How did you originally get involved with UXPA?
The first thing I think about is membership. I was a member when it was the Usability Professionals Association. So I go way back. I don’t remember exactly, but I believe I was a member dating back to the early 2000s.
How have you personally benefited from or contributed to the Michigan UXPA community?
I used to attend the meetings. They were scheduled monthly. I would attend any time I could, when my schedule didn’t prohibit me from doing so. I would always be a fly on the wall to give ideas whenever I could. I was also a small part of (if I remember correctly) the team that was trying to get the Midwest UX conference in Detroit.
Why did you choose to run for UXPA International when you have so much on your plate with 14 different roles already?
It’s funny… I wasn’t going to. Someone posted that there was an election coming up and they were calling for people to run for office and for nominations. Someone posted the info to LinkedIn and said, “Darren, this is you.” It was like they were saying, “Please run.” I looked at the office. I looked at what the responsibilities called for. Knowing that I was already doing a lot of what the role called for (I was just doing it on my own), I thought that it might be a good idea for me to do it in an official capacity with the support of the UXPA, especially since it was already my passion. I got into UX through the world of education and instructional design. Part of the reason that I’m serving as an adjunct professor now is because I had always wanted to marry my passion for education with my passion for UX. These things became the driving force behind the why.
Could you speak a little bit on your background in education and how you think it’ll contribute to your success in this role?
I can actually come at it from two different angles. I have been training people since 1983 in corporate environments. My history goes that far back. So that’s one angle. The other angle is that my background from an educational standpoint is that I have five instructional design-related certifications. I’m a certified instructional designer, a certified training manager, and a certified master trainer. In addition to that, I also have a grad certificate in educational technology from Michigan State University (Go Green!!!). I’m also getting my Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from Northcentral University. I am three courses away from starting my dissertation as we speak. Additionally, I’m an adjunct professor at Kent State University. I teach in the Masters of UX program. I teach UX-related courses for Lawrence Tech in Southfield, Michigan. I am in the process of taking on an adjunct professor role at Michigan State University, where I’m helping to design content and courses for the CX Master’s program. I’m in talks to become a professor at Syracuse University in a forthcoming master’s of HCI program. I’ve also been in talks for becoming an adjunct at yet another university (name withheld). These things help illustrate and demonstrate my passion for education.
Some people ask if you have 14 things that you’re doing, why would you want to do anything else? And then other people say, how do you do all the things that you do? Some people ask. Some people watch. Some not only watch and see me doing all the things that I do and recognize that I’m excelling at all of them. As a result, there are some that don’t ask me why. They just ask me how I do it all. They want to hear how in the world I’m able to pull it off. Some people are smart alecks about it and some people are genuinely asking. It’s all about organization. When you’re organized, you can get a lot of things done. And so I’m able to teach at two universities now, work a full-time job and run workshops from time to time at Grand Circus in downtown Detroit because I’m organized and because I’m structured. From an educational perspective, I know the importance of sound pedagogy and know how to operate from an educational perspective to deliver a sound learning experience. Some engage in education, but don’t know anything about pedagogy. These folks think that anyone can teach, but this reminds me of how I was always trained to understand that a subject matter expert is actually the wrong person to teach a course or lead a learning experience. The only way I’m able to do it is because I understand the science behind education, as well as the science and the other elements associated with UX. Therefore, I can properly marry them. But when somebody doesn’t really know, and they’re a subject matter expert, they dive into it. People buy into it. But you have to know the scientific aspects behind education in order to really drive a proper learning experience. Just throwing that in. 😉
You mentioned the responsibilities of the Director of Education role and how they aligned with you, could you expand on what some of those responsibilities are?
Some of the responsibilities for the UXPA role include defining relevant educational content for the UXPA community. That’s something I already do, I’ll just do it for UXPA now. I’ll be responsible for identifying and contacting webinar and course presenters and instructors. This basically involves coordinating learning experiences, securing the talent, and arranging the right people in the right place at the right time. That’s something I do for my podcast. I’ve helped organize other conferences in the past and tentatively planning my own conference in October of this year. So, I’m familiar and comfortable with such things as scheduling meetings with potential instructors to discuss content, coordinating scheduling of webinars and courses with presenters, and leading a webinar and course updates on the website. As I reviewed the various responsibilities, I continued successfully “checking off the boxes.” When it comes to coordinating course finances with the board and director of finance, that’s something I have a long with based on my history of business acumen. Surveying webinar and course attendees and identifying opportunities for improvement of the initiatives are responsibilities I’ve always performed as an instructor and something I’ve done from a research standpoint. So that’s piece of cake coordinating video captioning and making recordings available for members. These are just some of the responsibilities, but as I perused them all, I continued recognizing they are all things I already do, so I couldn’t come up with a reason not to pursue the office.
Can you expand any more on what you hope to accomplish as Director of Education?
I’d like to stabilize educational goals and expectations throughout the discipline. I delivered a talk recently called “The Trouble with UX Education.” In viewing it from a hypothetical, it’s pretty broad in that a lot of people view education from the perspective of targeting the content, the topics, and the curriculum. They don’t target the overall strategy and the associated mental models of the learners. Ironic, isn’t it — UX people overlooking mental models?
One thing I shared during that talk focused on our learning paths as children. When we were kids, we all of us did the same exact thing. Whether you’re homeschooled going to private school, public school, it didn’t matter. When we first go to school, starting with preschool, it’s time to get ready for school and you get dressed, you go to school, and you get on a school bus or whatever it is, and we embark on our day. We repeat this process regularly. It’s not until high school, pretty much, that we start making decisions. It’s not really until we go to college that we start making full decisions regarding our direction and then even then it’s partial. We don’t make full decisions about the entire framework really until we get into grad studies. A lot of things are pretty much handed to us. Prior to all of this, most of our decisions are made for us. Why is this relevant? We’re used to somebody telling us where to go and what to do, you don’t know how to make the choices. We have what I call “baby bird syndrome.” We trust what others offer us. When deciding to head into UX and to embark on this journey, many don’t know how to make their own choices. The problem is that the world of UX is chock full of misinformation. And a lot of times a person who comes up to the person with baby bird syndrome will drop something in that they’re later going to have to get flushed out by way of a cognitive enema. So, when I talk about some of what I want to do with education it’s to make education more reliable, educational paths more trustworthy, and to help people to understand and be better equipped because each individual is now in charge of making the related choices — choices we didn’t have to make when we were 5, 15, or even 25 years old in some instances.
Now that choice is ours, people are opting for the wrong things because they’re making choices without having the proper knowledge level, without having filters, and without having connections to real mentors. Consider, again, the baby bird. The baby bird comes in eyes wide shut and mouth wide open, trusting that whatever someone tells them is correct, reliable, and trustworthy. Knowing many are in this state, helping to foster and provide sound educational environments and experiences are critical and I feel the UXPA should be a reliable source and solution regarding this matter.
Do you feel that your election into the UXPA international board will benefit the Michigan UX community?
I would hope that it does. A lot of times for a lot of UX professionals today, the UXPA (and other professional associations and affiliations) are not on their radar. It’s sad, because a lot of educational resources are not really talking about the importance of professional associations, not when it comes to UX. In the PM world, they are. In the CX world, they are. In a lot of other disciplines, people talk about the importance of professional associations. Professional associations, for UXers, have practically dropped off the radar completely. I think that it’s important we continuously inform people about what professional associations are out here, what we should hope to get, what’s in it for each of us individually, and what benefits people should hope to gain and experience. So, I would love to get UXPA on people’s radar. I would hope to get the Michigan UXPA on people’s radar, but from a holistic perspective — always echoing the benefits. If we don’t do this, then we’re just repeating the “sins” of those who went before us. I’ve seen that a lot in my lifetime. Therefore, I realize I can’t just hold a position. I need to be an active occupier — a force, if you will. This is a great association and has always been a great association, but it has also been under-promoted. I want to change that.
What you think are some of the large benefits of being a part of this association?
I think the biggest benefits I’ve ever had over the years have been resources — tangible resources, such as an article, a blog post (or the equivalent of a blog post) that existed on a UXPA reference. The biggest thing that ever impacted me from the UPA/UXPA was an old illustration that looked like the game Chutes and Ladders. When we were kids, I think we all practically all played Chutes and Ladders. It looks like a giant ladder or pathway. It curved and swirled, just like Chutes and Ladders, and it identified different things that happen along the design journey. Whether it’s a good experience or a pitfall, they identified it, instead of giving us that toxic positivity approach to things and just talking about the blue-sky mindset. They talked about the challenges. They talked about the things that we needed to be aware of. That really impacted me. I used to have it on the wall in my house. I love that old illustration. There were some awesome articles that were posted from time to time.
Ironically, until I was about to take office, I never saw all of the old talks and recordings. I know is that good UX content has a long shelf life. I plan on doing some content strategy work in conjunction with my position. In other words, I’m going to systematically reshare some of this content, helping make sure people are aware of these old talks. People are so star-struck, they want to know about Jakob Nielsen, Don Norman, Susan Weinschenk, Alan Cooper, and Richard Saul Wurman, but what about people such as Chauncey Wilson, Paul Sherman, Larry Marine, and Nathan Shedroff, people don’t always know these names, and they should. Truthfully, the discipline is still “a baby” and, therefore, needs to be managed. Its diapers need to be changed sometimes. And it’s been going, has been unintended too. And so part of my educational drive is to make sure people are aware of viable resources and (again) benefits. And no matter where one is in their career life cycle, they are in need of cultivation, maintenance, and growth, and always impact the discipline. There are a lot of people today who are getting into UX that don’t care about the discipline. This is detrimental all of us. So, when we educate people about these things and about these people, then it gives a sense of accountability and responsibility. I think that it also helps people to take what they’re doing with UX a bit more seriously. You can’t just “break into the discipline,” as many like to say. You have to get into it and take ownership of the fact that what you do regarding this discipline is going to impact it for the better or for the worse. I want to encourage people to impact UX for the better. Education serves as such a vehicle.
Is there anything that we haven’t touched on that you’d like to share with the Michigan UXPA community?
If I would say anything else because I just said so much, let’s just go onward and upward and let’s build, let’s forget about where we’ve been, let’s continue on an upward trajectory and get involved with the organization, let’s make sure that we’re supporting the discipline. Let’s make it a point to build all those around us who want to be built.
Shortly after joining the UXPA International board, Darren resigned. This interview represents several interesting issues with UX education, so we are keeping it online for others to benefit from.