Things what I writ

I sometimes write nonsense about things to try and sound clever

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send your children to conferences

here is a revelation for anyone who has never been to a conference that’s relevant to their profession: it’s a great way to validate that you actually know what you’re talking about. I mean, honestly, we mostly operate within the duck quack void of self-appreciation and we’re only really interrogated and challenged when we’re required to present, with authority, our opinion on what our interpretation of ‘good’ is in the narrow context of our own practice. but spending a day or two listening to people just like you, presenting their own ideas, propositions and theories, is a day or two where you quickly come to the realisation that you’re not, in fact, the imposter you thought you might be. you’re actually reasonably good. fuck it. you’re very good.

a colleague of mine is out in san francisco this week, at a conference where there are some very clever, very smart people talking about design practice. I say they’re very clever and very smart, but really, I’ve no idea. at least I’ve heard of them. they’ve mostly written a book about something or other that’s relevant. but, you know, I’ve never worked with them, so I can’t personally say whether they’re any good at what they do. but they tell a good story. and that’s what we’ve got to go on. and this colleague reflected on her first day at the conference with a telling phrase: I am getting the feeling we actually are doing stuff so right! and she means that as a company and as the individuals that make that company what it is. and I’m not surprised. because that’s the feeling I get when I attend similar events.

when you find yourself in a safe environment, and there’s not much safer than conferences, especially those with a significant proportion of first-time speakers, then that’s when you give yourself permission to evaluate your own position. my first speaking engagement was at the IA summit. I’d never done any public speaking before, least of all about my own practice. but that environment was as perfect a place as any to evaluate, compare, contrast and make your own conclusions about how you’re placed on the weird global/parochial peer spectrum. and really, it’s not a question of relativity. it’s much more about reassurance and a sense of acknowledgement.

which is all a rather roundabout way of saying that there is much to be gained from attending a conference of like-minded individuals to understand your own position within that community. I advocate conference attendance as a learning experience. bluntly put, I recommend conference attendance as the place where training budget is invested, because I believe that proactive conference attendance adds value as a career development opportunity by a factor of at least ten over traditional training or courseware. it’s definitely where I spend all my training budget. and if that runs out, especially where the IA summit is concerned, I’ll pay for it myself. it’s a no-brainer.

listening post: xtc – towers of london

the glorious IA summit

it feels like it’s been a lifetime since I returned from Baltimore after the glorious IA summit at the beginning of April. it’s the event that leaves you feeling like that when its over, like the end of a long hot summer where you gambolled through the shimmering and abundant fields of learning, dancing like a teenager with your new best friends dipping your toes in the stream of enlightenment and talking like you don’t know the words for the things you have to say, watching the proud and beautiful stags of truth barking atop the mountain as if to say THERE IS NO TRUTH, JUST THE ONTOLOGY OF TRUTHS, COME HEAR ME, FOR I AM THE STAG OF BEAUTY AND I SPEAK OF THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO MAKE AND BY THE WAY SINCE I’M A PHYSICAL MANIFESTATION OF ALL YOUR ENDEAVOURS I REALLY AM THE MISSING LINK BETWEEN THE COGNITIVE AND SPATIAL DEFINITION OF CONTEXT THAT DEFINES IT ALL. HURRAH!

or something like that. to be clear, there is a reason I allocate 100% of my available budget to attend this one event each year. it’s because I get a year’s worth of worth from it. I mean, I go to quite a few smaller events throughout the year and meet splendid and lovely people and see inspiring and challenging speakers and learn so much about things that are totally relevant to me. but the IA summit is quite different. without wishing to get weirdly evangelical and creepy about it (and not the dan willis kind of creepy), I believe it’s an event that changes lives. overstating it? maybe. but I know that attending for the last few years has changed me for the better. and I’ve spoken to many people who have attended, often for the first time, who are so touched and moved and surprised and enlivened by their attendance that they can’t quite express what it is that it’s done to them. I’m not about to qualify what ‘better’ means, because that’s not the point. I don’t do definitions. but what better means to me is what counts. the change for the better is what I recognise in myself and how I attribute that change to my attendance at the IA summit is up to me. nobody can alter that.

in the grand scheme of things, with so much going in the world, and so many demands and so little time and so much to do and so much to say and so many responsibilities and so on and so on it is perhaps easy to say fuck’s sake it’s only a conference for people who get weirdly obsessed about the structure of things and why are you getting so worked up about it there’s more important things to worry about but whatever. let me bark this at you. THIS EVENT IS AN OASIS OF AWESOME. IT CHANGES LIVES. I AM THE STAG OF TRUTH SO HEAR ME ROAR.

thank you to the beautiful people, old and new, that make the change happen. I love you. if anyone would like to tell me to calm down, don’t bother.

Yes I do that too

A continuing and repeated conversation at the IA summit in Baltimore this week is about knowing how to say what you think you can say about the things you’d like to say.

That can be having a bazillion drafts of blog posts that you think nobody is ever going to want to read, or wondering whether anyone in their right mind would sit through 45 minutes of you telling them how you actually have no idea what you’re talking about but that’s alright because you’re not about to change the world with your reimagineeration of practice fundamentals you just did a thing recently that included some of the stuff that everybody here also seems to be doing but you weren’t sure whether you were doing the right IA thing and actually you weren’t even sure it was IA at all but, like, it was just a good story about how I did a thing which you think is a bit like how other people do a thing and perhaps is would be interesting to other people to see how I did it you know like let’s understand how we actually do what we do with the things we know and see if we might learn something or validate an approach or find a different way to do it rather that necessarily trying to understand how calling something a fish means I’ve subconsciously induced a cognitive brain spasm which can be expressed as an inducement to a systemic failure in brain pattern structure mapping that is an unavoidable and not entirely unexpected relation of disentropy that exposes your failing as a labelling person to understand the role of that artefact in the ontology of the universe of stuffz.

We want to hear and read and see and discuss that stuff. We just want you to tell a story about what you’ve been doing. It’s pretty simple. I mean, we like the big crazy things, but there’s nothing like a good story, well told, about a personal experience, that helps us say YES I DO THAT TOO.

Untapped

My first speaking gig was at the IA summit. I mean, I didn’t piss about, I went for it. In the end, it was actually a good place to do your first proper public speaking event, because those IA summit folks really know how to look after first timers. But it was rather a deep-end approach to learning the public speaking thing and a pretty expensive and nerve-wracking one too.

Tonight I’ve spent a most agreeable few hours in the company of some other people having their first go at standing up in front of a room full of their peers, talking out loud, and wondering if the words that are coming out are actually being heard by the people in front of them or they are just being thrown into the air and intercepted by some cognitive unbalance field that catches them, turns them into unintelligible arse and thrusts them backwards into the ears of blank-faced gibbons who are suspended in some alternate time universe where the only facial expressions available are wholly blank or mildly indifferent and the occasional metaphor for insignificance in the face of the impenetrable vastness of the vacuum of space gently drift before your eyes like the last dying leaf of the relevance tree as it flutters downwards amidst the eternity of the silent, slow, nod of the donkey of empathy. Maybe that’s just me.

The untapped event, organised with some impressive vigour by Sophie Freiermuth and Richard Wand at Possible, in London, was an admirable showcase for unheard UX voices from within the community. You know, those people you actually work with who say interesting things, have interesting views, and can have a conversation like real adults do, but don’t seem to have a good place to share that with a wider audience of their peers. Or, if you like, it’s a chance to hear from people you’ve never heard of speaking about things that you’ve often thought of. Or, if you like, it’s just not Jason Mesut again. Honestly, that’s not a dig at Jason Mesut, but he would acknowledge, I’m sure, that he is become one of the UX circuit in the UK, and there is room for others. I might say that say of myself. I dunno. WHATEVER. I’m stuck on a train right now waiting for the fire brigade and national rail to assess a chemical spill just outside Hatfield Peveril, north of Chelmsford and my train hasn’t moved for 30 minutes and I won’t be home until at least 2:30 am and I’m suddenly getting a bit stabby.

Notwithstanding that, the reason for my involvement with the event, and, indeed, Jason’s, was that I had volunteered to help out as a mentor for one of the new speakers. I thought that maybe what I’ve learned from my short tenure as ‘most famous speaker from Norwich who occasionally stays on-topic about UX but generally arses about with long words to try and look clever and simply resorts to cheap jokes to see if the audience are still awake’ might be useful to others in some shape or form, and so I was very lucky to included as part of the mentoring team. For each speaker, a mentor. A one-to-one relationship. A chance to pass on some of the things I’d learned over the years to someone who might even find it useful.

And it all turned out lovely. Alex Ng, who is currently working with me at Flow, was to benefit from my exacting principles about literal, metaphorical and unintelligible jokes, slide subversion, easter eggs, audience poking and general narrative intensity. We spent some nice times together, and it was all a bit like that bit in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where they ride around on bicycles, laughing in the sunshine to a sensory backdrop of instagrammed Jimmy Webb and teal. At least, he took my point about full-bleed images. And proceeded to smash it out of the park when it came to it. To be fair, all the speakers, including another colleague of mine, Matt Radbourne, did an excellent job for a first speaking gig, but, you know, I only cried into my free white wine following Alex’s 20 minutes, because, like , THAT’S MY BOY! (he’s 33 you know. Yes, that’s what I said.)

Untapped was a hugely enjoyable event. It encouraged those with an idea to come forward and add to it a voice. That voice was their own. New, unheard, untapped. I played a very small part in contributing to the success of the evening. Sophie and Richard incepted, inspired and, um, envisioned, or something, the evening. If I had hats, I would take them off to them, suffice to say, I think I love them. Looking forward to looking forward to the next time.

Why I submit

A couple of years ago I’d not spoken out loud to a room of professionals that I didn’t actually work with notwithstanding the fact that I have worked some places where there was about 75,000 people on a WebEx patiently waiting for you to load up those slides about the global web platform that your boss said was going to completely change the business but which you seem to have mislaid or simply written over with an amusing powerpoint checklist for what colleagues should do when they’re stuck in the corridor between the buildings on campus when security have gone home and your only recourse is the fire alarm.

In the last couple of years, however, I’ve been throwing stuff up all over whatever UX calls for submissions are available just to try and get my face in front of a room of professionals and talk about thinking time in experience design or designing mobile wallets or my face or my bike or how to design for a room full of stakeholders keenly anticipating a shift in their business model based on a globalisation proposal you’ve just lost.

Some of what I throw up sticks, some doesn’t. Well, a lot doesn’t actually, but when it does it’s pretty exciting. And then I just have to say stuff and be interesting and actionable and have a joke or two and preferably a drink or two as well and if somebody comes up to me afterwards and tells me they liked it and it was interesting and that actually it was really relevant to what they are doing and could we talk some more about it, then that is what it’s all about. And that’s why I do it.

I’ve been around a while and I’ve done some interesting stuff and maybe if you’ve made the effort to come and see what I’m talking about and I’ve made the effort to come and talk to you then we’ve already got something in common and it could be the start of a beautiful relationship where we can think about changing the world through design one conversation at a time. Or you’ll think I’m a bit of an arse. Either way, I’m not going to pretend to you that I’ve redefined user experience or discovered how to bend the UX time continuum with my new method or practice[tm]. To be honest, I don’t know what I’m talking about half the time. If you’ve seen me facilitate a workshop, you’ll know what I mean. But I do at least know what I’ve done and I can tell you about that. You might have done it too. You might not have. But while I’m up here and I’m telling you about it through the haze of a slide transition and a stumbling near-dad-dance in front of a projector disco light, if I see you curling a smile and nodding your head slightly or even inexplicably writing something down, then, you’re welcome. It was a pleasure.