Reflections on UX Brighton 2012


Below is a review of my experience at UX Brighton 2012, if this comes across in a slightly aggressive tone, you’re reading it wrong. :)

I believe events of this kind can benefit from a more detailed review than simple praising (or flaming) tweets.

It was my first time at The Corn Exchange, a beautiful historical building only a few minutes from the main train station. The audience was greeted by a friendly fellow that forgot to introduce himself. Luckily I was sitting next to my Caplin fellow designer Mark Cossey, he told me our host was called Danny Hope, one of the event organisers.

I was surprised by how most of the talks were quite theoretical with only a few examples of practical application of the concepts presented. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but I do think that a more balanced format, where theory and hands-on discussions are more distributed or possibly on parallel tracks, would have pleased more people.

By the end of the day I was really relieved that none of the speakers had a “rant”, the kind of talk that seems to be the norm on most UX events nowadays. It usually takes the shape of designers complaining about how “no one really gets us” when I think the blame is really on us for not making our work transparent enough so other people show more interest on what we do (sorry for the rant).

Anyway, on to a description of each of the talks:

Alex Wright (NY Times)

Alex delivered a talk on historical figures and facts that  contributed to what we now treat as a given in our contemporary lives, the world wide web.

A very interesting but somewhat dry presentation in terms of its delivery (by the end of his talk I felt like I just left a lecture by a tenured professor), Alex could have benefitted from not being the first speaker, I didn’t feel awake enough for a talk full of (very interesting) historical facts.

His 2008 book “Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages” is now on my Amazon wish list.

Mark Backler (Lionhead Studios)

Mark shared some really interesting facts on the development of NUIs, more specifically the Kinect game “Fable: The Journey”.

The iterations on visual feedback to compensate for Kinect’s lack of a physical controller were great insights, as well as the description of in-game gesture tutorials from different angles for when users start diverting from acceptable gestures.

His talk would’ve been much more powerful if he actually had a Kinect set up on stage and could demonstrate his examples on the live game (maybe that’s too much to ask for), I also got the impression he wasn’t very comfortable being on stage.

Guy Smith-Ferrier

Guy had a very nice stage presence, he was loud and funny enough to keep the audience interested and entertained, I was however slightly disappointed by the fact he didn’t show any applications built by himself but limited his talk to a demo of the standard SDK shipped with the Emotiv product.

I was surprised with the fact that a good part of the audience seemed to have never heard of devices like Emotiv (used on Guy’s presentation) or NeuroSky’s MyndPlay.

This somewhat proves a perception I have that the UX community (a big generalisation here, sorry) is not looking enough at areas outside their expertise. Magazines like Wired and FastCompany have covered retail EEG devices like the one shown on the demo multiple times.

Ben Bashford

The first speaker after the lunch break was Ben Bashford, and what a great surprise it was. On a presentation filled with great insights on the possibilities and the future of connected devices, he delivered a powerful/grabbing presentation with just enough visuals to keep you hooked and a great rhythm to keep you awake after lunch, something always challenging.

Extra points for mentioning the need for designers to embrace at least some knowledge of code, if not for developing products themselves, at least for better communicating with development teams “without being treated as a complete dick” as he well put it.

Sriram Subramanian (Bristol University)

Despite some harsh comments on twitter, Sriram presented some great work done by the Bristol Interaction & Graphics group. Most of the comments on twitter were very narrow minded and simplistic, not making any effort of going past the physical appearance of the prototypes (yes, prototypes!) presented.

Sriram showed the audience some really interesting projects on haptic feedback and multi-view interactions, the kind of thing that should really get your thinking-outside-the-box gears going.

The example of following a tennis match simply by touching your device inside your pocket making use of controlled vibration and temperature was brilliant.

Jim Kalbach (Citrix Online)

Jim delivered an interesting and well-balanced business/design presentation that would be especially useful for stakeholders and sales teams, the importance of knowing your users and how UX can positively impact a company’s revenue.

He also made some important comments on the innovation cycle and how technologists and designers should be cooperating and feeding on each other’s ideas, iterating on experiments and environments similar to those Sriram had just presented.

Mike Kuniavsky (ThingM)

The big disappointment of the evening in my opinion, the author of the classic book “Observing the User Experience” and co-founder of Adaptive Path didn’t show the confidence I was expecting from someone that has been on the field for so long.

He delivered a confusing presentation, that left me wondering exactly what his view on the Maker movement was. The message I got from it was “this is the future, but it will only work if designers take control of it” which is exactly the opposite of what the Makers movement is all about, I’d like to watch the video again, maybe I just lost him.

His presentation felt hastily put together and he didn’t seem to really know the content. I was also surprised to see there was no mention at all of Arduino (even though his product recently funded by Kickstarter is based on it).

There was also no mention of Chris Anderson’s new book “Makers: The New Industrial Revolution” as it fit perfectly with the topic of his talk.

Karl Fast (Kent State University)

Karl Fast delivered by far the best presentation of the event, it was something you’d expect from a TED talk.

For someone like me without a background on psychology it was a quite dense presentation, full of new information to digest, but Mr. Fast delivered it in a masterful way, both in terms of visual presentation and stage presence. You could easily see he was not only passionate about his research but also had complete control of his presentation material.

The way he challenged the common understanding of what “thinking” is, how the use of hand gestures and manipulation of objects around us helps us think and the idea that thinking is not something that happens only inside our heads. Such a powerful and simple idea that can be easily observed, but only after someone like Mr. Fast opens your eyes to it.

Final thoughts

So, was UX Brighton worth it? Definitely. The unassuming attitude of organisers and speakers (if compared to similar events like UX London), the good mix of well-known and new names, and the fairly accessible ticket prices made this event a great investment.

P.S. We can all use a few extra inches of leg space next time. ;)

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One Comment

  • Luke says:

    Great summary of all the talks, I have to disagree about Mike though, I really enjoyed the more business focused talk, with the ‘Amazon factory’ concept rather than a retailer.

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