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UX Interview with Dan Brown: Working in DC, Conflict, and Collaboration

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Author’s note: Welcome to the inaugural UXPA DC Interview series! Today we have Dan Brown, a founder of EightShapes, a prolific UX consulting firm in DC. He’ll also be presenting at the UXPA Conference Redux on October 25.

Norm: Why did you think DC was ripe for a user experience design studio?

Dan: Nathan Curtis approached me in 2006 to go out and start a company… We ended up getting engaged with companies who were looking to create more structure in their design process, specifically their design outputs. Nathan took the lion share of the work in developing a product we call EightShapes Unify, which is a set of templates and assets for for creating user experience documentation. We feel like being based here in DC is good for us because there’s a great pool of talent here.

What was the tipping point for user experience really taking off as the hot profession to be working in?

…Maybe a series of tipping points, it’s like watching your children grow up. We were talking to my son this evening and one of his teachers is celebrating a big milestone birthday. He’s seven and he asked, “When was my last milestone birthday?” I said to him, “You know, when you’re little, every birthday is a milestone because you’ve had so few of them, they each represent these new big stages in your life, but if you ask me and your Mom, everyday is a milestone.” …And that’s almost how I feel about user experience. Right before the bubble burst, even if it wasn’t new, it was clear this was the future. Everything was going to be online. Nowadays, for me, one of the most interesting design problems is people genuinely using the Internet and the web to solve real business problems… There’s sort of this trifecta of really difficult problems to solve: complex user experience design, real business strategy, and difficult IT architectures.

Awesome. And Dan, you participated in both the 2012 User Focus and the 2013 UXPA International events. What were your presentations about?

My most recent work and thinking has moved on from artifact and document creation, which was really important for user experience when it was in its infancy, to team dynamics which has largely grown out of my interest in documentation. My thinking really revolved around the idea that conflict is essential to design.

Poodle growling at a second dog that is trying to avoid conflict

Conflict in the sense that people need to disagree in order to come to a shared understanding. It’s that process of building a shared understanding that is nutritious for the design process…it sort of energizes it.

The other side of that coin is straight up collaboration techniques. How do we make use of collaboration tools? How do we build collaboration virtues into our culture to reward people for engaging with each other? My talks are really focusing about how do we deal with conflict and how do we make our collaboration more effective.

You’ve got a new book out on conflict and collaboration, right?

Yeah that’s right, it just came out in June and it’s called “Designing Together.” It gave me the opportunity to do two things. On the one hand, to try and articulate some of the underlying theory [of conflict and collaboration], and the second half of the book is almost like an encyclopedia of different situations, techniques, and behaviors you should be cultivating in yourself and your design teams in order to collaborate more effectively… What I keep coming back to is, if you look all of these online journals dedicated to our craft, you’re starting to see a lot more attention being paid to people skills, management skills, business skills, things that people need in order to thrive in an environment where we are constantly working with other people. I’m totally biased here, but if user experience isn’t at the center of that process, then I don’t know what is.

Are you going to be at any other local events soon?

One is called the Digital PM Summit, this is the first year it’s happening. It’s really around project management. That’s happening in Philadelphia. And then later on that week I’m actually going to Richmond to talk collaboration as well. I’ll be speaking at the UXPA DC Conference Redux event in late October. The UX Book Club in DC is doing my book in early November so I’ll be attending that, talking about “Designing Together.”

Dan, thanks again for being our gracious guest. And to our readers, thank you for joining us for this interview. Check back on the UXPA DC blog for more interviews coming soon!