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Kathi Kaiser at Prototypes, Process & Play 2017 (Podcast)

This podcast features Kathi Kaiser, Co-founder and Partner at Centralis, and her Lightning Talk, “How to Design a Company” from the design leadership conference Prototypes, Process & Play on August 11th, 2017.

Prototypes, Process & Play presentation podcasts are sponsored by Balsamiq – with Balsamiq Mockups, anyone can design great software.

Kathi Kaiser – Lightning Talk

Co-founder and Partner at Centralis

Kathi Kaiser is co-founder and partner at Centralis, a Chicago-based UX consultancy. She leads a top-notch team in creating great user experiences for global clients, start-ups, and cultural institutions. When Kathi’s not at the whiteboard or in the lab, she may be found observing users on boats, in museums, at train stations, and anywhere else where the digital and physical worlds collide. Kathi is a frequent speaker on topics in UX, and has served as an adjunct faculty member at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design.

For more, keep up with Kathi at or on Twitter as @kathikaiser.

How to Design a Company

Back in 2001, I quit a perfectly good job and founded a UX consulting firm in a garage (a cliché, I know, but it’s true). Sixteen years later, Centralis is a thriving research and design firm with a small but mighty staff of UXers dedicated to both our craft and the company. Along the way we’ve learned that designing a company isn’t so different from designing a product. In this talk, I’ll share some of the lessons we’ve learned through prototyping, gathering feedback, and iterating on our organization.

Presentation Transcript

Please note:

Podcast transcript below.​ Please note: Transcription was recorded live; there may be errors (typographical and contextual), as well as omissions or other content gaffes.

​Additionally,​ there was microphone feedback that happened in the room from time to time, and we did our best to minimize it in the podcasts. We apologize for any disruptions to your listening experience that this may cause.

Kathi Kaiser:

I’m Kathi. I’ve been working in UX for almost 20 years. It’s unbelievable.

And back in 2001 – a full service digital agency here in Chicago. Through the mergers and acquisitions we’ve heard about this morning it became Art World Live.

Anyway, back at the day I was there. And my colleague and I had an idea. We thought why work for this digital agency that does everything soup to nuts? Why don’t we have a stand‑alone user experience? User research useability testing? And we talked and talked and talked. But we didn’t actually plan all that much. But we decided to do it. And this is our first office. A garage. And it’s everything that you might imagine a startup would be. Long hours, figuring it out as we go, no real idea of what we’re trying to do, just trying to get by day after day.

So flash forward 16 years, and we’re still around. We’ve been pretty successful. We have a great office with an in‑house lab. We have a great team of eight people. Still pretty small, but going from 2 to 8, that’s a pretty big change. And we’ve worked with some great clients along the way. So when I think back about those conversations we had when we first started and where we are now, I think what did we do to achieve this really modest, but satisfying –

And when starting a company, this is sort of how we felt. We want to do something new and exciting and we’re pretty much focused on just the challenge right in front of us. We might have some abstract goal of being successful, but what do I have to do today? Oh, gosh, how do I deal with that challenge? Where do we go now? And day after day, this goes on and on, and before you know you don’t really know where you are. And when you’re only two people, that’s okay. But when you start to grow, it becomes a big problem.

So one of the fun things is that – absolutely nothing about running a business, which didn’t stop us, but it did give us a little bit of anxiety when we started to grow. How do we handle H.R. and financing and space. We’re UX people. We don’t have to do this business stuff. Then we realized we did have something that could help with that. We had a user‑centered design methodology. Which if you’re a UXer, this methodology is good for other stuff. You can apply it to other problems in your life and you’ll get to a solution.

So what I want to do with you very quickly is share with you system of the ways that we’ve used user centered design methodology to build our business. I’m not going to tell you about how we use it with our clients. Because of course we do. I’m not going to talk about how we use it with our clients and our users. Yeah, we take our own medicine. Do it that way, as well.

I’m going to focus on the building of the organization itself. The structures we put in place, processes, how we manage ourselves and our teams using these principles to be successful and be a better place at the end of the day.

So let’s start off with setting goals. Right? As I mentioned, we weren’t always so clear on specifically where we were going. We had a vague sense of where we were going. I’m sure you’re sure of Maslow and his hierarchy. Well, in the early days, it was pretty simple. We needed to eat. It was all about mining that next project and getting it done. And when there is only two of you, it doesn’t take a lot of work. You’re able to do that before too long. And then over time we wanted to have that security of a steady pipeline. Okay, we’re building relationships, work is coming in regularly, we’re feeling a little bit more safe.

Of course we want to have our social needs met. We have each other, which is great. But we also had all these great client relationships that we were building, working for some really great people.

And then of course we’re developing our portfolio of great work. We wanted to not just succeed in terms of having money in the bank, but we wanted to be really proud of what we were doing.

And, you know, over time the first year or two, we’re able to do these things pretty well. But it still begs the question where is this all going and why are we doing these things? And when it was just a two‑person firm, it was pretty easy for it to be all about us. Right? The point of the company was to give us what we wanted. And what we wanted at the time was work hard and play hard. You know, we liked doing UX work and we wanted to do great stuff. We also wanted to enjoy ourselves. So we went to a lot of Cubs games, we traveled, and did Ben and Jerry’s Factory tour. We called it the self‑actualization engine. It was really great at first. But then as we started being more successful, getting more work, meeting more people to meet the demand, it was hard to hire people with that message. “Please come work at my company so you can actualize me.” Not going to work.


We needed a bigger mission and a bigger story to tell me. There is a variation of Maslow that says there is something beyond self‑actualization. This is the idea of being part of something bigger than yourself. And from an organizational perspective, that really becomes helping other people self‑actualize. We want the people who join our team to get as much out of this as we are. So yeah, let’s do that. Let’s make that our goal. And I say this as if this was exquisite. Not really. We just stumbled into it over time and realized it’s an effective strategy for building a team.

So over time we went from being the self‑actualization engine to being a people‑first organization. And you may be familiar with this term that the concept is you take care of your people, they take care of your customers, your customers take care of your bottom line. And it’s a goal. Not every decision we make follows this rule. But, you know, overall as something we’ve strived for, it’s worked pretty well.

So we set our goals. To be able to help your employees be everything they can be and feel satisfied, you need data. You need to know that. And you need to try things out. It’s very important for us to understand what our employees are striving for and what kind of experience can we provide them.

So this is one of ours from several years ago. You can see the area where the team is sitting. And then we have the – our desks were up there. Yeah. So this is not how to gather data. This was a terrible seating arrangement. What were we thinking? Right? This is really bad. And I can tell you what we were thinking because it seemed perfectly logical at the time. We didn’t want our staff to feel like, you know, we were in their faces all the time. So we’ll put them in a nice area with lots of space and they can do their thing and we’re there and available, but we’re separate.

Well if you’re trying to know what people like and why they do their jobs, you have to be there. It felt like we’re not participating. So this was a really bad arrangement. Either you had to come downstairs, or you had to do the – thing up here. (Laughing) Literally looking down on your staff.

We got the staff involved. Okay. How can we best design our work space to provide this – So we created prototypes and some business cards. We moved our desks around and basically came up with our current seating arrangement, which is just much better. Yes. Now we’re actually working with people and talking with them and it’s a lot easier to –

All right. In terms of testing and iterating, here I want to tell you what I find is the biggest challenge, which is there is always more to do than you can. And every year we have a meeting where we talk about where we’ve been and where we’re going. And back in 2004 our notes say too much stress, too much hours, and not enough time to get things done. In 2012, it’s a little more formally documented, but it’s the same idea. This isn’t going to help us. We need to get past this.

We had a crazy idea and we wanted to test it out. Which was let’s invite our staff to help us do these internal – So asking them to help us with things like picking a health insurance plan or dealing with a plumber when the office flooded and these internal things felt off topic. Are they going to want to go for this? And we’re really excited today that it went really well.

– Basically asked them to tackle one little project at a time. Just try something, see how it goes, don’t let it interfere with your other work. And we kind of held it up to everyone and said can you help us? And they’re like yes, we can do stuff now! They wanted these things to happen as much as we did. They felt empowered. They really picked it up and ran with it. So thanks to the infrastructure team. We have more natural light. We had an event back in 2013. These things would not have happened if we kept that bottleneck structure.

And for a while we had folks that were very interested – so we broke out into the oddly named – and those did eventually roll back. Then we also realized that physical infrastructure – we basically used feedback to shift things up and help people get involved in getting things done.

I’m almost out of time here. But I do want to encourage you to think about the tools that you use in your design work and how they can help you with your companies, your teams, and your departments. You think like complex modeling, they’re good for understanding. So feel free to apply those tools not just in your design work. And keep in mind how do you design a company? Well, you know how! You use user‑centered design. Start with people‑first mentality. Empathize. Write things down and learn from it.


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