UX Brighton 2023 – Creativity & Innovation

Hey there, neglected blog! It’s been a busy year, but now that it’s starting to wrap up, I’m hoping to have a bit more time for learning over the next couple of months.

To kick off this new season of learning (hopefully!) I attended the UX Brighton conference. I’ve been a few times before, but hadn’t been since before the pandemic. Of course, the event skipped a few years, and last year’s theme was about Product Management. I am not a product manager (spoiler) so I didn’t think it was a great fit. But when I saw this year’s theme was Creativity & Innovation, I knew I’d have to make my triumphant return to the conference.

There’s a lot of information swirling around my brain, and a lot of photos in my camera roll, which is how I decided to take notes this time around. It probably makes sense to just go talk-by-talk, so let’s get into it!

What is Creativity? – Alice Helliwell

Before getting into a deep dive on a topic, it’s a good idea to define what we’re discussing, and this talk by Alice Heliwell perfectly set the tone. Ms Heliwell is a philosopher whose work asks if AI can be creative and make good art. (This reminds me of one of my favourite books/films, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, a speculative fiction novel about whether or not human clones can be creative, and how does creativity align with the concept of having a soul.)

A creative product needs to be new, valuable and surprising. A creative person needs to have the right knowledge, disposition and be motivated. A creative process needs to have variation of ideas which are reinforced and a method for selecting good ideas.

She talked about what creativity is from a high-level philosophical perspective and what it means to be a creative person, to create a creative product, or to embrace a creative process.

She quotes Donald Campbell, saying “A truly creative idea cannot be anticipated.” This really resonated with me, because I think we often go into our work with an expectation of what the output will be, but this way of approaching problems might not result in “truly creative” ideas, if the above is true.

She expanded upon this idea with a quote by Berys Gaut, “A creative person cannot have an exact plan of what she will do prior to being creative.”

As a designer, which I see as equal parts creativity and scientific process, this really struck me as an important consideration. How much are we holding ourselves back by going into our work with a hypothesis? And how much of this feeling of being held back comes down to business decisions taking priority over design decisions?

Ms Heliwell also took us through the questions that can be asked to find out if a product is truly creative:

  • Is it new?
  • Is it valuable?
  • Is it surprising?

I also enjoyed her analogy comparing evolution and natural selection to the creative process. For a species to survive, there needs to be variation. Then the most desirable traits are selected and passed on through reproduction. This perpetuates stronger species.

Darwinist principles that can be disguised as eugenics aside, the analogy when framed through the lens of creativity can be summed up as: we need a lot of variation in ideas, then we need to select the most desirable ideas, while also being aware of how we select the best ideas.

The final thought that resonated with me was the concept of whether or not creativity can be taught. Some philosophers think that creativity is something you’re born with. Others think that it’s something that can be nurtured and grow with practice. What do you think?

You’re doing it wrong: a celebration of ‘worst’ practices – Stefanie Posavec

Next up was Stefanie Posavec, who merges data visualisation with art to create analog pieces. Her talk focused on all the ways she has done data visualisation “wrong.” How following what have become to be known as “best practices” stifles creativity and doesn’t always get us the answers that matter.

She showed us some of her work, which includes tactile jewellery showing the air pollution levels surrounding Bonfire Night, with the 5th of November being sharp spikes that hurt to touch.

She co-created I am a book. I am a portal to the universe. A data visualisation book that allows the reader, primarily young people, to experience the data being shown as they interact with the book.

One of my favourite pieces was Updating Happiness, created for the Wellcome Collection. This allowed visitors to participate in an emotional check-in while visiting the gallery. The results of some of these check-ins were then merged with the kind of inspirational quotes about being happy that you might find on Pinterest or Instagram.

Some of the happiness quotes such as "Happiness is peeing with the door open." "Happiness begins with farting in the bath." And "Licking my plate after a meal is the best medicine."

Some of these, particularly those about gross(ish) guilty pleasures create a stark contrast – such as the quote “The art of being happy lies in pimple popping videos.”

The talk overall was great for getting us to think beyond expectations and find new interesting and fun ways to interpret data, just for the sake of interpreting it, and not necessarily for the typical expected outcomes of data processing and visualisation.

Enabling Creativity: Specific ideas to help your team flourish – Mark Edgington

Following a short break where I hunted down former colleagues and current pals to force them to say hi to me, we sat down to a talk by Mark Edgington from Incendiary Blue.

He spoke about how agencies can help foster creativity. He used examples from his own agency’s hackathons, like Weather Cows, a weather app based around the likely-old-wives-tale that if you see cows lying in a field, it’s going to rain.

One of the ideas I really felt drawn to was the concept of a “Genius Hour.” This is an hour to explore your own projects or something you’re interested in outside of project work. I’ve tried to implement something similar for myself many times, but I often find it hard to protect the time and use it, when other things pop up and get in the way.

This talk inspired me to be more protective of that time, and to resolve to take more time for my personal and professional development going forward. Like I mentioned earlier, this blog post is hopefully that first step!

Exploring Innovation: A Case Study from The Guardian’s Product Design Team – Tricky Bassett

Aptly, Tricky Basset had the tricky pre-lunch slot, but his talk kept me engaged even while I was trying to decide where to eat lunch and whether or not I should go back to Boots and buy the perfume I’d tried that morning (reader, I did go back, and Kayali Invite Only Amber is now my new signature scent for the colder months).

Mr Basset took over the lead product design role at The Guardian around 18 months ago. I didn’t know much about The Guardian’s ways of working or their finance model, so I was pleased to find that it is employee-owned and any profit made is reinvested into its products.

One of those products, which is coming soon, was teased at the event. Sorry I can’t say more! But what I found really interesting is the idea that a newspaper can be ever evolving and innovating.

The Guardian has been around for 200 years, and the landscape of news has changed drastically since then. Not only are we now in a 24/7 news cycle, but that news is delivered even more instantly and in different ways, well beyond the original non-stop news channels that pioneered the format.

The Guardian are now using their existing brand to expand on their product offering. And they’re doing this by championing innovation.

Mr Basset shared 7 tips for exploring innovation (and my thoughts on each one):

  • Work with people who think differently. As a designer who has recently been diagnosed autistic, this concept is such a relief to hear. Embrace people who think differently, whether that be through different lived experiences, or through neurodivergence. Everyone can bring a unique perspective.
  • Embrace clarity and confusion. I loved this because it’s easy to embrace clarity, but confusion can be frustrating. It reminds me of the woo Instagram quotes saying to trust the process. You can learn just as much from things that seem not quite right as you can from the “correct” solution.
  • Get close to your customers. As user centred designers this is self-explanatory. But something we all need to remember because sometimes business demand can push user-led design aside.
  • When it comes to ideas, more is more. This loops back to Ms Helliwell’s point about variation in ideas. The more ideas, the more variation, and the more pathways that can be explored.
  • Use experiments to learn quickly. I’ve always been a fan of design workshops that involve rapid prototyping to see if an idea works or not. It would be great to have more opportunities to do this in a truly dynamic and interactive way.
  • Look for solutions to problems, not the other way around. Oh man, I think I felt this one in my soul. Who among us has not been asked to do a particular thing, use a particular piece of software, or change up our methods to fit with another method that seems to have appeared from mid air? It can be tricky when you receive a change request that is practically outlining the solution within it, without taking the design team’s own insights and experiences into account.
  • Take responsibility for your recommendations. Finally, this is where Mr Basset showed us how in-house work can vary vastly from agency work. In house, we have the opportunity to grow and change with a project, to see our recommendations come to fruition and monitor their impact. This is incredibly valuable to our practices, compared to in agency where a project is often deemed “finished” and you move on to the next one, with very little insight to how your previous projects have performed.

Unleash your inner innovator – Chris How

Chris How is Head of Experience at reknowned Brighton agency Clearleft. His talk centred around innovating while embracing the constraints that we often face when we have to be practical instead of following the rainbow toward “blue sky thinking.”

He encourages creativity to exist inside the box. To avoid setting a brief that is too wide and obscure, and which might not be possible. To quote Mr How, quoting David Ogilvy “Give me the freedom of a tight brief.”

This really resonated with me, again as someone recently diagnosed as austistic, because sometimes I can find it hard to figure out what needs to be done when there’s a bit too much choice. Sometimes it can be helpful to have a smaller bit of the puzzle to look at and to refine, rather than trying to come up with swooping brush strokes of what would be nice to have, but will never actually happen.

He also spoke about how often when trying to solve a problem, we stop once we find a viable solution. We don’t keep going to see if more solutions are found.

He highlighted issues we often face with co-designing. Namely that not everyone is ready, willing, and equipped to grab the black pen and start sketching. Some people are better at adding to an existing idea (with a yellow highlighter), while others can be better at pointing out restrictions (with a red pen). All of these co-designers are valuable because of their unique perspectives. But sometimes the red pen people are unwelcomed when the activity is too focused on “blue sky thinking.”

Finally, he talked about how we can expand our horizons, find inspiration and new ways to ponder. Such as “growing your maker mindset” or “widening your influences.” This can be done by trying new creative things unrelated to your work and looking outside of your own industry. And he recommends going for a walk with a question to ponder as the main way to get a new idea, or get to the heart of a problem.

From silos to services: innovation lessons from service design – Kate Tarling

Kate Tarling founded The Service Org Group which helps large organisations create the conditions needed to innovate and get their work done. Previous to my current role, I’d mostly worked in startups where often the conditions were created on the fly. I expected more structure when I moved to a larger organisation and while I got that in many ways, in others I found myself in situations where decision making happened much more slowly.

She spoke about how many large organisations have been purposefully built with hierarchy and distinct practices that put practitioners into their own silos and hinder communication between departments.

It was interesting to see how much of the chaos could be sorted out by looking at an organisation’s structure and finding places of common interest and goals and align them, starting by just looking at the structure itself.

Sneaking agility back into Agile – Tom Kerwin

I was really looking forward to Tom Kerwin‘s talk because we’re LinkedIn acquaintences but I’d never heard him speak before. I’ll admit, from previous UX Brightons, the last two sessions have often felt like a slog for me. It’s a lot of stimulation for my neurodivergent brain. But thanks to a large almond pumpkin spice latte from Joe & The Juice, I was still doing okay at this point, which was excellent news as Mr Kerwin, and Elizabeth Churchill to follow, had an excellent talk. I mean, who am I kidding, each talk was great.

Agile is definitely a word I love to hate. I understand why it works well for a delivery team, but it doesn’t feel like it leaves a lot of room for creativity and innovation. Mr Kerwin talked a bit about our expectations vs. reality when designing.

"The trouble with research is that it tells us either that we're building the wrong thing or that we're building the thing wrong." - A product manager.

How we might think success means creating something perfect, when even successful things can be “bad.” How we should build upon ideas not so they’re perfect, but so they’re just “not wrong” enough.

Or how we can teach everyone to look at the evidence and see the same insight. But it’s been shown that simply showing the evidence doesn’t always change minds. We’ve seen that every time we’ve said something didn’t test well with users, but were told to continue with it anyway.

And how we can get caught up in what we think are the “best processes” but that, to quote Mr Kerwin, “if you build a hill to die on, you’ll probably die on it.” We can’t always stick to what we initially think is the right thing to do, we need to adapt and collaborate.

He also spoke of the value of his Pivot Triggers methodology. In his example, he used planning Christmas with family. He facilitated an exercise where family members envisioned themselves in January and asked “what made last Christmas the best Christmas ever” and conversely “what made last Christmas the worst Christmas ever.” Through this, they were able to establish the key things for a great Christmas, but also flag the fears associated with certain outcomes.

From these insights, they could find a trigger that would necessitate a pivot. For example, if a fear was that nobody would come to the Christmas party, the trigger could be that if fewer than 10 people RSVP, they reconsider the party.

But this can be expanded on by flagging what to reconsider about the party, through the use of telling various stories. For example, they could reconsider the day when more people might be available. Or, say it’s a dress up party, and their invitees don’t like dressing up – the options are no theme, or a different group of friends!

This can be summed up by: What signals do we need to see today to feel confident that it’s worth investing in tomorrow?

Or in a statement: On [date in the future] we will change paths if we don’t see enough [indicator of desired result] when we [test a prototype of a bigger idea].

The critical importance of supporting designer and developer creativity – Elizabeth Churchill

I’m 35, but sometimes I still have moments of “that’s who I want to be when I grow up” and that’s how I felt listening to Elizabeth Churchill talk. Senior Director at Google (maybe you’ve heard of it), she reminded me of a British UX Meryl Streep. Her way of speaking was very engaging, and also included quite a few silly bits, which got me eating up her words right away despite the long day we’d had!

She spoke about how user experience extends to the experience of the people creating those experiences, such as designers and developers. And how much of our time that could be spent working on creative and strategic work ends up being eaten by bureaucracy and process and all the other stuff we need to get done alongside our roles.

She spoke about creating or using new tools to help reduce the time spent on those jobs, while enriching the experience for developers and designers.

I am still iffy on using AI for certain things, not least because of the environmental impact, but also because much of it revolves around taking other art forms to create more “art” and the ethics behind that.

But she had some great suggestions for streamlining the tasks that slow us down using AI. For example, using it to write documentation – less time documenting means more time creating. Or using it to summarise large quantities of insights so we can get to the heart of the matter – the creation and innovation – quicker.

Or finding better ways to communicate, different workflows we can apply to projects… basically, all the boring admin bit that we want the robots to do. Don’t let the robots take away the fun, creative and innovative bit!

In conclusion of my massive essay

There was a lot to take away and gain from this conference and I think this was my favourite theme and line-up yet! It just seems to get better as time goes on. I really recommend attending in person as these are, of course, the insights that resonated with me, and it might vary person to person.

Along with our ticket we also received a pack of the Laws of UX card deck which I’ve only been able to briefly flip through but looks interesting. Each card shows us a psychological concept which might trigger a new way of seeing or understanding a UX problem and how to design for humans on a psychological level. I am looking forward to exploring it further!

Hopefully I’ll have another round up of UX Brighton next year! Thanks for reading if you got this far!