Fluxible – an amazing weekend in UX
In march 2013, I received an email from Mark Connolly, asking if I would be interested in speaking at a conference on UX he was co-organizing. He had to explain what UX was. UX stands for User eXperience, and in what is likely a poor attempt at explaining it – it is the very large umbrella that encompasses any and all eXperiences that a User might have when interacting with something. Usually, it is in the context of technology and digital interfaces, but not always. For example - the experience that you or I have when we use a hand-held devise – there is an entire UX industry behind that experience. From the macro level – someone is designing those pixels on the screen, to the way the devise feels in your hand, to the way the text and images appear and are organised on the screen. That is UX - and it is everywhere.
The conference was this past weekend – held at the University of Waterloo’s School of Pharmacy - three short blocks from my house. It was strange and wonderful to be able to walk to it each morning. The venue itself set the stage very well. A pretty cool modern building with a double set of massive teak doors, a clean crisp (but not sterile) interior, flooded with natural light. The main conference room was a fairly intimate space – not a bad seat in the house.
I invited Mark and Bob Barlow-Busch (the other organizer) to come by the shop, spend an hour shooting the breeze. If they thought it would be a good fit – I was in. We had a great first meeting and agreed we should go for it.
As time passed and the other speakers were announced (and their bios appeared) – my digestive system responded. There was a really impressive and accomplished list of speakers. I was getting nervous about this. I have enjoyed speaking at many woodworking conferences over the years and while I still get a little nervous before them, this conference was well outside my comfort zone. To be honest, that is part of why I agreed to do it – I know that while new things may be uncomfortable, they are good for us to experience, and help us get better and grow. Crap or get off the pot.
From the first speaker Steve Baty to the last, Josh Seiden, it was total engagement. My head hurt in that wonderful way when it is challenged and the absorption rate is maxed out. It was awesome. I am still trying to digest everything – it was overwhelming on a lot of levels. As I reflect back on the event I will do my best to share some of what I learned.
Teresa Brazen spoke about the culture of an organization and the impact it has within that organization. A healthy culture encourages collaboration, conversation and honesty. It is flexible to allow for the inevitable unexpected changes that happen. It is a place that feels safe to ask a dumb question. It is full of respect for everyone who interacts with it. I found myself reflecting back on the culture of my previous career. It had a great culture, guided by our fearless leader. I am all the more grateful for those 9 years. It also got me think about the culture of Sauer & Steiner Toolworks. I often describe myself as a one-man-band, which is true from the standpoint that I am the only one making planes. But there was something about her talk that got me thinking about the idea of organizational culture in a much broader sense. I still need to think about this one, but I will share more once I sort it out more.
Steve Portigal gave a 5 minute talk between talks and while it was short – it was likely the most important thing I learned. He talked about asking questions and how we frame them. He used the example of asking someone, “What did you have for breakfast. Juice, toast, cereal…?” He then pointed out why this is a crumby question. By asking this question, we have already partially framed the answer. By adding “ juice, toast, cereal” and the trailed off pause that three dots represent, we have already installed a barrier to an honest answer. We have suggested that they may not know what breakfast is (how insulting) and what if they had a turkey sandwich? The listener now has to explain why they didn’t have toast or juice or cereal and may be somewhat annoyed or defensive. Not the best way to start an engaging conversation. I am not sure if I am capturing his 5 minutes very well, but it was a powerful reminder of how a simple poorly asked question can lay the groundwork and guide an entire conversation.
After this 5 minute talk, I was all the more excited to be part of the workshop he was leading in the afternoon. I was not sure what to expect – the description was intriguing though. The workshop was marvellous. A few logistics observations. The chairs were arranged in a circle – conducive to conversation and sharing. Steve sat in a chair at the same height as the rest of us. We were all asked to introduce ourselves, which took time, but all 3 of these things allowed for a very high trust level in very short period of time. The loose theme of the workshop was presence. One of the most meaningful exercises was a staring contest. He told us about Marina Abramovic and her performance art installation at the MoMA – “The Artist is Present”. I had heard Jian Ghomeshi speak with her this past summer on Q, so I knew a little bit about her. For 3 months, she sat in a chair facing another chair with a table between. People were invited to sit across from her. She sat each day from the time the doors opened until they closed. Please take the time to look into this further – it is fascinating. Steve then asked us to turn to the person beside us and for 30 seconds, stare into the other persons eyes. We were all strangers and the experience was amazing. After the exercise, we were asked to describe the experience. Most people had a strong sense of discomfort – this was an incredibly intimate thing to do with someone let along with someone we did not know. Many people found strategies for dealing with the discomfort – to focus on a single feature on the persons face – usually to avoid the eyes. Some people laughed, some people looked away. Some people paid attention to their breathing, the noises outside. But we all observed that we had made a much deeper connection to that person sitting across from us. Throughout the rest of the conference, whenever our eyes re-connected, it felt like seeing a very old friend again and there was a an immediate re-connection. That is how one of the other speakers described it and I think he was bang on. It was very cool.
There was live music between each speaker. Only about 5 -7 minutes long, but incredibly impactful and added yet another experience to the event. One of the other themes that came up in the conference was the issue of fear and how everyone has fear – even the big successful CEO’s of businesses have fears. Everyone was encouraged to accept the fear, embrace it and work with it. One of the speakers celebrated a birthday during the conference and his wife came to town to have dinner with him that evening. She gave him his first stringed instrument - a Ukulele, and for his closing comments, played a few chords on his one day old instrument. It was the most succinct example of embracing fear that have ever seen. Thanks Adam.
For my own part in this event, it exceeded my expectations. After a few minutes of talking, my wallpaper-paste mouth disappeared (thankfully) and I felt like I found my stride. Many people approached me afterwards to ask questions continue talking and see and try the planes and sit in the dining chair I had brought along. It was really wonderful to see non –woodworkers excited and interested in something they had little or no experience with only an hour earlier. It was even better to watch them use a hand plane for the first time. Within a 3 minute window, people went from fear of trying, to excitement of trying, to trying something totally new, and I am happy to report a 100% success rate on that front. Everyone used a plane until they had a pile of shavings, and while most were focused on the shavings and the silky smooth piece of wood – I was enjoying the ear to ear smiles on their faces. It was a pretty incredible experience from my perspective.
Mark and Bob and the rest of the Fluxible crew put together an incredible event. The food was wonderful, drawing from local bakers and eateries. The speakers were inspirational, the attendees were excited, fully engaged and generally wonderful people.
And one final note, I observed that I think I was the only person in the entire conference who did not have a hand-held device of any sort. No smart phone, no tablet – nothing ( I assume I cannot count the 11x17 sketchbook I had with me as a hand-held device). After seeing how the community of UX designers connect with one another, and how human that connection is – I have a sense that I may just cave and get one.
Thanks to everyone for an unforgettable weekend.