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From craftsmenship to coding, Jacoby brings user-centered design philosophy to St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 4, 2013 - Jim Jacoby has a unique way of looking at the world. It’s all about design.

“It’s been interesting for me to learn that a lot of people don’t think of themselves as designers whereas I think of everyone as a designer,” said the 42-year-old Southern California native. “When we get up in the morning, we’re designing our day. We’re designing communications and emails. We’re designing business processes. We’re designing all day long just because we’re human.”

The latest thing Jacoby has designed is a better way to learn about designing things. The School for Digital Craftsmanship, which graduated its first class this summer, specializes in the art of user-centered design, also known as user-experience design, or UX. The next session gets under way Oct. 7.

Behind the curriculum is a philosophy that allows creators to think more carefully about how intuitive their application or device is before it arrives in the hands of millions of users.

“The iconic examples are from Apple,” said Jacoby. “I liken it ... to when you sit in a chair and it feels right, like it was made for you. That’s user centered design. It’s also great craftsmanship.”

St. Louis is getting an early taste of an educational program Jacoby hopes will eventually expand to other cities. The classes premiered concurrently here and in Chicago this summer where Jacoby and co-founder Carolyn Chandler are based. But he said they are looking at Dallas, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Atlanta and Pittsburgh as areas that might eventually prove fertile ground for his classes.

Jacoby’s first quarter saw 16 grads in the Gateway City, and he looks to double that number this time around.

“We are seeing career-switching professionals,” he said, “people who are maybe five-to-seven years into a career path, perhaps technology or project management, who want to have their hands on the design process. Those are great candidates.”

They are not the only ones however. He said recent graduates looking for skill sets that may boost their salary range are also prime targets. As the world becomes more heavily wired and the e-products marketplace crowds with innovators, intuitive programming could mean the difference between a flop or a fortune.

“Somebody has taken the time to understand how you want to use the device as opposed to how they want to make the device,” he said. “A very usable device or application meets you where you already are instead of trying to change you and get you to learn something new.”

Market catching up

A career in app and device design may seem an odd choice for Jacoby who studied English literature at Northern Illinois University. But he was a technical writer before creating Manifest Digital, a design company founded on UX principles.

In the beginning, the concept was still fairly new and he said a lot of early evangelizing was necessary. Soon, however, people began to see the benefits of the approach.

“Over the years, the rest of the market caught up with us,” he said. “At the same time, the talent pool for delivering this capability was tapped out.”

Hence, Jacoby’s new venture. The program details a six-stage design process and how coders and project managers can tailor their creations to people other than themselves.

“If I were to boil it down to one word, it’s empathy,” he said. “How do you design from an empathetic perspective, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, understanding their mindset? It’s putting a methodology around that empathy.”

If that seems like a soft edge for a hardened technical field, it’s indicative of the holistic philosophy that seems to pervade what Jacoby does. He finds ways to connect the psychology of human behavior to the science of invention. The result emphasizes the heavily cross-disciplinary nature of UX. It’s all about craftsmanship, a word sometimes more associated with the languid gait of the 19th century than the frenetic pace of the 21st.

But for Jacoby, that’s not a romantic anachronism. Sometimes, the English lit major under the surface sneaks out.

“When you first read Beowulf, it doesn’t make any sense at all but then you start to find your way in through patterns and blocks of text,” he said. “The same is true in every field as far as I can tell. You do pattern searches in mathematics. You do pattern searches in anthropology. It’s how we make sense of the world. That’s really where this design process starts.”

Jacoby believes that UX allows designers to understand and cater to how humans process information.

“Even when we read text, we don’t read the letters,” he said. “We read the shapes of the words which is why you can jumble up the letters and still quite easily read the text. That’s all we’re doing is becoming more aware of what our mind does naturally.”

Finding new partners

At the moment, Jacoby’s mind is naturally gravitating to the upcoming quarter. Client work has always been a part of the equation but this time, the school will partner with startups at the downtown T-Rex incubator to expand that aspect of the lesson plan.

Future projects may even see the 10-week course linking with local universities for credit courses. St. Louis was the right choice for a starting point.

“It’s been such a great market to offer this learning because people are hungry for it,” Jacoby said. “The business community needs it and actually understands that it needs it.”

Jacoby said efforts such as entrepreneur Jim McKelvey’s recent project, Launch Code, a local mentoring program that helps connect programmers to companies in the area while apprenticing them in much-needed jobs, shows how vibrant the demand is.

Steve Lochmoeller, a native St. Louisan and local entrepreneur, said he found the class rewarding this summer.

“A lot of products require a lot of consulting work and configuration,” said Lochmoeller, founder of Clearly Inventory, a subscription-based software-as-a-service company he created in 2008. “Our product has to be easy to use. I wanted to learn more about UX design for that reason as well as managing designers, just understanding how they think, what’s helpful for them, what’s not.”

Lochmoeller said that the biggest takeaway was being able to see a product move all the way from the problem-solving stage right up through app development.

To Jacoby, it is just common sense.

“I’m super passionate that everyone should be doing this,” he said. “It’s just business design at the end of the day.”

David Baugher is a freelance writer.

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