Clearleft | Blog The latest news from Clearleft en-gb Sat, 17 Apr 2021 13:54:19 +0000 Sat, 17 Apr 2021 13:54:19 +0000 The state of UX Thu, 08 Apr 2021 13:49:26 +0000 There is much introspection and navel-gazing in the world of user experience design. More than usual, I mean.

Jesse James Garrett recently said:

I don’t think I know anyone that’s been in UX more than a decade who’s happy with how it’s going.

In a recent issue of the dConstruct newsletter—which you really should subscribe to—I pointed to three bowls of porridge left out by three different ursine experience designers.

Mark Hurst wrote Why I’m losing faith in UX. Too hot!

Scott Berkun wrote How To Put Faith in Design. Too cold!

Peter Merholz wrote Waking up from the dream of UX. Just right!

As an aside, does it bother anyone else that the Goldilocks story violates the laws of thermodynamics?

Anyway, this hand-wringing around the role of UX today seemed like a suitably hot topic for one of our regular roundtable chats at Clearleft. We invited Peter along too and he was kind enough to give us his time.

It was a fun discussion. Peter pointed out that whenever he hears an older designer bemoaning the current state of design, he has to wonder what’s happened in their lives to make them feel that way (it’s like when people complain about the music of today and how it’s not as good as the music of whatever time period I was a teenager). And let’s face it, the good ol’ days weren’t so good for everyone. It was overwhelmingly dominated by privileged white dudes. The more that changes, the better …and it needs to change far, far more.

There was a general agreement that the current gnashing of teeth isn’t unique to UX. It’s something that just about any discipline will inevitably go through. Peter’s epiphany was to compare it with the hand-wringing around Agile:

The frustration exhibited with the “dream of UX” is (I think) identical to the frustration the original Agile community sees with how it has been industrialized (koff-SAFe-koff).

Perhaps the industrialisation of what once a cottage industry is the price of success. But that’s not necessarily bad, as long as you industrialise the right things. If UX has become the churning out of wireframes at scale, then something has gone very wrong. If UX has become the implementation of dark patterns at scale, then something has gone very wrong.

In some organisations, perhaps that’s exactly what’s happened. In which case, I can totally understand the disillusionment. But in other places, I see the opposite happening. I see UX designers bringing questions of ethics to the forefront. I see UX designers—dare I say it?—having their proverbial seat at the table.

Chris went so far as to claim that we are in fact in a golden age of user experience design. Controversial! But think about it, he said. Over the next few days, pay attention to interactions you have with technology, and consider the thought and skill that has gone into them.

I had Chris’s provocation in mind when I wrote about booking my vaccination appointment:

I just need to get in, accomplish my task, and get out again. This is where the World Wide Web shines.

Maybe Chris is right. Maybe the golden age of UX is here. It’s just not evenly distributed. Yet.

It’s an interesting time for the discipline of user experience design. I’ve always maintained that the best way to get a temperature check for your chosen field is to go to a really good conference. If you’re a UX designer and you want to understand the state of the UX nation, you should get a ticket for the online UX Fest in June. See you there!

This was originally posted on my own site.

Join us for UX Fest in June Wed, 07 Apr 2021 09:22:00 +0000 While we are sad we’ve had to postpone our in-person UX London, we’ve got so much in store for you at UX Fest online with six themed conference days packed with insightful talks from design leaders at Twitter, Spotify and more. Plus a host of deep-dive masterclasses with our industry’s top experts.

UX Fest June 2021

Customise your UX Fest experience

Get access to the conference days that suit you best… or go large and book one of our Combo passes. You can level-up your UX Fest experience with a choice of over a dozen masterclasses too.

The Conference pass: 1, 2 & 3 June Three days centred squarely around interaction and product design - this is for designers of all levels. There will be talks on everything from user research and product strategy— through to UX writing, multi-variant testing and growth design. Find out more

The Festival: 10, 17 & 24 June We’ll be zooming out to cover big picture topics including ethics, culture and design in business. The Festival days are perfect for more senior practitioners, design managers, senior ICs and product owners. Or anyone who has their eyes on the design horizon. Check out the programme

Masterclasses: 8, 15, 22 June These individually bookable, 90-minute sessions are led by industry experts and will cover some of the hottest topics in our field. This is an opportunity for you and your team to learn a host of new skills, like strategic thinking, growing your impact, designing better workshops and more. Explore the topics

On demand access

All the sessions from the Conference and Festival days will be available to pass holders on demand for three months after broadcast. So you don’t have to miss a thing no matter your time zone.

We’re committed to accessibility, so all the talks will be captioned or live transcribed.

Bring your team

There are built-in discounts for groups of five or more so your whole team can get the benefits of participating.

You have until midnight on 16 April to grab your early-bird tickets now before they fly!

Season two of the Clearleft podcast Mon, 29 Mar 2021 16:07:00 +0000 Season two of the Clearleft podcast is in the can. Taking a step back and looking at the six episodes, I think it turned out very well indeed.

Episode One

Design Leadership. Lots of smart people in this one. And I like that the source material is a real mix: conference talks, a roundtable discussion, and an interview.

Episode Two

Employee Experience Design. More of a deep dive than a broad overview. It’s pretty much a two-hander from Chris and Katie.

Episode Three

Accessibility. This one got a lot of attention, and rightly so in my opinion. It’s got three excellent contributors: Laura, Léonie, and Cassie. My job was to get out of the way and string their knowledge bombs together.

Episode Four

Prototyping. I had three good stories to work with from Benjamin, Lorenzo, and Trys. Then at the last minute I was able to add an interview with Adekunle which ties the whole thing up nicely.

Episode Five

Diversity and Inclusion. I think this might be the highlight of the season. Again, it’s got a mix of source material from conference talks and interviews. The quality of the contributions is exceptionally good. Once again, I found my job was to mostly get out of the way and line things up so they flowed well.

Episode Six

Remote Work. I wish I could see that it was my perfect planning that led to this episode being released exactly one year on from the start of lockdown. But really it was just a very fortunate coincidence. It did give this episode some extra resonance though. And I like that the final episode of the season has the widest range of contributors. It’s like the whole cast came back for the season finale.

I also wrote a bit about what I did behind the scenes for each episode of this season:

  1. Design Leadership
  2. Employee Experience Design
  3. Accessibility
  4. Prototyping
  5. Diversity and Inclusion
  6. Remote Work

My sincerest thanks to everyone who contributed to this season of the Clearleft podcast, especially everyone outside Clearleft who kindly agreed to be interviewed: Temi, Laura, Léonie, Adekunle, Rifa, and Elaine.

The Clearleft podcast will take a little break now and so will I. But I’m already thinking about topics for the next season. I feel like I’m starting to get a feel for what’s working so you can another six-episode season down the line.

To make sure you don’t miss the next season, I recommend subscribing to the RSS feed, or you can subscribe on Apple, Spotify, Google, and anywhere else that dispenses podcasts.

This was originally posted on my own site.

One year on and what next for remote working? Fri, 26 Mar 2021 17:51:00 +0000 A year ago this week the UK went into its first lockdown. Like most savvy businesses, Clearleft had already closed our studio and started working from home. Also like many businesses, we’ve yet to reopen our office.

I remember clearly the faces on people’s faces when I announced we’d be working remotely until the end of April. There was a combination of surprise, disbelief, resignation and even horror (perhaps due to the looming spectre of home-schooling). Just as everyone’s experience has been different over the past year, so everyone’s initial reaction was different too.

We didn’t have to make a huge cultural shift in order to work remotely. We’re a small enough company that we all know each other and what’s expected of us. We’d built up enough trust, and working from home was already allowed without question. That said, working from home was an occasional thing: to let in a plumber, deal with some childcare, and frequently - presciently perhaps - to get stuff done. And it was working from home - it wasn’t remote working, which as we’ve all come to realise is a different beast entirely.

We managed to adapt to the situation fairly quickly. A culture of autonomy and generally mucking-in helped, as did an assurance that everyone’s job would be safe for the coming months even if it meant us losing money in the short term (we didn’t). All this meant we could get on with the job of supporting our clients, who were certainly nowhere near close to working remotely when lockdown happened, and needed all the help they could get.

We knew we were doing something right in terms of remote working when one of our staff, who had been on sabbatical in South America when the pandemic struck, managed to make it back to Europe. While everyone else worked from home in or around Brighton, Tom found himself working from Spain initially, and then from London. And no-one really noticed, apart from a surprising change in decor. And that’s point - you can remote work from anywhere provided you can negotiate timezones.

The UK is now in its third lockdown, but with a successful rollout of the vaccine, a way out and a change is approaching. Once lockdown is lifted, hopefully in a few months, will we become fully remote? I doubt it. Remote-first, whatever that means? Perhaps. We’ve certainly loosened our hiring policy - we no longer require people to permanently work from our Brighton studio. This enabled us to hire Christianne, our fantastic new head of events, who is currently based in London. That said Brighton is within commuting distance of London, so it’s certainly near enough to pop down every now and then, which will probably be beneficial.

For now our beloved 68 Middle Street stays closed, but we’ll be partially reopening in June as a broadcast studio for UX Fest and as an early test of Covid precautions and an assessment of everyone’s appetite for being in relatively close human proximity. Come July, by which time hopefully all Covid restrictions will be lifted, we’ll open more fully.

But how will we be working come July? We don’t exactly know, but that’s fine because we can try things and quickly adapt to changing needs. After all, we managed to go from studio-based to fully remote in matter of days.

A few things seem certain. We’ve regularly talked and periodically surveyed staff about how they are coping with remote work, and their attitude to returning to the office. People’s circumstances and feelings all differ. These are difficult times - at some point we’ve all felt sad, lonely, claustrophobic or tired. But there’s also been plenty of rays of light, with working from home being liberating, productive and flexible. What we do share is a common inclination to be in the same space as other people, at least for some of the time.

That may be a general reaction to being cooped up during so many weeks of lockdown after lockdown, but there’s a keen desire to talk and work face to face, if not permanently. We’ve all had the time and some budget to get set up for remote working, and we’ve come to appreciate the benefits it can bring. We definitely don’t want to lose those. But we’re all human, which means we’re sociable creatures at heart. Furthermore Clearlefties are - by design - a nice bunch of people. We’re the kind of people we want to spend time with, so it’s only natural we’d want to come into the office together.

All of which points us towards a hybrid way of working. Part remote, part in the studio, with all of us in one or other mode part of time, but probably at different times and differing amounts. The key to getting this to work will be to ensure that neither mode of working advantages one person over another. We’ll need to ensure that while working remotely, someone isn’t excluded from decisions or collaboration, and minimise the fear of missing out on informal conversations. We’ll need to improve our setup to better enable remote people to participate in meetings where multiple attendees happen to be in the studio. Likewise we need to ensure that if you’re in the studio you can participate fully in remote discussions and activities - right now we have a large open plan studio that can get pretty noisy. And we’ll need to track and assess this so we can keep making improvements in working practice and environment.

Meanwhile our clients will be asking themselves similar questions. Perhaps some will go back fully into the office; some may go fully remote. But one great thing that has happened is they - and we - now have 12 months hard-earned experience of working remotely. As designers and consultants we won’t have to travel as much as we used to in order to research and collaborate, which is great for many reasons including productivity, work-life balance and the environment.

In light of the ongoing tragedy that is the coronavirus pandemic, it would be trite to trot out an aphorism such as ‘never let good crisis go to waste’. However with the vaccine presenting a light at the end of the tunnel, we have an opportunity to emerge in a better place than 12 months ago. If we get it right, we can take advantage of the collaborative and social spaces in our studio, as well as the peace and convenience of working from home (or indeed a villa in Spain). In doing so we’ll improve both our working practices and our home life - small victories in the grand scheme of things, but worth grabbing while we can.

Tiny Lesson: How to set up an inexpensive remote research session Tue, 02 Mar 2021 11:30:00 +0000 Making remote research accessible these days can be hard. There are off-the-shelf solutions but they come with a hefty price tag. Here’s how we’ve tried to make remote research more economical for our teams and clients.

Live streaming to the rescue

A usability lab is typically a space where teams come together to observe research sessions. In a remote context what can we do to bring these sessions to the team?

The good news is that almost all remote meeting software can be livestreamed using YouTube or other streaming-enabled services. We typically use Zoom and YouTube together because the initial setup is quick and generating the livestream link during a session is a couple of clicks.

Live streaming allows you to:

  • maintain a 1:1 ratio of participant to researcher avoiding the atmosphere becoming intimidating,
  • share the meeting in real time with every member of the project team,
  • discreetly manage additional questions via a separate channel e.g. Slack.

Top tip: Don’t forget to add live streaming to your informed consent form before the session.

Create a base for participation

As well as offering a means of watching a session, a usability lab would usually have a backroom for teams to collate observation notes and discuss what they learn. In a remote context what can we do to recreate this hub of learning?

We’ve recently been using Airtable bases as an all-in-one solution for capturing session observations. It has very powerful data-inking capabilities and is extremely customisable. Airtable also has a feature that enables you to make a simple web form from the structure of a database. We use the form view to match the main sections of our discussion guide. This allows all observers to contribute to a single repository of observations.

How we structure our Airtable base:

  • Participants: a list of anonymised participants including profile attributes.
  • Team: a list of team members and their contact details.
  • Study: a discussion guide split into main sections and some additional reflective questions.
An example of an Airtable base and the shared web form view.

Steal and adapt

Once you get a feel for this process and adapt it to suit your own way of working you’ll never look back. Why not have a try during your next study?

Design engineering and development at Clearleft Wed, 17 Feb 2021 09:00:00 +0000 There’s a growing gap between design and development, as the products we make, and the technologies we use to create them have become more complex.

JavaScript frameworks are the main culprit, with more and more business logic being moved from the back end to the front. Once covered by HTML, CSS and JS, the front end is now flooded with build chains, tooling, type-safe languages, integrations, state management and CSS modularisations. In a sentence: the front end is complicated.

Laying aside fundamental views on whether this is the right direction for the web or not, this degree of complexity isn’t an issue in an of itself. In the same way back-end systems tend to have layers of redundancy and more thorough testing processes, If the front end is now doing more work, it stands to reason that it also needs more ‘process’ to prevent it from falling over when things go wrong.

However, as the roles of the front-end developer have stretched into the realms of ‘engineering’, it has created a split:

  1. Front-of-the-front-end: UI focused
  2. Back-of-the-front-end (referred to as ‘Engineering’ from now): Integration focused

(Terms coined by Brad Frost)

Again, this isn’t a bad thing. It gives folks the choice to specialise in what they’re good at. It can, however, become a problem when:

  1. Either party are forced to build in each others domain specialism
  2. It is assumed that the front-of-the-frontend can be bypassed

The latter issue is the one I’m going to focus on. It’s becoming increasingly more common for organisations to jump straight from “design” to “engineering”, missing out the front-of-the-front-end altogether. After all, if the engineer codes, and the phase after design is code, so why not let the engineers build the UI?

Well, by jumping straight between the colossal gulf spanning the two functions, a huge wealth of design intention can disappear out of sight. The nuance of a design is built from layers of knowledge passed from Research to UX to Content to Design. The tiny details and systemised thinking that go into design all add up to a make great interface, and scalable front-end codebase.

The language that converts from a ‘picture of a design’ to a website is CSS. CSS is seen as such a contentious language because it’s where design and engineering meet.

There needs to be a way to bridge the gap…

Design engineering

This is a quote taken from the excellent design engineering handbook, published by Invision:

Design engineering is the name for the discipline that finesses the overlap between design and engineering to speed delivery and idea validation. From prototyping to production-ready code, this function fast-tracks design decisions, mitigates risk, and establishes UI code quality. The design engineer’s work encapsulates the systems, workflows, and technology that empower designers and engineers to collaborate most effectively to optimise product development and innovation. Natalya Shelburne

In a team where there is friction between design and engineering, or even design, front-of-the-frontend, and back-of-the-front-end, a design engineer’s job is to smooth the translation process between the disciplines.

A design engineer may be involved in:

  • Idea validation
  • Rapid prototyping
  • Production code
  • Ensuring UI code quality
  • Creating useful tools
  • Encapsulating systems
  • Setting up project groundwork
  • Empowering effective collaboration

In essence, a design engineer’s primary aim is to be helpful. Helping UX come to sound decisions, helping research get the most useful insights from their testing, helping designers generate sound & deliverable ideas, and helping engineers understand the design intention. But the primary focus is on doing anything they can to help translate the design for the engineering team.

We talk of ‘creators’ and ‘maintainers’: those who do the work, and those who keep it running well. But I think it’s a spectrum. Design engineers sit firmly in the most ‘creationy’ part of the creator camp, building rapidly, failing early and clearing a way through the bad ideas so the other creators can follow smoothly.

What does this mean at Clearleft?

As an agency, every project we undertake is different, so we know this function as a formal role may not be appropriate for all projects. However, the mindset of translating effectively between ‘who designs it’ to ‘who builds it’ is.

Although we’ve been practicing this way of working for a while; building with prototypes, collaboratively creating out design foundations, and helping clients build design systems, we’ve not formally dubbed it ‘Design Engineering’ till now.

We’re going to continue to utilise this role on future projects, monitoring to see how it improves the overall design process.

Authentication Mon, 08 Feb 2021 09:00:00 +0000 Two-factor authentication is generally considered A Good Thing™️ when you’re logging in to some online service.

The word “factor” here basically means “kind” so you’re doing two kinds of authentication. Typical factors are:

  • Something you know (like a password),
  • Something you have (like a phone or a USB key),
  • Something you are (biometric Black Mirror shit).

Asking for a password and an email address isn’t two-factor authentication. They’re two pieces of identification, but they’re the same kind (something you know). Same goes for supplying your fingerprint and your face: two pieces of information, but of the same kind (something you are).

None of these kinds of authentication are foolproof. All of them can change. All of them can be spoofed. But when you combine factors, it gets a lot harder for an attacker to breach both kinds of authentication.

The most common kind of authentication on the web is password-based (something you know). When a second factor is added, it’s often connected to your phone (something you have).

Every security bod I’ve talked to recommends using an authenticator app for this if that option is available. Otherwise there’s SMS—short message service, or text message to most folks—but SMS has a weakness. Because it’s tied to a phone number, technically you’re only proving that you have access to a SIM (subscriber identity module), not a specific phone. In the US in particular, it’s all too easy for an attacker to use social engineering to get a number transferred to a different SIM card.

Still, authenticating with SMS is an option as a second factor of authentication. When you first sign up to a service, as well as providing the first-factor details (a password and a username or email address), you also verify your phone number. Then when you subsequently attempt to log in, you input your password and on the next screen you’re told to input a string that’s been sent by text message to your phone number (I say “string” but it’s usually a string of numbers).

There’s an inevitable friction for the user here. But then, there’s a fundamental tension between security and user experience.

In the world of security, vigilance is the watchword. Users need to be aware of their surroundings. Is this web page being served from the right domain? Is this email coming from the right address? Friction is an ally.

But in the world of user experience, the opposite is true. “Don’t make me think” is the rallying cry. Friction is an enemy.

With SMS authentication, the user has to manually copy the numbers from the text message (received in a messaging app) into a form on a website (in a different app—a web browser). But if the messaging app and the browser are on the same device, it’s possible to improve the user experience without sacrificing security.

If you’re building a form that accepts a passcode sent via SMS, you can use the autocomplete attribute with a value of “one-time-code”. For a six-digit passcode, your input element might look something like this:

<input type="text" maxlength="6" inputmode="numeric" autocomplete="one-time-code">

With one small addition to one HTML element, you’ve saved users some tedious drudgery.

There’s one more thing you can do to improve security, but it’s not something you add to the HTML. It’s something you add to the text message itself.

Let’s say your website is and the text message you send reads:

Your one-time passcode is 123456.

Add this to the end of the text message: #123456

So the full message reads:

Your one-time passcode is 123456. #123456

The first line is for humans. The second line is for machines. Using the @ symbol, you’re telling the device to only pre-fill the passcode for URLs on the domain Using the # symbol, you’re telling the device the value of the passcode. Combine this with autocomplete="one-time-code" in your form and the user shouldn’t have to lift a finger.

I’m fascinated by these kind of emergent conventions in text messages. Remember that the @ symbol and # symbol in Twitter messages weren’t ideas from Twitter—they were conventions that users started and the service then adopted.

It’s a bit different with the one-time code convention as there is a specification brewing from representatives of both Google and Apple.

Tess is leading from the Apple side and she’s got another iron in the fire to make security and user experience play nicely together using the convention of the /.well-known directory on web servers.

You can add a URL for /.well-known/change-password which redirects to the form a user would use to update their password. Browsers and password managers can then use this information if they need to prompt a user to update their password after a breach. I’ve added this to The Session.

Oh, and on that page where users can update their password, the autocomplete attribute is your friend again:

<input type="password" autocomplete="new-password">

If you want them to enter their current password first, use this:

<input type="password" autocomplete="current-password">

All of the things I’ve mentioned—the autocomplete attribute, origin-bound one-time codes in text messages, and a well-known URL for changing passwords—have good browser support. But even if they were only supported in one browser, they’d still be worth adding. These additions do absolutely no harm to browsers that don’t yet support them. That’s progressive enhancement.

This was originally posted on my own site.

Getting to know you. Getting to know all about you. Mon, 25 Jan 2021 14:25:00 +0000 Starting a project with a new client is both exciting and daunting, especially in a sector you haven’t much experience of. I’d like to share my client immersion checklist.

One of the joys of working in an agency and across many sectors is the exposure you get to organisations and industries that sit outside of your current experience. This also creates a challenge. How do you gain a deep understanding of a new domain and at speed?

At the start of a project I like to throw myself into the client’s world. I like to dig around and see what I uncover that I find interesting and surprising. The treasure trove of information I amass provides lines of questions to pursue and sparks of ideas to explore. The client immersion checklist is what I use at the outset of a project to help make the unfamiliar more familiar.

Regardless of how much information you consume, it’s always good to remind yourself you’re still the newbie on the scene. The purpose of a deep dive is to have more insightful conversations with your new client, their colleagues and the organisation’s customers.

Visual of the checklist on a blue background
Screenshot of the shared client immersion checklist

Over the years I’ve collected and curated a checklist of information to gather. It’s a mix of places to look and information to ask for. All of which helps to accelerate my understanding of the organisation and how digital and design fit into delivering its strategy.

I use the client immersion checklist as a prompt for what to look for. I can’t think of a project where I’ve ticked everything off the list. It’s a guide to focus your limited time on uncovering and discovering a wide range of stimuli.

What do you look for?

In sharing my approach. I’m interested in yours. What are your go-to sources of information ahead of the project kick-off and discovery period?

If you use the checklist do let me know how you get on and what improvements you’d suggest. You’ll find contact details in the checklist.

The client immersion checklist is free to use and regularly updated.

Letters of exclusion Mon, 25 Jan 2021 11:44:00 +0000 I think my co-workers are getting annoyed with me. Any time they use an acronym or initialism—either in a video call or Slack—I ask them what it stands for. I’m sure they think I’m being contrarian.

The truth is that most of the time I genuinely don’t know what the letters stand for. And I’ve got to that age where I don’t feel any inhibition about asking “stupid” questions.

But it’s also true that I really, really dislike acronyms, initialisms, and other kinds of jargon. They’re manifestations of gatekeeping. They demarcate in-groups from outsiders.

Of course if you’re in a conversation with an in-group that has the same background and context as you, then sure, you can use acronyms and initialisms with the confidence that there’s a shared understanding. But how often can you be that sure? The more likely situation—and this scales exponentially with group size—is that people have differing levels of inside knowledge and experience.

I feel sorry for anyone trying to get into the field of web performance. Not only are there complex browser behaviours to understand, there’s also a veritable alphabet soup of initialisms to memorise. Here’s a really good post on web performance by Harry, but notice how the initialisms multiply like tribbles as the post progresses until we’re talking about using CWV metrics like LCP, FID, and CLS—alongside TTFB and SI—to look at PLPs, PDPs, and SRPs. And fair play to Harry; he expands each initialism the first time he introduces it.

But are we really saving any time by saying FID instead of first input delay? I suspect that the only reason why the word “cumulative” precedes “layout shift” is just to make it into the three-letter initialism CLS.

Still, I get why initialisms run rampant in technical discussions. You can be sure that most discussions of particle physics would be incomprehensible to outsiders, not necessarily because of the concepts, but because of the terminology.

Again, if you’re certain that you’re speaking to peers, that’s fine. But if you’re trying to communicate even a little more widely, then initialisms and abbreviations are obstacles to overcome. And once you’re in the habit of using the short forms, it gets harder and harder to apply context-shifting in your language. So the safest habit to form is to generally avoid using acronyms and initialisms.

Unnecessary initialisms are exclusionary.

Think about on-boarding someone new to your organisation. They’ve already got a lot to wrap their heads around without making them figure out what a TAM is. That’s a real example from Clearleft. We have a regular Thursday afternoon meeting. I call it the Thursday afternoon meeting. Other people …don’t.

I’m trying—as gently as possible—to ensure we’re not being exclusionary in our language. My co-workers indulge me, even it’s just to shut me up.

But here’s the thing. I remember many years back when a job ad went out on the Clearleft website that included the phrase “culture fit”. I winced and explained why I thought that was a really bad phrase to use—one that is used as code for “more people like us”. At the time my concerns were met with eye-rolls and chuckles. Now, as knowledge about diversity and inclusion has become more widespread, everyone understands that using like a phrase like “culture fit” can be exclusionary.

But when I ask people to expand their acronyms and initialisms today, I get the same kind of chuckles. My aversion to abbreviations is an eccentric foible to be tolerated.

But this isn’t about me.

This was originally published on my own site.

A farewell to Andy Wed, 20 Jan 2021 16:19:00 +0000 It’s been an eventful time for Clearleft. As well celebrating our fifteenth anniversary, 2020 was the year that saw Clearleft become an employee-owned agency. It’s a year of change, and now we’ve got one more to share with you.

Clearleft co-founder Andy Budd is stepping down from his day-to-day role as Chairman at Clearleft. Andy will remain a shareholder and a non-exec board member. The current board remains in place, along with fellow co-founders Richard Rutter and Jeremy Keith.

Andy founded Clearleft with Rich and Jeremy in 2005. His drive and vision helped build and shape Clearleft into the world-renowned design agency it has become. Andy’s influence has enabled us to help hundreds of clients across five continents, including household names we never thought possible back in 2005: Virgin Atlantic, Burberry, Natural History Museum, JP Morgan, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Channel 4, not to mention many local governments and eight different universities.

Andy brought his entrepreneurial spirit to the creation of ground-breaking events, including the first d.Construct conference only three months after Clearleft started up. Three years later he would have the vision and ambition to launch UX London as one of the world’s foremost design conferences, not just once but year after year since. As a serial entrepreneur, Andy was the brains behind Silverback, the usability testing tool, which counted Nasa and the Obama campaigns as its customers.

Right from those initial months Andy imbued Clearleft with a philosophy of improving the practice of design. We’ve since helped over 15,000 designers, including leaders from across the globe through our Leading Design series, which Andy brought to life in 2016.

Over the past two years Andy has been instrumental in establishing a new leadership team, who earlier this year oversaw the sale of Clearleft to its employees thus securing both the company’s future and the values Andy and his co-founders established over the past 15 years. With management having successfully navigated the worst of the Covid crisis, now was an opportune moment for Andy to seek out his next entrepreneurial calling.

The leadership team Andy leaves in place is formed from a highly experienced group of practitioners who know Clearleft inside out. Richard Rutter, as a co-founder, heads the team since taking on the mantle of managing director two years ago. Jessica Jebari, Jon Aizlewood and Andy Thornton were brought onto the board early in 2020 as operations director, design director and strategy director respectively. Between them, they have decades of experience in the industry, including a combined 20 years at Clearleft. The team brings a people-centred approach to management emphasising the company’s values of autonomy and collaboration; a strongly human-centred philosophy of design; and commitment to delivering a world-leading experience for our clients and customers.

Andy will still be an integral part and host of Leading Design Festival this March. Before his departure, he has worked hard to ensure he leaves an events team ready to take the events he’s built to the next level. The expanded team includes Christianne Beck as Head of Events and Rebecca Groves as Programme Manager who will be championing not only the Leading Design conference but turning it into a programme of events to support the design leadership community even further.

Speaking of their co-founder, Richard said “During his tenure at Clearleft, Andy was instrumental in forming and maintaining Clearleft’s world-renowned reputation, followed by the continual development of our portfolio of international events aimed at all levels of the design industry. Andy has helped forge a great path that we will continue to develop and grow. I want to thank Andy for his dedication and drive, and wish him all the best for his future.”

Jeremy remarked “It feels like the end of the first chapter of Clearleft’s story. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for Clearleft and for Andy—I just know that he’ll continue to spread the spirit of Clearleft in all his future endeavours. It’s been an honour and a pleasure working with Andy for fifteen years.”

Tiny Lesson: A simple technique for defining boundaries Wed, 20 Jan 2021 13:45:09 +0000 Over my 15 years of being involved with the early stages of the design process, there is one technique that I use time and time again.

It’s a technique that hones in on the characteristics of a concept by not only defining the things it is but also the things that it isn’t on the same continuum. I often don’t run this as an explicit workshop exercise but simply let the characteristics fall out by facilitating a discussion around purpose.

The end result is often a very simple table which contains a series of sets of characteristics, with each set being on the same continuum.

Top tips:

  • Ensure these characteristics focus on the unique things about the service and the things that really differentiate it.
  • Keep it to a short list in order to keep it more memorable.
  • Include a rationale to explain the reason behind each statement, as this helps to capture the conversation that led to this definition.
A chart showing it is and it isn't statements for a travel client

More recently I used this technique to define scope by defining the things that we are doing but also the things that are not doing.

A chart showing we are and we are not statements for a finance client

It’s incredibly simple but in my experience capturing the isn’t terms is so powerful in really reinforcing the things that it is. So give it a try!

How to test a Content Management System that doesn’t exist yet Mon, 18 Jan 2021 14:06:14 +0000 When we were designing the prospectus of a world-leading university, we created designs that satisfied our users’ requirements. But what about the content creators?

As part of our redesign we asked ourselves what we thought were key questions around these users:

  • Who is managing the content that populates the design?
  • Is the content easy to produce?
  • Is the content easy to source and to edit?

We knew their editing process. Coincidentally, an upcoming redesign of their tools and workflow gave us an opportunity to identify user needs and requirements for the new system, and do so with a user-centered approach. Our goal was to ensure our design could be populated, and also that their new optimised pipeline could help them provide a better service to their users.

We started a 3-week content design sprint. The university writers and editors would create the content for the design. We wanted them to do this in a realistic way. This would involve some kind of Content Management System (CMS). The challenge was clear: how do you test a Content Management System that doesn’t exist yet?

Building a CMS, database and front-end integration in three weeks wasn’t realistic. We turned to other options.

Finding the right prototyping tool

Most UI design tools nowadays have very clever plugins that allow designers to show designs without using dummy content. Imagine a product gallery with the same product card repeated over and over. Syncing plugins allow you to drag and drop Excel or TXT files into your UI and, like magic, replace your grey boxes with actual content.

Sounds good? Not really.

The design we were testing was not just a gallery of repeated cards. Most components were completely different. It would have been quite the task to create dozens of sheets and link them all. Even worse, a bunch of spreadsheets doesn’t look even vaguely similar to a CMS.

Our current design software at Clearleft is Figma. Amongst the many plugins available, we found the Google Sheets Sync plugin that could populate any component from a single spreadsheet. We had found half of our solution. We still had to find a quick and easy way of prototyping a CMS.

Prorotyping tool spectrum: finding the balance between high- and low-fidelity
Prorotyping tool spectrum: finding the balance between high- and low-fidelity.

The solution was hiding in plain sight: Google Forms. What is a CMS if not a big form? Google Forms was ideal. It’s familiar. It’s free. It can be synced with GSheet (which can then feed into Figma through the plugin). An additional benefit was that we could gather insights on the CMS requirements without polluting the research data with feedback on the temporary CMS we were using.

So how does it work?

We looked at our design and listed all the different types of content (mandatory, optional, pre-filled).

We then translated those into fields for Google Forms.

We exported a link for the form and filled it with initial content (remember to make the responses editable so that at each pass the content creator would find the content written the previous session). By linking the form response to a Google Sheet (this can be done in Form’s Responses panel by clicking on the Sheet icon), the submitted form will populate a spreadsheet.

The form questions become the table column label. This label is what you use to connect your design with your Sheet. In Figma, rename every component you want to sync with “# + question/column label”. This is probably the most time-consuming part. But take your time as it’s easy to make typos or mistakes and break the syncing.

Then the fun part: run your plugin in Figma and you’ll see your design populated with the content from Google Form.

Thanks to Figma’s Auto Layout feature, every design element is pushed down accordingly to the length of the new content. This maintains consistent spacing and avoids overlap between items in your design.

The plugin at work: with just one click the plugin will replace all Figma elements marked with the # notation (in this case, both desktop and mobile elements were linked to the same spreadsheet column, and update simultaneously).

And a fake CMS (or, as we call it, duct-tape CMS) is born.

This works in real-time with the Figma design preview, which makes it even more realistic to the content creator. If our content creators had Figma preview open, they would see the design updating, creating the illusion of a real CMS.

Other delighters

Not only text sync but images too:

The plugin works not only with text but also with images (pulled from a URL provided in the form). In addition to respecting the placeholder crop and aspect ratio, the new image also inherits any style and effect applied to the placeholder.

Make your CMS look even more real by adding a timestamp

Every form submission will record a timestamp in the spreadsheet. This can be used to populate the timestamp in our design and adding yet another detail to sell the illusion of a working CMS.

The not so good:

This solution ticks a lot of boxes, but it’s an unorthodox way of using various tool together, and being a hacked solution, there are some issues and limitations.

  1. Set up takes time, and there are many elements to orchestrate;
  2. It’s a very manual process - you need to sync the design each time a response is submitted, and if you want version control you need to save every response in a separate document;
  3. It’s a prototype: it could (and it will) break. Always be on your toes for when that will happen.

However, with a bit of setup and oversight, this method can be a robust and incredibly useful way of using up-to-date, real content for your design.

Why do it?

It can be easy to focus all attention and efforts into designing the best possible front-facing product, but their success is heavily influenced by what’s going on behind the scenes. This sprint, and this prototype, gave us an opportunity to research, test and evaluate our design from the stakeholders’ point of view and ensure our new design would fit into their processes and workflows. As Katie Wishdale said in her recent blog post:


This tool allowed us to not only work with real content but also test our understanding of the content creation process, and shed light on underlying issues and opportunities. In turn, the results have been used to create a handbook that will allow the client to autonomously repeat -and improve- the process itself.

Whether you want to do the same, or simply experiment with a shared tool for your design and content team, the fake CMS can become a useful and lightweight tool to improve the services and designs you’re working on.

Saying what we do, and doing what we say Tue, 15 Dec 2020 10:24:00 +0000 The past nine months have been a blur, haven’t they? Following Brexit and the political turmoil of a general election here in the UK, we thought things would start looking up. Haha! COVID-19 hit and the world seemed to stop.

Like many companies we parked almost everything to react to the coronavirus situation. We put measures in place to weather the storm financially. We maintained our high level of client services (albeit remotely). We adapted to the world of virtual events by putting on Sofa Conf.

On the precipice of another wave (or another lockdown), the only certainty is uncertainty. Instead of fixating on how difficult things are now, we’ve adapted and dusted ourselves off. We’ve revisited many of those things we parked before coronavirus struck because, as the old adage goes, the show must go on.

A strong pedigree

Being around for 1.5 decades as a digital agency is no small feat. We recently celebrated our 15th birthday twice, like the queen. First internally, as a remote team during summer lockdown. Then externally, in September, with our future postcards and timeline. Rich eloquently sums up the landmark in his recent post.

To herald that 15 year milestone, we took the brave step of moving to an Employee Ownership Trust (EOT). Andy and Rich started the ball rolling back in 2019, and announced the decision to the Clearleft team just before lockdown.

Moving to an EOT is fitting for an agency like Clearleft. We’ve always been big on autonomy and flat structures. We’ve always prided ourselves as trailblazers. It felt only natural to give more ownership back to the staff. Andy does a much better job describing the EOT and what it means for Clearleft in his post.

Yet before the EOT, before coronavirus and in the lead-up to our birthday, we started to ask ourselves something. Are the things we say we do in fact the things we do? As a world-renowned UX & Design studio we’ve always had a reputation, but for what exactly?

After some soul-searching before, during and after coronavirus we’ve come to some conclusions that we hope better articulate what we do, and why.

Growing up

For the past 15 years Clearleft has been at the forefront of all things digital design. We were in the trenches during the web standards movement. We helped organisations better understand UX and how it can transform their businesses for the better. We led the charge on modular, systematic design. Recently we’ve fostered a growing design leadership community through our events, retreats and meet-ups. At Clearleft we’ve always put a lot of effort into sharing back with our community. We run world-renowned events to bring speakers from other countries and skill sets together, to share their knowledge and their expertise.

For the most part, our purpose and vision have remained the same over the last several years. In my opinion that’s a great thing. Sticking to our purpose means we haven’t wavered from our larger goals, and we’re still (cue the cliche klaxon) following our North Star:

We believe in advancing the practice of design to transform organisations and impact people’s lives for the better.

We really do believe deeply in design. Past, present and future Clearlefties know that design can have incredible effects on people’s lives. Working with purposeful brands on meaningful projects is what gets us up in the morning. Similarly our vision has stayed the course:

We want to be the most influential and respected independent boutique design consultancy in the UK.

Our heritage, pedigree and experience blend into something unique. We’re known for being highly collaborative which, in its own right, is nothing exceptional. But when paired with our ability to ask tough questions and challenge the status quo, we bring a bold curiosity to our clients and their thorny problems. When partnering with clients we always strive to make them champions. We make them the heroes, not us. As committed allies we form long-term partnerships and friendships with our clients to create change.

A slide summarising Clearleft's purpose

We realised that though our core mission and vision hasn’t changed, our core proposition has changed. In some quarters Clearleft are still seen as a web development agency or a website design studio. Neither of these things are bad; they just don’t reflect what we actually do today.

As teenagers tend to face identity crises, so have we. In truth we’re far more grown up than we realised. The services we’ve been providing our clients have gone far beyond websites for some time. Though we might have been hired to redesign a website years ago, the effects we had on our client’s organisations were long-lasting. We were agents for creating change, helping our clients maintain momentum. Over the last several years we’ve been doing that and so much more. So we asked ourselves what a grown-up Clearleft looks like. What had to be done to make that change known?

Closing the gap between strategy and delivery

Time and again our clients have procured the services of large consultancies to help them devise ‘a strategy’. Lots of stuff happens in those engagements. Hand waving, talking, promising and dreaming. But nothing material gets created, except a fancy slide deck of ideas.

Over time that deck collects virtual dust. Nothing gets done because the client wasn’t given any support to make their new vision a reality. Instead, they’re left to their own devices. Other priorities and initiatives crop up and compete for their attention. Before long that slide deck is a very expensive artefact. This is the strategy-delivery gap.

A slide summarising Clearleft's ability to close the gap between strategy and delivery

The above scenario isn’t a one-off. It’s a pattern we’ve recognised many times. As an agency we’ve always been purveyors of our craft: from web standards and development to great UX & design. But we’ve always provided strategic design thinking to help our clients think differently. By closing the gap we combine strategic and creative design thinking with great skill and execution. We help make our clients’ visions a reality by working with them to act—not talk—with user-centred design practices and quality techniques.

Connecting with the best in the industry

Ever since the first dConstruct back in 2005, we’ve lived one of our core values: to learn and share knowledge with all. From those humble dConstruct beginnings we’ve built a portfolio of world-renowned events, from UX London and Ampersand to Leading Design. Though coronavirus created an obstacle for all in-person events, we’re still providing fantastic opportunities for learning and sharing knowledge. In June we launched Sofaconf, our first fully-online conference. In March 2021 we’ll be putting our fantastic Leading Design brand online with the new LDFest, followed closely by UXFest, a month-long version of UXLondon.

A slide summarising Clearleft's ability to connect clients with the best in the industry

We have a unique connection with the industry’s leading provocateurs, thought leaders and respected experts. We curate and create conferences that help people improve their skills, their careers and the industry as a whole. Using those same connections, we provide our clients with access to respected industry experts who would otherwise be out of reach. Whether it’s specialists in agile and product development that’s needed, or leaders in training and learning, we can form ‘super teams’ to provide specialist services for our clients that help them achieve their vision.

Meeting in the middle (of the double diamond)

For those already familiar with the double diamond approach to design, Clearleft has historically been spread across the second diamond: helping to design the thing right by delivering or making something.

As we have evolved we focus more on the middle of the two diamonds, with a strong emphasis on strategy and design. That mid-diamond pinch point is precisely where we work best with our clients. We help explore turning insights into ideas, and turn those ideas into a reality by exploring and shaping potential solutions. We thrive in that messy middle area, where things aren’t often clear, nor are they foregone conclusions. We ask tough questions to feed our appetite for thorny problems and work with our clients to help solve them.

A diagram of the double diamond, with Clearleft in the middle of the two

To make our new approach a reality, we’ve also made some changes internally. Alongside the new EOT structure (that installs both a trust and board), myself and Andy Thornton have taken on new roles to help our clients bring their ideas and insights to life.

Strategy services

As Strategy Director, Andy will identify and explore new opportunities with our clients. Digital transformation has been rapidly accelerated by coronavirus, so now more than ever companies are recognising that design can offer a genuine competitive advantage. Andy will explore how we can help our clients advance the practice of design by changing behaviours, workflows, approaches and culture.

Design services

As Design Director I’ll help our clients bring world-class products and services to market, or improve existing experiences by advocating and demonstrating the power of a human-centred, design-led approach. From digital-first branding and rapid prototyping to systematic and modular design and user experience, we’ll always imprint a Clearleft way of working with the product teams we partner with.

Across both services we’ll continue to provide training and coaching for product and design teams and executives, to grow their capabilities and ensure design is better represented in their organisations.

Stay tuned

We’re all still experiencing the effects that coronavirus, Brexit and more are having on us and our clients. Adaptability is the name of the game. We’re here to help like-minded and purposeful brands thrive in these strange times. So if you want to have a (virtual) coffee and a chat, get in touch.

Lists Mon, 14 Dec 2020 14:47:00 +0000 We often have brown bag lunchtime presentations at Clearleft.

In the Before Times, this would involve a trip to Pret or Itsu to get a lunch order in, which we would then proceed to eat in front of whoever was giving the presentation. Often it’s someone from Clearleft demoing something or playing back a project, but whenever possible we’d rope in other people to swing by and share what they’re up to.

We’ve continued this tradition since making the switch to working remotely. Now the brown bag presentations happen over Zoom. This has two advantages. Firstly, ifyou don’t want the presenter watching you eat your lunch, you can switch your camera off. Secondly, because the presenter doesn’t have to be in Brighton, there’s no geographical limit on who could present.

Our most recent brown bag was truly excellent. I asked Léonie if she’d be up for it, and she very kindly agreed. As well as giving us a whirlwind tour of how assistive technology works on the web, she then invited us to observe her interacting with websites using a screen reader.

I’ve seen Léonie do this before and it’s always struck me as a very open and vulnerable thing to do. Think about it: the audience has more information than the presenter. We can see the website at the same time as we’re listening to Léonie and her screen reader.

We got to nominate which websites to visit. One of them—a client’s current site that we haven’t yet redesigned—was a textbook example of how important form controls are. There was a form where almost everything was hunky-dory: form fields, labels, it was all fine. But one of the inputs was a combo box. Instead of using a native select with a datalist, this was made with JavaScript. Because it was lacking the requisite ARIA additions to make it accessible, it was pretty much unusable to Léonie.

And that’s why you use the right HTML element wherever possible, kids!

The other site Léonie visited was Clearleft’s own. That was all fine. Léonie demonstrated how she’d form a mental model of a page by getting the screen reader to read out the headings. Interestingly, the nesting of headings on the Clearleft site is technically wrong—there’s a jump from an h1 to an h3—probably a result of the component-driven architecture where you don’t quite know where in the page a heading will appear. But this didn’t seem to be an issue. The fact that headings are being used at all was the more important fact. As Léonie said, there’s a lot of incorrect HTML out there so it’s no wonder that screen readers aren’t necessarily sticklers for nesting.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you’re using headings, labelling form fields, and providing alternative text for images, you’re already doing a better job than most websites.

Headings weren’t the only way that Léonie got a feel for the page architecture. Landmark roles—like header and nav—really helped too. Inside the nav element, she also heard how many items there were. That’s because the navigation was marked up as a list: “List: six items.”

And that reminded me of the Webkit issue. On Webkit browsers like Safari, the list on the Clearleft site would not be announced as a list. That’s because the lists’s bullets have been removed using CSS.

Now this isn’t the only time that screen readers pay attention to styling. If you use display: none to hide an element from sight, it will also be unavailable to screen reader users. Makes sense. But removing the semantic meaning of lists based on CSS? That seems a bit much.

There are good reasons for it though. Here’s a thread from James Craig on where this decision came from (James, by the way, is an absolute unsung hero of accessibility). It turns out that developers went overboard with lists a while back and that’s why we can’t have nice things. In over-compensating from divitis, developers ended up creating listitis, marking up anything vaguely list-like as an unordered list with styling adjusted. That was very annoying for screen reader users trying to figure out what was actually a list.

And James also asks:

If a sighted user doesn’t need to know it’s a list, why would a screen reader user need to know or want to know? Stated another way, if the visible list markers (bullets, image markers, etc.) are deemed by the designers to be visually burdensome or redundant for sighted users, why burden screen reader users with those semantics?

That’s a fair point, but the thing is …bullets maketh not the list. There are many ways of styling something that is genuinely a list that doesn’t involve bullets or image markers. White space, borders, keylines—these can all indicate visually that something is a list of items.

If you look at, say, the tunes page on The Session, you can see that there are numerous lists—newest tunes, latest comments, etc. In this case, as a sighted visitor, you would be at an advantage over a screen reader user in that you can, at a glance, see that there’s a list of five items here, a list of ten items there.

So I’m not disagreeing with the thinking behind the Webkit decision, but I do think the heuristics probably aren’t going to be quite good enough to make the call on whether something is truly a list or not.

Still, while I used to be kind of upset about the Webkit behaviour, I’ve become more equanimous about it over time. There are two reasons for this.

Firstly, there’s something that Eric said:

We have come so far to agree that websites don’t need to look the same in every browser mostly due to bugs in their rendering engines or preferences of the user.

I think the same is true for screen readers and other assistive technology: Websites don’t need to sound the same in every screen reader.

That’s a really good point. If we agree that “pixel perfection” isn’t attainable—or desirable—in a fluid, user-centred medium like the web, why demand the aural equivalent?

The second reason why I’m not storming the barricades about this is something that James said:

Of course, heuristics are imperfect, so authors have the ability to explicitly override the heuristically determined role by adding role="list”.

That means more work for me as a developer, and that’s …absolutely fine. If I can take something that might be a problem for a user, and turn into something that’s a problem for me, I’ll choose to make it my problem every time.

I don’t have to petition Webkit to change their stance or update their heuristics. If I feel strongly that a list styled without bullets should still be announced as a list, I can specificy that in the markup.

It does feel very redundant to write ul role="list”. The whole point of having HTML elements with built-in semantics is that you don’t need to add any ARIA roles. But we did it for a while when new structural elements were introduced in HTML5—main role="main", nav role="navigation", etc. So I’m okay with a little bit of redundancy. I think the important thing is that you really stop and think about whether something should be announced as a list or not, regardless of styling. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer (hence why it’s nigh-on impossible to get the heuristics right). Each list needs to be marked up on a case-by-case basis.

And I wouldn’t advise spending too much time thinking about this either. There are other, more important areas to consider. Like I said, headings, forms, and images really matter. I’d prioritise those elements above thinking about lists. And it’s worth pointing out that Webkit doesn’t remove all semantic meaning from styled lists—it updates the role value from list to group. That seems sensible to me.

In the case of that page on The Session, I don’t think I’m guilty of listitis. Yes, there are seven lists on that page (two for navigation, five for content) but I’m reasonably confident that they all look like lists even without bullets or markers. So I’ve added role="list" to some ul elements.

As with so many things related to accessibility—and the web in general—this is a situation where the only answer I can confidentally come up with is …it depends.

This was originally published on my own site.

Innovation: a design discussion Thu, 10 Dec 2020 10:04:00 +0000 At Clearleft, we have regular design debates where we gather together to discuss a design-related topic. One of those discussions was quite contentious…

It all started with a hot take on Medium from Mark Wilson of Wilson Fletcher, where Katie used to work: Customer-led design won’t lead you somewhere new.

Katie didn’t entirely agree with that article, even if parts of it rang true. Her take is that there are different types of design. Some are more customer-led and some are more business-led. So it’s true that customer-led design isn’t the right fit for everything. As always, it depends.

Jon didn’t read the article—he smacked head-first into Medium’s reader-hostile paywall—but he assumed that the keyword would be innovation. And sure enough, if you’re being led by what your customers want, it’s unlikely to lead to something new or innovative.

Chris disagreed. He thinks you can innovate “around” customers. You’re not there to blindly follow what they suggest. You’re there to listen, dig deeper, synthesise. That may very well led to something new.

Andy pointed out that what Chris said chimed with what’s in the article:

It’s not the customer’s job to invent what they’ll want instead of what they have today, it’s ours — the people responsible for making big leaps happen.

Although that sentence is preceded by this bit of clickbait:

Customer-led design sterilises the innovation process.

Jeremy made the connection with the cliché about Henry Ford: “If I asked people what they wanted, they would’ve said faster horses.” Though Jeremy pointed out that a genetically engineered superfast horse would’ve been awesome! His point is that innovation isn’t necessarily always appropriate. If anything, we have a bias towards trying to be innovative, sometimes at the expense of a tried-and-tested boring solution that works. There’s nothing innovative about writing clear copy, yet often that’s a far more effective solution than a brand new interface paradigm.

Lorenzo went deeper and asked “what is innovation?” He talked about the difference between design and fashion. Design is structural. Fashion is cosmetic. Fashion should be innovative. But design should be appropriate.

Chris said that a crude definition of innovation could simply be anything you haven’t done before. He also admitted that the article made him kind of angry because it perpetuated the myth of the genius designer—no room for co-creation with customers.

Katie pointed out that if the article made Chris angry, then that’s mission accomplished. She also agreed that people tend to over-use innovation. But she pointed out that innovation is different to Research and Development. With R&D, you’re playing with a technology, trying to unlock its potential. It’s more technology-led than customer-led.

Rich agreed, pointing out that the R in R&D is crucial: research. Research is also critical to human-centred design.

That’s exactly what Katie was talking about when she spoke about different types of design. If you’re experienced, then you know that the type of research you do is highly dependent on the type of design problem that you’re solving. Pick the right tools for the job. Some of those tools are more customer-focused than others like, say, A/B testing. If you pick a customer-focused tool for every kind of problem, then it’s true that you’ll never get real innovation.

Jeremy agreed, mentioning the infamous case of Google’s 41 shades of blue. They used a data-driven customer-led hammer on everything.

Going back to the original article, Rich thought that there may have been a bit of a misunderstanding in it about what human-centred design is. Human-centered (or customer-led) design isn’t about finding out what your customers want and then giving them exactly that.

Katie thought it’s not so much a misunderstanding, as it is a matter of audience. That article isn’t aimed at an experienced design agency like Clearleft. It’s aimed at designers who think they’re doing customer-led design but are really doing little more than market research, optimising for a local maximum.

Jon made that point that while Wilson Fletcher might be guilty of fetishising innovation, Clearleft are probably guilty of fetishising human-centred design.

Everyone agreed that it’s not an “either/or” situation. If you know what you’re doing, then innovation and human-centred design happen in harmony.

Being a Player Coach: Is it the best or the worst of both worlds? Mon, 30 Nov 2020 16:22:58 +0000 At some stage in your design career, you may find yourself at a bit of a crossroads. One path is the path of the craftsperson; a path you’re very experienced and comfortable with. Down the other path is the lure of management, and all the power and riches that entails.

If you’re lucky enough to work at a cool Silicon Valley tech company, there’s a clear process for choosing either path. You can decide to be an individual contributor (IC) or a manager, and — in theory at least — the choice you make won’t have an effect on your earning potential or career prospects. For everybody else, management typically means a higher salary, a higher status and more upwards mobility. However, it also means doing a job you have no previous experience in, and will probably suck at for the next few years. So rather than a crossroads, it can often feel like a precipice.

As a designer transitioning into management, it feels like the sensible thing to do is to find a middle path; a role where you can still be doing day-to-day design, while looking after a handful of designers. This is often described as being a player-coach; somebody who leads their team from the pitch rather than the sidelines. So you look around for roles and end up joining an exciting-sounding company as their first design leader. Happy days. Or so you think. Jump forwards 6 months and you’re wondering if you’ve made some terrible mistake. Maybe design leadership isn’t for you, and life would be better if you admit defeat and go back to being an individual contributor?

This is an all too predictable story I see repeating time and time again, so what went wrong?


I see three major challenges — and one big benefit — of becoming a player coach, so let’s start with the benefit. These player-coach jobs are easier to land for people transitioning into management because they generally don’t require prior management experience. The world is full of companies looking to build out their design teams, but lack the understanding to know what skills are needed. So rather than paying for an experienced manager, they try and get two people for the price of one. This results in them hiring somebody to be both a designer and a design leader, presuming they can do the management bit in the gaps between shipping.

Sadly this is rarely the case and leads us to our first challenge. It turns out that it’s super hard to hold down two jobs, especially if you’re good at one and have no experience at the other. So you either over-index on the design work, and end up being a negligent leader, or you focus on the leadership stuff and quickly become a blocker for your design work. As you’re in meetings all day, you decide to take some of your “real work” home, rationalising that everything will be OK as soon as you get over the current hump.

However, rather than getting better, things are about to take a turn for the worse. You’ve been tasked with growing your team, and there’s headcount to fill. However, as the companies first design leader, none of the infrastructure is in place. There are no pre-existing job descriptions, guides for running successful job interviews, or processes for on-boarding new designers. Similarly, there’s no process for running 1:1s or performance reviews, and don’t get me started on the lack of a progression framework. If you’d come from a previous management role, you’d probably have some of these things already, but as this is your first position, you need to create everything from scratch. So you do a tonne of reading, scour online forums, and start building your processes from scratch, often in your own time. Very quickly you find yourself with a third, hidden job; that of design operations manager.

This is where our third and final challenge comes in; a general lack of organisational support and understanding for your role. As a new design leader, you don’t know what you don’t know. In ideal circumstances, you’d have support from more senior and experienced design leaders, but because you’re the only one of your kind in the organisation, you have nobody to turn to. Furthermore, your probation period is starting to run out and the bosses are wondering why you’re not performing at a higher level. Design work is backing up, the team aren’t feeling supported, and you still haven’t filled those open roles. This is the point where imposter syndrome take holds, and you wonder if you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, and would be better off going back to being an individual contributor.

I’m here to tell you that this is a perfectly natural experience, and you’re not alone. It happens to a lot of first-time leaders who follow a player-coach model. In my experience, it is possible to navigate through this situation successfully, but you’re going to need a lot of spare time, resilience, and a strong support network — preferably with the addition of an experienced coach.

Far from being the easy option, this route is more commonly a baptism of fire. You’ll put everything you have into the role, and will learn a lot along the way. However, it’s a hard slog and many people run aground after 18 months. So it’s quite common for a companies first design leader to move on to a more dedicated — and arguably more sustainable — management role before too long. Ironically the person who comes after you will have a much easier time, as you’ll have cleared the pathway, laid down a trail, and set them up for success.

Fortunately, your second leadership job will almost certainly be better than your first. You’ll have experienced the challenges of starting something from scratch, you’ll understand the need to double down on doing one thing well, and you’ll appreciate the value of working with somebody who has been leading design teams for a while, and can support you in your own career journey.

Of course you can skip this painful learning process entirely, and attempt to land your first leadership role in a company with an established design practice, run by an experienced design leader. But that’s often easier said than done, and sometimes we have to make our own mistakes in order to properly learn from them.

This post was originally published on Medium

Static sites, slack and scrollytelling. Wed, 18 Nov 2020 13:23:00 +0000 Since I started at Clearleft, I’ve had my eye on our timeline…

Scrolling through the timeline for the first time, I thought it was shame that such an impressive list of achievements was just tucked away, gathering dust. Over the last 15 years Clearleft’s had such an impact on the web and design industry, but according to the entries on the old timeline we all stopped working mid 2018. (We didn’t, we promise)

The timeline design also got in the way of the content. There was no way to navigate to a specific year and a good proportion of the text was illegible on image backgrounds.

So when I got the chance to redesign our new timeline for our 15th birthday I had two main goals.

  • Ensure the timeline was kept up to date by enabling everyone at Clearleft, no matter their level of tech-savvy to edit our timeline.
  • Create something modern and enjoyable to explore.

The tricky thing about those goals in tandem is that if you’re not careful, modularising and CMS-ing something can hamper your creativity.

So in order to give myself as much creative freedom as possible, I chose to use Eleventy. Eleventy (11ty) is a simple static site generator. Basically, it gets out of the way and allows you to focus on the fun stuff!

11ty enables us to grab remote data and make it as accessible to our templates as super speedy static data, which is a big win for performance.

In our case the remote date is coming from a base on Airtable, which is not your average spreadsheet – it’s like google docs with rocket boosters.

a screenshot of an airtable database

It’s great for our purpose though, as now anyone at Clearleft can update the timeline, just by adding an event to a spreadsheet!

The one minor little hiccup in this plan is that the “static” in static site generator means that you have to rebuild the site when content changes.

Luckily Netlify allows you to trigger a build via a post to a webhook – we can do this via slack integrations! My colleague Trys wrote about this

I love this bit. It feels like magic! Plus, it’s a tool everyone at Clearleft uses, so no more waiting for one of the devs to press the magic button.

a screenshot of a slack conversation, the messages are all from Cassie, they read 'launch-timeline' 'wooo!'

The fun bit

I don’t know if you’re aware, but I really like SVG animation.

The bit I enjoyed making the most was this little hover interaction, it’s using an SVG mask and Greensock’s quickSetter to performantly update the mask position as you move your mouse.

The rest of the animation is largely handled with a new Greensock plugin called scrollTrigger. It was announced a few weeks before starting the timeline rebuild, and I knew this would be the perfect place to try it out.

ScrollTrigger has great browser support, plays nicely with Greensock timelines (obviously) and can do all sorts of things that would be tricky and time-consuming to handroll yourself.

Here’s a little reduced test case showing how I was animating the background graphics on scroll.

See the Pen Timeline scroll by Cassie Evans (@cassie-codes) on CodePen.

Check out our new timeline, and while you’re there, why not send us a postcard?

Dashboards: a design discussion Thu, 12 Nov 2020 13:03:00 +0000 We have regular design debates here at Clearleft. A few months back, we had a provocation prompted by a tweet.

Our friend Jared Spool tweeted:

Dashboards are often what customers ask for.

They are rarely what customers need.

If you’re building a dashboard, it’s likely your user research wasn’t finished.

We’re a curious bunch here at Clearleft, always encouraged to ‘Ask the question’ so we thought this was perfect debating ground. But before that, we needed to get our definitions straight. What exactly is a dashboard?

The UX of LEGO Interface Panels
George Cave The UX of LEGO Interface Panels

Chris put forward his definition. A dashboard, he said, comprises three things:

  1. A visual display of data that
  2. monitors conditions and
  3. informs actions.

That last point is where Chris sees most dashboards falling down. They’re showing data but the data they show is whatever’s easiest to gather. Think of those displays in the reception area of a company’s lobby. They give the impression of a data-driven company because there’s a chart with numbers moving. But those numbers could be anything. Some beautifully generated digital art would do the same job.

Richard pointed out that the audience matters too. For instance, internally at Clearleft, we’ve created a new company dashboard (as part of growing transparency following becoming employee owned). The leadership team use this for forecasting and decision-making. But the same dashboard can be used to give everyone in the company a general sense of where we’re at. He warned to ale always ask ‘why’ we’re providing that information? And what do we expect our teams to do with it?

Andy agreed that you need to be strategic about what to include on a dashboard so that it informs some intelligent decision-making. But don’t expect a dashboard to pre-emptively suggest solutions for you. You need to apply a heavy dose of interpretation.

So if a number is going up or down, do you have enough information to judge whether that’s a long-term trend or a short-term blip?

Remember there is a fundamental difference between data and metrics. Data only becomes a metric when you’ve got something to judge that number by. Dashboards can help, but you need to be aware of our bias towards pattern-matching.

Jeremy agreed that dashboards can be a useful guide, but he warns against mistaking the map for the territory. When it comes to metrics, he said, you need to consider the McNamara fallacy. Reducing success to a measurement can backfire. You end up giving too much weight to what can be measured and not enough weight to things that are hard to measure. There’s Goodhart’s law too:

When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

Done well, there’s no doubt a dashboard can help you fight through the noise to get a really clear synthesis of information.

When we mentioned in our newsletter that we were discussing dashboards, our friend Brian Suda—informatician and author of Designing With Data—chimed in with his thoughts:

I think dashboards are great, it is just that most dashboards fail on their purpose.

A car’s dashboard are not vanity metrics; most corporate ones are. Most dashboards you see in any office will have either vanity metrics, or some metric which is not actually actionable.

Katie warned that in her experience designing business tools there’s a risk to mitigate, that the longer they’re around the more they are abused and everything begins to lose meaning. The sweet spot for her is designing for power users, customisable dashboards that users use every day. They work well for those users who need operational oversight.

Perhaps we’re all in agreement here. Most dashboards aren’t good. But that doesn’t mean that all dashboards are bad. Or, as Katie loves to say …it depends.

Service Designers don’t design services, we all do Wed, 11 Nov 2020 12:04:00 +0000 Sometimes I wonder if the design industry—and particularly the digital space—has over-complicated things.

There are all these flavours of design practice: service design, customer experience design, user experience design, content design, product design. They probably have more commonalities than differences and the fact that we need to explain them to each other is worrying!

And this list grows and morphs year after year. In the last few years, we’ve seen the advent of the product designer within digital teams. More recently I’ve seen a growth designer pop up. That’s surely not the last new discipline beating its drum. The ultimate goal of each of these disciplines is the same — to satisfy a user’s need or goal and to drive the organisation forward. The difference is often around focus and remit.

In the digital space, we talk a lot about products rather than services. Many organisations have product teams with product owners supported by product designers working on fulfilling their product strategy by progressing through their product backlog. This, in my opinion, might limit our remit and do us an injustice. It’s something I’ve written about previously where I highlight that products are often vehicles for service provision.

Whether you are designing a ‘product’ or a ‘service’ it’s vital that everyone comes together to ensure that it works across both of its service dimensions.

Pushing service design from end to end and front to back diagram

Service dimensions

There are two critical dimensions to a service; end to end and front to back.

  • From end to end - All services comprise multiple moments that enable a user or customer to achieve their goals. The key to creating a compelling user experience is understanding the relationships between these moments digital and non-digital and designing across and between these moments.

  • From front to back - The concept of the front-stage and back-stage experience is well defined within the service design world. You can’t create exceptional service experience without looking at the process that delivers it.

In today’s world, the only logical approach is to start with the customer-facing service and its experience and then work inwards, engineering the optimal organisation to support the service. The role of the service organisation in the backstage is to support the service effectively, with its shape and structure built and adapted to suit. All too often the back-stage processes are overlooked, with new services built on top of dysfunctional organisations. But when back-stage organisational problems exist, they have front-stage consequences: poor service, customer frustration, and inconsistent channels. Streamlining back-stage processes is critical.

iPad showing the cityclean app

Pushing the service dimensions

As a designer, regardless of your remit you are in a unique position to push against these dimensions, to not only ensure that all touchpoints are well connected but also to shape the service organisation that supports them.

When designing a specific moment, it’s absolutely critical not to lose sight of where this moment sits within the broader service:

  • What is its role?
  • What is its relationship with other touchpoints?
  • How might your design decisions influence other moments?
  • Where does the content come from and what are the workflows that create it?

We did just that at Clearleft on a recent project with Brighton and Hove City Council. We were helping a department called Cityclean who are responsible for rubbish, recycling and street cleaning in the city.

Initially, we were asked to look at the form that citizens use to report issues such as graffiti, fly-tipping and broken glass. There was a feeling in the council that the form was difficult to use and that it was putting people off. They weren’t wrong. But by asking the right probing questions, we began to identify a much bigger service opportunity that we really enjoyed tackling:

  • Who will use this information?
  • What decisions or action will be taken based on the information collected?
  • How will issues be tracked and monitored?

So when you are designing anything, no matter how small or how broad, consider all dimensions. Even if you don’t initially have the remit, push to the outer edges by asking probing questions around context. Then quickly build momentum by visualising the opportunity and making it real.

Good luck everyone in pushing those dimensions.

Accessible interactions Thu, 29 Oct 2020 09:49:00 +0000 Accessibility on the web is easy. Accessibility on the web is also hard.

I think it’s one of those 80/20 situations. The most common accessibility problems turn out to be very low-hanging fruit. Take, for example, Holly Tuke’s list of the 5 most annoying website features she faces as a blind person every single day:

  • Unlabelled links and buttons
  • No image descriptions
  • Poor use of headings
  • Inaccessible web forms
  • Auto-playing audio and video

None of those problems are hard to fix. That’s what I mean when I say that accessibility on the web is easy. As long as you’re providing a logical page structure with sensible headings, associating form fields with labels, and providing alt text for images, you’re at least 80% of the way there (you’re also doing way better than the majority of websites, sadly).

Ah, but that last 20% or so—that’s where things get tricky. Instead of easy-to-follow rules (“Always provide alt text”, “Always label form fields”, “Use sensible heading levels”), you enter an area of uncertainty and doubt where there are no clear answers. Different combinations of screen readers, browsers, and operating systems might yield very different results.

This is the domain of interaction design. Here be dragons. ARIA can help you …but if you overuse its power, it may cause more harm than good.

When I start to feel overwhelmed by this, I find it’s helpful to take a step back. Instead of trying to imagine all the possible permutations of screen readers and browsers, I start with a more straightforward use case: keyboard users. Keyboard users are (usually) a subset of screen reader users.

The pattern that comes up the most is to do with toggling content. I suppose you could categorise this as progressive disclosure, but I’m talking about quite a wide range of patterns:

  • accordions,
  • menus (including mega menu monstrosities),
  • modal dialogs,
  • tabs.

In each case, there’s some kind of “trigger” that toggles the appearance of a “target”—some chunk of content.

The first question I ask myself is whether the trigger should be a button or a link (at the very least you can narrow it down to that shortlist—you can discount divs, spans, and most other elements immediately; use a trigger that’s focusable and interactive by default).

As is so often the case, the answer is “it depends”, but generally you can’t go wrong with a button. It’s an element designed for general-purpose interactivity. It carries the expectation that when it’s activated, something somewhere happens. That’s certainly true in all the examples I’ve listed above.

That said, I think that links can also make sense in certain situations. It’s related to the second question I ask myself: should the target automatically receive focus?

Again, the answer is “it depends”, but here’s the litmus test I give myself: how far away from each other are the trigger and the target?

If the target content is right after the trigger in the DOM, then a button is almost certainly the right element to use for the trigger. And you probably don’t need to automatically focus the target when the trigger is activated: the content already flows nicely.

<button>Trigger Text</button>
<div id="target">
<p>Target content.</p>

But if the target is far away from the trigger in the DOM, I often find myself using a good old-fashioned hyperlink with a fragment identifier.

<a href="#target">Trigger Text</a>
<div id="target">
<p>Target content.</p>

Let’s say I’ve got a “log in” link in the main navigation. But it doesn’t go to a separate page. The design shows it popping open a modal window. In this case, the markup for the log-in form might be right at the bottom of the page. This is when I think there’s a reasonable argument for using a link. If, for any reason, the JavaScript fails, the link still works. But if the JavaScript executes, then I can hijack that link and show the form in a modal window. I’ll almost certainly want to automatically focus the form when it appears.

The expectation with links (as opposed to buttons) is that you will be taken somewhere. Let’s face it, modal dialogs are like fake web pages so following through on that expectation makes sense in this context.

So I can answer my first two questions:

  • “Should the trigger be a link or button?” and
  • “Should the target be automatically focused?”

…by answering a different question:

  • “How far away from each other are the trigger and the target?”

It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it helps me out when I’m unsure.

At this point I can write some JavaScript to make sure that both keyboard and mouse users can interact with the interactive component. There’ll certainly be an addEventListener(), some tabindex action, and maybe a focus() method.

Now I can start to think about making sure screen reader users aren’t getting left out. At the very least, I can toggle an aria-expanded attribute on the trigger that corresponds to whether the target is being shown or not. I can also toggle an aria-hidden attribute on the target.

When the target isn’t being shown:

  • the trigger has aria-expanded="false",
  • the target has aria-hidden="true".

When the target is shown:

  • the trigger has aria-expanded="true",
  • the target has aria-hidden="false".

There’s also an aria-controls attribute that allows me to explicitly associate the trigger and the target:

<button aria-controls="target">Trigger Text</button>
<div id="target">
<p>Target content.</p>

But don’t assume that’s going to help you. As Heydon put it, aria-controls is poop. Still, Léonie points out that you can still go ahead and use it. Personally, I find it a useful “hook” to use in my JavaScript so I know which target is controlled by which trigger.

Here’s some example code I wrote a while back. And here are some old Codepens I made that use this pattern: one with a button and one with a link. See the difference? In the example with a link, the target automatically receives focus. But in this situation, I’d choose the example with a button because the trigger and target are close to each other in the DOM.

At this point, I’ve probably reached the limits of what can be abstracted into a single trigger/target pattern. Depending on the specific component, there might be much more work to do. If it’s a modal dialog, for example, you’ve got to figure out where to put the focus, how to trap the focus, and figure out where the focus should return to when the modal dialog is closed.

I’ve mostly been talking about websites that have some interactive components. If you’re building a single page app, then pretty much every single interaction needs to be made accessible. Good luck with that. (Pro tip: consider not building a single page app—let the browser do what it has been designed to do.)

Anyway, I hope this little stroll through my thought process is useful. If nothing else, it shows how I attempt to cope with an accessibility landscape that looks daunting and ever-changing. Remember though, the fact that you’re even considering this stuff means you care more than most web developers. And you are not alone. There are smart people out there sharing what they learn. The A11y Project is a great hub for finding resources.

And when it comes to interactive patterns like the trigger/target examples I’ve been talking about, there’s one more question I ask myself: what would Heydon do?

This was originally posted on my own site.

Is the future of design work distributed? Thu, 22 Oct 2020 11:27:12 +0000 We’re all remote workers now. But is this just a brief blip or is it the shape of things to come? That was the question that dominated our fifth design leadership panel.

The panel was moderated by Clearleft co-founder Jeremy Keith and featured a fantastic line-up of panelists:

  • Emma Boulton, Director of Design Research at Babylon Health
  • Holly Habstritt Gaal, Design Director at Duck Duck Go
  • Jean Laleuf, Executive Director of UX and Product Management at J.P. Morgan Chase
  • Lola Oyelayo-Pearson, Director of UX at Shopify

The topic of discussion was the future, but Jeremy began by asking about the past. Specifically, one year ago. How much has changed in that time?

For Jean and Holly, work life hasn’t changed all that much. They were both working remotely anyway, Jean in the US and Holly in The Netherlands. Duck Duck Go’s workforce is entirely remote, but Holly pointed out that regular get-togethers were an important part of their culture. She misses those. Similarly, Jean used to travel a lot for work. Now that he hasn’t travelled all year, he really misses it.

Emma used to divide her time between remote work in Wales and on-site work in Babylon Health’s London office. Now her work is entirely remote. For Lola, everything has changed in the past year. One year ago, she hadn’t yet started at Shopify. Now she has not only started working there, she has also travelled across the Atlantic to move to Canada …just in time for Shopify to declare that they are now a permanently remote company.

Jeremy asked the panelists whether the move to remote work has been a blessing in disguise. Are there some kinds of work that are more suited to being alone and uninterrupted?

Jean pointed out that what you miss with remote work is the serendipity of seeing other people’s work: “It’s the walking by somebody’s desk and looking over, just glancing at their screen and going, “Wait, what? Let’s chat about that!” Lola agreed that the heads-down nature of remote work comes at a cost: “We’re having to create a lot of rituals to try and introduce those moments. And it’s actually much harder to engage people in them. And so you get more deep work, but you actually end up being less excited sometimes by the work. We’re trying to figure out what are the right sets of rituals and activities to bring some of that serendipity and energy back into the design work.”

Emma also misses some of the spontaneity of the office: “Those times where you just want to go for a walk and have a chat or take someone for coffee and not have the proper one-to-one. Something’s up with them and you can’t figure out why, and they just need a bit more pastoral help. That’s what I missing.”

That leads to another point that Jeremy asked about. Given everything going in the world, and how stressful it is for everyone, has the focus at work shifted from productivity to well-being? Lola has been investing a lot of time in connecting with her teams. But she doesn’t see that as being at the expense of productivity: “I don’t see that I’ll get productivity unless those connections are made. And I’m actively always investing that time because I think the reward is unquestionable.”

Were able to hire the best people all over the world, with diverse needs that can be supported" Emma

Despite the challenges, everyone was in agreement that the future of design work is distributed. As Emma points out: “It means we can have more diverse teams, people in my team have a chronic illness, for example. But also now I’m hiring, I’m able to talk to people all over the UK, all over the US and hopefully when we go back to normal, I won’t have to ask them to relocate to Austin or London, because that way we can hire the best people rather than the best people that live in a particular city.”

Looking at the trajectory of design, it seems like design may have finally earned its seat at the table. Holly said: “I’ve been fortunate enough to work at a lot of places that trust us, love us, want us involved. It doesn’t mean they understand what we do. So we still have to be super visible about where we can be a part of the conversation.”

But this doesn’t necessarily mean that designers need to become business people: “Just because you’re involved in the business doesn’t mean it has to be so commercial.” Jean said: “It’s not just about speaking business. It’s more about understanding the goals that your business is working towards and understanding how humans fit into those goals. For me, design is the process of reconciling the constraints of the business goals and the constraints of the human goals.”

“Design is reconciling the constraints of business goals and the constraints of human goals."

Lola agreed: “If I define “commercially minded” in my mindset, I think people think that we mean “profit driven”. And it’s not. The way I define it is you need to understand how money works in your company.” Emma added: “Money is time. We’re always trapped in the line between scrappy quick-and-dirty research and rigorous research. But commercially we have to think about how quickly can we deliver good enough insights that help us de-risk the decisions that the teams are making.”

Playing devil’s advocate, Jeremy asked if design systems might make designers obsolete—are we creating the tools of our own destruction? Holly started the defence: “No, I think we’ve started to position ourselves more upfront in the strategy piece and less on production. I always make sure that the strategy problem-solving skillset that we have is seen and valued and used in the right conversations at the right time. Then I think we’ll have no problem.”

“I always make sure that the strategy problem-solving skillset we have is seen at the right time.”

But looking further ahead to ten years from now, might a robot be doing your job? Emma doesn’t think so: “As designers, we should also be doing research or listening and talking, and I think you just really can’t replicate that with a robot.” Lola acknowledged: “There are many, many jobs that no longer exist today that our parents would have felt were permanent as recently as 30 years ago. So that’s a human problem, not a design problem.”

Jean added: “I don’t know that we’ll ever get completely made obsolete as designers, but I think our roles may shift and our roles have shifted already and they’ll continue to shift. And it may be that we become the trainers of the engines, that we define the framework or the rules within which the AIs function to meet certain goals and design certain products. But I think there’s probably always some sort of a problem-solving goal-setting job there for us.” Lola warned: “The one thing that I think is speeding up our lack of value is our lack of willingness to engage with future tech. If we become the resistance, we make ourselves irrelevant. But if we are able to continue to be a bridge between the tech and the individual, then there’s a role for us in all futures.

If we continue to be the birdge between the individual and the tech then we have a future" lola

Finally, Jeremy asked where the panelists might see themselves in 15 years time. This is when the conversation doubled-back to remote working. Holly said: “I hope that we can see this as an opportunity, that we’ll think of it as normal maybe 15 years from now, shifting away from having to hire people in expensive cities and thinking about other parts of the world where there’s also very talented people. Maybe we’ll be able to be a little more inclusive and ethical as a result.” Jean concurs: “I think this greater degree of flexibility that we’re seeing; I’m really hoping that that will stick. It may enable people to work later on into their years because there will be a better ability to live where you want.”

Emma also pointed to the happy confluence of two trends: remote work and an ageing population: “This sort of more remote distributed working will enable people to maybe dial down work if they’re getting to the age where they want to think about spending less time at the work and maybe be able to enjoy their lives more.”

Where do you see design heading in the next 15 years? We’d love to hear from you. Head over to the Clearleft timeline and send us a postcard. Let’s imagine it’s 2035… How do you hope the practice of design will have changed for the better?

Introducing Leading Design Festival Wed, 21 Oct 2020 12:32:00 +0000 We’ve all spent the last six months living on Zoom, and it’s frankly tiring. So when we started thinking about bringing Leading Design online, the last thing we wanted to do was force people to sit through a never-ending series of back-to-back talks.

Instead, we’ve decided to spread our event across a much longer period and turn it into the first Leading Design Festival. So we’re going to have practical masterclasses, talks, panel discussions, and a host of other sessions peppered throughout the month. This will hopefully allow our busy community of design leaders to pick and choose what to attend (much like a real festival), and catch content they’ve missed on replay.

Logo and Leading Design Festival on a deep purple with a broken out the box pattern

This sort of asynchronous time and place shifted content is fast becoming the norm. However, there’s still something magical about bringing a group of peers together for a shared experience. So we’ll be kicking things off with a mini-conference. Spread over three afternoons (or mornings if you’re in the US), it’ll be a combination of over a dozen short talks, Q&As, and panel discussions, with plenty of breaks to make sure folks can fit things around their schedule, and not get fatigued.

Want to keep the insights coming? Then why not join us for The Rest of the Fest, an extended series of talks, panel discussions, mentoring sessions and networking events throughout the month of March. Perfect for the busy design exec working to take their leadership to the next level.

If that’s not enough, we’ve also arranged a series of 90-minute Masterclasses with some of the most influential design leaders in our field. These practical, hands-on sessions will help you grow your leadership toolkit, and be the best leader you can possibly be.

To make things even easier you can choose to attend just the conference, pick specific masterclasses, or buy a pass that gives you unlimited access to the whole festival. The choice is yours.

The tickets have just launched and early-bird tickets won’t hang around long. I really hope you can join us in March 2021.

Meet the new owners of Clearleft Mon, 12 Oct 2020 09:15:00 +0000 You know how these articles go. You’ve read a dozen of them before. Maybe too many for your liking. A well-known and well-respected design agency like Clearleft announces its sale to some giant company you’ve never heard of.

The announcement is full of platitudes. “It’s been a wonderful journey so far” the founders will explain, and “this sale marks the next exciting chapter in our history”. The founders will take great pains to explain how much “synergy” they have with their new owners, and how the purchase will “secure the future of their agency and their wonderful employees”.

“This is an amazing opportunity for our agency”, the founders will be at pains to point out, “allowing us to have an even bigger impact than we had before”. This sounds great, but you can’t help feel like the founders are laying it on a little thick. Like they are trying to convince themselves as much as anybody else. You’re happy for the founders, but you can’t help but be left with a sinking feeling in your stomach. Another independent agency is about to bite the dust.

Well, I’m sure you can see where this article is heading (I mean the title was a bit of a giveaway), but after 15 years of running Clearleft, it’s our time to begin to walk down a similar path. We’ve had an amazing journey and have done some pretty cool things along the way. We’ve been working with our new owners for some time now and they really do get us. If you know Clearleft you may already have an inkling of who they may be.

A montage of some of the Clearleft team from a Zoom call

Say hello to our new owners

So who are the new owners of Clearleft, if not some international consultancy? Are they a well-known tech company looking to build their talent pipeline in the UK through a high-profile acquihire? Or maybe a bank, airline or utility company looking to embark on a programme of digital transformation. Well no, not in this case.

Our new owners are Alex, Chris and Tom. They’re James, Helen and Cassie; Lorenzo, Trys and Maite. I could go on but you see where we’re going here. The new owners of Clearleft are the people who power Clearleft and who make Clearleft so special. It’s our whole team, in the form of an Employee Ownership Trust.

That’s right; Clearleft will be run for—and on behalf of—all our team, now and in the future. So rather than working for a company where the benefits go to a handful of individuals, they will be shared evenly amongst the team.

For those of you with a libertarian bent (which I hope isn’t too many of our followers, although we do a fair amount of work in the Bay area) you may be wondering, what sort of socialist hell is this? Have we lost our minds?

Well, no. The truth is that for the entire history of Clearleft we’ve made decisions with the benefit of the team in mind. It’s one of the reasons we’re able to hire such great talent and keep them retained for two or three times longer than most other agencies. We’ve always put our team’s well-being before our own, so we’re simply making it official.

Now’s the time

The timing (in the middle of a global pandemic) is a little unusual and probably wouldn’t have been our first choice. But it’s also strangely fitting.

In times of financial hardship, it’s common for company owners to put themselves ahead of everybody else. During the last downturn a well-known agency founder was caught bragging about his brand new company Audi on Twitter the same week he let a third of his team go. Other founders we know have emptied their coffers in advance of a downturn, or have been tempted by a low-ball offer from a third-party buyer.

I’m not saying these decisions were wrong, as everybody’s circumstances are different. What I do know is that this isn’t something we’d ever consider, so we wanted to make it official; to send a strong signal that while others claim to be “In it together”, we really mean it.

While there are a lot of practical benefits of being employee-owned—like improved happiness, health and productivity—for the most part life at Clearleft will remain unchanged. We still have the same leadership team and board structure, it’s just they are now obliged to act in the interest of our new majority shareholder, the Employer Ownership Trust.

If you’ve worked with Clearleft over the years, you may be wondering what this means for our clients. In truth, you’ll get the same amazing service as you’ve come to expect. Maybe even better, because rather than working with employees, you’ll be working with company partners. So they’ll be even more focussed on providing you with a great experience, as their names are above the door (so to speak). It also means that the money made will go to benefit the team you’re working with, rather than a handful of wealthy shareholders. There’s a good argument to make that working with an employee-owned company like Clearleft is an ethical choice.

So yes, it’s been a long and exciting road. We’ve found some amazing new owners, and are excited to embark on the next phase of our journey. However, unlike the majority of these articles, I hope this one leaves you feeling genuinely happy for our team, our clients, and the future of Clearleft.

Engineering Neon Wed, 07 Oct 2020 13:10:00 +0000 EngineeringUK is a non-profit on a mission to inspire the young people of today to become the engineers of tomorrow.

Clearleft had the great pleasure of working closely with EngineeringUK on their latest project: Neon:

Bringing STEM to life through real-world engineering

The design is beautiful (and aren’t the hover animations in the navigation just lovely?) but what really stood out on this project was, well, the engineering.

This was a three-way engineering partnership between the team at EngineeringUK, the developers at Clearleft(Cassie and Trys), and our friends at Umbrella. We designed the experience and were responsible for the front end development, Umbrella built the back end, and the team at EngineeringUK were responsible for getting the whole thing live with excellent content.

You could picture Umbrella as the bridge between Clearleft and EngineeringUK. They received front-end code from Clearleft on one side, while getting the content from EngineeringUK on the other. Using both of those inputs they could then put the back-end system together.

Crucially this wasn’t a waterfall process. It was quite fluid and there were course-corrections throughout. On the Clearleft side, we might have an idea for how a particular component could behave and tell Umbrella “It would be great if this kind of data stucture were available.” They could then work on providing that data structure. Or, in the other direction, based on the content from EngineeringUK, Umbrella might say to us “This is how the data will be structured—can you work with that?” and we could adjust our front-end components accordingly.

Often we’ll deliver a library of these components to the client as the output of a project. In this case though, the components weren’t a deliverable—they were a means to an end.

Working in a component-based way ensured that the front-end code would be robust. Each component was like a reduced test case. Best of all, Umbrella provided API endpoints that we could use to populate the components with real data. That really helped to take the guesswork out of the process.

How to engage the right people when recruiting in house for research Mon, 05 Oct 2020 12:42:00 +0000 Engaging the right people is key to the success of a research project. The quality of the insights that you get depends on the relevance of the people you invite to participate in a study and the information they provide. That is what makes recruitment such a fundamental part of any research study.

During the recruitment process you search for, identify and invite the right individuals to take part in your study. Organisations can do this with the support of a professional recruitment partner or do it themselves if they have the right conditions and resources in place. For those new to recruitment, it sounds like a quite straightforward process. It’s actually a highly demanding and time-consuming task.

Here’s a list of key things to take into account if you’re considering in-house research recruitment for the first time.

Stakeholder research Miro board template with a number of questions and post its to capture responses
Stakeholder research Miro board template

Identify relevant characteristics of your participants

Once you know what you want to learn, you should be able to identify the appropriate research methods and the characteristics of the people who are best suited to provide you with relevant information. It’s important to keep a balance. It’s very easy to go too vague (because everyone is your potential customer) or too specific (making it extremely difficult to reach participants). Define your priorities in case you need to adjust any criteria as you recruit. You should review your goals and plan accordingly.

Double-check your ability to contact people

The fact that your organisation has contact information of people that are relevant for your study doesn’t mean that you can use it to invite them to participate. You should always consult with legal experts first to understand if you are allowed to use your customers’ personal data and how.

Define incentives and delivery

Your organisation will benefit from doing research. You need to also consider how your participants should benefit from taking part in it. You can define incentives or compensations if appropriate. If you do, you should know in advance exactly how you’re going to deliver them and set the right expectations.

Identify key gatekeepers and their involvement

There might be people who can facilitate or interfere with your access to potential participants. For instance, there might be account managers, executives or similar roles that are responsible for the relationship with your target group. Many times and for different reasons, we’ve seen these gatekeepers blocking access to certain people or briefing participants if they feel threatened by the project (even if you see no reason for them to). Consider if you need these gatekeepers’ support and if they might perceive any risks or reasons not to cooperate with the project, and how you will deal with that scenario.

Prepare a communication and contact plan

You will have to communicate with your research participants at different times and for different reasons. Depending on your context, you should consider in advance the most appropriate way to communicate. Create a plan and combine different channels and approaches at different times to make it more effective. Craft the communication experience and approach people in the most personalised way you can.

Screen your participants

You need to make sure that the people you invite to the study fit the criteria that will help you meet your research goals. Prepare a set of questions that will help you identify the right participants. You should always ask these questions and document the answers before sending people any formal invitations. This can also help you get a sense of their personality and how interested or engaged they might be in the process.

Prepare for rejection

Unfortunately, it’s quite likely that most people will reject your invitation to take part in your study. Also, some of those who accept your invitation will not turn up. Take this into account in your planning as you might need to invite way more people than your goal. You might need to schedule more sessions than you expect as well.

Define metrics of success and corrective actions

Track and assess recruitment progress. Define metrics to understand how the process is going and where you might be struggling. It can also be a good idea to plan corrective actions if certain goals are not met.

Don’t take shortcuts

Recruitment is a fundamental step in the research process and it can easily (and painfully) become a full-time job when you do it yourself. It’s tempting to take shortcuts and skip steps when things become challenging. But don’t let short-term thinking get in the way. Recruiting the wrong people is extremely detrimental to the quality and relevance of findings and it compromises any decisions where they are used as an input.

Performance and people Mon, 28 Sep 2020 16:01:15 +0000 I was helping a client with a bit of a performance audit this week.

I really, really enjoy this work. It’s such a nice opportunity to get my hands in the soil of a website, so to speak, and suggest changes that will have a measurable effect on the user’s experience.

Not only is web performance a user experience issue, it may well be the user experience issue. Page speed has a proven demonstrable direct effect on user experience (and revenue and customer satisfaction and whatever other metrics you’re using).

It struck me that there’s a continuum of performance challenges. On one end of the continuum, you’ve got technical issues. These can be solved with technical solutions. On the other end of the continuum, you’ve got human issues. These can be solved with discussions, agreement, empathy, and conversations (often dreaded or awkward).

I think that, as developers, we tend to gravitate towards the technical issues. That’s our safe space. But I suspect that bigger gains can be reaped by tackling the uncomfortable human issues.

This week, for example, I uncovered three performance issues. One was definitely technical. One was definitely human. One was halfway between.

The technical issue was with web fonts. It’s a lot of fun to dive into this aspect of web performance because quite often there’s some low-hanging fruit: a relatively simple technical fix that will boost the performance (or perceived performance) of a website. That might be through resource hints (using link rel=“preload” in the HTML) or adjusting the font loading (using font-display in the CSS) or even nerdier stuff like subsetting.

In this case, the issue was with the file format of the font itself. By switching to woff2, there were significant file size savings. And the great thing is that @font-face rules allow you to specify multiple file formats so you can still support older browsers that can’t handle woff2. A win all ‘round!

The performance issue that was right in the middle of the technical/human continuum was with images. At first glance it looked like a similar issue to the fonts. Some images were being served in the wrong formats. When I say “wrong”, I guess I mean inappropriate. A photographic image, for example, is probably going to best served as a JPG rather than a PNG.

But unlike the fonts, the images weren’t in the direct control of the developers. These images were coming from a Content Management System. And while there’s a certain amount of processing you can do on the server, a human still makes the decision about what file format they’re uploading.

I’ve seen this happen at Clearleft. We launched an event site with lean performant code, but then someone uploaded an image that’s megabytes in size. The solution in that case wasn’t technical. We realised there was a knowledge gap around image file formats—which, let’s face it, is kind of a techy topic that most normal people shouldn’t be expected to know.

But it was extremely gratifying to see that people were genuinely interested in knowing a bit more about choosing the right format for the right image. I was able to provide a few rules of thumb and point to free software for converting images. It empowered those people to feel more confident using the Content Management System.

It was a similar situation with the client site I was looking at this week. Nobody is uploading oversized images in order to deliberately make the site slower. They probably don’t realise the difference that image formats can make. By having a discussion and giving them some pointers, they’ll have more knowledge and the site will be faster. Another win all ‘round!

At the other end of continuum was an issue that wasn’t technical. From a technical point of view, there was just one teeny weeny little script. But that little script is Google Tag Manager which then calls many, many other scripts that are not so teeny weeny. Third party scripts …the bane of web performance!

In retrospect, it seems unbelievable that third-party JavaScript is even possible. I mean, putting arbitrary code—that can then inject even more arbitrary code—onto your website? That seems like a security nightmare!

Remember when I did a countdown of the top four web performance challenges? At the number one spot is other people’s JavaScript.

Now one technical solution would be to remove the Google Tag Manager script. But that’s probably not very practical—you’ll probably just piss off some other department. That said, if you can’t find out which department was responsible for adding the Google Tag Manager script in the first place, it might we well be an option to remove it and then wait and see who complains. If no one notices it’s gone, job done!

More realistically, there’s someone who’s added that Google Tag Manager script for their own valid reasons. You’ll need to talk to them and understand their needs.

Again, as with images uploaded in a Content Management System, they may not be aware of the performance problems caused by third-party scripts. You could try throwing numbers at them, but I think you get better results by telling the story of performance.

Use tools like Request Map Generator to help them visualise the impact that third-party scripts are having. Talk to them. More importantly, listen to them. Find out why those scripts are being requested. What are the outcomes they’re working towards? Can you offer an alternative way of providing the data they need?

I think many of us developers are intimidated or apprehensive about approaching people to have those conversations. But it’s necessary. And in its own way, it can be as rewarding as tinkering with code. If the end result is a faster website, then the work is definitely worth doing—whether it’s technical work or people work.

Personally, I just really enjoy working on anything that will end up improving a website’s performance, and by extension, the user experience. If you fancy working with me on your site, you should get in touch with Clearleft.

This was originally posted on my own site.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

/download/*  200

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

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

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

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

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

This was originally posted on my own site.

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

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

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

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

Day 1: Product Strategy

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

Melissa Perri, The Secret Weapon To Finding Focus

Josh Seiden, Outcomes Over Output

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

John Cutler, Healing The Designer/Product Manager Divide

Day 2: Research

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

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

Kelly Goto, Fieldwork From Home

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

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

Day 3: Service Design

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

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

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

Akil Benjamin, AK Experiments

Dr Sarah Drummond, Full Stack Service Design

Day 4: Content Strategy

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

Amy Hupe, Designing Content For Emotionally Distressed Users

Jonathon Colman, How We Destroyed Content Design

Kristina Halvorson, In conversation with Kristina Halvorson

Day 5: Interaction Design

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

Ross Chapman, Remote Sprints

Simeon Wishlade, How To Lose Less In AB Testing

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

Lex Roman, Practicing Growth Design

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

And then some...

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

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

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

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

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

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

What's a project canvas?

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

Project Canvas Miro board
Our Project Canvas Miro board

When should I use it?

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

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

Sounds good. So how do I start?

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

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

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

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

Start using the Miro board here

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

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

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

Make learning a habit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Start with a list

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

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

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

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

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

Three ways to quickly find quality content are:

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

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

2. Training together but apart

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

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

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

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

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

3. Give some training

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

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

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

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

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

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

The value of training

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

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

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

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

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

Episode One

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

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

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

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

Episode Two

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

Episode Three

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

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

Episode Four

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

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

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

Episode Five

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

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

Episode Six

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was originally published on my own site.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evgeny Shadchnev

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

Cassie codes colourful homepage with a desk illustration

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

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

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

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

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

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

Less attention and more disruptions

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

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

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

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

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

Getting comfortable with deafening silences

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

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

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

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

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

Countering the energy drain

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

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

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

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

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

It’s the same but different

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paradigm shifts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Growth and Decay

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

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


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

Nurture and Retire

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

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

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


The next paradigm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Customer journey maps

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

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

Customer journey map
A customer journey map at Clearleft

Building empathy with an internal design team

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

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

Here’s how

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

1. Jog the memory

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

2. Map the activities

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

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

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

  • What went badly?
  • What can be improved?

4. Recall the happy moments (what went well)

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

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

  • What went well?
  • What were the wins?

5. Find the opportunities

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

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

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

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

Creating a shared understanding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

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

Entities are not to be multiplied without necessity.

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

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

There’s Hofstadter’s Law, for example:

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

Or Clarke’s third law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

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

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

Because of observation A, apply action B.

For example:

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

Or in its full form:

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

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

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

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

JavaScript size has ballooned as networks have improved.

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

Because of the Jevons paradox, apply the robustness principle.

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

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

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

This was originally published on my own site.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Clearleft Podcast

The Clearleft Podcast.

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

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

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

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

  1. the source material and
  2. the editing.

That’s what makes the Clearleft podcast different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope you like it!

This was originally published on my own site.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A chart showing scaling fluid fonts
Visualising what this means

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

Here’s how these values can translate into design:

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

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

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

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

This was originally published on the Utopia website.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

This was originally published on Andy’s website

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

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

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

Maintaining happy teams intro slide

1. Steal processes from different groups

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

2. Assess leadership speaking down

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

3. Use real-time tooling judiciously

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

4. Find the right boundaries

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

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

5. Maintain professional development

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

6. Remove the formal

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

7. Translate

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

8. Iterate constantly

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

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

9. An accelerant to tackle the tricky stuff

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

10. Old-style management Vs new-style leadership

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

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

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

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

Design as competitive advantage

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

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

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

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

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

Scenario 1: The Hooli problem

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

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

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


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

Scenario 2: The Wayne Enterprises problem

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


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

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

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

Scenario 3: The Cyberdyne Systems problem

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

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


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

Design’s Iron Triangle

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Critical Success Factors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Designops triangle unpacked

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


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

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

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

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

But how? Let me have a think…

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

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

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

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

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

1. Be ready, possibly in style

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

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

2. An organised company is an organised newbie

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

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

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

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

3. 1-2-1s

This is one of the tricky ones, because:

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

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

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

4. Talking about...everything

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

5. Over-ask (over-communicate)

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

6. Beware comms overload

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

7. Get thrown in the mix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tree vector created by
Tree vector created by

Assembling a team

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

Choose carefully

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

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

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

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

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

Clearleft design leadership panel sitting infront of a blue screen

Scaling design

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

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

Daniel Souza

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

Org structure matters

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

Organisational hierarchy is inherently problematic, it seems.

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

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

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

Ana Jakimovska

Avoiding pitfalls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ana Jakimovska

Designers moving into product

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

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

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

Empowering teams with metrics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was originally published on my own site.

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

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

Choosing a backend stack

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Post-its with entities and endpoints

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

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

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

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

Choosing a frontend stack

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

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

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

/* _data/speakers.js */

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

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

And a wrapper around node-fetch

/* _utilities/content.js */

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deployments & collaboration

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

The build hook builder on

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

Jason & Sophia triggering the build

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

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

Added bonus

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

100 across the board in Lighthouse

This was originally posted on my website.

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

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

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

Each piece of information you ask for has two costs:

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

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

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

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

You can watch our other #TinyLesson videos here