Michigan Women in UX: Stacie Sheldon Feature

Interview by Abrielle Mason, April, 2021

How was your time at Michigan State University?

I loved being a student at Michigan State University. I grew up in a small town in Northern Michigan and it seemed like a big city to me. And it was a time of discovery for me as I think it is for many. My time there also coincided with an exciting time in Tech (1993-1998) where the tech bubble was growing and in the fall of 1995 I landed a work-study position with H-Net, Humanities and Social Sciences Online. It is there that I learned UNIX, HTML, Photoshop, Perl, and how to partner with and work with people to build technology solutions to solve problems and build online communities.

What was your inspiration for a BA in Literature?

First, I am a total bookworm. I have always had the ability to get lost in a book. I was well aware early on how powerful an impact a book could have on how I experienced and saw the world and thought of myself and how it could do the same for others. This was solidified for me in high school literature classes. Langston Hughes led the Harlem Renaissance from his unique perspective on a shared experience. He created that moment in the context of a certain place and time. To Kill a Mockingbird has lessons for every generation but it came from a moment in time in the history of this country. Hemingway can make us feel the sun shining on the Two-Hearted River. I could go on forever. That is what got me in the door.

How has a BA in Literature helped you with software development?

When you study literature you learn to study people – what motivates them, what is the context of where they live and when? How does that impact the choices they make? In drama, most of the greatest plays come down to one decision a character makes or one thing they do that is irrevocable – that changes everything. And let’s take another example: Mysteries. Mysteries are really small journeys from uncertainty to reassurance (when the puzzle is solved!). Software systems and their designs are similarly often a journey where you have to find all the pieces and how they fit best together. Literature builds on the skills required for this – including exercising the imagination to deal with the complexities of the workflow and process and the ability to understand people and where they are at, what their intent is, and what their goals are. It all comes down to curiosity and wonder.

You started your professional career as a developer – what was the transition like from your Literature studies to a developer career?

For me it was seamless because I had that work-study position at H-Net and was already working in excess of those program hours because I loved that work so much. I never liked coding though – I liked working with people to solve problems but jobs like that (UX jobs) were not really available at that moment in time. 

What sparked your interest in UX? What was the transition to UX like? Was there much of a transition in your professional career or was it already incorporated in your work?

In the late 1990s I was doing every aspect of software and website design. I knew I was drawn to the discovery and design phases of work the most though. In the year 2001 I ran my first usability test and loved it and my understanding of user experience evolved with what was happening in Tech at the time. It was very organic in that sense. I think in 2006 I finally managed to get a position where I could just do information architecture and UX design (lots of wireframing) and no longer had to code. I was so happy at that point but it turned out to be a long road ahead (and still is) with individuals and companies not understanding UX or not understanding how to support it or leverage it.

What was it like working for Global Team Blue (Team Detroit back when working with Keith Instone around the year 2013)?

That was long ago enough now to think of as the good old days at Team Detroit! Those were fun times where Ford was able to invest a lot in research and brand campaigns were sort of unlimited fun. I loved working with the Creative team there. And it was very fortunate for us to have Keith there working with our team as he has always been a source of industry excellence and an advocate for User Experience.

What is Slalom? What was your role there? 

Slalom is a modern consulting firm focused on creating experiences through strategy, technology, and business transformation. There are globally 8,500 employees in 39 markets. Their shared goal is to build a world in which everyone has the opportunity to love their work and life. We exist to help our clients reach for and realize their vision.

I work for Slalom Detroit in the Customer Strategy & Experience Design practice. My favorite thing about Slalom is it’s genuine commitment to values such as authenticity, justice, and equality.

How do you incorporate inclusive design into your work? 

There are a number of ways to incorporate inclusive design in your work, here are just a few ways of doing that:

  • Determine who has been excluded from your design process (including user research)
  • For your next design sprint or cycle strive to include this group that was previously excluded
  • Seek out research or design process participants with a diversity of perspectives/life experiences 
  • Be self-aware and wonder about your own unconscious biases and identify your assumptions
  • Embrace accessibility standards
  • Attend meetings on this topic as this conversation grows and evolves
  • Use your IA labeling and form design super power responsibly
  • Demand transparency in algorithms whenever and wherever you can

How has this experience writing the “From Scientific Racism to Inclusive Design” article impacted your work? 

It allowed me to gather my thoughts and think critically about many aspects of UX that I have encountered over the years. And I think it helps me with figuring out how to share, teach, and advocate for better research practice. For example, I frequently encounter companies and organizations that value quantitative data over qualitative data. Everyone wants everything to be data driven and “right” and they are positive that quantitative studies are the way to get there. But humans are more complex than that and a single research method will rarely if ever tell us everything about an experience. Mixed methods (and knowing which method best serves a specific context or problem) will always be most valuable. And I hope my article can illuminate how great harm can come from our desire to want to measure everything without considering the context and impact of our measures. 

What was it like to start a new job remotely during the pandemic? What techniques/tools have you used to overcome the issue of face-to-face interaction during a pandemic?

My last two jobs have both been remote positions so this was old hat for me. I haven’t worked in an office environment since 2017. I find that turning your camera on is the biggest factor for connecting. It doesn’t need to be on all the time – that is too exhausting. But it does help build trust and rapport to have it on most of the time. There is nothing worse than presenting your work or giving a talk to a screen of icons.

As for tools, I use Miro or MURAL a ton for sharing and capturing ideas, affinity diagramming and collaboration. They are easy to use and even enjoyable.

How has the UX remote work been like for you? 

For the most part, I am really happy with working remotely in UX. The pandemic has made tons of people more comfortable with video conferencing which is a helpful thing for user interviews. Tools like Maze and some of the testing platforms are evolving quickly as well as demand for remote research grows. Workshops take more patience but there are great white-boarding tools (Miro and MURAL again) out there and it is possible to make it work. Being able to travel and do an ethnographic study though is something I miss. For the different customer segments I’ve been working with over the last few years I know there would be value in going to the kinds of places they work but it is not worth the risk right now.

If you are comfortable with it, would you mind sharing more about your Native American roots? I would love to hear more about your experiences identifying as a Native American female in today’s day and age.

I am Ojibwe or also called Chippewa. The name we call ourselves though in our language is Anishinaabe. We are a Native American tribal nation made up of these three groups – Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi. Our confederacy, which is called the Three Fires Confederacy spans Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ontario, and even parts of Alberta. There are currently 12 federally recognized Anishinaabe tribes (sovereign nations) in the State of Michigan and our language, which we call Anishinaabemowin, is the first language of Michigan and these other areas. I grew up in northern Michigan, in Cheboygan.

I also grew up without getting to learn my heritage language. Until the Native American Languages Act was passed in 1990 we were prohibited from speaking and teaching our languages. And in my spare time now myself and a good friend run a website called Ojibwe.net that is about preserving and advocating for our language – it is essentially a cultural revitalization resource. I have also authored a bilingual (Anishinaabemowin and English) children’s book called Bebikaan-ezhiwebiziwinan Nimkii: The Adventures of Nimkii. A second edition is due out this summer! 

Every tribe in the United States is in a race now to save their language from extinction. We are in a place in time now where it is understood and accepted how much a culture lives within a language. Without a language, you don’t have a culture. And we also know that language and culture and well-being are connected. This has a big impact on how our youth are faring – so this work of preserving our language is very important to me. 

What was it like living in SE Michigan? Ever wanted to move West or East coast?

Here in Southeast Michigan I enjoy living in Ann Arbor. However,  I do miss the landscape and geography of northern Michigan and much of my family. My hometown of Cheboygan is near the Straits of Mackinac where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron meet and also has Burt and Mullet Lakes (the 4th and 5th largest lakes in the State). There is water everywhere and I miss that too. Sometimes I think I might like the mountains and sunshine of the American West but in many ways, Anishinaabe-land is my country as much as the United States is and I wouldn’t want to leave it. 🙂

Be sure to check out Stacie’s article From Scientific Racism to Inclusive Design.

This interview with Stacie Sheldon is a part of our Michigan Women in UX series. If you have a story you would like to share in our series, contact us at michiganuxpa@gmail.com.