Grad School Statement of Intent

Hello readers! Today I came across my grad school statement of intent that I had to submit with my application to the UT iSchool in 2008. I updated it in 2012 when I added it as part of my academic portfolio.

In my cube at work, I have a very prominent sign with a motto by web designer Mark Wyner that reads ‘Visual-design integrity for people with modern devices and browsers, and information integrity for everyone else.’ As a web developer, I think what lies underneath the presentation layer is the most important part of any web page. While visual design is necessary and increases usability for many users of information, it cannot and should not supersede a solid informational foundation. I am a strong proponent of Web standards, semantic markup, and accessibility for all and I believe that studying and learning at the School of Information has allowed me to better understand the ideals of data organization for which I already have a passion, ultimately making me a better web creator.

I thrive on organization, naming conventions, and process, all of which have helped me in my career as a web developer.  I have been very interested in learning about structuring data to make it optimally usable by both humans and machines, independent of the delivery method.  I want to go beyond the page level, beyond markup, and begin to classify knowledge and make it accessible to all.  I want to create information hierarchies that are easily understood so that the data can be found and used anywhere it is needed. My interests have revolved particularly around information architecture and increasing accessibility for deaf users. Whenever possible, I have chosen to pursue research assignments that have furthered my knowledge in these areas.

Until recently, I struggled to put a name to this area of study that I see as crucial for me to become the kind of professional I want to be.  When I learned that programs existed for information architecture, I felt as if I had finally found my “tribe.”  For me, specializing in information architecture is all about consolidating the wide breadth of knowledge I have around web development into a single path. I am enjoying the beginnings of my journey down that path and focusing my learning on the organization of data, usability of that data, and hope to eventually help form standards and best practices for the field. Much of my coursework has provided a solid foundation in this field and allowed me to get closer to finding my niche in user interface design and the user’s experience with information retrieval.

Through my graduate studies, I have gained an improved understanding of how users interact with information as well as the systems storing that data and the programs allowing users access to it. Another area that interests me is human factors and thus far in my career, I have had few chances to talk with users to measure their success (or frustration) with websites. Eager to learn more about the human factors aspect when designing and developing systems, I took a course on usability. It gave me a chance to design and conduct my own usability study, allowing me to observe firsthand how people approach using a website. Through these observations, I was able to make well-informed suggestions for improvement based on empirical research, not just my gut feelings about how a site should be designed.

During my career, I have made huge, personal strides towards creating more usable websites. In early 2007 I read Jeffrey Zeldman’s book Designing with Web Standards and it changed my outlook on the building of websites, opening my eyes to a new way of looking at information access. It was the first tangible explanation I had seen for structuring the data of web pages separate from the presentation layer. His work introduced me to the pure CSS coding method and taught me the concept of “semantic markup” which informs my work today. His book also led me to start studying accessibility practices and striving to make information available to all visitors, regardless of browser, device, or disability. I believe earning a Master of Science in Information Studies will allow me to deepen this knowledge and understanding about what makes for good design, and that will benefit many people.

Using the tools I have acquired from studying information architecture at UT Austin, I want to move beyond being a “code-monkey,” plain and simple. I want to be at the genesis of projects, helping large organizations, such as government or academic institutions, determine the best courses of action for managing their data and creating user-friendly interfaces for retrieval of that data. I want to influence how organizations structure and maintain their information as well as influence the interface through usability testing and interviews. I want to get beyond just being the one who implements designs to being someone who helps create and define those designs with the user in mind.

I view an MSIS as a great beginning, one that will provided the tools and foundation that will truly create a jumping off point for me and my career. I not only learned how to organize information in more intuitive ways or how to better help users interact with information; I also gained new concepts and insights as a web professional. I know I have a lot to offer and I believe this degree will open amazing doors for me, providing the knowledge to create great designs that are usable, accessible, and have a solid base in information architecture.

Is the term UX meaningless?

This week, a video of renowned usability expert Don Norman of the Nielson Norman Group discussing the term “UX” garnered attention when he noted that, in his opinion:

Today, that term has been horribly misused. It’s used by people to say ‘I’m a user experience designer, I design websites or I design apps’ and they have no clue as to what they’re doing and they think the experience is that simple device, the website, or the app… No! It’s everything. It’s the way you experience the world. It’s the way you experience your life. It’s the way you experience the service… It’s a system that’s everything.”

I’m on the bandwagon here. Nearly every day in my work, I hear someone try to justify his or her decision by claiming that whatever they like or don’t like is hurting or helping the user experience without ever speaking with customers or observing them interact with the organization.

UX has become the go-to scapegoat and savior. We can see this in the progression of how we refer to people who work on websites, going from “webmaster” in the 90s to today’s “user experience designer.” But it doesn’t take much digging to see the numerous customer experiences being developed right now that tenuously adhere to anything approaching universal design.

Interviews, persona development, usability testing, and interaction design continue to take a backseat and are often the first tasks eliminated as projects scope-creep beyond deadlines. It’s rare to find business leads who understand the holistic nature of the user experience and who value finding out what their customers want and how their projects influence the customer’s experience with the entire organization.

I’m hopeful more companies will embrace the true intention of user experience as an end-to-end, ongoing process, not a buzzword.