Be Careful What You Wish For

How many blog posts out there start with “It’s been a while…”?

Well, it has been a while. And with good reason. A dramatic amount of stuff has changed in my life this year, and with so much change, I haven’t known where to start. So I’ll start with the changes themselves…

In January I was working with Cochlear in Sydney Australia as their head of UX – exciting work in the amazing field of hearing implants, with wonderful people. However love and a desire for change drove me to develop a plan: take a prolonged break, travel around Europe for a few months, and eventually settle in London.

In February I left Sydney, and spent some very exciting months travelling in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, Ukraine and England. But I had wished for change, and I got plenty of it; hence the title of this post. The love that had motivated me to make such a huge move dissolved, and with it my London plans. When the dust settled, I found myself living here in a small city in Bavaria. Yeah, I know, I also ask myself what the hell I was thinking leaving Sydney’s sun and beaches for below zero and meter deep snow. None-the-less, even if it’s not Sydney, it’s exceptionally beautiful here.

Alpsee in Allgäu, what a beautiful setting for UX design.

And now? Remote UX design..

Now I’m attempting something a bit tricky, but exciting. By temperament I love being a freelancer and the independence and variety that comes with it. I love making things people love, so UX design is an extremely satisfying field to work in. And I’m enjoying living here and the somewhat slower pace of life in the middle of so much natural beauty. But rural Bavaria isn’t exactly a UX design hotspot.

In order to continue living in this beautiful place and also pay the rent, I’m working as a freelance remote UX designer. This means my clients get all the advantages of an experienced UX designer, without the hassle of having to actually see me every day. But seriously, back when I worked in agency land, we called our remote workers in other timezones the “magic elves”. We’d send a briefing in the afternoon, and like magic, they’d get it done while we slept. As a first test of this style of remote work, I’ve just finished work on a pretty cool iPhone app for a client in Indonesia, which is six hours ahead of here, so I know it works, and works well. It’s not for every client – some require physical presence – but some are ready to let go of industrial age processes and embrace a freer definition of work, and those are the folks I hope to work with.

So with the new year upon us, and what looks like an exciting year starting, I hope your 2013 was just as enjoyable and at most only half as turbulent as mine, and wish us all an exciting, satisfying and successful new year!

Personality Wins

My mate Ryan alerted me to an excellent article today. Although I’d never heard of Christopher Kimball or his magazine “Cook’s Illustrated” (I’m not much of a cook) I loved the story of his idiosyncratic personality, and the magazine’s anything-but-business-as-usual model, and its (going by mainstream publishing wisdom) unlikely success.

It’s a fascinating and entertaining read, but what really jumped out at me was this:

From the start, readers latched onto Kimball’s strange magazine with crablike tenacity. Today, roughly three-quarters of subscribers renew, a rate that’s the envy of publishing. In 2007, they signed up their one millionth subscriber, and over the years Kimball has supersized his idea into a franchise that includes 12 seasons of “America’s Test Kitchen,” the most-watched cooking show on public television; a second magazine, Cook’s Country (with its attendant show); reams of special issues and books; a battery of paid Web sites; a radio program; and even an online cooking school, and he has done it without discounting subscriptions or giving anything away or taking on a single advertiser [emphasis mine].

I’ve always believed that personality, intelligent opinion and honesty will always make a product more attractive and successful than focus groups, following the herd and conventional “wisdom”, and it’s lovely to see Mr. Kimball and Cook’s Illustrated prove this so clearly.

UX Australia, a Love Letter

I only learned one thing at UX Australia this year.

No, that’s not a complaint. UX Australia 2011 was one of the conferences I’ve most enjoyed attending, ever. It’s just that I never really learn anything at a conference. Not that I’m all super smart and know it all already, it’s just that learning takes time. If it was your first time at a UX conference, what someone said in 45 minutes on stage may have been a revelation, and the half-day workshops I attended (especially Whitney Quesenbery’s storytelling workshop) introduced me to new and exciting concepts, but to really learn these things, I’ll need to do them, preferably with someone much smarter than me looking over my shoulder.

What I learned, or more accurately was reminded of, is the value of people.

Chats in Bars

The theme of people came up a lot this year.

At the after-party, I spent some time chatting with a young interaction designer from Germany named Susi. She was happy to meet someone who spoke German, and I was amazed she’d come so far for our little Aussie get-together. And she was taken aback by how nice everyone was. She thought there was a bit of an in-crowd, but everyone she got up the courage to speak to (and she knew no one when she arrived) was friendly, interested and welcoming. Her surprise surprised me at first.

On the way to a pub one night, I finally met the charming and funny Joe Sokohl. We discovered we had both lived in Hamburg Germany at the same time (not sure if Susi met him too, but his German’s pretty good) and shared some memories. We got on to how conferences work, and he mentioned how much he enjoyed coming over to Australia. My memory’s not nearly good enough to try and quote him directly, but he said he enjoyed our lack of rockstars; that there are plenty of great UX people in Australia, but that there’s little to none of the ego parading in-crowd mentality here.

The Cool Kids

Every conference has what Robert Hoekman Jr. called a “cool kids table” – that group of people who know each other from speaking at and attending conferences around the world. It’s unavoidable that when a group of people do something together that other people don’t do, that a bit of a clique develops, and we’ve got that in Australia too, of course. I’m more or less part of that group now too. Considering I feel I’m well and truly a part of this community, even though I’ve only been in this country three years, have only ever worked directly with one person in the UX community, and was accepted to speak at the first UX Australia although hardly anyone knew me and no one had ever heard me speak is proof enough that, in Australia, the “cool kids table” is mostly a concept in the heads of those who think they’re on the outside looking in. The cool kids don’t seem to know they are.

As Joe noted, Aussies tend to have their feet on the ground, and have a low tolerance for arrogance. I explained the “Tall Poppy Syndrome” to him: that Aussies tend to tear down anyone they see getting too far above the norm. But on second thought, I don’t think that’s what keeps our UX community grounded. We’re just lucky enough to have so many people who are genuinely friendly, don’t take themselves too seriously, and just want to make stuff that improves people’s lives and have a good time while they’re doing it.

That is worth a lot. Talk to most people about their jobs.

What Counts

Considering my recent Facebook cull, and compounded by reading “Big Deal” last weekend, I’ve obviously been thinking a lot about friends lately. And it may seem obvious, but that’s what really matters at conferences, and in anything we do: the people. It’s interesting to hear what people are working on and what an awesome process they followed to achieve the result, but the real value is inspiration, and that comes from the chats, usually in bars, where you find out why people really did what they did, what really turns them on and why they do what they do, in work and beyond. I can’t really say that I’m close with that many people in our community, but I’m surprised every time we get together by how many lovely people I’m lucky enough to call colleagues, and I’d really like to come to call more of them friends.

Sappy? Naive? Unprofessional? Well, this is a love letter.

I love you UX Australia.

Generally I’d try and summarise the great presos I saw at a conference, but that’s obviously not what was on my mind this time. Luckily, some smart people have done that for us:

Big Deal

In May 2008, due to organiser confusion, I spoke with Leisa Reichelt at the first second next conference (flipping through my own blog reminded me that I missed next07). The conference was organised by Sinnerschrader, my employer at the time, and after meeting Leisa at reboot the year previous, I put in a good word for her and got her invited. The confusion was that I thought I’d agreed to soften the language barrier, and give Leisa whatever help she might need. The organiser thought I’d agreed to present with Leisa.

I’d never spoken at anything bigger than a group of mates at the pub, and would’ve described myself as someone with a “please shoot me now” level of stage fright. But by the time I found out what was expected, it was too late to back out. I threw some slides together, Leisa and I met at a café on the morning of our preso and mashed our slides into one deck, and off we went. Leisa was already an old hand, which helped me immensely, I had my “shoot me” moment, got past it, and by all accounts I didn’t embarrass myself. It felt like it was over in seconds, the audience laughed and nodded when they were meant to, and there were even a few people waiting to ask me questions when I left the stage.

Despite being “shoot me” nervous every single time, I’ve spoken at three more conferences since then and plan to do it again in the future. Why would I do this to myself?

To understand it better than I could ever explain it, read “Big Deal: On Being Famous to Almost No One” by Robert Hoekman Jr.

Robert was far more ambitious than myself and wrote numerous articles, five books (before this one) and ended up becoming a bit of a rock star in the web design & user experience world. He was flown around the world regularly to stay in top hotels, attend expensive parties and get up on a stage for an hour and talk about his work. And it destroyed his life.

“Big Deal” isn’t a book about web design, user experience design, or how to get a conference speaking gig. It’s a brutally honest account of Robert’s quest for what he calls “micro-fame”: to live an exciting life in exciting places, to win a seat at the cool kids’ table, to be adulated and validated by a bunch of intelligent strangers, and what achieving it all cost him in the end.

Sounds pretty glum, right? Luckily Robert’s a talented author, so it’s a pleasure to read – I flew through it in about six hours. Beyond that, at the cost of his marriage and friends, he discovered plenty of wisdom we’d all do well to keep in mind. Despite the rise and fall which is most of the story, it’s an optimistic book about keeping your eye on the things that make life liveable, and being mindful of why you’re doing what you do. I learned a lot, and am reconsidering my decisions and plans because of it.

Regardless of which industry you work in, if you define yourself by what you do, you should read “Big Deal” and learn from Robert’s mistakes. Should our paths ever cross at some conference, I look forward to buying Mr. Hoekman a beer to thank him for his honesty and courage.

Big Deal is available for Kindle or iBooks.

The Right Stylus

Last year I wrote a few bits (here and here) about trying find and build just the right stylus for my iPad. No luck.

This March I was in Hong Kong and while waiting in a train station gadget shop for a friend buying some iSomething or another, I noticed a chunky, angular pen, with what looked like a rubber tip. Hallelujah! It turned out to be the AluPen from Just Mobile, and it’s hands down the best iPad Stylus I’ve ever used. Grippy, with a tip that is just hard and soft enough, it feels much like using a thick pencil.

If you draw on the iPad, or just get sick of smudging your finger across all that lovely glass, you must try this thing.