.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.

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!

Screen Shot 2015-03-30 at 2.50.41 PM

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

Mobile Privacy

I think it’s interesting to base an entire body of research on the technological consumption of a population (teenagers) so heavily affected by authoritative figures (their parents). Teen tech consumption is based entirely on their parents’ involvement and support, usually in a financial sense (e.g., purchasing cellphone plans, buying a home computer, etc.). The authors also took some liberties in the study design, using data from privileged, early-adoption populations living in areas with high tech influences (e.g., Silicon Valley) and higher-than-average household incomes. I’d be curious to see a similar study play out with another, less skewed, population.

There is a brief comment in the beginning of the Grinter piece about early opinions about technology.

…in 1929, in their study of Middletown, the Lynds reported that the telephone and the depersonalized communications it offered were in part responsible for the increased sexual liberation of teenagers

At it’s core, this is not a unique or profound claim. This is an evolved version of the “Back in my day, children respected their elders” argument – everyone thinks their generation was more wholesome, respectful, and positive than later generations. However, there is something interesting that occurs with the introduction of technologies that can help parse one’s time and social opportunities; there are several implications here. I first thought about the possibility that these technologies increase teenage communication, which leads to more sexual liberation, assuming that more opportunities to communicate lead to more opportunities to establish relationships (romantic or otherwise).

Though, I think the bigger question is what happens when communication becomes easier and more discrete without trading off authenticity? Before technology, when all relationships were established with good old face-to-face time, it was arguably easy to understand how social groups were constructed. Everyone knows your friends because you eat lunch together every day. With the introduction of landlines, I imagine it was simpler to maintain existing relationships and easier to establish new relationships in private. Talking on the phone with a new classmate each evening is a private way to establish a relationship. Of course, this action is visible to your immediate family and those sharing the landline which leads to, as Srivastava points out, parents “knowing” their children’s friends. Then came SMS and IM technologies. Now, people can maintain existing relationships, establish new relationships and talk to complete strangers with less outside visibility. Those in your immediate vicinity may identify that you’re communicating with someone (though Grinter mentions some stealth texting practices) without identifying the person outright.

Back to my original question: what happens when communication becomes easier and more discrete without trading off authenticity? Does it lead to a more trusting society, because you can “meet” new people and develop strong bonds? Does it lead to a less trusting society, because you don’t have the benefit of the context that face-to-face communication offers? I think the answer is that it depends. Early-adopting teenagers forged a way for these technologies to leverage freedom, communicate social popularity, and control their availability; a fact that shouldn’t go unnoticed. Referencing recent class discussions, I think it is increasingly important for technology designers to consider these factors as they’re creating the next big things. I mean, did cellphone manufacturers intend to create an innately flakier society that will use SMS to bail on plans at the last minute? Probably not, but they may have intended to make it easier to tell someone when you’re running 15 minutes late.

Of course, I wonder how technology has changed or evolved since these times. Both of these papers were written in the mid-2000s (2005 and 2006), with the latter assessing mobile usage data collected in 2000. What would these authors say about the upcoming technologies teens are using today? How does Yik Yak’s anonymous communication change the social interactions of knowing the people you’re communicating with? How does Tinder evolve the concept of an extensive buddy list, when the people in your address book are less tied to shared experiences and may be one-off contacts?


Grinter, R.E., Palen, L., and Eldridge, M. Chatting with teenagers. ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact. 13, 4 (2006), 423–447.

Srivastava, L. Mobile phones and the evolution of social behaviour. Behaviour & Information Technology 24, 2 (2005), 111.



I was invited to speak at Nasdaq’s first PRO/Design conference, a free one-day conference about building design-driven companies. This is a brain dump of the experience, highlights, and major takeaways.


The Beginning. It all started at an informal UX Happy Hour meet in August where, I met Chris Avore, a Product Design Lead at Nasdaq. We had a great conversation about the dividing lines between product and UX teams, transitioning from one to the other, and the ideal ways to approach design in a company. A few weeks later, Chris pitched an idea: what if I presented at conference about design-driven companies? Obviously I said yes! The real question is how many exclamation points I used when I responded…

The Preparation. Then came the preparation. As I thought about the experiences and ideas I felt strongly about sharing, I returned to the idea that design isn’t a singular responsibility. Serving as a visual or UX designer doesn’t mean maintaining complete ownership over the company’s design; it should be a collaborative process. I used my experience at a Product Manager at a growing start up as a foundation to progress through what it means to move towards design-driven in a company.

The title, you ask: No One Team Should Have All That Power: Understanding Who Owns Design in the Product Development Process. Yes, that is a Kanye West reference.

Pre-Game Time. I arrived to New York on Thursday, January 29th – the day before PRO/Design. First stop: Totto Ramen, because New York ramen is fabulous. Second stop: PRO/Design pre-conference happy hour to meet the presenters and planners.

I met the Nasdaq Product Design team that, on top of their already demanding job-work, was turning this brilliant brain-child into a living, tangible thing. In their spare time. Huge kudos and lots of hats tipped off. Though, the best part was their genuine and unabashed excitement about the attendees, presentations, and network opportunities. The good energy in that room was contagious and I knew tomorrow would be amazing.

On conference day, I was fitted with Madonna-style microphone piece which really set the tone for how dope the day would be. My talk was scheduled after Sofia Millares, who delivered a brilliant talk about design and communication. Then, game time.

Game Time! My presentation was a geared towards talking through who owns design in the product development process, because no one team should have all that power. What’s that mean? That design is important and lives at the heart of the user experience. I think it’s crucial that companies put user experience first, eliminate bottle necks, and establish design standards to empower everyone to contribute to design. But before I dove into these things, I introduced myself.

I graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in computer science and have a strong web development background. I went on to spend four years as a Product Manager at a successful startup in New York. (Note: I intentionally left the name of the company out of the presentation, but this is not a secret in my real life. If you’ve ever received a holiday card from me you know the answer.) I worked in a small team, so my role as product manager included a lot of user experience and interaction design work. I loved that part of my job and decided to switch gears, move from New York to Atlanta, and be a UX designer while studying HCI at Georgia Tech. Basically, I understand the importance of collaborating between development, product, and design. I framed my presentation around understanding this concept in the context of my experience at a startup that developed a design-driven approach to product.

So the main question: who owns design? Is it the developers that code the product? The designers that mold the visual experience? Marketing that promote the product? Stakeholders that fund the initiative? Or the product team that plans the product? The short answer is that everyone owns design! Design will play an equal role when it’s being shared and utilized by everyone. Then, the question becomes: how do teams go about sharing that ownership? How do teams better collaborate in the design process? How can accountability for design be better distributed between various teams?

Working at a growing startup means growing pains. They’re not bad – they’re a fact. On a normal day at the company, I coordinated with developers about features for users and visual designers about styles and experiences. I noticed what we’ll call a traditional design approach, in which teams focus on users or design. The company recognized both of these as important, but separate entities. As you can see in the diagram, teams began initiatives with the user or design in mind.

For example, we had an excellent customer support team that understood, respected, and valued our users. When customer support approached a situation, feature, or bug-fix, they had the user at the forefront of their mind.On the other hand, designers, stakeholders, and marketing approached with a design-first mentality. For example, we had a wonderful marketing team that understood, respected, and valued our design. When marketing approached a situation, feature, or bug-fix, they had the design at the forefront of their mind.

Now, both users and design are crucial. That much is evident. So what connects them? In this traditional design approach, there are bridges, such as product managers, connecting users and design. We were small enough to not have hired user experience designers, but they would also be considered bridges in this model. What’s my beef with bridges? Bridges aren’t technically a bad thing, but could create a bottleneck, especially if the company relies too heavily on them. In my experience, it created a situation where I was constantly balancing “the user is always right” with “show users good taste in design”, reconciling sometimes competing priorities. This could be made more efficient by repositioning my role to a contributor, instead of a bottleneck or a bridge.

Though, the most important thing I want to point out is that none of the teams in this model are wrong for their alliances. The challenge is that there is an alliance to be chosen at all. The product process is a collaborative effort in which all teams share responsibility and ownership. I believe that design facilitates collaboration within and among teams. To quote a modern philosopher and rapper, “No one team should have all that power.” By that I mean that no one team should own a process or a product. For example, customer support shouldn’t be the company’s only insight into the minds of users. Visual designers shouldn’t be the company’s only connection to their design standards. Product shouldn’t be the company’s only ally advocating for the design and users.

As the company grew, and there were more teams and more resources available, we experienced a shift to a design-driven approach, which focuses simultaneously on users and design, understanding that they balance and guide one another. As you can see in this diagrams, users are at the center of the model, the yolk of the design egg if you will. What does this mean? A design-driven approach, in this context is synonymous to a user experience approach, in which users guide the design process and the experience is optimized for their wants and needs. So, all of the teams are guided by design, and therefore guided by users. For us, this started by establishing a design vision. For example, we increased transparency around annual and quarterly metric goals and visual design standards, meaning that everyone could look to the design vision to guide their team decisions. This was us aligning on a design vision to empower each team to contribute to design.

Notice that the arrows are two-way between the teams and the design-egg-user-yolk? Not only is each team guided by design, but they also inform and contribute to the design. The possibilities here are endless, but the bottom line is that this is how teams share ownership. By establishing and aligning to a design vision, we empowered each team to utilize design in unique and powerful ways.This was an amazing evolution! All of a sudden teams had fluid conversations about users and design, and they were empowered to do so. This is also solid proof that growing pains lead to great things.

So, what lessons did I learn moving from a traditional approach to a design-driven approach? First, to align on a vision, mission, and goals. Establishing a design goal and standard helped us empower each team to use and contribute in unique and powerful ways. Each team’s use of design doesn’t have to look the same, as long as it follows the company’s design vision.

Second, empower everyone to contribute to design. We put users and design at the center of the company’s product development process and encouraged teams to craft an experience around those standards. By following that design vision, to create positive user experiences, teams effectively contribute back to the design. It’s a continuous cycle.

Third, always consider the user’s experience – they are, after, the yolk of the design. A design-driven approach is a user experience focused approach. Continuously start with the users and the design, and revisit frequently to reiterate the product’s focus on users.

Lastly, eliminate bottlenecks, for efficiency sake. In the traditional design approach, there were bridges connecting the user-first and design-first teams. Serving as a liaison is valid, but for us, product managers became bottlenecks. Remove unnecessary bottlenecks from the product process and enable teams to access design and users…leaving time for other bottles, like champagne!

Proof. Check out link to my presentation slides. I’m working on getting a recording of the presentation and Q&A session. Check back soon!

View Slides