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Meet Sarah McVean, a Senior Product Designer and BrainStation Design Instructor. Having taught multiple courses at BrainStation including Design Thinking and User Experience Design, Sarah has helped empower professionals with the skills they need – and in the process, she developed the skills she needed to take the next step in her career.
We spoke to Sarah about the design process, landing a new role at Shopify, and what it’s like to be a BrainStation Instructor.
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BrainStation: Can you tell us a bit about your career background, and what you do currently?
McVean: I’ve been a designer for 18 years, starting my career out in Multimedia with a focus on web design. I’ve done a bit of everything over the years, which has been the benefit of being a strong generalist, but my focus has typically been in the area of UX/UI for website and product design.
My most recent role was as a Senior Product Designer at KPMG’s Ignition Centre, where I led strategy, design, and Design Thinking for KPMG’s teams, partners and clients. I’m moving into a role as a UX Manager at Shopify, which I will be starting next month and am very excited about because, well, it’s Shopify and I’ll have the opportunity to grow a lot there.
What drew you to the field of Product and UX Design?
About ten years ago, I began working at a software company where I worked not only on the marketing materials and website, but also on a product for food safety. The product was really interesting, and it was a natural transition for me from doing web over the years, but I had to learn how to work with complexity and UI patterns that I didn’t typically use in web.
I primarily performed UI design until I started to learn more about user research, usability testing, and UX deliverables and workflow. Once I began learning about including users in the design process, I was super excited, because otherwise design can be very subjective.
Incorporating research and data gave me the confidence to make decisions and speak to stakeholders from the needs of the users. This was a dramatic shift from the previous way I had been doing design work.
In your opinion what’s the most critical aspect of a user-centric design process?
I think the most crucial aspect is for the designer to be able to adapt the process to meet the context of the work she is doing and fit user research in – even if it’s less than she’d like – making it measurable in some way. This will help show the value of user-centric design to the stakeholders, and get buy-in for more time and resources to perform user research. Being able to adjust your process and expectations to meet the needs of the company is key to helping to transition and implement a robust user-centred methodology.
The second is for the designer not to bring bias to the interview or testing process. We shouldn’t be looking for validation of our ideas but to disprove our assumptions. Designers can get attached to solutions, and designing for the user requires us to take a step back and design for their best interests, even though it may not align with what we want to create.
Can you describe your experience as a BrainStation Instructor? What is your favourite part of teaching at BrainStation?
The team here at BrainStation has always been very welcoming and supportive, and I’ve had the opportunity to make connections with students from various backgrounds and provide meaningful support and direction to new designers. Watching them grow has been very rewarding.
Did working as an Instructor at BrainStation help you in your personal professional development?
Yes, most definitely. I originally taught a Design Thinking workshop at BrainStation, which led me to my previous role at KPMG where I was a Senior Product Designer and Design Thinking Facilitator. I gained a lot of skills leading and facilitating sessions during the day at KPMG and in the evening at BrainStation.
In terms of public speaking, teaching, and facilitation, I have grown exponentially. I also think that teaching at BrainStation helped me get my new role at Shopify.
I’m very grateful for the growth I’ve experienced while working at BrainStation.
What is a teaching moment or student success story that you’re most proud of?
Well I think there are a few moments, but one is a Product Manager who came to learn UX because he thought his lack of wireframing and UX skills were hindering his job opportunities in the market. A few months after the course he got a new job as a Director of Product and said that the UX course was key for him getting that new role!
Another student came in with virtually no design experience and turned out a final project that was so amazing, it was on par with many experienced designers work. It was very gratifying to see someone do so well in such a short amount of time.
In your experience, what do students find most challenging about the user experience design process?
I think listening to feedback from usability testing and not trying to ‘explain’ designs to the user. This can be difficult sometimes, especially from designers who may have experience delivering work without any user feedback. It can be challenging to watch someone struggle with your design, so it’s a learned skill to step back and accept the feedback without getting defensive.
Based on your experience working in UX, how relevant and applicable is the BrainStation approach to skills training?
I think the BrainStation course material and projects are a fantastic real-world introduction into current methodologies, concepts and tools.
The course material is continuously being updated and worked on which is necessary since our industry is always evolving at a rapid-fire pace. And the projects themselves that students create are tangible assets that can be used towards portfolio pieces or simply for practice, and they follow the same steps that hiring managers look for when reviewing portfolios of past work.
If you are serious about becoming a UX designer, BrainStation is a great start, and I also encourage designers to continuously learn new skills and do design work, as the UX profession is a journey where the learning never ends.
In your opinion, what are the most valuable skills a professional working in UX can develop?
Communication skills. This is very nuanced, and is a skill I’m always working on myself, but the ability to present your work, discuss ideas on a team, defend your designs and listen to feedback is so important.
There is so much more to design than the pixels, and there is a balance between listening to others opinions and leading the process. Communication is a key factor in what makes a successful designer. Especially now that more teams work remotely, communication skills are really key.
I encourage everyone to put themselves into situations where they may feel uncomfortable so that there are opportunities for growth. And listen to understand, not just waiting for the opportunity to reply.
If you’re interested in learning from experienced professionals like Sarah, check out BrainStation’s Design Courses.