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ABIGAIL HART GRAY: The Best Experience Designers are Social Choreographers

Say hello to Abigail Hart Gray, VP, Experience Design at digital commerce agency Fluid. Abigail graduated cum laude from Harvard, with a BA in architecture. She worked for top architectural firms for a few years and got her Master’s at Columbia before jumping feet first into digital marketing.

She cuts an intimidating profile: Crazy smart, perfectly-spoken, stylish, cool. If we were in a James Bond movie and needed to save the world by delivering an awesome web experience, Abigail would be my top pick.

I asked her to talk about where good UX people from, drawing both on her experience as a classically-trained architect, but also as a manager that has hired and mentored dozens of experience designers.

JS:           What is the role of a user experience designer and does it vary from agency to agency? Do titles like Information Architect or Experience Designer mean the same thing?

AHG:     Yes, the role does vary based on the business environment and what kinds of solutions they’re designing for clients.  In my experience, we’re generally expected to perform similar job functions, but those who self-select these titles do seem to reveal a personal point of view.

Information Architecture and Experience Design are both practitioners of User Experience, but their approaches are much different.

The purpose of Information Architecture is to create a framework, structure or system. Imagine them as the engineers that define the functional requirements or specs based on the business and end user goals. They are concerned with the content strategy, taxonomy, meta data… how information is organized and presented.

Experience and Interaction Design considers the interaction between the site environment and the user. For example, what are the goals or possible outcomes of a site visit and how can we create a value exchange or user flow that achieves these goals? They are the architects responsible for the “art & magic” of a successful and engaging journey thru the web site.

JS:           You have proposed a SxSW panel on the topic of experience designers as “social choreographers.” What do you mean by that?

AHG:     It’s a phrase I coined from my architectural studies. When I was in my second year of grad school, we looked at the history of public works programs in NYC. The original thinking on housing projects was to hide them in a certain part of town, [so they weren’t disruptive to mainstream society]. The problem with ‘out of sight, out of mind’ was exactly that: So long as the projects were invisible to other classes, they sealed off from education, technology, information and services. Opportunities for advancement didn’t exist.

Social choreography is the idea that the environment and access to information can steer people to certain opportunities or outcomes.

As I began to examine this idea, I was also involved in theatrical set design so again I was creating environments for the purpose of telling a story.

Of course, nobody believes “If you build it, they will come” anymore. Brands do control the information they put out into the universe, but people ultimately decide if those messages are successful.

The role of UX practitioners is to help choreograph meaningful interactions. To put the user on the path leading to the outcome we want to achieve.

JS:           You currently work at a digital commerce agency. What is the role of experience design in the online buying process?

AHG:     Think about when you go to buy something online. You’re in one of three mindsets:

1) You’re looking for inspiration – I want a new shirt… Could animal prints be for me?

2) You have a mission – I want an animal print shirt to wear with my black skirt.

3) You’re a surgical shopper – I want a Dolce Vita python print silk top.

We plan pathways to best accommodate these mindsets. For example, the person looking for inspiration may want to be entertained or romanced by a story… about trends, about a designer, whatever. They may follow social feeds or use Pinterest.

Whereas the surgical shopper is going to bypass navigation entirely and just hit the search box. We want to build user experiences that meet all kinds of shopper objectives, leading to brand engagement and ultimately conversion. Our goals are to minimize the frustration or anxiety around online buying, while presenting opportunities to surprise and delight customers.

JS:           So there are many different practitioners of user experience. How do you determine who’s right for the job when you interview?

AHG:     I always want to know what got them interested in experience design. That usually gives me clues about their background and approach, what kind of work they’re drawn to. I ask them what their dream project would be.

To get a sense of their critical standards, I ask what they would have changed about a recent project. I want to hire people that are always fighting to improve the work.

It’s important for them to channel the mindset of the consumer and blueprint it for clients, so I ask for case studies. I want to see if they can weave a good story.

I want to look at work samples. Actually, since we’re talking about it, I think high fidelity wire designs are incredibly important. The team and clients need to be looking actual content and imagery early in the build because many times, an innocent change can totally impact the way you design something. So I look for highly-detailed work samples.

JS:           So what’s your dream project?

AHG:     I’d love to do a virtual museum! There are so many things that you can do on the web that you can’t do in real life: Like get close up to the Mona Lisa, or click to chat with art experts around the world.

Want to see some of Abigail’s recent work? Check out these sites:

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