Alumni Stories: Jennifer Smerdel, Experience Strategist at Mad*Pow
Jennifer Smerdel, VCD class of 2013, is now making her impact at Mad*Pow over in Boston. Read about her dynamic path going from Pre-Med at Indiana University, to our own Herron VCD graduate program, to experience strategist extraordinaire.
What year did you graduate from Herron and what was your thesis topic?
I graduated in year 2013 and my thesis topic was “Uncovering Talents & Interests in At-Risk Urban Youth: Co-designing a path to self-fulfillment”. I co-designed a program with youth and for youth to work through a series of creative activities in order to uncover their talents and interests in an open and collaborative environment. They then were guided through action planning to find out how best they could utilize those interests and talents and foster them toward a path of fulfillment and happiness.
What was your background before entering the graduate program?
My background was a bit scattered and all over the place. I started out at Indiana University as a pre-med student because I was always so sure I wanted to be a doctor. I really wanted to help people. But when I decided that career path wasn’t for me I switched my major two years into college to fine arts with a focus in graphic design. I always knew I was artistic but I didn’t really feel I fit into the graphic design world either. When I read Tim Brown’s article on Design Thinking that’s where it all clicked for me. There was a way for creativity and analytical thinking to come together and at the same time help people.
What path did your career take after graduating?
After I graduated from the VCD grad program, I took a bit of time off! I think it’s really important to give yourself a minute to breathe because I think our program is rather rigorous. Most people don’t do a capstone project and write a thesis paper on it plus make sure its beautifully designed. Once I took a break, I spent my time fully fleshing out my portfolio, website, LinkedIn, resume, and cover letter. It’s important to make sure you’re putting your best effort forward when looking for a job in this industry. You can’t half-ass anything because people will notice.
Where are you working now and what do you do? What does your daily work life look like, including environment, activities, and interactions with people?
I am now an experience strategist at Mad*Pow, a design agency focused on helping people in industries from health to financial services to technology, media, education, hospitality, and more. My main role is to conduct people-centered research and use my insights to help inform new, innovative strategies, products, and services for companies to better serve their members/customers/patients/etc.
Every single day is different for me. Which I remember hearing when I would ask alumni and job prospects what a typical day was like for them, and I found it so annoying! But it really is the truth. One week I can be developing personas for major financial companies, the next I can be tracing children’s footpaths through interactive science museums, and the next I can be putting together a conference track for design and mental illness.
Our office space is very open because we understand the need to communicate and collaborate with one another. There are a few offices for the VP’s of the company, but even those have clear walls so it makes you feel like you can walk in and ask a question to anyone. There are a few rooms that are closed off with solid walls though in case you need to get some work done and really focus. My personal favorite is the conference room that we call The Bat Cave. It has floor to ceiling whiteboard walls and is a perfect place to get a few people together and brainstorm ideas.
Can you tell me about a project you have worked on so far that you feel is especially meaningful and exciting?
I recently worked on the largest project in Mad*Pow’s history for a large financial company aimed at serving the military and their families. The team was tasked with redefining the member experience through restructuring the relationship between members and financial advisors and developing a new online financial advising tool. This was really exciting because there were about 20 brilliant people working on this project and we really had to lean on each other’s expertise and collaborate to come up with great innovative ideas for the client and ultimately the members.
How has your professional practice evolved and grown since graduating?
At first when I started working I had to rely largely on what I learned in school and in an academic setting. Which is all very useful and I still rely on experiences I had in grad school. However, after being in the industry for about a year and a half now I can rely on real-life experiences. For example, most of my projects have been for financial companies so I’ve gained a great deal of knowledge about the needs and desires of financial product and services customers which helps me to know what to expect before a new project even begins and how to approach the challenge.
Are there are any professional or volunteer organizations that you are involved with? What is your role with them?
I am a member of UXPA in Boston, which is a Boston chapter of the User Experience Professionals’ Association for people with interests in usability and user experience design. I am currently helping to review conference submissions for their yearly conference here in Boston in the summer.
Do you have any advice to share with up-and-coming designers?
The most imperative thing to remember when coming out of school and into this industry is that people are going to doubt your abilities because you’re coming straight out of school. A way to set yourself apart from everyone else is to know how to tell a story well. When creating a process book, portfolio, or website it is of course important to showcase work and experiences you’ve had but know how to talk about the process rather than just show the final outcome. In addition, ensure that your methodology is solid and you can tell why you made each decision you did along the way and make that part of your story.
I would also say that it’s important to understand whether you want to work for an agency or in-house. I was asked this multiple times in my job search process. I decided I wanted to work in an agency because I get really bored and I wanted to have a multitude of experiences coming out of school rather than limit myself to one industry. An agency fits me well because I can get experience in technology, education, healthcare, and financial services. However, there are restrictions with agencies. Being able to explain intelligently and thoughtfully your preference is very important.