Interview with Paul Boag, Web Designer & Digital Strategist

Paul Boag is the creative director at Headscape, web designer & digital strategist, but also blogger, speaker, author and podcaster.

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Paul Boag is the creative director at Headscape and co-founder. He is web designer & digital strategist, but also blogger, speaker, author and podcaster.

Paul has been kind enough to do a little interview with us. Get to know him a little better...

@boagworld | Linkedin

Boagworld

  • Question How did you come to specialise in digital strategy?

    Frustration is the honest answer. I trained as a designer and I was designing websites. At that stage, back in 1994, you designed everything. Over the years, I specialised more on the UX side of things. Then I started my own company. The frustration came about because I was fed up with designing templates that were handed across to internal teams who took months and months to implement them. They weren't maintained or supported, and they would fester and die. It was this realisation that most organisations, when it comes to the web, are broken. They're not compatible with the web. Which is understandable, because most organizations were founded before the web came along, so they're not focused in the right way.

    I started saying "Okay guys, you really need a solid strategy here, you need proper resourcing" etc. For a long time, I would just say that. I would say "You need a strategy. What's your strategy? You need to continually maintain your website. Do it!" And they were nodding sagely and never doing it.

    Eventually I got to the point of going "Okay, well. There's no-one else to do this job, so I'll do it." That's basically how I got into it. and that's fundamentally what I said in my talk at Future of Web Design. "If not us, then who?" Senior management don't realise there's a problem. Marketeers are so focused on selling stuff that they're not looking at the bigger picture. They get in business consultants every now and again, but they don't get the web. So who does that leave to fix these kinds of problems? Us, basically.

  • Question How long have you been doing your Podcast, Boagworld? What's it like to make?

    I've been doing it for a long time. I think I started in 2006, so that's seven years. I started doing it because the iPod had just started supporting Podcasts (there was no iPhone at that stage). The first thing I did was to go and see what Podcasts there were, and there was a Podcast on knitting, but not on web design. It struck me as very strange, because we're early adopters and all the rest of it. So I started one, and we've been doing it ever since.

    Now, it's great fun to do, and it was great fun at the beginning. There was a middle time when it got really tiring, because you're doing it every week. We used to do interviews, which were always a nightmare to set up, and news, which meant you couldn't record a load of shows and release them later, because they would be dated. So we got to a point with the show where it was actually quite hard work. We took a break of about six months, and now we've come back in a new format which is much easier to produce.

    Essentially, me and Marcus, my co-host, just sit down and have a chat. It's like talking about web design while at the pub. It's very informal, very laid back and just a lot of fun to record.

    Question Do you still have guests?

    Not as much now. We have other people from Headscape come on to the Podcast every now and again. We're doing seasons at the moment. The current season is questions and answers, where people send in their questions. I think I will do an interview season soon.

    Question Is there anyone you'd really like to interview?

    That's a really good question. I've interviewed a lot of people over the years. We used to come to Future of Web Design to interview people. I'd love to interview Seb Lee-Delisle, and Jared Spool again. Jared is a very entertaining guy, but also very knowledgeable. With a Podcast, you don't just want people who are very knowledgeable, you need people who are fun and engaging and good at speaking. People aren't paid to listen to a Podcast. It's not part of their job. They're doing it when they're commuting, or walking the dog, or at the gym. So it's got to be entertaining too. That's why people like Jared and Seb would be really good. I suspect when we do it again we'll ask people who they want us to interview and try and do it that way.

    Question UX is a pretty broad field. How would you recommend a freelancer deals with it? Can it be simplified?

    It can absolutely be simplified. Things like eye-tracking and usability labs with one-way mirrors and cameras are all very over the top, and for most people, totally unnecessary.

    First of all I'd recommend buying two books by the same author, Steve Krug. They're both tiny and easy to read. One's called "Don't Make Me Think", which talks about the value of usability testing, if you need to be convinced of that. If you're already sold on that, then get his second book, "Rocket Surgery Made Easy". That talks about how to do what he calls "Bargain Basement usability testing".

    Essentially, what it boils down to is that you only need 5 or 6 people. You don't need to test with lots of people, because there's a fall-off in the number of problems you find when you have more than 5 or 6. They don't need to be demographically accurate. You don't need to get your target audience, because we're all human beings and we all trip up on the same kinds of things. The exceptions to that are if you're doing a site for kids, where you do need kids, or if you're doing a site for old people, where they might have vision or motor problems, for instance. But essentially, anybody is better than nobody. You can grab friends and family and whoever else. Then, all you need to do is sit down in a room with the thing you want to test in front of them and ask them to complete certain tasks, watch what they do and ask them questions. It's that simple.

    What's most important, more important than eye-tracking and all that stuff, is to test little and often. The mistake a lot of people make is to go, "Oh, we need to do usability testing. You have to do it properly, so we're going to go to a usability lab". They spend all their budget and all their time on this one test. The problem is, you find one set of problems which you then fix, but actually, users were getting stuck at the first problem, so they weren’t uncovering the second and third problems that were hidden deeper inside.

    What you want to do is fix problem one, then test again. That will reveal problem two. Then fix that, and that will reveal problem three. Do as many rounds as you can get away with. Keep it as easy and simple as possible, basically.

    Question From a UX perspective, is there a site or an app you would give 10 out of 10?

    Ummmmmmmm....

  • Question Maybe 10 isn't possible. How about 9 out of 10?

    I've got to say, Gov.uk is right up there at the moment. Previously the UK government had all these sites for all kinds of different things. For cost saving reasons, they wanted to rationalise it all down into one site. A one-stop shop for anything government related. Gov.uk is the result of that.

    It's still a work in progress, but essentially, you go to that site and you will find what you need instantly. It is such a well-designed site. Where it falls down at the moment is they have these backend systems for all these other websites that haven't been totally integrated yet. It's really easy to find where to renew your road tax, but it goes off to another site that's rubbish, so the form you have to fill in is shit.

    At the moment, though, it's directing you to the right place, and it does that so, so well. It's been beautifully implemented. It's just won the Designs of the Year award, beating out the Olympic cauldron and the Shard. It's the first time a website's ever won it. And it's not a pretty website, it's a very utilitarian, government website, but it's design at its best. It meets users' needs. That's what design is all about.

    Question Are there any others you'd say are worth a look?

    The University of Surrey website is a very good website that's just been launched recently. It's not perfect, it falls down as you get deeper within the site, but in its sector, it's revolutionary.

    University websites are awful, they're terrible. But the team behind the University of Surrey site have thrown out all the rules. I think good design goes back to the basics and asks fundamental questions.

    Universities are terrible for thinking internally. They don't have courses, they have programmes, and they have their schools and their faculties, and all these kinds of things. Of course, users don't think about that. They don't care about the faculty or the school. They want to do accounting. Why anyone would want to do that is beyond me, but they want to study accounting. You've got to pick a programme. What's a programme? There are half a dozen programmes on accounting. What's the difference between them, how do you tell? Surrey is starting to address these things.

    This site does away with all that paraphernalia. You have subject areas, and you go in and see everything about accounting. All the research they do on accounting, all the courses that are available, all the information you need in one place. It's so user-centric compared to every other university website. It's far from perfect, but what I love about the site is that they have been brave. They have gone back and been entirely user-focused, which is great.

  • Question What is going to change in the next ten years on the web?

    Bloody hell, that's a cruel question. I think I'd go back to what I said in my talk about the post-GUI interface.

    At the moment you go to a website to find a piece of information, for example, "I want to hire a web design company with experience in the charity sector". You have to Google that and visit each site in turn and look for their charity experience. I think that will increasingly go away, until eventually you'll just be able to say to some digital assistant: "Show me charity website designs by companies in the South of England" and it will return the appropriate data to you.

    I'm not saying websites will go away, I think there will still be a role for that, and there'll still be apps. But increasingly, I think for that very task-oriented stuff, where you want a specific piece of information, we will be able to ask for it and it will be returned to us, without the need to visit a website.

    We're beginning to see it. With Siri at the moment, you can say "Show me the nearest restaurants" and you don't have to go to each of the restaurants' sites, it just tells you. You can say "I want to go and see Oblivion at the cinema today", and it will return times for the local cinema without you having to go and visit the cinema website. I think that kind of thing will be the big move over the next ten years. I could be entirely wrong, of course.

    Question People are getting on board with responsive web design, but the number of different types and sizes of device continues to grow. How are we going to deal with this?

    Responsive design is excellent. It works very, very well, because it doesn't matter what new device comes along next month, because the site is designed to respond based on screen-size, rather than what the device is. So it will adapt to future devices we don't know about yet. It's great from that point of view.

    My gut reaction tells me it's a relatively short-term solution, so in five years I don't think we'll be doing much responsive design. The reason, I think, is that these alternative devices are going to become more and more important. Responsive design works really well because mobile devices are still relatively low-usage, so people don't want to spend a huge amount of money on development for them and responsive design is quite a cheap solution.

    I think eventually there'll be a situation where we will be designing more specific experiences for each of the devices. Responsive won’t go away entirely, but it will be added to. There'll be other stuff alongside responsive design. That's my longer-term prediction.

    And then, of course, we come back to these post-screen devices: Google Glass and Siri and things like that. With these, it's a matter of marking up your data semantically, describing the different elements in your website in such a way that a piece of technology can look at your website and extract data from it.

    For example, if you pointed a piece of technology at my blog at the moment, all it can really return is web pages. But I could mark up articles, articles within specific categories, author information, episodes of my Podcast. You could say "Show me all episodes of the Podcast on the subject of UX, with Leigh Howells”, and you could build apps that pull back all that very specific data.

    At the moment I haven't marked up the website, because there isn't a standard for this sort of stuff. There are standards beginning to emerge, though. For example, Facebook gives you specific ways of marking up a website so that when you share a page on Facebook it will pull out the right image from the article and the best description for Facebook. The same is true for Twitter, and also Google, Bing and Yahoo. They've teamed up to create something called Schema.org, which are again ways of marking up data so they can do cool stuff with it. There'll be more and more of that kind of stuff evolving, and we'll have to mark up our stuff in that way. It'll still be HTML and CSS, but just adding extra data.

  • Question Have you read any articles or blog posts recently that have particularly surprised or impressed you?

    I mentioned Gov.uk earlier and how much of a fan I am. Inevitably, when you see something that impresses you, you want to know how they've done it. What have they done to make that work? The great thing about the gov.uk team is that they've documented everything incredibly thoroughly. There are stack loads of documentation about how they work and how they operate. I've been working through all of that, and it has really been a lightbulb moment for me.

    There are certain times like that as you go through your web design career..I always used to build websites with tables, and I remember very clearly buying Jeffrey Zeldman's book "Designing with Web Standards", and going "Shit, everything I know about web design and how to build websites is wrong. It's now out of date. I now need to build with CSS". You just deflate. And then you get really inspired and off you go.

    I'm going through a bit of a similar experience after working through gov.uk. Traditionally as an agency, the way you work is a client comes to you with a brief, you respond to that brief with a formal proposal, all marked up, all very organized, here's your price.Then they go "Yes!" and you go away and do it, and then present it back to the client.

    Gov.uk has opened me up to a different way of working. Essentially, you don't have a very solid specification of what you're going to do, and you work in this very collaborative, agile process. You produce a little alpha of what it might look like, with some of the basic functionality, and then you test that a lot with users. Then you might go "all right, nobody cares about that functionality, so we can get rid of that, but we ought to do this instead". You add that in, and you evolve it into a beta and you test it with a bigger group of people. You find the bugs in it, and where the problems are, and then eventually you've got a website that's ready to go live. But even then there's an ongoing process of development and iteration.

    That has been a bit of a lightbulb moment for me. I thought, "OK, the way that I've been managing projects is wrong, and this is a better way of working." I'm pretty convinced it works well, and we're actually trialling that at the moment with the RSPB. We're at very, very early stages, but I'm very excited about exploring that way of working. I think it's much more collaborative, it's much more organic.

    With traditional projects you have this really weird sensation where essentially, there's this big spike of spending money on designing a website, but actually your knowledge of users and what users want only increases over time. So you've finished the project by the time you've got any clue of what users really want, which is stupid. So this gets round that problem, because you're constantly checking with users as you do it.

    Question Is that easy to sell to a client?

    No, it's a bloody nightmare to sell to clients. That's why I hadn’t done it before. I've known about this approach for a while. The great thing is, Gov.uk wins design awards, it’s a big high-profile site. The University of Surrey, who I mentioned earlier, did it exactly the same way. So suddenly, for the first time, I've got some tangible case studies I can take to clients, and they are beginning to get it now.

    It's a big mental shift for organisations that are used to projects with a finite budget and a due date. But the web's not like that. The web is something you're always doing. Your website's never finished. With this way of working, you don't know what you're going to get at the end of the project, because it doesn’t end. That's quite a cultural shift for most organisations to make.

    Question Can you take us through a day in your life?

    There really isn't a standard day. My time is split between three different roles. Marketing for Headscape, which includes blogging, podcasting, and what I'm doing here, effectively. Then there's working with clients, where I do strategy, and R&D, or learning new stuff.

    My average day would consist of a mixture of the three, so I'd probably write a blog post or record a podcast, then I may spend a chunk of the day reviewing where a project currently is in its life cycle, or writing an expert review, or doing a competitive analysis, or some client work. And then I try and spend a minimum of half an hour to an hour a day just reading. That's a rough idea of my average day.

    Question What do you have for breakfast?

    I'm terrible at breakfast, I don't eat breakfast. I normally work from home, so I get up, do my admin first thing, get rid of emails.

    I'm a GTD: Getting Things Done. It's a basic way of organizing yourself. Don't get me started on it, I get obsessional and talk about it way too much. I go through my task list first thing in the morning, and I try and pick out about three things I want to achieve in the day, and then I crack on with some work

    Mid-morning, about 10.30, I go for a walk, because I've discovered it's very unhealthy spending your whole time sitting in front of a computer. Especially when you work from home, you can go a week and never leave the house, it's terrible. So I go for a bit of a walk. I love living in the middle of the country, it's gorgeous.Then I crack on with a big more work.

    At lunch time, I go for another little walk, have myself some lunch and check my email again. I don't have email constantly open.

    I crack on with whatever my three tasks were for the day, and then in the afternoon, I go for another little walk. I lose it at about two or three o'clock in the afternoon. I sit and stare at things and go blank and start dribbling. I'm useless, my brain stops. So I need the walk to jog me into action.

    At the end of the day I check my email again, tick off the tasks I've completed, and do a little round-up. Then I can spend time with the family, and just before bed I'll spend my hour reading and catching up, learning stuff. That’s how my day works.

    Question Are there any websites you look at every day?

    I don't look at websites much, because I use apps like Feedly, which pulls in content for me. I'm always reading Smashing Magazine, A List Apart, UX Matters...there's a whole plethora of content I'm reading the whole time, but I very rarely go to their websites. It comes down to what I was talking about earlier: we're entering a post-website age, where it's the content that matters, and that content is going to be read in isolation and people won't always be looking at your website in order to consume your content, which is quite interesting.

    I also use Pocket very heavily. It's a bit like Instapaper. I've got hundreds of feeds in Feedly, so I sit down and look at headlines. If I like one, I hit the Pocket button and it goes off to Pocket and I can come back to that when I've got time to sit and read properly. It downloads it offline, so it's great for trains and things.

    Question What have you got coming up in the near future?

    With speaking, I tend to have a year on and a year off, so this is my year off. I'm not doing very well! But I haven't got a lot of speaking coming up. At the moment it's just a lot of client work.

    I mentioned the RSPB, which is a really exciting project for me, because my dad's a wildlife photographer and has been a lifelong RSPB member. I've had it drummed into me since I was about five, about how cool the RSPB is. Even though I've no interest in birds whatsoever, for some reason I'm excited to be working on that project. Beyond that, there's nothing I want to go on about!

    Question Finally, who do you think is doing good things in the industry right now?

    People I would suggest others pay attention to are Jeremy Keith from Clearleft, who is a very intelligent man with a very wide range of interests. I recommend checking him out. Susan Weinschenk talks about psychology, and she is really good on that. I've got a lot of time for her. I like what Joshua Porter does, which is also psychology-type stuff. Seth Godin talks a lot of sense, and I like him a lot.

    Finally there's a guy called Gerry McGovern, who is a usability specialist and business strategist. He talks so much sense so much of the time. Whenever I read him, I feel like he's sitting inside my head copying down how I think about things, but the truth is, I rip him off. I prefer to play it the other way round...

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