From Dell Technologies to Capital One, companies that rely on the use of intuitive customer experiences are finding a wealth of talented designers among students and alumni from theSchool of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication at UT Dallas.
The ArtSciLab — the school’s transdisciplinary research lab focused on the intersection of art and science — is immersing students into the field of user experience, or UX, design.
Cassini Nazir, clinical associate professor in the arts and technology (ATEC) program and director of design and research for the lab, said UT Dallas is emerging as a leader in UX education in North Texas.
“There’s a growing trend in more courses focused on user experience (UX) design and interaction design at colleges across the nation,” he said. “Many of these concepts have come out of human computer interaction concepts, but design research and UX have really emerged as disciplines in their own right. Industry has helped by investing in design researchers and user experience designers in their spaces.”
Nazir said more companies, both established and startup, are employing a design-centric ethos, cognizant of the role UX plays in customer relations.
The Design Value Index — an evolving metric that tracks the value of companies that meet specific design-related criteria — showed in 2014 that 15 design-driven companies had outperformed the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index by 228 percent over 10 years.
Several enterprise-level companies such as Intuit and Sabre want to work with the ATEC program to recruit talent, he said.
“UTD has really benefited from it because there’s a boom of businesses setting up offices in Dallas,” said Nazir, who is part of the Dallas Design Council. “Many of those companies have been hiring teams of designers, and we’ve been successful in filling those needs.”
Clear Line to Job Opportunities
The lab has had students move into design positions at companies such as Sabre, Cisco Systems, AT&T, Siemens, General Motors, Fossil and J.C. Penney.
Debi Terry Ndindjock BA’13, a digital experience designer at Dell, first gained an interest in UX design while taking the interaction design course as a sophomore.
Ndindjock considered herself as purely a graphic designer, but she said she was intrigued by the psychological aspects of design, realizing UX design merges the two concepts.
“The turning point was when (design consultant) Stephen Anderson visited our class and spoke about his work,” she said. “I knew that was what I wanted to do. Since it is a relatively new field, we get a part in defining the industry as a whole.
“UX design requires such varied skills and education: visual design, writing, research and technology. You get to get in where you fit in.”
Cathryn Ploehn BA’14 said the same course — taught by Nazir — also propelled her into the field. Ploehn also served as designer for the ArtSciLab.
“Cassini’s enthusiasm was a gateway to taking further related courses, and finally a capstone in UX,” she said. “The application of the concept of empathy to design and development captivated me.”
Ploehn, who manages UX design problems and data visualization for Visionist Inc., said that developing a sense of empathy is fundamental to what makes user experiences successful.
“Really listen to what a person says to you both inside and outside of a user research setting,” she said. “Try to feel what it is like to be somebody else. Practice by exposing yourself to points of view beyond your comfort zone.”
For senior and UX Club president Lina Moon, there wasn’t an aha moment that led to an interest in UX design.
“I think being part of the UX Club as an officer and working in the ArtSciLab really gave me the confidence to pursue the field further, as it gave me a good support network and provided me access to more collective knowledge,” Moon said.
In July, Moon started a full-time position with Capital One’s inaugural Design Development Program.
The two-year program pairs students and recent graduates with a mentor who guides new associates through different fields such as interaction design and coding.
The growing demand for UX designers can be attributed, at least in part, to the growing demands of consumers of digital products. Nazir said designers often play the role of customer lobbyist, researching and voicing the needs of consumers to their business.
“Audience expectations of what constitutes a good experience are now much higher than they were in the past,” he said. “If businesses exist in a digital space — be it a website, app, digital kiosk — they need to invest in good design.”
The projekt202 team went back to school recently to coach the next class of UX designers.
The UX Club at The University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) hosted projekt202 for an interactive Design Research Workshop on March 31. Senior UX Designer Chelsea Maxwell, Experience Researcher Nick Ansel, Talent Coordinator Jessica Hart and Vice President of Customer Experience Jeremy Johnson shared their expertise in conducting research and the many ways it informs the design process.
The collaborative session helped UTD students investigate and answer research-driven questions such as: Who are the customers and users of our technology? What do they actually need? What methods help reveal those needs? How does research fit into the design process?
In one exercise, students were asked to “design a hat” with no other guidance or restrictions. The attendees’ heady imaginations were brimming with creations of all shapes, sizes, colors and purposes.
To top things off, however, few of the designs could really meet a specific user’s needs. This was an important and enlightening “aha!” moment: students realized that without research to guide design, they were simply throwing out prototypes to see what might work.
At another point in the workshop, students interviewed Nick about his daily trip to work, then watched a video of his actual commute.
There were notable differences between the interview and the real-world observations. Like many users in similar interview situations, Nick didn’t mention details that would be critical in solving commuting-related problems. By simple observation, however, these factors were easily discovered.
Using their interview and observational notes, UX Club members performed Affinity Diagramming to develop high-level insights that would inform their designs. They then wireframed creative and innovative mobile apps to make workday trips easier and more efficient for frustrated commuters.
“It was a treat helping students bring theory into practice,” Nick said. “It’s great to see such curious and passionate students make the most out of their interest in UX. It reassures me of the bright future ahead for the experience design community.”
A bright, experience-driven future is a large part of the mission of the UX Club. It envisions the reality of its students playing crucial roles in Dallas design.
The student professional club actively works to increase awareness of user-centered design. To understand and create well-designed experiences, the UX Club provides its members with opportunities — such as the projekt202 Design Research Workshop — to network with industry leaders around Dallas-Fort Worth.
As Chelsea explained to the group, projekt202’s methodology and best practices are easily applied to the students’ coursework and personal projects, enabling them to strengthen their portfolios and experience.
“What’s really awesome is that schools are starting to catch up with what is going on in the industry,” she said. “Previously, in regards to technology, what schools were teaching and what skills were needed by employers were miles apart. We’re starting to see that change — for example, with the UX Club and courses offered in design.”
Jessica said, “It was exciting to watch them take in our methods — interviewing, affinity diagramming, wireframing — and contribute their own ideas to solve real-world problems in innovative ways. The big takeaway of the evening for them was that observing users is absolutely crucial to strong design.”
With a passion for changing the experiences people have with all aspects of technology, the projekt202 team members appreciated the opportunity to share their professional insights.
“Working with such a bright and curious group is always rewarding. It keeps me sharp while also nurturing the profession with critical knowledge-sharing activities,” Nick said. “I was honored to share what makes projekt202 such a great place to practice my craft: the culture, the work and a focus on bettering experiences everywhere.”
This article originally appeared in the projekt202 blog on April 7, 2016.
projekt202 sincerely thanks the members of the UX Club, and the students and faculty of The University of Texas at Dallas.