January 9, 2014

User Experience Designer Henken Bean channels the Positive Energy of Art

Photograph by Hallie Bean

I discovered designer and artist Henken Bean via Twitter, one of my most favorite discovery-charged destinations. Her dual focus on user experience design and art, particularly dance, piqued my interest to interview her. Here, she gives her takes on working as both designer and artist, and how the two worlds complement each other.

On being a user experience designer

How did you arrive at what you do as a user experience designer? Was there an initial encounter of design-related work that played a role in your path toward becoming a user experience designer?
I’ve always said since high school that I wanted to “solve problems” and “work on a team of people.” At first, this led me to think of a career in science because the two things that I loved to study were science and art. I attended one year at liberal arts school before deciding I wanted the rigor of an art school education. Once in the program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), I found a major that was called ‘Interactive Media’ at the time. This major introduced me to technology as a medium for creating interactions, both interactive art installations and design. I quickly realized after three years that I did like working on teams and, although I still love making art with others, design allows me to focus more on problem solving for everyday experiences and facilitates working on a team.

What were essential activities/steps you took to start and establish yourself as a user experience designer? And why were these activities/steps important?
I would say that seeking out opportunities to try different kinds of work in design and technology helped me narrow my career path. Even in my first interviews out of school, I noticed what excited me most. There was a time when I was thinking of trying front-end coding. While this too is a form of problem-solving, I found that what I like more (and am better at) is looking at problems from different perspectives psychologically. I have been fortunate to have had many opportunities to explore design for different platforms as well as different disciplines within my design career. I do my best work when I have to talk to many different people from a variety of disciplines and think through a complex set of both technical and process problems.

UX Happy Hour with Henken Bean presenting Principles of Onboarding. Photograph by Think Brownstone

How do you define user experience?
I am sure my answer to this question will continue to evolve as I grow personally and professionally. But right now, I think of User Experience as the experience someone has when they interact with a service or product. I think ‘service’ is a great word to be used with UX because it implies that someone created a tool or a system to be utilized by another person. It’s an action-oriented word. The difference between UX and other forms of design is that it implies there is some level of interaction between a user and an interface of some kind, even if that interface is not digital.

PhillyCHI Event Defining UX. Photograph by Hallie Bean

Do you prefer the job title of user experience designer, 
or something else?
I do prefer the title User Experience Designer. Sometimes people refer to my work as ‘more information architecture than visual design.’ I love designing for data and technology, but also human psychology and spacial orientation. I think that all these titles are subject to much interpretation and the meat lies more in the work than the title.

What is design’s purpose or obligation in our society, the world?
One of our main objectives should be to gain awareness of the tools that we put into the world; to know that we have a direct effect on human evolution through the creation of tools that people increasingly rely on. As we create ever easier and more predictable interfaces, we shouldn’t underestimate the human ability and ultimate desire to adapt. Digital interfaces are only one medium to work in and it’s important to design experiences so that they are adaptable to any material, depending on the situation. Let’s not get stuck in tech.

Who and/or what are your user experience
design-related influences?
The most influential component of my design inspiration comes from the amazing people that I work with. I am very fortunate to be inspired and challenged to do great work by all the designers, product managers, and technologists that I work with every day. The only way you can make an interface that people use is to work within the confines of reality. If you don’t know the limits of a technology and feasibility, you won’t create anything that can be used. These requirements are to be bent and pushed, but not broken. I had a sculpture teacher once tell me that the process of creating is to help guide materials to do what they do best. I think of this often and believe that it applies just as much to technology as physical material.

How important is it for you to follow your instincts?
I would say instinct is part of my problem-solving process, but I am wary of following it blindly. Getting the first prototype down does involve an incredible number of guesses based on instinct, but I also take in a lot of data first so it’s never blind. I am often proven wrong in usability tests, where real users will correct my assumptions. We will end up with a much better product because of refinements they help guide.

What is your process (emotions, tools, time, location, et al.) of doing design work? Please tell your journey.
First, I talk to people internally to understand where different teams and people are coming from. I gather many points of data such as: what’s possible, any existing data based on real users, what are other internal employees opinions. Based on these interviews from cross-disciplinary teammates, I get a good perspective of how the business reads the problem. I try to find out what is opinion versus fact and determine honestly what my reaction is. I then try to imagine the perspective of a customer and anticipate what they may think if they were the one doing the interviewing. Somehow in this process, the image of the interface becomes clear in my head and I sketch it out on paper with notes. Later, I refine this in a wireframe or comp (digital media), test with users, and then iterate on the concept with my team.

On being an artist

You also craft jewelry and other objects, dance, write poetry. How did you enter the practice of making art?
I’ve always made art. While the medium has shifted over time, the act of making has never wavered. I find so much personal reward and internal peace from making art that I cannot imagine my life without it.

Extension Ball. Photo by Henken Bean

Would you call your making of art a side project, or...?
I wouldn’t call it a side project, rather an aspect of my personality. Sometimes I feel prompted to make art outside of my professional work, but usually this is a result of things I am thinking during the day. They are commingled. I would say much of my creative energy is utilized at work, and only if I have an overflow or an inspiration will it spill over into personal creative projects. I will say that I am much happier when this happens and am currently trying out different ways to make my environment more conducive to art-making.

How do you fit art into your already-busy schedule?
“Time-management” yes, but what methods and/or strategies specifically?
It’s about intent and focus. Usually it ends up starting with an idea that is exciting to me. I then capitalize on this excitement by creating a space filled with the tools I need to carry out the idea. In the past, I’ve felt badly about not exercising this level of focus with frequency. I’ve heard many people say they have a strict art-making schedule, which makes them more creative. I am very judicious about my time and only create art when I am very enlivened about it. That being said, I use a lot of creative brain-power every day at work so I don’t feel like I am lacking in this area.

Who and/or what are your art-related influences?
I love artists who use their bodies within their art, like the early work of Andrea Zittel and Rebecca Horn for their use of sculpture, performance, and video. More recently, I have been amazed by the genius of Miranda July for her video art, films, and online experiments. I think she’s a great example of someone who you just can tell is having fun with her art, and this can never be over-emphasized.

Discovery work for theatrical show Introceptual Ghostland. Photograph by Scrapworm Wrenn

How do you let art influence/inform your design work, and how does it contribute to you realizing good work?
When I am making art, the most influenced part of my professional work is my mood: the fluidity and flexibility of my thought process. It’s important to stay flexible when doing design both for the social aspects and because some of the best ideas come from building bridges between different data sets and points.

Board by Henken Bean at Philamade Site Night. Photograph by Philamade

Why is making and experiencing art important, overall?
It’s important because we all have individual experiences that can be articulated in words, but when articulated as art (works) we open up the floodgates to a exponential means of interpretation that cannot be accessed with words alone. This allows us to communicate on deeper levels and to understand each other, our world, and ourselves better.

Theatrical show Every Lone Wolf Has a Moon with poetry by Henken Bean. Photograph by Scrapworm Wrenn

On creativity, design, working

Design writer Alissa Walker wrote an article called “Women in Industrial Design: Where My Ladies At?.” Where are the Ladies in Design/Development/Strategy at?
I feel the more important response is less of why and where, but more of why not and when? I went to 5 years of an all-women’s school. I do feel this has shifted my perspective on the question. While at times I do feel outnumbered by men in a room, I never feel that my opinion, shared honestly, will not be taken with respect. I don’t think this is naive. Rather, I think this is a daring but needed approach. So this is my call to the women out there that feel intimidated: The truth is that good ideas and opinions get noticed, so speak up! Yes, you may not get a handshake from a male exec after your talk, like other men in your group. Oh well. This is not a reason to stay silent or a reason to not feel heard. If you have an opinion, don’t let your gender stop you from speaking up. If you speak from your heart, the optimist in me knows that you can do it and you will eventually get heard!

Philamade Site Night. Photograph by Philamade

How do you handle disagreements while you’re working?
If it’s a coworker, it is always best to talk to the person who you have a disagreement with rather than talk about the interaction with a different coworker. Being honest and open to their perspective is equally important. If it’s a client, or more senior-level decision-maker, it can be a different story. I bring up my rationale and any research that we’ve done or external case studies. But ultimately, the client is paying me to think and give recommendations. If he or she wants to go against my best recommendation, even if I have stated my rationale fully and completely, this is a time when I have to recognize that they may know something I don’t about the business. I then shift my focus on listening deeper to the rationale and figure out a new recommendation that incorporates it. After all, we are all on the same team!

What part of your work is particularly trying,
and how do you deal with it?
It has taken me a good deal of work to maintain a level of confidence which feels comfortable to me. Balancing speaking up with listening, while not getting an unhelpful ego, is a delicate art form. Getting over being intimidated by others who I look up to has been something I’ve had to get over quickly. I tell myself that everyone is there to make great work and this helps.

What tools do you use and recommend to work on ideas and make them grow, to collaborate and get things done?
Call it what you will: agile, collaboration, or cross-disciplinary teams. Working with others well is about creating synergy where everyone can do what they do best. Recognizing and honoring the skills that people bring to a team is invaluable. I try to make a point of telling coworkers when I think they’ve done a good job because I think oftentimes those true compliments go unsaid. When people feel their work is valued they are motivated to do better work. We use scrum (or daily 15-minute meetings) to keep in sync in person. This process is adapted from agile methods for engineering teams. It’s best if everyone who is doing the work is really there in person or via phone or web. This includes design, development, product, solutions-architects, etc. Keep it small and focused, and make sure to have everyone speak up. You can take turns and go in a circle, and make sure you listen to everyone equally: it’s kind of like kindergarten!

iOS Scrum at Comcast. Photograph by Lori Hylan-Cho

How do you stay creative?
What are some of your sources of motivation/inspiration?
I use Twitter to see what people are thinking about. It’s a huge asynchronous chat-room meets blog. When I see other people doing smart things, it motivates me to join the conversation by contributing or thinking critically about what I am currently making. I also have many friends who are dancers, musicians, and performance artists in Philadelphia. I am always up for seeing a live show.

What is your definition of bad design?
Bad design is design that adds confusion or chaos to the flow of a user’s desired intent. Design should be flexible to accommodate this intent. It’s one thing if someone wants to dive deep into understanding string theory on their own time, but if they’re just trying to watch TV, get help with a consumer electronic, or set up a security system, this should not be a chaotic experience.

If you were asked, “Henken, I want to be a designer?”
What’s your response?
You can be whatever you want, but make sure you really want it. People do their best work when they love what they do. I guess the optimist inside me feels that everyone loves doing something. Attempt to understand your motivation for wanting to be a designer. This will ultimately help you find which design discipline will fit best. After some good self-evaluation, talk to different people about what they do and why they love it. This will help direct you to your best-fit discipline. Also, gathering the courage to speak to someone in the field will help prepare you for interviews. Make sure you have a portfolio of work you are proud of. In this portfolio, include things you were passionate about working on as well as things about which you can clearly demonstrate your rationale.

Any other aspects of your work that would be interesting to creative practitioners and aspiring product/business makers?
Empathy is a buzzword. Don’t let it distract you from actually talking to and putting yourself in the shoes of your customers as well as your coworkers!

How does the city of Philadelphia contribute to your work? And what makes it special for startups/business/creativity-at-large?
I love Philly. I moved here because I wanted to stay close to family on the East Coast while remaining in a creative city that wasn’t as hectic as New York. Passionate people live here and some amazing art and design happens! I recommend this city to people wanting a mix of great food, smart people, and a walkable city…not in that particular order. :) #whyilovephilly

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All images courtesy of Henken Bean.

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Typeface of quotes is Nexa designed by Fontfabric in 2012.

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Read more from Design Feast Series of Interviews
with people who love making things.