Fox Woods is a freelance user experience designer (see Fox’s response at Q3 if that terminology goes right over your head like it did mine the first time I heard it), founder of the Milkshake Collective, co-founder of GirlsClub, dog owner, self confessed child of hippies, and as of very (very) recently, mother. I caught up with Fox back in October to chat about work, life, opportunities, and what it means to find ‘flow’ in what you do for a living. I have to admit to having held a pretty significant girl crush on Fox since I first met her through GirlsClub earlier this year, so excuse the gushing that follows…
‘UX Designer’ can only begin to describe the depth of Fox’s work experience in web tech over the past decade, working across a variety of roles in the field of ‘making the internet happen’. There came a point however, where Fox found herself again looking for more challenging and rewarding work, but also hoping interviewers wouldn’t call her back. This realisation, and the subsequent acceptance of this new need for freedom of work/life lead Fox to ‘take the leap’, to quit her job and find the space to understand what it was she wanted to do next. What happened after that? Well, you’ll just have to keep reading…
Owner: Fox Woods
Business: The Milkshake Collective
Who are you and what do you do?
I did a double degree in Arts/Music! It had nothing to do with computers, really, or the internet. But I was bored in university and I was fascinated with the internet… and fascinated with websites. I learned a little bit of code, then wanted to learn more, so I started taking apart other people’s websites (by looking at their code) and making my own. I just found that was where my passion was, and everything else just faded to the edges. I really enjoyed French and English, I enjoyed singing, and I liked the idea of studying psychology so I combined all that in to a double degree. We had access to computer labs in uni, but there was no class, there or in school, and no understanding of the opportunities for work in that world.
At that point where I started taking apart websites, I was so inspired and overwhelmed by the opportunities available on the internet, a super dynamic and engaging way of using what was pretty boring computer technology to me previously. At the time, and now, there is no real way, no clear pathway to working in the field, say as a project manager, a web designer or a ux designer in a web agency. And there is no transfer of what I could learn at uni to work, so I become a self taught web developer, finished my degree and started looking for work.
It took a bit of time, and an leap of faith from my employer, but I was able to start as a junior developer, then moved on to Information Architect, then User Experience Architect, then I also did Business Development, then went freelance in User Experience…
I was unhappy in my last full-time job, but it hadn’t really occurred to me that freelance was an option. Working in web agencies can be quite the life, for a problem solving oriented mind, you feel like you’re achieving something, you’re getting stuff done, and you can flow on like that for some time. And in that sense, it can be quite ego-stroking, where you go to meetings and pitches and walk out feeling quite good about yourself, with constant feedback. But the day-to-day grind of it, the reality is, it’s just you and your email. Yeah, there’s the core part of your work, where maybe you spend 3 days intensively working on the user experience of a particular website, but when that’s done, and you step back, its just you and your computer in an enclosed space.
I started wondering if there was more than that, where were the opportunities to stretch, or to feel a bit more of the world?
I was looking for another full-time role for about 6 months and I was coming away from interviews hoping that they wouldn’t call me back. That’s when I realised I needed a real change — I didn’t want to work for any of these companies I was interviewing with — I wasn’t excited about any of it. I had some savings, and I ended up quitting my job with nothing else to go to, because I needed a dramatic change.
Having looked down the barrel of more full time work for all types of web agencies and consultancies, corporate and strategic, I had to ask myself if any of that was what I really wanted to be doing. And so I gave myself the opportunity to, really lame, but, ‘stretch my wings’, to feel a bit more of life. At least to give myself the opportunity to do something so radically different from what I did before, that I might stumble across the things or thing that made my life better. I always laughed at the ‘first world problems’ element of my work troubles and I think I was looking for something that would allow me to work with a sense of perspective.
After I stopped working, I had a good think about what I wanted to do, and that’s when I started considering freelancing.
I asked a successful freelancer friend about it, and what she said surprised me: ‘I haven’t known anyone to try freelancing who has regretted it. They’ve all made it work.’
That gave me confidence, and I decided to give it a whirl.
Now – I do freelance User Experience work. That basically means: I help companies to improve the user experience of their products.
It’s a huge, wide discipline, so my work is really varied. Sometimes I’ll work with a company just on how to make their email newsletter better. Or how to make a website less frustrating, or how to make an app less confusing, or how to make a game more fun. Or sometimes, people come to me and they just have an idea for a business, and the idea needs to be tested.
There is so much freedom in freelance work, and you’ve kind of got to redefine some values about what rich and meaningful work is in order to really take it on.
What is the Milkshake Collective?
Initially, I wanted to form a band of freelancers who would work in the same place, and their skills would complement each other. I was imagining a beautiful studio, with a designer, a developer, me, and maybe an artist, a writer… an eclectic bunch. But I couldn’t find other people who wanted the same thing. So I was working “in the collective” just by myself, and if anyone needed another freelancer, I was able to help them out by recommending people… but my vision didn’t happen. Yet.
Recently, I added a section to the Milkshake Collective website where Australian freelancers can list themselves in a directory. All I can hope is to meet more freelancers, and that maybe (I’m currently 8 months pregnant!) in the future, I’ll find my eclectic bunch.
How would you explain UX Design to your grandmother (or grandfather, or grand piano, whichever applies)?
Usually, I say: “You know how you might go to the bank’s website, and maybe it’s hard to use, or something is frustrating about it? Well, companies call in people like me — or they have whole teams of people like me, sometimes! — and they are there to work on improving the user experience.”
Usually, about halfway through that description, the person will interrupt me and tell me how they find a particular website or app really annoying, or say something like, “Why is my bank’s website so bad then, if they have people working on it?!”
What skills learnt whilst working for others have you been able to transfer to being your own boss?
All of them, I think! But I think something that I gradually learned, which I think is really important, is that a lot of people sort of… forget about the client’s experience. There might be a lot of wooing and making-them-feel-special at the beginning, but then as soon as the project kicks off, the client can feel like chopped liver. Like you don’t really want to be working on the project, or like it’s a low priority, or like they’re a nuisance. I don’t want to be like that.
I tried to find someone who I thought was doing it right, and I had a think about how they were different. And it wasn’t that they were incredibly punctual, delivering everything perfectly and on time, and not making any mistakes. Instead, I noted — They are very generous. They go over and above. So I decided that would be a theme for me.
Tell us more about GirlsClub and how that came about?
GirlsClub is something my co-founder Shannon and I run in Melbourne one Sunday a month — it’s workshops for women/girls with topics like Assertiveness, Getting Things Done, Resilience. That’s been really rewarding.
The idea is, that instead of having a traditional ‘meetup’, where it’s like ‘hey, you, talk to each other!’ its really useful to have this third thing, which is the material on which to begin to talk to each other, to start making connections between experiences. And talk we do!
It’s amazing, you know that saying, ‘Creativity loves a restraint’; and they just go, as one topic leads to another and another and you make friends in the process, or at the very least, listen in and learn that either a) you’re not alone in your experiences or b) that there is a great diversity of life experiences out there. At one of the first sessions, we asked the group, ‘What would a thing like GirlsClub mean to you’ and many people said, I’d like to come along and learn about some things, and that was where the list of topics started. Then we asked them what they could teach, in order to share those experiences.KM: I first discovered GirlsClub when googling something along the lines of ‘female networking Melbourne’, never afraid to join a party on my own, I ventured into Melbourne’s CBD one dreary Melbourne Sunday in the depths of winter. What I found, inside that small room of brunch-ofiles (becuase, really, who doesnt like brunch? What a way to bring people together! but I digress…) was a community of bright, socially engaged, awesome women from all walks of life, and with many great stories to share. The experience of listening and sharing at GirlsClub has been an invaluable addition to my weekend routine, and I’m sure of many others.
What part of your day gives you the best ‘flow’ in your work?
Anything that I find interesting, really. It might be doing a UX review, or writing up recommendations for a client, or writing an article, or doing research for a Girls Club workshop, or even writing fiction… I am way, way better at concentrating and having “flow” at night, though. I have tried so hard to change… all these inspiring people I read about are morning people, and say that they are so productive in the morning, but I can’t help it. I concentrate far better at night, when the world has stopped, and I don’t feel like I’m missing out on the day.
What is the biggest misconception people have about the work that you do?
Probably… people (who aren’t in my industry) think that I design and code websites. Mostly, they think of me as a “web designer”. But my work is all about specifications, and data, and testing, and sketches, and diagrams, and flowcharts, and guidelines, and documentation, and presentations, and surveys, and interviews, and other such things… not “web design”. If that makes sense.
Tell us more about your participation in She Hacks?
I’d always seen hackathons in the past and been completely intimidated, because if you’re thinking ahead, going, you’re going to go into a room of strangers for 24 hours or more, you have no real idea what exactly your are going to be doing, and ultimately you ask yourself what might I be able to contribute? I think that is incredible intimidating for alot of people, especially women, and as a result, you just don’t take that risk. So with SheHacks, I took comfort in the idea that everyone would be in the same boat as me, enthusiastic, but with little experience of hackathons, and it was great that there was 80 something other people that thought the same way as me. And the event itself was really well run, catered etc, so you really didn’t have to worry about anything else but how you could contribute to your team.
Savvy, Sass or Study?:
What are you looking forward to?
I’m about to have a child! But I am looking forward to continuing freelancing, and to (maybe?) realising my original idea for the Milkshake Collective. And making Girls Club bigger — we’ve kept workshops small (only 20 tickets per month) up until now because it’s been as much as we can handle, but I’d love to grow Girls Club and allow more people to attend.
You know how sometimes there’s a story set in a mystical land, like Game of Thrones, or a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, or something, and there’s a character who is like this crazy truth-speaker — like a fortune teller, or a seer, or a guru — but they say some amazing truth that really affects you and changes your life somehow? I want to have that power, and be the crazy hippie guru.
Tea or coffee: Both. But currently, Ribena. It’s the pregnancy. I want to drink Ribena all the time.
Favourite place in the world: From memory, my favourite place is Annecy, France. I went there as a child and I fell in love.
Best coffee in Melbourne: I’m easy. I tend to choose cafes based on how beautiful they are!
Favourite way to unwind: Holiday / massage / facial.
Listening to: The “Air” station on Pandora — lots of downtempo, chilled music.
Guilty pleasure: Stationery
Favourite escape: Fiji!
Girl crush?/ or Business icon: Garance Doré. And I think she’s single… !
Friends of Milkshake Collective
Melanie Miles of Hybrid Expression
Dani Hunt of Neverland Studio, digital art and design
Lisa Green of Plucky Communications
Shannon Steinfort, my GirlsClub co-founder
Annnnnnd of course, all the lovely ladies of the GirlsClub network, a ridiculously talented bunch
How can I contact you?
Tweet me @foxmwoods
My website http://foxmwoods.com