Local Boy Makes Great: An Interview With Atlanta's Aarron Walter

With An Event Apart Atlanta just around the corner, we took the opportunity to put a few questions to hometown hero Aarron Walter, Director of User Experience at MailChimp and author of Designing For Emotion.

Image: John Morrison

You're a local! What do you like most about living in the Atlanta area?

I live in Athens, which is about an hour from Atlanta. It's a culturally-rich college town famous for birthing musical giants like REM, The B-52s, Pylon, and Of Montreal to name a few. But in general, as a yankee turned southerner, I enjoy the kindness of the folks here. When people honk at you on the street, it's because they're saying, "Hey!", not because they're pissed you're going too slow. It turns out that the clichés of Southern hospitality are founded on some truth.

What does a user experience director at an email list managing software company do? Take us through your day. How much of your job involves coding? Writing? Design?

I find myself a bit divided these days between keeping track of projects, talking to people who use the stuff we make, working on UI design concepts, and doing managery stuff. I do still write code for MailChimp, though less as of late. It's important for me to find a balance between thinking, making, and managing. Too much of any one and the wheels can fall off the bus.

My typical day consists of slogging through email correspondence in the early morning, usually starting as early as 5:00 AM. I drive in to work and take advantage of the precious few hours in the early morning when there's no one around to knock a few things off my to-do list. Then I meet with members of the UX team to discuss the state of various design projects we have in the works. I really love design critiques and talking through code concepts. There might be a meeting or two peppered in the day, though they are kept brief. Collaboration continues throughout the day. I try to devote as much in-office time as possible to communicating directly with my team, so we can work efficiently.

I work from home two days a week. I use that isolated time to keep up with small tasks like writing app copy, creating wireframes or prototypes, user interviews, and the like. I find splitting the week this way helps me stay in touch with my team while not losing myself to the managerial spiral.

What's new on the writing horizon?

I've been wondering that myself. I've been tinkering around with a few ideas about practical UX practices we've discovered at MailChimp, but a clear narrative thread worthy of long-form writing has yet to emerge. I will say this, though: I find writing to be very important to my learning process. Teaching a concept, whether in person or in writing, forces one to attain mastery. You may be able to do something yourself, but you don't truly understand until you've taught it to another person.

You write books, hold down a powerful job, manage a busy speaking schedule, and have a family at home. How do you find time to do it all?

I wish there was some grand secret I could share, but in all honesty I am stumbling through life like everyone else. I keep lists and try to clear tasks as efficiently as I can, but I also hang out in front of the TV sometimes. Sometimes you just have to let your mind rest! And spending time with my family is always a top priority for me. In a busy life it's always important to maintain perspective.

What was your first AEA experience like?

Oh, man. It was overwhelmingly exciting and incredibly intimidating. The first AEA I spoke at was in New Orleans in 2008. I was on the second day of an absolutely incredible, all-star line up of web luminaries. And then there was me. I had plenty of time to fret over my talk and helplessly succumb to my fears of incompetence. On the day of my talk, I woke, promptly threw up as my nerves got the best of me, then I went onstage and the world did not end. People enjoyed the talk. Jeff Veen complimented me after I walked offstage.

It's very healthy to face bone shaking fear like this every once in a while to remind you what you're capable of. Oh, and I still get super nervous before every AEA talk (though there's less vomiting). The lineup of speakers is still unbelievable, and the audience is always at the top of their game.

What will you be talking about at AEA Atlanta?

I'm going to share some insights about branding and personality that I've been exploring. I'm fascinated by design that communicates a sense of the humanity of those who created it, and builds a fanaticism about it not seen in more reserved brands. I'm going to show some strong examples of each, and tie this idea back to specific UI design examples, then share some practical guidance about how to move your design in the right direction. This talk extends the ideas in my book Designing For Emotion. Anyone who found the book interesting will likely find this talk helpful to their work.

Aarron Walter is just one of twelve great designers and thinkers speaking at An Event Apart Atlanta. Reserve your seat before they sell out, or join us at the AEA 2013 event nearest you.