Shoot for The Moon with Jaime Levy

A transcript of Episode 158 of UX Podcast. James Royal-Lawson and Per Axbom talk with Jaime Levy about the importance of having mentors and heroes no matter where you are on your UX career path.

Jaime Levy presenting at From Business To Buttons in Stockholm, Sweden 2017


Per: Hello and welcome to UX Podcast, coming to you from Stockholm, Sweden with listeners in a hundred and sixty seven countries from Portugal to Kazakhstan. We are your hosts Per Axbom.

James: and James Royal-Lawson. Today we are bringing you our interview with Jaime Levy from — that we recorded at From Business to Buttons in Stockholm. Jaime is an American author, lecturer, interface designer, and user experience strategist. She currently teaches a graduate level course about UX Design and Strategy at the University of Southern California.

Per: Right and Jaime wrote the book, a very successful book, UX Strategy, how to device innovative digital product that people want. She joined the international circuit of speakers at UX events. And in this interview however, we focused not on UX Strategy the book, but all the learnings that Jaime had when her desire grew to start creating again rather than just talking about creating.

James: Yes. The title of the talk is shoot for the moon, how UX Strategy can transform the world.

Per: Uh-hmm.

James: So I was expecting it to be a little bit more about your strategy than ended up it being.

Per: It wasn’t at all. Well, some of it.

James: But it was.

Per: Yes. Yes.

James: We get into a bit towards the end of the chat.

Per: I actually wanted to start off asking you a bit about, ’cause you frame your talk around a person, a friend of yours, that you went to when you’re having hesitations about your work and your — and not feeling confident that you were producing stuff, you’re more working in theory as a professor, where was it, at USC?

Jaime: At USC.

Per: Yes. He ask you these questions around, so who was your inspiration, can you tell us a bit about that?

Jaime: I think he was trying to have me think at a higher level and even though my initial concern was — I was like, “Oh, I’m one of these people,” like when I was at NYU, in the graduate film school, they would talk about teachers who just taught but they didn’t actually make anything. I felt like — because i took so many years off to do the book and promote the book. Then now I was out touring, I didn’t — I was turning down projects left and right and not making anything. I was — if you do something, make products for so long and then you stop after — I felt like something was missing.

James: A little bit of had been taken away.

Jaime: Yes. Like I just — I was the two things, like the one was like, I didn’t know what was wrong but I knew it that I — it was clear I’ve given up my consulting practice because now I was — like a lone gun who was touring. The other part was that here I was out there talking about making innovative products but I wasn’t making jack shit. So I was frustrated. I have that frustration now again but at that point, it was like I went to him and asked him, it was like here we are in LA, and we’re — how am I going to work on something innovative when there’s barely anything going on in Los Angeles, just the techs scene, is small there compared to San Francisco. That was when he started asking me about people I admired and then when Elon Musk came up, he’s like, “Well, what about Hyperloop?” He put the idea in my head.

Per: Uh-hmm. You have to tell us, well, you took your polo shirt off on stage, that was actually excellent.

James: Yes.

Per: So the first person you thought of was Andy Warhol, right?

Jaime: Definitely.

Per: Then you thought of Steve Jobs but he was saying, “Okay, so maybe somebody alive.” And then you took off your sweater.

James: Yes. That — it was — I didn’t take off my sweater when we were having the conversation at the bar. It was long before I would think of buying a turtleneck but what happened was when I started — when I was making a presentation about the Hyperloop case study and doing the research and deciding that I want to talk about how the conversation inspired me, that the pictures of Steve Jobs and Andy Warhol they were all wearing black turtlenecks.

Per: Yes.

Jaime: And it just seemed like, “What’s this thing going on? These two — like why is it these two guys I’d singled out?” And Elon just wears a black shirt and I typically — most people wear black shirts, so I thought if I could pull it off literally and figuratively, that I would give it a shot.

Per: You just went for it. So you contacted — I forgot who on LinkedIn?

Jaime: Yes. I contacted Dirk — I mean I still would do the same thing — and that’s exactly how I would do it now.

James: Dirk Ahlborn.

Jaime: I contact Dirk Ahlborn on LinkedIn if I want to talk to somebody, whether there’d be a confront organizer or somebody very important at a — at a company, I just write them a sincere letter using LinkedIn and hope to hear back. And — because he was looking for collaborators and UX person was definitely right in there, so he responded immediately and then I decided to — even though John and I were joking about the stock options things, we realized it wasn’t about the stock options at all. It was about that I want to understand what’s the mystery, what is this thing, because clearly I wasn’t going to design a train. I don’t know anything about engineering that — but I did see that there was a possibility around all of the possible apps or platforms related to it. And so I want to hear more about it and get involved. And so that’s how I came about.

James: And he also saw that — you saw it fill — or he saw that it would fill your need to practice and then do some real work rather than just teach and tour with the book?

Jaime: I don’t think he gave a shit about me as far.

James: You don’t?

Jaime: Why I would — he would take a — if you have a pulse you can become a Hyperloop collaborator.

James: Right.

Jaime: So the thing with crowd-sourcing is you have to wait to see if people are going to produce, it’s basically like taking on interns and so I tried to produce as much as I can, as much as I could considering the amount of hours I had available. And so I felt the only way that I could collaborate really was by outsource — by crowdsourcing it further to my class and making it a project that was part of the University of Southern California. And — so that’s how that worked out.

James: I think it’s an innovative way to — well, to fulfill your need to actually do some real stuff but at the same time it connect it to the teaching work, so it’s going forward and backwards at the same time.

Jaime: Yes. And I learned a lot from it. I decided that I would do that every semester because, you know, how many times can I have 40 students who all want to make apps to help them find a parking space on the campus or frat party. I was getting really sick of these apps. And so the semester following that, I asked the class to propose apps on — or products to help the homeless because the college was offering hundreds of thousands of dollars to students who could come up with products or services for that. And so I oversee a — or saw a smaller team for that. And I did another partnership with the CAC School for an app that was related to healthcare. So every semester now I’m trying to some kind of collaboration, whether it’d be in the private sector or within the university to be connected really than just having them do these individual projects where they come out at the end. Maybe they have a nice portfolio piece but it never goes anywhere.

James: And we’ve also got the collaborative side of it, it’s much stronger when you’re getting the whole group to work on something rather individual basis.

Jaime: Yes. There’s definitely pros and cons of that because you have the issue of some — like one team almost fell apart because how the people thought they were doing work and other people weren’t.

Per: Ah.

Jaime: But that goes with any sort of situation and so you have to monitor it.

Per: Yes. It was pretty standard in student groups I think as well.

James: well, work!

Per: Work as well, yes.

James: I mean in that sense it’s a good work experience doing…

Per: Yes.

Jaime: Yes. Every — totally.

James: Difficult to — difficult to kind of maybe grade and mark because it’s a disruption in that sense but…

Jaime: Exactly.

James: It mirrors real life.

Jaime: What I learned from the situation, I mean beyond getting to work on the Hyperloop project was that being a professor at a university and having all of these really talented — I mean to get into the school, you have to have a 4.0 — you have to be — there are big data engineers. I have all this talent and I can put them in — push them in any direction, I feel like within reason to — it’s a great opportunity to exploit those talents and so that was the first time I did it, now I’m kind of addicted to it.

Per: Yes. It’s fantastic. I also love what you said about them having to go out and validate the problem because that’s not — this is an exciting project, like Hyperloop we wanna work on that. And you want to — you start thinking solutions straight away. But you sent them out to gather data and verify that do we really have these problem that we’re trying to solve?

Jaime: Right.

Per: But they didn’t like that, did they?

Jaime: Well, that’s part of my methodology and that’s very much in-line with the Lean startup methodology and Steve Blank where everyone historically in software design or many types of design, industrial design, automobile design, or military strategy. You make a decision on, “Here’s our strategy, let’s go make it.” And I think what needs to happen is that the agile methodology needs to apply to the strategy as well that it’s nimble, that it can pivot with people can change course as needed as they — as they have more evidence come in that they’re moving in the wrong direction.

James: Uh-hmm. I think that’s right because when you look at the way the agile methodology has been adopted by production, so development. And how we’re still a little bit bolted on as UXers in that loop of production. And that reduces our ability to — actually iterate design ideas, well yeah we’re prorotyping but we’re not really properly going back up to that problem statement level and saying like it was this right thing because we’re already at that point of production.

Jaime: Right.

James: The pressure on business is to produce this now but you’ve done preparing it, so now we’re getting on with it.

Jaime: Yes. No, it’s definitely a luxury to either work on academic environment or with startups because you’re at the very beginning and there’s not necessarily an existing large scale site or already successful product. They are more open to this idea, this approach of us wanting to validate that it’s a problem and exactly like what are the — how are they currently solving for this problem because you often find out that these great insights about how people go about solving problems using technology or not, like I work on a — with a startup with a carpooling application and we interviewed all these very busy housewives in San Francisco and we expected to hear that they had some kind of Google Calendar for figuring out carpools for their kids between school and extracurricular activities.

What we found out was a lot of them just put everything on the refrigerator, on a piece of paper with a magnet. And others use spreadsheets and other use this. And if you don’t figure out how they’re currently solving the problem then it’s kind of hard to start devising the right solution because they’re — the — what they call the switching cost, for them might be like, “Well, it’s easier. People always propose, “Oh, I want to do a recipe app.” And I’m like, “Well, to tell you the truth, every day when I’m cooking, if something — if I ran out of milk, I go to the refrigerator and write on my magnet white board, milk. Then before I go to the store, take a picture of it and now you want me to type it into the stupid phone while my hands are dirty?” So, it’s kind of funny. So I feel like you really need to understand how they’re currently solving for that problem and if it’s a big problem or a small problem before you say this is worth spending a bunch of money, time, and resources on.

James: Yes. Because you’re not going really convince them to transition to your magic solution which theoretically is a perfect one but it’s not going to get to shift from their world.

Jaime: That’s right. I mean ultimately it comes to product market fit or if there is a market demand and you make something that nobody wants. And you’re fighting an uphill battle.

Per: So, some of the takeaways that you gave us at the end were like based on the advice you had gotten, you should always have mentors and inspiring heroes throughout your work life. And I can really attest to that, as I’ve gotten myself a coach, things have changed like a big way for me over the past year. But also, you said establish yourself as a contributor. Do you feel that you got to that goal that you established yourself as a contributor to the Hyperloop project?

Jaime: I definitely did on the Hyperloop project. I’ve always wanted to be a contributor I think since I was in my mid-20s because I’ve been a college professor part time since my mid-20s. And there’s something about sharing knowledge with others, a lot of people, they care — all they care about, they get out of school and they want to be mid-level designers or senior designers and they just want to work their way up the ladder and they actually may decide they don’t want to mentor or help, or teach others how to do what they know. They become like it’s proprietary, it’s mine, and you’re going to take my job. In fact my father, 15 years after teaching was like, “You’re teaching all of these people to replace you.” And I was like, “Well, that’s probably true.” But the thing is, the more I articulate my thoughts and the more I feel like I’m actually helping people to get jobs or get into masters programs, I feel better inside.

Per: Uh-hmm. Uh-hmm.

Jaime: That’s how I feel like I’m contributing to society, because otherwise, I do have a lot of time that I spend where I have to take money and make a bunch of software for a bank or for a — my pet website and it’s meaningless, you know, just getting paid. But teaching as a profession I think is something that makes me feel like I am helping and I’m collaborating by trying to get students to get excited about what we do.

James: And that’s noble and honorable.

Per: Thank you so much for sharing that with us, Jaime.

Jaime: Sure thing.

Per: And thank you for being on the show.

James: Thanks.

Jaime: Thank you for having us.


James: It’s very human story, this from Jaime.

Per: It is. I like the way that she shared it and that she was admitting that she really felt that she wasn’t producing anything that she was just touring with her book. And we’ve actually talked about this us privately about all these conference speakers. Did they actually do anything?

James: Well, we — we’re lucky — we got — we get to talk to a lot of these people obviously for podcast and a few of them have actually said to us, well, I don’t do any work. I don’t do any — my thing anymore, because there’s no time, because you’re doing the speaker circuit.

Per: Yes.

James: So this is a — this is common thing at least for this type of — this type of person.

Per: Which of course, and I understand how you get there because it’s very appealing, it’s a lot of fun, and I mean you get all these people clapping for you when you’re onstage, so it’s — so you get there and then — but I think she said there had been — how many years there have been?

James: Well, it’s something like you build up your knowledge over a long period of time. I mean we’re talking like decade or 20 years in Jaime’s case, and then that inspires you to do some with the knowledge, write a book.

Per: Yes. That’s right.

James: So she took time out; two years.

Per: So she had been doing so many things before she write the book.

James: Yes. So you take time out to write a book and then you — once you’ve written the book, then you got to publish them.

Per: Market it.

James: Go out round and market it. So then you got — you lose a bit of confidence in what you’re actually always used to do, a bit impostor syndrome comes in here, they said, “Oh, I’m telling people to do all these things but I’m not really doing myself anymore. You kind of preaching without doing. But I think — I think we all find ourselves in a bit of this situation, I mean I know over the years, it’s like — we’ve all done — I mean you and I have done a lot of different things. And then your journey is not a straight line. You have a path that goes from left to right, it goes up and down and it’s, you know, I can — I can go a year without doing a certain thing that maybe couple of years ago, I did every week.

Per: Yes. I mean when you and I met, we were doing — or you were doing a lot of eye tracking and you introduced me to eye tracking.

James: I did do, Yeah.

Per: Yes.

James: And I haven’t — I haven’t a chance — I haven’t had the assignments to do eyetracking for a few years now.

Per: Yes.

James: Because you end up in certain types of project that need certain types of skills. So, yes, so — I mean, do you — do you become bad at those things that you haven’t practiced recently? And, you know…

Per: Is it like learning to ride a bike?

James: Yes. Exactly. And I think — I think in a lot of things, yes, it is like riding a bike and it does not take you…

Per: But then you have all of those other experience that you can also bring to the table.

James: Uh-hmm.

Per: So I think it’s really valuable as well just taking that time off and to reflect.

James: Yes.

Per: I mean, but she’s been busy, I mean she teaches. So for me, that’s not doing nothing, that’s doing a lot of things really.

James: No. Exactly, I mean I’m framing in, in that way which she goes — she’s not — she stopped doing stuff when she do all the touring and all the teaching as well. I mean she’s incredibly busy.

Per: Yes. Exactly. Yes.

James: It’s more like she didn’t find time to fit to feel the work.

Per: She didn’t feel — she didn’t feel creative.

James: Yes.

Per: Yes.

James: And LA wasn’t making her feel creative.

James: Erm, But I also like the — how she found the solution with affectively voluntary projects and utilizing her class.

Per: Yes. I like that as well.

James: And I know that we’ve talked about that as a way to be creative. You can be creative almost about anything, just pick something and then work on it. It doesn’t have to be official. In a sense it was actually agreed on. But…

Per: But I mean even using students, like — it seems to me like it’s untapped resource it, more companies should be actually going to schools and putting real projects in the hands of students. I mean that happens.

James: Yes. But at some time you can’t — you can’t outsource directly to students.

Per: True.

James: I mean because the point — the thing about being a student is that you’re learning.

Per: Uh-hmm.

James: Which means you need — you need a mentor or a teacher to keep you on track, or at least to transfer wisdom and knowledge across.

Per: Yes.

James: If a company just goes like, you are 20 people, that need something to do, have something to do then that’s slave labor rather than the transfer of knowledge.

Per: But it’s a win-win situation.

James: But you get experience.

Per: Yes.

James: So my point there was that you’ve got to have someone steering the ship, there’s got to be someone at the helm.

Per: Oh, yes. You need — yes.

James: And in this case for Jaime, she’s at the helm.

Per: Exactly.

James: And she’s guiding and coaching them while giving them various projects to work on, not just the same one every single time.

Per: And I did push that because I like the fact that they — she forced her students to go and validate if the problem really exists and that’s something that would usually don’t take the time enough for.

James: Oh, or you — I mean, I think — yes, there’s excellent point with validating problems before you start designing solutions. And that is in so many situations especially when you’re a consultant. You get hired in to do something and that thing to be done is already decided because that’s why they’ve contacted someone to bring you in.

Per: Yes.

James: If they haven’t decided what to do then often, you wouldn’t be called. So it’s — sometimes it’s a bit of luxury to have that ability to question and validate from day one.

Per: Uh-hmm.

James: Usually you can’t — as Jaime said when we talked to her, you’ve got an existing thing. There’s an existing website, an existing app, an existing model. It’s not day zero every time you turn up. That’s a much more realistic business situation. It’s established and you need to listen and understand, and make compromises.

Per: Yes. Because you can go in and question the validity of the company the first thing you do.

James: No.

Per: They obviously exist already.

James: Yes.

Per: Although it’s tempting sometimes.

James: Well, you can say no to assignments.

Per: True as well. There was one more thing I wanted to mention about this interview, Swenglish lost in translation problem. I said several times, polo shirt.

James: Was it several?

Per: Yes.

James: All right. Polo top.

Per: Yes. In Swedish that means turtleneck. But polo shirt in English of course means like tennis shirt. So it has a collar but — yes, not a turtleneck.

James: Welcome to UX Podcast, the fashion edition. It was black — you got the black, you got the colour right.

Per: I got the colour right, yes. Okay. Some — but that made me wonder how many do I actually use like Swedish phrases directly translate them to English and people are wondering, what the hell is he talking about?

James: We almost need a lot of times.

Per: Yes. Yes, even you do it I think.

James: Oh, I got it and I do it and I got even, you know, it’s my language. I just want to finish up a couple of other takeaways from this chat with Jaime.

Per: Uh-hmm.

James: Always have mentors and Inspiring heroes.

Per: Yes.

James: Establish yourself as a contributor. The one thing of Jaime, or position yourself as a contributor.

Per: Yes.

James: If you want to feel like you’re creating. Applying experience design to business strategy, but I think though validating the problems before you create solutions is an aspect of that.

Per: If you’ve enjoyed the show, we are UX Podcast everywhere as you know. And do we mention the listener survey? Well now we do.

James: You just did it?

Per: Yes, I never say forward slash, I hate people who say forward slash. Do you need to say that?

James: It depends on context. If I was working on a regular expression, then I’d probably have to because the backward slash is very different to a forward slash.

Per: But you just say slash.

James: No, but I don’t know if it’s backwards or forwards. I don’t know if you’re escaping something or whether you are signaling a command.

Per: Yes. True. But when people say…

James: Context…

Per: …when people say web address is.

James: Then it’s a forward slash.

Per: It has to be.

James: Yes. Because it’d be wrong if it was a backslash. So you see, context.

Per: Remember to keep moving.

James: See you on the other side.


James: Knock, knock.

Per: Who’s there?

James: Ya.

Per: Ya, who?

James: Nah, Yahoo’s so ’90s. I’ll use Google.

[End of transcript]

This is a transcript of a conversation between James Royal-Lawson, Per Axbom and Jaime Levy recorded for UX Podcast in April 2017. To hear more episodes visit or search for UX Podcast in your favourite podcast client.