Karen McGrane on User Experience

Unlike many interactive design gurus who seem mostly self-taught (not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course!), Karen McGrane actually has a graduate degree in this stuff, from way back. And she’s built a wealth of professional experience and expertise in content and usability. Karen focuses squarely on the user—and she’ll be talking about content in her presentation at the HOW Interactive Design Conference in less than two weeks. In a recent e-mail interview, she talked about how designers have to really get comfortable relinquishing control over the end product.

What’s keeping you busy these days?

I run a small firm called Bond Art + Science, which focuses on content strategy and user experience design. My background in UX goes way back —I’ve been doing information architecture and interaction design for about 15 years now. I tend to work with clients who have big, thorny content problems: If they’ve got thousands of pages of content, lots of different audiences, and a content management system that looks like a big database explosion, then they’re the client for me!

Your career in interaction design has been focused squarely on the user. How did your education and background steer you toward developing this UX expertise?

I’m one of the rare people who have been working in user experience for my entire career, and I actually did my graduate work in this field. (I have an M.S. from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and I focused my studies on human-computer interaction.) I got a job right out of graduate school as an information architect working at Razorfish, and when I left nearly 10 years later I was the VP and National Lead for User Experience. My education and training has come full circle: Now I’m teaching Design Management in the interaction design program at the School of Visual Arts.

Many designers think they don’t have to know much about the content side of web or interactive design. Why do you think it’s important that they know about content?

Content is dynamic. You can’t design around one piece of content and assume that it will always be static, like print. Designers have to learn how to anticipate how content will change: What if there’s nothing here? What if there’s too much? What if the text isn’t what I expected? You have to give up pixel-perfect control, and embrace working in flexible systems.

A friend of mine, Ethan Resnick (@studip101), said something recently that I’ve been quoting a lot: “Metadata is the new art direction.” What that means is that the tools for designing how a page looks and works on the web, or in mobile, are in the hands of the information architects and content strategists who set up the rules and filters. If you, as a designer, want to understand what you’re designing, then you need to understand how that content works.

What’s the biggest mistake you see designers make when it comes to guiding users to navigate the content of a website?

Jeremy Keith (@adactio) has been saying a lot lately “Design from the content out, not from the container in.” I think the biggest mistake I see designers making is that they think their job is making a beautiful container. They’re making templates, they’re designing boxes for content to be poured into. Users are at the website because they want the content, not because they want the container.

As you scan the technology landscape, what are you seeing that really excites or intrigues you?

I’m excited (and terrified) by what social and mobile will mean for businesses. Many companies are barely keeping their heads above water with their desktop website, and they are about to get swept up in a tidal wave caused by the demands of social publishing and mobile. The smart businesses will take this as an opportunity to better align their digital processes and workflows so they can create more flexible, reusable content.

What’s your favorite:

  1. website?
  2. mobile app?
  3. book? I’m going to go with Kindle for all three!


This piece originally appeared on the HOW blog.