Mary (Schwarz) Oakland
Year of Graduation: 2002
Major(s): Math/Computer Science, Spanish
Please give a brief description of your current position:
I am a User Experience Designer at The Nerdery, an interactive design and development company, in Bloomington, MN. As a UX Designer, I help our clients define, visualize and design their interactive products, such as websites or apps. The short answer is that we solve problems in a digital space. This is accomplished by discovery and user research in order to understand the needs of target audiences and the business goals of the client. I take inventory of the necessary content and give it organizational structure and hierarchy. We create user interface specifications within wireframes, which are stripped-down representations of an application's interface with descriptions of features to be implemented by programmers. I also work with visual designers (graphic designers) who add visual strategy and polish to the wireframes.
Here's a video that describes the UX department at The Nerdery: http://nerdery.com/videos/ux-blueprint
What path did you follow to arrive at your current job?
I studied math and computer science at St. Ben's which taught me critical thinking and problem solving skills. My Spanish degree enlightened me in language, culture and a larger world. I also spent some of my free time studying art and graphic design. This variety of perspectives has served me well in the area of user experience/interaction design.
My first job was as an Application Support Specialist at a physician practice software company, LSS Data Systems. For my first few years there, I trained users on the software and worked to troubleshoot their issues. This experience taught me good customer service and expanded my problem solving skills, especially in the realm of software. I transitioned internally to the development department, where I helped develop a new design role. For six years, I learned interaction design on the job by defining and designing new features for the suite of applications. Much of what I learned about interaction design in this role was self-taught or developed by practical experience.
Finally, I networked to land a position at The Nerdery, which I now consider my dream job. I am surrounded by brilliant designers and developers, all with unique backgrounds. This is a workplace passionate about learning, educating, pushing boundaries and creating superior products.
What advice/suggestions would you have for students who might be interested in your career?
User Experience Design is a relatively new academic subject, but more and more graduate programs are available. About a third to a half of designers I've worked with have this sort of background, the remaining have more of an on-the-job background like me. During your time as an undergrad, I encourage you to explore computer science, marketing, and art courses. Also, the more you can educate yourself on current technology trends the better. An internship would be ideal.
What skills are important in your field?
User Experience Design requires strong "soft skills". Top skills include critical thinking, problem solving, verbal and written communication, confidence, and empathy for others. Creativity is also key. With that comes the ability to process criticism and grow from it. Anything that develops and hones these skills will serve you well. Technical knowledge is also important. You certainly don't have to know how to program, but it helps to have a basic understanding as you will be constantly communicating with developers. Knowledge of software programs such as Adobe Creative Suite, Omnigraffle, Axure and other wireframing/prototyping tools is an added plus.
What is the most satisfying/rewarding part of your job? Most challenging?
The most satisfying part of my job is the creative energy. I love creating interactive solutions to problems through words and pictures. Anything that involves team collaboration, white boards and post-it's make me happy. At the end of the day, if the client is happy with my work, I am greatly satisfied.
One of the most challenging parts for me is keeping up with trends in technology. As we all know, technology evolves by leaps and bounds every day. It takes discipline to keep tabs on this. Of course, in any job, there are times where your customer is difficult to work with, so patience and understanding is important.
What activities/experiences were helpful at CSB/SJU (and elsewhere) in preparation for this career?
I would recommend getting involved in campus activities that involve technology or creativity. I also suggest getting familiar with online communities and/or blogs that focus on user experience design, such as the UxPA, UX Magazine, Smashing Magazine, AIGA and MIMA. Some of these, such as the UxPA, have local chapters with recurring events. The Nerdery also hosts public events, such as a UX book club Pulp Nerds, in which students are welcomed.