I recently had the opportunity to interview Natalie Blair. Although Natalie and I are acquainted through our mutual love of roller derby, I wanted to pick her brain on her experience transitioning into the field of UX and to see if she had any pieces of advice for someone hoping to do the same. Natalie works as a UX Designer/Producer in New York at Tigerspike, a mobile technology company, and is an “enthusiastic champion of the ‘why?’” Recently, she wrote an article on UX for Medium.com that touches on many of the subjects brought up during this interview titled, “What Designers Can Learn From the Stage or — How to Upstage your Content and Annoy Your User.”
Erin: So you are a UX Designer/Producer at Tigerspike, could you briefly discuss the work you do there, your role and responsibilities?
Natalie: UX Designer/Producer is what it says on my business card, and while I started out doing more Project Management in addition to UX, I’ve phased almost 100% into UX. I also have projects on the side where I do a lot of Product Development and Management. The area of UX I’m currently grooving in is production. I do a ton of research around competitive and comparative analysis, IA structures, UI patterns, and then another ton of wireframing/prototyping. Outputs differ with the client – one wants highly detailed annotated wireframes because it’s a fully waterfall process. Another is fine with static visual comps because they are just about getting stakeholder buy-in. Another one wants a working prototype with a style and interaction guide instead of detailed traditional documentation. I’m lucky that I get to work with clients that have so many different ways of working – I’ve learned a ton about processes and how to adapt to different projects. At Tigerspike, I am across a ton of projects right now including the Aveda flagship app, a huge banking intranet, and an industrial engineering company’s site. The biggest project I’ve worked on was DIRECTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket 2015. I designed the Sunday Ticket app for a ton of platforms including iOS, Android, Windows8, Roku, Apple TV, PS4, Chromecast, and Xbox.
What do you like most about your work?
I like working with different clients who have cool problems to solve. I love seeing the minutia of the bigger picture and pushing out the edge cases. Sure – your user logs on to your site and buys something. But where are they when they are looking at your site? What device? Is it hot out? Do they have gloves on? Do they have reception? What will they do after they complete their purchase (or don’t)? I like seeing the user journey from nose to tail. Also – I love asking the question “why” because it simplifies things and allows clearer product definition which are tighter guardrails for the design which creates new puzzles to attack. Constraints breed creativity. If there isn’t a problem we are trying to improve upon, I’m not really excited about making just another crappy app.
And what do you find most challenging?
Mostly the same stuff – working with different clients also means having to learn and re-learn how to work with different company structures, politics, and approval processes.
One of the interesting things I’ve found about the field of UX is how diverse it is–it attracts people from a variety of different backgrounds. Could you tell me a little bit about your background? How did you find yourself working in UX?
I was an actor for about 15 years. An actual actor making a living in NYC and I realized I hated it. I had learned design software while I was building my personal brand and the brand of the theater company I helped start (Nicu’s Spoon Theater), and realized I liked that better. I fell into technology by doing software testing for a digital imaging firm part time which turned into a full blown QA job. I loved putting on the different user hats and saying “This is a photo printing website and my grandmother couldn’t use this. That’s a problem – let’s find a way to make it better for her.” I took some time away from tech after that company folded and did a lot of PR and Marketing work as well as some organization building. While I was working at a horrible job as a College Communications Advisor, I realized I hated my job so I quit and and went to General Assembly for formal UX training. I realized I had the concepts and tools already – I just didn’t have the vocabulary. Basically – UX Design is the job I was born to do – it just didn’t exist until now.
Where do you see your career headed? Any long-term goals?
Right now, I’m really happy just digging into any project I can get my hands on. There’s so much out there to learn in terms of tools, languages, design concepts, and processes. There aren’t enough hours in the day! In the long term, I’m looking towards a senior role, working my way to helping build and lead a team of designers. I have a history in team building and coaching so I feel like the work I’m doing right now will dovetail into that position eventually. I’m just concentrating on doing good work until then.
UX seems to be changing all the time. How do you stay current on new developments in the field?
Actually – I don’t feel like UX is changing. People are realizing they need it so it’s getting more visibility, but it’s really the same as it ever was – even before the field had a name. The bottom line is that you need to know and empathize with your user and their desires, hopes, wishes, dreams, and goals. Even if it’s just redeeming rewards points for a coffee. Do something that makes them feel something and you’ve given them an experience. Now just make it a good one so they keep coming back.
But how do I stay current on tech and design developments – that’s a different story. That’s a ton of work. I do a lot of extracurricular classes, workshops, seminars, readings, and meetups. I follow cool people on twitter and go down lots of rabbit holes they send me down:
- Mona Patel @monapatel – CEO, UXHires and Motivate Design
- Jared Spool @jmspool – “the father of UX”
- Mike Monteiro @monteiro – Founder of Mule Design and author of “Design is a Job”
- Nick Finck @nickf – Sr. Manager of UX at Amazon Web Services
Some resources I regularly read/visit to include:
- Sidebar – a daily dose of 5 articles about design and design thinking. It’s sometimes all I have time for and they do a good job of picking out relevant and provocative pieces.
- Meetup.com – I go to one or two a month. Sometimes they are great, sometimes blah but the good outweighs the bad ones.
- Fast Company Design – sometimes hit and miss but it’s certainly a staple of places to learn about trends and happenings in the industry.
- Panda – I also installed the Panda extension to my chrome browser. When you open a new blank tab, it shows you design news and inspiration. It’s a little regular reminder to check in on the cool design stuff in the world when I’m eyeballs deep in wireframing minutia.
Other places to keep an eye on for events and seminars include: The Design Gym, IDEO, A List Apart, IxDA, Gamestorming.com, and Smashing Magazine’s blog. I also follow a bunch of UX and Design thinking topics on Flipboard.
Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions. Last question for you: Do have any advice for grad students like me hoping to break into the field of UX?
- Remember that there is no “right” way to do anything. It always “depends.” It feels like we are making it up all the time because we are. And that’s ok.
- Read Mike Monteiro’s book “Design is a Job” and take all his advice for working with clients.
- Your project/feature/idea will be de-scoped. Most stuff that is designed falls on the cutting room floor. It happens. You and your designs are not a precious, special snowflakes. Get over it and solve some other problem.
- Never, never, never stop asking “why?” Why are we putting this feature in? Why does this thing have to animate? Why does the world need another dating app? Don’t build another half baked, crappy app or feature if there’s really no problem it’s meant to solve. There are real problems in the world – let’s find elegant ways to solve them instead.