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. It’s sometimes a struggle to get the right balance of thorough and brevity. 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 went to school to learn to make movies, but realized that dream so quickly, actually while I was still in college, It hall happened so fast. In a way it left me a bit deflated. After just one year away at school, I had worked on two movies with Hollywood crews. One was even shot on a Hollywood studio lot. But I realized that I wasn’t really as interested in a good chunk of the work in the land of make-believe. From working on the sets, basically I could see the first few years in the film industry would be equivalent to doing warehouse work, (only a lot of the people on film sets aren’t as mature as the bosses I’ve had at my warehouse jobs). I also didn’t like the idea of shopping around a student film to “get discovered.” Things are different now with capture and editing equipment being more accessible and distribution being instantaneous. The immaturity though in the film industry hasn’t changed at all.

Anyway, back then the web was younger, it was more attractive to me to build content inside that realm. Building a website back then seemed impossible, but then I had my good friend introduce me to his bandmate who had built their little band website. I was just stoked. I begged him, “how did you do that??” He was probably scared of my determined insistence and pointed me to the book he read on HTML and I immediately got it from the library.

So while I was doing my media production degree I was spending a lot of my time learning HTML and graphics and assembling all these pieces together to a level quality expected from a professional. And after college, I found myself as a support agent for a couple years and there I learned a lot about the communication that is unique in in the culture of a business and how to speak and write effectively to transmit information so it’s actionable. This was a critical skill that differed from my creative work. And though working a support desk is hard, it can be extremely valuable in understanding how a large company functions.

After the support desk I went into yet another dream job, where I was taking all that I had learned in graphics and media and I was able to train students and sales reps on the software I had spent so much time cultivating my skills in. I was also creating interactive training content and traveling the country leading workshops. It was a productive and exciting time. Those 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 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. That is the idea of designing the look and the process and the look of 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.

So in closing, I’m a hybrid polymath type designer with many different interests and skills who is most successful on teams where I’m immersed and working with others and that’s where I get the most energy. I really enjoy product development and building things. And every team I’ve ever worked on I believe I’m seen as somebody who is an expert in their field and is interested in how my work can positively impact the people I work with.

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 seem to have conceived. This used to surprise me, but now I just see it as I’m pretty good at what I do.

I’m good at understanding the level of effort or how long a particular task will take 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 really good at a LOT of different design software. Without exaggerating I know or can learn extremely quickly any 2D painting, drawing, vector, UI, prototyping, animation software (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.

I don’t come from a family or a background of easy success or inherent talent. That is to say, when I want really good results, I have to work quite hard for them and disappointment and failure is expected generally, as is rejection. And when I do good work, I know enough that it’s good whether it’s received well or not. So rejected work, or opinions don’t really affect me personally. In other words, I don’t get frustrated if somebody says my design fell short. I work within a realm of subjectivity, and where it’s just as hard for others to explain what they want as it is for me to explain why what I made is the right choice.

And I also know that there’s almost always an opportunity, if the clock could be turned back, where I probably had a shortcoming that led to something not going my way. Perhaps it was a conversation I could have had, or having been a little closer to a certain person so as to understand the request or something to watch for.

But I’d like to focus on a failure that haunts me and that I don’t want to repeat. 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. I felt like I had contributed to the majority of the momentum on the script idea, 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. And by perfect I mean, we like it, and it was doable and we could execute it in the time we had. In my mind, if it was not something I liked, I wouldn’t want to do it, and I’d rather reverse and find another idea.

So to zoom ahead quickly. We had a pretty good little script. I had written a lot of it. It wasn’t perfect but it was to the point where we were all excited about it. It had juice and it had less problems in the script than even some Hollywood films. But after a little into production, we had a major problem hit. We got word that we wouldn’t be allowed to shoot a key location that basically held all the weight for the premise of the film. I know why we didn’t get it, and looking back I’m not surprised… but at the time it was really the only way (to me) the film made sense as to why the characters would have gotten themselves into a certain predicament. This was a huge letdown and I didn’t have a personal back up plan. And by that I mean, I didn’t know how to fall in love with a possible variant on the story.

So if my enthusiasm and hope could be measured, I went from a 10 down to about a 2. And at that same time, I had started to get serious in a relationship I was in. So I basically phoned in my role for a couple portions of the shoot, to then finally relinquishing my role as director. I just didn’t care suddenly. And I hurt my reputation, I failed my friends, I made it difficult for them to pick up where we left off. I’m sure from their perspective in hindsight, they probably had very little ‘love’ for the original script, and didn’t see why it couldn’t be changed. But that was a different paradigm from mine. Because it was really hard to meet all those needs in the first place. The action and the tension in the script was just right, but it was in a delicate place of believable. There was a standard to me that needed to be met and I saw no way to do that. So it wasn’t so much ego or demand on this ‘great story’ I wrote. It was the demand that the story needed to be reasonable from setup to motivation.

The redeeming quality to me in the original script was that it worked in ways that I believed meant everything. It was tight and couldn’t be loosened. Let me contrast it with a traditional type of story. See, when you have a story that needs to be told, its essence can be explored and manifested or retold in a variety of ways and the essence remains in tact. But if the story is non-essential and only works as a ‘list of requirements’ as it pretty much did for me, then missing items on that list mean the integrity is lost.

So in some sense, I can relate to my past self, because I understand the importance of integrity and purpose. If you set out to tell one kind of story and now you can’t. Why bother right? HOWEVER I can also see my past self as the spoiled child “If I can’t have the pony AND the magician at my birthday party then I don’t want a party at all.” That said, this film wasn’t a party and at no time did I ever express or feel like somebody else failed me. It just means that sometimes questionable integrity of anything can be an all or nothing situation. In much of our lives, that’d be fine, but here when you have limited time, resources and other people counting on you and a grade that means a lot to them. You then approach an unfamiliar and difficult area of compromise and follow through.

The frustration and loss was circumstantial and it showed me about the tenuous grip certain things can have on you. It has been many years since then I think now, when I engage in things, I do a lot better with backup plans and completing some things even with shortcomings. Mostly because the essence isn’t often lost just because you can’t get everything on the list imbued into whatever you’re building.

Why do you want to work here?

This is obviously a bit out of place here since this a specific question sitting in a generic QA, but it’s worth exploring. The fact is if you’re reading this and considering hiring me, you should know that I probably don’t know enough to know whether I want to work there. To me all the great things about a workplace end up coming out of all the unknowables. Because a great experience can be had working on a product that on the surface seems quite boring. Problem solving and the energy from a team, the idea that you get a lot out of working on things, or that your team can help you peform at your best and even go home with more energy than you had that morning. None of that could be known before hand. I wouldn’t know if working on medical inventory applications could be more fun than being a video game tester because those things are transitory, they change based on where you work, who your people are, and a dozen other factors that impact it. So the short answer is, I want to work somewhere that I’m needed and that I can contribute. I want to work somewhere where I can make you better and you can make me better.

I’ll also add that if I’m super excited to work somewhere specifically, it’s probably a bad sign. Because it means that I’ve got expectations of a certain type. And those can be dashed easily by even just one toxic entity on the team, or circumstances outside of my control such as financial state of the company. Any hiring manager reading this could even end up being the reason that one of their employees are having a terrible time, because they are the cause of the pain.

What is your process for UX?

It actually changes quite often and seems imperfect. And that bothers me. Part of any problem of a process that’s consistent or not is whether there are enough resources to do something right. And I think I’ve been limited somewhat by the budget and teams I’ve been apart of. There hasn’t been a through line of every UX discipline at these places.

I think it’s obvious by now that I will lead with certain pain points. That’s just kind of how provide exposition I guess. But my process is generally gathering requirements from the people on the team, let’s just say the business analysts will bring me into the fold at the appropriate time and we discuss the business request. After that in these preliminary meetings, I’ll try to understand through a series of questions about the project. I might query based on suggestions I already have brewing, or I might just let them lead me to the path of what they are thinking. Often times they don’t have a proposal.

Once that is complete, I go back to the well, look at any adjacent projects or I’ll put together some mockups based on the suggestions and feedback and plan. And again depending on the team those proposal drawings might come with multiple versions and the best of the process wins. At that point, I’m thinking I’ve got some medium or high fidelity work to do to really match how this will work. And generally other wheels are turning that are out of my view. Various people are shopping the drawings around and ensuring there’s buy in across the board.

At this point if there’s an available process for testing these ideas, it’s at that point those sessions will start. Based on the drawings, I may or may not be building interactive prototypes. But the idea is that we can get some audience members to run through the activities. So the prototypes would be worked up and a test written. Generally this work isn’t mine to do, but it has been so I can speak to it. If we can get the test feedback and respond to it however fitting, then there’s another part of this, which is to start having the conversations with the development teams or leads. Those discussions will be all about level of effort. And if the new project or feature shows some particular challenge that can’t be overcome then that would be addressed. Otherwise the team will put together any necessary documentation for each of the elements and features to be understood by the dev team.

When the work is in progress, if i’m fortunate to be able to keep up with the dev team (not always the case in places I work), I’m going to listen in on the standups and check in on the progress in order to ensure that it’s turning out and meeting the expectations we set in the first place to meet those goals. If things are deviating, visual discrepancies, then it’s up to me to have those conversations across the board to find out what our course is. Might be training issues, might be bugs in the framework, it might be a disparity between the mockups and how the developer is interpreting them. It may be that specific instructions need to be added to the mockup to chip away at the differences.

I’m going to skip over QA as it hasn’t been a major part of my work but I have participated as needed. I generally would just be looking for the scenarios that I accounted for have made it into the QA work. And of course that any dev or stage environment used by my stakeholders, that they are seeing the work unfold as expected.

Let’s say that worked out, then comes the question of release and feedback. Feedback has generally come inconsistently and has made it into discussions and for work on subsequent releases. If I happen to be part of the UI team, I might even be addressing some of that personally in the code. Otherwise it’d be important that I get the feedback first hand and ensure that I’m interpreting it correctly. The other feedback which would be more consistent would be through analytics.

In the past it hasn’t been up to me, other than making some suggestions for what items are tagged for analytics and monitoring. But certainly I’m looking to measure efficiency and session length. I like the idea of creating sets of funnels where you can monitor sequences of both desirable and undesirable behaviors. I’d like to be able to spend more time with teams discussing this but unfortunately that’s not been a big part of where I’ve worked up to this point.

What tools do you use?

Seems like some people who do UX use maybe two tools, just Sketch and just Illustrator. But actually I find that I really like to work in a LOT of different tools. I do use Sketch extensively, however I don’t find it the best place to ‘play’ or do experiments in layout. There is some tedium in Sketch that I have not been able to resolve. Efficiency often comes a lot sooner to me but Sketch is one that I’ve never been able to work in as fast as I can think. And so it’s not a good match for me at certain stages. The absolute fastest app I can work in is called Xara Designer Pro. And second to that is Affinity Designer.

Both Sketch and Illustrator are a little slower in certain ways almost not worth mentioning because it ends up being an argument that comes down to subjective nuance anyway. And the fact is, it doesn’t matter because I can work in any of these applications. I’m talking here about what I use, not whether I’m fundamentally limited by anything, which is a very different idea.

I like Photoshop but I’m actually trying to move away from Adobe subscriptions. For what I do, it’s not something I want to tie myself to on a monthly recurring basis when I can get really good at a lot of other stuff, it seems more flexible. Obviously if the company is paying the bill and for whatever reason the collaborative or file sharing impetus is towards Adobe, that’s fine. But at home I’m gonna play the music I want to play, so to speak.

To follow up, I don’t find anything superior that Adobe XD brings to the table. I can use it if needed, it’s quite simple. I really like Clip Studio Paint for it’s drawing brushes I think some of what it does is very beautiful. I am quite adept, though by no means a motion graphic artist with Adobe After Effects. I can edit video content with a number of apps. I can do some 3D modeling and animation in Blender and am always learning new things there. I’ve never been able to fully immerse myself into a big Blender project but I use it frequently enough that my skills just slightly grow year after year.

I will often publish sequences of screens in PowerPoint or LibreOffice Presentation. I like Jira for documentation of work tasks. And I’m OK but not great at GIT / BitBucket.

On the code side, I switch between Atom Editor and Notepad++. I also will sometimes start my layouts for responsive web pages in Pinegrow, which is basically a very simple but helpful visual builder that keeps your layout code perfectly intact. It’s useful in some stages of projects but generally after a time I end up coding by hand. I don’t have a lot of experience, but can get up to speed on preprocessing. Whereas on the design side I like and appreciate fast tools, on the code side, I don’t necessarily need the speed that writing preprocessed CSS would me and it actually adds some overhead and tech debt that balance out in the negative for me as I’ve gone along. I’ve also not worked on teams where everyone was on the same level, using SASS or LESS consistently, which means it would be out of sync instantly. And I’m ok with that. I want to work in harmony with the team and sometimes that means NOT introducing certain abstractions into the mix.

I’ll end this with just a little bit on frameworks. At the time of this writing I’m utilizing Bootstrap 4 on things I build. I think that it is complete, albeit bloated solution. However nothing preventing one from stripping out the excess from it early on or after the fact. Using flexbox with it improves on grid layout. It’s not quite CSS grid, but it’s accommodating enough for me thus far. And there are probably more community add ons for it than rolling with a less popular framework.

In the past I’ve been there where I’m reinventing the wheel. And it’s rewarding a couple times, until you actually need to conserve energy and have a little more predictability in your life. I do a little bit of jquery work. I also use but don’t love WordPress and I start things with the underscores theme because I’ve been too lazy to write my own variant of it. Again if I’m solving problems on my own with no help from a team, then I’m going to try to find the way with the least friction towards hitting the objective given that hundreds of elements are at stake on any given project. If I have help, then my decision tree looks a heck of a lot different.

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.

When I’m developing something I do get a kick out of the build process, but I do NOT get the excitement out of debugging and a particular kind of problem solving like my developer colleagues do. I tend to get through a problem where I’ve successfully debugged it finally and don’t feel better afterwards. I don’t feel energized or excited or that I leveled up. Quite the opposite. I often feel bad that it took a long time and it’s not something I get a lot of takeaway motivation from it like I do when I self-evaluate other aspects of the work I do such as communication. To me that’s a signal that it’s not in my soul, despite absolutely loving hands-on work.