Mike Smick UX Sketch Sub Page Image

Questions and Answers

Let’s see if I can turn this page into a mini interview. I’ve been thinking about doing this for so long. I failed on brevity but if you want to know about me, I’m definitely coming through in the words.

Tell me about yourself.

I’m a hybrid designer / developer of products and experiences. Lot’s of different interests and skills but mostly around getting something built and making a process better and faster for a new user and an experienced user. I’m quite outgoing and that’s the type of team I like to be on. If everyone is heads down and not very social, well that’s unfortunate because that means they probably aren’t talking shop and teaching and learning from each other.

I’m at my best when I’m associating with and providing a service to my colleagues and customers. This is because I derive energy from those experiences with people. I really enjoy product development and thinking through not just how to build one thing, but how to process a hundred thousand of them.

I went to school to learn to make movies, but realized that dream almost too quickly. And the technology at the time left me a bit deflated. The land of make-believe wasn’t as interesting as instant publishing that the web offered.

My first job, I was a computer support agent. A very tedious repetitive job, but learned a lot about corporate communication and having to take on the cultural vocabulary of my peer group. While I was already pretty good at writing, I learned how to write effectively in a technical sense so it’s actionable for varying tiers of support. (How would I like a ticket to read if I was not able to speak to the client myself.) I was writing for that field support person. This was a critical skill that differed from my creative work.

After that job, I actually got one of the best jobs I ever had. I was a project manager and trainer for a yearbook publishing company. I would be flown around the country to support schools, teach them (and salespeople) how to use creative software and company plugins. Very productive years , I also became a published author of a technical manual on the Adobe Creative Suite and created multiple series of video tutorials before YouTube even existed. I was an expert in my field, again sooner than I would have ever expected.

After that I worked in the digital signage industry, which was a fascinating mix of content work, but being close to the installation, which touched a bit on facilities, installation, electronics, carpentry and more. I enjoyed that work but decided it was time to move back to my home town of St. Louis.

For the past decade I’ve been working mostly in the world of IT contracting on the design side of things. My title has changed over time, mostly because of how I fit in the industry. I have always professionally been a hybrid. Not a fine artist, not a developer. So I went from web designer, to Front End developer. And when that became more specialized, really the best fit for me, was something I’ve always done, which was User Experience. I enjoy it because it involves the look and the process.

After some years in this field, I find that it suits me best when I’m more actively associating with colleagues working out problems and getting energy from a lot more touch points vs shorter meetings and being isolated and only building. That’s my personality though. If I’m not interacting with people, it’s not the job for me. In contrast to developers who often need a lot of time to focus, I need more time understanding how things work and how what I build can meet the needs of many different people and it’s existence within a lot of different systems.

What are your greatest strengths?

My ability to anticipate the unspoken needs in the work that I do. Often I find myself getting the minimum of direction on a particular task or project. A business analyst will spend just a few minutes informing me of what is being requested, something that they may have been in several hours of meetings working out the details. And I find myself able to come up with very important queries as to how it should work, and I’ll bring up potential pitfalls and alternative scenarios that other people much closer to the project don’t always consider. This used to surprise me how quickly I can come up with a system-breaking scenario, but it just means I’m pretty good at what I do.

I’m good at understanding the level of effort for a particular task even when it’s not exactly within my expertise. Specifically I’m talking about development and how challenging any particular detail might be. And that comes from what you might call latent or adjacent expertise. Because I’m closer to a lot of development work, hashing out the logic even when I couldn’t write the code myself, I have a talent that say someone in UX with a fine arts degree or a more academic research background might not have. It’s when you build things with all these moving parts you start to feel the complexity and your judgement on a challenge improves.

I’m also quite good at a LOT of different design software. I pick up nearly any 2D vector, drawing, painting, UI, prototyping, animation software very quickly. (with exceptions on some animation tools). I think from being a trainer and a designer I have a method of play that I find the shortcomings and the benefits of software and can add it to my ‘toolkit’ with little or no curve.

Lastly I’m extremely good with my interpersonal work relationships. I think potentially through some of the mixture of the personalities of my parents as well as my own experience, people will find that I’m a confidant and very trustworthy, as well as interested in them and their success and happiness very quickly. Sometimes it surprises me what people will share with me but again I realize that they know I can be trusted and am careful. I see a bit of myself in almost anyone, from the meek to the boisterous, the excitable youth and the tortured soul. When you’re interested in everything, as I am, it really means you’re interested in people. You know that you have something to learn from everyone, and to pre-judge or even post-judge, just means lost opportunity.

Name a time when things didn’t go your way and what you did about it.

There’s one lesson that I learned that goes back quite a few years. In college we had our final video project. And for whatever reason my team, well, there were areas I would have hoped that some on my team might have stepped up, just from a creative standpoint. But looking back, I think it was more that I should have been looking in the mirror. My perception was I had contributed to the majority of the momentum on the script idea and I was directing the project, I had found our main actor, and from there, it was really a race to a perfect script that we would pre-produce and then shoot and then edit. We had to have a script we liked enough to actually shoot it.

So to zoom ahead quickly. We finally got to a solid script. No helicopters or zoo animals needed. But as we got underway, we learned that we wouldn’t be allowed to shoot a key location that basically held all the weight for the premise of the film. Looking back I’m not surprised the location refused, but at the time it was a huge letdown for me. I hadn’t anticipated losing this location and I didn’t have a backup plan for the story to work. I had become so attached to the vision, every bit of expectation was hinged on a particular set of things working out. Looking back, it wasn’t that I couldn’t roll with problems, it was that I could roll with some problems but some others were a hard punch that left me disoriented and weak.

So what happened? Well I lost all of my enthusiasm for the project and I failed at my job. Failed the team. Basically I had made certain elements of the script into something so precious, everything else was a waste of time. Thankfully, I’ve had a lot of years go by since then. I’m well aware of what happened. I had done so many good smaller projects before then with ultimate control, this was the first that had dependencies on so many other people and I couldn’t see a way out of it.

A few of my teammates did their best to pick up the pieces without me. And I’ve regretted ever since. And I’ve also vowed to not let that happen. Both in collaboration AND keeping up my end of the bargain where the dependency is me. The way around is to not be so myopic around specific ideas. Amusingly, my script I worked so hard on, as I evaluate it years later was largely based on a Macguffin. Had I understood that, I could have made it work in all sorts of ways. It’s clear that other people in my team saw it that way but I couldn’t.

Why do you want to work here?

I want to work somewhere I’m needed and that I can contribute with significance. My work improves the more I actually participate. So my vision of a better workplace is where I’m making you better and you make me better.

What is your process for UX?

There’s a lot of discovery and a lot of entanglements. Systems are often too big for one person to understand. You have to be ok with that and with jumping around, quickly getting into context for the purpose you’re actually serving. The good thing is this work has some fundamentals that you can perform and you’ll be mostly on the right track even if you’re dropped into a meeting with zero understanding of what is in front of you.

  • Number one, throw out your ego, sense of entitlement, creative ownership and preconceived ideas of what “good” is.
  • Understand how something works or is supposed to work. Who are the people involved, what is the sequence of events in the activity.
  • Start talking to people about the system who will be using it. Find out what pain points they have. Getting familiar with the people using a system allows you to design based on their persona. Getting a few personas down is a good thing because they have certain needs, permissions and experience levels.
  • Pain points – find out what they are. Make a list. Can you incorporate most of them in your designs?
  • Make sure to question why something is done the way it is. This is tricky because it’s not meant to make anyone look foolish or become defensive. It’s just a way to ensure legacy behaviors aren’t redundant. If you don’t ask, you might never discover that another system is doing part of what you want to do here already.
  • Do a design draft of the sequence based off existing systems or behaviors. While drafting, look at what systems this procedure is interacting with. If queries are being run, or if data is available or not at any given point in the sequence. Drafting is important because it really helps me understand on an atomic level. I can see and feel what’s happening based on whatever persona I choose.
  • As I draft, I’m looking for a few things which will later be talking points.
    • In and out points – assume each step a mistake could be made and ensure that backing out doesn’t mean throwing out everything.
    • Permissions – Who am I missing in my list of user roles? If I can’t fully render specific views for those user roles, I should at least be aware of them and they will be part of the documentation. I’m not part of the security team but it is on me to consider what users can and can’t see and do.
    • Look at standardized and unconventional ways to perform a task. Standard components can help speed up development time. Unconventional methods can help users understand what they are doing. For example, there could be an advantage to a dropdown menu of each of the United States to pick from. However, a clickable map could be preferred. Consider, evaluate and test it. Some ideas will be a challenge to get past your stakeholders, so unconventional ideas will require more preparation in order to present to the team.
    • Accessibility – This should definitely be in mind during the drafting state. Plan on getting in trouble if you’re not considering users with differing abilities and disabilities. It might mean an entirely new set of screen views and component styles.
  • Evaluate the work with stakeholders as soon as possible. As part of those meetings, start the process for getting users involved. Some projects you won’t be able to talk to users at all. Others, if you set it up right, you can get hundreds of users. And coordinating this is a challenge. You have to start blocking out what you want to test and how you’re going to present it, as well as establishing feedback mechanisms. It is here you should be figuring out whether you can do A/B testing and what your variances will be.
  • Test and document. If you’ve done your homework and established standards for how to test and get feedback, in return you’ll get consistency handed back to you. What you want are action items. Confirmation is nice. Things to improve are better.
    • Demographics
    • Verbal feedback
    • Mechanical observation
    • Timing
  • Look over the data, hopefully there are things to improve. Gather the information to be presentable, including your plan of action. At some point it’s decided when you’ve completed the testing phase and onto production.
  • Time for the meetings on analytics. Hopefully you’re not the sole person shepherding this thing. But you need to consider the measurables. There’s probably systems in place to tell you performance, usage. But you can also create and observe funnels. These are sequences of steps tracked in such a way that you can observe people funneling from beginning to task completion.
  • One more note on analytics. If you don’t know how to measure how the system works, you are missing out on a major dimension of your success.
  • Deliver the goods. Development needs your work so they can build it. However it’s delivered, do it. Maybe it’s going to be in a Confluence page, to then be divided into user stories with individual screenshots. Maybe it’s going to be shared from Figma or Invision. However it is, do it. And plan on keeping it up to date and versioning it.
  • The next challenge is establishing your role in development. Ensure you are part of the feedback during development. If you’re not getting access to the test or QA servers, then you’re likely to find out things changed or were done improperly. Be apart of the dev standup meetings. Try to identify any Jr developers that may need some extra help. Make sure you have a good relationship with the senior developers, tech leads, etc. Your stamp is on this thing but you aren’t there to hinder progress.
  • Set up meetings with stakeholders and make revisit accessibility. Audit the work, make sure you’re doing your part.
  • Once released into production, make sure you can observe the analytics. Not every UX designer will get access to this in the enterprise. But you should try to follow what is going on.
  • If there is a support structure for your system, see if you can find out how it has been going . Between this and analytics, you are showing ownership over your efforts.
  • Iteration – If there hasn’t already been a plan for iterative improvement, the analytics and the support channel may drive this. In some cases, you may be on to the next project. That’s life. But you may also be able to maintain some notes or logs as to what might help improve this over time. In 3-6 months when that meeting happens you will be prepared with your own talking points for the next iteration.

What tools do you use?

In my work I need a good notebook. (More on that later on.) But software I like having a diagramming tool like Omnigraffle or a couple others I use yED or even Mindmanager. And in designing screens I like Figma, or Affinity Designer, Sketch or Adobe XD. For prototyping HTML, I very much like working with Pinegrow and then editing with say Atom Editor Notepad++. Not to forget, critial to my work are the browser developer tools.

I like Illustrator & Photoshop but I’m actually trying to move away from Adobe subscriptions in personal work just as a challenge. For what I do, it’s not something I want to tie myself to on a monthly recurring basis. But the bottom line is I use what I need to use to collaborate and deliver. If that requires using Adobe or Figma, then I’m going to do that and adapt. I like Jira for documentation of work tasks. And I’m OK but not fantastic at Git & BitBucket.

Some of the most fun work I do, I might be working in Clip Studio Paint, AfterEffects and 3D work in Blender. Working in 3D even to just block out a design idea that will be done in 2D just because it helps me with perspective and composition. I do a lot of screenshot work using Greenshot, and file renaming in Ant Renamer. And I enjoy using GIMP and Inkscape for some technical work and recreational image editing.

What is your favorite website or app for design or UX?

This has been asked of me in the past and again recently and I failed because I couldn’t think of one straight away. And that’s because I don’t get to use it as often as I use terrible and subpar experiences. My absolute favorite and delightful experience of a website is….. McMaster Carr. And I’m betting that you either haven’t heard of it, or you use it and never thought of it before. This is a very popular site and you might have ran across it without realizing just how important it is, when you were searching for some odd nuts and bolts. Why is this industrial products site so amazing? Run a few searches on it. This website delivers search results faster than most computers or native applications on your own computer. The full search is as fast as Google’s auto-fill search. It’s so amazing just how quick, it makes me think their web team are either space aliens or they got access to space alien technology. In a world full of Awwwards and top 10 flashy trends, walk away and be a McMaster-Carr.

For apps, I actually like Relay for Reddit. It’s a time-waster but I like how it works and its performance has always been quite good. I’m also learning Mailspring on the desktop and it seems to be a great desktop email client.

What kind of hobbies?

I’m into some DIY maker stuff. I’m not going to get specific but there are some projects I will design in CAD and build, but they never amount to fine furniture. I’ve done shop projects and some prop-making. I’ve done some product development on my laser cutter that I think may end up on store shelves some day but it’s not something I work on too much, just occasionally.

I’m also really into bicycles, I do a certain kind of riding but am probably up for anything on a bike other than getting covered in mud. I was never particularly good at skateboarding but I love riding a motorized board called the Onewheel. It’s a real blast to cruise around my neighborhood on it. Feels like floating, up until your ankles and shins start to ache at least.

I participate somewhat in local athletic association and some assistant coaching. I also have been known to go to group meetups in my technical areas of interest but I very much like my weekday evenings free for family stuff and personal projects. I have some other things going centered around cabins and my family and I have property that needs occasional tending.

There’s a lot more but some of that is going to be covered elsewhere in the site and this QA section is already super long.

Where do you see yourself in a few years?

I like building things. I’ve lived by a visual portfolio for so long, it’s hard to think about a job where my work and value exist as talking points only. But I also know that I’ve got a lot to contribute in terms of team building. Because I’ve been a part of teams and been through a lack of leadership quite a few times, and I know I get a lot of value by promoting and celebrating the work of others and I’m a study of the ways to get the most out of people, tapping into the motivation they already have to progress in their own lives. I’d like to get to the point where I’m doing that and seeing how far I can take it.

Inversely I don’t see myself getting too much deeper into coding and development than what I do already. I see myself learning more but not nudging towards a full dev role. I think I’ll stay the route of UX design, architecture and product development with an impetus towards leadership roles, mostly because I get my energy from the team. That said, I think I’ll remain a hybrid to some extent because I want to stay close to the work when I can, unless it’s superseded by another more valuable skill down the road.