Interview with Cheryl Platz
This year we’re celebrating 10 years of UX London! In the run up to our special anniversary conference, we caught up with Cheryl Platz to hear her thoughts on the evolution and impact of UX, and how her own career has developed in this time.
On the evolution and impact of UX
Thinking back to 2009, how and where did the discipline of UX sit within the industry, and what role was it playing in business at that time?
Back in 2009, I was early in my first tour of duty at Microsoft. As part of the Server & Tools group, it most definitely felt like we were constantly pitching our discipline to the product teams we worked with. We had a roadshow deck that we’d take to product teams, bringing them some of our successful case studies about the potential impact we could have when brought in at the right part of the process. A bit like a design circus — come see the designers perform a story about design impact! We had to fight to be invited on a feature-by-feature level, but over time, we built trust and made major inroads.
The broader discipline was still demonstrating largely incremental benefit — so few companies incorporated design into the complete product process. And we were only just seeing the benefit of design communities; in the larger companies like Microsoft, designers were finally conversing across teams for the first time and sharing their expertise.
How has UX changed in the past 10 years?
At the first interaction design conference I attended a little under a decade ago, a large part of the discussion was focused around tools and process. It was all very tactical. We were still discovering ourselves; figuring out how to work at scale. Agile still hadn’t been adopted widely, and many designers were still working on boxed products rather than more flexible apps and services.
In 2018, the design field is looking forward, not inward. Rather than focusing on making ourselves good enough to merit that proverbial seat at the table, we’re willing to wager the trust we’ve earned on taking a stand for more responsible and ethical product decisions. Our processes have become robust enough that we’re applying them far beyond traditional software design.
How do you see UX evolving over the decade to come?
Designers will continue to find ways to amplify under-represented voices. I’m hearing of some exciting work in participatory design, where the customers a design will serve are heavily involved in its creation.
What’s the future of UX in one word?
On your career
Tell us about your first design/UX role. Who did you model yourself on?
Technically, my first design role was as an interaction design intern at MAYA Design in Pittsburgh. That was a fantastic opportunity, because their methodology was strongly inspired by the coursework many of them also completed at Carnegie Mellon, where I was doing my computer science & human-computer interaction double major. I learned how to apply many techniques like cognitive walkthrough to corporate product and communicate that back to customers.
What are the qualities of a good UX practitioner?
Curious and open-minded. A good listener, who leads with questions rather than assumptions. Motivated by the process of learning, energized by new challenges. Confident enough in their own value that a “bad” outcome in a usability test or critique is seen as a triumph of process and not a personal failure.
How do you motivate your team?
I often start by framing the scope of our potential impact, and I try to put a humorous spin on things during challenging times. So often, a bad starting point can be framed as “tons of upside” — lots of opportunity for us to make a difference. And in the end, we’re in design to make a difference!
We are all human, and with rare exceptions our work is not life or death. By creating stronger personal connections, we can build a team fabric that transcends tricky situations. When things go wrong, it can be difficult but it’s important to focus on moving forward: what can we learn, and how can we apply it to our process to avoid similar problems in the future?
What advice would you give practitioners who are just starting out in their careers?
Your first few projects will have a disproportionate impact on your later career — and those first few years out of school are a magical time where employers are more willing to forgive a primarily academic portfolio. Choose carefully and optimize for projects that will give you end-to-end experience shipping product OR strong agile design process with plenty of customer interaction.
As I’ve been lucky enough to work on cutting edge products like the Echo Look, I now find early-career designers asking me about how to work on that type of project. My major advice to these designers is to get experience shipping product before seeking out secretive work. A large majority of new projects under NDA are cancelled or indefinitely postponed, which could leave your portfolio in the lurch. Furthermore, working on such projects cuts you off from the greater design community, making it harder to get advice.
What does a typical day look like for you? Is it all meetings?
I’m currently a design manager on a newly formed team focused on cross-product scenarios for system administrators. It’s exciting to see this kind of cross-product collaboration occurring: in many ways this was the dream we all had a decade prior!
But yes, working cross-product means lots of meetings. My work week is currently about 50% design-related meetings — working sessions, product team syncs, collaboration with research and content, etc. About 30% of my time is currently spent hands-on working on designs. We’re experimenting with a wide variety of tools, so I’m also on a fairly healthy learning curve during that time. The final 20% is hiring and logistics.
What challenges are you facing at the moment and what are you doing to overcome them?
We have huge influence across multiple products, but we’re short-staffed, which is both a curse (we have to say no to some opportunities) and a blessing (as it means I get to stay connected to some hands-on work.)
I’m no stranger to working on overutilized design teams, and the best strategy I’ve found is to continually campaign for a well-prioritized design backlog. We must fight the perception that we can work on many things at once; in reality, no one is served well by distracted design. Rather, we seek agreement on what’s top priority at any given moment — and we handle the scale by moving to the next highest priority while waiting for feedback on other work.
What’s your proudest achievement?
Certainly, my work as the first designer on the Echo Look is at the top of the list. We had no precedent to draw from, no external help, and the odds were stacked against us — but we managed to share the customer stories we uncovered and build a strong shared vision across design, software engineering, hardware engineering, and our retail partners. The fact that the Echo Look shipped is a triumph of customer-focused research, of cross-discipline partnership, of storytelling, and an investment in the future potential of natural user interfaces for audiences beyond traditional tech early adopters.
But some other proud moments are less glamorous. I spent a year building out a series of design patterns to help the Alexa platform scale to handle notifications and other proactive interruptions like phone calls, which weren’t part of the original interaction model. That work required close partnership with our developers, since it was essentially a roadmap for hardware-agnostic platform changes. I love systems-level work like that, and I hope designers are called to the table more frequently for those design problems in the future.
In the scope of my lifetime, though, perhaps the most important work I’ve done is not product work at all. I’ve had the opportunity to teach introductory interaction design workshops to over 500 grade and high school students, and voice design (VUI) workshops to hundreds of adult practitioners. When I hear from a former student that I’ve inspired a career choice or a new product? Those are some of my most fulfilled moments in design.
Join Cheryl and a host of other fantastic speakers at UX London 2018 — the 10th anniversary edition of Clearleft’s trailblazing UX conference. UX London takes place 23rd-25th May 2018 at Trinity Laban — tickets are on sale now at www.uxlondon.com