The Future Interaction Designer Email

A few weeks ago I started a little experiment: a simple fortnightly email list to share interesting articles with the Interaction Design community.

Every two weeks I email out 10 interesting posts to inspire designers.

Inspired by similar email lists like Reilly Brennan’s Future Of Transportation and Data Machina, my goal was to look beyond the immediate challenges of UX and the design patterns of UI (after all there are plenty of people offering links to great articles in these areas). Instead I want to consider the other forces at work on our industry.


My hope is that by looking a little further we might we inspired by technology, psychology, business and the role we play in the organizations we work for.

It’s a simple start, and it’s pushing me to evaluate what I call inspiration, but I’m going to keep digging for new things and sharing them.

As a little taster here are a few of the interesting links from the last few emails:


Prospect theory – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
“The theory states that people make decisions based on the potential value of losses and gains rather than the final outcome”


When UX meets AI…
“Artificial intelligence is attracting more and more interest in the business world. It looks increasingly likely that AI software is going to find applications in the front-line between companies and their customers.”
(via @Foolproof_UX)


Ian Bogost: Play Anything
“The lesson games have for design is not really a lesson about games at all. It’s a lesson about *play*.”


I’m pleased to say the response has been very positive, so I’d like to invite you to subscribe to the fortnightly email newsletter, and to submit your own inspiration for the benefit of the community.

You can also see the previous emails here.

For those already subscribed, and those planning to subscribe, thanks for being part of my ongoing experiment.

The next phase of Interaction Design

This was also published on Medium here.

Interaction Design is a young profession. In its short history it has been in a state of continuous reshaping, redefinition and stratification. The chart below gives a quick idea of just how much this has turned us into a group of individuals tagged by acronyms and overlapping with adjacent disciplines.


What’s striking is how quickly this change has happened to the Interaction Designer. This change is driven by technology, and the pace of technological change continues to increase.

Today, the Interaction Designer—and I count myself as one—is the person you call in to design the ways that people engage with digital systems. We’ve developed increasingly dynamic interfaces to back-ends that are largely static. The potential for more dynamic front-ends is driven by advances to the interface technology; it’s characterised by the move from keyboard to mouse to touch-screen and voice.

The static back-ends we connect to are servers, computers and databases that only change when the user or system owner changes them. In the future these back-ends will have increasing artificial intelligence, and this marks a seismic shift for out profession.

The dynamic potential of the front-end will be matched by the new dynamism in the back-end.

Dynamism today

There are many back-end systems that could be called ‘dynamic’ or ‘active’ today, and this shouldn’t be a discussion about the semantics, it’s more important to consider how changes on the system side (not the user interface side) will push the Interaction Designer into new territory. AI-powered products and services will mean far more exchanges between smart people and smart systems. In the past we focussed all of our energy on the design of dynamic interfaces, we’ll now need to account for dynamic back-end systems too.

At first it will look like the same Interaction Design we’ve been doing for 30 years; we’ll use the same tools, the same paradigms and the same principles. However, the changes will become gradually clearer as we look to benefit from the potential of the new technology. It’s impossible to say where the Interaction Designer will be in another 30 years (in fact it’s impossible to say where we’ll be in 5 years), but one thing that is certain is that the new phase of Interaction Design will require us to change, and change quickly.

Today, designers who can code are highly valued. A designer who can visually, architecturally manipulate code is rare. In the future we’ll need designers who can go further and be literate in the back-end systems too. Or, perhaps we’ll need a new role—someone who can sit between the front- and back-ends acting as a translator between the designer of interface and the designer of the AI system.

Systems are changing, becoming intelligent

The change Interaction Design is about to go through will be characterised by increased access to Artificial Intelligence but it won’t be a centralised intelligence in a few places, it will be a broad distribution of Intelligence around our (currently) static systems, this will make it harder to spot at first.


This distributed artificial intelligence isn’t how science fiction has thought about it so far it—forget the image of a singular ‘brain’ able to answer any question. In fact, forget any notion of human-like intelligence. Instead, think about a million smart thermostats observing patterns of heat control, combining it with the weather forecast and deciding to adjust your heating one hundred times a day to save you money.

Kevin Kelly describes this process of static products and services getting smarter as ‘cognification’. We already have many products claiming to be ‘smart’—smart in this current use is most often an over used marketing term, it rarely refers to anything resembling intelligence.

Not Smart Things

The cognification that Kelly refers to is a very narrow type of intelligence. It will be somewhat disappointing at first as small steps make incremental improvements. But the effect will magnify as many things each have their own intelligence, as it multiplies across the dozens of products and services you encounter every day.

The Inevitable – Kevin Kelly

In the future, as things become intelligent, products and services will be even more complex to interface with; these systems will change between the times that users interact with them.

The very use of these intelligent systems will allow them to grow and evolve. For users this will be simultaneously exciting, unsettling, alien and empowering. We will need Interaction Designers to navigate these choppy waters, to advocate for users and to make the best use of new technology.

We will need to ask new questions: how will it feel to use something which has altered itself since you last used it? The key word here it itself, users are probably already used to variable and unpredictable experience with software. Generally this is triggered by human action. In the future there won’t be a human in the loop.

Opinionated Interfaces

Cognification also suggests other, more nuanced changes to products. Not only will they be in a state of on-going, algorithmically informed self-improvement, they will start to be opinionated and express personality. These are not new things for digital systems per se, but they will become more commonplace, as underlying smartness becomes the norm. In some cases personality will be key to the success of the system, in other cases the cold logic of a computer system will be preferred.

A recent Wired article on Chatbot personality
A recent Wired article on Chatbot personality

We won’t notice this change at first as the interfaces we design will be largely the same. The principles and design patterns will hold for a while, but then we’ll need to move to match the changing pace of technological potential. We will need to think more about how these intelligences interact with each other, without human intervention. Research into designing interfaces for Machine Learning systems also suggests that more interactivity with the Machine Learning systems makes for a better user experience and better learning for the system.

Interfaces that are both a front end user experience and a learning opportunity for smart systems is new; it’s not yet clear how different it will feel for users to be active in the continuous building of machine intelligences much more powerful than themselves where today they are just the passive receiver of the output of systems.


Netflix celebrates its artificially intelligent recommendation engine

Interaction designers will be working with smarter, opinionated products existing on new non-screen-based interfaces. These products will change through use, and the more popular they are the more they will change.

Everything here talks to the dynamism of the back-end. The nature of technology also means that the front-end interfaces we’re designing are also changing. This is why the change we’re about to experience is so seismic.

Interfaces becoming cloud powered

One of the bigger driving forces in this new age of interaction is the proliferation of wireless connectivity in smaller and smaller devices. When a device is permanently connected to the Internet it benefits from two things, the first is the remote access to data and when devices don’t need hard drives to store data the physical size can reduce. At a certain point devices become so small that having a screen or a keyboard doesn’t make sense either. It calls for more novel forms of interaction.

Ironically, ‘novel’ interfaces here are very familiar to people: voice is becoming a feasible way of interacting; gestures and motion tracking are also starting to become more common. In theory we already know how to use these interfaces—how to talk, how to move—but we need to quickly learn how to design them to best serve the people using them.

Small Form Factor
Amazon’s Echo and Apple’s Earpods—disproportionately powerful small things

The second benefit of connectivity to the cloud is the ability to access the higher computing power of the server. Things that would otherwise be too time or power intensive to run on a personal device with limited RAM and hard drive space. When I search Google on my iPhone, all of the power sits on the Google server; my phone is little more than a portal to the back end.

These increasingly small, increasingly powerful tools and services drive novel interfaces like voice and gesture but they also suggest increasingly confusing future where we spend most of our time trying to figure out how to use things rather than actually using them. Some are attempting to define principles for these new interfaces: Intercom’s first attempt at Principles for Bot Design suggest some interesting and perhaps unexpected directions for text/chat interface experiences.

Bot Principles
From the Intercom article:


In addition to the two benefits of cloud connectivity above, a less clear effect will be one of interconnectivity: as more products and services become connected they will expect to talk to each other. Products will rely on other products. We’re already seeing an explosion in API companies that simply provide the back-end plumbing for others to build with. What will it mean for services to be intertwined with each other in this way? How will we design for graceful failure when failure happens to a third party service that the user is unaware of?

There are many benefits for the Interaction Designer in the future, and many more challenges to tackle.


Cognification + Cloud: distributed AI

The two forces of cognification and cloud power suggest the coming era of distributed AI accessed through new interfaces, this will obviously have ramifications beyond the discipline of Interaction Design, but the Interaction Designer will be key to helping people make sense of the changes coming out way.

Distributed AI—by its nature—will be everywhere, it will be cheap and it will become expected by users. Although, while the distribution will be wide, the individual use cases for products will be narrow.

Narrow AI is being applied to diverse and complex human problems like sentencing criminals and deciding which patients should be discharged from hospitals. Equally, each smart product will have a narrow remit and look to tackle specific problems.

From the Economist article “Of prediction and policy”
From the Economist article “Of prediction and policy”

The individual systems will be highly specific, but the Interaction Designer’s skills will need to diversify: there’s already a need for the us to be competent in a range of skills: wire-framing, visual design, coding, animation and sketching are often expected. The future will call for an understanding of writing, logic, psychology, machine learning and behavioural economics. The future will probably call for a dozen more we can’t even imagine at the moment.

Growing these skills will call for collaboration with different experts, and that we each become more inquisitive about the new adjacent fields we’ll be working with. As part of this change i’ve started to collect interesting links together in a fortnightly email—Future Interaction Designer—please subscribe and submit your own links. It’s experiment to see if I can keep up with the rapid pace myself, I hope many can contribute.

Future Interaction Design
Shameless plug—

When will it start?

The examples above are all current products and services—so this is the world we’re already living in. In fact some of the examples here aren’t even that new. So the question is not when will it start, but when will you start. When will you start to add to your knowledge, start to collaborate and start to help the rest of us navigate the choppy waters?

As the cost of data storage drops and we continue to see the democratisation of AI tools like TensorFlow from Google, we have the choice to ignore the future or play a part in it. This future will accelerate toward us whether we like it or not.

If you’d like to learn more I’d strongly suggest reading the post linked above by Greg Borenstein on Interactive Machine Learning (and make sure you read the comments too). Then read the Principles of Bot Design from Intercom and The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly. And finally sign up to the fortnightly mailing list ‘Future Interaction Designer’.


Building on unfeasible ground – An Amendment

This post was originally published on the 30th August. Since then I’ve been contacted by who dispute the claims made by the Bloomberg article and the summary I gave. Having reviewed the article and rebuttal by I’ve decided to amend this article.

The section below on has now been updated. More to follow on this fascinating and evolving area.

As a designer it’s important to be aware of the current state of cutting edge technology and experience in your discipline area.

As an interaction designer this increasingly difficult as the line blurs between the technology that underpins the things we experience each day. Looking at the average digital product or service, it’s now all but impossible to distinguish between a public beta, a stable service, one half of an A/B test and an untested prototype.

This makes if difficult to know where the cutting edge really is. Staying up to date with things requires that we’re all aware of what’s technologically feasible. In the pr-software world of design it was easier to assume that real meant feasible. However, it’s not longer safe to assume that seeing and interacting with something in the real world means it’s a safe example of technology that you could suggest in your own work.

Real doesn’t mean feasible any more

Feasibility is the measure of how possible it is to build a design with today’s technology. In the design world it’s a term tied to our industrial heritage: a time when success was all about engineering a solution and mass producing it. Feasibility in the age of software is much murkier, much less easy to define.

As designers we still need to strive for feasibility on behalf of our clients. Although we might not be the ones engineering the impossible, it might be us who’s specifying the impossible. It’s really important to see how some of the most cutting edge experiences we’re inspired by might be entirely unfeasible. Below are a few examples.

1. Kickstarter’s fail rate

A case in point is the very existence of Kickstarter – a service built in the notion of a yet-to-exist product being available for preorder. Listers are encouraged to make it as real as possible to encourage people to invest.

The success rate of fulfilled products is an impressive 91%, however it means that 9% of successfully funded items will never actually see the light of day. This of course doesn’t include the others that simply don’t make their funding goal, the much higher number of 56%.

Kickstarter Fail Rate

Amazon would be quite a different service if half of the products we’re listed as ‘unavailable’ and one in ten products order didn’t actually arrive.

2. Lyft Carpool

San Francisco born ride hailing service Lyft recently announced it was rolling back it’s pooled ride feature ‘Lyft Carpool’ – where car riders were encouraged to pickup someone on the same route.

Lyft Carpool

It’s yet to be seen if the Waze equivalent Waze Carpool will also survive. But either way it’s interesting to see features rolled out and rolled back again.

Waze Carpool

Uber itself is an interesting example as leaked information earlier this month showed it had lost $1.2bn in the arly part this year.

3. accused of using humans

Automated assistant service garnered some less than positive press earlier this year when Bloomberg asserted that there were perhaps more humans in the loop that the layman might assume when thinking of and AI system. Bloomberg, it seems, have mis-interpreted the role of the ‘trainer’ of the machine (a common practice in AI systems)

Whether you believe the Bloomberg article or’s counterpoint, the reality is that it’s difficult to know which side to take when the simplified, understandable version may actually be very misleading. When most people assume that the state of AI is defined by services like, it’s important to realise that all is not what it might seem…

What it means for design

So as designers what can we do? It’s not realistic for us to see inside each the companies we’re looking to for inspiration. Even if we could, few of us could really interrogate their tech or business models (although these are both areas that designers should be making themselves more literate in).

There are a few things we can try to do though…

Firstly we can recognise that the examples above are themes that will be repeated. We can keep reminding ourselves and our clients that real doesn’t mean feasible. We can make ourselves aware that if it looks too good to be true, it might well be.

Secondly we can try to be more diligent. We can try to investigate the latest tech announcements, to see if they are too good to be true. Don’t just quote the tweet about the next big thing, read the article, track down the source, cross reference the claims being made.

Thirdly we can also be inspired by the impossible. Design is not solely about operating within the constraints of technology, it’s about pushing the boundaries in search of what’s best for the people were designing. So don’t take this article as a suggestion to be less ambitious, take it as a recommendation to be more professional.

Big Design Teams are Hard Work

A (vaguely) mathematic exploration of why small teams can move more quickly

Working with teams of designers at Hyper Island earlier this year illustrated a typical problem that growing teams face when trying to get alignment. Of the six teams in the class all were in groups of five designers apart from one that had six. The team of six had trouble finding consensus and developing a healthy team culture. On the surface one extra team member shouldn’t make a difference. In fact, shouldn’t it have been an advantage?

Soft signals

There are a few ‘rules of thumb’ I’ve heard about managing a team size. Google has a Two Pizza rule (if you can’t feed your team on two pizzas your team is too big).

At IDEO teams are rarely above 4. We have extended teams with supporting roles, but the core team is invariably three, four or five.

Meanwhile, back on Hyper Island

At the end of project review the team was feeling a little down about the situation as their team communication challenges felt like personal failure. To be clear, the amazing teaching team at Hyper Island spend a lot of time supporting healthy team culture and this was the only team with six members and a problem. I drew them a little chart I’d seen IDEO design director Steve O’Connor draw to explain what was going on.

The challenge becomes clear when you start to map out the lines of communications for a five- and six-person team. While we’re at it, let’s look at a four-person team too:

Team Diagrams

As you can see as you add team members the amount of communication gets very complex quickly. A five person team has 10 potential lines of communication. A six person team jumps to 15. In fact the difference between a four- and six-person team is 150% jump in communication management.

Of course there are many other factors at play in the success of a team. But paying attention to the number of people is very important.

Design Research Advice for Startups

Last week Senior Design Researcher Kate Wakely and I visited the Barclays Techstars accelerator in East London, we met with the startups in the current cohort and shared a little advice on Design Research.


Our goal was to convince the teams in the value of user research and give practical advice on how to get more out of each interview with a customer. Here are three good reasons to get out of the office and meet the people you’re designing for:

1. Desire-lines: Right vs Wrong

The image below shows both the planned footpath and the path that real people have chosen to take instead. In the world of urban planning these manmade paths are known as desire-lines and they represent human behaviour diverging from the designed vision for the space. If you were to observe this behaviour without going out to the meet the humans behind it you’d risk misinterpreting what’s going on.

Desire Line

The picture above is analogous to analytics: it tells the story of what is happening, but not why it’s happening. Without understanding the why you’ll design the wrong solution.

If you wanted to adapt to this behaviour you could put up a fence and force people onto the path. Or you could tarmac the desire-line. Which is right?

Whatever stage your company is at, going out to spend time with your customers is vital to making the right product decisions. Your current products and services may have desire-lines that you’ve noticed today, before you ‘fix’ things make sure you’ve spoken to your users and got the full picture.

The truth

The image above was taken in a park in North London, after speaking to users and after the official path was laid Arsenal football club moved grounds, so on match day the crowds heading to the stadium no longer moved from left to right but straight across forming the new desire-line. So in fact neither the urban planner or the users are using the space in the ‘wrong’ way: it was a more complex change to the environment which is incredibly easy to spot if you go out and talk to people, but very difficult to from historic data alone.

What will you learn from your customers when you go and meet them in their contexts? What challenges and opportunities will you find in the things adjacent you your product or service?

2. Build Empathy

We feel that one of the leading indicators of startup failure is loosing love for your customers. If you’re going to dedicate huge amounts of your time to building products for people, it’s vital that you have empathy for them.


When you go out and meet people in person you’ll understand them better and re-energise your team with tales from the real world (more on this below).

If you find yourself disliking your customers ask yourself why and then make some time to go and meet with them. Building empathy will make you a better designer and more likely to build something that truly matters to people.

3. The Power of Stories

The final big advantage of getting out and talking to your customers is that you’ll discover stories. Stories have great power to motivate members of your team to do their best work and communicate very complex things quickly.

IDEO London’s Startup in Residence – umotif – discovered story of a patient who had benefitted from their product when they went out into the field to interview people. They didn’t go with the intention of finding this story – in fact it was pure chance that Sam was the person that responded to the request to talk.

Her story is the perfect embodiment of what umotif wants to do to the healthcare system: empower patients. The story is not only an amazing marketing message (ironically exactly because it’s not a marketing message) but also a hugely motivating piece of evidence for the team. Hearing the story of someone who has truly benefitted from their tools has driven the team to keep building and improving.

When you get out to meet people, listen out for stories. We always find that it’s the stories that travel further and live longest in organisations. As Dr. Brené Brown said “maybe stories are just data with a soul”. (A bit cheesy I know, but I sort of like it.)


Any startups out there interested in IDEO’s work in the startup space please get in touch via the Twitters – I’m @matt_speaks.

Hyper Island 2016 – Week 2

Hyper Island

Hyper Island does bring out the best in students. Despite a 5am start to be in Manchester each Monday there’s always insightful and interesting conversation with a group of professionals keen to not just learn, but understand.

The focus for week two is preparing for the user interviews. We took the teams though the process of planning a session, joined by Senior Design Researcher Kate Wakley, our recommendation was to treat this interaction like any other experience to be designed. We shared the tips and tricks that we’ve developed over time.

So, what jumped out?

Design Research Ethics

Kate shared IDEO’s latest publication The Little Book of Design Research Ethics. It’s the culmination of work done by design researchers around IDEO and collects up our advice on how to handle the complex situations that can arise during design research interviews.

The three core principles are:

Responsibility – act to protect people’s current and future interests.
Respect – honour participant’s limits and value their comfort
Honesty – be truthful and timely with communication

We strive to keep these things front of mind overtime we go out into the field.

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 21.31.09

This new work on Ethics is still being defined, in fact there isn’t even a site or pdf that I can point to towards. Get in touch if you’d like to know more.

Advice not rules

The most important thing to about any ethical advice is that it is only ever a starting point to form your own best practice. The ethics that surround design should be front of mind as much as possible as it’s very easy to skip over things when you’re moving fast.

It’s also very important to shape your ethical position as a team or group. As you’ll be working together consensus is vital. You’ll find this consensus through discussion, never assume that you opinions are shared by others. Even if they are, it’s better to know for sure that than risking conflict, or worse, silent resentment in the team.

Human: Professional

A Design Research interview isn’t like a conversation. Nor is it really like a interview in the traditional sense (such as a job interview); it’s a structured conversation that needs to be treated professionally – just as every other activity you’ll do as a designer.

During a Design Research interview you should assume a professional persona both to make the participant clear on the roles you each have but also to make sure you get the most out of the session.

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 20.19.31

But before you launch into a professional demeanour, arrive as a human. You can transition into a more formal tone once you introduce the topic of conversation and start asking more detailed questions. Usually participants are new to the experience of this kind of interview so make sure you spend enough time at the beginning to make them feel comfortable, answering any questions they have.

When the interview is complete you should also make time to transition back from professional to human. Coming out of your professional mode can also be an opportunity for the person you’re interviewing to relax and reflect on the conversation.

Pass the Question

We also shared a little cheat sheet with some techniques that might help you out of a tricky spot in your next interview. So if you find an interview going slowly, or a participant not being entirely co-operative give the following technique a whirl:

It’s called: “Pass The Question”. During the interview, while you will be asking the majority of questions, you may have a participant ask you something back to you. Rather than answering try to pass the question back to them. Here’s and example:

You: How would you like to access this new service?
Participant: Will it be on a website?
You: Would you use it if it was on a website?

There’s an art to doing it without looking contrived, but most people don’t notice it and it’ll feel more obvious to you than them.


I also mentioned a few resources that the group might find useful while preparing their research

Design Kit
A very comprehensive collection of Design Research methods, activities and techniques.
A bit clunky, but links to useful templates along with activities to try in an interview.
An IDEO collection of content to make you a better Human Centred Designer.
A list of toolkits for design research. Almost too much to take in. Thanks @dalmakad for sharing.

IDEO Futures Podcast 30

Last week I was lucky enough to be a guest on the excellent IDEO Futures Podcast. If you’ve never listened go and listen right now:

I was interviewed alongside Bruce Hellman, the CEO and Founder of umotif – IDEO London’s first Startup In Residence. We talked about the process and benefits that umotif got from the residency and the many things that the IDEO design team learnt from the process.

umotif's toolkit

I’m also a big Futures fan, so to have been the guest on episode 30 is a huge privilege – especially when I think about the auspicious company who have guested on the show.

Anyway, I hope you get a chance to check it out. Make sure you subscribe and then check out these other great episodes:


Hyper Island 2016 – Week 1

I was delighted to return to Hyper Island in Manchester again this year to teach the User Research module for the Digital Experience Design course. As with last year, I thought it might be good to capture the points that generated most discussion. If you find this usefulor want to talk more given a shout on the Twitters.

Design Thinking in 50 diagrams

Having shared the design thinking process with may different audiences recently (clients, startups, students) I’ve noticed quite how many ways there are to visually describe the process. A google image search for Design Thinking yields at least three main types:




Perhaps most surprising is that we at IDEO, who lay some claim to the process, don’t actually have a definitive version on our website. How could it be that there isn’t a generally agreed picture of a process which is so widely shared an apparently understood?

The theory that I shared with the students is that while the process is generally understood, it’s also a flexible approach that requires each designer and team using it to define in their own terms and precise usage. Much like language, it is defined by usage. I wonder if this is why it has been so successful in the last 10 years, and continues to be adopted by new and old organisations: it requires it’s participants to be creative just in the act of use.


It does raise a new question for those of us employing this way of working: do we all agree on the method and goals? Is there a danger that the loose definition leads to ambiguity? I’m now much more aware of the way I describe it to those who’ve never done it before. How will you make sure there is consensus and confidence in your team’s use of the approach?

Ethics and Principles

This year, our client has forced our students to have an active discussion about their ethics and principles as designers. While most courses raise the question of ethics, very few actually have the students really address the situation. It’s very easy in the idealised world of academia to denounce projects for arms dealers, petro-chemical companies or big pharma, but we’ve given the students a far more complex situation to resolve.

I won’t go into specific details – other than to say that the client isn’t in one of the industries above – however the group has already dealt with more mature and important discussions than most professionals have in a year. I have immense respect for their willingness to deal with things head on, and hope that they see the value in the process.

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 21.31.09

Probably the most important thing that’s emerged is the need for the students to both form a personal stance but also to respect the views of those around them. Very often the most vocal members of a group will set the tone for everyone and it’s important as a vocal participant to see the effect of their actions. It’s equally important for people to stand up for their beliefs and be vocal when they believe it is the right thing to do. Thus defining a grey area between passion and tolerance.

And you thought this was just about design?

How many interviews do you need to do?

Finally, and to bring a little levity back to this post, I shared a recommendation on the ideal number of participants for a Design Research programme. We would suggest 5-8 participants will give you all the inspiration you need to move your design forward.

“You expect us to base our future on the views of just six people”

In a word yes.

In a few more words, yes but they need to be very carefully selected. Furthermore, we don’t take these 6 opinions and build an idea, we looks for underlying patterns in this carefully selected group. The common themes between them will absolutely be enough to inspire a design team to build the right thing. And at this stage, we aren’t looking for market sizing or business cases – that detail can be added once we’ve built something concrete – for now we just want to make sure we’re building something people actually want.


The process of interview 6 people doesn’t replace the 1000 person beta prototype, or the business model design process. The 6 interviews replace the hunches that lead you to start the project in the first place. Very often teams have set off on a path to build something new based on their instincts and combinations of past research. The goal is therefore to make sure that these things are right.

We’ll repeat the process of testing multiple times as we iterate towards a solution, each time we’ll select 5-8 carefully chosen participants – in fact you can think of them as members of the design team as we want their opinions on very specific things.

Don Norman has an excellent chart that illustrates the point. Here he shows that the first 6 participants will identify 90% of the total UX problems in a prototype. We feel this graph is equally true at every stage of the design process.

Always remember, your goal is to inspire the design process and build the right thing.

Next week

We’ll be getting into the details of running a design research interview, and the ethical issues the teams might encounter while out in the real world.

IDEO London’s First Startup In Residence

Over the summer of 2015 IDEO London hosted it’s first Startup In Residence. We invited a young company to join our team and hopefully benefit from our expertise, process and network. In return we got inspired by their way of working and saw first hand what it takes to build something from the ground up.

It was an intense three month experiment bringing together different cultures, practices and skills. We’re all incredibly proud of what we achieved, but what did we learn?

What is SIR?

Before I launch into the things we learned, perhaps a little context about ‘Startup In Residence’ (or SIR for short). At IDEO, we’re constantly experimenting with new ways to have a positive impact on the world; as life a design consultancy is changing (although not everyone agrees with the much rumoured death of the design firm) we’re looking for new ways to apply our skills to problems beyond the traditional consultancy model.

SIR is a little bit like a startup accelerator in the sprit of Techstars or Y-Combinator, the big difference being that we pick just one company to work with. We invite them to be part of our team, they then join us to work in our office for the duration of the residency. We contribute to their success but we also want them to contribute to our process and culture.


We invited umotif – a healthcare startup (more below) – to work with us for three months over the summer of 2015. Members from our (Betsy Fields and Lorenz Korder Fort) team worked with them to design a programme of activities focussed on improving the areas of their business that would most benefit from an injection of design.


The SIR scheme has run about a dozen times around IDEO in different offices. Notable successes include PillPack and Food Genius. The programme is part of the IDEO Futures portfolio. Go and check them out if haven’t already. Also, subscribe to the IDEO Futures Pod(cast).

We were very keen to work with umotif as the challenge they are addressing in healthcare is something we’re passionate about. And what better way to learn more about the space than by rolling up our sleeves and getting stuck in?

Who are umotif?

Well, firstly, their website will do a better job describing than I can here. But as a quick overview…


Umotif are a UK digital health startup building tools to activate patients and their care teams in the treatment of Cardiology and Oncology conditions. I’m most excited by the ‘activating patients’ part of the that proposition. They’ve developed a fantastic platform that allows patients to track the symptoms that are meaningful to them and relevant to the their condition. The tracked data is useful to the patient but also to the care team supporting them.

It represents a shift in the paradigm between patient and doctor. In the future both sides will be responsible for parts of the recovery process.

With a mix of medical and design knowledge at the heart of the company they were a great match for IDEO’s human centred approach to solving problems with diverse design teams.


What did we learn?

SIR is very much a two way street, with us sharing expertise and advice with umotif, and us learning from them. There were numerous things that emerged during the process, but three of the most important points in the success of our project were:

  1. Identifying focus, and then sticking to it
  2. The fog that comes with the Design Thinking process
  3. Never forgot the people using your product

Relentless focus

When we met umotif they were supporting clinicians and patients in 14 different conditions; the ability to move quickly to meet demand was part of the their early success. However, with that diversity meant that certain activities were being multiplied by 14. When you consider that the fragmented nature of healthcare system in the UK makes it tough to support two or three conditions, 14 starts to look like a mammoth challenge.

Focussing on fewer conditions to ensure excellence in each

Focus might sound like ‘doing less’, but this misses the point. Focus is simply a way to help you make decisions about where you put your time and resources. The total list of jobs doesn’t get shorter; it get prioritised. This notion of focus is relevant way beyond the world of startups of course, but you feel it sharply when every penny and second needs to work very hard.

It’s also very important to note that focus may be defined at one part of your business the benefits will be felt in different parts. For example as your Sales Team focuses to reduce the diversity of potential clients, the biggest benefits might be felt by the coders and developers who need to maintain fewer code bases. For this reason the focus area must be decided and agreed by everyone.

This is obviously easier to do when your company only has 4 people. Startups should find it easier to agree as there are fewer voices to be heard. The need for consensus is true for all companies and so bigger organisations will naturally find this harder.

Design thinking and fog

One of the most overlooked parts of the Design Thinking methodology is the ambiguity that comes at the moments when you’re ‘diverging’. And as the process is one of continual divergence and convergence you’ll experience ambiguity throughout the project.

‘The Fog’ is something that I’ve written about before on this blog, it was something the students I worked with at Hyper Island needed to overcome. It’s been revealing to me how comfortable IDEO designers are with the fog – to the point where we sometimes celebrate it too much .The reality for anyone new to the process is the feeling of anxiety, confusion and concern. These are clearly not things to celebrate.

To quote myself…

[The fog is] the murky place you might find yourself in as you complete your research phase. You bring together your notes and start to wonder if any of it makes any sense.

The question this raises is: how should we tackle the fog? Or perhaps: how do we get rid of it? Or is the fog something to embrace?

As more time goes by I think the answer is, first and foremost, to articulate it clearly (and without the smug air of an expert talking down to their students). Knowing the Design Thinking process well means that we should also be able to identify quite precisely when the fog will appear for people. One of the most important things we did when working with umotif was to tackle the team’s concerns head on and try to normalise the anxiety. Once the team began to recognise the fog as part of the process it became easier to move forward.


How to Sail Through Creative Uncertainty

But I think we could go further than simply saying ‘here comes the foggy bit!’, we should be treating it like any design challenge and responding to the problem with better solutions. To make the experience better for those I work with, I’m trying to do these things more often:

  • Regular ‘pulse’ checks throughout the project to give people a chance to shout out if they’re feeling nervous (hint: everyone does sooner or later)
  • Stop celebrating the fog in front of those who’ve never experienced it
  • Spend time writing posts like this to keep it front of mind
  • Get better at explaining the stages while leading people through them (taking an extra few minutes to reflect while we go)

The sooner we (I) get away from the mentality that only experts can get through the fog, the sooner we’ll get more people joining our process and amplifying our impact.

Spending time with real people

Human centred design calls for designers, researchers, clients and developers to all get away from their desks and out into the real world to spend time with the people they’re building for. This is something that both IDEO and successful startups share.

One of the most memorable parts of our whole process was when we met with Sam – a patient who’s benefitted first-hand from the tools that umotif had built. We met with her to get inspired about how to improve the next version of the software, but we got a much more important thing – we got her story:

And there’s no better way to explain exactly why we all believe that umotif will continue to make a difference in the world than hearing first hand what they do to people’s lives.

We certainly wouldn’t have got this by sitting at our desks.

Interested in Startup In Residence?

If you’re working at a Startup (or know someone who is) and would like to know more about SIR, drop me line on the Twitter @matt_speaks. I’d love to come and talk to you about how IDEO and Startups might continue to learn form each other.

Speaking at ‘Design Manchester’

On the 20th October I gave a talk to a group of students at Design Manchester: a festival for design and its role in the present and future of Manchester and the North West of the UK.

My talk was entitled ‘How To Make Yourself Indispensable’ and aimed to give students advice on making a success of their early career. It was inspired by my other half @amycooperwright.

Click to read a write up of the talk on Medium.


After the talk the fantastically engaged audience asked lots of smart questions generally giving me plenty of faith in the future of the design industry in Manchester and beyond.

My three favourite questions:

What is the most important skill you’ve learnt in your professional life?

One of the most formative projects in my design career was designing bus maps. The skill I used the most on that project was not a creative one, it was writing emails. Lots of emails. In fact, more time was spent justifying our design decisions than doing the original design work.

If you think that doesn’t sound like a designer’s job, but you’d be completely wrong. Having a great idea is key design skill, but an equally important skill is being able to communicate your thinking.

No piece of design speaks for itself so developing the ability to critically analyse and justify design will actually be something you do more often than actually designing. Being able to communicate is the more important skill.

I’m a graphic designer working on an architectural environment project, I seem to be doing work that moves away from graphics, is that the right thing?

In short yes!

If your research and design work is taking you to the overlaps with adjacent creative discipline don’t be afraid to go and spend time with the people in those fields.

Learn their language and tap into their expertise: there’s a chance that their deep knowledge will unlock opportunities back in your world. Learning enough about architecture, coding or data science to be able to have a smart conversation with other professionals is a core skill for any designer so the sooner you get into this way of working the better.

The only caveat is this: don’t spend too long away from your own expertise area as you risk becoming a generalist. The downside of being a generalist is that you won’t be able to offer anything back to the architect (or coder or data scientist) you’re hoping to collaborate with.

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What skills are you looking for in new graduates?

Whatever your starting design profession is today the chances are you’ll be doing very different things in a few years.

If you’re a graphic designer today it’s safe to say that, even if it’s still called graphic design in 5 years, it won’t be the same set of skills, tools and activities as you do today. Get comfortable with that coming change: it’s an opportunity not a threat.

The skills that I’m personally interested in are informed by the fact that I’m an interaction designer and do I’m thinking about that and the adjacent disciplines. I’m always in the look out for designers who have strong coding skills.

It’s incredibly difficult to maintain deep skills in both design and coding, but those that do are in high demand. For the digital designers out there code is one of your raw materials and so at the very least you should have proficiency in some of the front end languages. If you can find a way to push both the creative and the programming forward together I’d like to talk to you. I’m also interested to see if designers start to pick up the ability to manipulate data – as another raw material to design with.

Have a look at this Medium collection that I’ve written for, if you’d like to learn more.

Design x Data