Creative Strategist and Public Speaker

As a creative digital product strategist (that's a hell of a title), I love connecting with people about new ideas. Speaking at conferences affords me the opportunity to learn and share practices in the space of innovation. I've discovered that public speaking is a much-appreciated timeout from the computer screen, an exciting way to connect with people around the world who share my passion for creativity and technology. 

This page lists and describes some of my recent talks, workshops, and lectures. Of course, I'm happy to answer any questions or raise my hand to speak at the next conference!


April, 2018

"The Science of Creativity"

Mobile in the Mountains Conference

Conference Director and Keynote Speaker

A slide from my talk "The Science of Creativity" that illustrates how utterly predicable we all are as human beings when it comes to willing creativity.

When Tobias Dengel, the CEO of the digital innovation firm WillowTree asked me not only to be the keynote speaker, but the curator for their entire innovation conference, I could feel my heart jump out of my chest and cheer!  

In addition to orchestrating a full day of programming designed to inspire C-level executives to innovate in their businesses, I also needed to discover and research a topic for my own talk.

I decided to talk about what I love most - the science in creating new ideas for apps.

Of course it turns out there's a sea of psychology involved in creating a new idea, especially if the idea is supposed to be an innovative technology aimed to disrupt!

My talk highlighted some of the historical eras that slowly shaped the market we compete in today, the "Age of the Customer." Audiences today not only demand businesses to anticipate their needs, but also offer moments of delight and surprise. This talk explored the importance of creativity and originality in a saturated digital market. Companies that solve the problem of systematic creation emerge victorious over companies that fail to innovate. 

Don’t look now, but your company is losing control. Customers are now in the driver’s seat.
— George Colony, CEO of Forrester Research

It's not enough for companies to incrementally enhance their products. According to Clayton Christensen, a leading theorist in innovation and a professor at Harvard Business School, products eventually hit a value ceiling. The ladder of "Sustaining Innovation" can only rise so high; eventually the need arises for "Disruptive Innovation", where a new technology or market emerges that challenges the previous product space. 

2 NateWootten_Science of Creativity to share copy.001.jpeg

The audience at this confernece included product directors and C-levels across in a variety of industries and Fortune 500 companies.

Companies understand the need for innovation but struggle to find successful processes for creating new products. "Why don't we all just huddle in the boardroom and have a good, ole' brainstorming session?" a stakeholder might wonder. Well, there's a problem with brainstorming; it just doesn't work, according to a New Yorker article that explains some recent research around the process of ideation. "Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas," explains Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University.

Fortunately, there are better ways to create successful products than simply willing them out of thin air.

This talk then explored the process of Design Thinking, as popularized by innovation firm IDEO. By reaching out and observing one's target audience, one can slowly develop what's called a Slow Hunch. The Slow Hunch Theory, developed by researcher Steve Johnson, suggests new ideas aren't created instantly, but instead are built slowly in our subconscious over time. Later, when we're least expecting it, we have an "Aha!" moment, and a new neural connection is made between two "sub ideas" that have been previously archived in the brain.

This talked concluded with a couple of case studies that illustrated how the Design Thinking method can create new products. Step by step, this talk illustrated the serendipity and randomness involved in our creative process at WillowTree. In these cases, slowly and surely an innovate concept revealed itself that later tested well in validation experiments. Sometimes it just takes a little bit of patience to successfully create.

I'm shamelessly happy to share some of the positive feedback I received at the end of this talk. Not only did this talk receive the highest scores from conference exit surveys, but industry partners offered their personal glowing opinions as well. An attendee from one of the "big 4" tech giants responded "I literally go to conferences for a living, and I've never seen a production like this. All your content was thoughtful, inspiring, and engaging. I'm completely impressed!"


October, 2017

"How to Design for Engagement"

All Things Open Conference

Conference Website

 In the moment, sharing a story about how we designed an experiment to test if our app concept could drive the user behavior we desired.

In the moment, sharing a story about how we designed an experiment to test if our app concept could drive the user behavior we desired.

The digital landscape shifts quickly. In the span of just a year, a handful of devices, operating systems, and AI skills are released into the market, begging the question for businesses "What does this mean for my customers?" 

It's difficult enough to design an engaging experience without such a shifting landscape. Consumers are busy these days. They have an ocean of distractions battling for their attention. Patience for your digital experience is growing shorter. 

When generating new experiences for your customers, it's helpful to explore some industry-accepted models that help companies keep their users entertained.

One framework that helps me jumpstart the ideation process for clients is The Hierarchy of Engagement, designed by Sarah Tavel at investment firm Greylock Partners. Tavel and her company invented this model to assess if an emerging product will be the next $1B idea!

This framework, as illustrated in the pyramid diagram below, breaks the problem of engagement into different levels of product maturity.

The first level "Growing Engaged Users" focuses on designing around what Tavel calls the "Core Action." Successful apps have one simple core action, around which the rest of the user experience is built. For example, the core action in Pinterest is to pin, the core action in Twitter is to Tweet, and the core action in Instagram is to post.

Thinking of engagement simply as completing the core action, opposed to more superficial metrics such as Daily Active Users (DAU) or app downloads, will anchor your product flow around an activity that keeps users returning. The core action is the gasoline to your app. There have been many apps that have high download and DAU numbers, yet have failed because users were not completing the core action.

If we understand that completing the core action is the ultimate goal in our experience, we can then begin to build a Virtuous Loop, guiding users in the direction we desire. A virtuous loop, Tavel explains, is when a ripple effect occurs after a user completes the core action. This ripple effect then causes other users to engage and complete their core action. For example, when someone completes the core action in Pinterest of pinning an article, that action then shows up in other users' feeds, fueling the likelihood that they, too, will engage. By designing these circular flows, dead-end experiences are avoided and snowball experiences are created.

The second half of this talk focused less on the creative phase and more on the measurement phase. Once you have an idea that upholds the principles of engagement theory, then what? Well, you've got to test your idea! As it's expensive to build a fully functional digital experience, there are tricks to collect user feedback earlier rather than later. 

As my colleague Allaire Welk discussed in her WillowTree blog post describing work with a recent client, we weren't sure that our digital concept would yield the customer behavior we desired. Thus, in the timespan of just a few weeks, we made a prototype and set up a test. With a control and experimental group we quickly mimicked the envisioned experience through a low-fidelity prototype, and soon had real-world feedback on our concept. 

After the talk, the crowd seemed very pleased, as there was a line out the door for questions, and a handful of executives asked for my slides afterwards.

It's a crowded digital world out there; any models that help us better understand engagement are definitely helpful in the concept creation phase. 

 The audience at the conference  All Things Open  consisted mostly of technically-focused engineers. Challenging them to think more abstractly about their users was a change of pace from the talks at the conference.

The audience at the conference All Things Open consisted mostly of technically-focused engineers. Challenging them to think more abstractly about their users was a change of pace from the talks at the conference.

There are a variety of models that help us at WillowTree think about engagement and innovation. One model is The Hierarchy of Engagement, a model designed by Sarah Tavel at investment firm Greylock Partners that helps them assess if an idea will be the next $1B idea!

The All Things Open conference was held at the Raleigh Convention Center, a beautiful venue for a multi-stage event.


June, 2018

SumSum18 Conference on Innovation

Director, Emcee

For the past two years the innovation firm I work for has hosted a 2-day summit on, drum roll... the topic of innovation. The first day of the summit is focused on "making." Engineers, designers, and strategists huddle to push the envelope and build whatever they think is "cool." The second part is a day-long conference filled with presentations on innovative accomplishments and inspiring themes, crowd-sourced by attendees. The second day is curated, directed, and hosted by me; a lot of work, but also a lot of fun!

Some themes from this past year include the importance of diversity in the work place, applications of recent technologies (such as augmented reality, multi-modal experiences, and voice design), and the effectiveness of using humor in the workplace.

As the director, I was responsible for finding speakers and processing applications. With the help of a directing committee I founded, we hosted multiple dry-run sessions, which offered a platform for speakers to practice and polish their talks.

Warming up the crowd with a quick 5-minute monologue about innovation.

As the emcee of the event, I was also responsible for designing the energy arc of the day. Tapping my illustrative interests, I wrote and animated comedic shorts that helped increase energy after emotionally heavy talks. These comedic shorts have been nominated for an award for using humor in the workplace. 

The 470-seat Abbot Center at the Darden campus at the Universtiy of Virginia created an exciting atmosphere to learn about new products.

The beautiful brand of the confernce makes a stellar backdrop.



"Being Lean when Ideating" 

edUi Conference

Conference website

Thanks to the Live Arts theater for hosted the event, complete with their colorful assortment of stage lighting!

The mobile industry shifts frequently. Within a year, there are multiple new phones, operating systems, voice features, and millions of more apps released into the wild. With all these changes, how can companies pause, catch their breath, and prioritize what they should build for their customers?

To help answer this question, I've collected a toolbox of tips and tricks that keep thinking lean during the discovery process. As the edUi conference focuses on creating digital experiences to help educators, my talk shared methods popularized by Jeff Gothelf in his book Lean UX that could help in the space of eLearning.

One tool I use in almost every project kickoff is the proto-persona workshop, a framing exercise that helps stakeholders segment their users by behavior.

How does this activity help with the creative process exactly?

Let's pretend we're building a shopping app. Instead of asking the overly generic question "what do our users want?" we can instead ask more narrowly focused questions based on shopping styles:

  • What does Mindy the Collector (who loves collecting various clothing styles) want when finding new clothes?

  • What does Sally the Saver (who gets a rush adding things to her cart just for fun) want when finding new clothes?

  • What does Timothy the Targeted Shopper (who hates shopping) need when finding new clothes?

By boxing out more specific user types, not only do we have more granular problems to solve, but we also have a framework to help us recruit participates and evolve our concepts, which is exactly the next step. The proto-persona exercise is helpful in creating consensus and gathering audience assumptions, but the suggestions in this exercise are usually just that - assumptions. The next step in user research is validation, either through user interviews or a quantitative effort. 

The other trick I shared from our toolbox is a method called Collaborative Design. At WillowTree, we often build solutions in complex business areas. Our users in the B2B space have a wealth of subject matter. Instead of trying to inherit 100% of their business knowledge, we can team up with them as collaborative designers. Paper-prototyping is a great activity to get our users invested in the design process, as changes can be easily made without the distraction of a screen. Through the use of Collaborative Design, we've saved weeks of feedback loops by getting our users in the same room as us and synchronously co-designing an application. Yes, the process can get conversational quickly, but the face-to-face environment allows us to build a real-time consensus and discover obscure nuances that wouldn't have been obvious in a more formal process with discrete handoffs. 

It's not an engaging presentation unless the speaker walks over to the screen and physically points to the content! In this photo, we set the timer and ran a proto-persona exercise.


July, 2017

SumSum17 Conference on Innovation

Director, Emcee

At WillowTree we're tackling one of the biggest issues businesses in technology face today: how do we create a system to consistently innovate? Google's 20% Rule, an allocation rule of thumb that lets employees spend a fifth of their office time on projects deemed innovative, has made ripples in the industry. Does the 20% Rule work for us at WillowTree? Because WillowTree is an agency responsible for the products of clients, opposed to an internal product our own, how do we make sure we're pushing the envelope in our clients' domains? 

The vibe in the charismatic Jefferson Theater helped fuel audience engagement.

A major effort in promoting internal innovation has been a conference we host named Summer Summit (SumSum), the goal to showcase our projects that push the envelope. As director, curator, and editor of the content for this conference, it was my responsibility to source and promote technologies that would wow the masses. 

My favorite technology showcased was... wait for it...  a crowd-controlled T-shirt cannon. By downloading an app, each member of the audience could vote on the direction of the "smart" cannon: up / down / left / right. Once the game was triggered, the audience banged on their controllers like an old arcade game, with the cannon moving with audience trends, until... BOOM, a T-shirt launched into the crowd. A silly idea, yes, but a demonstration built on a powerful technology: real-time crowd analytics.

In curating the content for the day, I had no doubt we'd find plenty of cool gadgets to show off; I do work at a digital innovation agency, after all. I instead began to wonder how we could break up the day with refreshing content. What programming could we add to get the crowd excited and united in-between technology talks?

I had an idea. Let's use comedy.

With the help of a few colleagues, we collected a list of company inside jokes. Our idea was we'd bring these jokes to life through animated cartoons. Similar to the style of Adult Swim's Home Movies, I wrote, directed, casted, acted, and edited a series of cartoons to premier throughout the conference. Using comedic principles I learned in my improv training at New York's Upright Citizen Brigade's school, we made cartoons that lit up the room! The comedic structure known as the Harold was used to heighten each comedic bit, until all jokes connected at the end of the conference, similar to an episode of Seinfeld. 

As seen in the photo below (special thanks to Sarah Cramer Shields for capturing the energy of the audience), the shorts reenergized the audience and brought them together. I love using comedy as an engagement tool when public speaking; there's something empowering about laughter mixed with leaning. I think Bill Scheft, a writer for David Letterman, described laughter best in a recent Time Magazine special edition The Science of Laughter, "I may not always know how or why a joke has affected someone, but when a roomful of people is laughing, I know I've reached them."

Laughter is a social phenomenon that connects humans at their inner-most core. According to recent research, no other communication tool can more efficiently make an audience feel instantly connected. When public speaking, I aim to use my training in improvisational comedy at Upright Citizens Brigade in New York to engage audiences. In this picture, the audience reacts to some material I wrote that pokes fun at the tech industry.


Teaching at Universities

Our class at University of Virginia taught students how to design voice and experiences through a user-centered workshop. In this photo, my colleague and dear friend Whitney French leads a group workshop.

When not speaking at conferences, I enjoy teaching at universities. There's something refreshing about a roomful of energetic students, anxious to build the next big thing. 

One of my favorite classes has been a winter semester on designing for Artificial Intelligence (AI). It can be complicated enough creating compelling visual experiences on screens, but how does one design for something as fluid and abstract as language? 

Our class at University of Virginia called AI Design Challenge: The Rise of Bots tackled the space of conversational interface through hands-on workshops. My colleagues Whitney French, Jeremy Stern, and I constructed a workshop called "Buddy Chat" that helped students understand the syntax of language. Students were instructed to design a conversational experience that helped people buy movie tickets. The class broke into pairs, one student pretending they were a user, and the other student the "computer". Each couple then opened up the messaging app Slack and chatted naturally about buying a movie ticket. The actor asked questions a user would naturally ask when buying a movie ticket: what scary movies are near me? Which of my friends would want to go to a movie tonight? In response, the other student would answer in Slack. These responses were then collected across the classroom and coded by some of our data scientists at WillowTree.

As our aim was to design an AI conversation as natural as possible, the real-life responses collected in this class were used as inspiration. The tags collected in the responses included any instances of humor, hesitation, emoticons, etc., and helped drive our AI bot, making our bot seem as human as possible.

The students got a kick out of this exercise, as it helped them gain an understanding for their final project: create an artificial intelligence that could help the world - no small task!


Full Catalog of Conference Talks and Workshops