Unsettling inspiration: UXR with impact at EPIC conference

After many years of being Epic-curious, I finally was able to catch the EPIC conference when its orbit transited through Europe this year, via Amsterdam, for Epic2022. As I’ve written elsewhere, there was much to love about it. Not least the people. But the talks were good, too. My favourite was the closing keynote, by Melissa Gregg, senior principal engineer in user experience driving carbon reduction and green software strategy at Intel. Her work is new to me, but she’s a well known scholar in organisational culture, who transitioned into industry. (Her book Counterproductive: Time management in the knowledge economy looks interesting.)

I found her talk surprising, inspirational, and unsettling.


Her style is surprising. It’s pretty normal for people at conferences to be “on” – not in a bad way, but focussed on blowing their own horn, onstage, offstage, and anywhere anyone will listen. Melissa Gregg presents differently – humble, softspoken, and intense. What she says carries, although it’s said quietly.

Melissa Gregg at the podium for her keynote speech, looking serious and intent, holding the mike chin level and looking direction at the audience.
Melissa Gregg’s closing Keynote at EPIC 2022


I often find organisational theory kind of dry. But it came alive in this talk, as the underpinning for the narrative arc of how her organisation was persuaded to engage more fully and deeply with carbon-aware computing.

The organisational story she told was about the difference between adaptive networks and hierarchical networks, and how both are important in the journey of every idea in an organisation, including the initiatives she wanted to dedicate herself – and her organisation – to support.

Melissa Gregg at the podium for her closing keynote at Epic 2022, with a slide projected behind showing alternating adaptive and hierarchical networks supporting the journey of an idea.
Melissa Gregg talking at EPIC 2022 about adaptive and hierarchical networks supporting the journey of an idea

What I found inspirational about this was not just the cause she was encouraging through various stages of organisational evolution – though that’s clearly inspirational. I liked the way she named something about patterns of informal and formal adoption that I’ve seen in organisations, and my work in therm, but haven’t thought of in that way. There’s always an ebb and flow between getting agreement about directions and methods and follow through for work, and actually doing the work. The first one is always harder, I think partly because what actually happens is often implicit. Gregg talked a fair about about the emotional labour involved in creating and managing change – which is a new framing for me but it certainly resonates.

Now I have a new way of thinking I can use to try to understand and shape what’s going on, organisationally. UXR practitioners need to be particularly skilled at this, especially if they are not ski-ing in someone else’s tracks.


We are faced with multiple urgencies and uncertainties, as individuals, as societies, and as a species. The talk’s opening challenge faced off with this unsettling reality, from the get-go.

What is the role of ethnography in the face of extinction?

Melissa Gregg, opening challenge of the closing Keynote, Epic Conference 2022

She unfolded this question into further questions:

  • what do we need to do
  • what do we need to know
  • how do we need to be.

I don’t think she answered it for us. But asking us all to ask the right questions is a start. Like many others, I am trying to work this out – once again – for myself. And for you. And for us.

One lesson I learned was so good I learned it twice over

One thing I learned – and was reminded of – at Epic2022 was the richness and value of ‘just’ paying quiet attention. I knew this already, but like physio it’s not much good knowing it without actually doing it. (Which I also knew already. But.)

Watch and the world will reveal itself

As part of the conference, I took a half day tutorial on Spatial Ethnography from Gemma John (from HumanCity) and Sophie Goodman. I’ve always been interested in architecture and urban design and this was – quite shamelessly – a treat rather than something I expected to be able to put into practice immediately in my work.

I registered for the conference late, and only discovered the night before the session, after I’d arrived in Amsterdam, that I had reading and a homework assignment to do for the tutorial the next morning. I also had to give a talk the next evening – which I hadn’t finished writing – and I also had a busy afternoon in the office scheduled. So it was hard to make myself make the time. But I’m glad I did.

The Herrengracht canal in Amsterdam just after dawn, seen through a railing of the bridge, which contains a bicycle lock.

The assignment was to quietly observe a public space for 10-20 minutes. So I got up at the crack of dawn and parked myself on a bench outside my hotel. And watched.

It’s so rare that I just sit still and watch. I’m usually busy. I was amazed at how patterns of use and movement simply revealed themselves to me as I watched, without my doing anything, or trying to do anything. That was a powerful lesson. And it’s one I need to practice more.

Listen and listen some more

The other attention lesson I (re-)learned at Epic2022 was from a session designed by Allegra Oxborough, from AERO Creative, and run by two researchers from Headspace, Jonathan de Faveri and Chelsea Coe. The session title was “When Resilience Becomes Resistance: Recultivating Intimacy through Relational Mindfulness”. As a warm up, the audience were asked to do some call outs about their own experience, in response to topics the facilitators raised about vulnerabilities in their own experience of research. This raised the trust level in the room, and made it clear that participation and sharing was encouraged, and safe. We then did a guided group meditation, then split up into groups of three. We were asked to individually focus on an experience that inspired awe in us, and then share that out with the others. The instruction was to listen without any interruption for three minutes. There was then a share out from the individual groups to the larger group. I liked the overall organisation and flow of the session, as it became quite intimate without being pushy about it.

For me, the real highlight of the session was noticing what happened when I listened without participating. Although I fancy myself a good listener, and I do a lot of interviewing, I found it was surprisingly hard to do nothing. Interestingly, so did both my small group partners – both also professional researchers – when it was their turn to listen.

When we were each talking, we didn’t feel inhibited by not getting verbal feedback – our stories unfolded freely, and in layers, and, I think, with more depth than would have happened if we as listeners had contributed actively. But it felt so unnatural to not contribute actively, not even with paralinguistic cues. I “know” that silence can be very powerful – but to get the benefits – you need to practice it explicitly. (Like physio.) This is something I will try to bring into my interviewing more.

p.s. What I talked about is my favourite woodland, which is my go-to spot for a sit.

Beech woodland with a swirl of branches just turning to autumn colours.

Rethinking the relationship between outcome and effort

I learned from and was inspired by Epic2022. One of the things I (re-)learned was that sometimes good insights come from not leaning in, and striving hard to analyse or explain, but from simply stepping back and really paying attention.

Stepping back out into the traffic of everyday life and work, doing nothing except paying attention is usually not all that’s needed to get stuff done. But it’s worth remembering that it’s freely available in your toolbox.

Not OK, Google. My photos aren’t clutter.

Many of Google’s initiatives around ML and AI-augmented creativity are wonderful (more on that in another post). But even the best and brightest tech can struggle to make a good impression if it presents itself in a way that is lacking in social skills.   And that’s the flavour I got from the  conversation Google Photos just tried to have with me.  Google Photos was trying very hard to show how clever it was, and how it was working diligently to please me, but it only succeeded in being annoying.    (We’ve all been there.)

The more Google personifies itself in its self-presentation to its consumer user base, the more we expect of it – for better or worse.  One doesn’t really expect an empty search box to have a lot of personality: all the magic is hidden behind the fourth wall of the screen.  But when Google becomes an “I” and initiates dialog with me, I start to expect more than it has yet learned how deliver.

What happened? Well, it came to pass that after a period of absence, I needed to interact with Google Photos via my desktop. So I did. And what to my wondering eyes did appear but the following pile of notifications:

Google Photos notification

Google Photos’ off key notifications

What’s not to like?

The first notification just missed the mark.   That’s ok.   ‘Rediscover this day’ invites me to engage with Google Photos as a place to hang out and retrospect.   This is unlikely to succeed in the short term – but I don’t mind being asked.

It’s the next three notifications where the potential for harmony in our possible conversation seemed to totally evaporate:

  • Notifications 2 and 3  offer me the chance to look at stylised photos and collages – it tells me that it has done stuff I don’t really want, when I wasn’t looking, and now it wants to take time out of my day to show it to me
  • In Notification 4 it offers me the chance to clear my clutter – Google insults my own images… and offers to get rid of them for me.

There are reasons why each of these conversation-opening gambits is problematic.   On the upside, in combination they manage to be quite funny.

Is it art if nobody’s looking?

The ‘look mum!’ notifications – offering me a  collage and a ‘stylised photo’ – remind me of  when my kid was in infant school.   Every other day, something unasked for in the way of ‘art’ would come back from the school.  Our fridge quickly got covered with ‘art’.

This didn’t make anybody happy.   The kid dislikes art and didn’t much like having to take time out from better things, in order to do it.   For my part, I didn’t like having the ‘art’ on the fridge.  The fridge is where I put my own stuff that I don’t quite know what to do with.  Fortunately, my lovely childminder tipped me the wink that the right way to politely dispose of children’s ‘art’ was to take a digital photo of it.



Photo: pxhere.com

Which brings us nicely back round to Google’s ‘look mum!’ conversation starter about its collages and stuff.  It’s stuff I didn’t remember asking for, that I don’t want.

Mind you, Google did not actually ask me to print out its work and put it on the fridge.  Small blessing.  Like my kid, pretty much all it wanted was my attention.

It’s kind of poignant really.   There is no schoolbag.  There is no fridge.   There is no conversation platform at all, really,  except for the notifications channel, which I wasn’t usually seeing because I wasn’t ever hanging out in Google Photos, just using it as a service via API, with my interactions being driven by other apps.

So Google seems to have been busy doing this art thing for me silently all these years, but has had no way of telling me about it.  Frustrating!   That makes it all the more important that the conversation openers it uses in Notifications really work for me:  they offer the chance for us to engage directly, not mediated by another platform.

Magic vs meddling

I remember going to I/O extended many years ago and listening to a bunch of announcements on my interaction-isolating headset about upcoming enhancements to Photos, whereby which Google would do enhancements on my photos in Photos, if I uploaded them.   Doing art behind my back when I’m not looking is a progression from this.  Way back then, Google had total confidence that it was doing something I would really value.   I found this mystifying at the time – and I still do.   But I know I’m hypocritical about this – and the root causes of my hypocrisy are interesting.

The thing is,  I don’t really mind my totally obvious glaring faults being automagically corrected.   Who wants red-eye?  (Unless of course the picture actually is of a red-eyed monster – but that’s an edge case I am happy to throw overboard.)   I generally accept that Photoshop’s suggestions about sharpening and  level tweaking are spot on.    I think that I draw the line at automagic cropping of my images – but I really don’t.  I actually appreciate Facebook’s increasing subtleties about knowing how to display uploaded photos so their points of interest are visible and the composition is balanced.

And here’s more seeming hypocrisy, in case – unlike me – you’re in short supply:   I love love love my Pixel 2.   Which works tirelessly near-instantly and invisibly to correct whatever faults in the universe and in myself might result in a less than satisfactory image.   It just works.  It’s like putting rose-tinted glasses on my photography ability.    And I don’t mind one bit.

So why does Google Photos’ unwanted fridge art annoy me – but I love that my Pixel 2 makes me better than I really am?   Both Photos and the Pixel 2 have similar collaboration models:  the cleverness applied to my images happens without a lot of explicit interaction or negotiation about it.  In one case, that’s fine.  In the other, not so much.   Why?

I think there are two interesting ways in which the Photos case is different:

  • timing – with Photos there is a lag between my initial act of creation, and Photos’ contribution towards our collaboration
  • process and outcome – with Photos, what is being offered is creative collaboration, rather than a productivity enhancement, but I am not sure what I get out of it if I am not actually involved in it

Timing influences our perception of causality

The fact that the Pixel 2’s assistance occurs near-instantaneously makes it seems more integrated:  that’s basically just what it does.   Its rose-tinted glasses seem to be always on.   By contrast, the lag on the Photos enhancement processing and art creation introduces a feeling of separation, almost alienation between the action and the outcome.

Lag used to be normal.  Back in the days, if you wanted to have photos you’d have to drop your film off for processing, and in due course pick them up again in the form of physical prints and developed negatives.  Even if you did your own processing, this was something that took time.  But in this age of instant, it’s unusual.

Productivity and creativity augmentation need different collaboration protocols

I think of instant and automatic corrections and enhancements as a kind of productivity enhancement.   A kind of spell-checker,  or tax form filler.   (By the way, thanks for that tax form reform thing HMRC.  It’s beautiful.)

The kind of augmentation that I want for a productivity task is something that frees me up from my own errors and limitations.   I don’t necessarily want to have a conversation about it – though I might want to be asked to validate choices that the productivity agent isn’t sure about.

However,  I have different needs and expectations about the type of collaboration model and conversation that works for creative applications (as I will be explaining in another post).    The type of collaboration I have with Google Photos about our mutually produced artwork is a strange one.

I am not sure what inspires Google Photos to produce fridge art for me. When does it do it?  Which assets does it choose to do it to?   Who knows?  So when it appears, it appears as if disconnected from any sense of collaborative engagement and dialogue.    Somewhere in the mists of history, I probably ticked a box about it at some point, curious to see what it would do.   But the rhythm of this conversation is too disjoint to make it feel like there is a meaningful dialogue.

By the time my fridge art was delivered, I forgot I’d ordered it.    And I didn’t have any fun making it.

Above all – don’t be rude

So I have some doubts about the way Google has gone about collaborating with me, by doing art with my Photos when I am not looking.   That’s one problem, and it’s an interesting one.

But there’s a different problem with my last notification, which offered to get rid of my clutter.   To be polite, I thought this astonishingly ill-conceived as a conversation gambit.  Immediately after offering me up a bunch of unwanted fridge art – Google Photos has the total effrontery to refer to one of my photos as ‘clutter’?    Hello?

To me, this seems… unreasonably judgy.    It was also funny: the photo it picked out as a piece of clutter that I should get rid of was a copy of a paper-based vacation request from my just-finished stint of contracting at Google.    (You couldn’t make that up – and I didn’t.)

Organising my photos is something I might actively want to train Google Photos to do, or have it engage in dialog with me about, while it learns, and tries out various theories about what classifications I find might useful and pleasurable.   But judging what is and what is not clutter is a very personal thing.  And based on this first attempt it made, I have no reason to believe that Google Photos is ready to make this judgement on my behalf in a way that reflects my own personal needs and desires.

Google Photos may well have read Marie Kondo’s The Life-changing magic of Tidying Up.   It may also have read my vacation request and deemed it obsolete.  But I think it hasn’t yet really understood me – or the book.    And until it does, for sure I am not going to be passing over the controls to any sort of autonomous de-cluttering service it might offer.

What use to me is a Photo collection full of unwanted fridge art, while my own paperwork gets shredded?