An Interview with Jesse James Garrett

“Good design work is measured not in hours, but in days… Pace yourself, and trust your intuition.”

Thanks to the generosity of the great people at Adaptive Path and Capital One, I was given the opportunity to attend UX Week 2016 in San Francisco and sit down and speak with Jesse James Garrett, co-founder of Adaptive Path and author of the popular book The Elements of User Experience. We spoke in-depth about history of UX Week, where UX has been and where it’s headed, how designers can be more successful within their organizations, challenges working in-house vs. at an agency, and some final words of wisdom.

UX Week

“UX Week isn’t a conference about UX, it is a conference for UX people.”

C: Thank you so much for speaking with me. Let’s start by talking about UX Week. This conference is in, what, its 13th or 14th year?
JJG: 14th year.

C: 14 years. So what’s changed about it over the past 14 years?
JJG: I think that maybe what’s more interesting is what’s hasn’t changed. Because it’s changed quite a lot. It was initially only workshops and only taught by AP staff, and then we started inviting guests and workshop teachers, and then we started offering a more conference component to it as it evolved according to what our attendees were telling us they wanted to see in an event.

But I think that what hasn’t changed is that UX Week has always been about two things: One is an attempt to look at broadly at the notion of designing experience and what that means. So in the case of workshops that means we may have [one on] prototyping, but it also may mean in past years we’ve had improv workshops and game design workshops and things that are obviously not directly related to the work of a User Experience Designer. I would say UX Week isn’t a conference about UX, it is a conference for UX people and so therefore would be about the things that we think would be interesting and edifying to our community. So there’s that breadth, that diversity, that eclectic nature of the program which has only gotten more eclectic over time.

And then the second thing I would say that’s been consistent is that we’ve always tried to maintain a balance between the real practical skills building like you would see at a lot of other events, combined with some inspiration and some food-for-thought that will hopefully spark in people some new ideas and new ways of thinking about their work. So every year that’s always what we’re trying to do, is to have it be simultaneously grounded in practical things like the workshops you would find at a lot of other UX events combined with forward-looking and more inspirational content.

C: How do you pick that inspirational content? How do you try to make it relevant for User Experience people who may not be used to that from other types of events?
JJG: What I have found over the years is the less I try to calculate and triangulate the needs and expectations of my audience, the more successful the event is. When I let go of the idea of trying to check a bunch of boxes for things like “ok we need a mobile case study, and we need a talk about process…” Rather than try to reduce it to a formula that is going to meet the set of expectations that I imagine people to have for the event, if I just program the event for myself that tends to go better. I just feel very fortunate that we’ve been able to draw an audience that is interested in the same things that I am interested in <chuckles>.

Where UX Has Been & Where It’s Headed

“The UX community has been successful beyond my wildest imaginings.”

C: I noticed that your final talk with Peter [Merholz] on Friday is on the past, present, and future of UX and what’s been changing over the years. Thinking back to when you first entered into this field versus where it is now, what has happened that you wouldn’t have been able to anticipate when you first got into it?
JJG: I think that the UX community has been successful beyond my wildest imaginings. The first UX Week was in 2003 and at that time UX was still not even a discrete role inside organizations. UX was a set of practices that some people who were wearing some kind of designer hat or another were incorporating into how they approach their work. But there was nobody who was like “you’re our UX person.”

By 2003… we (Adaptive Path) were the first ones to be focused exclusively on User Experience and there were a couple of people who came along after that, but at the time there was still practically no market for agency services yet. Certainly not more than enough to sustain a couple of companies. And there were no significant in-house roles for User Experience, versus where we are now where there are hundreds of UX agencies out there and there are organizations where UX is not just one role, it’s an entire team or an entire department, and they have really taken up the work that we’ve done. Organizations like Capital One are seeing it as a distinct source of value and a competitive differentiator in the market and they’re investing in that and empowering those teams to do work that has both a broader and deeper impact for their customers.

C: Sure. And beyond the organizational changes that have happened, we now have CXO’s and other design leaders that we didn’t have before, has the work itself for the individual contributor or practitioner changed at all?
JJG: Yeah, I think that there has been a certain commodification of certain UX practices or even deliverables over time. When we started Adaptive Path, a wireframe was a strategy deliverable. It was something that was so abstract and removed from the design and development process that it felt like something that was sort of a very high-end thing, and now wireframes, as just one example of a UX deliverable, have now sort of moved down from strategy into the realm of baseline, table-stakes, how-you-do-your-job kind of stuff. And you see a lot of the things that early on were considered to be sort of rarified tools like personas.

Now, where we are in our practice right now is we do a lot of work around experience mapping. Which is still considered a pretty high-level strategic thing, but you can already see it happening. You can already see smaller teams or individuals taking up these tools. And that’s been on purpose. At Adaptive Path, through the writing work that we’ve done, through our workshops and our events, we are actively pushing that knowledge out, trying to teach as many people as we can the methods so it isn’t solely the province of a handful of strategists in a board room somewhere, but it’s something that teams on the ground can actively use in doing the work that they do.

Being Successful Designers

“Learning to speak the language of people outside our field is the biggest challenge that I’ve seen for teams who are trying to get their work out into the world.”

C: Is there anything happening, maybe not directly in the design and User Experience industry, but in the world around us that we have to be more aware of in order to be successful as designers?
JJG: I think that we are all collectively more empowered than we ever have been in the history of the field. But, we don’t necessarily have the background or the experience to know how to wield that power most effectively. And so when I talk to people about the struggles that they’re having that don’t have anything to do with design, it’s usually about politics, persuasion, rallying people behind a vision behind the experience for a product or service, and those are things that we’re collectively still trying to learn how to do effectively.

C: Why do you think that’s taken up to this point, and continuing, to figure out how to do that effectively? What’s made that so challenging for us?
JJG: I think most designers, quite honestly, feel like good work speaks for itself. And if they produce good work, then obviously that’s the thing that we should all do, and all they have to do is show it to everybody and then everybody will be onboard with it. And there’s a lot more complexity and nuance to the task of rallying people behind a vision and helping people really see what’s possible, rather than just putting things in front of people and relying upon their judgement to bring them along.

C: There’s definitely been a lot of focus, not just at this event but at a lot of other User Experience events about those skills: communication, collaboration, even selling-type of skills that you need in order to be successful within an organization. Within a design team, what can they be doing better to get better at those skills?
JJG: Adaptive Path was an independent consultancy for 13 years and I had the opportunity to work with a lot of different teams of a lot of different sizes, and a lot of organizations of different sizes, and the breakdown that I have seen most frequently is designers communicating with business owners in the ways that designers like to be communicated with, and not necessarily in ways that actually connect with a non-designer audience. And I think learning to speak the language of people outside our field is the biggest breakdown or biggest challenge that I’ve seen for teams who are trying to get their work out into the world.

In-House vs. Agency Challenges

“One of the enormous selling points for us in joining Capital One was that we felt like there was a really strong infrastructure in place of empowered champions who already had strong voices in the organization for the customer experience.”

C: And does how we communicate to these business leaders within our organizations change at all whether you’re a freelancer, someone in an agency, or someone in-house, or is it relatively consistent?
JJG: Well you know it’s interesting because I think being a consultant vs. being in-house has some very meaningful tradeoffs. If you’re in-house then you actually have your hands on the steering wheel. As a consultant, you’re standing next to the person who has their hands on the steering wheel and going “oh I think it’s going a bit to the left here, and oh I think we’re going to hit some rough weather and so we might want to head south” and you know those kinds of things. So, you have this position where you have outside perspective, which is enormously valuable, but at the end of the day somebody else has their hands on the wheel.

C: If you’re the one not in control of the situation, how can you possibly be successful?
JJG: There are two parts to that. One is building a relationship of trust with the people who are in control, and secondly empowering them to use that control more effectively. In the course of watching UX go from a set of practices, to a role, to a department within organizations within the past 15 years, what we had to do in order to keep the work alive is empower champions within these organizations. Give them tools, give them ways of framing the work, give them ways of selling the work, give them ways of thinking about the work for themselves, that would allow them to make choices that serve the experience even if we as the consultants are not around.

Now, being part of Capital One, I think one of the enormous selling points for us in joining Capital One was that we felt like there was a really strong infrastructure in place of empowered champions who already had strong voices in the organization for the customer experience and there was executive-level commitment to making those things happen. So it was an environment in which we thought we could be successful where a lot of other environments have been a much more up-hill battle.

C: I know a lot has been talked and written about on this particular topic of agencies being acquired by larger organizations. Do you see this as a trend, and is that a good thing? Or are there significant tradeoffs for people who are more used to being in a consultancy?
JJG: It’s undoubtedly a trend. There have been a number of these acquisitions at varying scales. John Maeda at MIT has been tracking the roll-up of design agencies over the course of the last several years. But, the thing is, it’s a trend from which I don’t think you can extrapolate any really large-scale messages except that experience is more and more important to organizations.

When Adaptive Path was acquired by Capital One, all of our employees came over with us because everybody was on-board with what we were trying to do. Other organizations, other companies that we used to compete with as an independent agency, have been through acquisitions and a significant number of people were not onboard with the acquisition and they quit. Because that organization was not the right fit for them or the roles that they were being offered were not the right fit for them, or they did not feel empowered by the new reality that was being put in front of them. So again, going back to what I was saying about having your hands on the wheel, if you’re the kind of person who wants to have your hands on the wheel, then moving in-house will probably serve you. If you’re the kind of person who wants to be more of a navigator than a pilot, then I think probably the consulting lifestyle is a better fit.

C: If you’re speaking to more junior designers, people right out of school or with a couple of years of experience, what path would you suggest to them in terms of where they should focus their career?
JJG: I think that starting out in an agency is a really smart move for younger designers because it gives them an opportunity to try out lots of different types of problems and find out where their creative interest really lies. I’ve worked with younger designers who were working in an agency context for a while and they got frustrated with not having their hands on the wheel. Or they tried out a bunch of different industries and found out “I have a passion for financial services” or “I have a passion for healthcare” or whatever. And so I think that early on that kind of thing is really valuable

There’s value in going in-house early in your career if you have the opportunity to try out lots of different kinds of problems. When we became part of Capital One there was this question that we had early on which was simply is there enough diversity of creative work to be done here to keep our teams engaged, to keep people from getting bored and frustrated and feeling like they’re just pushing the same rock up the hill every day. And then they showed us around all the different things that they were doing and we’re like yeah, there’s more than enough different complex, interesting work going on here to keep everybody engaged and that has been the case for nearly two years now.

C: That’s the best case scenario. I’ve been a part of an agency, big companies, a smaller company acquired by a big company, and one thing that I’ve seen that could potentially be a Bay Area problem rather than something generalizable for the rest of the world, but designers in particular lose interest quickly if they’re not continually challenged. Is that something that is the responsibility of the organization as a whole, or rather the design management to ensure their team is really engaged?
JJG: I don’t think it’s the organization’s responsibility to feed designers interesting work. If you’re not getting interesting work in the organization you’re in, you should probably find a different organization. I do think we have taken the creative care and feeding of our team very very seriously because, to your point, when people are working on stuff that really challenges them to grow as creative professionals, that is when their engagement is the highest. I think that design leaders really need to not treat their designers as interchangeable. To understand each individual’s strengths and areas of motivation and passion, to be able to align whatever work is available with what they want or what will continue to keep them at the edge of their growth, keep them engaged. I think that’s the thing, you see in a lot of design departments that kind of grew out of IT departments, you see this thing of trying to manage designers as if they were programmers, where you plug them in and you just hand them the requirements and they’ll bang out whatever the thing is that’s required. Design doesn’t work that way. And you know really, honestly, programming doesn’t work that way either, but design really really doesn’t work that way.

Final Words of Wisdom

C: So I have just one last thing for you. I don’t know if you remember, but I run a site called inspireUX that started as a collection of inspiring quotes from people across the field, and what I’ve noticed that your quotes are some of the most frequently shared and frequently cited. So I wanted to put you on the spot a little bit. If there’s something you could offer to people in the industry, general words of wisdom, what is something you might share with them?
JJG: This isn’t putting me on the spot at all! I would say that good design work is measured not in hours, but in days. What I mean by that is that there is a significant part of any creative work that happens outside of our conscious awareness, and happens at a different pace from focused, at the computer, pushing boxes around the screen kind of work. You are actually not doing yourself a service by trying to cram more work into less time because you’re not allowing the space for those creative processes to happen. So I would say: pace yourself, and trust your intuition.

C: Perfect. Thank you very much!

Learn more about UX Week and check out the great work that’s being done at the Adaptive Path.