Brad King

We’re very excited to introduce the latest addition to our merry band of digital trailblazers, our new Head of UX – Bob Powell.

Bob comes to Coast Digital with a truly remarkable amount of knowledge, experience, and wit (as you’re about to find out!) We caught up with Bob to find out where he’s been, what he knows, and how he anticipates the future of user experience developing.


Bob Powell

Welcome, Bob! How has your first week at Coast Digital been and what are your first impressions?

It hasn’t been the sort of first week that the more cynical part of me would expect. There has been no panic, no ego-politics, no friction between teams. I don’t want to say it’s been relaxed, because that’s chancing fate, but it’s a very different culture here to any digital agency I’ve worked in before, and very refreshing after having worked at the pointy-end of client-side for so long.

My first impressions are that I’ve never seen so many happy people working in one place. That is a revelation in today’s commercial world. I design experiences, and whoever created this experience has my admiration!

Can you tell us a little about your background?

If I do that, you’re going to need a bigger blog.

Without going into too much detail, I’ve been involved with user-centred design (UCD) since the 1980s, designing and testing gameplay for 16bit games (Amiga and Atari, anyone?) before moving on to what was then called multimedia, eventually ending up working with the emergence of digital finance just as the web came into being.

Since then, I’ve worked across pretty much every sector imaginable, automotive, education, banking & finance, travel, legal, ecommerce, charities,  the sciences, and in both the public and private sector, always putting the end-user at the heart of decision making.

What attracted you to digital, and UX in particular?

The attraction to digital was easy, it was fun! It was also a natural evolution from real world design to digital design. The words in a printed book are the same as those in an eBook, the information is essentially the same, but digital allows so much more interaction and gives a much richer experience – not just when it comes to books, but for all kinds of information. What’s not to love?

UX, too, was a natural extension of what I was doing in the real world UCD space. The attraction is that it removes opinion from the process and gets you to the heart of emotional design, while finding real solutions for human-shaped problems. When you get it right, when the users are happy and the business is happy – with both benefitting from the final experiential design – there isn’t a feeling like it.

How has digital UX changed since you first started working in the field?

It’s changed massively. The truth is that when I first started it didn’t really exist, we had highly structured – even esoteric – rules arising out of human computer interaction (HCI) and man machine interface (MMI), that were more to do with ergonomics than digital design, that made it almost impenetrable for all but the most specialised industries and engineering experts to understand. People just accepted that problems existed, and the onus was on them to learn ways to get around them.

Now, UX is an essential aspect of business in every product and service imaginable. The psychological underpinning of the discipline still requires specialist knowledge, but the use of that knowledge and the process of utilising the combination of qualitative and quantitative data to drive commercial success, is everywhere.

People may not how we got to deliver good UX, but they know when they encounter bad UX and nowadays they won’t accept it.

For our readers, can you help to explain the key difference between UX, CX & BX?

Oh, you want me to light that fuse, do you? Okay – deep breath – think of it like this, both UX and CX deal with experience design, but on different scales.

UX (User Experience) design is experiencing design on a short time scale. It might be an app or web design, it might be a tweak in communications strategy, it might be changing the delivery of a marketing campaign. For the most part, it’s regarded as a digital specialism, not least because the name was created by Don Norman (the very first UX specialist) when working at Apple, so obviously tech based, but that isn’t the case, it’s not like humans exist as digital entities, so it can’t be just digital.

Think of UX as a focus on a specific, short term experience design problem, usually but not exclusively in digital, in a much, much larger experience.

CX (Customer Experience) design is a much larger experience. That might be brand engagement creation, it might be building and sustaining a customer relationship, it might be formulating a complete service design. For the most part, it is regarded as non-digital, rising as it did from traditional marketing and branding, but that isn’t the case, it’s not like humans stop engaging with real life just because they pick up a gadget, so it can’t be just non-digital.

Think of CX as a focus on a long-term experience design problem, usually but not exclusively non-digital.

Then there is this new term, BX.

BX (Business Experience) design is when experiencing design becomes the whole focus of a business. It is not just about a product, or a service, it’s not just about building a customer relationship to sell things, it is about how the entire business operates and building commercial success on the experiences that they create and maintain.

We’re probably used to digital transformation programs, but they tend to be about optimising ways of working to ultimately drive better sales. BX is the same, however, it is more about complete culture change, placing the user first so that sales arise naturally.

What’s the toughest UX-related challenge you have faced?

Answering that last question without upsetting too many people!

Joking aside, the biggest challenge in UX is the perception problem it has. UX is still largely seen as something that can be tagged on to user interface (UI) design, something that can be guessed at to churn out boxes and arrows, or wireframes. These perceptions miss the truth by quite a large degree. The analogy I tend to use is that of a driving a car:

The user interface of a car is the controls. It’s vitally important to get them right. After all, if you can’t turn the wheel how you need to, then no matter how lovely or expensive the car, wrapping it around a lamppost is not a good experience.

The user experience of driving a car is so much more. It’s the ride quality, the sound systems, the engine performance, it’s the handling, it’s the brand values. There is a reason why adverts show cars driving through beautiful countryside or gliding effortlessly through traffic rather than just the dashboard, the experience of driving a car is about more than the controls.

Understanding that kind of emotional design for a UX is challenging enough, but getting somebody who only thinks of UX as the UI (the controls) to understand it is another challenge entirely. That perception has improved considerably over the last ten years, but it is still a challenge.

What is the biggest consideration when undertaking a new web project, and how does UX fit in to it all?

It’s a cliché but it’s true – when it comes to the web, the competition is only a click away. You may have the greatest service or product in the world but if the experience of getting to that offering is poor, you’re not going to be making any sales to your target audience.

UX fits into that by finding out who exactly is in that specific target audience and then identifying their specialist needs, their collective motivations, why are they doing what they do, then turning that into precisely calculated solutions to help them achieve it.

What is exciting about UX right now and what does the future look like?

The exciting thing in UX, at the moment, is the move to conversational experience and naturally responsive wearables, things that don’t necessarily need a GUI. Digital assistants, such as Siri or Cortana, have become so familiar that they’ve all but disappeared into the background, which is as it should be. However, they have formed the foundation for the emergence of more developed AI and IoT (internet of things), which are designed to be naturally integrated into life. This is experience design at its purest, it’s so integrated that it’s hardly noticeable. Getting that right is an incredibly exciting prospect.

What does the future look like? Better people than me have guessed at that and got it wrong. How many people in 2015 when asked what the future held in five years answered, “full of banana bread recipes and watching Netflix while on furlough”? If pushed I’d say that BX is a good indicator, as experience as a commodity by itself (rather than a side-effect of other processes) becomes more central to commercial decision making.

The future? That’s more human-shaped than ever.

Discover how Bob and the team utilise our array of UX services to reveal advanced audience insights and craft meaningful online user journeys.  Or, if you’ve seen enough and you’re ready to start creating a more user-centric digital experience right this instant, call us on 0845 485 1652 and let’s get started!

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