In this interview, we talk with John Ellison, a lead product designer formerly of Clearleft— a top UX agency in the UK— and social entrepreneur at heart about his experience building an organization and web application from the ground up.
John came to Firehose to learn Ruby on Rails and dive into back-end development, and a few months after graduating, he was devoting his nights and weekends to Prosper, a community devoted to making sense of the refugee crisis.
“I witnessed people in Europe suffering unlike anything I’d ever seen. I saw it on the ground, in the media– just so much pain and suffering– and I couldn’t keep living my life like it wasn’t happening.”
Could you briefly introduce yourself?
I’m John, and I’m a digital designer and social entrepreneur passionate about using human-centered design to serve some of the world’s deepest needs.
Let’s hear about the milestones that led you to where you are today.
Well, to start from the very beginning, I discovered computers at the age of 12. That in itself opened up a world of possibility for me. A year later, I built a computer from scratch and tried learning a programming language called Visual Basic on my own to build video games. I definitely had a good level of interest early on.
In high school, I was running a business of sorts, making custom clothes by hand at home. One day, a guy at the mall offered me $250 for the shoes on my feet, and it was then that I realized the opportunity to do what I was doing at scale using the internet. I went on to launch an e-commerce site to grow the business, and though that saw some success, it eventually collapsed from the lack of a financially sustainable business model. But I learned amazing lessons along the way.
Since then, digital design has been the core element of everything I’ve done. More recently, my interest in crafting user experiences emerged out of the social projects I was working on in Egypt and India. For these projects, web was the central mechanism for raising money and awareness.
I came back to the US to dive into the craft of UX, and while I had always been interested in development, back-end was always the “mysterious” side in my mind. Without the understanding of how web development teams work and without a real grasp on things like version control and continuous deployment, I always wound up using front-end tool kits and only being able to do simple things.
I also lacked an understanding of data and databases, all of which kept me from a full-stack approach to the projects I was working on. In the end, I just wasn’t really entering into the full spectrum of what makes a digital product. This led me to consider learning more about the back-end and trying things out through a coding bootcamp, which is how I got on the path to Firehose.
Coming out of the program, I had a level of confidence where I was finally saying to myself, “Okay, I can do this. I can make CRUD apps, solve complex problems, and collaborate with other developers.”
The only reason Prosper was possible was because I finally had that understanding of how things worked.
So, Prosper was your first MVP as a developer. Can you touch on the development process and what it taught you as a developer and social entrepreneur?
Prosper as an organization started as a big team of volunteers and engineers who wanted to somehow help in the refugee crisis. Having engineers on the team gave us the invaluable capacity to create software, but all we were working from at the beginning was a big list of what we understood to be potential problems. We had little confidence in our knowledge or understanding of the issues at the root of the crisis, which made our next step diving into research.
From that came a database of projects which we then looked to for direction on what problems we could solve, and how we could solve them.
And that’s actually how Prosper was born. We quickly realized that this database of projects was a viable solution to a complex issue that affected every layer of the refugee crisis: decentralization and lack of communication. Rather than searching for and focusing on any one problem, it became exceedingly clear that there was a ton of value in just making sense of “who is doing what—where.”
Our aspiration then became to do for the refugee crisis what Google did for information on the web. Prosper as a “product” then took the form of a web application for refugees, volunteers, and donors to use to find projects that meet their needs.
Although that was our breakthrough moment as an organization, that’s also when the hard work began. The concept of the Prosper app sounds simple in theory, but maintaining the app at a product level and getting all parties on board to use it are common challenges that we were definitely not immune to. Considering our focus was a geopolitical crisis– the complexity exploded.
I got back in touch with my Firehose mentor Bob Breznak, who was instrumental in everything we did, from advising our tech stack and overall approach to actually developing the Prosper app. Without that relationship, we wouldn’t have made the same choices and wouldn’t have learned the value of building a minimum viable product (MVP) before building the whole product.
Truly, the value of code goes far beyond the code that you write; it’s also the people that you meet along the way. I wish I would have done a coding bootcamp much earlier in my career. I lost a lot of time trying to figure things out on my own.
What’s on the horizon for Prosper?
Prior to our joining forces with Migration Hub, we had conversations with other partners who offered to buy our app and take us over. Those early partnerships didn’t work out, but the opportunities made us aware of the distinctions between the different types of relationships and funding approaches out there. There are cash pipelines, and then there’s humanitarian cash, which is not insignificant, but can often be tied up in specific grants and outcomes.
Ultimately, we found a much more compatible fit with NeedsList and Migration Hub. The possibility to execute and make it a reality was just much clearer there.
I’m looking forward to seeing what Prosper becomes with our new partners and their capabilities.
What does a typical day for you look like?
My day to day is pretty structured and I follow a strict daily routine that looks a bit like this:
- Wake up at 6:45am, mindfulness meditation for 15-30 minutes
- Yoga and pilates for another 45 minutes
- Go on a run
- Read and write
- Eat breakfast
- Work my morning 3-hour session
- 1-1.5-hour lunch break
- Work my afternoon 3-hour session
- Finish day at 5:30-6pm
- Switch off all devices, relax with my wife, play guitar, and go to sleep
Switching off devices is key for me. Having a connection with a remote team of hundreds of people all over the world means there are notifications and digital distractions at all times of the day.
Something I’m really focusing on doing lately is stepping back from working more in order to think about the big picture, make better decisions, and be more effective in my life.
I also do a lot of my work from home, which has taught me the value of coworking and its most critical aspects. Given Firehose is a remote program, I encourage students reading this to try to get a few days a week (at least) in a coworking space if you can and make physical connections to balance your remote work.
What are you reading/watching/listening to lately?
I’m a big reader. That’s usually where my learning starts. After reading something I’ll try it out on a real project.
Recently, I read SPRINT by Jake Knapp and found it to be one of the most useful books I’ve ever read. I wish I would have read that before starting Prosper, as I would have done things completely differently. I would have started with a small, in-person team to build an MVP in 5 days rather than trying to wrangle a distributed team of volunteers over weeks and months.
I’m also rereading the second edition of Lean UX by Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden. It’s a great up-to-date perspective on building digital products in Agile teams. Since I didn’t study design or development at university, I’m always trying to build up my foundation of understanding that informs my practice, so The UX Book has been a great tool for that purpose of late.
Where can people find you?
The best place to find me is on my personal site, which details my background, some of my projects, what I’m currently working on, and also hosts my writings. Check out a side project called Ellison Homestead if you’re interested in learning more about my work/life.
I’m always open to speaking with people, so if you have any questions or thoughts you want to share, feel free to reach out. I’m also on Twitter @iamjohnellison.