Eileen Redmond
01

The President of the CT UXPA talks about their current projects, how they’re tuning in to the Connecticut economic development team, and why Eileen is so excited about the future of Hartford for UX professionals.

SHOW NOTES

Eileen mentioned several organizations, individuals, and government entities in her interview. Here are links to those items of interest: Connecticut User Experience Professional Association (CT UXPA): Facebook, Eventbrite, Meetup, and Twitter Susan Weinschenk and @thebrainlady The Connecticut Department of Economic Development Jared Spool  

TRANSCRIPT

I'm sitting here with Eileen Redmond who is the President of the Connecticut chapter of the User Experience Professional Association. She is also a Product Manager of Enterprise Systems Engineering at ESPN.

We're going to be focusing primarily on Eileen's experience in the UX field and how she got into this career - and her leadership of the CT UXPA.

Hi, Eileen!

Good morning Katie.

Are you as excited to be here as I am to have you here?

I am nervously excited, I am.

The first thing I'd like to ask you is to talk a little bit about how you got into user experience. I saw that you actually came from a pastry background in terms of education, so maybe you could speak a little bit to that.

Yeah, it is a little unexpected, but I am a pastry chef, I'm a professional pastry chef. And it took me a while to understand what the relationship was - if I was so interested in passionate about being a pastry chef - what led me into this career, and there actually is a relationship. As a pastry chef is very much based on science. Once you understand the science, you can bring all of your artistry and creativity to it. And I see software design, in the same way as... Once you understand the technology, you bring your own artistry to it. At least in terms of interface design. But in our training as a pastry chef too, we go through facility design, creative menu planning, and even workspace design. Like - you're not putting things over the stove that you use regularly. So, I don't reach over the store all the time. So we're trained to take those kinds of things into consideration. So I really kind of... Even though it's unexpected, it led naturally into what ultimately became my career in user experience, of course, at the time UX was not a thing. We didn't know what that was... That's amazing. So how did you actually make that transition? How did you go from pastry into UX? I was actually working in a bakery, so four o'clock in the morning was - and I'm not a morning person - that I quickly realized that that wasn't really the world I wanted to be in. Because restaurant life, it's a particular life style. So I started that at Aetna health plans in customer service, and I think everybody who starts an organization should start on the Customer Service line. You learn so much and you have built so much empathy for the people who consume your product. So at the same time, there was this new technology coming out called desktop computers and I just had an affinity for it, and luckily my manager was supportive of that, and I transitioned from subject matter expert into business analyst, probably before we really understood what a business analyst was, and we did everything from scope to requirements and testing and roll out - everything. But I was really very lucky, that Aetna at the time had a full on usability lab. [That's phenomenal.] And I did my first usability study, probably - I don't want to date myself - but... 1998? Wow, that's great. Yeah. And I was hooked right or so but it took me a while to transition from the business analysis part of it, into user experience, and once I did, I just never looked back.

Oh, that's fantastic, that's a great story. I love hearing that... I sort of feel like almost any profession you go into, or go to school for can ultimately lead you into user experience if you're the right kind of person to be focusing on things like facilities design and where you're putting things in terms of what you're gonna reach for - any of that can translate into user experience if you can make it work.

Yeah, a lot of things that you really wouldn't expect - a psychology student, if you have an affinity for how people think and how you can apply it to an interaction with a computer then... If that's a natural fit too... [That's fantastic.]

So, I'd also like to get into your experience with the UXPA a little bit, how did you get involved, how did you come to be president, what are you working on right now? In terms of the organization and locally in Connecticut how do you see the Connecticut UXPA fitting into the national perspective on user experience?

So those are... That's a big... That's a lot of questions. I've been involved in the organization for probably over 12 years. [Okay, yep] and just being a part of that group of people was very encouraging for me to make the transition fully from business analysis, where I had a deep interest in user experience in what we were building nothing sure it actually worked to actually working in the UX field over... Really 12 years and the board at the time, came to me about a year and a half ago and tried to gauge my interest, in stepping into a leadership role, on the board - I was very interested. And up for the challenge of running an organization like this. I'm so happy I did, especially at this particular time when my peers on the board are just phenomenal and we have a great synergy, with each other, and we're just doing some really great things. For example, when I took over, I asked them all to just take a step back and let's reassess everything that we're doing and try to understand how we're providing value to our membership. So that's the first thing we did - is let's just stop the routine of what's happening and... Do UX ourselves, right? Like inspect and adapt to, to what we're doing. And thankfully, we did that, we realized that we were spending a lot of energy on monthly events and not thinking more strategically about how we can support user experience across the state, so we have a plan in place to... To address those more esoteric things like UX governance, how do we guide and lead companies who might not know what user experience is? But they might have a sense that they know that something's missing. We decided to focus our efforts also, in those same places, where the state of Connecticut is investing dollars in innovation hubs. [Yeah, that's really smart.] And UX just needs to be the right at the ground floor. We're also focusing a great deal on outreach to higher education, making sure that there's an easy on-ramp for people who are interested, like a psychology student, who's over something a little bit different but might not be able to map out what that path is so we can help them map the path and on an easy on-ramp in to user experience. And that folds naturally into the other goal is a mentorship program. So once you're in, who's there to guide you and help you and bounce ideas off of? And we think that's incumbent on us as the professional association for user experience.

Yeah, absolutely. I think what you guys have done this year, in my opinion, has been tremendous. I feel like there's a renewed energy and vitality to the UXPA - I've really enjoyed participating so that's been fantastic and I love what you're doing in terms of reaching out to up and coming user experience professionals and people who are new to the field or maybe just getting into the field, especially since as we all know it is one of those weird fields. There are that many six-year-olds who are saying, "I wanna be a user experience professional when I grow up," so people tend to come to it, in a more circuitous way.

So I'm also interested in hearing one of the things about I guess anywhere really is that the small to mid-sized businesses take longer to adopt all of the UX principles that we know, and that we see at large organizations that are really proven - I'm wondering if you see any role for the UXPA, for you, in terms of trying to liaise with some of those smaller organizations that might not be as on top of the kind of work that we do, and the kind of work that can really help them mitigate risks and avoid failures and do product planning and launching that makes tremendous sense to their user base.

There's definitely an opportunity there. And again, it really is incumbent on us to provide the information that makes the tie between the value that we provide and what their business goals are. [right.] And to that end, we'll be talking to the Department of Economic Development, to Catherine Smith, and I have a plan to work also closely with the Department of Labor - as they build out their tech talent fund and if you look at their information, they seem particularly focused - as most people are - when you talk about technology on the coding aspect of it, and what gets forgotten is, what that human computer interaction is, and that's what we're trying to solve. So making sure that our leaders in the state are clear on that, which is so critical. I've worked with people for five years doing my job and they still don't really understand what I do, so I... Yeah, so yeah, there is a big gap and making user experience completely relatable and that's an opportunity for us. Our Vice President Emily's already been working on a pitch deck [terrific] that we share.

So exciting. Particularly in government systems, there's a lot of effort that goes into open data, and developing all of these platforms, but if there's no UX there, they're just never gonna get used.

I think it's exciting that people are talking about coding in schools, and there's a lot of pop-up coding. Coding camps and things like that. So, I think that's phenomenal. Let's not miss that piece which is - that it's usable.

Right, absolutely, yeah, I couldn't possibly agree more. I mean, the best piece of software in the world isn't gonna be the best, if people aren't gonna use it.

So I'd love to hear you describe maybe a project or two that you feel really exemplifies the kind of work that you do or one that really further your personal practice in user experience?

There's a couple that come top of mind. And I, I was pulled into a project that was already underway, so they had about a year's worth of development and they brought me in to do some interaction design. What's the best practice for this filter, where should this button go on the page. And as I got up to speed on the project, and the people involved in the project, I came to realize that there was a lot of in-fighting, there was people entrenched in their own ideas and not listening. There also wasn't one particular vision that they were all shooting for. So I negotiated for a different engagement with them, which is less about what the low level usability is to - let's create a vision and have everybody work towards that. So it was more of a design thinking exercise, so I pulled together some psychology type of thing, to help them address their own bias. Help them understand that the person sitting across from you has that same idea, and we naturally come to the table thinking that, "Well, my idea makes total sense." And we went through a series of exercises that I was introduced to through Susan Weinschenk. [Okay, yup] It was just phenomenal and moved past this like this kind of dynamic that had that stuck, but that was really amazing to watch. There was more like a therapy session. [Yeah, yeah] And then we built out a prototype as we went through, so we built out a prototype and tested that out, and now we have a vision to shoot for, That everybody is invested in. So we moved past that, but what this particular project showed me really unequivocally is how UX can be an agent of change in organizations. Less about the usability of an interaction and more about what we're aiming for as an organization, as a team and how we respect and engage with the person sitting across the table from us. That one was really compelling for me and it showed me that I really loved that piece of it - is moving people through these realizations, right, and into something that that gives them a vision that they can all shoot for together, right?

I love that story. I think it really jives certainly with my own personal experience. There's a lot of focus when you start looking at UX materials out there, publications or seeing what people are talking about, there's a lot of focus on tools. And techniques and tactics and who's doing Post-its and who's using Mural and all this stuff - when it's really about the people in the room and how they're interacting. Because you can't actually get to a user experience that makes total sense without a complete team and a dynamic behind that experience that, it becomes an interchange and an interplay - a conversation with the user, a conversation with the customer. But I think that vision gets lost sometimes, particularly when you're looking at the individual practitioner level and the individual tasks that they're doing - it really is all about the team.

I think it's human nature to, to very easily get caught up in the weeds when you can't see the horizon... That's just human nature. I worked on another project that was about location intelligence and building a dashboard that was gonna capitalize on copious amounts of data. Data visualization is its own specialty. [Sure is.] But this particular project was so exciting, we were able to create some very innovative solutions for risk management in the insurance field. And for me, personally, this is my area of interest is the convergence of big data and user experience. They are a natural relationship and I think one is very well served by the other.

Absolutely agree there. It also, it gets you into some really interesting territory from a philosophical perspective, too, 'cause you have to do some real thinking about what's going to be best for the user and what's going to be best for the organization that's using the data and how to make those two paths, converge in a way that is not fully self-serving on either side.

Absolutely, right, that's the thing, the person who's trying to extrapolate information from the data, brings their own bias to it, too... And user experience, I think has the ability to temper that with some solid research.

Right, right, it's a way to overcome personal bias, introduce enough perspectives, that you're not just wholly relying on your own individual view of the world and - that's where we get into trouble, when we're making unilateral decisions, based on what we think and feel as individuals.

Right. Just like that first team that was arguing over really low level interactions. They didn't have a vision. It's similar to that, in that you can take a piece of data and statistics to make it whatever you really want.

Exactly, exactly, yeah. You can always craft a PowerPoint deck that's going to back up your personal opinion, yeah, 100%. So I'd like to get into what it's like working in Connecticut, a little bit here. So, part of the focus of this podcast is - we're sandwiched between Boston and New York - everybody knows there's tons of exciting things going on in Boston and New York. But from my perspective, there's really interesting things happening here in Connecticut, there are some really interesting people - like yourself - doing great work here in Connecticut. And so part of what I'd like to explore with this podcast is - what opportunities are there here in Connecticut that might not be elsewhere, and what are some of the challenges, working in a state like this.

Yeah, I happen to love Connecticut. I really do, I loved working in Hartford too. I think all of those things are strengths, our proximity to Boston and New York is a strength in that they are so easily accessible and we're not bound by the congestion of New York or the expense of Boston. And we're an hour to the shore or two hours to the mountains - "shore." No, it's still an ocean. Sure, but what I think is really a compelling story about Connecticut is that we have our legacy companies like Travelers, and Aetna, United Technologies and the workforce here, solves really complex problems that are data intensive, and we talk about it like it's no big deal, but it is kind of a big deal. And a topic of conversation with Catherine Smith next week will be exactly this. We have such an opportunity in the state of Connecticut to highlight those specific skills. Work process intensive and data heavy solutions, and if we lay our user experience on top of that, right, that's a powerful thing, and I think that's where our real path forward is in the state of Connecticut, so I think that we have the opportunity, the state has the opportunity to highlight better. That story. [Yes.] And if we add user experience to it, not only is it data-rich, process-rich, but it's usable and useful too.

And I would add to that, I think if you're outside of Connecticut, there's a perception of Connecticut as sort of the Gold Coast, the hedge fund managers in Fairfield when in fact we have a tremendously diverse population, and a tremendously diverse workforce. We have deeply blue-collar manufacturing organizations, we have hedge funds and insurance agencies and knowledge workers and there's a real advantage in my mind to having all of that in a small state, in a small space, it's all very accessible. You can walk a couple of blocks in Hartford or go from Hartford to East Hartford and gain just totally different perspectives on the same area or even on the same product.

Absolutely.

So I would like to see if you have any thoughts about the future of the profession. I think maybe we got a little bit of hints in terms of what you've been saying so far, but I'd love for you to just sort of give your vision of what's it gonna be like to be in UX in the next year or five years or 10 years, what do you see coming down the pike at us?

So the way I see it, Katie is - you're right - it speaks to what we were talking about just a few minutes ago. One is people who are coming in and doing coding camps, or our tech talent fund who's trying to promote a technology fluent workforce. In my mind, user experience, or at least the language of design will be part of the vocabulary there too. There will be just a fundamental understanding of things like principles of Gestalt - you know how I lay things out on a page makes a difference in how people use it and see it and that would just be along with the fundamentals. So that leaves the other piece of user experience and I think I see the lines of customer experience, service design, yes, user experience kind of being blurred more. [Yes.] Even marketing to a certain degree because we all are interested in the same types of data, we might employ it just a little bit differently, but I think this is the very exciting part of it. This is the differentiator for so many organizations that - like you mentioned before - the larger companies who can make an investment in this become more accessible for smaller companies to capitalize on the skill set and have a deeper understanding of how their product benefits their customers, and really move it in that direction.

I love that and it also reminds me - you brought Jared Spool - one of our largest celebrities in the world of UX - to Hartford to talk, and I loved that talk. It was fantastic. It reminds me a little bit of that presentation and how he was talking about the fact that everybody who touches the product is actually a designer. They may not be thinking about it that way, they may consider themselves a developer or a marketing executive, but they are making design decisions that do touch the customer. And I think part of what you're getting at sort of points the way to that future where everybody does recognize that these decisions have impact.

Right, right, that design is not the exclusive domain of someone who's had a particular education in that field. [Right, right] Just like Pastry Arts. You wouldn't expect that I could translate that into a screen layout.

I love that you brought back the Pastry Arts too, full circle. And that is a really good way to lead me to my last question which is really just, do you have any advice for - and I'm gonna focus on organizations because you have so much experience at Travelers, at ESPN, with the UXPA, in terms of introducing these ideas and building on these ideas in organizations. So I'm going to ask you if you have any advice for organizations in Connecticut that are really looking to expand or mature or even build a user experience practice.

So my advice would be similar to what I would say to an individual - is find a mentor, for an organization, what a mentor could look like is actually our professional association and especially as we build out our strength in governance. I see a lot of job postings that are UI/UX. So they're looking for coding along with design and that worries me a little bit. Certainly there are people out there who can do that, but it demonstrates to me that there is a fundamental lack of understanding about what user experience is, what experience design is, and I would welcome any organization to contact us at Connecticut UXPA for guidance on explaining what it is you might really be looking for in your organization? And especially us as a professional association because we have no other agenda other than to help you. We're not trying to sell anything. The same thing applies to an individual too, is... I don't know where I would be if it wasn't for my great mentor, and that's led me to sit here and talk to you, to bring Jared Spool into the state, and to be talking to Susan Weinschenk about her workshop here. The difference is in guidance and mentorship and getting someone on your side who really wants to help you.

That's absolutely perfect advice. It's a really good way to close this out. I will say that the podcast page which will be linked from Cronin's website and will be at CTXPodcast.com will have show notes that will have links to the UXPA and contact information for Eileen as well as myself. So anyone who heard that advice and wants to get in touch will have that resource available and that has been it for the first episode of the CTX podcast, a Cronin production. Thank you so much, Eileen. This has been a really interesting conversation. I think we touched on a lot of very cool ideas.

You're welcome, Katie... I'm happy to be here.

Great, thank you so much Eileen.

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