Thoughts on User Experience by Boon Chew


January 1, 2013

An apprentice’s heart

I think the theme for 2012, at least for me, was about professional growth. As a result of my first full year as a permie at Sapient, I’ve dug more roots into projects and roles than before. Still, I continued my commitment to the community by organising UXCampLondon 2012, becoming an IxDA local leader, attending, supporting and speaking at numerous events, and building new and existing relationships.

The biggest lesson I’ve learnt is to be patient with myself. It’s easy to be pulled in many directions when I’m solving a problem, but some pragmatism does no harm to balance things. Plus, it’s impossible to be expert at everything. I’ve learnt instead to accept the context of the problem, but improve the way I work with people towards a solution. Old habits die hard – being a programmer for so long, I’ve gotten used to a more direct way of problem solving. This needs to change, as problem solving in design is a lot more organic and social.

So I’ve been looking at ways to build shared understanding. To begin with, I’ve started looking at deconstructing the various ways I approach problem solving, to see if any of them can be done socially i.e. not alone. I’ve experimented with sketchboards, scaffolding design documentation, paper prototyping, sketching out conceptual models – basically making things very visual, tangible and interactive.

I think that effective shared understanding is a result of three things coming together regularly:

  • shared artifacts – ‘objects’ that can be shared/owned/worked on socially
  • shared activities – solving a problem together
  • shared leadership – people who take initiative, execute to a vision, draw and connect others

This was the point of a talk I did in September. Needless to say, it can be quite stressful trying to solve the problem while trying to solve the way to solve the problem. But I see no other way – many UX briefs contain elements of wicked problems, many of which demand a pedagogical approach rather than a systematic one.

In response to this, I’ve decided to invest some of the experiences I’ve gained in the UX community into the creative domain at work. I’m hoping that all the various ‘problem solving approaches’ trapped inside everyone of us can be diffused across the group, just like what happens when we attend events, go to conferences, meet up informally, etc. I’ve also been drawing inspiration from things like activity theory, so it’ll be interesting to see where this goes.

My main motivation for all this is based on these assumptions

  • it’s impossible to know and learn everything
  • some approaches work better than others
  • everyone has a different way of solving problems
  • knowing how and why people solve problems a certain way provides new problem solving ideas, which one can adapt
  • this doesn’t destroy an approach or style an individual has developed over time

If there was one word I would use to sum all of these things up, it’s the word “apprentice”, because we end up behaving like apprentices as we move from one domain to another and solve more complex problems. Although we’ll approach mastery of our core UX skills over time, we’re also shifting from one problem domain to another especially in projects where problems are increasingly ‘wicked’ (in which there seems to be no shortage of).

I like what Stephen Anderson said recently during his Euro IA keynote; We should ultimately be doing what interests us and what we’re curious about. That, to me, is really about adopting an apprentice’s heart. And the challenge for UX (and for me) in 2013, just like any other year, will be a pedagogical one.

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November 29, 2012

The Sketchnote Handbook

Update: you can get this book on Peachpit at a 35% discount if you use the code “SKETCHNOTE”. Download a free PDF of chapter 4.


Fellow sketchnoter and UX friend Mike Rohde has just released a book on sketchnotes, which contains lots of tips and advice about the craft of visual notetaking, copious examples, including contributions from other sketchnoters, including one from yours truly.

I was super excited when Mike contacted me to contribute something to his book, and I can’t wait to see the book for real. Mike contacted 15 other sketchnoters like Paul Soupiset, Francis Rowland, Eva-Lotta Lamm,  and Jessica Esch to contribute to the book to show the range of work across a broad range of skills and backgrounds.


It was fun translating the work from initial concept (shown above) to final designs (see below). I’ve gained a lot of value since I started visual notetaking a few years ago, which began at a sketching workshop by Eva-Lotta Lamm. It’s a great memory and understanding tool, social artifact, conversation starter, and is a really fun way of getting deep into a topic or idea.


Needless to say, this book from Mike puts a lot of this stuff into an easy-to-read format, and I forsee myself using it for reference and learning over time.

You can now order the book from Peachpit press, as an ebook, printed book or both.

If you’re looking for a sketchnoter to capture thoughts, ideas and work during a live session, do get in touch with me. :)

November 24, 2012

Thoughts about UX amateurism – a follow-up post

It’s been three months since I published my thoughts and feelings about UX amateurism and my constant struggle to define my position and understanding of user experience. I have now found that it’s better to refer to user experience as a state of mind rather than “a thing you do”. I admit that I still fall in the trap of using the word “UX” to refer to certain design practices, but I have stopped calling myself a user experience designer altogether, which I think is a good thing.

Since my post, I’ve started identifying myself as an interaction designer (and sometimes an information architect) and find that specialising my craft around behaviour (rather than everything under the sun) has helped me produce better work. There are many things involved in the design of interactive systems, and rather than biting off more than I can chew (although that is my name), it’s better to focus on collaborating with other specialists (content, tech, business requirements, strategy, graphic design, etc.) to produce a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

The mis-selling of UX

UX amateurism has resulted from an ugly mess of mismatched talent and demands, based on a poor understanding of effective modern design work and an overemphasis on marketing, branding, and “world-changing” experiences. There exists an extremely valuable pool of talent amongst us that contribute directly to UX but often don’t go by the term “UX designer”. Instead, they remain as visual designers, copywriters, content strategists, project managers, planners, front-end developers, producers, product managers, design researchers and so on – each of whom provide their own unique problem solving capabilities to the fore.

These roles are not new, but the emergence of digital ubiquity and disruptive innovation have caused many organisations to scramble for solutions, signing up for what is often packaged as user experience and cobbling together design teams without really understanding the drastic demands on its own operations and systems, not to mention its relationships with customers and end users. Meanwhile, “non-UX” practitioners have responded in their own way to push the boundaries of tools, processes, teamwork and technology.

Eventually, smart organisations and practitioners understand that it is not really about building better experiences per se, but better conversations. The primary struggle of industries today is not about delivering the ‘wow’, but about delivering relevance – because people are increasingly trading on trust rather than desire.

Transformation is everyone’s job, the future of UX

If user experience is a term that we use to trade our craft skills and services with, I feel that we owe it to UX buyers to match the “promise” of the term. And most of the time, these buyers will refer to UX as many things – a user-centred approach, a means to improve customer experiences, a product or service experience that is way better than the one before (the ‘wow’). Despite the single vision we can all see and agree on, the effort to achieve this is often gargantuan (you’re not really assuming UX = just an amazing app or website, right?). Hiring a team of “UX designers” isn’t going to solve anything unless the proper understanding, systems, culture, sponsorship and environment are in place. And if these things aren’t in place, it’s our job as practitioners to help build it up, if we all agree that’s where we need to go.

So yes, UX has taken over our hearts and minds, but we remain practitioners in our own domains. I feel that we’ve reached a point where the real transformative work still lies in front of us, if we really believe UX to be this truly amazing thing we can all achieve and celebrate. It’s time we look further afield and collaborate with others outside our specific domains.

And no, it’s not just about apps and websites.

August 25, 2012

UX amateurism and why I’m not a UX designer anymore

I used to call myself a UX designer, but I don’t think I can anymore.

You see, I have in mind an image of a UX designer that does well to achieve a user-centered, holistic experience; and I’m nowhere near that. I keep making mistakes as a designer. I’m sorry, but I can’t help it. Maybe I’m one of *those* designers – all talk and no show. At least, I’ve been more able to identify my weaknesses. Let me try and list them here, which is one step towards a remedy perhaps.

Just because I can imagine great user experiences doesn’t make my designs right

Ah, where do I start? User experience, the ultimate goal. What all designers strive for. It’s what I’ve been thinking about a lot – but that ultimately is the problem. This user experience all lives in my head – and I haven’t really spent time with actual users on what *their* experiences will be like. I’m not the user, nor will I ever be one. While it’s great for coming up with ideas, my ideas still need to be tested against other people’s perspectives, and I haven’t done that.

If I blame the project or the place I work, maybe the fault is in my ability to convince or advocate for user-centeredness. Even without the support, I should still be doing guerilla testing but I admit giving way to an internal culture.

So I’ve done very little user testing. Or upfront research. Or even surveys or interviews. Or just asking people at their desks. Plus, it’s worse that I know how to do this stuff and still don’t do it.


Not knowing enough stuff that’s been done before

User experience. Service Design. Content strategy. Advertising. The list goes on.

Many different practitioners who’ve been around for a long time tell me that this stuff has been around for decades – I get that, but there seems to be a lot of perspectives out there I find hard to reconcile, whereas to others it’s very clear how it all fits together. This is going to take me a long time, I think in my head.

I wrote a few months ago that I viewed CX in a different light than UX, and I learnt this week that I was wrong. CX and UX, from the practitioners’ view, should essentially be the same thing. And that using the term CX meant that I was falling into another buzzword trap. All the literature surrounding the latest CX stuff had been written decades ago – I had needed to be reading the right things (aka. read books by Patricia Seybold and other books on e-commerce from the 80s and 90s).

Not wanting to repeat my mistakes, I’ve purchased said books from Amazon and am reading them with good effect. They are thankfully cheap I guess because everyone seems to be buying the latest books on CX, and not e-commerce books from the 80s. I mostly agree that they say the same thing.

Now I need to fix the title of my talk. Or justify what I meant. Oops.

Don’t be the new kid on the block – watching what I say

There also seems to be this “new kid on the block” effect on the interwebs that seem to piss a lot of people off. Some of it I understand. Some I don’t. I avoid trying to make sense of it publicly, for fear that I’ll tread on someone’s feet. So, something like renaming things from UPA to UXPA would be like professional suicide (extreme example). Avoid.

Avoid buzzwords too. Which ones? Well, I just have to do my homework. There’s a lot of reading to do. Better get on with it.

Not knowing… is bad

User experience used to excite me. Now I’m afraid of using the word. I’m afraid that I’d be using it incorrectly, or define things the wrong way, or share from my limited experiences without the foreknowledge of my practice.

I’m also worried that I’m not doing things the right way. Information architecture. Interaction design. If I were to put myself on a scale, I’d probably score a 5 or below. But yet, I got promoted last year. As an information architect. I don’t know if that means the system is screwed up, or that I don’t know my own strengths. This is a warning sign to me.

The ‘bad’ agency

I work for an advertising and marketing agency – client services is what my company does. And I feel a bit out of place. Because it’s seemed to be a place that likely does things wrong. There is some evidence of that.

Then there’s this “move” towards products. It feels like I’ve missed the boat.

Changing myself from within – still a long way to go

I haven’t had the luxury of working with e-commerce clients in the 80s. Nor was I “around” doing stuff before things (IA/UX/IxD/etc) had a name. All I did was care. And I somehow ended where I am now.

I cared when no one bothered to write technical documents so clients could understand how to use the systems we built, and when there wasn’t a source code repository in our 20+ person dev team because we needed a robust way of developing software.

I cared when I said we needed to start our project with user research instead of plain requirements, when it made sense to me after reading About Face 3. And for insisting that researching 40 people to develop personas was enough instead of 400,000.

I cared by leaving companies and firing myself. And I cared enough to leave my family and country and enroll in a HCI programme.

Now, I continue learning through books and events after work and graduation. And by gaining more confidence and being more assertive about advocating for a UCD approach. Writing silly blog posts like this as self-validation help a little.

But somehow, it’s not enough. Nor will it ever be. And where I’m aiming to go, unicorns and one-size-fits-all don’t seem to make sense. Maybe someday, I’ll find something I can identify with. But for now, I don’t think I can quite call myself a UX designer, because it’s getting harder to identify what I do as wholly UX. For what it’s worth, I am doing bits within UX – but I can’t claim fame to all of it. And neither can most of us, anyway.

May 6, 2012

A year at SapientNitro: U to C and back again

I recently passed the one-year mark at Sapient, and I’ve been wanting to write a blog post about it but have been procrastinating. Part of it was because I wasn’t sure if I had anything worth sharing to another UX practitioner that they didn’t already know.

The more I thought about it, the more depressed I got. Am I really learning anything or doing work that’s valuable? It was hard to put it into quantifiable terms. A hear people talking about the insights they’ve learnt from usability tests, designing a new reading experience for the iPad, writing books and inspiring articles, improving their UX process. I found it hard to say with conviction that I’ve learnt something new that someone other UX person hasn’t experienced so far or find valuable.

I began to ask myself why.

A lot of my work revolves around concepting, defining specifications and communicating UX strategy through wireframes, flows, user journeys and other deliverables I have no name for because sometimes I just cobble things together to make a point. But thinking in terms purely in terms of artifacts doesn’t answer the question of how effective one is in solving problems related to experience design.

So, I started thinking about the design process. Again, it was hard to put a finger on it. Some projects I work in run in a semi-agile format, with standups, sprint-like charts with weekly deliveries and design reviews fixed at specific times. Other projects I’ve worked on have been less structured. Again, I can’t say for sure what works best.

I also began comparing myself with the UX world beyond me. After my UX conference marathon which began in February 2011 with UX Hong Kong and ending in Interaction 2012 this year, my head was filled with all sorts of ideas about “The Future of UX”, “Lean Everything”, “Making Stuff”, and Unicorns. The more work I did, the more distant I felt from these ideas and lessons. Still, I soldiered on – believing that the inspiration had entered my unconscious and was working its way through my hands and tools.

I questioned the applicability of these ideas. How would a unicorn fit in a place like Sapient? How would Jeff Gothelf run a UX team here? Would any of our clients embrace The Future of UX? Would our clients really succeed if we convinced them decided to ship early and iterate through continuous testing and learning?

To an extent, I think my work has some evidence of that, but not entirely. Because a lot of these ideas have been put in specific frames, and those frames don’t exist in many places. It’s also very hard to flex organisations and practices around a new frame than it is to reshape the frame and change what’s inside it. Many of these frames are also owned and acted on by imaginary, ideal agents. In the real world, ownership and responsibility is far more subtle and complex.

Also, clients are very different than UX designers.

In fact, clients are very different from each other. And it makes for exciting as well as difficult projects. In some projects, I think a lot more about our clients’ business than I do about UX.

And then I start to wonder why UX people don’t talk about clients and their businesses.

That led me to realise that project success isn’t always measured by UX-related metrics – so a lot of my work (and thus, learning) is influenced by something other than UX. In fact, it’s measured more by Customer Experience (CX) metrics, which changes depending on which client you’re speaking to.

I had wrongly assumed user experience equals customer experience. It’s not. It’s like different set of cultures and beliefs, although they may share some anatomical similarities. This is probably why most business people don’t attend UX conferences.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that there’s a gap between UX and CX, like two brothers who refuse to talk to one another but are forced to live together somehow. And it’s like UX wants CX to be more more like UX, and vice versa.

So, then I asked myself if I’ve learned more about CX over the last year. I probably have, but it’s hard to say exactly what about CX I’ve learnt – partly because there seems to be no hard definition of CX as of yet. I could probably make one up and sound like I’m making sense.

I do know, however, that I’ve contributed to both my client’s understanding of UX and my understanding of the CX of their business. We’ve learnt to translate each other’s languages a little bit to hold a decent conversation.

So in summary, translating UX to CX (and back again) is what I’ve gotten better at doing in the last 14 months, and it’s something I’m thinking more about from now on. This makes sense to me, as I happen to work for an organisation that calls itself the world’s first customer experience company.

Related reading:

Customer experience vs. User Experience - Leisa Reichelt,
What is an experience strategy – Steve Baty, Johnny Holland
Understanding customer experience – Harvard Business Review

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February 16, 2012

Learning from lame moral lessons on Facebook (the Joshua Bell story)


A lot of people are harping around this story of expert violinist Joshua Bell who went barely unnoticed as a busker at a Washington DC metro station and how we’ve lost sight of the beauty of music, how we don’t stop to recognize talent, etc. The real lesson of this story isn’t so much about stopping for a moment or missing out of life’s pleasures or even recognizing talent. It’s really about how we fundamentally are as human beings, how we naturally perceive things one way and not the other.

In short, this story is about the nature of human beings, not about the future of who we can become. If you really want to learn from this, begin to turn the points around as normal behaviour:

  • We ascribe greater value to things when they’re priced higher (i.e. Metro Station vs. Concert Hall, see
  • We are naturally self-centred, and we perceive things based on our social context (see Tom Vanderbilt’s modal bias article on cyclists vs. cars
  • We are also a social species, and there’s been a lot of studies done around crowd or group behaviour, and a crowded space like like a Metro station influence certain behavioural tendencies (
  • How we perceive each other as individuals also have a ‘framing’ effect (busker vs. talented musician), so the whole moral aspect to this this interplay of roles is really quite pointless (

If you want to learn from this story, don’t focus on the morals themselves as they can come from *anywhere*. Focus on understanding our who we are as human beings, imperfections and all – our behaviours tend not to change, but changing environments and contexts (which is easier to do) can help shape and align those behaviours toward good.

Either that or I should stop clicking on lame stuff people post on Facebook.

February 12, 2012

Interaction 2012 – A review with sketchnotes

Last year around this time, I was ‘attending’ Interaction 2011 from afar, cosily in my loft. But when IxDA announced this year’s conference in Dublin, I jumped the chance. I’m glad I did – conferences like Interaction have deep community roots, and help interaction designers come together to reflect, energize, and chart history for the near future.

Here’s an article I wrote for a corporate blog, which didn’t get published but highlights my reflections from the conference…

Last week I joined about 750 attendees in Dublin, Ireland for IxDA’s Interaction 2012 conference on Interaction Design. While last year’s conference had (loosely) answered the question “what have we achieved and how do we move forward?”, this year’s IxD12 has progressed towards answering “the future of human experience and relationships through interaction”. The main themes that emerged throughout the event were the emotional/social aspects of digital experiences and breaking through UX cliches and norms. It was also the first “global” Interaction conference, based in a non-US venue, which thankfully made it easier on us London-based folks.

One of the major takeaways of the conference was about modernising our tools, methods and approaches to address the explosive growth around mobile, social computing, and affective interaction. Several keynotes and talks emphasized the use of innovative thinking (Luke Williams’ “Disrupt”), progressive methods (Abby Covert’s “IA Heuristics”), and expanding beyond conventional interfaces (Jonas Löwgren’s sketching keynote). This critical reflection of the practice was very well received by attendees, myself included.

Even classic UX hallmarks such as usability testing, goals, and tasks were brought into question. In his talk, “Users don’t have goals”, Andrew Hinton argues that we’ve become too procedural, and that there are better ways to design against for organic, fuzzy, human behaviours. The MAO model, presented by Sebastian Deterding, is one such method – proposed as an alternative to BJ Fogg’s “Persuasive Architecture”. Even usability expert Dana Chisnell argued that testing against tasks is ill-suited to research the increasingly ubiquitous social web. Despite the challenging nature of these talks, it didn’t feel superficial or impractical, and certainly left me inspired about the future of our practice.

The evening events, such as the opening & closing parties and the IxDA Awards (an Interaction first), were packed and fed the whiskey-induced celebrations well through the nights. One of them, The Great IxDA Debate hosted by SapientNitro, pitched three controversial IxD topics against panelists Dave Malouf, Pete Trainor, Abby Covert, Jeff Gothelf, Kieron Leppard, and Giles Colborne. With Dan WIllis (@uxcrank) moderating, the debate turned out to be one of the best IxD12 events.

It’s hard to shake off the community spirit at an Interaction conference, and it certainly delivered that in spades this year. Next year’s theme (again, an Interaction first) has been aptly named “Social Impact”, and will be held in Toronto, Canada. Closing keynote speaker, Dr. Genevieve Bell, summed it up best – we’re moving away from thinking solely about interactions and more towards relationships.

I tried to cover as many talks I could with my sketchnotes, but I’ll briefly sum up the event with the following “themes” I observed:

Everything is anthropomorphic



From Interactions to Relationships



Upgrading our UX methods




It’s just the beginning – resources, articles, and even more sketchnotes

  • My complete Ixd12 sketchnotes on Flickr
  • More sketchnotes from Sam “Pub” Smith, Eva-Lotta Lamm, Krystal Higgins and Jason Alderman
  • Coverage on all three days on Johnny Holland
  • The great IxDA debate by SapientNitro on Storify
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January 20, 2012

So, I attended Leancamp London last weekend…

I attended Leancamp London 2 last weekend because Rob told me about this really excellent book he was reading, and that he was attending Leancamp to learn even more about it. This book is “The Lean Startup” book by Eric Ries, which has taken the world by storm. So I needed to find out for myself what it meant for me.

In that process, I realized that “Lean UX” is really a term targeted at a business audience, but it somehow got misinterpreted as a “new” way of doing UX. I don’t think it’s a new way to do UX. But I think it’s a more focused way to do UX. In short, Lean UX is a way to apply UX for Lean Startup practitioners.

What is Lean Startup?

Lean Startup is mostly a combination of Agile (mostly with a big A) and Steve Blank’s Customer Development, tightly integrated into one machine. Subjectively, it is a model for operating a business with an entrepreneurial mindset where the there are a lot of unknowns – so the successful execution of a lean startup is more art than science.

Lean UX is a disciplined effort to play by the Lean Startup rules. In that sense, I think it’s good because it’s a way to embed UX into a system. How successful it will be, I’m not sure we can tell yet. I think it’ll take awhile to see if it sticks.

Should we all do Lean UX now?

However, I’m still not sure about Lean UX as a way to “get out of the deliverables business“. I think we need UX designers who are able to play well in an Agile environment, but I also think we need UX designers that work in rocket-ship environments, where it may not be so practical to run an effective Agile shop. Maybe your teams are not co-located, or the effort to integrate silos are too costly, who knows.

Do agencies need a modified version of Lean UX? I think many already do – this is why this I think “Lean UX” is really a term for the Lean Startup community, and while those outside that can and should learn from this partnership, I don’t necessarily think we need to jump into the same boat. I think there’s a lot of room for all of us to grow and provide value.

Don’t stop until you succeed

Lean Startup also applies very well to environments where teams continue to work and iterate over a (somewhat) indefinite period of time, usually expiring at the time the business is mature and developed enough (i.e. it’s business model is validated to be profitable, repeatable, valuable).

Not all UX practitioners work in this kind of environment. Freelancers and agencies are hired for a period of time to solve thinking problems – e.g. planning, design, strategy. I think agencies want to move away from pure delivery work, but delivery work is here to stay and more, not less, UX will be needed in the future – for delivery work or otherwise.

Lean UX is an opportunity for us to learn

I think what’s exciting about Lean UX is the opportunity to bring focus to some of the following issues:

  • what skills, knowledge and aptitudes does a practitioner need to have to succeed in highly collaborative teams?
  • how work spaces, artifacts, information systems and the coordination of all those come into play
  • how UX can integrate deeply with development and business
  • in the spirit of Lean Startup, what can UX communities learn from other industries to be more successful? (Lean Startup borrowed elements from Toyota’s manufacturing system)
  • how can we measure UX output and effort more effectively? How do we use these metrics to improve traction and value?

I see Lean UX as an area that’s contained and focused enough that we can observe and learn from, possibly even emulate, steal from or modify.

Note: I’ve uploaded my presentation on how to use Diary Studies for customer validation (part of the Customer Development framework). My sketchnotes for several leancamp sessions I sat in are also up now.

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January 2, 2012

2011: The sandwich year

About three years ago, I embarked upon a silly idea to change my career away from engineering towards design, and 2011 was the first full year where I wasn’t paid to write any code. It’s been highly enjoyable and I feel there’s so much to learn, it’s overwhelming.

The first half of 2011 was filled with conferences, and it has really paid off. So much of what we do as designers is social. Being part of a community makes you more keenly aware of the little things in design, especially when you’ve already spent a lot of time in the literature. The field of UX is still evolving a lot, and so is the language. Being exposed to other people’s practices has helped me learn and validate my own work.

After I joined SapientNitro in March, I continued to absorb new things. I spent a lot of time thinking about interaction, experience, context and aesthetics. Working with concepts and ideas has been fun but challenging as well – communicating effectively is not easily taught. I also learned a lot about working collaboratively in a design team, with real commercial pressures.

If that was not enough, I volunteered to organize UXCa is neither affiliated with the authors of this page nor responsible for its contents. This is a safe-cache copy of the original web site.