“Strategy lives in delivery – not in meetings” – Leisa Reichelt at Confab

Confab Events logoI’m attending Confab 2013 in London today, trying to get it all out of my head and onto these virtual web pages as quickly as possible. The third session was Leisa Reichelt. I had thought her talk would be very similar to one I saw her give at UX People — blogged here — but instead she came out very strongly for prototyping as a way to own strategy which got me rather excited. Here are my notes — hastily written and as error-strewn as you’d expect…

“Strategy lives in delivery – not in meetings” – Leisa Reichelt

Although Leisa’s overall talk touched on quite a few themes, it was her talk about working with prototyping that made the biggest impact on me. She explained that she seldom starts a project without having a front-end developer joined to her hip, and that she has abandoned the approach of generating “kilos and kilos” of documentation. That didn’t work in 1998 she said, as IAs feverishly made massive site maps and bulky wireframe specifications, and it still doesn’t work 15 years later.

Leisa said that at first glance prototyping sounds like a tactical activity, but actually it gives you a real opportunity to help influence company strategy. Whilst those around you are spending hours hand-waving in meetings trying to agree on abstract ideas, you can be making things that stakeholders can touch, and instantly agree or disagree with. You can also validate designs with users at a much earlier stage.

Prototyping also, she argues, helps you get into the right posture. Making things is a lean forward creative activity, whereas often, she said, documenting things is a defensive action to demonstrate that you have covered all the bases and have really thought a design and all the edge cases through.

“Problem solving is squiggly.”

Designers always start with a straw-man early on, she argued, because when you don’t fully understand the problem, the solution seems obvious. Good design didn’t come out of getting things right first time she said, it came out of having lots of opportunities to improve. The way we solve problems isn’t linear, in fact Leisa thinks we should just accept that “problem solving is squiggly”, as we have peaks and troughs in our understanding of what we are trying to solve, and the appropriateness of the solutions we are proposing.

She showed a few of her own scrappy sketches, which she said were not so much specifications as “conversation documents” — things that had been drawn whilst talking to a developer about what needed to be built, and which were a more than sufficient level of documentation.

“Headphones are probably a sign that you are doing it wrong.”

My only disappointment listening to Leisa was a personal one — it is incredibly hard to keep walking the walk of lean UX, and prototyping and sketching and collaborating, and I know that all too often I easily fall back into Leisa’s cliche of the UX designer working alone in front of a glowing rectangle, Omnigraffle open and headphones on. Leisa went as far as to say that the “fetishism of Axure worries me” and that “Headphones are probably a sign that you are doing it wrong.”

Surrey University case study

Leisa showed off some work she has done for Surrey University. Only by building a prototype which demonstrated the different type of navigation that could exist and asking people “explain to me how this doesn’t work” has the project been able to escape the straight-jacket of every academic institution seemingly having the same old tired IA.

Surrey University website

The new Surrey University website

The prototype had been easy – built by Leisa using Bootstrap, mostly during commutes, after the front-end dev had set up the basic framework for her. “This was basic HTML monkey work,” she said, “Anyone can do this” — although she admitted she couldn’t have done it without the valuable help from her team Anna Debenham and Mat Johnson.

She did admit to the tactical inclusion of “the big-arsed footer” down at the bottom of the page, as a dumping ground for all of the links that the stakeholders were nervous about dropping from the homepage. Click-through tracking will determine whether any of them need to be elevated back up to the main page.

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

Leisa worried that all too often when designers do get into a position of strategic influence within a business, they almost immediately stop being the kind of advocate for user-centred design that they need to be. In fact, they almost certainly start spending their time making the kind of PowerPoint decks that the rest of the company rolls their eyes at, before continuing to work in exactly the same way as they did before. She finished with a plea: “If you get a seat at the strategy table, make sure you are bringing in a prototype.”


The Confab sessions are coming thick and fast now, and I’ve got a little bit behind, so stand-by for another Confab post as soon as I’ve got my notes back into order…

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