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Recap: September Dinner with Kate Wilhelm

Like last September, again we worked smarter rather than harder in procuring a speaker for our first talk of the season. As the Fluxible conference was going on, we invited one of their speakers to join us. Conveniently, she agreed, and was also local and a frequent Girl Geek Dinner attendee.

And so we convened at the splendid Centre in the Square Members’ Lounge to eat, drink, be merry, and learn from Kate Wilhelm about UX Circuit Training. (She actually gave a three-hour workshop at Fluxible, so cut things down significantly for us.)

Kate is an IA at BlackBerry, focused on helping developers make great apps. She has a strong “just do it” philosophy and believes in learning while doing (and sometimes asking forgiveness later…) She’s involved in a number of UX and design groups in the area, and a great source of resources and sound advice.

The full workshop slide deck for Kate’s presentation can be found here: UX Circuit Training.

Kate’s presentation focused on three main areas. In her words:

  • The UX bits
  • Owning your career
  • Resources.

She then proceeded to give an overview of user experience design, with how various elements like visual design, information architecture, and content strategy fit together. Of course, when you’re dealing with creative types, everyone sees things a little differently, so UX could be, metaphorically, a house, a honeycomb, a flowchart, or whatever you dream up yourself.

Some philosophies focus on the different skill sets, while others focus on what you want to get out of it, with words like useful, findable, and desirable. Other approaches are a hybrid of holistic philosophy with real world application, looking at all stages or parts of projects and determining how UX can be of greatest benefit in each, e.g. research, front-end development, back-end development, etc.

While UXers can help with or improve visual design, that’s not necessarily their focus. Overall, they are problem solvers and storytellers. Some of the qualities Kate listed for good UX practitioners are: empathetic, user-focused, strategic, detail-oriented, focused, passionate, and research-oriented.

Kate then shifted gears a bit into a more career-oriented direction, talking a bit about what recruiters look for in UX people. She noted that it’s good to keep in mind that (as with many tech professions), someone is likely filtering for keywords, as they are not experts in the field themselves. Recruiters also look for experiences, deliverables, and accomplishments, which isn’t terribly different from other professions. But it’s a good thing to keep in the back of your mind and you progress through projects at work, embark on something new where you have to learn quickly, or get great results from something you put out into the world.

Kate noted that recruiters, managers, and peers alike want these things:

  • Objectivity, openness, and self-awareness
  • Ability to present ideas clearly and confidently (good client manner)
  • Willingness to collaborate and listen to ideas
  • Ability to speak to the process.

It’s likely a UX person will be working with lots of different teams, personalities, ideas, and political agendas, so being nimble and flexible are key attributes. Kate broke things down into slightly more casual terms as well, stating that it’s important to care and be interested, communicate well, have a sense of humour, and don’t be a jerk. Wise words. No one wants to work with arrogance, drama, or someone who’s utterly inflexible.

Coming from a background where a lot of Kate’s learning and experience was due to strong self-motivation, her career strategies rang very true. Important points:

  • Own it
  • Formalize it
  • Document it
  • Stay current
  • Work with crushes
  • Don’t get comfortable
    • It’s important to remember that you are responsible for the jobs you want to do and the career you want to build. No manager or company is going to take care of you exactly the way you want. Decide who’s going to own your career. Define what you want (short- and long-term). Create a plan. Use good strategies. And create your own opportunities where you can or need to. (Or as Kate and her charming Sriracha graphic like to put it: make your own sauce.)

      Typically where you work there will be needs and gaps that aren’t being addressed. Get in there. Identify the gaps, decide how they would be best filled, make a plan, and set to work building and making things better. Sometimes this will require buy-in from higher-ups, sometimes not. When you can, get stretch assignments that require things you don’t yet know, but get to learn on the job. (Perhaps best to start with something not too high profile…) You can also make your own assignments, and volunteer outside of the office to get experience or learn new skills in a low-cost way.

      Over time, as you make life better for your customers, user base, peers, etc., you’ll grow your credibility, and people will think of you when UX-related issues come up, or when a project is being planned. Bottom line, it’s all about doing good work. And proving the value of what you’re doing by making others’ lives better, too.

      Much like developers will work on apps or websites on their own time to flex different create muscles or learn new skills in a hands-on way, UX practitioners can do the same. You can volunteer for a cause or charity that interests you. Orgs always want websites that encourage more donors, for example. You can create projects that will become your portfolio. What about your skills and experience do you want to showcase? Or you can just tackle something that’s always bothered you. There can always be a better mousetrap. Why shouldn’t you be the one to design and benefit from it?

      Harkening back to earlier in the talk, it’s also important to function in storytelling mode. As Kate noted, think about your process, how you do things and why. What can you learn to do them better? Keep artifacts. Sometimes work you do will be proprietary, but it’s important to develop a portfolio of accessible projects to showcase your skills and experience. (Hence the value of personal projects if your at-work work is very much locked down.) Have stories to tell about challenges you’ve faced, successes you’ve had, and even ways you’d do something differently next time.

      From a tactical perspective, LinkedIn can be really handy in determining how to market yourself, or to look for a job in your field. You can get tips and inspiration from profiles of others in your field. You can learn the keywords and terms that’re common (and thus likely what recruiters are looking for). You can access jobs that aren’t posted elsewhere. And you can simply be easier for recruiters to find.

      Kate did comment a bit on formal education in these fields, which can sometimes leave significant skills gaps. That said, she also included a list of great educational and networking resources for training and conferences (slides 49-51). Book recommendations are covered in slides 61-66. (As far as we know Kate doesn’t have an Amazon affiliate link, so next best thing – buy from your local bookstore!)

      On slide 52 Kate outlines a number of relevant organizations to join, and web and social sites to peruse (slides 54-60). Regarding mentoring, she noted that it can take a lot of forms. One-on-one or group, formal or informal, local or remote. And of course, both find one and be one. Remember, working with crushes makes good things happen.

      In closing, Kate reiterated the importance of owning your career. Know what you want and figure out a solid plan and goals to get there. Retain artifacts of your learning and successes. And build and maintain great relationships.

      She also quoted a tweet from Jamie Blomquist (@jaibee): 1) Show up. 2) Work hard. 3) Be kind. 4) Take the high road.

      Good advice for the UXers and all Girl Geeks. 🙂 Many thanks again to Kate for joining us, and to Centre in the Square for their excellent Members’ Lounge space, which was a big hit.

      Stay tuned for an announcement very soon for our October Dinner as well!

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