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Midwest UX 2013 – Grand Rapids is Amazing

I write this still sitting in Michigan, just outside of Grand Rapids (so alas, no brunch for me) at a hotel near the airport.

This year was my third year at Midwest UX. I’m not from the Midwest (although family members do hail from Ohio). I don’t live in the Midwest, but in 2011 a friend and co-worker at the time, Andrew Hinton said that there was this crazy, intimate little conference that’s going to happen in Columbus, OH & that I should go.

Columbus? Seriously? Well, it’s inexpensive. Why not…

I recall that reaction mainly because when I heard that MWUX would be moving to Grand Rapids last year, I recalled that same sentiment… Grand Rapids? Seriously?

I always hate making uninformed judgments. I love when I’m wrong like this, though.

The Midwest UX team this year in Grand Rapids outdid (founder Erik Dahl’s words) the previous years. Grand Rapids was a welcoming city, even providing me a little bit of rain so I wouldn’t be homesick for Seattle.

I participated in two workshops
1. UX Research and Strategy for Urban Spaces by Kelly Downing & Leslie Marticke: we took the ideas of problem solving in urban spaces and explored them in groups. It was a great Grand Rapids ice breaker since we split into groups that intentionally contained locals, and did a 25 minute walk during the workshop to explore a space that had a problem to solve.
2. Design Studio for Context Aware Products by Thomas Wendt: Thomas had a great lecture lead-in on a macro picture of context, driving us to find a solution in a design studio format based on a pre-set exercise. It was fascinating to see the difference in solutions (and overlap) that a large group of groups can come up with in a time-boxed setting. And not every solution was an app. Some even involved human beings :)

Thursday evening had a welcome party at McFadden’s, a local pub. Much fun was had and it was true to the Midwest UX experience.

On Friday, sessions began. After introductions from the Midwest UX team, Abby Covert kicked off the morning with her keynote. She. Killed. It. It was an absolutely wonderful talk and I will forever have “just move the #$% spoons” embedded in my mind (along with the impact every decision has on all of the other points of environment in a given solution).

After Abby, I attended a session by Edward Stojakovic and Fran Diamond on anti-patterns; identifying them, dealing with them, and (not) accommodating them. It was informative and well-paced and they did an excellent job of co-presenting. From there, I saw Megan Schwarz extol the benefits of hiring novices and promoting mentorship. I’m a huge believer in mentorship, so her talk resonated.

For lunch, we began the excursions. I can’t speak for all of them, of course, but Jonah Bailey did a fantastic job with ours. After lunch at The Winchester, our group headed over to the Meyer May house, a home architected & fully designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The restoration of this house, down to its 100% original configuration with mostly original furnishings is an amazing story. The light in the house was absolutely mesmerizing. The house alone would make a trip to Grand Rapids valuable to anyone who appreciates architecture.

(fun fact: it turns out “excur” is an actual word)

After walking back, Christina Wodtke gave her closing keynote. Speaking about the poetics, and the art involved in what we do, without likening it to art, gave her keynote a beautiful veneer to a core issue of exploring spaces and how they’re used to better define places. (later in the evening, Christina would tell me the story of how Adaptive Path got their name, which almost felt like an apropos cap).

MWUX then treated us to an evening gala at SiTE:LAB, an amazing installation of exhibits in a museum that was previously abandoned and reclaimed by artists. During the evening, I was whisked away by some of my favorite people and had a great and wonderful time. Yes.

I overslept Saturday, as is typical of me for at least one day (where I may have stayed out just slightly past my bedtime) and so missed what I’m told was an amazing panel discussion by representatives from three furniture makers (Herman Miller, Haworth, and Steelcase). I hope that’s recorded. I’m told it’s the first time they’ve all three been on stage, together, like that.

I did get up and out in time to catch Matt Nish-Lapidus, on the Programmable World and Erik Dahl, immediately after on Defining our Place in Emerging Technologies. These were two separate talks, but I mention them together because it was practically as if the two of them had pre-arranged the segue. The obvious convergence between the talks has really made me re-think the way I’ve looked past hardware for several years. The future is coming and as designers, we’re either going to help make it human or it’s going to be filled with creepy robots and sensors that record and react to the objects that are carried by, but not the people.

I missed the lightning talks over lunch for personal reasons, but jumped back into the sessions after lunch with Phillip Hunter’s excellent presentation on Place (The Place You’re In Is More Than the Place You’re At). Phillip carried a great discourse on the multiple ways to look at place, and the spaces between, leading up to a series of design continuums he’s devised for plotting anticipated and expected characteristics on. It looks like a really brilliant framework and (since Phillip is local to me) I look forward to learning a lot more about it.

After Phillip, my last session was with Kerry-Anne Gilowey, who talked to us about the significant, major differences that exist across the board between South Africa and the United States. While the differences and history are harsh and conditions across the whole of the country are still far from idyllic, it was a not-so-gentle reminder that even if it’s unintended, the internet encourages and facilitates an international audience. Myopically expecting or pandering only to your local culture has the potential to negatively disrupt the future we’re designing together.

Karl Fast was chosen to give the closing keynote. Karl took the stage, a masterful storyteller, sharing stories with us of astronomy, German professors, and Big Data/Little Data. Reminding us that the datafication of the world had the potential to be great or devastating, he encouraged us to take those steps towards creating the future while reminding us that it’s those small things, the little things, the little data, that makes life important. It’s the adjacencies and the boundaries that make life interesting.

As does happen for me every year, I walked away from Midwest UX thoroughly inspired. Invigorated. Ready to better tackle my existing challenges and add new ones. I feel as though I’ve always been conscious of the spaces in between (it’s an important concept in Taoism & Buddhism), however there were so many ways in which the idea of the spaces were presented that just helped me wrap my brain around a lot of different thoughts. All of these little spaces are where we exist, and where we find meaning. It’s fleeting meaning and it’s easy to lose, consciously, but it’s all of those pieces of meaning that we interpret that make up the whole of our lives. As designers, we can never truly know the sum total of how an arduino object installed under a table will emotionally imprint another human being, but we can know that it will. Making that arduino as unobtrusive and poetically beautiful as possible is what’s going to allow us to make a better world for humans.

I was fortunate to meet several people who arranged Midwest UX this year. I thank them. Three gajillion times. It was an incredible event, pulled off true to the style and flavor that was established by previous events. Thank you Samuel, Laurel, Jonah, Michael, DanGrant (although we did not get to meet; maybe next year), and the many others who were involved. The Grand Rapids MWUX team was clearly a great team who pulled off a great thing. And I will always be grateful to Erik Dahl, Pam Haaser, and Denise Philipsen for their continued support of this event. I’m looking forward to Indianapolis, next year.

Also, Midwest UX goodies (decks, notes, sketchnotes, and more) are already appearing on Lanyrd and I’m sure will keep rolling in.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly to me, I wanted to note that I was able to attend this year’s MWUX with a very long-time, dear friend of mine. Rich Lee and I have known each other since early 2000 (January, in fact), when he and I were pioneering, with others, the OEM and dealer automotive CRM/CMS space. Rich is an amazing artist and designer who over time has delved deeper and deeper into development, perfectly positioning him (in my humble opinion) to delve into strategic user experience. Rich is looking for something more at this point, and hadn’t yet been exposed to the greater UX world, the conferences, the people, and the information we share with one another.

As we walked out of the closing keynote, back toward our hotel, Rich echoed the same words that I found myself saying three years ago when I attended my first Midwest UX, “These are my people.”  Yes.  Yes, they are.  Welcome home.

Not Taking UX for Granted

Originally published at Giant UX

Each time I’ve started a new project with a new client, or started at a new company, it’s been under the impression that the company was hiring me to create a better experience for a website, software, or something related.  Typically, that’s also been coupled with a different opinion of how that will be achieved.  What defines a user experience varies from organization to organization.  There’s even a difference of opinion in how to refer to it… UX, design, CD, CXD… the list goes on.  And honestly, I think that makes sense.

If a group has a pre-defined opinion of it, at all, everyone is going to have a different impression of what UX means.  I don’t feel justified walking around, correcting people or telling them that they’re wrong.  Mainly because they might not be.  For an effective UX strategy to work, it has to work within the context of a given company.  A lot of work will be diplomatic consensus generation.  All of the different aspects of a company are going to need to get behind the same processes, definitions and ideas.  That includes me.  I need to be willing to change some of my preconceived notions about UX.  I have my understanding of user experience, with certain ideas at the crux of my philosophy, but I’ve never been closed-minded to expanding that philosophy.

Every piece of qualitative data is going to require proof in any organization.  Even those who believe in talking to users and responding to users will want to understand the data collected, particularly in an organization that hasn’t previously done it.  There’s nothing to be gained by hiding methodologies or not having the process on hand to be explained, while there is great merit in being able to provide the sound justification behind decisions.  There’s a science and a reason behind user-centered design.  The ability to have a conversation with users and keep digging deeper into the motivations behind interactions is invaluable.  And then when we build, I’ll know exactly what to quantify to show how the feedback we got from real people helped change the outcome for the business.

Any time I start something new, I try to start by learning the core product of the business.  I’ve done retail across different verticals and multiple categories, but there’s a different science and approach to every vertical.  Embrace that.  Learning the core business is critical.  A user’s interaction and overall experience with software is 100% influenced by the industry they’re engaged with.  The process for buying a car is a lot different than the process for buying a hammer.  That being so, when I design a solution, I want it to be appropriate for the problem.  You can’t solve a problem if you don’t understand it.

Stepping into a new project is always a lot of work.  But it’s exciting work.  Taking for granted that your definition, your process, or  a cursory understanding of the business will allow you to come up with great solutions is a first step in the wrong direction.  I encourage you at every opportunity to re-frame your understanding of UX, relative to the organization you’re working with, with a mind willing to compromise. A ready mind. An open mind ready to be flooded.

Creative Leadership Isn’t for Everyone… and That’s Okay

Originally published at GiantUX

I’ve experienced three distinct types of leadership in my career; business, technology, and creative.  Most leaders are business leaders, coming from a finance or business administration background.  Business leaders are critical to the success of… well, business.  They understand finance. They understand human resources. They understand capitalism, supply & demand and finding the right products for the right consumers.  Necessary, right?  Completely.

Technology leaders are the backbone of most tech-oriented companies and startups.  They keep teams of programmers, DBA’s and network admins on task and working toward a common goal.  Technology leaders are great at what they do because they command respect out of their ability not only to understand what their technologists do, but to also have the ability to do what they do.  Most technology leaders I’ve known will also step in and code from time to time, as a corrective measure, because they’re inspired, or simply because they miss it.

Creative leaders are not terribly different from a core description, but they come from a different place.  Creative leaders have creative backgrounds.  They’ve shown an ability, a capacity, a competency performing a role within a creative field.  Typically, they’ve excelled.  This is often how a creative leader is initially offered the opportunity to move into a management role, to hone their leadership skills.  The assumption is that because someone is a great designer, they’ll be a great leader. This doesn’t always hold true.  Leadership is an additional skill-set, beyond what designers, writers, and architects are typically taught.  Some people find they just don’t enjoy leadership and would much rather move into a more intense version of what they already do.

Their past work is what gets their foot in the door, but it doesn’t command respect.  A creative leader has to show that they understand the process the team works in, and then have the trust in the team to let them do that work. It’s not trust in the vein of “Don’t tell anyone my secret.” It’s not grade school.  It’s trust in the sense that your team was hired because they’re capable.  Let them be capable.  More challenging for most creative leaders is that they have to step away from the work.  Particularly in designing experiences, the creative leader should be coaching and guiding, but not directing.  The work is the work of the creative team, collaboratively generating a solution.  The creative leader is there to keep it on track, but not to lay the track for the team.

Good leaders share common traits, and there’s plenty written about that.  Good leaders treat employees like people.  They treat customers like people.  They understand multiple facets of the business.  They inspire.  They see the big picture.  I’m not challenging the notion that a capable leader isn’t a capable leader, but good leaders have a good understanding of those they lead.  Without some additional education and true practice in the craft, I wouldn’t expect anyone to put me in front of a finance team, given my background emphasis on creative and technology.  The same should hold true for creative leaders.

Gone are the days where a manager was a manager; a director was a director.  It is possible, of course, for some leaders to transcend the inherent roadblocks associated with not understanding the core disciplines behind what they lead, but it’s particularly challenging.  Associates want leaders who understand what they do and can be a coach and a mentor, as well as someone who approves their vacation time.  As technology and creative disciplines generate more prominence in today’s companies, so should those who lead them.