Mentors & Motivators is 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 Nina Walia. Nina is a Creative Strategist and Producer of Engaging Cross-Platform Experiences. She has overseen interaction design and content development of websites and games for the Webby-award winning pbskids.org since 2004.
Never let someone else tell you that you don’t belong at the table – most of all yourself. Remember how crucial your unique perspective is to how we use and design technology and in shaping the freedoms of systems of the future.
1. What is your background and how did you get into the interaction design field?
As a daughter of an Electrical Engineer father, I was always the tinkering with technology. I studied Computer Science at Georgia Tech but the lack of diversity in the CS student population lead to a lack of diversity in teaching approaches so I left to pursue more creative uses of technology. I transferred to University of Georgia and received a degree in Journalism, focusing on film, audio and new media production – but I couldn’t shake the knowledge I had gained from Computer Science. I had learned how to make systems and interactive components work so I applied interaction to all my media projects. For example, I helped build a webcasting studio and produce events for it, I built and operated an interactive component to a theater production and built websites for orgs on a freelance basis.
Without skipping a beat, I knew I wanted to pursue interactive design further and went straight to grad school. I returned to Georgia Tech, where they had begun a Masters program called Information Design and Technology. IDT was a new multidisciplinary program crossing computer science with art, design, & communication. It was a fantastic program where, amongst many things, I sound designed tangible environments, learned usability and human computer interaction concepts, created educational technology applications, and experimented with designing new kinds of interfaces for experiences of the future.
2. What is it about interaction design that you most enjoy, or find most rewarding?
Finding new ways for people to connect with content and each other.
Companies must set aside time and budget to conduct user testing, even if it’s just informal user testing. It shouldn’t be one of the first items on the budget chopping block when it’s so fundamental to a company’s success.
3. What’s your favorite milestone in your career or business?
There’s still so much to accomplish! But one of the achievements I’m most proud of is becoming the “go to” for creating concepts for cross-platform experiences at PBS KIDS. I’ve produced successful games kids participate with on TV, online, and soon on mobile devices.
4. What major obstacle/barrier/conflict have you faced and how did you overcome it?
Working at a nonprofit you are often asked to produce big things with small resources, so I’ve found many ways to overcome budget and resource barriers in order to produce successful gigs. Some tricks include reusing art or audio assets from TV programs for the web and having an arsenal of external developers you are familiar with who are extremely flexible. By delivering products that shine and get the attention of company decision makers, our interactive team has been allocated more resources in subsequent projects. We’ve proven ourselves time and time again, taking us from being a second thought to innovation leaders all departments of the company turn to.
Always think about how you can extend an experience across devices and platforms from the beginning to gain efficiencies and a unified user experience. At the concept or kick-off phase, have representatives from every platform team at the table to brainstorm the big picture and how it all ties together.
5. What are the common mistakes made by companies when it comes to interaction design?
A common mistake is using company employees as the only source of user testing. All too often I’ve seen the approval of senior executives be the only point in the development process where someone outside the project interacts with the interface. Companies must set aside time and budget to conduct user testing, even if it’s just informal user testing. It shouldn’t be one of the first items on the budget chopping block when it’s so fundamental to a company’s success.
Another mistake is not having a diverse pool of interaction designers. Different backgrounds bring different perspectives and approaches to a project. Without diversity you are operating with a blind side.
6. Which websites do you admire from an interaction design perspective?
I’ve been working on quite a bit of augmented reality lately so I’ve come across some interesting new kinds of interaction models. It’s exciting because these models allow children to bypass the challenge of using a mouse. Enhanced interaction can be placed on tangible objects children are used to, like blocks. For example, using wIzQubes™, kids can manipulate familiar fairy tales by arranging blocks next to each other in different combinations.
7. You specialize in building Engaging Cross-Platform Experiences. Can you give advice to other companies who are trying to design their applications for different platforms?
Two key points of advice:
- Plan the experience as a cross platform experience from day one! Always think about how you can extend an experience across devices and platforms from the beginning to gain efficiencies and a unified user experience. At the concept or kick-off phase, have representatives from every platform team at the table to brainstorm the big picture and how it all ties together.
- Take advantage of each medium’s affordances. The experience should not be exactly the same across platforms. For example, there are ways you can engage with characters or content on mobile devices that TV or desktop computer don’t allow you to.
The greatest “technology” I’ve adopted is this new personal time prioritization system.
8. You have designed very successful curriculum-based games for kids. What are some challenges that you’ve faced in designing things for kids? Any advice to someone who is trying to build an application for this demographic?
What you think you know about this age is probably wrong J. User testing is key. Testing with your own children or neighbor’s children is probably not enough of a sample to reflect the general population (interaction designers’ children are generally more savvy than most).
Another thing that has helped is taking days where we’ll volunteer at a school for that age group. Immersing ourselves in what its like to be a kid that age is a great reality check on the abilities of that age group.
I highly recommend consulting the PBS Parents Child Development Tracker: http://www.pbs.org/parents/childdevelopmenttracker/. We worked with child development experts to gain insight into learning and development milestones for children ages 1-9 years. The guide covers: approaches to learning, creative arts, language, literacy, math, science, physical health, and social & emotional growth.
9. What is the latest, greatest technology that helped you make a quantum leap in your work?
Outside of my day job I am involved in many organizations and side projects that are demanding of my time. I’ve finally learned that although I want to be involved in everything, I only end up feeling guilty about how I don’t have enough time or energy to give my best to each and every project. I now focus only on a couple of projects that elicit the most personal happiness when I’m engaging with them, and I allow myself the flexibility of being involved only for certain time frames. I’m spread much less thin and am much more productive. So the greatest “technology” I’ve adopted is this new personal time prioritization system.
10. What are the qualities & characteristics that a professional woman needs to succeed in today’s fast paced world of technology? What sage words of advice (words of wisdom) can you offer to other professional women to help them achieve their own success?
I agree wholeheartedly with Cheryl Platz’s answer to this question: “Never let someone else tell you that you don’t belong at the table – most of all yourself.” Remember how crucial your unique perspective is to how we use and design technology and in shaping the freedoms of systems of the future.