.what I learned in the first year of grad school

Before I began graduate school, I knew that in order to justify thousands (and thousands and thousands…) of dollars towards an advanced degree, I had to have a plan. So, I set some goals and decided to hit the road running towards them. This is a post I started at the beginning of my master’s program and was originally titled what I learned in the first five weeks of grad school. I could lie and say that I waited to publish this until I had a year of graduate school under my belt, but the truth is that I got busy, forgot, and then stumbled on this in my drafts.

I’m happy it worked out this way. My first semester was a breeze and my second semester was a tornado, but these two experiences balanced my first year allowing me to now tell a complete story.

PERSPECTIVE. Understanding how concepts can be applied to the real world is an advantage. For me, that meant working for four years and returning to an enriching environment with endless opportunities to better myself. Now, when people ask about my interests, I use it as an opportunity to discuss my intermediate and long-term professional goals. When pouring over the course catalog, “This looks cool!” wasn’t good enough; classes have to contribute to the skills I want to develop in the course of my program. Having perspective means understanding how the program, the education, and your skills fit into the bigger scheme of things.

NETWORKING > HOMEWORK. Graduate school is about expanding your professional network and establishing yourself in the industry you want to pursue after graduation. Sure, grades, projects, and exams are a thing, but being able to connect to the professional world and pick experts’ brains about the things you’re studying adds another layer of perspective. Atlanta has a unique vibe, with a budding start up environment. This means there are lots of creatives (designers, user experience professionals, developers) looking to establish and maintain a community. You know what happens when you start going meet ups, talks, exhibits, and lectures? You see familiar faces, you run into people that want to introduce you to more people, and they ask your opinion about their ideas. You start to feel like a part of a real professional community. Of course, when you get home there’s reading to be done, but overlapping your social life and professional interests is a great time saver and a good way to stay sane in the mix.

MAKE EVERYTHING COUNT. TWICE. Speaking of time-savers, leverage the things you produce in graduate school for other purposes. Team project? Make it good enough to add to your portfolio. Writing critiques? Publish it on a blog. Attending a guest lecture? Tweet about the key points to connect to the social community. If anything you’re doing can be re-purposed, do it!

PROTECT YOUR SANITY! You’ve got to protect and fight for the things that matter to you, in general life but especially in grad school. There’s never a convenient time to do the things you love so you’ve got to make time for them. Once a month I blocked off a full Saturday to bake to my heart’s content. My boyfriend travels for work during the week, so it was important that I reserved weekends to hang out with him. Some people in my program started bi-weekly dinners to get together, eat good food, and get away from school for a bit. The possibilities and combinations are endless, but the bottom line is that sanity is important. I found that leveraging networking opportunities for sanity purposes was a great way to make everything count twice. I can’t tell you how many General Assembly events I attended because I needed a (free) beer while talking to young professionals to get my creative juices flowing.

Sure, grad school can suck you up and take over your life but this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Make everything count, keep your eyes on the prize, and take care of yourself – it will all work out just fine. If you’re in graduate school or considering it, best of luck! I’d love to hear other perspectives and lessons learned.


Flight to Portland

I am spending the summer in Portland, OR interning at Intel Corporation with the Mobility Client Platforms group. The summer will last from mid-May to mid-August, a total of 100 days!* I want to remember every meal, feeling, trip, moment, and laugh to the best of my abilities. What better way than to blog my way through the summer?

* Technically, I will spend about 103 days in Portland and I haven’t purchased my return ticket. But, 100 is such a great, even number – let me have this.

UX Essentials

MS-HCI Alumni: Monet Spells,  Lee Farabaugh, Jeanie Barker, Florian Foerster, and Erica Newcomb.

I attended a UX Essentials workshop hosted by PointClear Solutions, a consulting company reimagining healthcare technology. The workshop was made possible by a scholarship opportunity extended to Georgia Tech MS-HCI students. Fun Fact: The two workshop facilitators, Lee Farabaugh (CXO) and Erica Newcomb (Director, UX) are graduates of the Georgia Tech MS-HCI program!

MS-HCI Students + Alumni: Monet Spells '16,  Lee Farabaugh, Jeanie Barker, Florian Foerster '15, and Erica Newcomb.

MS-HCI Students + Alumni: Monet Spells ’16, Lee Farabaugh, Jeanie Barker, Florian Foerster ’15, and Erica Newcomb.

A word at a time. To kickoff the workshop, we did a group-story building exercise. We went around the room and each person said a word to build onto the previous words. “I once rode a kitten on a trampoline because magic…” would not be an uncommon phrase from this activity. The primary purpose of this activity was to stress the importance of listening to the story being created so you can contribute in a meaningful way. The same of true of UX design: to understand improvement strategies, you must understand the ways the users and the company understand the product. The secondary purpose is to appreciate the results of a collaborative environment. The story may take an unexpected turn, but diversity of thought is a key to success.

Design Thinking. For the first few hours of the workshop, we did a design-thinking activity to understand an empathetic approach to product planning and design. For the activity, we broke into pairs to understand how our “client” navigated the gift-giving experience to design a product based on their wants and needs (pulled from a series of 4-minute interviews). This fast-paced activity gave the perfect glimpse into what it means to take an empathetic participatory-design approach. This activity is based out of the D-School at Stanford.

Lean UX. We created proto-personas to make educated, empathetic guesses about target users in a Lean way. A proto-persona is an educated guess about a user type based on the designers’ personal experience. While it isn’t based on real information collected from users, it offers the opportunity for quick-UX research that allows for user reference-points throughout the process. Of course, putting a concept or prototype in front of users is imperative throughout the process, but proto-personas can start the ball rolling.

Mobile UX. I have a confession: I was once very skeptical of the value of the mobile experience. Throughout my time in Georgia, especially in this HCI program, I understand that one should consider the implications of any design decision they make – mobile versus desktop experience included. In the workshop, we discussed the process of evaluating the need for mobile and the various possibilities for mobile development (native, web app, hybrid). Each of these impact the user experience and should be taken into consideration. For example, native apps can access phone-features such as GPS and tilt-functionalities but updating requires a user-download, so the releases should be well tested and strategic. Web apps can’t take advantage of phone-features, require wireless access, but have the benefit of continuous deploys, so releases can be small and highly iterative. There are pros and cons to everything, so consideration and informed decisions are key.

The workshop was informative, interactive, and well conducted. The participant group was professionally diverse (product managers, developers, entrepreneurs, medical nurses, UX designers and researchers, etc.), providing a great backdrop for the workshop discussions. It’s refreshing to see that so many people are interested in and understand the value of user experience! It also provided context for the things I’m studying in HCI. We constantly talk about the value of empathy, users, research, usability testing, etc., and it’s refreshing to see that these concepts are still valuable in an industry setting.

This post is based on a Facebook summary post by Florian, the other workshop scholarship winner. Thanks!

Revision Path

I got to geek out with Revision Path’s Maurice Cherry about UX, HCI, women in tech, design trends, travel, networking, a design-driven approach, and my experience speaking at PRO/Design. To say it was a great interview is an understatement. In line with most things in my life, this opportunity came about through a series of conversations, events, conferences, and happy hours, talking about the things which I’m most passionate. I have to send a huge thank you to Adekunle for putting Maurice and me in contact!

In their own words, “Revision Path is a weekly interview show that focuses on showcasing Black graphic designers, web designers, and web developers. Each week, we explore the stories, processes, experiences, insights, and creative inspirations of these awesome creators from all over the world.” In my words, Revision Path is a wonderfully curated podcast allowing the Black-tech community to voice their passions and show the continuous beauty of diversity (in tech and beyond). The work they’re doing is important and I’m honored for the opportunity to contribute!

This will also go down in history as the day my face appeared on the front page of a website in the tech section, thanks to EvolveUX!

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Listen to the podcast at: RevisionPath.com, SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher Radio

“Thick” Authenticity & Workifying Games

This reading critique was written by Monet Spells for Educational Technology (CS 6460, Fall 2014) at Georgia Tech.

“Thick” Authenticity: New Media and Authentic Learning
by D.W. Shaffer and M.Resnick
Workifying Games: Successfully Engaging African American
Gamers in Computer Science

by B. DiSalvo, M. Guzdial, T. McKlin and A. Bruckman

These two readings complement one another in their support of authentic learning experiences that can be applied, adapted, and meaningful for learners. Workifying Games outlines a study done to engage African American male gamers with computer science concepts through video game playing and testing. “Thick” Authenticity establishes a context within which to understand the importance of measuring and reiterating effective educational processes.

In Workifying Games, the researchers assessed societal facts and problems relating to employment, education, and pursuing computer science studies or professions. The main drivers of the study were the historical evidence of African American males underperforming in academic settings and being unemployed or underemployed; the need for more computer scientists in the United States; and the tendency for (white male) gamers to leverage their recreational hacking into an interest in computer science. The researchers addressed each of the facts by encouraging African American male gamers to hack or mod video games, with careful respect to the value they place in sportsmanship. The researches leveraged new media (video games) to create an authentic learning experience (genuine interest in computer science), and utilized scaffolding (video games) to introduce a new topic (computer science). By eliminating initial resistance and offering relevant rewards, the researchers were able to make an impact on the students. How does this compare with other definitions of authentic learning experiences, as outlined in “Thick“ Authenticity?

According to “Thick“ Authenticity, effective learning environments need to exhibit all of the kinds of authenticity: personal, real world, disciplinary, and relevantly assessed. The last principle claims that means of assessment should reflect the learning process. This system is reasonable for skill-and-drill classroom settings where instruction is reiterated with practice problems. However, does this attitude towards assessment imply that if an educator creates a learning environment founded on community, conversation, and discussions, that the assessment should be the same? How does a community, conversation, and discussion-based assessment function? Does this mean that participatory learning environments are, at the core, inauthentic learning experiences if the assessments aren’t also participatory?

I am also interested in exploring the quote “…as computers replace pencil and paper, intellectual pursuits will change.” This is a something we’ve touched on several times in class. What are the important fundamentals for students to learn, especially as fields develop? We’ve discussed educators placing importance on certain antiquated concepts as a right of passage for students. For example, students of woodwork still learn to sharpen tools, though technological advances have all but eliminated the need for manual sharpening. Would it be beneficial if educators treated these fundamental concepts as black boxes instead of making students learn them? Would skipping over the “old”, outdated parts leave more room for students to learn and explore the future of these industries? If so, who decides what is truly important? Do students ever want to learn the history or fundamentals of a field before getting their hands dirty with the “cool” stuff? If not, does this invalidate their ability to effectively contribute to a participatory learning environment?