Today on Radio Johnny Jeff Parks chats with Karen McGrane about how the future leaders in design can build a strong portfolio and interview skills to land their dream career. Karen also address the need to work effectively within the multi-disciplinary teams that make up every sector today when given the title of User Experience Designer.
The skills that you have in UX, and trying to put yourself in the shoes of the person looking at your product, work just as well when you’re trying to get yourself hired or when you’re trying to evangelize your role within your company. Try and imagine yourself as product…It’s like you’re a product trying to solve a problem in someone’s life.
One of the best things people can do is to rehearse their portfolio [in advance of the interview]… I want to see if you can tell a story.
I would challenge you to suggest another job function, other than UX, that could sit in so many different places within an organization.
Karen McGrane shares insights about how to both get hired and subsequently how to achieve success within the hiring organization as a UX professional; including, but not limited to:
* What employers are looking for within a portfolio;
* What candidates should do to prepare for interviews;
* What you can tell about a company or potential organization based on their organizational structure; and
* What happens if you wind up working in an organization that doesn’t value user-centered design.
A special thanks to Jeff’s sister Suzanne Lowry for providing transcripts for Radio Johnny! More on the way soon…
Jeff Parks: Today on radio Johnny I’m having the pleasure of talking with Karen McGrane, and Karen actually started hiring people in the user experience field at Razorfish in 1998 Today she she hires people for her company Bond, Art and Science. She teaches at the interaction design program at SCA and volunteer her time to mentor people looking for career advice user advice on working in the user experience field. Karen, thanks so much for joining me today.
Karen McGrane: Thank you for having me.
Jeff Parks: This is great! I know mentoring people myself over the past few years, one of the key questions isn’t how do you wire frame or what are the interaction design principles that I need to know. It’s two things that we are going to talk about today. It’s how do I get buy in with in these organizations, and even before that how do I get a job in the field? Where do I look? So, maybe we could start with some advice that you have for people looking for a job in the user experience, interaction design, or similar fields. Maybe for the purpose of this talk we’ll call all those other discipline we’ll call them user experience, if that’s okay? (Jeff: Laughing)
Karen McGrane: (laughing) That’s probably a controversial point of view but it’s one that I’m willing to go along with. For the purposes of our talk today, no I’m kidding (Laughing)
Jeff Parks: Just for today, were not going to use any other definitions or anything, but seriously with the global economic crisis we’ve been having everyone is looking for work. People are looking to show the value in the work in the user discipline it self. So, how do people break into the field?
Karen McGrane: You know a lot of us have been working in this field for five maybe ten years. I think that it’s important to remember that in the broader context, it’s still a relatively new discipline and it’s also I think still a very fast growing discipline. I think that if there is anyone who’s involved following the mailing lists or keeping a job on eye postings.
Even in the economic down turn, I still see a fairly healthy number of postings going out, there are still people that recognize that digital products and services are hard to use and this is the discipline of people who will help us make them better, we still need to hire those people. I personally feel really grateful for that,especially living threw the .com crash in 2000-2001. You kind of looked around and thought “Are there going to be jobs in this field anymore?”
So I think for people that are going to break into this field I think one thing to really do is to just follow what types of job postings are out there. And try to understand what kind of skills people are looking for. When I talk to people about their resume or how they reach out to different companies, I think understanding primarily how you talk about your work so that it fits into the expectations for the person that you are hiring. It’s probably one of the easiest things that people can do, so it’s thinking about your audience. That’s probably one of the core skills that you are bringing to the table, right?
Jeff Parks: Kind of ironic don’t you think? In a way?
Karen McGrane: Ya, no it is! I tell people that a lot. I’m like, You know the skills that you have in user experience and trying to put yourself in the shoes of the person who would be looking at your product work just as well as well when you’re trying to get yourself hired or trying to evangelize your roll within a company. Think about yourself as a product. Try to imagine the experience for the person who is going to hiring you. And present that information in a way that’s going to be easy for that person to read, that’s going to make sense, that’s going to fit in. It’s like you’re the product and you’re going to solve a problem in someones life. So figure out what their pain point is, figure out what expectations they have. Try to describe yourself in a way that meets their needs.
Jeff Parks: One of the best TED presentations that I’ve seen is with Ken Robertson. He’s talking about how schools are killing creativity. And he talked about the process of academic inflation about how once you needed a BA, now you need an MA, MA you now need a PHD and what not. It’s gotten to the point where more people are going to be graduating at the end of this decade, then any other human time in history. So one of things that I’ve heard a lot from people about is… and you asked this question in some points you gave me for this talk… Is a degree in interaction design or library sciences if you’re a information architecture, required today? If you’re going into that do people have to have a degree to get into that field.?
Karen McGrane: I think it’s a good question and it’s probably evolving quite a bit. I use to joke when I was hiring people in the late 90’s that I could put out a job posting that just said “ “Information architect wanted” and anyone that knew about that was probably qualified for the job. (Jeff Parks: Laughing) And I think today I don’t know that people are required to have a degree in interaction design per say. The programmes that focus on Information Architecture, Interaction Design or User Experience are still some what new and some what limited. But I do think that being able to talk about your educational background and how it’s relevant to the work that you are doing is important, so my degree I have my Masters in Technical Communications, I think that there’s a lot of people coming out in either graphic design fields or maybe even computer science fields that can point to work that they’ve done in school to understand the design of digital products and services, understand how they conceive of their audience and make decisions based on user needs.
So I don’t know if it’s the degree in this field that is important, but I certainly think that some educational background in the principles and the value system of this field is a good thing to point to.
But with that said, I’ve worked with plenty of people that have no educational background in this at all, and who can simply point to a real passion for the principles in the field. I’ve also observed over the years, some people that make the best user experience designers are often people who don’t study this in school, but when they find out about it, it’s like the light bulb goes on over their head and their like “Oh my god! that’s the job, that’s the job I was meant to do!” You know you hear this, and not everybody says this, some people got into it because it sounds like an interesting job. But there are some people who have the chip in their brain that makes them good at being an empathetic designer, and if you’re one of those people and you can communicate that passion, someone will probably hire you.
Jeff Parks: And those are the kind of things that are key for an interview, iif people are coming out and looking for jobs for the first time. I’ve always thought I’ve hired people in the past, not nearly to the extent that you have in this field or any other related field, but it seems to me that once you’ve got the interview, in a way you can almost relax, you know you’re qualified, right? But you were talking about that ability, that empathetic capacity to be able to answer questions freely and what not. So how can people prepare for interviews? I know for me it’s just having a conversation. It’s like, this is who I am, this is what I can bring you and for me it’s no big deal, I’m a bit of an extrovert in that way so do you have advice for people on how to get threw the interview process?
Karen McGrane: Yes, absolutely! I think again it’s about understanding what the interviewer wants to see from you and how they are making their decisions. I think one of the best thing that people could do is rehearse how they present their portfolio. (Jeff Parks: Great idea!) Too often I think that there’s this sense of I’m bringing my book of deliverables and “look I made a wire frame”, “look I made a functional speck”, “look I have a usability debrief” and you know I’ve got to tell ya, seeing someones wire frames is possibly the least interesting thing in the world (Jeff Parks: Laughing) it’s look “wow ya, that box is really square, good job there.” So what I want to see? I want to see a story. I want to see that you can come in and say “ Here is something interesting that I did when I was working threw this process, I thought I was going to do it one way and this is the sketch that I created, but then I learned that all of a sudden I had this big insight and did some user testing and it changed my thinking!”
People ask me how am I going to get a job in this field if I don’t have experience making very large sites for very complex work. And what I tell them is, I’d rather see you present in a really compelling way a story about a very small problem, a very small decision that you made. But tell that story in a way that conveys bigger picture like “Oh, you understand user center design, you understand that’s the process you go through. That to me is way more interesting than someone coming to me and like “ look at how many wire frames I have, look how big my functional speck is. You know that’s not differentiating in anyway.
Jeff Parks: Well it’s like you said before, you got to put yourself in the position of the people doing the interview too. If they’re interviewing say fifteen / twenty people for the job and the people come in and they all do the same thing, like “Here’s my portfolio” like you were saying; you have to differentiate yourself in a different way.
And not everyone is good at story telling, and it’s like you say if you prepare ahead of time and be able to tell something and also I would think making it an emotional thing, like how you impacted change for people in a positive way or how this potentially impacted you and how you saw the design? Those kinds of things?
Karen McGrane: Ya, I think being able to hear from people, like hearing things like problems, or things that people learned is always way more interesting than hearing “ You know I did such a great job, the process was completely smooth” and you know for someone to say “I had a conflict with the designer” or “I had a conflict with the developer and here’s how we resolved it” Things like that really show that again, you have the empathetic skills not just to create work but also to navigate with the team and make decisions collaboratively and that maybe you understand that it’s not always smooth sailing and that the process in doing something can involve conflict or giving of different opinions and that you are proud in how you resolved something.
Jeff Parks: Right, exactly! Now you’ve talked before about the analogy, some people just have a chip in the back of their brain for this, cause they do, some people are just wired for this stuff right? (Karen McGrane: Yes,they do) Now, what do people do when they get that “ah ha” moment. They hear a show like this or they go to a conference or they read a book and thought “Damn, that’s what I want I need to be doing but man, I’m not in that field.” So do you have advice for people who want to break into the field for the first time? What are the kinds of things they could be doing? People they interact with, things they should be learning?
Karen McGrane: I would say that across the board that the people who work in this field and even fairly senior experienced people are genuinely interested in helping people break into it, are fairly giving of their time, at least in a small degree. I mean I’m always happy for someone to e-mail me and say I’m really interested in this field and would you be interested in talking to me? And I’m like of course I have a half an hour to talk to you. The world is a much better place if people who are wired to do this kind of job, you know decide to do it!
So I would say I’ve had enormous rewarding conversations with people who have approached me with that exact story. I just read Steve Krug’s book and I just realized how important this field is, I want to do it, what can I do? And you know, I think I would have a hard time imagining that there are very many people in this field, someone e-mailing then saying I really want to do this, that they wouldn’t respond in some politely way and offer a little bit of their time or some advice. And we’re nice people, I like to think. (Jeff Parks: laughing, ya, I do to but you know…)
Let me contrast this. I’ve had the experience of having somebody who almost has no background in this field at all, but they have sent me a really nice, really well written, really thoughtful cover letter that said “I’m so interested in doing this, will you please take the time to talk to me or can you offer any advice that might help me get a job.” and then contrast that was somebody who maybe has some experience but it seems they’re spamming their resume around. They’re not writing a personal note, they are not presenting their resume in a way that seems like “Oh, I really want this job and I’m really interested in working here.”
I would much rather follow up with someone that seems personally interested, has a real passion for the work and communicates to me.. not in a spam way, like I know who you are and I would like to work with you. And you know for the people who are just spamming their resumes around and sending a generic cover letter that’s like “ I would like to work with you, please get back to me.” Quit wasting your time on that and instead, focus in on a hand full of companies that you think you would fit at and that you really want to work for. And try to make a personal connection there, your effort will go a lot further.
Jeff Parks: Exactly, within organizations now too, the other side of this conversation is people aren’t really interested in how to do this stuff, they know how to do it. We’re living in the information age right? So if you want to learn how to wire frame, I mean there is thousands of resources out there. Listen to me.. thousands, the web just started and it’s 1996. But my point being there is information about anything, you can connect with anyone now like you were saying, twitter, pod casting, facebook, it’s everywhere!
So from your experience how does user experience fit into the organizational structure in most companies? You made an interesting note here in what you sent me. You know even a better question is do information structures still matter anymore? I mean companies are so matrix is there even hierarchy in most companies now?
Karen McGrane: Ya, to me this is the most fascinating topic about user experience because it’s not just enough to get a job, you also want to have influence you want to have your ideas, your recommendations implemented you want to feel like oh when I do my work people value what I say, they respect me. I think a fairly consistent theme that you hear from people is that the user experience role within the company isn’t necessarily always respected. Or that challenges of changing a process and changing the over all work dynamic and changing the overall culture is a lot more difficult than just getting a job and showing up and creating deliverables, or doing your work.
So that’s where I think organizational structure is a really interesting topic and it’s one that I think job seekers should pay attention to. I would challenge you to suggest another job function other than User Experience that could sit in so many different places within the organization. I mean in one company it will sit in the technology group, in another company it will sit in a marketing group, in another company it will sit in the creative design group, another company it will sit in strategy and even though the job description may be very similar for all those roles, the relationship that you will have with your peers and the relationship that you would have with your boss and your bosses boss will be very different.
I think that people who are going into an organization where User Experience is some what new, I think they will have different challenges based on where that sits. You’re job if you are starting as a user experience person in a technology company, it will be a very different job, or face different challenges in getting your work done than if you take a job at an ad agency and you’re sitting in the creative group.
So I think your job satisfaction may depend on that but also what sort of role you have to play as an evangelist, and what kind of “air cover” you’re going to get from your boss, or what kind of flack that you get from your peers and trying to make recommendations and make changes to the way people work. Asking some questions about the organizational structure and trying to figure out what’s my job really going to be like? You should take the time up front at the interview process to do that.
Jeff Parks: Yes, and that’s a strength and weakness I think in the user experience field. The flexibility to be able to fit into multiple areas of any organization and potentially add value and that broader prospective is great. On the other hand like you said (Jeff:Chuckling) The down side to it is that well you could fit anywhere and depending on where you sit on the totem pole, so to speak, within the organization can really frustrate a lot of people.
I know people I’ve mentored and talked to over the years that their frustration is, like I said before it’s not how to wire frame it’s how to buy-in. I think it’s a big part in that roll of User Experience field. People have been successful are able to keep that broader prospective and understand the value that everyone is bringing to the table and how some of the ideas that their implementing can cause great change that they want, without trying to steer things away from people because where there is higherachy, there’s also ownership which I also think is a huge issue. It’s sort of like, “I made this” or “ I’m on the marketing team and I did…” It’s sort of like well ya but if were talking about the user, and I’ve always thought it was interesting, we were talking about the user center design, we don’t talk enough about the user people that were trying to get buy-in from!
So from the job seekers prospective, trying to understand where they fit within the company. Is that a question that they should be asking in the interview process?
Karen McGrane: Absolutely! I think every job seeker should be asking questions. Like who am I going to report to? What is theorganizational structure? What other departments am I in? Another good question if you’ve got the guts to ask is “Who’s my boss?” and “How is my boss incentivized? You know, how is my bosses success being measured and how is my work going to fit in creating that success? You’ll learn a lot about a company by the way their conducting their performance reviews and how they set up incentives people to do the work that they want. And so learning what your boss is going to be expecting from you sometimes means how is my work going to contribute to your success?
And I think to your point, I tell people all the time, think of your organization as a product, the product is called “You” and people are using you, the contributions that you make on a project are not necessarily like okay, here my job, I show up, you do it and think I’m great. It is sometimes, what does this person want or need from them in this process? How are my ideas competing with those out there for scares resource’s in time and money? How to think of my product so that it gets adopted in the same way as you were designing your product to be adopted? If you’re having a problem like your ideas are being ignored or your recommendations aren’t being followed, maybe it’s not all the people you work with are idiots, you know you wouldn’t call your users who didn’t adopt your products, idiots! (Jeff Parks: Laughing, yup!) So you know okay what do I need to do so I’m re shaping my adoption rate is higher, my success rate of getting my ideas implemented so it’s higher?
And that’s not a complex and difficult challenge. I tell people all the time, design is the easy part. Sitting down on your desk and making a better design you know it’s challenging and it’s fun work but you know it’s a small fraction of your job and the real challenge of your job is actually getting those ideas implemented and that takes skills in negotiating and understand the culture as an organization.
But lucky you, you are equipped with the skills to do that because you understand user center design.
Jeff Parks: Yes, and corporate culture is the biggest thing and I don’t think that people get excited about working for a company or a brand. But in my mind I think they should really be excited about is understanding the corporate culture that their walking into. Because I’m like a big picture visual person and of you give me walls of whiteboards and markers I would be happier than anything and just brain storm like crazy!
But if their understanding of a user experience design professional or interaction designer or information architect, is you are going to crank out process, you’re gonna crank out code, and you’re going to do semantic details all day long, well that would kill me, I’d be done! My job would last about a week and go on stress leave. (Jeff: Laughing) I couldn’t manage it.
So, you know you talked about this a little bit earlier…is it possible to change the way that people work to follow a user experience design approach.? Because you can’t necessarily change the corporate culture, that’s a mountain to move but is there a way that people can work in this user designer approach and if so how would you recommend that people look at doing that? It’s a tough question I know.
Karen McGrane: Yes, it is a tough question. That’s interesting to me because when I talked to people about their work one of the saddest or the most frustrating things that you hear is “I took a job because they said they needed User Experience and then I got there and they don’t really want user experience.” So then they didn’t want to change.
And I would have to say that that’s a very common problem that somebody in the organization understands a user experience is an important thing, we’ve got to hire one of people. So they hire one of those people, but hiring one of those people and changing the overall process are two completely different things!
I’ve heard from many people who walked threw the doors of these organization was being told “oh, ya ya ya we think user experience is so important, we really need you we really need to make a big impact!” And then they get in there and it’s like death by a thousand paper cuts. (Jeff Parks: Laughing) So everyday it’s a little indignity, a new insult, and one of the things that someone told me that just broke my hart was my job can’t be me trying to persuade you that I should get to do my job. And you know you can just see that in an organization with whether working with the developers that’s use to doing the interface’s or you’re working with the creative team that are use to making things beautiful but not necessarily things to be used and they don’t want to listen to you. So what do you do in that situation?
I think that there’s a variety of techniques that people have used and I think you have to understand the culture you’re working in. I think you have to be patient and try to achieve “small wins”. I think the people who are successful look at the problem and say okay, what’s the one thing I can do so I can move this one notch closer to the idea or closer the better. People who get really frustrated look at an organization and say “You’re at a one and we need to be at a ten. Unless we can get to ten immediately then I can’t do this.” I think making small, incremental changes either by promoting user ability testing or getting people involved either doing walk throughs of designs or anything to say okay what’s one small step I can take to make this better?
And I also think recognizing what roll of your manager is or what kind of “air cover” you can expect to be getting from somebody more senior? You know it’s not your bosses job to do your job for you or to make sure your ideas get implemented but in some cases if you’re saying like “Hey! You hired me to do this” and every time I go into meetings and my suggestions get ignored, so maybe that’s the time that you say “Did you really hire me to do this, and are you going to give me the support that I need?” or maybe I’m just out here floundering and maybe that’s not the right environment for me.
Jeff Parks: Ya, and it’s interesting to because Leah Buley who gave a talk at the UX Week a couple years ago about “Being User Experience team of one” She had some interesting ideas and one that I really liked was if you’re in a cubical office environment print off and put up the things that you are working on. When people come by they’ll ask you, you know what’s this about? and get the conversation rolling.
I think the key to a lot of this stuff is over the last decade people have just thrown things on to the web right? there are a trillion giga bites on the web, there’s three million times the content ever written in human history, I mean it’s insane, and only the quarter of the population is online and so we’re all learning, we’re all learning that it’s a continues evolution. The way we are going to get a better buy-in for these approaches. I think it’s about educating and communicating without defending the process, would you agree with that? To try to create that kind of change?
Karen McGrane: I think it’s frustrating for people in the User Experience community who really are true believers; especially when you talk to other people in the User Experience community and everyone is so on board with this and you know have that zeal convert in talking about this work and sometimes people go into an organization with the sense that okay I have to evangelize the User Experience. They think that evangelizing is going to mean that you are going to be treated as the second coming of Christ, and in fact you are going to be treated like the Jahova’s witness knocking on people doors. (Jeff Parks: Laughing, I love that analogy that’s great!)
Evangelism is hard because a lot of times people don’t want to hear about it. You have to believe so deeply in what you are doing that you’re willing to be rejected over and over again, and I think that a lot of people don’t like that, and that’s not a fun thing to do every day. I think that’s why you see so many people who are passionate about this either working in small focused UX boutique firms or working for firms that have already bought into the notion of user center design, whether that’s technology firms or digital agencies or other agencies, you’re job isn’t to evangelize you job all day long, your job is just to do your job.
Jeff Parks: And that’s hard though because some organizations, like you said before, when they hire you they hire you to do the work and then you’re not really sure what roll that should be or where I should fit in or do some wire frames, make a presentation and carry on. Like I said before, I think a lot of it is educating the value that we bring and a big part of that isn’t “telling” people this has to be the way we do it!
But maybe because the user discipline it’s a relatively new field by comparison to traditional marketing and maybe we need to be doing more to understand, and we’ve talked about this recently in this discussion but understanding more of the other roles and taking more time to understand the roles of the teams around you to see their values.
So when you do make the presentations to people and you do getting by,you are speaking of a context that is already in place. Do you think that would be a good approach as well?
Karen McGrane: Yes, understanding does somebody feel threatened why you are there. If someone is just rolling his or her eyes when presenting something, why is that that their bringing that to the table. I think that trying to acknowledge that’s a real problem. You know going to go sit down with them and have the conversation, try to figure out where the friction is coming from. I think in many cases I think the friction is coming form that they literally don’t want you there. That the more the people get involved in the process the more messy it gets. You get “ Oh god, now we’ve got to do it his way, and I just want to do it my way!” So trying to get to the root of that problem and figure out how do we stop making it your way or my way? Instead make it something that you are both collaborating on.
Jeff Parks: I think this is unique to the User Experience discipline or any organization, you’ve got everyone clamoring to get a piece of the pie and to own certain things. I think with the information age and now that you can learn literally about anything, ten year old have access to as much information and knowledge than I did when I was twenty five, they just don’t have the experience to put them into context.
And I think that analogy can be applied across to the business and government departments that are recognizing the needs to change the way things have been done. But it’s like I say, 90% of my job as User Experience profession, whether you call me an IA or a interaction designer, it’ sort of moderating the tech kids that are in the business leaders. And it’s helping them to understand both sides without them having to feel well I’ve got to learn an entirely new roll in the process because no I’m not really interested in doing that.” (Laughing) so it’s hard.
Karen McGrane: I’ve learned in so many organizations that I have worked with that until there was the Internet, there were a lot of different business units. The marketing group and the IT group that never had to talk to each other, it’s like they had there own turf and they did there own thing and one day it’s like “Oh I’ve got to put up a web site now.” And you have to have the marketing group and the technology group sit down in the same room and make joint decisions. And they have never done that before and they really don’t want to do that!
So that’s where a good User Experience person can really be the lubricant that lets those two teams say that I understand your point of view and I understand your point of view lets figure out how we can get pointed out in the same direction. So if you can do that on a project or with other groups within your organization you can probably do that with your team members that you’re collaborating with too.
Jeff Parks: And as we talked about before in the interview process that if you have done that, there’s a great story potential employers I would imagine?
Karen McGrane: Absolutely! That’s what you want to hear it’s not about look at these boxes that I drew, rather look how I helped to change an organization for the better. You know, look how I made this company a slightly better place by understanding their culture and you know their context and creating a process that they could deliver a better experience for their customers.
Jeff Parks: Karen, this had been a great discussion and one that we could have a quit a bit longer. I know that people around the world that are trying to break in that are looking for work are going to find tremendous value in this. If people want to ask you more questions I assume that they could just respond to the show notes page and you’ll be checking comments and giving feed back accordingly? Would that be best the place?
Karen McGrane: Absolutely! I would love to hear from people!
Jeff Parks: Okay, Karen thank you again for joining me on radio Johnny, and thank you on behalf of the user community experience for sharing your insights, greatly appreciated.
Karen McGrane: Great! thank you too!