Kicking off our August meeting, our Director of Programming, Spike Radway, shared some kudos and thank-yous for members and content creators who have been hard at work building our new CDPUG website: Lisa Gruber Gebby, Andy Gebby, Ron Skoczen, Brian Butkowski, Christine Kaminski, Kali Fencl, and myself, Kelli Valverde. He also gave an appreciative shout out to our social media contributors Henry Lee and Janet Dodrill, as well as Judy Beveridge our Membership Coordinator, and Michael Schwartz our Secretary. Spike reminded members that the 2020 CDPUG Showcase videos are available on the CDPUG YouTube page thanks to our Video Editor Sarah Coggins.

Musical talent, Lydia and Nate Briggs

Next, our musical talent, Lydia and Nate Briggs, treated us to a lively rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?”  Both Lydia and Nate are lifelong musicians and members of the School of Rock Cleveland House Band who play regularly throughout the area.  As a member of the 2020 School of Rock All Stars, Nate is recognized for being one of the best musicians in the School of Rock’s 34,000 global network of students. Proud owner of Gin House Records, Lydia is part of the select AWAL Core music distribution family. Her budding career of six singles has already garnered over 29,000 streams on Spotify and Apple Music, and 308,000 views on YouTube.

Our featured speaker, Nicole Capuana

About Nicole

As far as experience goes, our featured speaker, Nicole Capuana, has it in spades! With over 20 years of knowledge Nicole has been a leader in crafting innovative, impactful, technology products that break barriers and change the way users interact with software. During her tenure as Director of User Experience at LeanDog she grew the studio into the renowned boutique software design and development agency it is today. Working with small startups to Fortune 100 companies, Nicole is a master of collaboration and servant leadership. She co-authored LeanDog’s Agile Discussion Guide and has coached modern software teams on working together to deliver incredible value to their businesses and users alike. Nicole has run an independent consulting business as well as founded a startup that was awarded multiple patents, and co-founded HER Ideas in Motion, a non-profit aimed to bringing girls into the tech industry. As a national speaker and adjunct professor for Case Western Reserve University’s EMBA program, Nicole shares her knowledge on product design, focused on digital innovation and the future of user experience.  Now, Nicole is leading a team in Progressive Insurance’s new growth incubator, Level20, focusing on ideas for future products.

User Experience

Although User Experience (UX) is primarily found in the digital realm, the overarching themes of Design Thinking are much more agnostic and cross into many other areas like communications, graphic design, and other print work. UX can trace its roots back to the early days of the internet and has developed around the design of information, visual elements, and how users interact with both. Over the years, UX has developed and evolved, emerging as a distinct practice and lucrative career path for many designers and developers. To paint a picture of what this looks like in a broader sense, Nicole shared a couple anecdotes to show what considerations she and other designers make when building a product. In one story, Nicole recounted an experience she had while traveling to New York for a conference.

Illustration from unDraw

While preparing to leave for the airport, she received a call, alerting her that her flight was delayed. Shortly after, she received another call, with a notification that her new flight was leaving in 40 minutes and she would need to rush to make it in time. Through a series of less-than-ideal events, Nicole managed to make her flight in the nick of time. However, she encountered friction at all of the airline’s user touch-points along the way.

From inoperable check-in kiosks to reluctant ticket agents and unresponsive app, she experienced the whole user-facing customer service system while just trying to print a new boarding pass. Every interaction comprised the airline’s overall experience, and her story shows how poor design and lack of user consideration can cause the whole system to break down. “As I work on building products, these are the touch-points and the moments we have to think about and orchestrate across the entire delivering of that product or service,” Nicole describes.

UX is Not UI

“Oftentimes, UX is seen as just what things look like,” Nicole says, clarifying the difference between UX and User Interface (UI). Many times, UX gets conflated with the visual and interface design, or how “pretty” a piece of software looks. However, it is so much more than that, as Nicole shows in her slide. “I can’t tell you how many times, people [have asked] ‘Oh, just come in and make it look pretty.’ But really, that’s the last thing I end up doing,” she goes on to say. “It’s all the stuff on the left [side of this chart] where I go deep on understanding people. I'm doing experiments. I'm doing user tests. I'm considering the content and the strategy around [it], the words I use, and the way I lay out information.”

From Erik Flower

In designing UX, Nicole conducts user tests that help her understand how users really behave and what they truly need. She considers the content and the strategies behind that as well as word choice and how she organizes information into hierarchies. Another large consideration she accounts for is accessibility because not all users consume content and information in the same way. Some may use a screen reader in their browser or another accessibility tool, and as a designer, Nicole needs to be sure that her information is conveyed correctly to those users. “Those are all the things I need to consider in my job. It’s not about just making things look good,” she says.

“I’m pretty sure this has been all of you at some point” Nicole said , sharing her next slide of an illustrated user who looks frustrated and confused. “My job is to actually make all of that go away.” A good metric for if she has accomplished her job is that if the design is so well done that the user does not notice. If all of the friction points are gone, eliminated by good design, the process is smooth, understandable, and imperceptible by the user. “If I do my job well, sometimes you never notice because it’s just easy to use,” Nicole explains. “You don’t think about it. You come in, you do what you need to do, and you move on [with] confidence that you did it correctly.”

Good Design Starts With People

As a practice, UX is essentially about helping people do something – it serves to accomplish a goal or task. “The designs I make are not for me, they are not art. They are meant for people to do certain things,” Nicole points out. “We have to step back and understand those people so that we can design something that meets their needs.”  It is also important that we have a problem worth solving. Often, teams will throw hundreds of thousands of dollars at building an app that is designed to solve the wrong thing. Find a problem that’s worth solving.

A term that gets used frequently in UX is Human Centered Design, which reiterates Nicole’s focus on understanding users’ needs desires and designing products around meeting those. “When we design, it’s not about you or me,” Nicole explains. “It’s not what I like or what you like. We have to put ourselves in the mindset that we don’t have the answers. We need to … talk to the people who are going to be using our products or our services and understand what it is they need. We have to set our preconceived notions aside.”

With this approach, we need to gather information and feedback from our users, to better understand why they need what they do. This can be tricky, though, as Nicole describes. If you ask people directly about what they want, they may not always be able to articulate what they want or why they need it. Sometimes, users can give inconsistent feedback, or have ambitious or unrealistic ideas for a product. This feedback does not always indicate if they actually need that product or would really use or buy it.

Because of these factors, Nicole suggests reaching out to your users and ask them to share stories about problems they have faced. This can often shed light on deeper insights and clarify what solutions users need and why. It shows how they solve their problems today, what those solutions look like, including obstacles and pain points they experience.

Get the Stories Out

Asking open-ended questions is crucial in this process. “It’s a sort of laddering of ‘Why?s',” according to Nicole. “It’s not really you driving conversation. It’s really listening to what they’re saying and then being able to adapt and say ‘Well, tell me a little more’.” She also suggests taking purposeful pauses after asking a question or making a statement. Just a few seconds of silence will sometimes prompt the person you are interviewing to “fill the void,” often sharing some key insights that might otherwise be missed.

Avoid the Woulds

Another important point that Nicole shared was to “Avoid the Woulds” because often, people will say one thing, but do another. For example, if you asked a friend, “Would you go running with me tonight?” Your friend is likely to respond “yes” regardless if they actually would want to go running. It can oversimplify the issue, and users may not always do what they say. People will often say “yes” or give a response because it sounds nice, or aspirational, but it does not always reflect what they do in reality.

Do vs Say

“Whenever you can, observing your users or your customers, doing what it is that you are trying to solve will help you have much greater insight into what their needs are,“ Nicole recommends. She segued into a story where she was redesigning a call center system, and was studying the users, who were call representatives.

Noticing that they all had to send a lot of faxes, Nicole observed representatives copying and pasting the same fax numbers over and over again from previous screens. They did not trust the numbers that were pre-populated were accurate. But, had she asked the representatives directly, they may not have said that those two fields were an issue. Instead, she witnessed the issue and asked questions around why that pattern of behavior was happening. By fixing this small issue, it saved each representative about 30 second per call. Over time, that amounted to nearly $120,000 worth of savings a year.

Further illustrating her point, Nicole cited a recent study in London surveyed people exiting a public restroom, and asked whether participants had washed their hands. While 99% said they had done so, recording devices over the sink tracked revealed otherwise. Only 32% of men and 64% of women actually washed their hands, proving that users do not always do what they say.

Insight Through Empathy

Circling back to her story of redesigning the call center, Nicole said that seeing her users do the same task repeatedly gave her empathy for their situation. By improving the application, she could improve the representatives’ jobs and make their tasks less time-consuming.

Nicole working with Lisa to test a new vending machine user interface (UI)

Testing is another key component in creating good UX design, which Nicole explained does not always have to be elaborate or expensive. One of her go-to methods is the “Lisa” test, named after a former coworker with a non-technical background. As Nicole shared, she would often ask Lisa to for initial feedback because she was a complete novice without preconceived notions about how a product was supposed to work.

This provided excellent information about blind spots, or other aspects that could otherwise be missed by someone working closely on the design. Similarly, Nicole cautions testing with friends and family because more often than not, they can be too subjective. A test group of 5 to 8 objective people tends to be ideal, and will uncover most usability issues, according to Nicole.

Simple is Never Easy

Nicole’s next point may resonate with a number of designers and creatives: Simple is never easy. “We all strive to have something that is designed simply, but it takes a lot of iterations to balance that elegance, clarity, and intuitiveness,” she explains. Rarely is the first design ever the right one. As designers, we refine our work through iterations and gathering feedback in order to reach a point where the product flows and feels easy to use.

Photo credit: Flickr

A great example of this is Disney’s Magic Band, a wearable device that took $1 billion and many years to create. It allows users to tour Disney’s theme parks more easily and acts as the user’s hotel key, park pass, and credit card, all rolled into a rubber wristband. The Magic Band lets users move seamlessly throughout the park alleviating “friction points” in their experience. Also, it condenses all of the user’s credit card purchases made throughout the day into one payment, eliminating multiple service fees and saving the company money. As Nicole puts it, “Magic takes a little bit of time and money, but it is possible, and it’s done by studying people.”

Design Thinking

What is Design Thinking? 

Essentially, Design Thinking is an iterative process that works by creating short feedback loops, in order to better understand the user. Challenging your own assumptions – as well as those of your stakeholders or customers –  and redefining your problem are key to identifying strategies and solutions that might not be immediately apparent with our initial level of understanding.

Day to Day Management vs Leading a Design Change

To better illustrate Design Thinking, Nicole jumped into the differences between how we spend time in the “Day to Day Management” versus when “Leading a Design Change.” Usually, most people spend their time in the former mode. Here, we are familiar with the work process and have more predictable outcomes. Conversely, when using Design Thinking to Lead a Design Change, there a lot of unknowns and the process may feel murky or undefined. While some designers can float freely between the two modes, most fall on one side or the other. Often, because Design Thinking has no constraints and we use it to create a new way of doing things, it can feel a little chaotic.

Early on in a project, it can feel like a massive, unwieldy problem, but as you take steps to untangle the knots you learn more, Nicole shares. From there, you use that knowledge to lead you to the next steps.

What the Design Thinking process can feel like.
The Process of Design Squiggle by Damien Newman

“Things will feel chaotic, and that’s okay. It’s about exploring the problem from different lenses and different angles to try to find… where those solutions may be and what [they] are, and which ones might be the most interesting to pursue,” she says. “Over time, of course, it [moves] towards the operational side where things are more known and you can start to move in a more linear fashion. But know that this is what Design Thinking often feels like.”

“While this [diagram] looks very linear, it’s a very non-linear process,” Nicole clarifies. Starting with Empathy, we as designers try to understand our users and then Define what you want to create. Although we can move on toward Ideation and Prototyping, we often circle back to other steps along the way. If we discover that we need more information or find a new issue while in the Testing stage, we can go back to Designing or Ideation, iterate through and find a better solution.


Don’t jump to the solution

It’s important to step back and not immediately jump to the first conclusion. Sometimes our initial information is incomplete and does not give us a full understanding of the issue.

Look at the problem from different perspectives

By doing this, Nicole says, we may uncover something we may have never known otherwise.

Reframe the Problem

In gaining a new perspective and not choosing the most immediate solution, you can start to understand a issue in a different way. This lets you step back, reframe the problem, and find a better solution.

Design Thinking + Lean + Agile

“One of the things that I think is a ‘secret sauce’ to great teams and great work these days is this combination,” Nicole explains. With Design Thinking, your team can explore the problem, and along with Lean practices, create the right things – “the simplest things with the least amount of waste,” as she puts it. Blended with Agile, the team can build the thing in the right way. Summarizing this group of methods, Nicole says “It’s really the three of these things that are what allow my teams to do great work together and to deliver great products. … We are always questioning if there is a better way. Can we find a better way to improve ourselves, improve our process? Let’s not take the status quo as acceptable. Let’s challenge it and see how we can get better together.”

Tips from Nicole

1. Get to Core Value Right Away!

It is easy to lose sight of your goal if you are bogged down in the minutia. Start with the simplest form of what you are trying to accomplish. Do that well and build from there.

2. One Clear Action

Make it easy for your user to understand what they need to do – what button to click, form to fill in, or where to go next.

3. No One Reads Anything

Make it simple, clear, concise, and scannable (read at a glance)

4. Design for the Least Cognitive Load

Don’t make your users have to think too hard.

5. Give it Breathing Room

White space makes it easier to consume. Be careful! Too much white space can make users feel untethered depending on the form factor (size of your screen or media). It’s best to strike a balance.

6. Words Matter

Industry terms, jargon, and acronyms are not always clear to your users. Use clear language that any user can easily understand.

7. Instill Confidence and Help Users Recover Easily

As designers, we think of scenarios where issues occur, and in building a products, we need to help users recover from them. One way we can do this is to consider word choices in messaging to alleviate anxiety.

8. Solve in the Simplest Way

Not every problem needs a complex solution.

9. People First, Not Technology

Don’t just do things for the sake of using new technology. Figure out what people need and keep them at the forefront.

10. Leverage What You Know About Your User

Do it for them with pre-filled fields – without being creepy.

11. Look for Friction Points

Remove them, reduce barriers for your users

12. Designs Should Speak Without Color

Contrast is important for accessibility (some users may be colorblind)

13. Do Not Rely on Color Alone

Always have a secondary indicator, like a symbol.

14. Form Fields Should Have Labels Outside of the Field

They can start inside the field, but do not make them disappear. Once a user starts to input data, they need to know what to enter.

15. Remember Empty States

What happens the first time someone uses you app and there is no data yet? Be thoughtful when nudging users to create something new.

16. Good Visual Hierarchy

Make sure you have a clear heading and information follows in a clear order

17. Design for 80%

Not the extreme edge cases.

18. The Good News is that Examples of Thoughtful Design are All Around

Take inspiration from others


Not Jumping to Conclusions

While this is not easy, it is best to look at why a client is suggesting this. Companies who choose an immediate approach or opt not to invest in research, may generally not have deep insights into their customers and users. While many times, testing is seen as being too costly, there are inexpensive ways to take small steps like a simple survey or examining customer data can start to shed light on deeper issues or better opportunities.

Inclusive Testing

No test is without bias, but when possible, testing should include a diverse set of users in order to lessen the impact of biases such as age, ability, gender, race, socio-economic, and others. “When you make things inclusive and design for that inclusivity, we all win!” Nicole emphasizes. Examples of this can be found everywhere as she points out. Curb cuts with bumps for wheel chair traction can also help parents with strollers as well as blind people at crosswalks. Automatic doors and faucets are fantastic during a pandemic, but they also require diverse test groups in order to best serve all users.

Illustration from unDraw

One attendee mentioned that as a software developer, he feels he is the worst person to test his code because he already understands what is expected to happen. This can easily apply to designing for user experience, because so often, when we see an expected outcome, we think everything is working how it should, which might not be entirely true. “We don’t have all the answers,” she reiterated, and learning what users truly think of a design can be humbling. There is always something new to learn.

Nicole also brought up that luckily, there are two organizations in place to help fix this issue.  As she explains, the United States Digital Services and 18F assist and serve other government agencies to become more approachable, accessible, and better designed.

The UX Umbrella & Finding Your Place Under It

Another point Nicole clarifies is that UX is a broad umbrella term that includes areas like Interaction Design, Content Strategy, Information Architecture, User Research, Visual Designers, and more. In large companies, she mentions, roles can be pretty specialized. Whereas, in a smaller company, one role might cover a number of these areas.


When hiring, Nicole shares that she usually looks for someone who can take her through their design process, explain what problem they were solving, and understands the process that they went through. She says it is ok if a designer shares a project that failed, because that is learning, too. The important part is how the designer figured out there was a problem and what they learned on the way.

While it depends on the specific role, in Nicole’s experience, learning the other skills and facets of UX can be learned more easily, especially through resources like Udemy and General Assembly, among others. Nicole says that when she was with LeanDog, she would look for candidates with a strong design aesthetic, because as she puts it “ at the end of the day, we were the designers making those icons and the design. That [quality] to me, is the hard one to teach. You sort of have it, or you don’t. … That’s the one thing that’s harder to overcome.”

Illustration from unDraw

UX Unicorns

Oftentimes, companies are seeking a “unicorn” candidate with a multitude of developed skills, Nicole observes. “Be aware, some of the job descriptions will be completely ridiculous,” she warns. Pointing out that while people like that certainly exist, Nicole advises they are not likely to be interested in junior roles or salaries. If you are looking for a unicorn, her advice is to “Prepare to pony up! ” In situations like that, Nicole recommends splitting the responsibilities of the role into multiple job postings instead of just one. Or, if budget only allows for one role, prioritizing the aspect will move your company ahead the furthest right now.

Future of UX

Illustration from unDraw

Nicole also shared her thoughts on the future of UX Design, too. She brings up the reality that there are definitely more trends emerging that will shift what we traditionally think of as part of user experience. This is a huge time for “forced innovation” as Nicole puts it, because of COVID-19. There are a huge number of people using apps and other tools that they might not have before.

In recent years, screens have started to disappear, being replaced by sensors, and other devices that need to be orchestrated in a cohesive way. Interaction is being pushed into our environment in the form of sound, vibration, augmented reality (AR), bioluminescence and more. There will be many unknowns, but Nicole encourages designers to explore new ideas when thinking about products and looking ahead to the future of the industry. Balancing how to create alerts and feedback to the user without being uncomfortable or disruptive, she says will become crucial.

Illustration from unDraw

UX + Design Thinking = Redesign Anything!

“It’s a design process; you can apply it to anything!” Nicole says. If there is something that you dislike or feel could be done better, she recommends redesigning that thing. “It doesn’t have to be software. …That process is agnostic to UX world. It’s about approaching [an issue] with a design lens.”


Icons from TheNounProject:
Illustrations from unDraw:
Hand drawings by Nicole Capuana