User Experience, Gaining Experience

Fiona Murphy, co-founder and Director of Ireland’s first user experience (UX) design agency Frontend, recognised the need for specialist design services for interactive technology back in the 1990s.

An industrial design graduate from the National College of Art and Design, Murphy completed a master’s in interactive multimedia from the Royal College of Art in 1996. She had gone to college and was friends with Niall O’Sullivan, founder of web design and content company Nua. He asked her to run a media company for him, O’Sullivan Associates, where she gained further insights.

“Very early on I did some research into different methodologies and realised research could be a very important component in terms of informing design for technology,” she says. “This led to a strong user centric design process, which is fundamentally similar to what we still do today at Frontend.”

As an early entrant to the UX design space in 1998, Frontend was quickly able to get clients on a global level.

“At that time there were not many agencies focused on UX design globally, and we were one of the fi rst in Europe. We attracted a lot of blue-chip clients, which recognised that UX design really had an impact on their bottom line. Blue-chip clients are really important to us to this day and at least 50% of our work is international, but we always like working with small innovative companies.”

From the outset, Frontend has been active in various sectors, including healthcare, finance and software development.

“We have always been focused on enabling product and development teams to produce better products. Now, a lot of the solutions we provide are more strategic,” says Murphy. “We are also seeing changes in expectations in terms of user behaviours, which have evolved considerably. Because of this, we have integrated behavioural economics and nudge theory into our design solutions. It’s all about how design can solve business and social issues.”

A recent example of this was Frontend’s work with Standard Life in redesigning digital touch points for customers and financial advisors, looking at supporting key tasks and how to help end-customers to save successfully for retirement.

There has been huge growth in the area of connected health for Frontend, largely driven by pharmaceutical companies’ concerns around medical adherence. “For pharmaceutical companies, digital solutions can help to facilitate higher levels of patient engagement with their treatment as well as providing data to track patients’ progress,” explains Murphy.

One of the projects Frontend has worked on in this area was with Merck Serono on a digital solution to encourage children and young adults with growth hormone deficiency to engage more with their treatment over a long period.

The in-house trend

Over the past five years UX design has become ubiquitous, in Murphy’s view. Companies large and small are recognising the importance of UX and how it improves sales, brand perception and operations. Increasingly, Frontend is going into organisations and supporting them in building their in-house UX design capability.

“We provide them with framework design systems they can work off, help them with research and
building internal teams. We are no longer just providers of design and research services, but enablers of UX design within organisations,” says Murphy.

There are currently about seven dedicated UX design agencies in Ireland. Each and Other was one of the first to be established in the market after Frontend. John Wood worked there from 2014 and three years ago decided to move to an in-house role.

“After 14 years as a consultant, I believe that is where most of the opportunity for personal growth and interesting work currently lies,” he says.

Currently managing a team of 40 designers and researchers in a company working on connected vehicle technologies, Wood was self taught in UX design.

“I learned a lot of my user research and design skills as a consultant working on a wide range of mobile and desktop products in every imaginable sector – banking, public services, telecoms and now connected vehicles,” he says. “As recently as ten years ago, consulting was the only choice for anyone who wanted a career in UX in Ireland. There were few in-house teams and a very poor understanding of UX design among businesses, so all of this work was outsourced to agencies.”

The move to in-house UX teams is driven by the recognition that UX is a key differentiator for many products, according to Wood.

“If you are one of a half-dozen products that have feature parity and similar pricing, then a better user experience is a competitive advantage,” he notes. “How quickly can your customers get to active use of the product? How well does the product meet the user’s goals? Doing these things well requires a deep understanding of the customer and the ability to turn those insights into working designs, which is what a good UX team delivers.”

A growing network

When Wood got into this space about 20 years ago, he knew everyone working in UX in Ireland at the time, or at least knew of them.

“These days every conference or meet-up has hundreds of attendees and there is new talent joining the industry all the time,” he says. “The quality of the talent in Ireland is impressive too – I think there are some truly world-class people working in UX in Ireland today. The colleges have started to produce good graduates from new UX-focussed courses and The UX Design Institute is helping people to switch career or up-skill. More importantly, the tech companies in Ireland are honing that talent through real work on some great products.”

Galway’s only UX agency, The UX Studio, runs UX Network Galway once a month. It has grown from five or ten people attending last year to about 30 every month and a total of 218 members.

“So many people are joining UX Network Galway to see what is happening. A lot of these people are already working as product designers or software developers and want to find out how to convince their employers to invest in UX design,” says Sara Gilligan, Head of Business Development at The UX Studio. “These people are sick of having three to four iterations of their designs because their organisations are not talking to users about functionality and specs.”

Founded two years ago by Rachel O’Donnell, The UX Studio specialises in building digital products or digital interfaces by focusing on both user needs and the business objectives of its clients.

“We ask our clients what they think their challenges are in relation to their business objectives; then we talk to users directly and tell our clients where the real problems lie. It is a new conversation and a big shift in mindset,” says Gilligan.

A major coup for this emerging company has been to work on a human-machine interface project for medtech giant Medtronic, which helped to standardise its workflow and processes. In the clean rooms at its Galway facility, there are multiple machines with different interfaces.

“Having numerous interfaces from different vendors was not intuitive to the users’ needs. This was getting in the way of Medtronic’s two core goals – that of reducing downtime and maintaining quality,” says O’Donnell. “We spoke to operators, engineers, R&D people as well as maintenance staff actually doing the job on a day-to-day basis and defined a set of requirements.”

The team highlighted to Medtronic management that they needed to consider colour blindness, for example, and got around this problem by using icons and words instead of colours. The UX Studio’s proof of concept with Medtronic has led to referrals in the med-tech sector.

UX design started on consumer products and applications, but enterprise UX – such as The UX Studio’s work with Medtronic – is now becoming a niche within the industry, according to Colman Walsh, CEO and founder, The UX Design Institute.

Established in 2013 as UX Training, The UX Design Institute launched its six-month online professional diploma in UX Design last June. It is a globally recognised qualification. So far 577 students have enrolled, 30% of whom are from Ireland.

“Enterprises are realising that employees using B2B software have high expectations and want the applications they use inside the organisation to be as well designed as Google and Facebook,” says Walsh.

Autonomous Acceleration

Ireland is keen to position itself as a hub for connected and autonomous vehicle (CAV) technologies and to share in a global market predicted to be worth €70bn by 2035. According to John McCarthy, Leader, Intelligent Mobility at Arup, around 100,000 new jobs could be created in Ireland in direct and indirect services for CAVs by 2030. Arup is an independent firm of designers, planners, engineers, consultants and technical specialists, working across every aspect of today’s built environment.

First up, McCarthy points out that connected and autonomous vehicles are not one and the same thing. “They’re two completely different markets that touch upon each other quite strongly,” he says.

Likewise, he believes we will soon see the creation of environments where people, organisations and service providers – such as parking bays and charging points – will all support a user-centric system to service these technologies.

Fully autonomous vehicles, meanwhile, will be driverless, with no steering wheel or driving controls, and capable of making decisions without any human intervention.

CAV Ireland

To focus on the opportunities presented by these changes, Enterprise Ireland (EI), Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), ITS Ireland and the Department of Transport established a connected and autonomous vehicle forum – CAV Ireland – in early 2017.

“Over the past two years there has been much activity with the group in terms of understanding Ireland’s value proposition and capability as well as identifying opportunities,” says Ita Lynn, Project Manager in IDA Ireland’s engineering and industrial division. “We have invited thought leaders and representatives from academia, industry and government to really understand where we currently are but, more importantly, what our strategy is going forward.”

Lynn notes that the technology-intensive aspect of autonomous vehicles has attracted many tech companies that see a role for their own core competencies. These include Alphabet/Google self-driving car spin-off Waymo, as well as Apple, Microsoft, Intel, NVIDIA and Qualcomm. All of these players are investing in developing powerful microprocessors to allow them to meet artificial intelligence (AI) and data requirements.

Meanwhile, fleet operators, including rideshare and logistics companies such as Uber, Lyft and Didi, are also investing huge amounts in self-driving car operations.

Lynn believes that Ireland is well positioned to capture a share of this investment given its leading position in software, engineering and ICT research. She also points out that while Ireland has been a well established location for automotive suppliers, it is now also attracting leading car manufacturing companies such as Jaguar Land Rover and General Motors, both of which have recently set up software operations here.

Last year, Jaguar Land Rover announced plans to establish a new software engineering centre in Shannon (see panel). General Motors, which opened a logistics and tech support division in Limerick in 2013, has gone on to add an IT centre there responsible for developing its next generation of connected solutions for vehicle programmes including OnStar and Urban Active.

While other large FDI companies including IBM, Analog Devices, Cisco and Dell EMC are also investing in this space in Ireland, indigenous players are also making their mark. These include camera sensor developer Movidius, bought by Intel in 2016 for a reported €300m; internet-of things company Cubic Telecom, which provides location-based services to automotive OEMs; Arralis, a leader in radar and wireless communications; high tech antenna developer Taoglas; and Mergon International, which custom designs and manufactures automotive components.

Third-level response

Irish research facilities – including national software centre Lero in the University of Limerick and data analytics centre Insight – are helping to advance the sector through innovative work in ICT, internet of things, AI and software development.

At the same time, the academic sector is responding to a growing need for skills in AI and deep learning. For example, an online/part-time MEng in Connected and Autonomous Vehicles was launched by Institute of Technology (IT) Sligo in September 2018 with an initial cohort of 21 students.

According to Shane Gilroy, Programme Chair and Lecturer in Connected and Autonomous Vehicles at IT Sligo, the curriculum for the master’s was originally developed by a group of German automotive manufacturers and suppliers led by BMW, Continental AG and Kempten University of Applied Sciences. Its objective was to improve the competitiveness of the German automotive industry in the design of driver assistance systems.

“IT Sligo has expanded this curriculum with the help of a steering group of the automotive industry in Ireland such as Valeo, Jaguar Land Rover, Analog Devices and Xperi to develop the skills necessary for the design of connected and autonomous vehicles,” he says.

Cluster group

Sharing of information also plays an important role in driving the sector. For example, Vehicle of the Future (VOTF) is a cluster group co-ordinated by EI that aims to encourage collaboration in connected, autonomous, shared and electric technologies.

“A number of SMEs and smaller indigenous companies saw the need to connect with each other to find out what each of them does,” says Ann O’Connell, Senior EU Programme Manager at Irish Manufacturing Research.

When the group held its first meeting two years ago at Mergon’s facility in Castlepollard, Co Westmeath, 25 companies were in attendance. Over 90 companies attended the fourth meeting in February. “This clearly demonstrates the interest and industry engagement in the connected mobility sector,” says O’Connell.

Gilroy also sees the growing attendance at CAV Ireland and VOFT meetings as a sign of the rapid rate of growth in the industry in Ireland over the past few years. “These networking groups have provided a catalyst for all companies and research partners in Ireland to form mutually beneficial partnerships to overcome new challenges in the field,” he says.

Testing on Irish roads

Last October, Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Shane Ross announced that his department was working with industry stakeholders, other government departments and State agencies on guidelines for testing autonomous vehicles on public roads.

“These will be supported by a National Connected and Autonomous Vehicle roadmap and plan as well as a national
strategy for Intelligent Transport Systems generally,” he said. “Public confidence in autonomous vehicles must be fostered.”

“The facilities that Ireland has to offer in terms of education, research, climate and a highly skilled workforce have the potential for the country to become a significant player worldwide in the development of connected and autonomous vehicles,” says Gilroy. “The final piece of securing Ireland’s place in this new automotive revolution will come with the passing of government legislation to allow the full testing of connected and autonomous vehicles on specially designated sections of Ireland’s road network.”

Kinzen Co-Founder Talks Real News

Áine Kerr started her a career as a political correspondent writing for national papers before becoming head of content and then managing editor at Storyful. Up until 2017 she led global journalism partnerships at Facebook in New York.

Kerr’s dedication to improving how we consume news led her organically to her next venture as co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of Kinzen, a start-up developing solutions to control your news experience. Along with her co-founders Paul Watson and Storyful founder and former Twitter Ireland boss Mark Little, Kerr sought to create a news experience that the user can control and tailor to suit their needs and tastes – a personalised, authentic experience amid an era of misinformation, mistrust and fake news.

The trio have been in research and development mode since October 2017 and the first version of the
Kinzen ios app was released in early February. In building the app, Kerr and her two co-founders looked long and hard at the trends in the market and research surrounding news consumption, recognising that “a correction was coming”.

“The future is personal. There is this move away from social and people want to take back that sense of control. That is why we built the ios app experience,” she explains.

Personalisation with a purpose

Kinzen’s community editor, along with a huge group of curators, built a source directory of trustworthy, authentic sources on the internet. The app pulls content based on your interests, your location and your profession, all chosen and specified by you the user. You can set up channels that are personalised to you, with the power to exclude or promote particular sources and topics.

You are also able to tailor your experience based on the time of the day you open the app, because
as Kerr so accurately puts it, “what you’re interested in in the morning is very different to what you’re interested in in the evening.”

“In the morning I can say, I’ve got a 20 minute walk to work, just give me enough content for that
20 minute window,” Kerr explains. This function provides users with a daily routine that is “personalised, meaningful and localised.”

The Kinzen app is available on a free basic membership or on a premium membership, costing
€4.99 a month.

“An important principle for us from the get-go, at a time when so much content is disappearing behind pay walls, was to make sure that there was a free experience at Kinzen,” Kerr explains.

That said, according to Kerr, there is a Netflix generation who have become sensitised to paying for news and are willing to pay for a service that will stop “the endless scroll” and provide some routine.

“Some will make comparisons to other news apps but we very much consider ourselves, first and foremost, a technology company that’s helping citizens engage with publishers who produce quality content,” says Kerr. “We absolutely believe that our differentiator is personalisation with a purpose.”

Community spirit

To keep things interesting and allow users to feel they are “being challenged, being empowered to
see other content, and becoming more informed about the world around them”, Kinzen has created a community, with dozens of channels ready for users to explore – the idea being that you can subscribe to other users’ channels.

“On the one hand you are personalising according to you, but on the other hand you’re going to broaden your mind, you’re going to be challenged and you’re going to see new sources,” she says.

Kerr believes this function sets Kinzen apart from others in the market.

Plug and play

While the ios app will continue to evolve every month, Kinzen’s second product, a personalised newsletter for publishers, is due to launch at the end of April. Reluctant to give too much away, Kerr says: “We are talking to a lot of international, national and local players in the market and this is definitely something that is resonating with publishers at the moment.”

The newsletter will offer a “plug and play” service to publishers. “We build them a beautiful personalised
newsletter according to their particular needs, and their logos and how they want it to look and feel, then they plug it in and off they go,” Kerr explains.

“Publishers gave up a lot of control to other platforms and distributors over the years. I see this as a way for them to build a personalised experience – one-to-one with their users – and hopefully build deeper engagement and loyalty. And, if the publisher wants to convert them to a member or a subscriber, this will be a good gateway to do it,” Kerr highlights.

Coming from journalism backgrounds, this is an exciting service for both Kerr and her co-founder Little.

“We want to do something that is going to help the industry at a time of massive losses in revenue. We hope in the months to come as people check back on our website, you will start to see some big name partners that we’re working with,” she teases.

Going the distance

Kerr is proud of having “built a community from the ground up”. She describes the Kinzen community as “incentivised”.

“There’s a recognition with the people who have come to us so far of, ‘this is broken’, and they want to play a part in fixing it. There’s this mantra in platforms of ‘move fast and break things’ and we very much have taken the opposite which is ‘let’s move slow and build things’,” she adds. “We’re in this for the long run. We’ve a global ambition to really help people take back control.”

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