Written by Ed Jenkins
Nov 05, 2015

Interact 2015

Ed attended the UX conference Interact 2015

An inspirational conference

It was at last year's Interact conference that I took the plunge. I received an epiphany of sorts (a clean, crisp and well thought through UX kind) whilst enjoying high calibre talks from Information Architects and UX designers, such as Dan Klyn and Jorge Arango, drawing from fields as broad as linguistics and architecture.

I was fascinated and inspired, and from that moment I fully committed myself to pursuing a career as a UX designer.

So, as I'm sure you can imagine, I was dead keen to attend the second day of Interact 2015. It did not disappoint and, unexpected to me, the outstanding theme of the day was topography.

The Neuroscience of Aesthetics

The opening keynote was an exceptional talk on the 'Neuroscience of Aesthetics' from Anjan Chatterjee, professor of neurology at Pennsylvania Hospital.

He discussed how neuroscientists are currently studying aesthetic experiences and mapping them to brain regions and systems. 

Symmetry equals beauty?

Anjan presented research that has shown that we judge faces that are more symmetrical as being more attractive. These findings have already been applied commercially, most famously by Maximilian Faktorowicz, the founder of the cosmetics giant Max Factor.

Using the latest imaging technologies, neuroscientists have been able to map these insights onto brain regions and in particular reward associated areas such as the orbitofrontal cortex and the amygdala.

These areas of the brain are also active when looking at attractive places and structures.

In particular, research has suggested that we are more attracted to curvilinear structures rather than rectilinear structures. His bottomline is that; 

"There are parts of the brain that code for common currency regardless of the nature of reward and some parts that are sensitive to the domain in which one has the experience of something being beautiful.”

Automatic reactions to beauty

Other research has suggested that our reactions to beauty are also automatic.

During tasks in which participants were asked to make perceptive judgements, such as the width of a person’s face, neural activity continued to respond to attractiveness.

This, he believes, is a phenomena that generalises beyond faces.

Exceptional aesthetics

His final key takeaway was that research supports the idea that exceptional aesthetics engage users.

When the brain is at wakeful rest, four areas that make up what is known as the Default Mode Network are active. Give the brain a task and these areas are actually suppressed.

According to research by Dr. Ed Vessel at NYU, when viewing exceptionally beautiful or aesthetically pleasing artworks the activity of the Default Mode Network is actually increased.

One interpretation is that these moving experiences throw the user back into themselves and into a reflective mode.

"Exceptional aesthetics engage users"

User centred approach at Ordnance Survey

Next to pick up the mapping theme (unsuprisingly) was Ben Scott-Robinson of Ordnance Survey.

Ben discussed how OS is learning to; love the customer, switch to a user centred approach and accordingly change their products.

It was great to hear that Ben had discovered that their products and mobile app in particular were being used not just by ramblers, but also by scout leaders and rescue teams saving lives in the mountainous areas of the UK.

An important insight gained from their user research is that users' smartphone batteries are running flat during long hikes. This led Ben and his team to include, where possible, black backgrounds in the app's design which would reduce battery usage, particularly for phones with LED screens.

Experience, Mapping and Evolution

Next up, Angela Pesta spoke on Experience, Mapping and Evolution.

Angela took us on a swift yet educational tour of the historical context of mapping.

As UX designers we’re always using different forms of maps to understand our users and their behaviour.

Angela proposed that by working to expand our understanding of mapping techniques and methods we will see a measurable impact on user experiences.

"By working to expand our understanding of mapping techniques and methods we will see a measurable impact on user experiences"

The Designer is Present

The day concluded with a fantastic keynote from Steve Portigal, titled 'The Designer is Present'.

Steve, a user researcher and author of 'Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights', talked about the importance of being present during user interviews.

More specifically he talked about the importance of developing a mindfulness practice so that as researchers and designers we can be more self-aware and ultimately overcome our personal biases that determine how we see and judge other people.

At the end I asked him how he cultivates his own self-awareness. His answer was walking. Walking when he travels, noticing the place about him, taking photographs and posting them to social media thereby creating a map of his own life and experiences.

What a great day. Can't wait till Interact 2016.