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An Interview with Mary Treseler, Co-chair of the New O’Reilly Design Conference

November 8, 2015

Mary Treseler, shown in Figure 1, is Strategic Content Director at O’Reilly Media, long-time purveyor of technical books with distinctive covers that feature beautiful illustrations of animals. She is also Co-chair of the O’Reilly Design Conference, the latest addition to O’Reilly’s conference offerings. The inaugural O’Reilly Design Conference will take place on the San Francisco waterfront, January 20–22, 2016, and there are also some two-day, pre-conference training courses on January 19–20.

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Figure 1—Mary Treseler
Mary Treseler

The Vision

Pabini: What prompted O’Reilly to launch the new Design Conference? Had you identified an unmet need?

Mary: My responsibilities include identifying trends and painpoints for the communities we serve, and I spend much of my time immersed in the design community, investigating the space and the changing ecosystem. We started noticing that design was beginning to emerge in new and surprising places—data, business, and programming discussions to name a few.

At the same time, the design conversations felt insular to the design community. While design conferences were talking about current skills and knowledge gaps, there seemed to be bigger changes on the horizon. The discipline of design was on the verge of major disruption. I was observing the efforts of large companies like IBM, Intuit, and GE to embed design throughout their organizations. I wrote a piece about this a year ago, noting that design is transforming things from the way they are now to the way they ought to be.

Pabini: What is O’Reilly’s vision for the Design Conference?

Mary: Design is playing a major role in how we live—specifically, the relationships we have with products, services, and each other. In a much larger sense, design is improving our lives and our world. As a designer, you’re expected to have sharp design skills, as well as knowledge and abilities that have typically been viewed as outside the purview of design: core skills such as collaboration, leadership of teams, coding skills, and business skills.

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Our vision is to provide an experience that will address these changing needs. Attendees are going to come away from O’Reilly’s Design Conference with the new skills, connections, and perspectives they need to create the next generation of products and services. One of our guiding principles here at O’Reilly is to work on stuff that matters. Identify what you value, then focus on that. Whether that’s an app, a Web site, a new device, or mission-based work, focus on what matters. We intend that our conference help you identify what that means for you and provide you with a path to success.

Pabini: What will be the focus of the content at the Design Conference?

Mary: The focus of the conference is on helping designers chart the next steps in their career path. Whether that’s moving into the physical design space or learning how to code or lead a team, our program’s intent is to help you chart your own course. I wrote about some of the learning paths a few weeks back.

We’ve taken a three-pronged approach to defining learning paths: design, technology, and business. You need all three of these to succeed. While it’s as important as ever to be a fantastic designer, that’s no longer enough. You also need to have business and programming literacy.

Differentiating the Design Conference

Pabini: How are you differentiating the O’Reilly Design Conference from other conferences for the UX community?

Mary: Many design conferences focus on a specific aspect of design or on a specific platform. Our focus is on providing designers with the full range of skills they need to work in the real world—a messy world that is multidisciplinary, multidevice, and multimodal. The conference will reflect this complexity.

Pabini: The Design Conference seems to be going for a balance between a shared conference experience in the mornings and a multi-track conference in the afternoons. What were your goals in taking this approach?

Mary: The combination of keynotes and sessions allow for both big picture, inspirational talks and deeper dives. We think the mix of having larger, shared experiences in the mornings and smaller, more intimate sessions in the afternoons will encourage conversations and a sense of connection for attendees.

Conference Themes and Messages

Pabini: Tell me about the conference themes.

Mary: The conference sessions have three themes:

  • new fundamentals—Whether your work involves prototyping for connected devices, designing secure experiences, creating user experiences for the Internet of Things, or doing industrial design, information architecture, or user research, this theme helps you gain a solid foundation and take your skills to the next level.
  • design and business—This theme focuses on selling a design, designing for conversion and performance, leadership, branding, metrics, and analytics. You can master the topics that will enable you to play a crucial role in your organizations’ success.
  • design for a greater good—This theme enables attendees to learn how design can have a positive social impact in areas such as education, government, health care, and sustainability for the good of the global community.

Pabini: What are some key messages you want the conference to convey?

Mary: There are several.

  • Creating a better future begins with design. This may sound like a lofty message, but it’s a recurring theme throughout the conference. Tony Fadell will sit down with Tim O’Reilly, Founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, to talk about how he approaches design and why habituation and noticing the world around you are central to design. Plus, a panel of designers will discuss using data to effect social change.
  • Design means business. In his keynote, Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk, will talk about IoT’s impact on companies’ approach to product design. John Maeda will moderate a panel on “Design and Venture Capital” that includes Irene Au, Jeff Veen, Enrique Allen, and Dayna Grayson. They’ll discuss the return on investment (ROI) of design, making investment decisions, and what the future holds for design.
  • Data is fueling product design. This message focuses on how data informs design decisions. In Pamela Pavliscak’s workshop, “Designing with Data,” attendees will learn how to use analytics, A/B testing, social-media sentiment, surveys, and qualitative research to inform their design decisions. Plus, Judd Antin of Airbnb will teach attendees how to use sentiment-survey data, which includes information about users’ attitudes, values, and beliefs in his session, “Making Sentiment Surveys Practical.”
  • Design is a responsibility. Designers impact people’s behavior and lives. Tristan Harris will discuss designing to balance the best interests of both the user and the business in his talk “Design’s Responsibility: Time Well Spent.” Speaking on user experience and security, Ame Elliott of Simply Secure will explain the security implications of design—that is, things designers must consider when creating new products and services.
  • The future is designing for one blended world. The message here is a new mindset: designing for one world—not just the physical or the digital world, but a mesh of the two. Andy Goodman’s talk “Zero UI” and Simon King’s session on “Industrial Design” will give attendees new ideas and skills enabling them to consider design for one connected world. Darren David of Stimulant and Jennifer Kolstad of HKS will talk about what they have learned from designing for smart spaces.

Trends and Topics

Pabini: User Experience is an ever-evolving profession. What design trends has O’Reilly identified that the Design Conference will address?

Mary: The pervasive nature of design is leading designers into new territory—spaces they didn’t consider before. We’re seeing the need for new skills—from coding to business—as well as new required skillsets in prototyping, industrial design, designing with data and voice, and design beyond the screen.

Pabini: Will design strategy feature heavily in this conference, or is the focus primarily on tactical design skills? Or will it cover both?

Mary: You can’t do one well without the other, in my opinion, so we’ll have a mix of tactical and strategy sessions. I’m particularly interested in hearing from the folks at Intuit about how they approach design across their organization. Tim O’Reilly will also be sitting down with Mike Bracken to discuss how Mike’s team redesigned the UK citizen experience by redesigning the government’s online services. Katie Dill will talk about how they approach designing experiences at Airbnb.

Pabini: Will the conference cover design process? Working in agile or Lean UX contexts?

Mary: Absolutely. For instance, we have both a workshop and session on Design Sprints. While we aren’t including specific sessions on Lean or agile because both seem to be well understood at this point, these methodologies are part of talks on other topics—for example, Greg Nudelman’s workshop “Practical Lean UX for Wearables.” Process and methodology are important—all of our offerings show attendees how to get the most from whatever process or mix of methodologies works for them.

Pre-conference Courses and Workshops

Pabini: Tell me about the 2-day courses you’re presenting leading up to the conference? What topics will they cover? Who are the instructors?

Mary: I am excited about both of the courses we’re offering. Rochelle King, my co-chair, and I spent time talking to various designers, business leaders, and design managers to discover the mix of skills designers need to have to speak the language of business. Derek Alderton is the perfect fit to teach the course “2-Day MBA: Essential Business Skills for Designers.” He teaches at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and has been part of creating several successful companies. He’ll use his real-world experience to teach designers the concepts and language of business.

Another topic that screams for a 2-day intensive course is coding. Scott Murray, who is an Assistant Professor of Design at the University of San Francisco, will teach “(De)coding Motion: Creative Coding with Processing.” He’ll introduce designers to coding and, by the end of the course, they’ll be able to create conceptual, interactive, moving prototypes with code. For each of these courses, there is a limited number of seats for students.

Pabini: You’re offering workshops, too. Tell me about those.

Mary: The workshops will offer designers a deeper dive into specific topics, including designing for wearables, data and design, running design sprints, voice interface design, designing for our senses, and crafting the discovery phase. The workshops are half-day sessions and take place the day before the main conference begins.

The Audience

Pabini: Who would benefit most from attending the Design Conference? What is the primary target audience for this conference? What are some secondary audiences?

Mary: The primary audience is product designers in the digital space who already have some work experience—typically 5–10 years. Though I have spoken to some designers who don’t fit this criterion—including both less experienced and more experienced designers—who plan on attending. The pick-your-career-path nature of the program is what makes it attractive to people with a wide range of experience.

The Conference Community

Pabini: Will most speakers be in attendance throughout the entire conference, so attendees will have opportunities to interact with them?

Mary: We encourage our speakers to engage with attendees and give all speakers a complimentary pass to the conference. We’re also hosting some events to encourage interactions between speakers and attendees, including speaker-hosted lunches and office hours, during which attendees can ask speakers follow-up questions and ask them for advice. In my opinion, the best conferences are those where the speakers are truly part of the event, and that’s the experience we’re hoping to achieve.

Pabini: What social events are you planning to help conference attendees get to know one another and build a sense of community at the Design Conference?

Mary: One takeaway from my attending hundreds of conferences over the years and listening to designers talk about their conference experiences is that many people attend conferences alone—and they feel, well, alone. We’ve all been there: walking up to a lunch table to ask whether you can sit with a bunch of strangers. Somehow, you feel like you’re back in grade school. So we’re designing the conference to help people form connections and, in this way, decrease social anxiety.

Events will include a walking architectural tour of San Francisco, the Design Dash 5k run, Ignite, and, of course, a reception on site. And we’re in the process of developing many other elements of the conference that will help people to connect. Beyond the on-site social events, we’re encouraging people to make connections prior to the event through a Slack Channel for attendees, which we’ll make available some time in November. All attendees will be invited to participate. The ultimate success of a conference all comes down to the fact that people make the event. Our role is to create a fun, safe, comfortable environment that lets connections happen.

The Ignite Design Conference

Pabini: Tell me about the Ignite Design Conference within a conference.

Mary: At Ignite, speakers who have had their proposals accepted will each present for five minutes, speaking to 20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds. These talks are not part of the conference program, but instead offer a fun way for folks to enjoy hearing about some new ideas. Ignite is open to the public and takes place at Fort Mason, in the evening of Wednesday, January 20. Proposal submissions can be on any topic. These brief talks don’t need to be about design. They simply need to be on something you care about and want to share—whether professional or personal. The proposal deadline is November 20. For Ignite, the vibe is meant to be light and fun, and we’ll host a cocktail reception as part of the event.

The Design Startup Showcase

Pabini: How did you come up with the idea for the Design Startup Showcase? Please describe it to our readers.

Mary: We offer Startup Showcases at a number of our events. There is plenty of interesting work going on within startups—much of which doesn’t make the front pages of design blogs or other media. I want to give startups, which typically have limited budgets, the opportunity to show their work to a larger community, including other designers and venture capitalists (VCs).

We have 15 spots available. Those who are accepted will get free space on the show floor, where they can demo their creations. We’ll have an on-site panel of judges, including several VCs, who will vote for the best of the conference. Attendees can vote on a people’s-choice award. It’s a fantastic opportunity for startups to gain exposure, gather feedback, and potentially, find investors. My hope is that attendees will feel inspired by the startups’ work, too.

Other Offerings from O’Reilly

Pabini: Will O’Reilly books be available at a discount at the Design Conference?

Mary: We don’t sell books at our conferences, but we do offer a few discounts, including coupons for 40% off print books and 50% off ebooks and videos. All conference attendees receive a complimentary, three-month Safari subscription as well. Safari is our subscription service that features a huge catalog of our ebooks, videos, and screencasts, as well as material from other publishers.

Pabini: Are there other O’Reilly conferences that you’d recommend for UX professionals?

Mary: Absolutely. Our Fluent Conference focuses on Web development and includes a track on design topics. We are also in the process of creating more design-related, online training, so stay tuned for more details on that. You can check out past online-training videos to get an idea of what they’ll be like.

Pabini: Thanks, Mary, for bringing what promises to be a great conference to the UX design community and for telling us all about it. And, on behalf of our readers, thanks for offering UXmatters readers a 20 percent discount on the conference! 

Register now, and you’ll get a 20% discount on the O’Reilly Design Conference.

Founder and Principal Consultant at Strategic UX

Founder, Publisher, and Editor in Chief of UXmatters

Silicon Valley, California, USA

Pabini Gabriel-PetitWith more than 20 years working in User Experience at companies such as Google, Cisco, WebEx, Apple, and many startups, Pabini now provides UX strategy and design consulting services through her Silicon Valley company, Strategic UX. Her past UX leadership roles include Head of UX for Sales & Marketing IT at Intel, Senior Director of UX and Design at Apttus, Principal UX Architect at BMC Software, VP of User Experience at scanR, and Manager of User Experience at WebEx. Pabini has led UX strategy, design, and user research for Web, mobile, and desktop applications for consumers, small businesses, and enterprises, in diverse product domains. Working collaboratively with business executives, multidisciplinary product teams, and UX teams, she has envisioned and realized holistic UX design solutions for innovative, award-winning products that delighted users, achieved success in the marketplace, and delivered business value. As a UX leader, she has facilitated conceptual modeling and ideation sessions; written user stories; prioritized product and usability requirements; established corporate design frameworks, standards, and guidelines; and integrated lean UX activities into agile development processes. Pabini is a strategic thinker, and the diversity of her experience enables her to synthesize innovative solutions for challenging strategy and design problems. She is passionate about creating great user experiences that meet users’ needs and get business results. A thought leader in the UX community, Pabini was a Founding Director of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA).  Read More

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