Sometimes, all it takes is one stray thought.

Lessons by Karen McGrane of Bond Art + Science

Posted on May 9th, by Brad in Blog, Life Lessons. No Comments

One of the greatest joys I’ve had in my career is learning intriguing life lessons from my professional peers. I love hearing their stories on how they got started, and what events influenced them throughout their life that made them the person they are today. These lessons have had a huge impact on me, both personally and professionally. Because I find so much value in what life has taught people, every month I’ll  post an interview with someone who has “paid their dues” in user experience and design field. The interview will focus on what life has taught them up to this point, and what experiences they’ve had that has had a direct impact on their work and life today.  It’s my hope that you find inspiration, encouragement, and maybe a laugh or two as you read through these interviews. I hope you enjoy this latest interview as much as I enjoyed performing it!

Wait, who’s Karen McGrane?

(http://www the internet is more awesome than it was in 1995, Karen would like to claim a very tiny piece of the credit. For more than 15 years Karen has helped create more usable digital products through the power of user experience design and content strategy. Today, as Managing Partner at Bond Art + Science (http://bondartscience, she develops web strategies and interaction designs for publishers, financial services firms, and healthcare companies. Prior to starting Bond, Karen built the user-centered design practice at Razorfish (http://www NULL.razorfish in her role as VP and National Lead for User Experience. Karen is also on the faculty of the MFA in Interaction Design program at SVA in New York (http://www NULL.sva, where she teaches Design Management (http://interactiondesign NULL.sva, which aims to teach students how to run successful projects, teams, and businesses.

Lessons By Karen Mc Grane

When I got started in this industry, I was able to accomplish a lot because I was too stupid to know that what I was doing was hard.
From a business standpoint, I’ve learned a lot about client management, account management, finance, accounting — essentially the operational side of running a project or a business. The tough part is knowing how to wear two hats well. David Baker of ReCourses (http://www NULL.recourses (fantastic guy, highly recommend him) points out that if you’re too worried about making money, you won’t give the client the kind of honest, strategic advice they’re paying you for.
If you’re too worried about making money, you won’t give the client the kind of honest, strategic advice they’re paying you for.
Similar thing on the design side — the web and I kind of grew up together, and a huge part of my brain has been taken over by this internalized, instinctive sense of How Things Should Work. I’ve had to struggle a bit to wrap my head around how mobile is different. I went through several stages: indifference (“It’s not that big of a deal”), hubris (“Everything I know now is equally applicable”), fear (“My skills are useless and I will never adapt and will wind up offering to make wireframes for food.”). Today, I’m super excited about mobile, but there’s a lot of desktop baggage I wish I could unlearn.
(http://www career advice I ever received was from JP Maheu when he was the CEO of Razorfish and I was running the UX team there. He gave me a performance review one year where he told me to figure out what I really loved about my job, and to make sure that I got to do it. Find a way to do the part of your job that you love, every month, every quarter, every year. See, in that kind of management role, you get pulled into so many directions, many of which are not things you set out to do. I took that job because I wanted to be a UX designer, and found myself with all my time taken up doing operational tasks. Did I really get into this business to stare at resource management spreadsheets all day? What JP told me was to make sure to build in the parts of the job that I loved. That advice has held true, even as I run my own firm now.
Find a way to do the part of your job that you love, every month, every quarter, every year.

Eh. You make mistakes. It sucks. You don’t die. You try not to make those mistakes again. It frees you up to make new and stupider mistakes. There are lots of things I wish I hadn’t done, but nothing I would say I would do differently.
I love, love, love teaching the Design Management class at SVA. It is one of the most rewarding things I do. I learn all kinds of things every year from teaching this class.
I find it very easy to say no to the things I don’t want to do. I always say “You have to say no to the bad clients so you can say yes to the good ones.” Even when business is slow — especially when business is slow — you have to have the discipline not to take on the wrong clients. Because as soon as you say yes, you’ll get sucked in to a project and won’t have the bandwidth to take a dream client when it comes along.
It’s a lot harder to say no to the things you want to do, but don’t have time for. I don’t think anyone ever really learns that skill, it’s just constant practice.

When I was in grad school, probably on one of the very first days, my composition professor, Dr. Lee Odell, told the class that we would be doing quite a lot of two things: working in groups, and public speaking. If you can work well in a group of people, especially people of varying skills and different mindsets, that’s half the battle. If you can hone your presentation skills, that’s like career rocket fuel.
I was in a PhD program at RPI and my dissertation advisor, Dr. Philip Rubens, gave me some life-changing advice, which was “Don’t get a PhD unless it is the only thing in life that will satisfy you. If there is anything else in life that you can do, go do that thing. You’ll be happier.” He was right.
(http://www have degrees in Philosophy and American Studies from the University of Minnesota. I also have a masters in Technical Communication from RPI. I believe very strongly that college is not vocational school. I got a good, well-rounded, liberal arts education in which I was taught how to think and how to construct an argument. I learned how to read critically, conduct research, and write well. My graduate education was directly related to my profession. I studied HCI, cognitive science, and taught usability and writing courses. I think my background is unusual in that there are not that many people who have been working in this field as long as I have who studied UX in school.
At my 10 year reunion, in 1999, the conversation went like this: “I’m an information architect!” “I’m a web designer!” “What?” “I live in New York!” “Oh, that’s interesting!” Now, I either tell people that I design websites or that I do internet consulting, depending on what kind of conversation I want to have.
I never really carried a lunchbox to school, except for a few times when I brought this “Mr. Zip (http://arago NULL.asp?con=2&cmd=1&id=207629&pg=1)” lunchbox that was designed to look like a mailbox. I’m not sure it — or I — succeeded in making the postal service seem cool.

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