If there’s a problem, UX Designer Jeff Golenski will be the first in line to solve it. This New Bedford, Massachusetts native has been building websites since high school and the sky has been the limit ever since. Whether he’s traveling to WordCamps or helping improve the Jetpack products with Automattic, Jeff continues to draw energy and inspiration from the human interactions he experiences every day. We sat down to chat with him about design, UX, and how he maintains balance in the busy world of WordPress.
Thanks for sitting down to talk with us Jeff! We heard that your website building skills go way back, what did you do before WordPress?
“In middle school, I was dabbling on the internet and was fascinated by how to create things. I started small by creating HTML sites. Then, I attended a technical high school where I was fortunate to hone my skills and study web design as my major. In college, I continued studying design and web development (respectively) and I met Jon Desrosiers (who is now a WordPress core contributor). We co-founded the Johnson & Wales chapter of AIGA (the world’s largest design organization) and started building a friendship that has carried us into the world of WordPress.”
Wow, so you have been creating websites for a long time. How long have you been using WordPress?
“I discovered WordPress around 2006, so I’ve been using the platform for about 13 years. I paid for college by building WordPress websites for local businesses around my community. It was a lot of fun!”
“There was a running joke among my friends who liked to say, ‘You don’t even have a real job, you’re just making websites.’ I was 18 years old and having my own small business taught me skills that I still use today like how to interact with customers, project management, web development, and web design.”
That is amazing! You were already starting to carve out the path that would eventually lead you into User Experience (UX) roles, would you say that has influenced how you create websites?
“I would say that is where it all started, building websites requires you to do a lot of marketing design on the front end. It slowly evolved where I ended up working at a few local agencies like Schwadesign and Slocum Studio over the years on the marketing design side of things. Thanks to my good friend Jesse Friedman, I eventually ended up working on product design with the now-defunct BruteProtect plugin which was run by a small team based out of Maine founded by Sam Hotchkiss.
Within several months we grew from a small security plugin that blocked botnet attacks to a full management suite where the customer could manage all their themes and plugins in one dashboard, for multiple sites. We eventually garnered the attention of Matt Mullenweg and that eventually led to BruteProtect getting acquired by Automattic. The team then became part of Automattic.”
It is really cool that you were able to make these transitional steps that led you to Automattic, how have you grown within the company?
“I’ve been with Automattic for 5 years and it’s been fantastic because I’ve met people from all over the world and learned so much that I couldn’t have if I had stayed local. It still blows my mind that I get to come to WordCamps and see people using our products. I went from marketing design, then slowly transitioned into product design and now I’m at the UX role where I’m doing more customer research, data analysis, journey mapping, and more.”
You’ve juggled so many awesome roles, do you prefer a UX role to any other position you’ve had?
I do enjoy UX, but in another 5 years it might change to something else, I like to keep it fresh and challenge myself.
UX is such an essential part of the customer experience, as a UX Designer for Jetpack, what do you work on?
Right now I’m working on Jetpack onboarding which we call “the first mile of the project.” When a customer signs on to the product and begins to use it, my job is to make sure they have a pleasant experience, understand the value of what they are getting, and help them accomplish their goals.
If you could share with the world what you love about Jetpack, what would you say?
Jetpack is great because it allows you to accomplish a lot in a little amount of time, especially for non-technical folks who are new to the community and just getting started with WordPress. You can come get security and performance tools that you might otherwise have to install 20 different plugins to achieve that functionality. We do it all for you.
I bet it’s very rewarding getting to assist people in the developmental aspects of their website and it’s done with so many people working behind the scenes. Many designers and developers work remotely, how do you like being distributed all across the globe with your coworkers?
“It’s funny because our team is all over the world, so depending on the team you’re on, you could be in the same time zones or scattered. Over the years I’ve switched teams a few times and had teammates in Moscow, Australia, and Hawaii which can be difficult sometimes.
“There’s a lot of syncing that has to happen, but we’ve refined our process by using project management tools like Slack. We also use P2 (an internal blogging communication tool based on WordPress), Zoom, and schedule calls at a time that is centralized for everyone. I’m also very partial to recording a lot of videos that my colleagues in other time zones can catch up on asynchronously.”
Organization and management are essential with so many people across the world. The heart of WordPress lies within the people, what does the word community mean to you?
“Community encompasses everybody and the energy they reflect. You can look across events like WordCamps and see a competitor, but we all love the community and bring value to making it better.”
We agree it’s about creating an atmosphere for everyone to be successful with their website and that comes from an inclusive community. If a person questioned how inclusive the WordPress community is, what advice would give?
“I would encourage them to come to any event. People from any background or social status have the chance to participate, contribute, and be treated equally.”
You’ve been able to see the community evolve and expand since 2006, did you have anyone that has been a positive influence during your time with WordPress?
“Before I even got into WordPress there was a man named John Souza who worked with me in high school when I was just getting started. He was our IT teacher who saw my enthusiasm for website building and gave me the opportunity to build sites with him and make money. I was just a kid and he would take me to different meetings with clients which gave me hands-on experience in customer relations. He really helped launch my career, even when I was still in high school.
While I’ve been with Automattic I have had so many wonderful mentors like John Maeda who was the head of design at Automattic for a long time and is a design guru who speaks all over the world. Automattic now works with Creative Director Jeffrey Zeldman who was someone I looked up to growing up because of his various books and talks he had on design.”
It’s amazing that you now get to work with people who influenced your work when you were growing up. What inspires you to create?
“I like to help people, so design to me equates to solving that problem, it’s asking myself how can we make this more efficient? The misconception is that design is making things look “pretty,” and that’s not the case. Design is everywhere whether that is architecture or an automobile, if you are creating something new that solves a problem, you’re a designer.”
If you could create anywhere in the world, where would it be?
“Everywhere! I would like a place with a social atmosphere because as a designer you are solving human problems. The more people you interact with, the more problems you can solve.”
How do you prefer to find out about people’s problems in order to help them? (Ex: surveys, conversation)
“I think talking to people is the best way because you can really understand the context of their problems. We do a lot of customer interviews which is considered “qualitative data,” and also measure the “quantitative data,” which is looking at the statistics. I like to take quantitative data and find a baseline. For example: If I can see that thousands of people are having the same issue, I’ll want to investigate why they are having that problem and interview them.”
Amongst all the problem solving, what is something people would never guess about you?
“I have a million hobbies, but it’s important for me to find a balance in my life with technology, and I do that by unplugging. I’m a huge adventure buff and will jump into a kayak, or go behind the lens of a camera with astrophotography where I can ‘hear the quiet’ and look at the stars.”
You mentioned you like to adventure and go explore, on average how many WordCamps do you get to travel to a year?
“I try to attend a few WordCamps a year. I like to maintain a balance between the WordPress ecosystem and the other events I attend throughout the year. One of my most favorite events was a photography conference in St.Louis and we brought our booth there for WordPress.com.
We were in an environment with non-competitors like Nikon and Canon who were coming to us and learning how we build our websites. Getting to sit down with other people outside of our community allows me to share what makes WordPress so special, like that we’re an open source community that isn’t owned by any one entity.”
It has been a pleasure chatting with you Jeff!
Bio: Jeff Golenski is a UX Designer w/ a focus on growth design at Automattic. He’s been a part of the WordPress community since 2006 and currently focuses on the first mile of customer experience for Jetpack and WordPress.com. When he’s not working on creating better experiences for customers, he’s in the wilderness working on honing his astrophotography skills. Reach out at @jeffgolenski, DesignTactician.com, or MidnightShiftPhotography.com