Jenn Downs

Jenn Downs is a UX Designer/Researcher and adores the web and what it can do for the world. She got her start in tech as MailChimp's first support rep and grew from there to rocking it in UX. Jenn is also a mentor for Code for America and invented the slightly awkward, yet truly helpful, Laptop Hugging Method for remote mobile testing.

Outside of being a web nerd, Jenn owns and runs a carpentry business with her husband, dotes on her dog Dickie, is a songwriter, and plays bass in a few bands around Atlanta.

You can follow her on twitter @beparticular.

Published Thoughts

I have a linens problem. I love cloth napkins. I keep buying holiday themed hand towels. I’m obsessed with blankets. I can’t get anywhere near a West Elm during a linens sale. I’m currently sitting over and under about three different blankets. When we moved into our new house this spring we bought a $100 couch off a yard sale group for our new living room, and I bought enough new blankets to surpass the cost of that couch. Because there weren’t enough blankets available for the bedroom, den and living room.

I’ve asked my very busy carpenter husband to make a blanket ladder for storage, but I think he knows I’d just buy several more blankets to store there. It’s a problem really. But being wrapped up in the warmth of a good blanket is one of my favorite comforts.

I didn’t always have the means to support this little blankets obsession.

In 2007 I left my low paying job as a bookkeeper and found a job in tech. That was a life changing pay bump. I got completely out of debt with my first two tech Christmas bonuses. I bought myself a winter coat. I no longer have to wear three sweatshirts to bed to stay warm. I no longer need to borrow an electric heater because I can’t afford my gas bill. I can have all the blankets I want. And I can give all the blankets I want to give. So I will.

This Thanksgiving I ask you to remember the things you do have and if there was a time you struggled in life, remember the things you didn’t have. If you’re able now, give something you didn’t have to someone in need. Or look up your local shelter (people or animals) and find out what their urgent needs are.

If you make blankets, there are local chapters of Project Linus in all 50 states.

I know some people prefer to help animals in need, and they get cold, too. May I suggest giving a blanket or old towels to a Boston Terrier rescue? Cause lord knows when the temperature drops those little buddies shiver like they’ve never even felt warmth. Dickie, my extra shivery Bochi, will thank you for it.

Happy Thanksgiving. Stay warm.

Dear Tech Industry

Dear Tech Industry,

We are no longer just the outcasts in the basement who mysteriously make the computers run. We are everywhere. We are in every industry. Everything is digital and we run this town.

Now it's time to grow up and make a real difference. Be a good ambassador for our field. Treat each other with respect. Stop being horrible to each other. Be an example of what can really be accomplished in this world. Do good work with good people and for good people.

Support the towns and systems that support you. Spend some of your excessive pay on arts, culture, and charity. Just because you know more about technology than most people doesn't mean you're smarter than everyone else, but you do hold an important key to success. There is a world out there that could use your help. Your local charities, your city, your state, your country. Disruption from the inside is what is going to make a bigger difference in people's lives, and not just the lives of our fellow techies. It's harder, but do it anyway. Make us proud.

To those already making a difference in our civic tech family, non-profits, and expanding the minds of organizations everywhere, I've got your back. I hope the rest of our field will join me in supporting you.


How do I get into UX?

Not a speaking engagement goes by without someone asking me how to get into UX. I take their card, I mean well. I might send them a list of books or articles to read. I might tell them the story of how I found a rocket ship of a startup. How that startup took a chance on me as their first support rep, and helped me shape my career with amazing support and on the job learning. I don’t think that happens very often, so I hate telling people that in answer to their question. How do I get into UX?

I haven’t answered anyone who asked after my last speaking gig because I’ve been trying to find a better answer to their question. There are days where I want to say, “Look, some days I still feel like I’m faking it till I make it, so ask someone who did this a more traditional way!” There are days I want to say, “Are you sure you’re ready for a specialized career path? Because it’s tough sometimes.” There are days I want to protect our turf and say “I know enough people looking for these jobs already, so back off.” Some days I’m nicer than others.

But what I think I should say is this, “It all starts with watching someone use your site.” That’s it.

It’s nothing elaborate really. If you want to get into UX, just call up a user - any user will do - and say, “Hey, can I watch you work sometime?” Or if you’re making something new, just ask someone - anyone will do - to use what you’re creating. Your recruiting demographics don’t matter in that first session. If UX is right for you, you’ll be hooked from the first session and you won’t be able to do anything else. That curiosity you feel, the need to know more - that’s what’s going to get you into UX.

Losing Control

My friend Sandy passed away in December of 2014 at the age of 42 while fighting lung cancer. Everyone asks, "Was she a smoker?" I knew her for 16 years and I never once saw her smoke. In fact, she hated smoking. It was the only thing I ever remember her giving her friends real hell about. I think when people ask, they want to know if the cancer was something she could have controlled.

Sandy was a huge supporter of the comic book, gaming, convention scene, and people in general. Her friends joked that she knew so many creators and awesome people that we should have a SandyCon and get them all together in the same place. I don't think we ever thought we'd be having SandyCon without her. It never occurred to me that I might not make it there either.

On April 18, 2015 my band was traveling to Wilmington, NC to play SandyCon. We piled our gear into two cars. Koby and I were in my Honda Fit with most of our gear. Our guitar player and drummer were in another car. About two hours from home, just outside of Augusta, GA, the Fit hydroplaned and Koby lost control of the car. It felt like we flew into the median wall, then spun back out onto the highway and came to an abrupt stop. Try as I might, I cannot piece together exactly the order of the spin and the impact.

When we stopped spinning, both of us jumped out of the car. We looked down to see if we were ok and then looked at each other. We were barely scratched, other than me being bruised hard by the airbag/seat belt combo. I looked back at the interstate and the pieces of the front of my car seemed so far away. But we were ok. I keep saying "we were so lucky". People tell me how safe cars are these days, but I keep thinking "we were so lucky". No other cars, no broken guitars, no broken bones. "It could have been worse, we were so lucky."

At first after the accident I thought I wasn't going to have any major epiphanies, no major life changes. Our life is pretty good and anything we have been missing we were actively working to add to our lives (a music room, another dog, more time with friends).

What I didn't anticipate was the "Post Accident Fuck it Phase".

Before the accident, we were trying to sell our condo and buy a house. The sellers of the house we wanted were not making it easy. Every interaction we had with them made us question their intent to sell. Our condo went under contract in two days, so we were soon to be without a place to live. I was under the most stress I'd felt in a long time, but after the accident I just stopped caring if we got the house. I realized I'd live under a bridge with Koby as long as we're alive and together.

As the days have gone by since Sandy's passing and since the accident, I've realized that very very little actually matters. Not in a completely nihilistic way, but in more of a "we'll figure this out" and "whatever works, man" kind of way. This is a very big change from my usual persona, which borders on control freak. We had a term in our household called "control straightening". Whenever I felt out of control I would organize things and line things up side by side. So, let that give you some indication of my need for control, it's soothing for me to be in control. Well, it used to be.

Three days before the accident we lost our band's practice space. We knew the building was being taken over by the new owners on May 10th, and we'd planned to be there through the bitter end. However the guy who signed the lease and sublet the space to us decided to not pay the final month's rent and moved out early. I called a good, long-time friend with a van so we could get our stuff out of there and explained to him just how hard I was freaking out. He told me, "Jenn, you're so good at planning and finding creative solutions. But when things don't work out as you planned, you just fall apart. I never understood why you didn't just make a new plan."

Make a new plan. How on earth did that never occur to me? Iteration. If it doesn't work the first time, try something else. Nothing has to be perfect the first time. Prototype. Experiment. See how much you can get away with. Do whatever you want. It'll either work out or you'll face the consequences. Most of the time consequences are small and easily dealt with. Do it anyway.

Other than not jumping off a building or setting myself on fire, I've realized that I don't have a lot of control over whether I live or die. I can influence, but I cannot control. I have control over what I choose to do and who I have in my life, but I can't control what other people do. If people don't follow along with what I've planned, I need to make a new plan based on their reactions. This seems reasonable, doable even. It also seems easier than chasing the control I've wanted my whole life.

It's nice to have lost a little control.

(PS - We got the house and move in on Sunday!)

Content Audit: Songwriting Pet Peeves

I've been in bands for years, mostly as a bassist. I started writing my own songs in 2008 and in 2011 someone called me a songwriter for the first time in my life. This was before I'd ever referred to myself as a songwriter. For me the word songwriter carries some weight to it. Songwriting is one of those great power/great responsibility situations. If I'm going to write, I'd like to write something worth sharing, or a song that means something.

What I love most of all about music, even more than playing bass, is listening to, dissecting, and writing lyrics. I write more lyrics than I write actual songs. I have and use an old rhyming dictionary from 1936. I'm an avid thesaurus user (I don't think there is a word for avid thesaurus user, but I'd like to call us thesaurists.) for crafting just the right turn of phrase in a verse. I dream of one day being compared to favorites like Elvis Costello, Patterson Hood of the Drive-by Truckers, and a new favorite Lydia Loveless. I currently have about 13 songs that can be performed live (most requiring a loud punk band), about 15 more lyric sets that need music, and countless phrases and ideas that will one day be part of a song.

I think I'm a pretty good lyricist (another one of those power/responsibility words), but I've got a ways to go to consider myself worthy of that label. I can rock a punk rhyme any day, but sometimes what I want to say is more nuanced. So, I teach myself by listening to other music and keeping tabs on the kind of lyrics I would never want to catch in my own songs.

I have a growing list of songwriting pet peeves that include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • rhyming the whole song then derailing the feel with one word that doesn't rhyme when there is a perfectly good rhyme to fit your lyrics
  • corny rhymes because maybe you were trying to be "original" (or maybe you were just high and no one wanted to tell you your lyrics stink)
    e.g. rhyming libertine with spleen. Ew.
  • the overuse of the word "just" as a rhythmic filler

As an exercise in improving my own lyricism, I analyzed my own songs for these and other pet peeves as well as general statistics about my songwriting content.

Out of 28 songs and lyric sets here is what I found.

Songwriting Pet Peeves Found in My Own Songs

  • Use of a non-rhyming word when a rhyme will do fine: 0
  • Songs with corny rhymes just to rhyme: 3
    (I will be changing those immediately.)
  • Songs with your band name in them: 1
    (In my punk band, we cover our namesake, Superpill, by The Forty-Fives)
  • Number of times I've used the word "just" in a song: 12
    (Number of instances of "just" I'll remove from my songs after today: 11)
  • Justified use of the word just: 1
    ("If the beer ain't cold, just give me a kiss.")

Other Songwriting Stats

  • Songs about being a musician or dealing with musicians: 8
  • Songs about drinking: 5
  • Songs about ex-boyfriends: 5
  • Songs about suicide: 3
  • Songs about my mother: 3
  • Songs about my husband that are kind of mean, but he'll probably play them with me anyways: 3
  • Songs equating food with love: 2
    ("Your Mother Makes the Best Desserts, Why Can't She Make you Love Me?")
  • Songs very specifically written about another band: 1

I wrote this in August of 2014 during a pretty dark time in my life, but after hearing Wendy Suzuki on The Moth talk about her father's memory, I knew it was time to share.

August 2014

I just got home from seeing Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory, a documentary about how music therapy can ease the suffering of Alzheimer's patients. You might have seen a clip from the movie that made the internet rounds a few months ago - an older gentleman named Henry joyously singing along with the music he's hearing in his headphones for the first time in years. I'm still crying mixed tears of sadness and joy, knowing how wonderful it is that so many nursing home facilities in North America are starting to work to provide music for their patients.

I've been a musician nearly all my life, and I know the joy and magic that music can provide. I also know how deeply it locks onto our memories. Many songs have been made better or been totally ruined by the people you were with the first time you heard the song.

I also know a little about Alzheimer's Disease. I've been afraid of Alzheimer's since I knew that the disease existed. In my early 20s my Grannie was diagnosed with it. Grannie passed away 11 years ago in March, two days before my birthday. Her funeral was my family birthday gathering. It was her sister's birthday, too, though Aunt Florence had passed some years before. She also had Alzheimer's Disease, my dad says "big time".

I can't imagine losing my brain, having to be cared for by strangers when I become too much for my family. I can't imagine having nothing around me to remember myself or my life and just wanting to go home, wherever home might be in my head.

While watching the movie Alive Inside they stressed that it's not just any music that helps, it's music that is attached to our memories. The area of the brain where music and memory come together is one of the last to be affected by dementia, and familiar music can help the symptoms of the disease and improve the quality of life for patients by leaps and bounds.

Before I started writing down these thoughts, I made an inspirational playlist of songs I played in concert band in high school. When I hear the saxophone solos I played as a kid, I can still feel the wind rushing out of my lungs and through the instrument to make the sounds that fill the concert hall. I can still feel my hands tremble with the stage fright that still affects me today. I remember so vividly.

So, morbid as it may be, if I do get this dreaded disease, I want someone to play these songs for me:

The big band music I played in jazz band in high school, In the Mood, Sweet Georgia Brown, and Take the A Train.

The symphonic music from high school concert band - particularly anything we played at Concert Bands of America 1994 in the former Medina Temple in Chicago (now a Bloomingdale's and a story for another time).

The James Bond theme, the soundtrack to Aladdin, Christmas Time is Here, and Kodachrome and Call me Al by Paul Simon to remember marching band.

I need 50s, 60s, and 70s rock and roll that my family would listen to on the radio.

Joy to the World by Three Dog Night
You Really Got Me by the Kinks
I Heard it Through the Grapevine only as sung by Marvin Gaye (my favorite song of all time, no other version exists to me).
Love Me Tender by Elvis because I laugh every time I think of the musical turn signal my dad bought for my mom. It played Love me Tender until the batteries started to run out and it played "Love Meeee Tenndeerrr, Looooooveeeee Meeeeeeooorrrrrrrrrrr"

You Are My Sunshine, my aunt used to sing it to me.
What a Friend we Have in Jesus, to remember Grannie.

Imaginary Dances by William Duckworth to remember the joy of playing my electric piano late into the night into headphones to escape my terrible first marriage.

Songs from all the bands I ever played in and worked with to remember the excitement of the road and to remember confidence. The song Superpill by The Forty-Fives, since I did name one of my bands after the song. Rip it Up and The Girl Can't Help It, Little Richard songs I've covered.

The albums Brighter than Creation's Dark and The Big To Do from the Drive-by Truckers, my all-time favorite band. The band that made me realize I could be a songwriter. The song The Monument Valley to remember peace.

1372 Overton Park by Lucero to remember fun and hope.
Ultra by Depeche Mode, to remember curiosity.
Haunted by Poe to remember strength.
Never Can Tell by Chuck Berry to remember love.

That's just a start. I don't want to forget anything. Please don't let me forget. I like to believe that because music is such a huge part of my life that if I keep it with me I'll never forget.

Alive Inside is now available on Netflix or for purchase. Please consider donating an old iPod to the related charity, Music and Memory.