John Ellison

Day 80: Exploring Workshops, Training, Mentoring & Coaching

On Day 80, I kicked off my day with a great session between James Box, Andy T, and Andy P regarding the outputs for the training project. Andy P is running with getting all the workshops for each team written and listed on the Clearleft website while Andy T is condensing the Training, Mentoring and Coaching proposition in the form of a slide deck.


John Ellison

Day 73: Training Project Next Steps

We had the pleasure of meeting on Day 73 to talk about the next steps for the training project. Andy Budd had some really useful insights and provided great focus for us moving forward. I am really looking forward to see how this unfolds.


John Ellison

Day 66: Training Project Playback

7 min read

On Day 66 I had the pleasure of participating in the Training Project Playback. James Box, Andy P and I had been discussing the presentation structure over the past couple of days, but I had run with the bulk of the preparation work. We sat down on the morning of Day 66 and discussed final responsibilities. At that point we split the presentation into thirds and set off to refine our parts of the presentation.

In less than an hour we had all completed our part of the presentation and we needed to join the three parts of the presentation together.

Here was the structure of the presentation:

  • Purpose
  • Context
  • Concepts
  • Next Steps


The main purpose of the session was to create a shared understanding of the work that we had done and the concepts that had arise from our human-centered process.

While we did want to critique the ideas and examine their feasability, viability and desireabiliy, we wanted to wait until next week to do so because we had a small amount of time to present a large amount of information. So we asked participants to provide feedback that was clarifying in nature as opposed to critiquing.


James provided a very elegant introduction to the context of the project, answering questions like:

  • Why did we decide to start this project?
  • What process did we use to move this project forward?
  • What themes and insights did we discover?
  • What should we expect from the concepts we're about to see?


This slide demonstrated the spectrum of concepts that we were presenting—from incremental improvements on existing offerings through to potentially radical new business concepts.

spectrum of concepts

1. Improving Existing Offerings

improving existing offerings

I thought Andy Parker did a wonderful job of sharing insights on how we could apply our learning to improve and reframe existing offerings. It was interesting to hear that Andy Budd and another team had almost identical insights during a project retrospective earlier that day.

It seems like there is a lot of overlap and alignment between the problems we've identified in our research for the training project, and the problems that other teams in Clearleft have been experiencing in working with clients.

It was great to hear Andy Budd say "I think you've hit the nail on the head". I tip my hat to Andy P for all his work in this part of the project spectrum.

2. Clearleft Foundation

press start Clearleft Foundation apprenticeship

During the training project, Andy P spent a fair amount of time exploring the world of internships. He interviewed the past three years of Clearleft interns, including the present ones, to learn more about the problems they are facing. Here was the summary of the problems he uncovered:

  • Transition between education and work life
  • Takes up to 18 months to collect enough relevant work experience
  • Often repeating internships in order to woo employer

The Clearleft Foundation concept centered around a handful of ideas:

  • Mentor interns through all aspects of digital design
  • Begin the journey to 10,000 hours in a specific discipline
  • Provide flexible work hours to help employment exploration
  • Help interns create stand-out portfolios and CV's
  • Create life-long relationships

Looking back at these ideas, I realize that this would have been an ideal opportunity for me to explore when I was first starting off my career. I ended up fighting a much harder battle and taking longer to accomplish the items above. I think Andy P got this one right as well. Well done mate.

3. Chorus

chorus background slide image

Problem Landscape of Design Education

The concept of Chorus centers around the problem landscape of public design education. The problem can be summed up by one sentence:

"School as we know it is obsolete." — Sugata Mitra

Proposed Solution

After exploring the landscape of public education and specifically design education, I showed how new education models have emerged and have dealt with the obsolescence of school in different ways. I then presented the Chorus value proposition as a solution to the problems that all of these institutions are facing and all students of design incur along their journey.

It was interesting to me that in order to properly communicate the concept, I needed to express the beliefs and purpose from which the concept arose.


Everyone is a student and a mentor: We all have something to learn and something to share.

The quesiton is no longer 'Can we build this?' but 'What is the future we want to build together?' - Braden Kowitz


To solve one problem at a time and make the world a better place along the way.

I then broke down the value proposition into a series of slides describing 'How Could It Work?' follwed by a few lingering 'What If?' statements...

Tangent: (Known & Comfortable) vs (Unknown & Uncomfortable)

There were a few interjections along the presentation (as I expected), and rather than feeling defensive about the concept, I felt like there was value in creating tension and pushing boundaries. Where concepts are easily digested and ideas easily implemented, I think you are in the territory of the known and the comfortable.

But the place where concepts take time to digest and give you a funny feeling in your stomach, I think you are in the territory of the unknown and the uncomfortable.

I might prefer to live my life entering into the latter territory. The known and the comfortable can be a massively limiting force in any individual's life. I think it is the unknown and the uncomfortable that truly make us grow.

In short, I would rather take a risk at creating something flawed that enters into the unknown than creating something good that remains in the known.

4. Praxis

praxis background slide image

Coming onto the last concept, I followed a similar structure that I used to present Chorus.

Before presenting the problem landscape that Praxis was proposing to solve, I used a logical comparison to illustrate the concept:

If this is true about design: "The best designs are coming from teams that work together as a unit, marching towards a commonly held vision, and always building a new understanding of the problem." (Jared Spool).

Then wouldn't the same be true about design process?

Problem Landscape of Design Process

The problem landscape surrounding design process can be summarized in a handful of points:

  • The problems designers are trying to solve are increasing in complexity
  • The tools designers use to help solve those problems are constantly evolving
  • Design process is like a river—it is never the same twice
  • The 'how to' of design process is scattered across hundreds of sources. Some of them are consistent with one another, some are contradictory.
  • There is no demonstrable evolution of design processes throughout history, thus designers need to read between the lines to see where ideas came from and why design processes changed

Proposed Solution

I presented the value proposition of Praxis as a solution that would address the problems mentioned in the points above. In order to explain the solution sufficiently though, I felt I needed to address the beliefs and the sole purpose behind the solution.


Praxis as a concept hung from three core beliefs:

  • Process is the best reflection of a designer's maturity
  • Design process should be shared, critiqued and improved
  • Modern design process has great potential to mature


The purpose of Praxis would be:

To expose the evolving process of design and make it universally accessible and useful.


Overall I thought the presentation went well. It was long and seemed to drone on a bit but I think we got the core concepts across. I was certainly fatigued by the end and maybe wished we could have been a bit more swift in the presentation so that it didn't stretch on so long.

I am looking forward to seeing how the organization decides to approach these concepts and in what form they will take place. I've got about four weeks left of my 90 Day journey here at Clearleft and am hopeful to witness a few of these concepts come to life.


John Ellison

Day 60: Writing Content For Training Project Playback

3 min read

On Day 60, I spent most of the day distilling the Problemscape and writing content for the upcoming training project playback on Day 63. James Box had kindly provided us with a series of questions that each concept should address during the playback, and I setup a template so we could structure our content accordingly.

Here were the questions James asked us to answer:

  • Who are we trying to help?
  • What problems are we trying to solve?
  • How could we respond to these problems (value propositions)?
  • Why are we the right people to pursue this?
  • What is the opportunity size? (Competitors, market size)
  • If we wanted to take this further, what would we do next?
  • Where might this lead us eventually? (What's the vision?)
  • Why should we do this?

This task was also a good opportunity for me to read through all the content that Andy P had written regarding the concepts he had been focusing on, and it allowed me to make another pass through our competitor research to validate assumptions we were making about competitor offerings.

Setting The Problem Stage

Last week I spent most of my time focusing on how to articulate the concepts in form of a value proposition or elevator pitch. Upon presenting the concepts in that manner, I received a lot of feedback about the value of setting an appropriate context for the problems we are proposing to solve.

This was great feedback and one that I sorely needed. In writing about the problems I was trying to solve, it seemed like everything became much more clear and made total sense.

Finding Inspiration

During my research, I had stashed a few TED talks in my Evernote notebook, and so I used this opportunity to read through the talks' transcriptions and extract relevant language. There was one talk in particular that seemed to be very helpful in framing the problem.

It is a talk by a guy named Sugata Mitra, called Build a School in the Cloud. I've embedded it here because I think it is an amazing video that deserves to be watched by anyone interested in the world of education.

Why Us?

One of the questions James rightly asked us to answer in our concept pitches was "Why Us?". Here's a snippet of what I wrote for one of our concepts:

Clearleft was founded by individuals who learn by doing; Clearleft was founded with a belief in sharing what you learn. The combination of experiential learning and knowledge sharing has positioned Clearleft as a pioneer within the industry time and time again.

In the first era, Clearleft emerged as a leader in accessibility and web standards. But then the mission of usability and user experience design took reigns.

On the precipice of a new era, Clearleft has an opportunity to pioneer unchartered territory once again.

What would happen if we applied the learning from our 10-year journey to the world of design education? What would happen if we migrated away from doing great things to teaching others how to do great things?

Over the past few weeks, we have asked ourselves these questions time and time again. Out of a human-centered design process came an answer that rang loud and clear and resonated deeply within in our bones: Chorus.


I think I should have explored these questions far earlier in the project process because I found them immensely helpful. Maybe the work I did to clarify the concepts in the form of a proposition paid off, but it was definitely difficult to find the right combination of phrasing, positioning and tone.


John Ellison

Day 59: Discovering The Problemscape

6 min read

When James, Andy P and I sat down to discuss on Day 58, I used a word that I've never used before: Problemscape.

James chuckled at the word and we both thought it sounded funny. I'm not sure what he thought at first impression, but seeing as I used the word as a natural expression of a concept I was trying to articulate, I thought it was interesting at least. I'm not the biggest fan of smashing two words together and making it a word, but this word held something that I chose to explore on Day 59.

After Andy P and I finished our conversation on the morning of Day 59, I was left feeling quite confused and unsettled. It wasn't as if loads of conflict arose throughout the conversation, it was simply that our attempt of creating shared understanding seemed to obfuscated the concepts that I felt were otherwise clear (and maybe flawed, but clear at least).

Going Back To 10,000 Feet

During the conversation, I told Andy that I thought we were running over paths we've tread before and I was concerned we'd lost direction. I asked him if he'd bare with me for a moment while I tried to illustrate an idea that I had while he was talking. I hope he'll accept my apologies as I admit that my eyes may have glazed over a bit while I conceived this.

introducing the problemscape with andy p

Assembling The Problemscape

I felt our conversation began within the domain of one specific concept but quickly traversed into the broader territory of the bigger problems that we were trying to solve in this project. I began scribbling words on sticky notes and assembling them as I spoke. I wasn't exactly sure what I was after but I knew I wanted to visually represent the problemscape and verify whether or not we were talking about the same thing.

I broke down the whole project as we knew it into different categories. Here were the categories as I saw them:


There were several different audiences we were targeting: From individuals to organizations—each with their own type and flavor.

problemscape audiences


We had a range of problems that we were looking to solve.

problemscape problems

Context of Offering

We had two different contexts for offering: Public and private.

problemscape offering contexts

How Value Is Delivered

We had different methods of delivering value:

  • Training (topical)
  • Mentoring / Coaching (application)
  • Project (doing it for you...)

problemscape value delivery method


We had different durations in which the value could be delivered:

  • ⅛ Day
  • ¼ Day
  • ½ Day
  • 1 Day
  • 12 Weeks (6 sprints)

problemscape value delivery durations


We had different methodologies which we could apply to the delivery of value:

  • Design Thinking
  • Agile
  • Lean

Frequency of Delivery

We had a range of frequences at which the value could be delivered:

  • Once
  • Monthly
  • Weekly
  • Daily (Full-Time Immersive)


We had a range of disciplines that allowed us to strategically and tactically define and solve problems (that is, how we approach delivering our value):

  • UX
  • UI
  • Front-End Development
  • Project Management

problemscape method frequency of delivery and disciplines

Modes of Engagement

We had different modes of engagement:

  • One-on-one
  • One-on-many
  • Many-on-many

Outcomes, Not Outputs

When I started exploring the outputs, I listed a range of items, but realized at the end that the output doesn't really matter for the context of this project. Whether the output is a website, a web app, a physical product, a startup, or a social enterprise, as long as the problem is being solved and the desired outcome is met, the output could be anything...

problemscape engagement outcome and output

Read this awesome article by Ben Sauer for more details on why I chose to frame it this way: Outcomes, not outputs.

What Are Proposed Solutions?

In looking at the Problemscape by myself, I realized that the proposed solutions (value propositions) are just different packages of the following elements:

  • Target Audience
  • Audience's Problems
  • Our approach to solving the problem
  • The focus of the value
  • The outcome

When I looked at the Problemscape on my desk, I realized that I could select the individual elements and piece them together into a package. That package would be the core elements of the value proposition. Additional language and framing was necessary of course, but the core elements were there.

I think this exercise allowed me to step outside of each individual problem-solution pairing and look at the broader landscape of the problems and solutions we were proposing. This enabled me to reflect on the project as a whole and make sure that we were solving the problems we set out to solve and that we were meeting the needs of the audiences we defined in our research. It allowed me to think through each of the individual personas that represented broader groups of people and walk through their problems from their perspective.

It gave me the confidence to know that nothing was being left out. I could now see all the individual packages (value propositions) and make sure that we had total coverage over the Problemscape. We had a bunch of packaged solutions and some of them overlapped, but I needed to see how they all fit into the bigger picture of the project that we first set out to explore.

The Purposes of Canvases In General

One thing I've discovered as I've attempted to use things like the Business Model Canvas, the Value Proposition Canvas and Andy T's Project Canvas, is that I like concept but I often find myself butting up against the structure of the canvas. I like to design the categories of the canvas as pertains to the project and its specific domain (DSL if you like). I think that calling this exercise a 'Problemscape' might be overly grandiose, but maybe not. Maybe the elements together are helpful in other contexts. I think that the idea of using a canvas to break a problem or project into smaller parts is the main concept. How you do it and what you call each section is dependent on the DSL of the project.

What Do You Think?

I think this exercise was very effective and am curious to hear other people's thoughts. Have you done anything like this before? Have you embarked on an exploratory project and found yourself struggling through the details of many different concepts? Have you battled against blurred boundaries within concept definition? How did you approach the problem?

I'd be curious to hear your thoughts and learn from your process.

Tagged: ,

John Ellison

Day 58: Training Project Chat & Clearleft Interns Playback

4 min read

Training Project Chat

James Box, Andy P and I sat down for a chat about how we were going to present the training project concepts to the stakeholders. We discussed the presentation structure as well as the questions that we needed to address with each concept. We explored the different objections or obstacles that we might have to address in stakeholder's minds.

possible training project structure


By the end of the session we had a shared understanding of how we were going to approach the presentation and the content that we needed to create as inputs for that discussion. In the meantime, Andy P and I had some catching up to do. We had effectively split to work on two separate concept paths and now needed to come back together and reconvene.

Creating Shared Understanding w/ Andy P

Andy P and I took a short break after our session with James and dedicated an hour and a half to discussing the concepts that we'd created. There were some gaps in our shared understanding and so we decided to do our best to fill those gaps.

We started off with the concept that I had been focusing on, since that was the area where Andy P felt like we didn't have the same understanding.

Looking through the value propositions and the '1-2-3' statements I'd generated for the concept as our base, we discussed the concept at a high-level and in detail.





Coming Together

In asking questions and providing answers, we had a twenty-minute period of back and forth. We were bouncing around different ideas and different languages, but then something happened and we started to click. I don't know exactly what happened but it was a sort of 'Aha!' moment between us and we knew that we were coming closer to the same page.

Andy P sketched his ideas in his sketchbook so that we could think out loud and reference ideas later in our conversation. This, above all things, is probably the most useful process that designers exhibit as opposed to other professionals. Thinking out loud is crucial to creating shared understanding, but thinking on paper (or a whiteboard, sticky note, index card— however you like it), is another level.

There is something about getting ideas out of your head and into the world that makes a huge difference. A lot of people are afraid of sketching because they can't draw well, but sketching isn't about being able to draw pretty pictures, it's about being able to communicate ideas.

That is definitely a big lesson I've taken from my time at Clearleft. Not many people here can draw, but everybody can sketch and articulate their ideas visually. I feel like I've gained a lot of confidence in this area and am happy to exercise this sketching muscle more and more each day...

Moving Forward

At the end of our session, we had a quite abrupt break point and decided to continue our conversation later that day or the next. We had covered a lot of groud but there was still a fair amount of ground to cover. We were definitely making progress...

Clearleft Interns Playback

After lunch I worked on the training concepts a bit more on my own and then jumped into the Clearleft Interns Playback session where they were pitching two product concepts to the team. The purpose of the session was to decide on which concept to pursue for the remaining 6-weeks of their internship.

The conference room held a high energy as we walked in, and as Chris began presenting their concepts with beautiful videos that demonstrated their ideas, I think we were all really impressed at their work.

clearleft interns playback 1

clearleft interns playback 2

clearleft interns playback 3

You can read more about their project and the concept that they've chosen to pursue on their blog:

Tagged: ,

John Ellison

Day 57: Working on Training Concepts & Talking Next Steps

3 min read

In between the Purpose Workshop and Brand Refresh Playback on Day 57, I had some time to work on the concepts for the training project. I know it seems like I have been working on these concepts for a while now and I should have it nailed down, but the concepts have had such an intense evolution since their inception as a synthesis of the Training Stories Workshop on Day 44.

From the initial idea to the idea in its current state, the concept has transformed and taken many different shapes. It has been an intense game of ping pong between converging and diverging. Every time it is pitched to someone new problems arise, every time we look back at our user journeys and our personas for guidance and calibration something new comes into quesiton.

I think this project has suffered from a lack of a consistent working team. If we would have dedicated a much shorter amount of time to the project and had three people working on it from beginning to end I think we could have been much more efficient.

But nonetheless I understand that in an agency setting with multiple initiatives and projects going on at one time, resources need to be allocated according to priority.

Working on Concepts

As I sat down to work on the concepts before our 2:30pm meeting to discuss next steps, I had two separate products that worked together to solve a variety of problems that we defined in our research and discovery phase. It felt like we had past the point of invention and we were working towards a clearer, distilled and articulated concept.

Knowing that I had to pitch the concept to James, Andy P and Clare in less than an hour, I sat down and did my best to incorporate the feedback that I'd gotten from Mikey and Andy T since I'd last worked on the propositions. I sat down and completed the following

  • Sticky note value proposition exercise
  • Choosing the most articulate combination of components
  • Pitching the concept out loud and iterating
  • Creating three cards that each broke down one nuance of the idea into a simple phrase and illustration

working on concepts 1

chorus card 1

chorus card 3

chorus card 3 option 2

quire card 1

Talking Next Steps

As I mentioned earlier, James, Clare, Andy P and I sat down to talk about the status of the project. We each defined what we felt the purpose of the session was. We concluded by the end we had three main questions we wanted to cover in the course of the session:

  • Where are we?
  • Do we have shared understanding?
  • What are the next steps?

chat 1

chat 2


By the end of the session we had at least touched on each of the questions and we knew that we wanted to set up a meeting between James, Andy P and I the next day to talk about how we would present the concepts in a unified format next week to the project stakeholders. Clare kindly booked a 1.5 hour slot in the calendar and invited Andy B, Rich and Jeremy. We finally had a deadline to pitch our ideas to Clearleft's cofounders and had a set amount of time to work on the pitch.

sticky takeaway 1

sticky takeaway 2

sticky takeaway 3

sticky takeaway 4


John Ellison

Day 56: Testing The Purpose Workshop & Working On Concepts

3 min read

Purpose Workshop With Wolfcub Digital


The awesome crew over at Wolfcub Digital was kind enough to join us in a dress rehearsal for a workshop centered around finding your organizational purpose. It was really cool to see the character and charisma of their agency.

I think Wolfcub Digital were the perfect people to experiment with this workshop. They came with an open mind and a strong sense of their purpose as an organization and as individuals. They'd spent a fair amount of time uncovering their brand in recent months and so a lot of these thoughts were close to the forefront of their mind.


Along with purpose, social change, creativity and positivity, we talked about Rocky Balboa a few times (check out the blog post behind it). Other than getting to know an awesome group of people a little bit better, I think we had ourselves a good time...

Having explored their website before the workshop, I was quite familiar with the quality and breadth of their work. It was inspiring to see how a team of three people could have such a massive impact on a wide range of projects with big clients:


The workshop went well (I hope it provided some value to John, Dominic and Fran over at Wolfcub), and we spent a fair amount of time reflecting upon what worked and didn't work. In addition to the feedback we received from Wolfcub Digital, we had a few insights of our own as well.

James took the reigns on deconstructing and reconstructing the workshop. He brought Ellen and I into the recap session to test his conclusions. It was amazing to see the velocity with which James works. Diverging and converging with such momentum and intensity takes a lot of energy but I guess like many masters of their craft, James seems to make it look easy...



Working on Training Project Concepts

In between the Purpose Workshop and our little workshop recaps, I spent my time working on training project concepts. I employed the use of my sticky-note proposition exercise along with sketches on note cards to help articulate and refine the concepts.

I've definitely gotten better at using an idea to further the project and then throwing that idea away without any attachment. It's become a more liberal and fruitful process when I am not emotionally tied to each individual idea along the process.




Tagged: ,

John Ellison

Day 53: Rewriting Sam's Story

14 min read

I kicked off Day 53 with a short meeting regarding the trajectory of the Training Project with Andy P and James Box. We had a long discussion on Day 52 about the project, but we needed some final clarifying notes in order for us all to be on the same page headed forward.

I have really appreciated the pragmatism with which Andy P has approached this project. While I can launch off into rather grandiose brainstorming, Andy P seems to have a much more critical and analytical eye on what would be the most feasible and practical option. This has definitely created a positive conflict which I think is keeping the project on track.

Re-Writing Sam's Story

In writing my 90 Days blog post, I felt a stream of prose running through me that would allow me to define the Training Project product/service concepts within the context of the user stories from which they arose. I started writing and the words kept flowing. I was meant to have a session with James to work on further defining the product/service concepts, but I had loads of momentum so I asked if we could reschedule for later in the day.

Here's the story:


Sam was stuck. He just lost his job as a print designer in a small agency in Warsaw because he couldn’t keep up with the demand for ‘web design’ amidst all that was going on in his personal life: His daughter was born prematurely and spent several weeks in the hospital before she was released; his wife was dealing with severe post-partum depression and he couldn’t figure out how to keep up with it all.

He tried to tell his boss and co-workers that he just needed a little more time, that he was learning and that he’d be able to deliver what they’d asked if they’d just give him more time. They listened to him and gave him one extension after another, but when he began falling asleep at his desk at work—they had to make a stand.

Upon giving him his notice, he had two weeks to pack up all his stuff. He peeled sticky notes off his monitor. Each note was a scene from a comic that he was working on. The sound of soft adhesive peeling off his monitor got louder and louder.

At first he thought he should save them and began sticking them neatly to one another. But as he looked at the stack of web design books on his desk—some of them opened and some of them closed—he began crumpling the notes in his hand and throwing them in the bin.

He looked at the wooden photo frames of his young daughter on the shelf in his cubicle. He shook his head as he tossed the frames loosely into a brown cardboard box. Pens, rulers, markers and triangles formed the next layer in the box.

He didn’t care if the rulers bent or if the triangles cut holes into the sides of the box. He didn’t care about this stupid job. He came here to design beautiful layouts on paper that he could touch and feel. He came to make simplicity out of complexity and to run his fingertips across the surface of his work.

Instead they wanted him to ‘design’ pages that looked like a tangled mess on a screen. There was no structure, no order, no control. He didn’t like to code. The software he was using was buggy and slow. He hated having to stare at a screen all day. He just wanted to go back to what he loved...

Victoria Station

The train conductor announced the next stop ‘Victoria Station is approaching’. Sam grabbed his rucksack and felt the rustling of feet standing and moving towards the carriage door. Everyone looked like a robot. Nobody was smiling. Sam swallowed and mustered up the courage to translate his perfect Polish into broken English.

“How do I get to Farringdon?” He asked a man at the platform. The man spoke quickly. He pointed and moved his hands a lot. His accent was think and he slurred his words together. “Thanks” Sam said, having no idea where to go.

Design School Informational

Sam looked up from his map and saw [the name of the street] at last. He recognized the designSchool logo from the website and rung the bell. He walked into a lobby full of people with drinks in their hands. He looked for somewhere to drop his luggage and felt the burden of all his things as he removed the rucksack strap from his shoulders.

His voice quivered as he introduced himself. His hands were cold and clammy and he felt sick. He glanced back at the door and saw several other people walk in. They smiled and called out to their friends in the room. Everyone seemed to know each other.

The speaker was a woman with short brown hair that curled down around her face. There wasn’t a single hair that was out of place. Her blouse was tucked tightly into her black skirt.

She introduced herself as Asha, an instructor for the upcoming UX course. She spoke confidently and used sentences that she’d obviously said hundreds of times before.

Sam looked at the other people in the room as they made their way to their chairs. Each person had a certain look and held a confident swagger in their step. They knew why they were here. Sam wasn’t so sure.

Sam listened to Asha talk about the UX course. It sounded like a special place. They had instructors coming from great companies that Sam stumbled upon in his research about UX. Asha showed photos from some of the previous courses. There were lots of sharpies, pieces of paper, wireframes and students working late into the night.

There didn’t seem to be much comraderie between the students. There was a lot of focus on the individual and the end goal of getting a job in UX. Asha showed how the course was a much better investment than going to university and how you were basically guaranteed a job. She showed pictures of the fair at the end of the course. Each student had a stall and recruiters from designSchool’s partners all over London were looking for talent.

Sam felt warm black oil drop through his chest and ripple through the pool of his stomach. He couldn’t imagine anything more terrifying than showing his work in front of a bunch of London recruiters and competing with all the other students for places at a UX job role...

But the figures Asha mentioned about starting salaries were really strong. Sam knew it was expensive to live in London, but if he could only get a few years working as a UX’er in London, he’d be able to move back to Warsaw and provide a much better life for his family.

The 10-week immersive course was a lot of money and it was a big commitment, but it seemed like he could be pretty confident that he’d end up with a job that would allow him to start a good career and provide for his family. If this was something that he’d be happy doing was another story...

Talking To Celina

Sam called his wife Celina after he checked into his hostel. He told her everything about the trip and told her about the course. They had a long discussion about how it would work: Whether he’d move to London while they stayed in Warsaw or if she would try and get a part-time job to help them cover the London wages. She had some inheritance money from her grandfather, but neither of them wanted to eat into their savings.

Celina asked, “Isn’t there some way you can learn this stuff without spending so much time and money? Can’t you do something online? What about taking those free online courses while you work another job? That way we wouldn’t have to fork out X,000 Euros and not have any income for three months. The cost of moving…”

Sam tried to convice Celina that it just wan’t the same. It would take him a year to learn online what he could learn in an immersive course like General Assembly.

She asked him to at least look into it and see what else was out there. He had a few more days left in his trip anyway. Sam had scheduled a few job interviews in London and one of them had cancelled on him so he decided to sacrifice his day of sight seeing and explore other options…

Exploring Other Options

In exploring design schools on the internet, Sam found something really interesting. It must have been new because he had performed similar searches and never saw anything like this.

It was an open-source design curriculum full of activities, principles, mindsets and project briefs. In scrolling through the website he felt a sensation rise in his chest. This was amazing.

There were designers from all over the world contributing to this. Some of them were students and some were Heads of UX at big companies. There were long discussions at the bottom of many of these projects.

Each project was composed of a bunch of smaller activities along with a few key mindsets and principles. Sam was able to read through a range of design projects and understand the problems they were facing, how they approached solving those problems and the principles they used to move the project forward.

He blinked and realized his whole body was leaning forward into the screen. He looked out the window of the cafe and saw dozens of people passing by without looking at one another. His eyes glazed over and his thoughts took the place of what he was seeing.

Sam shook his head and looked back at the screen. He realized that for the first time he understood this concept of human-centered design. He’d heard about UX before and all of these terms that were being thrown around, but he’d never been able to see at a glance how all of these ideas worked together to solve real problems for real people.

That was the tagline of the site “Helping Designers Solve Real Problems for Real People”. It suddenly made sense to him.

The way that these problems were being defined was in the context of real human needs&mdahsh;not within the context of technology.

That’s why he never ‘got’ web design. It was all about the technology. It was all about the code and the software and the tools.

This was different. This made it seem incredibly simple.

He read through a few more projects and looked in one of the conversations. Based on the conversation he could tell that there was some kind of design school where they were using this platform to discuss their project.

A few clicks later and he found himself staring at a website of a new kind of design school: A place where everyone is a student and everyone is a teacher. They believed in highly-empowered cross-functional teams and radical collaboration. They believed in conversation over documentation and they believed in helping each of their students achieve their personal goals. The curriculum was different for each student. Instead of placing their students on a rigid curriculum, they spent the first week mentoring the student and trying to help them define a personal purpose statement. Each student had a mentor who was dedicated to helping them succeed.

Sam read through the testimonials of students who had been through the course. Some of the students weren’t beginners, some of them were successful professionals who wanted to take a different path or take their career to the next level. They used words like “changed my life”, “unlike any other school” ,“working on real startups makes all the difference”, and “the community is everything”.

Sam clicked the ‘Contact’ button and looked up the school’s address. Apparently there was a train that went from Victoria Station to Brighton in roughly an hour. And they ran throughout the day. Sam looked at the black hands of the white-faced clock on the cafe wall. It was 2:30. The next train was at 3:45.

He looked back at the screen and wondered if he needed to call them. There was a little blurb on the contact page that said they had open days with free beer on Friday afternoons after 4pm.

Everything was falling into place. He closed his laptop and wrapped up his charger. As he shoved the last of his things into his rucksack he headed for the door. Outside there was a little girl that reminded him of his daughter Hope. She was blond-haired and blue eyed with little pig tails and pink hair ties. This girl was a few months older than Hope. He looked at her and saw her father bring her into his arms. She giggled and smiled as he held her above his head.

Sam realized that he was staring and didn’t want to seem rude. So he put his head down and walked out the cafe towards the nearest tube station. As he walked away he couldn’t help but turn around and get one last glance of the young girl and her father.

He looked at the father’s eyes and saw something Sam had never know before: Purpose. A deep sense of purpose emanated from his smile. He was confident, but not in an arrogant way—confident in the way of knowing “why am I here?”. Sam walked swiftly towards the station and felt the strange tingle of the unknown reach out to him from a distance. After he purchased his ticket and found the right platform he walked down the train to find a seat with a table so that he could draw on the train ride.

Sam looked up from his sketchbook several pages later and saw a passenger sitting across from him. She nodded his head and said that she liked his drawing. He said, “Thanks.”

She asked, “So why are you headed to Brighton?”

He couldn’t help but smile...


I know that a 6-page short story isn't going to be an effective way of communicating a product / service concept to project stakeholders, but it was an effective exercise for me to return to the hero and the hero's journey that sparked this idea. It only made sense to plug the value propositions back into the story and see if it made sense.

What role was this product or service playing in this hero's journey? What obstacles does this hero need to overcome in order to engage with the product or service we're proposing?

It seemed like the project at the value proposition design stage was all about words, positioning and concepts. I wanted to strip that back and return to the people for which it was originally designed and initially conceived.

I asked Ellen de Vries to read the story from the lens of a 'formative' artifact that was designed to help clarify the proudct / service to the team members. We'll see what kind of feedback I get from Ellen about the effectiveness of the artifact from that perspective.

In case you can't tell, I'm really having fun with this story / ux mashup process. I'd be interested to hear your opinion as well. Drop me a line or send me a tweet.


John Ellison

Day 52: Detectives of Human-Centered Design

3 min read

Project Recap

The concepts that have arisen out of the Training Project have surpassed anything I imagined when we first set off to explore opportunities for Clearleft to provide training. When we first envisioned the outputs of the project we thought it would look like a series of workshops that we could provide to clients.

While this original idea still exists within the product and service concepts that have arisen out of our design process, the idea exists in a very different form.

I think what has happened is that we have gotten to the essense of the idea. We have taken a human-centered approach to our design process and have started with the needs of real people. We've explored their worlds and their experience and have begun to collectively identify opportunities for helping them meet their needs and reach their goals.

We used story as a vehicle for our process. In analyzing the opportunities we identified through the stories that reflected our research, we started recognizing interesting patterns.

Some of the biggest patterns were about connecting people. There were opportunities directly centered around providing design education and there was also a theme of coaching and mentoring—tailoring directly to the needs of the person and designing a custom solution just for their needs.

All of these trends and patterns seemed closely related to one another. In our exploration of how these opportunities might take form as solutions, we diverged again and explored hundreds of opportunities.

Because there were far too many opportunities for my mind to comprehend, I designed a small exercise that would allow me to visualize combinations of the different components that made up the opportunities:

  • people
  • problems
  • solutions
  • differentiators
  • alternatives
  • contexts

When looking at all of these separate elements, our divergence seemed to grow. In converging onto specific expressions of these opportunities in the form of an elevator pitch or a value proposition, we seemed to approach the concept, but still, something wasn't quite right.

Something was missing.

Following The Senses

The feeling that there was potential living in these ideas but the potential wasn't being fully expressed was a feeling that I experienced and I think many others who have contributed to the project have experienced as well.

It seemed like we were detectives looking for clues to help solve a complex mystery. We were drawn by the mysterious nature of the clues and the feeling of great potential that lay hidden in the negative space between all of the possibilities.

Playing Detective

In digging further to understand the clues and piece together the solution for the mystery, strange things started happening. Ideas began connecting and what was previously unknown started to become known. Things that weren't making sense were starting to make sense.

Suddenly we were staring at a complex system and beginning to see inklings of elegant simplicity. Through conversation, sketching and ideation we approached the solution to the mystery ever closer...

These sketches illustrate our journey as detectives trying to find the missing clues and make sense of the unknown. They represent our desire to help real people solve real problems. They represent our human-centered process that begins in human needs, emerges with empathy, designs in collaboration and tells the story like our lives depend on it.

I'll leave these as clues. Join us in the mystery.

design school ecosystem diagram

student needs mind map diagram

mentor needs design school ecosystem

consumer needs

contributor needs

entrepreneur need design school ecosystem

investor needs design school ecosystem

open source design curriculum concept

open source curriculum germinated seed concept user story 1

open source curriculum germinated seed concept user story 2


John Ellison

Day 51: Designing A Design That Designs Itself

5 min read

One of Those Rare Days

Day 51 seemed to be one of those rare days: Uprooted from time yet filled with energy from a thousand years. Everything started making sense...

The vast range of ideas that I had generated during the past few days in designing a value proposition for the Training Project seemed to open up a door. All of these disparate concepts began to fit into one another with great resonance.

Meeting With James and Clare

The day started off early with a meeting between James Box, Clare and I. I brought James up to speed with the current state of the Training Project and showed him my process.

He read through the propositions I'd generated the day before and asked a few questions. It looked as if James saw some potential and wanted to make sure he fully understood the concept I was trying to communicate.

Between the three of us we bounced back and forth between question and clarification. We each sketched ideas to communicate visually what we were describing in words.


sketching back and forth 2




Within five or ten minutes it seemed like we had a pretty solid level of shared understanding.

One Last Thought

We started talking about next steps for the project when I felt I needed to introduce the ideas that emerged from my late night thinking on Day 50. I had created a quick concept template in in the ten minutes before our meeting started and used that to introduce this additional layer of ideas ontop of the concepts we'd already discussed.

When I finished introducing the concept, I felt like James and Clare were slowly moving their seats backwards. They weren't saying anything.

I wondered if it was too vague and complex and told them not to worry about it if they didn't think it could work.

But James said something very interesting. He said that it was novel. I'd never heard him use that word before. He also said it was unique. So aware of his own internal thought process and emotions, James expressed what was happening. He said that they were feeling resistance—not because the idea was bad but because it was novel and unique.

We talked through the concept a bit more and the energy slowly escalated with each exchange. It was like the energy was a bouncy ball being tossed between walls in a corridor—gaining momentum with each bounce.

The Glue for It All

James made an incredibly valuable insight about a product which could become the cohesion between the service that I was describing. He obviously understood what I'd described—maybe even better than I did as I was describing it—and suggested a product concept.

sketching back and forth 3We had another series back and forth. Then we all seemed to sit back in our chairs. With our chins in our hands we smiled.

This was exciting.

This was new. This was innovative.

After four or five weeks of exploring a user-centered process around the whole landscape of training and design education we'd finally arrived on something novel and unique.

sketching back and forth 1The Next Task

James told me not to worry about communicating this idea to other people but to spend time making sense of the concept myself. He told me to go back to a user-centered level and think about each of the users that represented each of our audience segments. He told me to look at each of their individual stories and then see how they all came together.

I jotted down the instructions and both Clare and James headed off to other meetings.

I rolled back in my chair and put my arms behind my head and laughed. I did my best to breathe and re-center myself.

I took a little break and then came back to my desk and took photos of everything. I pulled off all the sticky notes and prepared myself for the next task...

While I wont' go into detail at this point, here are the sketches that I came up with:

sketch 1

sketch 2

sketch 3

I am definitely looking forward to working on refining this concept tomorrow with James.

Creating A Problem-Solution Map

James suggested that we break down the concept into its core actors (or users) and look at each of their problems individually and analyze how their problems are being solved by the other actors in the system. We would start small and focus on well-known problem-solution transactions (like a student and a teacher, for example) and then build out in complexity through that same model of problem and solution...

Breaking a complex concept into a simple diagram of problems and solutions between actors seems to be a really simple and elegant way to reduce complexity. I am looking forward to giving it a try tomorrow...

On The Way Home

On my busride home on Day 51 I started coming up with loads of ideas and descriptions for the product that was brought to life in the discussions that day. I usually carry around a small sketchbook with me at all times but somehow I'd forgotten it at work so I was scribbling down words to express the thoughts in my mind, but the medium of a phone is such a poor medium to try and capture ideas at the moment of inspiration. I don't think anyhting can beat a sketchbook for that purpose.

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John Ellison

Day 50: The Emergence of A Parti

2 min read

A Little Background

By the end of Day 50, I felt as though I had gotten the Training product/service concept to a pretty good stage of clarity, but on the night of Day 50, I had an idea that took the product concept to another level.

I met a guy named Adam at the SYS event. Adam had this idea for a startup. He pitched me his idea and told me that he had met Dave, the founder of SYS, at a Lean Coffee meetup earlier this month.

Lean Coffee is an event that is put on by Lawrence and Carlos—two awesome guys who run the Happy Startup Camp. It's a really interesting event that puts a diverse group of people into a room and gets them talking about a range of topics. The Lean Coffee I went to was an amazing experience and I couldn't recommend it more highly to anyone interested in purpose-driven entrepreneurship.

The Happy Startup Camp was one of the places besides Clearleft that I visited when I first came to Brighton. I am really inspired by the work that they are doing and wish I could get involved more...

As I was listening to Adam talk about his startup and his journey as a sports journalist to create a digital product, something clicked.

It took my conscious mind a while to catch up, but I nodded my head and saw a convergence of thought as he spoke. I hope I didn't look like I was gazing off into the distance thinking about something totally different while he talked... Well, I guess that's probably what happened.

An Ecosystem of Thought

I saw the world of design education in my mind. I saw the world of purpose-drive entrepreneurship . I saw a community of people trying to figure out how to launch products that solve real problems for real people. I saw a community of people needing to work on real projects in order to learn their craft. Why hadn't these two worlds come together before?

I thought about these ideas as my wife and I drove home from the event. I got home and lay myself down to sleep. I felt the current of ideas swimming beneath my pillow.

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John Ellison

Day 50: Training Project Content Brainstorming

1 min read

After the rebrand kick off meetings I decided to spend some time thinking about my content strategy for writing about the Training Project in retrospect. Andy Budd asked if I'd like to write about the project in general as well as the Hero Personas that we generated as an artefact of the project.

I sketched out some initial ideas and spent some time thinking about the audiences as well as the questions that I'd like to answer through the post(s). Here are the sketches I came up with:

 training project timeline recap

training project questions to answer

training project outputs and artefacts hero personas and hero journeys story ux

training project activities and stages

Hopefully I will be able to continue building a content strategy as we move this project forward so that I can write useful content for the Clearleft blog and others can learn about the process of the project.


John Ellison

Day 49: Writing & Designing Value Propositions

5 min read

After the Monday morning stand-up on Day 49, I sat down at my computer with four posts that I needed to write on my 90 Day blog to get back up to speed. It had been a rough and hectic couple of weeks for me and my wife and I'd fallen behind on my blog a bit.

The Value of Writing

Halfway into my first post I realized how immensely valuable it is for me to write about my experiences each day. It helps me process what occurred and reflect in a way that gifts me new insights and understandings. I can see things from a different perspective and make new conclusions. I think writing everyday for my 90 Day blog has been one of the most important elements of my time here at Clearleft.

Designing Value Propositions

I started designing the training value propositions that Andy P and I had formed last week. I found working with proposition templates to be relatively difficult because it had quite a high cognitive load. There were so many different ideas, so many different ways to frame a concept, so many variations and it was hard for my mind to hold it all together.

So I decided to step back and design my designing process. This was what I came up with:

my value proposition design exercise

I used blue sticky notes as the template structure and yellow sticky notes as all the possible options for that item. This allowed me to diverge as much as possible and to let all options have their chance on the proposition board. There was less criticism in my head about the exact wording and more about getting the wide range of possibilities onto the table. I didn't want to leave any options out.

I felt free to try new things and put many different variations together. Once I had laid out all the possible options I could think of, I started thinking about how I would actually create individual proposition statements from the massive list of components on my desk.

Sketching Ideas

As I wrote down different options for each section of the proposition I had a range of ideas come into my head and decided to sketch them down and keep them on the table in front of me. While a value proposition does express a certain portion of the product or service, it lacks the mechanics and philosophy which play a huge role in the formation of the idea.

Here were some of the sketches I came up with...

sketch 1sketch 3sketch 2

An Aside: Value Proposition Software

I thought about a piece of software that could help with this process. The software would take a value proposition template like this with many different options for each part of the template and create all possible value propositions as permutations. There would be hundreds of different propositions and you could read through them and select which ones were best. You could also begin removing items from the value proposition template that didn't work and you'd end up with a select number of components and a small number of value proposition variations built from those components.

Okay, the tangent is done. Back to my process.

Creating Individual Propositions From A Massive Range of Options

At first I wanted to use a string with some blue tack to link sticky notes together from left to right to form a sentence, but seeing as I couldn't find any string I opted to use colored markers to indicate which sticky notes went together.

In this step of the process I had far less cognitive load because I could clearly see all the different options for a given component of the proposition. I didn't have to stretch my brain to think "is there something missing?" I was able to focus more about which option expressed the proposition best.

I started from the far left and selected the most appropriate person type from the list with a small colored tick in the bottom corner of the sticky note. I then progressed to the next column and selected the most relevant option for that person type. I ticked that option the same color as well. I went through each column and selected the best option with a colored marker until I was at the very end of my large sprawling proposition template.

I then read through the proposition using only the sticky notes that had a colored marker tick in the corner.

Some of the components didn't work exactly so I scrapped those and chose others. I re-wrote some and added new ones entirely.

In a short amount of time I had my first (somewhat) working proposition.

It then took me about 5 minutes to come up with two others. There were small variances in the propositions but each variance made a big difference.

Ending Up With Three Propositions

At the end of the exercise I had three unique value propositions. I pitched them to several different people in the office and got feedback. They were far from perfect but we were going somewhere.

ending up with three propositions

I was fortunate to grab an hour of Clare Kirkland's time and talk through the propositions in greater detail. She was immensely helpful in clarifying ideas and identifying weak points. There is so much that goes into value proposition design and so many decisions and assumptions which need to be made and declared along the way.

Clare is going to jump onto the project with me this week and hopefully together we can make some real progress. I am super excited to be able to get to work with Clare again on another internal project. It's great to have her in any conversation because she is incredibly analytical, intelligent and professional. Props to Clearleft for having such an awesome PM on the team!

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John Ellison

Day 46: Public Value Proposition Research & Design

5 min read

On the morning of Day 46 I arrived to the office expecting to have a full workday ahead with Andy Parker where we could finish off our value proposition and finalize it before the end of the week.

Unfortunately Andy P had an unforeseen workload change and so we had to recalibrate.

Andy P tasked me with researching our public value proposition. He wanted me to find as many examples of training, courses, workshops, seminars, conferences and schools that had similar propositions.

We had shifted our theme from UX Design culture to Design Thinking in general because it seemed to provide more value to a wider audience and would allow us to have a more diverse audience for the proposition.

Andy wanted me to have 100 examples that we could compare at 2pm and then use them as evidence to boil down our proposition into something final.

Researching Like A Mad Man

I hadn't been given a small definitive task like this with a definitive deadline in my whole time at Clearleft so I jumped straight in and started researching and reading about everything I could find. I filled my Evernote 'Training' notebook with over 139 notes and highlighted over 28 articles.

While it seemed odd to have such a drastic shift in our project focus, it actually proved to be the perfect task for me to do loads of research before re-approaching the value proposition.

Making Sense of The Research

As I perfomed my research and read through loads of content, I started working back towards the Project Canvas that we started at the beginning of the project. I needed a place to pigeonhole my ideas and notecards proved to be the perfect medium.

project canvas on the fly

Everything started coming together and making sense. I felt like I was seeing validation, contrast, and hierarchy in all of my reserach. My gut was telling me things like "This isn't quite right." and "This isn't our same audience, but it is similar. The diference is...". It was as if my subconscious was acting as a guide for my conscious mind to digest information and make quick decisions about the importance and relevance of my findings.


This concept of metadesign kept popping into my head during the research so I decided to take a moment and think about "What are the elements of metadesign?". It helped me stash away a train of thought that my subconscious seemed to think important. So I decided to snap a picture of it and share it and leave it for now. We'll see what role metadesign plays in this proposition if any at all...

elements of metadesign

Meeting With Ben

Something came up with a client project and Andy P wasn't able to meet with me at 2pm, so Ben Sauer kindly offered to help me think through the value proposition more clearly.

I debriefed Ben on what had happened since the workshop and told him the concept that Andy P and I had been working on. He quickly moved towards a template that would allow us to flesh out the value proposition. It was different from the template James Box had made for Hack Farm one year, and actually I think for this specific instance it worked better to help me convey the value proposition in the manner I needed to.

Ben's proposition template

At first it was a bit difficult for me to articulate, but Ben helped facilitate movement. He must have loads of experience working with people to define value propositions because it seemed second nature to him. He had an sense about what worked and what didn't and he was guiding me along the journey the whole time.

By the end of it we had the beginnings of a decent proposition and Ben finally understood my idea. We had a shared 'Aha!' moment and the energy in the room lifted greatly. It felt really good to be understood and I think Ben appreciated the role that he played as well. He was kind enough to say "It is so hard to work this stuff out on your own man, trust me. If you were to ask me half of the things that I do it would be so difficult for me to put into words like this."

I guess that's the power of collaboration, isn't it?

our initial proposition

UX Club

Soon after we had an initial proposition up on the wall, we had UX Club in the same room. I did my best to jot down my ideas and give myself anchors to move forward after UX Club.

At UX Club, we discussed Leah Buley's talk on The Modern Design Organization from UX Week 2015. I've embedded it below in case any of you are interested in watching:

Working on The Value Proposition

After UX Club I decided to break the value proposition into components so that I could pick and choose combinations of components and decide what would be the best outcome.

value proposition components

But soon the note structure of my computer reminded me of John Willshire's Popular Thing for Broken Thing workshop that we did on Day 43. So I decided to break the components into sticky notes on my desk:

sticky noting the value proposition components

I was so close to finishing the value proposition before the end of the week, but I don't have a key yet to Clearleft offices so I had to leave with the last employee. Bummer. Monday will hopefully be the last day!

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