Interview With Tom McClean, UX & Design Head
What is your history with user experience and the design world? How did you get into the field? What’s your superhero origin story, if you will?
I’m not sure how super it is. I call myself Irish, but I’m originally Welsh. My family lived in Cardiff until I was around nine and then we moved back to Ireland, close to the North coast. As I grew up, I studied fine art and was interested in drawing and watercolor. When I went to university, I wanted to do something in the applied arts that would give me a solid career foundation and allow me to use and build my skills as a visual artist. I studied visual communication, which gave me a wide overview of perspectives on visual design. Everything from printmaking to graphic design to topography and even Audio/Video design.
I also studied abroad in Germany at the famous Bauhaus University, which is one of the birthplaces of collaboration and creative thinking theory. It changed the trajectory of my life. For one, I met my wife there, where she was studying photography. But myself, the Bauhaus philosophy really got under my skin, their focus on experimentation and collaboration, using critical thinking to create solutions. It was a little bit like chalk and cheese from my previous experience, which was more traditional. However, I think the experience, along with moving around with my family while growing up, gave me a diverse perspective on design.
Having the freedom to explore and learn critical thinking skills must have been an invaluable experience. How did you break into the field as a professional?
After I finished my degree, I started my professional career in Berlin, Germany in an advertising agency. They put me through the wringer, which was both good and bad, but overall was a powerful introduction to the visual creative industries and I gained experience in visual campaigns, poster campaigns, and even television campaigns.
After that I moved to more visual design doing graphical elements for prints which gave me my first taste of digital design through working on websites. Design thinking really flipped a switch for me. I like thinking about the end user and exploring these great insights that can improve the products themselves. Although my trajectory was just kind of stumbling along, I followed these macro shifts in the world of design and I’ve never really looked back.
Well, we’re glad you ended up here at DOOR3 where you have been leading the practice for a while now with great success. What’s a day in your life like as the team team leader?
Well, a day in my life is not having quite enough hours in the day to achieve everything you want to. It’s all about balance, trying to have the right amount of time to address the managerial issues, but I still like to be a hands-on designer when I can, just focusing and listening to music.
Since we are an international company, there is a six hour time difference from the US where many of our team members live. So, I use my mornings for advancing my work and following up with people. Then around 3PM when the US wakes up, I am in meetings where we’re reviewing work, we’re strategizing about future projects, we’re speaking with potential clients. I also advocate for my team and meet with them individually to make sure they have what they need to succeed. I reserve the evenings for experimentation and trying new things. Professional development is important, and I find this time really therapeutic.
I also try to organize as many collaborative workshops my team as possible. There’s always new processes and tools coming out, new trends and things we want to try. The main tool we’re using now is Figma, so we keep up with the new features and how we can develop more automation through templating. These free up our time for more creative pursuits, constructive thinking and problem solving, which is our bread and butter. It’s where the magic happens.
I imagine the team appreciates your dedication to professional development.
Everybody has different strengths and weaknesses, but the more we collaborate, the stronger we become. As an international and remote team, these points of contact are very important because we’re not in a traditional design studio or agency setting where we can all easily share what we’re working on and have the kind of impromptu spontaneous conversations that promote growth through exploration.
We have to put in more effort with remote work, but we strive to share where everyone’s interests are so we can upskill and build a more solid and rounded team. I want to know what path people want to take so I can put that in front of them because good talent is rare and we want to nurture it by letting people explore and experiment and do work that they’re interested in.
Could you speak on the challenges you face in your work, especially considering DOOR3’s international and remote, collaborative approach?
Because we work remotely, we lack the casual contact and spontaneous interactions that take place in an office. We have to make time and space to cultivate that in new ways. So, we’re always trying to find windows of time to meet, even though we’re strewn across different time zones and countries.
One of the things that’s helped us to stay connected is how we use Figma. With it, we can all jump on a call together and conduct live design workshops and co-create in real time. Traditionally, a design director would request changes from their senior designers and go back and forth until it was done. Now, we are making changes on the fly in collaboration and everyone is producing in real time. It’s actually boosted productivity, and we have fun running these workshops.
I am a fan of socializing outside of work because it builds camaraderie, so I am trying to find ways to have authentic experiences that need to be planned out and done remotely. I’m just trying to build the team bond where we’re friends, not merely coworkers.
That’s an excellent vision for the future of the team. I’d also be interested to know how the field has changed. What do you see clients asking for recently? What trends or directions do you see UX/UI moving towards?
I think there’s two main things that most of the clients who are interested in working with us are exploring. The first is design systems, which has been a hot topic for the last few years. At DOOR3, we have a wide array of clients from plucky startups to Fortune 500 enterprises. These larger companies have several different products or tools, whether they’re used by the public or by internal employees, and they all have different code bases or they’ve been designed in different periods of time, so they’re missing this common thread of consistency across the brand. There’s no source-of-truth or knowledge-base to determine what component or interface or even principle they should be using at the moment.
We do a lot of deep dives and hands-on work to build design systems, where we collaborate with clients to build systems together. Eventually we’ll hand over the keys to them, and they’ll become the guardians of a design system that will grow and scale with the needs of their company. That work is on the more technical side of things. We’re building out components, libraries, and guidelines, and everything has to be extremely well considered down to like the last pixel.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have a lot of the requests for UX audits. These are a discovery phase where clients come with an idea for a new product, or they want to move into a new product category, or even that they have some kind of legacy product that is not meeting their goals or KPIs and they don’t know why. Perhaps they’re losing users or the internal employees are complaining. These clients need help identifying these usability issues.
We work closely with these clients, having knowledge transfers and facilitating workshops where we get to the core of their business processes, their wants and needs and desires for the future. We drill down and ideate with them to find their path forward. At the same time, we look at their existing products and identify the pain points, evaluate the root causes through heuristics to determine the assets they need and an actionable roadmap to guide them forward.
Speaking of holistic perspectives, I know you recently finished work on a pitch deck that included video components. I would be interested in hearing more about multimedia work and the breadth of the team’s expertise.
I’d be happy to talk about it, that was a great team experience. I really like to make high Fidelity prototype videos because I think it’s a great way of condensing big complicated themes and concepts into the spirit of design. Obviously you still need to research, plan, and create your concept, wireframe it, and then flesh it out. But with a prototype video, you can distill everything so people get it quickly through an enjoyable experience.
This work is especially fulfilling with the team because we have this quick rhythm we jump into. There’s a lot of ideation first, and then we go off in a few different branches of experimental design. Afterwards we put our heads together and we review our materials and decide the route and storyboard based on who the end user or viewers are and what we want them to perceive. I love the actual prototyping process as well. Putting movement into design has been overlooked in the past, but it’s really getting its heyday at the moment with everybody using mobile devices. Even on the Web, micro animations and interactions are becoming so fluid. These are opportunities to add that extra layer of awesomeness into your design, which just gives that feedback and all that pleasure to the user.
It’s a really social and psychological process. We consider what feelings we want to convey to the user through transitions, for example. What do we think the user wants to feel? Do we want to be bouncy, which could convey a fun and playful experience. Or, do we want to be more serious or instill trust in the user? We think of how we can use animations and movement to convey those meanings. Its a streamlined process and because our approach is so lean, we can go from ideation to a polished and published prototype within a week.
That’s exciting work your team is doing. Before we wrap up, maybe you could tell us about the future direction of the team? Are there any initiatives on the horizon that you’re excited about or other people might be interested in that you can speak about?
We’re doing stellar work with NGOs at the moment. We have very exciting projects with Doctors Without Borders, and the Achievement Network, which is an educational nonprofit. Working with such passionate, empathetic people that have great causes helps motivate everyone to go above and beyond to help them achieve something and delight their users.
We’re also very proud of the work we’re doing with a couple of highly motivated startups. One is in the veterinary space and the other is in the second hand product, electronics, and close recycling space, and they’re both doing great things trying to solve the world’s problems.
We’re starting to see some interest in mobile applications and some customer-facing projects, which I think are really promising. Mobile is such an interesting medium because you have this smaller screen real estate that you don’t want to overload. You want actions to be clear to the users, but you still want to give them this fulfilling experience. Also, the motion and touch that’s involved adds yet another dimension the designers get to explore.
We’re really looking forward to working on some of those projects also because they blend the technology side, the design side, and also the brand and content strategy side. Design is multi-disciplinary and multifaceted, and we go on a journey with our clients from the conceptual phase of their project to a high-fidelity realization in the end.
The team likes challenges and our informal motto is to always strive to be better than yesterday. There’s so many great designers out there in the world doing incredible work, so we’re just striving to produce work that we can be proud of putting out into the world. I think it speaks for itself.
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