Designing a Conference Experience

Every week on The UX Blog Podcast, Nicholas Tenhue interviews user experience professionals about current trends, hot topics, and their careers. Subscribe on your favorite podcast player!

donna spencer the ux blog

Donna Spencer, Conference Organizer of UX Australia, has worked with a wide range of client types, including government, telecommunications, insurance, retail, not-for-profit, and higher education. She's worked in UX for over 18 years and has written books on information architecture, card sorting, and writing for the web. She regularly teaches workshops, mentors startups, writes articles for online magazines, and is a technical editor for Smashing Magazine.

As a conference designer, Donna co-organizes and runs UX Australia, a successful user experience conference that started in 2009. Good conferences are very carefully designed. Donna selects topics for presentations, combines them into a coherent flow, seamlessly integrates ways for people to interact and learn from each other, and figures out how to make them work in physical space. Over the last five years, the conference has grown from strength to strength and now consists of two single-day and two multi-day conferences every year.

In this episode, we hear Donna talk about:

  • The art and science of designing a conference
  • 2016 conference attendees
  • selecting topics for presentations
  • combining presentations into a coherent flow
  • how to design the flow of people and their interactions between conference talks
  • the physical space and layout of conferences
  • the importance of social events from a conference design point of view

This year UX Australia will be held 23-26 August in Melbourne. For more details on UX Australia, you can visit the conference website at

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Conference Images

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Welcome to the UX blog podcast. Bringing you up to date with the current trends, hotel picks and career advice in the field of user experience. I’m Nicholas Tenhue and you can visit us at

Nicholas Tenhue: Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of the UX blog podcast. Today I am joined by Donna Spencer who has worked with a wide range of client types including governments, telecom, insurance, retail, not for profit, and higher education. She’s worked in UX for over 18 years and has written books in information architecture, card sorting and writing for the web. She also regularly teaches workshops, mentors start-ups, writes out for cause for online magazines and is a technical editor for Smashing magazine.

Is there anything that you don’t do Donna?

Donna Spencer: I do more than that.       

Nicholas Tenhue: Wow, but I guess more importantly for the subject of this show, Donna is the conference organizer of UX Australia. So she’s started co-organizing and running UX Australia back in 2009. 

The conference is a four day event about everything user experience with two days of hands-on workshops which focus on the practical skills to help you get started and learn new techniques and explore ideas in detail. Then two days of the conference are presentations where you sort of take away these practical skills to inspire you for your next project or stretch your existing knowledge to a new or different direction or new field that you haven’t touched before. 

So, hi Donna, thanks so much for joining us, maybe you’d like to sort of introduce yourself a little bit to the guests first, if I didn’t do it well enough already?

Donna Spencer: No, I think you covered it all. I have done an awful lot of various UX things over the last 18 years of so.  I have been doing UX Australia since 2009, so it’s been an amazing thing to be involved in and do. 

Nick Tenhue: How did you first started in the industry?

Donna Spencer: I fell into it. Talking about it being 18 years ago makes it feel kind of old. That was like the late 90s which really makes it feel old. At that time, there wasn’t a thing; everyone was making stuff up as went. I was working for the bureau of statistics so I was publishing statistics every month. 

I fell in to help the web team with a really big expansion of their website and I found information architecture and I found information architects online and mailing with some things. We were all just trying to figure it out from nothing. It was fantastic to do it like that. It was an entirely different experience from now with being able to actually read books and go to conferences than learn in a structured way.

When I started, we figured it out as we went and I’m really glad that I started that way because that’s the best way to get really grounded and get a ton of experience. You know you can always just go back to first principles all the time.     

Nick Tenhue: Right. So you are one of the pioneers of the wild west of UX I guess.

Donna Spencer: I am yeah.

Nick Tenhue: A lot of the guests that we have spoken to so far from the ballet end of stuff around in that sort of dot com era kind of came from the same pathway either they were engineers or they were just animators or UI designers and UX just wasn’t a word that anybody knew or used.

Donna Spencer: We were all about usability back then, though that was just a word we are using, we are doing a lot of the same things. 

Nick Tenhue: Indeed. So let’s talk a little bit about UX Australia. Why did you start it?

Donna Spencer: So Steve and I started it because we were trying to find something here that would support our learning. We were going to web conferences; there was a small architectural information conference in Australia but we couldn’t find anything that was really helping us especially this is 2009 so UX was already a thing. 

We’d be spending time going to conferences like the Professional Architectural Summit, the IXDA Conference, we’d personally been able to go overseas and get a lot out of community focused conferences but there wasn’t anything for us here in Australia.

We tried helping with some things, we tried getting involved and we just went “You know, let’s just do this thing. Let’s just make it ourselves.”

So I started it, I wrote a long proposal, I said to Steve “Hey you want to do this things with me?” and he said “Oh yeah” and we got together and we started it out. 

Nick Tenhue: That is fantastic. So you laid down the infrastructure for UX in Australia. You really were the founder.

Donna Spencer: I really was. There were a few community things before that. There was some activity in UX book clubs, there was some UX meet ups, but we’ve just seen the community transform. Having a conference to focus around really did do a lot of that, it’s not the whole thing but by bringing people together and bringing them in a room and they can talk to each other and they can find each other then other community things spun out.

Nick Tenhue: So it’s like the CHI of Australia I guess.

Donna Spencer: Oh it is, but better. 

Nick Tenhue: Of course. So which speakers are we going to see at UX Australia this year?

Donna Spencer: We’ve got a lot of excellent people this year. Some for our ten days will be familiar; we have our good old friend Amir, Amir Ansari is going to be back. Andy Polaine is now living in Australia so he’s coming to do both workshop and a talk. Ash Donaldson has always done excellent studies on behavior design. We have two incredibly excellent female keynotes, Denise Jacobs is going to open for us and Pattie Moore is closing so we’re really excited about that.

Just tons of smart people and including people who have never been on stage before so lots of new speakers, locals who are having their first go at presenting at a conference and sharing their stories. 

Nick Tenhue: Well that is definitely going to be an exciting line up. Some of the people up there are complete newbies and the thing about that is that they are chosen by the community right?        

 Donna Spencer: We still ultimately choose them. It’s not completely democratic. It’s not a community conference quite in the same way that some others are. What we do in the way we involve the community is that we get our community to review proposals. 

So like I can look at a pile of proposals and know what I’m interested in but I know I have some biases in what I like to see. It’s really good to get the community involved in that because then they can, just like in research, they can give me feedback and ideas on what really matters to them. There are always stuff that I’m surprised that anyone would want to see and that is why it’s excellent because I can go “Wow! Okay, I wouldn’t have picked that but other people seem to think that it seems okay.” Then it always works out. 

It’s great to have that involvement but we still do curate so we look at all the reviews. Often we’ll pick up a talk that didn’t review well because we know it’s going to be great because we know the speaker or we know the topic or something like that. So we still try to make sure that we’ve chosen breadths and depths. We don’t pick up four topics on the same thing just because the review was liked. So we still really curate really carefully.

Nick Tenhue: So it’s almost like parallel designs followed by focusing in on the winners. So can you tell me a little bit about what we can expect in the workshops?    

Donna Spencer: So, as you said in the intro, the workshops are all about really detailed hands on skills. You go to a conference and it’s easy and inspiring and you go away going “Wow! That was really cool! I love my work! I feel energized!”  

You go to the workshops and the conference too has practical things but the workshops are all about being able to focus in a more detailed topic and get things that you can take away to really follow up with your work later on. 

So we’ve got workshops on service design, on journey mapping, detailed research.  I am teaching information architecture, we always have a really good, solid intro UX workshop. 

Kim Goodwin is going to teach us about how to lead UX and how to get UX working in organizations. She has been doing some really good research and thinking about different styles of organization and how you get things done inside. That one is selling super well. Unfortunately, I put at the same time as I’m teaching, which was a bit of a dumb idea.     

 Nick Tenhue: Not able to attend then huh?

Donna Spencer: No. we’ve got a couple of excellent accessibility workshops as well. Derek Featherstone is doing a whole day of kind of deep detailed accessibility and Pattie Moore is going to talk to us about aging that is what she has worked in on for a very long time, how do we design for people as they get older.   

It is just such a fantastic set of workshops, when we choose these, like these are all things that I would sit in all day and learn from. I just can’t manage to sit in all of them all at once. 

Nick Tenhue: Absolutely. Everything that you mentioned is super relevant to today’s world. Especially with the aging populations that we’re seeing and then the number one complaint that I’m hearing from pretty much every single UXer out there is “How do I change my organization to become more mature in terms of user experience?”

Donna Spencer: Yes and that is what Kim’s workshop is all about.    

Nick Tenhue: That’s a great overview of the conference. Now let’s move on to the meat of the show. Good conferences are very carefully designed; we know that incredible amounts of planning and preparation going to every detail of a well orchestrated conference. We’re super glad to have you here to give us some of your secrets about how you solve some of these complexities and the considerations that you have to take into account when you’re designing one of these conferences.

Just a start off, maybe you could elaborate a bit more on how you select the topics for presentations and how you combine them into a coherent and engaging flow for all the attendees.   

Donna Spencer: Part of the selecting of the topics is being connected to the community all year round. By doing that, like working on the community reading UX, seeing what people are writing, hanging out with people, listening to what they need, that’s what really sets a conference like this apart. 

There are some companies here and no doubt in other countries that run conferences. They think of a topic and they slap some things together and they charge a bunch of money but they never have, and I shouldn’t criticize other people but I’m sure listeners would know what I’m talking about. 

You can see when you look at their programs, they don’t have an understanding of what they’re really working with and what the content is about, and because we do, it’s easier for us to keep on top of   what is emerging, what’s important. Also to be able to keep on top of supplying something for brand new people and supplying stuff that, you know those of us who have been doing this forever, can still learn from. So there’s not any kind of rigid approach or rules to choosing these stuff.

When you’re immersed, when you understand it, and keeping an eye on the industry, it’s fairly easy to curate a good conference. 

Nick Tenhue: Right. That’s just a process that’s happening all the time in your head and you’re thinking “Ah this would go well here.”

Donna Spencer: All the time and being involved in community groups and things and hanging out. Hearing who’s doing what and being really well connected. All makes it easy. If we weren’t that well connected, we’d have to take more steps to kind of make sure that we’re choosing the right things. But because we’re very well connected, it’s easy.

So once we’ve got our pile of talks, and we need to make them into a flow for the conference, between Steve and I, we have the perfect set of skills. He’s really strategic, he’s really good at seeing passions and I’m deep down, a detailed information architect which means that I can see clusters, categories, themes, those kind of things. So between us, we’re actually very good at sequencing a set of talks so that they flow well. 

He things that genuinely happens is that people will go out at the end and they go “Wow that was really good! That really flowed well! That was really neat how these things kind of just went together,”

Nick Tenhue: And you’re standing there thinking, “That’s not by accident.”

Donna Spencer: No, we didn’t just slap that together, we thought about it. As I said here before, we designed it. We designed that flow, we think about what we know of our speakers and who’s going to carry the energy well through a day. You have to get from the morning to the evening and then back in the next day, and then morning to evening again. 

So you have to think about how our audience energy is going to stack up for listening for two whole days, it’s really tiring. So we’re careful about that.

Having some speakers on our roster who we’ve worked with before means that we know which ones to put in various spots to carry energy. We can keep an eye on how one theme flows to another. We do kind of stream because we have two tracks at once, this year we’re going to have three. We’re doing something slight different but we do keep one track a bit more strategic and one a bit more practical. So then new folks kind of just go “Oh look at this, I can just stay in this room all day.” Isn’t that clever? But we’re really careful about it.      

We do a lot of design work in that flow. Sometimes there’s a few, like with content and information architect, sometimes you have one talk and you’re like, that’s going to be a great talk and I have nowhere or no idea where to put this. Sometimes there are a few little things that aren’t perfect.

Nick Tenhue: You can’t have everything. So do you use any user experience tools or methods to kind of map out the conference like user journeys or using personas to kind of make an archetype for a conference attendee?

Donna Spencer. No, we don’t do any of that. Again, because we’re involved heavily in the community and are always keeping our eye on what people need, we haven’t ever made any artifacts. We’ve never done user research like we suggest other people do. The reason that we don’t do this is because we’re doing ongoing continual research.

We do often figure out that schedule by visualizing it with paper, like by writing in on sticky notes in the same way that we’re doing affinity diagramming or planning out content. We do scribble it on sticky notes and shuffle them around. If we’re doing it remotely we’ll use things like board thing but often we just get together and do it in person. 

We do always think about what we know about our audience but we don’t make archetypes, we don’t make a persona of a new person and work through it. It’s just one of those things, as somebody who is designing for their own thing around a community, we can rely less on those kinds of structures. 

Nick Tenhue: You’re so deeply ingrained anyway. How about the interactions between the talks? Do you ever sort of place similar or juxtaposing talks next to each other so at the end the attendees can come out and spark up a heated debate or agree with each other and smile and laugh when they need to be more energized?   

Donna Spencer: We do a little bit of that so we will flow talks, so if you’re sitting in a room for an hour and a half, there might be two long talks there on the same kind of thing or a long, a short, a short and have a nice flow for them. So if you’ve sat there with people the whole time and you haven’t changed, you definitely will walk out going “All those things, wow! All those things… blah blah blah.”

We do try to think about what, in having two rooms, what’s in each of them at the same time so the same kind of person with the same kind of experience won’t be going “Oh I really want to be in both.” Having it slightly more strategic lands in a more practical ends. Usually that makes it work fairly well.

We do ask people about this at the end of the conference whether they couldn’t make a decision, whether it was too hard or whether they didn’t have anything to go to. Based on our feedback we seem to get that fairly right. There’s always something where you go “wow I want to be in both those sessions.” 

Mostly we managed to make it work so that they, people are like “Oh yeah, that I wouldn’t want or all those I would want.” Some use their practical side and thinking about the difference between what you want when you’re new and what you need when you’ve been in the field for a long time. 

Nick Tenhue: Let’s talk about the physical layout and the conference space; what do you need to consider when you’re designing a conference space?

Donna Spencer: This is super super hard. The choice of venue is like just the most difficult part of the whole process. Where we usually know about what size the conference is going to be, every year we increase it by a little because we just sell out. Then we have to be able to find a venue that will fit us. Then we have to find a venue that will not only fit us for sitting down and listening for talk, but also fit us for standing around and eating.

Most venues in Australia are really good at weddings, they’re fantastic, and they have lovely ballrooms that are great for weddings.  What you need when you’re on a venue that’s good for wedding is you need a big ballroom for people to sit in with tables and you need a small, what they a pre-function area, so that before the wedding gets going, you can have drinks and mingle. 

That doesn’t work for conferences. You need actually slightly smaller ballrooms because we don’t usually put people in enormous ballrooms with tables but you need more space to stand around, have lunch, chat with your friends, have some couches. Finding the right venue is really hard.      

Usually we pick and critique because you know user experience people right? They can always tell you how to do your job and give us feedback on venue without knowing that finding a perfect venue is just impossible. 

Nick Tenhue: Right.

Donna Spencer: So that’s really hard. Once we found one, then we do deliberate design in the space to work best with the space we have to do the things we need.

We have a number of sponsors who will run or who will exhibit in some way. Lots of conferences you go to have sponsors standing behind the desk with some flyers or some books or they have a banner and they’re going to tell you what they do. We don’t let our sponsors do that.

Nick Tenhue: You make them work harder huh?

Donna Spencer: We do make them work harder and because we make them work harder, we get sponsors who want to work harder. We encourage them to do something interesting with their space. One of our sponsors who has been with us for a number of years is PWC and they always do some excellent thing in their space. They’ve done, “what’s that game that you play where you play music in the TV screen?”

Nick Tenhue: On a guitar? Guitar hero?

Donna Spencer: Yeah, they did a guitar hero, a guitar hero competition. Last year they did a paper flying competition. One year they did like a wall on “What you love about UX” or something. They always do a really interesting exhibition space which means that people do come and talk to them and do get engaged. Other sponsors do many other things, I just mentioned them because they always put a lot of effort in making their stand a lot of fun. 

This is a really important thing for introverts, even though I don’t like classifying people into binary things. We definitely know that some of us are much less comfortable making small talk in a room full of hundreds of people.

Having really great exhibition area and sponsor booths gives people who just don’t want to stand around and chat, gives them something to do. One of our sponsors did a giant jenga game once. That was just so fun. It was a tower that was shoulder height.

Nick Tenhue: You know what, I can’t stop smiling now. You’ve sold me already. I’m definitely coming to the next conference. 

Donna Spencer: Yeah, like we really do make sure that space is good. We try to do things to makes sure that there are couches; there are corners to sit in and have a chat. We can always do that, depends on how much furniture is on the venue and how much space we have. When we can do it, we do set up different kind of areas so there are different energies across the room during lunch time and breaks.

We really do think about the experience for people who love hanging out and talking to each other and the experience of people who can just go “Let me just go out for a minute and decompress” or “I don’t know anybody here. What am I going to do for myself with an hour? I’ve eaten my lunch, can I just wander the floor until someone comes up and talk to me?” 

That’s a horrible experience. We can’t solve all of it. We definitely think about it all. We definitely try to incorporate things so that people aren’t uncomfortable the whole time. 

Nick Tenhue: Yeah. There really are so many scenarios that could play out.

Donna Spencer: We do another thing too, we don’t let people buy a ticket just for one day. People ask this all the time, they say “We can’t afford to send our whole team. All of our team wants to come. Can we send half of the team one day and half of the team the other?” It sounds like a considerable thing to ask. We say “No, you can’t.”   

Part of the reason is, if you’ve been at the conference, and our conference has about 700 people this year and that’s a lot of people. If you’ve met somebody on the first day, and you started having a chat and something happened and you wandered off or got interrupted, and you’re going like “I want to catch up with that person again.” You want to know if they’re going to be there. We don’t want to half a conference, changing in on the second day. It destroys the experience of a two day conference of having the energy from the beginning to the end and being involved in the whole thing. It also destroys the follow-up ability to catch up with somebody you met the day before.

Again, that’s a really important design decision. We could probably make more money by selling single day tickets and selling them for a bit more but we’re not going to do that because it will destroy what the conference is all about and the flow, the hanging out and meeting and seeing people is all about. 

Nick Tenhue: Yeah, that is absolutely fantastic. I mean, conferences, they’re just all about the networking. Of course as well about the skills that you pick up but it’s the people that you meet and the connections that you make that are really going to make a difference in the future. That’s a great design decision that you’ve made.

Donna Spencer: Yeah, that is one of the reasons I have a good international network of excellent people. It is because I’ve met them all at conferences. We hung out, I met people, we chatted, went drinking and that’s why I have a really strong network.

UX community is a strong community from not learning things at conferences but from hanging out in hallways, chatting and sitting around.

Nick Tenhue: Right. That’s an excellent segue to my next question which is, what is the importance of social events at a conference? Not like in between talks or anything but I am talking about the sort of mixes that you put on after the day is done and how do you design those?

Donna Spencer: I still think fairly hard about these. When we started out, we did an opening party and a closing party because that seemed like the thing that you should do. That’s the thing that most conferences do. Over time I’ve been thinking a lot more of what the purpose of that is and how to make them, like why do we really do them?

If you’re working in a job today, you get to go in one conference a year, it’s great to be able to go out for a few drinks, eat some nice food, have a couple more drinks, and hang out. So that’s one part of being an attendee at the conferences. Being able to go out for drinks! We’re Australian, lots of us socialize by hanging out with drinks.

Having social events that are just about drinking can be kind of dangerous. It is not healthy for a culture and it excludes a whole bunch of people. So we’re really careful that we don’t do things that are, we don’t do that thing that just comes up at all conferences which is like, “I’m the last speaker of the day, I’m the only thing between you and drinks!” 

We don’t say that, it’s not about the drinks and we don’t call the morning session the hangover session, it’s not about the drinks. So we’re a little careful with some of that. We don’t want to exclude people from attending because they don’t socialize like that. We want to give something for the people who do socialize like that. I’m just really careful about thinking through this and I’m still struggling within my own head about how all this works.        

One thing though is at a pre-conference party, there’s a practical aspect of it. If we can get people to come to that and pick up their badge register or pick up their gear the night before, the lines are shorter in the morning. So even from a practical perspective, it’s worth having that party just so you’re experienced when you turn up at the conference in the morning isn’t so horrible like you’re not waiting line for half an hour because you came and you’ve got your badge, you did your things, you caught up with some people, you started settling in.         

So there’s a practical aspect to that and then there’s really the final party after the conference. It’s about going “Oh that was cool! Let’s continue talking and hang out a bit more!” and people can drift out at their own pace and finish the experience how they want to.

Nick Tenhue: Right. Some of that I guess is kind of about pulling away that professional veil and making friends.

Donna Spencer: We do though one other different thing that again not all conferences do. So the conference goes Thursday-Friday and we have an opening party on a Wednesday and closing party on a Friday. That means what happens on Thursday night? We don’t arrange any kind of party on Thursday night, we let people go out in small groups.

In previous years, what we would do is we would get people to book in restaurants, in tables for 8-10 people. Get them to sign up on a paper sheet at lunch time and go out in small groups for dinner. That works really well because it gives people a certainty over something’s going to happen tonight, I know where to eat, I know that I can eat, I know I’m not going to be standing here going “I don’t know anybody” “I don’t know how to find somebody for dinner” That kind of stuff. 

We have always struggled to get people involved in the booking of those restaurants. So this year I think we’re going to structure it a bit differently. I still have to think this through and still figure out how I can help people leave the conference on that day, form groups and go out for dinner without the over head of trying to get the restaurants to book.

Nick Tenhue: Right. How do you guide them through that?

Donna Spencer: In conferences, one of the things I hate most is finishing up and then hanging out going “Who’s going where to dinner? What are we going to do?” and then everybody doing “Oh, I’ll go with them.” And you turn up at a restaurant with 20 people but the restaurant can’t accommodate you. That is such a horrible experience. 

Nick Tenhue: One of the worst conferences or one of the worst social experiences at conferences for me anyway was at one of the recent web summits where there are these designated places that people go to socialize but it’s the absolute opposite, you can’t socialize because everything’s too loud, too packed, there’s just no way you can move, it is just generally not a very good conference experience.

Donna Spencer: Yeah and that is why the dinner groups do work well because you can go somewhere that is quieter. You can sit with 8-10 people which means you can actually have a proper conversation in the evening with some people in some depth, not just hanging out in a loud room with music blaring and drinks in your hand. Not that I mind that but not all of us want to do that all the time. 

Nick Tenhue: Exactly. So why don’t you tell the listeners about when they can come to the conference and where it is and all the other details.

Donna Spencer: All the logistics. So UX Australia is on the 23rd to 26th of August in Melbourne. The 23rd and 24th are the hands on workshops. The 25th and 26th is the conference itself. Tickets are selling super fast, we have already sold out one of our workshops. I reckon Kim’s workshop is going to sell out in the next couple of days but there will still be spaces in many of the others. If you think you’re coming, don’t leave until the last week of August to think about it because I think there won’t be any tickets anymore. So nag your boss now and get on to it.    

Nick Tenhue: Yeah. Creating a sense of urgency.

Donna Spencer: I’m not even faking it. I know about community psychology but I’m not faking this one.

Nick Tenhue: The conference sounds incredible but I think that if I attend, I’ll just be constantly looking around for the little pieces that you’ve intentionally designed and nobody else notices.

Donna Spencer: Yeah I’ve just told all of my secrets.  

Nick Tenhue: Thank you so much for being our guest Donna. Just before we end, I’d like to ask one very quick question that I ask everybody, and that is What is your definition of user experience?

Donna Spencer: Oh I don’t know.

Nick Tenhue: Don’t worry, everybody says the same thing.

Donna Spencer: It is such a big thing and even though I’m an information architect and my job is all about categorizing and labeling. When it comes to these kinds of stuff, we need categories and labels to hire. That’s why often job labels exist. Really what it’s all about is getting in with a team and making something excellent and that involves lots of different kinds of skills that just doesn’t need to happen. We kind of bundled them up as an idea of UX. 

My teammates would say “Oh Donna from a UX perspective, Donna from an IA perspective” and I’m like “Yeah whatever.” What are we doing here? What is the best way to do something?

Nick Tenhue: What problem are we going to solve and how are we going to do it? 

Donna Spencer: That’s right. I really don’t care about the category and the label.

Nick Tenhue: Yeah, that’s amazing. Everybody has a different answer and every answer is very insightful. Thanks a lot again.

Donna Spencer: Thanks for having me.

Nick Tenhue: So everyone, get your tickets now! We’ll see you in the next episode of the The UX Blog podcast.           

I have been your host Nicholas Tenhue and if you enjoyed the show, please subscribe and leave us a review on iTunes. Remember to tune in next week for another episode of The UX Blog.

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