Hi, I'm John Ellison. This is a 90-day blog project that chronicles some of my work experience at Clearleft as a UX Designer.








John Ellison

Day 90: Lunch, Gifts, and Goodbyes (for now)

1 min read

On my last day of work at Clearleft, the team took me out to an amazing lunch at a great British pub, they bought me an incredible book (and a PLANT!), wrote me lovely hand-written cards and made me wear a Frozen wrapping paper as a cape...

It has been an incredible adventure, one that I have had the great pleasure of documenting over the past 90 days. I'd like to say thank you to everyone at Clearleft for the roles they played in helping make my time here all that it has been.

I am so blessed to know these people and to have made great relationships with the wonderful folks at Clearleft.

If you're thinking of working at Clearleft, think no further! It's a place like no other... Can't speak more highly of my time here.

I'm planning to write a 90-day recap later (once I've got a bit of perspective and have some more time).

Goodbye (for now) Clearleft!

John Ellison

John Ellison

Day 90: Documenting Silverback's Export Use Cases

1 min read

After spending some time with Andy Budd, Clare Kirkland and James Bates on day 89, I had a better understanding of the core use cases of Silverback's export functionality. I was tasked with documenting what I came to understand as my last task at Clearleft.

A bit of design documentation to wrap things up only seems right!

We decided to break down the functionality into a Basic and Advanced flow to keep things simple. 

silverback export flow basic

silverback's advanced flow

John Ellison

Day 88: Testing Silverback

1 min read

On Day 88, I spent a vast majority of the day testing Silverback—Clearleft's Mac OS X product for user testing.

We've been collaborating with a great developer who has been able to hunt down and fix most of the bugs we've discovered in the application. It has been a bit like playing table tennis: We've gone back and forth with bug reports and new releases. 

We've got our testing script down and have been running tests on machines throughout the office. It's looking like we're approaching a stable version of Silverback with each release.

Hopefully we can get Silverback into Beta testing before day 90! That's my hope.

John Ellison

Day 87: Bytes Conference

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On the evening of Day 87, I had the pleasure of giving the opening keynote talk at Bytes Conference 2015.

The folks at Liquid Light were kind enough to Periscope the talks: https://www.periscope.tv/w/1ynJOQRWmpvKR  (mine starts at 9:27).

It was a great experience speaking at a conference with such a positive cause. I really enjoyed learning about A Band of Brothers and Drop 4 Drop—the two charities that received all the proceeds of the event.

Kudos to all the speakers and people who helped put on the event.

John Ellison

Day 85 & 86: Writing My Bytes Conference Talk

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I spent most of Day 85 & 86 writing my Bytes Conference Talk. You can see the finished presentation here: http://bytes-talk.solvetherefugeecrisis.com/

John Ellison

Week 1 STRC Project Update

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I wrote a project update for STRC Week 1. It's available here: https://slack-files.com/T0AS00P18-F0DGFFDS9-4018ce1da1

John Ellison

Day 84: Chat w/ Clare & Andy Budd RE: STRC

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On Day 84, I had a chat with Clare and Andy Budd regarding Solve The Refugee Crisis (STRC). I've decided to seriously consider turning STRC into a full-time iniative and I wanted to ask Clare and Andy how we might be able to work together to fulfill the mission of STRC: to help solve the refugee crisis—one small problem at a time.

It was a great conversation. We discussed the wide range of risks that we needed to mitigate along with a possible plan to consider.

I've got to research incorporation structures for creating a social enterprise in the UK before anything else. I've also got a talk to write for Bytes Conference on Thursday. Guess I should get cracking...

John Ellison

Day 83: Rest & Philippe Nash Gig

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On Day 83 (Sunday), Sophie and I went up to London to watch our friend Philippe Nash play a gig in Dalston. It was an awesome show and really enjoyed seeing Philippe play again. He's got another gig at Gloucester Place in Brighton coming up tomorrow if you want to come...

John Ellison

Day 77: Publishing Posts for Clearleft Blog

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On Day 77, I published my first post on the Clearleft blog: Personas Are Dead. Long Live The Heroes!. I've got three more scheduled to publish. Keep an eye out!

John Ellison

Day 75 & 76: Working on Refugee Project

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solve the refugee crisis desktop screenshot

After receiving some great feedback from Clearleft about the refugee project, I spent Day 75 and 76 (Saturday and Sunday) making some major adjustments. In conducting some user research I stumbled across an insight which caused me to pivot the project entirely:

There is no way for leaders working on the crisis to communicate in real-time.

Here's the project in its current state: http://solvetherefugeecrisis.com/

John Ellison

Day 71 & 72: Writing, writing, writing...

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On Day 71 and 72 I took the opportunity to write whenever I wasn't in a meeting. There was a lot to reflect upon and I've got one behemoth post published on my Writings blog, but after some initial feedback I think it is going to serve others better as several smaller posts. So I'll be working on improving what I've written and rounding it out a bit before publishing the posts to the Clearleft Blog.

John Ellison

Day 70: Writing, writing, and more writing...

1 min read

I had a lot of writing to catch up on for Day 70. From Clearleft blog posts, to my 90 Day project, I had a full stack of posts I needed to work on and I was fortunate enough to have most of the day to do so.

John Ellison

Day 69: Working on Refugee Community

1 min read

On Day 69 (Sunday), I spent most of the day working on my Refugee.Community project. I launched the website and am looking forward to testing it with users and improving the experience. Hopefully we'll be able to build a nice community of people taking action to help refugees. I am super excited about this side project.

http://refugee.community/ is now live.

refugee community screenshot

Check out the website and let me know what you think!



John Ellison

Day 68: Rest

1 min read

Once a week i try and take a fast from the digital world. I get outside, read, enjoy nature with my wife and usually eat and drink loads of yummy stuff.

This week, I was reminded of Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies, one of my favorite short story collections. I highly recommend checking it out if you like short stories. She's a wondeful storyteller who is a master at her craft.

John Ellison

Day 67: UX Club Special—Metadesign with John Willshire

8 min read

john willshire introducing metadesign to clearleft

On Day 67 we kicked off our day with a really fun UX Club Special on Metadesign. John Willshire and Fraser Hamilton from Smithery were kind enough to join us and bring some insightful perspective to the conversation.

The idea for the UX Club Special on Metadesign sprouted when I wrote about John's 'Popular Thing for Broken Thing Workshop' on Day 43 of my 90 Day journey working at Clearleft.

John Willshire and I exchanged thoughts about Metadesign after I wrote the article, and we thought it would be valuable to set up a chat here at Clearleft to talk further and invite others into the conversation.

The Provocation

A few days before our chat, John Willshire sent a few seeds to spark the conversation around Metadesign. He suggested watching John Wood talks for a bit of context:

John also posed a question to get us thinking about Metadesign in relationship to what we're doing now:

Perhaps we do it anyway, but without thinking about it?

The Conversation

We started off with a little context to introduce the discussion to the group and I asked John Willshire if he wanted to add any additional information to set the stage of our conversation. I like the way John talks in front of groups, he always has a tone of mystery and intrigue in his voice. It's not as if he already knows the answer to the question, it's that he's truly curious and his tone conveys the curiosity more than words could do alone.

We decided to split into two different groups and employ the Lean Coffee format of discussion. If you've never done Lean Coffee discussions before, they're really easy and loads of fun.

Here's how it works:

  1. Each person grabs a stack of sticky notes and a sharpie.
  2. In clear letters they write any question, topic, or argument that comes to mind.
  3. Once everyone has finished writing, someone introduces a sticky note and explains why they wrote it.
  4. As the rest of the group introduces what they've written, the facilitator begins to organize them into categories.
  5. The facilitator may choose to label the categories if it is necessary, but otherwise the group then has a chance to vote on which topics they want to talk about most.
  6. The topics with the most votes are discussed first. Equal amounts of time are allotted to each topic.

Groups & Topics

In our group, I had the fortune of discussing Metadesign with Fraser Hamilton, Anna Allan, Rich Rutter, Chris Green and Andy Thornton.

The first topic we discussed was an obvious one: "What is Metadesign?", we ended up smashing it together with the next question of "What are examples of Metadesign & what can we learn from them?" in order to aid in our definition of the term.

What is Metadesign?

what is metadesign? what are examples of metadesign?

Most of us had seen John Willshire's talk at dConstruct 2015 and were somewhat familiar with the term metadesign, but even still, the concept seemed elusive and our understanding seemed transient.

But even with a lack of clarity, within a few minutes of starting the conversation we quickly had a few working definitions of Metadesign:

  • Metadesign is the context, environment and process by which design is performed.
  • If design is concerned with answering "what" then Metadesign is concerned with answering "how?".

Rich raised a few valid questions about whether or not designing a workshop is metadesign. Maybe we've been doing metadesign all along we just haven't been calling it anything or paying as much attention to it. This was a very relevant point and I think Rich also touched on the blurred boundaries between where design ends and metadesign begins.

When we talked more and more about the concept and tried to create logical boundaries, the more complex the discussion became.

Fraser asked "If metadesign is this difficult for us to articulate, then how can we expect to articulate its value to others? We have to keep it simple in order for it to make sense."

We carried on to talking about specific examples of Metadesign to provide clarification.

What are examples of Metadesign & what can we learn from them?

I started us off by introducing John Willshire's "Popular Thing for Broken Thing" workshop as a perfect example of Metadesign. The Metadesign problem is "How do we iteratively generate startup concepts in a collaborative design workshop?". The structure of John's workshop is the solution. The outcomes of the workshop is that every participant leaves with a strong understanding of one startup concept that they found and refined throughout the workshop's activities.

Andy T raised John Willshire's Relativity Matrix as an example of Metadesign and we talked through a few other examples and examined them from the perspective of the definitions we'd discussed in the first topic.

Musical Color

During John Willshire's talk at dConstruct, I thought of a project I worked on a few years back called Musical Color. It was a personal project aimed at creating a deeper understanding of music theory, sight reading, and the relationships between emotion and musical composition.

I introduced an output from my project called the Musical Color Wheel. The wheel demonstrates the relationship between every scale in Western music by intervals of fifths. I began creating associations between a specific color and specific notes in order to reduce the cognitive load of reading sheet music, but in this wheel it also allows the mind to see patterns of colors instead of letters and symbols.

musical color wheel

Even for someone who does not understand music theory at all, a person can glance at this diagram and begin to make deductions and even conclusions about music theory and the relationship between scales. If you gave someone a piano with a colored keyboard and music sheet, this wheel might instigate some interesting and otherwise unexplored combinations.

musical color keyboard

musical color score 1 bar song sheet moonlight sonata

Offloading Complexity

There are some really interesting patterns that arise when you redistribute the cognitive load of a system onto a simple visual tool. It allows you to step back from the system's complexity and allow your mind to create patterns and relationships naturally.

There is something profound about creating simple visual tools to offload complexity and allow creativity to reign freely. We often force ourselves to think within our heads instead of thinking visually or thinking out loud. Maybe 'thinking visually' is an important principle for us to consider as we further explore the domain of Metadesign.

Why Metadesign? What problems does it solve?

In our next topic, we discussed how Metadesign could be applied to the problems that we experience as designers in a design agency. From culture change, upskilling, workshops to creating shared understanding—we all agreed that Metadesign has loads of different potential applications. What we weren't so sure about was how to approach these problems with Metadesign. There is no rulebook for Metadesign, and no one seems to know exactly how it works, so it was a fascinating discussion talking around a largely undefined topic.

How does this change what we currently do?

This conversation brought references to several of the projects that Clearleft had worked on recently. It seemed important to spend more conscious effort thinking about how we interact with our clients, how we communicate and execute our process. The idea of a 'Metadesign' role came into conversation. Ultimately we were wondering "Is this something that has explicit value? Can we sell this? Does it need to be called Metadesign?"

Its been great to see conversations crossing over from project to project. Patterns emerging out of seeming chaos and randomness has always been one of my favorite parts of being a creative problem solver.

Brining The Conversation Back Together

discussing metadesign at Clearleft for UX Club

At the end of our 30-minute discussion, we brought the two groups back together to discuss what we learned in our separate groups. We provided an overview of our discussion and a new organic discussion evolved from it. Ben Sauer related the topic of Metadesign to a project he recently finished and we wondered whether a full-time Metadesigner on future projects could be valuable.

John Willshire suggested that a designer could play the role of a designer on one project and the role of a metadesigner on another project. Playing two different roles and seeing two different perspectives could be an very valuable strategy. It could also spread someone's responsibilites too thinly, but the idea is interesting to explore, for sure.

We talked about the boundaries between design and metadesign, and many people referred to the metaphor of a box. Design is about creating a box. Metadesign is about creating the context in which a box is designed.

These were our definitions at least. I am looking forward to hearing other people's thoughts about the topic of Metadesign: What is it? Why do we care? and What problems does it solve?

It was great to have John Willshire and Fraser Hamilton at the office. I enjoyed hearing about Fraser's journey cycling unsupported across America to raise money for charity. You can read about his journey on his website.

I'm looking forward to exploring this domain of Metadesign further and seeing its potential. Maybe we'll see an interesting new discipline emerge in the coming years.


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