Wednesday, September 13, 2017

I'm an Experience Director and This is How I Work Part One


I was at my neighborhood picnic a few weeks ago, meeting neighbors and enjoying a typical lovely Denver weekend. And naturally, the question came up: “What do you do?”

There’s always a moment of assessment just before I answer this question. Do I need to say, “I’m in computers”? Or, can I go deeper and say, “I’m primarily an information architect and budding content strategist, who also creates wireframes and flows, designs overall strategies for clients, conducts qualitative research, and ensures the quality of all of our deliverables”?

I assessed and answered. “I’m in user experience.” A blank stare. A moment. Then: “What’s that?” 

Meeting the Web

When I first encountered the web in 1995, I was quite excited. I had been in programming for 12 years but Visual Basic and C++ weren’t holding my interest. This new medium, in contrast, was a potpourri of programming, the arts, visual design, writing, and more. I ate it up. I practiced, I learned, I studied. I went to art school to up my visual communication and design skills.

And in my first job, I was a webmaster. I was in charge of the website for a credit union, working under my colleagues in marketing. My desk was littered with important works of the time: Hillman Curtis’s Flash Web Design, Jeffrey Zeldman’s Taking Your Talent to the Web. I pressed myself to make things that looked good with sensible information architectures and, naturally, witty copy.

Over time I fell in love with user interface (UI). It was exciting to type code into Dreamweaver and see it instantly appear in my browser. Adding JavaScript made things a lot more interesting; it was easier than learning Perl. (Which I did. Ooof.)

UI is where I started to excel. I started to care a bit less about the backend systems that went into making websites. I could still do the work, but coding user interfaces meant I got to experiment more. I would lightly push the envelope in my day job (making pages load faster), and explore the arts during the evenings (making artsy websites). As time progressed, I read and absorbed more about information architecture. I was fascinated by the idea of perhaps going to library school and understanding how to organize data and content.

I never pursued that path in education, but did vocalize my interest in the field of user experience (UX). I had been doing many of the components of UX work already – I just didn’t know what to call it all. Talking with clients and understanding what they need? Yep! Absolutely! Sketching what pages and things would look like before coding them? Of course – I needed to see it, and so did the people I worked with. Sitemaps? A way to express my love for Excel without being boring! I worked with information architects regularly, and realized how much I truly enjoyed the discipline.

My move to user experience years ago, wasn’t met with any fanfare or celebration. I remember being floored that I could schedule user interviews with people in order to watch them work. This component – being able to observe people – wasn’t just fascinating; it was essential to producing quality work. Another bonus: I had to press through my natural introversion in order to get my work done. I had to speak up and ask questions. I had to figure out how to best interview people. I had to get context. I had to understand why something was the way it was. I couldn’t assume anymore.

That questioning – the big “why?” – is what really led me to where I am today. My work today as an Associate Experience Director here at Rightpoint is quite diverse. One day I’m flying to Detroit to work on a half-day workshop with a client. Another, I’m meeting with my team and talking goals for the next year. Another still, I’m analyzing and improving a taxonomy for a knowledge base. Then I’m critiquing wireframes and creating new ones to support customer journeys. Later still, creating deep feature and functionality roadmaps and setting goals for an experience strategy. I’m onboarding new people and reviewing resumes and going on pitches. Oh, and did I mention there are tacos? There are tacos. I’m in Denver.

Day to Day

Before I gave a talk at CreativeMornings last year, my friend and colleague Pernilla Peterson sent me a message on Slack. She said, “I don’t know how you do it all.” My response was, “I don’t do it all. That’s how I do it all.”

My work day usually starts before I head into the office. I’m not answering emails – I believe strongly in separation between work and non-work hours – but, I do check my schedule to see what I need to expect. Is the flavor of the day going to be meetings? (They taste a little like medicine.) Do I have swaths of time to devote to the projects and pitches I’m focused on? Do I have time to work on my bigger goals? I don’t necessarily answer all of these questions by looking at my calendar, but, it sets the tone of the day.

Once I’m at the office, I carve out time to walk the floor and see how other people are doing (and see if I can help), first and foremost. I’m nosy, so I’ll ask what people are working on. Much like those early interviews in my career, this is me actively pushing against being an introvert.

The bulk of my day, however, is awash in details. Last week, I spent a lot of time talking requirements and wireframes and information architecture on a project. I researched competitors and collaborated with colleagues via calls on how to make things better. There are some things of lesser importance (expense reports) that get done, but, a lot of it comes back to doing what I said I will do to help other people.

Oh, one other thing: I try to keep things light. Some things are serious, of course. But things I’ve learned from studying comedy and fiction have helped me and the people I work with keep our perspectives on things.

Looking back to the start of my career, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have guessed that I’d end up doing the work I’m doing now. I’m excited and privileged that I get to dabble, while keeping big goals and ideas in sight. I don’t have to code a lick of anything anymore (although I can still call back to my tech background when I need to!) I get to write, sketch, think, and advocate for people as they progress in their careers. I am extraordinarily fortunate, and always pushing to get better.

So then. The neighborhood picnic. My new acquaintance and neighbor asking what user experience is. My noggin considers where I need to go.

“You know how there are websites and apps, right? Well, before those things are made I talk to people who use them. I then work with a team to make a website or app that matches what people need.”

A pause. Then a smile.

“That’s great. I never knew that existed!”

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Paul McAleer is an Associate Experience Director at Rightpoint. Follow Paul on Twitter and LinkedIn.