PiggyBank – (UX Design)

The Problem – Stop unwanted subscription fees

The Stakeholder brief: It’s hard to keep track of all the products and services that we have subscribed to every month. All we see is money deducting from our accounts, sometimes from services that we don’t need anymore. The challenge is to design a product which helps manage these subscriptions.

Deadline: 2-weeks

I embarked on this project to prove that my end-to-end UX methodology could produce impactful results within a 2-week sprint.

My 2-Week UX Methodology

My UX toolkit

Day 01

Miro Whiteboard Ideation

With a 2-week deadline, I needed to work fast and efficiently. I’m a visual thinker and I dream big, which means that my ideas come thick and fast. Tell me a problem and my mind will light up with a flurry of solutions. I need a tool to get all my thoughts down and laser-focus my thinking.

Restrictions act as compost for creative ideas, so I spent one hour whiteboarding with Miro to scope out ideas, gaps in knowledge and determine an approach with context.

  • Summary of Miro Ideation:
  • Ideas:
    1. Offer the app free for 6 months
    2. Start new subscription i.e. Netflix > Get confirmation email > Send email to Sub-app > Sub-app adds a new entry with reminder
    3. Users are asked to rate a subscription to determine whether it’s value for money

Competitor Analysis

The results of my competitor analysis and S.W.O.T. analysis are shown below with major insights highlighted in pink.

S.W.O.T. Analysis

  • Summary of Competitor Analysis / S.W.O.T. Analysis:
    • All subscription apps on the market can be split into two categories:
      1. Connect to a bank account:
        • App automatically determines regular payments
        • Sophisticated data analysis
        • A.I. transaction management
      2. Stand-alone app:
        • Input subscriptions manually
        • Basic data reporting (basic info in / basic info out)
        • Low security issues
  • I identified a gap in the market:
    • An app that lies in-between both categories
    • Independent of a bank account
    • Asks the user questions to collect data
    • Provides deeper data analysis
    • Knows “why” a subscription should be cancelled

Problem Statement

“My user needs a way to track the usefulness of a subscription, so that they can make a decision whether it’s value for money.”

Day 02

Research Goals

  • Understand which products / apps are being used and by whom.
  • Learn how these apps are being used and which pain points exist.
  • Identify what’s missing from existing apps and highlight opportunities.

Survey

  • I created a survey using Google Forms with these goals:
    • Define a target audience.
    • Gather data about subscription use and mental models used in managing finances.
    • Gain some understanding how, when and why subscriptions are cancelled  
  • Summary of the survey:
    • Average age 25
    • 10-15 subscriptions
    • 81% manage their subscriptions manually
    • 59% manage their subscriptions in their head
    • 85% “I cancel a subscription when I realise that I no longer need this.”
      • Which means there has to be a period where the subscription is no longer used, but is still being paid for
      • This raises the question, at what point is the subscription no longer useful?
      • And can this be pin-pointed?

User interviews

  • I wrote a script for the user interviews with these goals:
    • Understand what unique methods people use to manage their subscriptions
    • Understand why users are managing subscriptions in their head
    • Hear some real life stories that reveal the user’s thought process when cancelling a subscription. 

Day 03

Affinity maps

I conducted the interviews and created an affinity map of the key quotes.

  • Summary points of the user interviews / affinity map:
    • “I manage my subscriptions in my head.”
    • “I cancel when I realise that I’m not using it anymore.”
    • “I expect the app to track my progress.”

Key findings

  • My key findings from the research:
    • I know that users are managing subscriptions in their head
    • I know that users are relying on the apps to track their progress
    • I know that users will decide to cancel once they realise that they are no longer using it
  • With these insights, I began to think about a perceived cycle from the user that was not working for them:
    • Apps use reminders, gamification and hooks to push the user to make progress
    • The user becomes more addicted
    • The app praises the user when they’re doing well
    • Which pushes the user to use the app more
    • However…
      • It will never tell you that you don’t need the app anymore
      • Even though the user is relying on the app to track progress

In order to understand this better, I came up with this analogy about storing a block of cheese.

  • We buy cheese and store it in our fridge.
  • We keep it in our head how long it has been there for.
  • If nobody uses the cheese, it will eventually go bad, but it will take time for the cheese to show signs of mould.
  • Once we see the mould, we know to throw the cheese away.
  • However if there was a hack that told you the exact moment when your cheese was starting to go bad, we would manage the cheese in our fridge better.

User persona

I summarised my research by personifying the data.


User journey

I mapped out the user’s journey when I realised why users were managing subscription in their head.

  • Summary of the user’s journey:
    • Users manage their subscriptions in their head
    • Users are not setting a reminder in order to re-affirm that their goal for that app will be a success
      • “I will use this app to reach my goal.”
      • “It will be successful.”
      • “It will be value for money.”
    • By setting a reminder the user would be saying:
      • “I need to set a reminder to check whether I have failed.”
      • “Failure is not an option.”
      • “If I were to set a reminder, it might mean that I will fail.”

I amended the problem statement to the final version:

Problem Statement (amended)

“Alex needs a way to track the usefulness of an app over time, so they know the right time to cancel based on insights. This will be confirmed when Alex saves money after cancelling a subscription recommended by the app.”


Task analysis

The following task analysis showed the core feature of my unique app:

Day 04

Ideation

Day 05

Mid-fidelity wireframing

Day 06

User testing

  • I wrote a test script with these goals in mind:
    • Set the scene about managing subscriptions
    • Create a hypothetical scenario where the user would like to track a subscription
    • Ask the user to set up a subscription tracker for a gym membership
    • Ask the user to track the subscription’s usefulness over time
    • Ask the user about these key features

Day 07

User testing – what needs fixing

“On the first screen I’ve set a payment threshold of €40, but in relation to what?”

– User Tester
  • My original idea that I sketched was designed to help lighten the burden for users who previously managed subscriptions in their head, wanted to migrate to a digital solution, but did not want a lot of time setting their subscription trackers up.
    • Suggested Change – HIGH PRIORITY
      • After further consideration, I began to question the usefulness of this screen
      • If our goal is to save the user money, then there does not need to be any threshold
      • Recommendation is to remove this screen completely
    • Evidence
      • My first tester highlighted this and after including an additional question in the script, all other testers agreed to remove this superfluous screen.

“The payment input field is so small I cannot see it properly.”

– User Tester
  • A design error that was easily fixed. The payment was big enough on my original sketches, but during the mid-fidelity screens the font was not sized correctly.
    • Suggested Change – HIGH PRIORITY
      • Increase font
      • Consider changing the payment input field to the same style as all other fields
    • Evidence
      • Again my first tester highlighted this oversight which clearly needed fixing.

“I think the Frequency input field is confusing. I’m not sure if this is a single or regular reminder. I would also put this at the beginning.”

– User Tester
  • I think a part of this problem was an error in the testing script. I had primed the user with too much information about how the app would remind the user in the future about tracking the usefulness of their subscription. This caused confusion when similar wording appeared in the prototype.
    • Suggested Change – MEDIUM PRIORITY
      • I decided to add a Calendar icon to allow the user to choose their own reminder date
      • I also changed the wording to simply read, Reminder
    • Evidence
      • After this was highlighted in the user testing, I went back to my research
      • I looked through the screenshots that I had taken from competitor apps
      • I made slight changes, but decided not to change the order
      • I would like to look into this option further and conduct some further research with other testers to fully understand user’s perception of this.

Day 08

Hi-fidelity screens

The process flow of my final screens.

Day 09

Hi-fidelity prototype

Day 10

Project summary

  • What opportunities remain for future improvement?
    • I am looking at patenting this idea or approaching the existing companies who offer similar apps whether they would be interested in my research or integrating the idea into one of their app’s features
  • Key learnings:
    • My UX methodology can be adapted to be a 1-week, 2-week, 3-week or 4-week process
    • It’s really hard not to run away with all the big ideas that comes into my head at the start of the process. My UX methodology is there to prove it right or wrong.
    • It initially felt demotivating to work on a project that had been done to death. However it was a great challenge and it reiterated that there are always great opportunities to be had for talented designers

About me

I’m Martin Gamble, a UX and Service Designer with a background in design, operations and project management.

I’m originally from the UK, have lived in Germany for 6 years and am Berlin-based.

What’s the difference between UX and UI?

UX encompasses all the interactions that a user has with a company’s product, service and web applications. UX is a methodology that’s driven by emotional research to understand everything how a user thinks – their mental models, their behaviours, their needs and goals. UX is about mapping the user’s journey to complete a task from start to finish, understanding any pain points and creating effective solutions in the form of prototypes. UX is about testing these prototypes to find out what works and what doesn’t work, then iterating the design until an optimum user experience is achieved.

UI is all about the visual interactions that a company has between a company’s product, service and web applications. UI is all about the aesthetics and creating visually pleasing user experiences. UI is all about the colour palettes, typography, language, icons, buttons, call-to-actions and the way the user navigates through an experience perhaps through scrolling, swiping or via voice commands. UI is driven by a style guideline in the form of a online design system in order to create high-standard consistency and thus increasing the quality of the experience for the user.

To summarise, UX focuses on the way something functions, the way the user feels and their overall experience. Whereas UI is all about aesthetics and creating visually pleasing visual interactions.

The History of Adobe Illustrator

When Adobe Illustrator V1 was first released in 1987, the creators aimed to revolutionise the professional illustration and graphic design market by bringing digital solutions to everyday analogue problems. “My wife couldn’t ink,” said President of Adobe and creator of Illustrator John Warnock, referring to the laborious process of manually drawing and sketching illustrations.

People would use Rapidograph pens which are industry standard fine art pens that maintain a standard thickness no matter the movement or direction. They were messy, they would explode and one mistake right at the final line would render a drawing that you’d just spent a whole day working on would be ruined. Clients would ask for colour, size and style changes which before Illustrator meant starting from scratch.

V1 – 1987

Illustrator was the first clear signal that artwork was starting to become digitalised, and for some this felt like a threat to their profession. Designers who had mastered the skills of using analogue tools like the industry standard Rapidograph pens struggled to grasp the new concept of bezier curves. But for others, Illustrator’s pen tool was their new best friend. It allowed a whole new generation of designers to bring their ideas to the table and have complete control over every curve of the design. Many students who were finishing their design degrees at the time quickly mastered these techniques offered by Illustrator and proudly showcased the artwork that for the first time had been created using a computer.

The original version of Illustrator was a basic user interface between the user and the postscript code. One user remembers working with Adobe and if he made a mistake, he would have to ask a developer to come and remove that bit of code as if it were an undo function. Soon this would become a feature of Illustrator and for many traditionally trained graphic designers, a wave of a magic wand to be able to undo something and try again as this allowed designers to be braver and try out things that they’d never tried before.

An original Apple Mac circa. 1984

V5 – 1993

Did you know that before v5 of Illustrator it was not possible to work on the preview of a design? This meant that designers would have to have two versions of a design open – one version to work on and one version to preview the final version. Adobe quickly responded to the market needs after they had a flood of complaints that designers were having to have two versions open and released this feature to do live editing in preview mode.

V7 – 1997

For many years up until this version, designers had to battle with two different formats of fonts, namely Truetype fonts and Postscript fonts. The format war was quickly dispelled when Illustrator released V6 that was compatible with both and for some designers, instantaneously doubling their font library if they’d previously used a graphics package that only allowed one type of font from their library.

Even today there is still a strong debate as to whether Macs or PCs are the strongest machine to use. A big part of this is dependant on the work that you’re doing and of course some arguments are subjective. Before version 7 there was no compatibility between the Mac versions of Illustrator and the Windows versions of competitor packages like Coreldraw and Freehand.

After this, collaboration between artists, studios and printers was much easier and there was less need to buy additional packages just for compatibility purposes.

With version 7 came the ability to move around and customise the tool palettes. Up until this point, if a user was working on a design that required both the Align and Transform palettes, they would have to constantly change between the two. This new features to be able to split the palettes and place them wherever you wanted to on screen allowed for a smoother work flow due to the constant interruptions needed to switch between tool palettes.

The text tool was also updated in this version including the ability to place type on a curve. Not only did this allow designers to create new designs and layouts with fun titles that engendered movement and direction, it also spawned a whole sub-genre of art called Calligram. Dylan Roscover is famous for creating these illustrations that are made out of type I.e. a moscaic made out of words. His most famous example of Steve Jobs in 1990’s that included quotes from his speeches drew attention from Time magazine and Roscover eventually created a Caligram of Romney and Obama for one of their magazine front covers.

V8 – 1998

Imagine doing UI Design without the gradient tool? It didn’t appear in Illustrator until v8 and this ability to mix two colours together to get a smooth blend started a new trend. A gradient creates visual interest and helps users navigate a design. If you search for UI Design examples on any search engine or social media platform like Instagram, the majority of the strongest examples leverage the gradient tool because of its simplicity to create and its power to attract.

Smart guides was an example of introducing AI (artificial intelligence) into Ai (Illustrator). The main purpose of Smart Guides is to bring consistency, precision and speed to a designer’s workflow, but it can be a great learning tool for new designers. Just like a spell-checking feature in a word processor teaches many people correct spelling and grammar, Smart Guides gives inspiration to budding designers as to what can be lined up and when. This useful tool is now a heavy feature of programs such as Adobe XD where speed and conversion of UX design idea to screen is key.

CS2 – 2005

A rainbow gradient

When I first saw Live Trace I knew how important this tool would be for me. I have spent many years mastering the pen tool, but after looking at some drawings you know that a computer can create it half the time as you could. The traditional process for many designers and illustrators would be to sketch out using pen or pencil, then take a snapshop on a camera or mobile phone. Once the raster version is on screen as a backdrop, the artist can then draw over the lines using bezier curves. Live Trace gave users the ability to skip a huge step in this process by getting this intuitive tool to make the bezier curves themselves. The tool requires some mastering, but the beauty is that if the tool creates a few curves which are not quite right, as they are bezier curves they can be quickly amended for precision.

CS6 – 2012

Many design reviews of this new version of Illustrator starts with the new “darker interface”, which of course is still controllable if you were to prefer the previous lighter version. This update had listened and observed how some users were struggling with headaches and eye strain after working on their graphics for hours a day. Combined with additional research about how bright colours on a monitor were prime culprits to adding to eye strain, the simple change to the darker interface was for some designers the equivalent of being wrapped up in a fluffy blanket on a cold day.

CC2014 – 2014

CC Libraries is another step towards global thinking and the ever increasing demand for remote working. Today in many areas of UX and UI design, teams and companies are spread out all over the world. Studios, clients and even colleagues sitting next to each other need a consistent and structured way to collaborate and share assets and CC Libraries was the solution that was released. Even from v1 of Illustrator when designers saw the potential power of the software in being able to make those oh-so-annoying client changes on the computer instead of starting again, CC Libraries allows multiple users to ‘child’ instances of graphic elements like logos, icons and straplines which will update if there is a change to the master / parent. All corporate branding goes through stages of evolution with design iterations that include tiny tweaks and major overhauls. As long as all designers work consistently by utilising assets from the CC Libraries, making client changes to artwork can be now be done in minutes rather than days or weeks.

Illustrator is now available on the iPad

Jellyfish

I was standing in the sea, ankle-deep in water that was splashing up against my rolled-up pyjama bottoms. The reflection of the moon made a pointed line on the sea’s surface, guiding me like an arrow to go further in. I heard a voice calling my name. I looked over my shoulder, expecting to see my parents, but the beach was empty. 

It didn’t take me long to find a jellyfish and I fished it out of the water with my bare hands, like a doctor handling one of my internal organs, my heart or my liver perhaps. I ate the jellyfish on the spot, no hesitation, no questions, no conscious reason nor purpose. It was like I had swallowed a pill that froze time, as if time were something tangible that had danced on the surface of the ocean until that moment. I had always been fascinated with the creatures, seemingly harmless on sight, soft and squishy with their milkshake colours that reminded me of penny sweets. Something terrible about that day had made me eat a jellyfish, to help side-step a lingering memory that my brain could not process. 

That day when my family and I had walked along the coastline for hours. We had barely muttered a handful of words to each other all day. My parents had even held hands and walked close to each other. 

The next morning, I could remember little of the experience. What had the jellyfish tasted like? Why had I not keeled over from the sting? Had I learned how to digest pain? Only a void remained, an unascertainable thing that I could not see, describe or touch. An emptiness, as if I had stuck my head down a well that signified the end of space with nothing on the other side. I had eaten a jellyfish. As a result, chunks of memory began to disappear, leaving holes as if the jellyfish were smothering me, yet simultaneously protecting me. 

Holidays were never the same again. Minimal conversation between us, driving along long roads, visiting derelict castles and looking at ruins that had stood crumbling for years. One year, on our last morning before driving home, we had an early breakfast and went for a walk along the beach. At one point we stopped and Mother made us all hold hands. Further down the beach, a couple of boys my age were poking something in the sand with sticks. I didn’t dare look, I sensed that it was most likely a jellyfish. I felt my fists clenched as I walked away and heard one boy say excitedly, ‘Corr, you’ve just pierced it.’ I felt dizzy and closed my eyes, picturing myself stood ankle-deep in the sea, hypnotised by the moonlight years before. In my mind, I saw a familiar boy a few years younger than me standing on the water’s surface far out to sea. I opened my eyes again to the sunshine. It made me frown and I dug my nails further into my palms. My mother hugged me, took my hand and walked on. The boys who were poking the jellyfish stared at me in silence as we walked past. 

It wasn’t until eight years later that I began to recollect the experience of the night I ate the jellyfish. Sat around the breakfast table, the atmosphere was as cold and pale as the milk bottles that had been left outside on the doorstep. 

‘What’s your weirdest dream?’ I asked. ‘You know, the one that’s always stayed with you.’ 

My family began sharing stories of their most vivid dreams, the glimpses of certain scenes and the visceral feelings that they described had come back repeatedly, time and time again like a Monday-morning alarm clock. When it was my turn, I recited my recollection of eating a jellyfish. I had never told a story with such reverence, nobody had ever listened to me long enough, but I spared no detail as if it were the speech of my life, pausing at many points to ensure I chose the correct word that deftly described what I had experienced. Around the table, the eggs went hard, the toast was left to go cold and the tea in the teapot was left un-poured. At the moment of telling how I had swallowed the jellyfish, I began to shake. Sweat began to form around my armpits, seeping into my t-shirt while droplets formed on my forehead. I felt sick, as if I were about to vomit my breakfast back up. I swallowed hard, buried my head in my hands, my elbows resting on the table. My sister pushed some baked beans around her plate with her fork. My father put his spoon down into his cereal bowl and pushed the half-empty bowl away from him. My mother hugged me again. 

After breakfast, Mother showed me the family photo album. Pictures I could not remember seeing before. It was full of pictures taken before the jellyfish-holiday. Pictures of us all smiling and playing in the sand with another younger boy. The same familiar boy I had seen standing on the water. 

I stared at the boy and said, ‘I don’t know him,’ even though his face told a thousand stories. Mother began to cry. I started shaking again and my eyes widened. I felt a sharp energy radiating from my mother which made the blood in my veins flow with vigour. I still had no idea what had happened, only that there was indeed something in that void; something down that well; something beyond the end of space. Confusion, like a joining of form and feeling, of nature and resistance, of understanding and oblivion. I thought of the jellyfish and began to hear the crashing of waves in my ears as if it were a language that only I could understand. I sat and listened with the hope that an answer would appear like a bubble rising to the surface. 

My mother arranged for me to talk to a doctor. Each time I could think of nothing but the jellyfish. I could feel it swimming around inside my stomach. He convinced me to tell him the story of me on the beach. I relaxed and described the disjointed memories that often flew at me like a swarm of bees around my head. 

I am on the beach. The beach is filled with families laughing and playing in the hot sun. I am standing in the cool ankle-deep water, staring out towards the horizon. I start vomiting up a grey and salty bile, my whole body is quivering even though there is no apparent danger. There is a lump in my throat, so I crunch my stomach as tight as I can, expelling all air from my lungs. Out pops the jellyfish and plops into the shallow water. It lands between some seaweed, judders a few times, then lies lifeless. I cough, splutter and wipe dripping saliva from my lips. I feel someone slapping my back to help me recover. I look up to see the younger boy from my mother’s photo album. He has the same colour hair as me and familiar features. My brother. My brother who drowned in the sea after being stung by a jellyfish. I had been too young to understand until now. I look at the jellyfish that I had just regurgitated, now floating lifeless on the sea’s surface. I stand on it, hoping to break it up and help it decompose quicker. Unexpectedly, it pops like a water balloon and the release of water from inside makes a gurgling sound. Its energy and its hold over my thoughts and feelings have gone, washed away back into the sea. I smile, turn towards the shore where families have gathered in groups, some holding their hands over their eyes to block out the sun, others holding their children close. I walk back to my family, holding my brother’s hand as he sings a song that I have not heard in years.

Photo by Davide Sibilio on Unsplash

How to survive a Career Foundry Boot camp

I finished my UX design boot camp in 2020 and am thrilled to have become a certified UX designer. I found that by having more than twenty years’ experience in project management, graphic design and building print prototypes proved invaluable as they form the arsenal of tools needed for UXD.

I was completely satisfied with my boot camp experience and if I were to do it again or any other Career Foundry course, there’s little I would want changing. Here are my recommendations to other students who are thinking about taking up the challenge.

(1) If you’re working with the Arbeitsamt with a Bildungsgutschein, then the pace is fast. In order to complete the course within the five months window, you should aim to complete one task per day. I would say 90% of the time I managed this without a problem. Most weeks I would be so ahead of schedule that I could take at least one if not two days to focus on something else, reviewing content perhaps or brushing up on software skills. There were three of four assignments which were not approved first time and required extra work. There are important assignments like wireframing and portfolio building that take much longer to build, but these are marked in the course content and your tutor can advise you further.

(2) Be original – you’ll get a lot more out of the course if you don’t just copy everyone else. As you’ll soon see, there are a lot of people who have already done this course and you’ll find three examples of students’ work for each task. These tasks are recently approved examples, but the idea here is not to copy the examples – that would be plagiarism. For me, there’s just no point in viewing these examples until I’m 75% of the way through my own work, otherwise it influences my creativity and I’m unable to come up with anything original. I found that so many students produced almost a carbon copy of previous students’ work, copying table headings, structure, approach and style. What’s the point in doing a design course if you’re just going to copy from everyone else? Be original and at least try and come up with something new instead of taking the safe option all the time.

(3) Writing. Be prepared to do a lot of writing. For me, that’s easy – I have a degree in creative writing, I’m an introvert and a visual thinker. The words spill on the page and within a few minutes I’ve written down all my thoughts. However not everyone is the same. If you’re more of a talker, then don’t get disheartened – I’ve always believed that talkers get further in business life than writers, but that’s down to you. Find ways to get your words from your head onto the page. Record your voice whilst pacing up and down your room. If you’re moving your body, then your mind has less chance to edit your words. Play back your recording and make a transcript, or find an app that does it automatically for you. Don’t forget to spell check your work – better still, a quick proof-read. I saw spelling and grammar mistakes on assignments as tutors are not here to mark you down for these.

(4) Software. Unless you’re already a master in Adobe XD, Sketch, Figma, Invision and Zeppelin, then you’re going to be learning a lot of new software. I first started learning Microsoft Word in 1991 (yes, I’m that old) and as much as new software can still feel overwhelming, remember it’s easy to master any software package with time. Just dive right in and play around. Pick one software to create your wireframes and prototype and master that during your big project. Once you’ve mastered one software, trust yourself that you will easily be able to master another one. It’s acceptable to answer an interview question with, “ I don’t know that particular software, however I know that I’ll pick it up within days or weeks.”

(5) Be prepared for a lot of competition when you’ve finished your course. There are a lot of new UX designers out there – and I mean a lot, in particular in you’re here in Berlin. I saw a job advert today that had been posted for just 11 hours and already had 127 applicants. It seems that the job centre has found a way of deferring hundreds of people searching for work by placing them on a six month re-schooling program. When you’ve finished the course, be prepared that you’re not guaranteed to walk into a job straight away (but fingers crossed you get lucky!). Even the Junior UX Design jobs have a lot of competition. LinkedIn is great, but it’s disheartening to see how many people apply for the same job. It’s a better strategy to start applying for the smaller companies where you’ve at least got a better chance of getting an interview. So many people are “determined to get their dream job at Apple / Google / Facebook” – but remember, these companies are not for everyone. I’ve worked at large corporate companies such as HSBC, WalMart, Coca-Cola, Procter&Gamble and Morgan Stanley – all are filled with driven, fierce and sometimes narcissistic megalomaniacs intent on walking all over everyone else to in order to reach their goals.

All in all my Career Foundry course was a positive experience. I was able to complete the course in four months instead of five, but admittedly there are some recommended articles that I didn’t delve into. If you read, studied and remembered every link that’s provided, then you’d need a lot more than 5 months to trawl through everything. UX design is very much like good writing. At first you think it’s easy, but it actually gets harder the more you learn as there’s more to consider. See this as positive growth, take a deep breathe, have faith that you’re on the right path wherever you are on your journey and enjoy the experience.

Photo by heylagostechie on Unsplash

Talk2Me – (UX Design)

The Problem

6% of teenagers have experienced depression. 10% have anxiety.
Nobody likes this kind of struggle.
So why do these topics interest us so much? It’s because we can make a difference.

Problem statement: Most of my friends have children and they often share stories of parenting challenges. Answering difficult questions on war, faith, sex, politics and alcohol/drug use. For many it isn’t clear what resources are out there for both teenagers and parents to dip into should they wish to find answers to tough questions. 

The brief: Design an app that enables anyone to instantly chat with a certified Expert. 

I embarked on this project to build an app that could help other people feel better:

  • To provide a portal to certified Experts, allowing the user to connect, message and book 1:1 video calls
  • To give parents and teenagers access to information and resources about difficult topics such as drug / alcohol use
  • To provide tools to help overcome addiction, abuse and other issues through re-establishing communication channels and guided learning

My UX toolkit

Research > Job stories

I carried out a competitor analysis on two apps that offered online counselling services to parents and teenagers. I filtered the information and wrote simple job stories that would be the seeds that grew into the app’s core features. 

Process map:

As a visual thinker, it’s easy for me to see the end result. I sketched my perceived process map to help structure the design.

User interviews

There were magic moments during the user research interviews when an interviewee said something that made my eyes light up. With my best poker face I chose to deviate from my script and delve deeper with probing questions. 

Affinity maps

I trawled through my data, scouring for any patterns or themes. I wrote all the prime comments onto post-it notes and made affinity maps, grouping related comments together under a specific headers like behaviours, thoughts, feelings and goals. 

Key findings

User personas

Personas are a powerful tool for internal alignment to reconcile business, technical and design capacities. It’s common that any new business venture needs to consider multiple demographics and not just one blueprint user.

  • I wrote user personas that summarised goals, pain points and behaviours of a hypothetical subset of users
  • I stuck them on my wall so that I could live and breathe the essence of everyday users
  • I referred to my user personas with every design choice that I made, making sure the decision was came from their point of view and not mine

User journeys

By mapping out a User Journey, I was able to track the emotional changes my users would feel when using key features. I felt close to my User Personas, so it was easy for me to put myself in their shoes and document their perceptions. Additional opportunities bubbled up to the surface that could be developed in later design sprints:

  • Include a feature where a teenager can choose to send their parent a short update on how their learning journey is going
  • Include additional “confidentiality statements” on various screens to reassure the teenager that their information will not be shared
  • Include a progress bar in all questionnaires to promote completion

Task analysis

After creating a task analysis I could clearly visualise the structure of the app screen by screen. These were the key features that met my users’ needs and served as my foundational scope to build the app.

Card sort > Site map

It was unclear to me what the optimum structure of the bottom tab bar of my app should look like. I used optimalworkshop.com to carry out a card sort and laid the first brick of the app’s informational structure.

Key features:85% of participants split the cards into fewer categories:
• Home 
• Account
• Appointments
• Content
• Messages
• Expert
• Payments 
• Learn
• Home
• Learn
• Expert 
• Appointments
• Messages

Mid-fidelity wireframing

I converted my lo-fidelity screens to mid-fidelity wireframes, then developed a high-fidelity prototype. For speed and consistency I purchased a UX design template that provided me with six core layouts that I used to replicate the various screens. I’ve worked with Adobe graphics packages for more than twenty years and enjoyed building over 60 screens for the prototype within a good timeframe.

Welcome screens

Search for an Expert

Book an appointment

Choose a Learning Path

User testing

I conducted a series of moderated, remote usability testing sessions. I discovered new things about my app from other people and recruited testers from across three continents to ensure a cross-cultural response. 

The benefits of remote testing:

  • Easier to recruit an optimum range of participants
  • Less pressured to attend in person with zero travel time
  • Attain an international / cross-cultural response

Affinity mapping

User testing – what needs fixing

“When I search for an Expert, I don’t know if this is for a parent or a teenager.”

– User Tester
  • The app allowed either parent or teenager to search for an expert, but didn’t offer a unique experience that provided for their individual needs
    • Suggested Change – HIGH PRIORITY
      • Add a detailed questionnaire when a new user registers in order to provide personalised content
      • Use personal pronouns and change the wording
        • Parent
          • Search for an Expert for my Teenager / My Teenager’s Expert
        • Teenager
          • Search for My Expert
      • Include a profile avatar on the homepages to show who’s logged in
    • Evidence
      • 3 out of 7 participants displayed confusion when faced with the search page. They questioned which role they were supposed to be searching as

“If I’m already registered, then I don’t need to see the Intro screens again.“

– User tester
  • V1 prototype gave an impression of what it is like to log-on for the first time. The test script asked the user to sign on with a username and password, as if they were a registered user. This meant that they did not need to view these screens again
    • Suggested change – HIGH PRIORITY
      • Make two user journey paths:
        1. New user
          • Register
          • Welcome screens
          • + option to skip Welcome screens
          • Homepage
        2. Existing user
          • Sign-in
          • Homepage
    • Evidence
      • Even though only one person spotted this mistake, it was essential to make this change for the logical flow of the app and to show the user experience of both a new and existing user

“I feel confused because there are so many filters to choose from.”

– User tester
  • I tried to design the Search screen to be super-clear, fast and intuitive. The more inclusive features I included, the busier the layout became
    • Suggested change – HIGH PRIORITY
      • Redesign the filters page
      • Keep the search bar on the main page
      • Move all other options within the filters button
    • Evidence
      • This suggestion came from an experienced UX designer and it made sense to make this change. I showed some testers both versions and they agreed that the simpler version was easier to navigate. A great learning curve!

Design System

During my career I’ve authored complex style guideline documents for companies such as First Direct, HDC Media and ASDA. These documents have evolved along with the digital universe into the form of Design Language Libraries. I’ve worked as a graphic designer, developer and facilitator and used this combined knowledge to create a detailed document to enable anyone to create on-brand and consistent screens and experiences.

Accessibility

Accessibility always has and always will be important to me. I first learned about inclusive design back in 2000 when I worked in the e-commerce department of England’s first telephone bank. 

  • Considerations:
    • Descriptive tool-tips for all images that accurately describe the story and feelings of what’s displayed
    • Ensure it’s easy to flow through the screens using the tab key
    • Design with a contrasting colour palette
    • Ongoing considerations for future potential voice recognition

Hi-fidelity prototype screens

Project summary

  • What opportunities remain for future improvement?
    • Gamify the learning paths in order to increase the desirability of the app for teenagers
    • Engage with schools and local governing bodies to build content that runs in parallel with the curriculum, including a network that aligns parents on their approach to topics
    • Re-write all copy so that the user journeys for both parent and adult have a unique tone of voice that communicates to that user group
    • Build a more comprehensive questionnaire that determines the type of therapy that would most suit the user
  • Key learnings:
    • Reading the original design brief each morning before starting work. I’d recommend reading this out at least once a week in any Scrum stand-up meeting
    • Sticking the user personas up onto the wall above my workstation as a reminder to read these regularly. I found that by doing this maintained the essence of who the users are, how they do things and what they want
    • Leveraging my EQ talents and self-taught psychology topics to acquire emotionally based research data that serves as the building blocks of good UX design

About me

I’m Martin Gamble, a UX and Service Designer with a background in design, operations and project management.

I’m originally from the UK, have lived in Germany for 6 years and am Berlin-based.

WordyCram – (UX Design)

Introduction

  • Design brief: Design a mobile app that empowers people to learn new vocabulary
  • My contribution: End-to-end UX designer
  • Stakeholder: Mentor / Career Foundry
  • Year: 2020

My UX toolkit

Competitor analysis

  • I start all UX projects by researching the market for comparable products, in this case three vocabulary learning apps. I summarised my research points under the following headings:
    • Key objectives
    • Overall strategy
    • Marketing advantage
  • This included a SWOT analysis of each company / product which led to organically stumbling on existing user pain points and opportunities in the market

It was valuable insight to realise how the design of these apps started through the research. By process mapping our system of the old fashioned card-based non-digital flashcards and the cognitive steps that happen when you learn from them. They connected the emotional steps that the brain goes through when progress is recognised and incorporated this valuable step into the process. The app leverages these emotional responses by pushing progress, highlighting this to the user and creating rewards.

User interviews

I approached this user research with three intentions:

  • To create a script of questions and be consistent with all participants when posing them
  • To ask the easy questions to start, then save the hardest (and perhaps the most pertinent) question until the end
  • To ensure that all user data was kept confidential, including changing the name of users when publishing any results

User personas

The next stage was to personify my research findings by writing user stories in the form of a user persona. This would allow my team to gain a snapshot of our optimum target audience and help support design decisions.

User stories vs. Job stories

  • In order to identify the top three problems statements, I started by writing user stories in the form of:
    • As a [type of user], I want [some action], so that [outcome]”
  • I had this nagging feeling that there were too many assumptions being made with my proto-persona as it felt newly conceived and lacked a strong 2-week research deep-dive.
    • In order to overcome this common problem, I discovered the benefits of creating job stories in the form of:
      • When [triggering event] , I want to [motivation / goal] , so I can [intended outcome]
    • By focussing on the triggering event or situation, motivation or goal and the intended outcome, I found that job stories dug deeper to discover the “why” as opposed to the “who”
* Use the slider to compare User stories vs. Job Stories

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Problem / hypothosis statements

I concluded this stage of my UX methodology by writing the top three problem statements and corresponding hypothesis statements.

Task analysis

I was particularly pleased with my process map that detailed my system of changing difficulty for the user. Many of my user interview participants told stories of either a language learning or fitness app that changes the difficulty level too quickly or inaccurately. In order to realise my first hypothesis statement I created an algorithm that used a combination of users scores AND a manually inputted user answer to determine the next difficulty level. If the user answered all answers correctly AND confirmed that the task was too easy, then they would be moved up two levels. If only one of these categories were satisfied, then the difficulty level changed by only one level.

Card sort > Site map

I needed a strategy to ascertain what the optimum structure of the bottom tab bar of my app should look like. By engaging with my research participants with various options and conducting a card sorting exercise I came to the following conclusions. The table below shows the changes made to terminology, order and the decision to remove possessional pronouns based on user feedback.

V1V2V3
• Learn words from My Decks
• My Decks
• My Reminders 
• My Community
• Settings
• Home
• Learn
• Community 
• Profile
• Settings
• Home
• Learn
• Decks 
• Profile
• Settings

Lo-fidelity wireframing

Create new deck


Add word(s) to existing deck (enter example sentence manually)


Add word(s) to existing deck (get example sentence from Linguee.com)


Increasing difficulty after “Learning My Words”


User testing plan

  • Scope:
    • Take my lo-fidelity wireframes and test them with volunteer participants who match my target user group.
  • Sessions:
    • The test will take approximately 15 minutes and will be carried out with 3-5 participants
  • Equipment:
    • All users will require the Marvel Prototype and I will be using UsabilityHub to record the remote sessions
  • Error scale:
    • 0 = I don’t agree that this is a usability problem at all
    • 1 = Cosmetic problem only
    • 2 = Minor usability problem
    • 3 = Major usability problem
    • 4 = Usability catastrophe

User testing – what needs fixing

“When adding new words I prefer to have the option to input in either EN or DE.“

– User tester
  • A test participant highlighted that they preferred to enter new words in the target language. The user had a German-native partner which was highlighted as the reason for this alternative method. Unfamiliar words spoken by the partner would be entered immediately. This highlighted to me how easy it is to make a design assumption that quickly evolves into a prototype
    • Suggested change – HIGH PRIORITY
      • Re-design the input screen and allow the user to toggle the language between EN or DE
    • Evidence
      • Although only one tester highlighted this as a fix, I classified it as high priority to ensure the app did not make the process difficult for similar users

“Other apps were able to predict what I was typing and gave suggestions of words to select.”

– User tester
  • I was grateful to a tester for highlighting this potential feature. Additions like this can greatly increase the speed of word input and heighten the overall user experience
    • Suggested change – HIGH PRIORITY
      • Add an additional feature to show a drop-down bar containing suggestions as a user enters more than three characters of a word
    • Evidence
      • Only one user highlighted this during testing, but by bouncing the idea off some additional participants it proved that developing this feature was a worthwhile investment

“I can’t learn 50 words in ten minutes when I’m commuting.”

– User tester
  • In order to deliver a minimal viable product, I built V1 with a simple feature to learn a deck of flashcards. V1 didn’t ask the user how much time they had or how many cards they wanted to learn. Some testers found this a negative experience
    • Suggested change – HIGH PRIORITY
      • Include a screen that shows a slide bar asking the user to enter ‘time available’ or ‘number of flashcards’ to review
    • Evidence
      • The suggested feature was driven by my user persona. She has ten minutes per day to learn words during her commute

Project summary

  • What opportunities remain for future improvement?
    1. NEW FEATURE: Connect to friends and compare scores
    2. NEW FEATURE: Find a Tandem Partner online based on a user’s profile and current learning level
    3. NEW FEATURE: Integrate a voice recognition model to record the user’s voice and give feedbackk on pronunciation and accent
  • Key learnings:
    1. Not to be overwhelmed with a new project with the unlimited potential features to develop. Conduct a solid research plan, engage with users and prioritise the top three features per design sprint
    2. Always read both the design brief and the user persona(s) regularly. This reiterates the design direction
    3. A user persona should be a guideline and can be questioned or challenged at any stage of the process. Our markets are fast-paced and trends, behaviours and mental models are constantly changing – so should our user personas

About me

I’m Martin Gamble, a UX and Service Designer with a background in design, operations and project management.

I’m originally from the UK, have lived in Germany for 6 years and am Berlin-based.

Mock-up Request Service – (Service Design)

Design a research-based process to deliver pre-production samples of consumer goods to overseas clients

The Problem

Our client was experiencing a classic chicken and egg scenario. Their exciting new product would land in-store after six months of development. But they needed to see, touch and feel what their final product would look like right now, before production starts. 

  • Mock-ups can promote campaign dynamics at the early stages of conception by turning complex flat packaging artworks into a final product
  • Mock-ups have the power to communicate a client’s perceived design strategy to a wider audience at the start of the production process

The brief: Manage a complete redesign of our end-to-end Mock-up Request Process to by mapping out a Service Blueprint and identifying touchpoints on a User Journey Map to communicate the evolution of the service over time. Our aim should be to win more orders from the local suppliers, reduce errors for the client and generate additional revenue for the agency. 

Key considerations

  • Who are the stakeholders involved in this process?
  • Who is responsible for collecting all the information required for these complex jobs?
  • What digital artefacts currently exist?
  • What digital artefacts are needed to improve the service?
  • What promise of value do we want to offer our client?
  • How can we make the process easier instead of more complicated?
  • How can we measure success? 

Goals

I started with the following service design mindset by considering the client, the business and all the employees involved in making this happen:

  • The solution should be user-centered, include all stakeholders and must be based on the qualitative research from interviews.
  • The solution needs to break this complex service into separate processes and user journey sections.
  • The solution needs to consider all touchpoints throughout the end-to-end process, across countries, service partners interactions.
  • In addition the final blueprint should give recommendations during high-risk touchpoints to increase the effectiveness of the service being offer to the client.
  • Measurable metrics for success:
    • Increase our delivery success rate from 80% to 95%
    • Increase client satisfaction by moving from “amber” to “green” in our client quarterly update 
    • Earn an additional 20k revenue per region by convincing our client to place the job with us rather than a local supplier

Contextual enquiry

Project managing mock-up requests were notoriously problematic and difficult to manage. I booked a kick-off meeting with my project team and together we sketched out a user-centered research and project plan.  

People

I chose to conduct interviews with department heads, key project managers and external suppliers. We were able to build a perception of the regional difficulties that each team faced that could have an impact on the process. I wrote a script that included five short questions for all teams to answer.

The various stakeholders that are all part of the user’s journey include:

  • The client
  • The on-site project manager
  • The studio manager
  • The artwork team
  • The print technical team
  • The production team
  • The fulfilment team

Client Job Stories

The stories that my clients shared were insightful. Common in many multi-national companies, local markets are empowered to make relevant changes to the guideline process in order to meeting their country’s targets. These changes added an extra level of complexity in creating an aligned process for the European market.

Key insights from my affinity mapping

My client’s top line goal: I want a high-quality mock-up that looks exactly like my future product and for it to be delivered on time to contribute to my marketing roll-out plan.

Agency Pain Points

Similarly I collected equally important insights from all stakeholders within the production cycle that had not been fully addressed during previous cycles and only arose during qualitative field study research.

Stakeholder pain-points from across the business

Affinity maps

I wrote all my research data pertaining to previously problematic, misunderstood or failed jobs onto post-it notes to form affinity maps. By grouping different data pieces under various headings, a story started to unfold that guided us to focus our solution around the kick-off meeting where our opportunity to obtain a detailed brief was.

Reported problems when pertinent information was omitted from the brief
  • Problem statement: Our European Project Managers need a refined end-to-end process with a set of easy-to-use procedures and order forms:
    • we are making mistakes from bad briefs
    • we are underestimating the complexity of jobs
    • we only have one chance to impress the client
  • We will know when we have achieved our goal when we reach our three SMART goals: 
    • Increase our delivery success rate from 80% to 95%
    • Increase client satisfaction by moving from “amber” to “green” in our quarterly update 
    • Earn an additional 20k revenue per region

Task analysis

I mapped our original process that served as our starting off point in order to redesign our process. I discovered that this process had evolved organically over time, with changes being made only to avoid a repeat mistake and without anyone mapping out an end-to-end service blueprint.

Together we discussed this process to map out a full journey map that included touchpoints of emotional risk for the client. My process:

  • I stuck x6 A4 sheets of cardboard to create a giant board
  • I added the task analysis
  • I added people, artefacts, environments, policies and processes
  • I added the user journey

We highlighted the emotional touchpoints that were at high-risk of decreasing our client service and found solutions to avoid each one.

Digital Artefacts

In order for all European Project Managers to deliver a consistent service to our client, I created a series of inter-referring documents that guided all users through the refined process and empowered them to become experts.

User testing – what needs changing

We took three mock-up request jobs and asked the On-site Project Managers to follow our new process and documentation. We identified these new problems and corrected them in the second design iteration.

“The new process is detailed, but complicated. How do I know what I’m responsible for?”

– European Project Manager tester
  • We realised that without a defined set of roles and responsibilities, mis-communication or misunderstanding could lead to a project failure
    • Suggested Change – HIGH PRIORITY
      • We created an exhaustive list of roles and responsibilities. Each were listed with a combination of letters:
        • R = to be responsible
        • S = to support
        • C = to be consulted
        • I = to be informed
    • Evidence
      • >40% of testers were not clear what they were responsible for
      • We updated our process flow diagram to represent the changes and re-tested
The additional form that was added to the set of procedural manuals

“We need you to reduce the number of days needed to deliver and match our local supplier.”

Client tester
  • Our original timeline had to be general, but ended up being too generous. We needed to be more competitive compared to local suppliers and decrease product production time
    • Suggested Change – HIGH PRIORITY
      • Add an additional decision stage within the process:
        • In order to manage client expectations, we planned to send them x1 copy for approval before starting production, but only if the client were to agree to the timeline
        • If we needed to reduce production time, then we would recommend approval via email (i.e multiple photos under different lighting) or video conferencing call 
    • Evidence
      • Testing was carried out to ensure approval via email or video conferencing
      • Client was happy to have the choice and take a small risk to reduce production time
      • We updated our process flow diagram to represent the changes

“We need a capacity management solution should our client place multiple orders at the same time.”

– User Tester
  • This was a realistic situation if our client launched a global campaign. Multiple markets could place a big order and we would not have had capacity to deliver everything
    • Suggested Change – HIGH PRIORITY
      • We started onboarding new suppliers and documented the process
      • The new documentation was added to the set of procedural manuals
      • We created a supplier checklist that anyone could follow to ensure a new supplier were able to deliver a consistent quality for our client
    • Evidence
      • We looked at previous global campaigns and projected a capacity based on all markets ordering within the same week, proving that we would have been under capacity
      • We tested a user onboarding a new supplier using the new sheet and the task was completed successfully
      • We researched the market and added new potential suppliers to the list for future reference

Project summary

  • Future opportunities:
    • Raise the profile of this project by extending the live education session and present the new service to our client, emphasising how it could make their job easier
    • Provide a regular report for the client that includes job success rate and usage benefits
  • Key learnings:
    • How to manage the initial expectation of the client – we adopted a strong ethos of transparent communication and addressed all issues / potential issues immediately with a strict “zero surprises for the client” policy
    • Learning how to constantly pivot and amend the project plan when day-to-day client priorities arose. This included transparent communication with key stakeholders and with our agency

About me

I’m Martin Gamble, a UX and Service Designer with a background in design, operations and project management.

I’m originally from the UK, have lived in Germany for 6 years and am Berlin-based.

The Ever-increasing Speed of Learning

It’s the year 1996 and I decide to learn Photoshop. I go to a bookshop and find the IT department. It’s the biggest section in the store with shelves shaped like a horseshoe and fat middle-aged men sat around the tables devouring their chosen book. I find the book I want. It’s as heavy as a brick and I start to read. It recommends prior knowledge in graphic design, colour, photography and Apple Macs, so I add another four books to my list. Illustrator, printing and branding are all connected to my goal which means another four books. Oh, and don’t forget the advantages of scripting, which you’ll grasp if you’ve already dabbled in Java. Finally you’ll want to showcase your work so add website, Dreamweaver and HTML. I look up gaze around at the lifetime’s worth of books that I’ve clocked up since arriving an hour ago.

You’ll get lost in the dungeon of learning unless you map out how to become an expert in that ‘one topic’ you endeavour to master and avoid the many dead-ends.

Today I have a healthier understanding of what I need to learn in order to reach my goal. I visualise this pattern of learning as if I’m walking down into a dungeon, a metaphor for the subject that I want to learn. At the bottom of the stairs is a network of corridors that lead to the topics that make up the subject. I choose one corridor that leads to another opening of 100 doors. The overall process requires me to go through each door, learn the content of the room and move onto another door. Due to my unconscious-incompetency I don’t realise that once I go through one door into a room, another ten doors lead off that room and each of those rooms lead off to yet another ten doors. You’ll get lost in the dungeon of learning unless you map out how to become an expert in that ‘one topic’ you endeavour to master and avoid the many dead-ends.

I’ve always loved learning new things, but can get distracted with other new things. Linked In Learning has the same effect as the bookstore and when I hear a presenter ending their course with, “Check out my other videos such as…,” I add another three courses to my ‘saved list’ for every course I complete. Does this remind you of social media’s infinite scroll?

Hop a decade backwards to the 1980’s when computers first arrived at school. I was part of the generation who arranged to meet up with friends without mobiles to communicate, navigated to a place without sat-nav and got up off the couch to change TV channel without a remote. I started learning in a time without these technologies, then experienced the rapid change into a society that survives on technology to make everything more efficient and faster. I’m grateful for the ability, variety and speed of learning in modern times, but I’m equally grateful for my understanding of how we used to learn things thirty years ago. I see the generation before me who struggle to keep up with the advancement of technology and see the generation after me who miss out on the soft-skills we acquired in the absence of online communication.

If we can’t achieve something with hard work, then we use filters and photoshop to unrealistically colour our published showreel lives.

Today you need everything – you need the skills to learn 15 books in a day and the patience to meditate, relax and manage stress. We trump each other’s performance with with nootropics, concentration apps, detailed nutrition and muscle building apps for that short-cut to perfection. We learn to speed read, skim read and fast-cram books. We even watch online training videos at double speed if we can handle it. If we can’t achieve something with hard work, then we use filters and photoshop to unrealistically colour our published showreel lives.

We know that the brain has not been able to evolve quick enough to keep up with the rapid advancement of today’s lifestyle. It’s hard to imagine that there will be such a change in human evolution that technology has brought us since the 1980’s, but I understand this is me being naive. What about brain implants? This would allow us to download the whole of the book store into our minds as if we were in The Matrix.

It feels like the world is waiting for that ‘next big thing’. All the best ideas have been thought of. All the best inventions have been made. All the best films have been seen and all the best songs have been sung. Design is copied, rehashed and spat out time after time. Innovation is concentrated down that the same old ideas keep coming back in different disguises. For this we have the internet, the advancement of human communication and sharing of ideas to thank. On the one hand I’m ready to embrace the next technology revolution, but on the other I’m worried what we’ll leave behind as a result. Keep calm and learn as much as you can, otherwise you might get left in the proverbial dust.

Photo by mentatdgt from Pexels

The Unhappy Abacus

The Abacus was moaning to the empty classroom again.

‘I don’t count anymore,’ he said. ‘I feel useless.’ As he spoke, his coloured beads flicked from side to side along the metal rods that formed his torso. The beads made a clicking sound that created a mathematical fluidity to his speech. On the top of his head was a black toupee that contrasted with his grey and bushy moustache and eyebrows.

‘How many years have you been sitting here?’ asked a voice from the darkness.

‘Too many to count!’ he coughed. He had lost count of the number of times that he had lost count. ‘The children can’t even reach me because the shelf is too high.’

‘What are you counting now?’ asked the voice.

‘I count everything,’ replied the Abacus, emphatically. ‘The number of odd pumps in the shoe box. The number of half-eaten crayons. The grains of sand in the sand box.’ He paused. A few more beads flicked across his torso. ‘And I count the Moon.’ He smiled. The Abacus tilted his head and the toupee slipped a little to the side.

‘How do you count the Moon?’ continued the voice. The voice sounded soothing and teacher-like.

‘I count her minutes and seconds in the sky. I count her cycles. And I count the beams of light that she shines through the windows at us.’

‘And what do you count when the children are here?’ asked the voice.

The Abacus scoffed. ‘Ask The Calculator, it’s his fault that I don’t count with them anymore. With his fancy buttons and screen and solar panel. He might be faster than me, but I have colour. And I am the original!’

The Abacus clanked his walking stick down onto the shelf’s floor. The noise sent an echo of tension across the room. Even the Moon looked over her shoulder to see where the noise had come from. The Abacus tried to follow the sound of the voice and asked, ‘Are you hiding in the stock cupboard?’ The voice did not reply. His attention was distracted when he noticed a movement from the Hamster’s cage, then heard the pernicious squeak of the Hamster’s wheel. Turning, turning, turning, forever like the hands of a clock. There was no control of the Hamster’s energy when it wanted to run. The Abacus filled his lungs. There were still uncounted things yet to say and he knew his words would cover the squeak of the Hamster’s wheel like a band-aid over a bleeding wound.

‘What about The Tablet?’ said the voice from the cupboard.

All of the Abacus’ beads darted from side to side in a frenzy. The Abacus threw his stick across the floor in a temper. It landed near the edge of the shelf, but then toppled over and fell towards the corner of the classroom. The Moon hid behind a cloud in the sky.

‘The Tablet,’ hissed the Abacus. ‘The Screen that Screams, that’s what I call it. I tried to warn them. It’s dangerous. Wild. Evil. And it’s a predator, waiting to be let out of his cage. Nobody can control it. It has the persuasion skills of a crooked politician and the energy of a million hamsters.’

The Hamster’s wheel stopped. The Abacus looked across to see the Hamster was clinging to the side of his cage, his claws wrapped around the metal bars.

‘Let me tell you what happens when you let The Tablet out of his cage,’ said the Abacus, as he paused and squeezed his eyes shut. All the beads on the metal rods leaned to the right hand side and clicked together like magnets. ‘It’ll pounce on you playfully, lick your face like a dog, but then, when you’re distracted, it’ll sink its teeth into your subconscious and never let go.’

The Abacus watched the Hamster climb towards his water bottle, guzzle forty-nine sips of water, then retire to his nest of sawdust.

‘Nobody wants to count with me,’ mumbled the Abacus as his breathing slowed. His eyes closed, his head slowly cocked to one side to rest on his shoulder and his black toupee slipped off his head and fell to the floor.

A single yellow bead flicked from one side to the other, then another, and another. The beads on the Abacus’ torso continued to count. The Tablet came out from the shadows of the stock cupboard and stood in front of the Abacus like a garden statue. The Tablet coaxed the Abacus to fall into its screen of enchanting colour and swim in the sea of stories that awaited him. The Abacus’ beads continued to count, counting the number of forests that he was trekking through, counting the number of mountains that he was flying over, counting the number of clouds that he was dancing upon.

‘How is this possible?’ thought the Abacus.

The Tablet showed him stories of the Abacus helping thousands of children in thousands of classrooms in a thousand far-away lands. Lands with countless animals like lions and tigers and pandas and dragons.

‘There’s me!’ exclaimed the Abacus. ‘And me, and me, and me!’ The Abacus kept on counting. The Tablet took the Abacus by the hand and flew him inside the head of one of the children.

‘Another me!’ said the Abacus as he watched a mirror image of himself, counting inside the imagination of the child. He watched as the child’s finger pretended to flick abacus beads in mid-air on an imaginary abacus.

The Tablet powered down his screen and returned to the stock cupboard, leaving the Abacus sleeping on the shelf, his new memory of his ubiquitous presence comforting him like a warm blanket. The Moon glided across the sky and tucked herself under the horizon, for it was time for the Sun to come up and start a new school day.

Photo by Niamat Ullah on Unsplash

The English Creative Writing Group, Frankfurt

When I first moved to Frankfurt in 2017, I decided to start my own writing group, even though I had never done anything like it before. I wanted the group’s meetings to be something fun and creative to do on a Sunday morning, with the added benefit of building a network of likeminded friends. Three people came to the first meeting, then more and more people joined as the weeks went by. We quickly established a familiar routine: introductions and quick word games, followed by the first writing exercise.

The idea of the writing exercises is to help people overcome the fear of a blank page. Most writers could write about a million different topics, but when they come to write that first sentence, it isn’t helpful that a million ideas have come to the forefront of their mind all at once. The exercises provide a little focus to allow the trickle of creative juices to flow. We usually write for twenty minutes, then go around the table to allow each writer to either give a summary of what they have written and share their creative process, or to have a chance to read their story out loud. 

This is where the magic happens. We soon learned that everyone writes wildly differently to each other. Some people write in the first person, some in the second person; some write in the past, others in the present or future; some write romance or horror or comedy or sci-fi or historical stories; some write monologues and some write dialogues. After working within your own creative universe for these twenty minutes, to then discover the universes of the other writers has endless benefits. It allows us to highlight and define our own style, because when we hear and identify the style of another writer, it reflects both the strengths and weaknesses of both the writing that we’re hearing and the writing that we’ve just finished. We pick out the little elements that we would never have thought of ourselves, things that are outside of our skill pools. This prompts us to think, to reflect on how we might try to incorporate new elements into our own writing next time.

What I find most beautiful about our group is the way we discuss things. Writers all seem to have a similar temperament, are often visual thinkers and tend to be more introverted. If we were discussing these topics in a corporate environment, they would be loud, fast, aggressive and dominated by extroverts. In our group, it’s different. No matter if someone deeply disagrees with a topic, a line of dialogue, a character’s idiosyncrasy or a choice of words, everything is discussed in such a calm, understanding and thought-provoking way. I believe this comes from the writer’s innate desire to understand the world in its entirety. To show one hundred per cent compassion for an opposing opinion is the greatest step a writer can make in understanding a character or a situation or a choice. This understanding has the chance to bubble up to the surface at a later date and spill out onto a page in the form of words in a story.

With the English Creative Writing Group, Frankfurt, I found something beyond anything I could have ever imagined. We have over a thousand members in the Meetup.com group, with a core of around fifty regular members. Some come every week, others most weeks, others some weeks and still others occasionally. That’s the beauty of having such a relaxed and informal group of people looking for something fun to do on a Sunday morning. We mix it up, too, with writing exercises, focused sessions to work on our own projects, motivation/accountability sessions, feedback sessions and workshops. Just like the most precious element of Frankfurt’s city culture, our group is rich in diversity. We have established authors who have already published books and aspiring writers who are looking for their first opportunity to translate their creative ideas into compelling narratives.

Every single person brings something valuable to the table. Having such a variety of styles cultivates our gratitude for our own individuality, and it was this idea that first gave birth to the idea of an anthology of stories. All the stories in our anthology books were created during or drew inspiration from our Sunday sessions, and each is uniquely different to represent the spectrum of stories written in our meetings. We are proud to have captured a flavour of our wonderful Sunday morning sessions in two books for you to read and enjoy.

Photo by Raja Sen on Unsplash

Be who you are, do what you want to do.

I’m in the process of doing a deep-dive into UX Design, cultivating my existing knowledge to find out everything there is to know. It’s been a while since I felt this excited about the future, which triggered some unhelpful thoughts like, “Why couldn’t I have found UXD earlier?” and “What have I been doing these last 10 years?” With my super inquisitive mind switched on, I decided to look into these thoughts in more detail.

After school I enrolled on a computer studies course at college. My mum suggested that I re-take my English Language GCSE in a night time course, which I agreed was a good idea. It was fun, I met new people and the teacher who walked with a cane had us in stitches with jokes about anyone who didn’t like cats. I bumped up my grade and received another certificate to add to my portfolio. After my college course finished I got a job in a prestigious firm of chartered accountantants. It was full of stiffs, I was forbidden to wear my favourite jacket and was told to remove my new earing because it didn’t comply with the standards of the business. I realised this was not what I wanted and sought out another evening course to boost my skills, this time in graphic design, learning Photoshop, Illustrator and err, Quark (this was 1994, remember). I was a sponge for knowledge and became immersed in learning, arriving home from work, then pain-stakingly going through the 500-page Photoshop manual one page at a time until I knew everything there was to know. I was onto something and people admired me for committing so much of my time. I was being praised and complimented, which as a young insecure adult meant latching on to the idea like a leech and doing it constantly in order to receive more compliments. In my mind this translated to connection and validation. Once I had done the basics in graphic design, I was making my own birthday cards, mix tape covers, posters etc. and was buzzing with creative flow. But the hunger for more didn’t stop. I wanted to learn more. I wanted to better myself. I wanted more of those compliments that validated that I was doing great at what I did.

A couple of years later I started French, continuing what I had scratchd the surface of at school. French lasted a couple of years, but the progress was not as fast as graphic design and it became clear how much time and effort is needed to become fully fluent, I decided to leave it in favour or something else.

I picked up web design next. It was fun, but back in 2000 web development was more about information access than it was about users completing tasks online. It felt less pure, less technical and less creative as graphic design did back then. If print design was creating a classic painting, web design twenty years ago was like sketching mickey mouse with a felt tip pen from the pound-shop. I moved back to graphic design and found a job as a manager in a reprographics studio. I was responsible for all the graphical requirements of the business and I rediscovered contentment and creative flow.

But the learning didn’t finish there. Many people around me had a degree, something many of my peers had not done as we had chosen to go straight into the job market. I found an Open University course, one that allowed me to earn points that would accumulate into a BA Hons Degree. What I started in 2009 as a part-time course would eventually take me six years in total to finish and one of the biggest challenges of my life. I worked full time and afterwards I went home and studyied until bedtime. The same routine extended to weekends, but once a month I went into the city and enjoyed a night out or treated myself as a reward. I finished my degree in 2014 and it felt amazing. I had completed the next stage of my 5 year plan (move to mainland Europe, learn a language, get a job, finish the degree, write a book). The next step was to immerse myself in creative writing, building up to a larger project. I remember sitting in front of my screen, all the free time in the world, ready to start on any project I wanted. But nothing came out. I tried and tried, but it was if my brain was depleted of creative energy. I found a creative writing group and spent each Sunday with them in the centre of Brussels, tinkering about with some prompts that got me writing again.

It wasn’t until the last year of my degree when my mate Sam asked me, “You certainly like to learn new things, don’t you?” Whether it was just a passing statement or a prompt to get me to see the light, I’m not sure, but I sat there and thought about it for a moment. It was an a-ha moment to admit that I held this belief that the more I learned, the more people would validate, connect and value me. It was all based on those compliments that I had received a few times when I did that extra bit of learning after school. I wondered whether I’d done the same with my career choices. I have pushed and pushed and found myself in some challenging roles, but each time I proved that I could adapt to conquer any situation, learn everything there was to know and mastered any system.

I wouldn’t be in this place today without the last twenty years. I wouldn’t be on the road to becoming something new and exciting had I not spent my entire adult life on a constant path to learn new things. After returning to something I love after doing something I didn’t is like having the vitality I had in my twenties. I’ve rediscovered my creative flow, often losing hours in my new found passions, sometimes struggling to write down my ideas fast enough. I’ve finally found the recipe for a good life and that’s, “Be who you are, do what you want to do,” – nothing more, nothing less. My future is as clear as watering a plant to make it bloom. When I go to bed I can’t wait for the next day to start. Everything happens for a reason, and that’s why I spent twenty years learning graphics, project planning, creative production, marketing, client services, creative writing and the Adobe Creative Suite. They all lead me here to where I am right now, deep-diving into this amazing career of UX Design. 

“Often people attempt to live their lives backwards, they try to have more things or more money in order to do more of what they want so that they will be happier. The way it actually works is the reverse. You must first be who you really are then do what you need to do in order to have what you want. ”

Margaret Young

Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash