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4 Things I Learned From UX South Africa 2019

Makaziwe Qobo

01 Jun 2019

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4 Things I Learned From UX South Africa 2019

“Beyond users”

No, this is not the title of a new Netflix doccie and neither is it the slogan for a high-brow designer secret society. These mysterious words represent the theme for this year’s UX South Africa conference. Having been established in 2014, the organisers founded the institution as a means to connect the South African design community and a means to exchange fresh ideas. 2019’s Johannesburg edition was held 13 - 14 June and I was in attendance. What I learned over the two days went beyond the mystery of the theme tagline…

1. Representation and diversity

For me, the theme of diversity and gender/race representation was a glaring and recurring one from the very onset. Now, my arithmetic is poor and has been for the better part of a decade, but if had to guesstimate the percentage of people of colour in attendance, it would have to be a paltry 15%. While female representation was great, the number was even more disappointing when looking at the percentage of women of colour in attendance.

The content of some of the talks also point to how diversity and inclusion actually make for better design. Marcin Treder, co-founder of UXPin, included a poignant report from Credit Suisse (a Swiss multinational investment bank) that essentially concludes that diversity makes teams perform better. In her talk, Candice Boucher champions the role of women in IT and how they’re not just a gender but “people who have the ability to create cool sh*t”. Other talks emphasized the need for designers to let go of their (white) saviour complex that often leads to design colonialism; and the need for design inclusion which allows locals to co-create to come up with solutions for their own social problems.

It’s clear the design community still have some way to go to realising utopia when it comes to diversity and inclusion. I am, however, encouraged by the fact that we are slowly realising this and actively starting dialogues to remedy the situation.

2. Design activism and design that changes the word

In her talk “Mosquito nets for fishing”, Hazel Scrimgeour describes design activism and social design as “design that changes the world…because designers are tired of being part of the problem rather than the solution”.

Yes, it’s a seemingly loaded statement, but I also believe that design should go beyond companies’ bottom line and ROI Powerpoint presentations. Social design is essentially designing solutions that improve the quality of life for the millions living under the poverty line in this country (…and the world). Designers solve problems and society is certainly not short of problems.

How could’ve design prevented the recent mudslide catastrophe of Kwa-Zulu Natal? How can designers solve for the never-ending queues in public hospitals? Vincent Hofman asks how could’ve designers co-created solutions that could’ve prevented over 1200 recent job losses? How do we harness the limitless potential of artificial intelligence and machine learning to predict forced migration patterns of displaced Somalians (like Babusi Nyoni has)?

These are some of the questions social design seeks to answer. The focus is on using good design to make the world a better place; ethical design that encourages social impact over design form; and inclusive design that is the result of co-creation with those whom the design seeks to help. With influential entities like IDEO, Design for America and Design Indaba championing the importance of design activism, this is a design trend that certainly needs to catch on.

3. Design beyond pixels

As you might’ve noticed, I haven’t made a single mention of digital products. Nothing I have spoken about so far relates to pixels. That’s because the third thing that I learned at UX South Africa 2019 is that user experience design is moving more and more towards solutions that go beyond digital interfaces.

This shift is not the result of designers suddenly deeming digital UX irrelevant. In fact, digital products will play a key role in the future of this continent with only 53% of South Africans connected to the internet (out of seven countries surveyed). Rather, this shift is the result of designers realising that people have experiences every second of every day - and most of these experiences aren’t digital at all.

Using human-centred design principles, even the experience of employment can be designed to be better. Palesa Sibeko & Vincent Hoffman demonstrate that design thinking can be used to better the interactions between people at the workplace - the design of work. Similarly, Marcin Treder posits that intangibles like psychological safety can be designed in order to alleviate the never-ending tension between designers and software developers. Along with employee experience design, I now know that Events Experience Designers exist - I promise, they really do exist.

This shift truly reminds us that design is about people first and the social constructs built around them, rather than digital interfaces they interact with.

“People ignore design that ignores people” - Frank Chimero

4. Service design is the new ‘cool’

In 2019, you cannot talk about design that’s beyond pixels without making mention of service design. Simply put, service design is the process of optimising and improving how a customer experiences the end-to-end service of a brand. The exact definition might differ depending on who you ask, but what is common is the idea of enhancing the interaction between customer and brand beyond their digital products. Saana Turunen correctly states that “service design is an umbrella concept that combines elements of design, user interface, sales and marketing”.

Every few years a new design term or concept is discovered (think mobile first, user delight, DesignOps, conversational UI etc). This concept then does the rounds in the design community and everyone starts talking about it. As its trendiness skyrockets, it then becomes the de facto skill to master if you’re a decent designer. Well, that is until something new comes along.

This is what service design has become in recent years. Over the two conference days, I noticed that the term “service design” had been used more than 11 times. The number would’ve been probably higher had I been paying attention. This observation certainly isn’t an indictment on service design or its recent trendiness. In fact, I think this is a good thing. I’m all for new ways of working that improve customers’ experiences - both digital and physical.

The only indictment is on me because I have ironically used the term “service design” 8 times in this section alone 😉

Makaziwe Qobo