This week for our Series, we’d like to introduce Kedron Rhodes to you, a UX design strategist with Designvox, a design, strategy and technology studio. There he helps lead the human-centered design initiatives utilizing his deep research background. Kedron, a native Alaskan, has fought off more than harsh winters, he’s also a cancer survivor. He sort of won our hearts here at Digital Telepathy as we focused our interview with him on positivity, his life philosophy and how it all applies to user experience and user empathy. We love his blog too, so for more insights into his design philosophy, you can read more here. Beyond having more than 17 years of design experience under his belt, Kedron can be found on our blog, as well every so often. But don’t let these backlinks slow you down: Enjoy the Q&A!

And don’t forget: We are always eager to hear what you think about the Practitioner Series, and if you have suggestions for more experts to interview, we’d love to hear from you!

1. Thank you so much for taking the time to interview with us! I’d like to start the interview with our audience learning a little more about you and your history as a designer. Could you give me your three biggest career milestones you’ve had, and tell us why they were significant to you and your growth as a UX practitioner?

The first significant milestone has come in the form of mentorship. I’ve had 2 design mentors over the years, both of which have dramatically shaped my career in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

My first mentor led the apprenticeship program that I was a part of at a West Michigan publishing company in the late 90s. He invested countless hours over those 2 years into teaching me what it meant to be a professional designer. He pushed, shaped and laid the foundation for my design aesthetic in ways that will carry forward for the rest of my career. I’m quite confident that I wouldn’t be a designer today without his nurturing.

My second mentor introduced me to design thinking and the fundamentals of human-centered design. He had spent over a decade at IDEO and was leading innovation initiatives at another publishing company when I first had the opportunity to work with him. He assembled a small skunkworks team and drafted me and two others to join him. He taught me how to use design methodologies to tackle complex business issues.

One of Kedron's biggest career milestones, was serving as a Creative Lead for Governor Mike Huckabee's digital presence.

Another significant milestone was actually during the 2008 presidential campaign. I was the creative lead for Governor Mike Huckabee’s digital presence. I worked for a studio that specialized in national politics at the time but we avoided political campaigns like the plague. We took on Mr. Huckabee’s campaign because we didn’t figure he would make it through the Iowa caucus—and then he won Iowa.

Apart from being a lot of fun and a lot of work, we had an enormous amount of freedom to push the edges of what a campaign site could be. It was a rare opportunity, as a consultant, to operate as a product owner and creative lead. This was the first time I had experienced the true power of an agile team. We dreamed, planned and executed ideas in a way that when I look back, almost seems magical. We capitalized on the trust the team had built over the years to do things we had only dreamed about.

Several years ago, I was on a team that was hired by a startup to handle their design and development. It was clear to me after the first day on the project that it was not a good fit for our two companies. It turned out to be one of the most challenging projects I’ve ever been on. In the end, my employer discounted 60 percent of the work that I provided. It was humiliating. Until then I had a spotless track record with well over 1,000 design projects delivered to happy clients. Sure, not every project was a raging success, but I had never been in a situation where the client was so unhappy.

That engagement taught me a lot. Most notably, it was a much-needed reality check. Years of success had caused me to develop blind spots and this client caught me blindsided. I had become too comfortable being the ‘expert in the room’ when it came to UX and wasn’t able to see how that created conflict in situations where expertise wasn’t required. Success isn’t always a friend of growth.

2. I understand that you have recently fought and won the battle against cancer. High-five! On your personal blog, you’ve written a bit about how this personal tribulation has somewhat re-framed your existence. You wrote: “I’m learning to choose a positive view when I can’t see.Have you been applying this to your design philosophy as well? If so, could you tell us a story where you applied this and it helped make the design better?

Your question stumped me a bit. I was trying to imagine a designer that didn’t have a positive outlook. Who would want that?! Then I thought a little longer and realized that I know loads of designers that don’t have a positive outlook! Designers are literally creating the future. Design a bright one, please!

When it comes to choosing a positive outlook as it relates to design, I’ve found that I’m increasingly interested in working on projects that align with that outlook – projects that have a positive impact on human beings and the planet we share. Conversely, I’m less and less interested in projects that aren’t making a positive impact. My days are numbered, and I want them to count for making the world a little better.

3. You’ve had a lot of varied experiences as a UX practitioner, could you tell us about some emerging trends that you’ve seen arise that have become a game changer for us?

A friend of mine describes design as humanizing technology. We’ve been trying to humanize technology for decades and we’ve had to do so on technologies terms—it’s demands on size, power and connectivity. We’ve bent our worlds around these demands.

All of that is changing though through the proliferation of the wearable devices and the IoT. We’re finally seeing technology bend to us—the humans! It’s exciting and terrifying all at the same time. Design can finally be less about humanizing technology and more about transforming our very existence!

4. And to juxtapose that last question, have you also seen trends fall by the wayside that you either are grateful for or think will make a comeback?

In the Web space, we used to design with tables. Then folks like Jeffrey Zeldman taught us about the semantic Web and that tables didn’t support that future. Nowadays, no one designs with tables. Instead, we design with Bootstrap, Foundation, and other front-end frameworks that aim to take some of the work out of building a modern Web application. If we’re not careful, we’ll simply repeat the mistakes of the past by replacing tables for frameworks.

5. Empathy is a hot-button UX term that’s now a defining factor for crafting successful UX. You have also written about this phenomenon on your blog and you noted that Compassion is needed because without it, Empathy has “no teeth.” If you were your younger self, how would you explain how to put this into practice and design for this?

I remember the first time I truly felt compassion for someone I didn’t know or have reason to care about. I was around 8 years old, arms crossed and resting on the open window of my parents vehicle as we drove through downtown San Diego. We came to a stop at a red light and I noticed a boy my age in a narrow alley just in front of me. He ascended a makeshift ladder of discarded cardboard boxes and reached headfirst into a dumpster, pulled out a half-used head of lettuce and began to eat it. In that moment, my heart broke. I convinced my parents to stop and share a bag of groceries we had just bought.

photo credit: Kedron Rhodes

Empathy allowed me to feel through someone else’s experience and compassion drove me to take action. When I look back and see how that experience set me on a different path I have to believe it was because I allowed myself to hurt—to feel someone else’s pain. It is so incredibly easy to build a world around myself that protects me from those feelings. Safety and satisfaction compete against compassion for my attention.

So how would I recommend my younger self to level up in the compassion department? Stay close to the frontline of human need.

6. Design has truly become a huge part of the web and in turn many businesses are actively seeking good design and appreciating it, too. What are some brands that surprised you in 2015 with an effort to make stellar design a greater part of their ethos?

IBM. The largest global digital agency? Yup.

7. The Customer Is Always Right: true or false, and why?

Always and never.

Neil, my second mentor, once told me that the danger in incorporating customer feedback is that we end up creating more and more features for fewer and fewer people until we’ve created everything for no one.

I’ll put my business hat on for this one: The customer is right when it supports the sustainable exchange of value and the overarching organizational vision.