My journey

How did you get to where you are now?

Once and a while someone asks “how did you get to be where you are now?” Like many of us, where I am now is a result of a lot of different things that happened along the way. When I was a kid, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I liked science, but I didn’t want to dissect the cat. I liked art, but I thought many artists were pretentious (and most of them were poor).  I thought I didn’t want to work in an office, and I wanted to do something creative. I used my first computer in High School, but had no idea that digital products would have such an impact on my life and livelihood.

So, what am I now?

I am a lifelong student and mentor. I support entrepreneurial energy in myself and others. I believe that working in a cross-functional and collaborative way produces better products and happier teams. I am grateful for the many allies I’ve found in the Agile, UX and Lean Startup communities. I am a product designer at Carbon Five. I like to make things including digital products, jewelry, costumes, drawings and dinner. I enjoy music and dance. Here are some of the events (and people!) who led me here.

My first startup

I had my first startup experience in college. Some High School friends went to MIT and they created a word processing software application. Over the summer, we all lived together in a big house in the Boston suburbs. Some of us wrote code. I answered the phone, did tech support, packed and shipped disks and did whatever I was able to do at the time to help out. I tried to pick up C programming by reading a book, but I lost interest.

After that summer, I decided I didn’t really want to work with computers. They were slow and boring. I wanted to learn a craft instead, so I went to Japan to study pottery and folk art. When I came back, I continued to do computer stuff on the side to pay the rent at my pottery studio. Eventually, having income outweighed my desire for creativity and I ended up working for a company that sold UNIX pocket command references and training. I put the ceramics tools away “for later” expecting I’d be back in just a few years when I paid off my student loans.

Part of the Borg

The UNIX company job led to my first experience with big-company software development. I joined Microsoft in 1990, working in tech support, training and as an account manager.  I did escalation tech support and coordinated beta programs. I also ran sniffer traces, wrote printer drivers and did a number of other “lightweight” technical tasks. The best part of my job was when I visited my large enterprise customers to learn what they needed. The least favorite part of my job was trying to convince product managers to think beyond fixing bugs and adding features and consider how people really used the products we were building.

The requirement that we ship physical media created pressure to do a lot of up front planning and there was a lot of struggle around what was “in” and “out” for any particular release. Everything was done in a very silo’d and hierarchical way. Programmers were admired and feared. I knew that a lot of them were actually nice people once you got to know them, but some of the loudest and surliest were seen as the most powerful. People competed with each other to see who could have the shortest “turnaround time” which is the time spent away from the office. People didn’t get much time with their families. We’d joke about the batch of babies that showed up about nine months after we shipped a major version of Windows.

The Wild West

In 1994 I moved to Northern California, and got a job as a Producer making video games. I found myself doing a whole new set of activities; designing game levels, hiring and managing artists, writing scripts, recruiting voice talent, cutting up sound files, preparing sound assets, writing and inserting hooks in the code for contextual help.

We still had some of the same deadlines because it was package software, and if your game wasn’t on the shelves by October, you didn’t make your numbers for the year. However, things were done in a different way. My team had developers and artists and writers and musicians all working together on the same product. We made decisions as a group in daily bull sessions. We played the game and got feedback while we were building it. It was during this time that I learned the value of creating trailing documentation to clarify what the team agreed and create a shared vision.

One summer, CD ROM games died. People blamed the Internet. About this time I remember having a conversation with a developer at the Computer Game Developer’s Conference about how Mosaic “spoiled” the Internet with all those pictures. I was briefly a Web designer (an awful job involving OCR and static HTML). One day I was reading the WebGrrls mailing list and saw a post from Alan Cooper looking for people to help him change the way software was built. He had the radical idea that we should build software from the outside-in, and consider the user interface before we built the code. I was intrigued.

The birth of Interaction Design

When I joined Cooper in 1997, we were creating Goal-Directed Design, a methodology that reliably converts qualitative research and structured design thinking into compelling solutions that meet user goals. Alan published “The Inmates are Running the Asylum” which made “Personas” (almost) a household word and annoyed developers for years to come. (Not on purpose!)

Interaction Design was a new field at this time. When I met people at parties, I’d try to explain what I did, and would just end up saying “I work with computers.” Cooper wasn’t the only company in this space; the discussion groups were filled with conversation about what we would call ourselves. Were we “Interaction Designers? Were we “Experience Designers?” Were we part of existing disciplines such as Usability or HCI? Did we need our own professional organization with standards? The Interaction Design Association was born out of this debate, and a number of people from Cooper were early members of the board.

My work at this time was mostly in complex domains such as medical and finance for enterprise and B2B clients. I didn’t do a lot of Web work because Cooper’s clients were mostly still building SW applications. Existing Web frameworks didn’t support a lot of rich interactions. The Web work available was largely catalog sites and brochure ware, and not our target market.

Cooper teams were formed from people with distinct specialties; Interaction Designer, Design Communicator and Visual Designer. I loved the peer support of working with so many other smart designers. I wrote a lot of big design deliverables. Clients said they loved our work (and kept asking us back for different projects), but I didn’t get many chances to stay engaged in the projects long enough to work out the details that arose during construction. I think some of our clients believed that once they understood the “big idea” the design represented, that they could keep the vision throughout the process. In any case, I think at that time people expected consultants to produce work that fit into their own documents and hand-offs (MRD, PRD, Product Spec…).  I had a growing sense of frustration that I didn’t have a way to stay engaged until the product shipped and I could see the work in the world.

My second startup

When a friend called me in 2001 and offered a chance to join an early-stage startup in San Francisco, I jumped at the opportunity. I wanted to do things a different way. I wanted a closer working relationship with developers and marketers, and I wanted to experience how a product grew from initial concept to profitable company.

The product was largely a technology play, and I found that after hiring a front-end developer and building the reporting interface with him, there wasn’t enough work for me. I wasn’t able to participate in the core work of the company because most of the work was back end code and I didn’t understand (or have passion for) databases at that level. I briefly considered managing customer relations and becoming a community manager, but that wasn’t really what I wanted to do.

This was a real low point for me. I really didn’t know who I was or what I was going to do next. After 9/11, I decided it was time to take some time off and re-evaluate what I was doing. I spent a few months camping along Route 1 in CA to figure out what to do next and did some freelance work.

Coming home

By 2004, Cooper had a new office in San Francisco and invited me back to do a project. While I’d been gone, the Web had grown up and everything changed. People were doing exciting things and it was possible to think of designing richer Web products.  Cooper was doing a broader range of projects, and taking on more consumer and product work. Cooper started doing more Web applications and added Industrial Design to our team mix.

The Cooper University program was developed to help train new Cooper employees and was later opened to the public. Kim Goodwin was instrumental in making this happen and I’m glad to see that so many influential people in our field are Cooper Alumni or took Cooper U classes. Cooper U helped me overcome my fear of public speaking and I started to speak at conferences. I also faced another fear and started to write for the Cooper Journal. It’s still scary to put my words out here where people will read them.

The way we worked also changed; Cooper started to put less emphasis on the distinct specializations of IxD, DC and VisD. We considered a broader range of applicants with crossover skills, and projects were staffed more flexibly.

The year of influential conferences

Despite the infamous conversation between Alan Cooper and Kent Beck in 2004, (now, mercifully, no longer a point of contention) I didn’t really pay attention to agile until February 2008 at the first IxDA conference in Savannah when I attended a workshop called “Agile and Interaction Design” led by Jeff Patton.

At first, I was horrified. You say we can build software in chunks? How on earth could you create something with conceptual integrity if you just start to build whatever features you want? What happens if you built the wrong thing and got stuck with it? Developers would never be willing to throw away code they’d written. A product owner acts as a proxy for the customer? No actual users in sight? I am eternally thankful to Jeff for dealing with my dismay in a calm and respectful manner and pointing me towards people who could show me what agile really meant.

I also attended SxSW Interactive for the first time in March 2008. I was amazed to see how much the Web had changed while I wasn’t paying attention. Microsoft was there with Silverlight, the hot startup was Zappos, we heard about the cool parties on Twitter and everyone was talking about the importance of the “whole experience.” New Web frameworks were making it easier to build and deploy quality software quickly. This new generation of Web developers was used to working with visual programming tools, and thought about aesthetics, behavior and function at the same time. They were used to working cooperatively and were looking for partnership. I was in heaven!

My quest for the heart of agile

Something was happening, and I needed to know what it was. I started to talk to anyone who would share their stories about agile. Arena Reed, Catherine Courage, David Hussman, Desiree Sy, Jeff Patton, Kevin Lawver, William Pietri and the folks at Pivotal SF were all influential in my learning. I wrote my first tentative blog post on the topic “The missing piece: How interaction design can add to Agile.”

Because of Jeff’s influence, Alan was invited to be a keynote speaker at The Agile Alliance conference in August 2008. I came along to meet people and learn what I could. I agreed with Jeff that there was a lot of potential to bring together the agile and UX communities and agreed to be the UX stage co-chair for 2009.

Alan, Tim McCoy and I started to look for clients who wanted to blend agile and ux. One example of this early work is also in the Cooper blog “Agile interaction design for startups: A conversation with Cameron Koczon, Co-founder, Border Stylo

I could see by this time that Product Management was another important piece of this puzzle, and started talking with Luke Hohmann about agile and his work with Innovation Games. I also started reading Marty Cagan’s Silicon Valley Product Group newsletter about this time.

Adventures in high finance

After starting to work with an agile/ux practice at Cooper I felt that I needed to get closer to the means of production. I wanted to go back in-house and really figure out how we could integrate interaction design and agile development and create a customer insight driven organization. In 2009, I moved to New York and joined a brokerage with a solid UX practice and agile development teams. I was glad to work with my good friend Josh Seiden, who I knew from Cooper Palo Alto. Here are two papers on the methods we used, which were presented at Agile ’09.

Adopting an Agile Culture – Lily Cho

Feature Teams – Collaboratively Building Products from READY to DONE – Andre Frank

Sea Change

In 2010, I had the good fortune to meet Lauralee Alben,  who has been tremendously helpful to me as I figure out who I am and how I can thrive in the world. I continue to work with her a couple times a year to discuss my plans and get her sage advice.

Balanced Team

After the move to NY, Anders Ramsay and I started to talk about our experiences blending agile and UX, and about how we wanted to see the two communities communicate better, and include other disciplines as well. We decided the best way to advance this mission was to bring together like-minded people in a retreat format and see what happened.

The first Agile/UX Retreat was held at Cooper in December 2009. Johanna Kollmann wrote her impressions on her blog. This event was the first time I heard about Lean Startup, from William Pietri. The second event was hosted by Atomic Object in Grand Rapids. You can read about it in the Atomic Object blog. The third AUX retreat was held in New York City in December 2010, sponsored by Pivotal. Alan Cooper wrote a summary on the Cooper Journal. Things really started taking off at this point. There were a series of smaller Lean UX gatherings at the IxDA ’11 conference in Boulder, and at SxSW 2011 and 2012.

Now renamed Balanced Team, this working group has continued to grow and evolve. We now have over 160 members and we meet several times a year to share and document best practices for using cross-functional collaboration, iterative creation and a focus on customer learning to create successful products people love.

On the road again

The summer of 2010, I decided to do a series of short projects as a hands-on participant to see how I could adapt my UX knowledge to be more useful to agile teams.  These projects were in different product domains (entertainment,  e-commerce, social media), on different platforms (iPad, iPhone, Web), with different sized teams (3-7), but all of them had the following aspects in common:

  • The project was run within an agile framework (focus on the customer, continuous delivery, team sat together, lightweight documentation, team ownership of decisions, shared rituals like stand-ups, retrospectives, etc.)
  • The team contained people with a mix of skills (front and back end development, user experience and information architecture, product management and marketing, graphic design, copywriting)
  • The people on the team generally performed in their area of expertise/strength, but were supportive of other specialties and interested in learning new skills.
  • All the projects were early stage “green fields” projects where we were simultaneously trying to discover how it would be used, how it would look and behave and how we could build it.

I learned a lot about how to adapt my UX practice to fit better to the needs of teams like these. If you want to read more, you can check out my post here.

And then there was LUXr

Late 2010, Josh and I met Janice Fraser, founding partner of Adaptive Path and founder of the Lean UX Residency (LUXr) in San Francisco. We were excited to see that we had so many similar values and approaches and decided to start working together. To start, we co-delivered a weekend-long Lean UX Intensive (LUXi) with Janice and her business partner Jason in November 2010. After that, we decided to launch the NYC LUXr program at General Assembly. Since that time I’ve taken the program on the road and deliver LUXr workshops wherever there is a community of entrepreneurs who need us.

Filling in the gaps

Through all these experiences, I arrived at the conclusion that I really like working with small, cross-functional collaborative teams, and that my UX skill set, combined with my other life experiences in SW development, product management, technical support and being a general Girl Friday, was pointing me towards a more active role in creating digital products.

After taking an honest look at my capabilities, I’ve realized I could be more useful to the teams I want to work with if I had better visual design chops. I have good consultant skills and I am strong in the areas of research planning and execution and ideation. I could facilitate interaction design with a team and take an idea to the level of a rough sketch or electronic wireframe, but wasn’t comfortable with my visual design skills. I wanted a deeper understanding and greater comfort working with color, fonts, layouts and grids. I wanted to learn in a studio environment and get constructive critique on my work. I wanted to go back to my roots and claim my identity as a creative person.

Shillington

In Spring 2011, I attended a 3-month program in graphic design at Shilligton School. It was a great program where I was able to deepen my skills with the Adobe Creative Suite (Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign) and practice working from briefs at agency speed. I loved the heads down focus on pixel-perfection and the fast pace. Here’s a sample of my graphic design work.

So what did I learn? I’m much more comfortable sketching and working at low-res than before. I have a process around visual design that I can rely on to get me someplace reasonable in a reasonable time frame. My new skills make it a snap to create a logo, or promotional card or wrangle assets into the size or format needed. My presentations look a lot better. I keep a visual diary and sketchbook which please and inspire me. I’m having a lot of fun doing graphic design projects for Web and print and now I’m excited to learn more about corporate identity work. Always more to learn!

Unicorn Training

After a period of freelance work coaching startup teams and helping organizations blend Agile and UX practices, I joined Carbon Five in June 2013. I’m using a blend of UX, Agile and Lean Startup practices to create Web and mobile products as a part of small, collaborative teams. My current mission is to become “technically literate” and figure out the tools, concepts and skills necessary for a UX designer to be a full time participant in the conception, validation and construction of a modern Web-based software product. I believe that the more I understand about the materials of construction, the more I can be an effective advocate for making the right product in the right way.

I make occasional updates to this blog as I have time. You can also find more of my writings on the Carbon Emitter, Carbon Five’s blog.