DIY UX at An Event Apart Chicago 2009

Last Monday, October 12, 2009, I presented DIY UX: Give Your Users an Upgrade (without calling in a pro) to a sold out 500-person crowd at An Event Apart Chicago.


I gave this talk for the first time (minus a couple test rounds) at An Event Apart Boston in June, and shall we say, it was certainly not the crowd favorite. While some people really enjoyed it and one person even said it alone was worth the price of admission, the majority of attendees were underwhelmed. They didn’t like how case study heavy it was, they didn’t like how it didn’t seem to apply to their situation, they didn’t like my style. Quite frankly I was over-rehearsed, and it ended up sounding like a product pitch. Worse, I misunderstood the audience and didn’t really know how to engage them.

When the evaluations came back and I saw how poorly I ranked, I was completely devastated. An Event Apart is a five-star conference and I just couldn’t hack it. I was already slated to speak in Chicago, but to be perfectly honest, I desperately wanted to back out. I thought I’d just come up with some excuse — a family obligation, an intense project — anything that would get me out of having to relive the humiliation.

Then I regained consciousness. An Event Apart is the opportunity of a lifetime and I’ll be damned if I’m going to give it up. What’s the worst that could happen? I’d bomb? Well I already did that and the world didn’t end, so I didn’t have much to lose.

I did a crazy thing. I listened to the feedback. I mean I really listened. I went over and over my slides and tried to figure out where I had gone wrong. I had heart-to-hearts with AEA co-founder Jeffrey Zeldman and my mentor Jared Spool. I asked for the cold, hard facts and they gave them to me. It suddenly became objective — this isn’t about me as a person, it’s about my ability to grab the audience’s attention with material that will change the way they work. It’s about good, honest, clear communication. It’s about eating my own dog food, practicing what I preach: getting feedback and improving based on that feedback. If I gave up I would be a total fraud, and that’s one thing I refuse to be.

I changed about 1/4 of the slides and moved around a bunch so that it would flow better. I put in more concrete examples, extrapolating from my case studies so that they would be more easily relatable in other scenarios. I trimmed the fat, tightened it up, and filled it out. Then once it was done, I put it to bed. I didn’t memorize what I would say on each slide or rehearse it 15 times. I told myself that I knew it, and I would just give it away when the time came.

An hour before the presentation my stomach started turning and I started doubting myself again. Poor Luke Wroblewski had the unfortunate circumstance of sitting next to me in the back of the room as my anxieties rose. He kept saying I’d do fine, and I kept seething more and more.

Finally 15 minutes before I was about to go on, I called my boyfriend Orian from inside a bathroom stall. I was in panic mode. “I don’t want to do this. This is insane. I’m completely out of my league.” He told me to take a deep breath and splash some water on my face. Then he said something that I’ll never forget: “Go do this for yourself. Not for anyone else. You have something to say. Remember why it’s important to you.”

In all my preparation, it had never occurred to me that this was an opportunity to further my own professional agenda. I had convinced myself that this was about impressing people — the audience, the speakers, the conference organizers — and had forgotten why the content mattered to me in the first place. It was like the seas parted and I could finally move forward. Orian gave me the clarity to do what I did next.

I won over the crowd.

Oddly enough I wasn’t trying to wow them. I wasn’t trying to do anything other than be myself, tell my story, and stay within the alloted time. But my passion for this material shone through. It became obvious that I absolutely love what I do, and that I want others to love it, too. I think they did.

There was a bright light shining in my eyes the whole hour so I couldn’t really tell if I had held the audience’s attention. It was certainly quiet out there, but I didn’t know if I still had them. I didn’t know if they were buying it. But I tried not to care. I just kept delivering my message.

When I finally got off stage, I exhaled. I had gotten through it. I didn’t remember anything that I had actually said, but I knew that I had stood there and had gone through the whole slide deck, and had answered some questions, and now I was done.

Jeffrey came right over to hug me and shared some private words of praise. All that I was trying to gauge was if it was better than my Boston performance. He made it clear that it was, and I was beaming.

As I walked towards the doors in the back of the room, several people stopped me to say how much they had enjoyed the talk. I was really taken aback by their kind words and lit up faces. After shaking more hands than I can remember and answering some people’s questions, I made it out of the room and made a beeline for the leftover brownies. I needed sugar. A guy whose name I didn’t catch came over to tell me that he had just gotten off the phone with his boss. He was so energized by my talk, he called him immediately to announce that they needed to set up usability tests the day he gets back to the office. Even writing this now I am stunned that something I said encouraged someone to take an action they hadn’t considered possible before. If even just with a select few, I had encouraged positive change. Really, what more could I possibly ask for?

I took my brownie to a private corner and pulled up Twitter to see what folks had been saying during my talk. Everything I had wanted them to take away from the presentation, everything I had sunk my heart into, was right there staring back at me in 140-character soundbytes. They got it! They really got it! I was and, a week later, am still overjoyed. More like euphoric honestly.

The lovely Kevin Hoffman, Director of User Experience at Happy Cog Philadelphia, live-Twittered my talk because I couldn’t possibly live-Twitter myself :) I am honored to be able to include his play-by-play below.

At the bottom of this post, I have pasted all of the tweets I could find about my talk — not in an effort to brag about a job well done, but because I simply never want to lose the feeling of satisfaction that I had reading them for the first time. By capturing them all here, I’ll be able to come back and remember what felt like the most triumphant moment of my career. I know that may sound like an overstatement, but to me, it’s certitude. I overcame a tremendous fear, and I was rewarded for it. I hope that in the future, when I really need it, I’ll be able to recall the moment, and it will push me further than I ever thought I could go.

Kevin Hoffman’s Tweets

  • Every time I see @whitneyhess present she’s wearing argyle.
  • Taking a poll: should I live tweet Whitney Hess’ presentation? @ me with a vote.
  • As I’m prepping to live tweet @whitneyhess‘ presentation… fail whale!!! #isthatirony?
  • DIY UX Giver Your Users an Upgrade Without Calling In a Pro (@whitneyhess)
  • UX is fighting for what people really truly need. (@whitneyhess)
  • Making good is more impt. than making an impact is more impt. than making money. (@whitneyhess)
  • ALL of use are UX designers. (Front end, visual design, etc.) (@whitneyhess)
  • @Harvest as an example for time tracking app, and a product that people truly love. (@whitneyhess)
  • @Harvest does four activities: design research, analytics, usability testing and experimentation & iteration. (@whitneyhess)
  • Design research: what do our users actually need? (@whitneyhess)
  • Get Satisfaction LOWERED @Harvest user feedback. Breaks the brand experience of the @Harvest product. (@whitneyhess)
  • It’s better to make an easy user feedback experience than to make it easier for the company. (@whitneyhess)
  • @Harvest uses an internal only app entitled Kaizen, japanese for continuous improvement, for ticket tracking. (@whitneyhess)
  • Kaizen uses digg like functionality for ticket tracking. (@whitneyhess)
  • @Harvest also uses survey methods at key points in the customer conversion processes for additional feedback. (@whitneyhess)
  • Design research is asking questions to identify the underlying problem. Doesn’t require a UX expert. (@whitneyhess)
  • Iridesco-“We don’t just want to patch; we want to address the core problem. Customers love to tell you their workflow” (@whitneyhess)
  • Design research – make it easy for customers to reach you, log their requests and prioritize. (@whitneyhess)
  • Recommends Mike Kuniavsky, Observing the User Experience. (@whitneyhess)
  • Web Analytics – what are users actually doing? (@whitneyhess)
  • What you learn from data shouldn’t be governed by data alone. (@whitneyhess)
  • is an great tool for adding a heatmaps overlay for click paths. (@whitneyhess)
  • Make that crazy egg. Crazy eff is an entirely different tool. (me)
  • Also, Google Website Optimizer, another great tool for doing AB testing, or multivariate testing. (@whitneyhess)
  • Providing an example from gov’t bureaucracy – (@whitneyhess)
  • Web solutions dept. in the House of Reps, in house web service for House of Reps. (@whitneyhess)
  • used mos. of srch analytics to better align popular srches with useful content and identify huge problems. (@whitneyhess)
  • Due to placement on the front page of the NYT, crashes. (@whitneyhess)
  • staff able to use search metrics to refute bad ideas with real numbers to show how people are behaving. (@whitneyhess)
  • Web Analytics and Hour a Day by Kaushik, recommended reading. (@whitneyhess)
  • Analytics-understand traffic cycles, uncover usage pttrns, test variations, and explore search logs for usr behavior. (@whitneyhess)
  • Usability testing – does our stuff actually work? (@whitneyhess)
  • As a ux designer, I don’t always use formal methodologies, sometimes pursue more “lite” methodology. (@whitneyhess)
  • Usability lite: use whatever version is available, don’t tell participate what to do, then probe in interest areas. (@whitneyhess)
  • Users aren’t always right, but you need to hear them. Don’t let the user be the designer, but… (@whitneyhess)
  • …have the humility to get to the core of the problem. (@whitneyhess)
  • I love using HR for informal usability testing participants. (@whitneyhess)
  • Friends and family, craigslist, starbucks twitter – all potential recruiting methods for user testing. (@whitneyhess)
  • Tools for recording usability feedback – silverback (mac), morae, quicktime, and windows media player. (@whitneyhess)
  • What about testing online? – Don’t be a wimp – you need to suffer with your users IN PERSON, in the room. But… (@whitneyhess)
  • For remote user testing, open hallway (open ended), usabilla, fivesecondtest. (@whitneyhess)
  • Re: user – don’t like that the facilitator is out of the loop for recruiting. (@whitneyhess)
  • I don’t recommend user (@whitneyhess)
  • Limits of remote testing. No expressions, body language, no follow up, harder to internalize, and … (@whitneyhess)
  • Cowardly, because it’s good to feel the embarassment of a sucky design. (@whitneyhess)
  • User testing – test early and often, informal or formal, use ppl in your environment, mix bgs, do it yourself! (@whitneyhess)
  • Handbook of Usability Testing – Rubin and Chisnell, recommended reading. (@whitneyhess)
  • (@whitneyhess)
  • Heh. Livetweeting is hard! Whoops. (me)
  • Roz Duffy, leads Comcast Interactive front end development for Comcast. (@whitneyhess)
  • CIM front end team doesn’t feel that they have as much involvement in the design process. (@whitneyhess)
  • Roz D. brought Refresh Philly into the CIM lobby, and the more these events happened, the more the staff attends. (@whitneyhess)
  • After CIM workshop for learning how to draw well, drawing is part of the front end dev. practice and dialogue. (@whitneyhess)
  • CIM developers work out ideas with pen and paper, and keep a healthy library of books to share. (@whitneyhess)
  • CIM/Roz Duffy: “We aren’t always working on interesting stuff, but we always want to work smarter.” (@whitneyhess)
  • Because of this presentation at AEA Boston, a relationship between UX and dev now exists at Comcast. (@whitneyhess)
  • Comcast Engineering Lab Week – teams approached their passion projects for one week – what did they come up with? (@whitneyhess)
  • UX lead at Comcast @livlab joined devs for Engineer.Lab week, went to coworking space @indyhall to spend a day tgthr. (@whitneyhess)
  • Engineering Lab Week completely renergized the CIM dev team, changed their work processes. (@whitneyhess)
  • Experimentation & iteration – never stop improving, build a creative environment, work across depts, find inspiration. (@whitneyhess)
  • Sketching User Experiences by Bill Buxton – recommended reading. (@whitneyhess)
  • Always listen to users. Ask questions to get at underlying problems. (@whitneyhess)
  • Use both data form metrics and anecdotes for design decisions. (@whitneyhess)
  • Test designs with humility, complete the feedback loop, and never stop trying to make things better. (@whitneyhess)

All tweets during my talk

Two folks created AMAZING sketchnotes of my talk (so honored!)

Abby Covert‘s sketchnotes:

Chris Coyier‘s sketchnotes:

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  1. dannychapman says

    Thanks so much for sharing so candidly. I was there, and I can tell you that the people around me in my row really got it and bought what you were saying (myself included). Congratulations on a job very very well done.

  2. says

    Whitney, it was a FANTASTIC talk. I'm sorry we somehow didn't see each other after you came offstage so I could say so in person, but it was. Thank you so much for bringing it to the AEA stage.

  3. says

    Your learning curve is scary fast! Good for you for taking adversity and making use of it to rapidly improve your performance. You are inspiring a lot of people (myself among them).

  4. says

    This is great Whitney. If it weren't for the damn client phonecall, I could have watched your whole session, but I loved the intro and from all accounts I've heard, you did a great job.

    Even though I've done quite a few AEAs over the years, each time is different, each audience is different, and, in my case, each presentation is different. I love the feedback from the audience and, likewise, look to see how I can tweak and re-focus my presentation style and my presentations themselves to better resonate with the audience. Each one is different, as I said, so it's like trying to hit a moving target, but it's nice to feel the presentation getting tighter each time.

    Anyway, great post and I look forward to actually seeing a full Whitney Hess talk at AEA in the future.

  5. says

    Any nervousness did NOT show. Wow, it was really great. I've already given a short version of your presentation to my coworkers and it was well received. It's great to be able say, “Look, we can do this!” and have some real examples to back me up.

  6. says

    Thanks for sharing this and congrats on overcoming your fear!

    “”What’s the worst that could happen? I’d bomb? Well I already did that and the world didn’t end, so I didn’t have much to lose.””

    These are words to live by I swear! I have to remind myself constantly not to be afraid of failure. It's one of the best ways to learn. Great post.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Whitney Hess, Sean Utt. Sean Utt said: RT @whitneyhess: New blog post: DIY UX at An Event Apart Chicago 2009 // "Remember why it’s important to you." yeah. […]

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  3. […] had the distinct pleasure of presenting at An Event Apart 2009 in Boston and Chicago (read about my experience), so imagine my delight when Jeffrey and Eric asked me to reprise my talk this year in Minneapolis […]

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