Gino Fiore, Whitney McKedy and Martin Ho, Co-Founders of Traceable Change
Gino Fiore, Whitney McKedy and Martin Ho are the Co-Founder's of Traceable Change
Please tell us about Traceable Change.
Traceable Change is a Chicago-based team of UX strategists. Empathy is the hallmark of our identity, and we infuse this into our research, our design, and our conversations with clients and colleagues. We make organizations successful by always tracing our work back to the user and our client’s goals.
Our mission is simple: With relentless curiosity and creativity, we deliver exceptional experiences.
Please tell us a little bit about your current work & your background.
Gino Fiore: Traceable Change, Co-Founder. I work in UX Strategy and have a background in Brand Strategy and Product Design. Outside of work I plan and facilitate UIC’s connectID mentorship program. I studied furniture design in Copenhagen, Denmark and built a lounge chair from scratch. Lastly, I have a huge car obsession, love quirky housewares products, and wish to someday furnish my house with products from Normann CPH.
Whitney McKedy: Traceable Change, Co-Founder. I’m an experience research/design strategist with a background in social and cognitive psychology. I live in West Town here in Chicago, just a few blocks down from our office. I love gardening vegetables (as best I can from a second story apartment balcony), knitting my way into a giant pile of scarves in the winter, and trying to travel the world as much as I possibly can. I speak proficient-ish Italian and am currently excitedly fumbling my way through learning Hindi. I love pizza too much, which is why I believe this town will end me.
Martin Ho: Traceable Change, Co-Founder. Unbeknownst to me, I was destined to work with technology. My dad spent his life working with technology, and as such, a computer was always in my life, starting with the 8088. My older brother followed in my dad’s footsteps, getting his computer science degree and working for Sun Microsystems. Being the rebellious middle child, I swore off technology and instead was a self-proclaimed ‘people person’, studying psychology and sociology in school. I couldn’t, however, fend off my fate forever, and before long, I found myself working with technology in the field of UX.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a designer?
Gino: I first knew I wanted to be a Designer as a kid. I loved to draw anything and everything from cars to teapots. I liked to change an element or two of whatever I was drawing at the time to make it my own, or try to make it better. Also, I used to rearrange my parents’ furniture and decorative objects to study proportion and physical spaces. Oddly, they never stopped me from doing it and usually tolerated the result.
Whitney: I never realized I wanted to get into UX – honestly, I stumbled into it. My passion is studying human behaviors, especially the way we construct identities around people and things. Turned out UX was a great place for me to flex those muscles in a diverse and applied way.
Martin: I didn’t realize I wanted to ‘do UX’ until six months into my first UX job. Prior to my entry to the field, I was a child clinical psychology graduate student. I was assessing children for learning disorders and ADHD, conducting parent management training, and providing couples counseling. I was on an academic track until I was introduced to User Experience, but the transition to the field was certainly more of a leap of faith than a prescribed track from my education and training.
What was your first design job? Any interesting stories about how you broke into the field?
Gino: My first job in design was an internship that turned into a full-time position after graduation. I worked at a design firm that focused on the athletic industry, there I designed biking accessories and apparel. An interesting challenge at the time was I had no athletic experience except for playing Pee Wee baseball for 1 season. To keep up with the job, I did a lot of secondary research and interviewed tons of people so I could design products that I initially knew nothing about. The experience taught me how to dive into something unknown and make it work.
Whitney: My first industry job was a few months out of grad school at a boutique UX shop called User Centric. I had been applying for research jobs for a couple months straight out of school (it was 2011 and the job market sucked) when I got a late-night email response the same day I applied to this “UX” place (whatever that meant). Two entertaining and inspiring interviews later, I was hooked on the concept of this industry that uses all things human as the basis for business and design decisions
Martin: I stumbled into my first UX job when my friend and I were talking about how we might apply our skills outside traditional clinical psychology tracks. She was a child clinical psychology graduate student at the University of Washington. Her enrollment at U. of Washington is important because her boyfriend, at the time, worked for Microsoft. He mentioned to her that Microsoft was investing in cognitive and behavioral psychologists in “this field called usability”. After a quick Google search, I had volunteered for the upcoming UPA conference in Boulder, Colorado. That is where I met User Centric, a UX consultancy based in Chicago. Three weeks later, I had quit my graduate program and accepted a position as UX Specialist. The rest is history. Incidentally, my friend in Seattle quit her program and joined the Microsoft UX team six months after.
Please describe a normal day at your current job. What’s the workflow like? What are your primary responsibilities?
Traceable Change: The day starts family style – whoever rolls in first gets the coffee pot started up, then we all huddle up over a cup to catch-up and plan for the day. Then “Who’s doing music?” followed by a negotiation on who has to take over Bluetooth for the day. It should be noted this is usually a pointless activity as we almost always end up on a 90s pop/R&B loop regardless of who’s in charge. We also find impromptu sing-a-longs really get the creative juices flowing. We all get to work in pretty close proximity, so collaboration tends to be very free and organic, just the way we like it. We lean on each other for ideas, feedback, and inspiration regardless of whether we are working on one or many projects. Brainstorms and sketch sessions on research design, interfaces, packaging, branding, and client strategy are pretty common place, to name a few. When we’re not in the office, you’ll likely find us at client’s sites, in the field observing people in their environments, engaging with community orgs, or visiting our neighbor’s downstairs at Green Zebra. :)
Are there any memorable war stories, client interactions or close calls that have taught you something important about how things work?
Gino: A lesson learned…if you are workshopping with colleagues or clients who work in fields outside of design, it is crucial to explain the value and results behind using interactive design methods in your meeting. Providing enough context is key for success. Once, I conducted a client workshop with a group of multidisciplinary stakeholders who were not enthusiastic about drawing, so we didn’t, and I had to scrap that activity and come up with a new one on the fly. It was uncomfortable in the moment, but now I know I need to prepare the people involved and not assume everyone is willing to do whatever I suggest.
Whitney: Hands down the most striking and rewarding part of this job for me is the international work, especially emerging markets. I’ve had the privilege to research and ideate design in various countries across North and South America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Middle East. Discovering and unveiling culture-specific behaviors and beliefs is fascinating in itself, but even more, it really adds a richness to design thinking. In our diverse US culture, I believe global learnings can and should be applied while designing here at home as well. — Things I’ve learned researching on the ground? Account for the daily 5 calls to prayer in Dubai, be cool with participants strolling in 2 hours late in Italy, plan for strictly regulated labor hours in Germany, don’t dare deviate from the schedule in China, and have a cursory understanding of the head bobble in India if you don’t want to be completely lost (hint: aside from “yes”, it means about a million different things).
Martin: The story I recount the most is a client project that, by all accounts, went off the rails. I had worked with the client in developing an engagement where we were going to conduct a heuristic evaluation of their product. With SOW signed, I hopped on a project kickoff call with the client team, and within minutes, it was apparent that a heuristic evaluation would provide ZERO value to the client. Their goals and objectives centered on more fundamental questions about user workflows and how the product would best fit into their day-in-the-life. I made a split-second decision to share my assessment, essentially calling off the engagement. In that moment, I was frightened at the prospect of taking work off the table, especially work that could have easily been conducted and billed for. But that decision paid off in spades. We reworked the engagement and conducted a three-day in-person workshop focused on mapping out the day-in-the-life of their target users. We continued to work with this client on multiple engagements following. I often share this story because it highlights how important it is to be a client’s partner first. This may mean risking billable work in the short term, but it is the very aspect of consulting that elevates us to being a client partner, not just a vendor.
What’s a common mistake you often see entry level designers make? What are some tips to avoid or overcome it?
Gino: Sometimes people fixate on landing their dream job right away. Achieving this goal takes time and experience. I encourage people to consider all opportunities and evaluate how experience gained will help you land your dream job in the future.
Whitney: Timidity or indifference. UX, experience design – whatever label you prefer – is going to keep changing as long as people change. That means we are responsible for being consistently curious and evolving our approach to understand humans and design for them in their ever-changing context. I’ve had jobs where it would be pretty easy to coast. Rules are set. Protocol is immovable. This field is the antithesis of that experience – it changes and moves way too quickly to accommodate complacency. We need the folks that are excited to ask the unasked questions, turn that knowledge into enlightening solutions, and continue to push what this field can do to keep the always-changing human central to everything.
Martin: I often observed newer consultants feel the immense pressure of proving themselves to clients, substantiating their place amongst a potentially tenured group of stakeholders and consultants. I was super guilty of this when I first started. I distinctly remember one of the first sales call I was on, where the client was interested in a longitudinal view of their customer experience. Having a concentration in quantitative analysis in graduate school, I started spewing highly technical terms about latent growth curves and data imputations, which was followed by a super long pause by the client – I failed miserably at connecting with the client and understanding their needs.
My tip to entry level people: Pause. We don’t always need to have THE answer to client questions. In fact, oftentimes, there is no one correct path to success – there are many – and our goal as consultants is to uncover those paths and appropriate weigh the tradeoffs to make the best decision possible.
Any industry sites or blogs you read on a regular basis, or anything else you read for inspiration?
Whitney: Can I shamelessly plug our new blog Tracing Paper? Haha. I’m actually really into India lately and how the field is evolving in the region, so I follow a lot of tech and design news in that part of the world. Holistic discovery research and iterative design methods tend to constantly be fighting against the inertia of development and engineering culture, so I like to keep an eye on how that is evolving.
Martin: There are the seemingly requisite industry sites and blogs for our field (UX Magazine, Smashing Magazine, to name just a couple). I also like to get inspiration from following companies and seeing new and different ways they deliver experiences to their customers. Mostly though, I like to see what my colleagues and clients are reading and talking about on social media, like LinkedIn. It simultaneously helps me forage for new trends and ideas, in addition to getting to better know my colleagues insofar as what interests them and how they think.
There’s something new and amazing coming out every day. What’s something awesome you’ve seen recently that you’re dying to share, or something you’re excited about?
Gino: It’s amazing to see how many of my friends and colleagues are becoming entrepreneurs and introducing new products into the world. They inspire me and I’m so excited to see them grow their businesses. Please check them out:
Erica Michie founded Michi’s Workshop, a jewelry boutique for playful minimalist’s: Michis Workshop
Joe Carpita founded Parallel Goods, a collective that designs housewares you can produce at home with your 3D printer.
Jacob Zweig founded Optimail, a new online marketing campaign platform.
Mark Weiser created Pon Push Pins, stainless steel punctureless push pins that let you hang up your paper treasures without leaving holes.
Alex Albanese created It’s American Press, a single-serve coffee maker that brews an amazing cup of joe.
Whitney: I’m generally really excited about seeing what nonprofits and NGOs are doing to engage disadvantaged communities in the tech industry. There’s an organization here in Chicago called Blue 1647 that is doing really amazing work connecting city youth with professionals in these industries, providing career training, design training, and lots of coding opportunities. I’m looking forward to getting more involved with their mentoring programs.
Martin: With Gino and Whitney both stealing my #1 and #2 ideas for how to answer this question, I’ll share something that blew me away from one of our clients. Major advancements in AR continue, but I was super impressed with a real-world business application of the Microsoft HoloLens by one of our clients. The technology itself is super cool, but the coolness factor was certainly kicked up a great deal of notches when you get the chance to see it become something that a company invests in to transform their end customers’ work life.
What advice would you give to someone trying to break into the industry?
Gino: I recommend in-person networking. Take advantage of the numerous meetups in Chicago and related industry events. Introduce yourself and share your contact information. Also, I would recommend finding a mentor to help with guidance and advice. Lastly, don’t be shy when sharing your past work experience, it is part of your journey.
Whitney: Regardless of your background, be ready and open to a lot of on-the-job training. A strong experience designer or UXer is a bit of a renaissance person – a clear area of expertise, but able to do it all. This isn’t only to say that you can execute a bunch of different tasks when necessary, this diversity in knowledge also makes you stronger in your expertise and practice as an advisor with a UX lens.
Martin: Having started Traceable Change, one of the things I was most impressed – and humbled – by was the community of practitioners from which we could gather insights and inspiration. Be a sponge and soak up stories about others’ experiences. Get a sense of our field’s landscape by reading from the many free and available online resources. But most of all, know your own passions and strengths, and jump in. We are an eclectic field of researchers, designers, and thinkers. There is no one clear path to entry. Jump in, rely on the support from others who have been in your shoes, and have fun!
What do you think is the future of your industry?
UX is most useful when at the core of an organization. We believe more organizations will continue to increase in their UX maturity and have user experience as an integral part of their DNA and business strategy. We anticipate that UX will transition from being perceived as an activity (research, design, strategy) to being a framework for how organizations deliver their products and services.