My durian experience, and other adventures outside my comfort zone

Two weeks ago I visited Kuala Lumpur to give a workshop at UX Malaysia. Here’s how it went.

It seems one thing that every tourist has to go through when visiting the country is to try Durian, a thorny green fruit with a creamy onion flavor. Because it smells so strong, you need to touch it with gloves. Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to eliminate the flavor from your hands for a while. Imagine my face when tasting this delicious piece of food.

The reason for my Malaysian visit though was not to try out exotic fruits, taste new culinary delights every day and enjoy the city’s most beautiful panoramas (although you can guess that I did all of these things), but instead to give a workshop at UX Malaysia, a conference I had been invited to speak at, just a month earlier.

Thai boat noodles and iced coffee at Nine Bowls
Thai boat noodles and iced coffee at Nine Bowls

This also made me commit to a very tight schedule of preparation, because I had only just done a talk at Codemotion Madrid, on a completely different topic. But challenge accepted!

Since the workshop would be about “Iterating and pairing in cross-functional teams“ I decided to create the whole thing in a very similar fashion: come up with an idea quickly, and improve upon it every day by gathering feedback from people and adjusting the talk according to my new insights.

The result was that on day two I could already do my first rehearsal (which was incredibly poor), but: I had an MVT, a minimum viable talk, and 4 days to go…

Things started taking shape, and gathering feedback from my buddies Hiong (our collaborator in KL), Jon and Sergei helped me “validate my results“, as if I was working on a product. I started to enjoy this lean process.

I also learned that putting the slides together should be the least of my concerns. Adding animations, refining the copy and adding pictures of unicorns and rainbows can really be done at the end (on the last day, in my case) if you really know what you’re talking about.

UX Malaysia took place on the Saturday before my return flight, and was a one-day event with 4 talks and 7 workshops, attended by almost 100 people.

The event took place at Microsoft’s Malaysian office: a cozy and stylish venue right next to the twin towers, equipped with everything the modern office worker could ask for: Lounge chairs, spacious meeting rooms, the latest tech and views on what used to be the highest towers in the world.

Lower floor of the Microsoft offices in one of the Petronas towers
Lower floor of the Microsoft offices in one of the Petronas towers

I was nervous, no doubt, but rehearsing the talk a few times before the event gave me enough confidence to put on a decent presentation, the rest was down to improvisation, which I realized was a good thing. Like a jazz player who needs just the right amount of rules and constraints, spontaneity was sort of what allowed me to be natural, adapt to the audience, and throw in some funny comments. That was one of my major takeaways…

I had to throw in some comments at the panel talk as well, where Izwan, the organizer of the event, asked me about the future of education and how we manage communication at Hanno. Hit me up on Twitter (@marcelkalveram) if you want to talk more about that with me.

The talk went really well, and the audience showed a high level of engagement and participation. My only uncertainty was how the people would deal with the practical exercises I’d created. I asked them to solve two different design problems in pairs, and then iterate on the solutions they would present.

Thanks to a couple of brave volunteers who broke the ice at the beginning, we saw a good number of people presenting their sketches. The audience discussed some of them eagerly, and we had some active discussions about whether the solutions were appropriate, or if there was room for improvement. In the end, every idea had room for improvement, but that was the idea anyway.

An important takeaway of mine was that you can easily guide a workshop or conversation by asking simple guiding questions: “Is this good?”, “Do you agree here?”, “Why do you agree?”, “Do you have better ideas?”. I hardly threw in my personal opinion at all during the exercises, and preferred letting the people judge and decide by themselves. This resulted in much more engagement and conversation and—as far as I can tell—fun!

So what impact did this experience have on me?

First of all, I learned that planning smart, working at a good pace and with the right people can prevent you from a lot of unnecessary pressure. I could have stressed myself out before the event. But instead, I decided to go to the birdpark on the day before the gig, something which, interestingly, helped me strengthen my focus and feel much more relaxed.

Me at the bird park of Kuala Lumpur taking a selfie
Me at the bird park of Kuala Lumpur taking a selfie

Also, talking to people, gathering feedback, and adjusting my work according to their input significantly improved what I presented in the end. It required me to do two things though: To be less defensive about my ideas, and be more open for feedback of other people, something that I can struggle with when I put a lot of work into something. Funnily enough, these are the exact same principles that our designers at Hanno repeatedly try to apply to their work, so Sergei and Jon were very familiar with them! In this case though, the regular feedback loops allowed me to gradually ask for feedback, something which made the whole process a lot less painful.

While it was quite a stretch to try and pull off 2 talks on 2 different continents, with just 8 days between them, I’m really glad I took on the challenge. Going beyond the limits of what I thought I could do was a great motivator for what may come in the future, and left me hungry for more. And who knows, maybe the “Durian challenge“ was just an appetizer…

Marcel’s Durian challenge in Malaysia from Marcel Kalveram on Vimeo.