Interview with Kate Rutter

Founder, Intelleto

This year we’re celebrating 10 years of UX London! In the run up to our special anniversary conference, we caught up with Kate Rutter to hear her thoughts on the evolution and impact of UX, and how her own career has developed in this time.

On the evolution and impact of UX

Thinking back to 2009, how and where did the discipline of UX sit within the industry, and what role was it playing in business at that time?

Flashback: I remember 2004–05 being a big time of change for the field. Companies that focused on their customers were becoming much more visible as financial drivers of the US economy (Amazon, Google, etc.) and other companies were starting to emerge (social media, file-sharing, devices, mobile phone apps, etc.). The rise of fluid interactions (Ajax being named in 2005) created a tighter bond for development and design teams to collaborate. Stanford kicked off the d.school (Hasso Plattner Institute of Design) and IDEO was the poster child for the shift from technical innovation to product and design innovation.

2009 brought a focus on smart devices (medical products, home devices, smart cars, Fitbit was just emerging) and the Internet of Things became a THING. The iPhone meant that mobile apps were unavoidable, and feature phones were on the wane. Hardware and software were merging in new ways, and visual design, industrial design and interaction design were punching it out. The term Information Architecture was falling out of favor as the internet became more about functionality than content. Companies got more sophisticated about design… it wasn’t just “make it pretty” although we still battle that idea today. UX practitioners flocked to conferences, in-person gatherings flourished (Meetup was growing) and teams of UX designers began to form in smaller and mid-sized companies. It was the age of consultancies and expert opinion. New books, new methods (journey maps! interactive prototypes! content audits! task flows! content strategy! personas!) hit stride and became common practices. UX practitioners working solo had the benefit of ideas like the UX Team of One (Leah Buley) and Undercover UX (Cennydd Bowles and James Box). Design teams were concerned about “getting a seat at the table” and speaking to the business impact of design.

How has UX changed in the past 10 years?

The number of professionals in the field has exploded! Lots of blogs, books and events have created a huge repertoire of knowledge. Online learning platforms and bootcamps have allowed people to shift careers and bring their subject matter expertise into the community. You can now learn UX in formal college programs. It feels like the last 10 years has seen the rise of the UX rockstar (for better or for worse). UX has the seat at the table, but design implementers struggle with how best to connect design work to business outcomes. Agile development and Lean Startup concepts have given rise to a whole generation of product entrepreneurs who have customer-centricity as a key element of their business. Finally, business thinking and design and product development have the opportunity to speak the same language in service to customers. What a marvelous trajectory for the field.

How do you see UX evolving over the decade to come?

It’s all about the THINGS, but more importantly, how and why people use them. Sensors, robotics and smart devices will dramatically automate complex systems, while services and products combine into sophisticated ecosystems. The rise of service design is a natural outcome of the blending of things and services. I see UX as becoming a field of designers who design the tools of design to better democratize the process. In my dreams, UX designers go away and design expertise is distributed in every team and division of every company. A smaller group of expert practitioners will continue to pioneer new methods, but for the most part, UX will be a basic competency…not a “thing” in and of itself. Remember the typing pool? In my dream world, everyone knows the tools of design and uses them responsibly.

What’s the future of UX in one word?

Distributed.

On your career

Tell us about your first design/UX role. Who did you model yourself on?

Webmaster, HAHAHAHAHAHA. Seriously. At the time, code was mostly markup or database query syntax. I came from a graphic design & desktop publishing and database design & library catalog background. Working on a “site” was all about content. I modeled myself on the entrepreneurial minds from The Well, futurists like Faith Popcorn, tech publisher Jane Metcalfe (Wired), Stuart Brand, consultancies like Vivid Studios and Organic. And even iconic figures like Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper and Anita Borg.

Joining the team at Adaptive Path was an eye-opener that almost killed me, but made me about the humans, not about the UI and the things. That changed my life. Then I modeled myself on the amazing team I got to work with: founders Janice Fraser, Jeff Veen, Jesse James Garrett, Indi Young, Lane Becker, Peter Merholz and practitioners Chiara Ogan, Rachel Hinman, Leah Buley, Dan Saffer, Teresa Brazen, Brandon Schauer, Andrew Crow, Henning Fischer, the list goes on and on.

What are the qualities of a good UX practitioner?

Thoughtfulness, listening, hustle and relentless curiosity. The ability to think by making stuff, testing it in the wild and iterating. A commitment to continuous learning, deep humility and brazen optimism. Not as common, but important: getting enough sleep and making time to dream. Also, sticky notes.

How do you motivate your team?

Know the team as individual people and truly understand and care what motivates and energizes them. Intrinsic motivation is the way we power growth. Nobody cares about a vision that they don’t see themselves as part of.

What advice would you give practitioners who are just starting out in their careers?

Make a sh*t ton of stuff. Test it. Talk to people (listen to people) and share your ideas. Develop a point of view and hold it lightly. Share your ideas and don’t talk smack about others until you understand what they are really about. Understand how what you make impacts the lives of people and take responsibility for your work. Do no harm.

What does a typical day look like for you? Is it all meetings?

I’m a weird case…I have a eclectic set of responsibilities: teaching, sketching, podcasting, writing and working with groups to bust through organizational barriers. Lots of short conference calls and TONS of email. I schedule time for curriculum development, idea development and quiet reflection. I read a lot of articles on Medium.

What challenges are you facing at the moment and what are you doing to overcome them?

Seems like there are a lot of people seeking mentorship, which is great. I try to share my mistakes and hope others will make smarter mistakes of their own. Getting long blocks of time for idea development is always a challenge. Keeping up with practical tools and skills is also a commitment I struggle with. But the biggest challenge I want to keep focused on is ensuring that practitioners are ethical in our work and that the the UX field is representative of talent that is available: people of color, all gender and gender identities, a range of economic brackets, “old” and “young” workers, people of different abilities and disabilities. We need perspectives that represent society at large to ensure that products are built for society at large.

What’s your proudest achievement?

Seeing the practitioners I worked with at Tradecraft (adult learning program) launch successful and influential careers, and knowing that they are truly in service to the customers they develop products for.

Join Kate and a host of other fantastic speakers at UX London 2018 — the 10th anniversary edition of Clearleft’s trailblazing UX conference. UX London takes place 23rd-25th May 2018 at Trinity Laban — tickets are on sale now at www.uxlondon.com