Midwest UX in Grand Rapids

Wow. So many positive things to say about Midwest UX.

I’ll start with the city of Grand Rapids. As a Northern Michigan native, I’m ashamed to say that its been a long time since I’ve stepped foot in Grand Rapids and longer since I spent any real time there. Holy s$*% has it changed (at least my perception of it has changed). Its such a fun, bustling, artsy, amazing little city. From the museums, to the restaurants, to the local boutiques and shops, I absolutely fell in love. Ann Arbor is my soul mate, but I’m definitely flirting with the idea of Grand Rapids. Hmmmm…

Now to the talks. The first one I attended was Charlie Erdman’s. I was really disappointed to have missed Abby Covert’s talk because I was doing a sound and tech check for my own talk. But I heard it was awesome! Charlie spoke about the shift from online communities as a separate space to being more integrated with physical communities. It was an excellent talk and made me rethink the value I see in online communities – as a way to bring people together in more meaningful ways (not in less meaningful ways, as we have come to expect from them).

The next talk I went to was mine. But I’ll talk about that another time. After the morning talks, I was lucky enough to get to go on the brewery tour. We started at Grand Rapids Brewing Company, which was absolutely fantastic. We had an amazing lunch paired with equally tasty beer. After lunch, the brewmaster took us for a quick tour of the brewery and we got to see what makes Grand Rapids Brewing Co. special. After that, we walked over to HopCat and then to Founders. Both were excellent stops, but I was surprised by how huge Founders is! We had more excellent beer and got to go for a behind the scenes tour. Had I drunk all of the beer they gave us I would have been quite tipsy for our 5:00pm keynote. All and all a very good time.

The evening keynote was Christina Wodtke. Her talk was a great way to end the day, focusing on how the places we go define our perception of ourselves and our capabilities. She started by asking us to close our eyes and think about the first house we can remember. The halls, the doors, the rooms. Thinking about this not only gave me nostalgia, but it also made me think about how that house played such an active role in defining my childhood – and therefore in defining me. She made easy parallels between the physical and digital world, and emphasized that we need to keep this idea in mind when designing spaces for people. It may become a part of our users’ lives in ways we never knew or intended.

That night there was a party. It was an incredibly fun and random night. It was at a Site:Lab, an art project that sets up temporary exhibits. It was such a cool and fun space to explore and I had an absolute ball. We spent the rest of the night at Stella’s Lounge where we drank good beer, ate fries and danced to 80′s music. Good times were had by all.

The next day started with a panel of chair designers. They talked about the various things they need to keep in mind when designing chairs, and it was not only interesting and informative, but surprisingly hilarious too. The next talk I went to was Narrative Spaces by Christian Eckels. He made some excellent parallels between the opera world and digital world, but I honestly couldn’t get past this amazing photo of an opera stage. Incredible.

Next up for me was Donna Lichaw. She talked about the future of technology being closely tied to the contexts they might be used in – for example, maybe Google glass won’t take off as an everyday tool, but perhaps as a navigation tool or as a way to get information when you need your hands free. Donna was an excellent speaker, and I really enjoyed her as a storyteller. Next up was lunch. During lunch we listened to five Pecha Kucha talks – lightning style presentations, 20 slides for 20 seconds each. They were all excellent talks and I was impressed with how the speakers were able to get their points through in such a limited amount of time.

The last two session talks of the conference that I attended were Phillip Hunter and Kerry-Anne Gilowey. Phillip argued that the context that users bring with them into a space – the thoughts, feelings and intentions – is more important than the context of the space itself. It definitely resonated. Kerry-Anne’s talk was about life in South Africa, and how it differs so much from our life here in the States. She was an excellent story teller and made her point clearly – don’t assume you know who your users are or where they are coming from.

The last talk of the day was Karl Fast. He is my speaker role-model. He has such a presence on stage and has a really amazing way of slowing down and using pauses to help make his point clear. His speaker style in and of itself could be a lesson in usability – how carefully choosing your content, presenting it in small chunks and using white space appropriately can help bring clarity to your site. Anyways, he talked about datification and how as user experience designers, we need to care about the small data that is important to our users over large data that corporations are tracking. I really liked how at the end of the talk he didn’t take questions because, as he put it, “I don’t have the answers.” That really resonated with me since my topic was all about how to support learning and thinking in a way that gets people to their own understandings – not dictating how something should be thought about from your point of view.

Overall the conference was a huge success. I’m so happy and proud to have been a part of it. Another post about my first time speaking to come later.