Creativity & Technology Conference

By mehera o'brien on July 13, 2010

Categories: Conferences

A month after the UnConference, I was again afforded an opportunity to leave the office for a day for additional brain food. As someone that never gets to go to these types of events (and admittedly, many of them aren't great), it was nice to spend a day with a few colleagues and fellow digital geeks looking at new technologies.

The CaT Conference was interesting, but not quite as inspiring as the UnConference proved to be. With a traditional conference format – a speaker or panel of speakers preaching to a large audience of onlookers – I missed the interactivity of my previous month's experience. The room was freezing cold and there were so many speakers that there was little time for networking, chat and general absorption of information. But, it's only the second year of this conference as well, and the subject matter was well-intentioned.

My main criticism of the conference was that, in its name, I thought the subject matter would be really, really edgy. And some of it was. There was a nice Adobe demonstration. And a Microsoft talk about the power of Photosynth, which was really nice. But as someone that's worked in digital for a long time, I found it to be a little remedial. For those looking to get more insight into digital, the conference had the who's who list of speakers and covered a nice, broad range of topics and relevant trends. Ultimately, I told my colleague Kaare (who heads our Creative Research & Development team) that he should have been on stage. He's brilliant. And engaging. And charming. And if anyone wants to know what a 'Creative Technologist' is, ask anyone on his team. And if you want to debate whether or not they're really 'creative,' be prepared for a fight.

Yet, I have to give a shout out to two speakers that really inspired me. Kevin Slavin and Theo Watson (next post).

Kevin stole the show (as evidenced by the number of mentions of his name on twitter that day) with a talk about how we are socially connected and that the power of the crowd is what's needed to release the magic of storytelling. I managed to snag him for five minutes as he was leaving that night and told him about my own crowd-sourced t.v. watching experience. It was a Sunday night and I was taking care of admin – paying bills, reading mail, answering old emails. The Grammy Awards were on and I was watching, or rather listening, while sorting through my business. I started to notice friends of mine on twitter were commenting on the show. And one friend/former colleague/fellow experience designer was actually AT the show in LA. His office had done a site for the Grammy's and, as a gift, a few of his team got to attend. He was tweeting from the show that the rest of us were watching. And I was responding to him, and other friends, while sitting at home on my sofa with my laptop. Kevin liked this story and said it was exactly was he was talking about. The power of digital technology to connect us, to rally us, around something that in its design, the television, is a one-way communication vehicle. Food for thought, surely.

As a sidenote, I mentioned Kevin's talk to my colleague Greg the next day, who graduated from Tisch's ITP Master's program. And he said Kevin was one of his professors and that people clamored for this classes. He's just _that_ engaging and smart. Definitely look him up. Or check out his site:


My Big Fat Facebook Wedding - Real-life Social Networking

By Catherine Nygaard on July 12, 2010

  Picture 2

I recently had a Facebook social mashup of posted comments that made me cringe. Friends from the past swooping in to comment along with friends from the present- all on a collision course of impending awkwardness. Why Facebook, why must you lump everyone altogether into My Big Fat Facebook Wedding?

A "wedding" is exactly what User Research Lead, Paul Adams from Google coins the social experience of Facebook. Not really a fault of Facebook's, but often your social spheres in the real world never cross-over.  In the digital space however,  social networks like Facebook, change that landscape and suddenly your past, present and future all funnel into the same place. The Real-life Social Network v2.0 is an insightful Slideshare presentation on how to consider this design challenge.


NewCity Labs

By mehera o'brien on July 12, 2010

Categories: Conferences

I'll get off the UnConference topic soon enough, but there was just so much great information!

So another great seminar I attended at the conference was hosted by David Poteet, who runs a company called NewCity in Virginia. With the aim of keeping his team inspired with innovative, pet projects but also focused enough to keep his revenue in the black, he and his team developed a 'Labs' model. Four days a week, the office did their work work. One day a week, they got to spend the day experimenting. Either everyone would work on one experimental project, or the group would divide across a few different projects. But there was some focus, so the day wasn't just a play day for everyone in the company to be unbillable and browsing the interweb for cool stuff.

This approach led his team to the idea for the Nomad Mobile Guide, which has been so successful that they've actually spun this project off into its own company! The concept (I paraphrase) is a "make your own guidebook" that allows its users to download relevant chapters to their phones when touring a new place. So – if you're in a city but don't want to carry a guidebook, or more importantly you really are only interested in one part of the guidebook (for me, it would be local information on great, organic restaurants) – you can just buy that part. And as you travel, you can collect other chapters and other destinations. Users pay for their chapters and NewCity (well, now Nomad Mobile Guides) gets a cut via a revenue share model. 

The night before the UnConference, I had spoken at a SheSays event in which I was asked to talk about three jobs of the future (they're really present jobs, but not necessarily popular outside of uber-digital shops). I happened to extend my topic into three areas in which I think we'll be working as well. My hypothesis was that hybrids are our future. I'm biased as I consider myself a hybrid. And naturally, hybrid talent does well with hybrid subject matter. Obviously, we're seeing an integration of traditional and interactive. Next, I talked about digital and physical (we can thank R/GA for moving the needle way forward on that one). The last one I talked about was design and business entrepreneurship. Personally, I find my attention seduced these days by briefs that look at how design, and design thinking, affects business change. From product and service design to new revenue streams or cost-savings. So to meet David and learn that he managed his team from a project of the heart to a successful, independent business was pretty amazing to me. I guess for some people, putting together business plans and raising capital comes naturally. For me as a designer, it's completely foreign.

David said to be creative in designing your business model. To think of the cost of time not as an hourly rate, but as a product that multiplies over time. He suggested checking into Angel Investor groups. And I suggested people check out Kickstarter (more on that in another post).

When asked how they made the leap, David answered so beautifully that there came a moment when they had to decide if they'd go for it or not. And he said to himself – I need to know how this will turn out. Even if it doesn't work out, I'll regret it if I don't know.

That's actually the reason I took my job at AKQA. Lars Bastholm offered me a job on a silver platter. To come to NY from my cushy life in Amsterdam and just build something. And I was intrigued. And I had to know what would happen, whether it succeeded or failed. And, it's turned out ok. For NewCity, it proved to be a huge success as well.


Let's Get Lucid

By Catherine Nygaard on July 09, 2010


Finally, slowly getting back into the swing of things. If I wasn't being held hostage by a 2 foot small human right now, I would drop everything and go to this.

Stefan Sagmeister and Amit Pitaru in one place?! The rest of the presenters at this July 14th's Lucid NYC event can only guarantee an eclectic evening well worth the visit and $15 per ticket.

Location: Drom, 85 Ave A, between 5th and 6th St.

Time: Doors open at 7, Presentations begin at 8. 


Meet Maria

By mehera o'brien on July 09, 2010

Categories: Conferences

In every session I attended at the UnConference, I learned something and met someone interesting. But hands down my greatest connection came when I met Maria Scileppi. She was a burned out Art Director with a big job at a big advertising agency in New York when she realized she needed a life re-boot. Quitting her job with cupcakes in tow, she set off to Chicago, where she is the Director of the Chicago Portfolio School. New to Chicago, and an artist at heart, she set out on an amazing social experiment. To meet one person every day for one year. And she did.

Maria had rules. She couldn't go home until she'd made a friend for the day. She had to have an authentic experience. And as such, she didn't ask the person to be her friend (and she didn't tell them about the project) until she felt the moment was right. She didn't want people to say yes just for the sake of the project. It was deeper than that – a richer exploration into human connection. Which, given the digital environment today and the power of social networks, is a pretty interesting topic in my mind. A few people refused her offer, forcing her to find a new friend that same day. One person was even offended. But she succeeded and over the course of a year, she met a woman who has become one of her best friends to date. She met a man recently returned from the war in Afghanistan struggling with dark personal demons. She even met an ex-con who'd just been released from prison on a murder wrap and had missed the whole digital revolution. He didn't even have an email address!

Maria asked everyone one question – why are you here? Some answered literally. Some existentially. And she documented these people, their answers and her experiences with them. After a year she created an exhibition at a local gallery. To attend the show, visitors were asked to write a secret on a card and place it in a jar. Taking someone else's secret, they had to find the owner of it before the night ended. Which gave everyone an excuse to talk to someone they otherwise wouldn't have spoken to. Because that's all many of us need to step outside of our comfort zone and just connect.

Her project's ethos even started to spread. Two of her friends from the project met each other randomly and became friends, realizing they had Maria in common after the fact. One woman was so inspired by the idea of talking to strangers that she slowly befriended a woman on a flight and realized they shared a lot of personal difficulties, namely parents suffering from medical problems. And they struck up a great conversation.

Maria tried to tailor her UnConference talk into a framework of how we as marketers can take lessons of social interaction and apply it to what we do. And she said she was thinking of writing a book about her project. She asked the group for feedback. And I felt the entire tie to marketing, although totally valid, was actually underselling her message. So I blurted out (as I'm prone to do) that I thought it was a book about humanity. About how most people sitting on a bench late at night on a Sunday, when asked to spare change for an ex-con, would shun that person rather than suggesting they sit down. That Maria's openness to the real, physical connections we have to other human beings and the places in which we exist, are powerful lessons we should all stop and appreciate. Maybe it resonated with me as I've just been through a tough personal year myself.

Someone else suggested she try the experiment on Facebook. And write a book about the two projects, showing how they were different, but also how they were similar (as we all suspected there would be some natural parallels). Our session, filled with maybe 15-20 people, became an intimate conversation. The group huddled together and spoke quietly. When time was up, a few of us stayed to talk more. And Maria was encouraged to host her session again the next day.

I told Maria I wanted to be her friend for THAT day. And even though the project is over, I was. We stay in touch. And we ran into each other a month later at the CaT Conference in New York. And she is working on that book! In fact, we started accidentally brainstorming an iPad version, with social networking and physically mapped GPS tie ins, a la Foursquare. An inspiring project, and an inspiring woman.

To learn more about what she did, check out her project's site:

As a designer of user behavior, of interaction with digital (and physical) things, I think we can all serve ourselves by thinking of the humanity of our users and the designs we produce for them.


Digital 'Flexi-Paper'

By mehera o'brien on July 08, 2010

Digital_flexipaperNot a new article, but I've only just now made time to read it I find this sort of technology fascinating. And I also find Nicholas Negroponte fascinating. 

The question I have is – if you want to do this sort of work, how do you find it? 

I met a woman last week that has done a lot of Microsoft Surface application design. And because she lucked into one project, she had relevant experience to get the next project. And so on. 

Yet, ironically, she applied for a job recently to design something tablet-esque. With multi-touch design elements. And the job post called for 'mobile' experience, but not mobile as in a .mobi site. Mobile as in an iPhone app. And because she hadn't done an iPhone app, she was turned down. I wondered what the hiring manager was thinking not even interviewing her. And I wonder if it's the same manner in which procurement departments function during agency selection. 

Do we have to leave agency life to work on innovation technology projects? Do we have to move to San Fran? I hope not (not that I don't love San Fran).  


One Show's UnConference

By mehera o'brien on July 08, 2010

Categories: Conferences

This was about two months ago here in New York and was amazing. The entire purpose of the UnConference is an open format that inspires interesting dialogue about different topics in the industry. For me, it was a nice opportunity to step away from the ins and outs of managing a team and designing niggly things everyday to thinking about the bigger picture of where we're at in time. And how the evolution of digital technology and our interaction and adoption with it in our lives governs how we live as a global society. Ok, some of the seminars were functional and I accidentally ended up in a debate about Agile vs. Waterfall project management methodologies (how did that happen?). But, for the most part, I attended thought-provoking seminars and met really intelligent people. People who wanted to talk, share ideas, garner feedback and be inspired. The general vibe was one of sharing and learning, rather than criticism or preaching from one's soapbox.

For two full days of break out sessions, including an evening of networking, the conference was also a great deal financially – $250 per ticket. For both days. As a New Yorker, it was a no brainer. The conference was well-organized. And creating two days of activity that feels fluid and relaxed, but is actually confined to an agenda, is really hard to pull off well. The only downside – all the break out sessions were in the same room, making it easy to float but hard to hear.

To check out the site (and track this conference for next year), check out the link:



By mehera o'brien on July 07, 2010

I feel awful that I haven't written in ages. Because if Catherine and I don't write, why would anyone else? Cat's had a baby – soooo cute – and will be up and running again shortly. My excuse has been 4 simultaneous accounts without enough staff and a home purchase that didn't close yesterday (as planned). Date still unconfirmed. It's a sore subject. Everyone I speak to that's ever bought a home has said they went through something similar, which is evidence to me that the mortgage application process could use a major re-design.

Anyhow - I have actually been busy attending a lot of great UX-related events in the past 2 months and will compose a bunch of posts for the blog about each of them. I figured it wasn't urgent, as I post from the events on twitter, and wasn't sure if anyone was reading this blog anyway. But so many lovely people have recently reached out to me to ask why there's been so little activity that I just wanted to say: thanks for the encouragement. And we'll do better.


A model for UX Career growth

By Cecilia Brenner on June 22, 2010

Stumbled upon a blog post from Leah Buley (Adaptive Path) sharing a model for UX career growth. In true co-creation spirit, I added a few details as I believe there are more ways to Rome for us UX proffessionals.


The updated model shows two main paths, one being the general management perspective, which is a possible UX career path as a result of growth in general management and organizational skills. For example, people responsible for the management of a multi-disciplinary group of professionals. The other path is the professional specialist perspective which is the result of growth in professional expertise and skills within a specific capability. For example, people responsible for the management of a group of (UX) specialists.


In both career path, you are climbing up the leadership ladder, but with different focus and possible end goal. Of course, the paths are not always straight and jumping from right to left or viceversa happens, but I guess that is all a part of our UX career journey.


Fast Company's '100 Most Creative People' List

By mehera o'brien on May 28, 2010

Picture 1 When Alessandra Lariu moved first moved to New York, she and I established an instant bond as two women in the male-dominated creative director's club. When she told me about SheSays (which is not at all anti-men but rather just a nice networking/mentorship group for women) I was inspired by the fact that she took the time to make something happen.  Because it's harder than it looks to gain traction for new things.

I spoke at the first SheSays in New York, where my friends Catherine and Elyse (among many other supporters) attended. Catherine wrote the next day to say she wanted to do something and over dinner with Ale a week later, we all cooked up the idea for this blog. Sure, it took us way too long to launch it. And with my crazy work schedule and condo shopping, and Cat's recent addition to the family, we've been slow to post. But this blog wouldn't have started if it weren't for the inspiration we got from Ale.

So I was pretty pleased to see her called out in Fast Company's 2010 list of the 100 Most Creative People for her efforts in mentoring women in the industry. Read about it here.

To my surprise, Perry Chen is also on the list. A friend of a friend I run into at parties occasionally, Perry and a few other talented thinkers started Kickstarter, a really awesome site for anyone looking to get a creative project off the ground. I sadly had to pass on an opportunity to be part of the design team for this project years ago, but am really pleased to see it picking up such success. Way to go, Kickstarter team!



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