IA Summit 10 – Whitney Hess Keynote

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IA Summit 2010

This year marks the 11th annual Information Architecture Summit. Our theme is meant to inspire everyone in the community—even those who aren’t presenting or volunteering—to bring their best ideas to the table.

As busy practitioners, we rarely have the chance to step back and think about the future of our field—we’re too busy resolving day-to-day issues. By gathering and sharing practical solutions for everyday challenges, we can create more breathing room to plan for what’s to come.

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| “Day 1 – Dan Roam“:http://boxesandarrows.wpengine.com/view/ia-summit-10-dan | “Day 2 – Richard Saul Wurman“:http://boxesandarrows.wpengine.com/view/ia-summit-10-richard | Day 3 – Whitney Hess |

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| Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 |

In her keynote closing the 2010 IA Summit, Whitney asks if our work is just our job or our passion. To really make the difference we seek, our practice needs to be our calling. The UX community is united because of a common mission:

We empower people to become self-reliant and more resourceful, organized, social, and relaxed. We don’t do it for them, they do it for themselves.

Most designers don’t make the things that people use; we’re ideas people. We’re nothing without the visual designers, developers, copywriters, and business managers with whom we work. It’s time we focus our energy outside the UX tribe, to these people that bring our ideas to fruition.

Ms. Hess implores us to stop feeling so disenfranchised and misunderstood, to stop isolating ourselves and strive for the influence to bring about the change that drives us to do what we do. Defending “perfection” will defeat us; instead, she calls us to have the audacity to fail spectacularly and then move upward from those moments.

In the end, she asks us to consider our legacy. Do we want to be a footnote in a technology textbook, or do we want to “cross the chasm” and embody the change that we talk about amongst ourselves.

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Transcript of Whitney Hess Closing Plenary Address of the 2010 IA Summit in Phoenix, Arizona.

Announcer: In the closing plenary of the 2010 IA Summit, Whitney Hess discusses her experiences within the IA community, and calls for greater inclusion, leadership, and the necessity to embrace failure as a fundamental aspect of our discipline’s growth, without which we cannot get a seat at the board room table.
I hope everyone enjoys the podcast. Cheers.
Whitney Hess: Before I jump in, I just want to take a moment to thank all of you, to thank each and every one of you, for being here in this room right now. I know there are a lot of other places that you could have been. I know that you could have booked your flight to leave already, and so it means a great deal to me that you’re here right now and allowing me to speak to you. So thank you.
Let’s begin at the beginning. The truth about me, just me, and all of my vulnerability. That might be what Jennifer was talking about a little bit.
I’m amazed at the position that I find myself in today. I know I’ve said this to you, each of you individually, perhaps, or you may have seen me write about this. Standing in front of you here today is quite frankly, incomprehensible to me. It’s a complete out of body experience. It doesn’t even feel like I’m living it.
When Jennifer Bombach and Livia Labate contacted me and they invited me to give this closing plenary, I just sat down on my couch and I cried, and that’s the honest truth. I just cried.
So for those of you who don’t know me, last year’s IA Summit was my first ever public presentation. Sure, I had given presentations to clients and colleagues and whatnot, and shown my deliverables in presentation form, but I’d never stood on a stage by myself until a year ago right now.
The year before that, the IA Summit in 2008 was my first ever summit. So you can get a better picture, maybe, knowing this, of why this moment is just so insane for me. These are the past few IA Summit closing plenaries. What the fuck?
I think it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that the people who have held this position prior to me have been considerably further along in their careers and have contributed far more to this community than I have so far.
So, for the folks who have an issue with me standing up here today, I don’t need you to tell me how green I am, okay? I’m 27 years old. I graduated from school a little over five years ago. I became self‑employed a little over a year and a half ago. So, yeah, I’m not nearly as experienced as pretty much everyone else in this audience. I’m probably not as smart as you, either. But I’m standing here, so move on with your life.
[Laughter, cheering]
Thank you.
Synchronicity brought me here and I am not unclear enough that I don’t realize this. I didn’t plan this. I didn’t even particularly want this for myself in my career. But a remarkable series of events has landed me in this position. Some of it with luck, some of it was just my personality, some of it was timing being in the right place at the right time. I realized all of those things but that is life and you never know what is going to happen so here I am.
I’ve been on this incredible journey. There’s a huge gap between who I am and who I want to be and the journey between those two points is what I consider to be my pursuit of happiness. Two and a half years ago, I identified something in myself that I didn’t like. I was closed off and my inner introvert was preventing me from living to the fullest. And I could already tell even a few years out of school that it was going to negatively effect my career. So, I reached out to this community slowly but surely and my life changed forever.
The price of sheep is boredom. The price of being a wolf is loneliness. Choose one or the other with great care. I made this conscious decision to no longer be a sheep, but I never expected that the alternative would mean being a wolf. I have felt lonely at times. I am not going to lie. I’ve gotten attention that I wasn’t really comfortable with. And it made me feel different than I had felt in my life previously. But it may have felt lonely, but I have never felt alone.
Every wolf has her pack and this is mine, the tribe, our tribe. Look around you. You are not alone. You will not find another profession in which the community of practitioners is disconnected, is this loving, is this dedicated to each other’s success and happiness. We are truly each other’s kindred spirits. There are very few egos in this community and I discovered that two years ago, I was at the interaction conference formed by AXTA in 2008. It was their first conference in Savannah.
I had booked my ticket to leave a little late so the conference would’ve ended and I was hungry and I decided to send out a tweet to see if anyone would grab a dinner. And I got a response from someone named @mediajunkie. Now, I had kind of met him at the conference but I didn’t entirely know who he was and in his reply, he said that he and @cb were going to take a walk and grab some dinner and I was more than welcome to join them.
So I said yes and then I went on Google to figure out who these people were because I felt so new and I didn’t want to embarrass myself. And so I discovered that @mediajunkie was Christian Crumlish who is the curator of the Yahoo design pattern library. And @cb is Chris Baum, the editor‑in‑chief of Boxes and Arrows. So, after I crapped myself and then pulled myself together, I was like, “Okay, I guess this is it. I am going to go out and have dinner with this people.” We took a walk around Savannah.
They asked me about me. They asked me what it was like to be involved with the community for the first time. They asked me some opinions about being a younger practitioner and things that I see in the community or things that I don’t see in the community because of that and the rest is history. They were so warm and treated me with such equality that I never expected, that it really had a profound impact on me.
Chris Baum’s not in the room today. Christian Crumlish is, and I’m sorry to single you out. I have a lot of stories that are very similar with a lot of people in this room, and I just felt like that was the beginning, and I really owed it to them to tell you all publicly.
So people have asked how I have gotten here in such a short period of time. The only answer I have is this. This is a community of giants and I have felt like I have stood on all of your shoulders, and I’m eternally grateful for that. So I have to ask, “Who’s your mentor, and who calls you their mentor?”
I grew up feeling like I didn’t really have a lot of role models. I was kind of a loner. I was very self‑reliant. I didn’t exactly respect my elders. Now I find myself surrounded by a bunch of inspirational people, and I’m lucky to call many of them my mentors.
But what’s forced me to grow even more has been through sharing my experience and by mentoring others and giving my time to other people’s growth.
It’s very rewarding and it’s very humbling, and I feel that it’s being on both ends of the equation, having the mentor and being the mentor that has given me this incredible sense of belonging.
The prolific Peter Drucker wrote, “Knowing where one belongs can transform an ordinary person, hard‑working and competent but otherwise mediocre, into an outstanding performer.” Because of this tribe, my life has become outstanding.
Everything that I do, and all of my motivations are from a single point, and that is love. Because it’s all about love, and love is the differentiator, and love is everything, and love is why I’m here right now.
This is my mantra that I live by. Do what you love in the service of people who love what you do. It was written by a man named Steve Farber in his book, “The Radical Leap.” And when I saw it on the page, it leaped up at me and I realized that this is me. This is how I want to live my life.
Everything that I do springs from love or I don’t do it, quite frankly. I serve a higher purpose than myself. It’s about affecting other people’s lives, and ensuring their appreciation, and getting that feedback, and making sure that it’s a cyclical process, and that’s why this statement means so much to me.
So I have to ask you. Let’s be honest. Is this your job, or is it your passion? Are you passionately driven to make a difference here? Is that why you’re here? Why do you care, and why are you here in the first place? There are so many other places you can be, and there are so many other professions that you can have. Why this one?
There’s work, and then there’s life’s work. I think what we do is pretty hard to call work. I think our passion is so deep and so persistent that it’s much more accurately classified as “life’s work” because frankly, this isn’t a job. It’s a life calling. I’m not doing this to please my parents or to follow in their footsteps. I’d be pretty surprised if any of you had parents that did this, and that’s why you got in the profession in the first place.
I’m not doing this to become rich, though that would be nice. I do this because I have this unwavering internal impulse that this is what I meant to be doing for a living. And it is not a living, it is life. This is what I meant to be doing. And yet, for many of us, the job description doesn’t begin to describe what we do or what you can do.
So, everything that you can do and what your job description says. We all have different job titles and different responsibilities but we are united for a single reason. And that is what I consider our common mission. Now, I’ve struggled with how to communicate this. It may not feel right at first but hear me out. I believe that our common mission is that we help people and has their own lives. And I chose this language very carefully. Thank you. Thank you.
We empower people to become self‑reliant, to become more resourceful, more social, more informed, more organized, more successful, more relaxed. But we don’t do it for them. They do it for themselves. We design systems that allow people to make those choices and make those changes in their life. Let us be honest. Our work isn’t that momentous. We believe in the power of the butterfly effect. That if we make small changes, that they will have enormous impact.
We need that to operate in order for us to be successful. We dream of causing this wide‑ranging positive change. I know that we all do but really, it’s because of something so much deeper and that’s we want to change the world. And I really, really believe that everyone of you is here because you want to be part of something that is bigger than yourself. You want to change the world and maybe not the world but your world whatever it is that you defined it as. I defined it as something different than you may… Each of us may define it differently but it’s about having that really wide impact.
Not just on the users that we advocate for but on a much greater purpose. It is not just about creating more usable, useful desire of products. That might be your tag line. We like to communicate that but it really is something much bigger and I think that many of you know that there is something bigger here. So, there is this line in Sister Act two that just popped into my head. If you want to be somebody, if you want to go somewhere, you better wake up and pay attention.
And I think we do have to wake up. We can’t possibly have the lights matter of fact that we dream of if we’re only relying on the other members of our tribe. The world isn’t just going to change for us because we think it should. We are going to become increasingly disappointed with our progress if we just keep doing all of these back slapping that we’ve become so accustomed to. Now, I don’t mean that as negatively as it comes across because I think that the bond that exists in this community is unparalleled. And it is important that we support each other.
But there is something much bigger going on. And I think we are missing the big picture. So, the wakeup call, real world is calling, time to pick up. It is not about you or us especially not about us. We are not the most important part of the equation here. We design systems that enable people to have more successful behaviors, but we do not make them. We do not make them. That is the dirty truth. We are not creators. We’re influencers. We don’t actually make anything. Hugh McLeod said, “Like so many brilliant people, we believe that ideas move mountains. But bulldozers move mountains. Ideas show where bulldozers should go.”
We’re ideas people, and we’re nothing, nothing without the visual designers, developers, copy writers and business managers that we work with.
They’re the makers. They’re the ones who bring our ideas to fruition. Their creations are ultimately what our users use, not our creations. They’re not ours. And we’re really doing a really shitty job of showing them that we understand that.
So here’s my plea. I think it’s time that we need to need to focus our energy outside of the UX tribe to become recognized leaders to makers and management. We really need to grow up and stop feeling so disenfranchised and misunderstood, and recognize that the real role that we play in all of this. We need to reach out to the greater tech and business communities far more than we have been, and we have really completely isolated ourselves, and it’s time that we stopped doing that.
So what we have is influence. What we have is influence, and we need to figure out how to gain that influence over our companies, our colleagues, our clients and the larger communities that we work within. But this the hard part, and we don’t have a choice. If we want this profession to exist in the next ten years, we’re going to have to get used to doing some seriously hard work. Winston Churchill said that the price of greatness is responsibility, and I think we’ve been shirking our responsibility in a lot of ways. We’ve been shirking the responsibility that it takes to change the world.
We are exasperated by the lack of understanding and common sense of the people that we work with, the way our users are mistreated, and we are so focused on fixing these immediate problems that we recognize that we neglect the bigger picture. And we’re all responsible for that. That’s how I see us.
And I say “us” because I’m just as guilty of it as anyone else.
So what’s holding us back? What is holding us back?
This is the 11th year of the IA Summit, and I’d venture to guess that the folks who were here on year one, they thought we’d be much further along by now.
So what’s holding us back? I have a few ideas.
Firstly, I think we heroize the tools. And this is something that I was actually surprised to hear coming up in a lot of sessions this weekend. I wrote this beforehand, and I didn’t realize that it was something that a lot of people were feeling.
Omnigraffle. Axure. Post‑It notes. White boards, and card sorting, and Ensel models, and we use all these tools, and I use them too.
I rely on them just as much as everyone else does, but we spend so much energy promoting the tools, and so much energy promoting our use of them that we neglect to feature the people that are using them, and that’s us.
A fancy tool is just a pillar to hide behind and putting the focus on the tool acting like they are these magic items that allow us to do our job. It gives the tool more power than you. The tool doesn’t have the power. It is what you do with it. It is the understanding that you create by using it, it is your thinking not the tools capability.
Doctors don’t give this kind of praise to their stethoscopes so why are we spending so much time talking about the things that we use to do our work? Secondly, I think we limit ourselves. A good friend told me don’t judge yourself, the world will do that for you. And it’s really hard for me to internalize but it’s true. Sure, most of us don’t have MBAs, most of us don’t have MFAs, most of us don’t have any formal education in this at all. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t deserve to have a sit at the war room table.
We accommodate out of guilt. We attack out of anger and we avoid out of fear.
When we present our work, we are in absolute mess. Either we let our teams roll right over us or we slip out when they don’t understand our logic and our thought process so worst of all, we completely avoid true collaboration because we are afraid of people taking away the little power that we have. I also think we are afraid to be wrong. I think somehow we got into our heads that we always have to have the right answer and maybe because we convinced our designers and or developers that they need our help and that is where this comes from.
And we feel that with every wrong answer, our future hangs in the balance and that is simply not true. You screw up every day and everyone already knows it. But do you admit it? We are human and we are wrong all the time. Everyone is but most of us don’t own up to it. I mean how often really do you proclaim your fuck ups? I mean something that Jerry was just talking about. Do you celebrate them? Probably not. I know I don’t. So, I think it’s time that we celebrate fear.
Fear is good. Fear is great. Fear is growth. Fear means you are doing something right. If we aren’t tackling the things that scare us the most, then we aren’t striking ourselves enough. Love hurts. We are in love with what we do and we have this calling. Aren’t we lucky? But no one said it would be easy. So, if you are finding it easy, you probably aren’t doing enough. Love hurts. It’s suppose to hurt because it matters. And that’s the honest truth.
So, living pursuit of the OSM. That is “Oh Shit Moment.” This also comes from the C Fiber book that have a big impact on me called: “The Radical Leap”. Seek out the experiences that will really make you scream, “Oh, shit!” It gives you be visceral like when you take that glass elevator of the hotel from the top floor down to the lobby and it drops and you feel your stomach go, that’s the feeling that you should get. It should have magnitude and there should be a high likelihood that you’ll fail. And when you do fail, fail magnificently.
Fail big. Like really fucked up. Okay? Because only then that you are going to know that you are living. The bigger the ocean moment, the bigger the failure but at least you’ll know that you are taking your responsibility seriously. Not doing it when you know full well you had the opportunity that hurts far more than any failure and I think a lot of you can relate when I say that my biggest regrets in life are not the things that I did but the things that I didn’t do.
The intersection of failure, thinking and determination: a success layer. Who doesn’t believe that’s true? You can’t succeed without failure, and we’re a lucky bunch, because we have oodles of determination and oodles of brainpower.
Perfection doesn’t equal credibility. I think a lot of us get stuck up in this mindset that it does, and it’s just not true. It’s critical that we believe this. It’s critical that we believe that perfection doesn’t equal credibility. The more perfect you try to appear to your teams, the less they’re going to trust you.
Right now, this is my biggest “Oh, shit!” moment. The last few months have been absolute Hell for me.


I’ve probably given myself an ulcer, and I’ve definitely driven my boyfriend crazy. But my sense of responsibility to do this, to our shared mission, far outweighed my personal fear. That’s why I’m here.
I think another thing we really need to do is promote and include. Some people protect themselves from fear by surrounding themselves in an exclusive world. The less they have to share themselves, the less they risk. We keep trying to convince ourselves that we’re special. But, if we keep this tribe so isolated, we’re going to lose.
Recognize the destructive impact of your words in dealing with others, especially your colleagues, the makers and the builders that lift us up, who bring our ideas to fruition. Beware of the language that you use in imparting your criticisms.
Yes, they may have created something that’s hard to use, or that isn’t useful for your specific users, or is just plain weird. They’re not necessarily going to have the right answers, either. But instead of feeling the need to prove them wrong, teach them how to be right.
If you try to dominate people, you’re already defeated. We like to think of ourselves as saviors. I think we have the sense that we’re this organized and very committed group of people, and very headstrong, certainly. But we don’t always have to prove our value. We’ve been undervalued for so long that I think we’ve got this chip on our shoulder, and it’s really time to put that to bed.
We need to be assertive without being aggressive, and there’s a big difference between the two. Being assertive shows confidence. Being aggressive shows insecurity. So, be aware of not just what you say, but how you say it.
This is one of my favorite quotes by Peter Drucker, who wrote many tomes on leadership and management: “Your intellectual arrogance is causing disabling ignorance.”
What that means to me is, that by thinking we’re the most important piece of the puzzle, and by failing to gain knowledge in other areas, like programming or visual design or business management, we’re just further isolating ourselves. If we want them to better understand us, we need to do a lot more to better understand them. Because all human beings have the basic need to be recognized.
We shouldn’t think of ourselves as saviors with all the answers. We need to be better facilitators, and ultimately, leaders. We need to lead. Now, this leadership stuff is tricky. It’s very amorphous. I realize that, and I can’t tell you all to go out and be leaders, and suddenly the user‑experience field gains recognition and standing in the business world. I know that.
But I can only tell you what leadership means to me and hopefully that sparks something in you. Firstly, it means having Chutzpah. For those of you don’t know what Chutzpah means, it is essentially audacity. It means being able to walk into the room and say exactly what needs to be said. No letting fear hold you back.
We need to have the courage of our convictions and knock back down when we get pushed showing our coffins through the consistent behavior, not wavering. We need to have adaptability. We need to be able to roll at the punches and try new things and adapt to the circumstances and the people that we are surrounded by. Not having a fear of newness. And when all those fails, we have to act as if…Don’t expose the people that you need to be leading to your insecurities and your worry.
Act like the leader that you want to be and suddenly you will become it. Ultimately, the true mark of a leader is someone who inspires others to lead and that is what we need the most. Your Chutzpah, your conviction, your adaptability will become contagious and that’s when real changes going to happen. So, our legacy… It concerns me greatly. So, some say they have twenty years experience when all they really have is one year experience repeated twenty times and all that age. Each of us has to force ourselves to move beyond the supportive tribe that we found ourselves in.
To become business leaders ‑‑ in the face of fear, lead the people that we work with, the people that we collaborate with in order to achieve our common mission. We keep focusing on our site maps and our wire frames and our prototypes like that is all there is. Then we aren’t really advancing the profession as a whole. So, I have to ask you a tough question. Can your company succeed without you? And if the answer is no, are you proud of that? You have to ask yourself if your DNA, the shared belief system that we all hold so dear, the things that you have heard in the past weekend is that coursing through the veins of your company?
Are you just doing stuff or are you transforming stuff? So, what is our legacy? Is it outside this room? I love this room. But it is not enough for me. Let’s not be a footnote on technology textbook. I don’t want to look back thirty years from now and when a really talented, really brilliant, caring group of people almost change the face of technology forever but just couldn’t figure out how to cross the line. Our legacy rest on all of our shoulders. Thank you for listening.


  1. You’re most welcome, Paul! 🙂 All three days coming soon – looking to publish most of the talks from Day One today. You can subscribe to all shows, including the last two Summits and conversations with others, via iTunes here: http://tinyurl.com/5hw8ms

  2. Please, please provide a standard RSS feed for the podcasts. iTunes is not available for Linux. I would love to be able to use my podcatcher to listen to boxes and arrows too.

    Thank you,

  3. This is such an inspiring speech. The next generation is listening. High five Whitney

  4. Thanks Jeff and B&A, for making this wonderful keynote available to those of us who could not attend the IA Summit. And thanks to Whitney, as always, for being a brilliant and inspiring voice in our community.

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