Meetup Creator Spotlight: Mike Estano

Mike Estano is the Meetup Creator for We’ll Talk: UX, a meetup where designers, developers, even project managers share their projects and brainstorm for best, efficient User Experience (UX) and feedback.

KL: Tell me a little bit about yourself, what’s your background in UX?
ME: Well, it was a winding road to get to where I am now. I’ve done many things over the years. It seems like if it has the word “design” in the title, I’ve done it (laughs) but in short, I received a degree in Industrial Design from Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. I graduated in the mid-1990s and began working right away designing physical products for manufacturing: metals, plastics, even wood. But also had my hand in some digital products as well. As the World Wide Web was still in its infancy, my colleagues and I did design and work on early websites and we sort of figured it out as we went along.

No matter what the output is, as a designer, we should always realize that on the other end, another human will be interacting with what it is we’re doing. So if it doesn’t work for them and their needs, it doesn’t work and that defeats the point.

KL: What is UX? Can you explain in two sentences?
ME: That’s a tough one. Well, how about this? I explain how design, UX or otherwise, starts with a team of people (designers, developers, engineers, etc.) and everyone has their role to play. We think about the end users and how they will interact with the product as we work on it. I explain there’s a “planning” stage and “making” stage and then there’s the “it never seems to end” stage. (laughs)

A comparison with architecture, for example, I explain how you need a foundation before you can build your house and, of course, knowing how many rooms, where the walls and doors are, electrical and plumbing, all of that. Someone is doing that work, planning it and then building it and also understanding that a human being will use it and how it will work best for that person.

KL: Tell me about We’ll Talk: UX Meetup and what led you to create it?
ME: To speak on We’ll Talk: UX, I’ll have to go back to the founding of NELAUX, about 5 and a half years ago, by Jon Fox and Petra Wennberg. At that time, there weren’t many UX meetups outside the Santa Monica area. Downtown Los Angeles didn’t even have a presence yet so it was great having something in the NorthEast. After attending an early NELAUX event, I met Jeff Potter and we were lamenting the fact that there wasn’t enough going on in our area so we decided to start our own group. That’s when we started We’ll Talk: UX. We were filling a void in not just our needs but in general. We’ve been quite successful in doing so and I’m very proud to be one of the earliest and most consistent groups around. It’s very different now with so many types of UX meetups. It’s very exciting.

The idea from the beginning was to unite designers, developers, project managers and whoever wanted to join us and we would provide peer-to-peer mentorship. I was freelancing at the time and understood that “working in a vacuum” could only get you so far.

Inherently as designers, we need to be collaborative and I personally was missing that since I worked alone and thought maybe others were in the same position.

So the decision to have our attendees bring in projects to discuss, not just as a “show and tell”, but to bring early stage projects or ones with problems they needed to resolve would be cool. This way we could problem-solve and get something done. I wanted it to feel like a bunch of your friends getting together but it just happened that all of your friends are UX designers!

We’ve pulled back to hold the Meetups just every other month. This freed me up to help organize other NELAUX events as well, over these past few years. But during the very first year, we were super ambitious. Jeff and I hosted We’ll Talk: UX every other week! It was a hectic schedule but there was a demand so we tried to fill it. We always said once it died down and people stop coming, we could pull back. Well, that never happened. We did finally change it to a monthly event starting our second year because of two factors. One, it was crazy and two, we lost our original “home”, a place called DropLabs. They closed down their East side location near the Brewery Art Complex outside Chinatown. That’s also when we made the move to Pasadena.

We jumped around to different venues from OpenX and Cross Campus to Epic Spaces (now BLANKSPACES) and “Media Space” at the Pasadena Public Library with one-offs at KPCC and even LegalZoom. At the end of that run, Jeff got an offer for work in Denver so he decided to move. It was hard to lose my partner-in-crime but we knew the right thing to do for the community was for me to continue without him. I also knew I couldn’t do it alone so I found a new partner, Jessica Woods. She was a We’ll Talk: UX regular. At the time, when she agreed to help, she worked at ADP, so having our meetups at their Innovation Center was a no-brainer. They have this smaller lounge area and it was perfect, so cozy! I learned early on that larger the venue, it felt like a lecture. So, I really like keeping it small.

Also, changing locations meant a different dynamic. It was kind of fun but after a long time, having a more permanent venue was nice, too. At the end of the day, I’m happy to say we still have several people who have been attending from the beginning! I also love seeing new faces every time as well and then having them keep coming back. I like it because new faces mean new ideas and connections. Networking and socializing are also a big part of our Meetup. I feel it’s a vital component in building our community.

KL: What is the typical format?
ME: When it comes to We’ll Talk: UX, I really don’t like rushing it. Many formats are “lightning presentations” and I don’t like that you only get “talked at” in those cases. So our format is, each presenter that shares a project gets a solid 30 minutes. A few minutes to describe their project and problem and then it turns into a conversation for rest of the time. I operate as the moderator/mediator. I want to make sure all voices get heard and everyone who wants to contribute has a chance to weigh in and if there’s a lull, I’ll jump in to pick up the slack. But I usually never have to ever do that. This way everyone gets to collaborate. I alway announce at the beginning of the evening that, “participation isn’t mandatory but encouraged.” Because it would defeat the point if no one gave any feedback or engaged in the discussion. I love when we get a brand new batch of presenters and each project is new and fresh and exciting. But we’ve also had many projects come back after being iterated based on the feedback from a previous We’ll Talk: UX and that’s just as cool. Being able to see a revised project look and function better than it did is so awesome.

KL: So are you still hosting at different locations?
ME: Yeah, after our year-long stay at ADP, we seem to be back at using different location so far for each meetup this year. In no particular order, we held at WeWork, Supplyframe DesignLab, ADP Innovation Center and our next one in November will be in DTLA at the offices of verynice. Also, we joined the Innovate Pasadena Meetup Creator program around the same time Jessica came onboard. I met Beth Kuchar at a random Innovate Pasadena event and she told me about the program. I contacted Tom Buel and here we are. Everyone there is super cool and having Innovate Pasadena’s sponsorship has been great. Their support meant we had a budget to provide things like snacks for our meetups! Before that, we had nothing to offer, but now we feel pretty legit! (laughs) It’s kind of funny to say but just having chips and sandwiches helps bring everyone together and ultimately grow the community. I know I’ve said it many times already but that is to me one of my missions, to bring tech people together and grow the community.

Aside from my Meetup, I try to support Innovate Pasadena as much as possible by attending their events and encourage our attendees to explore all the many meetups in and around Pasadena especially those under Innovate Pasadena’s program. Both Innovate Pasadena and NELAUX started pretty much around the same time and it’s been awesome to grow our communities in tandem.

KL: What was your favorite event you’ve hosted up to this point?
ME: Oh boy, this is hard! Just one? How about two or three? (laughs) Well, for We’ll Talk: UX meetups, as much as I love them, they are usually pretty consistent in format. Each one is different because of the different people and projects. With our NELAUX events, on the other hand, are usually larger with different themes and topics, so those are much more exciting. One of the most memorable and interesting was last year’s Design SLAM (Storytelling, Language, Music and Art). It was a cross between a design talk and poetry slam event. Each speaker were tasked to create their own music and slideshow or video presentation to accompany their talks about design languages and storytelling. I didn’t speak but my contribution was having one of my bands (I’m a drummer, yes, here’s a shameless plug), Sci-Fi Romance, opened the evening with a mini-concert. We projected videos for each song as we played live. I really enjoyed doing that, it was so much fun.

KL: That’s great! For We’ll Talk: UX meetup, who should join?
ME: Well, quite literally, everyone! Seriously, anyone in tech, at any level, who works on any sort of digital product would get something out of our group. It’s always nice to have a mix of disciplines, as well as folks in different levels. I’m happy to also say we always have a great mix of men and women, too!

I find people new to tech world would always provide a fresh perspective and seasoned vets always cut to the chase.

It really feels like the attendees are a full-functioning team at [pick a company] and all viewpoints are needed for problem-solving. It’s so great when everyone brings their different perspectives, experiences, and knowledge bases. The more diversity, the better. Even if some attendees don’t participate, maybe because they’re new to the field or new to working in teams in general, it’s very beneficial for them to just observe how “team members” interact with one another. I think it will benefit all of us in the future, in the end, to have them see and learn how to better communicate. So once they’re in the workplace, they’ll know how to function more positively right out the gate!

KL: What are you advices for someone who want to set up a meetup?
ME: You have to really want to do it. You have to understand that it takes a lot of your free time, not just to run the Meetup but to organize an event. I recommend it be something that interests you, otherwise, you’ll get bored and move on.

It’ll only be as successful as how much you’re willing to invest yourself.

If you’re not into it, no one else will be. You have to be motivated and you have to motivate others sometimes just to attend. Hopefully you can find that sweet spot where you have an interesting topic people want or need a way to dig into it that it’s unique.

At any rate, I think running a meetup is about being consistent and committed. I also recommend finding a partner who shares your passion and can help lessen the burden on running the meetup. There’s no way I would ever get all this done if not for Jessica! You don’t have to do everything alone, or even once a month. The worst thing you can do is do too often, get burnt out, and never do it again. Just find your interest and your pace and keep at it. And ask for help if you need it. (Because you’ll need it).

KL: Thank you! Any closing remarks you want to share?
ME: Thanks to everyone who has contributed in any way, big or small, in helping make We’ll Talk: UX be the fun little Meetup it is. Without you, I’d just be some dude sitting alone in a room, probably in the dark. Cheers. We’ll talk soon.

A big thanks to Mike for being part of this fantastic interview! For more information on our Meetup Creators Program and other Meetups, visit our webpage.