The UX of Innovation


I attended the Intersect Symposium on Innovation last week in MKE. It was a great event, with some impressive speakers from Kraft, GE, Johnson Controls, Harvard Business School, Frog, etc. Not to mention the great group of attendees that were made up of all types and sizes of companies, businesses and organizations. We were all focused on one thing; we know we have to, but how do we be more innovative.

Many of the talks focused on how their companies have taken innovation head on; what learnings they had and some general guidelines for things to think about as an organization. How do we  approach this new frontier of optimizing an established business model and supporting unchartered exploration, all under the same roof.

As I listened, absorbed and eavesdropped on all the conversations, one idea started to crystalize. One of the key lessons across all the speakers was that innovation in any company required shifts in multiple areas, processes and people, and had to be tailored for that company. It is this intersection of people, what they are doing and why they are doing it that has proven a followable path. Sounded familiar to me. What became clear is that not just the activities of participating in innovation were important but designing the experience of participating was critical to success.

The term User Experience (UX) has meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Called by many terms and truly understood by few, the art of UX, at its core is the ability to see all the influences and how they intertwine to deliver an outcome. As a long time student of UX, I have learned over time that the core elements of the discipline are not only found in interface design or usability. It truly is the design of emotion, perception and interaction of people, as they engage with other people, places and things and the environment in which it occurs. And with that definition, the UX discipline can be a valuable tool in a plethora of problem/solution  situations… such as cultivating innovation in an organization.

It’s not just the steps, the activities or the new org structures that can be leaned on to carry this new initiative. We have to look at the emotions in play and how they can be helpful—or harmful—to innovation. We have to have eyes wide open to the perception of such changes. It’s impossible to help people adopt new ways of thinking when we don’t understand how they currently think. And we have to actively design interactions and guidance. Throwing people in a room with post its, whiteboards and markers and saying “go” has not worked well for many organizations. You have to know your people, how they operate in your environment and how to frame newness on their terms to free your talent to innovate.

It starts with a story. Write out what you want the experience of innovation to be within your organization. What does it feel like, look like, sound like? Start there, and you will have a solid foundation on which to formalize the tactics and processes that will serve your business.


Innovation has become both the holy grail and an overused buzz word in today’s society. Turn any direction and you hear and see businesses, leaders, and people touting their dedication to innovative products, processes and general ways. It is a noble focus. The world is better with energy being funneled to something like innovation rather than a slew of other goals.

But I wonder if we don’t fall victim to defining innovation in the wrong way. Often innovation is attached to a thing. It is that thing that represents innovation. And often it is accompanied by the attribute of new. We see new products, new models, new ways of working as the external signal of innovation. While the outcome is critical, perhaps that definition is too narrow and doesn’t take into account the core ingredient of the lofty word.

Perhaps innovation is a direction, not a destination.

Anything that demonstrates movement forward is innovation. In a world that suffers from deriving comfort in sameness and celebration in predictability, growth is hard to come by. Yet we fail to recognize and honor the act of moving forward, and reserve the designation of a respected title such as “innovation” to such a narrow set of criteria. What would happen if we took the blinders off and began to see and label innovation in these terms? Would we be more inspired and less afraid to try for fear of not producing? Would we begin to appreciate more accomplishments and recognize the contributions from areas we never thought to look? I wonder what type of communities and cultures would spring up if we bestowed the admiration of “innovation” on the passion and care to make any type of change, to move anything forward, rather than on the next new thing we can hold in our hands, or point to on a screen.

This is how I choose to see innovation, and where I will look for it. How about you?


Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable

To take one step is courageous;
to stay on the path day after day,
choosing the unknown, and facing
yet another fear, that is nothing
short of grace. 

—Excerpt from Sangha, by Danna Faulds¹


Believe it or not, about 15 years and 30 pounds ago, I used to run marathons. Yes, the 26.2 mile kind of marathons. The crucial part of training for marathons is the weekly long run. Each week over the course of a 4 month training period, you add one more mile to your long run than you ran the previous week. Near the end of your preparation for the race, you’ll probably have logged three runs of 20 miles or more. The rationale of this type of training—or madness, depending on your point of view—is getting your body used to being comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. After all, there’s really no way to avoid being uncomfortable at some point during an endurance race that covers 26 miles.

Two cases in point. During my first marathon in the Fox Valley, we were treated to 40 degree temperatures and a 20 mph tailwind for the first 18 miles of the course. At mile 18 we turned back into that cold wind, at which point my entire body immediately cramped up—with eight miles to go. Uncomfortable is not the word. Excruciating and soul-destroying come to mind. But I eventually finished the race and was given the customary finisher’s thermal foil sheet, medal, and long-sleeve t-shirt. Two years later at the 1996 Grandma’s marathon, I absolutely cruised for 25 miles, until I hit a complete power outage. But with only 8 minutes of exertion left, I knew I could easily gut out those last moments of discomfort to get my finisher’s medal.

Uncomfortable circa 1996

Now that I’m older, I run much shorter distances, but I’m still faced with many days when it just feels flat out uncomfortable. I have to actively remind myself in those instances that eventually this feeling will pass, and I’ll be better conditioned because of it.

So what does this have to do with what we usually write about on this blog? Okay, confession time. The last three years have been the most uncomfortable period of my professional career. Allow me explain.

In late 2008, I decided I had enough with advertising. I had done everything I wanted to do. Got in all the important award annuals, won multiple best of shows, and worked in Minneapolis for an agency I had always admired. But I didn’t love what I did anymore. In fact, it had become boring and tedious. Campaign after campaign after campaign. Telling clients we actually affected their business, but what we really did was just delivered was marketing materials. Great ads with great thinking, but in the end they were ads.

There were still things I liked about my profession. I loved design, more so than ever. I had discovered a design blog called Grain Edit, and I started tinkering with the simple “mod-style” of illustration that Charley Harper and Saul Bass pioneered, and that shops like Invisible Creature carry on today. I loved thinking and strategy—I just didn’t want that freedom of thought to be limited to ads. I had gotten my first taste of digital, and loved all the moving parts, and the need for collaboration that was talked about often but rarely put in practice at traditional shops. I had an idea for a creative school for special needs kids. I had ideas for businesses. And I really liked this thing called social media. But what was I going to do with all that?

With no finish line in sight, I pushed myself to be uncomfortable. I admitted what I didn’t know. I was willing to learn, in exchange for sharing the valuable things I did know. And I was willing to give up a position of respect in an industry that I had worked in for over twenty years, in exchange for something unknown, for psychologically starting over. There are lyrics from an old Yes song that say “don’t surround yourself with yourself,” and that’s basically what I did. All I had was experience, guile and my work ethic.

I was really good at making stuff like this. And then I walked away. (sorta)

Nothing would come easy. I moved back to Milwaukee from the Twin Cities (something I swore I would never do—heh) to work for Fullhouse, which at the time was a fast growing digital shop. It appeared to be a good match. They were interested in my experience developing creative and working on brand strategy. I was interested in taking that and applying it to digital, and learning as much as I could about digital, social, and technology.

I tell this story often. Having been spoiled by some of the strategic and creative minds I had worked with while in Minneapolis, I doubted I would find that back in Milwaukee. Call it snobbery, but when you work with some of the best, your expectations are forever changed. On my first day at Fullhouse, I was put in the third floor conference room with @deziner. I remember 15 minutes into that meeting I caught myself wondering about her: “What on earth are you doing here?” She belonged in New York or Minneapolis or London. I knew in a 30 minute meeting that Cindi Thomas was someone I wanted to work with and learn from for a very long time. I got the chance to work with a lot of other really smart people there as well. Perhaps some of you have heard of guy named @augieray who went onto Forrestor, and is now VP of Social Media at USAA. There was also @cullenob, still one of the most driven professionals I have ever met, and the wicked smart digital strategist @gkalantzis. I’m not sure what was more amazing about James Newell—his front-end development skills, or his ability to remain so centered with all the talent and intellect he possessed. I often commented it was a little bit like working at NASA in the late 60s. There was a similar attitude of just figuring out how to do things.

If you haven’t heard, things did not work out at Fullhouse. Ironically, ownership could not get comfortable with being uncomfortable at a time when the industry landscape was changing for everyone. Twelve months after I started, Cindi and I along with Andy Wright, left to start Translator. Within the span of just over a year, I was not only back in Milwaukee, but I was back to being involved in a startup agency. Add to that I felt a bit like an insect in mid-metamorphosis. I was completely out of traditional, but still not embraced by digital.

Translator got off to an unexpected slow start—a large local client that promised to bankroll our first year if we left Fullhouse, backed out after we quit. This was financially devastating to the three of us, to say the least. (See mile 18 of Fox Valley marathon above). The immediate setback challenged why we had started the agency in the first place. Was it the promise of money, or our belief system?  In a variety of rather surprising situations, my abilities were second guessed. This led to a stunning loss of self-confidence, something I hadn’t experienced in over 15 years. After only five months, we went through a partnership change at the agency. This contributed to us losing control over the product idea Translator had created—Meet-Meme.

When work finally did start to come in, it wasn’t a trickle, it was a flood. The zero to 120 mph pace led to more issues. I was left thinking, maybe I made a mistake. Maybe I’m too old for all of this. Maybe I can’t change.

It was all extremely uncomfortable.

But at the same time, progress was also being made. Through our former Fullhouse colleague (and all-around good guy) Micah Eberman, Cindi and I got a chance to work on a huge project for R/GA, an agency we both greatly admire. The work we did was extremely well-received, and it provided validation for the type of thinking the two of us had been collaborating on since we first met at Fullhouse. That style of thinking—what I would describe as a mash-up of the Diageo brand essence wheel, user-based behavioral research, and creative storytelling—is really the key to our current success. It results in complete stakeholder buy-in at the highest levels, and is what continues to attract new clients to Translator.

polish moon

Mod-style illustration and packaging hits the shelves soon.

We started to have success. My confidence came back. Not only in myself, but in delivering on the vision that Cindi and I had for what it meant to be a modern “agency.” We executed in what we believed in, even if that was outside the defined norms of what it is to be an agency. The compliments we receive from our clients are not ordinary. “You took what was in our heads and finally made it clear and actionable.”

Earlier this year, we were fortunate to be recommended to Brendon Thomas, who had an idea for a crowd-powered music booking platform. Shindig is about to launch in beta, and today we are closing on first round funding (w00t!). The hard lessons we learned on the first product partnership didn’t stop us from trying again. This time around the partnership was built upon mutual respect, and the experience has been vastly—and pleasantly—different.

We’re funded. Dig it.

My old ad colleagues ask me what Translator does, and when I explain it to them (without getting into deliverables), they say “I still don’t get what you do.” And that’s okay. We’re not defined by our work. We’re defined by how we think. Our clients—who are often C-level or company founders, are drawn to that and like it that way. Our approach to idea architecture and experience design is focused on transforming their entire business—not just their marketing.

In addition to morning lab sessions, we started the Translator XSMKE series. Rather than start or join yet another local committee to try promote creativity, we just decided to do our own thing. So far we’ve put on 5 events this year, including a live performance for the launch of Nineteen Thirteen’s first EP, a screening of the documentary Miss Representation, and a live staging of The 3six5 with @LenKendall. We’re interested in promoting and cross-pollinating all forms of creativity, in art, music and technology. It has nothing to do with being a typical agency—and everything to do with being us.

It’s often said about marathoners and professional endurance athletes that there’s no talent gap between winners and losers; rather, it’s the mental trait of not accepting your limits that decides who wins. Whether it’s growth, progress, innovation, change, none of it comes without a price. It’s human nature to stay away from things we don’t think we can pull off. Failure is embarrassing. And so we stick to doing what we know how to do. It’s safer that way.

Not that long ago, I seriously thought my best days were behind me. This weekend, I will turn 50 years old and I am here to say I survived being uncomfortable. I got through it, and I love what I do again. I’m better now than I was at 40, plus I can do a lot more things I never thought I could do. And what’s best, is that I especially love the people I work with everyday at a single long table we all gather around at Translator—Cindi Thomas, Kirsten Corbell, and Ben Leisch.

Yes, some days are still uncomfortable. That’s part of growth. As with running, I try to remind myself to breathe, ask myself why it’s uncomfortable, and remember that I am on the path day after day for a reason. When I stick to this the sky is the limit, and there’s never any finish line.

I’d love to hear if you have a similar story, or maybe if you’re going through the trials that come with being uncomfortable.


¹Special thanks to my Kripalu Yoga instructor Heather Burkart for reading this during class on the night of November 2, 2011. Roughly translated, Sangha means a community with common goal, vision or purpose.

As @deziner has taught me, there are no coincidences. None.

Growing up with hope, growing up with digital Pt. 2

I originally wrote and published this post way back in March, before the Translator site had even launched. Subsequently, it never got tweeted or spread, because we were busy writing new stuff that got sent out into the digital ether. But this being the first day of school, I thought it would be a good time to give this story its due. The post is about my memorable experience at Milwaukee College Preparatory School as a guest speaker during career day.

It’s interesting to see what has changed in the five months since I first wrote it. The iPad isn’t new anymore, and it’s beginning to show up in schools. In fact, my alma mater Racine St. Catherine’s (yeah, St. Kate’s) is using them this fall. I’ve also seen some of the wonderful things Spreenkler and Romke de haan have done to foster community development, getting kids involved in digital projects.

Of course, the one thing that hasn’t changed is change: the constant, daily evolution and increasing pervasiveness of digital. It’s an ever-expanding, never-ending story. For all of us working in the business, that makes every day the first day of school.

Here’s a link to the original story: Growing up with hope, growing up with digital

Tiger, a question over here from @ronbot37

I was listening to ESPN Radio’s Mike and Mike in the Morning program on my drive in this morning, and inevitably the conversation landed on Tiger Woods. Using their Twitter stream, they had asked listeners what question they would want asked of Tiger at his press conference today at The Masters. The three they read were:

“Will Thursday morning at The Masters be the most nervous you’ve ever been standing over your first tee shot?”


“Would you give up golf forever if it meant saving your marriage?”


“Since you cheated on your wife, how are we supposed to believe your claims that you haven’t used performance-enhancing drugs?”

Mike Golic commented on what great questions those would be. While it’s subjective whether they are or aren’t, it begs the question could there be what is essentially a crowdsourced reporting pool that covers sports and news? Think of it as a UPI that covers press conferences and asks questions that have been provided through the Twitter API.

Yes, CNNireport uses crowdsourced reports. But that’s more of “a train just hit a bus near my house, here’s some footage I shot on my phone” kinda news. And yes, Larry King and others field softball questions from viewers for their celebrity guests.

What I’m talking about is a news organization that utilizes a reporter as a curator/editor at a live press conference to ask questions submitted via Twitter. This would bring another level of inclusion (thanks again to digital) to journalism.

Are you aware of anyone doing this? Is it a good idea, or a crazy idea? What are the flaws? Talk to me.

Growing up with hope, growing up with digital

Recently I had the privilege (I do not use that term lightly) to speak to three different groups of students at Milwaukee College Preparatory school. The students ranged from third graders to eighth graders, and my talk was part of  the “Career Day” the school puts on each year. The topic of my presentation was—surprise—careers in digital. As part of it, I covered the incredible innovation we have witnessed in the last ten years. What took me a bit off guard was how pervasive digital has actually become—the sheer reality is staggering. Sure, we talk about it, tweet about it, and blog about it. But until I actually went and gave a presentation to kids who have never lived with anything else, I really didn’t understand the magnitude the things we do have on our culture.

Unbridled enthusiasm for all things digital.

The interaction with the kids was fantastic—it was unbridled, spontaneous, ebullient. But let’s be honest. It’s not like I’m Marty the insurance salesman or Frank the plumber. We were talking about cool things like Facebook, iPhone apps and Nintendo Wii. Of course they’d be into it. What I wasn’t prepared for was how many of them (virtually all) had Facebook profiles. Every single one of them had sent a text message (even third graders). And when I talked about the iPad and how it might soon replace the 30 lb. backpack they carry to school each day, they wanted one tomorrow.

But here’s the kicker. As much as every one of these kids loved digital, and used it in their daily lives, not one had ever considered it as a career. After each class, I had a couple of students, usually eighth graders, ask me “Where do I go to school for this?” “How do I make a website?” “I’ve got ideas for games, how do I build them?” Think of that. I told them about USC’s Game-Pipe Lab, and what’s going on at Boulder Digital Works. While I’m sure they thought the surgeon who attended Career Day was interesting, how far removed are they from actually performing a surgery? We could teach them enough about Flash in just a few hours to get them going on their own. Who knows if even a small push like that might lead to one of the premiere digital academies one day.

Which is more formidable? The Trojan football team, or USC’s game-pipe lab?

One of my slides read “You are living at a time of the greatest opportunity since the industrial revolution.” I didn’t feel I needed a source for that, because I believe it. Anyone in digital believes it. Read just about any Tom Friedman column and he’ll inevitably talk about how innovation is the way to job growth and the way out of our financial mess. I’d add that starting to teach digital skills to inner city kids is the way to stimulate growth, harness enthusiasm, and tap into new ideas from kids whose life experience is far different than ours. The bright young faces I saw and connected with deserve every chance to participate in this opportunity.

Near the end of my conversation, I told them while researching my presentation I had come across one of the best definitions of innovation I had ever seen. I opened my sketchpad and read this to them:

I am not awed by the challenges of reality, but believe that I can change the world and establish my legacy in it. I am self-determined, self-generated, self propelled, and self-reliant. I believe that this is my time and my place. I will find a way to achieve excellence, or I will make one.”

That is the final paragraph of Milwaukee College Prep’s “Declaration of Excellence.” Students recite this at the beginning of every single day. I only had to read the first 9 words—the students earnestly finished it for me. I concluded by talking about the Obama campaign, how it had proved that a web-enabled grass roots movement could do the unthinkable. I told them it no longer mattered where you live, whether you were a boy or a girl, black or white, what mattered most was what you had learned, how you think and how you could articulate it. It was clear what they were learning in this school each and every day would stay with them for the rest of their lives.

The best experiences are those when you are brought in to inspire, and instead, walk away being inspired. I walked on air for the following two days. Tom Webster eloquently riffed on Chris Brogan’s post We Could Do So Much More—which is exactly what I left thinking. Could we do more than a career day for inner city kids? Could we guide them through building a website, concepting and designing a game, or writing their own blog? What ideas, experiences and talent would we uncover? How would that change the world? If we believe the true power of digital is inclusion for all, then imagine what it could mean for these kids. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject.

Milwaukee College Prep is an inner city charter school in its 13th year. From the first day children arrive, they are continually reminded the goal of their efforts at the school is to prepare them for college graduation. Banners line the hallways showing the future dates of their college graduating class.