When I ask Laura Klein how she went from studying political science to authoring two books on user experience (UX) design, she doesn’t hesitate to keep it real. “Luck and privilege,” she said.
“I didn’t really have any tech skills. What I had was a friend who was working at a tech think tank. They were looking for somebody to do some basic admin stuff and asked me if I was available, and I said sure,” she said.
And thus a career in tech was born.
Fast forward, and Laura is now the vice president of product at Business Talent Group, an organization that pairs senior experts and consultants with Fortune 100 companies. She is the author of “Build Better Products” and “UX For Lean Startups,” and co-hosts the podcast “What Is Wrong With UX” with fellow funny lady and UX designer Kate Rutter. Described as “a podcast where two old ladies yell at each other about how to make products suck slightly less,” the show launches with a disclaimer that it contains “swearing, drinking, and generally bitching about the things that annoy us”— and it does not disappoint.
Laura’s funny. The words “thought leader” are banned from her home. She claims to have zero grit. She describes herself as a huge nerd, and a huge nerd as someone who gets “unreasonably excited about something.” By day, she oversees a complex marketplace-based product with three distinct user groups. By night, she is a competitive puzzle solver, competing on teams in such challenges as the MIT Mystery Hunt. When she’s not working or solving really hard problems, she’s reading trashy novels [her words], just absolute garbage [also her words].
“Well, I shouldn’t say garbage,” she said. “I think whatever you want to read for fun is fantastic and wonderful and up to you.”
I suppressed my desire to ask further investigative journalism questions about the trashy novels she is currently reading and instead switched the focus back to UX.
Before moving into user experience, Laura took some programming courses and worked as a front-end engineer for a number of years. She was exposed to things like ethnography and early customer research, things that weren’t commonplace at the time. At one point she started, then abandoned, a master’s degree in computer science.
It was around that time that she was talking to another friend who happened to be part of a new boutique agency in need of user researchers, especially ones who could prototype. Laura’s luck struck again, and her unique background brought her into UX before UX was really a thing.
First, a lesson in user experience vs. UX design
Laura’s unique experience inspired her to start sharing her lessons, something she realized early on (with some encouragement) could be of value to others just entering the field or looking to improve.
One of her early lessons was that the field of UX design has many more moving pieces than just the design.
“Every product has a user experience whether you designed it intentionally or not. If you are building a product, you are doing user experience design,” she said.
“Whether we’re doing UX design, product management, making technical decisions, and engineering, everything we’re doing is affecting that user experience. Every single decision that we make can have a tremendous impact on the actual experience that somebody has when interacting with your product, with your company.”
What’s wrong with UX? For starters, UX designers are often held responsible for all UX
Laura describes UX as a system, one that involves much more than designing user interfaces. The trick is to find that overlap between a company’s goals and what they can do to help their users be successful and keep coming back.
One of the things wrong with UX, she said, is this responsibility so often falls solely on the UX designer(s), many of whom are only a few years out of school or recently switched careers.
“That takes a lot of folks who in a lot of organizations don’t have much power and don’t have much authority and really makes them responsible for the most important thing, which is not ruining people or not ruining the world,” Laura said.
On top of this, UX designers are often viewed in contrast with the product manager. The product manager is seen as the defender of the business, and the UX designer is seen as the defender of the user. Often the assumption is that what’s best for the business is naturally against the best interest of the user.
“Wow, is that a dangerous place to be,” Laura said. “We all need to understand what our business model is and to make sure that it’s ethical, and we all need to understand who our users are, what their goals are, and what they’re trying to do.”
This is part of her intention with the podcast, to break it all down and have candid discussions about some of the issues affecting UX today.
How two ladies arguing about UX became so popular — and why it matters
Laura and her co-host Kate met teaching a UX design course mostly to “grown-ups” who were switching careers into UX. The two would bicker a lot during the class, arguing over the five percent of stuff they disagreed on rather than focusing on the 95 percent they agreed on.
These were the moments their students reported loving the most, learning the most from, and saying that they would miss the most once the course was over. Laura and Kate decided to record some of their conversations, thinking 12 of their ex-students and maybe half a dozen of their friends would listen, but the podcast has become much more popular than that, in no small part due to its candor.
“I don’t have any guarantee that I’m right about any of this stuff. I’m just giving you what I’ve seen work, what I haven’t seen work, and in the context in which I’ve seen it work or not,” Laura said.
“It’s funny because there are times when I’m literally in the business of giving advice for money, and I’m the first one who will tell you that a lot of advice is completely useless. It’s hard to do this on something like a podcast, but it’s really important to give people the context in which that advice might be useful. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to anything.”
This is why the conversation format works. The back-and-forth banter provides a lot of context for whatever topic is chosen for that episode, and the addition of a recommended beverage pairing with each episode is a tasty twist.
In early episodes, topics such as “red flags” were paired with Red Bull and vodkas, while “rapid fire” favored the more sophisticated Veuve Clicquot, Vintage Rosé Brut 2004. More recent episodes air their flamboyance proudly on display, pairing an episode called “Data is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” with a vodka martini (“I’d say ‘shaken, not stirred’ but that bruises the booze, so knock it off with that nonsense”).
The more people talking about UX, the better
Laura’s hope is that more people start talking about UX and sharing what they’re good at with the world. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to pen two books and launch a successful podcast, but be proud of what you’re good at, share your findings with the world, and don’t be afraid to let others know you’re out here rocking this career and doing what you love.
“I think we need to have more women, more people of color, more underrepresented minorities, more gender non-binary people, more queer folk, more everything. It should be normal to hear any kind of person talk about a thing that they happen to be really great at — and to help other folks — because I know that there are a lot of us out here,” Laura said.
“We’re making it look fun and interesting. If there’s a 13-year-old out there who is wondering what she wants to do when she gets older, I want her to see people and go like, ‘Yeah, that’s the thing I could do. That’s a thing people like me do.’”