Danielle Smith, director of user experience research and accessibility at Express Scripts, gives us a look inside the world of UX in healthcare.
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[00:00:29] (Music) Welcome to the CodeNewbie Podcast where we talk to people on their coding journey in hopes of helping you on yours. I’m your host, Saron, and today, we’re talking about user experience.
[00:00:39] DS: So Healthcare is hard. It is super complicated and it is not designed with you in mind.
[00:00:45] SY: Danielle has been doing UX and user research for years, but her version of UX might be different from the UX you’re thinking of. Yes, she works with websites and apps but the company she works for…
[00:00:58] DS: Express Scripts is a pharmacy benefit manager. If you have health insurance in the United States, there is approximately a one-in-three chance that we are the manager of the pharmacy part of your health insurance.
[00:01:10] SY: It means that UX isn’t just about apps. It’s about physical mail, phone calls, visits to the pharmacy, all the different ways that people might interact with their prescription. So what does it mean to work on UX problems when the definition of UX is so broad? How do you start? And where do you even learn this stuff? Danielle answers all these questions and more after this.
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[00:04:23] SY: So I want to get into what you currently do. I’m taking this directly from your bio. It says that you are responsible for bringing human data and insights to the Express Scripts as a company you work for design and development practice.
[00:04:36] DS: Yes.
[00:04:36] SY: Which seems like a lot of things to be responsible for and I want to unpack that. So we talk about bringing human data and insights. What are we talking about?
[00:04:46] DS: We are talking about bringing some data on how what we do is perceived by people outside of Express Scripts. Express Scripts is a pharmacy benefit manager. If you have health insurance in the United States, there’s approximately a one-in-three chance that we are the manager of the pharmacy part of your health insurance. Most people don’t interact with us if they don’t need a prescription and if you are on a long-term prescription, that’s really when you hear from us. We have the option of home delivery in a lot of cases or you’ll get statements from us or something like that if you’re on a long-term prescription. I joined Express Scripts three years ago, this idea of user experience and user experience research and data roughly three years ago. They had some pockets but not really a systematic practice.
[00:05:33] So if you think about that, this company existed for about 20 years, give or take, in its current instantiation, and didn’t know how the people that were using its website thought about the website. So my team was built to bring that I call it human data or perceptual analytics. There are other terms you can think of it as, but bring that perspective into the way we were designing and developing our digital experiences.
[00:06:03] SY: In doing that, what are some of the unique challenges that you all face when it comes to helping people with their health and their benefits? What are some of the challenges you have to deal with?
[00:06:14] DS: So healthcare is hard. It is super complicated and it is not designed with you in mind. It’s designed on your behalf. It’s other people making decisions about what’s covered. what’s not, what prescription is best for you, what treatment is best for you. You don’t get to go and tell your doctor what you want unless you have a really good relationship, of course. The terms are really complicated. What’s happening is hard to explain and why. It is almost like getting people to understand how nuclear power works. It’s just so foreign a lot of the time and it’s really a challenge. People just want their prescription and they want it now. If their doctor doesn’t, and this is not their doctor’s fault, this is also the system’s fault, if their doctor doesn’t know what prescription is covered by your health insurance, then you get a prescription that costs, let’s say, $400 when it should just cost 10.
[00:07:15] And that’s the experience you have. Your doctor doesn’t like the experience. Your company doesn’t like the experience. You definitely don’t. We don’t, so try to make that smoother in a way that folks can understand and it’s timely, and it doesn’t take a lot of your effort and brain power is really hard.
[00:07:35] SY: So I’m wondering, what does that interaction look like? Because you mentioned there all these people, all these companies, organizations who are acting on my behalf. So at what point do I get to interact with your company?
[00:07:48] DS: You get to interact with us when you’re really mad.
[00:07:53] SY: Sounds like fun.
[00:07:54] DS: You go to your pharmacy with your prescription, you show back up and it’s $400. And then you call us and you’re super mad, or you interact with us when you get a prescription for something you have to take on a regular basis like birth control or cholesterol medicine. We contact you in some kind of way and say, “Hey, would you like to get that delivered to your house?” And you say sure and you just sign up and do that.
[00:08:21] SY: So with that first point of I went to the pharmacist, I’m mad because it’s $400 and it shouldn’t be that much, what can you possibly do about that? That sounds like a sales problem. I would not think that UX had anything to do with that. How does UX play into something like that?
[00:08:39] DS: It’s tricky. The way that we try to help with that is to help with communications. It depends on, honestly, your health insurance. Most people’s Insurance, you go into that situation, you get a refill once, and then we immediately reach out to you to say, “Hey, you got it for $10 this time, but if you do that again, it’s going to be $400. So this is what you need to do.” That’s what we’re trying to do more and more now. Coming up with the right way to do that is a challenge. Going back to all the people that are in your business for healthcare, the government dictates what we have to send via paper mail versus email. I mean, there’s not even a concept of push notification in somebody’s...
[00:09:24] SY: Right, yeah.
[00:09:25] DS: Right. So trying to send you a paper letter to tell you this thing that you need to know right now is a little ridiculous. So we’re trying to work with our technologists, our engineers, our folks that talk to different governments to see what’s possible to do and then build a better experience based on that because, ideally, you would get a push notification that said right away, “Hey, you did this. Watch out,” but if you don’t have the app installed and we don’t have your email address and we’re sending you a paper letter that we spend a lot of time testing and designing to make sure that you can read it and understand it. Because what we find is that depending on your health literacy, because that’s a thing, how you interpret these messages can wildly vary especially if we use jargon such as formulary or prior authorization, just some of those terms that are really native to the pharmacy industry, to Express Scripts just make no sense to the rest of the world. So my team is there to be like, “Okay, we’re bringing that external perspective. No one knows what you mean, what this means.”
[00:10:37] SY: In that example, I’m wondering, how much can you do outside of modifying copy? Because if you were limited by the law, the law says, “You cannot call people. You must send the mail,” how creative can you get in that role?
[00:10:54] DS: We do a couple of things. We will send you a letter and do something else. We will do what the law requires and then we will do something else. If we have your phone number, that’s a good point. We will send an automated call out and that’s not the best experience but we are chipping away at all of the layers of experience at this point. If we have your email address, we will email you and, of course, if you use our web application, we will push an alert that way. The fantastic thing about healthcare, and I do mean that sarcastically, is that the idea of technology that’s designed for experiences is very far behind where other industries are. By that I mean even Express Scripts. 20 before we really started thinking about experience, the company spent a lot of brain power and technology on making sure we could get you the right drug safely.
[00:11:58] It’s fascinating to go to the pharmacy and see how much care and how much exact science is put behind automating that dispensing of the home delivery drugs. We also have a lot of technology behind when we show up at a retail pharmacy and turn in your prescription. We do a lot of checks in the background to make sure you’re not taking any conflicting medication, that there’s no recalls in that medication, all that happens. They’ve gotten the response time on that process down to be so quick. It is amazing. So that’s where a lot of the energy is in healthcare and healthcare technology or has been in the past. It hasn’t been in making sure we use the responsive web.
[00:12:40] SY: So it sounds like a lot of the work that you all have been doing has been almost invisible UX because there is a user experience that comes from taking a drug, taking a prescription, filling it out, but it sounds like a lot of the stuff that you all have been doing has been kind of behind the scenes all these years.
[00:12:57] DS: Yeah, it has been. Even a lot of our frontend user experience has been almost invisible. When you go to our Express Scripts website today, it does look different, but we spend a lot of work just making sure that it’s mobile responsive like I mentioned. That took a lot of work and that’s not something that people will shout from the heavens. We did a lot of work to make sure it’s accessible for people that use screen readers and other assistive technology. We do research with people that have mostly visual disabilities to make sure that they can also get their drugs. The kinds of things that you do, like I said, are not really visible unless you are super visual acuity, you did notice that we increased the contrast ratio. That was really important to a lot of people and we get a lot of good feedback from those groups of folks that say, “Hey, I used to have to call a service to come pick me up and drive me to the pharmacy but now I was able to refill this by myself at home. Thank you.”
[00:14:02] SY: That’s great.
[00:14:03] DS: It’s great. So we do those little things that are just bringing the experience up to par and, like I said, are kind of invisible.
[00:14:12] SY: So where does all of this research happen? How are you doing all these user tests and experiments, I guess? Where does all that take place?
[00:14:21] DS: So we do a few different kinds of research. We do more traditional user research usability testing and that is usually done in person in a lab and it’s one of those one-way mirror folks in the back room.
[00:14:37] SY: I was wondering, are there chemicals in this lab? What is this?
[00:14:39] DS: It’s a user experience lab.
[00:14:42] SY: Okay, okay, okay.
[00:14:43] DS: Yes, a user experience lab. I try to tell people, “We don’t break the skin.”
[00:14:47] SY: We just break your mind.
[00:14:49] DS: Just in slow bits, slow bits, but when we bring people in there, we have them interact with a website, a mobile app, a letter or a physical device because we do some pilots with like diabetes remote monitoring systems and things like that and see what happens essentially. I have other folks on my team that run those cities. They have backgrounds in psychology or information sciences. They observe and get feedback on where folks run into issues. We also do eye tracking in a lot of cases and that’s super cool.
[00:15:23] SY: What is that? How does that work? I’ve heard of it vaguely, but I don’t really get it. Can you explain that to me?
[00:15:29] DS: Sure. So the way this works is that, usually, we have someone sitting at a desk top computer of some sort and there’s a small bar. It looks like an old school sound bar, but a little bit thinner. It has tiny cameras that track your eye movements.
[00:15:45] SY: Literally?
[00:15:45] DS: Literally.
[00:15:46] SY: Cool.
[00:15:46] DS: And its infrared cameras, they track your eye movements, how long your eyes stay fixed on a point, fixations and saccades is basically what it’s called.
[00:15:58] SY: That’s fancy.
[00:15:59] DS: But you, as a user, don’t see anything. You don’t notice anything. You don’t see anything. There is a weirdness. We have to get you calibrated in the beginning so we make you look at some dots on the screen, but it’s really unobtrusive. This is in contrast to what it looked like 10 years ago, when I worked at NASA and we used to have to make people wear a helmet, so it’s amazing. Well, 15 years ago now. We do that and later, after we’ve run however many people we’re going to run through the study, usually, about 10, 15 depending on what it is, we go back and watch the screen recordings, and the eye tracking software automatically overlays those eye movements on to the screen so we can see if people notice a button, if they notice an image, if they notice an action.
[00:16:44] It gives you this other layer of analysis above and beyond what you are able to observe yourself. The thing that’s important that I always forget to mention is that those eye movements are a stand-in for attention. If we look at those movements, those patterns, we overlay them, we can make heat maps. If something that’s really important on the screen shows up outside of that heat map, no one ever saw it. So no one will ever be able to pay attention to it or tell you what it said because they just didn’t see it. That’s a very powerful tool to use if you were trying to design any screen or something similar like a mobile app for a letter.
[00:17:30] SY: Coming up next, we dig into Danielle’s career, how she got to where she is today and whether or not you need a PhD or a Master’s to do her kind of work after this.
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[00:20:20] So what has been the most surprising thing that you’ve encountered in doing this research and doing these tests and experiments?
[00:20:27] DS: A couple years ago, we were doing our big redesign where we modernized the look of the website and as part of that, we moved some things around. There used to be a logout button right at the top of the website and in hindsight, kind of flippantly, we moved that because we’re like, “Who needs a logout from a website nowadays? You can just do what you need to do.”
[00:20:48] SY: That’s what I was like.
[00:20:48] DS: Yeah.
[00:20:49] SY: Yeah, yeah.
[00:20:51] DS: But we got a lot of feedback from people saying, “Hey, where’s the logout? I can’t find it and I feel like my information is not secure.” And we’re like, “Holy cow! Let’s put that back.” Yeah, we want people to feel safe.
[00:21:04] SY: Interesting.
[00:21:05] DS: On the other side of it, the thing that was super surprising to me is that how much people care inside of Express Scripts about the experience. Once you’ve been in user experience for a while, you get used to the arguments of like, “Oh, does it really matter if it’s all in all caps or it’s not?” Because those are things we do argue about, but some of the big things are really impactful, like when I mentioned making our experiences accessible, that’s no small amount of effort. People have to get trained. They have to take a different approach at these different technologies, but once we explain what that was and showed some usability videos of people struggling, it was like a light switch. It was like to see how much people really cared about how users felt about our experience, even though, honestly, our users, the people that use our website, are not the people that actually buy our service. We sell our service to huge companies. It was really surprising to see how easy it was to counter a lot of arguments against experience that people have once you just show them some data.
[00:22:15] SY: So if you could pick maybe a couple things that the rest of us kind of more everyday developers should at least be aware of or try to integrate or learn more about, what would some of those things be?
[00:22:25] DS: I always try to get feedback. I cannot stress that enough. Just like you want to get feedback about your performance, about how you do with your significant other, like do they like your gift? The thing that you were designing, you are too biased to evaluate. You know too much.
[00:22:42] SY: You cannot be trusted.
[00:22:43] DS: Yeah. You cannot be trusted. Go ahead and kind of suck it up, and go show it out. Go show it to some people. It helps if you, I mean, if you are working for a huge corporation, yes, please talk to your researchers, but if you are developing anything to show it to someone, ask them to try to do the thing that you built the thing to do and watch them, and be quiet, prepare to be uncomfortable because it’s hard to be quiet and not want to feel the silence, but let them try and so you can see where their expectations fall. That’s what you’re really looking for, what we call a mental model, that your mental model of the thing that you are developing is so detailed and specific. When you show it out to the world, what is the most common mental model the world has of your thing and try to design for that?
[00:23:35] SY: So I want to switch gears a bit and talk a little bit more about your career. You mentioned earlier you worked at NASA, you’ve worked at Dell. You worked at some pretty cool places. How did you get your start in user researcher?
[00:23:48] DS: In my case, I think what was really important was just learning psychology, the idea of perception. There are certain things that humans just are not good at and certain things that humans are very good at, just having that foundation and respect for social science as a science were fundamental things that prepared me for working in this field.
[00:24:08] SY: So you are not only Danielle Smith. You are Dr. Danielle Smith.
[00:24:12] DS: I am.
[00:24:14] SY: You have a PhD in Industrial Organizational Psychology with a specialization in Human Factors.
[00:24:19] DS: That’s right.
[00:24:20] SY: Tell me a little bit about that. What does that mean?
[00:24:22] DS: I essentially have an advanced degree in the study of humans and machines. I spent a lot of time studying how people interact with systems in both HR systems in terms of how you work, how you get trained, and diving into people and technology. That’s where that specialization in human factors came from.
[00:24:43] SY: So how do those two worlds talk to each other? Because I was actually a Psych Major, I don’t have a PhD, but I got a Bachelor’s in Psychology and I remember learning and taking IO, Industrial Organizational Psychology. I remember learning about that, but it never really occurred to me that that has any relation to how we work with machines. How do those two come together?
[00:25:02] DS: It’s super interesting to me because I’m a nerd.
[00:25:06] SY: You’re in the right place.
[00:25:08] DS: Yeah, exactly. I didn’t discover this field of psychology until I was about to graduate. So I was a junior or senior in undergrad, but I was in an industrial organizational side class and got introduced to the concept of how people interact with built environments and work. If you think about the way being at work matured from like cottage industry to the way the Industrial Revolution matured work, it’s really not a natural environment.
[00:25:39] SY: That’s true.
[00:25:40] DS: Yeah.
[00:25:42] SY: I never thought of it that way, but yeah, that is true.
[00:25:44] DS: Right. So there was a lot of work especially with Henry Ford and assembly lines. There was a lot of study going on with how to get people to be more efficient in assembly lines and that’s where a lot of the IO things came from and human factors naturally branched out from there. When you started to look at how people interacted with machines during wartime, especially during World War I and World War II, human factors really became a science and a branch on its own. We’re training a lot of 18-year-old boys to operate very complicated and dangerous machinery.
[00:26:20] SY: That’s true.
[00:26:21] DS: It was a job, but it’s also a very complicated technology.
[00:26:25] SY: Where does that take us today? Because it feels like there are a lot of machines. It feels like everything is a machine, but it also has gotten not as dangerous, right? My most powerful machine is probably my laptop and my phone. Those don’t seem like scary factory machines.
[00:26:42] DS: Right. Thank goodness.
[00:26:45] SY: Yeah, we’ve grown up and moved from it.
[00:26:47] DS: Yes. Even though I’ve done some interesting studies about how dangerous your computer could possibly be, but what I will say is that a lot of the work that people in the human factors and industrial engineering disciplines have done has helped move that along. So human factors and industrial engineering are really close cousins. Along with, of course, other engineers and marketers and people that want to sell things, we’ve worked really closely together to get things to be easy to use so that we can sell them into more and more homes as well as safer because there’s this idea especially in capitalism and other forms of government, we want everyone in your country to be contributing as much as they can. This idea that you need specialized training to use this machine that’s in your house is not viable.
[00:27:39] SY: Okay. So what are some of the challenges that come about when these machines are in our homes? It sounds so scary when I said it like that, but we have all these all these big powerful machines in our homes in a lot of ways almost controlling our lives. What are some of the problems and issues that we run into?
[00:27:57] DS: Just basic interoperability. I feel like that’s one of the biggest challenges we all struggle with and that Apple has actually done a really good job of trying to solve. So that’s my best example of that. Like if you want to have a smart home, you could have had a smart home 10 or 15 years ago and bought a bunch of PCB control boards from RadioShack and learned how to code them right.
[00:28:19] SY: Oh, RadioShack.
[00:28:20] DS: Right, you could have done that, but now, you can just buy a package from Amazon or Apple and it all works. The challenge with having all these things in our home today is like some things are older. You can’t keep them up-to-date and you have to learn how to troubleshoot and tinker with them on your own or you just don’t adapt them. That’s sort of the challenge I see with getting my mom to use some of this stuff. I would really like to know when she’s at home. She bought an ADT super security system that had a webcam. And I was like, “Awesome, I can see when you’re at home,” and that worked for about a week and a half before her internet crashed and it lost the connection and she’s like, “All right, I’m done. I’m calling these people to come get this stuff.”
[00:29:07] SY: There’s another level to this where people at different ages, different parts of their lives are either more or less comfortable using technology. I remember this. Oh, I remember this so vividly. I think it was Thanksgiving. We have the hTC VIVE which is a virtual reality headset and we brought it over for Thanksgiving with my family and we were so excited. My husband and I were so excited to share it with people and we put it on with some of the older family members and they freaked out, and they’re like, “What is this thing?” And then we put it on our little family members, the six-year-olds, the seven-year-olds, they could care less. They are just in virtual reality doing their thing as if it is the most normal thing and I’m just like, “Why aren’t you freaking out? Why? This is incredible technology. Don’t you understand?”
[00:29:53] It made me realize like, wow, we are quickly moving in the direction where all these kids are going to be so used to using, operating, dealing with technology that the things that seem so huge to us are going to be nothing to them. So do you see this specialization being as important, as relevant 10, 20 years from now as people get more comfortable troubleshooting and working with technology?
[00:30:18] DS: I do. Once you get into working in this field, you see that the possibilities are virtually endless. I really do hope that as more and more people get used to technology, as more and more developers and other professionals in technology learn about user experience, that they care about it more and think about it more, but I do not think that there will be a shortage of things for me and people like me to do because the amount of technology is only growing and the interoperability of the tech is more and more crucial. So while you do have kids that are growing up digitally native, you still have to be careful the way that you design for them.
[00:31:00] For example, I was once on a project where we were designing a keyboard for use in elementary school and one of our designers had an idea of just put the keyboard in alphabetical order because this is for elementary kids, this would be easier for them instead of a QWERTY keyboard. And so we did some testing, brought some kids and their parents into the lab, and the parents got physically angry because we were teaching their kids wrong. If we did this and they grew up learning how to use a keyboard this way, then as soon as they ran into a different kind of keyboard, they would be at a disadvantage.
[00:31:35] SY: That’s a good point.
[00:31:35] DS: Multicultural things come into play, little interactions of expectations. It gets more and more complicated the more and more technology we introduce into the world.
[00:31:56] (Music) And now it’s time for Tales from the Command Line brought to you by Red Hat. Since we’ve been talking about user experience, we brought in Aaron Williamson digital design lead at Red Hat to talk about what it’s like to shape a user’s web experience. Well, thank you so much for being on the show.
[00:32:13] AW: Yeah. Thanks for having me.
[00:32:15] SY: So paint a picture of what it’s like to do your job, if you take on a new project that you’re starting from scratch, how do you mold that web experience for a user?
[00:32:25] AW: What we do is we will sit together and we’ll start to ideate and basically just sort of talk through what are the audiences that this is going to try and hit, what are the things about this that are going to be most interesting to that audience, and how are the ways that we can help people understand and get the most information out of that experience? Usually, that starts with a pretty generous whiteboarding session, a lot of debating, a lot of brainstorming and refining, and then we will take those things over to our individual disciplines and start to refine them even further.
[00:32:52] SY: So once you have that refinement, how does the execution of that idea come to be?
[00:32:57] AW: It really is still a collaborative effort. We work a lot with the content writers at Red Hat to make sure that we are breaking up the information in a way that makes sense to users. So it’s not just about saying what’s most important first, but it’s also about giving context so that as people are moving through a body of information, they’re understanding each piece of it.
[00:33:16] SY: So when you think about informational design, do you have a checklist in mind of what makes something very well-designed? How does that work?
[00:33:26] AW: There are a couple of rules of thumb. I mean, there is a hierarchy of information, I think, that follows through to UX from back in the journalism days and even probably further than that. It is largely about making sure that you’ve got your content in the right order and that you got good calls to action at the end and good introductions in the beginning.
[00:33:44] SY: So how do demographics factor into this? Are there certain groups of people who have different requirements?
[00:33:51] AW: Absolutely. One of the main things that we do in UX design is to work with personas, so we have pictures that we sort of have painted for ourselves from data based on visitor patterns and user research, and a lot of surveys and talking to individual visitors and customers that tell us that our audience is broken down into a few categories. There are a lot of developers that visit our site, but there are also a lot of architects that visit our site and there are also a lot of what we call decision-makers, directors, managers, C-levels that also visit our site. And the way that they process information and move through the content that we provide them is different based on day-to-day experiences and the backgrounds that they have.
[00:34:29] For example, one thing is that developers are much more sort of wary of what they consider to be marketing. The clearer you are in your language and the more forthright you are in the communication, the more that that information is going to resonate with the developer. So it is very important to always “cut the crust” as some people would say or to make sure that you are saying things in a way that is as authentic as you can possibly be versus let’s say an architect or a decision-maker may not necessarily want as much information about the details of a certain thing. They just want to understand that it will work and the impacts that it will have.
[00:35:05] SY: How does accessibility fit into all of this? How do you think about that?
[00:35:10] AW: Accessibility is something that is very important to UX designers at Red Hat. I think it’s very important to all of the people who produce web pages at Red Hat. It is something that we’re always striving to do better at. I mean, it is still a moving target, right? There are always new recommendations and there are always nuances that we have to sort of fiddle with, but it is something that we consider as we build things. We have quite a few limited sight or limited hearing, visually impaired employees that we work with to make sure that we understand the needs that they have as they use adaptive technologies or as they use the same browsers that we do, but use them in different ways.
[00:35:41] We do workshops with them to understand where our development guidelines or where our design guidelines are falling down and to help make things better. We also go and work with a local school, the North Carolina School for the Blind, to understand the needs that they have and to understand the challenges that they are facing that may not even be apparent to people who are already in a business setting so that our visitors are also represented as we start to build things or design things.
[00:36:06] SY: When you think about all the projects that you’ve done and worked on, what is your favorite? What’s the most creative or the most interesting thing you’ve worked on?
[00:36:14] AW: This is going to sound canned, but I mean, obviously, I am the lead designer on the Command Line Heroes website. It’s one of the other podcasts you host.
[00:36:22] SY: And you do a great job, by the way.
[00:36:23] AW: Well, thank you. Command Line Heroes is something, I think, that everybody involved is trying their best to step a little bit outside of our comfort zone and try and communicate some things that are a little bit different. And so the design of those things also reflects that. We really, really put a lot of effort and a lot of care and craft into that experience so that podcast listeners will have a deeper, a richer experience with that content and it will resonate with them as they take it out and share it with other people or reflect on it as they go through the rest of their lives.
[00:36:53] SY: So what are some of the biggest mistakes that new designers make?
[00:36:57] AW: One of the biggest mistakes or one of the biggest challenges that new designers have is to make sure that they’re considering what the user needs more than they are considering necessarily what they enjoy. There’s a mantra throughout UZ that is called “You or not the user” and it’s sometimes hard to remember, right? Especially working in web, you have a very specific take on how web design should work and what the best experience is, but that’s your own personal opinion. So you have to constantly refresh your opinion with data and keep abreast of what the actual audience needs or what the actual audience wants more so than you would listen to what your own opinions or taste would tell you.
[00:37:37] SY: And now back to the interview. So for folks who are listening who are interested in also doing user research, maybe some of the work that you do, would you say that you need a PhD? Is that a requirement for this type stuff that you’re doing?
[00:37:51] DS: No, I wouldn’t. I feel like a PhD was important to me personally, but there are a lot of people in this field without an advanced degree. I will say that that makes it a little bit more difficult unless you get a lot of experience, having at least a Master’s does help tremendously. I did start off in my career as back in the day, I used to do design and research, and now, unless you’re at a small company, that’s really two paths. And the researcher path has really been the path where most people have at least a Master’s degree, but if you are into user experience and you are also interested in research, but are more interested in design, then you can also just do design.
[00:38:33] DS: This field, such a huge demand that I would definitely say don’t let the education requirements get you down because we need so many people. One part of my team I did forget to mention is the analytics team, the data science aspect of it. I could care less, like I guess you do have to have a high school degree. If you know SQL and you can do some R, there’s such a demand for that as well good.
[00:39:02] SY: Good to know. Good to know, yeah.
[00:39:03] DS: And we are pulling that more and more into user experience and analysis of user behavior.
[00:39:09] SY: When you think about either your career or just your own professional experience, how has having a PhD helped you the most? Where have you seen the most benefit from that?
[00:39:20] DS: It helped me at NASA for sure, building that community and having a Master’s and being enrolled in a PhD program helped. Actually having a PhD I would say it has helped me with my own confidence and it’s also helped in areas such as healthcare. I do lead a team. They do ask that I speak to clients sometimes and me having a PhD helps clients understand that what I do and what my team does is legitimate science that has benefits. It’s also helpful for consulting. So while I don’t do any consulting now, the time between PayPal and Express Scripts, I was in a consulting firm and having a PhD was very helpful there.
[00:40:07] SY: So if folks are listening and trying to decide, “Should I go down the PhD route? Am I okay with just a Master’s or can I just learn R and SQL on my own and take it from there?” How can they make that decision? What are some things they should think about?
[00:40:19] DS: What I always advise is if you like school. consider a PhD because you can go really deep in a lot of subjects and really explore, like get your scholar on.
[00:40:30] SY: Get your scholar on. I like that. It’s like a tagline for a university.
[00:40:33] DS: Yeah, thanks. It might be the Danielle University of Scholarship, but if you don’t have a support system and you aren’t really sure if you like school, do not put yourself through that torture. I didn’t like school. It was really hard for me to finish, but I did have that support system. If you’re interested in user experience, if you’re interested in how psychology or anthropology or political science even are important to how people interact with the systems and technology around them, get a Master’s. There are lots of programs across the country. Some of them are remote as well. I would choose that. If, on the other hand, you are much more interested in the quantitative, the math pieces, you can get a Master’s and learn a lot more about statistics if you like, but you don’t necessarily have to.
[00:41:24] You can take a lot of courses that teach you the statistical background and the theory behind that and just learn R and get into the data. There are lots of publicly available data sets that you can practice with, some very interesting experiments you can do on your own to build your own portfolio and get your foot in the door that way.
[00:41:53] SY: Now at the end of every episode, we ask our guests to fill in the blanks of three very important questions. Are you ready to fill in the blanks?
[00:42:01] DS: I am.
[00:42:03] SY: Number one, worst advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:42:06] DS: That people that aren’t related to you can’t be your true friends.
[00:42:11] SY: Oh, wow! Oh, that’s interesting. I’ve never heard that one before. Why would someone say that?
[00:42:16] DS: Because my mom is crazy.
[00:42:19] SY: Fair, fair. Okay.
[00:42:20] DS: My family is really big. I don’t have a lot of brothers and sisters, but my extended family is really close and whenever I was younger and get into an argument with one of my school friends or something, my mom would say that, but later in life, I realized my family is not here.
[00:42:42] SY: They’re not here anyway. You better make some friends.
[00:42:43] DS: Yeah, I need some friends. So yeah, bad advice.
[00:42:47] SY: Okay. Number two, my first coding project was about?
[00:42:51] DS: So I have two answers to this. My very, very first one was when I was in about the third grade. My mom bought me a Tandy from RadioShack. I tried Basic and I spent all day on a weekend turning a screen multiple different colors.
[00:43:09] SY: Nice.
[00:43:10] DS: Yeah.
[00:43:11] SY: Very nice.
[00:43:22] SY: And how was that experience for you? Were you able to use some of your younger experience with the Tandy in changing the color screen? Did that come into play at all?
[00:43:30] DS: Not at all.
[00:43:31] SY: Okay.
[00:43:31] DS: Amazingly. It’s just my recollection of how hard it was. I was like, “Oh, man, this is going to be so hard.”
[00:43:41] SY: And I don’t even get colors at the end of this.
[00:43:42] DS: No.
[00:43:43] SY: Number three, one thing I wish I knew when I first started to code is?
[00:43:48] DS: Oh, man. Okay, for the first one, I wish I understood the point. Literally, I got a computer in a box, I heard all of these wonderful things about computers from TV mostly. I couldn’t figure out how to do weird science on my Tandy and it seems like the amount of effort I put in it to turn the screen magenta just wasn’t quite it.
[00:44:12] SY: I love that answer because I felt the same way. I remember when I was a kid and we had our first computer, super excited. I think I was like nine or something and I was so pumped about it, but the only thing I knew how to do was play Oregon Trail.
[00:44:24] DS: Yeah.
[00:44:24] SY: That’s just the only thing I did and I’m thinking, “I feel like there’s more to this computer thing than what I know, but I just don’t know what to do with it,” so yeah.
[00:44:34] DS: I was so excited when I figured out how to play Snake, you know, like a game on my computer. I don’t remember how it was set up but I didn’t have games. It was like, “Why does this exist? What do these people on TV…?”
[00:44:48] SY: Yeah, like, “What is your purpose?” Yeah. What’s everyone so excited about?
[00:45:26] SY: They’re just a bunch of haters.
[00:45:50] SY: I like that answer. Well, thank you, Dr. Danielle Smith, so much for being on the show with us and teaching us all about user research and user experience.
[00:45:58] DS: Sure. Goodbye! I love you all. Good luck.
[00:46:10] SY: This episode was edited and mixed by Levi Sharpe. Tweet me at CodeNewbies or send me an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. For more info on the podcast, check out www.codenewbie.org/podcast and join us for our weekly Twitter chats. We’ve got our Wednesday chats at 9 P.M. Eastern Time and our weekly coding check-in every Sunday at 2 P.M. Eastern Time. Thanks for listening. See you next week.
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