Brian Sullivan talks about the Big Design Conference, synergies between the gaming and film industries, working at the Sabre Human Factors lab, how usability experts are like dentists, and more. Hosted by Ben Judy.
- Brian Sullivan on LinkedIn
- DFW Usability Professionals Association (UPA)
- Big Design Events - A Place to Learn, Share, and Grow
- Dallas-Fort Worth STC Community
- Refresh Dallas
- IxDA DFW - Interaction Design Association
- OpenCamp - The Blogger, Developer and Webmaster Conference
- DFW Writers' Workshop - A professional association for North Texas writers of all backgrounds, genres and experience levels
- IGDA Dallas - the International Game Developers Association
- Looks Good Works Well: Bill Scott's musings on rich web design and user interface engineering
- World Usability Day
- Sabre Holdings
Welcome to the DFW UX podcast – the podcast for user experience professionals in the Dallas – Fort Worth metroplex, all of North Texas, and beyond. This is episode number five. I’m your host, Ben Judy.
My guest is Brian Sullivan. Brian is a very busy man, a man who wears many hats. Why don’t we just start with you, Brian, telling us a little bit about yourself and all the things that you’re involved in?
Okay, thanks for having me. I am Brian Sullivan, Usability Principal at the Sabre Human Factors Center. I’ve been doing that for nine years. I’ve also been DFW UPA President for six years. We started a quarterly workshop series a few years ago. We started Big (D)esign three years ago, and I’ve been involved in World Usability Day for the last six years.
Uh, Halfway through, so, not quite in the home stretch, but we’re approaching it. I think that we’re doing good, a couple of snafu’s with some technology. Overall, looking at the Twitter stream, everyone seems to be excited and engaged. Our vendors are extremely happy. The people are coming out of sessions energized and engaged. Looking at the Twitter stream, a lot of positive comments, lots of spikes. Looking at the website analytics, we had our biggest spike ever. And we sure have been selling a lot of tickets the last, uh, four days. It’s been great.
Yeah, this event gets bigger and better every year. You didn’t start life – start your career – with the intent of becoming an event organizer, I’m sure. How did you kind of fall into this, or what led up to you taking an active role in organizing this conference?
Uh, somebody dared us to put one on, is the truth…
Do you want to name names?
No, we’re not gonna – no, we won’t name names…
One of the things that happened is a group of us were together, and we realized that we didn’t have any type of a conference here in Dallas, so we got the different organizations together: DFW UPA, Refresh Dallas, STC Lonestar Chapter, and IxDA. We got the leaders together and we talked about how we could coordinate and do something together. Our first year we had over 500 people; second year, we had over 560; this year we’re over 600.
Has the vision for the conference changed and evolved with each successive year? Or do you think it’s pretty much stayed true to what you originally set out to do?
Well, I think it’s in some ways, changed… and stayed true. The way that it’s changed is, it is a conference about content, so the content has changed. One of the things that changed this year was we dropped social media as a full-blown track because we feel like in many ways that the different channels had been established. You have YouTube, you have Twitter, you have Facebook, you have Tumblr, you have Yelp! Those are established and they’re out there.
We still have social channels, and multichannel publishing is certainly throughout the different tracks, but one of the things we added, is we added this career track. When we opened it up in January at the DFW UPA meeting, we talked about, “wouldn’t it be nice if we had a career track?” and the response in the room – and there were about 40 people – was, “we could do this and this and this and this and this and this and this and this… AND this and this and this and this.” You count up all the “this’s” and it’s about 10 different talks, and we realized its –
It’s a month-long conference!
– it’s two days. Two full days. And the topics were really good: Portfolios, Getting Started in UX, Negotiations, Crucial Conversations, Networking, Follow-up, Online Portfolios, Resume-Building, Asking the Right Question. Great, great, GREAT talks. One of my favorites, and I think it’s going to be a sleeper, is How Do You Handle Design Criticism? That can go in a design-track, but it’s kind of a softer thing.
That fits maybe a little bit better in Career. When I put my head into the Career track, every time it’s full. It’s the second-biggest room at the conference. Standing room only.
The other thing that’s really funny about this year’s conference is the first two years we never had a usability track. Really, that was by design. We wanted to see if we could run a conference without a usability track. And, again, the main group running it is DFW UPA, but we wanted to make it more designer / front-end developer “friendly” type of a conference. We left usability out. We added it this year. When we did our survey at the end of last year, over 80% said they wanted it. We have it over in the Addison Lecture Hall here at the Crowne Plaza, and it’s standing room only in that room.
So that’s great. We’ve added things, but I think we’ve stayed true to our form, too. It’s these different communities: DFW UPA, Refresh Dallas, IxDA, STC Lonestar… adding Open Camp this year, and DFW Writers' Workshop. So we’re true to those core values, yet we’ve changed the content a little bit each year.
Great. Yeah, so, what’s next for Big (D)esign Conference?
What I’d really like to do, Ben, is include film. I think that what’s happening now, with, gaming – and we did add a Gaming track – and it’s going pretty well. If you look at gaming and film, they’re using a lot of the same products and they’re using a lot of the same people. Just to give you an example, John Milius is a director, a film director. He wrote Red Dawn, he wrote Conan the Barbarian, and he directed them too. So, great history in film. And, he also has recently crossed over and did a one-person shooter game. And you also see the same technology that’s being used by game designers and game developers in the film industry. So I do think that there’s some overlap with film and animation, with gaming and narratives, and I think that that’s something to add. Maybe not next year, but soon.
I also think that in the future, we could do, certainly better in the mobile track. What I’d like to see is maybe HTC out here. More devices. We were able to get Sprint this year, but it would be nice to get, uh, something like HTC out here.
A device manufacturer.
Samsung would be great. You know, techy gadget toys. I think that we would like to have the nerds play with something, if you will.
Sure. And they’d like that too. Is the conference going to stay local to Dallas-Fort Worth, or are you going to branch outside of this geographic area?
We’ve actually had people ask us that they would like to set one up somewhere else. I think that for the short term, the answer is no. We are going to stay local-based, and I think part of it is the community here. We have a certain community here that I think is a little bit different than other communities.
I think the Boston community, uh, they have a lot of crossover events. IxDA and Boston UPA are huge. And they do picnics in the summer. It’s so nice up there. And they do cross-pollinate. I think that we even cross-pollinate more, though, and we have a lot of different organizations. One of the things that I learned that is huge in Dallas is the IGDA Dallas group. It’s the third largest chapter, and we have so many game developers locally. Seattle is number one, Austin’s number two, and then Dallas.
Wow. I did not know that.
Me neither! What happens when you put on these conferences, you start to learn a lot about your city, your region, and the different industries. So I think I’d like to continue to explore what’s going on here in Dallas, and what are the opportunities, and certainly help out the other regions if they need it. But, I think that we’re homegrown, we’re local, and I think that we’re going to stay here for a while.
Cool. Well, let’s shift tracks just a little bit, and talk about you and your career in Usability and Human Factors. Kind of, give us a little bit more detail about what a normal day – if there is such a thing – is like for you in the Sabre labs, and then kind of back up and tell us how you got there.
Ok, uh, a normal day for me is – I think it’s really no different than any other person. You wake up in the morning, you have certain things that you have to do, you get into your daily routine. And, with me, I have multiple projects going on at the same time. And the great thing about the labs is that you get to meet a lot of different people, and they need your help. And, it depends on where they are at in their project lifecycle. Sometimes, all we can do is tactical work: “do this.” Other times, they really need guidance from us.
So, we get to have some discussions at a strategic level that sometimes other people don’t get to have, which is really nice. So, I don’t know if my day is going to be – I’m tactically in the lab, running through tests; and then I get a break, and then I need to move on to a strategic conversation. It’s kind of nice because it has that type of variety I think that some jobs don’t have.
To answer your second question, “how did I get there? Funny story there. I had a tour of the labs, realized, “Oh my god, this is it. This is what I want to do. This is too cool for school. This is what I’m going to do.” After that, I talked to Bill Scott. Bill Scott is at Netflix now, he’s written a couple of design pattern books.
I started borrowing these books from Bill. And I’m reading all up on usability, design, design patterns, and I’m actually in graduate school at this time. I’m getting my MBA in Management Information Systems, and the director wanted me to teach. She said, “You could do a directed reading class.”
And I go, “Well, I’ve been reading all of these Usability books, does that count?”
She said, “Sure, why don’t you just do a book report.”
And I go, “How many books do I need to read?”
And she goes, “Fifteen.”
At that point in time, I’d read twelve. I do my book report – of course I’d read my 15 books – a job opens up in the Human Factors Center, and I said “I’m so excited, I want to be here.” And the hiring manager asked me, “Give me a definition of Usability.” So, I did. And she goes, “That’s a great definition. Where did you get it from?” And I go, “Well, I read this book.” So, I pulled the book out of my satchel.
“Well, what other books have you read?”
And, I said, “Well, I’m glad you asked that, because I had to do a report for a directed reading class, and the report ended up being about 80 pages.” Again, you read 15 books, two or three pages apiece.
And, she looked at the books, and she goes, “These are all the ones that I read in my program.”
And I go, “Well, Bill Scott taught me right.”
So, she called Bill Scott, and I got the job a week later. And, that’s how I got into Usability.
Within six months, I became certified through Human Factors International and have been conducting usability studies ever since.
Usability, human factors – I think – and tell me if I’m right or wrong, as it’s your specialty, seems to be one of the more mature areas, of, if you want to kind of look at it as kind of a broader umbrella of experience design, user experience, and related things… you know, there are kind of these new… newer tracks or sub-genres, if you will, of specialty skills. I think some of the work that’s been done in usability and human factors is a little bit older and a little bit more established. But, what have you seen change in that field, or evolve, or what new ideas have come about as you’ve really begun working in the labs at Sabre?
Well, I think that with Usability practitioners in general you have these people who just love to wear the lab coat. They embrace the lab coat. They don’t want to let it go. And, they want to beat you over the head with it. And, they’re doing diagnosis and analysis – and that’s good. It really is. There is something to be said for that.
What I have seen though, is a shift in the profession of having people do more strategic work. I call that “usability prevention,” and I think that as this discipline has matured and continues to evolve, that we almost become like dental hygienists, sometimes. Let’s teach people how to floss and brush their teeth. Let’s teach them about heuristics, let’s teach them about design patterns. Let’s teach them about web psychology.
And then we have to turn around and become a dentist. Okay, let’s have our quarterly checkup.
And then, at other times, if a team is really desperate, it’s root canal and we’re doing an oral surgery. And, I think that you’re starting to see a shift of people move in to usability prevention versus usability treatment; I’ve seen that change.
What ultimately do you want to be your mark on the industry, or your legacy? When you’ve retired and you’re looking back on your long storied career, what do you want to be remembered for? What changes will you want to have brought about in the field of usability and human factors? What do you want to accomplish?
I just think that I want people to remember me as being a person that was of character; that they respected; that actually brought true thought to the industry. I don’t want to be seen as a clown – and I think you know what I mean by that. I don’t want to be seen as someone who projects themselves as a thought leader. I just want to be seen as a guy that gets stuff done, doesn’t take any b.s., and I can work with other people and figure out – you know – how to get something done. So, I guess I want to be known as more of a doer, yet still a guy that can really outthink, outwit, outlast someone. I guess that’s probably what I would want. And, I would want people to mainly say, “this was a nice person.”
I know you’re busy –
– and I know you’ve got a lot on your mind, so let’s wrap this up and let me bring it back around to talking about Big (D)esign Conference. You’ve done this now – this is the third year?
Three years, yes.
Third year. I’ve been to all three. What’s the most amazing thing that you have seen? A speaker, or a presenter, or an attendee for that matter – or a sponsor. What’s the biggest, brightest memory you have so far in your three years running this conference?
Easy – and people will be shocked at this answer. Organizers have been so brave in what they’re doing to get this thing done. And I mean brave. We have people doing things that they would not normally do to pull this thing off.
An example that I would give is Keith Anderson, year one, was a volunteer. And, he’s a very quiet, very shy person. When I met him year two, it was in the early planning stages, he said he wanted to be a speaker. He wanted to be more involved. I said, “Okay, what do you got, Keith,” and this was all on the phone.
He says, “I have four talks that I would like to present on, and I would like to meet you for lunch.”
And I go, “Keith, I live all the way out here, I’m almost out here in Fort Worth.”
And he goes, “Well, I’m in Keller, I can just meet you for lunch. I work out of my home.”
So, we found a restaurant that was close by. I want you to picture this: I go into the restaurant. There’s Keith, who I barely remember, but he’s wearing his Big (D)esign t-shirt. And, he has four stacks of papers up there – his four presentations. He shows them to me, and he goes, “Which one do you think would be best? I want you to really study them.”
Well, I looked at the first one, the title just cracked me up; it’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” And, I thumbed through the presentation, and I go, “OK, you’re going to do this talk. This is a good talk here. How do you want to be involved as an organizer?”
And he goes, “What do you mean?”
And I go, “Well, it sounds like you want to step up to be an organizer.”
And he goes, “I’d love to do that!”
The next thing that I know, Keith starts to call me up, and he was able to get Adobe to come here. He was able to get Sprint this year. He’s already talking to HTC. He got the Civil Rights Museum to come here. He has emboldened to ask questions and strive to do something for the community, and it’s all about the content, and it’s all about the community. In some ways I really think that conference experience is – we’re doing it to showcase other people. Keith Anderson is an example of that.
This year, uh, Roger Belveal did this really cool “geek art” that is just really hard to explain in a podcast, but three pieces over 6 foot tall. There’s video going on it. It’s amazing what he did. It’s simply amazing. And it resonates with people.
Then we have a “boot” cake that this year by Brooke Brooks. That’s amazing. Our speakers are looking at the contributions of the organizers and the contributions of these local artists, and they’re wowed. And, it’s funny because it’s these types of experiences that make the conference better. Keith Anderson is really heavily into music. He added music – different music tracks in every single room, and they play in seven-minute increments. And, the genius behind all of it – and people don’t even realize it’s going on – Joshua Clark wrote a book called Tapworthy. For one hour tomorrow every song has a reference to touch, tapping. And it will play and it will be very, very obvious that’s what it is. But that thought behind it, that fine detail – that came from Keith, not Josh. That was Keith Anderson.
The time that Roger spent, the months – that was Roger, not a speaker. So, that’s the stuff that amazes me. The speakers are great. The content is great. They’re energized. They want to be here, but it’s because of all of this other stuff that’s going on. And, I think that’s what the conference is about. It is really about us. It’s about DFW UX.
It’s very inspirational.
I’ve been amazed at how the conferences took off. One of the things I need to do is thank my coworkers, Anna and Kris. They had to put up with a bunch of madness. And the spouses of all of the organizers have had to put up with a lot of madness.
The volunteers from UTD have been fabulous. We’ve got more sponsors than we’ve ever had. I think we’ll have even more next year.
Well, it’s going to be a lot of fun to see where this goes. Thank you, Brian, for being on the DFW UX Podcast.
Alright, thank you Ben!
That's all for this episode of the DFW UX podcast. Thanks for joining me. Remember to visit dfwux.com for show notes and a complete transcript of this episode.
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The music you hear on this podcast was written and recorded by Father Cornmelia, a very talented group of local artists. Just Google the name “Father Cornelia” and you’ll find their Facebook page and you can listen to more of their music on Reverb Nation. Thanks, Father Cornmelia.
Until next week, I’m Ben Judy. Go make the world a better place.