Whitney Hess Discusses User Experience Design

This post is by 2011 hackNY Fellow Cemre Güngör, who interns with Etsy.

Whitney Hess is an independent User Experience professional, speaker and blogger who lives in New York City.

Whitney Hess joined hackNY at the New Work City coworking space to talk to us about the field of User Experience and working as an independent professional. Having suggested her as a speaker, I was very excited to get to meet Whitney. Only two of this year’s hackNY Fellows identify as designers, though all of the Fellows showed an overwhelming interest in Whitney’s talk. Whitney inspired many Fellows to learn more about design and user experience, which made her talk a success.

Whitney started her talk by telling the story of how she ended up in the field of User Experience. She told us that her empathy towards users was the most important thing she learned in the Human-Computer Interaction program at Carnegie Mellon, and having studied professional writing helps her express her thoughts clearly, which is a very useful skill in her profession. “User Experience is more than a collection of methods”, Whitney said. “It is a philosophy about how to treat people”.

The most informative part of Whitney’s talk was when she walked us through a recent project she worked on. We got to see the process in its entirety, starting all the way from user research, interviews, defining personas, planning features all the way up to designing wireframes and running usability tests. Seeing a systematic approach to getting to know the users and defining the product helped us understand what doing User Experience entails.

One Fellow asked Whitney what she thought about companies like Apple and 37signals who claim to design products for themselves, as opposed to researching what their customers want. Whitney said she thinks this “designing for yourself” philosophy is just marketing, and that “people like Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive constantly observe society”.

We also heard about what it’s like to work as an independent professional. Whitney talked about the difference between working with startups and big companies, coworking communities, and how she pitches clients and paces her work.

While she likes having different projects and working with different companies, she pointed out that one downside of being an independent is that one doesn’t always get to see projects finalized. Whitney told us she’s very lucky because she gets to pick her clients. “I’m not in the business for convincing companies to care for their customers,” she said.

hackNY Summer Lecture Series: Ann Miura-Ko

Ann Miura-Ko explains the growth of a startup

hackNY’s Summer Series launched Wednesday June 1 with Ann Miura-Ko, co-founding partner of Floodgate Ventures. She discussed her life, unique career path, and how venture capital fits into tech startups. Ann led the fellows through her career, beginning with her time as an electrical engineering undergraduate at Yale. Fortuitously offered the opportunity to shadow Lew Platt, CEO of Hewlett-Packard at the time, she developed a taste for business and switched gears to jobs outside of engineering.

Ann spent a summer as an intern at Goldman Sachs, then several years as a management consultant at McKinsey. After McKinsey, she moved on to work in venture capital at Charles River Ventures. Investing in the economy-low of 2001-2003 proved slow, however, and after two years, Ann felt it was time to return to school for her PhD at Stanford. She returned to venture capital in 2008, co-founding a new fund named Floodgate Ventures.


Ann explained VC funds, including where they receive funding, how they function, and what part they play in the growth of a startup. Having taught numerous classes on startups and business model generation at Stanford, Ann deftly explained startup economics. The lecture became more of a dialogue, as the fellows had some great questions about VC funds, investing, and startups in general. For many, this was a first exposure to the intricacies of startup finance and funding.

Ann was sure to indicate the obligations that came with bringing an investor on board, and that obtaining investors is not necessarily the best choice for every startup. “If you’d sell your company now if you could,” she pointed out, “don’t raise money.” Venture capitalists expect growth and a significant return on their investment to support their obligations to their own investors. It was apparent in the fellows’ questions, however, that Ann helped demystify how startups interact with investors and achieve subsequent growth.

Fred Brooks at Etsy on Software Development and Collaboration

The HackNY Fellows visited Etsy to see Fred Brooks speak about collaboration and the process of software development.

Before the talk, Fellows had a chance to catch up with each other and with Hilary, Evan, and Chris about their startups.

Clem and Anil, rappin bout clustering
catching up
catching up

Fred covered material from The Mythical Man-Month and his new book, The Design of Design.

He emphasized how projects must be organized to preserve the conceptual integrity of the design. His presentation was full of hilarious anecdotes and memorable phrases, such as “Many hands make light work: often, and more work: always.”

He also had great stories from his time at IBM and other Big Corporations about how hierarchies, like one finds in a large company, can lead to disconnect between the committee that designed the project and the people actually implementing it, who know what the real problems are.

Fred also discussed the role of telecollaboration, which can be a big part of life for some startups. He emphasized that it was important to have face to face meetings first, and telecollaborate later, a point also raised last week in the post Is Silicon Valley Dead? by Dave Troy:

Real creativity … has to happen face to face. This is where the magic occurs. If you don’t spend time with people you can’t create.

New-technology tools can help with execution, but only after the team dynamics are in place…

Love your place. Find the other like minded souls who love your place and start companies with those people. The creativity you unleash in your own backyard is the most important competitive differentiator you have.

Fred also took time to sign books and chat with the audience.

Afterwards Fellows got to chat with some other members of NYC’s startup ecosystem. Here’s Tal with Benjamin Gleitzman of Hunch.com, also cofounder of NextStep Tech!

tal (hackNY/aviary) + benjamin (hunch/NextStep Tech)
tal (hackNY/aviary) + benjamin (hunch/NextStep Tech)

Last week in the Wall Street Journal, Tal was quoted as saying “Compared to a traditional job, start-up life is different.” Etsy proved them right when, after the talk, they busted out the DJ + the disco ball:

DJ Etsy
DJ Etsy
Etsy disco ball
Etsy disco ball

Thanks to our host, Chad Dickerson!