Create a UX Playground for innovation

In case you don’t know, I look after the User Experience and Design teams here at TUI Travel, beside Luton Airport. We’re doing some pretty cool and exciting things up here, as part of a large programme of work. This work includes a complete overhaul of two of the biggest travel websites out there, and What’s particularly exciting is that we, the UX & Design team, are playing a key role in setting, and implementing, the vision for these sites.

This vision is to completely revolutionise the way people book holidays. This isn’t just web, we are neck deep in cross-channel engagement and multi-platform delivery.

So, why am I wasting your precious reading minutes telling you this?

Having fun in the UX Playground

It’s been commented a few times that we’ve created a UX Playground for ourselves up here at TUI Towers! The comments have been prompted by the rich number of UX and Design techniques that we try and use here. However, the term UX Playground can be interpreted both negatively and positively.

Let me elaborate! I firmly believe in the need to employ a varied array of techniques, for both research and design. I am also convinced that you need to try techniques that you think will yield the best results for you (in the environment that you are in). Some of these may not work, others will.

The upside of the UX Playground

We do lots of different types of research, and we try lots of different types of research to get the best possible results. This is for three primary reasons:

  1. We do research to get insight into customer behaviour.
  2. We do research to give us a solid foundation for all design work.
  3. We do research that provides us with the rationale and justification for our design decisions.

Digital Diary Study Entries

We also try lots of different design techniques, again to get the best possible results. Sometimes that means going back over work, trying a new approach and seeing if we can make it better. This isn’t gold plating, but if we have any doubt about what we’ve done, a new approach gives us a fresh perspective on things. And we always refer back to our research.

The positive side of this is that the team gets lots of exposure to new and varied research and design activities. Some which, in other environments, you may not see very often. For example, we are currently in the middle of a digital diary study, where participants post to an online diary; but we’re also using postcards as an extra dimension to this. We’ve researched and created a mental model and done some really exciting emotional response testing.

Our design process involves varied techniques too. From Design Jams involving people from all around the business, to collaborative persona needs and user journey creation sessions.

This is great fun. Exploring new ways of getting insight and new design techniques. It’s interesting, it’s varied and, most importantly, it’s productive.

It allows us to most effectively deliver the best results to the business.

Dispelling the negatives of the UX Playground

Brainstorming Persona needs

There is a negative connotation that could be inferred from the term UX Playground (and I’m in no way saying that the people who coined the term meant it in anything other than a positive way!). There could be a perception that we are just trying things out for the sake of it.

Let me refute that now: we’re not! Everything we do is to give us the greatest insight into customers, and to allow us to deliver solutions that afford the maximum competitive advantage to the business.

When we try new techniques we look for the most cost effective way of testing them. If the results yielded are good, then we invest a more, as long as that investment is returned by a tangible business insight and benefit.

My advice: create a UX Playground

If you can, I would advocate creating a UX Playground. An environment where research is an integral part of the process, and where new research methods can be freely explored (in a cost effective and timely manner).

Create a UX Playground where new techniques for collaborative design are explored. Where Gamestorming concepts are used with the business, so that these sessions are fun for all involved.

By making things a little more fun, we become more creative; we make it more engaging for non UX and Design collaborators; and create an workplace that fosters the premiss of trying new things, an environment where innovation is the norm.


PS: if you’re interested in helping us to revolutionise the way people book holidays online, and having fun doing it, drop me a line (alex <dot> horstmann <at> thomson <dot> co <dot> uk) – we’re always looking for great people to come and join us here at TUI Towers!



User Experience Management: techniques to promote knowledge sharing

Many of the blog posts, discussion threads and literature I read, in the area of UX Management, have a strong focus on process management. That is, of course, very important. How do we integrate user experience effectively into a development process? How do we fit research into the agile methodology? All incredibly pertinent questions that need discussing.

The beatings will continue until morale improvesHowever, there is another strand to leading a UX team. There is the people side. How can we motivate our team? How can we engender an environment of skill improvement and knowledge sharing?

The majority of user experience and design people are, in my experience, incredibly creative and passionate. There is a thirst for knowledge and a hunger for new ways of doing things. However, quite often, as managers, we lead teams that have graduates and people new to user experience. People at this stage in their career need a more formal framework for skill and knowledge learning. Not everyone is a natural self-starter. As user experience managers it is our jobs to nurture talent with skills and knowledge.

Over the course of a few posts, I’d like to talk about user experience management, outside the methodology/process arena. Things like knowledge sharing, motivation and making sure that UX has its place at the table in the corporate environment (yes, that does mean gaining influence, budget etc.).

In this post I’d like to share some of the techniques I use for knowledge sharing in my teams (user experience and design teams).


Weekly UX & Design Video

Every week a member of the team hosts a 30minute meeting. This meeting is open to anyone. At the meeting we show a video, or number of videos, on interesting topics. For example, we’ve had Seth Godin’s 7 Kinds of Broken and Vilayanur Ramachandran’s A journey to the center of your mind, to name but two.

The purpose of these sessions is to make sure we all stay outwardly focused. Making sure that we are always looking at new and different things, things that could inspire us and trigger a great idea. I got the idea for making this a regular team event from @leemcivor, so thanks Lee!

Brown Bags

Brown bags are knowledge sharing seminars. According to Wikipedia:

Brown bag seminars, sessions or lunches are generally training or information sessions during a lunch break. Brown bag is a symbol for meals brought along by the attendees, or provided by the host. In the USA, those are often packed in brown paper bags. Brown bag seminars normally run an hour or two.

The aim is to use regular breaks, e.g. the lunch break, to provide some information to the attendees in a voluntary and informal setting. It is often followed by a discussion of the topic.

I send out an open invite to team members to propose a subject that they have an interest in, and would like to research and host a brown bag on. Anyone that doesn’t respond gets assigned a topic. The person researches the topic and gives a talk, usually lasting around 45mins, to the team, or to the whole department (depending on the depth of UXness of the subject). The subject is then opened up to the floor for some discussion.

Here’s a flavour of our brown bag topics:

  • Typography
  • Research on a shoestring [low cost research]
  • The craft of effective user testing
  • The customised user experience
  • Editorial design

The topics are broad and deep, and are a good mix of UX and Design, which helps to cross-pollinate knowledge between the two disciplines.

Book Reviews

There’s not a huge amount that I can add to the heading! Everyone on the team is given a book, from our library, to read and review. I like a specific emphasis on themes/techniques that the book mentions that may be applicable to us – how and why we could adopt/use them.

The Cool Wall

Our Cool Wall

Unashamedly ripped off from the BBC Top Gear Cool Wall! At a team meeting every month or so, I will invite people to bring along a printout of a site that they love or hate. They then pitch it to the team, why it’s good/bad and where on the wall it should go (Seriously Uncool, Uncool, Cool or Sub Zero).

This is a great way of doing some informal coaching around design critiquing, and how to articulate what works and doesn’t work. it teaches how to communicate what is good and bad about a site, its usability, experience, features and design.

This is also a nice, informal way of getting people more comfortable with public speaking, and a little bit of pitch practice too!



I spoke about this technique in my previous blog post Promoting Sketching, and how I like to use it to promote sketching. It’s also good fun and get the team working and laughing together. This was especially  useful when the design team joined my team, and it’s a great way for new starters to feel part of the wider team.


Do you use any of these? Do you have other techniques that you’ve found fun and effective?



A process for effective UX and Design delivery

I work with my team to continually look for better and more effective ways of working. I’m a big fan of agile and iterative practices, but without a dedicated Scrum-master, it’s pretty hard to do full agile, IMHO. Over the past few weeks I’ve put together the following process for a UX and Design team to work to.

It incorporates many techniques that I think are vital to successfully delivering work:

  • Collaboration
  • Iteration
  • Regular reviews
  • Stakeholder input
  • Regular reviews (both with the team and with stakeholders)
  • Sketching
  • Prototyping
  • A style guide

This process was built around not having direct access to developers – so it  needs to sit within a wider Waterfall process, with a handoff into the development cycle.

The Process


1. Project initiator(s) work with UX to:

  • Articulate the business needs/requirements,
  • Articulate the user needs/requirements,
  • Articulate supporting research (where applicable),
  • Commission additional research, analytics support etc.

2. Project group assigned, which includes:

  • project initiator(s)
  • UX,
  • Design,
  • Test,
  • front end developers,
  • back end developers,
  • architect(s),
  • project manager,
  • business analyst,
  • content/editorial,
  • business representative(s) as applicable.

3. [ KICKOFF ] Carry out a Design Jam for the feature:

  • UX presents research and frames what the objectives are,
  • Group breaks into smaller, multi-disciplinary teams,
  • Teams brainstorm and sketch:
    • user journey/flow
    • pages and components

4. UX refines and elaborates the user flow and sketches.

5. [ ITERATE ] Sketches reviewed by team at weekly iteration review meeting.

  • Team breaks down features as much as possible,
  • Gives ROM (rough order of magnitude) estimates given for each story/task.

6. Milestone plan drafted and stakeholders identified (by UX and PM).

7. [ APPROVAL MILESTONE ] Sketches & plan reviewed by project stakeholder(s).

8.  [ ITERATE ] Agreed refinements as per Stakeholder feedback incorporated.

9.  Front end Developer works with UX to create a  prototype of the sketches.

10. [ ITERATE ] prototype reviewed by team at weekly iteration review meeting.

11. Informal user testing is carried out on the low fidelity prototype.

12. [ ITERATE ] Refinements as per testing incorporated.

13. Team reviews sketches/prototype in context of style guide (and component library), to determine how many new style elements and components are needed.

14. Designer begins works on new components needed for the project.

15. UX begins to create formal wireframes.

16. [ ITERATE ] Creatives & Wireframes reviewed by team at weekly iteration review meeting.

17. [ APPROVAL MILESTONE ] Creatives reviewed by stakeholder(s).

18. [ ITERATE ] Agreed refinements as per Stakeholder feedback incorporated.

19. [ DELIVERABLE ] Front end developer refactors low fidelity prototype (where necessary) and applies style to match creative design.

20. [ DELIVERABLE ] Designer updates style guide/component library. (The concept of delivering page level creatives is no longer necessary. We work on a style guide and update components, as necessary, and add new components as they are designed and signed off).

21. [ ITERATE ] Team reviews functioning feature/pages at weekly iteration meeting, ensuring that it meets the sketches & wireframes.

22. Testing carried out on functional (but not plumbed into the backend) feature/flow.

23. [ ITERATE ] Refinements as per testing incorporated and reviewed .

24. [ APPROVAL MILESTONE ] Final deliverables reviewed by stakeholders.

25. [ ITERATE ] Agreed refinements as per Stakeholder feedback incorporated.

26. [ DELIVERABLE ] UX creates detailed wireframes, documenting state changes and interactivity, and adds them to the component library. This becomes a primary resource for the test team, along with the user flow(s).

27. [ DELIVERABLE ] Style guide updated.

28. Front end developer works with backend developer to ensure that front end code is integrated as per standards, and that the same quality of code that was provided (by the front end developer) is being returned by the application server.

29. [ MILESTONE ] Project team and stakeholders sign off integrated feature.

30. [ ITERATE ] Team reviews pages/components/features as they are integrated into the back-end systems, and carries out user testing as necessary. Any changes as a result of seeing the integrated work is specified and scheduled.

So, I know that this is a bit of a brain dump, and I’ll add some rationale at a later point. But I’d love to hear any and all thoughts and feedback you may have. Have I missed something? Is there something that can be taken out?


Promoting sketching

A sketch of a hand in the thumbs up positionSketching is a really, really important part of the UCD process, in my opinion. It allows us to communicate, and get feedback on, ideas and approaches quickly and with little cost.

However, not everyone is initially comfortable doing it. People may feel that they can’t really draw, and are uncomfortable sharing rough sketches, as they feel that it isn’t good enough. You can tell people all you like that fidelity is not important, that it’s about communicating an idea – but that doesn’t always work.

I believe that, in order to move a team to a more sketch led culture, this is the first hurdle that must be overcome. An idea that I got from my colleague and friend Lee McIvor (@leemcivor) is to play a form of Pictionary. And this is exactly what we do at our team meetings here at TUI.

I choose a different theme each time (brand names, cities, household items), write a dozen or so on pieces of paper, split the group into 2 teams and start the game. The teams play head to head, the first to guess the answer correctly gets a point. It’s a playful way of showing that sketching is about conveying a concept quickly and not worrying about fidelity.

This technique not only breaks down that sketching barrier, but it also helps to bring the teams together more. Most of all, it’s fun, and that’s important.

However, it’s just the first step to instilling a sketching culture; the next step is making sure that the process has a sketching step and project plans give time for this.

Image courtesy of magicmarie at stock.xchng

User Experience, Usability and Design links for November 23rd

Alex Horstmann’s user experience, usability, design, eCommerce and design bookmarks for November 23rd.

  • James-Lange theory – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    The James-Lange theory refers to a hypothesis on the origin and nature of emotions and is one of the earliest theories of emotion, developed independently by two 19th-century scholars, William James and Carl Lange.
  • Web Content That Persuades and Motivates :: UXmatters
    There are several key elements that are missing from a large number of Web sites, and these missing elements often lead to bad user experiences and the total ineffectiveness of those sites.
  • » Design Jam London 1 Johnny Holland – It’s all about interaction » Blog Archive
    Design Jams are one or two day design sessions, during which people team up to solve engaging UX challenges. While conferences and talks are very popular in the UX community, we don’t have many events for actual collaboration, like the ‘hackdays’ enjoyed by the development community. Only a few UX designers participate in hackdays or open-source design initiatives –  how can we change this and get UX designers more involved? How can we introduce them to open collaboration formats? The idea of an event to get designers together to learn from each other while working on actual problems was born. Design Jams champion open-source thinking & sharing and are non-profit, run by local volunteers. The London team are Desigan Chinniah, Johanna Kolllmann, Joe Lanman and Franco Papeschi.
  • E-commerce (A-Z of user experience design resources)
  • Bounce Rate Demystified
  • Agile UX in Practice | Agile UX
    Agile development and user experience can work brillantly together… well, but how?<br />
    <br />
    Even if the effort related to Agile User Experience (Agile UX) continues throughout the project (with “just in time” designing and user testing) the User Experience foundations must be initiated at the very beginning of the project, during the first sprints.
  • Stressed Out About Holiday Shopping? Your Customers Are! | experience matters
    Regardless of their budget though, consumers told us that holiday shopping is stressful. Of course there are obvious reasons like crowded malls, outrageously chaotic traffic conditions and increased family obligations, but consumers face other speed bumps that companies can help with.

Please do feel free to suggest other related (and unrelated ones)!