USING EMPATHY AND PLENTY OF POST-ITS
A Q+A WITH ALISON SHIELDS
What is your role at Stryker?
I’m a user experience (UX) researcher on Stryker’s product development team. My job is to advocate for the people who will eventually use our products.
I work to understand the needs of the end-user by gathering authentic feedback. My projects involve Stryker tools and graphic user interface (GUI) design. GUI designers connect and blend the digital world with the physical world. Within the medical field, many tools plug into consoles with software systems and interactive screens. When you’re designing the interface, you have to make sure that the screen represents what’s happening in the physical world and that it’s being displayed in real-time.
How do you explore user experience?
Let’s say our design team is developing a prototype for a tool used in surgery and we’re considering five different handle concepts. To help us choose the best design, I ask surgeons to interact with each of our models. I conduct interviews with them afterward about their experiences. Throughout this process, I gather their feedback, whether it’s verbal feedback, nonverbal feedback, or ranked choices. I have to get as much data as possible to decide which design would be best for those using the product.
UX is all about empathy. We have to understand what the end user’s world looks like through their eyes. I’ve even gone to a cadaver lab, held Stryker products in my hands, and performed procedures on a cadaver. Healthcare is a critical industry, and that makes it even more important that designers get it right. Because of my role, I get an inside look into operating rooms to watch surgeries happen. It’s humbling to sit in the corner with my notebook observing and trying to understand real-life scenarios.
How do you understand a user’s point of view?
Early in my research, I determine the problems, or pain points, that our users currently encounter. I have conversations with surgeons, radiologists, and nurses, asking them to tell me a story about a time they used one of our products. If I just come out and ask, “What’s your biggest pain point?” I won’t get the answers I need. Many times, no one knows which problems need solving; my job is to challenge the way things have always been done. I ask them about the last time they were frustrated during a procedure. For medical professionals, it’s crucial that our designs limit their cognitive load—they shouldn’t even be thinking about our products; their tools should be an extension of their hand.
In addition to research, I also synthesize the data I collect to drive informed design decisions. It’s my job to translate data into insights. To make sense of it all, I have to get the information up on a whiteboard in front of me. I have to have Post-it Notes. I have to have color-coding. I create journey maps that show the users’ product experience from start to finish. My goal is to find themes and trends by breaking down the process. This helps our team solve problems while keeping the positive aspects of a product.
When did you know that you wanted to pursue design professionally?
I took a nontraditional path to my current role. In high school, I had two passions. The first was art. I took creative classes that allowed me to do research on a topic and then interpret that information through artwork. I liked connecting the dots and conveying a message, whether that was through painting, ceramics, or any number of things. My other love was forensics, or oratory competitions. For fun on the weekends, I would dress in a suit and give 10-minute speeches. I became heavily involved and went to state and national competitions.
When I started at Hope College, which was my dream school, I was able to combine my two passions and double-major in studio art and communications. I specialized in painting. But in my final semester, I decided to get an internship because I didn’t want to be a starving artist. I worked on a creative marketing and design team in the consulting world, and I loved it. After graduation, I was hired full-time. My first job was calling up mommy bloggers and gathering their opinions to create visual marketing for a children’s toy that was sold in toy stores across the country.
How did your career path lead you to Stryker?
My last consulting client was Stryker. They must have liked me because they asked me to join their team. I had just gotten married, and I started at Stryker two weeks after I got back from my honeymoon. My husband is also a creative person, and when I was still doing consulting work, he applied to Western Michigan University’s product design program. He was accepted right around the same time I started working full-time at Stryker. Now that he’s taking art and design classes, it’s been remarkable how our worlds have blended.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned along the way?
I learned early on that art is for yourself and design is for others. In the world of design, the goal is to make something for an end-user—and you’re never the end user. It’s always about others. I now know that if I want to create something for myself, I have to paint on my own time.
What advice would you give to aspiring designers?
Be willing to try something new! When opportunities come your way, say yes. When I first said yes to research, I wasn’t sure whether it was what I wanted to do, but that decision changed the trajectory of my career. When you’re first starting out, jump into unfamiliar territory, learn new things, and find out how you can apply your strengths. For designers and creatives, leverage your talent for visualization and your ability to tell a compelling story—it’s a unique gift!
One last thing: Don’t underestimate the power of grit. Long nights don’t end in college. Everything you create is part of your personal brand. When people see my name on a project, I want them to be able to trust I’ve worked hard to make sure it’s excellent.