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UXPA 2019 Reflections

The theme for UXPA 2019 was, as far as I could tell, empathy. Empathy, caring and careful design, came up in as a refrain frequently, and when it wasn’t mentioned outright, it was implicit. This focus on thoughtfulness extended both within and without, which I found very interesting. I would expect a conference for UX Design to be, necessarily, concerned with the experience of others; I anticipated less the theme of kindness to oneself.


Keynote speaker Vivianne Castillo gave a talk titled “The Siren Call of Self-Neglect”, where she talked about the potential for burnout, and the necessity of self-care. While traffic meant we arrived partway through, I did manage to note down her focus on communication. She made two key points. Firstly, managers should make it clear that team members can be vulnerable with them, encouraging communication not just when things are going well but also when things are going poorly. Support systems can’t be built after they’re needed. Secondly, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel on discussions of ethics and other relevant fields. Those working in UX should explore other disciplines and talk to people working in those areas. Castillo also shared a Google Drive folder full of resources on self care and mindfulness, as well as some resources for white people who wish to educate themselves on racial privilege without burdening people of color. This folder is available in the supplemental materials below.

Abby Bajuniemi’s talk, “I don’t talk like that! Research Methods and Ethics for Natural Language Interaction”, was less an exploration of digital design and more an examination of experimental ethics and how we communicate. The speaker touched on the fact that language, despite being an arbitrary social construct, is still a factor in discrimination and can be used to uphold ideologies of race, gender, and other identities. She then went on to discuss the ethics of experimental design, particularly in conveying information about the experiment to the participants and in eliciting usable data without infringing on the subjects’ privacy rights. While Bajuniemi did not have strict recommendations regarding these ethical questions, she was firm in her policies: make it clear to participants what is being collected, how it will be stored, and how it can be accessed/who will have access. She suggested hiring an interpreter or translator if there is doubt that the participants will understand the experimenter fully. Her appearance on a linguistics podcast, also mentioned in her presentation, is included in the supplemental materials.

“Interruptions: Living in a World of Divided Attention” was the third presentation, given by Molly Hillstrom. Hillstrom outlined the cost of distractions in the workplace and in people’s personal lives, citing statistics regarding quality of work and mental health. This topic was integrated with the idea of design when Hillstrom called on designers to be careful, compassionate, and sparing in their use of notifications, to stop using features like autoplay and infinite scroll which make it easy for people to get ‘sucked in’, and to make it easy for people to adjust preferences which will help them not get distracted. There were no supplemental materials.

Ellen Lucast presented “Opportunities and Challenges in the Voice Interaction Space”, which discussed the potential work required for true voice interaction (creating conversations, rather than programs like Alexa and Siri which have designated responses for specific statements). Much of this presentation was theoretical, and went over my head in regards to its technical aspects, but my primary takeaway was what Lucast called Grice’s Maxims, a set of rules for communication. In quick, simplified summary, they are: be truthful; give the right amount of information; be relevant; be brief and orderly. These rules were interesting to me because of the tension they suggest between usefulness and kindness. Grice’s Maxims seem, on the surface, designed to facilitate useful communication, but they also seem to allow for conversations which are trustworthy, interesting, thoughtful and intelligible. While they are good design principles for practical reasons, they also continue the theme of thinking about users as people. No supplemental materials were included in the presentation.

McLean Donnelly’s presentation, “An Accessibility Case Study: Expedia”, outlined the initiative Donnelly took to help Expedia make its website more accessible. He gave a series of steps, which touched on initial proposals, research, an internal audit of the system, and the feedback and design cycle, among other aspects. These steps gave transparency and a good model to people who might wish to undertake similar initiatives at their own workplace. Donnelly’s work was a practical expression of the design philosophies at play throughout UXPA. He included multiple recommended resources to help practice and learn about accessible design, and recommended people draft accessibility policies for their organization as well as practicing skills-based volunteerism. His resources are listed in the supplemental materials.

Liz Tupper’s talk, “Empowering People through Tech”, discussed human-centric/empathetic design, and a design initiative that centered the needs of the users. She emphasized the need to listen to feedback given during the testing phases, and outlined four steps for empathetic design. First, engage with people in their own space; facilitate collaborative creativity; test and get feedback from the people you seek to help; and organize a support structure for the tech and for the people the tech is supposed to exist. This talk, like Donnelly’s, gave very practical examples of design steps and brainstorming practices, but these examples were centered more around getting ideas from the users the product was intended for. Tupper did not include supplemental materials, though her design exercises may be part of a future blog post.

Beth McKeever presented a talk called “Symbiotic Product Relationships”, which, rather than exploring empathy for the user or empathy for the self, discussed the ways in which UX designers can foster good working relationships with their coworkers, particularly their product managers. Her advice once more came down to communication. Knowing each others’ strengths and weaknesses, attending meetings together in order to facilitate detailed discussion, gaining comfort disagreeing with each other, and constructively talking about office culture were all things McKeever considered vital to a working relationship. In fact, she recommended overcommunicating when building a new relationship, in order to set up that foundation of openness. McKeever also mentioned a book on developing a culture, included in the supplemental materials.

The closing talk was given by Jeff Sussna, titled “Beyond the Designer as Auteur”. In contrast to some prior speakers, Sussna’s consideration for the user’s experience framed the experience as an ongoing service, rather than as a one-time consumable product. The example he gave was of food: a candy bar not only fills you up and tastes nice, but it also gives you energy that you take with you throughout your day. Ultimately, Sussna stated that design was less about features and more about outcomes. He also discussed complex/emergent systems, the potential for failure, and the need to lean into chaos and learning from a) system failures and b) the creative/unintentional uses consumers find for a product. My favorite part of this presentation was a quote of Sussna’s which I found both evocative and lovely: “What problems might our solutions create?” Sussna also recommended several books, which are listed in the supplemental materials.


UXPA 2019 was a challenge for me to condense down to a few words on the ethics of UX. In part this was due to the fact that each speaker’s talk touched on ethics, but some did so obliquely or veiled through a different topic. The conference was less concerned with setting out specific ethical principles or guidelines, and more concerned with exploring the ways in which we treat people with respect and dignity. At the core, this is what designing experience should be: carefully considering the feelings, needs and rights of the person whose experience is being designed. While the nature of the conference placed emphasis on interaction through questions, I am looking forward to investigating the exercises and resources recommended by presenters which merge empathy with UX design.


Vivianne Castillo:

“Vivianne’s UX Self-Care Resources”:

Abby Bajuniemi:

The Vocal Fries podcast,Bilingualism isn’t Just for White Kids”:

McLean Donnelly:

Accessibility for Everyone, by Laura Kalbag:

“UX Accessibility”, by Doug Collins through Skillshare:

The Makery Group’s Accessibility Policy:

Beth McKeever:

The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, by Daniel Coyle:

Jeff Sussna:

Design for Dasein, by Thomas Wendt:

How Do Committees Invent?, by Melvin E. Conway:

Drift Into Failure, by Sidney Dekker:

Designing Delivery, by Jeff Sussna:

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