Hit by the UXLibs freight train

BNSF Eastbound Winslow, Arizona by Clay Gilliland via Flickr Creative Commons

I made it!
I survived one of the hardest weeks of my professional life and feel like I’ve been hit by a freight train travelling at 150 miles an hour.
I’m out at the other side of UXLibs.

It’s really hard to believe that something that had such life, complexity, detail, joy and laughter is now done with, but there it is. UXLibs is now something I did rather than something I’m counting down to and inevitably as the dust settles I’m sat here evaluating. And for me, as much as anyone else, I thought it would be useful to commit to my blog some reflections on what the whole UXLibs experience has taught me. And yes, you guessed it – it’s a helluva lot.

I’ve been a leader and manager of teams and committees for many years but rarely have I headed one that has had such a strong shared vision. Now you could argue that this was inevitable given I chose who I wanted on board but it doesn’t change the fact that everyone continually rowed in the same direction and gave their time so freely without complaint. I can’t think of any suggestions that I felt compelled to reject or of any committee squabbling. And let me tell you not one of these guys is a pushover – they would all call me out on stuff, and have done in the past many times – and quite right too. The fact was we all shared the same broad definition of UX, the same desire for a practical and developmental conference, and the same belief that, in the words of Moloko, the time was now. In point of fact so compellingly together was the team life of UXLibs that it prompted me to do something I’ve never done before – resign from another committee that was going nowhere precisely because there was no shared vision.

The committee on Day 1 – photo copyright: jtilleyphotography

When we first started planning the conference we were hoping to get a whole raft of ethnographers and designers on board to back up the glorious Donna, Paul and Andrew, but in the event, in fact within the very last month, several of them became unavailable. Significantly we were left with two whacking great gaps in the schedule. Did we panic? Did we weep and rent our garments? No! Heaven forfend! Instead three of the committee stepped up to fill the gaps. Hence Georgina’s ethnography workshop on Day 1 and The Matts’ mapping workshop on Day 2. I bet you thought those sessions were intended all along – right? Nope. Those sessions were examples of last minute confident brilliance for which the three of them should be riotously applauded.

If I had a pound for every time someone told me the conference would never work, because it was a) unclear what it was about; b) taking place in vacation; c) merely new fangled Emperor’s New Clothes… then I’d have about £14. OK so there wasn’t that much opposition, but definitely enough voices to prompt a second guess or two. I’m so glad I didn’t listen to ANY of them.

It’s no accident that Libby and I chose St Catharine’s College as the venue for UXLibs. The now legendary rising and falling wall, the lighting, and the classic Cambridge college setting, all had the potential to give the conference a bit of theatre and therefore engage delegates in a way that a bland hotel absolutely could not. Our Apprentice skit, twilight punting, walking tours, and formal college dinners helped too. We wanted the conference to not only explore user experience but be an experience for our users too and I think we ticked that box. I once bemoaned to our Catz contact about the lack of a smoke machine, only to discover that they are going to purchase one, we were just too soon to benefit from it. Just imagine Matthew Reidsma’s already mesmerising ‘myriad of stars’ keynote accompanied by dry ice! The pitch-offs also showed me just how willing the teams were to act and role-play. Every single one of the teams in the ‘Ramsden pitch off’ decided to bring their presentation to life with some theatre and each pitch was stronger as a result. I was surprised and full of admiration.

Pitch-off in the SCR with judges Matthew Reidsma, Andrew Asher, Georgina Cronin – photo copyright: jtilleyphotography

On a directly related note I also received confirmation that we are all capable of staggering creativity in a very short space of time. Despite a punishing schedule and a looming deadline all the teams rose to the not inconsiderable challenge of the project brief and came up with a product, concept or service that would have given my MBA students back at my business school a serious run for their money. Brands such as The Open Door Library & Barista Librarians (Team Purple Haze), and the Get-A-Room app (Team Blue Steel) were immediately compelling and, crucially, firmly grounded in the earlier ethnographic fieldwork. A few delegates questioned whether their teams would be ready to take the project on and run with it so rapidly and I was thrilled that UXLibs proved that a ‘quick and dirty’ approach to fieldwork, innovation and ideation was valid and bore some amazing results that could very feasibly be implemented. Conversely. the process also underlined to me that ethnography, service design and field research must be a continuous iterative undertaking.

I asked in my closing address ‘How many conferences have keynotes as strong as these?’ Not many is the answer. I am immensely grateful to Donna Lanclos, Paul-Jervis Heath, and Matthew Reidsma for bringing it so completely. They are innately brilliant people but let’s not forget that they spent time making those keynotes as superlative as they were. Their commitment to their talks was obvious and it is something that will stay with me should I ever be tempted to phone it in.

Donna Lanclos – Keynote – photo copyright: jtilleyphotography

This would have been a tough conference for me even if I had been on top form but my being ill added an extra dimension of difficulty. I couldn’t think on my feet or make the usual connections and it was both frustrating and upsetting. I firmly believe that you should never begin a talk with an apology but I felt compelled on Day 2 – when I looked like one of 28 Days Later’s ‘Rage’ victims – to honestly explain to the whole conference that I was ill. I am so grateful to Deirdre Costello for making the effort to tell me that not only was this decision the right one but that it was also pretty brave too. I guess it was more my being honest than apologising. Thank you too to the committee for their extra support throughout. Two impromptu hugs in particular – from Matt and Georgina – really helped. You guys!

There was a point a week or so before UXLibs that Georgina and I couldn’t look at the committee version of the programme, which we’d worked up between us, any more. Its colour-coding, timings and 8 pages became such a bewildering mass of data that we just had to put it aside until we had the courage to look at it again. This was a precision operation and no mistake and yet we STILL missed things by either underestimating the complexity, not thinking hard enough about the actual logistics or forgetting that delegates were not privy to all the information that we committee were. Organisation is definitely my most core competency but UXLibs occasionally defeated me on this score. There is no such thing as too much detail or planning.

One of the hardest things to learn as a manager is the art of delegation – not only how you do it, but, more crucially: when. I delegate far, far more than I used to and I’m pleased that, despite the fact that UXLibs often felt like my own baby, the experience taught me once again to trust people to play to their strengths and give them almost free rein in their area – Matt on the website, comms, AV and music (I believe a Spotify UXLibs soundtrack is on its way!); Georgina on the app and financial control; Ange on catering, leisure activities, taxis, and, of course, housekeeping (!); Libby and Meg on fieldwork planning, and so on.

What do Deirdre Costello, Costas Tsiamas, Serena Rosenhan, Arnold Arcolio, Catherine Cable and Darren Roberts all have in common? Yep that’s right they all contributed brilliantly to UXLibs – to the ethnography, to the teamwork, to the pitches. I got to know some of them a lot better and I enjoyed their company and their insights. But wait, aren’t they all vendors? Oh yeah – they are. Shouldn’t we keep our distance and behave differently with them as a result then? No. What? You mean it’s OK to like talk to them and get their perspectives on things? Yes, yes it is. Oh right. I had no idea. Well now you know. OK so this doesn’t fit with the ‘what I learned’ theme, as I knew this already: yes they sometimes have different objectives, but vendors are human beings with feelings too and they are just as fed up with standing behind stalls at conferences as we are seeing them there. There has to be a better way. We need to partner and work with them and LEARN from them. We need to stop being short-sighted. Does anyone who attended UXLibs doubt the commitment and integrity of UXLibs very own Matt Borg, just because he now works for ProQuest? No? Good. Time to make a change then.

UXLibs delegates – photo copyright: jtilleyphotography

It is now three days since UXLibs and I still feel a bit battered and bruised but I also feel completely sure it did good and was a worthwhile endeavour. As I said last thing on Friday: Go forth and do more UX in libraries!’ Oh and if you haven’t seen the official conference photos yet, here they are. The pitches and presentations will also be made available soon.

I’ll leave you with Deee-Lite’s Groove is in the Heart from the pitch-off finals playlist as ‘I’m still feeling kinda high like a Hendrix haze’. Spooky coincidence eh? (Team Purple Haze forever!)


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