Make With Love

The following is the talk I gave at UX Hong Kong on 09 March 2018. I’m very honored that I had the opportunity to share this story and hear from attendees how they were impacted by it. One attendee told me she thinks she needs to quit her job.

Good for her.


Thank you for your patience while I read my talk today. Conversations with Dan and Jo and others while I’ve been here this past week prompted me to do some rewriting and reframing.

Keep In Mind

I don’t claim or want to represent the perspectives of all humanity in this talk. Or all Design. Or UX.

But I feel like what I have to say is worthwhile. I don’t have all the answers. Certainly not THE answer as there isn’t one answer.

I do, however, have a lot of questions, and some ideas on how to move forward, and my hope is to get you questioning, too.

There isn’t a moment in this talk where we will all rise together, walk out of this room, and fix the entire world. I mean, unless y’all want to right now?

Okay, maybe Monday.

What I want, as an outcome of this talk, is that at least one of you, when you’re back at work, to think, “Is there something about this project, or my next project, that I can learn, or I can teach, or perhaps I can change some small thing that eventually will make it easier to change the big things?”

And then maybe, if instead of just one of you, it’s all 200 of you thinking like that, we could change 200 small things that make it so much easier to change the big things. And we can do it again, and again.

Basically, I want to hire all of you to help me make the world a better place. How are we going to do that?

The Mind is a Muscle

We start by being here. I mean that metaphorically and literally.

Metaphorically, in that we all need to “be here” in our work, in our life, to be sure we’re doing the right things well. If you are going to do the right things well, you’re going to need to be fully part of the process; fully “here.”

And I mean it literally, because I want you to be here, in this room, with me, with your fellow attendees. And I want to help that along with a brief meditation.

Meditation can happen anywhere, any time, without accoutrement, and doesn’t have to be for a set time. Meditating even for 30 seconds can help attend the mind to the task at hand.

So let’s do it. We’ll keep it short.

Close your eyes or keep them open, either is fine. PAUSE

Relax your shoulders. PAUSE

Relax your face. PAUSE

Breathe in through your nose and feel the air rushing against your nostril. PAUSE

Breathe out and feel the air rushing against your nostril. PAUSE

Breathe in and feel your chest or belly expand. PAUSE

Breathe out and feel your chest or belly fall back to its resting position. PAUSE

Be here.

I Love You

In a way, I started writing this talk in the summer of 2016. I drove 5363.6 miles from Portland, Oregon to Anchorage, Alaska and back. I went to Alaska to deal with the last of my parents’ possessions.

Over the course of the 12 days of driving, I had a lot of time to think. The long periods of quiet, and totally paying attention to the road, were helpful in coalescing, or starting to coalesce my thinking around this.

Time. That is what I appreciated.

I was at a point in my life where I could take 6 months away from work and not have to worry about money. On that drive, when I saw a lake, or a dirt road, I could stop and have lunch, or I could go find the river I knew was somewhere down that road.

I don’t mean to say we all need to take 6 months off and drive 5000 miles and get a flat tire 90 miles from help and have to change to the spare in a severe thunderstorm.

Though, if you have the means, I highly recommend it.

We can all take and make time for ourselves. Like we did moments ago with the meditation. There are many decisions we can make in our lives that could likely give us 6 months of time to focus and grow; like not binge-watching shows on Netflix or stepping away from social media.

The time we take and make for ourselves can add up quickly.

I love you, and I want you to have time, too.

A Walk Through History (Mine)

Every job I’ve had, or project I’ve worked on, I did the best work I was capable of doing. That caveat there, capable, is important. When I first started down this path, I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I was lucky enough to work for an organization that took training very seriously. I got to learn from the people who wrote the books about UX before it was called UX.

Even though I did the best work I was capable of, there were always moments where bad decisions were made. Often unintentional. We all make mistakes. I definitely made mistakes.

And I know that if I had been working with a bit more intentionality, I might not have made so many. And that’s kind of the point of my talk today. I want us all working with a bit more intentionality.


I started at the job that led me to talking to you today in 1999. I convinced myself at the time that if I worked hard I could rise up within the company. Within a couple of weeks the guy who sat behind me loudly whispered, “Dude.” I turned around. He said, “Dude. Slow down. You’re making the rest of us look bad.”

I slowed down.


In 2008, I was talking to one of the C-level people at the company I was working for at the time. I was explaining a project idea I had to redesign the company’s website in order to better serve the two primary customer types and how they went about finding information and making purchasing decisions.

He said, “We don’t care how people want to find information … the website is how we want to be perceived and nothing else.”

I just looked at him and said, “Well, alrighty, then.” I left the company soon after.


In 2014, the project I was working on was huge. I was doing research, design, and managed 30 people building a web app and an iOS app so that a single billionaire could find his aircraft, plan trips, keep track of expenses, and generally make sure as much of his travel was as tax-deductible as possible. It was an app to make sure he stayed rich.

We billed $250,000 a month on that project. We did excellent work.

It was pointless.


In 2016, I worked at a startup in the streaming video space. I did good work. But I didn’t care about the product. And it led to an existential crisis of sorts.

One day, Dan and I were driving along and I felt weird. I pulled us over in the parking lot of a hospital. Walked into the ER for what I thought was a heart attack.

Turns out it was just a panic attack. “Just.”

It was time to make a choice and change things up. Time and choice.

The hospital visit was just prior to my Alaska trip. Those 12 days of driving were really handy to think about time and how I wanted to spend it. To think about choices and consequences.


I’ve hit a point, where I just don’t give a shit anymore.

It’s not that I don’t care. I definitely do.

I just don’t give a shit anymore about being embarrassed, or being an imposter, or being wrong, or being openly vulnerable.

I don’t give a shit because I’ve lived long enough to be able to recognize patterns. Not all patterns are bad of course. But there are some patterns that need to stop.

Looking back over my career, as often as there were bad decisions made unintentionally, there were bad decisions made intentionally. Most of the time they were called Compromises. Or “we’ll just launch it like this for now and fix it later.”

No one wants to fix it later.

In the end, even the unintentional choices were choices and those choices had consequences. Probably no deaths, but likely hours upon hours of frustrations and anger. I did that to people. We do that to people.

We need to stop doing that.

Resistance & Rationalization

It is a natural reaction of every brain in this room, including mine, to resist and rationalize.

About everything, all the time. You have to be conscious about your efforts to listen to a new perspective, to see someone else’s struggles without comparison to your own, to find a path forward through a time of uncertainty.

Even now, while I speak, you’re likely drifting in and out of paying attention, or actively agreeing or disagreeing with what I am saying.

It’s totally normal. It’s how our brains work.

A way to push through or go around that natural reaction in yourself and in others is to intentionally love what you do and for whom you do it.

Love people enough to not drive them slowly insane with products and services that serve no purpose or are poorly thought through.

Love yourself enough to know when it’s time to push against the inertia that arises so quickly when an organization or team lacks a leader. Or when there are too many leaders fighting for resources and power.

Love yourself enough to know when it’s time to walk away.

It’s totally fine if your job is just a job. But if you are making things for other humans or for any aspect of a complex system, I’m going to have to ask that while your treat your job as just a job, you treat the people and systems you’re making for as if they are worthwhile. As if they are worth your time.

We all need to be curious and instill a willingness, or even desire, to be changed by the things we see in the world or the things we discover in your work.

We all need to be willing to risk loss in order to do the right thing.

Choices & Consequences

I was in Berlin for a conference and stayed at a very nice hotel, kind of an accident. I just picked one that was near the main train station because after the conference was over, I was taking the train from Berlin to Frankfurt to fly home.

It was a really nice hotel room. 13-ft ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out over the river. Separate rooms for bath, shower, and toilet. Trendy, but comfortable furniture. And those floor-to-ceiling windows has lovely blackout curtains that kept the city lights from flooding in while you slept.

And then there was this stupid thermostat. Someone, probably named Gary, designed this thermostat. He made it easy to use, and easy to read. And it was easy to use and easy to read.

And the light from the digital display never dimmed. Worked great for when those floor-to-ceiling curtains were open and the sun was streaming through, but at night, that little display flooded the room with light. And it was bright enough to make it difficult to sleep. Someone designed it like that!

“Design” has power. Design is important in organizations. We can argue about what Design means, but for now think in terms of choices. Design is choice. But Design is only half of what we need to do the right work well.

The other half is to convince those who pay us that their latest business venture, or app, or feature is pretty much bullshit and we need to start working on more important things that impact our lives and the lives of the people who interact with what we make.

It isn’t enough anymore to design something well, if the thing itself has no value or at worst contributes to the frustration, anxiety, and possible actual harm of another human. Or keeps them from sleeping the night before their presentation at a conference.

Questions & Decisions

Projects will come up that bother you on some level. Is the project misguided? Focused on the wrong problem? Hurting or cheating people? The decision tree I’d like you to think about, each time you run into projects, companies, or decisions that bother you is:

Do I understand the issue?

If yes, can I get this issue on the right track?

If no, can I walk away?

Whether that’s changing teams, working on a different project, or leaving the company.

If I walk away, will the outcome hurt someone?

The answer to these questions will be HIGHLY contextual. If you can stay and help guide the project to an outcome that helps people, it’s better than walking away. But if you have to walk away, for whatever the reason, can you still make an impact?

Can you work for a competitor, or become the competitor?

There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that we are slowly driving people insane. This person was trying to login to their bank and got caught in a password reset loop. After several attempts, and many CAPTCHAs, they got frustrated and slammed their laptop shut. There was a thumb drive resting on the keyboard. Slamming it shut broke the screen.

The bank did that.

A $16,000 robot that folds your laundry. They hope to get the price-point down to $2000, though!

Why does this exist? Is there a commercial aspect that this could serve? Likely!

But someone asked themselves, “Why am I folding my own laundry like a sucker?” And no one said, “You know what, Gary, just fold your damn laundry. And would it kill you to not leave your dirty clothes on the bathroom floor?”

You Own Your Skills

You own your skills.

You take them with you from project to project, company to company. The more you practice, the better you get and the more value you can provide.

But it’s worth intentionally questioning: Who gets your time? Who gets your value?

What decisions can you make on a project, about a project, in a company, about a company, that improves your value AND the value for the people on the receiving end of your work?

You don’t need to have 20 years of experience before you start thinking about this. You’ll just be better at it, hopefully, after 20 years.

But today, or maybe on Monday, you can sit down and map out for yourself what a depth of practice can look like for you and build a roadmap for how to get there.

You own your skills. You get to decide who gets your value.

In deciding who gets your time and value, remember: Everything is negotiable, but most things that matter only move with small nudges.

Related to resistance and rationalization, it is very natural for humans to cling to something they have, even if it’s bad, instead of trying something new, even if it’s better. They must be moved to the better way with small nudges or they won’t move at all.

Small nudges.

I have a saying: It’s not a good idea until it’s their idea. By that I mean, when you want to change a process, or behavior, or organization, you’re going to run into resistance and rationalization. Most of the time, and you may have experienced this, if you make a suggestion for improvement, no one likes it. But then, a couple of months later, the boss makes the same suggestion. All of a sudden it’s a good idea.

But it wasn’t good until it was theirs.

A lot of my work isn’t making suggestions for improvement. It’s spent getting those with the decision-making power to suggest the improvements themselves.

How can you do it?

Yes, if… No, but…

In deciding who gets my time and value, I take a Yes, if… No, but… approach to most of my work. Someone might ask me, “Can you help me with my presentation to the client?” Yes, if I can have more time to deliver this journey map. Or, no, but I can talk Dan into doing it.

You can make space for what you need by taking a Yes, if… No, but… approach to life. It doesn’t always work, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes and the more effective you are at it.

Building Advocates

But you don’t do it alone. You shouldn’t do it alone!

You can use Yes, if… No, but… to build advocates over time. Change the minds of your team with small nudges to get them to start questioning if there are better ways to work together. Better ways to push back on the work assigned. Better ways to figure out how to do the right work well.

Over time, your advocates will start to influence the culture around you.

Culture, at a company, is not ping pong tables and free, cold-pressed coffee. It’s the sum-total of all the people and their purpose in the company. Culture will, and should, change over time.

Within that culture are individuals who are making choices as they go through their day: what they work on, how they work on it. Who they work with, how they treat them. Who they work for, how they treat them.

As an individual, you have the power to alter the behavior of others. It means small nudges over time, but imagine being intentional about it.

Maybe you can get others to buy into the idea that there are better ways to work. Maybe you can convince your project team. Maybe that makes other project teams jealous and they want to work like you. You teach them. And they teach others.

Sometimes I wish I could yell at people and tell them to stop making shit products and services that no one will use and start working on things that matter, dammit.

But, there’s little use in sharing that frustration with others (unless you’re venting in a safe space). Sharing your frustration tends to lead to others resisting and rationalizing.

Go to where they’re at, metaphorically, and walk them to the place they need to be. It’s harder, but has much more rewarding and lasting effects.

Make With Love

I want to hire all of you to help me make the world a better place. How are we going to do that?

As I said at the start, I don’t have all the answers, but I have some ideas and I think I have a lot of good questions. And that’s always a better place to start.

I want to hear your ideas and your questions. I know this wasn’t a practical talk, and it wasn’t meant to be.

Tomorrow’s workshop covers some of those questions and ideas and takes a more practical approach to the this topic.

This talk was meant to get you thinking. If it was successful in that goal, I’d love to hear about it.


Let me know if you’d like me to give this talk (or a different one) to your conference, organization, or team.

Hi, I’m Matthew. I run Studio VO.

Studio VO. People are weird. We figure out why. We help you reimagine your products and services within the broader context of your customers’ lives in order to focus your time and money on the right things. Looking honestly at what you are doing and why you do it can be hard. And it can be transformative.