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Mentors & Motivators – Meet Cheryl Platz

written by Nelly Yusupova
Nelly Yusupova
Topics: Business, Career, Mentors & Motivators, Technology, Usability, Women in Technology
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Through my role in Webgrrls International and as the NYC Webgrrls chapter leader, I have the privilege and the opportunity to meet some very interesting and inspirational women whose stories are not shared widely enough nor loudly enough.

We are launching a series of blog posts interviewing some women who are accomplishing some amazing things with the hope that their stories will encourage, inspire, and motivate you in your career, business, or personal life.

Meet Cheryl Platz. Cheryl is a User Experience Designer at Microsoft (server and management studios team) and Board Member/Marketing Lead for IGNITE

While we’re busy censoring ourselves or timidly waiting for the right moment to make ourselves heard, others are seizing those opportunities. ~ Cheryl Platz

What is your background and how did you get into the usability field?

cheryl platzI have a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and Human-Computer Interaction from Carnegie Mellon University. I also studied in their Entertainment Technology graduate program for a year, which helped me in my initial foray into video game production.

When I was still in high school, I was always very interested in art and computer science, and had difficulty choosing between the two when it came to looking at schools. It wasn’t until I visited Carnegie Mellon as a prospective student that I heard about interaction design for the first time. A field that combines computer science, visual design, and cognitive psychology? It sounded perfect, and I knew at that moment I had found the career I’d been searching for.

What is it about usability that you most enjoy, or find most rewarding?

Interaction design (known by any number of other terms – user experience design, usability engineering, etc) allows me to solve complex technical problems and to see how my changes are improving the lives of our users. Whether we’re working to lessen the chance of critical mistakes or simply removing frustration from someone’s life, we’re leaving things better than they were when we started. Often, we’re enabling someone to accomplish a task they weren’t able to complete previously. It’s extremely gratifying to see a happy reaction from one of our customers in real time.

What’s your favorite milestone in your career or business?

In a matter of months, it will be shipping System Center Configuration Manager 2012 – it’s by far the largest, most complicated challenge I’ve faced, and I’ve been working on the project for over 3 years now. In an increasingly agile software world, such extended projects are extremely rare.

But until that moment, my favorite professional accomplishment is my work as lead Producer on a Nintendo DS-exclusive video game called “Disney Friends” that takes inspiration from Nintendogs and allows kids to establish friendships with Disney characters. I’ve always been fond of positive, family friendly gaming and entertainment options, owing largely to my time working at a Sesame Street theme park for my first job. Disney Friends was the type of game I’d choose to make, and my entire team was extremely proud of the results. It’s interesting when you compare video game work to the interaction design on IT products that I’m doing now. Games, in a way, are just interfaces that tell a story.

Confidence is one of the most valuable assets a woman can have – confidence in herself, in her ability to learn and adapt, and in her ability to deliver results.

What major obstacle/barrier/conflict have you faced and how did you overcome it?

A common theme when working on interaction design at large companies is that the development teams have been operating for years without any collaboration with interaction designers. It is exceptionally hard to prove your worth to these teams, and my current project was no exception.

Early in the project, we made a point of getting quantitative measurements of how our work improved the user experience of the product. On my first feature engagement, where we redesigned a complex feature from the previous version of the product, we managed to increase task success rates on that feature by almost 50%. That presented a compelling case for our work, and over time we established very constructive partnerships with our program manager counterparts on the development team.

What are the common mistakes made by companies when it comes to usability?

The most common “mistake” is ignoring interaction design as a distinct discipline that benefits from specialized attention, assuming that it’s all common sense. The problem is largely that our goal is to make experiences intuitive and seamless – if we achieve this, then suddenly a product looks effortless. Outside observers don’t always realize how much interaction design work – subtle visual design choices like colors and alignment, or larger applications of cognitive psychology – makes a difference when it comes time to use a product.

Another “mistake” I see frequently is investing time and money in the investigation of  usability problems, but failing to commit resources to fix the problems that are discovered, whether big or small. A fix that seems trivial may have a disproportionately large positive impact on the end usability of the product, if only the time is taken to make the fix.

Which websites do you admire from a usability perspective?

That’s a tough one – one of the curses of being in usability and interaction design is that you see all the rough edges that could have been addressed differently!

One of the sites I find myself most fond of at the moment is mint.com, a free financial management website. Mint gives all sorts of information to me in a way that doesn’t overwhelm me, and it’s made me a far more active participant in my own financial management and retirement planning.

Do all websites need to do some form of usability testing? And if they do, how should they get started?  Can you recommend some tools that you use?

Any usability testing is better than no usability testing. Of course, it’s always great to get a large number of participants. But if you can’t afford a large test, even one or two participants is enough to get some valuable insight. One of the hardest challenges is finding the right participants (unless you’re working on development tools, your tests shouldn’t be on the product team). In addition, it’s important to remember to let your user do the talking – if you intervene too much or ask leading questions, you won’t be getting an honest, unbiased assessment.

One interesting approach that’s starting to emerge is remote testing, where a combination of video chat (like Skype) and desktop sharing can be used to watch a participant test in real time from anywhere in the world. If you don’t have access to a usability lab, you might be able to set something up along these lines.

You don’t need to change who you are to be successful, but at the same time there’s no reason not to familiarize yourself with the rules of the game.

What is the latest, greatest technology that helped you make a quantum leap in your work?

This is an interesting question, since most of the tools I use have been around for a while (Adobe CS4 products, the Microsoft Office suite, etc.) One of the greatest luxuries I’ve appreciated as an interaction designer at Microsoft is the ability to watch usability tests in real time from anywhere on or off campus. I think that over time, telepresence technologies like Skype will make it more feasible to test with users regardless of their physical location – a big boon for us, since our pool of test participants in the Seattle region is limited.

Outside of work you are involved in theater and perform all the time.  Have you found that having a creative outlet that is not tech related help you with your work?

Absolutely! The more I expose myself to the “outside” world, the more potential inspiration l find. In addition, acting is particularly helpful in user experience design in that it forces you to see the world through another person or character’s perspective.

While I do perform in a lot of musical theater, I find that it’s my time spent doing improv comedy that helps me the most on a daily basis. Learning to think on my feet helps me during those challenging question sessions after a presentation, and the games we use to warm up our minds before a show also turn out to be very useful brainstorming tools.

Cool! Can you describe some of the games that we can play to have more productive brainstorming sessions in our businesses?

There are hundreds of improv games out there, and a good number of them have the potential to improve a brainstorming session either directly or by increasing team connection and energy level. The easiest to play is “Wordball” – players simply stand in a circle and pass words to one another. When you receive a word, you have to pass the first word that comes to mind to another player via hand, speech, and eye contact. It doesn’t matter *why* you thought of the word, because the goal is to stop you from overthinking and getting in the way of your own ideas.

Another example game that might help with idea generation is “Categories” – players take turns choosing a category, and each time a category is chosen players go around the circle offering one thing that fits in that category, with no repetition. For team-building, one-word-at-a-time stories -where you go around the table or circle telling a story, but each person only contributes a single word on their turn – are a good way to get people in the habit of listening to each other. Even without using improv games, the principles of improvisation taught in any improv curriculum generally prepare you to be a better collaborator and free thinker at the office.

You volunteer your time to help expose young women to technology.  Can you share some of your experiences and what in your opinion is the biggest barrier to getting more girls involved in technology?

I strongly believe that the biggest problem we face is the continued perception that technology careers are solitary, masculine endeavors. In reality, an astonishing array of career options is available to technically proficient women – but that’s not the message these girls are receiving. I’m lucky enough to work on a team at Microsoft (the Server and Management Studios) that is nearly 50% female, but I know we’re not the norm and I’d love to help create a world where more women get this sort of opportunity.

The organization I work with, IGNITE (Inspiring Girls Now In Technology Evolution), makes a point of bringing professional technical women to local schools. As it turns out, many of these girls have never met a woman that holds a technical or engineering job. I was stunned to hear the girls confirm this in person. Their perception of these careers is thus driven by what they see in the media.

Another important point I make to the girls is that your job doesn’t have to define you. You don’t instantly become that geek caricature you see onscreen the moment you learn your first programming language. It is entirely possible to be a vibrant, feminine technology professional, thanks to the hard work of the pioneering ladies in technology that came before us. By sharing our stories in schools, we’re trying to get that message out there, one girl at a time.

What are the qualities & characteristics that a professional woman needs to succeed in today’s fast paced world of technology?

Well, many of the conditions for success are the same for women and men. Aside from those more common characteristics, women need to be ready to treat themselves and their own time with respect. We’re a bit more likely to encounter initial resistance when establishing ourselves with a new group. Confidence is one of the most valuable assets a woman can have – confidence in herself, in her ability to learn and adapt, and in her ability to deliver results,

I think it’s also tremendously helpful for women, especially women leaders, to understand the differences in the way men and women stereotypically communicate in an office environment.  I’ve been in some fascinating classes that go into the little subtleties, such as the fact that women are more likely to phrase things as questions rather than statements. You don’t need to change who you are to be successful, but at the same time there’s no reason not to familiarize yourself with the rules of the game.

What sage words of advice (words of wisdom) can you offer to other professional women to help them achieve their own success?

Never let someone else tell you that you don’t belong at the table – most of all yourself. We are often our own biggest enemy, and while we’re busy censoring ourselves or timidly waiting for the right moment to make ourselves heard, others are seizing those opportunities.

Sometimes I describe it in terms of acting – if you walk into a meeting and take on the character of the professional woman you want to be, others will treat you like that woman.

At the Interaction 11 conference you are speaking on “How Interaction Design can entice a new generation of women”.  Can you give us a little teaser from your talk?

My answer to the previous question is a big part of it – the continued perception problem that keeps girls away from technology careers due to the limited exposure they’ve had.

But it’s just as hard to retain technical women once they embark on a computer science education, and from my own personal experience I believe this is because many curriculums aren’t designed to adapt to the academic interests of female students.

Interaction design is a discipline that draws heavily from three subjects: visual design, cognitive psychology, and computer science. Visual design is typically a gender-balanced career choice, and psychology is actually a woman-dominated career. If we were to incorporate interaction design courses and problems into computer science curriculums, we could show how technology can apply to fields traditionally considered more desirable by female students, and hopefully increase the number of women who eventually choose technical careers in the process.

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