Aha People: Matthew Stephens, Co-Founder, deviantART & UX Designer

To deviant art fans, digital artists, web designers and UX Designers, Matthew Stephens needs no formal introduction. He values helping others over making money. He values small projects over big ones if it contributes to the solution for the masses. He is an artist in his own world. Having co founded the home of artists on web i.e. deviantArt, Matthew realized the value of the users and their experiences contributing to the success of the company. Currently associated as a consultant with DeviantART and lead UX Designer at OneSpot, Matthew ventured into web design and UX back in 1999.

Matthew can be reached on Facebook, Twitter, Dribbble and DeviantArt

1) Matthew, kindly introduce yourself to Aha readers and familiarize us with your regular day at work.

My name is Matthew Stephens. I’m from the Dallas area, but have resided in Austin, TX, the best city in the world, for 13 years. I don’t really have a typical day, as I am constantly working on new and interesting projects, but usually I spend my mornings on the phone and my afternoons head down in Photoshop or Axure, designing UI mockups and prototypes for tech companies big and small. I’m also an avid entrepreneur so I often spend my evenings working on my latest endeavors.

MATTHEW STEPHENS DEVIANT ART

2) Narrate us a story dating back to last decade that encouraged you to launch deviantart? What was the need then? Also, share your various transitions while been associated with deviantart community.

I was always into art, even as a small child. When my family got a computer, my obsession shifted. In high school, I created a site called Wasted Youth to chronicle my love of art and computers, specifically through tutorials, templates, resources, etc. Through that site, I met Jark and Spyed, who were in the process of making a customization community, for people looking to customize the UI for windows or linux. I was in the process of creating a site for people to showcase the art they were creating from my tutorials. We combined ideas and deviantART was formed.

Technically speaking, it was a place to store your art work online, which sounds simple enough but in 2000 those types of services didn’t really exist. Beyond that, it was always the community. Humans are social creatures who desire to be around people that share the same passions. deviantART provided that better than anyone else.

deviantART launched when I was 18, 2 weeks before I started my freshman year of college. I was working all day and night at deviantART for very little money and so during my junior year, I decided I’d had enough. I wanted to live like a normal college kid, so I resigned my position and finished school like everyone else. It was the right decision and after a few years, Angelo asked me to come back and do some consulting, which I have been doing now for 5-6 years.

3) When you were thinking of launching deviant art, weren’t there similar sites then? Did you face any competition after the launch?

Our closest competition was deskmod, which was run by a bunch of our friends. It was tough for me, because deviantART surpassed them pretty quickly and I felt guilty. But they supported us and we remained friends.

4) They say “you can’t design for yourself” but yours is an exception. Kindly explain. What made deviantart immortal?

I’m not quite sure what you mean. deviantART has always been very receptive to the community regarding any changes we make, so I wouldn’t say we designed for ourselves. deviantART wasn’t immortal, either, in my opinion. I just think we listened and tried to build the best tools for a community that we could. No one technology or staff member kept us on top, it was just a real joint effort.

5) How is the journey from being a design intern in 1999 to turning into a successful user experience designer? What was it that drew you to UX?

It’s been amazing, to be honest. My father gave me advice at a young age to “find something you’d do for free then get someone to pay you for it.” I’ve found a way to combine my two biggest passions and make a good living doing it. UX really completed my life’s puzzle, I believe. I have always loved science and psychology was one of my favorite classes in college. deviantART gave me a lot of unique insights into how users behave, how communities react in certain situations, or how a new tool gets adopted. After I left deviantART, I went back into design but found myself longing to build a new community or application. Design, by itself over time, was becoming superficial. I wanted to actually build something.

So I devoted myself to learning and mastering UX, wireframing, prototyping, etc. It really allows me the freedom to do whatever I want, whenever I want. If I want to start a new company or develop a new application, I can do half of the work up front and just pay for a developer to work with me to implement it.

6) “You have two choices: Lead a high profile design project with a huge budget that has a low chance of being implemented or a small design project that will almost certainly be. What would you choose?”

Definitely the small project. I have been working with startups here in Austin since I left dA, helping people bring their ideas to reality. That satisfaction of seeing someone succeed because of a service you provided is priceless.

7) First user experience you designed (in whole or in part)?

“User experience” could mean anything, really. The very first user experience I created that comes to mind was a project I did in first grade for “Invent America”, a contest where kids come up with ideas for products. Mine was a toddler-themed bathtub faucet, shaped like an elephant (faucet = trunk) that had a simple number/shape pad, which prevented the young child from dispensing shampoo or soap without the parents consent, but also taught them basic numbers and shapes at the same time. It won first place and was the first time I felt special. 🙂 My first website was a fan website for the game Command & Conquer. I still play those games. 🙂

8) Last app you used today?

Feedly, I love it. I was a big Google Reader fan, so I needed a replacement. It’s great.

MATTHEW STEPHENS FAVORITES

9) Do you find that most people understand UX or take it for granted? Has this changed over the years?

The fact that the term CXO is a thing now is proof enough that the perception has changed. When I was learning the art of UX, it seemed that every other article was titled “How to Prove Your Value”. Now, I thank Apple in a large part for this, UX designers are often the first or second employees at companies. That being said, I still have to explain what I do to anyone not in the industry.

10) Speaking of your process, what hardware, software and other tools do you use?

Macbook Pro, maxed out but a couple years old. I use Photoshop, Illustrator, Axure, Chrome, Slicy, Keynote, Pages, etc.

11) What would you consider the most misunderstood aspect of UX design?

Well, a lot of UX designers are just designers that wanted more money and didn’t spend much time actually learning the ins and outs of user behavior. So a lot of them don’t spend time rapid prototyping and wire framing up front. I think that leads to the misconception that UX is just designing, when it really isn’t.

12) What were the most remarkable “A-ha!” moments in your career? What were the most decisive moments that changed the way you approach UX projects?

First thing that comes to mind is the day I switched to a Mac. I was a die-hard, old school PC guy but found myself really out of place in the design world. After a few minutes, I knew my work was going to improve dramatically. The other would be the day I spent learning Axure, which is a high-end prototyping application. I knew Flash from back in the day, and it’s not unlike that, except it builds HTML and jQuery prototypes, specs, etc. It suddenly made it possible to build rapid, robust prototypes in hours instead of days.

13) Who would you say has had the biggest influence on you as a UX designer and why?

Probably Theresa Neil, who is a local UX master and has literally written many books on UI patterns and designing mobile interfaces. She’s been a great friend and shared a lot of her insights with me, which I have always appreciated.

14) If you could choose it, what would your legacy in the industry be? What is it that you want to be remembered for?

I’m extremely proud of deviantART, even if it never makes me rich, because of all the people it’s allowed me to help. And for all the help those people have provided me. I want to be remembered for helping others on a large scale. Hopefully, deviantART will only be chapter 1 of the book. 🙂

15) Name 5 UI designers from your list that you follow and respect for their work.

Jackie Tran Anh

Jonathan Moreira

Ricardo Salazar

Tanveer Junayed

Jeff Broderick

16) Which 5 design blogs and design resources sites each you visit at least once during a day?

DeviantART

Dribbble

Smashing Magazine

Image Spark

A List Apart

 

17) List out any 5 random blogs from which you gain web inspiration.

TechCrunch

Adafruit

Instructables

Engadget

Lifehacker

 

18) Lastly, whom do you want us to interview next and why do you think he deserves to be amongst “Aha People”?

You should interview Aaron Jasinski. One of my good friends and an incredible artist. He deserves more attention. 🙂 You can check his work at deviantart.