For this article we welcome Will Cosens as our guest writer. Will has a background as an Animal Behaviourist and he has a keen interest in Animal Computer Interaction (ACI). These are areas that has led him into the field of UX. Read about Will’s journey in his own words below.
“You cannot help the dog if you cannot help the owner”
Working as a Canine Behaviourist, the principal above is a constant reminder of the pitfalls of the relationship between humans and their animals. Upon first hearing about the fledgling field of Animal Computer Interaction (ACI), my interest was sparked. Technology and the Animal world are drawing ever closer with each passing day and, after attending the 5th global ACI conference in Atlanta last year, it was clear that my future lies within a role in ACI.
Where Do I Start?
Animal Computer Interaction is the field of study regarding how animals currently interact with many different forms of technology which includes, but is not limited to, the simple doggy companion applications like Fitbark to more modern interfaces one might find in veterinary surgeries or physical enrichment you may find in zoos. The key to ACI lies in how we, as humans, can implement these forms of technology to help assist animals in assisting our lives and themselves. This brings me back to my initial thoughts on how the key principle in Canine Behaviour still applies within ACI; If I want to help the dog, I need to help the owner.
First Steps – Human Computer Interaction
Having absolutely no modern knowledge on how humans interact with computers (except my own experience online shopping for the best deal on poo bags and treats), I haphazardly pulled the one armed bandit of the google search bar and fired off the first thing that came to mind; Human Computer Interaction.
I would be greeted with blank stares from clients when I used words like “brachycephalic” to explain why their dog had a fat head. Now the tables had turned. Such wonderful definitions of HCI on the first page of google included, “How people use complex technological artifacts” as well as otherworldly terminology such as “User Experience” and “Interaction Design”.
A short ride on the google express led me to the Nielsen Norman Group, a worldwide leader on the principles of UX, HCI and Interaction Design. It was clear that the start of my journey would begin with learning as much as I could about these three major fundamental elements. After attending the UX Basic Training, The Human Mind and Usability and the three day Interaction Design courses offered in Barcelona and London, I earned accreditation with NN/g.
Having learnt about the psychology behind both Animal Learning Theory and The Human Mind and Usability, obvious parallels between my role as a Canine Behaviourist and how UX research is conducted became apparent. Finding solutions to how dogs interact with their owners and surroundings is fundamentally no different than finding solutions for how users interact with products. You need to do case by case research, studying interactions and needs as well as design a solution that is easy to use with minimal help or supervision required. You need to adjust quickly to changes and new information, as well as innovate with unique solutions. Eager to learn more, it was obvious I needed some real hands on experience with how a UX team operates.
An Introduction to UX for Aspiring Juniors
I recently attended the first “UX Taster – Introduction to UX for aspiring Juniors” hosted by Richard Ilott and the team he works with inside the PaddyPower Offices on the waterfront at the Hammersmith Embankment, London.
Through a contact on LinkedIn, I found Richard Ilott, who was advertising the aforementioned UX taster day. Promises of talks on UX roles within projects, who the key stakeholders are, as well as the different methodologies of working and various day-to-day practical exercises expected within the role was exactly the content I needed to experience with a real design team.
Coming into an office environment for the first time after working with animals in a variety of locations felt daunting, but the hosts and participants were very friendly, and you could feel the excitement for the day ahead.
Once the attendees were accounted for, we started promptly as advertised at 9.30am with a brief introduction to the hosts, who shared decades of experience working with products. I knew for certain at this point I was in good hands. We were then asked to participate in a “Daily Scrum”, one of the many things I had learned about but had no practical experience of.
Fairly simply, a Daily Scrum was described as a short meeting held daily for the team to align and plan its work for the day. In this instance it was also used as an opportunity for individuals to give explanations of their current roles as well as to talk about the activities regarding the product they would be working on. This enables an opportunity to build upon the “shared context” concept that was taught at NN/g and featured as one of the main principles of Lean UX within the book by Gothelf and Seiden.
After the Daily Scrum, the team all contributed to a further introduction into what UX is, leading into talks about User Stories. The key features being the understanding of the users and how to research in order to build sketches and mockups that lead to prototypes to test. This was otherwise known as the cycle of “Discover, validate and measure”. One thing that was made clear at the start of the introduction was that the meeting was considered to be somewhat informal and encouraged questions – an opportunity I didn’t hesitate to miss. I had a clear objective signing up to this event – lots of my learning so far has been extremely theory based; reading books, going to meetups, attending conferences and training courses. So the opportunity to gain some hands on experience and plug the gaps in my knowledge with practical exercises was exactly what I wanted.
I learnt more about an important technique: Customer Journey Mapping and a cheap and simple test: Card Sorting. I’ve learnt a lot about them but never had the opportunity to get hands on with either (with experts around to help). We split into groups and started to map the journey for a customer using a mobile app to assist with making a cup of tea.
My team consisted of a wonderful group of individuals that had various different backgrounds and experiences, ranging from people doing voluntary work for charity to those doing back-end software development. Having been the captain of a competitive and successful flyball club consisting of many smaller sub-teams for years, I was able to use my experience of encouraging complete strangers with varying personality types to work together quickly, and collaboration was quick and painless. Our team was heavily engaged with the task and produce quality content (for aspiring juniors!) quickly within the given time frame. Each team was given the opportunity to present the morning’s work in front of the class and then we stopped for lunch.
What followed lunch was a presentation on how UX fits into an organisation and who people doing the UX role collaborate with, as well as their potential roles within and outside of the product team. The talk had a heavy focus on effective collaboration, along with techniques to enable it.
The hosts had prepared more talks on the process of wireframing, an introduction of what Agile, Scrum and Kanban are, and how to create User Stories. After a brief section on the do’s and don’ts of a UX specialist, the last talk we had before our final exercise was about including the customer in the entire design process using a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods.
The final exercise of the day had us split up into different groups to revisit our tea themed customer journeys. We had to convert them into wireframes with the intention of producing a paper prototype application that assists with the making of tea. Once our initial prototype was created, the groups were tasked with guerilla testing them. Three volunteers were then brought in for the sole purpose of being exposed to several very junior attempts at a working prototype.
Even when pouring our love and emotion into our product, it was still littered with usability issues. Within seconds of looking at our designs the three participants noticed opportunities for us to improve the product. Once our users had finished destroying our dreams and humbling our egos, we began our retrospective with discussing the lengthy feedback found in our combined notes. Finishing with a presentation of what insights we gathered from the tests, we were asked whether we thought we could, given more time, revisit our design to make improvements, to which our group answered with a unified “Yes!”. But making tea is so easy, I do it every day. This truly highlights how we make huge assumptions on, what we believe, is the most simple of tasks. For instance, in our product we assumed for all the cups of tea needed they’d all be made the same. In retrospect having the ability to customise each cup of tea is not an unreasonable request!
With the final task completed, the team wrapped things up with a Q&A session, for which they were given a lengthy round of applause in appreciation afterwards. From my perspective, I could see the day was a huge success for both the team hosting and the attendees. I had been given exactly what I needed to now feel comfortable with taking on a junior UX role. I am excited to be on this journey and I’m now looking for my first role in UX. Whether my future role revolves around animals or not, I cannot wait to learn more, gain some real world experience, and make valuable contributions to the development of all manner of products. If you would be interested in working with me, or just want to discuss getting into UX, feel free to contact me via my LinkedIn page.