Beyond the Screen: Jeff Gothelf

If you have even a tangential relationship with UX design, chances are Lean UX is a fixture on your bookshelf. We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Jeff Gothelf, author, coach, and consultant, about his career, digital transformation, and his newest book, Forever Employable.

Over the course of his 20-year career, Jeff has held a variety of roles, from designer to information architect, product manager, and founder. Ten years ago, he decided to leave the corporate world and has since had an integral role in bringing customer-centric, evidence-based decision making, and agility back into corporate cultures. Today, Jeff is an independent consultant, helping large organizations struggling with digital transformation and integrating good product management and user experience practices into their daily work.

Jeff Gothelf teaching product discovery in Lisbon
Jeff teaching product discovery in Lisbon

What inspired you to enter the design world, and what sparked your particular interest in UX/UI design?

I was a broke musician in the ‘90s trying to be a rockstar. As the decade was coming to a close, the bands I was in weren’t exactly “paying the bills” so I started looking elsewhere. The good news was that in 1999 if you wanted a job in “computers,” all you had to do was spell HTML. I was already fairly tech-savvy from a young age, so this seemed like a natural transition. I started doing markup and lightweight graphic design for web 1.0 websites and, shortly thereafter, read Information Architecture for the World Wide Web by Rosenfeld and Morville. That book changed my life and I realized that organizing the information and then presenting it in ways that people would actually be able to use it made a lot of sense for as an area of focus.

What excites you the most about UX, and which industries do you imagine UX influencing the most in the future?

They say a good user experience should be invisible, but these days, with so much “bad” UX out there, I feel like a good one is highly visible and often delightful. This is what I love most about it - creating that feeling with a user, customer or client that “they get me” and understand what I’m trying to do here.

You have a lot of experience consulting companies undergoing digital transformation. What lessons can we as individuals take from learning organizations and the ability to actively sense and respond to our environment?

The biggest lesson to take away is that the more you can build learning into what you do and the more willing you are to take that learning to heart - even when it contradicts your point of view or the thing you love about your work (or yourself) - the more agile you can be changing course in support of the changes around you.

Jeff Gothelf speaking at Mind The Product Singapore 2019
Jeff speaking at Mind The Product Singapore 2019

We've seen design and design thinking play an increasingly critical role in product design teams and even in the rethinking of company culture. How do you imagine the role of design leadership changing in organizations?

I would expect design leaders to be well versed in the business of their company, the operations, and the strategic direction. To that, I’d expect they would add how their design teams could push the organization towards those goals. The other opportunity I would expect from them would be to take the interest that exists in the c-suite about design thinking and showcase how it can be used to further, not just product development work, but many other organizational challenges in various departments.

At Goodpatch, we use an OKR framework to define objectives and track results. Do you have any tips for companies looking to get the most out of their OKR practice?

Two tips:

1) Your Key Results need to be outcomes -- measurable changes in human/customer behavior. This is where most organizations break their OKR’s. And

2) I’ve not seen OKRs work well at the individual level.

Prior to becoming the Jeff Gothelf we know today, you had quite a successful career as a software designer and product developer. At what point did you decide that you were ready to leave the corporate world and launch your own business?

In late 2011, as the Lean UX conversation was picking up steam, I’d met a couple of interesting people - Giff Constable and Josh Seiden - who pitched me on the idea of joining them to open up an agency that sold work in a “lean UX” way of working. It was terrifying for me to even consider it. I had the safety of a full-time job, a steady paycheck, and a clear sense of what my next career move should be. This was not what I thought it would be. But over the years I’ve learned that if something feels uncomfortable, it’s probably the right next step. It stretches you and forces you to try harder. In January 2012, I quit my full-time job - the last one I’ve had - and joined Josh and Giff to launch Proof in NYC.

You recently finished your fourth book, Forever Employable. In addition to being a practical guide to an entrepreneurial mindset, the book is also part memoir. Is there anything you were surprised to learn about yourself while writing and reflecting on your own career trajectory?

This is, by far, the most personal book I’ve ever written. It wasn’t easy for me on two fronts. On the one hand, I’d never really talked about myself in a personal way and in my own words. To read it back now, I can really hear my voice more in this book than in any other. The second concern was worrying whether the people who have stuck with me over the years would take this next step with me as well. It felt like a sharp left turn from my regular content, but as the writing went on, I realized that this was not a sharp turn but rather a bend in the road. The topic is new, but the approach should be familiar to many of my readers. The material I’ve shared so far along with early reviews has given me the confidence that this will ultimately resonate with a lot of folks. I can’t wait to see what people think.

Jeff Gothelf new book Forever Employable

As the author of multiple successful books, what's your best advice for someone who has always wanted to write a book but can never seem to find the time, energy, resources, etc?

Start small. Find the ideas that resonate with your target audience with as little effort as you can. Tweet. Blog. Post a short video. Anything you can do to share an idea will help you determine how big of an issue you’re solving and whether your ideas resonate with the folks having those issues. As you start to find your traction and want to scale up to something like a book, you can decide whether it’s something you want to take on yourself or get a writing partner. The way the book gets done is with consistent chipping away at it. I work well with deadlines, but having a publisher hounding you for chapters helps a lot!

Although most of the remote work and communications tools we're relying heavily on today have been around for quite a while, many people are using them for the first time. Do you have any predictions for the future of work, post Covid-19?

Remote work is now legitimate. It’s no longer seen as a “lesser” kind of work. We should take advantage of that. It’s better for our teams, the environment, and our clients and customers. I think we’ll see less requirements to be in the office, and the quality of these collaboration tools go up exponentially. Also, many organizations are going to start to reexamine their real estate commitments and distribute functions that were once likely on the “we’ll never be able to do this remotely” list - call centers are a good example of this.

And finally, do you have any advice for job seekers during this global pandemic?

There are a lot of job seekers out there right now. What are you doing to stand out? What are you sharing to show your skill and experience? How are you building your platform? When employers look you up, what are they going to find? I think being deliberate about the answers to these questions is what makes you forever employable. 

Beyond the Screen is a new interview series from Goodpatch, where speak with the leaders behind today’s most exciting digital products. Many thanks to Jeff for speaking to us!!

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Maya Guice

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Maya Guice

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