You might know of Christina Wodtke from her best-selling book, Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web. She’s spoken on the topic of the human experience in information spaces at conferences worldwide, currently consults and teaches at Stanford and California College of the Arts. She’s led large teams at Yahoo!, Zynga, MySpace and LinkedIn. In this episode, Christina talks about co-founding the Information Architecture Institute and takes us on a journey through her life.
Welcome to UX Radio, the podcast that generates collaborative discussion about information architecture, user experience and design.
Lara: And you are one of the founders of IAI.
Christina: I was one of the founders of the IA Institute. That was actually started at the – I think it was the – third IA Summit in Baltimore and Lou and I had been both up, staying up late that night, drinking with a bunch of people complaining about how are we gonna move the practice forward? And the next morning we kept talking about it and we decided to have a retreat so we went to Asilomar, which is this unbelievably gorgeous conference center in Pacific Grove, right on the ocean. They don’t have TV’s or telephones in the rooms. There are deer running around everywhere and a group of people got together and said, “Okay how are we gonna help the profession grow? How are we gonna get smarter at what we do” and decided to start an institute committed to the practice of information architecture. It was something a little bit different because at that time anyway – I think things have changed but at that time – the professional organizations just seemed like I don’t know kind of clubs and they’d hand out credit cards and I don’t know. It was really strange and insurance providers and we wanted something that was only about the practice, just focused on how do we do this thing called information architecture better and it’s been going for a long time, ten years now, I guess.
Lara: Right and there are some fabulous resources on the site. It’s great.
Christina: Yeah I’m pretty proud of that one. They say the sign that you’ve done something right is you can walk away and it keeps going without you and even though I was the president that first year after that it’s just grown all by itself and that’s a sign that that initial crowd – you know Peter, Lou, me, Andrew, [Erin Malone, Madonnalisa Chan, Andrew Hinton, Thomas Vander Wal, Mike Atherton] I’m forget everybody’s name, there were a whole bunch of us, Jesse James Garrett, you know – we built something special. We built something that lasts.
Lara: I saw that you had gone to the Kansas City Art Institute and I was curious, like, what prompted you to go there?
Christina: You know I saw that question and one of the things that I’m very much committed to in my life right now is telling the truth as long as it can help someone and I think this is an important story. I went there because when I was a teenager I was suicidality depressed and I was a small-town Iowa. People who were different were not accepted and I was seeing a therapist. I was even institutionalized a couple of times for attempted suicide. I mean it was quite serious and even though I had a great SAT and had high scores and was applying to you know Ivy League colleges I kind of blew off the essay. I didn’t really care. I didn’t really think I was going to live and then my wonderful great-aunt Peg, who I love so much, suggested we take a tour of the Kansas City Art Institute, which was near, relatively near where she lived in Lawrenceburg and from the moment I walked on campus, I knew this was a place I could be. In fact it kind of gave me a new lease on life, having a place where everybody was freaky and weird and strange and creative and everywhere people were making art. There were no sports unless you count three-speed. I don’t know. It just – it really – it made me feel like there was a place for me. One of the funniest things I remember was walking through the Design Building and seeing toasters and I think that was the first time in my life I ever thought, “Hey, humans make these things” and I started looking at the whole world, going, “Oh yeah there’s a human being out there somewhere who thought this house would be a good idea or this door would be a good idea or this toaster oven would be a good idea” and I think that led me down an interesting path of seeing the world as something you create and shape as opposed to something you just accept.
Lara: Right and so you had mainly a focus in photography and video, is that right?
Christina: Well I started in painting but the instructors in Painting were Abstract Expressionists and I was very committed to working figuratively and I felt like philosophically we didn’t really get along so I switched to Photography and Video and that’s when I really fell in love with computers, doing computer-altered photography. It kinda cracks me up because I was having lunch with my friend Irene and she was talking about how amazing Google is right now. They have this thing called Auto Erase where you can – if you upload your photos to Google + you — push one button and it will erase everybody who’s not a member of your family from the photo.
Christina: And I remember studying Photography in school and going, “What will happen to the truth when people can change photographs?” I don’t think anybody ever pictured how far from the truth photography would end up being.
Lara: Well that’s interesting that you did a lot of editing on the computer and that’s kind of – is that – where your interest sort of started in getting more digital?
Christina: Well I wish I could say yes. All my stories go sideways over and over again. [Laughs] So I did photography and I started doing digitally-altered photography and I liked that and I liked computers and I thought, “Okay where can I move that does computers?” And at that point it was either California or New York and I hate snow so I picked California and it turned out that was a good bet and then I went back to painting and I spent ten years waiting tables and painting, believe it or not. I didn’t get back into computers for a long time. I did fine dining and I was making quite a huge amount of money working very few hours waiting tables but then a friend of mine pinged me and said, “Hey you know CNET’s trying to build a Yahoo! Killer Directory.” I don’t know if you remember when Yahoo! was a directory.
Christina: And [laughs] not so long ago and they’re looking for people to review websites and so I had to review 50-websites-a-week and I still have the t-shirt for it. It was called SNAP. It was my first launch, very exciting.
Christina: And I just fell in love with the internet. I mean being forced to look at every single caffeinated water or every single fine-dining guide on the internet just made me realize, once again, it was like the toaster story. All of a sudden I realized this was a world that people were making; this was world people were creating. This was a place that we both explore and invent and create all at the same time and we have a responsibility to make those things great and it gave me a chance to look at so much of the internet and, after that, I used my magical internet-surfing powers to teach myself HTML. I got involved with the Web Girrrrls with, like, four “R’s” I think it had and started teaching them how to code as well and got a job at E-Greetings and never looked back. I love the internet. The internet is the most amazing thing in the world. Sometimes I think I was just waiting for the internet to show up.
Lara: And so how did you make the transition from working from E-Greetings over into information architecture?
Christina: Well that actually happened at E-Greetings. I came into E-Greetings as a temp. I was just reviewing cards. I would organize them and classify them though they didn’t call that information architecture. They called that temp work. Putting them in categories and writing little snippets about it and then I started working in the HTML team and then I ended up running the front-end Development Team there and I was thinking about becoming a hard-core coder and, at that time, I was doing design reviews, with the creative director, David Rossi , and I would go there and I would go there and I’d say, “Well you know we can’t build this” but I’d also say, “And by the way this isn’t going to be usable because Don Norman or Jacob Neilson says this and this.” I was very passionate about making better websites at that time and so when I mentioned to Dave that I wanted to become an engineer, he said, “No, no, no, no, you have to join the Design Team. If you’re gonna change groups you have to join my team” and I said, “Well what am I going to do?” And he said, “Whatever you want” [laughs] and I had just read The Polar Bear Book. It was the first edition of it. It had just come out and I said, “I wanna be an information architect” and I switched over and taught myself everything and grew the team and ended up leaving a team there as well and then moved over to Hot Studio working for Maria Giudice who had worked at Richard Saul Wurman and so I got the other half of information architecture from her and I feel like that was just something I was lucky, lucky enough to fall into, lucky enough to find and lucky enough to be part of.
Lara: Yeah it’s interesting that everyone I meet has such a different path on how they got to either information architecture or user experience.
Christina: It was a crazy time. I mean if you think about it websites were this brand-new medium and everybody was trying to do it with their own point of view. You had the graphic designers who were very frustrated with the limited technology that was available to them. We had the things like the 1-pixel gif to try to hold up a table so we could get text to a line and then you had the other side, the people who had been building software forever and were very, very interested in things like time-on-task and usability and the web was a place where these two disciplines sort of banged into each other. I’ve often thought that wireframes were the ugly bastard child of ____ violence because on one hand you had all these graphic designers who really understood how to make things beautiful but didn’t understand how to make them usable and then you had the people who knew how to make things usable but not how to make them beautiful and so in order to explain an interface that was useable they’d build a wireframe that then the designers would pretty up. These days we have people who grew up with the web and they understand it natively and they can do absolutely everything, the unicorns aren’t mythical anymore. They’re sort of every day in our back yard, like. So I think that sometimes we forget why wireframes showed up and don’t ask hard enough, “Are we really doing things the way they need to be done or are we just doing things the way they used to be done because it was a ____ hack?”
Lara:Do you find value in the wire-frame design?
Christina: Well it’s really hard to say. If you’re doing everything end-to-end the wireframe might just be a phase of your process, right, where you’re trying to think about the layout but you know how you’re going to color it and you know what sort of type you’re gonna put in there and so it’s a way of saying, “Okay do I have all the content right? Do I have tings more or less organized in a sensible way?” But when I see an information architect or an interaction designer hand over a wireframe to a designer I feel like often they’re emasculating them. They’re giving them a coloring book and saying, “Okay add color and type and make it pretty.” I mean designers — that’s not using your designers effectively. If it’s very sketchy or it’s on a whiteboard and they’re doing it together that’s another story, too, so – and actually I have to give credit for Mike Monteiro. It was when he worked with me at Hot Studio that he pointed out how insulting a highly-designed wireframe can be to a competent designer.
Lara: Well now I think it’s getting even more difficult because of dynamic content and CMS systems that use content modules in several different locations so it’s gonna – it’d be interesting to see how it evolves to represent visually how that content becomes dynamic.
Christina: Maybe we shouldn’t be asking if it should be represented visually. A lot of the folks that are coming out now go straight to making prototypes.
So why are we trying to make something that’s interactive and endlessly tall fit on an 8.5×11 sheet of paper? What logic is that?
Lara: Yeah just to focus more on rapid prototyping rather than on this glamourous, dynamic wireframe.
Christina: Yeah exactly. It’s harder for the older folks who came from a different world, for them and for us because the reality is we’ve learned so much. We’ve spent so much of our time learning about anthropology or taxonomies or whathaveyou that the idea of having to sit down and learn really unreels on top of that all. I mean my gosh between my daughter and writing I barely have time to read a book so the idea of sitting down and learning to write code is inconceivable. On the other hand you know we make great managers. We make great strategic consultants. We make great design leads so why worry? Mixed feelings.
Lara: So much is focused on ad rail right now and getting things done quickly but they also have to be efficient so we can’t skip all the stopes but we can do them in a different way where we can still apply our knowledge and expertise to the design but not necessarily provide all the documentation and go through all the steps that we used to go through just because we used to do it and kind of revise our process to be efficient but also very thoughtful.
Christina: Yeah I think if step back and you think about what’s useful and what’s necessary and what’s just sort of how it’s done and separate those, you can start to find a more flexible road forward. Another historical artifact is we knew information architecture interaction design was incredibly important for making useable objects but it was invisible to the clients and therefore it was really hard to charge for. They’re not in the office. They don’t see you working the way you do when you’re in-house and so I think a lot of this documentation got invented as way of proving to the client that actual work was being done and because you were showing it to the client it started getting prettier and Snap to Grid and Helvetica and so on and suddenly it became a thing all by itself. It kind of grew like a monster and I think that there are still people who very, very much think about documentation as communication.
Dan Brown is a fantastic example but there are other people who are just obsessed with wireframes and I’m a little bit horrified. I see all these classes on how to be a UXer and they all say, “We’ll teach you how to make wireframes” but they don’t say, “We’re gonna teach you how to talk to users, how to do task analysis. It scares me.
Christina: We don’t need more wireframe monkey.
Lara: That’s true. That’s true and so I know we’ve been talking about deliverables and we talked a little bit about how teams can work effectively, and I know that’s one of your latest interests. So share with us some of your thoughts on that.
Christina: As I left Zynga I started doing a lot of advising to startups and consulting to teams and I feel for them very much because often they’re really struggling to get these really wonderful ideas into the world and they can get in their own way sometimes. Sometimes it’s a matter of not having enough focus. Sometimes it’s a matter of not having enough focus. Sometimes it’s a matter of having too many opportunities, too many good things they could be doing. Sometimes it’s really hard to get a team all pointed in the same direction, working towards the same mission and what I’ve been really lucky is, especially with LinkedIn and Yahoo! back in the day and actually Zynga, I learned a whole bag of tricks and techniques that let you get your entire team focused, goal-oriented and able to execute and measure over time.
And so this sort of mixture of a little bit of this and a little bit of that has become sort of a protocol and when I’ve been teaching it to the startups they get really excited and they get really good at executing as a team and so I’ve been focusing very much on that. In a lot of ways it’s just an extension of design. I feel like my life, you know I started with designing features and then designing products and then when I moved into Design Management I started designing teams. I used to say at Yahoo! I designed a place where design could happen and then when I went to startups I was designing a business and now I feel like I’m designing a path forward. I don’t think we ever stop designing once we start designing but the things that we make change as our interests wander around.
So this new system like I said it works. It works pretty well. Because I’m a designer I think very much about the vision: What is thing going to do to people when they interact with it? Is it gonna fill them with joy or is it going to cause them anguish? And so I started the process with this idea of the North Star, which is you have to figure out when people use your product, how do they feel, how have their lives changed?
I like to use the example of Mint, you know? If Mint was going it they might say, “We won’t ship our product until people feel empowered to control their own finances” and so every single choice that they make is about making sure that the people who use the product really feel empowered. I got this a lot from game designers who won’t launch games until they’re actually fun because what happens when you launch a game and it’s not fun? Work fails on the market. There’s no point in launching a game that isn’t fun or at least engaging but redesign, like, say, email, we’ll just launch it because it’s time because we have a deadline and it doesn’t matter if it does anything interesting or different or well and so I think just taking that idea from game design but there’s a real emotion, a real change you wanna create in the users and aim for it.
It’s important and then once you have that goal, you can use OKR’s to keep yourself aimed at that goal month-over-month. OKR’s are “objectives and key results.” We used these at Zynga. They’re used at Google. I think John Doerr is the great meme spreader across the Silicon Valley for them and what you do is you create a really qualitative objective so, for this quarter, we’re going to create an amazing tool that makes you feel like you’ve gotten the best rates on your credit cards and then the KR’s would then qualify that. Well what is that? What is best?
I’d wanna have a sense. I wanna make sure that it was comprehensive so I would make sure that I was comparing the rates against at least 100 different credit cards. I’d wanna make sure that I was getting the best rates and I’d be alerted that it was changing so you know you’d have to make sure that it was up-to-date. You just go ahead and figure what there would be quantitative ways to understand what best was and then you have a confidence level. You want people to stretch but you don’t want people to feel like their goals are impossible so you could set a confidence level of 5 out of 10 and then every week you report back. Is it 8 out of 10?
Do we think we’re going to hit that goal or is it 3 out of 10, we think we’re gonna whop that goal and if you see a 3 you could have a conversation, basically, “Hey why are we missing this? Did we do a bad job of figuring out is this a right goal or did we pick something that was too hard for us, there was no way or somebody not doing what they shouldn’t be doing? Do we pick a goal that we’re actually in control of?” And then if it’s an 8 let’s say 2 weeks later you’re 8 of 10 you’re obviously going to hit this way before the quarters end, you have to say, “Are you sandbagging? Are you blowing it off?” And so there’s that. I have a couple of other tricks, one that I think is really designerly: A lot of people think about doing participatory design you know where you have an interface and you have little modules of things that could go on it and it you talk to your users and you have them put it onto the interface to understand what’s really important to them and what you care about.
Well I learned another approach which is participatory roadmaps and so you so the same thing. You have a roadmap that’s basically “Now, Soon, Later.” You have all the features and then you work with your clients, your potential clients to decide what features should go where so the exact same things I did to the designer worked beautifully when you’re working as a product person or a startup so I think there’re some very powerful tools and my hope is that companies will take those and be able to put more good products in the world. I’m writing a book basically because I got this knowledge sort of through blood and tears and many years of suffering and I would hate for that knowledge to stay in my head so I’m writing it up and I’m sharing it out.
Lara: That’s fantastic. I can’t wait to read it.
Christina: I can’t wait to be done writing it.
Lara: I’m sure. Well you’re talking about teams. I’m just curious if you have a story about transforming a team, a team that wasn’t working so well together and how some of your tips and tricks helped them change their mindset and work more effectively together.
Christina: You know it’s funny because one of the things I feel like I’ve struggled against my entire career is companies do not like to share anything in case it might be competitive advantage, even – and it’s hard to get a profession to move forward and that’s why I started the IA Cocktail Hours, that’s the IA Institute. That’s why I started Boxes and Arrows because I feel like nothing ever moves forward unless people share what they learn. It’s kinda the same thing here which is I can tell a story but I have to not say who it happened with [crosstalk] —
Because – and in the book I’m gonna actually make up a game company but — this company I was working with, they had to decide whether they were going to be B2B or B2C and to be quite honest they were trying to do both and so they had some people who were very committed to the consumer side of things, you know the business-to-consumer and they had another group that was committed to the B2B, direct sales, and so I sat down with the Leadership Group and, over a series of meetings, first we clarified their mission statement: Why did they exist? What businesses were they in and what businesses were they not in and what was a really quick-and-easy-and-short way to state so that everybody knew when they got out of bed in the morning what they were doing? And through that we were able to clarify that the real focus was on B2B and, from there, then it was the question, okay, how are we gonna transform the company to be focused on B2B because there were people who were off doing their consumer marketing and consumer-research stuff and it came really down to a couple of things. One was setting clear goals and create 50 prospects and build the sales team up to 5, something like that, something you’d do in a quarter. So we did that and then the other one was getting the team onboard, including firing somebody who wasn’t gonna be part of this new vision and I will tell you people are scared to fire people. People are scared to lay people off but the reality is that everyone I’ve ever seen has gone on to find a job that suits them better and not only that but the team usually does better.
In this case this person was strong, very strong but it just wasn’t a fit and because they were strong, very strong. You should never be afraid to lay off somebody who’s awesome because, guess what? Thirty seconds later they got another job. It’s really not a thing in the Silicon Valley. Now I understand there are depressed areas where that’s not true and I don’t wanna be facile about it but, overall, if you really want the company to survive and be healthy and be strong enough to keep everybody else employed sometimes somebody has to take a hit. It’s a tough thing to say but it’s true.
Lara: Right it’s getting the team more focused and who you have on your team really makes a difference. I mean you look at their skillset, their personalities, how they work together, how they complement one another and you know if they’re not all focused on the same goal or vision it can be really difficult.
Christina: Oh it can be horrible because you have this person just constantly questioning whether or not you’ve made a good decision and, believe me, that doesn’t help. As well as that I think most front-line designers don’t realize how expensive every human being is, you know? Somebody who’s making say $120,000.00 could easily be costing a startup $200,000.00 and that could be another 3 months of run time or even 6 months of survival for the startup and that’s the difference between making it to raising the next round or not, making it to raising the next round. In other words if you don’t fire somebody the entire company could go under and then you have multiple people without jobs. So you really, really have to do lots and lots of hard things when you run a startup and it’s important to just accept that as part of the fate that you’ve chosen for yourself.
So the other thing is it’s not enough to set the OKR’s. You have to make sure that they’re living. Many people set goals and then they go, “Okay we have goals now,” and, you know, 2 weeks later you’ve forgotten them so I also set up a situation where every Monday the Leadership Team meets, they make promises to each other, “Here are the things that are gonna happen this week” just like – it’s just straight out of – Agile. “Here’s what’s gonna happen, here’s my confidence level on the OKR, has it gone down, has it gone up? Here’s sort of the roadmap for the next month, here’s the health of the team, here’s the health of the technology,” just continual checking in.
And then every Friday with the whole company – and these are startups, they’re small companies. With a big company you might just do it with your general team. You have basically a Demo Day at the end of the day, with beer, and you know if you’re a salesperson and you don’t have anything to demo you can talk about what sales you’ve closed, if you’re a biz-dev person, what deals you’ve closed but people start to really want to be one of those people standing up there with wins. Designers show off their designs. Engineers show their code. You don’t wanna be the guy who has nothing to show that week so it creates a little excitement to be part of the celebration and it also makes you feel like you’re part of a company that’s winning.
I think that cadence of making promises and then celebrating wins is a really, really, really important one if you wanna move forward and if you want to succeed and there’s a few other _____ to this, a few other tricks but this team we did exactly those things. We set up a mission. We put into place the OKR’s and then the first few weeks of the company let’s just say they were a little worried about budget and they wouldn’t buy beer and I would [crosstalk] —
Christina: Go by – [laughs] I’d go by the local liquor store and pick up a case and put it in and after the third week I think I shamed them into starting to buy beer for it because, you know, that’s part of a celebration, you know? I think a lot of small companies don’t spend their money wisely but I talked to one startup that paid this big-name LA-brand firm hundreds of thousands of dollars for their logo but they wouldn’t pay for a UX person to do a heuristic analysis of their prototype and I was, like, “You know your logo will matter when you’re big but it won’t matter when you’re small.” It can’t look like somebody in a garage did it but you don’t need the best guy either, you know?
Christina: But if they can’t use the site it won’t matter what your logo looks like and it’s really hard to kinda get it through their head sometimes to think about where you’re spending money and I’ve seen startups that are so cheap they don’t wanna spend money on anything and then they do fail because they have inexperienced people and bad tech and bad design. And I know it’s really scary when you’ve only got you know half a million dollars in the bank and I know it sounds like a lot of money but I just told you about salary so you can do the math pretty quick. That’s not very much money. The money’s gonna go no matter what you do. It’d be nice if you succeeded along the way.
Lara: Well I think it’s up to the leadership to create the culture or to at least heavily influence the culture and if you’re celebrating those wins you’re really making the team members feel like they are contributing something of value and that’s gonna roll over into many things, I mean morale will be fantastic. They’ll be more dedicated and loyal to their work and to their designs. It has so many positive effects.
Christina: Absolutely and you know what’s funny? But you said something interesting which is you talk about the leadership but in a startup everybody is equally responsible for the success, you know? I was just a consultant and I was just buying beer out of my own pocket because I knew it was part of the puzzle but it could’ve been done by a frontline designer. It could’ve been done by a QA person. It could be done by anybody. In a small company that’s one of the changes that’s really tough for some designers is they’re used to be taken care of in a big company and a lot of the hard decisions are made but in a tiny startup every single human being in the building is shaping the culture and the potential success of the company. Everybody has power and I think that’s one of the most important things for designers to get into their head if they decide to switch over to startups is the plus is they really can shape the culture of the business.
The negative is they really have to shape the culture of the business. The negative is they really have to shape the [laughs] culture of the business and everything. It’s a big responsibility as well.
Lara: I really wanna make sure we have enough time to talk about your commitment to joy. I just find so much inspiration in that and I think it’s important to share it with other people, especially as you have found so many other people that are taking actions to commit their lives to joy.
Christina: Or just starting to consider it and aren’t sure if they can do it or not. When I left Zynga I was pretty tired. I’d been Senior Management for several years and worked insane hours and been so stressed out and so exhausted and had stomach problems and back problems and was sick every 15 minutes, I swear, and so when I left Zynga I just decided not to take another job for a while and you have to remember before Zynga I was a general manager and I’d been a Principle Product person. I’d run a startup. I mean we’re talking a lot of years of very hard work so I took 6 months off just to goof around and relax and rest and think about what made me happy and what would be the kind of life I wanted to live and I’m lucky to be friends with the wonderful Harry Max who’s said, when I was saying, “Oh should I join this company or should I do this,” he said, “Optimize for joy” and that’s become my personal North Star. That’s the thing that guides every decision: Is this going to increase my joy or is this going to deplete my joy? And from that I thought, “Okay how do I wanna design my life?”
“Well let’s do it lean. Let’s run a lot of small experiments.” So I thought, “Maybe I’d like teaching. Maybe teaching might be fun.” What’s the smallest thing I could do to find out if I actually liked teaching? I like workshops. I like giving talks so I got introduced to a couple of place and General Assembly offered me an evening class, “12 Weeks to Teach UX” and I tried it out and then I found, “Yeah, I really like teaching. Teaching’s awesome.
Let’s do more of that “and so now next year I’m going to be teaching with both CCA and Stanford and probably doing a few more things with GA as well. It’s been like that with everything. Do I like giving talks at conferences? Yeah I kinda do. I like travel an awful lot. Sometimes it’s nice to travel on [laughs] somebody else’s dime and be able to teach at the same time.
I think too often we make up lives that other people tell us to live. I mean that first 6 months was so hard because everybody wanted to know “Where are you going next” and “Are you gonna do another startup” and “Are you gonna join another company” and “I can’t wait to see this next big thing you’re doing” and I’m like, “What if I did small [laughs] things? What if I didn’t do big things? What if I did quiet things? What if I was happy?”
I think it’s a struggle because the entire universe or not the universe but most of humanity is really happy to judge you. Most of humanity is willing to tell you you’re doing it right or you’re doing it wrong. It takes a little bit of courage to try to find your own path and to do something that hasn’t been done before. Even though it’s hard the rewards are epic and I would encourage people if they’ve ever thought about something, if they’ve ever thought about teaching or having a startup, don’t quit everything and just do it, test out those ideas and if it increases your joy do it a little bit more and if it increases it your joy do it a little bit more and commit your life to being happy.
Lara: If a person is kind of earlier in their career you know I was gonna ask you what’s one thing that they could do but I think, well, like you said just take it in little bits and test it out.
Christina: Absolutely and you know what’s nice is when you’re young you think it’s gonna ruin your life but it’s not because you’re young, like, you can actually join a company. You might say, “I have a theory: Being at Google could be awesome. I have a theory: Going into game design could be really cool” and you can join a company. And six months later if it doesn’t work out you could quit and you could go somewhere else. I wouldn’t do that too many times in a row but one mistake isn’t going to kill you. It really isn’t so be brave once in a while.
I think if you’re always doing things out of joy it will lead you well. I’ve done a lot of things out of curiosity. I joined Yahoo! at the moment I did because I wanted to learn about search and I know that sounds funny now but at that particular moment in time I had joined it just the right moment. They were just building up their search competency and I got to be able to figure it out with them, which is not an opportunity that comes around very often. People who laugh now at my joining Zynga, well, I’ll tell you I joined with some very senior people in the game industry because we were all curious: What does it mean when games are actually social?
And I managed to work with some amazing people, like Brian Reynolds and Mark Skaggs and learn from these giants. And for that I can only be grateful, you know? Curiosity is a piece of the puzzle. The other thing is you have to watch out. Just don’t get seduced by the big brand just because it’s, you know “I’d like to have Facebook on my résumé.”
Well is this a place that’s gonna make you happy? Are you gonna enjoy going to work every day? Oh my gosh. I have a friend who worked at an extremely, extremely hot startup and she told me this story that one of her coworkers got home and his dad’s an artist and he said, “I didn’t wanna go in the kitchen where my dad and his other artist friends were talking because they’re gonna all be talking about how satisfying their life is and I’m just suffering. I’m just dying inside waiting for my payout.” And I thought, “There’s nothing that’s worth that.”
“There’s nothing on your résumé that’s worth that. There’s no mysterious IPO that’s worth that.” You can’t see the future so you have to take care of your present so don’t join a company because it’s a big, sexy brand. Don’t join a company because you think it’ll look good on your résumé. Join a company that you’re gonna be excited to see everybody every single day and I think the rest will pretty much take care of itself.
Lara: Well thank you so much for your time today and thanks for being on UX Radio.
Christina: Well thank you Lara. It was wonderful. I really appreciate it.
This episode is sponsored by WeWork. Meaningful conversations are essential to the success of every entrepreneur, freelancer and small-business owner. Thanks to Steve Crosby for digital development and original score piece by Cameron Meshell.
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More About Christina Wodtke
Wodtke has held a series of executive roles in the tech industry, most notably leading teams who built the events platform and created an algorithm for Linkedin’s newsfeed, leading a redesign of Myspace and its profile pages and leading the design and launch of the Zynga.com gaming platform.
Wodtke is a co-founder and past president of the Information Architecture Institute. As a User Experience professional, she has worked for such companies as Yahoo, Hot Studio, and New York Times to improve and develop their Web sites.
Wodtke founded Webby-nominated magazine of design thinking [Boxes and Arrows] and has been publisher continuously (as well as sometime contributor). Boxes and Arrows was the first online magazine aimed exclusively at working practitioner designers, and has inspired a host of other excellent online ‘zines, from UXmatters to Johnny Holland.
Known for a blunt and humorous speaking manner, she is frequently sought out as an expert for interviews and talks on social web design, gamification, user experience, start-up management, and innovation.
In 2003 her book Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web was published.