Focusing on Users Is the Most Basic Principle: An Interview With Susan Tacker, User Experience Manager for Teradata
Susan Tacker is User Experience Manager for Teradata Applications in Raleigh, NC, and holds degrees in English, Journalism, and Human Factors in Information Design. She founded the Houston, TX chapter of UXPA in 2013 and served as Executive Director. She is currently Director of Sponsorships and Memberships for the Triangle chapter of UXPA (TriUXPA). She and her husband Chuck live in Durham, NC with their rescue pup Tucker T. Fleming. Find her on Twitter @sdtacker.
GG: I know you made the transition over the years from Technical Communication into UX. What was this transition like for you? What’s it been like moving from one job description to another? What made you decide to make this transition?
ST: I have always enjoyed writing information that people will use. I was a journalist before I was a technical communicator. Writing software documentation was fun – I got to explain interesting software, develop conceptual information, write steps, determine what reference material might be useful, and generally make people’s jobs easier. I progressed from being a writer to a manager to a director, and I had many years of challenging positions where I could learn and grow.
Then I reached a point in my career when I realized a couple of things: 1) I badly needed a new challenge, and 2) the product user interfaces at the company where I worked at the time were dated, not particularly user-friendly, and could benefit from some revamping. We didn’t currently have the staff to tackle that problem. I decided that learning user experience design would be beneficial to both the products and to my career. My boss at the time was enthusiastic, so I became a remote student, taking one class a semester, in Bentley University’s Human Factors in Information Design master’s program. Before I completed my degree, my boss suggested I move to a UX position in product management. I recently got hired away from that company to become the manager of a UX team, and I am really happy with my career change.
GG: Do you feel that Technical Communication still plays a role in what you do as a UX expert? If so: what role do you feel it plays?
ST: Absolutely. Focusing on users is the most basic principle in both technical communication and user experience. In both fields, you understand and represent the needs of the audience of your work. The tools and methods are different, but the goals are similar.
Good communication skills and user advocacy are central to my job today. About the time I went back to school, Ginny Redish and Carol Barnum published this article: Overlap, Influence, Intertwining: The Interplay of UX and Technical Communication, and I think it was one of the few times I’ve ever felt compelled to write a fan letter.
GG: For people in Technical Communication who are considering a career in UX or are working with cross-functional teams: are there particular sub-specialties of UX you would recommend people start learning first (e.g. information architecture, content strategy, user interface design, interaction design, usability, etc.)? Do you think some of these sub-specialties would be a more natural transition for a technical communicator?
ST: I started out with usability testing because our software development teams really needed it. (Hint: read Steve Krug’s Rocket Surgery Made Easy). I think tech comm skills also translate easily to information architecture and content strategy, and user research is a natural next step for people who are skilled in interviewing subject matter experts.
GG: Is there anything you’ve learned over the years that you’d like to share with people who are new to UX? Lessons learned?
ST: Start where you are. Interview users. Read Krug’s book and conduct a usability test. Do a free evaluation of a non-profit website. Go to a conference; if your company won’t pay, invest in yourself. Network and then volunteer: join the local chapter of the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA), the Interaction Design Association (IxDA), or the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES). There wasn’t a UXPA chapter in Houston, so I started one. Almost every job I’ve ever gotten is because I knew someone who recommended me, so I can’t emphasize enough the importance of networking. And finally: we’re great advocates for users; learn to advocate for yourself.