I meet Wilson at his one room apartment is Los Feliz overlooking the community pool on an anomalously rainy Saturday. The gentle sound of rain beating against the pool water fills his apartment as he flips through his small crate of records. “I especially like listening to music while it rains,” he confesses matter-of-factly. “It’s such a rarity in SoCal that whenever it happens, it makes whatever I’m listening to feel more unique.” Wilson is no stranger to curating experiences. With his professional career spanning over 5 years, and his exposure to advanced technology and new media spanning even further, he has had a chance to witness the evolution of his field first-hand and has gone along for the ride, helping people aboard in the process. He offers me coffee as he pours hot water over the coffee grounds, and we sit and discuss his relationship with user experience design and the work he has been doing at Heavenspot and M&C Saatchi over the past few years.
WT: Thanks, but I’ve already five cups of coffee this morning already so let’s just dive right in. What’s your relationship with user experience design? WT: Love the energy! I guess five cups of coffee will do that to you. [Laughs] Well, I consider myself a practitioner and advocate of UX. UX is a profession that involves understanding a process of how to best design a product with both the user and business in mind, so I’m a practitioner in that sense. And, since part of being a UX designer is addressing users' needs, I'm advocating not only for the users but the UX process that allows me to do so.
So then what draws you to this field? The idea that something I design could make someone happy greatly contributes to the appeal of this field. The other part is that I enjoy the puzzle aspect of it. Not to oversimplify or overlook all the nuances to my profession, but the more I learn about UX in practice, the more I see it being like Tetris. It’s just one ongoing puzzle.
I recognize that look of confusion on your face; it's similar to the one participants make during user testing sessions. In other words, the accomplished feeling of clearing 4 lines with a straight piece is so rewarding because of the planning required to get there, much like how the UX process can be in that you’re doing all this foundational work not knowing exactly how the next step will turn out. When you play enough Tetris, you get good enough to foresee the effects of each move you make. It's the same with UX for me in that I'm constantly thinking about how to pivot based on the last step. Inevitably, you’ll start to know exactly where the pieces should fit and then the game becomes one giant “ah-ha!” moment.
What’s a good example of that? I worked on a Mattel product called Barbie Fashion Design Maker where kids use an app to design Barbie’s clothes that they can then print out on fabric paper. My team was tasked with designing the desktop and tablet apps so we tried to anticipate how kids would use the app based on our foundational research. But when we got to user testing, we discovered how there were noticeable differences between the kids’ actual mental model of how to interact with the various design elements, and how we designed it.
That was the equivalent of building your tetrominoes with the anticipation of a certain type, only to be given pieces you don’t want. Not every project can have formal user testing like we had with Barbie Fashion Design Maker, but I definitely try to be resourceful when we don’t have much to work with. And that’s not just with regards to user testing, but any part of the process. Careful improvisation is key.
What kinds of noticeable differences did you encounter? One difference was the way we designed certain interactions like resizing and deleting elements they’ve placed onto Barbie’s dress. We initially had elements resizable via a bounding box with grippy handles that users can drag to change its size. But as we found out nearly all the kids tried to resize by pinching their fingers instead. Similarly, we had a delete button for the active element, but the kids ignored it and “deleted” elements by simply dragging it off the outfit. The issues were subtle but made a profound difference in the overall user experience. That’s the beauty of UX; you improve by understanding how users actually use your product.
Understanding your users really paid off because I heard the product did pretty well. Yeah, we received a lot of positive reviews from both parents and children saying it’s fun and easy to design new outfits with the app. I’m definitely pleased with the work we do, especially with apps.
I noticed the Coachella website was a lot more streamlined last year than it was in previous years. Tell me about that.My team and I dug into the data we had, and I suggested that the focus be on site’s utility, and the team agreed. When we started the redesign, we discussed how we approached it from a visual perspective in past years. So with this redesign, I felt like the site didn’t have to be as flashy and visually heavy as a way to sell the festival to the audience as it did in the past; people are enthusiastic about going regardless of the site’s design.
To really streamline the utility of the website, we had to address the content because, as you just implied, there was a lot of it. I took inventory of the content and noticed that it could be organized better and made into something that could be indexed and categorized so it’s easily consumable and searchable for the user, as opposed to living on a multiple pages in huge blocks of texts. Basically, a knowledge base. That was the “ah-ha!” moment for our team that set up the rest of the project and made it easier to design.
The Sacramento Kings app also underwent a major overhaul recently, and your team was responsible for designing it. What was the challenge there? That project was an ambitious undertaking just for the fact that it required so many third-party integrations and a huge number of overall features. It was also interesting trying to solve the problem of how one app could serve two purposes: be the official NBA app for the Kings, and be the official app for the new Golden 1 Center arena.
What was your favorite part of that project? The app had some unconventional UI given how robust it is, so I created some prototypes in Principle to demonstrate the interactivity and motion design of certain features which is always fun to do. I also made clickable prototypes of the wireframes and design comps to ensure the user flow made sense. Thinking through the entire app in user flows, journey maps, and wireframes are fun but can get tedious, so getting to make things interactive is a treat.
People who’ve worked in an agency setting generally praise the breadth of hands-on experience they get. How would you describe the role that the creative/ad agencies you worked at shaped your skillset? Career? Oh, it’s played a huge role. I think the wide range of projects, clients, and industries I’ve had the privilege to work with has made me very well rounded in terms of experience and skillset. I have so much experience to draw from, not only in terms of methodology and process, but also inspiration. Most importantly, though, it’s helped me to understand that there’s no clear vision or method of doing UX, and that the only “right” way is whatever process the project calls for using the pieces you have, which isn’t something I’ve often encountered in the curriculum in schools.
That’s right, you taught at General Assembly. What was that like? And how did you like your foray into the teaching world? We taught our students the standard UX process from foundational research methods, all the way up to usability testing. It was the formal process; very textbook-like. Practically speaking, and we did stress this throughout and especially near the end of the course that, unless you’re doing product design for a company that already embraces user-centered design and has an abundance of resources, the process is gonna vary wherever you go. You have to be able to know the process and methods, and adjust accordingly, doing what you can wherever you can.
Overall, I thought it was a great experience. I get a lot of satisfaction in helping people break into UX and offering advice on the industry and field. I had so much help from my peers and from seasoned professionals when I started out, so I have a sense of obligation to pass that goodwill onto others. Plus, the UX field is still growing, so the more people we have doing UX who truly understands it, the more it can be properly represented and understood by others. At least that’s the hope!
Any final thoughts or words of wisdom you’d like to impart onto the fine readers at home or in the office? UX, like most technology jobs today, are becoming more and more specialized as companies are refining their processes and understanding how to really perfect their products. There'll always be a need for a generalist who can do it all, but, in my opinion, the “full-stack” role, the mythical unicorn, isn’t quite as effective as a group of specialists that can work together like a well-oiled machine. Really, that’s a reflection of the industry in general; people are realizing the digital product market is supersaturated so they’re focusing more on refining something and making it the best it can be-- which is fine, because some of my favorite projects I’ve worked on have allowed me to iterate and improve upon it as opposed to one-off websites intended to live for a short amount of time. I’m optimistic about it all and excited to see what’s next. There are just so many problems out there to solve.
I appreciate your loquaciousness and the time you’ve taken to share your thoughts with me, and I’m sure our readers do, too. I think I’ll need that coffee now.