print vs web

My (hypothetical) InVision interview

Meet Christina. She designs at Novartis.

I regularly get InVision's email updates about UX designers at big companies like Intuit and Hubspot, and I love reading them for good ideas and quotes. I've been pushing for the UX team at Novartis to get InVision to help with demos and user workshops, so you know it'll only be a short time before they need to interview me too, right? ;)

How did you get started in design and ultimately end up where you are?

I started out doing illustrations in Photoshop in 9th grade. To get better at it, I spent a lot of time on art websites and stumbled onto graphic design. I really liked how design was about researching subjects and solving problems in clever ways. I loved being able to make visual allusions and evoke feelings based on the connotations derived from the type, material, forms, art. The best part of the process was developing a concept and considering the way people would react to it.

At RISD, I took a class in exhibit design and immediately fell in love with because it was graphic design at an immersive level, with a purpose: How do you direct people to explore a space, or get them to want to read information panels? After five years of creating exhibits for zoos and museums, I felt like I needed a change. It had been really fun, but I wanted to do more innovative work that required less work editing copy and sourcing photo rights.

I got into UX when a friend asked me to help him design a mobile app. I’d never done any proper UX before but I understood the importance of decluttering the interface, helping people focus on the vital information that they cared about, and creating something that people wanted to use - all skills practiced in designing exhibit graphics.

At its core, design is about solving problems. I roughly laid out the screens that we needed and decided how the information might be organized, and learned that my little thumbnail sketches were actually called wireframes. My process wasn't perfect, but the thinking was there. After working together, my friend (a project manager at Microsoft) encouraged me to become a UX designer because he thought that I was a natural at it.

It wasn't an easy career switch. I took some classes in front-end web development and user experience design, did some freelance work, put in my time at an agency, and eventually got hired the to UX team at Novartis. It was probably one of the biggest triumphs in my life because I’d spent almost a year trying to convince people that I could do UX before anyone actually believed me.

Do you think that there's a big difference between designing for print versus web?

For some, it seems like a huge jump to go from exhibit design to user interface design, but I don’t think so. You have similar problems and goals: connect with the user, persuade them to do what you want, help them get what they need, make them feel good about interacting with your product.

When doing signage, I focused on creating recognizable, repeated symbols in a landscape to bring order to the chaos - in UI land, we call them design patterns. When making info panels, I learned about the importance of making graphics pop (call to action) and using brief but captivating copy. There are some graphic designers that have no interest in UX design, that want total control over the position of everything, and have trouble adapting from print to web - but it felt like a natural transition for me.

What do you do at Novartis?

Our team falls under the research wing of Novartis, which is run like a startup incubator. If a scientist or research team comes up with an idea for a tool that would help in drug discovery, they bring it to the steering committee. If the committee decides that their proposal is sound, then the project gets a project manager, business analyst, UX designer, and developers for six months. At the end of the six months, the steering committee evaluates the product and can decide if they want to continue funding development or not.

I'm part of a small team of seven UX designers that handle all the projects. There's always a bit of a learning curve when you're working on drug research applications: you have to learn the science behind how a drug works, what the researchers do, and how they intend to use this tool you're designing for them. There are no simple, straightforward projects. I like to say that it's worst-case scenarios for everything: “We need this to filter under potentially 52 categories, handle about 1500 queries at once, and the little graphs have to allow for four decimal places.”

Because we deal with so much data, there's a big risk of designing something that's way too cluttered. Busy interfaces are overwhelming and can make an application seem harder to use than it really is. I try to keep the interface as minimal as possible and drill down to essentials. This means that I'm always doing user research and testing to find out if I have it right. I'm not ashamed to say that I don't know how to cure cancer - but I'll talk to the people that do and work with them.

What are the key skills to be good at your job?

You have to empathize with users, work quickly, and earn the respect of the developers. 

Empathize with users: I’m good at getting into the mindset of users and understanding their feelings and motivations. It keeps me passionate about the work because when I understand them, I truly want to create something great for them. A debt management website might seem boring, but when you empathize with the guilt and helplessness people feel when they have $20k that they can’t seem to pay off, you want to create something that’s visually appealing and friendly, an interface that guides them through the process easily - you want to give them hope. I use empathy to connect with the scientists I work with and am able to better prioritize features because I understand what they’re trying to accomplish behind all the technical jargon.

Work quickly: Whether you’re at an agency with short deadlines or following a lean/agile methodology, the faster you can turn things around, the better. Learn the tools and find shortcuts for executing a design. Use a grid. Be economical with your components so that you can reuse elements. I never want to be the bottleneck - if a team is waiting for a design, I churn it out quick. I’m very transparent about what I’m doing so that the developers can get a head start on building features if possible.

Earn the respect of your devs: Developers hold the keys to how your design is implemented, and if they respect you, they will be more willing to spend the time executing it like you envisioned it. Learn some UI development so that you know how difficult it is to code something, and so that you can understand basic terms that they’re using. Be reasonable and flexible with your demands. Have the user feedback on hand that fueled your decisions so that they understand why you’re designing something a certain way, and why it’s worth their time to create it. Lastly, give positive feedback when everything works the way that it should!

Where do you look for design inspiration?

I’m constantly on Twitter: I follow the Responsive Web Design gang of @brad_frost, @beep, @lukew, and @danielmall; some great UX writers and presenters like @stephenhay, @jonfoxUX, @udanium, @jc_ux; and I love seeing new art and designs from @fromupnorth, @colossal, @fastcodesign. I also get front-end and UX news from @smashingmag and @alistapart.

I test drive trending apps to see how they’ve designed their interface and to learn about what people enjoy using. I often bring features from consumer applications to our scientific enterprise applications. Why should you hate to use your work software but love using applications like Facebook, Spotify, Mint, or FitBit?

I like to browse Dribbble for ideas - I tend to do an overall assessment of how other designers have solved similar problems and that can help fuel the design for a solution that works best for us.

Do you think that designers need to get a formal education in design?

Not necessarily, but it helps in two important ways:

You learn how to take really harsh criticism because in-class critiques can be brutal. I’ve seen teachers tear things in half (literally) to improve the composition. To be a good designer, you have to know how to receive negative feedback and learn from it. People are telling you how to improve, and asking you to consider alternate ways to approach a problem. Sometimes you get criticism that’s very honest, without any sugar coating - but it helps you grow.

You also push yourself past comfort. You learn the value of doing something over and over. I had one assignment where I had to set the same piece of text in 25 ways - but I had to create 100 compositions in the process to narrow it down. I felt like I was going crazy, but now setting type is second nature. When you have to make so many pieces, design becomes less precious. You learn to put ideas out there, even if they’re not perfect, because you might find a real gem in the process. You learn to take an overwhelming assignment and tackle it piece by piece.

RISD was very print-centric, which was great for developing a passion for good typography, but I think it limited my view of what you could do with a career in graphic design. It seemed like your career options were designer or art director back then. We had one class in Dreamweaver for the entire topic of web design. Experience design or human-computer interaction were never mentioned. I think that for some schools, it takes a very long time for common practice in the industry to make its way into the classroom - especially one like RISD, where you're still required to take a class in painting color swatches with gouache. I might not have stayed in exhibit design for so long if I’d known about UX sooner.

What is one of your greatest failures that taught you the most?

I learned about the importance of information architecture and early user testing the hard way during my first amateur UX project. It was me and three devs sitting around an apartment every weekend, making an app for finding a nightclub. We kept coming up with new features without thinking about how to access them and ended up with a profile details area that had no button linking to it. We also spent a considerable amount of time creating a dating feature that had to be dropped because user testing indicated that most women did not want to be contacted by random guys in the club.

I’m glad that I learned these lessons while working on a small side project with friends rather than an important client, because those are really big mistakes! After those mess ups, I’m a lot more thoughtful about architecture and connections between elements, and I test with users at all stages. Good UX should save time because it prevents you from wasting time developing features that people don’t want.

My UX catchphase:

It doesn’t matter how pretty the buttons are if they’re in the wrong place.