I’ve been thinking lately about my extremely smooth transition from HCI student to Interaction Designer at R/GA. Where were the feelings of despair? Where were the thoughts that I was in over my head, that I picked the wrong field? Nowhere, that’s where. Through a winning combination of education, networking, and careful selection of my work environment, I became one of the lucky people who love to go to work every day.
I was incredibly honored to be asked to speak about my education experience on a panel at the IDEA 2010 conference in a few weeks, so this is my attempt to distill a few of my thoughts in advance. I’ll talk a little about how I ended up studying HCI and what I took away from my experience, and I’ll try to isolate the precise reasons I am so incredibly satisfied with my current job.
Why I studied HCI
After college I spent a colorful 8 years in Montana and Vermont living a ski bum lifestyle, working at a cocaine treatment center, working with the mentally ill, advising students on their loans, and producing web content for a food magazine. I finally became interested in a User Experience career after studying web design, working on some large scale information architecture projects, and seeing Google’s ‘Interaction Designer’ job description. The description seemed to perfectly describe my interests, and it required a background in HCI. I decided on the Human-Computer Interaction program at the University of Michigan’s School of Information because of its interdisciplinary nature and high regard; Umich was also my undergrad alma mater, so I knew it’d be a relatively smooth transition back to Ann Arbor.
How grad school prepared me for my job:
Going back to school after an 8 year hiatus was the best thing I have ever done, and it helped me get a job I love every day. Here’s why.
- Presentation skills
This week one of my coworkers said I seemed like the type of person who never was nervous speaking in front of other people. Actually, until recently I was a chronic blusher who would get physically ill before every speech or talk. In grad school we had to present in nearly every class, usually multiple times per semester, and I jumped at every chance to get up in front of people and practice speaking. Over time I developed a degree of confidence and poise that have helped me successfully present my work to clients.
- Taking part in SOCHI, the HCI student group
As an officer for SOCHI, I helped plan and lead group brainstorming sessions and design exercises; I helped bring in speakers and coordinate local events for professionals; I mentored other students and networked with professionals from companies like Mozilla and Yahoo!. Our group also held career events like resume and portfolio reviews, and mock interview design challenges. Aside from helping me grow as a person and leader, my SOCHI experience helped me connect with local UX professionals and get prepared for the sometimes grueling interaction design interviews that I experienced.
- Sketching practice
Whether alone or in teams, I probably spent at least a solid month of my life sketching in the past year. My interaction design class was heavy on the sketching homework assignments, and group sketching was part of every team design project I worked on. I may not be the best artist in town, but I’m confident that I can quickly communicate through sketching. At work I find myself reaching for a piece of paper and pen during nearly every discussion – it’s simply much faster to illustrate ideas than to talk around them in circles.
- Defending my work
Similar to #1, I had practice presenting my work to a highly critical, analytical audience of teachers and students. My Interaction Design and Information Visualization classes were run as studios, with weekly design challenges and presentations as well as milestone deliverable presentations. Both were taught at the time by Mick McQuaid, an excellent design teacher and wonderful, warm-hearted person who could nonetheless turn a meek person to stone with a hard-hitting question and stern look from behind his thick fishbowl glasses. Fishbowl glasses, is that even a thing? We learned from Mick and other teachers to be prepared to defend every design decision, or risk minor public humiliation.
- Learning to receive feedback & work collaboratively
During my schooling I and my teams were subjected to cross-examinations, critiques, gentle criticisms, general feedback and heartfelt praise. I learned to love getting feedback from other people and to seek it out, because it always resulted in a better design. This led me to gravitate toward a highly collaborative environment like R/GA, where group sketching and brainstorming sessions are commonplace and I rarely work in a vacuum.
- Evaluation methods
I feel fortunate to have had the experience of following many projects through the entire interaction design process, from user research to wireframes and prototypes and usability testing. I find it rewarding to design for users that I’ve spoken with. During school I learned the fundamentals of user research and system evaluation; I had significant experience with rapid contextual inquiry, user interviews, comparative evaluation, heuristic evaluations, personas and scenarios, surveys, and usability testing. The result is that I feel well-equipped to deal with front-end project research and planning, where someone with less experience might be somewhat overwhelmed.
- Graphic design
Though I’ve always been a crafty girl and not too bad with a pencil and paper, prior to grad school I had pretty much zero experience using tools like Illustrator or In Design. They intimidated me. They made me feel small and inconsequential. Last fall I took an awesome Graphic Design class and learned these tools pretty well, which meant that I didn’t flail helplessly at work when I started creating wireframes exclusively in In Design.
- Testing the waters: the internship
My internship at VMware, a virtualization company in San Fran, was surely one of the most valuable experiences I had during my school career. During my 3 months there I designed a mobile application that lets enterprise IT guys monitor and manage their virtual machines. Say wha? It was such a valuable experience to have to go from 0 to 90mph along the highway of virtualization technology knowledge…I had to ramp up quickly, and I got to do my own research, design, and usability testing through the project. It was incredibly helpful to be able to talk about this self-directed project in job interviews, and I began to learn over the course of the summer what kind of work environment was right for me.
- Student conference rates
Arguably one of the most important things I did in school was go to professional conferences and networking events. Indeed, I was a prolific conference attendee; I went to five conferences in two academic years, a pace which I plan to keep up as long as my personal conference funds hold strong. I also hit up Bay CHI meetings and other HCI talks in California and Michigan. Because of all my frenzied networking, I had 3 job offers when I graduated and I’ve personally met a host of hard hitting HCI or IxD rockstars. And really, most importantly, I feel like part of a supportive community of practice.
- THE PEOPLE
I saved the best for last.
I have been impressed, inspired, and fundamentally changed by the people I met at school. World class artists and intellectuals, inquisitive and analytical thinkers, unselfish collaborators. Taeho Ko, for example, who could take a drawing done by a cat, wave his magic in its vicinity, and reveal a data-driven flash-based visualization. Debra Lauterbach, probably one of the calmest, smartest, and most self-actualized people on the planet. Leanna Gingras, the first person I saw make a paper prototype of an iphone application. I could go on. My fellow students are now at places like Facebook, Google, Yahoo!, Adobe, Apple, and IBM, and a fair number are also at smaller start-ups and agencies. I count myself fortunate to have walked in their midst.
How could grad school have prepared us better?
I’ve loosely surveyed a group of my fellow students to learn how grad school prepared them for their jobs, and what they wished they would have learned in school. Most of the good preparation was covered above – presenting, defending design decisions, having a good theoretical foundation, collaborating, and working with clients were all considered helpful.
Prototyping and wireframing were commonly-mentioned skills that people didn’t get enough of during school. It’s excellent to be able to show these kinds of deliverables to prospective employees, but because our work groups were generally 4 to 5 people, usually someone in the group was an expert programmer or designer; so more often than not, that person would take on all of the prototyping or wireframing work. Which leads to my next point.
Independent projects were seen as vital to being able to secure a dream job-type job. At U of M, all of our work is in groups; it is definitely up to students to take the initiative to work on an independent project (of course, it is well worth the effort.) Some students mentioned they would have liked to have an independent capstone design project of the sort that is typical in Interaction Design programs.
The art of persuasive talking and defending decisions… I’ve talked quite a bit about the fact that we did have to defend our design decisions in certain classes, and this helped prepare me for my job. But I wasn’t quite prepared for the sheer amount of time I’d need to spend advocating for design decisions and arguing my case. Truthfully, at this point I find it fun, but in the beginning it was somewhat scary. I think some kind of persuasive arguing class would be incredibly useful for any prospective Interaction Designer.
And also, one last thing. How did I end up in a zany, collaborative, wild work environment that seems tailored to my personality? First, I visited my friend who works at Facebook one day, and I fell in love with the work setting there. It felt open, fun, hard working. There was wit flying around the room. My goal from that day forward was to find a work environment like that. Then I met Mark Shewmaker from R/GA at the Interaction 10 conference by chance, and that meeting turned into an interview with him and Chloe Gottlieb – Executive ID director at R/GA who made a hilarious salame joke during my interview. Hilarious salame joke + successful design challenge presentation during my second interview = me, living in Brooklyn and commuting to Manhattan every day, getting off the stinky subway and buying a muffin from the cute mexican pastry cart, going into work and being happily challenged on a daily basis. So it’s all about the networking.
There may be more to say. Until then, lots of love to my program, my school homies, my zany R/GA peeps, and Liberty Richter foods – importer of Finn Crisps, the Original THIN CRISPS, which fueled this post.