Weeks 7 & 8: Learning UX Design at Academy Xi – High and Low

Weeks 7 and 8 at Academy Xi - High and Low

“Are you still blogging?” I’ve been asked that question a lot lately. After writing for six weeks straight, some people were anticipating my latest musings on life inside Academy Xi. I know, weird right?

But with our latest group project heading down Schitt’s Creek in Week 8, writing about Week 7 was the last thing on my to-do list.

After I finished beating myself up for not keeping to my weekly schedule, I had an idea. I’d combine Weeks 7 and 8 into a single post titled “High and Low”. It made perfect sense.

Why? Three reasons.

First, it covered the entire duration of our two-week agile project, which involved working on a digital wellbeing platform (also known as an Employee Assistance Program).

Second, these past two weeks have been a rollercoaster ride – producing some of the highest and lowest moments of the course so far.

Third, if I had to choose a theme song for the past two weeks, it would be “High and Low” by Empire of the Sun. The songs’ co-writer, Nick Littlemore, explains: “As artists we like to live on the edge. I guess this song is about finding some equilibrium there.

It got me thinking. Why do humans seek balance? Whether it’s a work-life balance. A balanced diet. A balanced mind. A balance in nature. What is “balance” … and how do we achieve it?

There is no “balance of nature”

From my previous career as a marine scientist, I know that the “balance of nature” is a myth – it’s a human construct.

Much research has shown that many species of animals and plants are naturally “patchy” in their numbers from place to place and time to time. There is no constant balance – only natural fluctuations. Highs and lows, if you like.

Just in case you’re picturing David Attenborough (not an actual scientist) waxing lyrical about “the balance of nature”, here’s a quote from my former mentor, Professor Tony Underwood, (the Godfather of experimental ecology):

Sensible and coherent ecologists long-ago abandoned the concept of a “balance of nature”. There is not – there cannot be – any such thing. Yet, it is alive and well in the offices of journalists, community groups and many managers of environmental issues.

Prof. AJ Underwood


What about work-life balance?

Is the concept of work-life balance also a myth? It’s a hot topic in the media. And what does a work-life balance even look like?

From my own experience, work fluctuates between periods of high and low intensity. Periods of high intensity can last days, weeks, months … even years!

For example, our course at Academy Xi is ten weeks of intense work. But that’s nothing compared to when I worked six-to-seven days a week for several years in my own retail business. Nobody considered me to have a well-balanced life.

When I finally escaped, I took a Tim Ferriss inspired “mini-retirement”, which lasted more than six months. I’d ended up at the opposite end of the spectrum. Did that mean I’d finally achieved balance?

And then there’s happiness. As Don Draper famously said in Mad Men: “What is happiness? It’s the moment before you need more happiness.”

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Wait, where am I going with all of this?

Stay with me. What if fluctuating between high and low states is the only way we can truly achieve balance in anything?

Anyway, this post has gone way deeper than I intended. Here’s what actually went down over the past two weeks at Academy Xi.

Week 7: Sprint 1

A new team, a new client and new problems to solve. I was in high spirits and champing at the bit to get stuck into an “agile” project.

At the project kickoff, we went through the brief with The Client and discussed the problem space. Next, we set up our “Kanban” board (a way to manage our work), created a “backlog” (the things we think we should do) and then set our priorities (the things we think we should do first).

We decided to work on the problem of onboarding completion rates. According to The Client, the proportion of people who were completing the onboarding process (i.e. a wellbeing check and stress test), was too small. Time to find out why!

Keeping everything organised with our "Kanban" board.
Keeping everything organised with our “Kanban” board.

Being a sensitive topic around mental health and wellbeing (and a lack of preparation time), The Client was unable to provide us with access to real users for face-to-face interviews. We had to make the most of telephone interviews. Not only that, most people were not ideal users of the platform.

In Week 1 of the course, we learned that UX without research is not UX. Well, let me expand on that: UX without the right research is risky UX.

After spending the week extracting insights, we met with the client to showcase our findings from the first sprint. One of our main insights was that “users” weren’t getting stuck during the onboarding process. It wasn’t until they were prompted to book a coaching call with a psychologist that they were opting out. The Client confirmed that this was what he’d meant by onboarding completion rates (not whether users had completed the initial wellbeing and stress tests).

Anyway, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned, clear communication with clients and team members is critical. But even with the best of intentions, things can still get misinterpreted (especially when deadlines are tight).

Here’s an effective technique that I’ve learned whilst working in project teams at Academy Xi: have a casual, one-on-one chat with each member of the team and ask them what they think the objectives and deliverables of the project are. It’s a simple way to check whether everyone is on the same page. Just don’t forget to do it with clients and stakeholders, too!

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After wrapping up our first showcase, we agreed on the deliverables for the next design sprint. The Client wanted us to create a persona and a customer journey map. And if time permitted, a prototype of some new features based on our insights.

We reiterated that to produce these artefacts, we needed face-to-face contact with real users. But I could tell this was going to be difficult for The Client to deliver in such a short space of time. My “spidey sense” was tingling.

Earlier in the week, a few of my classmates had remarked that I looked happy and “in the zone”. And I was. We’d done our best with what we had to work with. But heading into Week 8, I was starting to get worried.

Week 8: Sprint 2

My worries were confirmed. On Friday, we’d reiterated with The Client the crucial need to interview and test real users of the platform. But there was radio silence until late Tuesday afternoon. And the news wasn’t good. We couldn’t get in-person access to users. That meant we couldn’t deliver on a detailed persona or user journey.

So, we reverted to Plan B – which was to create a lean persona and a user flow of the current platform (to identify pain points and opportunities). This would inform the design of a prototype of some sort. The only problem was, we were running out of time.

Plus, after being left in limbo for nearly two days, we were feeling pretty frustrated. Rather than a design “sprint”, it felt more like wandering aimlessly.

Once Wednesday morning rolled around, we needed some divine intervention. Our teacher and “scrum master”, Rob, took us aside and told us that in the real world, the project wouldn’t proceed past this point. But as usual, he made us realise that all was not lost. We could still make the most of the situation.

Like the UX Lord that he is, Rob helped us plan a roadmap to redemption. First, he directed us to put our story cards up on the whiteboard. Next, we had to “dot vote” the two most important insights that we’d gathered so far.

Our next task involved an ideation session around how we could design to those insights. Importantly, he told us not to restrict ourselves to digital solutions. After a couple of 6Up-1Up ideations, we had some solid ideas that we could move forward with.

Results of a 6up-1up ideation session.

With some further brainstorming and wireframing, we were back on track. For me, this was one of the best moments of the course. A spiritual experience, perhaps?

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But the clock was still ticking. We only had a couple of hours to design our prototype and write the script for our user testing (which was scheduled for the next day). It ended up being a late night. But we pulled it off – the collaboration feature in Figma certainly made life easier!

I must admit. I enjoy these back-to-the-wall situations. It was the lack of focus earlier in the week that had been getting the better of me.

The next day, we were conducting user testing of our prototype thanks to some volunteers on campus and Academy Xi Alumni (although not ideal because they weren’t actual users). But as the day progressed, we affinity mapped our hearts out and extracted some insights for our client showcase the next morning.

On the morning of the showcase, we set up our wall of artefacts in preparation for The Client’s arrival. There was no time for a practice run. We had to wing it.

The stage is set for our client showcase.

Much to our surprise, we nailed it! Despite the limitations of the project, The Client was genuinely grateful for what we’d achieved in only two weeks. He was engaged, enthusiastic and asked lots of follow up questions (always a good sign).

We were also pleased to hear that based on our findings, he’d be rolling out some changes to the platform within the next 30 days (along with some A/B testing). To top it off, the feedback from Rob on the delivery of our client showcase was excellent.

What a turnaround! Less than 48 hours earlier, we’d almost lost hope. Now here we were … on cloud nine. Talk about highs and lows. But in the end, I think it was just the right balance.

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