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.

Let me start with the end summary. I’m a hybrid polymath type designer of products and experiences with MANY different interests and skills. I’m most successful on teams where I’m immersed and working WITH others and that’s where I get the most energy. I want to repeat that in slightly different words. I’m a technical problem solver. I solve problems and build things on my own. But I’m at my best when I’m associating with my colleagues A LOT, because I derive energy from those experiences. 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 of information and media that the web offered.

When I was first introduced to it, building a website back then seemed like a very complex hill to climb, 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, “show me how you did that!” But he did better. He said, “read this book” and showed me a big book of HTML. I relearned the value of being self-taught in technical topics.

Cut to, my first job, computer support agent. A very tedious repetitive job, but learned a lot about corporate communication and having to take on the cultural vocabulary of your peer group. While I was already pretty good at writing, I leanred 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. 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.

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’d like to focus on a failure that haunts me and that I don’t want to repeat. But it goes back a long ways. 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. Early on, my perception was 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. By perfect I really mean, we like it enough and we can actually shoot it.

So to zoom ahead quickly. We had a pretty good little script. 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… but at the time it was a huge let down for me. Didn’t anticipate this breakdown at all. With no alternative in my mind, my big problem was I didn’t know how to fall in love with a possible variant on the story.

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.

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 this tenuous script into something so precious, everything else was a waste of time. Yikes. But you know what. 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 failed 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. Where I don’t take no, and when it’s a vision of someone else’s I treat it as precious so any breakdown I’m there to create the absolute best workable alternative and to ensure THEY don’t fall apart either.

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. I could care less about foosball tables, vinyl motivational decals on the walls or a boilerplate benefits package. The generation before me had pensions and had to actually talk to one another in-person to do their jobs. I think those two losses are tragic as they were major motivators to work at one company over others.

What is your process for UX?

I want to know the what and the why. Then I discover the who, draw up the where and layers and layers of how. To be more specific, though, I don’t always go in order. If I have no existing reference points, I might take the stab at a sequence of rough screens. (What? Before research?) Yes, shocking. In doing this, I begin to see the entanglement and the hundreds of questions emerge. The questions manifest as part of this early preparation going out of sequence.

If something already exists, there’s probably pain points. I will ask the questions to get to those, it’s in my DNA to get to those.

I want to do interviews, observations and surveys. I don’t want to disrupt work on the ground, but I need to know what I’m being told at the higher level and whether it matches what I’m observing at the source. And once I think I have a picture of the work and the problems and process, I want to get a look at analytics if there are any. Let’s say you’re measuring successful transactions and transaction time. Well what else can we get. How can we build in good analytics into the new product?

So I’m drawing out of this information, the different people, their behaviors their interactions. I find out what their permissions are and I can establish parallel and diverting flow diagrams.

And whether or not my original screens make sense, I still can thank that initial work as I circle back to doing the new mockups, and knowing more about quantity, views and variations. And from there we get to whatever fidelity and shareable mechanism to then shop this great new product simulation around. Can we get back to the employees to test them? I hope so.

And let me close this out because some of the rest of this is obvious. There’s a point where I think some major opportunities are lost and that is in the form of accessibility. Because when an app is designed I think that I want to find ways to put myself into the role of users with an eyesight disabilities and simulate

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 DIA. And in designing screens I like Sketch, or Affinity Designer, Figma or Adobe XD. For prototyping HTML, I very much like starting with Pinegrow and then editing with say Atom Editor Notepad++. Not to forget, critial to my work are the Chrome 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 Blender. 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 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.