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Turning Learning into Action: Themes from the 2015 GIANT Conference

I’m often struck by how applicable and relevant user experience research and design are to every area of my life. I was thrilled to see this notion reflected in the speaker line up for GIANT conference this year. This led me to consider the following: What is the value of attending the conference at all?

I tried to approach the session content through the lens of my own expectations. I consciously chose not to divorce the conference themes from my experiences but instead, to reflect on the personal meaning to my life.

Being honest, receptive, and willing to engage with speakers and other attendees is a powerful opportunity to interact, rather than merely consume. It’s in this interaction that collaboration and growth can take place.

As the Experts, We Should be Ambassadors for Good Design

Although not a new idea, Scott Berkun exhorted his listeners that everyone is a designer, but many are not good at it. Rather than being threatened and protective as professional designers, we should embrace the power of everyone as a designer. Design is problem solving, so it is integral and inherent to day-to-day human activity. We, as experts and professionals, can harness the potential of finding new ideas and contributors within other disciplines by bringing these perspectives together to improve the process and outcome.

This theme played a meaningful role in the DNA of the conference. Since the founders of GIANT are strong proponents of the notion that everyone is a designer, they intentionally curate speakers across the spectrum, from UX practitioners to professional mountain bikers.

No One Knows It All

Be a life-long learner. Leslie Jensen-Inman (Figure 1), who has an extensive background in learning theory, shared that the space for lifelong learning is reflection. When we regularly incorporate reflection into our lives, we better retain what we learn and are empowered to intentionally iterate, implement appropriate changes, remove failures, repeat successes, and move forward.

Photo of Leslie Jensen-Inman. A presentation slide displayed in the background says, “What is the most important thing I learned since the last time we met and how will what I learned change the way I approach things in the future?”
Figure 1. In her talk, Leslie Jensen-Inman shared that the space for lifelong learning is reflection. (Credit: GIANT Conference)

This theme resonated throughout the conference, and multiple speakers added their own insights, including the following:

  • Cultivate creativity. Recognize that our environment, often beginning as early as childhood education, can potentially inhibit the very creativity that is greatly desired (Figure 2). Develop a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset. (Denise Jacobs)
Photo of Denise Jacobs. A slide in the background has a quote from Sociologist Benjamin Barber. “I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures…I divide the world into the learners and non-learners.”
Figure 2. Denise Jacobs emphasized developing a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset. (Credit: Deborah Nelson)
  • Foster critical thinking. Fight against our tendency to give feedback that is primarily reaction and direction. Critique is at the core of collaboration and for moving from a plethora of possibilities to honing in on the right solution. (Adam Connor)
  • Nurture empathy. Deepen empathy in order to guide your actions and attitude in working with and for people. (Multiple speakers)
  • Look for design inspiration in unexpected places. Take initiative to seek out what is valuable. We haven’t “progressed” beyond the usefulness or influence of the past. Choose to remember it. (Aaron Draplin)

Learn by doing. Move forward by developing awareness not only of yourself but also within context and community, including the influence of surrounding systems and people.

Don’t Strive to be Perfect, Strive to Be Better

  • Practice. Start small and then continue. However, not everyone is good to practice with so be strategic. (Leslie Jensen-Inman, Adam Connor, Denise Jacobs)
  • Be humble. Listen and be objective-focused instead of self-focused. (Adam Connor)
  • Take risks. Be honest, be open to being uncomfortable, and be receptive; that leads to growth and will make interesting things happen. (Scott Berkun, Sonya Looney, Giovanni Ulloa)

Practicing, being humble, and taking risks sound like familiar sentiments and common sense, but it takes effort, commitment, and intention to live them out (Figure 3).

Photo of Giovanni Ulloa. A slide in the background has a quote that says, “There is too much focus on external career success versus building inner character.”
Figure 3. Giovanni Ulloa was one of many speakers at the conference who encouraged attendees to take risks. (Credit: Deborah Nelson)

Ask Ourselves, “What are We Missing?”

Karl Fast proposed the need for nurturing the capacity to understand possibilities for the future by questioning what we are missing in our current focus. He explored the fascinating realm of how our minds work and how humans develop understanding. We tend to primarily design for pragmatic actions, as if human thinking only takes place in our heads and our choices are rational. Fast introduced me to the concept that our actions are not fundamentally practical; instead, often “we act on the world not for the change it creates in the world, but for the change it creates in our understanding of the world.”

Recognizing that humans often need to take action in order to understand the world around them is a fundamental shift in approaching our design work, especially in regard to asking the right questions and determining the right measurements for success and behavior change.

Related to this goal of expanding our focus, Amy Silvers spoke to the largely unmet opportunity to address the problem space of designing for natural and human-made disasters. During his closing keynote of GIANT conference in 2014, Ethan Marcotte emphasized the need for user experience professionals to design for reach and inclusion, particularly in recognizing the impact of our actions beyond western or more developed countries.

Since design is problem solving, how do our skills and outlooks extend to far-reaching areas in the world around us? What is our responsibility to the world either on a personal, community, or global level? We can start with constantly deepening our awareness and engagement.

How to Apply These Themes

These themes and insights are inspiring, but something is literally inspirational only if it changes your behavior. For example, after reflecting on these takeaways together, my coworkers and I are practicing critiquing each other’s work according to Adam Connor’s session on Discussing Design (Figure 4) and the critical thinking framework.

I realize that learning and applying these themes will take time. It will take each other.

A slide from Adam Connor’s session on Discussing Design that says, “Receiving critique with the right intent takes humility and restraint.” A photo of musician Kanye West is displayed in the background. West is saying “…But…But I’m the best.”
Figure 4. Slide from Adam Connor’s session on Discussing Design and the critical thinking framework (Credit: Deborah Nelson).

Moving Forward after the Charleston Shooting

The day that GIANT Conference ended, on June 17, 2015, the Emanuel AME church shooting took place only a few blocks from the main conference venue. As with other large-scale tragedies, alongside the profound outpouring of grief and support, there have been various discussions as to what the main problem was (racism, mental health, gun control, and the biases of media and social media, to name a few).

I noticed that the themes and takeaways from the GIANT conference are remarkably relevant. As UX professionals we are uniquely positioned to facilitate effectively bridging these multiple perspectives. How? By embracing the power of being ambassadors for good problem solving and employing empathy, critical thinking, and humility.

None of us is responsible for solving every problem related to the Emanuel AME church massacre or for solving every problem in the world. But there is something specific each of us can do—and become—that will empower us to continue to shape the world around us for the greater good in meaningful, long-lasting ways.



The second annual GIANT Conference took place in Charleston, South Caroline on June 14-17, 2015 and brought together 74 speakers and 450 attendees to talk about creating “rad” experiences and how to make those experiences even radder. Keynotes from Aaron Draplin, Denise Jacobs, Dan Willis, Leslie Jensen-Inman, Scott Berkun and Sonya Looney opened and closed each day of the conference. Sessions were held in various Charleston art centers including the Charleston Music Hall, American Theater, and Charleston Museum.