Data, Creativity, and Fighter Jets: A Tale Of Two Podcasts

I’m a big fan of podcasts—they are the only thing in life that makes sitting in traffic feel like a productive activity.

Neither of the episodes I’m about to discuss are ostensibly about UX—one is about business to business (B2B) marketing and one is about the weird science of averages pioneered by a Belgian astronomer in the 1820s. But they both apply to the practice of UX, albeit in very different ways.

Science and Storytelling

The first thing I did this morning (after coffee, obviously) was listen to a podcast from 8 Point Arc interviewing Bulldog Chief Creative Officer, Brian Maschler. It is about embracing how technology and data are becoming deeply embedded in the creative process. You can’t not embrace technology in creativity at this point—it has become a part of the creative tapestry. Surprise.

The interesting part is thinking about the alchemy of data and sophisticated technology, combined with the nonscientific/qualitative soft science of content and storytelling. People don’t connect with averages—they connect with values-based concepts and empathy for individuals.

Designing for a Smaller Universe

There’s this core concept in UX of taking the “you” out of the “user”—that is, finding who your user is and what their goals actually are, and then designing for that. The key to doing this successfully is 1) asking real people and 2) developing empathy for your user. Asking real people means that you are examining the edge cases and designing for universal usability—not just “sunny day” use cases. Maschler points out that we can’t create in the same way that Madison Avenue advertisers did, “using Nielsen ratings to sell shoes or chips to millions and millions of people.” Yep. So what can we do? How to you gain focus with a million different outliers? Storytelling is a big part of this, he argues—that is, creating a narrative that ignites the emotion of your audience. I agree.

I would also add that this applies to something like helping stakeholders make decisions—and it’s where storytelling deliverables like journey maps, storyboards and personas come in. They are formed by data but they are decidedly not the market-research average.

Backing Up Creativity with Data—To a Point

It’s true that it’s nearly impossible to design for every user in every use case, but designing for the mythical “average person” is the other end of the spectrum, and also not useful. Maschler talks about backing up creativity with data, which is a definitive concept in UX Design—but only, I will argue, to a point. When you design for the average person, you are designing for a set of data, not for actual people.

There’s a great episode of 99% Invisible that came to mind when I was listening to Maschler’s interview this morning. It’s all about the science of averages—and how designing for averages isn’t enough. Maschler said B2B companies are creating for a much more granular audience, a smaller universe. Data is really important, but designers are looking at much more distinctive behavior—the outliers from the average. The concept of the average was created in the 1830s by astronomers who were trying to get information from imprecise measurements.

You should definitely listen to the whole 99% Invisible episode here (it’s short, just do it). One of the most striking things in the episode is their example of fighter jets—and and one particularly badass pilot who is definitely not average sized.

During the Civil War in the 1860s, Abraham Lincoln, who was a big fan of the astronomer Adolphe Quetelet and his concept of averages, ordered a massive study on the averages of the Union Army. This led to measurements for food rations, weapons, and uniforms, as well as the subcategorization of averages (think Small, Medium, and Large). This was a fundamental design philosophy from the civil war forward. Many things you use on a daily basis are still informed by this data set.

Okay, But… Tell Me About the Fighter Jets.

By the 1920s, fighter jet cockpits were being created for the average (male) military member, based on old data—pilots were selected partially by how well they fit into the plane. When WWII happened, suddenly the military needed a lot more pilots, and quickly—except that pilots were dying. A lot. They were losing control of their planes constantly, even in training. In response, by 1950 the military decided to reexamine the cockpit and design for the “new average”—until one of the researchers had a hunch, followed it, and discovered that none of the 4,063 airmen surveyed came close to average in all the measurements. Zero of them.

A cockpit designed for the average pilot, it turns out, is literally designed to fit nobody.

So this is when adjustable seats (and foot pedals and helmet straps and flight suits) were invented. Adjustable everything is so much a part of the fabric of how we live now—cars, airplanes, clothing, digital design.

The podcast talks about this amazing story of a pilot who, in 2003, accomplished an unprecedented, should-have-been-impossible landing of a terribly damaged A10 fighter jet.

The pilot is is one of the best pilots in the world, but would never have flown if it weren’t for flexible design. Her name is Kim Campbell and she’s 5’4” and has to pull the seat all the way up and the pedals all the way forward. And she can land a super damaged war plane with no hydraulics, brakes , stabilization, or steering, thanks in part to flexible design.


Like I said earlier, UX frequently gets to focus on the edge cases—not the averages, but the people who fall outside the average. I’m not saying that being able to log in to your bank’s mobile app is the same as landing a broken airplane, but I am saying that flexibility in design is important, and that looking at individuals and outliers is incredibly valuable. From responsive layouts (for all different kinds of devices) to accessible design (for all kinds of users), the average just isn’t cutting it.

It applies to fighter jets, content strategy, and the design of useful & delightful digital products.

What are your favorite podcasts, UX or otherwise?


(Note: this article is cross-posted on my UX portfolio,


Love Letter to My Bootcamp

(We graduated from bootcamp today and I got to say a few words.)

Good afternoon—welcome friends and family.

Please raise your hand if you can confidently define what your loved one has been doing for the past 18 weeks.

…If you are here on behalf of a graduate and still not quite sure what black hole they have fallen into the past few months— it’s okay.

User Experience is simple and it is not simple.

It is flexibility married to complexity.

It is quantitative and it is qualitative.

It is how someone feels when they are interfacing with a system.

I want to share with you two of the greatest takeaways I have gotten from this program.

The first is simple—don’t procrastinate. Ever. Especially on Mondays.

The second is more complex—it is the difficulty of simplicity.

I have learned, from researching and wireframing and prototyping and user testing and presenting, —never to assume I know how to do anything.

Whatever I’m about to do is bound to take many more hours than I estimate. This humbles me every time—and it gives me a deeper respect for every aspect of other people’s work. It is difficult to make technology feel effortless—to make it feel simple.

Mark Weiser, the chief scientist at Xerox, said this:

“The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.”

Great design is simple, and research and empathy, and really hard work are what make design good for people. And that, after all, is why each of us is here. We want to make technology better for the people that use it.

So here we are.

We have learned to identify problem spaces, prototype solutions, and evaluate concepts. We have learned to ask for help and to give  and crave feedback and constructive criticism. We have learned to design for others, rather than for ourselves. We have learned that user error is usually the product of bad design.

And we have learned that there is always, always more to learn, and that the key to success is curiosity.

To our instructors—thank you for your dedication, feedback, late night help, shared tears, and inspiration. Thank you for being strong, smart women leaders in technology. Learning from you makes me feel like I can succeed in this male-dominated field. Representation matters.

To the support staff—thank you for supporting this group of people—for looking at us and thinking we might not just have what it takes—we might have more. We do not have traditional backgrounds. Thank you for helping us understand that this will make us better practitioners.

Collectively we have:

Raised our families

Raised other people’s families professionally

Studied religion and psychology and graphic design and human factors

Served our country in the Army

Been to prison

Reclaimed our lives

Owned our own small businesses

Healed Olympic athletes

Quit our jobs to travel

And dropped out of art school, twice.

Thank you for looking at us and recognizing that these experiences will inform our practices—that they make us stronger, more creative, more dedicated UX Designers.

Thank you for pushing us harder than we could have ever pushed ourselves.

To my cohort—I’m so grateful to have experienced this with each and every one of you.

Thank you.

Design Strategy: Group Work, Scope Creep, and When to Throw UX Best Practices out the Window

I am a big proponent of being challenged as a catalyst for growth, but it can be, well…challenging.

The way this bootcamp training program is formatted is with a new case study, new skills, and new insane challenges each week. I’ve done four different case studies and I feel like I have come so far from where I started. That feels really, really good.

However, in week three I worked on a design strategy for a real-life UX client, which felt like something that was ludicrous to attempt when I had just learned what design strategy was on Monday–and I was supposed to meet the client on Tuesday.

It was hard both because of the nebulous nature of design strategy—from what I’ve read, it is a challenging effort even for UXers who have years of practice—and from a group-work perspective. I am also starting to feel the cumulative effects of multiple weeks of perpetual brain motion and the creeping realization that I am going to be searching for a job soon. These are all known factors and should not be surprising, but it’s quite different to be in something than to think about it abstractly.

That being said, I still think challenge is a good thing, and trying to think past the scope of the screen, attempting to engineer a life experience (such as relocating for work) in the context of a group has been eye-opening.

Make it. MSP. is a collaborative project of makers groups and community members who love the MSP region, and is an initiative of Greater MSP (an economic development partnership in the region).

Their mission is improve the net migration of professional technology talent in the MSP region; that is, to attract and retain tech talent. Research shows that tech talent moves here, but they don’t stay–this is particularly true for tech professionals of color.

When given the Make it. MSP. project, our group had several fun, viable ideas (perhaps more viable than the one we ended up going with), and it felt really good to be generating them together. Collaboration is so useful when you are coming up with ideas and solutions, and we came up with so many ideas that our midweek critique had a clear message—we were getting into scope-creep territory and needed to rein it in a bit—our strategic design model couldn’t just be “design all the things!”

So, this was where we started to get a bit stuck—we had all put a lot of work into the different elements of the presentation by that point (research, deliverables, and content layout) and it was tough to advocate for deleting someone else’s content. We were also all editing the same presentation file at the same time and operating with different stylistic approaches and different priorities in a way that was not 100% complimentary. A few weeks back at the UXPA MN talk I saw a quote by Dr. Linus Pauling that said “the way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas and throw away the bad ones.” But what if you throw away the good ones and get yourself stuck with the bad ones?

Just Ask the Stakeholders

Robert Hoekman on uxpin talks in his article “The 11 Minute Guide to Bulletproof UX Strategy” about scope and keeping stakeholders in mind: “When they give you answers about the product’s purpose, scope, users, competitors, and so on, these answers are driven by financial concerns. So when you make recommendations later on, be sure to couch them in discussions about what percentages of users do generally or are doing in this case, and with regard to how a decision affects the product’s ability to make money.”

We didn’t do this exactly (at all), but it stands in favor of narrowing scope appropriately. It’s tough when you are working partially within the confines of reality: the concept we came up with was going to be shown to a real client who might really take it and run, but it’s still not the same as being hired to actually solve a problem. I’m not sure if we hit the mark with our project or completely missed (or somewhere in between)—we definitely went a bit into the stratosphere with our idea–a Make it. HOME. housing complex that is similar the to artists’ loft housing in the Twin Cities, but for tech professionals.

Which seems like a great idea, except for the money part.

Getting Out of Your Design Comfort Zone

I read an article on Adaptive Path recently about kind of the opposite idea: discomfort and tackling ideas bigger than you’re used to (widening scope). It’s by Nick Crampton and is titled Designing Out of Your Comfort Zone.

The author is talking about a similarly lofty UX challenge: improving the service model for GLIDE, a San Francisco organization that provides basic needs services. Many of their clients are homeless, drug users, and/or recently getting out of prison. Their most visible service is their meal program, and the project was aiming to increase the visibility of their healthcare, housing, childcare, crisis management, violence intervention and education services. The author was challenged in his process in bigger ways than, for example, a usability test of a website.

So it felt a bit like our project.

He writes about the best practices for UX such as formalities, protocol, length of interview time, and recording of interviews—and how inappropriate that felt when building trust with marginalized clients of GLIDE. “Best practices and protocols are great for approaching problems in a proven and consistent way, but it’s important to acknowledge when something just doesn’t feel right for the context you’re designing within.” This seems to me deeply rooted in empathy—understanding what might be inappropriate or even voyeuristic, opportunistic, or unethical.

In a more clinical setting, with self-selecting participants testing an app, this is may be less of a concern, but with strategic design for experiences, you are in some cases working with real, bigger issues.

Big Real Shit

Part of the hugeness of this week was the specification that Make it. MSP. was aiming to battle Minnesota’s diversity issues—professionals of color come to Minnesota at higher levels than other groups, but they don’t stay; big issues include the lack of cultural awareness and overt as well as subtle discrimination in and out of the workplace. Racism in the United States is an insanely complex, deeply historical issue, and really pertinent right now within the context of US politics. Let me rephrase that: it’s always pertinent, but lots of white people are thinking about systemic racism more than they were a year ago.

I’m interested in the work Make it. MSP. is doing to battle that ocean (it’s really important work, and people’s lives literally depend on it in some cases), and their attempts to increase cultural awareness, and start to change the tide. But in our classroom, and without much time to think about bigger implications, and without a diverse cultural representation in our classroom, most of our solutions felt tone-deaf or insensitive and I think it’s dangerous to get into attempting to try and tackle an issue like racial inequality without the greater framework of social justice.


Back to the Article, Collaboration & Curiosity

Crampton says, “being in unfamiliar territory can feel paralyzing. But one of the first steps is identifying who your guides are and what they can teach you. The beauty of design is that you don’t have to come in with all the answers–nor do you necessarily have to end up with all of them,–you just have to know how to ask the right questions and how to get others to help point your team in the right direction.”

“Aside from our discovery and research phases, and our close working relationship with the staff at GLIDE, which were huge learning opportunities, we knew it would be foolish to try and build out a full-fledged service, launch it cold, and then hope it hits the mark.”

What he is talking about here is service pilots as a part of the process of iterative design—this is huge. Having worked in nonprofits, which are often high-stakes and low-money situations, this is a big deal. He also says “don’t agonize over getting it right the first time.” I have said before that the concept that you literally cannot get design right the first time is freeing, and I think that is particularly true in this context. However, if you get stuck in “this is how we’ve always done it” territory, or if your employees are so burned out and overworked that they can’t think to next week, never mind long-term strategically, it’s important to get kind of close on your first try.

“We took everything we had learned, co-created some service concepts with our core team at GLIDE, refined those into a narrative that felt right and then built a lightweight service to test our hypotheses. We built in ways to gather feedback and capture opportunities to improve the service before it was fully rolled out.”

I think I liked this article because it is 95% about the process, not the product, which is the essential core of UX writing. And I love the closing words of the article: “So yes, trust the process. Until you can’t. Then dig deep into what you believe your values as a designer are and seek to understand who you’re designing for.”

So, who are you designing for?


(Note: I’m posting my full projects on my portfolio at and should have the two platforms integrated soon. For now feel free to check them out!)



My heart swelled inexplicably
when I turned the key

and caught the scent
of something lovely, coming from the kitchen.

I dropped my loaded bag
and clowned a heart-attack

when my son came running from his room
and gripped my thumbs, and balanced on my shoes.

And as I broke into our nightly dance—
his graceless, middle-aged old man,

I knew: that I will be content
if this is all the heaven that we’re granted.

-Patrick Phillips

via One More Salute to Vanity

Field Notes from the Single Lady Pilgrimage Trip: Part 4

I believe in slow-burn love. I believe in listening to that stewing, deep, under-the-surface yearning that you can’t always name. I believe that gravity can pull your ear down low to the ground, force you to listen to her heartbeat, telling secrets, speaking poetry. I believe in magical thinking, in asking for what you want, in looking the direction that you want to go.


Do I have to know what I want in order to get it?

Something I like about traveling alone is that you get very in tune with what you want. The trouble with this is that if you don’t know what you want, things can get a little tricky.

I have recently been believing very deeply in the power of asking for what you want. You won’t always get it, but if you don’t know what you’re asking for, what your heart must be open to, I’m afraid you might miss it.

As I drove the last legs of my Iceland trip, I started to think more concretely about what exactly I needed from this voyage. I was in a mindset that I regretted letting still mark me when I no longer wanted it to. I started to imagine the crusty emotional shell that I had come to let define the edges of myself cracking apart and falling off in bits on the road I left behind me. It was meditative, and I listened to the quiet/loud road noise, driving back towards what I really hoped was my normal, grounded self.


I spent an evening with three men (from France, Italy, and Colorado) who were all diligently writing by hand in their travel journals, which I secretly loved. I wrote in mine, quietly asking questions, wondering, feeling joyful and tired and just a tiny bit ready to think about going home.


Ice Queen.

I came around a bend in the highway one morning to what I thought might have been a wave crashing up against a bridge, and when it didn’t come down, my heart caught in my throat. It was ice. It was breathtaking. Even though I was expecting it, it gave me butterflies. Have you ever fallen in love with part of the earth?


Jökulsárlón is a lagoon at the foot of a glacier, a tidal pool filled with icebergs that break off and crash into the water, that breathe and creak and heave with the ocean rising and falling underneath them, a live animal corralled by a bridge. Seals slipped in and out amongst the bergs. Everything was blue, luminous and glowing and milky despite the haze and the rain. Icebergs were streaked with centuries-old ash from volcanic eruptions, the water’s surface calm in the rain’s pause. I watched other tourists taking photos, popping bright umbrellas, putting their fingers in the clear glacial water.





I bought a spot on a zodiac boat and motored out to the edge of the glacier, the air growing sharply cooler the closer we got. We were zipped up in waterproof coveralls, kneeling on the floor of the boat which was rubber like the sole of a shoe. Every now and then there was a sudden underboat jerk and a drag of ice along our kneecaps. The sun had come out and water was dripping off the ledges of vaulted ice, the spray salty, everything glittering and moving imperceptibly.

Jökulsárlón coveralls













Frozen Landscapes

Apostle Islands Ice Caves

Ice sure does draw me in.

I’m having trouble with the last installment(s) of the Field Notes posts; I’m stuck on the questions, yet again, of how much I want to share, how much I should share, who I’m writing for, and what people want to read. I normally prefer to write things consecutively but that tends to make writer’s block exponentially more insurmountable. I’d like to get better at posting things when the bloggy spirit moves me, so for now, I’m just going to set Iceland aside until the Single Lady Pilgrimage Trip is ready to come out and play again.


The last few months in the Midwest have gifted us with one of the longest, most disgustingly cold winters I can remember. And with that long-lasting, seemingly never ending, brutal-stupid-cold came a lot of grey days and lonely nights and soul searching and journaling and trying to figure out the question that we can never answer fully: What Comes Next? (More on that later.) But there were some pretty great parts, too.

With that terrible cold came some terribly beautiful ice. Because of the weather, Lake Superior froze solid enough to allow visitors to walk to the Apostle Islands Ice Caves for the first time in a few years, and they were stunning. Red sandstone caves, striated arches, dangling exposed tree roots; they were all covered in ice whipped up by the bitter lake wind.


Apostle Islands Ice Caves

Apostle Islands Ice Caves Adventure Buddy

Apostle Islands Ice Caves

Apostle Islands Ice Caves

Apostle Islands Ice Caves

Apostle Islands Ice Caves

Dear Sugar, How do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways.

They say we should never meet our heroes.

When we see our heroes for who they are, they mostly fail to live up to our expectations. They are, like us, flawed humans who make mistakes and fuck things up and hurt the people they love on accident or sometimes on purpose. They are, like us, people who say things they sometimes don’t mean and sometimes things they do mean, things they mean so much that it exposes a bone of truth so raw and ugly and scary that we wish we’d never said them in the first place. This beastly truth should make them less eternal, less ideal, less honorable, less heroic.

But what if it doesn’t? And what if our heroes present themselves from the beginning as so human that we can’t even construct that illusion around them? What if they’re so painfully honest that we can’t pretend?

About a year and a half ago, I happened across an article posted online by an acquaintance called “DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #64: Tiny Beautiful Things.” It is a letter to the author’s self in her early twenties, prompted by a reader, and it is powerfully written, specific and moving. Please don’t trust me on this, go read it yourself. You won’t regret it.

“#64: Tiny Beautiful Things” has been a defining article, a crucial set of rules, an unofficial manifesto in which all the details don’t apply to me but the core values do. Sugar wrote anonymous, beautiful and wretchedly truthful articles. She wrote about death and love and fear and sex, about writing and courage and and the people who we become when we think no one else is paying attention. She wrote about trusting yourself. About living out what you already know to be true, that “you must trust your truest truth, even though there are other truths running alongside it.”*

Dear Sugar provided me with answers for questions that hadn’t even formed yet; questions I still haven’t parsed. Something about that article in particular pulled a thread out from inside me, started an unraveling, an emotional and lovely and terrifying thing.

To herself and to her readers, Sugar said, “You are not a terrible person for wanting to break up with someone you love. You don’t need a reason to leave. Wanting to leave is enough. Leaving doesn’t mean you’re incapable of real love or that you’ll never love anyone else again. It doesn’t mean you’re morally bankrupt or psychologically demented or a nymphomaniac. It means you wish to change the terms of one particular relationship. That’s all. Be brave enough to break your own heart.”

I read this before I knew my partner would break up with me. I was someone he loved; he was, in this moment, simply someone who wanted to change the terms of this one particular relationship. I thought about this as I processed it; as I processed my own advice to friends who were also considering leaving their partners and I told them, “be brave enough to break your own heart,” and I meant it. And then all of a sudden I was on the other end of it. With the clarity of eight months’ time now since the breakup, I can tell you that this paragraph gave me something. It didn’t make me understand my own situation more than I already did, but it gave me something to hold on to, another truth to face, another thread to pull. That perspective made things more bearable. “You are not a terrible person.” Like I was saying it directly to him.

In February this year, Dear Sugar came out as Cheryl Strayed, an author I’d never heard of. Part of me was terrified to find out who she was, because being a real person with a real name and a real face would ruin the Sugar mystique. Part of me really wanted to know, because I wanted to gorge myself on her work, to devour every word she had written. In April I read her novel, Torch, a piece of autobiographical fiction about cancer, about her mother’s death. In May I read Wild, her memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail a few years after her mother had died and her marriage had fallen apart at her own hands. I looked up every essay I could find online, and I read them all. In July, Tiny Beautiful Things came out as a collection, a physical book I could hold in my hands, a bound volume of Sugar.

And last night, she came to speak at Amsterdam Bar in St. Paul. I requested the night off from work months ago, because I needed to be there, to see her, to hear what her real voice sounded like and the cadence with which she read her own words. It was so odd, in the beginning, the mix of feeling this real devotion to a stranger who wasn’t a stranger, the din of bar patrons chatting, the weird desperation we feel when we want a drink from the waitress and can’t get her attention. The dizziness, the red wine warmth and fuzziness of the whole situation, the odd lighting and bad sound. It felt like swimming, or like it wasn’t real. They say we should never meet our heroes.

The discussion moderator said something important. He said to her, “You make me want to be a better person. You make me feel like it’s okay that I’m not.” I agree with him.

It was intense, sharing the experience with all these other people, people who said “awww” in all the right places, as a chorus of emotional voyeurs. It was a stark difference between that and when Sugar was anonymous and I had this private relationship with her, reading at my laptop, connecting with her veiled but very naked and vulnerable self. And I felt like no one was looking. Like I shared something with her that no one else knew about.

Part of me wonders if Sugar can ever come back, now that she’s been unveiled, identified. Someone at the reading last night asked this, and Strayed said yes, she can and she will. She told us that she always wrote with the knowledge that she would one day put her name on Sugar’s words, that being Cheryl was not any different from being Sugar. “I was never anonymous to myself,” she said.

The last thing she said while onstage was about the importance of finding solace in the wilderness—whether that wilderness is the PCT or the banks of the Mississippi River. She is right.

And for me, that also extends to the wilderness of the unknown territory of yourself. It felt like she was saying to me, you must find solace in the trees and roots and shadows and animal noises and the sweet and rotting and bodyish smells of your own unknown forest. She once wrote, “walk without a stick into the darkest woods.”**

And here I am. I’m standing at the edge of the forest. I’m leaving my stick behind, but I am bringing a book.
Walk with me?

Andrea, me, and Cheryl Strayed with Tiny Beautiful Things at the Amsterdam Bar, 10-16-12


** source