How words influence design, and other things we learned at EuroIA

How words influence design, and other things we learned at EuroIA

The impressive Koepelkerk was where most of the magic happened (Photo: Peter Vermaercke)

A couple of weeks ago Sjoera and me, representing the UX team, returned enthusiastically from the EuroIA conference in Amsterdam. Here's some of the fascinating learnings we took home:

1. It’s (more than) OK to be emotional

Users register their interactions with technology through their senses. And there are more senses than just touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing. Alastair Sommerville, a specialist in sensory design and cognition, taught us about senses we didn’t know we had. For example proprioception (kinaesthetic sense) enables us to touch our nose with our eyes closed. This sense also ensures that, without looking, you know where the buttons are in a car. Of course, some people have developed this sense stronger than others.

Another example is chronoception, our sense of time. As it turns out, our perception of time is not constant or objective. Do you know the feeling that minutes seem like hours, when you are waiting for a train? This is actually good news for designers: because it is not objective, your sense of time can be manipulated. For example in a train station, an architect can choose to use large windows to make time flow seemingly faster. The effect is obtained because you can look outside, into nature, and subconsciously notice the subtle changes in sunlight as time passes.

People's emotions also influence their interpretation of their senses. That's why it is important to mirror the emotions of a user. You don't want to have a cheerful, colorful UI filled with witty puns, when users are tweeting about the death of a loved one. But in other situations, it might be perfectly acceptable, so make sure your UI can handle the wide spectrum of emotions (or clarify it can only be used in a specific emotional state).


Sjoera & Tine exploring how you can create empathy and design for blind people in Alastair Sommerville’s workshop (Photo: Peter Vermaercke)

In another talk, Ellis Neder, product designer and founder of Sway Design,  suggested capturing emotional data as well, but to enrich sensor data. He gave the example of Uber asking you to rate a ride. When your experience is a negative one, they can compare that to sensor data from your phone and find out whether the driver was speeding, or it was a particularly bumpy ride. In this case, they have to take action and confront the driver with his behavior. But it might be that you were just having a bad day, and the driver couldn’t help it. So by using this combination of sensor data and emotional data,  Uber can act in an appropriate way to the feedback they get from their users.

Natacha Hennocq, UX design strategist, also gave us new insights in the human brain. Apparently, the same area of the brain (hippocampus) is used for space and memory. Think for example about remembering where you left your keys, by walking through your house and retracing your steps. Very helpful!

But for futuristic VR-experiences, this might be troublesome. While wearing a VR helmet, your space and memory will get disconnected. You don't physically move through the space, and therefore your brain will not make this wonderful connection. Let's see how this turns out...

2. The Internet of Things might mean the disappearance of the screen, but user interactions still require UX work

When talking about the Internet of Things (IoT), people often proclaim that "no UI at all" is the future. Claire Rowland, product design & UX constultant, criticised Zero UI-advocates, claiming: "Zero UI is not feasible, nor desirable." She explained that we shouldn't hide the complexity, but instead be transparent in what is going on behind the users’ backs.

This is probably not the easy way for us as designers and coders. Like Larry Tesler already proclaimed: every application is inherently complex. It is either complex for the user to use, or for the designer/engineer to build.

Another challenge when creating experiences for IoT systems, is that  users’ expectations of IoT devices (or "things") is different from other software. We don't (yet) expect things to behave like software. We don't expect our interactions with physical things to have flaws like latency (delay between request & response) or intermittent connectivity (sync periodically to save power). If you push a button on your coffee machine, you don’t expect it to start working with a delay, or it to be temporarily offline, causing you to have to wait another minute for your precious coffee.

As Hany Rizk said, our main goal as a designer is to build humane products. Technology should add value to people’s lives and not just more noise.

3. Our choice of words, and how we call our users, influences how we design for them

Jorge Arango, information architect,  gave a wonderful talk about the design of Disneyland, from which you could draw your own parallels to other design problems. At Disneyland, there are no employees, only "cast members". There are no visitors, only guests. So the cast members put on a show, and welcome everyone that visits Disneyland like guests at home: welcomed with a smile, made comfortable immediately.

And this is a significant difference from referring to clients, or customers. The words we pick are very important, and should be picked deliberately, with a lot of care. "Our choice of words, and how we call our users, influences how we design for them."


Jorge Arango, and the 1955 design for the first Disneyland theme park (Photo: Tine Lavrysen)

Clementina Gentile made a similar point explaining how language influences our behavior and how we perceive things. For example, we use different words when we are angry. The metaphor of war (demolish, shoot...) is used a lot in discussions.

She pointed out that we only use imperatives towards a voice-controlled device (e.g. “turn on lights”) and this doesn’t feel natural in a human to human conversation. She suggested to prototype conversations in order to design with language. If users can address a device in natural language and are addressed themselves in the same way, the experience will be much more agreeable.

Kerstin Mehle, screenwriter and lecturer, also had an interesting statement about words: “A word is not the object is represents, but merely a projection.” Think about the famous painting of Magritte which represents the same principle (“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”). That is why we need to think carefully about the words we use, because language can distort reality.

4. User expectations should not be ignored

As humans, we are constantly mapping the environment around us. Where am I? Who is with me? What time of the day is it? This is called indexicality, and it’s much broader than just language. For example: the sunrise tells me it’s early in the morning, smoke tells me there’s a fire somewhere etc. As explained by Kerstin Mehle and Victor Zwimpfer, people have certain expectations linked to this indexicality. If these expectations are not met, people may get confused. For example: if the presenter would have suddenly walked out of the room during the talk and not returned, this would be very strange behaviour according to expectations.

This is why it’s important to take into account the users’ mental model of things. Mental models rely on experiences and expectations, e.g. the shopping cart was in the top right corner on every e-commerce site the user ever visited, so when he visits another e-commerce site, he expects the shopping cart to be in the same place. Put the shopping cart in another location and you’re guaranteed to confuse your users.

5. Futuristic cities are not so far-fetched anymore

Several speakers showed off their highly technological projects that endorsed smart living. Ellis Neder talked about the LEED Plaque, a smart system that collects data about a building, like energy and water use, how much waste the inhabitants produce etc. This data is then used to calculate a score that is visible to people that use the building. This will motivate them to recycle more, for example. Data is collected by sensors, but users can also reinforce this data with their own feedback (e.g. “this room is too hot”).

Antonella Turchetti, UX designer, told us about “the internet of food”. She and her team developed a system for precision agriculture: data from the field is collected in order to make smart decisions and remotely manage crops. This way, they can achieve mass production of crops with less pesticides, while still keeping the products safe and healthy.

Finally, Alanus von Radecki, smart cities expert, gave a very interesting talk about smart cities. Connected solutions could help us solve global challenges in cities: self driving cars, houses that produce more energy than they consume, recycling of sewage water to maintain self sufficiency,... Cities could run a lot more smoothly if we use these technologies to our benefit. Real time data obtained through these systems could also help urban decision making. According to Alanus von Radecki, we already have all these existing technologies, we just need a new operating system in our cities to connect them.

6. Conferences with a lot of workshops are tons more fun

And as a final note: The EuroIA conference was structured in a pleasant way. We started with workshops all morning, and then talks in the afternoon. This format worked really well, as you don't get the usual talk-tiredness after hours and hours of listening.


What designers do in a workshop: post-it’s! (Photo: Tine Lavrysen)

Tine’s personal favorite wasn’t even a workshop, but an activity called: The Original Design Slam. This is a kind of brainstorming-competition. Each randomly put together team got 45 minutes to come up with a solution to a time machine problem, and give a killer pitch to convince business, design and government.

Sounds weird? Maybe. But it was tons of fun, and proves once again design thinking can be applied everywhere, even for time machines. And of course it never hurts to practice your presentation skills!




Tine’s team pitching (and winning!) the Design Slam (Photos: Peter Vermaercke)

We hope you enjoyed this short summary of our EuroIA highlights. Let us know if you want to talk about any of this, or check our job opening for designers if you want to join us next time!