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Six Cities in Sixty Days

I have had an incredible (and staggering) two months. It began with a trip half-way around the world to Hong Kong, the furthest I’ve ever traveled, to speak at UX Hong Kong. I presented my talk Design Principles: The Philosophy of UX and gave my Creating a Culture of UX half-day workshop as well.

I was struck at how different our respective UX and design communities simply aren’t. We face the same challenges, have the same aspirations, use the same tools and techniques and vocabularies. I think I was expecting to notice vastly different perspectives and titles and haircuts. Instead I realized we’re all just passionate cool-nerds who pride ourselves on helping others. The world now feels that much smaller to me. A tremendous thanks and endless hugs to Dan Szuc and Jo Wong of Apogee HK for their hospitality and kindness.

Hong Kong

Next I took a short flight to Manila where a very close family friend has been living for the last 8 years with a new-to-me wife and daughter. Again I narrowly thought, The Philippines, sweatshops and shantytowns and giant call centers. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Instead what I stepped into was basically Miami. Makati City is modern and cosmopolitan and tropical and just a bit gritty without being dirty. Sushi restaurants and public parks with public art, Kumon and Gymborees and high-end gyms, SUVs and fancy buildings with doormen (well fine, more like 5 security guards out front strapped with rifles, but that was really the only element I felt was out of the norm).

Tagaytay

Being in southeast Asia made me realize just how much more time I want to spend there, just how much of the world I’ve been missing out on being a part of, maybe because I felt it was too different or I wouldn’t fit in or I just didn’t give it enough thought. But the way of life and the food and the culture — the masses of cultures all intermingling not unlike what I’ve grown up around in my hometown of NYC — makes me want to take it all in and learn and be changed by it. I hope there will be an opportunity that will take me back there for an extended period of time at some point in my near future.

It was less than a two-week layover back at home (which included me chopping off all my hair for Locks of Love) before I headed down to Austin for the annual SXSW Interactive Festival, this time with man who had never attended or been to Austin before.

It was a privilege to be on a panel titled Hunt or Be Hunted: How to Get the Design Job You Really Want with moderator Amy Jackson and fellow panelists Jason Putorti (formerly lead designer on Mint.com and now co-founder of Votizen) and Gina Bianchini (formerly co-founder and CEO of Ning and now founder of Mightybell). We had an excellent discussion up on stage, and I personally felt we’d barely scratched the surface when the hour ended. I look forward to spending much more time with these lovely folks soon.

Austin

After stuffing our faces with the world’s best BBQ and dancing the cool-and-rainy nights away under the stars to a cacophony of live indie bands, the party ended and it was time to head home again. But not a week later, I was back in the thick of it when I headed down to New Orleans for the 13th Annual Information Architecture Summit. It was my first trip to NOLA and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. I had kind of expected it to be one giant Bourbon Street (which admittedly really isn’t my thing), but it turns out there’s much more to see, with its historic architecture and lush parks and variety of distinct neighborhoods.

I felt the most at home in the warehouse district, where gentrification has turned these enormous brick-and-steel buildings into loft apartments, high-end restaurants and hip hotels. I suppose I gravitate to reuse wherever I go, and industrial is rather familiar and comforting to me. The restaurants I ate in were mostly blech with a couple high notes. The beignets at Café Du Monde were, as promised, divine.

The conference itself was the best one in years, I have to say. Fantastic speakers — many of them brand-spanking new to the stage and very well supported by the Speaker Studio run by Adam Polansky — all talking about topics that are not only very relevant to the challenges we’re currently facing as user experience practitioners, but I felt collectively hinted at (hell, screamed) where the industry is going and how our roles are about to change in a big way. I’ll be writing about this more….a lot more.

New Orleans New Orleans

It was hardly a week and several panic attacks later that I hopped on a plane and crossed the country in the other direction to Seattle where I was humbled to be sharing the stage at An Event Apart for the fourth year running. 4 years already?! I still can’t quite believe it.

I’ll never forget the first time Jeffrey Zeldman told me to speak for him. Yes, told me. And I questioned and hemmed and hawed and he just wouldn’t have any of it. My life has completely changed since I’ve been doing it, and every time I walk on that stage my heart is in my throat in fear that I won’t do the honor justice, that I won’t live up to expectations, that I won’t measure up to the other speakers, that I won’t make Jeffrey proud. And this year especially, as I was launching brand new content that I had only tested four days prior to a very small audience (read: 5 people) at New Work City because I hadn’t scheduled the practice run until the last minute (fear leads to procrastination) and then chose the worst time possible to do it – 5pm on a Friday. Whoops.

After two months of research and three intensive weeks of synthesis followed by a week of creating 100 slides, throwing them out, creating 30 slides, adding 50 more, trashing another 20 and then changing the tone of the whole lot, I sat back only 3 days before D-Day and for the first time thought, I might have something here. And it was only 15 minutes before showtime that I thought for the first time, I can do this. Which is another way of saying, I sincerely didn’t think I could do it at all for the two months leading up to that moment. And then your foot hits the stage and there’s no turning back and you give everything you have to that audience and whatever happens happens.

What happened was I think they liked it. I think some people even loved it. And it’s okay that some people weren’t moved at all, didn’t find it relevant to them or felt they already knew it all. That happens. But I still believe that one day they’ll go back to it and find a nugget they can use and it’ll all be worth it. See if does anything for you: What’s Your Problem: Putting Purpose Back into Your Projects. An enormous thanks to Jared Spool for talking me off a ledge a zillion times along the way.

Seattle itself, well I can’t say enough about it so I won’t even try. I had been there once before and hadn’t really gotten it. Back then, I had just come from Portland (which I absolutely adore and would move to in a heartbeat) and by comparison Seattle just felt like it was lacking somehow. But not this time. It felt vibrant, and rich, and majestic. That I was staying at The Edgewater in a room essentially inside the Puget Sound, with a spectacular view of the sunset bouncing against the crystal water, and the sailboats and seagulls flying by, and the port with its massive cranes in the distance — yeah, that had something to do with it. But I also was just able to see how happy everyone is to be there, despite the gray days and persistent spit rain and slight chill in the air. Everyone just seemed content.

At my mom’s insistence, I hired a car on my one free afternoon to drive me around town. We went to Redmond to see the Microsoft campus (which goes on for days — it was like 10 times the size of Carnegie Mellon and I’m probably underestimating it), and crossing Lake Washington was just beautiful. Multimillion dollar homes facing the water with their own boat docks and unobstructed views of the sunset? Yes, please! Then we drove through Bellevue and back across to Seattle, along the river, then under the bridge to see the Fremont Troll (a giant sculpture of a troll, it’s wild), then back around through downtown and ended up at Pike Place Fish Market, where I bought oysters and halibut and my favorite white king salmon and had them packed in a 24-hour box so I could bring them home to the man. Yes, I carried a 15.5-pound box of fish onboard my flight, put it in the overhead compartment, and brought it home for supper. That’s me.

Seattle

And now I find myself writing this in a hotel room in…where am I?…Minneapolis, having given the opening keynote at MinneWebCon, hosted by the University of Minnesota. The people in the Twin Cities are so nice, though I’m told that’s just the Midwestern way of hating you. Maybe not entirely, but I am aware of the fact that politeness is a virtue here, so while I felt like I got amazing feedback on my talk, I’m not quite sure if I should believe any of it. The organizers of MinneWebCon have been fantastic for the many months we’ve been planning this and have taken great care of me. I had heard of the conference many years ago and had been wanting to attend for some time, so it’s quite nice to be here now in this important capacity, one that I still feel overwhelmed by and hope I was able to fulfill the duties of satisfactorily — or, hopefully, exceedingly.

Minneapolis

I’ve slept in more hotel beds than I have in my own these days, and my neck can prove it. I’m looking forward to being settled at home for a while, getting back into the swing of things, getting back to my routine (or maybe finally creating one), walking around the beautiful spring streets of Park Slope, riding my bike through Brooklyn, cooking meals at home and eating outside and spending quality time with friends I’ve missed far too much. And writing more. I want to write a lot more. I want to share what’s been on my mind these past few months, beyond where my body has been. I’ll be doing that more regularly soon.

In the meantime, I urge you to follow your dreams, whatever they are. My life has become a dream state, and I can’t believe I get to live it. Don’t hold yourself back. Be prepared for anything and walk down the path that is put before you. But first, hug your loved ones. They’re the ones who suffer while you’re spreading your wings.

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  • http://www.thinkdesigninteract.com Tracey Halvorsen

    Whitney,
    Your talk at AEA in Seattle is the one we insisted our team pay attention to, as we walked them through your slides. You provided great real world examples and ideas to help UX teams work through obstacles we all fall into. And of course, the quote by Einstein is now my new favorite and one I’ve just worked into my slide presentation! A perfect response when potential clients ask you “what do you think about us?” before you’ve been hired to “think about them”! Looking forward to tracking you down in NYC in a few weeks, sounds like you’ll be enjoying some much needed time at home. I love travel, and I especially love how much traveling helps me appreciate what I do have at home. Perspective is everything.

  • @ben_seven

    This is an awesome post. Thanks!