Teaching UX in Paris


Recently, I had the honor of being invited to teach design methods at Ironhack Paris, a boot camp focused on helping professionals shift their career paths to user experience and web development.  

Ironhack: https://www.ironhack.com/en/locations/paris

Ironhack: https://www.ironhack.com/en/locations/paris


Teach user experience in Paris???  Yes, please! 

I arrived in Paris and eagerly hit the ground running.  The Ironhack boot camp was located at WeWork, and as to be expected from a WeWork facility, the space was breathtaking!  It was the perfect setting for a truly Parisian ambiance, with its Art Deco architectural details, curated designer furniture and rose gold hardware.  The complementary gourmet coffee, infused water, and cider positively added to my working experience as well. ;-)


The entire Ironhack leadership team was nothing short of amazing.  They were very thorough in helping me get situated and fully prepared to have a successful week.  Then came time for the moment I was eagerly awaiting: meeting the students!  Despite being in the middle of a lesson that day, everyone took a moment to kindly introduce themselves to me, and I immediately felt a strong connection with the group.

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One of the most exciting aspects about teaching a boot camp course is the diversity of professional backgrounds.  The UX students had experiences in marketing, engineering, graphic design, and finance.  As the week progressed, it was exciting to learn how their previous experiences influenced the way they approached project work and problem solving. 

I had such a rewarding time working with the Ironhack students, and the week went by in a blink of an eye.  Teaching in a boot camp setting was completely new for me.  The ultra-fast pace and the sheer amount of materials to cover forced me to rely heavily on my time management skills.  It was also a great exercise in being concise and identifying only the most critical points to focus on.  We covered a wide range of topics, from UX strategy blueprinting, empathy mapping, and problem statements, to rapid prototyping, and design validation techniques.  


Reflecting on my experience at Ironhack, I was left with some valuable learnings, topics I plan to keep in mind and techniques I can use as I work with and mentor students in the future.  Here are just a few of them:

Above and beyond textbook methods and techniques, the students were very interested in learning collaboration techniques and building soft skills.  

With the diversity of professional backgrounds, many students wondered what it would be like to work a highly collaborative environment.  They were particularly interested in learning:

  • How do you navigate a difference in opinions and come to a consensus with designers on your team? 
  • How do you integrate various stakeholder objectives and opinions when designing a product? 
  • How do you get team members motivated and excited to be a part of an initiative? 

Sharing my own professional experiences provided students with “real word” examples, which can (and often do) deviate from textbook learnings.  

I have found this to be true in almost every mentorship interaction, but the desire for hearing about how user experience manifests in the “real world” was amplified this time around.  In the spare time I had between lesson plans, I answered questions like:

  • What are the challenges to working in user experience?  
  • How often do I use frameworks like user journeys?
  • How often do I actually get to sketch and paper prototype products?
  • What’s the difference between working as a consultant at a firm versus in-house? 
  • As a consultant, who do I typically work with on the client-end?

Always end my feedback with advice and encouragement! 

Especially in a boot camp setting, but certainly in any classroom learning environment, it was important for me to remind my students that the course work is fast and meant for exposure, not for immediate mastery.  There was a sense of calm and relief when I pointed out the fact that they’ll have time to practice and apply their learnings on the job, and that just like the design process, we are constantly iterating and refining our knowledge, skills, and craft.

The experience at Ironhack is something that will certainly rank amongst my list of most memorable and rewarding.  There were aspects of my experience that were very reminiscent of my day-to-day routines at Traceable Change.  We started each class over coffee and discussed where the students were in their projects and how things were going.  I also started each class by playing some brain music—Bossa Nova, but was quickly and unanimously shut down when I tried playing *NSYNC.

My time at Ironhack ended as how I imagine all Parisian endings happen – with a spread of French pastries and candy.  

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My students also surprised me with a bottle of French wine covered in with UX-themed Post-Its and handwritten thank-you notes.  I wish them the best of luck and hope to cross paths with them in the future.  À ta santé!



Gino Fiore is one of the founders of Traceable Change.  In addition to his recent collaboration with Ironhack, Gino is a design mentor at Designation Labs and a program coordinator at UIC connectID.


Using the Design Process to Streamline my Wardrobe


To say I’m not a morning person would be a laughable understatement. 

My inability to move at a non-glacial pace in the morning has plagued me from a young age. Over the years I’ve adopted a few time-saving tricks to help me get out the door faster, but my lack of brain power in the early hours makes decision making of any kind a serious struggle. 

In a recent attempt to reduce the mental workload in my morning routine, I decided to try simplifying my wardrobe. I figured it would not only be a fun excuse to go through all my clothes (and maybe do a little shopping), but would keep me from agonizing over what to wear each day. Minimalism and decluttering techniques have spiked in popularity the past few years, so I had no shortage of resources to choose from. In the end, I settled on a book called The Curated Closet because it promised a clear-cut, easy to follow method for streamlining my wardrobe. 

The Curated Closet by Anuschka Rees. Source: https://anuschkarees.com/curatedcloset/

The Curated Closet by Anuschka Rees. Source: https://anuschkarees.com/curatedcloset/

Excited to declutter and learn some new organizational skills, I dove right in. However, as I started going through the process I began to see similarities between how I was approaching my closet and how I might approach a design problem. As it turns out, The Curated Closet process has a a lot in common with the UX design process.

The first few chapters of the book are about doing a deep dive into your current outfit choices to pinpoint the areas where you want to see improvements. This involves documenting what you wear for two weeks, then logging what you did that day and how you felt about the outfit. 

The first lesson I learned? I’m terrible at taking selfies.


After the two weeks are up, there’s a questionnaire that helps you identify outfit patterns and dig in to your biggest hurdles and motivations. The author then asks you to reflect on your answers and come up with a few personalized goals that will set the course for how to move forward. I had to really spend some time with these questions and they did a great job of helping me understand why I dress the way that I do and where I should be focusing my efforts.

In design, you should always begin with a discovery phase like this where you focus on getting to know the user or subject. Similar to documenting outfits and filling out a questionnaire, designers may use ethnographic observation, diary studies, and/or an in-depth interview to better understand current behaviors, preferences, and underlying needs. Through analysis of this research, designers are then able to glean insights, identify opportunity areas, and develop design goals and principles that will shape their design approach.


After learning what I needed to work on and creating my style goals, my next task was to look for outfit inspiration. My objective was to find outfits, individual pieces, and style vibes that appeal to me, and then identify patterns in the images I selected. Clearly, I’m drawn to long layers and a whole lot of neutrals.

My style inspiration board.

My style inspiration board.

Gathering inspiration is also a common step in many creative processes, which the author acknowledges. Many designers will search for best practices and ways that others have addressed similar problems to help spark ideas. Diving into specific interaction patterns, organizational layouts, and color palettes can also help inspire and guide a designer’s approach. 

An inspiration board I put together when designing a mobile dashboard.

An inspiration board I put together when designing a mobile dashboard.

Next, I needed to make my style ideas tangible by getting into a store and trying things on, without the expectation of buying anything. The goal here was to experiment with the aesthetic I had come up with and differentiate between what I liked in theory and what I actually liked on me. From there, I could adjust my vision to make sure I was focusing on style elements that I knew worked. This experimentation phase was a key part of the wardrobe building process, just as the ideation and prototyping phase is key to any design process.

Ideating and prototyping are hugely important because they allow a designer to quickly get their ideas out, see what’s working, and refine their approach before making any final design decisions. Trying clothes on in the store was like testing a low fidelity mockup of my wardrobe – I could try out my concepts and get immediate feedback before investing too much time, money, or effort on a solution that wouldn’t be successful in the long run.

After testing out my fashion hypotheses, the next step was to create a detailed style profile that pulled everything together. The profile was a summary of all the patterns, colors, silhouettes, and materials I had identified as elements of my style throughout the process. 

Designers will often create similar profiles as a design is developed, in the form of a style guide or pattern library. These are documentations of the agreed upon visual language, including when and how to correctly use different colors, typography, iconography, and interaction patterns. Style guides help maintain consistency for products because anyone working on the design can refer to them when making design decisions. 

Example of a product style guide from Atlassian. Source: https://atlassian.design/guidelines/product/foundations/color

Example of a product style guide from Atlassian. Source: https://atlassian.design/guidelines/product/foundations/color

Now that I had my guide, it was finally time to start clearing out and rebuilding my wardrobe. Step one was to go through my current closet and assess each item based on how well it fit my new style guidelines. In the design process, this is similar to a content audit or heuristic evaluation where a designer analyzes the current state of a product to identify high and low points of the experience. 

From there, I could determine where the biggest gaps and under-represented areas of my wardrobe were and create a prioritized roadmap to help me tackle my wardrobe overhaul one step at a time. 


Because life and personal style aren’t static, the last few chapters of the book cover how to continue making smart clothing decisions and updating your wardrobe over time. After all, it would be a shame to do all that work and not know how to move forward with it. 

In design, creating an experience strategy helps mitigate the lack of direction that can occur after the initial design is developed. Experience strategies outline design principles and a long-term vision that ensure future design decisions are rooted in a strategic vision and not made arbitrarily. 

In the end, it turned out that I had the necessary skills to curate my closet all along. I may not have learned any new techniques, but it did make me think about how I can apply design processes to other challenges in my everyday life. Next on my list? Figuring out how to stop hitting the snooze button.

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Jillian Larson is an experience designer and strategist at Traceable Change. In addition to applying design thinking principles to her everyday life, Jillian can be found eating her way through Chicago and hanging out with her cat.


Headspace: Mindfulness in the Tech Era


Meditation. Just sit still, do some breathing, pretty soon you're totally relaxed and transcending the chaos of daily life. Ta da!


If only it were that simple.


As a well-intentioned, easily-distracted, somewhat anxious person, I’m not great at developing intentional habits. And true meditation is a discipline, a lifestyle and a daily practice, which requires serious effort and training. Luckily, technology has something to offer those of us who don’t have time to dedicate several years to a Buddhist monastery.

There are lots of apps dedicated to meditation. Most offer soothing sounds and imagery, which are nice but not exactly life-changing. For someone truly seeking peace through meditation, wading through this technology can be exhausting.

Enter Headspace. Headspace is meditation made simple through an app that trains your brain. It is holistic experience design at its best, because it redesigns your mind and your lifestyle - just as the true practice of meditation is meant to do.

Here’s the story of my foray into meditation and how Headspace helped me actually get a grasp on this "serenity” thing. It comes down to a few key design elements that encouraged me to stay on my journey.


Minimize the commitment. Because meditation is something that needs to be practiced daily, I first had to develop a new habit. What is the first thing to derail a new habit in-the-works? For many of us, the slightest obstacle will do. Well, Headspace saw me coming a mile away. To start, the only task is to open the app and look at an orange dot. I dare you to become overwhelmed by this. (Trust me, I have tried.) Then, a progress page automatically loads and points you directly to your assigned session, which has been updated in your very simple linear day to day timeline. I can tell right off the bat that, as simple as it looks, extensive effort and attention to detail has been put into designing this experience.


Keep it simple. I love the timeline design! There seems to be a frenetic drive to build technology with customization, personalization and options galore – after all this is what we are told millennials demand. Headspace earned major points with me by NOT giving me options. It really shows its expertise and value by keeping me on a single track. This guidance-focused design allows me to trust the process and keep focused on my daily practice. It also demonstrates my progress, motivating me to keep going.

Educate along the way. Folks, I am successfully sitting still for a full 15 minutes these days. How did I reach this milestone? The session guidance is designed fluidly with enough - but not too much - instruction. Each day the flow of mindful activities is consistent, building on one another with new tidbits on how to use or understand this practice. The real key here for me is that these methods are backed by science, by solid psychological and neurological research. When new methods and tips are introduced during the meditation, I recognize them, and it is explained to me exactly how they change my brain, my behaviors, and my outlook. This makes everything real, and actually builds a very strong trust that drives me to keep practicing. There are no secrets, just a solid education as your practice matures.


Create notifications that augment the experience. The Headspace experience doesn’t stop with the daily meditation time. You also have the option to set up “Mindful Moment” messages, or as I call them “Reminders to not be a crazy person”. At first glance, this seems to be a feature that merely sends periodic cute messages. I wasn’t quite sure what the value was until I started receiving them. They actually extend my learnings from my morning meditation into the day. They bring me back to a mindful state for a moment, which is a huge part of maturing my meditation practice. I quickly realized this add-on feature is intentionally-designed to help grow my ability to be mindful throughout the day. 


Anticipate other user needs. Beyond the foundational first 30 days, Headspace offers many paths, depending on one’s individual areas of need or focus. They have one-off meditations for common, anxiety-inducing situations, such as fear of flying. There are even appropriately named SOS meditations, which are very short meditations for those “I’m going to blow my lid and need an emergency reality check” situations. All meditations are enhanced by extremely useful animations that explain the methods and benefits of your meditation practice. Some even feature videos from the founder himself.


The Headspace app has a lot to offer, but to me the most impressive aspect is how intentionally and simply the core experience was designed. From opening the interface to the guided meditation to carrying your skills into the day, this app provides an exceptional experience. After 60 days, I have noticed significant improvements in my ability to chill out and see things clearly. Perhaps the most shocking part is that I am eagerly continuing to develop a lifelong habit with surprising ease. Headspace is an exciting example of how technology can not only speak to, but shape the human experience.


Whitney McKedy is one of the founders of Traceable Change. When taking breaks from searching the globe for new experiences, she might be found studying Hindi and knitting way too many scarves during frigid Chicago winters


Global Research: How One Cultural Taboo Redefined an Application

Designing a successful experience requires knowledge and consideration of human context. 

The Goal – Designing a Relationship

When Traceable Change teamed up with Varian Medical Systems, a global provider of technology for treating cancer, we were trying to understand what it means to experience and manage cancer across the world. We knew that qualitative global research would be essential to achieving our end goal - designing a portal that streamlines the complex system of cancer management, allowing everyone involved, from patients to physicians, to have a common touchpoint.

Already having a grasp on the broad trends across target markets, our partners at Varian wanted to learn more about what it really looked like to be in a cancer patient’s shoes during this experience. Given the intimate nature of this tool, we needed put our boots on the ground, so we put together a research study comprised of focus groups and one-on-one interviews across the USA, England, Ireland, and India.


Welcome to India

From the moment we dropped our bags at the jarringly isolated business hotel in Bangalore and hopped on an auto-rick, we knew India was going to be a new world for us, and we were excited. Friendly strangers waved enthusiastically and offered us dessert on a banana leaf from the entrance to their temple. We haggled with street merchants. We quickly learned to dodge the beautiful chaos of cars, bikes, rickshaws, and cows that made up a typical day of traffic. We followed a tip from friendly silk merchants to delicious masala dosas at a well-hidden local haunt.  Our first day in India fueled our excitement to engage on a personal level with our research participants.



Empathy as Strategy

Because India was an emerging market for our client, discovery would be the most important phase of our research. As in Europe and the US, our discovery research consisted of one-on-one interviews in which the moderator listened to the patients’ stories. To be truly empathetic designers, we needed them to share their struggles. Once we understood their feelings and experiences, we transitioned into exploring how the tool and its features might improve their lives and their relationships with their care teams.

This one-on-one interview model worked well in the US, England, and Ireland, where the conversations became intimate and emotional quickly. Participants cried as they told their stories - a much-needed release while expressing the gravity of their situation. These rich narratives sparked an empathetic inspiration for our efforts and ideas.

India was different. The patients were more reserved, and the moderator was challenged to build the session into a raw experiential dialogue. This was not surprising. In a culture where using an informal pronoun can be a glaring violation of propriety, we were sitting there trying to forge a highly intimate relationship in a matter of minutes…all in front of a one-way mirror.

We began to realize that, in the world’s most crowded, bustling country, these were people that suffered in solitude - living behind the curtain of a painful taboo.

Our participants taught us that in India, you don’t share your cancer diagnosis. You manage it as privately as possible. Only a few women with whom we spoke felt they could share their burden with their husbands and their children. Our male participants even more rarely shared their illness, even with their wives. They were fighting a terminal battle, and they were alone. They had no access to support groups, and even if they had, they wouldn’t choose to join due to the risk of exposure.



Therapy in Community

One proposed feature of the new tool was meant to offer a “support system” of online resources and remote collective support. The idea was to create a sense of online community so the weight could be shared between patients that truly understand the struggle of this terminal disease.

Prior to coming to India, this feature concept seemed like a “nice to have” but not a “need to have”. In the US and Europe, very few research participants expressed a need for this. These patients already had support systems in their families, friends, communities and care teams. Before India, we planned to minimize - or even eliminate this concept - in favor of other features.

When we mentioned this concept of private, anonymous, online community support to our Indian participants, they lit up and leaned forward in their seats. Conversation finally picked up. In these moments we realized a surprising cultural divide between our Indian participants and our US/European participants. For the first time in our conversations, the patients were hopeful and enthusiastic. Most of these people had never dreamed of a support system like this, and the mere suggestion of this resource brought much needed relief.

It was in these moments that I felt the true importance of global research.

We have learned through our work with Varian that oncologists recognize support systems as an essential part of treatment, and discovering new ways to address this need in quiet communities can help lighten the burden for patients and care teams alike. Had we not sat down face-to-face with the patients of India, we would never have known that one concept deemed inessential in western countries could critically impact the quality of life for Indian cancer patients.  

Global qualitative research is one of the most fulfilling parts of my work. It is also essential for robust and enduring product design.  The most impactful and transformative design decisions are driven from an empathetic, in-depth understanding of experience in context.


Whitney McKedy is one of the founders of Traceable Change. When taking breaks from searching the globe for new experiences, she might be found studying Hindi and knitting way too many scarves during frigid Chicago winters.



Varian Medical Systems is on the cutting edge of cancer treatment innovation, and Traceable Change has been privileged to partner with them on a number of initiatives in the US and across the world.


Team Spotlight: Meet Jillian and Erik

We are excited to welcome Jillian Larson to the Traceable Change family!  Jillian joins us to further reinforce our core UX offerings across strategy, research and design.  She brings years of experience researching and designing across numerous industries and products.  At her most recent position at GrubHub, Jillian was instrumental in an initiative to uncover and understand the experiential journeys within the GrubHub ecosystem, across restaurant establishments, drivers, and diners.  Prior to her time at GrubHub, Jillian had extensive experience in healthcare UX. We feel very fortunate to have Jillian be part of our growing team!

Last year (well before Tracing Paper was born), we had the great fortune of welcoming Erik Barraza to the Traceable Change team!  Erik brought years of industry experience to the team, having run his own design and development shop prior to joining Traceable Change.  Erik’s past life as a developer enables us to deepen our partnerships with clients by enabling us to work alongside developers and engineers throughout the implementation process.  Erik has already played instrumental roles in our client collaborations, from branding and logo design to front-end design and development.  Erik is also the sketch artist extraordinaire for our Tracing Paper posts!  

Both Jillian and Erik were formally trained and educated as Industrial Designers, and they will play a key role in continuing to push our perspective that UX is a holistic network of physical, digital and social.  

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Now let's get to the fun stuff...

When was the last time you laughed so hard you cried?
Jillian: Earlier today in the office. I work with hilarious people.
Erik: All the time…the internet provides a plethora of funny videos. That explains why I can’t get anything done at home. 

If you had to eat one meal, every day for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Jillian: A Doritos Locos Cheesy Gordita Crunch (no beef, substitute beans) from Taco Bell, followed by a small waffle cone at Jeni’s with a combination of Sweet Cream and Salted Peanut Butter w/ Chocolate Flecks ice cream. This will likely lead to an early death.
Erik: Does coffee count as a meal? 

If you could do another job for just one day, what would it be?
Jillian: I’d love to work in a greenhouse. Being surrounded by plants and working with my hands seems like a great gig.
Erik: Astronaut at the International Space Station, but only one day. I have a fear of heights, so I’d want to be back on solid ground ASAP.

What tv show/movie are you ashamed to admit you love?
Jillian: I’m an avid fan of The Bachelor/Bachelorette. I participate in two Bachelor fantasy leagues and usually win at least one of them each season.
Erik: Mean Girls…well I’m not actually ashamed of that one. I think my friends are more ashamed for me. 

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Where is your favorite place to eat in Chicago?
Jillian: Longman and Eagle. It was my first foray into fine dining when I came to Chicago, and it’s still my go-to for incredible food and cocktails.
Erik: Any place that offers good breakfast. I love breakfast for breakfast, breakfast for lunch and breakfast for dinner. I’m a “regular” at Nookies in Edgewater. 

Credit: Nookies

Credit: Nookies


Tell us something interesting about your hometown.
Jillian: We didn’t get our first stoplight until I was 14 years old. It’s still the only one in town.
Erik: We didn’t have running potable water, or proper sewage until 2002. I grew up having to carry water up a hill from the river for everyday needs. To this day, there are no paved roads. Also my town is named after the day it was founded: “Diez de Abril” (April 10th)

Erik's hometown in Mexico

Erik's hometown in Mexico


Would you rather be a tiny elephant or a giant hamster?
Jillian: Without question, a tiny elephant. How adorable would a tiny elephant be?
Erik: I would rather be a tiny elephant. Hamsters are cute because of their size, but would probably be terrifying at a large scale. Elephants stay cute at any scale and they are smarter! 

Tell us something about yourself that would surprise us.
Jillian: I spent most of my free time in high school at local hardcore/metal concerts.
Erik: Aside from my fear of heights? I have very short pinkies. I think that’s more of a deformity, but it’s still weird. 

Describe what you were like at age 10.
Erik: I was attempting a 30 mile walk home from school and pretty much getting lost all the time, and getting grounded in the process.


What would be the title of your autobiography?
Jillian: There’s No Such Thing As Too Much Cheese; The Jillian Larson Story




The Chicago Auto Show: How brands are creating a more personal and memorable experience

If there was a questionnaire designed to diagnose an obsession with cars, I would check every box.

Do you…

  • Obsessively follow car blogs and magazines? Check!
  • DVR The Grand Tour and Motor Week? Check!
  • Search on the Cars.com app every day? Check!
  • Routinely visit car dealerships and test drive with no intention of buying? Check! Check!

Naturally, the annual Chicago Auto Show is one of my favorite events. I am fascinated by new forms of automotive design as well as emerging trends across brands. 

This year was different, however.

Instead of being focused solely on the cars, I found myself spending more time observing the attendees as they experienced the show.  People were snapping  pictures of themselves in front of their dream cars…posing for selfies with their friends…exploring every interior compartment…and chatting away in posh lounges. 


This year, automotive brands provided a more immersive experience for the show attendees.  Many crafted social lounge environments for attendees to rest, and the seating was perfectly positioned to fix the attendees’ view on the brand’s new car line-up.  The lounges at Buick, Lincoln, and Volvo were noteworthy examples of intentionally designed environments that highlighted the product line up and offered stimulating and inspiring art, video, and displays. The Lexus Listening Lounge distinguished itself by treating attendees to a free live concert and red carpet style photo booth.


While the social lounge experiences captured my interest, I’m not one to sit down during the show. I like to buzz from booth to booth.

My favorite experience was the tour showcasing the new F-TYPE SVR at the Jaguar booth.  It wasn’t the flashiest booth nor did it provide the most unique attendee experience.  What impressed me was Jaguar’s end-to-end focus on an exceptional service experience. 


First, I filled out the required form at a kiosk.  There, a brand ambassador was smartly positioned to answer my questions and build the excitement about the tour. 


The line was short, but visual stimulation was strategically placed to distract me from the very mundane process of waiting. 


When it was my turn, I received a personal tour by yet another brand ambassador.  Though it only lasted around 90 seconds, the one-on-one demo felt more than sufficient. 


Finally, a third brand ambassador personally thanked me for taking the tour and handed me an experience artifact, a jaguar key chain! The key chain sold me.  It was a delightful surprise, and what can I say? I'm a sucker for car swag!


The final touch point came a few days after the show, Jaguar sent me an email to thank me for visiting their booth and offered me an incentive for purchasing the F-TYPE SVR.  Maybe... just maybe...


The Jaguar booth was a great example of creating experiences across the three aspects we focus on at Traceable Change:

  • Digital
    • There were interactive displays scattered throughout the booth.  The kiosk experience was not overly burdensome, and it was integrated with the Chicago Auto Show’s ePass system to minimize steps. Lastly, the emailed thank you note was a thoughtful gesture and made me reminisce about the experience.
  • Social
    • The brand ambassadors were friendly and approachable without being overly encroaching.  There was none of the forced socialization that can occur with more sales-focused representatives.
  • Physical
    • The layout of the booth provided a multi-sensory experience, and the physical artifact I received at the end of the SVR tour will remind me of my experience beyond the show itself. 

The Chicago Auto Show isn't just about looking at new cars anymore nor is it just about car shopping.  It's about engaging with brands in more personal ways by creating robust memorable experiences.

That said, if you’d like to buy me a Jaguar SVR, you know where to find me!





Gino Fiore is one of the founders of Traceable Change.  In addition to visiting auto events in his spare time, you can find Gino test driving new cars at one of many Chicagoland dealerships. 


The UX of home remodeling (and why dioramas aren’t just for kids)

Remodeling your home is all about decision making. Do you want a single or double vanity sink? Which light fixture do you want in the foyer? Where do you want the light socket? The sheer number of decisions is overwhelming. So, how do you determine what’s best? For me, the answer is simple: apply UX methods and design thinking. 

Three years ago, I converted my two-flat home to a single-family home.  Like most normal homeowners, I was faced with a myriad of design decisions. Unlike normal homeowners, I solved this problem by building models of my home, using Photoshop and even cardboard boxes.

My latest project started three months ago when I hired my architect, Ted Nourie of 8-cubed architecture, to design my dream kitchen.  Two months in, I also hired a kitchen designer, Lee Ann Anderson of LMA Interiors.  This time around, my passion for design got a bit out of control. 


To soffit or not to soffit

Things went off the rails (pun intended) because of one man: Frank Lloyd Wright.  I live in a craftsman home in Oak Park, and like many homes built in the style of Wright, a key architectural detail is a picture rail that runs throughout every room on our first floor. 

Picture rail in every room

Picture rail in every room


This picture rail serves as the header for our doorways and windows, and we decided to maintain the rail throughout the new kitchen.

To do so, we needed to have the cabinets stop at the picture rail, and we needed a soffit between the top of the picture rail and the ceiling.  The problem - one of the kitchen walls had five different wall elements with different depths: a 24” deep wall oven cabinet, two windows that would be flush against the wall, a 24” deep range hood, and a 13” upper wall cabinets.  The question was how to soffit this space. 


To solve the problem, I first hand sketched all the possible soffit configurations.  Then, I drew them up to scale in Photoshop, and I even dabbled with a 3D CAD tool. 

Sketching the possibilities on paper and digitally helped me understand how the different solutions would look, but I still didn’t know how the different options would make me feel.

Since the scaled drawings of the kitchen didn’t answer my question, there was only one natural next step…


The power of prototyping

At work, I spend most of my time prototyping design solutions. I create hand sketches early in the product lifecycle, wireframes when defining workflows, and even full visual mockups.  I often create clickable prototypes simulate the user experience. They are used to both validate design hypotheses with end users and to illustrate the experience to stakeholders. 

All that said, it wasn’t a tremendous stretch for me to build out a scaled diorama of my kitchen.  Card stock, an X-Acto knife, cutting mat, ruler, and lots of tape… a refreshing break from the mouse and keyboard!


The diorama was exactly what I needed to help me understand how I would feel in the space.  After popping in different options, Ted and I settled on a two-depth soffit solution, meaning the soffit would sit flush above the cabinets and hood.  This felt right, in large part because this solution best maintained the integrity of a Craftsman home.

Two-depth soffit solution

Two-depth soffit solution


This exercise is similar to what we do at Traceable Change – we simulate the human experience, and that is POWERFUL.  Not surprisingly, the kitchen prototype proved to be beneficial for other design decisions as well…


Form vs. function and considering the user

The best home solutions provide an elegant design (form) while also considering how the product will be used (function).  Take cabinets. Drawers are becoming extremely popular for lower cabinets because they eliminate the process of opening a door, crouching down, and reaching arm-length deep into a cabinet.

Two changes made to my kitchen design further illustrate the common form vs. function decisions that arise when designing human experiences. 


The double oven dilemma

Original position of the wall ovens

Original position of the wall ovens

In positioning our double ovens, Lee Ann used the countertop as a dividing line. This created a clean line across the entire wall.  In my research, however, I read many negative reviews about the ergonomics of having an oven below the counter.  Many complained about always having to crouch down: to use the controls, to view the food while cooking, and to take the food out of the oven.

Higher positioning of the wall ovens

Higher positioning of the wall ovens

Time to prototype!  First, I pushed the ovens up so that the lower oven’s bottom was now in line with the bottom of the top drawer.  Then I made a cardboard cutout of the oven door and taped it to its new height, perpendicular to the wall. This allowed me to simulate the open position of the oven door and to evaluate the comfort of putting in and taking out food.  All checked out, so we decided to move the ovens higher on the cabinet wall.


A window for my wife

Original height of the window

Original height of the window

Another form vs. function decision centered around the window above the kitchen sink.  Originally, the window was aligned with the upper cabinets, to create a clean aesthetic.  While I liked the design, I wondered how this window would function for my wife, who is 5’2”. 

Taller height of the window

Taller height of the window

Time to prototype!  I drew a 5’2” person into the design and saw that the bottom of the window would fall at her chin line, meaning she would have to be on tiptoe to look out the window.  To improve her experience, we lowered the window without sacrificing form. The new window line created a more dramatic impact of the window relative to the space.


The social aspect of design

Position of my bar

Position of my bar

I am a cocktail enthusiast, so naturally, my kitchen plans include a bar area. Because design often involves compromise, the bar ended up in the periphery of the kitchen. 

Both Ted and Lee Ann proposed an option to position the bar on the opposite side of the room, in part to allow for a bigger bar and in part because of the position of the water lines.  However, the social aspect of the bar placement trumped both my desire for a bigger bar and added plumbing costs.  

Maintaining social contact while mixing cocktails

Maintaining social contact while mixing cocktails

When thinking about making cocktails for a roomful of friends, I knew I wanted to be visible and easily accessible.  As a sufferer of FOMO, I didn’t want to leave the party every time I had to mix an Old Fashioned.  This decision highlighted the extremely social nature of kitchens and the importance of considering both the physical and social aspects of experience in home remodeling.  


The iterative and collaborative process of design

When sharing this story with friends, people often ask, “Wait, so you have both an architect and a kitchen designer?” and my response is, “Absolutely!”  Iterative design and high levels of collaboration are hallmarks of how we design experiences for our clients, and my kitchen remodel was a perfect fit for this process.  While I realize this process was atypical, just like a business approaches the design of products and services, my goal was to iterate prior to the swing of a hammer. Had I made changes during the buildout, the cost would have skyrocketed.  More importantly, while Ted and Lee Ann individually contributed to aspects of my kitchen design, I believe the final design is much stronger because of our collaboration and iterations. 

The last three months have been a great reminder of how the design of human experiences, whether digital, physical, or social, can benefit from UX design and thinking.  I can’t wait for the final product in another three (probably four) months! 

Yes, these are my son's Lego Star Wars figures... next time, I totally plan to create scaled versions of people!

Yes, these are my son's Lego Star Wars figures... next time, I totally plan to create scaled versions of people!


Martin Ho is one of the founders of Traceable Change.  In addition to creating dioramas in his spare time, Martin tries to capture human experiences through his camera lens.