Steve Fadden on his journey of user experience.

A Q&A session to learn from his experiences as a UX practitioner, lecturer and a mentor.

How did the UX journey begin for you?

As a kid, I was working at a dairy where we served ice cream to customers. It was quite fascinating for me to make the best cones, shakes, and sundaes. Loved to experiment with different flavours and combinations in my off time. That was probably my youngest attempt to understand user’s choices.

When I started back in 1980s, user experience as a thing did not exist. Small packets of organisations had started exploring usability, few groups were doing interaction design, a good number of groups were doing requirement engineering and systems engineering (which included task analysis and elements of interaction design), but user experience as a field did not exist.

I pursued undergraduate coursework in cognitive psychology research at University of Massachusetts and then my Master’s at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Back then, studying user experience wasn’t an option. But, I was always fascinated by the way people learn and think. That’s why I ended up studying eye tracking research to understand and model human cognition and perception. This led me to complete my Ph.D. in Engineering Psychology, focusing on applied research to improve performance and understand complex environments like piloting and air traffic control — software and hardware used by pilots and air traffic controllers.

The Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where Steve conducted research in reading and perception, and then shifted to his Ph.D. in Engineering Psychology.

How do you start your work-day?

I don’t have a car and I don’t like crowded buses or trains, so I’m usually up and on my way to the office by 7am. I spend the commute catching up on podcasts and then drink lots of coffee in the office while I plan out my day and top objectives (and when possible, skim through older email and lists to figure out what I’ve neglected.) I usually spend my morning time in doing focused work such as analysis, presentation work, research study preparation, etc. I might also take up calls or meet a colleague/local UXer for mentoring in the morning.

Later in the day, mostly in the afternoon, is when I’m typically in meetings. Depending on my schedule I leave office by 6pm, and catch up on podcasts on the commute home, then exercise, work, read, or catch up on shows at home.

On intensive research days, I typically spend much of the day talking with/observing customers and end-users, and implementing studies.

How does your desk look like?

I like to have my desk pretty clean and spare! So that I have space for spreading out my data for analysis. I like to take printouts of snapshots of data and spread it over my desk to analyse it. I am trying to look at all the data and trying out figure out patterns.

Today, it’s covered in gifts and souvenirs from students and colleagues, plus a calendar and lots of glass water bottles so I stay hydrated!

Also, there are a few design-related artefacts: Information Visualisation sheet from David McCandless, journey maps and personas for our product, and a silly list of “Rules designers say they never break” from the 2016 design issue of Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Some useful rules I like: “Work to make BIG things smaller,” “Don’t fight gravity,” “Make stairs more interesting than elevators,” and “Design for the long haul.” Silly rules: “Incorporate a cat into design once a month.”

Which devices do you use at work?

I am one of those people who do not trust technology until I know many people have used it and trust it. That’s the reason why I resisted the smartphone till 2012! Till then I had a Motorola phone using T9 texting, typing each button a number of times to get a letter. But, today I am using an iPhone.

I grew up using PCs. And that’s why I had a bias for PCs. Four and a half years back I decided to switch to MacBook Pro, to see what the user experience is like for a Mac user. But I also have an old Dell Inspiron — this keeps me in touch with how many people interact with technology on Window laptops.

I still have a 2001 IBM monitor. It’s a great reminder of how people who are still using these monitors, see designs and animations at their end.

I have a tablet, but I don’t use it much. I have it on my desk to just get an understanding of its experience.

How do you prepare for a new design project?

While designing for a new feature or a product, there are a bunch of factors that matter — the project history, the context and scope, and the research, design, and business goals: Generative or formative or summative? Strategic or tactical? Conceptual or concrete? Broad or narrow?

  1. Broadly, I believe every project starts with talking to the stakeholders. This can be a quick discussion with a designer, a UX researcher and a product manager. This is to understand what the feature or product would do or discuss a problem that we are trying to solve.
  2. Next, I need to know who are the people I need to talk to in order to understand their problems. It need not be a long documentation, rather it could just be notes on the back of an envelope with a pencil! We need to understand what we’re trying to achieve, the hypotheses, our assumptions about the user problem, journey and the process. The aim is to define the who the user is and what are his requirements.
At every step, you need to question yourself if this is a problem worth solving? It’s not worth chasing insights and answers if they’re not going to lead to useful or actionable information.

3. And then I get into the logistics of the project — How much time do we have? From a business perspective it is also important to understand who are the key stakeholders, what are their values, how much are they ready to spend, how much benefit are we going to get. That’s how we prioritise projects.

4. Then we can start building. What should be the research approach, the design approach, the development approach etc.

What is the difference between UX professor and UX practitioner?

As a professor, you are often expected to publish, conduct research, seek extramural funding, serve on committees, and the like. When teaching, it’s important to understand the content, framework, science, and theory behind what’s taught. However, I think many academics don’t have a lot of experience with what it’s like to put that information into practice.

Academic experience is important but limited.

UC Berkeley School of Information, before the 2016 graduation ceremony.

As a practitioner, you have got real world problems. You might have a team of 7–10 people who are concerned about different aspects of the product: the business value, features, design imperatives, competition, infrastructure, performance, operational concerns, etc. And then they engage larger groups, including leadership, to come up with optimal tradeoffs and solutions. It’s hard to replicate that in a classroom environment.

How much do you think formal design education contributes to the overall output?

Formal education can help, but it doesn’t need to be design per se. Anything that helps students understand that problems and solutions are multi-layered is helpful.

Engineering, architecture, business, art, theater, journalism, social sciences, computer science, etc. can all be great entry points to design.

Having an understanding of complex problems that involve lots of different stakeholders, plus elements like infrastructure, requirements, and standards, can go a long way to preparing a person for a UX career. And soft skills are also critical — having experience managing through disagreements, working toward a deadline with shifting requirements, and engaging diverse groups with different goals and values toward a shared solution are all great experiences to have.

Where do you go to get inspired?

My primary source of inspiration is talking to colleagues, students, members of other UX teams.

A good podcast, a great conversation, or taking a class, inspire me more than any one piece of design. I try to put myself in new situations or engage with people who have different interests than me and see what I can learn from them or how I might be able to make their life easier.

Few of my bookmarks are -

  1. Great UX research textbook: Understanding Your Users: A Practical Guide to User Research Methods, by Kathy Baxter, Catherine Courage, and Kelly Caine
  2. Classic text on designing for human performance — I’m partial to this one because the lead author is my former dissertation advisor: Engineering Psychology and Human Performance, by Christopher D. Wickens, Justin G. Hollands, Simon Banbury, and Raja Parasuraman.
  3. Jeff Sauro’s site and blog (
  4. A data-rich and data science site (
  5. I love the visualisations on “Information is beautiful” (
  6. Barking up the wrong tree (
  7. David Travis’s site at User Focus contains lots of useful articles and references.
  8. I have bookmarked Medium for various blogs on design, research, social issues, and local interest stories.
  9. Many UX focused podcasts, with gems that include: 99% Invisible by Roman Mars is EXCELLENT, and Steve Portigal’s Dollars to Donuts, Mixed Methods by Aryel Cianflone, Loop11’s True North podcast and their master series has been very informative.

There are a lot of podcasts that I listen to on my mobile. They are typically news, business, politics, travel, science, and local interest.

How do you sort out design disagreement in your company?

Values and priorities win. And I believe that’s how every team should do it.

We have a great approach at Salesforce called the V2MOM — it helps us communicate and translate our vision, values, methods, obstacles, measures. It starts at the top of the company to emphasise our vision, values, etc., and then as it cascades throughout the organisation. We personalise it to our own teams and contexts, even adding personal goals like teaching and volunteering. For more on the Salesforce V2MOM approach, check out:

What would you like to advice to aspiring designers?

Always work on telling engaging stories while being succinct. After 20 years, I still struggle with this.

Always keep learning — mentoring, teaching, and working collaboratively are great ways to stay sharp.

Think about your personal story and goal as a designer based on the amount of time you intend your audience to give you. (This is based on guidelines from David McCandless and Ed Tufte) — What do you want people to understand in 1 second? 10 seconds? 1 minute? I’m asked to review resumes and portfolios a lot, and a typical thing I ask people to do is to give their resume to someone who doesn’t know their career goals, and give them 30 seconds to read it, and then ask “What type of job do I want?”

Rapid fire with Steve!

How can folks reach you?

Social media is great, as well as through Out of Office Hours. I’m @sfadden on Twitter, Instagram (sfadden) and my email is Feel free to reach out on LinkedIn, but I typically don’t connect with people I don’t know.. :)

Disclaimer: All views are of author’s own to motivate inspiring UXers and don’t represent their employer (Salesforce or UC Berkeley) in anyway. Use of any of above material is limited to prior written approval from author & CanvasFlip.