Learnings from being a juror for the UX challenge of the German UPA

For the last couple of days, I had a fun new hobby: Looking at submission for this year's UX challenge. Since 2017, the German UPA (Usability Professional Association) has a new tradition for its annual conference: For the UX challenge, students and graduates can submit concepts with an innovative user experience, often tackling very important problems in the areas of health, inclusion of e.g. elderly people or other recent issues in our society. For example, last year a fact checking app addressing fake news won. Find more info on the challenge here.

This year, I became one of the jurors for this event. It was a very fun experience but it also had unforeseen effects: First of all I was reminded of the creative power that a group of students can unfold and secondly, as I needed to rate the concepts, I had to explicitly think about what makes a UX good. 

Students can solve any and all problems

As a former student and a university teacher doing industry cooperation projects that would actually have made good contestants for this challenge, I already knew this - but it hit me again when I looked at the submissions: Projects that have an ideation focus can lead to incredible results when students are involved. I see a number of reasons, why students are the ideal group for this kind of project:

  • Most students are young and very bright, which is a good prerequisite for developing innovative tech concepts as they usually are up to date with technology and trends.
  • For many students, their motivation will be through the roof if there is some kind of real-life application or even better, other project partners, involved.
  • The amount of time many students will devote to these kinds of projects will never again be as high later in life. In a typical work environment, ideation will rather take place in a side project with a few workshops, which can also lead to amazing results of course but in comparison with the time students have at their hands, it cannot compete. 
  • Students are rather unexperienced with regard to the work world, which is a big advantage, as with experience, imagination gets limited. In a student project, things can move quickly and I have seen students learn a new programming language to make the game they had in mind happen - there basically is no limit! Joining the work force however slows things down considerably and many ideas get reality-checked too quickly, so that ideas can become less innovative.
  • Very often, student groups know each others and are friends - another advantage over colleagues where friendships may also exist but are less frequent. Voicing "crazy" ideas will work better among friends. Also, they may take up the topic again and again if they happen to hang out with (or live with!) their team members as well.

Every company that needs to come up with an innovative concept should consider doing a cooperation project with a university. And there's a good chance they will be welcomed with open arms. 

What makes a UX good?

Over the course of reviewing all 44 submissions, I realised a couple of things that make a UX (concept) good. To me, it mostly boiled down to simplicity. There were two things that are important to keep things simple: a) concentrate on main features and b) choosing the simplest technology possible.

Concentrate on main features

Most concepts consisted of main features and additional nice-to-have features. The big idea of course were the main features, they solve the user's pain point and built the basis of the concept. If you ask the question:What-is-this-and-why-do-we-need-this?  you would expect to answer with describing the main features.

With too many features of the second kind both the concept team and the user can get distracted from the main idea. It gets more difficult to communicate the main USP of the concept if there is a need to explain many extra features with different purposes as well. Thus, there is a risk of distracting the user (and a jury :) from the elegant main feature. 

Naturally, not all features will have received the same amount of attention when creating the concept as the main attention is reserved for the main features. However, all features in a concept should have been critically scrutinised, e.g. by answering questions such as: Will users really use this feature? Is there an easier way to do this? etc. Thus, a concept with less features may make a better overall impression than one with more, but flawed, features.

Choose the simplest technology possible

Choosing an advanced technology (such as AR glasses) can be inspiring and lead to wonderfully innovative ideas. However, in general I would advocate that a complex technology should only be chosen if it adds value to the concept. The device-choice should be driven by the concept and not the other way round

Even more so, the downsides to new technologies can make the concept less attractive overall. In comparison to a standard technology such as a smart phone, there are several disadvantages for the user experience if the technology chosen is too complex. Complex technology can be too expensive for many, exclude certain users (e.g. users with glasses or those easily feeling motion-sick) and is unlikely to become part of every-day life any time soon (what do users take with them if they leave the house?). Thus, using a device that users have already and is well-known would be preferable in general. 

I wish all contestants in this year's challenge good luck and am looking forward to finding out who won at this year's MuC conference.

20.07.2021, Image from Michael Jarmoluk on Pixabay.