November 28, 2017
PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHRIS MURPHY
Photography by Chris Murphy. Responses have been edited for clarity and length.

 

The user experience team at HS2 follows the principles of human-centered design. So it stands to reason that they would aim to put people first.

“It’s not enough to think about the visual design or even the UX design,” said Amanda Ruzin, VP of experience design. “We think about how it fits into the larger picture. We think about that space between a company’s business needs and what the people or users need.”

But this is not a matter of intuition. The cross-functional team conducts rigorous user testing and onsite field research to understand user needs as a science, not just an art.

“We’re very data driven, so we want to make sure that our solution is not just the best from an intuitive standpoint,” said Sam Rhee, user experience director. “We want the data to show that it’s the best solution.”  

Putting people first includes addressing accessibility needs, which was something of an afterthought before the advent of human-centered design, according to team members.

“There's a big need for second- and third-generation website revamps,” said Rhee. “We believe that, while we're doing that, we should take the opportunity to introduce Web Content Accessibility Guidelines compliance and top-level success criteria.”

We sat down with the team in their Chicago headquarters to learn more.

 

 

YEAR FOUNDED: 1993

WHAT HS2 DOES: Envisions, designs and builds human-centered digital experiences. Or: "we build and design kick-ass websites and apps."  

NATIONAL EMPLOYEES: 164, includes contractors.

IDEAL CANDIDATE: Brings curiosity and awareness of differing audience needs; enjoys collaboration.

NOTABLE PERKS: Free craft beer, pet insurance, super cheap on-street parking.

ON STAGE: To get better at presenting on their feet, the team does group improv.

DEEJAY FRIDAYS: People elevate their standing desks and jam out to Spotify playlists while working.

 

 

What is this team’s chief responsibility?

Suzanne Winn, design director: Our key role is to engage with the client’s needs in a way that considers users first. We acknowledge what the client wants to achieve from a technology standpoint, then we look at how we can bring that solution to life in a way that gives users the best possible experience.

Our key role is to engage with the client’s needs in a way that considers users first." 

 

Amanda Ruzin, VP experience design: It’s not enough to think about the visual design or even the UX design. We think about how it fits into the larger picture. We think about that space between a company’s business needs and what the people or users need.

 

Meg Carrel, senior designer: We also position ourselves as a partner, consulting with clients in order to bring their business forward and to continue to evolve their brand.

 

 

You use human-centered design. Tell us more.

Sam Rhee, user experience director: In UX, my area of expertise, human-centered design means that we think through how a person would use and experience a solution. It also includes matters of accessibility. Before human-centered design, accessibility was kind of an afterthought. There's a big need for second- and third-generation website revamps. We believe that, while we're doing that, we should take the opportunity to introduce Web Content Accessibility Guidelines compliance and top-level success criteria, if possible.

Before human-centered design, accessibility was kind of an afterthought."

Ruzin: No matter what we're making, our goal is to serve people in some respect. During our design process, we do many types of research in order to make sure that we understand the people who will be using the site. It's a collaborative approach in which we define what we want to create. During the build, HS2 brings that to life.

 

Talk a bit about your research.

Rhee: We’re very data driven, so we want to make sure that our solution is not just the best from an intuitive standpoint. We want the data to show that it’s the best solution. We engage a variety of services to do a range of testing, from simple card sorting to detailed heuristic testing and more.

 

 

Walk us through a project you're particularly proud of.

Carrel: We collaborated with a company who partners with assisted care facilities. We brought all their subject matter experts into a room with our design team and workshopped what they wanted from the application, a tablet solution for seniors. It was a pre-existing design, but our main focus was the user experience on the front end.

We sketched wire-frame possibilities and did a lot of onsite field research upfront. Then we built a prototype off the app, which we brought onsite to test. When we developed that prototype and went into the design phase, we worked in agile so development could get started on the backend.

 

What do you look for in UX design candidates?

Ruzin: I lead the experience design team, which includes UX designers and researchers but also content strategists and visual designers. So, it's a cross-functional group. When I'm looking for UX designers, I'm looking for people who are intellectually curious and are willing to design outside of themselves. In addition, I want to see that people can take initiative. And I look for people who are willing to collaborate, not just within the design team but cross-functionally — and also with our clients.

I'm looking for people who are intellectually curious and are willing to design outside of themselves."

Are there any particular questions you ask during the interview process to make sure you've found a good culture fit?

Ruzin: Sometimes I'll ask candidates to give me an example of when they failed to understand something, which shows whether they're humble enough to be honest. And then I try to find out whether they're reflective enough to know what they could do differently next time.

 

Rhee: This is sort of a conversation starter: Do you have an Android or an iOS phone? I then ask what their favorite app is and why. Usually, that’s telling in terms of how deeply they use their phone and how deeply they explore technology. It’s also pretty telling to find out what they enjoy about UX.

 

 

Describe HS2’s culture and how you foster it.

Ruzin: Our culture is humble, collaborative and curious. The people at HS2 are, without exception, open minded and curious.

 

Carrel: To get more comfortable in client presentations, we started getting the team together to do an improv practice every Friday. It’s designed to make us better on our feet.

 

Winn: On Fridays, we have a deejay session, with a shared Spotify playlist. Everybody elevates their standing desk, and we just jam out and dance as we work and go from meeting to meeting. The design team especially tends to bring the fun. In the Bird's Nest, which is an upstairs room, we started a little series of parties called "Bird's Nest Battle Service."

The design team especially tends to bring the fun."

Describe a moment when you overcame a problem — and how?

Rhee: Recently, we were doing a very large estimate to procure work, and I was assigned to do the UX portion of this estimate. I was having trouble: I hadn't done one of this size for this company and I sort of hit a brick wall. People could tell that I was having trouble. Lo and behold, one of the company owners Slacks me out of the blue: "Hey, what do you need? What can I help you with?" He spent almost an hour with me on this, which is pretty unheard of, even in a pretty small company.

 

Interior

Interior HS2

 

Strong cultures have strong rituals. Share a team or company tradition.

Rhee: We have an annual hackathon. We break into teams and submit ideas for things that aren't part of our day-to-day job responsibilities. It could be an idea for a marketing effort, an app or a technology solution. This week, I saw an idea from the hackathon actually being used in a client engagement.

 

What kind of expertise do you need to bring to this job?

Rhee: For UX, being data driven is important. You have to know the ins and outs of testing — and not just gathering data but knowing what the data means. Knowing how to interpret the data is also very important here. In addition, we have Content Management System expertise here. Understanding how this works, even if you're not a developer, is important.

 

When your friends ask you "what does your company do?" what do you tell them?

Carrel: I just say, "We build and design kick-ass websites and apps."