as a kick-starter but lack the rigour to deliver fully considered products or services.

Myth 5: A design sprint is a 
 five-day long process

Answer: False

The length of a design sprint is not fixed. We have taken the principles of a structured rapid design process and applied it to projects ranging from four days to three weeks. The semi-official design sprint 2.0 outlines, as a headline at least, a four-day process. Although it shrinks the week by a day by moving some activities into pre and post phases of the design sprint.

There seems to be an arms race going on to see how quickly you can run a design sprint. If you search on Medium you’ll find articles on running a one-day design sprint, topped by the five-hour design sprint that gets superseded by the three-hour version before another article trims this to a two-hour process. At some point, you don’t have space and time to explore possibilities but merely to badly execute your first obvious ideas.

Be careful of speed design. Design sprints are best to address tricky challenges with a degree of divergent thinking. If the business challenge you face is worth investigating then it needs enough time to figure out and to play around with some design alternatives that move away from just obvious and safe solutions.

Interested in design sprints?

Find out more about Design Sprints at Clearleft with a collection of our thoughts and resources to help you get more from this valuable and often misunderstood design technique.

Linear Interpolation Functions Wed, 21 Aug 2019 11:00:00 +0000 Linear Interpolation isn’t just for animation, it’s amazing for data manipulation and a worthwhile tool to have in your coding arsenal.

I wrote a blog post some months back on Linear Interpolation. It was a subject I knew very little about at the time, having not done a great deal of animation work. But now I know a little more, I’ve found it’s been one of those techniques I keep coming back to for most projects.

What I’ve learned is that interpolation isn’t just about animation, or even about visual things—it’s about data conversion.

Aside: that might sound a bit heavy or dry, but it’s how my brain works! I love how different coding concepts ‘click’ for different people in different ways.

Among more traditional animation-y things, I’ve used these techniques to calculate rotary dial positions on the guitar pedalboard, mapped usernames to fallback avatars on Daisie and plotted typographic graphs on a side project I’m currently building.

The four functions

const lerp = (x, y, a) => x * (1 - a) + y * a;
const clamp = (a, min = 0, max = 1) => Math.min(max, Math.max(min, a));
const invlerp = (x, y, a) => clamp((a - x) / (y - x));
const range = (x1, y1, x2, y2, a) => lerp(x2, y2, invlerp(x1, y1, a));

There’s a Typescript version at the bottom of the page, if you’re that way inclined.


A lerp returns the value between two numbers at a specified, decimal midpoint:

lerp(20, 80, 0)   // 20
lerp(20, 80, 1)   // 80
lerp(20, 80, 0.5) // 40

It’s great for answering gnarly maths questions like: “What number is 35% between 56 and 132?” with elegance: lerp(56, 132, 0.35). My maths skills aren’t all that, so it’s great to have these up my sleeve.

Here’s an example that converts a range slider set between 0 and 1, to a hsl() colour with hue degrees of 11 through 60.

See the Pen Lerp by Trys Mudford (@trys) on CodePen.


The clamp method is wonderfully dull. You give it a number and then a minimum & maximum. If your number falls within the bounds of the min & max, it’ll return it. If not, it’ll return either the minimum it’s smaller, or the maximum if it’s bigger.

clamp(24, 20, 30) // 24
clamp(12, 20, 30) // 20
clamp(32, 20, 30) // 30

It’s really handy for preventing absurd numbers from entering a calculation, stopping an element from rendering off screen, or controlling the edges of a <canvas>.

Here’s an example that lets you add or subtract 10 from the current number, but clamped between 0 and 100.

See the Pen Clamp by Trys Mudford (@trys) on CodePen.

Inverse Lerp

This works in the opposite way to the lerp. Instead of passing a decimal midpoint, you pass any value, and it’ll return that decimal, wherever it falls on that spectrum. Internally it also uses a clamp, so you never get unwieldy values back.

invlerp(50, 100, 75)  // 0.5
invlerp(50, 100, 25)  // 0
invlerp(50, 100, 125) // 1

This is great for scroll animations. Questions like “How far through this section has the user scrolled?” can be neatly answered with code like:

const position = el.getBoundingClientRect();
const howFarThrough = invlerp(,

Here’s an example that tracks the percentage scroll position of a target slab against the viewport.

See the Pen Inverse Lerp by Trys Mudford (@trys) on CodePen.


This final method is ace. It’s a one-liner that converts a value from one data range to another. That might sound a bit arbitrary, but it’s surprisingly useful. We pass in two data ranges and a value that sits within data range one (it will still be clamped).

//    Range 1    Range 2    Value
range(10, 100, 2000, 20000, 50) // 10000

Taking the previous example up a notch, let’s say that as the user scrolls through a section, we want to subtly move an element down the page by 150px. The section is in the middle of the document, starting at 3214px and ending at 3892px, and we want to convert window.scrollY from the big range down to a value between 0px and 150px. That’s a pretty nasty calculation to make, but range() makes it nice and clean.

const position = el.getBoundingClientRect();
const transformY = range(,

If the user is above the section, it’ll be clamped to 0px. If they’re below, it’ll be clamped to 150px. And in all positions in between, it’ll evenly interpolate between the values.

The final example takes the previous Codepen and maps the result against a transform: translateY range of -20% to 20%. Parallax, eat your heart out.

See the Pen Range by Trys Mudford (@trys) on CodePen.

Typescript version

const lerp = (x: number, y: number, a: number) => x * (1 - a) + y * a;
const invlerp = (x: number, y: number, a: number) => clamp((a - x) / (y - x));
const clamp = (a: number, min = 0, max = 1) => Math.min(max, Math.max(min, a));
const range = (
  x1: number,
  y1: number,
  x2: number,
  y2: number,
  a: number
) => lerp(x2, y2, invlerp(x1, y1, a));

This was originally posted on my website.

Practical tips in running your first diary study - pt.1 Mon, 19 Aug 2019 11:00:00 +0000 Trying research methods for the first time can be daunting. While it’s helpful to add new methods to your toolkit, it’s also important not to let the learning curve interfere with the results. Here are a few planning tips to get the most out of running your first diary study.

What is a diary study?

A diary study is a qualitative research method that records aspects of participants’ daily lives and environments over a designated period of time. Traditionally diary studies were recorded in a physical journal, but more recently mobile technology allows us to collect richer and more varied data points - photos, videos, short or long-form text, and geolocation. Typically an exit interview is conducted with a selection of participants at the end of the study to interrogate their entries and gain deeper insight into their experiences. If possible, this happens at their own home or workplace in order to gain further insight and capture additional data points.

Why conduct a diary study?

The success of any research study is underpinned by the methodologies selected to meet the research goals. When your research goals are to gain a deep understanding of people’s behaviours, experiences and surroundings over time, interviews and lab tests will only get you so far.

This is when a diary study is a good selection. It helps to tell the story of how products and services fit into people’s daily lives, and the touchpoints and channels they choose to complete their jobs.

Where ‘true’ ethnographic field studies require researchers to be embedded in the participant’s context making first-hand observations, diary studies require participants to self-select relevant moments and share them remotely through a mobile phone app. As you can imagine, these two methods require different amounts of resources and planning and can generate different results. Here are some reasons you might want to consider a diary study:

  • Remote participation allows for a broader geographic spread of locations.
  • Multiple research sessions can be run concurrently.
  • Costs are significantly lower than in-person field studies.

Diary studies can also be a resource-intensive method to setup and run. Here are some of our most useful learnings so you don’t have to learn them the hard way.

Evaluating tools

Having a reliable and easy-to-use tool for submitting and analysing diary entries is fundamental to a successful diary study. We recommend investigating the options available long before your study begins.

There are many digital diary study tools on the market, most of which offer a free trial or a demo. We highly recommend setting up a 1:1 call to run through the software and answer any questions you might have. Many have an example project to run through that will give you a feel for the study setup, entry monitoring and analysis features on offer. This is also your opportunity to talk about pricing if you are on a restricted budget.

Getting familiar with diary study software over a 1:1 video call

We’d advise getting your hands on a trial version and running a pilot study with your internal team. Doing this helps to weed out any problems you or your participants might have. You might want to consider:

  • Participant onboarding and app setup. How many hoops do your participants need to jump through to get started? Are participants able to get setup unaided?
  • Diary study entry submission. What is the experience like for the participant submitting entries? Does it allow for structured tasks and open entries?
  • Performance issues. What happens when battery saver mode is switched on? Does it work consistently on various devices, on both iOS and Android?
  • Administrator view. How flexible is the backend of the system? Can you layer additional data onto your participant profiles?
  • Analysis features. Does the software allow you to run any analysis? What is the export feature like?

A pilot study also helps to test your hypotheses and assumptions before you commit to the final study design.


Designing the study

With your pilot study complete and the most appropriate tool selected, you’ll be in a good place to design your study.

Designing how your participants submit their entries is a careful balancing act, and will ultimately cause a tradeoff:

  • Too many data points can be overwhelming. Too few can leave you frustrated.
  • Small and frequent entries can provide granular detail. Large infrequent entries can expose relationships and reflective stories, but require work to separate into individual data points.
  • Broad and unstructured entries can expose interesting unknowns but provide a shallow depth of insight. Narrow and structured entries may result in deep but biased results.


One useful technique we’ve used is to reserve a few spot tasks to be completed during the study. These give you a little bit of flexibility during the study to ask deeper questions around themes that begin to emerge. Tasks may involve replying to an email with questions about a particular diary entry, completing an online survey or a specific task or mission.

With your tasks agreed, it’s time to write a guide to onboard your study participants. This should set the expectations of the study clearly, written in a language they understand. Your friendly neighbourhood content writer will be pleased to help here; if your neighbourhood doesn’t have one, go out and find one, they’re awesome and indispensable!

Preparing the participants

With your study guide written and given the seal of approval by your new content buddy, it’s time to brief your participants.

At this point we’re going to assume you’ve properly screened your participants. They are being incentivised for their time and are willing to take part in a follow-up interview. They’ve also received your study guide ahead of the study start date.

Incentives will depend on the length of the study, the number, frequency and type of entries you require your participants to share. A quick way to validate your costs is to work out an hourly rate based on how long you expect your participants to be submitting entries for, over the course of the study. Ask yourself, “Would I go out of my way to contribute to the study for this amount?” If the answer is “no” it’s likely you’re participants will answer the same way. If you are using a recruitment agency they will be able to advise on incentive costs.

Checking in with participants before the diary study starts

The week before the study begins, it’s important to check-in with your participants to talk through the expectations of the research and answer their questions. Depending on your recruitment process this may be the first time you’ve been in direct contact with them, so think of this as the start of your rapport-building. A diary study often involves participants sharing personal aspects of their lives so showing you are trustworthy at this point will pay dividends during the study. With this in mind, we highly recommend doing this face-to-face if you can, or via a video call as an alternative.

Once the study has started, it’s easy to focus on participants that are less engaged, have technical problems or general questions.


We find it useful to write a couple of stock emails before the study begins, one to encourage less engaged participants, and another to reassure participants that are on track. Having these responses in reserve helps to free up time to do research instead of admin.

It’s inevitable that a small number of your participants will completely disengage during the study, so it’s worth recruiting a few extra participants to ensure you meet your target number of interviews. An early conversation with your client or stakeholder about this helps to avoid misunderstandings about the quality of the participants and your recruitment efforts.


Be mindful of when your study will be conducted and whether events around that time may cause unintended or unexpected behaviour.


Depending on your sample size and time constraints, you may want to consider splitting your participants into two or more groups, and stagger the study over a number of weeks. A staggered schedule helps to ease the intensity of monitoring diary entries, enabling you to avoid key dates for all of your participants e.g. public holidays. It also creates an opportunity to learn and adapt the study over a longer period of time.

If you are running staggered start dates, it’s a good idea to group participants by location and ensure they start and end the study at the same time. This will save you the headache later when trying to schedule home-visit interviews across multiple cities.


Diary studies are an effective way to gain deep contextual insight at a fraction of the cost of a true field study. They’re also a lot of fun to run. With the right amount of preparation you can reduce the time spent on admin tasks and participant hand-holding, and refocus your efforts on the research itself.

Here are our top 4 takeaways:

  1. Run a pilot study on the topic you are researching
  2. Design the study based on what you have learned (see 1)
  3. Prepare your participants with concise, understandable instructions
  4. Select the best dates for your study to run

Good luck with your diary study and happy researching!

This article is part of a series. We’ll give tips on what to do once your diary study is in motion in part two.

This was originally posted on my own website.

Tiny Lesson: The 20-second gut test Mon, 19 Aug 2019 10:22:00 +0000 Ah, the sweet smell of exploring a new project’s design direction. Often one of the most exciting parts of a project, it’s where stakeholders tend to show a lot of interest.

The visual side of design is something most people can relate to versus the abstract nature of user flows and journey maps. Yet this can be a double-edged sword. Visual design exploration can uncover strong opinions, yet stakeholders might not have the ability to articulate what they’re looking for in their future product or service.

This subjectivity can quickly eat into a project’s time and throw things off-course. Gaining rapid consensus of what the design style and direction will be is what the 20-second gut test aims to solve.

We’ve written about this workshop before, and now you can consume it in video form.

Keep reading if you need a more detailed breakdown.

What you’ll need

This workshop needs some prep, often up to half a day before you’re meeting your client. It’s important to get all stakeholders in the room for this one, so plan ahead to make sure they’re all present. The risk here is not having everyone’s voice heard, which could derail the design phase later on.

For materials you’ll need a keynote or Powerpoint deck (and make sure you have all the dongles for connectivity), printed score sheets, and sharpies.

The Pre-Prep

The preparation for this workshop involves a lot of hunting and gathering. You’ll need to have a good idea of your client’s industry, competition and aspirations - most of which will have been gathered in the research phases of the project.

Spend your half day collecting various screen grabs or clippings that best represent a broad spectrum of your client’s requirements. If you’re stuck for what to look for take a look at the original brief and start with the biggest brands that come to mind. Then work your way down from there.

Start screen-grabbing the obvious, aspirational designs. We like to aim for 20 strong candidates, but make sure you’re finding design examples that run the full spectrum - from high-end to some jokers. These jokers can provide a lot of insight… if you throw some really off-piste, whacky design styles in there, they’ll elicit a reaction, good or bad.

Try not to show just ‘screen design’ either. Show other things like interior design, architecture or movie posters. This is where your taste and curation abilities come in. What you’re aiming for is a strong range of design styles.

Next, add all 20 screen grabs into a keynote or powerpoint deck. For each slide, assign a letter from the alphabet, so first slide is A, second is B and so on. Make sure this is clearly placed on each slide.

For a nice touch add a 20 second delay to each slide (that’s where it gets its name), and auto-scrolling. This helps stakeholders see the screen grab in context versus just a quick snapshot.

The Workshop

With your stakeholders in a room, introduce what you’re going to do. At this point hand out a score sheets to each attendee.

These score sheets will have as many rows as your slides. Each row is assigned a letter of the alphabet, with a Likert scale showing a range of 1-5. 1 has the stakeholder strongly disliking the screen shown, and 5 has the stakeholder strongly liking.

Play on your deck. Your stakeholders will mark each screen with their preference. The 20 seconds for each slide enforces the most ‘visceral’ or ‘gut’ reaction to the aesthetics shown on-screen. It’s intentionally short and snappy.

Once finished, collect the sheets and quickly calculate the results. Use our handy spreadsheet (links provided below) to provide the average score and heat map for each slide shown.

A trick we do at Clearleft: quickly go back through the slides and change the colour of the top-ranked slides as the room discusses their likes and dislikes, as per the calculated averages. Being able to show the top- and bottom-ranked slides makes it easier to discuss their merits and, of course, why the group collectively ranked these as they did.

The Outcomes

The most important aspect of this workshop is the discussion at the end. The opinions around why the group collectively chose certain styles over others is what you need to establish a clear design direction.

Chances are you’ll be a lot closer to nailing the direction faster than simply exploring from scratch, plus it’s given your stakeholders a way to articulate what they like and don’t like.


Be sure to grab the scoresheet and results calculator to help you when running your next gut test workshop.

Leading Design New York talks Thu, 15 Aug 2019 15:54:33 +0000 We are thrilled to share the talks from the incredible design leaders who joined us on Wythe Avenue for the first Leading Design New York.

After three successful years in London, we decided to bring Leading Design to New York. A sell-out event which quickly amassed a waiting list of over 800. There is such a wealth of incredible content, inspiration and practical tools included in these talks which we know will be of huge value to you all and the wider design leadership community.

Once again a huge thank you to our amazing speakers:

Amélie Lamont on stage at Leading Design New York
Amélie Lamont on stage at Leading Design New York
Todd Zaki Warfel stirring up some honest moments on stage at Leading Design New York where audience are raising their hands
Todd Zaki Warfel stirring up some honest moments on stage at Leading Design New York

Leading Design New York 2019 happened with the support of our amazing sponsors. Many thanks to Google, InVision, Salesforce, Capital One, Mailchimp, Spotify Design and Def Method.

Leading Design London is now sold out, there are a few early bird tickets for San Francisco 2020, they are selling fast so do pick one up soon.

Clearleft launched Leading Design to help design leaders connect, learn and feel inspired by their peers. When working with leadership teams across the world, it became clear that everyone has the same challenges. We wanted to put together a unique programme of events to help tackle some of the most pressing challenges and create an all-too-rare opportunity to meet like-minded design leaders, swap war stories and build relationships to last the rest of your careers.

Have a look around our site to learn more about who we are, what we do and how we’ve worked collaboratively with other design leaders and businesses.

UX London 2019 talks Mon, 05 Aug 2019 14:08:00 +0000 Our 11th UX London saw three days of talks on designing products, designing for people and finally designing the future. There was much food for thought (and food to eat!), we wanted to share some of the talks with you.

Plus early bird tickets for UX London 2020 are on sale now.

Designing products

Day one was centred around designing products that deliver value to customers and your business. Thinking about how best to conceive user-centred products and bring them to market. We are very grateful for our speakers who challenged practice, process and team structure, you can watch most of these again here:

Andy Budd on stage launching UX London 2019
Andy Budd on stage launching UX London 2019

Designing for people

Day two was all about taking your customer experience to the next level and unlocking the power of user-centred design. We unearthed the often overlooked parts of service design and the best ways you and your team can develop powerful empathy with your users. Thank you once again to all our speakers, including these talks:

Erika Hall at UX London

Designing the future

We curated day three to allow us to explore the new tools, tech­nolo­gies, and inter­ac­tion trends shap­ing our future work. Where will the rise of AI take us? Are con­ver­sa­tion­al inter­faces the next fron­tier? How can we adapt to ever-changing consumer expectations? With thanks to our speakers who drew UX London to a close with big thinking, strong ethics and new models for us all to take forward:

UX London 2019 happened with the support of our amazing sponsors. Many thanks to Google, InVision, Balsamiq, Monzo, Futureheads and Spotify Design.

Tickets for 2020 have just gone on sale. UX London is a Clearleft event. Our team of industry-leading strategists, design thinkers, technologists and innovators work inside global brands to help design leaders get the most from their products, services & teams. Human-centred design is, and always has been, central to the Clearleft philosophy.

Have a look around our site to learn more about who we are, what we do and how we’ve helped others.

Principle Thu, 01 Aug 2019 14:36:00 +0000 I like good design principles. I collect design principles—of varying quality—at Ben Brignell also has a (much larger) collection at

You can spot the less useful design principles after a while. They tend to be wishy-washy; more like empty aspirational exhortations than genuinely useful guidelines for alignment. I’ve written about what makes for good design principles before. Matthew Ström also asked—and answered—What makes a good design principle?

  • Good design principles are memorable.
  • Good design principles help you say no.
  • Good design principles aren’t truisms.
  • Good design principles are applicable.

I like those. They’re like design principles for design principles.

One set of design principles that I’ve included in my collection is from government design principles. I think they’re very well thought-through (although I’m always suspicious when I see a nice even number like 10 for the amount of items in the list). There’s a great line in design principle number two—Do less:

Government should only do what only government can do.

This wasn’t a theoretical issue. The multiple departmental websites that preceded were notorious for having too much irrelevant content—content that was readily available elsewhere. It was downright wasteful to duplicate that content on a government site. It wasn’t appropriate.

Appropriateness is something I keep coming back to when it comes to evaluating web technologies. I don’t think there are good tools and bad tools; just tools that are appropriate or inapropriate for the task at hand. Whether it’s task runners or JavaScript frameworks, appropriateness feels like it should be the deciding factor.

I think that the design principle from GDS could be abstracted into a general technology principle:

Any particular technology should only do what only that particular technology can do.

Take JavaScript, for example. It feels “wrong” when a powerful client-side JavaScript framework is applied to something that could be accomplished using HTML. Making a blog that’s a single page app is over-engineering. It violates this principle:

JavaScript should only do what only JavaScript can do.

Need to manage state or immediately update the interface in response to user action? Only JavaScript can do that. But if you need to present the user with some static content, JavaScript can do that …but it’s not the only technology that can do that. HTML would be more appropriate.

I realise that this is basically a reformulation of one of my favourite design principles, the rule of least power:

Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

Or, as Derek put it:

In the web front-end stack — HTML, CSS, JS, and ARIA — if you can solve a problem with a simpler solution lower in the stack, you should. It’s less fragile, more foolproof, and just works.

ARIA should only do what only ARIA can do.

JavaScript should only do what only JavaScript can do.

CSS should only do what only CSS can do.

HTML should only do what only HTML can do.

This was originally posted on my own site.

Behind our recent business award Mon, 29 Jul 2019 15:45:00 +0000 We’ve won SME of the year in Brighton’s business awards! As one of our values is ‘share-learn, learn-share’, here’s an overview of some of the things we talked about in our entry.

We’re very lucky at Clearleft that our work and reputation often precedes us, but every now and then it’s nice to get recognition beyond our work on the way we approach business. When Carden’s Accountants put us forward for the Brighton and Hove Business Awards 2019, it seemed a nice opportunity to reflect on what makes Clearleft tick. We wanted to share this with you.

A bit of background

Since 2005 our purpose has been to advance the practice of design to transform organisations and people’s lives for the better. We’re a multi-disciplined team of designers, technologists and consultants with a worldwide reputation. Since 2005, we have helped over 100 clients in 5 continents embrace digital to become more efficient and competitive.

We use research, design and strategy to enable innovation, deliver products and services, build design capability and transform the design function of organisations. We were the first User Experience agency in the UK and have since grown to work with design leaders across a multitude of sectors including travel, education, healthcare, finance, government, retail and entertainment.

The events side of our business has inspired over 15,000 designers and leaders from across the globe in our London, New York and Brighton-based conferences, workshops and retreats.

Chris running a design sprint workshop in a large glass room at UX London
Chris and Jerlyn running a Design Sprint workshop at our 11th UX London conference

Challenges and change

Design is a serious, often significant investment taken from a capital expenditure budget. The more enlightened organisations are moving design out of cap-ex and into operational expenditure, but along with this comes a big challenge to design agencies – the emergence and growth of in-house design teams. Many of us are still used to a world where work is out there and we compete with other agencies to get it. Now those projects are being kept within the organisation, so, on the face of it at least, we’re also competing with in-house teams for work they might be better placed to do.

We believe that engaging an external agency is often the best approach to achieve effective (efficient) innovation, strategy and change, while in-house teams are best placed for ongoing business-as-usual iteration and improvement. Through our consultancy, we now work alongside emerging and established internal design teams to great mutual benefit.

Driven by a desire to improve and professionalise the design industry, we realised we were often supporting designers newly promoted into leadership positions. In response to this, we started our Leading Design Conference which has grown in a few short years to be a core part of our business, and a vibrant, supportive community in its own right.

A group of clearlefties sat at the board room table smiling
Some of the team at our Monday Morning Meeting

Making meaning

While turnover and profit are important, they are not our main drivers, the impact of the work we do is. We call this ‘meaningful work’ and we assess this as part of an annual staff survey.

The vast majority of our work is repeat business and referrals. This is not by accident, and not because we have a retainer-led business (quite the opposite). While we consider all of our work to be a partnership - we love what we do and we get emotionally invested in our clients’ products and services - we’re about transforming organisations so that, over time, they don’t need us any more.

At 30 people we’re modestly sized, and intentionally so, but we punch above our weight and often pitch alongside huge companies such as Deloitte and McKinsey, meaning we’ve been able to help many household names. We’re ambitious in this regard, but we’re always driven by our purpose of impacting businesses and people’s lives for the better, above any outright desire to maximise profit.

Consequently, we have loyal, motivated staff who love what they do and have the autonomy to do it in the best ways they see fit. We’re a local employer with an international reputation in our field, meaning we’ve invested in local talent, from taking on interns to continually developing our employees.

It’s also important for us to give back to the design and coding community, with our facilities at 68 Middle Street made available for free to grassroots meetups, and encourage staff to participate in and run community events for underrepresented groups, and lecture at universities and colleges.

Ben, Alis and Alex with Caraline Brown, Founder of the Brighton and Hove Business Awards

It was great to see past and current clients as finalists and winners in the audience. The event was a good moment to also reflect on how Brighton is now very much a destination for digital excellence and progressive business. As much as our clients and events span the globe, our HQ and hearts will always be here in Brighton.

Agile and design — How to avoid Frankensteining your product Wed, 24 Jul 2019 07:30:00 +0000 As digital designers these days, it’s typical to be working in an agile fashion.

You know the score: the features get specced. The scope defined. The product owner creates the user stories. You roll up your sleeves and dive in. It’s Sprint 1 and the team are already estimating, the PO is grooming the backlog like a pro. Smashing. If you’re the designer, this is also where you might feel like this:

Jon with his head in his hands text reading 'this is Jon'

Designers thrive on exploration. We aim to find the best creative solution for the problem at hand. Sometimes this exploration takes time… a resource not in great abundance on agile projects. As the project dives into features and stories, it’s easy to get stuck designing details, with no real understanding of the greater picture.


Agile and design is like looking at a picture through a keyhole. By slicing big things into smaller things, designers must work incrementally. It’s this incrementalism that can lead to what I call the ‘Frankensteining’ of a digital product or service.

Exquisite corpse representing the masthead, body and footer of a website
Andy Thornton’s Exquisite corpse for 100 days project

Frankensteining occurs when products or services created using Agile become fragmented or disjointed. The fragmentation can lead to a lack of cohesion and vision, undermining the user’s experience.

Through the keyhole

Frankensteining occurs when products or services created using Agile become fragmented or disjointed. The fragmentation can lead to a lack of cohesion and vision, undermining the user’s experience.

There are many websites today that display this characteristic. You’ve noticed them yourself, consciously or not. Sites with headers that look nothing like the rest of the site. Pages in a booking flow that look and feel different from anything else in the same journey. These and many other examples are symptomatic of teams running agile; delivering continuously but lacking that integral zoomed-out view.

Design debt

One of the more sinister side-effects of Frankensteining is that of Design debt.

Technical debt is a term agilists are familiar with. It happens when developers cut corners to reach a goal or release cycle. They might take an ‘off-the-shelf’ solution to their problem versus doing it themselves. Each cut corner results in more time needed down the line to do it right. That more time equates to more money spent.

Design debt is tech debt’s evil twin. This debt occurs when a product’s design creeps away from its original roots. Like all debt, it will have to be repaid.

7 ways to make design and agile play well together

The fact is, Agile is here to stay. As a method for the efficient and effective delivery of digital products and services, it does the job and it does it well.

According to the 2019 State of Agile report, 97% of survey respondents stated their organisations practiced Agile development methods to some degree. 34% of that group said their organisations have been practicing agile for 3–5 years. 27% stated they’ve been practising for over 5 years.

Yet more than half (53%) of organisations using agile said their use of it was still maturing. This is likely due to design starting to take a larger share in the creation of many digital products and services.

Clearleft has been exposed to hundreds of internal teams, each using their own blend of agile, waterfall or a blend of the two. We’ve collected tips, tricks and insights to inspire other teams when trying to make design and agile play well together.

1. Use Sprint zero

Sprint zeros are common to developers, but designers don’t seem to use this pre-sprint enough. Starting before the actual work, designers can use Sprint Zero to better understand the product and its constraints.

2. Do a best first pass

Often in-tandem with Sprint Zero (or even preceding it), doing a best first pass can pay huge dividends later in an agile project.

Creating a high-level pass of your product allows designers to view the full size and extent of the project. Using all of the knowledge at your disposal at this stage you can better understand how the experience will stitch together. This will let you identify any gaps in the process, early.

A great way to do this: sketch lo-fi first passes of your product’s experience and align them in order on a large floor. Actually standing over your sketches to see how they flow together is highly under-rated!

3. Have a North star

A great way of reducing design debt: have a strong creative direction. This sets your North star, a term that’s apt as it maintains the direction of travel for a product team’s efforts. Setting a strong creative direction in a fast-moving agile project isn’t easy. You need to do just enough design without over-egging it. A great way of doing this is through something called element collages.

Element collage for the first Patterns day
Element collage for the first Patterns day

Element collages are a process we use often at Clearleft. They help kickstart the creative process without creating design debt. Element collages are mood boards of fictional and real-world UI elements. They let designers have free rein, quickly exploring new ideas and approaches. The collages solicit buy-in. They create a shared understanding of a design style and direction… without having to design any actual pages or features.

4. Get your Devs involved early

An under-rated but important tip (but your devs will appreciate it). With agile dependent on speed, there’s every likelihood for design decisions to be made without dev input. As the devs tackle your design approach, things can quickly grind to a halt, impacting the project as a whole.

Including your devs earlier in the design process lets them input into critical design decisions. It reduces risk and surprises, and lessens technical and design debt down the line.

5. Work in swim lanes

At Clearleft we prefer staggered starts for each discipline on a project, moving in parallel, like swim lanes. Keeping UX & Design at least a sprint ahead of development affords more freedom for design.

This staggered approach could be misconstrued as being a bit waterfall-y. And you know what? It is, and that’s not always such a bad thing!

6. Always zoom out

Zooming out at set intervals during a project sounds easy. Yet when you’re in amongst the weeds and designing the small details, it’s easy to forget.

At Clearleft we build zoom out points into each sprint. Similar to conducting a ‘best first pass’ this gives the whole team the opportunity to stop and review where things are and how they fit together.

The login screen designed and developed in Sprint 1 might not look anything like the account screen in Sprint 12. Being able to zoom out and take stock can pay dividends for reducing the Frankensteining of a digital product.

7. Keep 10% time

One of the most important lessons we’ve learnt over the years is to block out (and defend) 10% of every sprint’s time for fixing design bugs.

Building in 10% of time per sprint to seek, find and fix design issues works to improve the cohesion and experience of your product or service. This is where your Project Manager earns their keep. PM’s will need to fight extra hard to ensure designers have the time they need to refactor any design… just as developers are able to refactor code.

pie chart showing many different agile methodologies
No one knows what they’re doing

A post agile world

We’ve already started seeing signs of clients, organisations and agencies using parts of agile that work for them and discarding the rest. The diagram above shows that everyone is, in effect, winging it, using Agile as they need it. Apt, seeing as the agile manifesto always stated that it’s about “people, not process”.

As design gets more embedded into the fabric of the products we use today, as creators we must change our mindset. We need to champion design methodologies and design thinking in agile practice. We need to focus less on ‘shipping’; instead on creating unified experiences that benefit our customers more than our internal processes.

At the end of the day, your customers, your users, the humans who interact with your product or service… they don’t care how your product was made. They only want a great experience that lets them fulfil a task.


This article was originally published at

Patterns Day video and audio Tue, 23 Jul 2019 12:03:00 +0000 If you missed out on Patterns Day this year, you can still get a pale imitation of the experience of being there by watching videos of the talks.

Here are the videos, and if you’re not that into visuals, here’s a podcast of the talks (you can subscribe to this RSS feed in your podcasting app of choice).

On Twitter, Chris mentioned that “It would be nice if the talks had their topic listed,” which is a fair point. So here goes:

It’s fascinating to see emergent themes (other than, y’know, the obvious theme of design systems) in different talks. In comparison to the first Patterns Day, it felt like there was a healthy degree of questioning and scepticism—there were plenty of reminders that design systems aren’t a silver bullet. And I very much appreciated Yaili’s point that when you see beautifully polished design systems that have been made public, it’s like seeing the edited Instagram version of someone’s life. That reminded me of Responsive Day Out when Sarah Parmenter, the first speaker at the very first event, opened everything by saying “most of us are winging it.”

I can see the value in coming to a conference to hear stories from people who solved hard problems, but I think there’s equal value in coming to a conference to hear stories from people who are still grappling with hard problems. It’s reassuring. I definitely got the vibe from people at Patterns Day that it was a real relief to hear that nobody’s got this figured out.

There was also a great appreciation for the “big picture” perspective on offer. For myself, I know that I’ll be cogitating upon Danielle’s talk and Emil’s talk for some time to come—both are packed full of interesting ideas.

Good thing we’ve got the videos and the podcast to revisit whenever we want.

And if you’re itching for another event dedicated to design systems, I highly recommend snagging a ticket for the Clarity conference in San Francisco next month.

This was originally posted on my own site.

What is UX writing and why does it matter Fri, 19 Jul 2019 07:30:00 +0000 It’s hard to talk about UX writing without mentioning content strategy and content design. The roles overlap – so before I go too far, I’ll quickly share my definitions.

Content strategists decide what to say and how to say it in order to help users complete tasks, find information, or make a decision (it might also include when and where to serve the content). This could be anything from defining how we speak (tone and voice), the format, the substance and the structure of the content. They also work out to how we get the content live, govern it, and what best-practice looks like (content creation, roles and workflows, guidelines and tools).

Content designers define how we format, structure or phrase our content in the right way for the user. Content designers may also be defining strategies and frameworks, or they might work to predefined ones (often created by a content strategist).

The terms UX writer and content designer are often used interchangeably because the roles are really similar.

UX writers often focus more on the copy we use to interact with users – and therefore the experience we provide through the customer’s journey. The role is sometimes known as product writing, which stems from the tech world where the software UI often is the ‘product’.

As you’d expect from the job title, they are writing the copy to create the optimum user experience. But this isn’t just in the UI, it could cover emails, web pages and any other user touchpoint. The goal of a UX writer is to make sure an end to end experience feels like it’s in the same voice throughout – the voice of the brand.

Copy might seem like something that could be picked up by a product designer or UI designer. But creating copy that’s concise and consistent, provides support, sets user expectations, and compels users to progress through their journey (while all feeling like it’s from the same brand), is really hard. Even for a UX writer. This also has to be done in as few words as possible – a button label, for example, may be just one word.

A screen asking - how much do you think about content?
How much do you think about content? Is it an after thought?

So what comes first, the copy or the UI?

I’m glad you asked me this. In an ideal world, they’d be co-designed. As Jared Spool said “Our users don’t separate our design from our content. They think of them as the same. So why don’t we?”

Knowing what you need to say and how to say it before creating a user interaction makes sense. UX writers often think about the natural conversation you’d have if no graphical interface existed, in order to determine what the copy should be (and how it might sound from the brand they’re writing for). Here’s an example:

When you need to know someone’s name, in real life you’d just ask “what’s your name?” and you’d get an answer – simple. But for an onscreen interaction there are so many other considerations:

We need a field for the user to supply their name but we also need to think about:

  • Do we capture first name and surname separately or all in one field?
  • Do we also need their middle name and title?
  • Should this be a simple data field or can we maybe capture it inside a conversational form? How would this brand do it to build rapport?
  • If the user doesn’t answer we’ll need a way to prompt a response
  • If they do answer but they provide numbers instead of letters we need a way to tell them that their entry isn’t correct
  • What if there’s a system error and the page submission fails? We’ll need to tell the user what’s happened and what to do next

That’s a lot of copy considerations for just one piece of data, and in fact that’s why UX writing is more akin to design than to copywriting. A lot of what UX writers do is problem-solving. When a UX writer works alongside a UI designer, it means the writer can think about the words in the context of solving this problem, then the designer can focus on what the interaction looks like and how it will work.

When a UX writer and UI designer don’t work together and the words are ‘put in later’, the UX writer becomes restricted by the interaction that’s been determined. The best efficiencies (and end results) come from co-designing.

Two examples of Slack's instantly recognisable brand voice
Your brand voice that should be instantly recognisable as you (like Slack here). But the tone you take will depend very much on the situation.

How UX writers add value to teams

At Clearleft’s recent mini-conference, I spoke a lot on this subject, in fact, I named my talk ‘taking your content from zero to hero’ because the benefits that writers bring are so important. Here are the main ones:

Realistic testing

Often prototypes are built with placeholder copy and then tested with users. Sometimes the purpose of testing is to validate the usability of a design, and sometimes it’s to test a product concept. Either way it’s unlikely that you’ll get realistic results with placeholder copy or copy that might contain typos or mistakes (trust me, participants get really hung-up on typos!).

A UX writer makes sure your copy is accurate and reflective of the product and brand before you run these tests.

Elevating designs

Visual design is always elevated by great content. When the copy reflects the brand values and the brand voice, it builds trust for users as they move through their journey. John Saito from Dropbox explains why this is important.

…if an actor does something that seems out of character, your audience will immediately notice and it breaks the scene. It’s the same way with writing. If your user suddenly reads a line of text that sounds unlike anything else in your product, it breaks the experience and makes your user start doubting you.

John Saito

With UX writers ensuring everything they write reflects the voice of the brand – it’s one less thing for the UI designer to worry about.

Good copy also makes sure you get high quality output – stakeholders reviewing designs don’t get hung up on typos or bad copy, and will actually focus on the design as a whole (you’d be surprised how many stakeholders are frustrated writers and use any mistake they spot as their opportunity to shine!).

Getting the tone right

The tone you use at certain points of the journey is probably even more important than reflecting the voice of the brand.

An error message is no time to dial up your brand ‘voice’, it just needs to be simple and helpful. A welcome message, on the other hand, can be much more enthusiastic and punchy. UX writers know when to dial tone up and down – making sure it’s appropriate to the scenario. Language might seem like a ‘fluffy’ thing, but how a brand makes the user feel can be the difference between a sale or a repeat purchase.

Improving conversion

The final (and some would say) most important role of a UX writer is to make sure that the copy they write sells products or retains customers. They want to build trust, reduce friction, and compel the user to do what’s intended. Often when a company has conversion problems, simple copy tweaks can have a huge impact, avoiding the need for expensive redesign projects.

A framework for deciding how to flex your brand's tone
If your brand has a very distinctive tone of voice it’s good to use some kind of framework to help you recognise when to dial it up or not.

Five quick ways for designers to think more about content

Great brand experiences often come down to how you feel about a brand, and that’s because they speak to you in a way that’s relevant, have simple and easy-to-use digital products, and compel you to buy from them. From AirBnB, to Boden, to Facebook or Headspace, successful companies are those that realise the importance of content and copy. Great content is tricky to achieve, and why it’s so important to employ a UX writer.

If you don’t have a UX writer on your team, here are five quick tips for designers to think more about content:

  • Have a purpose: what are you trying to get your user to think, feel or do?
  • Think about tone: Does your copy sound appropriate to the situation and how your user might be feeling?
  • Consider accessibility needs: make sure your sentences are short, you write in plain English and you format your content simply.
  • Think conversationally before you start designing: if you didn’t have a graphical interface how would you sell your product or service?
  • Consider your word choices: think nouns for navigation labels, and verbs for call to action labels. They should all be clear and unambiguous.

If you have any questions at all about content or UX writing, I’m always happy to discuss a challenge so get in touch.

Service design heuristics Thu, 18 Jul 2019 09:13:00 +0000 In the digital community, with the emergence in recent years of lots of digital product teams, we can sometimes be guilty of losing sight of the fact that nearly all of these ‘digital products’ are part of broader service offerings.

In fact, in 2017, services accounted for 79% of the UK economy. If you think about it, all of us from the moment we wake up in the morning rely on services, for everything. Your water, the gas to heat it, the online bills to pay for it, the bank that looks after your money and the companies which handle those bill payments. To a user, a service is simple. It’s something that helps them to do something - like learning to drive, watching Game of Thrones or going on holiday. But from the inside, it is not so simple. From our experience, here are four principles for successful service design.

Work across multiple touchpoints

So firstly one of the key premises behind service design is that it needs to work across all touchpoints. And by touchpoint we mean any interaction that a customer has with your brand, whether it be via your website, app, person to person or a form of communication. However, In order to provide a joined-up experience, it’s critical that an organisation’s channels are connected and integrated.

Imagine a call centre agent, that is up to speed with last week’s online live chat conversations and that can immediately jump in and help without you explaining the situation. Or a shop assistant, that can there and then, order your items online if they are not available in-store.

So consider…

  • Does a customer have to provide the same info multiple times?
  • Is data and inference carried seamlessly from one part of the service to another?
  • Does the service look and feel like one service throughout - regardless of the channel it is delivered through?

Meet everyone’s needs

Secondly, all these touchpoints need to meet everyone’s needs - and by everyone that we mean everyone that plays a role in that service whether that be customers or employees.

I think we’d all agree that the services and products need to address a real need and the success of any customer engagement is determined by the quality of its customer experience. The role of the organisation is, however, a critical its role is to support the service effectively, with its shape and structure built and adapted to suit.

However, particularly in an established organisation, with large amounts of legacy, it’s all too easy for the organisation and its internal processes to be overlooked, with new services built on top of slightly dysfunctional operations. However, when backstage organisational problems exist, they have frontstage consequences: poor service, customer frustration, and inconsistent channels. Streamlining backstage processes is critical. It improves the employees’ experience, which, in turn, allows them to create a better user experience.

So consider…

  • Does the service support and balance the demands of all user groups?
  • Does the employee experience enable them to support the service and its customer’s needs in the best way possible?
  • Is the organisation’s shape and structure built to suit the needs of the service?
Front stage back stage diagram of service design
All these touchpoints need to be meet everyone’s needs. And by that we mean everyone that plays a role in that service.

Build a lasting relationship

Thirdly once you have customers on the service you need to build a lasting relationship with them, shifting to focus on retention rather than pure acquisition.

There are a number of different tactics that can be used to build these emotional connections:

  • Provide graceful entry and exits: Simply providing flexible, natural entry and exit points to and from the service, enabling users to come back and finish things or update information. For example, when booking a holiday, you don’t need everyone’s passport details to book, you can go back and add the additional passport details at a later date.
  • Encourage interaction: Encourage users to engage with your service and tailor it for their needs. Simple things like building you regular lists in a grocery site or entering your home or work address in Google Maps.
  • Learn, enhance and tailor: Learning about the user usage habits and use this knowledge to enhance their experience. Strava, for example, uses your historical data to show performance trends over time, if you left the service you’d lose all of this data on previous rides and runs.

On a more strategic level, discount-based loyalty schemes have been around for decades. However, organisations are starting to adapt the model to reward the right type of behaviour. Last year, Sainsbury’s shelled out £60m to take full ownership of the Nectar reward scheme and have started to redesign it to give customers points based not just on how much they spend, but also how frequently they shop and how long they have been a customer.

So consider…

  • Can a user come back and update information?
  • Can a customer personalise the service and tailor the experience to their needs?
  • Can the service learn about the user and use this information to enhance the experience?
  • Can the service foster more of an emotional connection with the customer?
  • Can the service consider rewarding loyalty?
Strava dashboard - building loyalty in digital service design
Strava uses your historical data to show performance trends overtime

Aid speedy recovery.

Finally, it is important to consider all scenarios when designing, not only the ideal. One of the key ideas behind service design is that special (abnormal) events are treated as common events. NatWest, for example, have designed a service that allows customers to get money out of a machine even if they have left their wallet at home or if you report a fault with your broadband to BT, they will send you a Mini Hub at no extra cost to use until your fault is fixed. The Mini Hub is also designed to fit through your letterbox so you also don’t need to wait in for it.

So consider…

  • Do the customer know what they should do next if they were unable to complete a task?
  • Does the customer know what to do if there is some sort of disruption or special event?
  • What abnormal scenarios might affect your service, and how might you deal with them?

So these are four key principles, which can be used as both an evaluative tool and a generative tool when thinking about service design. Obviously using these heuristics to identify problems and opportunities is only the first step. Making changes is the next step and this can involve joining up technologies, aligning KPIs, metrics and accountabilities, and forming alliances between departments. It can take a lot of persistence and above all political will. But if you haven’t identified where the problems or opportunities lie, you can’t fix them. So important to take this first step.

Systematised design - glossing over confusion Fri, 12 Jul 2019 09:30:00 +0000 Whilst chatting design with some friends earlier this year I had a moment of clarity (born of confusion) - we were 3 good friends, peers with similar industry experience, talking the same language, about the same things, but our definitions and understandings of those things were quite different.

This got me reflecting on various similar conversations that we at Clearleft have had with clients and the wider community, and that as an industry we use lots of different labels - design system, pattern library, style guide et al - but often there are different understandings and interpretations of these things.

So, what follows is an attempt to add a little clarity to some of this confusion - a glossary of sorts -

Systematised design

When we talk about design systems, pattern libraries, component libraries et al, it’s important to remember that they are all products of and methods of, communicating and delivering systematised design:


There are 2 primary reasons for designing in a systematised way:

  1. To save you time e.g. re-using a component or thing
  2. To make things more consistent e.g. design, content, code

There are plenty of examples of systematised design working well, but no matter how shiny and aspirational the end result, all of these examples are based on the principal of modular, reusable and scalable design - it’s at the core of all systematised design.

Systematised design in the wild


These are the guiding principles for design, content and technology - they define and have the greatest overall impact on the system as a whole. If you were constructing a building, fundamentals would be the base materials and approach that you take - will you use wood, bricks, concrete? What typeface, colours and tone of voice will you use for your product? What’s the purpose of the building - what will go in it? What’s the primary purpose of your product? These are things you want to get aligned as early on as possible.

Fundamentals - the guiding principles for design, content and technology

Stuff in the middle

When you start to combine and extend fundamentals, you get elements & components. I won’t go into too much detail here as there are different ways to approach and break these things down - Brad Frost’s Atomic Design is a good place to start - so for now, let’s call this ‘stuff in the middle’ - the sum of combining various fundamentals in certain ways.

The stuff in the middle is essentially the small parts of a system - these can be assembled and reused anywhere in a system, but they exist independently, of each other and don’t really function until assembled into larger groups. These are the buttons, search forms, headers of your product - the windows, doors, rendered walls of your building. In isolation, these small parts don’t do much, but together they start to have function and meaning.

Stuff in the middle - small objects, groups of elements, based on fundamentals

Pattern library (a.k.a component library)

Granted this seems like a big step from ‘stuff in middle’, but a pattern library is really just a catalogue of components and elements - the warehouse of prefabricated building parts. You can visit, collect the items you need and then combine them into something with a specific function. In the digital world, a pattern library exists in code, in a single location, and is accessible by everyone who needs access to it on a shareable url.

Pattern libraries are living things - they need to expand and grow, adapt and iterate alongside your business, team and user needs. For some organisations, a pattern library is enough - they can contain all the components needed to build a product, without having any more function than simply providing a place in which to organise those components.

But a pattern library crucially does not contain the information on how to combine components - it’s not a blueprint.

Pattern library - an organised collection of components,
 a.k.a Component library

Templates and pages

In order to see the structure and context of how individual components and patterns combine into larger groups, a reference is needed. Enter templates and pages - the individual room blueprints of systematised design.

Essentially a template is an organised container - an arrangement of empty-state components - whereas a page is really a template populated with actual content. Templates and pages are visual and often coded, and they provide relevant examples of the things you are trying to build. Whilst you don’t need templates and pages to have a functioning pattern library, without some kind of reference like this how do you know how everything fits together?

Templates & pages - components assembled into 
structures and larger groups


Styleguides, technical documentation, content guidelines, implementation guidelines - these are the detailed architectural notes of the system. Guidelines use written language and diagrams to define and communicate the purpose of a system.

Amy Hupe, Content Strategist at GDS says that…


This is precisely where guidelines and documentation comes in - these can be used to describe any part or focus of a system, anything to help communicate shared understanding and consistency.

So, what happens when you start to combine a coded library of patterns, usage examples and detailed documentation?

Guidelines - definitions of what goes into our products and how they fit together

Design system

The single source of truth, the holy grail (or not) - this is the entire architectural project. A design system packages up all the previous items and provides a location for anyone involved in a project to go and extract the information or parts that they need, enabling teams to design, realise and develop a product.

Crucially, a design system incorporates the shared language and vocabulary needed for everyone to have context of, and work with, its contents. This is the structure for all of your design, helping to make sense of seemingly nebulous parts.

Design systems are also living things - they need to grow, be refined alongside, and in response to business, user and team needs. In order that this can happen, they need experienced and enthusiastic people to maintain and govern them and to help train others in how to use them. Architects don’t just drop all the plans on the build team, cross their fingers and hope for the best - they work closely with them, shaping, refining, overcoming issues and iterating as the building takes shape.

Design system - the single source of truth which groups together elements that allow teams to design, realise and develop a product

The onion

It’s important to remember that all of the aforementioned are not part of a linear process, and whilst some have dependencies on others, they often don’t happen in ‘order’.

This diagram doesn’t represent size or dependancy, more layers of an onion - peel each layer away and you’ll find related layers, but these are no more or less important than each other - they are all part of the whole.

The onion - layers of systematised design

So, a quick reminder of the glossary (from the middle of the onion):

  1. Fundamentals - the core of any system, the base materials and approach you take eg typography, tone of voice, bricks, wood

  2. Stuff in the middle - the combined fundamentals, the elements and components of the system eg buttons, search forms, windows & doors

  3. Pattern library - an organised catalogue of components and elements, a warehouse of prefabricated building parts

  4. Templates and pages - the reference of how the ‘stuff in the middle’ fits together, the room blue prints

  5. Guidelines - the documentation of how to use a system, the detailed architectural notes

  6. Design system - The package of all of the above - the entire architectural project

Lastly, it’s not about the label

Whilst a good understanding of these labels and definitions can go a long way, it’s ultimately not these that will be the success of any given system or project. Back to the 2 primary reasons for designing in a systematised way - to save you time, and to make things more consistent - both of these reasons rely on a shared understanding and communication, and are label agnostic. It’s about what you can gain by having the most appropriate thing for you, it’s not about what the thing is called.

So, when you’re about to tackle your next project (or are even in the process of assessing your current one), consider this -


Hopefully this little glossary will have ironed any confusion you might have had, but if you’d like to chat about any of this, or about how it might be of help to you or your team, please drop me a line -

Crazy Eights Thu, 11 Jul 2019 09:30:46 +0000 I have a toolkit, a UX toolkit.

Over the years I have collected methods, I’ve used them, tested them and broken them. Depending on where I am in the design process and the problem I am trying to solve I might lean on one to help.

Cue Crazy Eights. Crazy Eights is a core Design Sprint Method. This technique is best used within the ideation stage where ideas should come quicker since you have insights to draw upon. The purpose is to generate a number of different ideas within a short period of time. You ought to end up with one or a small number of ideas which can then be turned into a prototype. In order to find out the best answer or solution to your initial question or problem, it is important to test the idea with real users.

There are certain methods that need design knowledge but this isn’t one of those. This technique can be run individually but it’s also a great tool to get the entire team involved in:

For design to succeed and thrive in an environment of rapid iteration and intense measurability, it needs to involve non-designers intensively.

Here’s how it works if you run it with your team:

  • Stock up on A3 paper, pens, coloured dot stickers or coloured pens.
  • Assign someone to be the timekeeper so you are not distracted by the clock.
  • Fold the paper into 8 different sections.

The facilitator sets a timer for a short amount of time, this is up to your discretion. You can set the timer for six minutes (45 seconds on each sketch) or even four minutes (30 seconds on each sketch). I tend to use eight minutes for this exercise; a minute per sketch.

Silent sketching

It’s important to remind participants that these sketches do not need to be perfect. The sketches should be rough. The purpose of the exercise is to generate a variety of ideas. To put people at ease, show some examples to set the expectations for the quality of sketches.

Sketch example

Set the timer and ask the participants to start sketching. The facilitator should prompt them to start a new sketch every minute. Emphasize that they shouldn’t limit themselves. Make sure they get all their ideas out and approach this with an open mind. At this stage it is about the quantity of ideas, not the quality. It is normal for participants to feel rushed. It’s part of the process.


Time for feedback

When the eight minutes are up, you should have a collection of ideas. Some unexpected, some weird, some that just might work. Each participant then presents their top three ideas to the rest of the team for feedback.

Dot voting is a handy tool where each team member votes for ideas, usually 3 votes each. Together, evaluate the set of ideas. Make sure they don’t judge during this period. Apply a “yes, and…” rather than a “no…” or “yes, but…” mentality.

Dot voting

Depending on time, you could run another round of eight sketches building upon one another’s ideas. Then come back together and select the ideas that answer the design challenge in the most interesting way. The chosen ideas can then be worked on and perhaps made into a prototype to test.


This is a great technique to get team members to work collaboratively in a cost-efficient way. I often use this technique if I have a limited amount of time and want to get all of my ideas out without filter.

Great ideas can come from anywhere, even in under 8 minutes.

Patterns Day Two Tue, 02 Jul 2019 11:08:00 +0000 Who says the sequels can’t be even better than the original? The second Patterns Day was The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather Part II, and The Wrath of Khan all rolled into one …but, y’know, with design systems.

If you were there, then you know how good it was. If you weren’t, sorry. Audio of the talks should be available soon though, with video following on.

The talks were superb! I know I’m biased becuase I put the line-up together, but even so, I was blown away by the quality of the talks. There were some big-picture questioning talks, a sequence of nitty-gritty code talks in the middle, and galaxy-brain philosophical thoughts at the end. A perfect mix, in my opinion.

Words cannot express how grateful I am to Alla, Yaili, Amy, Danielle, Heydon, Varya, Una, and Emil. They really gave it their all! Some of them are seasoned speakers, and some of them are new to speaking on stage, but all of them delivered the goods above and beyond what I expected.

Big thanks to my Clearleft compadres for making everything run smoothly: Jason, Amy, Cassie, Chris, Trys, Hana, and especially Sophia for doing all the hard work behind the scenes. Trys took some remarkable photos too. He posted some on Twitter, and some on his site, but there are more to come.

Me on stage. Inside the Duke of York's for Patterns Day 2

And if you came to Patterns Day 2, thank you very, very much. I really appreciate you being there. I hope you enjoyed it even half as much as I did, because I had a ball!

Once again, thanks to buildit @ wipro digital for sponsoring the pastries and coffee, as well as running a fun giveaway on the day. Many thank to Bulb for sponsoring the forthcoming videos. Thanks again to Drew for recording the audio. And big thanks to Brighton’s own Holler Brewery for very kindly offering every attendee a free drink—the weather (and the beer) was perfect for post-conference discussion!

It was incredibly heartwarming to hear how much people enjoyed the event. I was especially pleased that people were enjoying one another’s company as much as the conference itself. I knew that quite a few people were coming in groups from work, while other people were coming by themselves. I hoped there’d be lots of interaction between attendees, and I’m so, so glad there was!

You’ve all made me very happy.

Thank you to @adactio and @clearleft for an excellent #PatternsDay.

Had so many great conversations! Thanks as well to everyone that came and listened to us, you’re all the best.

— (@dhuntrods) June 29, 2019

Well done for yet another fantastic event. The calibre of speakers was so high, and it was reassuring to hear they have the same trials, questions and toil with their libraries. So insightful, so entertaining. — Barry Bloye (@barrybloye) June 29, 2019

Had the most amazing time at the #PatternsDay, catching up with old friends over slightly mad conversations. Huge thanks to @adactio and @clearleft for putting together such warm and welcoming event, and to all the attendees and speakers for making it so special ❤️

— Alla Kholmatova (@craftui) June 29, 2019

Had such an amazing time at yesterday's #PatternsDay. So many notes and thoughts to process Thank you to all the speakers and the folk at @clearleft for organising it. ♥️

— Charlie Don't Surf (@sonniesedge) June 29, 2019

Had an awesome time at #PatternsDay yesterday! Some amazing speakers and got to meet some awesome folk along the way! Big thanks to @adactio and @clearleft for organising such a great event!

— Alice Boyd-Leslie (@aboydleslie) June 29, 2019

Absolutely amazing day at #PatternsDay. Well done @adactio and @clearleft. The speakers were great, attendees great and it was fantastic to finally meet some peers face to face. ❤

— Dave (@daveymackintosh) June 28, 2019

Had a blast at #PatternsDay !!! Met so many cool ppl

— trash bandicoot (@freezydorito) June 28, 2019

I’ve had a hell of a good time at #PatternsDay. It’s been nice to finally meet so many folks that I only get to speak to on here.

As expected, the @clearleft folks all did a stellar job of running a great event for us.

— Andy Bell (@andybelldesign) June 28, 2019

Patterns Day is an excellent single-day conference packed full of valuable content about design systems and pattern libraries from experienced practicioners. Way to go @clearleft! #PatternsDay

— Kimberly Blessing (@obiwankimberly) June 28, 2019

Round of applause to @adactio and @clearleft for a great #patternsday today

— Dan Donald (@hereinthehive) June 28, 2019

Big thanks to @adactio and @clearleft for a fantastic #PatternsDay. Left with tons of ideas to take back to the shop.

— Alex (@alexandtheweb) June 28, 2019<

@adactio thanks Jeremy for organising this fabulous day of inspiring talks in a such a humane format. I enjoyed every minute of it #patternsday

— David Roessli (@roessli) June 28, 2019

An amazing day was had at #PatternsDay. Caught up with friends I hadn’t seen for a while, made some new ones, and had my brain expand by an excellent set of talks. Big hugs to @adactio and the @clearleft team. Blog post to follow next week, once I’ve got my notes in order.

— Garrett Coakley (@garrettc) June 28, 2019

This was originally posted on my own site.

Why your design system should include content Mon, 01 Jul 2019 12:35:00 +0000 As people, our voices are as distinctive and unique to us as our appearance. The same is true for brands. Content – or what and how we communicate as a brand – is as important as the look and feel in defining a user’s experience.

The role of content experts in a business (content strategists, UX writers or content designers), is to ensure that all customer-facing content and copy feels like it’s from the same brand. This includes the tone of voice, but also the words and language used throughout the user journey.

Setting out a content design system is one way to achieve this.

A missed opportunity

A design system is an established way to collate replicable elements, patterns, tools and guidelines, to make sure anyone designing for a brand does so consistently. These are becoming common for visual design, but the missing and vital part is often content and copy and how it’s used within the elements, which really is a missed opportunity.

Instead of content design systems and visual design systems existing in isolation, the ideal is one design system that accommodates everything, marrying the content and design together in the way it will actually be used and experienced.

There are many good reasons to do this, not least because the two disciplines will never be used separately.

Combining them ensures that design components are based on realistic content, avoiding constraints later on.

When there’s a limited number of UX writers on a team (the content:design ratio is often at least 1:2), having copy guidance built into a design system also means UI designers can make educated content decisions and work more efficiently.

Taking Thierworld's brand guidelines into content - colourful imagery and colour blocks with hex codes
Taking our client Thierworld's brand guidelines into content

Design systems which have successfully incorporated content:

Polaris by Shopify is probably one of the most comprehensive guidelines I’ve seen. It includes everything from voice and tone, how to name things, and even how to create alt text. Within the visual component library there are also content guidelines on how to write the microcopy that sits within each component. This is no lightweight design system. In fact, it’s epic.

Bulb’s design system Solar is much more lightweight. It includes some good UX writing principles and some specific labelling guidance for CTAs. And it’s a good example of how including some basic content frameworks can empower designers to make better design decisions.

The NHS service manual incorporates a whole section for content, which includes accessibility guidelines, vocabulary, and general writing principles. It doesn’t quite go as far as including actual UI copy guidance on the design component pages, but it feels like this could be their next step – it is still in beta after all.

Google’s material design manual features a section dedicated to communication, and how to create UI copy for the components. It’s a really comprehensive guide to using content and copy in design, even if it does sit slightly aside from the component sections themselves. It’s also worth noting they have separate guidelines for conversational design.

So, where to begin?

The best way to start is by thinking about who already uses your design system, and how it’s used. If your company has a small team and works across just one or two products, then a lightweight version such as Bulb’s would probably be a good starting point.

If you have a bigger company and multiple product teams then serious planning might be required. It’s a lot of work to create a large, comprehensive resource, and even once it’s live it will need to evolve and grow alongside your design maturity. Some companies have design ops or content ops teams who are solely responsible for building and maintaining design systems.

To create your system, your UX writers or content strategists should start by documenting the current ‘best practice’ frameworks and the guidelines they work to (even if they’re currently ‘informal’ guidelines – because remember, a design system is about formalising these).

They’ll also need to document how the brand tone of voice adapts to UX writing. It’s often the case that ‘tone of voice guidelines’ are created by brand or marketing teams with marketing copy in mind, and not for elements such as button labels or error messages.

Integration is key

The next step is to see how these frameworks overlap with the design components, and decide where content guidelines can and should be added into your existing system.

If there is no existing system, then creating one will rely heavily on your content strategists and designers working in tandem. And instead of tackling everything at once, perhaps just work through one small section at a time.

Then you’ll need to stress-test your guidelines with non-writers. The idea of a design system is that it’s easy to use and adapts for almost every scenario. If a UI designer can easily use the content guidelines for the component they’re using and produce the expected output then you’re doing great.

And finally, you’ll need to plan how you share the system and ensure it’s used across teams. A successful design system is one that’s used to speed up the UI design process, and leave your design teams with more time to solve the bigger problems!

The vital key to design impact Thu, 13 Jun 2019 23:00:00 +0000 Our study with 400 designers revealed how research is a vital contributing factor to design achieving the greatest impact.

Earlier in the year Clearleft asked 400 designers from around the world about how design functions within their organisations. We uncovered some fascinating insights around the effectiveness and implementation of design within organisations which we’ll be publishing soon, but here we’ll reveal one vital contributing factor to design being successful.

One of the pivotal opinions we gauged was whether designers thought design within their organisation “has contributed to an increase in sales, competitiveness, and/or brand loyalty”. In other words, is design having an impact on the end goals of their organisation?

Bar chart

We found that 69% of designers agreed that design has had a positive impact towards the success of their organisation. Only 7% felt that design was not having an impact. A quarter of designers weren’t sure whether or not they were making a difference (the not-knowing tells a story in itself, but that’s for another time).

It’s fair to say that designers are self-reporting the impact of their work. Some of this will be quantified and much might be subjective opinion. If you consider that we designers can be a cynical bunch and that, as an anonymous survey, there was no reason to justify one’s position, we can take these results as indicative.

At Clearleft we believe that research has an important role to play in design, so we were keen to also determine how much design research took place in organisations.

Bar chart

We found that the majority (53%) of organisations had little to no design research taking place. Given that all the organisations in question had at least one designer, this was slightly disappointing, although in our experience not entirely surprising. It was heartening to see that over 10% of organisations were doing design research at scale.

Firm in our belief that design research is important, we cross-referenced research with design impact to see if there was any correlation. That was when the true effect of design research was revealed.

Bar chart

Of the organisations where regular design research was being undertaken, 82% agreed that design was increasing sales, competitiveness, and/or brand loyalty. Doing research is one of the main differences between the design teams that impact business and those that don’t.

bar chart

Over half of design teams that have contributed to an increase in sales, competitiveness, and/or brand loyalty do design research regularly or at scale. In contrast, of those organisations where design was not having an impact, 95% are undertaking little to no design research.

The takeaways here are twofold. A design team is likely to contribute to the goals of an organisation. However without regular research to inform design, that work is far less likely to have an impact. Leaving differences aside, there’s still lot’s of room for improvement for most design teams in terms of research practice.

The companies performing the best in this regard have integrated research and design teams, or are set up with research and design distributed throughout the organisation. The work of those disciplines is shared with the rest of the employees so that research and design become fundamental to the decision making and strategy of the organisation.

This was a snapshot of some findings from our Design Attitudes survey. We’re currently compiling a comprehensive report which we’ll release for free later in the month. Check back soon or follow us on Twitter for further announcements.

The schedule for Patterns Day Mon, 10 Jun 2019 11:33:42 +0000 Patterns Day is less than three weeks away—exciting!

We’re going to start the day at a nice civilised time. Registration is from 9am. There will be tea, coffee, and pastries, so get there in plenty of time to register and have a nice chat with your fellow attendees. There’ll be breaks throughout the day too.

Those yummy pastries and hot drinks are supplied courtesy of our sponsors Buildit @ Wipro Digital—many thanks to them!

Each talk will be 30 minutes long. There’ll be two talks back-to-back and then a break. That gives you plenty of breathing space to absorb all those knowledge bombs that the speakers will be dropping.

Lunch will be a good hour and a half. Lunch isn’t provided so you can explore the neighbourhood where there are plenty of treats on offer. And your Patterns Day badge will even get you some discounts…

The lovely Café Rust is offering these deals to attendees:

  • Cake and coffee for £5
  • Cake and cup of tea for £4
  • Sandwich and a drink for £7

The Joker (right across the street from the conference venue) is offering a 10% discount of food and drinks (but not cocktails) to Patterns Day attendees. I highly recommend their hot wings. Try the Rufio sauce—it’s awesome! Do not try the Shadow—it will kill you.

Here’s how the day is looking:

Opening remarks
Closing remarks

We should be out of the Duke of York’s by 4:45pm after a fantastic day of talks. At that point, we can head around the corner (literally) to Holler Brewery. They are very kindly offering each attendee a free drink! Over to them:

Holler is a community based brewery, always at the centre of the local community. Here to make great beer, but also to help support community run pubs, carnival societies, mental health charities, children’s amateur dramatic groups, local arts groups and loads more, because these are what keep our communities healthy and together… the people in them!

Holler loves great beer and its way of bringing people together. They are excited to be welcoming the Patterns Day attendees and the design community to the taproom.

Terms and conditions:

  • One token entitles to you one Holler beer or one soft drink
  • Redeemable only on Friday 28th June 2019 between 4:45 and 20:00
  • You must hand your token over to the bar team

You’ll get your token when you register in the morning, along with your sticker. That’s right; sticker. Every expense has been spared so you won’t even have a name badge on a lanyard, just a nice discrete but recognisable sticker for the event.

I am so, so excited for Patterns Day! See you at the Duke of York’s on June 28th!

This was originally posted on my site.

Designing for friction - thoughts from UX London Sun, 09 Jun 2019 23:00:00 +0000 While it’s all fresh in my mind, I wanted to reflect on the 3 day event. I got plenty of food for thought. Yet there was one standout talk for me and I noted a number of recurring themes across the event. I’m starting to consider how I can embed these into my own design thinking.

Designing for friction - thoughts from UX London

Steve Sezler spoke on Designing for Friction. He really framed the crossover themes at UX London for me. Initially I thought this could be quite the controversial topic. As designers we do our best to remove pain points. But to increase friction …what? Steve provided compelling ideas on the value of retaining friction. He looked at all of your ‘convenience apps’ of the world—the AirBnbs, Amazons, and Deliveroos — as ‘creating a culture of instant on-demand services’. But are we creating a world of too little friction by doing so?

Steve went on to talk about how removing friction can remove opportunities for meaningful connection and personal growth. He used AirBnB as an example, continually designing for a guest experience where the ease and convenience of booking is taken care of. AirBnB hypothesised the ‘designing for friction’ statement —What happens when you encourage guests to contact their hosts for support? Initially thinking the hosts would feel burdened and the guests would receive lower quality support they in fact found this improved the overall level of customer satisfaction.


This made me think back to Jane Austin’s talk on developing your onion of key skills. Personal skills & people skills are at the core. They are the hardest to achieve and they are as important, if not more important, than your craft skills. As designers, if we really want to improve the lifestyle of people and improve these skills, we need to enable these opportunities through design.

UX London Jane Austin Onion of key skills
Jane Austin's onion of key skills. Sketchnotes by Maggie Appleton at UX London

Erika Hall also debunked common design myths with some standout statements:


Just because something is pleasant to use doesn’t mean it is useful! Which again plays back in to the original context of Steves talk. As designers we can streamline products & services to do everything for us hidden behind delightful micro interactions. But are we defining choices on behalf of the user by doing so? Erika went on to add


My takeaways from this is just to be mindful of the power of design and the responsibility we have as designers. Look for these opportunities to provide more than just another interaction but a more human centred value exchange. Start to think about where we will be in the future if we stick to this friction-less environment. While ultimately these services can be useful in the short term, are they robbing us in the long term from greater experiences and memories?

My top 5 reflection points from UX London Thu, 06 Jun 2019 12:59:00 +0000 I’ve been working in Service Design and UX for well over a decade now but had never had the opportunity of attending UX London, until this year. Now, a proud Clearleftie, I had the perk of attending the event for the whole 3 days and it certainly lived up to my expectation.

I always find that conferences provide a space for reflection on your career, your experiences and the industry as a whole - so here are my top five reflection points from UX London.

Design needs to work at every level

One theme from a number of speakers was the broad application of design at both a macro and micro level. Erika Hall highlighted that “design isn’t artefacts its decisions, so every decision maker is a designer” she added “we must widen our view, step out of the detail and consider the broader impact of our work on people and the environment, not just the immediate user.”

Similarly, Molly Nix discussed the need to design at all levels of zoom; from an interaction, to a feature, to a product, to a service and finally to the system. It’s something I’ve always appreciated coming from a service design background but it’s so easy to lose sight of the broader picture when your remit is on the design of one component. It’s important to remember that everything you work on is connected to everything else in the system, and it’s part of a designers job at every level to consider the impact to the individual, the business and society as a whole.

UX London Molly Nix Air BnB design speaking on stage
UX London Molly Nix from Air BnB design

Be aware of different stages of understanding

The industry legend Jared Spool gave a really engaging talk, where he reminded me of the ‘growth stages of understanding’ model. The four-stage model is intriguingly simple, describing a person’s path from ignorance to mastery. The final mastery stage is appropriately named ‘Unconscious Competent’. At this stage, the designer has essentially mastered the skill of design and has internalised all knowledge and intuitively produces good quality outcomes. It made me reflect that whilst I’ve always been against following a structured process/framework, preferring to think on my feet with a constant eye on where I’m going, it has a place for unifying a team with different levels of understanding. Indeed, Jared highlighted the need to work at the lowest team member’s level of understanding.

UX London Jared Spool talking to an attendee in the busy foyer
UX London Jared Spool

Last impressions are lasting

A couple of speakers and workshops highlighted the need to design for endings. Joe Macleod’s talk highlighted a number of good and bad endings and the implications of these on the overall experience. Whilst the Behavioural Design workshop by the Coglode team pointed to the peak-end rule. This rule, grounded in research, states that people judge an experience largely based on how they felt at its peak (i.e., its most intense point) and at its end, rather than based on the total sum or average of every moment of the experience. I also think that considering this rule during your design process will help you identify the moments of truth for your product and where the value lies.

We all design services, just different types

The first two talks on Thursday morning made me reflect on the similarities between the practice of Service Design and UX/Product Design and how the merging of these disciplines is becoming messy as services become more and more digital. Certainly the principles and methodologies that Jamin Hegeman highlighted in his ‘So You Want to be a Service Designer?’ are used at the Clearleft studio daily, but his example highlighted that it’s often the nature of the design problem that differs - with ‘Service Designers’ focused on experiences that have digital and non-digital touchpoints.

The following talk by Katie Koch from Spotify, a purely digital business, interestingly highlighted that Service Design for their business is squarely in the domain of the ‘UX/Product Designers’. I suppose, at the end of the day, we are all designing services just our areas of expertise means we are more suited to different types of services.

UX London Jane Austin Babylon Health on stage
UX London Jane Austin Babylon Health

The challenge of scaling a design team

We had two excellent talks from Babylon Health who are on a mission to leverage the ever-growing power of AI to make health affordable and accessible. Jane Austin gave some excellent advice on how to take control of your own career progression but the most interesting thing to me was the rate in which she had managed to grow the design team, from 8 to 60 in 8 months! I’ve done a little bit of recruitment over the years but can’t imagine what it is like to hire and onboard designers at such a rate. She gave some insight into some of the tools she’d put in place to make this process smoother, as did Emmet Connolly who is responsible for growing the design team at Intercom. The growth of the internal design team is not a new phenomenon, but I’m acutely aware that that challenge seems so much harder than designing the experience of a product or service.

Sponsor Patterns Day Wed, 29 May 2019 13:03:13 +0000 Patterns Day 2 is sold out! Yay!

I didn’t even get the chance to announce the full line-up before all the tickets were sold. That was meant to my marketing strategy, see? I’d announce some more speakers every few weeks, and that would encourage more people to buy tickets. Turns out that I didn’t need to do that.

But I’m still going to announce the final two speakers here becuase I’m so excited about them—Danielle Huntrods and Varya Stepanova!

Danielle is absolutely brilliant. I know this from personal experience because I worked alongside her at Clearleft for three years. Now she’s at Bulb and I can’t wait for everyone at Patterns Day to hear her galaxy brain thoughts on design systems.

And how could I not have Varya at Patterns Day? She lives and breathes design systems. Whether it’s coding, writing, speaking, or training, she’s got years of experience to share. Ever used BEM? Yeah, that was Varya.

Anyway, if you’ve got your ticket for Patterns Day, you’re in for a treat.

If you didn’t manage to get a ticket for Patterns Day …sorry.

But do not despair. There is still one possible way of securing an elusive Patterns Day ticket: get your company to sponsor the event.

We’ve already got one sponsor—buildit @ wipro digital—who are kindly covering the costs for teas, coffees, and pastries. Now I’m looking for another sponsor to cover the costs of making video recordings of the talks.

The cost of sponsorship is £2000. In exchange, I can’t offer you a sponsor stand or anything like that—there’s just no room at the venue. But you will earn my undying thanks, and you’ll get your logo on the website and on the screen in between talks on the day (and on the final videos).

I can also give you four tickets to Patterns Day.

This is a sponsorship strategy that I like to call “blackmail.”

If you were really hoping to bring your team to Patterns Day, but you left it too late to get your tickets, now’s your chance. Convince your company to sponsor the event (and let’s face it, £2000 is a rounding error on some company’s books). Then you and your colleagues need not live with eternal regret and FOMO.

Drop me a line. Let’s talk.

This was originally posted on my own site.

Our intern program is returning for 2019 Tue, 21 May 2019 16:02:00 +0000 We’re looking for three enthusiastic interns with backgrounds across research, design, arts and technology to join our three-month internship program in Brighton, starting in August.

Every few years we run an intern program with a difference. We put together a team of three interns with complimentary skills, give them a broad brief and task them with producing a new product or service with a digital core, that blends their skillsets in new and interesting ways. We provide support and coaching, a space in which to create, a living wage salary, and a small discretionary budget.

By the end of the three months the team will have created some form of working prototype, along with a record of their progress — be that a blog, video diary, case study or similar. We invite them to talk about the product and process to other students, graduates, press and members of the industry.

Crucially the program is run as a project like we would with our clients, with daily stand-ups, regular playbacks and frequent feedback sessions. With the entire Clearleft team at their disposal, we think it gives a great opportunity for graduates to gain vital studio experience and end up with an amazing portfolio piece.

Due to overwhelming demand, applications for 2019 are now closed

Previous Internships

The results of our two previous intern programmes blew us away. Both teams got to flex their creative muscles and we had a blast working with them, learning skills and approaches outside of our own areas of expertise.

2015 - Notice

In 2015 we had a trio of interns who created Notice, a product to help citizens understand what buildings are requesting planning permissions and what they can do about it. The trio consisted of a UI designer, an industrial product designer and a hacking/coding artist. They kept a Tumblr of their progress

The Notice Intern Team: Chloe, Chris and Monika

2013 - Chüne

In 2013 our intern team comprised a roboticist, a communication designer and an industrial designer. They created Chüne, an internet-connected, social music speaker.

The Chüne Intern Team: Zassa, Killian and Victor

Intern Victor Johansson said of his experience:

Clearleft is by far the nicest company and working environment I have come across. All I can say is, if you are thinking about applying for next years internship programme, then DO IT, and if you aren’t thinking about it, well maybe you should start thinking!

Please note that due to overwhelming demand, applications are now closed.

Give your information architecture a three-point checkup Fri, 17 May 2019 08:35:00 +0000 “How do you know your site structure is needing attention before it becomes really broken?”

I’ve recently been asked variations of this question by a couple of clients, a colleague and the attendees of a presentation I was giving.

A great information architecture (IA) tells a story, creates flow and aids discovery for the people using your products or services.

An ailing IA threatens to silence your content, prevent conversion (sales and engagement) and frustrate your users. The good news is a sick information architecture can easily be cured with early diagnosis and painless remedies.

Here are three tell-tale signs to look for and some ways to avoid the problem in the first place:

Warning sign #1. You’ve shipped your org-chart

Be mindful not to conform to Conway’s Law where organisations design systems which mirror the organisation’s structure. You’ll know you’re doing this when the hot project or latest initiative get undue prominence in navigation menus. Or when you can match the words used in page labels with a department or person’s job title in the business.

Shipping the org-chart is often done inadvertently without anyone really noticing until it’s too late.

The way to remedy it is to get out of your building and meet more of your users more regularly. Listen to the words they use to describe what you offer. Open card sorting is the ideal technique to help with this. As a robust, quick and repeatable activity, it helps you find out how the people you want to use your website would organise and label the items on it to make them easy to find.

Warning sign #2. The loudest voice trumps the considered logic

You will know this when you see it. It crops up in navigation menus that seem to have an order with the exception of a couple of prominently misplaced items. You sense it when a page is featured multiple times in multiple menus desperately calling out for you to care enough to click on it.

So many site structures reflect the egos of individuals in the business. To avoid incongruous items getting shoe-horned into your information architecture I’d look to engage stakeholders early on, to help shape their brief rather than just receiving it.

Having the principles and concepts articulated for how the site is organised helps move the request from tactical demands to a more considered strategic conversation. It’s important to change the conversation to focus on desired outcomes rather than the position within a menu. Having your content found is ultimately more valuable than appearing in the primary navigation and easy to measure and report on.

The result of not looking after the health of your IA

Warning sign #3. Your IA is treated as a project rather than a process

Projects feel good. There’s a crisis to deal with and all you need is to call for the cavalry to ride into town and just in the nick of time to save the day.

Your IA should never become a crisis. Unlike a project managing your IA should be an ongoing activity without an end date. After all, a healthy digital product or service never stands still with ongoing enhancements and additions to what you offer.

You know your IA is respected as a critical part of your digital operations when:

  • There is a person responsible for it with defined KPIs to meet
  • The process and logic for positioning and labelling pages is documented
  • Time is regularly scheduled for review and attention

A great IA doesn’t happen by lucky accident. They need to be designed, iterated upon and optimised. Without care and ongoing love they quickly become overgrown and unwieldy.

How to nurture your IA

Hopefully, your information architecture doesn’t exhibit any of these three warning signs. If it does take some action to remedy the problem sooner rather than later.

If your IA is currently in good shape, then make sure you schedule your next check-up, as a thriving website is always in a state of change. To keep it healthy requires considered processes and ongoing attention.

A 'rough guide to UX' workshop Tue, 30 Apr 2019 14:00:00 +0000 After sampling the infamous coffee and sitting in on the Monday team meeting, I kicked off my time at Clearleft with a fascinating ‘Rough guide to UX’ workshop led by Andy Thornton.

It was a fortuitous day to start, not only did I get to learn UX techniques from the very best, I got to know six of my new colleagues in a great environment.

I arrived a little late (the new laptop took a while to set up!); they’d just finished running through the history of UX, and discussing user-centered design. This led on to the first activity, the interview.

Empathy mapping

We interviewed each other to find out more about our holidaying habits, how we decide when and where to go, and what informs our plans. As the interviewer, we categorised answers into four categories:

This empathy map helped disseminate the information, tailor our questions, and sift through the noise. The type of questions were crucial. A ‘closed’ question would often resolve in a yes/no answer, and would run the risk of introducing interviewer bias. “Do you gather holiday inspiration from Instagram” offers little insight. “Do you gather holiday inspiration from Instagram or Pinterest” gives the interviewee two choices, neither of which may be correct.

‘Open’ questions reveal more useful information, but require greater trust between the two parties. Asking the ‘why’ questions is where the real gold lies.

Coming to the table with a beginners mind keeps your interviewing bias to a minimum, even if you are an expert in the field. The whole exercise really brought home what a great skill interviewing is.

Keeping focus on past and current experiences was a theme that persisted throughout the day. Questions about a previous holiday will yield more accurate answers than those about a potential future holiday.

Jobs, pains & gains

We split into two groups and picked a scenario that we wished to improve with UX techniques. Our team chose ‘improving the new starter process’, which was suitably meta on day one! It turned out to be a great choice - I learned a bunch about what’s coming up for me in the next couple of weeks!

The task was to outline the following aspects of the new starter experience:

  • Jobs: Goals, and things one wants to achieve
  • Gains: Opportunities, practical outcomes, and soft feelings
  • Pains: Challenges and obstacles

It was interesting to see how many jobs could also be gains. ‘Doing’ is such a positive thing for a new starter, so many goals blended between the two. We finished by ordering the post-its in each column by importance. The ‘time’ factor made a large difference to the order. Short-term goals tended to place higher, but longer-term goals led to more gains overall.

These two tasks were part of the problem definition phase of the heralded double-diamond.

Story mapping

The next task was to story map the current process for new starters. Again, the onus was still to focus on what’s happening now, not our desired outcomes (yet). We broke it down into a filmstrip:

  • Chapters: high-level themes
  • Scenes: Categories of events
  • Actions: Individual events

The general rule of thumb was if it can’t be broken down into smaller chunks, it’s an action. We started with scenes and worked down to actions and up to chapters. The scenes act as a time-based narrative and help pin down what happens day-to-day.

Again, as we discussed each scene in detail, we found that some scenes became actions, and others became chapters, or even multiple scenes.

The next step was to mark high and low points of the experience. This provoked much discussion on character, introversion and public speaking. Many of the actions initially marked as green by our team’s extrovert were red in my introverted eyes! Clearleft run regular ‘brown-bag’ lunches where members of the team share their experience, or something of interest. This is also part of the induction process, and for those less excited by public speaking, that prospect can be pretty daunting!

The story map can also be extended to become a helpful tool in planning the whole project. Chapters become epics, scenes become stories, and actions become tasks. We can even draw sensible ‘release lines’ across our model!

The peak-end rule suggests that humans remember the highs/lows and the end of an experience, so that’s where we should be focusing our attention. If we identify the lows and mitigate them, we can make a dramatic difference to the view of the overall experience!

Explore ideas

With those lows in mind, it was time to find some solutions.

We began with a task to lower the barrier to sketching. Drawing is often seen as a scary and vulnerable task for those less creative, and a point of pride for those who regularly sketch! Both can get paralysed when asked to create a one-minute sketch in front of others.

This icebreaker came in the form of squiggle birds, yes, you read that correctly. The premise is as follows:

  1. Draw a bunch of squiggles on the page!
  2. Add a beak to one of the edges
  3. Now an eye
  4. And some feet
  5. Maybe a tail if you’re feeling adventurous!

Give it a go - it’s a lot of fun! I’ve also made a little JS squiggle bird to demonstrate, have a click through below!

See the Pen Squiggle birds by Trys Mudford (@trys) on CodePen.

The human brain is brilliant at finding meaning from noise, if we can create birds from squiggles, we can do some rough sketching!

Sketching our squiggle birds


So, to the task itself…

We creased our paper into six sections and had one minute to draw a solution to one of the problems brought to light from our story map. When the timer went, we moved onto the next section and drew another solution to a different problem. Six run-throughs later, and we had six (quite poorly drawn) ideas on paper! We kept those ideas to ourselves and moved onto the next task.

Taking another sheet of A3, we spent 15 minutes on one idea, going into a lot more detail. The previous task, although fleeting, was a great precursor to this activity. I ended up taking two or three ideas from it, and combining it into one main proposition.

If you couldn't tell, I fall into the 'not overly keen on sketching' camp!

Feedback & Critique

Andy then walked through a few stumbling blocks to critiques, including GroupThink, an idea that in a desire to reduce conflict, a group will often reach a compromised decision without properly evaluating the matter. I thought back to attending jury duty. Dropping a group of strangers together and asking them to come to an informed, and ideally unanimous decision, is a tricky task indeed.

To alleviate this problem, we put on thinking hats. Six distinct roles were spread around the table and we were to all assume the respective personas:

  • Blue: facilitator, the individual presenting their idea
  • White: objective, data-focused
  • Red: feelings, hunches and emotion
  • Green: creativity, building upon ideas
  • Yellow: positivity!
  • Black: negativity, ‘devils advocate’ and caution

The simple act of pinning a coloured post-it and becoming that persona took all the pressure out of presenting to the group. We all outlined our ideas and had genuinely good discussions about each one. When the ‘black hat’ brought up issues, the green and yellow were right beside you to defend and build on your idea. It was fun, safe, and productive.

Testing and learning

The final part of the day went through some processes for testing our solutions. It was mostly theoretical, but super interesting.

By structuring our work as experiments, we reduce the cost of failure. It’s a great way to propose new features or ideas to a manager or stakeholder. The key is to only test one thing against your hypothesis.

This fits nicely into a ‘Observe’, ‘Hypothesise’, ‘Test’, and ‘Theorise’ model, and can lead to great, data-driven results. Sounds a little similar to red, green, refactor!


I was so fortunate to kickoff my time at Clearleft with such an informative and interesting day. I learned a ton about UX, how Clearleft go about workshopping, and how the new starter process will work itself out over the next few weeks!

This was originally posted on my own site.

Earth day, API's and sunshine. Mon, 22 Apr 2019 09:25:00 +0000 Here at Clearleft we’ve been taking small steps to reduce our environmental impact. In December 2018 we covered the roof of our home with solar panels.

With the first of the glorious summer sun starting to shine down on us, we started to ponder about what environmental impact they’d had over the last 5 months.

Luckily for us, our solar panels have an API, so we can not only find out that information, we can request it from SolarEdge and display it in our very own interface.

If I lost you at API, it isn’t a type of hipster beer. API stands for application programming interface. A company can make some of its data available to developers by building an API, a set of dedicated URLs that return data responses . This article describes them as little robo-waiters, serving up data to other apps and websites.

I’m always up for a fun side project, so when I saw that Earth day was on the horizon, I grabbed the opportunity. I make a lot of cute web animations and interactive code experiments on CodePen. But I’ve never tried to visualize any data before. So the first step was to find out what was accessible. What data could I get my hands on?

Jeremy and I got up the docs and started doing some investigation. The first thing that jumped out at us was this -

treesPlanted: equivalent planting of new trees for reducing CO₂ levels

Wouldn’t it be cool if over the years we could somehow see the number of trees we’d “planted”? Create a kind of digital forest and watch it grow?

I started scribbling down some rough ideas. I wanted the visual to link to Clearleft and Brighton somehow but there aren’t many forests (or gardens) in central Brighton. A roof garden seemed like a good location for our digital forest.

A rough sketch of the 68 middle street building with trees on roof and wind turbine in the background.

68 middle street has a lot of windows, so that jumped out as a good way to display our current power.

Our peak power is 6.48 kWp and is essentially the rate at which our solar system generates energy at noon of a super sunny day. The amount of energy a system generates is measured in kilowatt hours (kWh). Each of our kWp’s should generate around 800 to 850 kWh per year (if we get a decent amount of sunshine, which in the UK is sometimes rather elusive) By querying our peak power and current power, we can work out what percentage of our overall capacity we’re currently at.

Once I’d worked out what data I wanted, I used the fetch API to get it. This tutorial by Sara Vieira helped me to wrap my head around this.

fetch() allows us to make network requests similar to XMLHttpRequest. The main difference is that the Fetch API uses Promises. A promise object is data returned by asynchronous function. It will resolve if the function returned successfully or reject if the function returned an error.

 .then(response => response.json())
 .then(response => {
   // Do all the fun stuff with the data here!
 .catch(err => {
   console.log("oh no. something went wrong");

First we call the fetch API and pass it the URL we want to get the data from, as we haven’t specified any other parameters, this will be a simple GET request. We also want our data as a JSON object so we add response.json to parse the response as JSON.

If the promise gets resolved, our then function will trigger and do all the fun stuff with the SVG illustration and the API data. And if our promise gets rejected our catch function will trigger and throw an error to alert us.

As for the illustration itself! The illustration is an SVG, or scalable vector graphic. The best bit about SVG that it gives you is the ability to manipulate it’s properties.

SVG has a DOM, much like HTML and when used inline, (by putting the SVG code right into your HTML), you can access this DOM with CSS or Javascript and do things to it.

 <svg class="68middlestreet"... >
   <path class="sky" fill="#91b1bf" d="M9 52.1h813.2v767.6H9z" />
    <g class="clouds">
      <path fill="#d9eafc" d="M-207.6 395.2c14.2..."/>
      <path fill="#f9f9f9" d="M-67.2 389.9s-5.4 3-..."/>
A picture of the illustration being put together in adobe Illustrator

I created the SVG building in illustrator. It was a pretty large SVG with a lot of detail, and the exported code can be pretty unwieldy straight out of a graphics editor. So I ran it through SVGOMG to tidy it up.

When the then function gets triggered, I’m adding a class called animate to the body of the HTML. I’m using CSS for the animations, and I’ve bound the animations to this class.

This ensures that the animations don’t start before the data response has come back from the API, as we require that information to know how many trees to grow and windows to light up.

.then(response => {
.animate .tree {
  animation: grow 0.6s cubic-bezier(0.175, 0.885, 0.32, 1.1) forwards 1s;

@keyframes grow {
  from {
    opacity: 0;
    transform: scale(0) translateY(100%);
  to {
    transform: scale(1) translateY(0);
    opacity: 1;

My personal favourite bit of this project was creating an accurate representation of the number of trees.

If there’s a fractional part to the number of trees. i.e. 2.3 instead of 2, we get to create a cute mini-tree!

I used a modulo operation to find the remainder after dividing by one and then set the tree size to that remainder.

var littleTreeSize;
var isLittleTree = false;

// work out if there's a small tree
var treeMod = treeCount % 1;
// if there's a remainder then set isLittleTree to true
var isLittleTree = treeMod > 0;

if (isLittleTree) {
 // set little tree size
 littleTreeSize = treeMod;

All in all this was great fun. I look forward to a summer full of sunshine so that we can watch a digital forest spring up from our rooftop!

Check out our final data vis here 

Three more Patterns Day speakers Tue, 16 Apr 2019 14:58:57 +0000 There are 73 days to go until Patterns Day. Do you have your ticket yet?

Perhaps you’ve been holding out for some more information on the line-up. Well, I’m more than happy to share the latest news with you—today there are three new speakers on the bill…

Emil Björklund, the technical director at the Malmö outpost of Swedish agency inUse, is a super-smart person I’ve known for many years. Last year, I saw him on stage in his home town at the Confront conference sharing some of his ideas on design systems. He blew my mind! I told him there and then that he had to come to Brighton and expand on those thoughts some more. This is going to be an unmissable big-picture talk in the style of Paul’s superb talk last year.

Speaking of superb talks from last year, Alla Kholmatova is back! Her closing talk from the first Patterns Day was so fantastic that it I just had to have her come back. Oh, and since then, her brilliant book on Design Systems came out. She’s going to have a lot to share!

The one thing that I felt was missing from the first Patterns Day was a focus on inclusive design. I’m remedying that this time. Heydon Pickering, creator of the Inclusive Components website—and the accompanying book—is speaking at Patterns Day. I’m very excited about this. Given that Heydon has a habit of casually dropping knowledge bombs like the lobotomised owl selector and the flexbox holy albatross, I can’t wait to see what he unleashes on stage in Brighton on June 28th.

Emil Björklund Alla Kholmatova Heydon Pickering
Emil, Alla, and Heydon

Be there or be square.

Tickets for Patterns Day are still available, but you probably don’t want to leave it ‘till the last minute to get yours. Just sayin’.

The current—still incomplete—line-up comprises:

That isn’t even the full roster of speakers, and it’s already an unmissable event!

I very much hope you’ll join me in the beautiful Duke of York’s cinema on June 28th for a great day of design system nerdery.

This was originally posted on my own site.

Design Perception Thu, 11 Apr 2019 11:34:00 +0000 Last week I wrote a post called Dev perception:

I have a suspicion that there’s a silent majority of developers who are working with “boring” technologies on “boring” products in “boring” industries …you know, healthcare, government, education, and other facets of everyday life that any other industry would value more highly than Uber for dogs.

The sentiment I expressed resonated with a lot of people. Like, a lot of people.

I was talking specifically about web development and technology choices, but I think the broader point applies to other disciplines too.

Last month I had the great pleasure of moderating two panels on design leadership at an event in London (I love moderating panels, and I think I’m pretty darn good at it too). I noticed that the panels comprised representatives from two different kinds of companies.

There were the digital-first companies like Spotify, Deliveroo, and Bulb—companies forged in the fires of start-up culture. Then there were the older companies that had to make the move to digital (transform, if you will). I decided to get a show of hands from the audience to see which kind of company most people were from. The overwhelming majority of attendees were from more old-school companies.

Just as most of the ink spilled in the web development world goes towards the newest frameworks and toolchains, I feel like the majority of coverage in the design world is spent on the latest outputs from digital-first companies like AirBnB, Uber, Slack, etc.

The end result is the same. A typical developer or designer is left feeling that they—and their company—are behind the curve. It’s like they’re only seeing the Instagram version of their industry, all airbrushed and filtered, and they’re comparing that to their day-to-day work. That can’t be healthy.

Personally, I’d love to hear stories from the trenches of more representative, traditional companies. I also think that would help get an important message to people working in similar companies:

You are not alone!

This was originally posted on my own site.

Split Wed, 10 Apr 2019 14:59:00 +0000 When I talk about evaluating technology for front-end development, I like to draw a distinction between two categories of technology.

On the one hand, you’ve got the raw materials of the web: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. This is what users will ultimately interact with.

On the other hand, you’ve got all the tools and technologies that help you produce the HTML, CSS, and JavaScript: pre-processors, post-processors, transpilers, bundlers, and other build tools.

Personally, I’m much more interested and excited by the materials than I am by the tools. But I think it’s right and proper that other developers are excited by the tools. A good balance of both is probably the healthiest mix.

I’m never sure what to call these two categories. Maybe the materials are the “external” technologies, because they’re what users will interact with. Whereas all the other technologies—that mosty live on a developer’s machine—are the “internal” technologies.

Another nice phrase is something I heard during Chris’s talk at An Event Apart in Seattle, when he quoted Brad, who talked about the front of the front end and the back of the front end.

I’m definitely more of a front-of-the-front-end kind of developer. I have opinions on the quality of the materials that get served up to users; the output should be accessible and performant. But I don’t particularly care about the tools that produced those materials on the back of the front end. Use whatever works for you (or whatever works for your team).

As a user-centred developer, my priority is doing what’s best for end users. That’s not to say I don’t value developer convenience. I do. But I prioritise user needs over developer needs. And in any case, those two needs don’t even come into conflict most of the time. Like I said, from a user’s point of view, it’s irrelevant what text editor or version control system you use.

Now, you could make the argument that anything that is good for developer convenience is automatically good for user experience because faster, more efficient development should result in better output. While that’s true in theory, I highly recommend Alex’s post, The “Developer Experience” Bait-and-Switch.

Where it gets interesting is when a technology that’s designed for developer convenience is made out of the very materials being delivered to users. For example, a CSS framework like Bootstrap is made of CSS. That’s different to a tool like Sass which outputs CSS. Whether or not a developer chooses to use Sass is irrelevant to the user—the final output will be CSS either way. But if a developer chooses to use a CSS framework, that decision has a direct impact on the user experience. The user must download the framework in order for the developer to get the benefit.

So whereas Sass sits at the back of the front end—where I don’t care what you use—Bootstrap sits at the front of the front end. For tools like that, I don’t think saying “use whatever works for you” is good enough. It’s got to be weighed against the cost to the user.

Historically, it’s been a similar story with JavaScript libraries. They’re written in JavaScript, and so they’re going to be executed in the browser. If a developer wanted to use jQuery to make their life easier, the user paid the price in downloading the jQuery library.

But I’ve noticed a welcome change with some of the bigger JavaScript frameworks. Whereas the initial messaging around frameworks like React touted the benefits of state management and the virtual DOM, I feel like that’s not as prevalent now. You’re much more likely to hear people—quite rightly—talk about the benefits of modularity and componentisation. If you combine that with the rise of Node—which means that JavaScript is no longer confined to the browser—then these frameworks can move from the front of the front end to the back of the front end.

We’ve certainly seen that at Clearleft. We’ve worked on multiple React projects, but in every case, the output was server-rendered. Developers get the benefit of working with a tool that helps them. Users don’t pay the price.

For me, this question of whether a framework will be used on the client side or the server side is crucial.

Let me tell you about a Clearleft project that sticks in my mind. We were working with a big international client on a product that was going to be rolled out to students and teachers in developing countries. This was right up my alley! We did plenty of research into network conditions and typical device usage. That then informed a tight performance budget. Every design decision—from web fonts to images—was informed by that performance budget. We were producing lean, mean markup, CSS, and JavaScript. But we weren’t the ones implementing the final site. That was being done by the client’s offshore software team, and they insisted on using React. “That’s okay”, I thought. “React can be used server-side so we can still output just what’s needed, right?” Alas, no. These developers did everything client side. When the final site launched, the log-in screen alone required megabytes of JavaScript just to render a form. It was, in my opinion, entirely unfit for purpose. It still pains me when I think about it.

That was a few years ago. I think that these days it has become a lot easier to make the decision to use a framework on the back of the front end. Like I said, that’s certainly been the case on recent Clearleft projects that involved React or Vue.

It surprises me, then, when I see the question of server rendering or client rendering treated almost like an implementation detail. It might be an implementation detail from a developer’s perspective, but it’s a key decision for the user experience. The performance cost of putting your entire tech stack into the browser can be enormous.

Alex Sanders from the development team at The Guardian published a post recently called Revisiting the rendering tier . In it, he describes how they’re moving to React. Now, if this were a move to client-rendered React, that would make a big impact on the user experience. The thing is, I couldn’t tell from the article whether React was going to be used in the browser or on the server. The article talks about “rendering”—which is something that browsers do—and “the DOM”—which is something that only exists in browsers.

So I asked. It turns out that this plan is very much about generating HTML and CSS on the server before sending it to the browser. Excellent!

With that question answered, I’m cool with whatever they choose to use. In this case, they’re choosing to use CSS-in-JS (although, to be pedantic, there’s no C anymore so technically it’s SS-in-JS). As long as the “JS” part is JavaScript on a server, then it makes no difference to the end user, and therefore no difference to me. Not my circus, not my monkeys. For users, the end result is the same whether styling is applied via a selector in an external stylesheet or, for example, via an inline style declaration (and in some situations, a server-rendered CSS-in-JS solution might be better for performance). And so, as a user-centred developer, this is something that I don’t need to care about.


I have misgivings. But just to be clear, these misgivings have nothing to do with users. My misgivings are entirely to do with another group of people: the people who make websites.

There’s a second-order effect. By making React—or even JavaScript in general—a requirement for styling something on a web page, the barrier to entry is raised.

At least, I think that the barrier to entry is raised. I completely acknowledge that this is a subjective judgement. In fact, the reason why a team might decide to make JavaScript a requirement for participation might well be because they believe it makes it easier for people to participate. Let me explain…

It wasn’t that long ago that devs coming from a Computer Science background were deriding CSS for its simplicity, complaining that “it’s broken” and turning their noses up at it. That rhetoric, thankfully, is waning. Nowadays they’re far more likely to acknowledge that CSS might be simple, but it isn’t easy. Concepts like the cascade and specificity are real head-scratchers, and any prior knowledge from imperative programming languages won’t help you in this declarative world—all your hard-won experience and know-how isn’t fungible. Instead, it seems as though all this cascading and specificity is butchering the modularity of your nicely isolated components.

It’s no surprise that programmers with this kind of background would treat CSS as damage and find ways to route around it. The many flavours of CSS-in-JS are testament to this. From a programmer’s point of view, this solution has made things easier. Best of all, as long as it’s being done on the server, there’s no penalty for end users. But now the price is paid in the diversity of your team. In order to participate, a Computer Science programming mindset is now pretty much a requirement. For someone coming from a more declarative background—with really good HTML and CSS skills—everything suddenly seems needlessly complex. And as Tantek observed:

Complexity reinforces privilege.

The result is a form of gatekeeping. I don’t think it’s intentional. I don’t think it’s malicious. It’s being done with the best of intentions, in pursuit of efficiency and productivity. But these code decisions are reflected in hiring practices that exclude people with different but equally valuable skills and perspectives.

Rachel describes HTML, CSS and our vanishing industry entry points:

If we make it so that you have to understand programming to even start, then we take something open and enabling, and place it back in the hands of those who are already privileged.

I think there’s a comparison here with toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity is obviously terrible for women, but it’s also really shitty for men in the way it stigmatises any male behaviour that doesn’t fit its worldview. Likewise, if the only people your team is interested in hiring are traditional programmers, then those programmers are going to resent having to spend their time dealing with semantic markup, accessibility, styling, and other disciplines that they never trained in. Heydon correctly identifies this as reluctant gatekeeping:

By assuming the role of the Full Stack Developer (which is, in practice, a computer scientist who also writes HTML and CSS), one takes responsibility for all the code, in spite of its radical variance in syntax and purpose, and becomes the gatekeeper of at least some kinds of code one simply doesn’t care about writing well.

This hurts everyone. It’s bad for your team. It’s even worse for the wider development community.

Last year, I was asked “Is there a fear or professional challenge that keeps you up at night?” I responded:

My greatest fear for the web is that it becomes the domain of an elite priesthood of developers. I firmly believe that, as Tim Berners-Lee put it, “this is for everyone.” And I don’t just mean it’s for everyone to use—I believe it’s for everyone to make as well. That’s why I get very worried by anything that raises the barrier to entry to web design and web development.

I’ve described a number of dichotomies here:

  • Materials vs. tools,
  • Front of the front end vs. back of the front end,
  • User experience vs. developer experience,
  • Client-side rendering vs. server-side rendering,
  • Declarative languages vs. imperative languages.

But the split that worries the most is this:

  • The people who make the web vs. the people who are excluded from making the web.

This was originally posted on my own site.

Cotswolds design leaders retreat Fri, 05 Apr 2019 14:53:00 +0000 Earlier this month I had the pleasure of co-hosting a retreat for senior design leaders, at a beautiful country house hotel in the Cotswolds. The group was comprised of Heads and Directors of Design from a range of well known brands.

Most were from the UK and Europe, although a handful had flown the 10+ hours from North America to join us. They were here to spend the next few days exploring their career journeys, improving their leadership skills, and sharing tactics and advice with their industry peers.

It was clear from the off that these three days were much needed. During the opening circle, people talked candidly and honestly about the pressure they were under, feelings of isolation, and an overwhelming sense of imposter syndrome. They also talked about the guilt they were feeling being away from their families and teams. For many, this was their first chance to spend any meaningful time focussing on themselves and their careers, so they weren’t about the waste the opportunity.

We kicked things off with what I called a Leadership MOT. Essentially a series of exercises intended to understand the individual career paths these leaders had taken to get to where they were today, the highs and lows of that journey, and what this could tell them about their own personal needs. Next, we delved into the topic of leadership styles, plotting their approaches and preferences on a series of charts and graphs, before looking at which areas could be improved upon. We did a similar exercise looking at where they currently spent their effort, and how they’d like that to change over the coming months. We used this information to start filling in a personal design leadership canvas, the second half of which we’d come back to at the end of the three days.

Common challenges setting the agenda

Using Open Space Technology, we pulled out all the key issues the group was experiencing and turned these into a detailed agenda. Topics included the challenges of scaling a team, how to go about measuring and demonstrating the value of design, the best way to structure your design team, tips on building a robust design culture, and approaches for dealing with boards, peers from other departments and organisational silos. We also touched on more challenging subjects like managing difficult staff members, dealing with workplace stress, fears around personal and professional failure, and worries about what comes next.

If you’ve been to a Leading Design Conference before, or happen to be a member of our Slack community, most of these topics will be familiar to you. However, our attendees seemed to find it both helpful and cathartic being able to discuss these topics in a safe space amongst a group of peers. One said of the retreat “It was better than I could have ever imagined and will have a lasting effect both professionally and personally. It was introspective and revelational.”


Interspersed between the discussions, we had arranged a number of social events. On one day we got to choose to do a bread making or cocktail making course - an opportunity to get creative and bond with our peers out of the context of our day-to-day roles. The next day we went on a group walk in the Cotswolds countryside. One of our goals for the retreat was to help create a bit of a support network for our attendees, so creating space for people to get to know each other and build lasting bonds was super important.

The merit of a personal leadership plan

While we experimented with a number of different sessions, one of the most popular activities was known–rather cheesily—as a success circle. This involved splitting our design leaders into groups of 4 and giving each person 20 minutes to request help or advice from the other members. Some people asked for help with their recruitment challenges, others delved into the thorny problem of team structure. Some people needed help with a difficult HR issue, while others sought advice on their next career move. The result of this session was that everybody came away with a stack of good ideas for how to solve a knotty challenge that had been bugging them for a while.

As the final afternoon approached, we switched back to our structured activities, asking everybody to fill in the second half of their Design Leadership Canvas. This acted as a helpful way to capture some of the challenges they’d surfaced, the advice they’d been given, and the decisions they’d made. We then set a second activity; to create a personal leadership plan. The plan was broken down into different sections; things you could do to improve your own personal leadership abilities, things you could do to help your team, and things you could to do affect the wider organisations. These sections were divided into three different time horizons; things you could do now, things you could do over the next couple of months, and things you would work towards in the future. We asked everybody to commit to at least three of these as immediate next steps.

design leaders at the leadership retreat

Time for introspection

Even though we were only away for three days it felt like we’d been away for a lot longer. We’d had some pretty intense conversations, and a few tears had been shed along the way. New friendships had formed and we’d bonded as a group. While it would have been too much to ask to solve every problem raised, a good amount of ground had been covered. People left feeling renewed, reinvigorated, and excited for what happens next.

One of the group summarised the experienced best when they said “it has been both a cathartic and delightfully exhausting introspective journey of which I hope to continue and practice with both myself and those of whom I work with.”

Our next leadership retreat takes place on the 16th -20th September, in the forests and mountains of North Norway—the perfect place to escape, recharge and work on your leadership challenges. We’ll be taking applications soon, so follow this link for more details.

Five insights from successful design leaders Thu, 04 Apr 2019 08:00:00 +0000 Last month Clearleft hosted a lively morning of discussion and debate featuring leading industry voices from Spotify, Virgin Atlantic, Google, Deliveroo, Bulb, and Pfizer.

In front of an audience of design leads, two panels explored some of the common challenges facing internal design teams; from understanding and responding faster to customer needs, implementing the right systems internally for driving innovation, and creating a culture of design thinking. These are five key takeaways from the sessions.

Panel discussion and audience

Customer expectations are evolving

Customers are expecting more from the services they use and pay for. Service designers have known this for decades, but the design you do needs to be not just on screen, but before, after and behind the screen experience. User research and testing is a fundamental part of achieving this, and should be a key input into decision making when it comes to the design of services and products. The way to achieve this - and it can be far easier said than done - is to expose your organisation to the experiences of your customers.

Design decisions should be tested, but you need to work out the impact you want to make in order to validate changes, even when those changes are informed by research. Metrics can be an extremely useful guide, but in and of themselves can reduce your impact. Designers can find themselves focussing on a metric as a way of acting more quickly, when greater value could be found by thinking critically and holistically rather than concentrating on local maxima - but those things take time, effort and some political will.

The case for design systems

We designers love design systems - they can give us a grander sense of purpose - while of course providing a incredibly valuable resource to our organisation. Done well, they can (and should) be a significant investment, so putting a case forward to those with the purse strings is vital. The number one reason to state is ‘efficiency’. This is the codeword to use to get buy-in. Good design systems will introduce efficiency into workflows across design and development within the organisation. They also provide consistency to your customer’s experience, and keep the quality at the required level.

A good design system is not just for code (AKA a pattern library). It is not just a design guide or a brand book, and it is not just repeatable UX patterns. It is all those things. But the best ones also integrate copywriting, especially microcopy, but also copy guidelines on a wider scale - even within single brand the tone of voice will need to change with the context.

Your design system is a tool that needs to be communicated and constantly nurtured. As soon as the system’s consumers feel it is out of date, a design system’s use - and all the advantages it provides - will drop off a cliff.

Link design operations to the organisation

Design ops are your way of doing design, including how design links in with the rest of organisation. One good way of getting started on design ops is by specifying your research operations first - getting a system and process for your research ops will inherently describe how research feeds into design and other parts of the organisation (such as sales and marketing). Getting that right will spark getting design ops right.

Ultimately design ops should comprise the CRD trifecta: Content, Research and Design, as opposed to just design. These are typically thought of as different things, and occasionally siloed into different departments, but they all part of the same picture.

Introducing design ops may naturally involve a change in culture. A key part of any successful culture change is about showing people what’s in it for them, and design ops will do that.

Silos get a bad rap

It’s certainly true that large silos, operating independently without interacting with other silos, frequently means the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. However can be beneficial to consciously create small silos for individuals teams (perhaps these are ‘vats’ rather than silos?) Small silos enable you concentrate expertise - members will get to know, trust and learn from each other.

It’s also true that design works well when it’s integrated throughout the organisation, with content, research, design and even development represented in all departments. If that’s how you’re organised it’s important that the different disciplines have ample opportunity to come together as a team in to share learning and feed into each other’s work (just as pair programming can bring additionsal quality, so two heads are better than one when it comes to design).

Designers should ask permission less

Once design has been elevated from mere styling to problem solving, designers can start to be more influential. By heading down a hypothesis-based approach (with measure and test) you can start to make more substantial improvements. With appropriate design leadership, this can mean venturing into seeking out opportunities based on research and insight. This is real, not pie-in-the-sky, innovation, but you need to innovate efficiently for true impact. When you ask for permission, executives will come in and start directing. Start showing results and you’ll get more leeway.

A closing thought from the panels was that we should all stop talking about how we design, and start talking about the impact of design on the goals of the organisation.

Many thanks to Alla Kholmatova (Former Head of Design & UX, Bulb), Simon Rohrbach (Director of Content, Research & Design, Deliveroo), Nicole Burrow (Design Director, Spotify), Jens Riegelsberger (Product Design and Research Director, Google), Martyn Reding (Head of Digital Experience, Virgin Atlantic) and Nuala Sheerin (UK Digital Transformation Lead, Pfizer) for their generous time.

Join us next time

We’ll be running a similar event in September. If you lead or manage design teams, and you’d like to be in the audience, please let us know and we’ll get back to you with details nearer the time.

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Dev perception Thu, 04 Apr 2019 07:30:00 +0000 Chris put together a terrific round-up of posts recently called Simple & Boring. It links off to a number of great articles on the topic of complexity (and simplicity) in web development.

I had linked to quite a few of the articles myself already, but one I hadn’t seen was from David DeSandro who wrote New tech gets chatter:

You don’t hear about TextMate because TextMate is old. What would I tweet? Still using TextMate. Still good.

I think that’s a very good point.

It’s relatively easy to write and speak about new technologies. You’re excited about them, and there’s probably an eager audience who can learn from what you have to say.

It’s trickier to write something insightful about a tried and trusted (perhaps even boring) technology that’s been around for a while. You could maybe write little tips and tricks, but I bet your inner critic would tell you that nobody’s interested in hearing about that old tech. It’s boring.

The result is that what’s being written about is not a reflection of what’s being widely used. And that’s okay …as long as you know that’s the case. But I worry that theres’s a perception problem. Because of the outsize weighting of new and exciting technologies, a typical developer could feel that their skills are out of date and the technologies they’re using are passé …even if those technologies are actually in wide use.

I don’t know about you, but I constantly feel like I’m behind the curve because I’m not currently using TypeScript or GraphQL or React. Those are all interesting technologies, to be sure, but the time to pick any of them up is when they solve a specific problem I’m having. Learning a new technology just to mitigate a fear of missing out isn’t a scalable strategy. It’s reasonable to investigate a technology because you genuinely think it’s exciting; it’s quite another matter to feel like you must investigate a technology in order to survive. That way lies burn-out.

I find it very grounding to talk to Drew and Rachel about the people using their Perch CMS product. These are working developers, but they are far removed from the world of tools and frameworks forged in the startup world.

In a recent (excellent) article comparing the performance of Formula One websites, Jake made this observation at the end:

However, none of the teams used any of the big modern frameworks. They’re mostly Wordpress & Drupal, with a lot of jQuery. It makes me feel like I’ve been in a bubble in terms of the technologies that make up the bulk of the web.

I think this is very astute. I also think it’s completely understandable to form ideas about what matters to developers by looking at what’s being discussed on Twitter, what’s being starred on Github, what’s being spoken about at conferences, and what’s being written about on Ev’s blog. But it worries me when I see browser devrel teams focusing their efforts on what appears to be the needs of typical developers based on the amount of ink spilled and breath expelled.

I have a suspicion that there’s a silent majority of developers who are working with “boring” technologies on “boring” products in “boring” industries …you know, healthcare, government, education, and other facets of everyday life that any other industry would value more highly than Uber for dogs.

Trys wrote a great blog post called City life, where he compares his experience of doing CMS-driven agency work with his experience working at a startup in Shoreditch:

I was chatting to one of the team about my previous role. “I built two websites a month in WordPress”.

They laughed… “WordPress! Who uses that anymore?!”

Nearly a third of the web as it turns out - but maybe not on the Silicon Roundabout.

I’m not necessarily suggesting that there should be more articles and talks about older, more established technologies. Conferences in particular are supposed to give audiences a taste of what’s coming—they can be a great way of quickly finding out what’s exciting in the world of development. But we shouldn’t feel bad if those topics don’t match our day-to-day reality.

Ultimately what matters is building something—a website, a web app, whatever—that best serves end users. If that requires a new and exciting technology, that’s great. But if it requires an old and boring technology, that’s also great. What matters here is appropriateness.

When we’re evaluating technologies for appropriateness, I hope that we will do so through the lens of what’s best for users, not what we feel compelled to use based on a gnawing sense of irrelevancy driven by the perceived popularity of newer technologies.

This was originally posted on my own site.

A Professional Development Framework for Design Tue, 02 Apr 2019 13:59:00 +0000 Clearleft has been working on a professional development framework to share with the UX Design community. Here’s how, and why, we’ve arrived at something we hope is potentially valuable to you or your design team.

A work in progress

Mindful of the general sense that the design profession has historically been terrible at elaborating on career paths and progression, and inspired by some of our recent speakers at Leading Design and other conferences over the past few years, we’ve arrived at something we wanted to put out into the public domain.

For many years, Clearleft was exclusively a ‘seniors’ only club, where every practitioner had over 10 years experience in the bag, and this badge of honour formed an explicit part of our USP to clients. Over the past few years, as the Clearleft team has grown in size and capability, we’ve naturally hired more junior members of staff. With less seniority has come more appetite and need for mentoring, support and structure to aid and accelerate professional development.

However, on reflection and with the benefit of hindsight, even when we were a shape that was dominated by seasoned veterans, we were often guilty of throwing people in at the deep end, under the naive assumption that those who would swim could ultimately succeed at a company where autonomy and ownership are key characteristics needed to thrive. As an adhocracy, we prided ourselves on our lack of documented processes, ‘can-do’ attitude and ability to improvise under pressure. But we probably all suspected (and ultimately learnt) that regardless of seniority some semblance of structure was required to navigate cultural norms, manage expectations and accountabilities, deliver work productively, and anchor to a deeper purpose that made more explicit everyone’s contribution to the ‘Clearleftiverse’. This was true, even when any imposed structure needed to be experimental and adaptable to change, a core belief at Clearleft.

As we continue to be a relatively small and vociferously anti-hierarchical company, we appreciate the importance of giving all team members a clearer sense of where they can progress, or what they can specialise in. And not just within Clearleft today, but beyond that. Whilst there is an undoubtedly special bond that exists amongst all Clearleft alumni we’re not only comfortable with, but also active supporters of, enabling people to achieve their career dreams beyond their time at the company. Clearleft are just one part of a much bigger individual journey and a broader career path. Our passion for the digital community and our innate collective desire to make a meaningful contribution towards enabling design to thrive beyond our studio is something that continues to excite and motivate us. The success of ex-employees is one part of that which continues to make us all proud.


Measuring what counts

The first challenge of any measurement framework is ensuring there is a focus on what is meaningful. As Drucker (may or may not have) said “What gets measured gets done”. Essentially as we were aware that a measurement framework would have an impact on behaviour, encouraging the right behaviours and discouraging the wrong ones would be critical.

Clearleft is a place where collective values and behaviours are intrinsic to our way of working and continued success as a design studio. And moreso than any other company I’ve worked for or with, IMHO. When deciding on what to measure, and indeed what to ignore, we therefore felt it important to find a way to wrap up an expression of our values into the framework.

Our values

  • Make it great over good
  • Don’t go it alone
  • Own it
  • Be fleet of foot
  • Speak your mind
  • Learn, share
  • Feed your curiosity
  • Work to live, love to work

A number of overarching themes within these values felt appropriate to measure as core skills, namely Communication, Problem solving, and Empathy.



Participate and facilitate collaborative group activities and/or workshops with colleagues or clients.

Speak publicly or present to an audience articulately and persuasively.
Open to seek, receive and give constructive feedback on your work or the work of others.

Problem solving


Pro-actively own and be accountable for solving problems under your own initiative.

Understand, apply and adapt your approach to problem solving.
Shape, coordinate and lead activities on project work with colleagues and clients.

Empathy skills


Build strong relationships with colleagues and clients.

Support & Recognition
Support colleagues when they need help, and outwardly recognise the hard work of others.
Advocate for a shared understanding of the needs and concerns of users, customers or audiences.

CPD Trello board
A section of the CPD Trello board

With these core skills serving as the foundations, we were then readily able to identify a suite of specialist skills across the themes of Strategy, Design and Leadership.



Understand and articulate a clients mission, goals and desired outcomes, analyse their domain, and inform the vision and strategic direction of their products or services.


Diagnose project challenges and opportunities through evidence-based investigation and research.


Map the architecture of the user experience.


Create, adapt or interpret brand guidelines and translate them into tangible artefacts and experiences.



Explore, iterate and improve on a broad range of ideas and potential design solutions.


Produce elegant, usable and responsive user interfaces and user experiences within known technology constraints.


Validate design concepts and solutions with end-users and/or business stakeholders to measure the impact of design.



Lead or manage others to do better work and shape the strategic direction of the organisation.


Support the ongoing professional development and growth of colleagues.


Coach and train others to learn new skills, techniques and ways of working.


Each of the 19 skills are measured on a five point proficiency scale: Beginner, Novice, Intermediate, Expert, Master. The proficiency scale is intended to mirror the likely capability of a population along the lines of a bell curve distribution, with Beginner level typically reflecting a minimum benchmark for graduates or interns, and Mastery being the culmination of many years of hard work or serving as an aspirational, often career-defining, pinnacle of achievement. Most people will exist within the Novice to Expert proficiencies, which are intended to map neatly to obviously recognisable stages of any given career or skillset: from Junior through to Senior.

Where next?

The ambition is to have a universal framework that recognises and expresses the breadth of capability, both individually and across the company. Given the diffusion of skills amongst digital professionals, we’re acutely aware of the risks of putting individuals into explicitly narrow, pre-defined categories that can ultimately harm growth and professional development. As such we’re consciously trying not to design a system that stifles the unique attributes of any individual member.

With 19 measurable categories so far we believe there’s enough flexibility to avoid this. However we’re also mindful to introduce clarity around which roles and seniorities demand which subset of these skills and proficiency levels as essential prerequisites for promotion and salary compensation. Clearly this is a fine balancing act, but one we’re currently in the process of developing and refining further, along with a means by which to measure and evidence the criteria for progression in a more tangible way, that doesn’t inadvertently encourage gaming the system.

The Trello format is an unglamorous and occasionally cumbersome one, but for now is one well-suited to our tool agnosticism and the relative informality and conversational nature of how we manage performance and line management at Clearleft. Each individuals unique and private Professional Development board is fed from a root source of Skill & Proficiency definitions that exist on a shared board. This is something we’ll be looking to develop into more useful, easily communicable visualisations (e.g. Radar Charts), via a more robust and sustainable platform in the coming iterations of the framework. So watch this space.

Explore the framework

View the Professional Development Framework (v0.1)

What is design fiction? And how can you use it? Mon, 25 Mar 2019 14:39:00 +0000 Andy Budd explores how science fiction impacts real designs.

Like me, I’m sure many of you grew up on a diet of science fiction; imagining future worlds through the work of authors like Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick and William Gibson. Science fiction, or speculative fiction as purists prefer to call it, has the power to transport us into the future to ask important and difficult questions about the world we’ve created, including where experimental design will take us in the world of tomorrow.

Science fiction novels are where many great tech innovations start life

Of course, the questions posed by science fiction aren’t really about the future; instead they’re extrapolations of present concerns. Think of the Snowden revelations, ad retargeting, or articles like ‘My Roomba tried to eat me’. By projecting concerns into the future, and taking them to their logical — and sometimes absurd — conclusion, authors can create safe spaces to discuss them.

This means that while science fiction can’t be used to predict the future, it can be used to explore current trends. Or as William Gibson famously said, “The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed”. A good piece of speculative fiction can make something new and novel feel almost inevitable.

Can speculative fiction create the future?

While speculative fiction is often used to explore moral conundrums, doing so can have unexpected (and sometimes negative) consequences. For instance, the oft-cited Minority Report primed audiences to expect a future where adverts could literally follow you around.

So when a tech company suggested the City of London used its connected recycling bins to track the MAC addresses of passing phones and target pedestrians with adverts, you can bet that movie was front of the bin designer’s mind. What the director undoubtedly meant as a warning, ended up becoming reality.

Seeing something on screen can have a powerful effect, making a vague concept feel solid and real. This is probably why there were no gasps of awe and wonder when the Oculus Rift came out; we’ve seen examples of VR in countless (admittedly terrible) movies like The Lawnmower Man. It’s a piece of technology that felt like it was 30 years old by the time it arrived — the modern equivalent of the flying car or a personal jet-pack.

In the now-famous documentary How William Shatner Changed the World, the makers argued that the Star Trek communicator was the inspiration for the StarTAC mobile phone, while the first tablet to appear on screen wasn’t in an Apple or Microsoft corporate video, but in the hands of the Next Generation crew.

Today we have seven teams battling for a $10 million XPRIZE to create a working Tricorder. Star Trek seems to be getting less and less fictional every day.

A vintage Star Trek Tricorder by Joe Haupt

Similarly, when a few months ago we passed the date that Back to the Future II was set, a surprising number of predicted inventions — from self-lacing boots to hoverboards — had indeed come to pass.

It would appear that science fiction movies have the amazing ability to imagine future products, free of the typical constraints, then inspire others to work out the details. If only there was some way real product companies could harness that power?

Are we being primed?

I’d always assumed this foreshadowing of future technologies was accidental, until I saw a presentation from a Microsoft executive who practically admitted that they liked to seed early product concepts into movies, presumably to prime the audience for future tech arrivals.

Since then, I’ve been highly sensitive to any brands I see in sci-fi movies, as a way of speculating on what the big technology companies may be working on. I wonder if Google Glass would have been any more successful if we’d seen Ethan Hunt wearing a pair in Mission Impossible 4?

Like many large tech companies such as IBM and Apple, Microsoft has used the field of speculative fiction to explore possible futurescapes for a long time.

A recent example of this is the Microsoft Office Labs vision of 2019 videos, which show lots of smiling people representing a wide-reaching demographic standing in front of giant glowing interactive sheets of glass as they go about their school, office or home life.

Microsoft Office Labs imagines a future filled with glowing transparent screens

It’s easy to mock these glossy corporate videos, not least because of the impracticality of standing for long periods of time with your arms raised, interacting with giant transparent screens.

It’s clear many of these videos draw more upon the storytelling tropes of Hollywood than the skills of the designer. However, while these large companies may have popularised the field of ‘Design Fiction’, small interaction design studios have started using similar storytelling techniques in their daily client work.

Design fiction in the design studio

The first time I saw design fiction from a small studio, it was the work BERG did for the publishing company Bonnier. Its Mag+ video created a rich picture of what a digital magazine might feel like in the future, well before the first iPad was available.

With an approach known as ‘animatics’ — essentially animated storyboards — it used a simple green-screen technique to superimpose UI animations onto a mockup of a tablet, and breathe life into an inanimate product.

Using a video prototype meant the designers were able to do a much better job of communicating the experience than any set of wireframes or clickable prototype, with much less effort. Around the same time IDEO released a similar speculative design project, this time imagining the future of the book.

The team at BERG imagined the future of digital magazine before the iPad launch, using the power of ‘animatics’

The more I started to look at this form of speculative design, the more agencies and individuals I found exploring this technique — usually at the fringes of our industry in ad agencies or physical product companies. One thing they all seemed to have in common was a relationship with the Design Interactions course at the Royal College of Arts led by Dunne & Raby, the recognised leaders in the field of speculative design.

Of course, not everybody has a team of RCA graduates or the After Effects skills to create such realistic renderings, so at Clearleft we often mock up simpler effects using a combination of video, photography and animation in Keynote. It’s amazing how a few simple tricks like this can breathe life into an otherwise flat and lifeless prototype!

Explore your vision with comics

Animation is fast becoming a core skill in the interaction designer’s toolbox, but an even easier way to start exploring the field of design fiction is by using the same techniques you might find in the design of comics.

The team at Lowe’s innovation lab in the US made liberal use of comic book techniques in order to both explore and communicate the vision for its Holoroom concept. It went as far as hiring science fiction authors to help create realistic narratives.

The Airbnb team did a similar thing when it hired Pixar artists to help visualise the future of its customer experience. In the case of Lowe’s, this helped convince its management that an admittedly off-the-wall concept like a Holodeck (another Star Trek invention) could actually be made real.

Lowe’s used a comic book technique to imagine how its in-store helper robot might work

After pitching the comic book idea to his exec board, Kyle Nel from Lowe’s explained, “It was a gamble, but they loved it. They totally got it, and started building on the ideas in the comic.” For Airbnb, the visualisation gave it the insight it needed to double-down on its mobile strategy.

The good news is that you don’t need to hire sci-fi writers and Pixar artists to do this effectively. Kevin Cheng has been using comic books to communicate design intent long before it became fashionable, and his book See What I Mean is a great primer in the field.

Kevin Cheng is known for his comics that explain design thinking

Where does projection end and fiction begin?

We’ve been using prototypes and storyboards to communicate design intent for years, but how is ‘design fiction’ any different? When does something stop being a simple communication tool and start being a work of design fiction?

At the final dConstruct, Nick Foster explained how he broke design down into three categories; now, next, and future. You could argue that any piece of design work that falls outside of ‘now or next’ could be considered a work of design fiction.

As such, you may have found yourselves engaging in design fiction without even realising it; coming up with concepts for pitches or board presentations to give stakeholders a sense of what could be possible.

A few years ago a large, international high street bank asked us to imagine what online banking might look like in the future. We created a rich vision of how online banking could work across a range of devices, without worrying too much about the implementation details.

We knew that the concept would theoretically work, but we weren’t limited by the company’s existing technology stack. This freed us up to be more creative than we may have otherwise been, allowing us to leap over the now and next, and explore what the future of banking could hold.

More recently we created three vision videos for a well-known healthcare start-up, to help them articulate a range of possible futures. The goal wasn’t to deliver these products in 3–6 months time. The goal was to buy into their vision of where the company was heading in 3–6 years time. Off the back of these video prototypes, the company was able to raise millions in additional funding to start them out on the journey.

Near Future Laboratory is a specialist studio dedicated to developing the ideas of the future

Companies like the Near Future Laboratory take design fiction to its natural conclusion by blurring the line between art and design with its TBD catalogue.

Its fictionalised mail order catalogue contains 166 products and services that could potentially exist in the future, sparking both ideas and debate in equal measure. Near Future Lab’s collaborator The Extrapolation Factory also featured as part of the Designers of the Year exhibition at the London Design Museum.

The show was called 99c futures, and it explored the kind of products you might expect to see in a 99c store 20 years from now. Nick Forster calls this the ‘Future Mundane’ and believes the future will look a lot more normal than the sci-fi interface designers would have us believe.

Where to start

Designers might find it difficult to start selling design fiction as an activity to their clients right away. It could seem slightly wacky and off-beat at first, but you could take a leaf out of the Near Future Laboratory’s book and start crafting sci-fi futures for yourselves.

On a smaller scale, design fiction could be used to sharpen your skills at an internal hack-event, or to demonstrate design thinking as part of a possible recruitment task. At Clearleft I’ve used Matt Jones’ concept of Mujicomp to sharpen interns’ design skills.

We set them the task of designing a future product they could imagine being sold in the Japanese lifestyle retailer Muji by allowing them to hack, combine and re-imagine random items bought from the store. This simple MacGuffin provides the opportunity to unlock a wealth of creativity from designers who might be used to getting briefs that focus on ‘now’ or ‘next’.

The Near Future Laboratory created a real catalogue featuring 166 products from the future

Ultimately you could argue that all design is in some way a work of fiction — imagining something that doesn’t yet exist, and then communicating that vision to clients, customers and tech partners. However, by freeing designers up from practical concerns and allowing them time and space to speculate, they may just stumble onto their next big idea.

I believe design fiction is becoming an increasingly useful way to explore and communicate possible design futures. In order to create a better future, designers should be adding techniques for designing fiction to their toolbox today.

Originally published at

Clearleft at CERN: celebrating 30 years of the Web Tue, 12 Mar 2019 11:00:00 +0000 CERN is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Web today, and we’re proud to play a small part in the proceedings.

In March 1989, while working at CERN, Sir Tim Berners-Lee wrote his first proposal for an internet-based hypertext system to link and access information across different computers. His proposal became the World Wide Web. CERN is celebrating the 30th anniversary of this revolutionary invention with a special event today, and a series of other celebrations around the world.

The Web@30 event at CERN kicked off this morning with a fascinating panel discussion featuring Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Cailliau and other Web pioneers sharing their views on the challenges and opportunities brought by the Web.

The live audience in Geneva comprised a select group of invitees, which we’re very proud to say included one of Clearleft’s cofounders, Jeremy Keith.

As part of a project to preserve some of the digital assets associated with the birth of the Web, Jeremy worked on a project in February to recreate the very first browser using current technology.

Previously, Jeremy also worked with CERN to organise a project to recreate the line-mode Web browser.

On being invited to CERN to join the celebrations, Jeremy wrote:

I’m so excited about this! I’m such a nerd for web history, it’s going to be like Christmas for me. The whole thing will be over by mid-morning. Then, [team member and fellow Brightonian] Remy and I will take an afternoon flight back to England …just in time for the evening event at London’s Science Museum.

Personas aren’t bad, and you’re not a bad designer if you use them Mon, 11 Mar 2019 11:28:00 +0000 With disturbing regularity, my Twitter stream seems to explode with posts demonising commonly used, yet seemingly harmless design tools.

These posts take great pains to document all the ways these tools have failed people in the past (while downplaying or ignoring a situation where they may have helped). Reading one of these threads you’d be forgiven for thinking these tools were actively harmful; some sort of public health nuisance this brave whistleblower was uncovering for the first time. Although they generally read more like the hysteria surrounding MMR vaccines to me, rather than any reasoned or measured debate. Instead, they’re full of personal anecdotes and half-truths, wrapped up in a thin veneer of scientific speak. One such debate I witnessed recently revolved around Personas.

Now the love/hate debate around personas is nothing new; in fact, it’s been rumbling on for some time. I personally have no great love for personas — that would be a little like loving a hammer or a chisel — but I have no great hate for them either. Personas are tools like any others, with their own relative strengths and weaknesses. So while every few months a new tool comes along claiming the previous one is now dead–in this case, Jobs to be Done — I’m much more interested in developing a rich toolbox of tools to draw upon, than engaging in a Battle Royal style deathmatch.


Whenever the vilification of personas pops up its ugly head, it always goes something like this. “Personas are bad because they’re usually made up and therefore have no empirical backing”, “Personas are bad because they try and segment people and people are too unique to be segmented”, “Segmenting people is bad on principal and tantamount to discrimination”, “Personas are just a bunch of demographics and are therefore completely useless”, “Even if personas aren’t just a bunch of demographics, they are so badly used that we should just stop using them”.

While all these arguments annoy the hell out of me, the last one is the worst. The idea that because something is badly used, we should ditch it, is a blatant call for ignorance. Personally, I think if something is poorly or wrongly used, it’s our responsibility as experts, craftspeople and educators, to help people understand how a particular tool or technique works, rather than just throwing it–and the people using them — away like yesterdays garbage.

The misconceptions

So let me address some of these other common misconceptions about personas. The first and most pernicious is the idea that personas are just a bunch of — often made up — demographics featuring a persons age, gender, job, hair colour and little else. Now if this was the main content of personas I could understand the frustration. However, that’s just not the case.

I think this misconception comes from the world of marketing, where marketing personas generally are more focussed on demographics. That’s because marketing personas are generally used to try and capture, understand and categorise fairly broad ranges of preferences, and then understand where people holding those preferences spend their media browsing time, to better focus marketing spend. That’s all well and good for our friends over in marketing, but this sort of approach provides very little value when it comes to Interaction Design.

Instead, the use of demographics in personas is really there to add a bit of background detail, to make these pen portraits a little more realistic and memorable. This is because the true value of personas is a communication tool. As a way of synthesising a large amount of rich and complex data, generated through observations, interviews and surveys, into something that can travel around an organisation, and be consumed by people who weren’t necessarily involved in the conversation, or even have regulated access to customers. In these situations, it’s helpful if the persona is recognisable as a person, with a name, a background story and a set of attitudes and beliefs.

The question then is, if personas are a communication tool, what are they communicating? Well in general, the most useful part of any persona is the User Scenario; the area on the page that describe the sort of problems these users are facing, the behaviours they exhibit, and if you want to use that particular language, the jobs they want to get done.

Personas Vs Jobs To Be Done

I think this is one of the reasons why a lot of people claim that Job Stories and JTBD do away with the need for Personas, and I think in some situations that may be true. If you’re working in a fast moving engineering focussed start-up, servicing an incredibly wide demographic with a similar set of needs, and everybody in the company is very user-centric and in touch with those needs, you can probably do away with the touchy-feely fluff and focus on the core jobs; it’s just a lot of unnecessary distraction.

However, if you’re working in a traditional organisation serving a smaller range of fairly distinct behaviours, and you need to get your stakeholders out of the mindset that all customers think and behave the same, or worse, all customers think and behave the way the executive team do, personas may be of some use.

In some way, you could argue that personas and a useful step on the journey towards JTBD, but if you’re already there, they probably hold little additional value. Personally, I like the ability to reference John, Mary, Prisha, or Joaquin as a placeholder for a set of behaviours, rather than sifting through half a dozen job stories to explain what set of problems we’re solving for today. It’s efficient and travels well, even if there is a certain loss of fidelity.

Understand their limitations

The best personas generally are based on research data. You’ve surveyed hundreds or thousands of customers, you’ve interviewed dozens more, you’ve crunched the data and found certain patterns. Maybe you’re a travel company and have noticed that parents and children tend to travel short haul for a week or two, over the school holidays? Maybe the data has surfaced another cluster of younger travellers who prefer cheap city breaks, anytime other than the school holidays. Maybe you discovered a third cluster of people who travel for business and generally (but not always) fly business class, use the lounge and prefer to be back home for the weekend. This is a fairly trivial example, but I hope you get my drift.

Knowing this information may allow different product teams to tailor different experiences for different clusters of behaviour. This obviously beats treating every customer as the same, but isn’t as good as building up a rich and individual picture of behaviour by acquiring tonnes of data about the user and feeding it into a sophisticated CRM system. Many tech firms have these capabilities, which is another reason why they probably look down on personas and those who use them. However, you’d be amazed how few traditional businesses are able to significantly alter the merchandising offering, let alone the whole user journey, based on detailed data capture.

Now it’s worth pointing out that nobody is saying that you can’t be both a business traveller, a city breaker, and somebody who is looking for a fly-and-flop holiday with their family. Similarly, while the Personas may suggest that city breakers tend to be younger than people travelling with families, the actual data shows considerable overlap. In fact, you may find a cluster of retirees who take their grandchildren on holidays on their own and also like city breaks.

Fortunately, personas aren’t rigid definitions, but rather porous archetypes, so people will move between the two. Something this will happen over years. Other times it will happen in a single session. The key to any successful model is realising that it’s only a model, and therefore has limited scope. Sometimes it’s useful to think about light in terms of a wave, other times in terms or a partial. A good craftsperson understands the strengths and weaknesses of each model and uses it appropriately, while a poor craftsperson generally blames their tools.

Which comes on to my last point, the inevitable cargo-culting of any and all design tools. As a quick recap, cargo cults emerged amongst Pacific Islanders who tried adopting the object and rituals of western colonial power, without realising how things really worked. So they would build wood and reed airplanes, control towers and airport terminals, in the hope that American GIs would return with their cargo, without realising the intricacies of world politics, aviation, and international trade. They basically just copied what they saw other people doing in the hope it’d work. I see this all the time in our industry.


It’s frustrating to see people behaving this way, and if it was just themselves they were hurting, I wouldn’t mind as much. However, when these things blow up, the outrage and misinformation tend to travel much further than a reasoned argument about the pros and cons of a certain tool or technique ever could. The resulting blast radius is huge, and a lot of innocent people often get caught up in the ensuing chaos. After all, if you were a relatively newly minted designer and somebody you trust with 20k followers on Medium, tells you that the thing you were taught as school is no longer useful, and all the smart people are now using something else, what are you going to do? Well, you’re probably going to ditch one tool in favour of the other and may go around telling others to do the same. This is how MMR scares and market panics start.

Foster critical thinking

Fortunately, we’re not dealing with anything nearly as serious here, and at least you’ll end up with a tool in your tool box. However as the saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Even if you spend most of your time hammering nails into blocks of wood for a living, I think it’s worth understanding what a screw looks like, and when to use it, rather than trying to hammer a screw into a block of wood once or twice and then claiming that screws are rubbish.

As a professional we all benefit from having a variety of tools at our disposal, instead of falling for the hype around silver bullets and one size fits all solutions. We’d also benefit from a bit more critical thinking in our industry. Arguments that go along the lines of “This thing hasn’t worked for me, so it cannot work for anybody” are super reactionary. They stifle intellectual curiosity, rather than encouraging people to expand their horizons and learn new things.

If you’ve discovered a new tool that works for you, by all means share what you think is great about it. Similarly, if you’ve found legitimate weaknesses in existing tools, please share that information so we can all learn and grow. However we live in incredibly polarising times, and debate through opposition is super easy. Just remember that it isn’t always necessary to raise one thing up by knocking something else down. That it’s a large world out there and we benefit more for variety and choice than a limited set of (largely manufactured) binary opinions.

Originally published at

Handing back control Sat, 09 Mar 2019 21:22:00 +0000 An Event Apart Seattle was most excellent. This year, the AEA team are trying something different and making each event three days long. That’s a lot of mindblowing content!

What always fascinates me at events like these is the way that some themes seem to emerge, without any prior collusion between the speakers. This time, I felt that there was a strong thread of giving control directly to users:

Sarah and Margot both touched on this when talking about authenticity in brand messaging.

Margot described this in terms of vulnerability for the brand, but the kind of vulnerability that leads to trust.

Sarah talked about it in terms of respect—respecting the privacy of users, and respecting the way that they want to use your services. Call it compassion, call it empathy, or call it just good business sense, but providing these kind of controls in an interface is an excellent long-term strategy.

In Val’s animation talk, she did a deep dive into prefers-reduced-motion, a media query that deliberately hands control back to the user.

Even in a CSS-heavy talk like Jen’s, she took the time to explain why starting with meaningful markup is so important—it’s because you can’t control how the user will access your content. They may use tools like reader modes, or Pocket, or have web pages read aloud to them. The user has the final say, and rightly so.

In his CSS talk, Eric reminded us that a style sheet is a list of strong suggestions, not instructions.

Beth’s talk was probably the most explicit on the theme of returning control to users. She drew on examples from beyond the world of the web—from architecture, urban planning, and more—to show that the most successful systems are not imposed from the top down, but involve everyone, especially those most marginalised.

And even in my own talk on service workers, I raved about the design pattern of allowing users to save pages offline to read later. Instead of trying to guess what the user wants, give them the means to take control.

I was really encouraged to see this theme emerge. Mind you, when I look at the reality of most web products, it’s easy to get discouraged. Far from providing their users with controls over their own content, Instagram won’t even let their customers have a chronological feed. And Matt recently wrote about how both Twitter and Quora are heading further and further away from giving control to their users in his piece called Optimizing for outrage.

Still, I came away from An Event Apart Seattle with a renewed determination to do my part in giving people more control over the products and services we design and develop.

I spent the first two days of the conference trying to liveblog as much as I could. I find it really focuses my attention, although it’s also quite knackering. I didn’t do too badly; I managed to write cover eleven of the talks (out of the conference’s total of seventeen):

  1. Slow Design for an Anxious World by Jeffrey Zeldman
  2. Designing for Trust in an Uncertain World by Margot Bloomstein
  3. Designing for Personalities by Sarah Parmenter
  4. Generation Style by Eric Meyer
  5. Making Things Better: Redefining the Technical Possibilities of CSS by Rachel Andrew
  6. Designing Intrinsic Layouts by Jen Simmons
  7. How to Think Like a Front-End Developer by Chris Coyier
  8. From Ideation to Iteration: Design Thinking for Work and for Life by Una Kravets
  9. Move Fast and Don’t Break Things by Scott Jehl
  10. Mobile Planet by Luke Wroblewski
  11. Unsolved Problems by Beth Dean

This was originally posted on my own site.