Meet Dennis Breen. Dennis is a Senior Consultant at nForm who believes that design isn’t just about how things look – it’s about how they work. Affectionately nicknamed “The Oracle”, he is our “go-to” guy for everything from brainstorming, vetting approaches and reviewing work – to finding the perfect Simpsons meme.
How did you get into the UX field?
I started out as a not very skilled visual designer for web. Early on, I observed that no one seemed to know what we were trying to achieve in our projects – not even the client. I started to wonder who used the sites we were building, what for, and whether they could find what they needed. And I began to think that there must be a better way to do things than “tell us what you want, and here’s 3 mock-ups to choose from.”
Around that time, I discovered “Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug and realized that my suspicions were correct – there was a better way. After that I stumbled on the broader IA community and started reading blogs and books and looking for ways to copy all the smart things I was finding. Since then it’s been 18 years of copying and experimenting and generally trying to figure things out.
Who are some of the thought leaders you look to for ideas/inspiration?
There are so many, and more are emerging all the time. It’s hard to keep up. A few people stand out as always having important or useful things to say, including Jared Spool, Christina Wodtke, Dave Gray, Lou Rosenfeld, Peter Morville. But I could probably make a list of a hundred people who have influenced me by generously sharing their insights.
How have you seen UX evolve since you’ve been with nForm?
There have certainly been changes in technology, but I see our basic work as being the same – designing things to help people accomplish a task. In my opinion, that core of our work – figuring out how to use technology to help people meet certain goals in a specific context – will never change. It’s been like that since before the word design was invented.
Any fond memories of when your work profoundly impacted someone?
Tough question. I once worked on a very complex project to redesign an application for people to use in a high-stress work situation. The app they had was pretty difficult for some staff – enough so that some experienced people were on stress leave and others were considering a new career. When the pilot version of the app rolled out it was quite different than what they were used to, so the client scheduled two weeks of training with the pilot group. After about three days the test group said they understood the app and didn’t need any more training. In UX, that’s about as good as it gets – invisible fit.
What is it about UX and the work that you do that keeps you motivated?
It sounds corny, but I like the idea of making the world a tiny bit better for people. Technology is so pervasive and it’s often a source of real frustration for people. If I can make a few interactions a little more friction-less for humans, I’m happy.
Do you have a process or consistent approach to a problem? If so, could you describe it?
I think the first step is often overlooked – figuring out what the problem is. I often find that clients come to us to solve a problem and after we do some digging we discover that it’s not the real problem. Jess McMullin has a Design Maturity Model that says, “problem framing”, or defining the problem to be solved, is the highest form of design effort. That resonates with me.
After that, I’m a big believer in Research » Design » Evaluate » Repeat.
Do you have any advice for someone who is considering getting into the industry? Do you have any thoughts on what qualities are ideal for this type of work?
When I was starting out I read that you should find people doing what you want to do and copy them. That worked for me. UX work is about creating effective design interventions. We can only evaluate a design’s effectiveness if we have clearly defined problems. So, learning how to cut through the layers of competing concerns to discover core problems is incredibly useful. But that’s probably a later-career skill.
In the meantime, learn how to care about effectiveness, even if someone else gets to define the problem. Caring about effectiveness requires that you give up the ego in service of a better solution. Don’t hold onto your own ideas too tightly. Be open to discovering that they’re wrong. Be open to good ideas, no matter who or where they come from. Give people credit for their ideas. Grab hold of anything that makes the result better. Care about effectiveness. Let go of ego.
Favorite UX or work-related book and why
To me, almost any good book is work-related. Good novels can be great teachers because they reveal essential things about being human. They can make us care about and feel empathy for people who are very unlike us. That’s what UX researchers and designers need to do. Read a good novel by or about someone not like you. Tell your boss it’s professional development.
Where did you go to school?
I have a Bachelor of Design from the University of Alberta and a Fine Arts Diploma from MacEwan (way back when it was a Community College).
What’s your favourite book/movie? Why?
I don’t really do singular favourites. I can make lists of things I like (unordered), but I can’t pick one thing over all others. I’ve read a few psychology and behavioural economics books that have shaped my thinking on user behaviour. Examples include Predictably Irrational by Dan Arielly, Brain Rules by John Medina, and Freakonomics by Levitt and Dubner.
Why? The stuff we make is for humans to use. Any insight into how humans think and decide is very helpful. We are NOT the rational actors we like to imagine.
I’ve also enjoyed a few books on creative process, like Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull, Born Standing Up by Steve Martin, and Soul Mining: A Musical Life by Daniel Lanois.
Why? It’s fascinating to see that incredible creativity doesn’t just spring from the mind of geniuses. In teams, creativity requires a fertile environment that encourages less ego, more honesty, and critique that always focuses on making a thing better. On an individual level, creativity comes from hard work, attention to detail, experimentation, and assessment of what works and what doesn’t.
What’s the most unusual job you ever had?
My current job us by far the most unusual. I’ve worked in a warehouse, in a grocery store, driven a delivery truck, and delivered newspapers (remember them?). Those are normal jobs. UX designer? Try explaining that to your Dad.
What’s the one thing about yourself that you think people would be surprised to know?
I ask a lot of questions because I genuinely don’t understand things. Ignorance and confusion are my professional edge.
If you could choose anyone in the world, who would you pick as your mentor?
I’ve been super fortunate to have worked with and for some incredibly smart people. All of them have been my mentors, and I’m not sure I could have done any better picking someone else. Gene Smith, Jess McMullin, Johanna Dietrich, Andrew Wright, Yvonne Shek, Lisa Farlow – those people have given me a lot.
Okay – Christina Wodtke, Peter Morville, Jared Spool, and Dave Gray. Because I do lists, not ones.
What made you choose this career path?
I’m not sure I did choose it. I went into visual communications as a fine arts refugee. I lucked into a web design job after graduating. I found a tricky and interesting puzzle there, and I started working on it. Here I am.
What skills are you hoping to develop while working at nForm?
I’d really like to learn Flash…