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Tammie Lister Interview

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Meet Tammie Lister (@karmatosed), a designer who specializes in building communities. She loves creating designs that work for humans and making interfaces that engage. Her favourite community-building tools are BuddyPress and WordPress which follow her passion for open source. Tammie is lucky enough to create these communities with some great and diverse clients through her company Logical Binary.

How did you first get into WordPress, and (presumably later) BuddyPress, and what was it that pulled you in?

Like many, I went the hand rolled route to start blogging. It was somewhat of a “rite of passage” to develop your own. I was lucky enough to be a member of the blogging network 9rules back then. This was an amazing collection of people focusing on creating great content. A few others in this community were using WordPress when it was still a fledgling platform. I took a bit of time to be convinced I could do what I wanted to do theme-wise — but once I worked that out, the simplicity sold me.

BuddyPress was a slightly different story. I was creating WordPress themes and had a chance to create some BuddyPress themes. I had time to dive into what then was quite a learning curve to create themes. Over time as I learned that communities was where my heart was, my work reflected this passion and I moved to creating using BuddyPress full time.

When did you set up Logical Binary, and what have you learned since then?

Logical Binary was set up initially nearly 12 years ago as a way to showcase the work I was doing. It for a while was name only, my “web presence” only fully forming in 2005. I’d been doing freelance by word of mouth for a few years mixed in with agency work and needed a home online. Logical Binary, the site, grew from a need to take things a bit more seriously and focus on a business.

What I’ve learned over the years is to focus on what you love, and that niché is good. I’m not someone that can do everything — if you are then great but I design better when focused. Playing to my strengths is focusing on community design.

Talk to us about your strongly held belief in “design for humans.” Where can design go wrong when it loses sight of this idea?

I think my passion for designing for humans comes from my love of psychology, which I studied up to A-level and has impacted my entire life. Some of my first experiments on my own site were with theme switches by mood. It was a perhaps naive way of exploring back in 2006, but it was my first step outside of the single experience and thinking about who was using the site.

Design goes wrong when it assumes the operator at the end is the same. As a designer it’s easy to assume everyone will think like us — we’re not “every man.” I’m very into asking stupid questions of interfaces — this is when you see the gaps. Using the word “Submit” is a prime example — how unfriendly is that? Or a page that you land on with everything at the same level, everything shouting at you for attention. Where do you look? Our brains can’t handle it. We need paths, we need emotional feedback from what we interact with, we need guidance and we need common manners on sites.

You’re a heavy contributor to open source projects. How has that fed into your work life, opportunities, and learning?

I got my first taste of the ‘net from the Linux community many years ago. This was long before WordPress so when that showed on my radar I was already sold on open source. Whilst I’m not religious, I have one belief in life and that’s karma. I truly believe if I didn’t give back I’d not get anywhere near as much as I do in work life, opportunities, and learning. You truly do get out what you put in. The ease with which people share information is mind blowing and we should never forget how special that is.

I had the pleasure of attending BuddyCamp in Miami recently and it blew my mind. At one point I was told that there were several hundred people watching the live stream. This really filled me with energy to do more, create more, and get more people involved in BuddyPress. I truly believe that I’d not be where I was without the community, and I’m thankful every day for being part of this and those I’ve met. We’re united by a love for WordPress and BuddyPress, by an obsession with open source — this is a powerful thing.

What are you most proud of having contributed to BuddyPress, and what are you most excited about in terms of its future?

I’m most proud to have been able to contribute as a designer to BuddyPress. This may sound odd but it’s a misconception generally you have to be a developer to contribute. This is far from true of course. WordPress has blown this myth away but in some ways it hung around BuddyPress for a bit longer.

An exact contribution is tricky. I’m proud of organizing the default theme CSS file. I learned from looking at people’s code and hopefully this has helped other people. I’m also proud to have been part of the Status theme and Turtleshell project. I think above all I’m just stoked to be part of the BuddyPress project in a small way at this time.

I’ve described BuddyPress before, in terms of age, as starting school. It’s a young project but growing. I’m excited about getting more people involved beyond just developers. For BuddyPress to grow I really believe that not just developers should be part of its future and present. It’s really cool to see what can be built that isn’t using everything — maybe it’s just activity, maybe just groups, using BuddyPress as a platform, as an API and as a starting point to building a whole host of things with a dash of community — now that’s exciting.

As a specialist in BuddyPress, how would you explain the key benefits of making use of it over other alternatives a client or fellow designer might be considering?

BuddyPress, I’ve said before, is social lego. You can use as much or as little as you want. You pick the tools and create the community. That’s the big benefit at the start. You can, since the release of 1.7, do all this with a flick of a switch on your existing WordPress site. Default in communities only gets you so far. If you want to build, grow, and allow your community to take off, you need to go beyond default. BuddyPress lets you do this. It lets designers be free to create, it lets developers be free to build.

BuddyPress also has a very powerful community behind it full of passion, and an open sharing of information at its core. If you build on BuddyPress you get an entire community behind you from the start. I’m not ignorant to other solutions but no other option really allows for such ease, unique communities, and support of resources.

One of your many projects is buddydesignlabs.com. What were your goals in starting work on “lab” style projects, and how are they different from your contributions to BuddyPress itself, or the work you do for clients.

Buddy design labs is aimed at being an open-ended project for me. In it, I want to explore what could be for BuddyPress. I probably will develop some ideas into plugin form but I truly have no set goal. The reason I wanted to just indulge in pure speculation and exploration was that it frees me to think outside client projects. I’m not constrained by anyone’s requirements and that’s quite a powerful experiment.

The format I’m choosing is of a blog post. It shows my sketches and mockups and reminds me a lot of the sketchbooks we kept as art students that documented the work we did. In many regards that’s what this project is becoming for me. I used to love my sketchbooks and am growing as fond of Buddy design labs for the same reasons. It’s about musing, putting things out there, and seeing what happens.

You’ve worked with some really diverse clients. What would you say unifies them, and more broadly, what attracts you most in a potential client project?

Most get to me by word of mouth. I have to take a moment here to thank those who pass work on to me the BuddyPress core team specifically are amazing at spreading work among the community. Community is really the unifying element.

What gets me to take a project is understanding. Communities don’t just grow on trees, you have to understand their complexity and that there are no easy wins. Yes, it’s rewarding and powerful to have a community but it’s something that needs work. Not all communities are successful and sometimes I have to be honest about that to the prospective client and not take a project.

Out of all the work you’ve done, which project are you proudest of, and what challenges did it present to you?

I am most proud of being part of shift.ms. The current design isn’t my work but we’re going through a redesign and this is what I’m most proud of. As a client they’ve been very open to taking a step back and re-analyzing every part. It wasn’t an easy process but everyone involved had the community goals at the heart of every decision.

We’ve gone through focus groups, inspiration collection, wireframes, and are currently in the prototyping phase. I’ve had a lot of my own assumptions challenged during this process, too. The one that comes to mind is tag clouds. They’ve in many ways gone out of fashion; their users, though, love them. This backed up the fact that sometimes we should just ignore what is “trendy” and focus on the user. We’re brewing up some interesting takes on many traditional community functionality we’d have only thought of by going through this process.

Finally, you’re one of the organizers of WordCamp Europe. What’s the big idea there, and what are you most excited about?

WordCamp Europe is a celebration of the European WordPress community. It’s a two-day event in an amazing venue which several of the organizing team (myself included) visited for another conference in December. There’s a really strong community in Europe and we hope that this event highlights that.

I think I’m most excited about the focus being on Europe and showcasing all the amazing things we as a community do. I really think the time is right for an umbrella WordCamp like this.

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I'm an independent writer, designer & content producer. Currently pummelling a book into submission.

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