A Brain for Simplifying: An Interview With Lindsay McGaan

At the end of February, I attended World IA Day (along with many other Pratt SI students and alums). I was impressed by many of the speakers but particularly enjoyed how Lindsay McGaan presented information- she made things clear, interesting and easy to follow.

photo of interviewee

At the time of World IA Day she was working for American Express’ Enterprise Growth department. I found a few articles about Enterprise Growth here, here and here.

I caught up with Lindsay* at a Brooklyn coffee shop in early March to ask her a little bit about her background and learn more about being a content strategist and UX professional.

*Please note that I did not record this conversation and the answers are from my own notes/writing and summarize Lindsay’s responses.

How did you come to the UX field? I noticed on your résumé that you have an MA in professional writing with a focus on UX. Do you feel that prepared you for the work you are doing in the field now?

I’ve always had an interest in language and poetry. I spent a year teaching English in Japan. When I returned, I knew I needed a marketable skill so I entered the program at Carnegie Mellon University, it focused on getting a job. I initially thought about going into publishing, but my advisor suggested looking into user experience, user testing and document design. I started to explore and took a Information Design internship that summer in Sydney, Australia. I learned about simplification of documents and knowledge design. Not all of it was web documents, some of it was print (company policies and such).

I’ve got a brain for simplifying things in this field. After school, I got a job with Siegel + Gale where my focus was on web and print simplification, simplifying taxonomies – secondary and primary.

How much do you feel you learned on the job vs. your education?

I feel I’ve learned 2/3 or more on the job. Much of the work in UX is collaboration. Graduate school helped rejuvenate my writing skills. At Siegel + Gale, I learned content strategy and IA as a discipline. Folks at S+G helped me when I was just starting out. Amex was my first foray into working for a financial institution, it taught me the design process in application- writing job reports; documenting and presenting in a shareable way; following design phases and chunking off work; making sure everyone understands before moving to the next phase; and producing something to sell the work. The work experience there gave me a good foundation in the process.

You mentioned at World IA Day that you were the first content strategist at Amex. Why do you think that was the case?

Being a content strategist is usually part of someone’s job even if it isn’t their title. Most co-workers are relieved to have someone thinking about this. It’s not easy because you don’t always have the right tools and aren’t always certain it is the right thing to do.

What are some of the tools you use in your work? Any that you would highly recommend to a student in UX to get familiar with?

Axure is great for quickly drawing wire frames. Sketch is another great tool- it’s more versatile than axure and easier to learn. I often sketch on a white board first to move through iterations quickly then go to the computer for mockups. We used Agile Methodology where we would structure the teams based on developer schedule- often in two week intervals. This allows for small changes to be made constantly which means you are constantly moving forward. It has been a better overall way of working than waterfall where you are waiting for everything to be ready before launching. The hardest part is how to fit in agile- it is an open ended process that needs to work within a time line. Discovery work can be hard to tie to a schedule. People have really different approaches to this.

Any tips for entering this field?

Look for jobs that emphasize collaboration and have an established process. People not talking/communicating with each other is not good.

Design thinking is a way of problem solving and can be applied in any field.

Build a broad skill set. IA was a bigger thing in the 1990s, today there are fewer people with that title, but it is considered part of a job description in UX.

For first time job in the field, do a lot of informational interviews.  A lot of times people don’t know what they are getting into. Some agencies will hire you to work 80 hours a week only doing wire framing.

Where will you go next?

I was recently hired by Critical Mass – they are a Canadian company that just opened offices in New York.

Some notes from Lindsay’s talk “Short, sweet, legally sound: getting great content through the review cycle” at World IA Day.

Write in a colloquial, conversational tone- as if someone is talking directly to you. (think iTunes service agreement for the opposite of this).

Create consistent design tools.

Lindsay mentioned a book that I’ve been meaning to look up, but haven’t had a chance. The focus is on writing for the web. She ended her talk with “Feedback is a gift, not an insult.” That quote really stuck with me and seems highly relevant in the UX field- it’s from the book Nicely Said by Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee.

If you can’t meet deadlines, don’t expect your reviewers to.

Hold meetings in person in a room or on the phone. Limit to 1.5 hours and bring food.

Side note: Lindsay worked with Pratt Alum, Lars Lindahl at Amex which I discovered on the UX blog. He is now with Cloudberry.