Farewell to a friend: Mike Atyeo

Mike Atyeo

On June 24, 2021, the global UX community lost a giant, a champion, and a friend.

Mike has been a colleague, a collaborator, and sometimes even a competitor. Throughout the decades, he was always open and generous with his wisdom, knowledge and advice. We are indebted to him.

For almost twenty years, Mike was the driving force behind Neo Insight and, before that, a member of Nortel Networks during its heyday of product design and innovation. 

When the concept for DFFRNT was evolving, Mike was one of the first people we approached with the idea — proposing to elevate the practice of UX beyond the tactical into the strategic. He immediately saw the value in leveraging the research and design methods familiar to UX practitioners to effect organizational change, solve systemic problems and drive strategic transformation and innovation. 

Mike’s early insight and collaboration helped us shape this company, and his indelible imprint will always be a part of DFFRNT.  

Shortly before our official launch, Mike informed us that his cancer had returned, and he would be stepping back from the business to focus on his health and his family. Mike was never able to rejoin DFFRNT, but we will carry on in our mission and seek to honour him in the work that we do.   

Radical ideas

Mike Atyeo had a category of thinking he called “radical ideas.” To Mike, it was a discipline, a way of imagining the future and applying it in the present. He would bring it to mind now and then, so we could add some concept or detail to solve a design challenge. The outcomes included systems we conceptualized for clients and characterizations of trends, approaches and tools.

Mike was masterful at stimulating ideas. He helped clients get their eyes off the current situation and focus on opportunities that might emerge from it. This seeped into Mike’s presentations, training, proposals and general outlook on a project. Mike stretched us into thinking about possibilities.  

Champion and teacher

Mike was a real champion and evangelist for UX. As president of CapCHI (the NCR’s oldest and most well-known UX professional network) in the mid-1990s, he brought Jared Spool to teach us paper prototyping. He brought Ben Shneiderman to Nortel, and the meeting was moved to a lobby because of the large number of attendees.   

Mike was always teaching. He taught usability testing at CapCHI from time to time to let people build skills in observing and experiencing a simple testing protocol. He taught day-courses for Neo Insight and an eight-day certificate course with others from the company.

Mike was a central part of Web Usability Week, an unprecedented effort by the Canadian federal government to spread UX knowledge to thousands of public servants from across the country in what can only be described as a week-long training extravaganza.   

Mike’s early insight and collaboration helped us shape this company, and his indelible imprint will always be a part of DFFRNT.   

- Dom Saul

UX community building

As a researcher, Mike’s publications helped focus Nortel’s Corporate Design Group, Neo Insight and others. For example: 

  • Delivering Competitive Edge
    Usability can give a competitive edge to products, services and companies. Close collaboration between Human Factors and Marketing practitioners is needed to build and sustain a market advantage. In this case study, we present some of the benefits and issues that arose in the design of a new telecommunications service. 
    Mike Atyeo and Simon Robinson 

Mike was often keen to expand on others’ ideas as he helped expand their mindset. Sometimes he would come back later with a sketch or even a detailed design. But he was so present in the moment and keen to collaborate that he deftly combined ideas in meetings and often brought the conversation to a new level. 

Mike once presented a design concept to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada that eliminated 22 page-loads by pulling information INTO the user workflow rather than sending people to many databases to hunt for it themselves.

Mike’s workflow model for people seeking a job, a career shift or training provided the use cases for various websites to be more user-centred. When presented, the concept elicited audible surprise and immediate comprehension. Don Drummond, then a Chief Economist for the Government of Canada, said that the most important task for Canada overall is getting people into a better job faster. Mike devised a design concept that perfectly embodied that strategic goal, thereby earning his praise.  

Mike and his radical ideas always gave us something great to aspire to. We will miss him. We will miss his wit, his insight, his wisdom and his knowledge. He was much more than a colleague and a practitioner. Mike was a champion, an advocate and most of all, a friend. 

With gratitude.  

Scott, Shaun & Dom 

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