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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‚Ķ

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 ūüôā

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, Dan,¬†Grant (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.

What I Heard (or Thought I Heard) at MidwestUX 2012

There’s a great collection of other write-ups, slide decks, hand-outs, sketch notes & notes and photos at¬†

This is… wow, a lot to read. I’ll forgive you if you don’t make it all the way through. ¬†I’m not sure I would. ¬†This is mostly based on my tweets (and retweets I grabbed from other people who can pay attention better than me), so if you were following during Midwest UX, you can probably skip reading this altogether. ¬†Seriously.

First of all, the good people at the Midwest UX staff outdid themselves in a big and serious way. ¬†I honestly didn’t think they could top their¬†inaugural¬†year, but I believe they did. ¬†It’s worth noting they added 100 people in the process, without losing any of the intimacy of the first event. ¬†So I say, thank you to Erik Dahl (@eadahl), Denise Philipsen (@theguigirl), Pam Haaser (@pamhaaser), Lindsay Ramhoff (@lkramhoff), Imran Riaz (@docux), Brandon Stephens (@bpstephe), Ian Smile (@endashes), Keith Instone (@keithinstone), Eric Wiley (@ericwiley) and all of the others that I didn’t get to meet.

Aside from the rich, rich learning, I was able to catch up with old friends and meet more than a bit of new faces. ¬†My only regret is that there were quite a few people I didn’t get as much of a chance to talk to as I’d have liked. ¬†If we met, and I don’t reach out to you, please drop me a note christian.manzella ( at ) & to presenters: sometimes I get stuck on a tweet and I miss other, more pertinent points. ¬†If you have something you want to add to my bullets, please reach out and I will.

Without further ado:

Workshop Day

What I heard from Laura Creekmore (@LauraCreekmore)
during Content Strategy 101

  • Content Inventory isn’t something that should be done just for the sake of doing it. It’s a lot of work.
  • Content is a vehicle for information AND¬†emotion; Communication of emotion is a big part when looking more broadly at the User Experience
  • Determining what content to use or lose should be based on business & user goals, not emotions or attachments by those who created it
  • No one listens when you’re saying you need more people, a bigger budget, or that people need to care more. Find a pain point for others, and address that
  • A card sort on adjectives that describe what the company wants to be is a great stakeholder activity for determining tone

What I heard from Livia Labate (@livlab)
during Experience Design Practice Development

  • The setting (most important thing) shapes your decisions whether you like it or not; you have to understand your setting to figure out what the active role is that you can take
  • “An Experience Design practice is a professional activity performed by humans; teams are at the core of developing the practice.”
  • How we talk about people in today’s business culture as capital, or resources, is dehumanizing.
  • “A finite game is played with the purpose of winning, an infinite game is played with the purpose of continuing to play”
  • It’s difficult to have a common sense of purpose if we only participate in little points along a much larger process.

Thursday night there was a great mixer in the below-ground floor of Barley’s Brewing Company ( It was a bit loud as the evening wore on; perhaps a result of basement acoustics, but it was a great opportunity to catch up with a lot of people that I had seen throughout the day, but hadn’t been able to talk to. ¬†The bar crawl was after, and there was a heck of a lot of bars to cover, going back and forth on the main road. ¬†We walked more than we drank, to see all those good sites. ¬†After a bit, we joined up serendipitous-ly with some of the Midwest UX crew and checked out Barrel 44 and Sassy Girl.

DAY 1:

In between things

  • Erik Dahl (@eadahl) kicked things off ¬†
  • Noted that Lowe’s is hiring UX people to help in the next step of the Lowe’s Experience Evolution.
  • Overheard an observation that comparably the seats in the Galaxy Theater were “like a cloud for my butt”
  • Ian Smile (@endashes) was hoping for coffee with Sara’s (@sara_ann_marie) talk and mixed drinks with David Farkas’s (@dafark8)

What I heard from Peter Morville (@morville)
during Ubiquitous Information Architecture

  • We need to keep broadening, redefining, and re-framing what we do; interwingularity is a good thing.
  • Give me a fulcrum and a place to stand and I will move the world – Archimedes. I enjoy this as a great quote & great general philosophy
  • “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” (regarding a digital scale that automatically tweets your weight for you)
  • At REI Samantha Starmer (@samanthastarmer) brought the content producers together to better build the cross-channel relationships
  • Practice what we’re not good at and learn from those who are

What I heard from Lauren Colton (@laurentgc)
during Your English Teacher Was Wrong: Plain Language for Digital Environments

  • Was willing to do her presentation as an interpretive dance, but the microphone started working, so there was no need
  • Kicked off with a quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson)
  • Lauren wants “… to correct people who incorrectly correct other people’s grammar.” #meta
  • Avoid jargon and minimize abbreviations (even if you understand them) “… calm it down.”
  • Visual aides (lists, columns, tables (for tabular data), illustrations and infographics)¬†are part of plain language!
  • Plain language is not dumbing down the content it’s elegant precision (via Ryan Cummings¬†@Ryan_Cummings)

What I heard from Jessica Ivins (@jessicaivins)
during On ‘Shrink it and Pink it:’ Designing Experiences for Women

  • When we design for extremes, we tend to resort to myths & stereotypes. This just isn’t productive.
  • We don’t make authentic connections with our customers when we stereotype them
  • Women pay attention to all aspects of your brand. If your store is great but your website sucks, you’ll lose them.
  • Research by Happy Cog (@happycog) found women tend to extend help to others even when not closely or at all related
  • Instead of classic (antiquated) binary gender question, Bag Check (@bagchk) used “preferred possessive pronoun” with more than just “he” and “she” options (plus credit hat-tip to Livia Labate @livlab and Luke Wroblewski @lukew)

What I heard from Matt Grocki (@mgrocki)
during Digital Hoarding: How Information is Suffocating Your Audience

  • Digital Hoarding ¬†
  • Standardized file naming isn’t (fun) but it cuts down on customer confusion.
  • Let the PDFs go. Your customers will thank you.
  • Hoarding (digital and physical) starts with the excessive acquisition of useless artifacts.

What I heard from Sara Wachter Boettcher (@sara_ann_marie)
during Building Bendable Content: Why the Future Needs Content-Focused IA

  • Content audits, sitemaps, wireframes are useful but (in the future) they aren’t going to be enough
  • Content is more like peanut butter than water; it’s meaningful, rich, chunky… and it gets stuck
  • Flexible content needs to have structure. It becomes more relational than hierarchical (parts not pages)
  • Learned about content creation for an Arizona visitors site and the reluctance to do what makes sense (via Jess Ivins¬†@jessicaivins)
  • Sara has a forthcoming book, Content Everywhere, from Rosenfeld Media¬†(@rosenfeldmedia). (via Jodee Jernigan¬†@jodeejernigan)

What I heard from David Farkas (@dafark8)
during Interaction Design Thru Mixology

  • IxD through Mixology
  • Understanding of a discipline coupled with random exploration can produce serendipity (and russian mojitos)
  • The most important thing to remember is that the user is not like you (or like David Farkas)¬†(via Ian Smile¬†@endashes)
  • Good design should be integrated; it shouldn’t hit us in the head
Unfortunately, I missed both the afternoon panel on Women in UX, which I really wanted to get to, and the Ignite-style talks later in the afternoon.  Friday night, there was a mixer redux of Huntington Park bar, overlooking the field, from last year.  This year, there was the added benefit of a game going on, so it added to the atmosphere of it all.  From there, I caught dinner with my co-workers that were at the event with me, Jesse Haynes (@JesseHaynes), Mark Pappalardo (@markpappy) and Parvez Daruvala, and then made it an early night.


In between things

  • Everything is great about Midwest UX (even when you wake up at 5 am. That’ll teach me to make it an early night)
  • If you have to check out early, the COSI has lockers that fit travel bags (we were able to get 4 in 1 locker)
  • Rosenfeld Media (@rosenfeldmedia) was offering up to 60% discounts at the UX Bookmobile
  • Matt Grocki (@mgrocki) dropped note about the good times vibe at Midwest UX: “Engaging folks dropping & absorbing ideas in a welcoming environment.”
  • Ian Smile (@endashes): Rule 1 of both Zombie Apocalypse and UX Conferences: Cardio

What I heard from Nathan Martin (@deeplocal)
during Design and Development of Post-Digital Experiences

  • “I hire for people that have a need to learn and evolve”
  • Nathan Martin was in Creation is Crucifixion¬†(via¬†Jason Mowery @radiculture)
  • Erik Dahl (@eadahl) interviewed Nathan Martin about design, culture and innovation
  • Deeplocal uses the term “gutter tech” to describe using what’s appropriate, not what’s shiny. This.
  • UX people are really fond of robots. And reindeer.
  • Transparency, exposing the process, corresponds well with today’s cultural movements. This, too.
  • #noego #respect #trust

What I heard from Jay Morgan (@jayamorgan)
during Negotiating Your UX Career

  • We (UX people) are bad at negotiating
  • Reframe what you’re negotiating & pace yourself. Use what you know from UX; prepare, plan, design.
  • People adjust to a Final position from an initial Anchor, so you need to establish what their anchor is, First
  • “Every single cognitive bias hinders you when you don’t plan.”
  • Insist that the results be based on objective criteria. #negotiate (via Kaleem Khan @kaleemux)

What I heard from Chris Risdon (@ChrisRisdon)
during Mapping the Experience

  • Mapping the Experience¬† (via Haig Armen @haigarmen)
  • An experience map is a generalized experience; a customer journey map is a specific archetype journey. both apply, depending on the context of use
  • Touchpoints aren’t just where people interact; they are any interaction of a specific human need in a specific time and place
  • Chris used Charles Minard, Edward Tufte, and ubiquitous in one sentence without stumbling.
  • Experience mapping must address: Feeling, Thinking, Doing, Time, Place (context)
  • You need dr. jones the archaeologist first before indiana jones becomes plausible (via Dan Klyn¬†@danklyn)
  • The 5 (or 6) important Components of an experience map are: Lens, Journey Model, Qualitative Insight, Quantitative Information & Takeaways (& cite your sources)

What I heard from Amelia Campbell (@aplusbplusc)
during How to Rapidly Prototype Multi-Touch Applications

  • The way we’ve been prototyping for the desktop will continue to work through mobile/multi-touch
  • I need to learn origami for working with paper prototype… asap
  • For prototyping “Go with whatever creates the most effective suspension of disbelief”

What I heard from Boon Sheridan (@boonerang)
during Customer Journeys: Designing for Disagreement

  • What Boon (the Kevin Smith @thatKevinSmith of UX, via Rachel Nabors @crowchick) does, what we do. ¬†
  • “I don’t know what wrong design is. I know what design that doesn’t fit a need is.”
  • “Illusions of agreement” ~ there was a requirements document, sign-off, we got out of the meeting and then the design was wrong
  • Iterating over the same stone in your shoe isn’t iterating. it’s still a stone. in your shoe.
  • Customer Journeys, mystical and magical as they are, can actually be more effective than visual design
  • “Site Redesign” is the worst goal ever invented by man
  • Blowing something up huge on the wall where everyone can see it & comment creates a sense of equity & conversation
  • Handing out workbooks that people can write in, and collecting them at the end, gets feedback from the introverts who may not speak up during collaboration

What I heard from Dan Klyn (@danklyn)
during Establishing What ‘Good’ Means with Performance¬†Continuums

  • 1 Valuable insight = a free ride (or at least a $10 ride) on #crawcab
  • Architecture is the tool you use to make the cuts, name the parts, and create good society
  • Architecture isn’t a metaphor. It is¬†what we do
  • In order to know what’s good, we have to establish what’s true.
  • Continuums help establish how true on one end of a spectrum (or extreme) from the other a given performance is

What I heard from Richard Buchanan
during Experience, Human Interaction, and Service Design

  • Be Human. First.
  • The great manufacturing center of the U.S. for decades was the midwest; more than half of the great design schools are found within a 500 mile radius from Cleveland, OH
  • The great design achievement of the 20th century is Organization
  • The future lies in how we provide information and services to fellow human beings
  • How do we shift the Culture of our Organizations to appreciate User Experience? (we should always be thinking about this)
  • Human to Computer interaction gives way to Person to Person interaction as we move toward Person to Environment Interaction.
  • There’s a fourth experience we (UX people) are not embracing; that of participation & becoming part of the whole
  • It’s one thing to talk about design; it’s something else to talk about what information Means to people in their use of it and interactions
  • Why do we do it? What principle should guide us? Answer as an individual, but answer in terms of values and principles
  • Why does Richard Buchanan do it? Human Dignity. Human Dignity
  • “Design is more than a set of tricks and gizmos. If design isn’t married to a set of principles, we have troubles.”
  • (via Boon Sheridan @boonerang): Seriously, I love this talk from Richard Buchanan. If you’re gonna swing, swing BIG.

And again I say, again and again(@midwestUX)

Midwest UX 2012 was amazing. Better than last year. And I didn’t think it was possible. ¬†The value of this event is incredible. Just as I did last year, I left energized to write and pontificate and make good thing after good thing from having met so many people and heard so many great ideas. ¬†The @midwestUX crew really did outdo themselves and the 2011 run. I’m looking forward to 2013.

IAS12 Tweets

Still haven’t done anything with that file. ¬†No objections if someone else wants to do something with it.