My childhood home sat in an Appalachian valley at the end of a red clay road—with no indoor plumbing, no video games and no VCR.
My favorite toys were a box of pencils and a screwdriver.
Doorknobs stood no chance next to my curiosity and screwdriver. I took apart any small gadget, studied the inner workings then perfectly rebuilt it (right, mom? :) Scrap wood, cloth and building supplies were as good as any Lego set; better even, because with only raw materials I had to invent what I would make.
The high chair I designed and made for my little sister's baby doll was a hilarious failure, made well only by copious amounts of duct tape. But the stones I hauled out of the creek made a mighty fine pathway which still stands today.
When they gave us IQ tests in school, they told my mom that they weren't sure what my IQ was because I'd tested off their scale. I made straight A’s without tutors or study aides. I held a community fundraiser and sent myself to an arts high school. I made it to salutatorian and went off to college, though neither of my parents had gone. With all these feathers in my cap, it only took one glitch in my financial aid at UNC—and I was done with my academic career. Instantly, I was thrown into the real world with zero safety net.
I’m not sharing this to brag or mourn. My hope is that by sharing my experience I can help my community understand how hard it truly is when you don’t come from privilege. We need to stop and consider each other in a way that removes institutional bias. This is particularly true for professions like user experience and customer experience design, because our work relies on empathy for creative problem solving.
Only through a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds can we begin to understand and solve problems that extend outside of our own neighborhood.
Here's where a little luck and whole lot of hustle came in.
In 1998 a friend loaned me a Pentium II with Photoshop 5 installed on it. Sweet. I dug into it with obsessive curiosity. Another friend put a one way plane ticket out west on her credit card for me. I crashed with friends and eventually ended up in San Francisco just in time for the DotCom Boom.
Places like WebVan and ActionAce.com were clamoring for anybody who had computer skills and knowing Photoshop was golden. I started by temping, then in 1999 landed my first real job as a Web Designer at Astrology.com. Somewhere along the way, I had caught a lecture about user testing; and it was the first time I heard someone suggest that we get other people's perspectives on what we were making. This was my lightbulb moment. Get outside perspectives to make better websites, of course!
So when Astrology.com struggled to sell astrology reports, we looked at drop-off points and worked to fix the checkout flows. But it didn't have a real impact on conversion. So I proposed that I do user research. The owner said, "Sure why not kid?"
My first ever user test in 1999 was a friends-and-family study with each participant going through 120 minutes of task analysis, participatory design, card sorting and a questionnaire. I'm sure the lovely gift basket honorarium made it worth it. Looking back I'm sure my methodology was loose, my findings were rife with confirmation bias, and my questionnaire results had a huge margin of error. But my study revealed one really big and really basic thing: our users didn't know what astrology reports were. This made selling reports a little difficult.
To solve this problem, we promoted celebrity examples of our reports like the hugely popular Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise Love Match Report. Since I was 22 at the time and we didn't have a lot of structure at Astrology.com, I don't have exact KPIs for the lift. But I do recall that the user research and example reports were a huge success. And I got promoted after that.
Invention comes from knowing what to do with uncertainty.
Creative problem solving does not come from thinking we have all the answers, it comes from continuously asking questions and seeking answers from diverse perspectives. How can it be any other way? Invention must always keep swimming or it dies.
So if you're looking for the perfect pedigree, then you haven't found it here. But if you're looking for curiosity, grit, and a decade of UX leadership then drop me a line.