Blog - Midwest UX Conference 2015

Midwest UX Experience

I heard about the Midwest UX Conference from a couple of seasoned local UX designers at an IxDA Pittsburgh morning coffee hang-out in the spring of 2012. At that point, it was the second year of this affordable, regional conference-with-a-friendly-face. People seemed pumped to see it continue, build, and grow. As a junior designer, mid-transition from industrial design into user experience design, I thought this might be a good place to soak up some of the best UX thinking.

I set the ticket money aside (refreshingly not-so-difficult, for an event of its scale!) and booked an affordable hotel room. It wasn’t too late for me to get a couple of vacation days onto the office calendar—with the workshops I’d attend, there was a clear training element. This would be easy.

But what would the Midwest UX Conference experience be like?

In Columbus, I found a welcoming, knowledgeable group of people from far and wide (the Midwest is big—just ask us over here in Pittsburgh, on the far edge of it!) who were happy to share wisdom, valuable lessons, and practical tips from their more advanced careers. It was like that morning UX coffee hang-out, but with the UX community multiplied by 30.

Midwest UX is the mid-sized, people-oriented conference you’ve been waiting for.

If you haven’t been to a broader industry event in awhile, or even if you’ve been to an international conference recently, you will enjoy and appreciate your experience at Midwest UX. I was surprised at the impact even one workshop had on me and on the teammates I shared my knowledge with post-conference.

Regardless of where you are in your professional UX journey, I suspect it will be one of the experiences that cements 2015 as a memorable, banner year for you. See you in Pittsburgh!

Excursions: 11 More Reasons to Love MWUX15

From the moment we learned that Pittsburgh had been selected to host Midwest UX 2015, we knew this event could be more than just a conference.

Inviting UXers like you from across the region meant this was an opportunity to show you Pittsburgh as you’ve never seen it, a first-hand experience of the city’s character that illustrates why so many of us have fallen in love with this place on three rivers.

That’s why we’ve curated 11 excursions with some of the most fascinating, talented, and imaginative organizations in Pittsburgh right now. Our excursion partners are as diverse as they are inspiring, from food, art, and robotics to entrepreneurship, craft, hardware, and design.

Going on an excursion is just one option for the final afternoon of MWUX, as you can alternatively choose to attend our stellar Ccareer Ttrack sessions. It’s a win-win! But choose now, as spots will fill up and each excursion and Career Track has limited capacity.

Can’t decide? Here’s a quick rundown of each excursion partner and what to expect. We can’t wait for you to meet them in October!


4moms is a consumer robotics company that applies technology along with advanced design and a deep consumer understanding to create dramatically better baby gear. The company has redefined the juvenile products industry with its innovations.

Why sign up: “Meet the 4moms UX team and join a discussion about designing for a comprehensive ecosystem of digital and physical products. Tour our beautiful downtown space, including the 4moms design studio, and get an exclusive peek into our latest product development.”

AlphaLab and AlphaLab Gear

AlphaLab is a nationally-ranked startup accelerator that helps innovative companies launch quickly and successfully. Its sister accelerator, AlphaLab Gear, is dedicated to hardware startups and was recently featured in TechCrunch.

Why sign up: “Get to know AlphaLab and AlphaLab Gear, and how these sister accelerators are firing up Pittsburgh’s startup scene. Then, put your new skills from Midwest UX to the test as you’ll take what you’ve learned and collaborate to solve a startup’s design challenge. Discover what it takes to pitch your idea under pressure!”

Carnegie Museum of Art

The Carnegie Museum of Art is one of the most dynamic major art institutions in America, with a collection of more than 30,000 objects across a broad spectrum of visual arts, prints and drawings, photographs, architecture, design, and multimedia.

Why sign up: “Spend the afternoon at Pittsburgh’s premier art museum, with a guided tour that will introduce you to local artwork and artists. The tour will end at a new exhibition, “HACLab Pittsburgh: Imagining the Modern,” which explores Pittsburgh’s complex history of postwar architecture and urban design.”


Deeplocal is an internationally-recognized innovation studio. From creating a mind-controlled bike to building a robotic pitching machine that allowed a child to throw out the first pitch at a baseball game, its projects are wide-ranging and unique.

Why sign up: “Join Deeplocal for a glimpse into how we combine art, engineering, and marketing to invent completely new products and experiences for brands, with a particular focus on UX design. Attendees will also tour our 20,000 square-foot office, which includes studio space and a full workshop for carpentry, metalworking, and electrical circuitry.”

Golden Triangle Bikes

Golden Triangle Bikes is Pittsburgh’s premier bike tour and rental location. This family-owned business has been helping people experience the city of Pittsburgh by bike for almost a decade.

Why sign up: “Experience Pittsburgh on two wheels! During this leisurely tour, you’ll see Downtown and Point State Park and bike along the North Side’s scenic riverfront trail, with additional stops at the historic Heinz Factory and the bustling Strip District. And along the way, you’ll learn about the city’s transformation from frontier outpost to Steel City. Please note this excursion is weather dependent.”

Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon

CMU’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute is a living laboratory investigating the relationships between computer technology, human activity, and society. HCII students and faculty don’t just research, teach and write about HCI — they live it.

Why sign up: “Tour the labs where the interfaces of the future are being designed, where the power of games to change behavior is studied, and where the ways in which crowdsourcing can improve automation of technology are being built. Then, attend a series of short talks from major players in the HCI field.”

Mattress Factory

The Mattress Factory is a research and development lab for artists. As a museum of contemporary art, it commissions new site-specific works, presents them to the widest possible audience, and maintains selected individual installations in a growing – and distinctive – permanent collection.

Why sign up: “Visit one of the region’s most unique and groundbreaking art museums, where the installations and exhibitions will challenge you to question reality and explore design as sensory experience. Led on a tour by the Mattress Factory’s co-director, learn what goes into this distinctive artwork behind the scenes.”

MAYA + Luma Institute

MAYA is a design consultancy and innovation lab. For more than 25 years, they’ve helped organizations grow and thrive by designing collaborative systems, engaging experiences and next-gen products. LUMA Institute equips people to accelerate innovation, teaching a flexible framework that enables organizations to create new value and drive sustainable growth through the practice of human-centered design.

Why sign up: “Experience how sister firms MAYA Design and LUMA Institute equip people and organizations to innovate and apply human-centered design methods to complex challenges. You’ll get hands-on exposure to methods and practical insight from practitioners who have spent 25 years mastering the craft. Participants will take on a design challenge and learn new ways of working to better frame problems, communicate progress, and make something the world has never seen.”

Smallman Galley

Smallman Galley is a launch pad for the best new restaurant concepts in Pittsburgh. It cultivates and accelerates undiscovered chefs by providing a forum to showcase their talents, hone their craft, and develop business acumen in a unique space that includes four fully outfitted kitchens.

Why sign up: “Get a sneak peek into one of Pittsburgh’s most talked about new food experiences. Smallman Galley is modeled on startup accelerators to lower the barrier of entry for talented chefs who want to start their own businesses. Tour the communal dining space, meet its first four chef entrepreneurs, and engage in discussion with Smallman Galley’s co-founders. Did we mention complimentary beer?”

Society for Contemporary Craft

Presenting contemporary art in craft media since 1971, the Society for Contemporary Craft offers meaningful art opportunities for more than 145,000 people a year through its four core values: providing vital support for artists, filling critical gaps in public education, sharing cross-cultural perspectives, and using art to build community.

Why sign up: “At the Society for Contemporary Craft, we believe the act of ‘making’ with your hands opens doors to emotions, thoughts, and potential that may otherwise remain buried. Learn more about our innovative and community-minded programming, while getting an intimate look at our latest socially engaged art experience, ‘Mindful: Exploring Mental Health Through Art.’ ”

TechShop Pittsburgh

TechShop is a community-based workshop and prototyping studio on a mission to democratize access to the tools of innovation. Its Pittsburgh location offers workshops equipped with world-class tools, computers loaded with design software, hundreds of classes, and the support and camaraderie of a community of like-minded makers.

Why sign up: “Take a tour of our cutting-edge facility and prepare to be inspired. See what members are working on, chat with community makers, and watch some of our machines in action! See for yourself how people at TechShop explore the world of making in a collaborative and creative environment.”

Frontier: Building a compelling conference program

A conference is made of many parts, but certainly, the most important part is the program. And let me tell you, we have an awesome program! Over a year ago, as we were putting together our proposal to host the conference, we decided that our guiding theme would be “Frontiers.” We felt that one word represented both Pittsburgh’s history as a leader of industry and its contemporary revitalization as a hotbed for new technologies.

We purposefully decided to use it as a loose, guiding theme, rather than a heavily publicized, formal theme for the conference. We wanted it to inform our curation, rather than to heavily influence submissions. We didn’t want to have a program that was 100% aspirational. We felt it important to have “Monday morning” applications.

So my program team put their heads together and decided upon three session types: the tried and true 40-minute talk, the 10-minute lightning talk, and something new—hands-on sessions. While we gave a brief explanation of what we were hoping for with the hands-on sessions, we didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t know how many people would submit hands-on sessions or what they would likely be about. We weren’t sure how much hands-on activity they would attempt in the given 40 minutes. But we certainly weren’t disappointed. The community delivered.

We received over 230 submissions (including workshops), which we had to narrow down to 7 workshops, 13 talks, 3 lightning talks, and 7 hands-on sessions. There were many difficult decisions we had to make. We could have easily filled a couple more days with high quality sessions. Then, of course, there was the balancing act of maintaining a diverse set of speakers — including a mix of both local and non-local speakers –- and a good range of novice to experienced content.

And that’s not all. In addition to the sessions described above, we have other exciting programming options in the form of excursions to spots of local interest and a career track featuring a career fair, moderated discussion groups around aspects of professional design practice, and portfolio reviews. These sessions are all included with general admission but need to be signed up for individually as spaces are limited. Check back for an upcoming blog post with more details about the excursions and career track.

I couldn’t be prouder of the program we put together. Please check out our speakers, our sponsors, and take a look at the program. Then, if you haven’t already, get registered. These tickets won’t last.


Anticipating a lively workshop: “Social Tools for Change Leaders”

As we planned Midwest UX 2015, we wanted to include something that was open to the local community, and focused on the needs of the community. On Thursday, October 1, Marc Rettig and Hannah du Plessis of local “culture work” firm Fit Associates will host a free workshop – a mix of people who are attending the conference and local leaders who come just for that workshop.
The workshop is called Social Tools for Change Leaders (, and we invited Marc and Hannah to say a bit about it here on our blog.

. . . . .

We are very excited for this workshop, for two reasons:

  • The mix of people who will be there
  • The mix of tools we will all experience together

The people you’ll meet and work with

Looking at registration so far (there are still a few seats left – here’s where you can register), we see an equal number of corporate people, people from non-profit organizations, and people from design agencies. That mix is made richer by a seasoning of folks from public institutions, academics, activists, and NASA. This is exactly what we were aiming for!

The reason that’s exciting is that we can all learn from each other’s experience and perspective. Most of us spend our days with people more or less like ourselves. Using these “social tools” with people whose challenges at first seem very different than your own will help us all see how they are very similar down at their roots, because they are human challenges.Through the day, there will be only short periods of slides and explanations – just enough to orient you to the methods, what they’re good for, and where to learn more. The rest of the time we’ll be doing stuff together.

The tools you’ll learn and experience

This workshop is based on our experience working with people in many kinds of companies, organizations and communities who are not only trying to improve results, but the culture and conversations from which those results are born.

We are going to learn about and experience three kinds of social tools.

1. Group methods: Listening to the whole room at once

The first tool is called World Café, and it has amazing power for something that is really so easy to organize and facilitate. Often in our organizations we keep repeating the same meetings and conversations over and over again. The same people assert their voice, the same people hold back and stay quiet, and so we get to the same results.

But this tool breaks that pattern by replacing one frame – the work meeting – with a different but still familiar and comfortable frame: the café. It emphasizes listening, it emphasizes co-discovery, and it’s fun. In our work we have used it with people in many different situations and roles, and it almost always helps open the possibility for a new kind of conversation.

2. Theatre methods: getting to the bottom of stuck situations

Relational dynamics are incredibly hard to shift. They are deep: for each of us, aspects of the way we relate to others was encoded into our brains before we learned to speak. And they are invisible: they operate below our conscious awareness. Becoming aware of our own patterns and then learning new ways of relating and working together – that is fundamental to changing any social situation.

So we need tools to help us get past the surface of what people are saying and doing so we can see underneath to the why. And that is where theatre can be a powerful tool. In the workshop we will experiment with a family of theatre-based methods for exploring stuck group or team dynamics through something called “action replay.” You’ll learn the basics of using this kind of method with your own group, and perhaps gain some insight into your situation.

3. Art-based methods: getting to the essence, seeing the big picture

Most organizational cultures emphasize brains, asking us to be smart enough to figure everything out. Make a decision. Solve the problem. But there is a side to every human that sees situations in a different way than the “strategic mind,” and which has a difficult time expressing itself through language. We hear it often: “I feel strongly about this, but I’m having a hard time finding words….”

There is a whole warehouse full of methods from the arts that have the wonderful power to help us tap into the intuitive side and get its insights out where we can learn from them. Many of those methods work for groups, not just individuals, and we find them tremendously helpful in work with teams, organizations, and communities.

During this workshop, we will learn how to work with images and model-making materials to have a new kind of conversation about a group’s collective purpose. We’ll practice the use of a creative process to complement and bolster the decision-making process.


If you are considering coming to the workshop but have questions about the day, we will do our best to answer them. Send email to, and we will respond as quickly as we can.

We look forward to seeing you there!

Marc (

and Hannah (

Mobile Cuisine at Midwest UX

Midwest UX is the perfect place for an assembly of food trucks from some of Pittsburgh’s most eclectic eateries. They’ll be outside conference venues Friday during lunch break. We’ll post about Saturday’s lunch options soon.

Two of them, Mac & Gold and the Pittsburgh Pierogi, are all-mobile, so lines move quickly and you’ll be enjoying their respective specialties in no time. Mac & Gold’s specialty mac and cheeses can’t be beat and if you’ve never eaten a pierogi, the Pittsburgh Pierogi Truck is making some of the best.

Known for its gourmet burgers and handcrafted shakes, BRGR will pull up to the curb, ready to serve. If franks and frites are more your speed, Franktuary will have ‘em. They also have vegetarian hot dogs and Randita’s all-vegan food truck menu will have more yummy options.

An entrée, side, and a beverage from one truck is included with your registration — just use the lunch ticket in your welcome packet.

Get Your Hands Dirty


Think, draw, embrace, joke, leverage, defend…grit, magic, trenches, games, curiosity, sharks…complex, dirty, awesome, real, thriving, honest.

OK, you’ve piqued our interest.

The submissions are rolling in and it’s a great time to be a Midwest UX Program reviewer. The UX community does not disappoint when it comes to submitting proposals. We’re pouring over fascinating topics and the beginnings of an engaging, compelling conference experience are emerging. We’re excited about the potential for the gathering of people and exchange of ideas that will happen in October. Thank you. And keep them coming.

People, ideas…and things. One of the great parts about practicing UX design is that our discipline has this wonderful balance of thinking and doing; reflecting and making. And let’s face it, we have some pretty cool techniques and methods that we can deploy to get our work done. We want to celebrate this aspect of our discipline at this year’s Midwest UX conference with our Hands-On sessions. These sessions highlight skills, methods, and techniques that UXers can practice in order to capture ideas, understand people, facilitate decision-making, present solutions, reach consensus…you get the idea. What can you share with colleagues about effective ways you’ve found to do your work? Do you have a method for fast-but-thorough note-taking while engaging with users? What’s your secret weapon for visually summarizing research data? What’s the closest you’ve come to waving a magic wand to convert sketches into low-fi prototypes? What are your favorite templates? (The only thing a UXer loves more than a whiteboard is a template.)

Convert your insights into a Hands-On session and show your colleagues what you’ve got. Attendee feedback from previous conferences shows that people crave learning new skills. These 40-minute sessions will provide attendees with some practical methods that they can try back at work. We’re prepared to set up our venue with small-group seating around tables to facilitate digging in and collaborating on-the-spot if that helps. We’ve got you covered.

C’mon. Get your hands dirty. You know you want to. Submit your proposal today.

Midwest UX, Pittsburgh-Style

I didn’t volunteer to be on the Midwest UX 2015 organizing committee. My husband tricked me into it.

Bobby was the lone member of the Communications Committee and he asked me to help with “just this one small thing.” He’s as savvy as can be when it comes to social media and most things digital, but writing just isn’t his thing. I’ve been writing professionally for a while so when he needs words, he comes to me.

I wrote some of the copy on this site and since I hadn’t attended past Midwest UX conferences, I read through marketing materials from previous years to get up to speed. What I found interesting is what I believe differentiates the conference from some of the others. Midwest UX founders tap into UX professionals from host cities to take the lead in organizing the conference. Erik Dahl and Brandon Stephens are heavily involved in selecting speakers and choosing conference topics, but the organizing committee is shaping the experience.

Why does it matter who organizes the conference?
Because the decisions we make about everything from venues to menus are based on firsthand experience. Think about it, an out-of-town planner would consult a “Best of” website, read a bunch of reviews or call a Chamber of Commerce and then choose whatever theater, restaurant or caterer was recommended. If you’ve lived in Pittsburgh for a while, you know there are a lot of amazing restaurants, fantastic venues and quirky other places that won’t show up in any guidebook. We’ve chosen places we’ve come to love through experience and they’ll likely be places attendees wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

It’s about who you know and who knows you.
Countless messages have gone back-and-forth between committee members about who knows what person at which company or agency in town. Technology changes quickly and, as UX professionals, we acquire new skills and tend to want to move on to different professional challenges. In other words, we may change jobs more often than the average bear. What that yields though, is a large extended network of folks we can contact to participate in and contribute to the conference. It’s also a network of influential people who can share content about the conference out to an even wider circle of influencers.

You’d think relying on new people to execute a conference each year would be stressful for Midwest UX founders. If past years have been anything like 2015 though, they’ve had volunteers who are as committed as they are to creating an interesting, memorable conference experience. This Pittsburgh-based organizing committee is planning a conference built on the strong foundation Erik and Brandon have established, but adding our collective experiences to it to make it our own.

Our hope is that we’ve created a conference that is unmistakably Midwest UX with an atmosphere that is uniquely Pittsburgh.

With Sponsors in Mind

I wanted to give you, dear reader, a behind-the-scenes look into how we came up with all things sponsor-related for Midwest UX this year.

When Jack called me last year and asked me to help with sponsorships for the Midwest UX conference, I immediately jumped at the chance. I believe in the mission of the conference, which is to elevate the Midwest’s awareness about the User Experience and Design communities and provide a platform for learning. I also thought it would be a good opportunity for me to learn about fundraising and put my extroverted nature to good use.


First Steps / Stutters / False Starts

With my design background, I started the sponsorship process thinking about the end result and then working backwards.

For starters, I’ve never done something like this before. That in and of itself was somewhat intimidating.

The first thing I did was look at the previous years prospectuses; what did I have to work with, what was I required to make to support this work that I was tasked with doing?

Looking at previous years prospectuses, was kind of like trying to read The Code of Hammurabi, but forgetting that you don’t know how to read cuneiform and you’re not a lawyer. It was somewhat foreign to me, to say the least.

At this point, I started to second guess what I had gotten myself into…


Seeing the Light / Empathy and Mindfulness for All People Involved.

So, I backed up a bit and thought about what the needs of all the people who would be interacting with and attending Midwest UX would be.

  • What do sponsors want to get out of sponsoring a conference?
  • What are the touchpoints or things that an attendee can see or interact with, that would be a good vehicle for a sponsor?
  • What do sponsors need? Do they have specific marketing needs? Are they hiring new people, ramping up a new team? Do they want brand visibility in a city they’re not known in? Is sponsoring a conference an association thing, where a company is giving back to the community, or signaling that they’ve “arrived?”

I then did a mental map of the venues and pictured myself walking through as an attendee.

  • What do I see?
  • Where is sponsor information?
  • Who am I meeting?
  • What am I excited to do?
  • Am I nervous to meet new people?

After I went through these two exercises, the documents that I was looking at had way more clarity. I started to solidify the Sponsor Benefits and slowly realized that if I truly wanted to answer the needs of both attendees and sponsors, I would have to get sponsors involved in that process.

I also realized that we not only needed Conference Level Sponsorships, but Event Level Sponsorship as we had workshops and events that happened outside of the traditional conference track.


Force Quitting Old Mindsets / Installing a New Approach

I spoke with my fellow board members and realized I was getting in my own way early on in this process. We made the decision to hold off on creating a prospectus and launching the Sponsor page on the website. I would instead work collaboratively with potential sponsors to understand their marketing objectives and try and customize sponsorship packages for them.

We decided to describe sponsor benefits and levels on marketing materials, but discuss specifics with individual sponsors. This gave us some much needed flexibility. We weren’t beholden to some set-in-stone benefits and could work with sponsors in an inclusive and collaborative way.

Focusing on really nailing down the sponsor levels and having the sponsor benefits somewhat outlined, but not specific, allowed me to publish the sponsor page on the website. I then coordinated emails and tasks associated with getting the word out that we were looking for sponsors.


Where we are now

As we started to talk with potential sponsors, we realized that some STILL had a need for a prospectus. We are in the process of creating that and will be posting it on the site very soon.

We started talking with companies in the Pittsburgh area as well as the Midwest overall and response has been great! Doing all the legwork of thinking about sponsorships from an attendee’s perspective, as well as the sponsor’s perspective allows us to treat everyone’s needs with a level of care that really values everyone involved.

If you’re interested in sponsoring, you can reach me at or by phone at 412-613-2500. I can’t wait to work with you!


Soul of the Midwest

In February 2014, I was in Amsterdam for the Interaction conference. I was high off of finishing my book and I was feeling inspired by the fantastic conference experience the organizers had created for us. It was a beautiful city with fantastic venues, and I was once again spending time with the amazing people I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know through IxDA. One of those people was Erik Dahl, one of the founders of Midwest UX, and I asked him if Pittsburgh would be accepted as part of the Midwest. I knew that the call for cities to host MWUX 2015 would be coming out before long, and I was itching to bring it to my city.

You see, it was during a Local Leader Workshop at one of the early Interaction conferences that talk of creating regional conferences started. I really liked the idea, and I was aware that the Columbus group was trying to do so, but at that time, I was Logistics Co-chair for the upcoming Interaction 11 in Boulder, and that was sucking most of my free time. I couldn’t spare any to help with a regional conference. The first MWUX conference was a big hit, and what I found when I attended the second one in 2012 captured my heart. You could feel that something important was happening. It wasn’t just another design conference. There was a down-to-earth, do-it-yourself energy about it. It felt like a tight-knit community in which everyone had a lot in common. It didn’t hit me over the head in the program content, but it was there just the same—it had the soul of the Midwest. There was that mix of old industry, new technology, and entrepreneurship that has incubated a revitalization of so many Midwest cities—cities like Columbus, Grand Rapids, Indianapolis, and yes, Pittsburgh.

It brings me great pleasure to be able to invite the rest of the Midwest UX community to Pittsburgh this year. I’ve always felt it important that a conference be flavored by its host city, and so my team of organizers settled on “Frontiers” as our guiding theme for the conference. Thanks in large part to our strong educational institutions, with Carnegie Mellon at the forefront, Pittsburgh has become a hotspot for cutting edge industries like robotics, wearables, gaming, and medical technology, and we intend to share that with attendees.

Sharing is, at the root of things, what MWUX is all about. Our team wants to share with you the process we’re going through in creating the next great MWUX conference, and that’s what you’ll be seeing here in our conference blog. My leads will be taking turns talking about how they are approaching their areas of responsibility, from curating the program to selecting our venues, giving you a peek behind the curtain. In fact, our next post will be written by Josh Aronoff, our sponsorship lead.

While you’re here, please have a look at the call for speakers. Maybe you have something to share with the Midwest community too.

Whether you’re selected as a speaker, contribute to the conference as a sponsor, or register to take advantage of our practical and very affordable program and workshops, I’ll look forward to welcoming you to Pittsburgh this October 1st through 3rd.