Monthly Archives: October 2013

Midwest UX 2013 – Recap

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I’m back in Tennessee after spending four days in Grand Rapids, Michigan where the MidwestUX 2013 conference was being held. I was turned on to the conference by an old friend whose advice I’ve sought out as I work towards moving back to design roles. I’m grateful Christian steered me to MidwestUX, and glad my family and my job were able to facilitate the time I needed to attend.

Despite having gone to Columbus College of Art in Ohio (and being born in Iowa), I don’t have a lot of ties to the Midwest any more. After witnessing the degree to which the brains behind the conference had their acts together, and having met so many clever, kind folks from all walks of life who joined me there – I have to say I was really impressed (and consider MidwestUX a new connection to the Midwest!)

Impressed with the city

Grand Rapids, huh? For those folks NOT from the region, this may conjure up vague associations with cold weather, lake effects, and proximity to our Canadian neighbors in the north. I was surprised to find instead a city whose downtown was quite a bit more developed than Knoxville, at least 25% more populous, and FULL OF DESIGN.

larger than life fortune cookie message

There’s an art school there: Kendall College of Art and Design. It’s pretty big, pretty modern, and housed in some pretty swanky digs.

There’s a lot of really good beer here, too. Also some whisky, burgers and arcade games. I can vouch for the first two bits there.

beer?

There’s also some really good coffee here. The first day, we hit Biggby’s Coffee. It wasn’t bad – better than average coffee, but nothing life changing. The second day I went to Madcap Coffee. If I could, I would teleport there and back every morning from now on. I would marry their machiatto, but polygamy isn’t legal in Michigan or Tennessee. I wasn’t the only one either – fellow drinkers would note the cups held by other attendees and simply raise them up and wordlessly acknowledge the religious experience we shared.

madcap mmm

Also a great art museum. More on that in a moment.

Impressed with the pre-conference work

Every point of contact I had with the conference was well designed, well managed and question-free. Seriously. I had no questions after reading the website. Signing up for the conference triggered confirmations, friendly advice about the city and venues, and timely reminders and new info via email and the website as it became available.

Impressed with the conference logistics

Again, no questions. No drama. No issues with instructions, with missing presenters, with spotty Wi-Fi, or unclear directions. There were volunteers stationed for maximum effect to direct foot traffic between buildings and events, signage up everywhere you could need it to be, and things ran on time across the board. It was almost spooky.

The food and beverages provided at certain points were fresh, plentiful, tasty, and served with 100% recyclable or compostable materials. There was next to no waste produced by this event.

The sessions and workshops themselves comprised a nice mix of disciplines and interests, though I had a couple hard decisions to make.

Session notes

Thursday
I missed a great workshop on drawing communication practices by MJ Broadbent, but enjoyed a workshop on design practice led by Matt Nish-Lipidus. Given the simple task of coming up with a clock that describes one’s relationship to time, there was a surprising variety in what our breakout teams came up with.

Since I covered all costs myself versus having the conference/travel paid for by my company, I opted to only do one workshop. After lunch I headed to the GRAM, or Grand Rapids Art Museum. There I enjoyed the permanent collections as well as a few remnants from the ArtPrize event they apparently have each year in Grand Rapids. There’s a very well put together art library within the museum as well.

GRAM reflecting poolGRAM stairway

Friday
Abby Covert’s keynote on “Making Sense of Place” did not disappoint. I’d heard a bit about her, and I can see how she’s got the reputation of being a smart, kind, and energetic designer and presenter. Her talk focused on relating IA (information architecture) specifically and UX as a whole to the theme of ‘place’, and place making. Aside from her amusingly caffeinated story, she presented a hierarchy of terms to make sense of a given design challenge, and how to zoom in and out of that hierarchical framework to gain insights. Ecosystem to Object – from a simple object like a button up to a complex collection of systems like a large pharmaceutical company.

Hierarchy - making sense of place

Dude, Who Stole My Community
Charles Erdman led an interesting session that focused on how our developing technology and our dependence/addiction to it has effected our sense of community. From I Forgot My Phone to stories of how technology helped keep communities in touch during the recent Colorado flooding, he made some good points for designers to consider carefully when using and building future products and systems.

After orientation: making room for a novice UX designer
Megan Schwartz had a lot of really sensible things to say about how organizations can better support (and learn from) novice designers. Some of it was common sense (though not necessarily practiced in the workplace very often) but her insights into the ways novices can turn the tables and really help a company out were interesting. As a manager myself I took away some notes I intend to put into practice. Good job, Megan!

Excursion
I joined a gaggle of folks and we soon arrived at GRID70, a coworking space shared by a number of non-competitive companies with roots in Grand Rapids. Here’s the description:

GRid70 is currently the world’s largest experiment in coworking which brings innovation and strategy teams from Steelcase, Amway, Wolverine Worldwide, and Meijer together in shared spaces. This Excursion focuses on ways space can be designed to create the “happy accidents” of collaboration essential to fostering new work structures and inter-industry collaboration. The participants will engage in a conversation about Grid70 – what it is, how it works, and the challenges it addresses. The Excursion will culminate with an exercise to expand the concepts discussed and deconstruct a proposed experience solution.

First we talked about the space itself, the groups working there, and the mindset that brought it all together. Then we toured the building, poked around the collaborative workspaces, and generally grew quite jealous of their marvelous workspace. Finally we got back together and tossed around ideas on how to achieve a sense of community in Amway’s international physical storefronts – designed to be a coworking space, a distribution point for merchandise and a support structure for the independent business owners. It was a fun outing to be sure.

a walkway - brought to you by Dr. Whostickies as far as the eye can see

Keynote #2 by Christina Wodtke
Another well-known figure in the UX community, Christina had some nifty insights to share about Place. For one, stop thinking purely in terms of how you as a builder are creating spaces. Stop and think about how places make you. Places, communities, heartlands.

Another insight was to consider carefully how a user’s speed of browsing should be consciously designed for… on a social site’s homepage when NOT logged in, you might design for high speed ingestion – users will likely only see the page for a brief moment and can scan a well designed page quickly to find what they need. Contrast this with a comments feed from friends – this highly dense information must be put together so that one’s low speed browsing experience is optimized. If the internet is our new third space (since bowling alleys are nearly extinct and not everyone likes Starbucks), what is the internet’s heartland?

Saturday

In the morning, Christina chaired a panel (you’ll see what I did there in a sec) with design leads from Steelcase, Herman Miller and Haworth. Each had brought a chair with them (and sat on it for the duration) that exemplified the design philosophy their company was known for. It was rather cool seeing three competitors on the stage at once, sharing some challenges and some lessons learned that they found they had in common. Everyone in the crowd wanted those chairs… badly.

Lunch was served, and some of us chose to take in some quick lightning sessions in a format called Pecha Kucha. I caught three of them, and resolved to take part the next time we have a Pecha Kucha night in Knoxville.

Pecha Kucha

After lunch, I took in a thought provoking session about the Essence of Experience (Design can be dangerous), and another on how “The Place You’re In Is More Than The Place You’re At” by Phillip Hunter.

A takeaway for me was Phillip’s comprehensive list of different continuums – a sliding scale indicating ‘more’ or ‘less’, ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ as related to user experience evaluations. This isn’t a list of good and bad, just a way to think about a product or service to ensure you’re designing with the right factors in mind. Stay tuned for tweaks to this – I think he said it was still in beta :)

photo 3

Finally, the closing keynote began, featuring Karl Fast. I had the pleasure of sharing lunch with Karl and two other gentleman before the excursion to Grid70, and his insights into the state of UX education, MOOCs, and technology trends had me wishing we could have a longer lunch.

Karl’s talk led from physics to astronomy to electronics to biofeedback to data. BIG DATA is all well and good, but Karl exposed us to the idea that SMALL DATA is where we as designers can build experiences and leverage the growing sea of data to improve the lives of individuals, at a local scope, in real and measurable ways. He’s a great speaker and a very sharp fella.

The conference closed out with credit to volunteers, sponsors, organizers, and attendees. Lots of genuine applause and positive feedback – (I wasn’t the only one to feel like the logistics for MidwestUX were flawless.)

I had a blast. It felt so good to talk design and experience again with folks from all over engaged in all sorts of roles. Invigorating, exciting… like a Zest commercial with empathy and a sense of place.

On the way out of the city, I dropped by to say a sad goodbye to my new sweetheart: goodbye, MadCap. And goodbye, Grand Rapids! I hope to see you in Indy next year, MWUX!

Madcap latte

Coraline, Mark III

The first and second years since the my daughter Coraline was born I have done a colored pencil portrait of her. My guidelines for composition/style etc. have been simple:

  • The reference must be shot by myself or my wife.
  • The pose and/or expression must be non-typical – ie. none of the JCPenneys portrait sensibilities will be at play.
  • The realism of the piece will bleed into abstraction in parts of the composition. I’m not one for strict photo-realism and prefer to show some of the medium and technique when possible.

I’ve done a number of portraits of family in the past. The lovely wife, nephews, siblings (sisters, to be precise), and grandparents.

It’s my hope that someday my daughter will treasure this series (after outgrowing it as a teen and then growing back into it later in life). My goal is to document her growth and personality, as well as my love for her (and that of her mother, our prime documentarian.)

What do you think makes for a good portrait? Classical focus on the face, beatific lighting and an obvious smile? Creative lighting and composition? High, medium or low degree of photo-realism? Let me know!

1 year old

0-1 yrs portrait of Coraline

The Empress of Balance

2 years old

1-2 yrs old portrait of Coraline

Victorian Child

3 years old

My wife and I are currently combing through our approximately 947 thousand pictures of our girl for the right one(s) to use as reference for the third portrait. This time around my plan is to switch to soft pastels rather than continuing on in colored pencils.

Getting back in the saddle

It’s been some time since I redesigned Minotaurdesign.com. (2006, to be precise.) It’s been my business site since I had a business (1999) and it has gone through intense periods of work with much love/attention being paid to it – alternating with periods of inactivity.

I’m now coming off several years of letting the website sit untouched. If it mattered, I could point the finger at a number of things: parenthood, juggling the duties of a part-time landlord with a full time job, and feeling a lack of creativity fueled by having roles that put increasingly less emphasis on DESIGNING vs MANAGING, to name a few. Regardless, regret at having let the site sit idle does no good – so onward and upward!

As I gear up for a substantial redesign and some strategic shifts in focus, I have to credit a number of factors when looking at what has moved me to action:

  1. Recruiters

    I know what you’re thinking… recruiters? aren’t they the underbelly of our working world, constantly pinging you when you have no interest and making statements and promises that simply demonstrate their lack of any real knowledge about your chosen field…? Well, that can be the case, certainly.

    In my case, being contacted by one of the most influential companies for me on both a personal and professional level was an eye opening experience. When Apple first pinged me (via a well known business social media platform) I thought it was spam. After a bit of research I found the inquiry to be legit, which led to a number of conversations with recruiters and hiring managers on the west coast. The long and short of it was that our discussions led to one recurring observation:

    They felt I wasn’t solely dedicated to the discipline of front end development, and that I (still) seemed to harbor interest in the design side of the web.

    After much reflection, I realized they were right. With a background in illustration & advertising design, with a large side of fine art – I had to admit to myself that despite a full time job with an incredible company, serving terrific family-friendly brands, and working with amazing people – in the end i could not say I was fulfilled by the roles I’d held in recent years.

  2. Old friends

    In the first few years of my professional career I was part of a rapidly growing company that built multimedia sales platforms for auto dealers and which eventually turned into doing websites for automotive OEMs and dealer groups. Our team was home to a group of truly talented, passionate folks – many of whom are still in contact today. 2013 brought some significant career changes to three of those very influential friends from the early days:

    • One fellow had been out of the loop so long he no longer felt able to get back up to speed and took a retail job to pay the bills. He despaired of every returning to the web industry. This was a gentleman to whom myself and other young folks had looked up as an early adopter, a pioneer – with many different skill sets and a daunting intellect.
    • Another close friend was a renowned expert in his field, and a published author several times over. He was a trusted source for guidance in many forums over a number of years, a born teacher, and a truly remarkable human being as well. This friend had been a full time freelance developer for more close to 10 years, but his chosen area of expertise began to lose relevancy and his work dried up. He had to take a corporate job, and he too felt the pinch of having let his skills in many areas fall out of practice – easy to do in a world where innovation and major shifts in accepted practices happen all the time. In conversations over the course of the year, I had to admit I was very much in danger of falling prey to the same kind of threat.
    • A third friend, who some would have voted ‘most likely to remain a no-good punk for life‘, instead went on to consistently make wise choices in the roles he took on and the contacts he made in the industry. He adopted an attitude of humility and eagerness to learn, and was rewarded by the well-earned regard of his employees, employers and peers. His path remained aligned with his core values, with the things he’d grown to value: open, clear communication, advocacy for the users of the products he touched, and the courage to call BS when necessary. This year brought an amazing opportunity for him and his family, and hearing the joy he found in continuing to pursue his chosen path was encouraging to say the least.

  3. Family

    My family has been supportive over the years – grateful for the extra income my work has brought in under the Minotaur Design banner and happy that I was content in my work. It’s been obvious in recent years that I was left somewhat incomplete by the roles I’ve held by day, and my family has urged me to indulge in creative outlets while remaining understanding when I didn’t feel I had the energy or will to do so. My wife and daughter are the subject in many portraits done over past years, and so too are they supportive of my desire to steer back towards more creative professional roles.

  4. Twitter

    I admit it…

    I didn’t really GET Twitter when it launched. In fact, I didn’t really get it for years. It didn’t help to have set my privacy settings to “Ostrich with head in sand” when I initially signed up.

    Not until somewhat recently did I awaken to the second-by-second stream-of-consciousness zeitgeist that Twitter had become. Taking part in active conversations with other designers, developers and assorted experts has been at once humbling and exhilarating. Keeping up to date via blog entries and published articles has gotten harder year by year, and I’m starting to see how much more accessible it is to use tools like Twitter to stay abreast of the always changing world of the wide, wide web.

There are so many more choices available today than when I last redesigned the site. It used to be you simply coded out your design from scratch, did some testing with friends, peers and prospective clients, and breathed a sigh of relief when it was done and you could get back to paying work.

These days there are a lot of factors to juggle:

  1. Goals: Are you building the site to get new business? To show off your chops in hopes of scoring a plumb day job? To demonstrate hard-won expertise and hawk your latest book, seminar or conference tour?
  2. Platforms: Are you building from scratch or Using a publishing platform like WordPress or Drupal and/or relying on a framework like Bootstrap or Foundation?
  3. Deployment methodologies: Are you pushing everything up to your server manually via FTP, or are you using advanced IDE software, employing enhanced workflows, and jumping through the hoops of Node.js, NPM and Gruntc?
  4. Stylesheets: Still writing your CSS the old fashioned way? Pull up a stool and skill up on dynamic stylesheets: LESS, SASS, mixins and varying levels of automation wired any which way.
  5. Speed: Do you have site performance in mind? Think it’s still enough to just watch the filesize of your jpeg files? Are you loading all your script and style assets for every page, or building things in a modular fashion and only loading what’s needed, ala Require.js, Yepnope, or LabJS?
  6. SEO: It’s not enough to have a nice website these days. You’ve got to have it set up so it’s searchable, relevant, semantic and well-liked (well-linked). You may even have to pay for some exposure – SEO isn’t enough, SEM to the rescue.
  7. Research: Operating on hunches about what your users are doing? No bueno. You’ve got to wire up your site to some analytics – get some real insight into traffic patterns, user behavior, and the effectiveness of your marketing efforts.
  8. Marketing: What, you’re not doing much marketing? Too bad, you just lost the first round. Many FREE and PAID options abound, from Facebook and Twitter to LinkedIn, Tumblr, Quora, Pinterest and more. Seperating the signal from the noise is part of the challenge, as is learning to employ your research in focusing your marketing efforts.
  9. User Experience: Great, you’ve got users on the site. Now, CAN THEY USE IT? Usability was a concern back in the day, but now it’s become an increasingly important discipline to practice, and one that relies on many of the prior factors – research primary among them. Is your content organized well? Does the visual design enhance or obstruct your message? Can your users follow the desired courses of action you’ve laid out for them? Are your objectives served by each and every choice you’ve made along the way?

All of this is enough to induce a case of decision paralysis – but I’m powering on.

I’ve finally rediscovered the passion I felt in the early days of designing for the web, and I can’t wait to find out what comes next.