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What We Can All Learn From Bill Buxton

Apr 8, 2009 By Nishant Kothary

Someone asked me the other day if I’m finally able to take a deep breath now that MIX09 is behind us. My response was, “Well, I’m not sure I can call it a deep breath, but yeah, I get to breathe now.” Things are still pretty crazy (good crazy), but I have a few minutes to spare right now, so I figured I’d quickly write up some thoughts that have been simmering for a few weeks now. If the title didn’t give it away already, it has to do with MIX09. Specifically, my experience working with Bill Buxton.

I was a part of the keynotes team this year and one of my responsibilities was to help us land the Bill Buxton opening keynote (alongside another great guy from my team, Jamey T). A few months ago, Mike Swanson and I went to Building 99 to chat with Bill to see if he was interested in being the front man for the conference. I’d scheduled a room in Building 99 and when we got there, much to our horror,we found out that it didn’t exist. So,we frantically searched for Buxton and almost gave up when we spotted him walk by (clearly, he was searching for us, too). I yelled out because I recognized him from pictures, and he walked up to us and exclaimed, “I’m so sorry to have kept you guys waiting. I just couldn’t find the room! I really apologize.” First impression: Buxton was down to earth. Ridiculously down to earth for being, well, Bill Buxton.

Be Humble

Humility, among other things, is key to helping you recognize opportunities and getting the most out of them. If you pretend to be humble, people can generally see through that and it’s pointless because it doesn’t really help you in the long run. I could probably write up fifty anecdotes about how Bill embodies humility from my personal interaction with him but I’ll spare you. Suffice to say, Bill is the most humble guy of that caliber that I’ve ever had the opportunity of interacting with. I wonder if it has anything to do with his being Canadian; seriously, I’ve yet to meet an arrogant Canadian.

Be Open

Humility is not enough. You could be humble, but you could also be closed off to learning new things and consequently, improving and growing. But, Bill was anything but closed off to the world. He frequently bounced ideas off me. Early on, I thought it was just a charade to keep “the dude on the keynotes team” happy, but I soon realized that he was seriously seeking feedback. And, I wasn’t the only one in his feedback chain; he reached out to folks all over the company of all designations, and as a result, his keynote was a wonderful stew of a breadth of ideas. Like any good designer, he distilled it with his own special ingredients.

Trust your Instincts

Seems like the older we get, the more we’re rewarded for discarding any notion of instinct and experience in favor of data. Unfortunately, McNamara’s Fallacy is rampant in the workplace and my hunch is that we make decisions off questionable data analysis more than any of us would ever like to admit. Bill has an amazing knack for balancing a very data-driven approach by tapping into his breadth of experiences and his instincts. For instance, one of the key decisions he made early on was to not overly rehearse the keynote address – as you can imagine, this was very scary for many of the folks involved, but he truly believed that rehearsing a keynote that was meant to inspire an audience in rough times would simply take away from it. Sure enough, he was right.

Take Risks

This loosely ties to the previous point I made, but deserves its own spot. Risks, much like subjective thinking, seem to have developed a bad rap especially in the corporate world since it affects shareholders, and so on. Unfortunately, I think it’s because most people equate risks to recklessness, and that’s a tragedy. A calculated, well measured risk can make a world of a difference in the outcome when executed properly. Heck, you could argue that progress is nothing more than payoff on calculated risk-taking. We took some very calculated risks on Bill’s keynote; one of them being the very theme of the keynote: Return on Experience. Arguing that now is the time for furthering the practice of user experience and good design – which, as Bill eloquently covered, is still a pretty foreign concept in today’s world – could be seen as a ridiculous argument to be making, especially amidst the current economic crisis. Bill drew from the industrial design revolution of the 20′s to strengthen his point, and the risk definitely paid off. It inspired like no data could have inspired.

“I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.”

That’s a JayZ lyric that I used in my MIX09 presentation (A Website Named Desire – 53m 40s) and find myself repeating over and over. The lyric could be misconstrued as arrogance, but I really interpret it as: always look at the big picture, and stop focusing on that narrow little area that only affects you. Bill was pegged as the token “designer” for MIX09, but that didn’t stop him from delivering on the big picture, i.e. Microsoft’s strategy for the Web. He delivered a keynote that communicated that instead of just focusing on UX (granted, UX is a big part of the solution he pitched). He understood that his role at MIX09 was to land that message and he didn’t let any hidden agendas sabotage that. You can apply big-picture thinking to anything – design, engineering, marriage, relationships, business, sports, you name it – and it always makes the end product much better.

There’s much more I’d love to write about my experience working with Bill, but I’ll save that for a sequel. If you haven’t had a chance to watch his keynote address, I highly recommend it. Here’s a link – Tell us what you think about it and about Bill, too. Would you like him to come back next year?

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5 comments so far. You should leave one, too.

Rafael said on Apr 8, 2009

Hi, just a li''l fix, you might say "Stay in touch with us through twitter", ''cause twitter is not a feeds (rss) provider.


Nerd Stalker said on Apr 9, 2009

Nishant, thanks for these great observations about Bill Buxton it would be great to have Bill back to MIX.

I was really excited to see Bill''s book in the shwag bag but did not think to carry the book around because Keynote speakers do not mix or really hang out with the attendees. To my surprise as I was walked from session to session I would see Bill, and I mean everywhere, generously giving his time to everyone.

He would have deep conversations and sign books without a complaint, I was blown away. What was really amazing was that he continued this literally until the last min of MIX. I saw him surrounded by a small crowd and was determined to get a picture with him and Nishant was waiting for him and realizing he would not stop sharing unless literally asked to go. Needless to say I was the last person to get to him and I got that pic. Bill is an absolute class act, he helped make MIX09 the best yet.

rtpHarry said on Apr 9, 2009

So when are you and Bill getting married?

lol, seriously though I had never heard of the guy before seeing his keynote at Mix and I thought it was awesome. I was really digging his style of presenting and how laid back he was.

He is one of those people that you could listen to for hours and still pay attention to.

NIshant Kothary said on Apr 9, 2009

@Rafael - Fixed and thanks for saving us eons of future embarassment :)

@Nerd Stalker - Absolutely agree. That was all him, btw. We never really chatted about whether he should be mingling or not; he just loves to do it and it seemed like it couldn''t harm anything (except, he had a pretty parched throat at the end of the conference). I am pretty sure I saw you (you and a girl - both of you had Nerd Stalker badges, right?) Next time, let''s say hello in person.

@rtpHarry - Lol. Am I being *that* obvious? I don''t know about marriage, but I''m totally up for adoption. :)

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