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Episode 031

 Maya Patterson

Maya Patterson

USER EXPERIENCE AND THE NEXT GENERATION

with Maya Patterson

The next wave of UX Designers is out there. They expect things to be simple, powerful and user-focused. There is just one problem. Most of them don’t know what a UX Designer is. Today, Maya Patterson joins us to talk about the challenge of preparing for a career in a field you probably don’t know exists. The solution? While traditional academics is failing to prepare digital professionals, they are creating great thinkers and problem solvers. So, as an industry, we have a responsibility to reach out to give this next wave insight into their potential and a path to see it realized.

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Full Transcript


Welcome to the Bureau Briefing. A podcast by the Bureau of Digital, an organization devoted to giving digital professionals the support system they never had. Each episode, we're going to talk to a member of our community doing awesome, inspiring things. Now, for your host, Carl Smith.

Carl Smith:
Hey, everybody and welcome back to The Bureau Briefing. It is Carl and with me today, I have Maya Patterson, a product designer at Trunk Club. How's it going today Maya? 

Maya Patterson:
Going great. How are you? 

Carl Smith:
I'm really good. Everybody who listens go, "God. Carl always says he's really good," but I am really good. I'm excited to have you on the show. We had a conversation, man, it must have been a month and a half ago now, if not longer. You first came on my radar because I read an article on Off-Kilter called The Designer Conversation with Maya Patterson and your story was just amazing to me. Could you take a minute and just let everybody that's listening know a little bit about yourself and how you came to be a product designer at Trunk Club? 

Maya Patterson:
Yeah, for sure. I currently like you said work at Trunk Club as a product designer which is in ... Their headquarters is in Chicago. I've lived and grown up in the Midwest my entire life. I come from a small town Champaign-Urbana. Most people know that well by the University, U of I. There my mom owns a technology consulting firm. During my undergraduate studies, I thought that I was going to be a lawyer. I was doing all this pre law study programs and realizing that I just want not passionate about it. My freshman year of college I took an internship at her technology company because they had just recently hired an information architect. What that is for those who don't know, it was the more common term for a UX designer. 

Not exactly the same type of skillsets. I listened to the role that she had and what she was doing at Pixo. I was like, "Well, I don't really get it, but I'm totally down to try that out." That internship totally rocked my world and introduced me to the world of design and showed me that design did not just mean drawing and illustrating pretty things. It also meant thinking through problems and problems that people specifically had in the context of digital products. From there I kind of just basically veered my studies into a different path. I became a psychology major and just tried to focus on getting experience in design and landing more internships so that I could be ready to eventually have my full-time job which Trunk Club is my first full-time design job.  

Carl Smith:
Now I have to say that first of all you're coming into your career right now, right? You just said Trunk Club is your first full-time design job.

Maya Patterson:
Yes. 

Carl Smith:
I'm old. People know it, right? I'll be 50 this year. When you said ... Hey, now. When you said, "For those who don't know what an information architect is," a little part of me died. I was like, "What am I a museum? A museum of irrelevant terms?"

Maya Patterson:
I feel like all UX designers and technologist probably know the importance of being an information architect and just information architecture in general. If you said that aloud to the majority of America, they're going to look at you with like crazy eyes.

Carl Smith:
You're totally right because UX has become a term that has gone outside of our industry. Even if people say user experience, right? My kids say it. My wife says it. My parents don't. It's one of those things where it's like people will now say, "That was a bad user experience." Even if they don't get the concept completely, they understand that they're supposed to be at the center. 

Maya Patterson:
Right. Right, which is huge. That's a major shift. I remember the point where I was explaining to my college roommates and my best friends what user experience was. At first they were like, "I don't get it girl. Are you just drawing pictures? Are you coding? What is this?" I started to ... I would say aloud when I encountered a poor user experience. I would be like, "Oh, this is such a terrible user experience," usually with my remote control and watching Netflix or something. 

Carl Smith:
There you go. 

Maya Patterson:
Eventually what I found was like I would watch them struggle with the remote control and they'd be like, "Oh, this is terrible user experience." I was like, "Okay. You're starting to understand." They'll now come to me and be like, "Can you help such and such app figure out this because I just think it's so poorly done. How can I make this better?" It's cool that people are starting to understand what this field is. It shows the industry is just starting to mature a bit and get itself into plain language for everyone to digest and take part in. 

Carl Smith:
Absolutely. The generation behind you, my kids, right? My daughter who's 13. When she was six, I think this is right, the first iPad came out. I remember looking at the iPad, playing with it. The idea was that the first iPad was to consume, right? You weren't creating with the first iPad. It was something to consume with. She played with it and she looked at me and she goes, "How do I take a picture?" I said, "Oh, you don't do that with this. That's not what this is for," and she handed it back to me. 

Maya Patterson:
Oh, my gosh. 

Carl Smith:
Then when the second iPad came out, when iPad 2 came out and there was a commercial for it and it showed it with the camera and the video and everything, she just looked at me and smiled. I was like, "Hey, you know what? I bought into the whole release it slow mentality and you knew." You're right. We are moving forward at a pace where it's expected that things are just going to be easy and powerful.

Maya Patterson:
Oh, I was just going to say and completely centered around user needs. We have a much lower tolerance for products that don't work well and don't work well quickly. There's not a lot of give there because we're consuming digital stuff all the time and technology is embedded in our day to day lives. The tolerance of people and poorly designed products is just extremely low. We definitely have a tough job, but it's a fun one. 

Carl Smith:
You first thought about going to law school. Talk about your decision to go into that. What was that about? 

Maya Patterson:
Law school specifically?

Carl Smith:
Yeah. 

Maya Patterson:
I've been a notorious planner my entire life. I'm sure my parents could tell you when I was five I knew the reason why I was even in kindergarten was so that I could go to Harvard. I have just been like thinking about the next step, what I need to do now to get to where I want to be in the future where I'm going to be happy or whatever success means. That's good and bad for various reasons, but I had been searching since middle school and high school for things that I thought that I would be good at. I listened to what respected adults in my life would say I'm good at. I actually had a family friend who was a partner at a law firm in Champaign. I was a part of this really cool internship program my senior year of high school.

For an entire semester, half of my day was spent interning at this law firm. I was good at it and I was taking AP English and so I was comfortable writing. I was comfortable reading. I thought, "Well, everyone's saying law is for me. I'm here doing all the law stuff, so of course I'm going to be a lawyer." Then when I got to college it just ... I could easily go that route, but I just was not thrilled with it. I definitely had a rough little period just trying to figure out okay, so what does that mean since now I don't have a plan.

Carl Smith:
Right. If you were a planner, if you had that in your mind from early on and then you suddenly came to this place where you're just like, "Wait a second. That doesn't make sense to me anymore."

Maya Patterson:
Yeah. It was big. It was not fun.

Carl Smith:
Where do you go from there because you're already in school, right? You're already in college? 

Maya Patterson:
Yeah. That was my freshman year. Because I'm a planner and I think I had so much, fortunately I realize this early on. What I did because me and my mom are very close, I just talked to her all the time about it. Our discussions before I actually knew that they had an information architect recently hired and working at Pixo, I just would talk about random things that interest me. I remember specifically one day in the car we were taking a road trip somewhere and I had the iPhone. I think I had just recently upgraded to maybe an iPhone 5 or something. It was fun. It was just like a really nice upgrade. I was just going off about how Apple designs these amazing products. I loved the iPhone so much and I just loved the way it worked.

I loved apps and things and that's about it. That's all I knew was just that I loved what was going on there and I couldn't articulate yet what I was feeling which is just like an excellent experience with this product that was delivering a new type of experience. Enhanced life for me. She was able I think to decipher I guess where my passions were stemming from and suggested information architecture and user experience design. I have no idea how I would have even known about this field at all if that didn't happen. Most people's moms are not CEOs of technology firms. I don't know. I really don't know. 

Carl Smith:
If you look at the web industry not necessarily technology or IT or whatever, but just the web industry specifically service side, building apps, product companies too, it's such a young field. Software has been around for a long time, but it's truly changed. I'll say that again Elisa, my daughter who's 13 now, when she was around that age, I was sitting there one day at the table and I was a hack at best. When you're a small shop, everybody does everything. I'm sitting there sketching out wire frames and style tiles and doing all this stuff. She was like, "What are you doing?" I was explaining it to her and she goes, "Oh, I'm going to build something." She got some paper and she started doing stuff and she goes, "I just built a store to sell cat toys."

Maya Patterson:
What? 

Carl Smith:
I said okay. I said, "What kind of cat toys?" She goes, "It can just be pieces of string. Cats don't care." I was like, "Wow. That's pretty bright." I had friends at Shopify. I contacted them and I said, "Hey, my six year old daughter, seven year old daughter, whatever she was at the time, just built a store." They were like, "She's got a free account. Just please, we want this story," right? She dropped it and walked away. The point being as an industry right now it feels like we're only perpetuating ourselves. Only people who grow up with somebody in their lives doing it is getting that. When your mom was able to share that with you, it put you on this course. What happened in school when you tried to make the shift? 

Maya Patterson:
It was very tough. I attended school at Washington University in St. Louis. We're known for our arts and sciences department and that was the department I was in. We didn't have a human centered design program at all. We didn't have UX design, anything like that. I searched through catalogs. I talked to counselors and most of the adults just looked at me crazy and were like, "That's cool. I don't know." I fortunately had a mentor that pushed me or an advisor, a dean, who pushed me to do psychology just ... I think she did that because she was just listening to what I was saying and realized psychology might help me get there. I just like stumbled upon it. I would even talk to my professor. For example, I was in a social psych course and it was amazing. 

I was learning so much and I was like, "Wow. I'm really understanding how people think and why they interact with other people the way they do. This is going to be great for design." I remember going up to my professor during office hours and telling him about user experience and he literally had never heard of it and wanted me to give him the whole rundown. It was like, "Oh, that's so cool." I'm like, "Wow. If the professors don't know, what do I do? Who do I go to as a resource besides the mentors I had at my internship my freshman year?" I was very frustrated because I just felt like I was losing progress. I didn't know what to do next.

I tried to do side projects for student groups on the side which helped me just think about things like design different experiences and try to piece together a user experience project, but it just felt like I was slapping together pieces and hoping for the best. That was definitely a struggle. Finally I found a program, one class, in the art department. It was not something that was publicized. That course was geared toward interaction design and it was a good course. We went through the entire process of thinking through a problem, researching what the user needs were and building out concepts for that. That was my senior year of college. There's all this time missed. It really just felt like I just needed somebody there to ... 

I just needed somebody to guide me to the right resources and the right spaces. I'm not someone that doesn't look for that online, doesn't look for that within my peers and my mentors. The fact that it was that difficult for me I know that it's extremely difficult, if not impossible for others. 

Carl Smith:
How long ago was this? When did you graduate? 

Maya Patterson:
2015. This is about two years ago. 

Carl Smith:
That's what I think will shock people because I remember my business partners in 2003, 2004 had graduated with degrees. Most of them art degrees. They were graphic designers, right? That was what you turned into, a digital graphic designer. There were all these hybrid terms. Even then any level of course they were teaching a tool versus philosophy or versus process. It was really frustrating. It was put in the wrong department, right? It was like putting classical music in the French program, right? There was some sort of a weird relationship that didn't quite work. You found one course in your senior year that wasn't publicized and that was kind of it. Now that course you say was good. It gave you some of what you were looking for. 

I will share this. This was probably about six years ago. I was working with somebody who today ... He was brilliant then, but he just got done at the USDS. He's done all these amazing things. He wanted to go back to school and it was about six years ago. His name's Andrew Maier. Andrew runs a UX blog. He wanted to go to Carnegie Melon. I asked him. I was like, "What does that cost?" He was like, "Well, I think it's about like $8,000 a semester." I was like, "Okay. Well, that's pretty intense." I said, "Just go sit in on a class. Don't sign up. Go sit in. See if you can monitor. Just see what's going on." He went on and the lesson they taught that day was from his blog UX Booth.  

Maya Patterson:
Oh, no.

Carl Smith:
Yeah. 

Maya Patterson:
Oh, no. UX Booth is also awesome. 

Carl Smith:
That shows how far behind education's fallen. 

Maya Patterson: It's so far. 

Carl Smith:
Part of this struggle is to get their curriculums approved. They have to go through all this hustle and all this process. By the time they get it approved, it's out of date, right? Another friend, Sam Capila. Sam was a professor at University of Texas and she's brilliant, right? She works at Iron Yard now. She got out of education which kills me. I'm happy for her, but she found that if she was really loose in her descriptions, she could change all the time. She was able to get curriculum passed that really said nothing so that she was able to teach everything. 

Maya Patterson:
That's so smart. 

Carl Smith:
That was pretty amazing too. When you look back on it and you think about the people that are interested now and coming through as a UX designer or an interaction designer, but something that's more in that philosophical side of design, of user centric design, what do you recommend to them? Do you think they're going to find an education opportunity that can get them where they need to be? 

Maya Patterson:
That's a good question. That's a good question. I'm actually thinking through that actively right now because I now have friends who went through similar programs at Wash U with me so we graduated with a BA in psychology, anthropology, whatever it might be. They know about user experience design just because they know me and I've talked about it with people. Now they come to me and they're like, "Wait. I think I would be really good at UX research. Can you give me some resources? How do I learn more about this?" It's slightly overwhelming because I remember how hard it was for me to even figure this out and that's with a safety net and someone there to kind of help guide, that's with four years in school.

I'm now talking to people who are out of school, learning how to transition from the beginning of a career they thought they wanted to like an entirely new industry that's still a baby in and of itself. I think it's tough. When I'm thinking about what you were saying about the classes being the wrong departments, that hit home so hard with me because I remember ... Something that stuck out to me the most was that Wash U had all of these insanely smart thinkers and people who could think through the toughest of problems. You could find them in any department, but you could for sure find them in arts and sciences. They were the writers. They were the researchers. 

They were the ones in the lab understanding actually how to do research which is really important to user experience design. They had no idea this entire world of intersection of technology and human needs existed. It was just kind of astounding because most of those people also were like me and didn't think they were artists or they didn't think that they were highly technical, so they didn't want to go into coding. They just missed out on this field. It's like okay, now what can we do? Really what it took for me was just a lot of people and by people I mean mentors and mentors at companies taking a chance on me. 

Even though I didn't have the prettiest portfolio and even though I didn't have all the visual design skills at all, I wasn't technically trained in Photoshop or Sketch or anything at that point, they were willing to bring me in because they saw that I was a thinker. They saw that I was curious. They saw that I was driven by just trying to figure out problems and use design to do that. I could use a pen and paper to figure it out. I could just learn on-the-job how to become a better visual designer, learn how to prototype. I think it takes more people reaching out and showing that they are willing to be that mentor, they're willing to provide a space of learning for people at whatever age to kind of test out this field. That's where I became a UX designer. 

Carl Smith:
When you mentioned that you were studying psychology, I got a big smile on my face because I was like, "Well, that actually makes complete sense even though you may not know it at the time." Because human to human interaction and human-computer interaction, it's all interaction and there's always one human as far as we know unless the machines are taking over. As far as we know, there's always going to be at least one human. Understanding outside of yourself and in somebody else's shell what they're looking for is so important. Then when you mentioned arts and sciences and you talk about people doing research and solving problems, it's about a way of looking at a situation. 

It's about a way of thinking strategically and not thinking just emotionally, but transactionally, right? I mean there are all these things you have to be able to focus on. It's a learned behavior. It's a learned model. There are other industries, there are other disciplines that can help us get these muscles in shape so that we can then come over and do user experience design and be better suited to create products and services for people that feel right. That makes so much sense to me that it's almost a mix, right? It's a way of finding through traditional education these classes. If you end up with a degree or not, these classes that will help you get tuned and then be able to express it through some sort of a mentorship or ... 

There are a lot of shops right now ... The two that always come to mind for me are Sparkbox and Fresh Tilled Soil. They do apprenticeships, right?

Maya Patterson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). 

Carl Smith:
The idea of combining traditional education with this on-the-job training, I don't know. It gets me excited. It makes a lot of sense. I also think that for a lot of professors ... My brother is a professor. I'm basing all of this on my feelings for him and he left when I was seven so go away to college. Whatever. He has a tough time accepting new things because it means he's no longer an expert at everything. I'm really excited to hear when you said you went to your professor and started explaining to him about user experience that he got excited or she got excited because there's so much in traditional academics where people just want things to kind of stay the same. I guess in life in general people feel that way sometimes, right? 

Maya Patterson:
Yeah, for sure. 

Carl Smith:
Honestly, I'll just do a little jab here. I wouldn't mind going back to 2016. I think you know what I'm saying. I think that's part of it. It's this melding of it. Maya, you're such a good spirit. I have to say this. The conversations we've had and having you on the show today, you just get me thinking differently and you get me excited. 

Maya Patterson:
Glad I can do that for you. 

Carl Smith:
No. Is there anything you'd like to share as ... My take on it is that you face struggles and you were just like, "I'm going to keep going. I'm going to keep looking." Obviously you had opportunity through your mom. You took advantage of that. My mom actually got me my first job in advertising. I was just like, "Hey, that's cool. Now I'm going to make the most of it." You've taken that and you've moved on and moved on. You've got this job now at Trunk Club. What would you say? What advice would you have for somebody who's coming up that wants to be in the industry, but just doesn't know where to start? 

Maya Patterson:
Good question. Well, I actually think I would probably give more advice to the industry than I would to people who are interested in getting into design. I think that there are a lot of resources online that kind of layout how to start your UX design career or product design career. Here are some good blogs. here are some ways you can get projects into your portfolio and kind of describe the industry. I feel like that information is there. What is missing to me is one, the education plus the on-the-job learning piece that's not super accessible to a lot of people. Like we were saying, our moms ... 

We're fortunate enough to have mothers who are in jobs that can benefit us in the future and that we can come and partake in, but that is not everybody's experience. That doesn't mean that they are any less of a designer. They might be a better one. We're missing out on that opportunity just because of what they were born into, right? It's more so a question I think to owners how do you create an environment that is forgiving and that allows for learning? How do you begin to take a chance on someone that isn't a traditional design student or the isn't following the traditional path into design and give them a space to absorb content, give them a space to follow leadership and learn from them. 

Then add in their own creativity and add in their own passions and new thought and probably turn to a very amazing designer in the future. I think that we as an industry just can do better by thinking through how we put together internship programs. I think the apprenticeship programs are amazing. I wonder if we can get even younger, right? I wonder like if we can start this learning experience early on in high school so that more people at least have the knowledge of this field and what it takes to get into it and have a mentor that kind of gives them the lay of the land. How can more design professionals become mentors to high students, early college students, maybe even younger, right? I think it's more a question about on us. Like what we can do more of. 

Carl Smith:
Well, for once or maybe twice in my life, I am suddenly speechless. I think what you just laid out is perfect and it's something we can control. For everybody listening, think about that. What could you do in your community to help somebody who wants to get into the space or who has the skills, but maybe doesn't even know it exist yet? What can you do to get it on their radar and give them that first shot at learning? 

Maya Patterson:
Yes. 

Carl Smith:
That's what we're going to leave you with with that little challenge. Maya, thank you so much for being on The Bureau Briefing today. It's truly been a pleasure.

Maya Patterson:
Thank you Carl. 

Carl Smith:
Everybody else listening, we'll be back soon and we'll talk to you then. Have a great one. 


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