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Midwest UX 2013 Redux: Part one, workshops

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I’ve been trying to hold onto and capture my experiences at the excellent Midwest UX 2013 conference. I had a couple of reactions seemingly common to other out-of-town attendees:

  1. Grand Rapids Michigan is a gem of a city with an thriving design community
  2. the local MWUX organizers put on a hell of a show

I grew up in the Midwest and moved back to the region 10 years ago but Grand Rapids has never been on my radar. It caught my attention when I found out they were hosting MWUX. Our local UX community has been interested in bringing the conference to the Twin Cities and luckily I was able to attend this year’s event and experience it first-hand. The conference website talked the town up so I did some research and saved a few locations to a Google map. I was curious — how could this little place host to a design conference and draw a crowd? At MWUX, my ignorance was quickly remedied.

I flew in the afternoon before the workshop day. I was on the lookout for other MWUX attendees from the Twin Cities. On the plane, the guy next to me looked like a potential attendee but was busy writing so I didn’t ask. On checking in to the hotel, I bumped into to Erik Dahl, one of the MWUX founders, and his colleague Scott Sullivan from Involution Studios. I grabbed a quick nap, then walked down to HopCat, 3rd best beer bar in the world according to Beer Advocate. On the way back, I wandered around night taking photos and scoping out the conference venues.

I got back to the hotel and found a group of conference organizers and speakers at the lobby bar. I sat down and recognized the guy from the flight. He introduced himself as Phillip Hunter, one of the presenters. He connected at MSP on his way from Seattle. More speakers and organizers trickled in and everyone was very friendly and welcoming.

I stayed up way too late talking with these new acquaintances and stumbled around the next morning looking for the coffee joint I spotted the night before. I stalked some apparent art students as they got off the bus and trailed them to Madcap Coffee, an establishment that might be to coffee what HopCat is to beer. I sat down, met some more conference folks and then was off to my workshops at Kendall College of Art and Design.

First up was The Design Studio: Traditional Design Practice in a Place of Design Tradition led by Matt Nish-Lapidus. I haven’t been in a real art or design class for years and it was refreshing to do some hands-on work. Matt introduced me to the concept of embodied cognition, a theme that came up repeatedly the next couple of days. We iterated through several rounds of rapid ideating starting with a representation of our individual relationships to time, trading ideas in small groups for a second round, then culminating in a 3-D clock prototype which each group presented for critique. Highly abstract to semi-concrete in less than 3 hours. Afterwards, we wandered down to the Grand Rapids Brewing Co. for an excellent lunch and further conversation about design, culture, and American vs. Canadian politics.

After lunch, I returned for Design Studio for Context-Aware Products, with Thomas Wendt. I worried that it might be too similar to my morning session, but we took on a more concrete problem with a persona and use case — that of a travel-weary tech consultant and a product proposal to help navigate the mundane hassles and disconnected systems encountered on his journeys. We started off individually storyboarding a timeline of our user’s travels, followed by prototyping screens in small groups, then presented our ideas as groups to the whole class. Same concept, different problem. Thomas knew his stuff, but I admit I was more than a little curious about the Arduino session going on down the hall. My nine-year-old son is in a Lego Mindstorms competitive league and he would have loved getting his hands on that stuff. The dilemma of multi-track conferences is that there are always conflicting sessions.

I finished up the evening at an opening party at McFadden’s and then back across to HopCat with new friends. Then it was back to the hotel to edit some photos and looking at the upcoming session schedule before crashing hard for the night.

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