The sad state of news media, the hunt for good content & more on UX Discovery Sessions

In this episode of UX Discovery Sessions, Gerard Dolan and I talk about some of the workshops I teach at Cooper (Design Leadership, Designing Culture, UX Boot Camp), what’s been happening with news content (the sad degradation of it), some sources I like for better content/stories, and my fantasy of creating a designing culture conference for startups. Thanks, Gerard, for a lovely conversation!

From Superman to the Avengers: Rethinking Bruce Mau Design

[Excerpt from an article I wrote for UX Magazine. Full article here.]

Everyone loves a hero. But what happens to

organizations when their heroic leaders retire?

Four years ago, Bruce Mau Design (BMD) faced this dilemma. The company’s infamous founder, Bruce Mau, left so that he could create a platform to address bigger global issues that were meaningful to him called the Massive Change Network. Those who remained at BMD and its new President and CEO, Hunter Tura, were presented with an interesting opportunity: reinvention.

Curious about the culture of BMD today, I interviewed Tura in his Toronto office. Here are some takeaways for teams and organizations from their evolution.

Rethink Your Mental Model

Bruce Mau Design was founded upon what Tura describes as the “Superman model,” which meant the founder was seen as the “creative auteur” of the company. Mau’s exit gave the BMD team an opportunity to rethink how they positioned themselves, what services they wanted to offer, and how they wanted to work together. Read the rest of the article here.

What’s Culture Got to Do With It?

In short, everything.

Does your work culture make it challenging for your team or organization to do great work? Well this could be the year you make it better. Have a look at this talk I gave at Fluxible 2013 about the role and impact of culture on organizations…and tips for improving yours.

Make Culture, Not War: The Secret to Great Teams & Organizations

If this talk inspires you, perhaps you and a few folks from your team/organization might want to check out our newly launched 1-day Designing Culture Master Class at Cooper. This training aims to help people intentionally approach their team or organizational culture – through a cultural assessment, visioning and goal-setting exercises, and development of a tactical plan to improve their culture (some of the topics I hits on in my talk below). I’ll be facilitating this workshop along with Susan Dybbs, Managing Director of Interaction Design at Cooper, in our San Francisco offices on Friday, January 31st.

We are also offering Designing Culture in-house training for organizations that would benefit from having a larger group (management, teams, etc) go through this process together. Contact us at for details.

Soul+Mates: My latest creative project, Dec 4-7 in San Francisco

For the last 6 months, I’ve been creating a short film, Amalga(mate), as part of a collaboration with Choreographer Stacey Printz and her dance company, Printz Dance Project. The entire project is about the concept of soul mates — are they real, how do you find them, what form do they come in, etc. The evening starts with an exhibition of my film + photography by Andre Hermann. Then everyone moves into the theater space for a dance performance by Printz Dance Project. The set alone is worth coming to see (designed by Sean Riley). I also interviewed 8 people about soul mates & audio clips from that conversation will be integrated into the film soundtrack and the live dance performance. Lastly, electronic music artist Kraddy is creating the music score for my film and the dance performance. This short video about the entire project that will give you a sense of all the players involved. Please come, and bring friends!

Dates: Dec 4-7
Location: Z Space, 450 Florida Street, San Francisco, CA 94110
Time: Exhibition from 7-8, Dance performance starts at 8. On Saturday Dec 7 there is also a matinee (3pm exhibit, 4pm dance performance).


Design, art, film and bicycle safaris

Excerpt from a fun little interview I did with the Fluxible folk to promote a talk I’m doing at their conference, Sept. 14th: Make Culture, Not War: The Secret to Great Teams & Organizations. I’m really looking forward to this event; they are doing a great job of thinking of ways to make the experience much more fun and engaging than your average (boooooring) conference. You should come play with us in Canada!


We have to admit we have a bit of a crush on Teresa Brazen. This super talented multimedia whiz is a Design Education Strategist at Cooper, where she draws upon experiences from a wide range of disciplines to inspire curriculum, teach, and build community.

Teresa’s interest around questions like how we might invest in relational chemistry or integrate new team members have driven her most recent work on designing culture, a topic on which she has both spoken and blogged. She also uses film to explore her curiosities, some of which have been featured in galleries around the world, including the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

And oh yeah — did we mention she’s also a talented artist? Swoon! It’s easy to see why we’re thrilled to have Teresa joining us at Fluxible this year.

We recently chatted with Teresa about design, culture and a few things Canadian.

Q: What’s the one UX tool you couldn’t live without? 

The honest answer is empathy. This industry has taught me a great deal about how to step outside of my own shoes so that I can really see and understand the experience of others. That has come especially handy in my culture work, because one of the foundations of a healthy team culture is having empathy for your collaborators. Really understanding what they need, their point of view, what they listen for in conversations. It’s funny — we spend an awful lot of time learning about users, but we don’t apply those same skill sets to the people we work with every day.

Read the rest of the interview on!



Interview on CBC’s Spark: Designing Workplace Culture

I’m thrilled to be a part of this episode of “Spark” (A show about culture and technology with the lovely host Nora Young, for those not familiar. It’s a popular show on CBC radio, essentially Canada’s NPR.). I discuss how workplace culture impacts the ability of teams to be creative/innovative – and what you can do about it. I’m on at about 25 minutes into the show.


Why it’s still as important as ever to build and nourish community online. Designing workplace culture to foster innovation. The NSA is watching you, what can you do? And, if this is the age of global connection, why are we still hanging out in our own digital backyards? Listen here.

Fundraiser for a new project: Soul+Mates

Join us this THURSDAY, Sept 12th as we drink wine, share good eats, watch snippets of dance, and raise money for an exciting new collaboration! Tickets:

I’m excited to announce that I’ve been invited to work with choreographer Stacey Printz on a new dance performance + art exhibit. The show, “Soul+Mates”, explores longing, love, and its longevity in our 21st century reality through visceral contemporary dance.

For this project, I am writing, directing and acting in a short film about the search for “the one”. Electronic artist Kraddy is creating a musical score, using audio snippets from an interview I conducted with eight intriguing individuals about their own search for love. I’m also working with my long-time favorite cinematographer, Brandon Hopp, who has been my creative partner-in-crime for many of my short films.

The film will be shown on the night of the Soul+Mates dance performance, along with photography by the talented Andre Hermann, at the awesome Z Space in San Francisco. Tickets aren’t on sale YET (show will run November 30-December 8), but if you are Bay-area-based, you are invited to join all of us in a fun evening to raise $ for the entire project . Details below:

Printz Dance Project’s Fall Mixer and Performance

Join the dancers and other prominent guests from the Marin and SF art community for drinks, hors d’oeuvres and conversation at Servino’s in Tiburon. 

When: September 12th, 6:30-9:30pm

Where: Servino’s, 9 Main Street, Belvedere, Tiburon, CA 94920


Enjoy live music, a preview dance performance by Printz Dance Project at 7:30PM, and bid on a wide variety of silent auction items to support Printz Dance Project and their upcoming production. Find out more about this hot up and coming dance company that is taking SF by storm, and get the early buzz about its next production: Soul+Mates.

Designing Culture: New Ways to Think About Work

How might we…

  • invest in relational chemistry?
  • encourage personal leadership?
  • integrate new team members?
  • gain alignment around vision?

These are just a few of the questions I pushed a thoughtful group of folk to explore (with the aid of the fabulous Kendra Shimmell. Thanks, Kendra!) in July’s Cooper Parlor, Designing Culture. The evening was focused on ways to be intentional about creating a creative culture and work environment. 70 attendees from design, digital technology, city government, engineering firms, art museums and more shared their desires, challenges, and experiences in shaping the culture of their workplaces.

We also looked at case studies of companies taking  innovative approaches to culture, such as:

  • Morning Star’s practice of asking staff to write personal mission statements for how they will help the company achieve its goals (side note: they don’t have managers; they are beholden to their mission statement and one another). Read more about them in this fantastic article by Gary Hamel.
  • Whirlpool’s “The Real Whirled”  (yes, a play on MTV’s The Real World) deep-immersion onboarding program. Seven new employees lived in one house outfitted in Whirlpool products for 2 months, visited manufacturing plants, research centers, stores, service calls, and more, to gain a deeper understanding and empathy for customers and colleagues.
  • Salesforce’s Personal Excellence Program, based on the philosophy that when staff value personal development, teams benefit. Select staff focus on an area of personal development for eight months through facilitated groups and individual coaching.

We all walked away from this Cooper Parlor with new ways to think about work. See for yourself in the video of the event below, and if you feel so inspired, share a culture tip or trick in the comments so we can all benefit and grow from your knowledge. If  your team would benefit from a workshop like this one, drop us a line about custom training at We love making house calls. 

Designing Culture at Interaction 13

I had an amazing opportunity to lead a group of designers and managers through a Designing Culture workshop at the Interaction 13 conference this year. They dug into their team/organization culture, their current impact upon it, and uncovered opportunities to make change. Then, they created new practices to take back to work and try out (gleaned from examples of experiments that other companies are trying, techniques they heard from other participants, and individual brainstorming exercises).

Here’s a 1 minute snapshot to give you an idea of what the day was like:

And here is just one of the fabulous participants (the lovely Angel Anderson) who made the experience so special (with a worksheet of new practices).

Thanks to the Interaction Design Association for the opportunity to meet such great people and help them cultivate healthier, more engaged cultures.

Give a German a Microphone…

and she will sing karaoke. No joke; Germans are karaoke-crazy. And I have to hand it to them: they really get the point of the sport (can you call it that?) because no matter how much you suck, you will be cheered on. Guaranteed. It’s equal opportunity karaoke in Germany, people.

Here’s a peek at a weekly karaoke jam in a park in Berlin. A British guy has been showing up on Sundays for years with his karaoke equipment, drawing a crowd of singers and watchers. I loved this particular crooner who broke out with the classic, “Mack the Knife”, acapella, in German. Oh, yeah.

The Sound of Cause & Effect

10,000 faces cover a floor. You are invited to walk across them, and you do, even though they clang, bang, and stare up at you in pained expressions, making uncomfortable sounds that echo off the cement walls. Their grief is amplified, and you are its source. Or are you?

If ever in Berlin, don’t miss this amazing installation at the Jewish Museum, “Fallen Leaves” by Menashe Kadishman, dedicated to the innocent victims of war and violence.

The Great UX Debate

Are designers responsible for the impact of their work upon human behavior?
Is it actually possible to create “connected” experiences across devices?
Do designers need to speed up, or do stakeholders need to slow down?

In January, Angel Anderson, Mikkel Michelsen, Robb Stevenson, Lou Lenzi, Donald Chestnut, and I poked and prodded at these topics during the Interaction 13 conference. About 500 people attended the debate, and they threw their own perspectives into the mix in the latter part of the conversation. Have a listen in the video below.

(And thanks to SapientNitro for the opportunity to meet such interesting people, expand my own perspective, and make use of what I learned on my high school debate team. Ha!)

Designing Culture

I’m heading to Toronto in a few weeks to lead a half-day workshop about designing team and organizational culture at the Interaction13 conference. My colleague, Kendra Shimmell, and I will coach 30 people through thoughtful, creative, intentional development of principles and practices that will change the way their teams work. I’m over-the-moon excited. This is a workshop I’ve been brewing, stewing and chewing on for a while. It’s a delight to finally have a chance to put it into action. Let the magic begin.

WHEN: Sunday, January 27th, 9:30am – 12:30pm
WHERE: Interaction 13, Metro Toronto Convention Center
COST: $300
REGISTER! (there aren’t many seats left)

Designing Culture: About the Workshop

“My designs were torpedoed.”
“We’re way off schedule.”
“Everyone is disengaged.”
“I’m not proud of the work we’re producing.”
“We can’t get everyone on board.”

Sound familiar?

Design doesn’t happen inside a vacuum. It happens inside teams, inside the context of relationships, inside physical spaces, inside organizations with very particular cultures. Ignore that intricate ecosystem, and you might as well give your project a death sentence.

In this workshop, Teresa Brazen and Kendra Shimmell draw from their experience as team members, team leaders, and team facilitators to identify tools and techniques you can use to shape projects that are not only successful, but enjoyable. They’ll discuss the benefits of proactively designing team culture, walk you through the process of creating a healthy foundation, empower you with methods to improve unhealthy culture mid-stream, and show you ways to keep everyone engaged throughout the design process. Then, you’ll try it out for yourself: with instructor feedback and mentorship, you’ll craft new methods and approaches that are appropriate to take back and try out in your team or company… no matter what your job title.

By the end of this hands-on workshop, you’ll know how to get projects started on the right foot, co-create without compromising output, and inspire teams, clients, and stakeholders. More importantly, you’ll find that you can work towards dramatically improved project outcomes… without all the drama along the way.


How to make friends without speaking

{A blog series about our 2 month honeymoon adventure through Sri Lanka & India. To read more, just type “honeymoon” in the search field to the right}


When you don’t speak the local language (or even if you’ve mastered basic words), it can be challenging and a bit intimidating to connect with new people when you travel. Lucky for Zak and I, we’ve got a fun tool to jump-start engagement that doesn’t require words at all: marbles.

Zak has collected marbles for years: Antiques, some hand-blown by his friend Michael, even one made of fiber optics. When we travel to foreign countries, we often bring along a bag, keep our eyes peeled for a flat area (beaches are the best), and then design a course. Think mini putt-putt course. The goal is to flick your marble around and through obstacles toward a hole. There are lots of flicking styles, but here’s the basic idea: Make an OK symbol with your hand and then flick your pointer finger in the direction you want the marble to go.

The rules are simple:

  • Each player takes a turn. You get one shot per turn.
  • If your marble goes outside of the obstacle course, you must return your marble back where it was before you flicked it. Basically, you lose a turn.
  • You can aim for other players’ marbles (for all you feisty competitors).
  • First one to get their marble in the hole wins.
  • You can make up new rules. I.e.: If you hit a specific object in the course, you get another turn.

(We kept having to shoo away dogs that were obsessed with our goal. At one point that white object the dog above is sniffing mysteriously disappeared. Hmmm.)

The best part is that natural curiosity will lure locals over, and before you know it, you’ll have a full-blown game in the works. My advice is to:

  • Design for complexity. It’s no fun if you can get to the goal in three shots.
  • Design for engagement. Make interesting shapes, not just functional obstacles. A weird-looking course is more likely to attract attention of potential players.
  • Design with the local environment. Use materials that are already around you; it’s a good constraint to challenge yourself with and will force you to be more creative. Plus, the hunt for flotsam and jetsam is half the fun. Also, choose an area where kids are already playing. They are the easiest to engage, and adults love watching.

We played a game on the beaches of Sri Lanka with a group of six kids from approximately ages 6-13. They didn’t speak English, and we didn’t speak Sinhalese; smiles, gestures, and marbles were our mutual language. Unfortunately, I was having way too much fun to remember to take photos while we played, so this is all I have to remember them by.

Sweet & Sour

{A blog series about our 2 month honeymoon adventure through Sri Lanka & India. To read more, just type “honeymoon” in the search field to the right}


A scruffy little boy with one leg and crutches made of tree branches bangs incessantly on our parked car demanding money. Hobbling, he takes his banging from one side of the car to the other, and back again. He opens one door, tries to enter, we shut it. When our driver starts the car, this child jams his crutch under the car tire and yelps, pretending we’ve run over his foot. Our driver yells back at him, and as we drive away, the boy gives me a wicked, wicked grin.

This is in stark contrast to giggling groups of children in small towns who run out to me, begging me to take their photo. All they want in exchange is to see their image. Photography becomes a game: they try on different poses and faces, bursting into laughter when they see the digital result. They could do this for hours, if I played along.

The best part is that the photos become a communication bridge to their mothers who are often shyly smiling nearby.

I find that every child, every situation in India, must be judged case by case. With time, you get better at assessing motivations at a glance, but, still, sometimes you must simply take the risk. Travel to a new place is nothing if you don’t get to know the people — even if you get sweet with a sour bite.

There’s no place like homestay

{A blog series about our 2 month honeymoon adventure through Sri Lanka & India. To read more, just type “honeymoon” in the search field to the right}


My best friend, a.k.a. “G Money”, says the way to my heart is through my stomach (good thing Zak can cook!). The Brazen family joke is that I have a hollow leg where I stuff large quantities of tasty delights. So, it should be of no surprise that my favorite place in all of India is a sweet little homestay with amazing home cooked meals.

Homestays are, hands down, the way to do India. You stay in a cottage or a room on a family’s property, they make local meals, you see a little bit of their family life, and you learn a lot more about India. The one that gave me so much tummy lovin’ is called Kaits Home, and it’s nestled sweetly on the banks of the Kerala Backwaters, a beautiful maze of canals and waterways in Southern India. Jossy, the father, comes from a farming family that has been in the area for over 500 years. In addition to running the small homestay, they farm fish and grow organic food which sometimes ended up on our plates.

Upon Jossy’s recommendation, we explored the backwaters via an early morning boat ride. As the sun rose, we watched villagers brush their teeth in the river, women slap wet clothes loudly against washing rocks, duck herders wrangle their fowl, men fishing with bamboo rods, uniformed girls giggle their way to school, and Hindu temples come noisily, boisterously to life. You can learn an awful lot about a place by watching how it starts its day.

I will miss the calm of this region, the front porch swing of our cottage and watching the beautiful hand-woven house boats float by.

But, I do have one deliciously simple way to bring a little Kaits Home back into my life:

Banana Curry Recipe

  • Slice 1-2 ripe bananas
  • Boil them in a little bit of water for 5 minutes.
  • Add a little sugar, butter, and ground cardamom while boiling and stir.
  • Sprinkle in a bit of shaved coconut and serve.

I stumbled upon a pile of shoes…

{A blog series about our 2 month honeymoon adventure through Sri Lanka & India. To read more, just type “honeymoon” in the search field to the right}


It’s customary to walk barefoot inside homes in India, so you’ll usually see a few pair parked outside front doors. But when I saw this, I knew something especially interesting was amiss:

It was…Yes! High five! A wedding ceremony!

Zak tried to discretely capture a few photos from the doorway without drawing too much attention. Okay, okay, I admit it: we were hovering, hoping they’d invite us in. Good thing, too, because they did. Men sitting on one side, women on the other, Zak and I split up and nestled in.

It was a ceremony of the first dimension (there are five) for not one, but two brides – sisters. The final ceremony would be in two days. Indian weddings are a community affair, and this particular family expected 900 on wedding day, 2,000 at the post-wedding event!

I think they found our American tourist-ness curious because the women did lots of giggling and smiling at me, and the wedding videographer turned his camera (and blinding spotlight) on each of us. As I ate sweets, drank chai, and watched, I thought, “No WAY would Americans invite random, hovering foreign-traveler-wedding-crashers in with a smile.” Lucky me.

Marriage: It’s complicated

{A blog series about our 2 month honeymoon adventure through Sri Lanka & India. To read more, just type “honeymoon” in the search field to the right}


I’m the the honeymode, so of course I can’t help but curiously collect information about how marriages in India work. I’ve discovered that, like so many other things here, marriage looks wildly different depending on your caste, region, and family. For example:

The Week Magazine in India tells the story of a girl and boy from different castes who married for love against the wishes of their families and castes. The result was the suicide of the girl’s father, violence that ended in the burning of 268 houses, and a town empty of men because they were all put in jail. The girl’s mother said, “I don’t want her back. But I don’t want her to live with a lower caste boy.” You could say the family cared more about their name than the daughter’s happiness, but it’s more complex than that. They were completely ostracized, and it appears the father killed himself not so much because of his upset at the marriage, but because of the intense pressure of the community.

A British traveler told me about a family she met: three boys and a girl, all married by age seven. When they were old enough, they would live with their spouses. I’m not sure what age “old enough” is. Yes, child marriage still happens here, though it’s not legal. Enforcing this law can be tricky, as evidenced by this story, told to me by the same traveler:

A lower caste woman who worked as a social worker was supposed to, as part of her work, let local police know about child marriages she discovered. She tipped the cops off to an upper caste father who married off his one year old and fourteen year old daughters. Why so young? It’s a better deal; you fork up less dowry. When the father found out the social worker exposed him, he and another man raped her as punishment. The police, meanwhile, attended the wedding…and did nothing.

That’s the ugly side. But that’s only one side, and there are many.

In urban and wealthy communities, love marriages are more common. The younger generation wants this option, though if their parents don’t approve of the person they pick, they are likely to end the relationship. Think about it: different generations typically live under one roof with the wife going to live with the husband’s family. When you all end up living together for the rest of your lives, it makes a lot of sense that parental endorsement matters a great deal.

Given my own Western experience of choosing my husband, Zak, out of love, it’d be easy to write arranged marriages off as terrible. But, again, it’s more complicated than that. Yes, some such marriages happen against one or both person’s will. But, in many cases parents try very hard to find a good match for their son or daughter who, ultimately, still gets to say yes or no. I talked to a man who met 12 different potential wives before he met the one he wanted to marry. He said both parties can back out after meeting, and he obviously did, multiple times. Because families are so close, parents may very well have an informed idea of what “good” for their child might look like. Think about it like your best friends setting you up with someone they think is a good fit. That might be a slightly romanticized version, but I think it gives a sense of how arranged marriages could be different than we Westerners suppose.

That’s probably one of the biggest challenges of traveling in a country so very different than my own: turning off my inner critic and just listening. Frankly, there are many more pieces to the marriage puzzle than I’ve uncovered, but it’s been fascinating connecting the pieces I have.

And all we got was this photo…

{A blog series about our 2 month honeymoon adventure through Sri Lanka & India. To read more, just type “honeymoon” in the search field to the right}


At Periyar National Park in Kerala, India. Note my leech protection in the form of ugly brown canvas sock-like things. Trekking (well, I’d call it more of a walk) and riding a bamboo boat for eight hours led to the sighting of a few buffalo through the trees, wild pigs and a couple of malabar pied horn bills that made this crazy whooshing sound when they flew overhead. Spoiled after our national park visit in Sri Lanka, it was apparent this park isn’t as healthy or vibrantly full of life. Plus, the tour company sold the trip as having a max of 10 people…we ended up with 20. Not much chance of seeing animals when you sound like a giant herd of buffalo. Apparently there is a successful program to turn poachers into tour guides, which is great, but our guides were lazy, giving us more “break” time than hiking time. Oh well, at least we got this great photo.