#23 - Susan Wolfe - UX Pioneer: 40 Years Experience: NASA, IBM & Silicon Valley

Jan 26, 2023Dianne Eberhardt

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify,  Stitcher, Amazon Music, Google Podcasts, or on your favorite podcast platform. You can watch the interview on YouTube here.



Dianne: Hello everyone. Welcome to the Pixelated Perfect podcast. I'm really excited for today's episode. We have Susan here with us. Susan is a principal right now at OE Strategy. Super excited to hear more of how you got to where you are today. She is also a lead senior lead instructor at General Assembly. So I'm, what we were actually just talking, chatting about before jumping in here is kind of her career and how it didn't start off traditionally and also what design means and how many different facets of design there are. So I'm really excited to kind of dive deeper into that. So Susan, thank you so much for being here.

Susan: Well, thanks so much for inviting me. It's a pleasure to be here.

Dianne: Of course, of course. So let's just jump into it. What I, I like to do, whoever's listening to this podcast before is kinda start it off with when did design enter your life?

Susan: Well, for me, and it's, it's kind of serendipitous that we are talking right now because this month represents my 40th year in this field. Most people, I always joke with people that, you know, they think UX is nothing new. And I I'm living proof that they think it is. I'm sorry. They think it's something brand new and I'm living proof that there's nothing new about it at all.

Dianne: The names have changed

Susan: But it's exactly, but nothing. But the industry itself is, well, design itself is as old as antiquity, but in terms of the ki in terms of even thinking about UX design, I mean, it's been around forever. And so it's been 40 years for me and that's been it's been quite an exciting journey. Oh,

Dianne: Well congrats on 40 years. Like that is, that's awesome. I'm coming up on, let's see, like 15, about 15 years. So...

Susan: Okay, that's impressive.

Dianne: Yeah, I've been in there for, for a little while. A lot of things have changed and it moved around, but at the end of the day, you're right, it's still design. So

Susan: Yeah. And as much as things change at the general principles of what makes good design remains the same. And so that's the beauty of what we do.

Dianne: Yeah, that's actually really interesting. A quick comment to that is, a lot of the times, and a lot of the designers I talk to that are just getting started, they've maybe done courses at General Assembly, and I feel like a lot of designers don't necessarily have a grasp on like the PR principles, the traditions, like what is color theory? Some of those things I think are really missing from a lot of these junior designers, and that is these principles that have lasted forever and are so important and are really important to learn.

Susan: Mm-Hmm. Yeah. And when I teach, I teach, I also include things like history lessons so that people understand how, how you know, we got to where we got to today, even from the interface perspective, because that's something that I know, not just designers. I know a lot of people just working in tech, I know from lots of experience working with developers and I have no appreciation for kind of why we do some of the things that we do. And so I think it's important for people to understand that and

Dianne: Yes. Yeah. Oh my, I love that. Yeah. Ok. Well, let's, I, I wanna hear kinda early on, like, how did you get into design? Maybe? What was your first job?

Susan: Yeah, first couple jobs. Well, interestingly, I, I did not set out to do this. I, I, in fact, again, 40 years ago, I, at that point in time, I, I was working on my PhD in psychology and wow. I was studying cognitive psychology. I was studying how, you know, how people remember things, how people interpret things. I had done a lot of work and bilingualism and trying to understand people, you know, basically how people think. And I was working on my PhD and I hate that. You know, I just, I, like, I had to escape and I didn't know what I was gonna do. And it just so happened that a colleague of mine in this program had said, well, her husband was, was working at IBM at the time, and in something called the Human Factors Department.

Susan: And they would hire specifically people like myself, people working on their PhDs in psychology, who knew how to do research because what they, what they needed people to do was do things like usability testing. I had no idea what usability testing was. I had no idea. I literally never touched a computer. I mean, I was studying psychology, what did I need a computer for it 40 years ago? So at that point in time, I went to work at ibm and I found out that, hey, this is kind of cool. I can use these skills. I know how to do research. I know how to plan studies. I know how to talk to people. I know how to watch people. And so I started doing, I learned all about usability testing, and I learned about recog starting to see patterns in the kinds of problems people were having with computer systems. You know, I had say it was a little bit embarrassing because, you know, I felt like, oh no, they're gonna find out that I've never touched a computer. And here I am working for I B M. So I used to do things like take all my garbage home at night, you know, so that I, cause I thought someone was gonna be looking , you know...

Dianne: My gosh, that's amazing. What were some of these like what were some of the challenges that people were facing and that you found during your usability studies back then?

Susan: Well if I found out a lot of interesting things, I mean, I, I found I was learning, you know, that, that people were spending a lot of time and a lot of effort to try to design these really esoteric kinds of things for people to use, because that's what they thought it it needed to be. Because, you know, again, this was, this was, you know, early in the days when they were trying to make technologies a little bit more accessible and, and, and in this division it was really meant to be for like for, well, it was, it was for all kinds of people, but it wasn't for, you know, moms and pops that were going to be using technology. And so it was kind of, it was very, very specialized sort of software and very specialized you know, like actually things like different programming languages and how do they learn different programming languages.

Susan: And so, interestingly, the kinds of things I was finding are the kinds of things that we find today in applications when we're test them. You know, it's the fact that, you know, it's not consistent the way they're explaining it. It doesn't match how they think about things. They don't know where they are in the system, you know, all, you know, we can take, we can take our classic heuristics and apply them to any kind of system. And I was, so I was discovering this even 40 years ago before I knew what heuristics were, or, you know, even before, you know, folks like Jacob Nielsen were talking about discount, usability and, and heuristic evaluation. But these principles were kind of bubbling up. And what was really interesting was I was finding, you know, I, at first, I, as, as you know, the lowly person, you know, they were at I b M, you know, fresh out of my PhD, you know, escaping my PhD program.

Susan: I was I was really concerned because I was finding that things, you know, weren't working well, and I was, I had to tell them that it wasn't working well. And I thought, and then as a consequence, they canceled the first project I worked on after I did the usability testing and found out how awful it was, they canceled it. And I thought, oh my God, I've cost someone their job. And I just, I felt really awful. And now I've come to realize that that's one of the most valuable things we do is telling people early that they're, that they're not going in a good direction. But, you know, that was, that was like a wake up call from day one. And so it was quite, it was quite interesting.

Dianne: I really, that's, I put like a, I'm taking some notes and I like bolded that, like, we're here to tell people like, Hey, you're going down the wrong path, or like, rethink before you get too far and maybe scrap it, maybe come up with another idea. But we're actually really saving people a ton of time and everything by letting them know and being able to do these usability tests early on. That's...

Susan: Yeah, absolutely. And, and to this day, you know, I think one of the most valuable things we do is actually cancel projects. . Yes.

Dianne: I love that. Yes. Yes. It's like, why waste our time? There's so many things out there. Yeah. we need to figure out what doesn't work quickly and move on. Pivot.

Susan: Yep.

Dianne: Yeah. So, so where did you go from, from there? You were at ibm, you were doing usability testing, you were shutting down projects left

Susan: Yeah. Well, so I did have, I did that for a year, and then I had to go back to, I mean, part of the deal was, it was, it was an internship and it was a co-op program, right? And, and so the idea was I had to go back to, to my PhD program and I, and so I went back for one more semester and I said, hang on a minute. I just came off this experience. I actually have a lot more ex I, I, you know, I, I have a good amount of experience now just having done Indu, worked in industry, what am I gonna do? Finish this exp I, I was really panicky that I was gonna finish my PhD if, if I ever did, and then end up teaching in, you know, the middle of nowhere. You know, here I, here, here I was in the Bay Area, you know, in Santa Cruz, gonna school in Santa Cruz overlooking the ocean. And I was, I was worried about where I was gonna end up . Yeah,

Dianne: For sure.

Susan: So I, I ended up, I, I decided it was time to bail from the PhD program after one more semester. And so I do what everybody does, and I went to work for NASA .

Dianne: Of course.

Susan: Of course you do. Yeah. It was actually,

Dianne: How did,

Susan: Actually was, it was actually gener it was General Electric that hired me, but it was, we, but they hired me for a, a project and I worked at NASA for, for four years. And, and we joke, you know, I always joke this industry, you know, this isn't rocket science. What we do, except when you work at NASA is rocket science, right? . But in actual fact, what I was hired for, and this was fascinating because what I was hired for was not, was not to do rocket science, was not to, and was not, to, not to actually even work on the interfaces that scientists were gonna work on, but what, what, and the reason why General Electric was involved, they were a big contractor for like building I was part of the space systems division, so they did a lot of work at, at places like nasa.

Susan: But what they were doing was they were building the first super computing facility for the government. And so, and again, we're talking about many, many moons ago, and at this point supercomputers, you know, this was gonna, were huge. I mean, a supercomputer was massive. It was like the size, the computer itself was the size of the room. And I joke that it had less computing power than our phones do today, . But the facility that was required for this, for this computer, and it wasn't, obviously there was all the, you know, the electronic stuff and there was all the cooling and, and all of those, those kinds of engineering things about it. But that wasn't what was interesting. What was interesting was how people were gonna be using the facility. And so what I got involved with was helping them to define and, and design what that experience was gonna be like for the staff.

Susan: So everything from how they were gonna book time on the computer to what, you know, the work stations, the workspaces were gonna be like to, you know, to, you know, every aspect of it from that perspective. And so what I, what I suddenly started learning about was, hey, there's this whole thing about employee experience. That's number one. Another thing I started learning about was the fact that it's not just a digital thing, right? I mean, you know, when we were talking about this, because so much of it was digital, but it wasn't, you know, because it's like, you know, I mean, it's just, it's like service design, and it's like ergonomics and it's physical, you know, it's physical experiences. And, and so I just learned about the variety, and I learned to collaborate with, you know, a lot of different kinds of people, the architects, the, the, you know, the engineering folks, the builders, you know, how are we gonna do this? In what order can we do this so that they can start using the facility, they can start testing it, testing it out before everything is fully deployed. And so it was just a, a fascinating time to, to be doing this. And yeah. And it was just super varied. And so I, I just loved that aspect. And of course it was kind of cool being an NASA.

Dianne: That's really interesting. So I have a question for you, maybe some advice for other designers is you, I really like what you said about like, collaboration. So you worked with so many different types of people. I mean, you were doing ui, ux ui, but also service design and space design and everything like that. What are your suggestions for like building, working really well with other people in other industries?

Susan: Well, I think it's right, coming first and foremost, recognizing that we are not just, just because our title might be designer, we are not the only designers, right? And we don't have the exclusive right to good ideas. And I think we, so we have to kind of get over ourselves really, really quickly and recognize that every multiple perspectives is what you absolutely need. And so I think that's the big, I, that's like the biggest thing that it's like, you know, don't, don't think of yourself as the, the design ninja, the design guru. Think of yourself as a really, as someone who's really good at, at coming up with some ideas and collaborating with others and, and knowing how to get the best ideas from everybody and helping to foster those conversations to come up with, you know, the best solution you can. I

Dianne: Love that. I think a lot of our job is, well now that now with like Google sprints, like running design sprints, and it's like getting a bunch of people in a room from like every part of a company and sketching, and it's like, Hey, you might not be a designer, but you have amazing ideas. So let's like, like explore that. Like be creative, like think outside the box. And usually the ideas that are most interesting are coming from people that you ne wouldn't necessarily expect them to come from.

Susan: So, and sometimes I have to, you know, I have to, I love to get other people recognizing that they're designers too. I love, I don't know if you're familiar. Yeah. I love, there's an exercise that I, that you may have run across called Draw Toast. I don't know. And it's basically, you get everybody I mean the room. And so this is a great like you know, like participatory design or a, a great activity to, you know, where you wanna get the developers drawing and you wanna get the engineer's drawing. And so get everybody to spend a minute three minutes drawing how to make a piece of toast. I love that. And if you do that, you, and then you get people to share, and you see that you get all of the, the different perspectives. You know, there's gonna be people that are every, you know, there're gonna be some people that are only gonna have the sliced bread and a toaster, and that's it, right?

Susan: Then there are gonna be people that are going to say, oh, you know, bread doesn't kaf to come sliced. I, so I'm gonna need a, a knife and a cutting board, and then I want, I'm gonna need a, maybe I'm gonna need electricity. Oh, you know, and then there's somebody, well, I don't even have a toaster. I'm gonna, I do mine in a frying pan, or I do mine in the oven. Or someone always draws fire, they put the bread on a stick and put it on a flame. But, you know, but the idea is that it just shows the different perspectives and get to think about, okay, now our, our mind is really opened up to what it is we have to think about when we're d when if we were designing the toast making experience. And so it gets, it gets people recognizing that. So I love to do that as a warmup exercise with people.

Dianne: That's like a great icebreaker. I think that's a great warmup. Yeah. And for designers listening out there, like if you're running some kind of design sprint or exercise with the team, that would be a great way to like, get people being like thinking outside the box and also recognizing that they're designers too, like you said,

Susan: Like, you know fun fact, there's actually a website and I didn't create it, but there's a website called draw toast.com .

Dianne: Okay. We're putting that in like the link. Everyone's gonna to toast.com.

Susan: Now that I mentioned it, I hope it's still there, ,

Dianne: Or maybe we'll recreate it if it's not maybe the opportunity to...

Susan: Exactly. To redo it.

Dianne: Yes, redo it. Well, okay. Awesome. , so we kinda left off with nasa, you're, you're hoping to build this whole kind of experience for, for the people working on this kind of project in nasa. Yeah. Yeah. What was, how did that go? Like, was there like an end date where you like were able to, everyone was starting to work in there. Did you continuously do tests and understand like what people were struggling?

Susan: Well, no, because I, I left , we were ok. Cause we were, well, so I went on, I actually did another fun quick fund project for a few months. I went down to the the Jet Propulsion laboratory and I learned about clouds because what we were, because we were also working on a part of this whole division, we were working on a something for the F aa and it was basically a weather monitoring system for the F aa. And so my first day on the project you know, the resident weatherman came up to me and handed me a cloud chart and said, learn all these. So I'm learning about cumulus, which was, I, it's really cool, right? Because you learn, I mean, what I, what I absolutely adore and I tell people about in this field is the fact that, you know, there's so many different ways, so many different industries. I mean, it's not like, oh yes, we're just designing technology, we're just designing this. It's, it's about the applications. And, and so, you know, I can be in this field for 40 years, but no two projects are the same. And, and yeah, it's, it's so many different disciplines, right?

Dianne: Oh my gosh, I, yes, I completely agree with that. I feel like anytime I take on a new project, cuz I really like to like, take on projects that I'm passionate about, but also things that maybe, I don't know. So to your point, it's like you're learning something about an industry you know, nothing about that you wouldn't really ever think that you would necessarily learn about. And then you learn all the ins and outs because you need to be able to understand it so that you can build and design something that everyone can understand. Yeah.

Susan: And it's always so fascinating and, you know, you think from the outside, oh, this, oh, you know, this is gonna be like watching paint dry. And then you learn about like, the logistics of how this works. And it's like, my kids, it's, it's so fascinating and it doesn't matter what it's Right. It could be

Dianne: Interesting. Great. Yes. You can always find like something really fa Yes. I that's, I was actually just talking about, this is one of the designers on our team was like there is something in every project that's like really fascinating. It's like, it could literally be a boring, I don't know, like finance, I don't know, something boring taxes, . But you learn about one specific part of taxes and you're like, oh my gosh, like this is so fascinating and I see an opportunity for me to be able to make this experience like better than people hating doing taxes. And it like, you have this opportunity to change.

Susan: It's, it's funny you mentioned taxes. I've done a lot of work with tax, with tax offices over the years. And I've also, I also teach, when I teach, when I teach people all about things like empathy mapping and all kinds of things. I use an example. I get them to generate a whole bunch of post-it notes about their thoughts about filing their taxes. ,

Dianne: I have many thoughts on that. They're all

Susan: Ok, I'll you can add to my request.

Dianne: That's really funny. Yeah. But yeah, that's a great opportunity. That's a great space to say, Hey, these are all the things wrong with taxes. Like what would you do differently? How could you solve some of

Susan: These problems? Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. So what was interesting, so after, after nasa you know, my next adventure was at a company called Tandem Computers. And Tandem might not be a name, you remember, it was certainly, but it was, it it's a name that is certainly a very important one in our world because what Tandem did, I mean, it's interesting, tandem started out of hp. It was a bunch of people who took some technology from HP and started this. And the whole idea was in, in the mid seventies. And it was about fault tolerant computing. So it's the idea of systems that don't, cra I mean, that are architected not to crash. So these are the systems, for instance, things like what the air traffic control system is built upon the stock exchange. A lot of banks use tandem equipment because, you know, of the way, because they can't afford to have the systems go down.

Susan: And so I joined Tandem, I was hired to work on an interface for like, what was the, at the time their most their, their most promising direction. They were, they were moving into a new way of developing sy systems management software for their equipment. So it was like the system, the, the software that their, that their customers, attem customers would use to run their own applications and to do the management and maintain the systems. And so I was hired for this project and the project went on for a while. And eventually what was really interesting, I, I mean I learned a lot of sort of like industry lessons there, like organizations that wait too long to launch something, missed the boat mm-hmm. . And that was kind of what happened with this one. I had a boss there that taught me a very, very, a, a, a principle that I will, I will subscribe to until my dying days, which is, it's better to make a decision with 80% knowledge than to never make a decision at all.

Susan: And that's really important for designers too, cuz we can get in sort of this analysis paralysis mode. And the bottom line was they hired me, I was like the UX person on this key system, and then they put the system out of its misery when you know, 10 years in the making. And I was left figuring out what I was gonna do, and I joined the industrial design department there. So they were the ones that were building the computers. They were the ones that were designing the computers the physical aspects of it. And I started thinking about the, you know, this, the integration of the software and the hardware and they had beautiful, they were, it was an award-winning department, gorgeous, gorgeous stuff from a, from an an industrial design perspective. And I started thinking about that whole integration of the experience between hardware and software.

Susan: And I had, and by doing that, I basically was able to then introduce this idea of we really need to be thinking about the ergonomics of the software more broadly. And because if our, if the whole idea was, and I convinced like the c e o of the organization that just because our co computers aren't our hardware fault tolerant, it doesn't mean that people can screw them up. And people in the software, if the software isn't equally as robust, equally as usable as the hardware is, you know, sort of persistent, then it's not gonna achieve what they need to achieve. Because if, if a human can screw up, a human can bring the system down then, right? It's no better than if the hardware crashes. Right? So that was my foray into educating people in within an organization about why we should be thinking about this. And it got me basically defining how we were gonna, how we were going to approach ux. It got me building a team. It got me selling the idea, it got me learning about management and yeah. And, and it was wonderful. I

Dianne: Mean, so many questions, but I will try to not ask all questions for time's sake. But I guess like, I think a lot of designers that maybe are, are on the cusp of becoming more senior or wanting to do management or maybe even seeing an opportunity within the company to like grow or start something new. How, how are you able to do that and how would you give advice to people that wanna be able to take on some of those

Susan: I, I think I made, I made a lot of really you know, looking back on it in hindsight, you know, made a lot of rookie errors. Main one. And the main error I made was thinking that everybody cared about the users because guess what? We care about the users, but nobody else does , right? Right. And so what we have to really un what we really have to do is understand what's important to the other stakeholders, what's important to the developers, their goals, their priorities are different than ours. What's important to the, you know, the business in trying to sell these things, tell, you know, and it's, and at the end of the day, what we need to be doing is not just understanding how to couch what we need to do in terms that resonate with them, but that to be able to demonstrate that we're actually helping them achieve their by, by us wanting to do whatever it is, whether it's doing usability testing or whether it's, you know designing it this way versus that way, or whether it's doing one more iteration or whatever it is. Right? it's, we have to explain. We, we have to, we can't just just say, well, we have, it's because of the users, we have to do that, you know, because Right.

Dianne: Nobody cares about the users except for us .

Susan: So what we need to do is make sure that we're, that we understand what's important to those, to other parts of the business, and that we are adding value to them and we're making their lives easier. And so that was a big lesson for me in trying to introduce our new processes and new interface standards and all of this because, you know, I had, I literally had the ear of the c e o. What I didn't have was the buy-in from the first line managers who were doing things, and they were the ones that were saying, Hey, but I've gotta get this code out tomorrow, or whatever it is. I don't care what you say, you know, . Right. Right. And so it's really about, it's about, you know, coming up with a way where we're all collaborating and we're all benefiting, and part of it is our getting them involved in the processes and in, in a meaningful way. And it, it can't be all, you know, I, I learned that, you know, it can't be all sticks. There has to be a lot of carrot . Yeah,

Dianne: Yeah. For sure. And that kind of goes back to our whole conversation about collaboration that you mentioned earlier. For sure. It's like you gotta let people in on the process safe to be involved, and then they'll become more stakeholders and everyone's interests, best interests are there and all of those things. Yeah. Which I know is much harder said than done. Right. Wait, much harder yes.

Susan: Than done. No. Much harder done than sit. It's easy to

Dianne: That was it. Yeah, that one, that...

Susan: Yeah. Easier said than done is what you're trying to, to

Dianne: Say. Yes. Thank you. One of those, one of those things. I knew it was right. So how was that transition from kind of designing and you in your space to kind of managing and leading?

Susan: Yeah, it was, it was interesting because I still had to do a fair bit of, I still had to do a fair bit of designing too, but it really got me, it really got me thinking about you know, just what's, what are all the moving parts, right? And, and working in a, in a, you know, again, it was in Silicon Valley, so, you know, with everything that that entails, and, you know, it was in the heyday of, you know, Friday afternoon beer busts and lots of, you know, lots of good. And it was like a wonderful, it was a wonderful company. It was probably, you know, the best company I anyone would ever work for, you know? Yeah. so, but, you know, but with, it came a lot of, you know, a lot of hard work, obviously.

Dianne: Oh my gosh, I'm sure

Susan: And it was, it was just, yeah, no, it was, it was a great, it was a great opportunity. And for me it was like, because I had been in industry at that point, you know, when I, when I got there, I had been in industry for like five years and then starting to get really feel like I had, I did have some reasonable ideas that I could bring to this, but that, you know, but everybody's just always kind of finding their feet and there's no one way to do it. Had lots of wonderful professional colleagues from around, around the globe, you know, and, and, you know, that I could bounce ideas off of. And so that amazing, that helps a lot to, to, to draw inspiration from, from other folks. So that was, that was a terrific opportunity. And I probably would've stayed forever except for one kind of fatal mistake, which was having them send me to Australia to work with one of our clients.

Susan: And so I came to Australia and two things happened. One thing was I discovered, so I I, it was great. I had this opportunity to work with one of their customers because they, it was this customer in Australia that was using our, our hardware and our software, and they were kind of screwing it up, and they wanted to say that we care about how you're doing this, so we're gonna send our head of user experience down to help you work through some better ways to do it. You know, I was like, this, you know, I was like a sales, you know, I was like this, you know, they could wheel me out and send me these places, you know, and, and oh, but I got to, and so it was cool. I mean, I got to go to the Bombay Stock Exchange for a few weeks.

Susan: Wow. So that was really exciting. And then I, and then they sent me to Australia, and I worked on, on a project. And I and two things happened in Australia. One thing that happened was I realized that there was gonna be a lot more work here in Australia than than I could. It was, it was a long commute from Cupertino to Adelaide, Australia. You know, it wasn't , you know, I thought I had a long commute going from Berkeley to to Cupertino every day. But this was, you know, this was really bad. And so I was looking for someone, and this was in the early nineties, and I was looking for somebody to that I could hire down here. And is it turned out there wasn't anybody, it was like, there was one company that was getting started.

Susan: One consultancy, a co consultancy called the He Group. And basically I found them, met them, and I be, and they were too expensive. We, we just couldn't afford to hire this consultancy mm-hmm. , you know, to do the kind of work that I needed to have done. So basically instead of me hiring them, they hired me. And I eventually moved down here. And part of the reason I, well, part of the reason I really did it is yeah, there was a guy involved . Oh, those guys. Yeah. And so I actually, I actually moved down here for Wow, a nice American guy who, who I met through, I mean, this is just how another thing that you learn in this field, which is everybody knows everybody, and it's all, you know it's all very incestuous. And the idea basically someone that I met at nasa, it was his best friend, and then , oh man, it's such a small world. Well, I mean, they, they always wanted to fix us up, but he was geographically undesirable because he lived here anyway, . Anyway, long story short. So I moved down here and, and it's been really, really interesting. And because what I had the opportunity to do was basically we were the ones that put UX on the map down here in, in Australia. And so, wow.

Dianne: Yeah. Okay. Well, I'm excited for this chapter now. You're like leaving me. So you, I mean, you had a guy share, but you also had a career. You had an opportunity from a work perspective that was gonna change the game for you. It sounds like you kind of got in at a stage that's really interesting.

Susan: Yeah, I did. It was fascinating. So I came down here and I probably just, just because again, mainly because of my age, you know, I had more ex, you know, I had been doing this longer than than any, you know, pretty much anybody. Because I had been already, you know, working for many, many years in, in, in the US before I got here, you know? Right. And it was, it was new here. And so we basically built up a business and it was really pretty amazing. We had, you know, we used to joke, we are the leading UX consultancy in Australia. Well, it was easy for us to say that with a straight face because we were the only UX consultancy in Australia. So we can say that. But then we, but we really were as, as we,

Dianne: So why was that? Why was there no UX in Australia

Susan: At that point? It was, it was just a good question. It was like, it hadn't really just caught on as much. I mean, I think despite the fact that UX is really, I mean, it doesn't, it's obviously not about tech comp. I mean, it's not just about tech companies, right? It's about everything. But because there, but you know, obviously it's, it probably it got more of its own from being, you know, in tech companies and, you know, where they're building the technology as opposed to using the technology. And because at that time, Australia didn't have a huge tech scene. It's very much changed in, you know, close to 38 years now. But they, you know, they haven't, there wasn't a big, you know, there wasn't a big Silicon Valley type idea here. Okay.

Dianne: And so that, does that makes sense?

Susan: Yeah. Yeah. And so it was, it was new, but we had the opportunity as consultants to basically sell people on this idea of, you know, designing with users. Collabo, you know, we used to run a, we had a class called Designing with Users, and it was taught all, and basically it was, it taught, you know, all about human-centered design and you know, what we think of as design thinking, you know, it'd be just sort of a standard kind of design thinking class, but getting users involved in the process and all the ways we do that. And but so we were the ones, but we were, we were working with the largest you know, tel we were working with telcos, we were working with the government. We were working with education. You know, it was, it was all the big players. They were the only ones that could afford, afford our, our services. Right. .

Dianne: Right. Ok. But it sounds like you were also educating them or others about

Susan: Ux. Absolutely. So we did a lot of education as well as a lot of consulting. And at, and we just kept building it up and building it up and building it up and it, and it got to be, we had like a 40 person consultancy. Wow. and we ultimately sold it. I ended up taking over as the, I was the managing director of the company for many, many years. And it was, it was terrific. In that, you know, we, you know, we, we not only, we spawned so much interest in this, and then as an offshoot, of course, people, you know, worked for us for a long time, but then they went off and started consultancies or they went off and did great things. And so, you know, if we did the sort of the, the genealogy of all the UX organizations in you know, that are from, from Aus, you know, from Australia, you would probably find a, I'll go back. Yeah. You'd find common relatives, . Right.

Dianne: That's, I mean, that has to feel like powerful to that. You kind of brought this whole industry into a country and like you could see everyone learning and seeing the benefits of UX and Yeah. Like going everywhere and kinda spreading.

Susan: Yeah. So it was, it was great. That was, that was absolutely terrific. And, you know, I had great, great, great colleagues, and I'll be forever grateful to folks like Sarah Bloomer, who, you know, brought me down, you know, who's you know, brought me, brought me down here yeah. You know, to, to work with, with them on building, on building this up. But it was, it was terrific. And so, you know we just were able to really feel like we had a, a huge role to play in, in educating clients as well as you ob as well as educating you know, individuals. And, and really changing, changing the face of, of what, of understanding what the potential was. And so that was, that was really, that was really cool. Yeah. And then yeah, and then from there all things, good things come to an end.

Susan: And you know, the people who bought us wanted to do different things. And so I left and started an, eventually started another consultancy for many years. And that was, that was terrific of something called optimal Experience. And so I was looking at more trying to do more sort of more strategic work, you know, less of a, you know, oh, we're just coming in to do this kind of evaluat, you know, usability test for you, but much more of strategic kinds of projects. And, and that was great. I had a smaller group. You know, it, I'll pretty much everybody who worked, worked with us at, at Optimal worked with us at Heiser at some point, you know, I mean, again, it's Right.

Dianne: You had all those connections.

Susan: Yeah. And that was,

Dianne: What would your advice be to maybe a designer that is looking to kind of start their own thing or kind of take on a consultancy cuz there's like a lot of risk, but there's a lot of reward. And then it's like you're, like, you kinda said you're kind of mo maybe doing more strategic or you're not doing as much as the day-today. What would be your advice

Susan: First of all, think about why you want to, why you want to have a, a company versus doing, you know, sort of freelance work. I mean, it really depends upon your goal, right? Because I think that one of the things that I would say that if, if I had to think about one way that our industry has changed the most you know, and I'd say maybe even in the past like 10 years, I would say it's this move towards being able to go in and be a freelancer, go in and be, be a consultant, go in and be, and, and work on, you know, not, not feel like you have to take a permanent job. It used to be just the, you know, it was only for the super senior people that you could do that. You know, it's like where you have the expertise, but now it's the norm.

Susan: Yeah. And I think it's, and I think it's, it's great for a lot of people. First of all, it's great for the people that I'm teaching, you know, cuz now I spent a lot of my time, you know, launching careers for the next generation of Yes. Of professionals. And for them it's like, it's so cool because, you know, they don't know what they wanna be when they grow up, you know, from a UX perspective. And nor should they have to know. But the idea is take on, take on different projects, you can, you know, it's, it's totally accepted and encouraged to be a freelancer. Whereas if I look at resumes, you know, 10 years ago and I saw you worked three months here, six months there, I'd think what? You can't keep a job, right? But Right. But now it, it, it gives you so many more opportunities to learn about what you like, what you don't like.

Susan: And it doesn't have to be about, you know, it can be about the organization that you're working in. It can be about the, the nature of the work that you're doing. You know, the specifics. It could be about the politics, it could be about anything, but you, it could be about the industry, the domain itself. But you know, there's so many o more opportunities. So getting back to this idea of starting a consultancy, do you really need the business side of it in order to do this? Or are you looking for the variety or, or are you looking to do something else? Yes. And I think that's the first question you really have to ask yourself. Yes. Because there's just a lot of headaches with just have Yeah. That you don't need to deal with if it's that you're looking to do interesting work.

Dianne: Yeah. And you know, that's kind of like, that's my background is I was freelancing for many, many years and kind of started a consultancy cuz I wanted more, I could provide more. I wanted to help junior designers and mid-level designers grow and take on projects. So I definitely think that's really sound advice for people that's like, hey, before you maybe jump in is like, understand what you're really looking for at that stage and, and you can shift and change things however you need, like whatever that means to

Susan: You. Right. And there's also different models for how you do it. I mean, you are, by the way, you know, I was looking at your company, your company looks really cool, .

Dianne: Well thank you. Thank you. We try

Susan: But but I think that, you know, there's, there's lots of different models you could, you know, you don't need to, you know, it could just be more of a cooperative kind of arrangement where it's not a, it doesn't have to be this, this business with this, with this kind of sort of vibe and this kind of intellectual property. Because you have this other challenge too, if you're just bringing in consultants all the time to fill the jobs that you're getting, you're not really selling your business anyway. It's just a, it's just a, a name to to invoice. Right. So. Exactly. Again, you really need to think about what it is that you're, that you're trying to do and why you wanna do. Yeah,

Dianne: That's great advice. Awesome advice. So I kind of getting to the end of our conversation, I, I know you've been doing a lot of teaching, like from everything, all of your knowledge, everything. And you kind of shifted into teaching. What made you make that decision? What and what do you like about kind of teaching? Well,

Susan: So I had done a lot of teaching, well first of all I had, you know, obviously teaching at teaching at Kaiser and, and, and we were teaching there. And, and I had done some university, I had done a fair bit of university teaching as well just because again, I, I mean even, even harking back to when I was working on my PhD, I always figured I'd end up in academia,

Susan: Right, right. And I do love and I love teaching. But what I discovered was I didn't actually love teaching at the uni at the university level because these people aren't really there to, they're not there to learn. They're there to, to get their diploma or their, you know, to graduate and, and it's just, it's just a class in their program, you know, and it's like whatever. Yeah. So I, the idea of teaching at, at GA was very appealing to me. Because these are people who are choosing to career to change careers. They're coming. And so I teach, what I teach is the immersive program. So it's a, it's now, it was 10 weeks when I started. It's now a 12 week program where it's all day every day for 12 weeks. These people are really committed to Yeah. You know, and I give them so much credit for stopping whatever they were doing, you know, cuz it's a huge commitment to do this.

Susan: And you know, they come and they spend 12 weeks all day, every day with me. And they are living and breathing this, and I treat it as an internship. I, it's a, it's a job from day one for them. And so it's, and I, I but I, I love seeing these people walk in not really understanding what UX is not having, you know, they think they're gonna just be, you know, designing pretty things and you know Right. Making the world a better place. And, and you know, basically what happens at the end is that they realize just the how, the kinds of skills that they learn in the program that we go through, because I really emphasize not it's, you know, I, I don't care if they learn Figma, I don't care. You know, I mean, it's just a tool, right. .

Susan: Right. I don't care about that. It's the, it's the thinking and it's the, it's the communication. It's what I call rather than the hard skills and the soft skills. I talk about like the craft skills and the catalyzing skills of ooh, of, of what we do. And they always, no matter what they end up doing, whether they decide that, you know, working in this particular industry is for them or not, I mean the skills that they take away from this class are valuable no matter what they do. Because it really is about collaboration. It is about communication. It is about learning how to critique. It is about critical thinking. It's those kinds of things that I, I emphasize and I know it drives 'em crazy while they're going through the class. I have, I have a group when, when we get off this, this call, I'm, when I go to work this, this morning you know, they're giving their, they're a presentation about a, a project that they've been working on for two weeks. And, and they're, they were like so angry with me yesterday because it's like, I just need to finish this. You know what, don't ask me to do a presentation. I just need to work on my prototype. It's like, no, you don't, you pens down on the prototype. This is about learning to talk about your work, learning to, it's a work in progress. It's not a finished and it's just like, yeah. You know, so we'll see if they're still talking to me by the end of the day, but they have presentations in a little while. .

Dianne: I mean, I like just hearing from you. I feel like I've learned so much. So I appreciate you taking this time. And I can totally see like all of these skills and whether they're angry in the moment or not, they're gonna take away maybe subconsciously a lot of these, these life skills that you're teaching them to be able to kinda like, make it in any industry, just like be a working professional.

Susan: Yeah. And I would say the last thing I, I will say about this is, and the thing that sort of keeps me going and getting back to kind of like, you know, any consulting that I do through, so that was through always strategy, which is my, now my, the boutique, you know, just me and yeah, whoever. Yeah. but, but the idea of you know, working on projects that matter and recognizing that, you know, there's a lot of crap out there and you know, and let's work on the ones that we should be working on, not on the ones that we can work on. And so this is where, you know, sort of my, you know, any consulting that I do now is I impact, you know, I'm, I'm working on things that I believe are impactful in some way or you know, I'm not gonna, I'm not gonna 40 years on, I'm not gonna waste my time working on stuff, but doesn't matter.

Dianne: I love that. Yes, for sure. I think that's like I'm, as my company gets further along and I like feel, I I'm starting to realize like, hey, like I wanna make sure that every new person, every new customer we take on, that they're doing something that aligns with like what we believe in as, as a company. Because at the end of the day, if we spend all of our days nine to five or whatever your working hours are remotely or whatever, like, you wanna make sure you're doing things that matter to you and have an impact on the world. And I, I love that. And I totally synthesize with that as well. Yeah. Well that's, that's awesome. Thank you so much for this conversation. I really enjoyed learning and hearing about your career. From early psychology days to nasa to consulting, to bringing UX to to Australia and then teaching. It was, it was really fascinating. So I really, really appreciate you taking that time to chat

Susan: With me. Oh, well thank you for your interest and it's been a, it's been an absolute pleasure chatting.

Dianne: Of course. And we might do it again. There might be another topic down the road that I'll reach out to you that we we're curious about your, your take on it, so.

Susan: Oh, there you go. I'd love that.

Dianne: Perfect. Awesome. Well thank you so much. And yes, we'll chat soon.

Susan: Okay. Take care.

Dianne Eberhardt

Dianne Eberhardt

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