Paul McAleer

Designing "Better Living Through Design"

Paul McAleer

My World IA Day presentation, Better Living Through Design, was all-new and created specifically for this event. I took a new approach to developing the talk, and in the interest of sharing process, here are the details.

Initial Research

There were a lot of ways I could approach this challenge. I chose to read up and watch some of the best people in the field to see how they did it.

Matt Haughey's "An Introvert's Guide to Better Presentations": Matt's article formed part of the skeleton of how I'd design the writing process. In particular, his notes on timetables and giving people a break were a big influence on the WIAD version of the talk.

Karen McGrane's "I Suck! And So Do You!": This was my talk of the year 2013. From her talk, I took away the pure bravery and skill she demonstrated. (No speaker notes - shit!)

Kathy Sierra's "Presentation Skills Considered Harmful": I reread this about one month into development of the talk, and I definitely had a big, "Oh, crap" moment. It made me question what value my talk was going to bring, and what people could actually get out of it. It also made me realize I had to wear a jacket in order to be a good-looking but unobtrusive UI. (Just kidding, I would have done that anyway.) Directly from this, my second slide was the question I needed to answer for people.

Whitney Hess's "Evangelizing Yourself": Of course, my podcast co-host and friend had a great talk on this very relevant topic years before I thought of it. Direct, simple message. Straightforward examples.

Carl Smith's "Your Money AND Your Life": Carl did this talk at UXMAD last year. His combination of practicality and raw emotion really hit me good. He also came across as such a goodhearted person, which was later validated by talking with him.

Finally, Heather Gold's "Unpresenting" style isn't something that I fully employed but definitely learned from - the participatory break was used not only because of Matt Haughey's advice but because of how well I saw Heather use participatory moments in her ConveyUX talk in 2013.

Once I gathered my research, I moved on to designing the content and schedule.

Origin and Timelines

I was contacted about speaking at WIAD back in November, 2013. My first step was to figure out what the hell to do. I knew that I wanted to talk about the idea of designing one's life within the context of redesign and design work, so I went with that.

I created an initial outline in Google Docs in November. I sent it to my boss for his early feedback. It was so so rough, but I wanted to be much ahead of the curve on this talk and practice the hell out of it, with an end goal of having as few notes as possible (and not read it.) Thus, I decided this would be my plan:

  • November: Create outline. Refine outline. Start broad research.
  • December: Finalize outline.
  • January: Practice. Ask friends for feedback. Incorporate feedback. Practice. Make slides.
  • February: Final runthroughs. Deliver talk. Post notes and references.

This pretty much stuck, and is very much my style: make the meat of the talk first, don't worry about the slides until later. I upped the practicing substantially. I'm very pleased to say that I stuck to this timeframe.

Words with Friends

I can say that without a doubt, doing runthroughs with people was the best part of the design process. I nominated and contacted people I wanted input from - in this case, Carl Smith and Whitney Hess. I just used Skype and shared my Keynote presentation that way, super simple. I also did a runthrough with the entire team at work. These rounds gave me a chance to gather audience perspectives on this talk from people who knew me & people who did not, as well. I highly recommend this and will always do this from now on, and you should too.

Practicing was the second most important thing to do and that meant doing it many times. I recorded myself using my iPhone and listened to my talk during my commute. I quickly gathered a sense of what flowed well and what needed help. I also got to notice some of my verbal tics and habits.

Slide Design

I've been using a slide design similar to Matt Haughey's for a while now: big, big photography with little text. The first drafts of my slides had a lot of text, but Carl pointed out that they were distracting - this was true, and there was just too damn much to read. Also, Whitney gave me another great piece of advice: whatever you want tweeted should be on a slide. (Conversely, whatever you put on a slide will be tweeted.) This is true, although a couple of things I said and did not have on slides were also tweeted, like this:

...and now I have a reasonable thing to put on a slide in the future, for an upcoming iteration of this presentation.

The only real visual change in this presentation versus my XDCHI & UX STRAT ones was the font. Helvetica is out and Futura is in, in order to match my site. (The visual style also nods to the Centralis style for client presentations.)

In the Moment

I knew I would be anxious before taking the stage, and I was, but because I had done 8 full rehearsals, this was really just the 9th time I was doing it. I knew the nooks and crannies of the material and knew where I could stretch time or cut, if I needed to. There were a couple of things that went away in this version, but there were also things that the audience responded to that I didn't anticipate. That's the beauty of performing live.

My notes were minimal. I had a one-liner - often just one word - for each slide, with a couple of additional scribbles here and there for support, but otherwise it was all off the cuff. I am super proud of this; I mostly memorized my talk without having it as an explicit goal.


The walk was incredibly well-received. I was honored when attendees came up to me afterwards, and throughout the day, and shared their own stories.

The thing I will remember most is that I made an emotional connection with a lot of people through the talk. To me, having that connection and inviting people to think about their lives in a different way - using familiar techniques - was exactly what I wanted to do.

It was an exciting and fun experience, and I can't wait to do it again.