UX Sofia 2013 – An Extensive Review

Posted on 2013/08/15 by


UX Sofia 2013 – Conference Review

At the beginning of June, I finally attended a conference in my hometown Sofia called UX Sofia (http://www.uxsofia.com). The conference took place on 5-7 June 2013 in the Bulgarian capital and was the third event of its kind there. The conference was a great opportunity for networking, thanks to a very convivial atmosphere, as well as an opportunity to take in some very interesting presentations. This report offers an in-depth review of most of the presentations made during the conference, and through it, I hope to provide a sense of how the focus differed to some others conferences I’ve recently attended.

Martina Mitzieva-Veglia

Copyright by Nikolay Ivanov  Sofia City – Copywright Nikolay Ivanov

First, a couple of words about the country I come from and where the conference was held: Bulgaria is a post-communist country and now a member of the EU. One of few in this area (the Balkans) that hasn’t suffered any wars or other major disputes since the political transition began. Since the 1990s, the country has been governed by different groupings, all stealing from and betraying their people, so that the majority of Bulgarians now live in very poor conditions and struggle to pay their bills and survive.

Against this background, I was genuinely astonished to find a reasonably-sized community of usability practitioners and enthusiasts. I have to admit that, at the very beginning, the level of content on offer felt somewhat like a ‘step back’. However, it also provided the opportunity to look at that subject matter from a very different and very rewarding perspective.


Day 1 – 5 June

The conference started with two half-day workshops. The first workshop was given by Martin Belam, who began with a very practical exercise whereby participants were asked to draw the structure of the website of the hotel where the event took place in. After 5-10 minutes, he asked how many of us had started with a desktop version – more than two-thirds had. Next, he explained that just drawing a mobile frame around content doesn`t make a mobile concept. So the exercise was a good introduction to his presentation on responsive IA. Based on a practical example of his work for the British newspaper The Guardian, Martin showed how the content has to be prioritized and restructured. His suggestion was to find the two or three main differentiating menu points (users, brand and commercial) and suppress the rest under an item (hamburger-menu) such as “all the other stuff”.

After lunch, Eric Reiss began his workshop “Usable Usability”, which was actually more of a presentation than a workshop. Eric talked about his structuring of the usability concept. He presented a couple of very narrow definitions of usability provided by experts, based only on their field of experience, and used these to arrive to a more universal definition: usability as ease of use (“it does what I want it to do”) and as elegance and clarity (“it does what I expect it to do”). These also correspond to the physical and psychological elements of the usability concept. Next, he split up ease of use into five fields: functional, responsive, ergonomic, convenient and foolproof, while also dividing elegance and clarity into five fields: visible, understandable, logical, consistent and predictable. For every field, he presented a list of 10 things to do or consider while concentrating on that particular field. The practical part of the workshop was the homework Eric gave us, which was to create “guerilla usability” on a current project, by choosing one thing from each list to be improved upon; then, prioritizing the 10 things in order of difficulty; then, in order of importance to achieving business goals and, from there, begin work on the things that appeared near the top on both lists. The final step, he explained, was “show your boss the money”.


Day 2 – 6 June

The second day started with a very practical workshop by Steven Anderson – this was definitely a personal highlight of the conference. We began designing time-tracking software by using some of Stephen`s “Mental Notes” (http://getmentalnotes.com/). I stumbled upon this very practical tool over a year ago as I was working on a presentation about human behavior. And here I found what I referenced at the beginning as the “interesting focus” of the conference – in many presentation across different conferences I’ve attended in Western Europe, the importance of psychology in our work is mentioned repeatedly; however, I’ve never before experienced such detailed work around psychological principles. We iteratively designed a time-tracking tool in groups using the “Mental Notes”, based on psychological human behavior principles like reputation/status, self-expression, competition, visual imagery, autonomy and delighters. We started by applying the first principle in the design and iterated further with every new principle presented by Stephen. The ideas presented were very engaging and much more fun than the actual types of software that we are all pretty familiar with in our everyday working life. At the end, Stephen introduced an additional free give-away tool he brought to Bulgaria, as he knows most of the people there can not afford his Mental Notes deck (which costs around $45-$75 including shipping and taxes) – the Mental Notes Cube. This is a summary of all terms used in the Mental Notes deck, separated by situational use, so that everyone can search for those terms in Google, as they are universal. This was a very generous and touching gesture!

The afternoon started with the workshop “People and Processes” by Birgit Geiberger and Peter Boersma, that, unfortunately, I could not attend. However, I heard a lot of good feedback about it and was happy to learn that, on the day after, Birgit was going to present part of it in a different form.


Day 3 – 7 June

On the final seminar day, there were six presentations in all. The day started with a double espresso and Eric Reiss, who spoke on the opportunity to turn historic adversity into business advantage. Eric began by pointing out the difference between “responsive” and “adaptive” design, to ultimately suggesting a new term “anticipatory” design, that contains the ESP technique, i.e., extracts patterns, situationally aware (location, motion, time) and predicts needs. Furthermore, he gave us four of his many life lessons:

Eric`s life-lesson #1: Don`t respond to the device. Anticipate the needs of those who will use the device.

Eric Reiss @ UX Sofia

Eric`s life-lesson #2: Don`t worship the form. Embrace the content and context

Eric`s life-lesson #3: Don`t become a slave to process. Break rules. Accept the unexpected.

Eric`s life-lesson #4: Don`t sacrifice your users for the benefit of your employer. No business plan has ever succeeded without customers.

The essence of his presentation can be found in a tongue-twisting abbreviation he offered to represent his (and now my) favorite process – DWYNTDTGTSD, or Do What You Need To Do To Get The Shit Done!

The next presentation by Konstantin Ivanov and George Dalukov was one of the moments in which I felt the experience of  “stepping back” I mentioned before. The presentation started with a question: ‘who considers him or herself to be an interaction or UX designer?’ I was amazed to see only about 10 hands raised out of the approximately 200 delegates in the room. The two men presented a user-centered design process through the example of a restaurant menu app – a very helpful introduction for the majority of the visitors. The visualization of the phases was well done and the speakers had an easy-going and humorous narrative style, all the more impressive as I believe it was their first official presentation at a conference. They completed the presentation with a list of 10 top UX-related pieces of advice:

  1. Know your audience – design for users and their specific tasks, not for yourself.
  2. Integration – emphasize solutions that integrate features. Ensure every feature benefits the user.
  3. Constant feedback – provide specific and relevant feedback to the user.
  4. Automation – automate common tasks and provide intelligent default values.
  5. Consistency – be consistent and follow UI standards and guidelines.
  6. Manage complexity – use progressive disclosure to present only the data that users need when they need it.
  7. Operational context – allow transfer between states while preserving the built-up context.
  8. Stability and predictability – ensure the same actions always produce the same results.
  9. Intuitiveness – incorporate real-world behavior to help the user build a mental model of the product.
  10. Try-error-escape – anticipate the user to make errors, but allow an easy and safe escape route.

After a short coffee break, it was time for the presentation I had been very much anticipating – “Communicating in Style” by Birgit Geiberger. Although the title may not sound very engaging, given the feedback from her workshop, I was expecting a lot. I wasn`t disappointed: Birgit started by highlighting the fact that up to 93% of communication is conveyed through observable behavior. She then provided a brief historical review of some theoretical personality models, focusing on one developed by David Merrill in the 1960s – the Social Styles Model. She stressed that the Social Styles Model is not a personality model, and, instead, categorizes people based on observable behavioral patterns. According to Merrill’s model, there are four types of social styles – thinker, relator, socializer and director, ordered on a four-dimensional scale, from indirect to direct and from guarded to open:

Social Style - Modelux-sofia-birgitgreiner-logo

After an invitation to categorize ourselves, Birgit explained that we all show some aspects of all four styles, but one of them is most commonly to the fore and, therefore, the dominant one. She then went into more detail, explaining the typical patterns for each and every style, but also their likes, fears, weaknesses and needs, before finally explaining how to identify someone’s style and how to communicate with it in particular:

  • The Thinker – provide a lot of information, they will look for patterns and factual relationships; provide thoughtful arguments and facts; give time to process; provide plans with deadlines to set expectations; inform early about potential changes; and don`t misinterpret lack of obvious enthusiasm with lack of interest.
  • The Relator – be supportive; develop a relationship and spend time talking; be friendly and understanding; inform early on when changes might occur; don`t break promises; and make them feel safe.
  • The Socializer – show appreciation for their work; be supportive of their ideas; never ignore them; be positive and energetic; and help them to stay on track.
  • The Director – provide executive summary upfront; be clear and precise; get to the point fast, don`t irritate by being inefficient or indecisive; provide options and show benefits; and don`t talk about personal topics.

This presentation again exceeded expectations, as I was not anticipating such a detailed psychological analysis, presented from a very practical point of view. I will study the presentation again and would warmly advise others to do so too! ( Find it on Slideshare: http://www.slideshare.net/birgitgcom/ux-sofia-people-presentation-slideshare-2013-0607)

After lunch, Ina Ivanova and Dimiter (Jimmy) Simov started with a very refreshing presentation called “Design thinking vs. user-centered design”.  Kicking off, they presented a humorous  list in order to know if one is doing proper user-centered design (UCD):

  • use sticky notes
  • make sketches with a variety of expensive pens and pencils
  • have personas with names like Vanessa and Sandy
  • use lots and lots (and lots) of whiteboards
  • and have a fancy, trendy job title 🙂

Like Eric Reiss, they stressed that all design processes are only examples of an overall approach they called DAGUP – design approach guaranteeing usable products.

From here, Martin Belam talked about “Making the same mistakes twice” supported by very practical examples of his working experience. He presented eight common mistakes and their solutions:

  • Testing with particular users

               Solution: Always test with at least one person from outside of your project team.

  • Over-engineering

               Solution: Write out over-engineered systems as user stories.

  • Forget the UX of the tools

               Solution: Treat content production staff like end users, with important needs and goals.

  • Forget to measure

               Solution: Make your own metrics dashboard. Print it out. Stick it on the wall in the office.

  • Pre-determined outcomes

               Solution: Find another place to devote your energy or quit the job.

  • Forgetting mobile

               Solution: Develop on mobile. Make mobile part of your UAT.

  • Delaying building

               Solution: Prototype: paper, code, Lego…

  • Project burn-out

               Solution: Look out for colleagues. Learn own signs of burnout.

And here again I felt very pleasantly surprised, as I had never before heard someone talking about burnout in the context of UX with such honesty.

The final presentation “Designing for Micromoments: Tiny Interactions with Big Payoffs” by Stephen Anderson was also very refreshing but also very practical too. He started with an issue that I have often thought about, but never nailed with such a convincing term – “commodity UX”: In essence, just having some user requirement + finding some design patterns and best practices + using a decent CSS and JavaScript framework does not equal good UX, but rather commodity UX. He advised, instead, that we should be striving for great design at all times. Through a lot of practical examples, he showed what makes a good, outstanding design and gave us a very practical tip to bear in mind when working on interactions: think of them as conversations and play them through. This sounded very strange at first, but he showed how this works with the help of Peter Boersma playing the role of the computer. Based on the idea of creating a form for an event booking, the two started a role-playing game. This was hilarious at the beginning but allowed us to appreciate how unnatural and frustrating the interaction with a technical system can so often be.  I think this was not just the funniest but also one of the most enlightening moments of the whole conference! You can watch a similar role play featuring Stephen, to get a sense how it works, on his YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hkAFdIrTR00 (I am definitely going to try this one out!).



I hope this account gives a sense of the pleasure, but also the pride, I felt at being part of this conference. Although it seemed a little difficult to break the ice with fellow participants on the first day, this changed immediately once I got to know the organizers. They really took great care of everyone who had come from abroad (both participants and speakers) and brought us to dinner at the end of the second day. I can honestly say I have never before had the chance to talk to, and engage with, so many different and insightful UX professionals as I did on that memorably evening and for the rest of the conference!

Let me conclude by giving my very sincere thanks to the two amazing women who organized the whole event and who were such delightful hosts – Angelina Ivancheva and Irina Gerdjikova: Благодаря за прекрасното преживявяне и за инспирацията! 🙂

Presentations from the conference can be found at: http://www.uxsofia.com/#seminar

Posted in: English