This is the third in a series of profiles on women in human-computer interaction. Students from Carnegie Mellon University’s Masters of Human-Computer Interaction program are conducting interviews with women in HCI to identify how they have broken through the “glass ceiling” in industry. The profiles will highlight the career path of the particular interviewee and other biographical information. This following profile focuses on Heather Cassano.
Heather McIntosh Cassano has a self-described “type-A personality.” Her academic background includes a BS with double-majors in Human Factors and Computer Science from Boston College and a MFA in Creative Writing and Literature from Bennington College. Professionally, Heather has over 20 years of experience in User Experience and Product Design and over 12 of those years are in senior management positions. She has also found the time to teach graduate-level classes at both Harvard University and UCLA. In addition to being a wife and the proud mother of five kids, Heather is currently the Senior Director of User Experience for Yahoo! where she manages a group of approximately 45 people. While there were countless things we could have focused on, this article will describe Heather’s commitment to making user experience methods universally accessible and understandable.
Early in her career Heather started a consulting company and taught a course to clients called, “Practical User Interface Design.” She says that, “at the time nobody understood how to do design and everybody kind of thought that design was this luxury thing that people did in a lab.” Her class provided hands-on experience to show that it is possible to do usability testing without a lab. She showed her students that it can be a quick and easy process and introduced them to methods like paper prototyping, which are now prevalent in HCI. Her class became so popular that she was approached by Harvard University to teach it as a graduate-level class.
Heather enjoyed consulting, but due to personal reasons decided to return to a full-time, more-predictable job. She began working at Digitas, a global interactive marketing agency, in 1998 and noticed there was a need for kick-starting user centered design projects. She recalls, “There was always push-back that they couldn’t bring users in…‘we can’t get feedback and we can’t do it right because we don’t have time.’” So she came up with “Lightening Labs.” In a Lightening Lab, a small group of people that includes the customer and a representative from the different disciplines on a project team go somewhere, preferably offsite, and work for a week on iterative designs. During the session the group brainstorms ideas and creates paper prototypes. The ideas are then narrowed down to the top 3 solutions and “real users” are brought in and run through the proposals. Heather recalls that during Lightening Labs, “we would have 5 or 6 users come in during the middle of the week and do usability testing. Then do another iteration on the design. Sometimes we’d even be able to do two full iterations and by the end of the week we’d have a vision or a model of where we want to take it and everyone would be on the same page.” Lightening Labs were so effective in fact, that they were used not only internally, but sold to clients as well.
Seeing the success of Lightening Labs encouraged Heather to continually refine the process. When she started working at Yahoo!, she garnered the support she needed from her employer and staff to iterate on the process appropriately renamed YoDeLs (“Yahoo Design Labs”). To encourage the use of YoDeLs, Heather and her team put together a formal document with a sample agenda and hired a videographer to film one of the early YoDeLs so that anyone in the company could understand how usability testing could be gathered without having a lab; this was 3 years ago and now “pretty much every product in Yahoo is now being designed with this technique.” One of the best parts about using YoDeLs is their versatility; they can either be used for initial research on a design concept or they can be used once the team is further down the path and want to evaluate a single feature. If the feature is smaller, Heather says it can take just 3 or 4 days instead of an entire week, “but the idea is that the team works collaboratively with real users…there is no substitution that comes from the learning when you do that. After that there’s a lot more buy-in for design.” Getting buy-in for design and usability testing is essential for an HCI practitioner; over the past 20 years, Heather has noticed that companies are more receptive to the expertise that comes from this field. She observes “especially with the recession and the economy, people realize that products aren’t going to sell unless people are going to use them. Maybe back in the old days you would build a product and it would be the only thing out there, so people would use it; it didn’t really matter how bad it was, it just meant more support calls and that kind of thing. But now it’s more a matter of survival. It has to be decent or someone else will come along and build something better and you’ll lose. Companies need user experience experts to meet the expectations of their customers.”
Heather’s advice for women in HCI:
- Play to your strengths; Heather believes that “women are a natural fit for this field because they have an intuitive sense of the deeper meaning of what’s happening in usability studies. They are also natural communicators. There are a lot of aspects of design that cater to the strengths of women; it’s a field that’s wide-open for women.” Nevertheless, Heather admitted that it is still hard for women to reach senior management positions in this industry. Right now, Heather works for a senior vice president at Yahoo! and she is the only woman, excluding the vice president’s office administrator, in a staff of 9 people.
- “Be well-rounded and try a lot of things.” Recently Carol Bartz, CEO of Yahoo!, explained why it is important to be well rounded; Heather paraphrased Carol’s comment as the following, “you should think of your career like a pyramid and instead of trying to climb up, you are trying to climb across and then move up one step and then climb across and move up again. And when you are doing the across you are learning lots of different things and trying out a lot of different roles and the more that you do that, the more prepared you will be to climb up. You shouldn’t expect to just know one thing and move up to the next level.”
- Understand how a business works and what it needs to make money; “The experience is extremely important but the bottom line is that the company needs to make money and do well and sometimes there are other factors than the design to take into consideration. By understanding these factors, people will value your input more and won’t see you as just a prima donna designer.”