The value in breaking outside of yourself
Cheryl Platz is truly multi-faceted: an internationally renowned interaction designer, public speaker, teacher and actress. All of those talents and experiences have shaped her way of thinking and have brought her to a place where she wants to share them broadly. And she does. Channelling lessons from her mentor — the great, late Randy Pausch — Cheryl offers her perspectives today, and with the world on podcasts, Twitch, Medium, and at conferences, including Interaction 19 and Interaction Latin America coming up in October in Colombia. You can also follow Cheryl on Twitter and LinkedIn.
Describe yourself and your work. What do you find most interesting?
As a full-stack designer on the Human-centered Design team in Information Technology at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I’ve been entrusted with the challenge of improving the employee experience with regard to productivity and collaboration. It’s been a fantastic opportunity to learn about the Foundation’s mission and to draw upon all of my IxD skills.
I’m currently wrapping up a 6-month research project, moving from interviews and contextual inquiries to analysis and deliverables like journey maps and user profiles. In the next 6 months, my focus will be more diverse.
An amazing opportunity I’ve had since coming to the Foundation is to aid in organizational design for the IT group as a whole. I’ve had the exciting chance to develop and facilitate several workshops for IT leadership to help us transform the way we think about operations and customer value. I’ve been so impressed by the curiosity and open-mindedness of leadership here!
There’s also growing interest at the foundation in applying human-centered design in our programmatic work. We’ve had a few opportunities in the past few months to facilitate design thinking workshops for teams outside of IT, like our Polio program team. It’s been so energizing to see how folks well outside of design open up when we create safe spaces for collaboration and creativity.
How did you discover interaction design? How did you get started?
I had always been drawn to both technology and creative pursuits. I was programming in BASIC on my Commodore 64 at the age of 5, and in high school, I was taking both programming classes and Art Major prep classes.
Through a series of fortunate coincidences and circumstances, I discovered Carnegie Mellon relatively late in my college search and got accepted to their School of Computer Science. Since I knew so little about the program, I went to campus to visit. During a prospective student presentation, the late Randy Pausch introduced the nascent Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII) and their double major undergraduate offering. I still remember seeing his slide showing CS + visual design + cognitive psychology, and feeling like I got hit by a lightning bolt. “THIS is what I’ve wanted to do all along.” From there, many of my decisions were made with the intent of getting accepted into the HCII double major (which I’m happy to say was a success).
But I didn’t go straight into UX after school; my senior year was 2001/2002. My senior job fair was a week or two after 11 September. The job I’d lined up was gone. So I studied for a year at CMU’s Entertainment Technology Center, which led me to a 4-year career in the video game industry. During that time, as a producer the UX of my games often fell to me, so I kept those skills relevant while shipping over half a dozen games on just as many platforms. If you’ve ever played a Sims game or a Disney DS/GBA game, you’ve likely played my teams’ work.
Which of your projects best represents how interaction design builds a better society?
Perhaps the most honest answer? It’s not a design project. It’s my work as the leader of a small but dedicated online community centered around my Twitch channel. My community members have broadened my perspectives, helped each other in difficult times, shared vulnerable moments, and all while (generally) never meeting in person.
When we design technology that lets us be more human, we all win.
Traditional projects? My conversational design workshops, my current work at the Gates Foundation, or my work on the Echo Look (while a consumer product, I saw firsthand how body image and fashion have a direct daily impact on peoples’ lives — both personal and professional).
In your experience, what far-reaching impact can interaction design make?
I’ve gone through a big ideological shift in recent years. I used to be one of those designers (and not passing judgement here; I understand the perspective) who felt like our skill set is unique; it can’t and perhaps shouldn’t be taught broadly; that our role is to be at the table.
But after years in corporate environments where design could never scale, I realized that’s probably a permanent situation. Rather than hold on to my way of thinking, I want to share it broadly. Empower my colleagues. A rising tide lifts all ships. And as we teach, we can also teach when it may make sense to bring in a dedicated IxD professional.
After all, so many of us yearn to do generative work like the work I’m doing now, but the funding is rarely there. We won’t see significant improvements from the state of the industry today without cultural change. Designers willing to flex out of their comfort zones, to teach, to facilitate, to bring the best out of others. Once others are prepared to make better choices day-to-day, we are freed to help them see the bigger picture product-to-product.
What are the expected benefits and consequences?
By encouraging a more creative and collaborative environment, we’ll be creating a virtuous cycle in which we are vital participants. By transparently modeling our work and amplifying the voice of our customers, we enhance curiosity and encourage continued outreach.
In many ways, we need to be willing to become invisible; to become a conduit for the customers we serve. It’s not glamorous — and I say that knowing it’s ironic, as someone who regularly stands onstage to talk about design. The more we model our customers’ truth, the more we all succeed.
But as the champions of that truth, there is also great responsibility waiting for us. AI is a great tool and a great danger. Designers looking to grow their careers should look to improve their storytelling skills. Not because we want to tell fiction; but because we want to have the sophistication to understand how best to portray the truth to convince stakeholders to make difficult, costly decisions. Empathy comes “naturally” to many designers, but it does not come naturally to many of our partners. We can help.
How have you benefited from a mentor, and what guidance would you give to community members looking for a mentor?
The late Randy Pausch was the most significant mentor in my life. It wasn’t the formal “please be my mentor” sort of relationship. I just knew that I respected and admired him, so I sought to help him where I could. Eventually, I became his student, then his teaching assistant, then his friend. Randy and his teachings helped me understand the importance of feedback and collaboration: how I was seen by others, and how to better approach collaboration and show up as an invested peer. I also watched and admired his efforts with the Alice project to create educational tools that would draw more girls into STEM. Randy was the one who (indirectly) introduced me to IxD. He connected me with my dream internship at Disney World. We lunched together when I was working at EA and he was on sabbatical there. I was so lucky to have his influence in my life, and that was a big driver behind many of my projects like my middle school IxD workshops, trying to give back.
For folks looking for mentors now, I encourage them to be more selective and specific. I’ve seen so many “please mentor me” or “can I pick your brain over coffee?” requests… and honestly, mentors want to have a connection to you.
There are so many resources already out there — as a potential mentor, I don’t want to regurgitate content that’s readily available. I want to feel like there’s something only I can give to my mentee. 1:1 time is one of our most precious resources, and I have to be selective about how I share it. That’s why I teach and write so much; if I have insight that’s valuable for many I find it more effective to just get it out there.
Randy and I largely bonded over our mutual love for Disney Parks. Why is the mentor you’re pursuing THE right mentor for you? Make that case. What specific things do you think you can learn from them? And it’s probably not “how do I break in?” if you’re targeting a mentor who has been in the industry more than a decade. Get creative and specific while remaining respectful of your mentor’s time. (And even if you can’t get 1:1 time — I couldn’t with Randy early on — there’s still plenty to learn from their history in the meantime.)
What’s your design philosophy and how does it manifest in your work?
It’s been a hard won perspective, but: we can be better than the sum of our parts. We are better together. Rather than bring all the answers to the table, bring the right questions to the table — and the drive to see those questions through to fruition. I embrace fluid process, with the right tool in the moment; I embrace the minimum amount of effort required to get to the root of the story; I try to embrace transparency whenever I can. That’s not how I started, but that’s where I am now.
What are the most important hard and soft skills for interaction designers to have?
Don’t fixate on tools; they change too frequently. Learn how to learn. Learn how to convince. Learn how to collaborate. Learn how to let go of your ideas.
Design is not a toolkit. It’s a set of muscles you build over a lifetime.
What are your passions and interests?
The biggest is the performing arts; they have always been an undercurrent in my life. In my adult life, I’ve found a professional home as an ensemble member at Unexpected Productions in Seattle, where I’ve been performing and teaching improvisational theater for over a decade. That home is a gift; it enables me to fail more freely, to take bigger chances, and to grow as a result.
Twitch has been a big part of my life for over 3 years. I’ve done four Twitch TV series of varying lengths, and a number of guest performances. I’ve also been running my own Twitch channel, where I get to discuss and explore topics I care about while playing games and connecting with a great group of international fans and contributors.
Beyond that? Travel, with a particular soft spot for Disney theme parks; running, though I’m in a medically advised break after 5 solid years of half marathons and beyond; and…Pokemon. Pikachu was my ring bearer.