How to get into experience design, and ethical concerns with emerging tech: Q&A with Angelica Ortiz
This week we’ll get to know Angelica Ortiz, an experience designer and creative technologist who specializes in experiential spaces and emerging technology.
As an experience designer, Angelica solves problems on screens and in physical and virtual spaces, using a wide variety of technologies like VR, AR, and robotics. She currently works at 900lbs and has a podcast called Law Zero (with brand strategist Carole Trickey), which is about ethics and emerging tech.
I asked her about her podcast & ethical issues related to emerging tech. We also talked about what an experience designer does, the difference between UX and XD, and Angelica provides some advice on how to find a job in XD.
(This Q&A is from issue #17 of Juniors in Tech, and was originally posted on the Juniors in Tech blog.)
Keziyah Lewis: Tell us a little about yourself and what you’re working on.
Angelica Ortiz: Ever since I was little, I always enjoyed the arts: culinary, visual, performing, photography, etc. Yet I never really knew how to make any of those into a career I could sustain myself on. Then high school came around. I took a computer applications course and got introduced to HTML and CSS. I thought, “Hmm, creativity isn’t just physical; it can be digital too.” Keeping that in the back of my mind, I soon after went to undergrad and did a double major in Advertising and Media Production. Advertising in that program was very strategic and stuck in PowerPoint land, while the Media Production major had a lot of “art-for-art-sake” projects. There was a balance I was trying to find in each, but either one was too strategic without being able to make anything, or too creative and production-based without solving a problem. That’s when the VCU Brandcenter (a Masters program in Virginia focusing on branding and advertising) came in. I saw the Experience Design brochure and immediately knew it was what I wanted to do. It felt like the perfect blend of strategy and creative. One moment you could be doing research and sketching out concepts; the next could involve prototyping a kiosk with Arduinos and woodworking. It was exhilarating getting to learn how impactful and fun Experience Design could be.
Angelica Ortiz: Since then, I freelanced for a couple of companies until I found where I’m working at today: 900lbs, an interactive and emerging technology agency in Dallas. So far I’ve been working on experiential and emerging tech projects for a variety of industries. I am often the voice for both the user and the brand to find a common ground that makes the goals of both coexist seamlessly. The role has included me brainstorming creative concepts, making wireframes for physical and digital experiences, 3D modeling, and prototyping emerging tech experiences (among several other responsibilities).
KL: For someone like me who doesn’t know a whole lot about the field, it seems like experience design and UX design are pretty similar, perhaps even the same. What’s the difference between the two?
AO: I often wondered about this question myself when I first got in to Experience Design, and what’s frustrating is that the industry often confuses the two together. This article explains it perfectly and I highly recommend reading it to get a better understanding. To summarize: UX tends to focus more on digital experiences, while XD (the shorthand for Experience Design) is holistic and considers how multiple modalities could impact a user’s experience and enhance a brand’s goals. Experience Design is applicable anytime a brand wants to create an experience for a user, whether that be digital (ex. a VR application), physical (ex. a new CPG design and feature set), or spatial (ex. a retail or experiential pop up). It can even include commercials and advertising campaigns, thinking about what concept would the target audience most resonate with, and how it can be as impactful as possible (while also considering marketing channels and how the message is communicated).
AO: Essentially: anytime an experience could be made better and whatever it takes to make it great, that’s where Experience Design comes in. That’s why my job so much fun because it has impact on a wide scale and has a lot of creative freedom.
KL: What are some of the problems you try to solve as an experience designer who works with emerging technology?
AO: Often times, emerging tech is the “shiny object” that everyone wants to use, so a lot of my time tends to be questioning whether that cool Alexa app will actually solve a user’s problem or just be a gimmicky app they only use once. Once it’s been determined by my team and I that there’s a real value in an emerging technology, then I come in to figure out what a user might be looking to this technology to solve and what features would best help get them there. In tandem, I’m also considering constraints in terms of budget, timelines, and how they would define success for the project (ROI, increased usage, etc.) on the side of the client.
KL: What advice do you have for other designers who want to get into XD in general, or XD for emerging tech?
AO: Experience Design is tough because like I mentioned earlier, the industry confuses UX with XD all the time. When first on the job hunt and before coming to 900lbs, I would see 80% of the job listings being for a UX designer and making wireframes all day. That’s all well and good, but for what I was looking for, it was too constrained towards one modality and job function. My advice would be three things:
- Determine if either Experience Design or User Experience Design is best for you. It will become disheartening very quickly looking around the industry if you want to be an Experience Designer, as companies and agencies haven’t quickly adapted to how Experience Design could have a more holistic impact on their businesses. It will be tempting to focus on UX because that’s where the majority of jobs are. Keep in mind there’s no right answer: it’s all dependent on what makes you happy, external pressures, and what the job market is like at the time you’re looking for a job.
- Once you’re all in on Experience Design, build up a portfolio to support your ambitions. That could include doing spec pieces, being a freelancer for a while, or going to school for it. At the end of the day, your portfolio needs to show how you are identifying and solving users’ needs in a variety of modalities. The VCU Brandcenter was perfect for me because of my interest in advertising and business, but some may want to steer more towards the artistic side of XD. Either way, there’s a school, position, or problem out there for you to build up your portfolio and expertise.
- When you’re out looking for a job in XD, look carefully at the job description and job title. Sometimes XD jobs are hidden because they’re titled as UX. If they restrict you to wireframes and talk in detail about Sketch, InVision, or other digital prototyping software, then you’re probably going to be doing most of your work for screens. On the other hand, if they talk about having a say in creative concepting, experiential activations, retail, product design, or something that gets into other modalities other than digital, then you know that’s something to look into more. And once you land the interview (and even when you’re in the door working there), you will probably have to continually explain what you do, so it is crucial that you know where you stand, where your specialities lie, and what you want out of the role. For my current role, I pushed a lot for being a part of the creative process in the interview stages, which not only let them know where I stood, but also helped me get my initial title being changed from “UX/UI Designer” to “Experience Designer,” thanks to their flexibility and looking at their long-term needs moving forward. You might not get the dream XD job right out of school, but carefully taking on roles that open the potential to work beyond digital is a good place to start.
AO: There’s other words of advice I could give, but for the sake of brevity, I’m happy to elaborate and answer any questions for those who’d like to follow up with me.
KL: Let’s talk about Law Zero, the podcast you did with brand strategist Carole Trickey, on the ethical implications of emerging tech like self driving cars, XR, and AI personal assistants. What’s your biggest ethical concern about emerging tech?
AO: I’m concerned about the “shiny object” effect: where companies see a particular emerging technology that could do incredible things, but don’t stop to think about the cultural and ethical implications of their actions. Like an app that could seamlessly imitate someone saying something could have huge implications, like exacerbating the already prominent issues of fake news and bullying. Or when self-driving cars become an integral part of our lives: do you want an algorithm to decide whether your life is more important (or less important) than someone else’s (ex. what one of the robots did after a car crash in “I, Robot”?), or how it could manifest a real life scenario of the trolley problem? And honestly: do we really need a virtual baby that learns, grows, and acts like a real one? When tech starts making ethical decisions for us or when it doesn’t have safeguards in place to protect against people using it for unethical behavior, that’s where things gets very real and very dangerous.
KL: There seems to be this idea in the industry that tech will change the world and/or solve its problems. Some of that’s just arrogant Silicon Valley talk. But can emerging tech really make a difference? What are some opportunities for emerging tech to solve huge issues like racism, sexism, poverty, etc?
AO: I believe emerging tech can make all the difference (as long as it’s created thoughtfully). Voice Assistants can enable a senior living alone to call relatives, remind them to take their medications, document their memories through voice notation and audio recordings, and so on. VR can help people understand injustices other populations may be facing both domestically and abroad by enveloping them in a particular scenario, help caregivers understand what it means to live with Autism, or even provide a safe space to experiment and fail without physical injury. AR can revolutionize enterprise trainings by helping to increase knowledge retention and decrease the time needed to onboard a new employee…
AO: And so on. There’s definitely potential with these and other emerging technologies, but sometimes it’s hard to distinguish the “shiny object” apps from the ones making a difference.
KL: For those of us who work in tech, what should we be keeping in mind as we create and interact with emerging technologies? How can we make sure that what we’re working on is ethically sound?
AO: First thing’s first: consider if there’s a real need for the potential solution to be created. Not just business-wise, but also from a user’s perspective. Will it positively impact their lives? Will it potentially enable the bad apples of the world to make cultural issues worse, and if so, how could we safeguard against it? It’s impossible to think about all the unintended consequences of a particular emerging tech application alone, but getting a diversity of users and stakeholders early and often in the process will help in unearthing potential issues. Secondly, when you see something that could be problematic: say something. I know it can be difficult early in our careers for our voices to have weight, but find someone in the organization with clout you trust and can talk openly and honestly about your concerns. And when you do get that conversation in the books: show not just how something could have negative implications ethically, but also have a negative impact on the business. Just look to Facebook as an example for when a technology isn’t safeguarded early in the development phases and the impact it’s now having on them and us. When people understand that their bottom-line could be affected if an issue isn’t addressed, that adds considerable weight to your argument. Anticipating as much as possible the potential misuse of the tech will not just help the company from getting backlash, but also make sure you’re not enabling unethical behavior that could impact our future for the worse.
AO: There’s a lot to unpack with this question, so I’m happy to discuss this further through follow ups. I also encourage everyone to listen to Carole and I’s Law Zero Podcast to learn more about why certain technologies could enable unethical behavior and what we suggest to prevent it going forward.
I’d like to thank Angelica for her sharing her expertise and advice. You can find her on Twitter, and read more about her thoughts on emerging tech on her Medium blog. Be sure to check out her podcast, Law Zero.
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