As of last month, it’s been three years since I finished grad school. Three years in the real world. Three years into a career, not just a string of jobs to pay the rent. I’ve been called an interaction designer, a user experience architect, and most recently a Design Communicator (a role invented here). Three years in and I’m starting to feel really comfortable. This is what I’m meant to be doing, at least right now. I finally feel like there’s somewhere I belong.
In my first six months at Digitas, I felt like I was doing the doggy paddle. It took all the energy I had just to keep up. I had never taken a marketing course and had never studied design for the web. My only comparable experience had been as an intern at a hip web services company in ’99. Words I had never heard of: “branding” and “conversion”. It hurts to admit this, but when I got my first assignment to create a set of wireframes for an American Express travel site, the first thing I did was type “wireframe” into Google. I had two degrees in Human-Computer Interaction from Carnegie Mellon and I had never heard of a wireframe.
Six months in, there was a shift. I had gotten to know my client, I had come to understand the product, and I had finally figured out how to align a bunch of boxes in Visio. But more importantly, I came to realize that while I didn’t know the domain, or the tools, or the lingo, I was indeed a master of something: good process. User-centered design was what I could bring to the table.
I became an evangelist for user research and usability testing. We had an Interaction Design department of 40 people and yet we spent our days almost exclusively churning out sitemaps and wireframes and functional specifications, while our account managers wrote scoping documents that we were meant to execute on. I felt like I was wasting my training. On one of my projects, my team was having a lot of trouble agreeing upon the appropriate framework for a web app. Tired of participating in an “I think it should be this way” “Well I think it should be this way” argument, I timidly suggested to my creative director that maybe none of us knew the answer and the only thing to do was to (drum roll) talk to our users. There was some hesitation, but to her credit she gave me the latitude to write the discussion guide and plan the exercises. The project took a year to complete (unheard of at an interactive agency where the product might not exist a year later), but ultimately the process worked: our final design was deemed innovative enough to warrant a patent by American Express and I’m named as a co-inventor.
That was the beginning. Three years later, I’m no longer working in advertising — I’m working in finance, an industry I never thought I’d touch with a ten-foot pole. But somehow I managed to find a financial company with a User Experience team that follows Cooper methodology. Liquidnet is an oasis in a desert of Visual Basic, no wait, command line interfaces. I feel privileged to work for an organization that is built around delivering the best possible customer experience. We don’t charge for our product, we charge for our service — and that says it all.
But okay, I’ve been here for a year and the honeymoon is over. I have a lot to be thankful for, but I also see many ways to improve. You can always get better, you can always grow, you can always innovate again. Three years into my career and I feel like I’ve plateaued. I’m ready for the uphill climb — to discover new tools and processes, to substantially develop an area of expertise, to gain a greater view of the industry and find a place for myself in the community.
My professional network is almost entirely made up of people in advertising. They are a pervasive and intelligent group and I’m proud to be associated with them. Among them is the legendary David Armano, who manages to straddle the marketing and design worlds quite effortlessly. He writes one of the top rated business blogs, and he’s been at it for less than two years. He knows what it means to carve out a niche, and I look forward to (attempting) to follow in his footsteps.
Still, I want to make friends with all the folks out there in the design and usability realm. I know that I have so much left to learn, and you have a lot of wisdom to impart. I already read many of your blogs and publications, but I want to hear more. I want to be part of the conversation. We can all reap the benefits of our collective hard (and smart) work. I just hope that I can find enough insightful things to say to keep you interested.
I guess there’s only one way to find out…
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