Learning on the job and creating your own content: Interview with Corey Burr

Corey Burr

I recently sat down with a friend-of-a-friend, Corey Burr, who is a UX professional based in New York. Corey is the lead UX/UI Designer for the Innovation Lab at Standard & Poors Ratings, and he has also created his own iPhone app called MadHat.

So, tell me a little about what you do?
I do primarily UX design, but also I get into the visual design and interaction design, as well as some front-end engineering and UX research. A lot of people maybe don’t know the differences between those things – I like to describe it as the UX designer is the architect, who designs the blueprints, the visual designer decorates the home, and the interaction designer decides whether the doorknobs should be pushed or pulled.

How did you get into working in UX?
I found my way to where I’m at by just doing it. I was a philosophy major, and when I graduated, I got a job at doing sales at a electronic medical health records startup in Pittsburgh. The good thing about working at a startup is that they will let you try different things, so I eventually became a project manager, which turned into also doing business analyst work (basically acting as a product manager – I would write user profiles and do some UX design). I don’t think my boss even knew UX was a term at the time that I was doing that work.

I witnessed a lot of the burgeoning of UX as a role, which companies are now emphasizing. I didn’t really find out that UX was a field until I had been already been doing it at my job for awhile. I worked at that startup for a year, and then I went to work for a consulting firm that did product development for like big places like Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh.

After taking some time off to go backpacking, I moved to NYC. I tried to go back into sales, doing tech recruiting for a few months, but I realized sales still wasn’t for me, so I went back to UX. I got a job working at Capital IQ, where I worked as a UX Designer and Product Manager, which then transferred over to just UX Research, UX Design and some front end engineering.

Did you mostly just learn on the job?
I asked my boss if they would pay for night courses to learn front-end engineering [at New York Code + Design Academy], and I picked up graphic design on the side too, just for fun.

What did you do next?
I worked for Capital IQ for about two years, and then I left to go work for a UX Research Agency called Sachs Insights, but that wasn’t for me.

When I started at Sachs Insights, they said they wanted to build out a complementary service for UX/UI Design — so you would do the research and then propose a redesign based off of what you found. But then they decided they wanted to stay focused strictly on qualitative research. I couldn’t take finding the problems and not being able to try to fix them. I decided to leave, and a recruiter reached out to me about a position at S&P Ratings. I was a contractor when I started and then after a month they converted me to full time. I’ve been working there for about 10 months.

Tell me about your current job:
I currently work for McGraw Hill, which owns Standard & Poors Ratings and Capital IQ. It’s like being pat of a startup inside of a big company. Our team’s mandate is to come up with ideas for new products and then build them out rapidly — getting a a basic version ready in about a month and a half — and we then push it out to some beta users to see if it has marketability. If we find that it does, then it gets scaled by the larger development team; otherwise, it just gets tossed away and we move on.

Most recently we worked on a product that takes macro economic information about countries and regions’ credit worthiness based on different economic factors. We really want to sell a feed for the data, but we needed a sales tool, something visually appealing, so that our sales people can go out and show the service in a way that people will remember. So we made an interactive map that shows the data and factors so that you can visually see the distribution across the globe.

How do you go about getting an idea and actually moving forward with it?
We do a lot of market research up front, and we do a lot of work with an internal group called “Product Strategy”. They’ll think about need in the market that isn’t being filled or isn’t being filled well, and then they’ll write up the business plan and pitch it to an executive team. The team can then give them what’s called a “hunting license,” which means they can then go to my team, the “Innovation Lab” group. The Innovation Lab is a team of five — I’m the front-end and experience specialist, and then we have a backend engineer, a data scientist, a full stack developer, and our boss, the VP of the group. I do a little bit of everything, but I’m primarily a designer. My longterm goal is to be able to design in-code to be able to skip photoshop or sketch completely.

What’s your favorite project you’ve worked on?
My favorite project is actually the iPhone app that I built called MadHat. It lets you animate anything you can draw on the phone — you can draw on top of a photo and create multiple scenes of animation. Then it can get exported as a video, or I can send it to a friend, who can open it up in an editable format then remix it and share it on social media. I launched it like 3 months ago, and I’ve had like 10,000 downloads already.  I designed everything and I worked with a developer who programmed everything. That was a lot of fun for me because it’s not financial technology.

MadHat App

Is app design different from working in desktop?
The palate is different — you’re working with a smaller screen and different interfaces. It’s tactile, so you’re using your hands to interact with the software. As a designer, you have to think about the navigation differently. There are more possibilities now with the iPhone force touch feature – it’s created a Z axis, so it’s not just left and right anymore. That’s been cool to think about for the design.

If you think in a logical way, you can create a tool for any platform, you just have more or less standardization depending on the platform. Apple is very tight with what they will allow for iPhone apps.

Do you see yourself going off on your own?
Yeah, I actually created a corporation that owns the app, so if we find investment from a venture capitalist or something, it’s ready to be invested in, and I can go work on that full time. I have a business partner who manages all the accounting and financial work, such as creating the corporation, etc.

What’s special about your app?
With MadHat, I can send you a video, and you can open it up and edit it. It provides an opportunity for a user or a brand send it out on their social channels, and then allows their followers to create their own new content. It’s a deeper level of engagement for users. Right now the only engagement you can have with a brand as a user is a “like” or a comment or a tag, which is fine, but people are getting bored with it. People like modifying things and making things their own.


How did you define the user for your app?
Through research, I established the target user as Generation Z, teens and young adults — born after 1995. I identified that these users are not loyal to social networks, they’ll use anything that’s cool. They need social proof — social media is what they grew up with — their forum for communication and interaction is all online, so the likes and tags and comments on social media have become the way they get feedback from their community. They look for tools to stand out. When we grew up, maybe we wore different outfits to school to stand out, but now it’s all online.

MadHat is designed to be a social platform-agnostic tool, so you can share it on any network. The social proof comes from being a uniquely creative app — what you’re drawing is animated and unique; it’s not just another emoji or gif you pulled from online.

I started with basic online research, which is how I discovered that the aesthetic with this type of animation doesn’t exist out in the market yet. Then we moved on to doing user interviews — we did online surveys and interviewed people in-person [from my business partner’s former high school]. As we went through development, we interviewed and tested users every three days on what we had created.

We got all that feedback and pivoted the design along the way. Then finally when we talked about how we might make money with it, say we’ll charge a brand to do a campaign because what they can get from MadHat is unique and more meaningful than just tags and comments because the user is putting in an investment.  A brand can blast an image, users can edit them with MadHat, and send them back, and it becomes this conversation through visuals.

How do you keep up with the changes in the UX field?

I do lot of reading and trying new products. InVision’s blog is awesome — they come out with new posts all the time, about new tools in the industry, and they’re always meaningful.

I also really like Product Hunt — it’s a reddit-like website that aggregates posts about new products. I’ve found so many cool new web products on there.