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"It’s an award you can proudly hang by your desk." - The largest Vancouver UX-focused awards you haven’t heard of

We sat down with committee member Terence Sawtell to get the backstory on the local organization celebrating the local UX community.

“…just a healthy, successful awards show that maintains its integrity.” - Sawtell. Photo supplied.

The name of Terence Sawtell’s company is a fitting one. The founder of Goat – a local user-experience research, web design, and development agency – is also on the lookout for the GOAT of Vancouver’s UX community. Sawtell is a committee member of the Vancouver UX Awards, which is now entering its ninth year. The awards provide an opportunity for user-centric organizations, agencies, startups, freelancers, and students to be recognized for their work over the past 365 days. Despite Sawtell’s disclaimer that he was a “technical dev geek person” instead of a PR professional, we had the opportunity to sit down with him as he painted a colourful picture of what the event means to the local community.

Can you tell us about your involvement with the Vancouver UX Awards?

My first experience with the Vancouver UX Awards was actually as an applicant for Goat. In 2019, we submitted a project and were selected as a finalist alongside Engine Digital and Apply Digital, two mammoths in the local agency space. I looked up to both those companies so much, and to be in the same breath as them was a huge confidence boost for me and the company.

In 2021, the organizing committee had finished their third year, and posted that they were looking to set up the next organizing committee to take over. I jumped at the chance to help continue building the community.

How did the Vancouver UX awards get started?

The Vancouver UX Awards’ roots go all the way back to 2003, when Gordon Ross from OXD and a few old-school UX researchers started a monthly meetup where they hosted events with speakers, networking, and a place for (what was at the time) a tiny community of UX practitioners to hang out. Think about where the internet was back then. They didn’t have much to work with!

2013 was the inaugural year, hosted by OXD. It carried the magic over from the Vancouver UE groups event, elevating the practice of UX to an entirely different level.

What has changed over the last nine years within the UX community?

I think the biggest change is how much the practice of user experience design has impacted a broader range of industries. Historically, UX was reserved for websites, intranets, et cetera, but now we’re seeing UX practitioners in emerging industries like VR/AR, traditional industries like agriculture and manufacturing, and in the public sector. Organizations are seeing the incredible value UX provides and are now investing accordingly, regardless of what sector they belong to.

How are the awards judged? What are the criteria?

To me, that's what makes these awards so special. The awards are independently judged by a jury of established UX leaders, chosen by a jury chair. The jury chair is the seventh vote, in case of a tie. Each project is scored on the following criteria:

Elegance: How cohesive and refined does the solution feel? How seamless and consistent are users’ interactions with the solution?

Clarity: Some interactions are complex in nature — how does the experience support clear mastery of the task at hand, while minimizing friction?

Innovation: What’s new, different, or exciting about this work? How does it stack up to current conventions and patterns we use today?

Impact: What results can be attributed to the user experience of the solution? What measurable ways has it impacted business and people?

Emotion: How does the work create an emotional connection between the user and its intent? Emotion can range from joy and delight to empowerment and a desire to take action.

I love that it’s a brutally honest, fair, and equitable awards show. In 2020, Engine Digital held all three finalist positions in their category because, frankly, their work was the best. It wasn’t about who knows who or which PR firm pushed the hardest. It’s old school, and I love it for that.

How do award winners benefit?

It’s an award you can proudly hang by your desk. Having your products judged by the level of quality the panel provides is an incredible opportunity. I know from personal experience – when we were finalists in 2019, we had a few sizable leads come in the weeks after the show. The contacts that reached out referenced us being finalists as the reason they reached out.

You’re also forever etched in VanUX history. The list of agencies and companies that have previously won includes some big names, like Best Buy, MEC, TELUS, Apply Digital, Invoke, Engine Digital, Unity, and more.

How does the community celebrate the awards?

The awards are a two-day event. First is Demo Day, an interactive event for companies to showcase their work, team, and selected project. That’s followed by the Awards Gala, which is an immersive event with a keynote speaker, MC, and where the winners are presented. It’s a social event with full catering and a diverse crowd of industry leaders, UX professionals, and students looking to get noticed.

Do you have any favourite past winners or nominees that you would like to shout out?

My favourite was the Interactive Wall project from Logic&Form. It’s an incredible use of data visualization, while still maintaining a strong user experience, which is a challenging feat. It also addresses an important part of our past, the Indian residential school system. They found a way to visualize a challenging subject in a way that sucks you in.

And although we didn’t win, I feel compelled to mention the work we did at Goat for Skipper Otto as well. Clearly, though, I’m biased.

You’re approaching the tenth anniversary of the Vancouver UX Awards. Will you be doing anything different to celebrate next year?

We’re focusing on year nine at the moment, but one thing we can say is look for an expansion, of sorts. The event is currently centred geographically around Vancouver, and we might look at expanding the footprint next year. And, of course, the party will be great as well.

What does the next 10 years have in store for the organization, and for the UX community?

Every year, we’re awed by the work submitted. Companies are coming out of the woodwork with their digital products, and as the UX practitioner continues to evolve, we’re seeing an expansion in the use of UX to improve the overall health of businesses. We’re excited to showcase that work and provide the opportunity for UX practitioners to feel great about it. We’re not aiming for hyper growth or massive expansion — just a healthy, successful awards show that maintains its integrity.

Vancouver Tech Journal is a community partner of the Vancouver UX Awards. Applications are now open and close on March 1.

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