My Incredible Journey (I’m going indie)

Tl;dr — I’m starting my own consultancy called Hêtre, focusing on product design, interaction design, and information architecture. It’s well past time to go indie, but I’m finally doing it. And I’m available.

http://hetre.design

The Long Version

I’ve been working around the web since the original Dotcom Boom, from my early days handcoding HTML for a pre-CMS financial website to my latter days as a UX designer for some big enterprise projects. And in all those years, I’ve been an employee, and I’ve been OK with that. But, in a way, I’ve been going against my nature.

My family has a long history of entepreneurs, self-starters, and independent sorts who hate “the man.” My father built his own architecture firm. My grandfather was a doctor in private practice and later co-founded a hospital. My great-grandfather was a Baptist circuit rider in his early days.

I’ve held out, though, because I watched my father get consumed by his business and ultimately kill him at a young age. That wasn’t going to happen to me. So to work for “the man” I went.

But in the working world, you struggle with balancing the customer’s best interests against the business’s best interests. Everything is a political battle — even in places that insist they’re not political. Over the years I spent more time “selling design” than “doing design,” and the evangelization of design wears on you. I’ve worked with some amazing people and some amazing companies, and I wouldn’t trade any of those experiences. And yet, the independent streak hid back there.

I wanted a more holistic view of design, one that focuses on understanding the problems in order to deliver solutions that balance customer satisfaction, business goal fulfillment, and my own desire to leave things a better place than I found it. I got a poster of Johnny Cash giving the finger at San Quentin as a reminder of that. I wanted to be someone as principled as he was (a man who’d protested Vietnam and sang in prisons) — and just as take no bullshit as he was, too.

One day, I reached my own inflection point. While I liked leading design for the firm I was with, I realized my values didn’t line up with theirs. They were delivering solutions without putting the effort into understanding the true problems, and it was creating thrash, long working hours, communication breakdowns, and lost vision.

I did something I never thought I’d do. I walked away.

The day I decided I had to walk was April 3. On the French Republican calendar, which gives days plant and animal names instead of saints, April 3 is hêtre — beech tree. (It’s pronounced EH-truh).

Since then, I’ve given a lot of thought to what I wanted to do next. As I’ve thought about perhaps going independent was the right thing, I’ve interviewed a number of people in the industry who are freelancers or running their own small agencies. I spent a lot of time on planning, on thinking, on what this would really look like if I went indie — on my terms. And I concluded it was time.

Hêtre is the name I’ve given it, to remind me of why I made the choice I did. (And given how unpronounceable my name was growing up, I couldn’t resist putting myself through the pain again.)

Hêtre is about helping our clients think holistically about design, one project at a time. Instead of gimmick methodologies, we help companies create great, holistic product experiences through user research, information architecture, and design strategy consulting — effective, measurable solutions that fulfill those business goals.

Painting pixels only gets you so far. Great user experiences that meet your business goals mean looking at data, content, structure, and flow.

If you don’t understand the problem, you will waste time, effort, and people on pursuing the wrong solutions. In many cases, it takes someone from the outside to dispassionately point out the problem and the pain the users are feeling. By going consulting, I can finally be that person from the outside.

For the last several years, I’ve designed great products from “clean sheets of paper” to solve problems our customers never knew they had. And now I’m ready to take that outside.

And yes, I am available.

Welcome to Hêtre. Let’s work together to design great things.

Website: http://hetre.design

Twitter: https://twitter.com/hetredesign

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A special thanks to everyone I’ve pestered for advice the last month or so: Karlyn Borysenko, Michael Hinnant, Pam Mandel, Lynne Polischuik, Steve Portigal, Kyle Soucy, Bram Wessel, and Indi Young. Special shoutout to Nathan Lincoln for helping nail down the Hêtre logo.