From Industrial Designer to UX Designer and UX Researcher, Meet Heather McGaw

by Linn Vizard

posted on 06-28-2017

Heather McGaw is currently a Senior UX Researcher at Mozilla. Her career path has been varied – working in design firm, startup and in-house environments. She started out with a degree in Industrial Design from Toronto’s OCAD University and from there transitioned to working in User Experience Design and Research. McGaw has also been involved in several side projects that leverage design, including co-founding Project Nunavut (an Iqualuit-based social enterprise) and leading UX research for a Together Project initiative to improve refugee resettlement. I chatted with her about the evolution of her career, advice for designers starting out, and her perspectives on design in different contexts.

Tell me about why you chose to study Industrial Design?

I thought I wanted to go into photography! In high school I spent some time shadowing a photographer, and we went to photograph some furniture design. It was the first time that I realized, “Oh people make the things that I use!” and it struck me as really interesting. Later, discovering the term ‘Industrial Design’ felt like stumbling across a term that represented a bunch of things I was interested in, which has been a theme throughout my career.

I got really focused after that and applied to art schools. I went to the Ontario College of Art and Design. In my foundational year I thought I might go into sculpture and installation but I liked thinking about how design supports people in their daily life. So in the end, I was drawn to Industrial Design.

What did you learn about yourself as a designer in your undergraduate degree?

Undergrad was about really thinking about who you are as a designer – it challenged me in defining what my viewpoint is. The benefit of going to design school is that it gives you a set of tools you can use to systematically solve a problem, and teaches you how to talk about your work and how to critique work.

I discovered in undergrad that projects where you’re dealing with people in crisis fascinated me. This has been a thread in my career decision making: how to support people when they are going through something difficult.

How did you end up moving into UX Design?

In my final year of school, I completed a practicum with Rotman’s DesignWorks, where I worked with MBA students on a human-centered design approach to the patient experience of a healthcare centre. My thesis project also had a large digital component to it, and during that time I was introduced to the famous ‘polar bear book’, which opened my eyes to the field of UX.

To me, it was the digital equivalent of industrial design; I remember finding a job posting for a UX designer and thinking that it was all of the things I enjoyed in my undergrad rolled up into a job.

After graduating, I moved back to Edmonton and got my first UX job at a company called nForm that focused on public sector work. It was a really thorough introduction and grounding in the discipline – I was exposed to interaction design and design research.

What advice do you have for designers starting out, in terms of getting that first job?

Put time into the preparation and then just go for it. Once I decided that UX was what I wanted to do I built a portfolio focused on showing how my past experience was relevant, even though it wasn’t in UX. A lot of people underestimate their past experience and how it could be brought forward; taking a minute to explore the overlap is really helpful.

Find places to work where there are people at a more senior level than you. It was really good for me to be in an environment where people knew more than me about UX, and also had the time and interest in sharing that expertise. Having those discussions helped me think about what I wanted to do and where my interests might map onto different types of project.

Seek out people to learn from – through twitter, conferences, companies directories – people you see overlap with. Have coffee with people. I was pleasantly surprised by how many people were open to that. It’s finding those people you really respect and learning from them.

I’m curious what some of your biggest learnings were as you made the transition into UX design?

Dealing with clients was a big learning curve, and this was connected to the culture shift of moving from a school environment into a professional one. This meant another huge learning experience was doing workshops with clients and learning how to facilitate these workshops while being the youngest person in the room.

This idea of ‘being myself’ took some time to figure out. That is, how to honor who I am and my own style while being effective in a work environment that often expects or values ‘alpha’ or ‘Type A’ methods of communication. As a UX designer in a client meeting or workshop, you need to walk a line between listening to the people in the room and giving them a role in shaping the conversation while also demonstrating that, as an expert in the field, you have a strong point of view that needs to be heard and considered. This idea of not having to be the loudest person in the room to be effective.

You’ve worked as a designer at agencies as well as in-house – what’s your take on those contexts?

An instructor in college used to say, it’s like dating different types of people to figure out who is right for you. One of the biggest differences for me is that working in-house enables you to have more of a long-term relationship with the products you work on.

When you’re in-house you have a better sense of how easy or hard it is to get things done. As a consultant you’re sort of parachuted in and you tell people the changes that need to be made, but you don’t have the knowledge of what the internal makeup of the organization is to know what is or isn’t easy for them. Working in-house, you have an inside view into the factory and you see how the product is being made. When things don’t come together you have a deeper understanding of why.

You worked as a lead designer at Symbiota, a synthetic biology startup. How did you tackle the challenges of working in a startup environment?

I really saw it as an adventure. Early on we all co-located to Spain for five weeks – because the team was distributed across Paris, London, and Toronto–and that was an amazing but exhausting experience.

While it could be a challenging environment, one of the plus sides of a startup was that the team was so small that it was possible to sit down with everyone and work through difficult problems to quickly build an understanding of the landscape and what was necessary.

You now work as a Senior UX Researcher at Mozilla – what was that transition like?

When I was working at the startup I was looking at two paths–interaction design and user research–and wondering which one to focus on. One of the things I found really useful was putting together my portfolio and thinking what parts of the projects I’ve worked on have most inspired me. What would I love to clear my calendar and spend my time on? For me, understanding people has really fueled my professional decisions, and even though my job title had been UX designer, I was doing more and more user research. Once I made the official switch to UX research it just felt right. I get to read research, observe people, interview them-I still sometimes can’t believe this is a thing I get to do!

One of the concerns I had about moving in-house was getting bored as agencies provide a lot of variety. In-house there is still a large variety of projects. One of the biggest surprises has been that there are a lot of variety of projects in-house so it has kept things fresh.

What have you learned as you’ve focused more on UX research?

To take advantage of secondary research before moving into primary research. These days my process usually starts with secondary research to learn from the work people have already done before starting to write my own research plans.

Such a core component of doing UX research is bringing non-researchers into the process, and how to be more collaborative.

You can follow McGaw on Twitter – @HeatherMcGaw, or check out her LinkedIn profile to learn more about her career path.

Topics: Creative Inspiration & Trends, Design

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