Introducing Monique Dubbelman
Monique is an independent UX designer from the Netherlands. She builds websites for small business owners and teaches at the Amsterdam University of Applied Science. When she’s not behind her computer, she likes to whisper to earthworms in her garden.
Tara: This is Hallway Chats, where we meet people who use WordPress.
Liam: We ask questions and our guests share their stories, ideas, and perspectives.
Tara: And now the conversation begins. This is Episode 113.
Liam: Welcome to Hallway Chats. I’m Liam Dempsey.
Tara: And I’m Tara Claeys. Today we’re joined by Monique Dubbelman. Monique is an independent UX designer from the Netherlands. She builds websites for small business owners and teaches at the Amsterdam University of Applied Science. When she’s not behind her computer, she likes to whisper to earthworms in her garden. How lovely! Welcome, Monique. Thanks for joining us.
Monique: Thanks for having me.
Liam: Monique, it’s our pleasure. Thanks for joining us today. Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself?
Monique: Well, I live in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. I’ve been working independently since 2011, I think. I have a background in graphical design, the graphical industries. I abandoned that when I was in my early 30s. I think I had my first midlife crisis then or maybe the second already, I don’t know. I moved to a rural area, started my own web shop in organic gardening. That crisis really hit me when I was doing that so I had to go back to my old profession. I’ve always been doing web design on the side so I decided to pick that up professionally. That’s how I got where I am today.
Tara: How did you find WordPress?
Monique: Well, the web shop I had was building open source software. And it’s not that back in the days that I really understood open source, I was just looking for free software, to be honest. I originally build it with OsCommerce and after that with Magento, but I also felt the need to sort of do stories on my own garden and tell people my experiences. Not just only be salesy but also have stories to tell. I had that on wordpress.com, which was pretty fashionable back then.
Because I’ve been doing static web design, just HTML and CSS, but when I started doing it professionally, I sort of asked on Twitter like, “What are you all using?” I knew Drupal…In the meantime, I knew what open source was and I enjoyed open source, working with open source. So I asked around, like, what do people prefer Drupal, Joomla, and most of them said WordPress. Since I knew the backend already from the.com blog, that was sort of a no-brainer for me.
Tara: In Amsterdam, what’s the WordPress community like there? Have you connected with them, and how did you discover them?
Monique: I’ve only been living in Amsterdam full-time for a year now. I had a long-distance relationship before that. I lived in Leiden, which is a slightly smaller town in the Netherlands that hosted the first European WordCamp before I ever heard of the WordPress community at all.
In Leiden, I organize a meetup with Rian Rietveld. But in Amsterdam, there isn’t really active community, I learned. The question is why? And everybody keeps asking themselves that question. Until this summer in WordCamp up in Berlin, I met people from all over the world I knew and I met people from Amsterdam I didn’t know. It was like, “Oh, you live around the corner and I don’t know you.” Again, we asked that question: Why is nothing happening in Amsterdam?
So I actually picked up the glove and started organizing meetups again very low profile. It’s like a drink now – just networking drink. My philosophy is we can all hold the glass and talk. So I’m sort of slowly building up. No expectations.
Tara: I like that philosophy, “We can all hold the glass.” That’s great. How many people do you have attending this? Is it growing or did it start out pretty strong?
Monique: Yeah. The last sort of more formal meetup with speakers and all that was in 2016. So nothing has happened since then. This summer, I launched WPDrinks. We had I think nearly 40 people attending. We were lucky to have a good number of core team in town so they all joined us, which was good. Actually, the next one was going to be in September, but then I attended PressNomics in Tucson, so I wasn’t around. So I rescheduled it for October. I want to do another drink around Christmas, and then from January on. I’ve got some sponsors offering money so I can find a location and maybe get some refunding for travel for speaker. So next year, I’ll start doing more knowledge sharing meetups probably.
Liam: I love the organic kind of minimum viable product – we’ll just meet and talk and everybody can hold a drink. So whether they want to coffee or tea or a beer, there’s an opportunity to get together. I love that.
Monique: Yeah. It’s like a Hallway Chats in a way. It’s the hallway track that I’m only organizing and not the official program. For me, to philosophy is, I think, but it’s an assumption that one of the things why the Amsterdam community sort of bled to death is because since it’s our capital, people sort of want to show off like, “Oh, since we’re the largest capital, we have to have really good and professional speakers or really have a big setup.” I don’t know if that’s the reason.
And then the aim is so high that it makes it really hard to sort of…because we’ve got a lot of jobs, we’ve got other stuff to do, it makes it really hard for people to actually start doing it because they have to have locations, they have to have speakers, they have to promote and they’re like, “Oh, I’m too busy to do all this.” So for me now it’s sort of getting more activity in the community. It’s not my party. I don’t want to do this by myself. But if it runs, then people will automatically become more enthusiasts to join, I think.
Tara: Do you find the people that are attending, are they at all different levels in WordPress? Are they beginner developers? What do you find there?
Monique: With the Drinks, it was really like all levels from like core commuters to WordPress, to people who just had their websites designed, and they were a business owner of hairdressing or manicure or something like that. I enjoyed that. I like the informal setting that gives it this broad opportunity.
With the other meetups, I noticed that it depends on the speakers we have. So if we have more like a SEO, or marketing or content type of talks, it will be more business owners or people who have no technical experience with WordPress. If we have more talks on performance or stuff like that, we tend to get more developer. The speakers are important to see what type of people you get.
Tara: That makes sense. That makes sense. Let’s talk about your agency in your business and your passions within that. I know a little bit about you. I know that you’ve worked with Accessibility team and that you are involved a lot in UX. Can you talk a little bit about that, and what UX is, and how you got started with that as a designer?
Monique: Yeah. I’m involved in the design team for WordPress as a volunteer. I do a lot with Accessibility, and that’s because I work a lot with Rian Rietveld. She’s my friend, and for her accessibility is like, “Everyone should practice it.” And I agree with her. I wasn’t aware of all the stuff happening there, and for a few years now I am, so I can’t do my work without it. So whenever I design websites, it’s in my base process.
The same goes for UX for user experience. In a way, it’s what I’ve always been doing, I just didn’t know it had a name. My website says that I design websites with great usability because I think if you can’t use it, why bother anyway? So for me, that’s one of my core values. Actually the past few years, I sort of found out there’s a technique behind it. But basically, for me, it’s common sense always think about your end-user, because they’re the ones you’re building your website for. If not, you can just leave it on your local computer and not put it on the internet.
Tara: Yeah, I get that. I mean, I think every website should be built with that in mind. But when we’re talking about Accessibility, it’s a whole ‘nother level. Would you say that, I guess formal UX usability is sort of between that making the website usable and accessibility is like a medium level there because it’s more than just say…like you said, you didn’t know there was a name for it and now you know the process to it – so to step up from that?
Monique: Well, I’m actually going to write a blog post on what is UX actually.
Monique: What I see it as an, there’s probably tons of people disagree, but UX for me is sort of the umbrella for a lot of different specialties within user experience. So Accessibility is part of a user experience. You know, if a website’s not accessible, it’s for user experience. If buttons are unfindable, or if people have to look for support on a website, it can be very accessible, but it’s still unusable and you have a bad user experience.
My specialty lies in information architecture. I did part-time studies in information management as well, and that’s all about structuring your content, have good menus, have labels that make sense. That’s part of UX as well. So there’s all these little columns under a big umbrella called UX design, and you have generally some people who are more specialized in parts of it.
Tara: What’s the process like working with clients and getting them on board with that? Because I think a lot of times clients have in mind and they’re sort of their bubble. And we all are like this, when we’re working on our own things, right? We have a tunnel vision, and we know what we want, and we think that everybody else will understand it. Do you have a process that you use with your clients to make your process more effective in building good UX?
Monique: Yeah, well, I think one of the things is awareness. Just make them aware of the fact that it is a thing. It depends a little bit. I work with small businesses, and I understand they don’t have big budgets for doing full user research, discovery sessions and stuff like that. So I try to make it usable for them as well. If I sort of bombard them with like, “Oh, you have to comply to this and to this in your code,” and they’re like, “Okay, not for me.” So let’s try to make it very tangible. And say like, “If you put a link in your text – because usually, they’re the ones writing their own content- don’t say click here, but make it descriptive.”
Google is usually a really good way to sell things because every client wants to be found on Google. And I say, “If you make your links more descriptive, Google will understand them better as well, or have an alt tag with your images.” Just try to make it more selfish for them is a pretty good approach usually.
Liam: I was just going to ask a clarifying question building on Tara’s. You had talked about working with smaller clients and trying to make it manageable for them. One of the things that I share with my clients is if we look at Coca Cola as we handle brand management, we can go into the shop and whether or not it’s Diet Coke with lime or some other new flavor, we always know who made it. We might not like it, but at least we know the brand. I wonder what approaches and you’ve already shared the try to make it about them in a business case, but I wonder what other techniques or ideas you have to have to take the big UX strategies and ideas and system and scale them down for a non-Coca Cola budget, a smaller business budget. What else can you share, please?
Monique: That’s a good question. A great thing for them is that persona. Just think of their ideal clients that that’s usually something they can manage. Also have a client in place that they already know, instead of thinking something out of the blue. A recent technique I’ve been using is not just writing a user profile and user story, but actually, have them think about jobs people tend to do on their website. Like, what do you want them to achieve? What do you want them to do on your websites? And how is your website currently facilitating that or not?
So not saying like, “Oh, my client is a 30-year-old person, and he’s got a dog and he lives in the city, and he, he likes to drink Cola, whatever.” But also if he comes to your website, what problem are you trying to solve for them and what is their journey to get to that problem solved? And conversion rates, like, sometimes they see people come to their websites, but they don’t get actual leads out of it. So they don’t really see the use of it.
So to make that more tangible, what they actually want them to achieve, and that’s sometimes really a lot of strategic talks we have to do to start sort of pull that out of them. Because they have never expressed it. They have never actually said, “This is what I want them to achieve.” So it sometimes takes a lot of thinking and digging with clients to do that. That’s usually one of my approaches as well to start it and ‘what should they do? What do you want from them?”
Tara: So that actually becomes a measurable goal?
Monique: Yeah, which makes it easier for me to sort of meet to their goals and know why they’re happy with what I did for them.
Tara: It’s not just subjective, though. There’s actually some facts behind it. Monique, I’m going to ask you a question that we ask everyone in Hallway Chats, which is, how do you define success? What does success mean to you, either in your personal life, your professional life, both, separate, together?
Monique: I found that a really hard question. It’s something I think about myself as well. When is someone successful? We tend to look at people who’ve made a lot of money or are famous. That doesn’t define success for me personally, to be honest. I’ve sort of had my career in the printing industries. I was a manager at a company, I had the good money, a new house, and everything. So maybe back then that was success, but it didn’t make me happy.
And I think that’s one of the core things for me, that if I enjoy what I’m doing and I can do the things in my private life, it facilitates that as well, I have enough time to do that, it’s a good balance, good work-life balance, both financially and time-wise, I think that’s where I’m successful. Also learning new stuff, you know, evolving in what I’m doing. That’s one of the very important things to me as well.
Success on the other end is when clients are happy with what I’ve done for them regardless of how big a project is. I don’t think I’m successful if people are disappointed with the work I’ve been doing. I did my job wrong. So managing expectations, and have happy clients. Maybe that’s a good summary.
Liam: That’s a very good summary. We hear a lot, Monique from people like yourself who share that they make learning a part of their definition of success. If we set aside learning about work-related attention to the stuff, what is the emphasis on working outside, looking outside of work? You’ve talked about gardening, and I wonder if you have other areas of interest or exploration where you make a point to dedicate time to learn more, get better, explore?
Monique: Yeah, too many to be honest. It’s also about dedication in a way because I’d love to learn and play an instrument, but I’ve tried so many times, and I don’t have any talent. It takes me so much effort and no joy at all, so I skipped that altogether. And now I go to bands and listen to people who can play instruments, which gives me so much more joy.
Tara: I’m there with you.
Monique: I learned something there. I learned to appreciate I can’t do anything. So it take some time to go there. I really like cooking. I like to explore new things in cooking new foods. But learning, for me, is a bit broader. It’s being aware of not assuming too many things. That something I’ve learned lately from my work, but I also try not try to do that in private life. Like, have an opinion on something or someone. I mean, we all know the social media. Everything is so opinionated. Without actually knowing what’s going on, we have our say. I try to learn there as well on all aspects of life. Also in my personal life, not to judge people too quick. I’ve learned from my work that there’s always a different story. Try to be the better person there who’s sort of steps back in time, which is hard every now and then.
Tara: It’s very hard, but it’s very valuable when you can do it. Thanks for sharing that. I think that’s a great point to make about learning.
Monique: I think it will also take the rest of my life to master that I think because we’re all humans as well, and sometimes we’re not that sane as we want to be.
Liam: Monique, as we’ve been chatting here for 15 minutes or so, it suddenly occurs to me that you and I have met each other briefly in real life in person.
Monique: Have we?
Liam: When you mentioned Rian, she gave a presentation at WordCamp US when it was in Nashville the first year, and I happen to be the emcee for the room. So I was chatting with her, and you came up at the last moment to offer all sorts of support and camaraderie to your friend.
Monique: That’s true, because I was speaking there as well, and I remember I was sitting in front at her talk. Yeah, that’s true. So we did me. It’s good.
Liam: It’s a small world.
Monique: The WordPress world is very small. We’ve been meeting people on and offline. Also, I knew Tara from offline but we also met in person when we’re all together into Tucson, which is good because she just sort of…it’s easy to pick up with people that have mutual interests. That’s one of the things I really like about WordPress. You sort of connects in a very organic way.
Tara: Yeah, I think we are a natural family. We are pretty immediately comfortable with each other. It’s amazing what online relationships can do when they’re in real life.
Liam: I like that. It provides an opportunity to explore other cultures as well. There are people using WordPress all over, and if we can get together and talk a little bit about UX, or widgets, or WordPress, this or “Oh, I hate it when this happens,” it just kind of reduces the barriers between us and allows us to develop relationship with people that’s experience is very a different… That’s pretty powerful stuff.
Monique: That’s one of the things I learned as well with design because I never realized being Dutch would be an advantage because it’s such a language spoken by, I don’t know, very few people. But I’ve learned within design, especially with polylingual things like WordPress, most of the designs in WordPress are made from English. And if you would have a button with a word saying “add,” in Dutch that would take up so much more space, so your whole design will go bonkers. I know a bit of German and I know the Germans have even more characters to say the same things.
So knowing other languages or culture, it helps you become a better designer because you can understand what they need. So that’s one of the things I’m learning as well, to have a broader view on these things. And see that being Dutch is an advantage that way.
Liam: Yeah, that’s really interesting insight. I want to change gears on this a little bit here and I want to ask you about advice and ask you to talk about…we’d like to ask our guests about the best advice that they’ve received or read in a book or come across in some way, and then successfully implemented in their life. What’s the best advice that you follow or delve into?
Monique: I have to think about that. There’s one thing that pops my mind straight away. So that’s probably the best thing I ever learned. When I started my own business, I already thought like, “What can I add because there are so many people doing this already?” And then one of my friends said, “You’re adding you, and you’re unique.” And then I started. That was a big insight, like, I’m the only one who can do it my way.
Tara: Yeah, that’s true.
Liam: I love that.
Tara: And that’s how many of us at least how we start, I think. How do you communicate that and what does that mean? What does that mean? How would you describe yourself to someone? What’s uniquely you? What are your characteristics?
Monique: You’re asking me that? I was just philosophizing on…
Tara: It could be, but I guess I am asking that.
Monique: Okay. I guess I’m very practical, down to earth, I’m straightforward. It’s my Dutch directness. We’re born with that, right? I’m a good communicator I think. I think that’s what people value. I can also translate. Like, I have technical knowledge. I also had that in the printing industry, but I can translate it to nontechnical people, so they still understand what’s going on.
So with the training I do, the teaching I do, that’s a huge advantage. People say to me, like, “When you say it to me, I actually understand it without knowing what it is about.” So I think that’s one of the things I can add value to. Also, the fact that I have a broad understanding of all types of things that people need. Even without being able to do it myself, I know where to find solutions and help people out. So I think I can add a lot of value there.
Liam: Excellent. I want to ask you about teaching. Tell us about the teaching that you do, which you brought it up.
Monique: I do it as a freelancer. So lucky me I’m not in front of a class of 18-year-olds full time because I would go crazy, I think. But yeah, on the University of Applied Science. So it’s sort of Bachelor level. It’s one level below mass university.
There’s this study, currently called Digital Business, they keep changing it every two years, and it’s a sort of mixture between information media and communication studies. What I’ve been teaching is content management, and…what was the other part? Digital media, they call it. What we actually did is people had to make their own website in WordPress that they didn’t really learn, but got, you know, an outdated guide on like, here’s how you do it and it didn’t have Gutenberg included yet. It was not about WordPress, but they had to learn how to structure their information, think about templates for certain posts types like if you want to do a recipe, or if you want to do a job opening and structure that and sort of define the parts in a post that you need metadata. Stuff like that.
The other part was where they had to do a bit of marketing as well and sort out process on how to measure certain parts in a sales process on a website. Another part was prototyping. So very broad. Like how to prototype websites and what you should, where, and how do you design it. And I could do some accessibility, usability, readability there as well.
Liam: How many days a week are you in the classroom with them?
Monique: It’s in blocks. So I was doing it in spring, not at the moment. Probably I will do it for two months in spring again, and that will be like, I don’t know, around six to eight hours a week. And then it will be reading their tests and stuff like that.
Tara: Yeah, that’s a completely different mental process and workflow process from building websites.
Monique: Yeah. Also the freedom I have now to sort of go over my day myself, but then I have to be there at 2:30 because there’s 20 people waiting for me in a classroom and come things like, “The sun is shining. Let’s skip work this afternoon.” That’s one of the things I don’t want to have others decide on my agenda all week all day. I like it every now and then. And it’s good because you get a lot of feedback from the young kids how they look at things and learn from them as well.
Tara: It keeps you needing to be on top of what’s happening as well. So I think speaking at WordCamps is another thing to do to accomplish that as well. Do you have any WordCamp speaking engagements coming up?
Monique: Not a WordCamp. I’ll be speaking at Paris Web, just try to break out of the WordPress bubble every now and then. I just did WordCamp New York. I spoke there on the 100DaysOfCode I’m doing as a non-coder, where I think it’s important. Even if you’re designing, we should learn how to code, which was great fun. Next month, I’ll probably go over what’s going on next year and see where I can apply a speaker. Because I pay for all the expenses myself, so I have to be picky on where to go, how much it costs.
Tara: Right, right. Well, I hope we get to see you at a WordCamp here or there at some point coming up. It was lovely spending time with you in Tucson and it’s nice to have you on the show. Unfortunately, we’re out of time.
Monique: Oh, dear. It went quick.
Tara: It was great. Can you share with us where you can be found online?
Monique: Yeah. Most of the things I go by with is my company name which is not very international, called BOE!media, and you can find me on Slack, Instagram, Twitter, wordpress.org. Anywhere.
Tara: Great. Well, thank you so much for sharing your time with us and sharing your story. It’s been really delightful chatting with you, Monique.
Monique: Thanks for having me. I enjoyed talking to you.
Liam: Thanks, Monique. Good to spend time with you and reconnect with you. Thank you.
Monique: Thank you.
Liam: Thanks for listening to the show. We sure hope you enjoyed it as much as we did.
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