E07.1 - How to Be an Interaction Designer in The COVID-19 Era

Explore how Creative Agencies and Interaction Designers are evolving in the COVID-19 era
July 10, 2020 | 41:22
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Today, you'll meet Stephanie Prevost, Director of Interaction Design at Code and Theory in New York City.

In our conversation, we explore the evolution of creative agencies in New York, and you'll learn what Interaction Design is and how it works.

We discuss how agencies are evolving in response to COVID-19, and how Code and Theory continue to create online experiences while working remotely.

This is a 2 part episode. Both parts will be about 40 mins so you can listen at your own pace, or all at once. You get to choose.

If you like the show, would you leave a review on Apple Podcasts? It'll take about 60 seconds, and will help me draw even more insanely interesting guests.

I hope you enjoy this one!

- Mike 👨‍🔧

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Mike Rowe: Hi, my name is Mike, and this is “The Goods.” On this show we go inside the minds of designers, makers, and creators at work in the world today. Here is where you’ll get interviews, ideas, and insights from the world of design, creativity, and invention. You’ll discover new methods and mindsets that you can use to bring your ideas to life.

Today you’ll meet Stephanie Prevost, Director of Interaction Design at Code & Theory in New York City. Stephanie is an incredible design leader with over 20 years’ experience at some of the biggest, best, and boutique agencies across the East Coast of America. In this episode you’ll learn what interaction design is and how it works, how agencies are evolving in response to COVID-19, what Stephanie looks for in emerging design talent, and a whole lot more.

If you’re curious about interaction design or living and working in New York City, this interview has something for you. This is also a two-part episode. Both parts will be about 40 minutes long and released at the same time. That way you can listen at your own pace or all at once. You get to choose.

If this episode inspires you, please pass it on. If you like this show, you can get even more at thisisthegoods.com. That’s where I post show notes, transcripts, and more, and you can get it all for free. That weblink again is thisisthegoods.com. Okay, I hope you have your note-taking app ready because there’s a lot up for grabs here. So let’s get into it. Please enjoy Episode 7 of “The Goods” with Stephanie Prevost.

Welcome to the show, Stephanie, it’s so great to have you.

Stephanie Prevost: Thanks. It’s great to be here.

Mike Rowe: I’d love to start off with understanding a little bit more about the work that you do. Can you describe that to us?

Stephanie Prevost: Yeah. Absolutely. So I am currently the Director of Interaction Design at a digital creative agency in New York. So Director of Interaction Design there’s a couple pieces to the puzzle. One is that I manage a team. So there are junior level designers, mid-level, and senior designers underneath me. So some of my job is just regular old management. Career progression, making sure they have what they need for projects, that kind of thing. So that’s sort of the director part of the title.

And then the interaction design part is really around-- I mean it’s gonna sound ridiculous-- but designing interactions. That’s what it is. It’s how someone comes to an app, or a website, or even a space like a retail space and how they interact with it. So where do they go first? Where do they go next? Where do we want them to go? What do they need from us at that moment? So really trying to get into their heads from an empathetic angle and say, “Oh, how can I make this better for you? More interesting? More valuable?” At the highest level, I guess that’s the interaction design side.

Mike Rowe: Oh, awesome. And can you speak through a little bit more about what you mean by empathetic angle?

Stephanie Prevost: So I think one of the reasons why I love the field, and the discipline, and what we do is that nine times out of 10 I’m not the ordinary user who’ll be using this product, or going into this store, or using this app. So it’s been interesting working at an agency is that you get different types of clients from different walks of life. So you get a finance client, or an automotive client.

Everyone has different needs, but we’re all kind of human, and we all have sort of the same basic issues. Like we don’t like to be confused, and we like to find what we need, and we’re interested in certain things. So empathy is the base root of all of it. And if I could put myself in the shoes of someone who wants to go buy a motorcycle, even though I’ve never even sat on one, and I’m not interested in ever buying one. But what can I do to stretch myself to think about like what is it that they need? What is it that they need to understand this purchase? And that’s the empathy side of it. You’ve got to go outside yourself for, you know, 90% of the problems.

Mike Rowe: And when you say “going outside yourself,” what does that look like in practicality?

Stephanie Prevost: I guess, I mean, in some cases it’s tactical things like asking the client to pay for research so you’re actually hearing from users. So asking them to spend some money on that, or finding ways to kind of do it in-house with friends and family and just say, “You know what? Can you just show this… You know, our target is a, you know, 55- to 80-year-old couple. Can you show this to someone you know in that age group, in that demographic, in that you know, mindset?”

But really trying to show what we’re doing to a broader audience and not just us, not just me, not me just looking at designer’s work and say, “Well, I don’t like that. I wouldn’t do it that way.” Like that’s good for you, but you’re not the target, so it doesn’t matter.

Mike Rowe: Yeah. So opinions really don’t matter that much.

Stephanie Prevost: You know, I think after a while there’s good instinct, and there’s best practices, and I’ve been doing this a little over 20 years so there’s some things that you can kind of lean on. But if you can get some research and testing in all the better. And you’ll always find something, especially if you go global and do cultural testing as well, there’s always something that pops up that you’re not gonna think of. You know, there’s just always value in it.

Mike Rowe: Yeah. Like the things that you least expect tend to show up sometimes, right?

Stephanie Prevost: Mm-hmm. Yup. Absolutely.

Mike Rowe: And what’s your favorite toolkit in your arsenal to work with to lean on?

Stephanie Prevost: You mean like software programs and that kinda thing?

Mike Rowe: It could be a skillset, it could be an approach, it could be a framework or a work flow, a skill, a tool.

Stephanie Prevost: That’s a really good question. I think like in terms of a skillset, I think like if you’re wanting to come into this field, for example, there are some practical things. Like learning how to create the deliverables that are inevitably on our plate to deliver. So there’s some documentation that we’re typically responsible for. That, to me, is sort of the easiest piece to teach. There’s tons of best practices there, there are a lot of toolkits, there’s templates, that kind of thing.

The software piece changes every couple of years. I’ve had you know, in the last four agencies I’ve used at least five different pieces of software and we’re always learning new ones, new ones are always coming out, so you just have to kind of be open to be fluid on that one. So that one I wouldn’t say is like a definite.

I think the skillset piece are the soft skills. I think within project teams, interaction design, or user experience I think it’s like a very meta thing where we also have to play a role within a team that plays up to a client and their business needs, but then also down to a developer and their technical needs. So we’re a little bit of a connective tissue between a project team as well. So I think that’s really hard to teach. And I think that’s why some people really do well in the field and some people really don’t. It’s not typically a heads down, go in a corner, and do what you need to do for four weeks and come back. It’s typically very collaborative, very open. So I think in terms of the skill set I think that’s what makes people shine in the discipline.

Mike Rowe: Yeah, and you mentioned the tools tend to change like every few years. I’m really curious about like what is the metric that you use to determine what tool to use next? Because there’s some element of like future-based thinking where you have to anticipate where the tools are going and kind of adjust your teams around that, I imagine.

Stephanie Prevost: Yeah. I think if I look back at where it started and where I, you know, where I started to where it is now, the key is efficiency. And anything that can make the workflow faster and more collaborative, and let people in outside of you, it kind of goes back to that same “you don’t go off in a corner for a month.” And the tools that we’ve been moving towards, even literally in the last three months, six months, that’s the tipping point. Is wait a minute, this is gonna make us faster, more efficient, more collaborative, let’s try it.

The base tool set hasn’t changed dramatically. I mean, there’s some minor nuances and keyboard shortcuts that don’t always carry over, just enough to drive you crazy. But what they can do tends to be the same. Like, you know, there’s squares, and arrows, and lines, and whatever but the ability for other people to see me as I’m working, for example, and have it cloud-based is a big deal. Being able to send a link to a client and allowing them to view and comment on it so there’s no version control issues. Things like that are what’s kind of pushing newer pieces of software to the forefront right now.

And then it’s always a little bit of an uphill battle cause you want everyone to jump on it, but you can’t flip a switch one day and say, “As of Monday, everybody uses this thing.” So there’s learning curve, and there’s all those pieces, too. But I think over time that’s what I’ve seen the most is about efficiency.

Mike Rowe: Yeah. Yeah. I guess there’s like a lot of training, and testing, and experimentation with tools to see what you can kind of get from it, right?

Stephanie Prevost: Yeah. Absolutely.

Mike Rowe: And what does your typical day look like? Maybe even right now in the era of coronavirus, we’re actually talking, and you know, you’re taking the interview from your car at the moment and you’re doing a lot of travel at the moment as we were talking about off the interview. Can you talk through a little bit about what it’s like right now for you?

Stephanie Prevost: Wow. This is, yeah, definitely not typical anymore. So I’m married and I have two little kids, so my day’s pretty hectic. I have a kindergartener and a three-year-old. And my day actually starts pretty much with the kindergartener’s 8:30 class and then I try to get some work in after that, then he has the 10:00 class, so these are all Zoom meetings for him. And when those happen my husband goes offline, he does the class, I take the three-year-old into the other room, and we try to divide and conquer that way.

And then my life really at this point revolves around my meeting schedule. So I look at the calendar for the day, tell my husband when I need to be offline, he tells his co-workers when he needs to be offline, or all those kinds of things so we can divide and conquer the kids’ stuff. Then if there’s any heads down work where I like really need to concentrate then it’s kind of done after bedtime, and then the next day we start all over. So really my Google Calendar dictates, has a little bit of a domino effect, and it dictates quite a bit of everyone’s day-to-day life right now.

Mike Rowe: Yeah, for sure. It sounds like you and your husband both work as a really great team to, you know, not only manage the expectations that you have at both your offices and works, but you know, the expectations that your children would have about, you know, their time, and their attention, and their fun too.

Stephanie Prevost: You try. You try. But it’s definitely the three-year-old has no understanding of what a “important meeting” means.

Mike Rowe: What do you mean by that? Like I’ve heard stories about work-at-home moms with their children, and how the children’s come in, and like you know, obviously they want attention and things like that. What’s that actually look like for you?

Stephanie Prevost: If it’s something that really needs to get done in peace and quiet, I’ve learned that I need to leave, which is why I’m sitting in my car right now. If it’s something that it’s short, and like my husband can handle it, cause it’s only like half an hour or so then those I do from the house. My three-year-old has appeared on many, a many a internal meeting. He just kind of pops up in the back. He asked to see my friends. He wants to wave and, you know, do that kind of thing.

My five-year-old understands a little bit more of what it means and then likes to get rewarded for, you know, not being a pain. But generally, they’re getting a little bit more used to it, and they now do ask, “Like do you have to go do some work? Do I have to be quiet because you have to do some work?” That kind of thing. But they’re struggling too, I think, because before when you have a 9:00-to-5:00 type of thing, you leave the house, and they don’t see you, and they’re off doing their own thing, and they have friends, and you know, they’re busy. Now it’s like well, we’re together, but you’re ignoring me, and I’m really confused about that. So, yeah, I think it’s mentally it’s been hard for them to understand what this means why we’re always on the computer.

Mike Rowe: Yeah, sure, I can totally imagine how hard that would be for your children. Like you mentioned in our pre-interview that you’ve been doing something interesting projects with your son that involve a lot of cardboard. Can you share a little bit about what that looks like?

Stephanie Prevost: Yeah, we’ve actually upped our game since we talked. The last time I talked to you we had done a parking garage-- a three-floor parking garage with an elevator. And then last weekend was the holiday weekend here in the States, and unfortunately, it rained. So we really upped the ante, we had already had a house, and then he decided he wanted a kitchen. So we have, yeah, but not just like the kitchen. We did a blender, we did a coffee pot, a stove, a refrigerator.

Luckily my parents had a lot of extra cardboard boxes and a lot of recyclable stuff. So, yeah, we’ve done quite a bit, actually, in all those arenas. And he pays attention to details that I wasn’t aware of. Like the heating element on the stove had to be quite right. Like had to be like little squiggles on the top and the bottom. Made pots and pans, we’ve done a lot.

Mike Rowe: It sounds like a really beautifully intricate, almost like piece of art, or a diorama in a way.

Stephanie Prevost: Yeah. Yeah. You could say that.

Mike Rowe: It sounds like a great stay-at-home--

Stephanie Prevost: I’ll send you pictures.

Mike Rowe: Oh, fantastic. Definitely sounds like a great project to have in isolation as well. Something that you can, you know, create over time together, and share, and enjoy. And I guess that would be a little bit of a benefit of being home a little bit more. Like you do have that opportunity to share those creative experiences, and it sounds like it’s a lot of fun, too.

Stephanie Prevost: Yeah. Well, there is a piece of it that I really enjoy. There’s also a piece of it that’s absolutely maddening because I’m pretty sure I gave birth to a creative director, so he’s got some ideas.

Mike Rowe: Yeah.

Stephanie Prevost: But, I’ve started to ask what his vision is, and then we go from there.

Mike Rowe: Oh, fantastic.

Stephanie Prevost: Yeah. I’m definitely more in the execution side. But it’s working out, we’re in a rhythm now. It was a little rough early on, but we’re a good team now.

Mike Rowe: Oh, that’s so great. I wanted to shift gears a little bit and talk a little bit about the early part of your career. What kind of drew you into the agency work that you do now?

Stephanie Prevost: Yeah, so-- I’ll date myself-- but when I was in high school and you’re looking at colleges way back when, they actually gave you this big book, like it’s like a telephone book with like that thin paper material. And I was looking at college majors and I really didn’t know what I was that interested in. And I saw that advertising was a major, and I was enamored by this idea that you could get paid for that.

So went to college, was a communications major, did a semester abroad in Madrid, and was lucky enough to get an internship at Saatchi & Saatchi in Madrid doing some research around a debit card. And I was fascinated by it because culturally they didn’t use credit cards. So people would actually pay in cash, like they’d roll up some place with a big wad of cash, and that was just not, you know, the American way. So I was kind of fascinated by this different way of kind of operating.

And Visa at the time was trying to launch a debit card, which would sort of satisfy that mentality that you’re not putting something on credit, but you also don’t have to carry cash. So the internship was actually, looking back on it, quite basic. It was just about research and we put together a presentation or whatever.

But after that, that was my junior year, I came home, finished out with a communications degree and a sociology minor. And then my first job though was an administrative assistant at a mortgage company in Boston. Yeah, and it lasted about three months, and I was bored stiff.

Mike Rowe: Yeah.

Stephanie Prevost: And I called the recruiter and said, “I’ll do the same boring job, but can I just do it in an advertising agency?” And that recruiter said, “No, you need to stay there.” What I didn’t realize is that she didn’t get paid unless I stayed for three months. So I hung up and I called a different recruiter and said, “Hey listen, I’m fine doing this kind of work, like I’m filing, and making copies, and making coffee and answering phones, but can I just do it in a different place?”

And so I got a job at what is now Digitas, but at the time was called Bronner Slosberg Humphrey. And it was just doing that, but I was on the account management team for AT&T, and so I did that for a year. So I liked the agency world as soon as I got into it. I thought it was interesting, I liked the idea that things changed all the time, that the clients changed, that you know, one day you need to learn about AT&T, the next day had to learn about FedEx. Like it just, you know, kind of fit for me.

But then I wanted to get into the creative side of things and I didn’t really have any background at all. My communications degree was really, really wide. I was at a liberal arts school, like it ranged from media, to stuttering, and cluttering, and communication disorder. So it was just it was way too wide to be considered like any sort of solid background to go to the creative side.

So I asked my manager. I remember my review my first year, my manager said, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “I think I want to go into creative.” And he said, “Well, you gotta go talk to this creative director on this other floor and see what he says.” So I talked to him, and then he said, “Well, you know, maybe you could become a writer, but you know, go take some classes, read some books, whatever and you can job shadow.”

So I job shadowed for about a year, and what he let me do was go into these creative briefings and really get the assignment. I’m sitting alongside an actual writer and the actual creative time. He said, “Then go off and do it on your own, and whenever you’re done-- you know, cause you have a full-time job-- so whenever you’re done, you’re done, and come grab me in the hallway, and show me your work.”

So I did that for about a year and that eventually got me into the creative department in the agency world, and that’s where I haven’t left since. I’ve bounced around within the creative side, but that kind of drew me. I think there was two things. One was the projects changing, the clients changing, and then also being on the creative side of things as well.

Mike Rowe: And what was it about the creativity that you were really drawn to? Cause you mentioned that this mortgage company was pretty boring. Is there something about the agencies that you really like found appealing that you wanted to be a part of?

Stephanie Prevost: Yeah, I think they were just informal in comparison to what else I was seeing. A lot of friends that went into like finance, or banking, and I had some friends that were, you know, doing odd jobs like at law firms and they wanted to become lawyers, and it just everything felt so rigid. And even in the mortgage company it was, you know, every loan is basically the same thing, and had the same elements, and you know, there was a little negotiation around it, but nothing that I was that keen to stick around to see.

I liked the idea that there was a playfulness and, you know, we aren’t saving lives, but I was kind of more comfortable with that. And I liked it, I liked the people, I liked we laughed, we joked, we took things seriously. There was a work ethic mixed in there as well, but it was a good combination for me.

Mike Rowe: And when you say work ethic component mixed in there, what does that mean? Like is that the work hard and have fun kind of idea or what does that look like?

Stephanie Prevost: Yeah, I think I mean the late ‘90s, early 2000s before the bubble burst, and even I think afterwards, there was definitely that sort of mantra-- the work hard, play hard. But I think it’s funny, I think what drew me into it is also probably what frustrates me now, or you know, experience kind of pulls back on. But the idea that you can always make it better. And other people’s ideas can like you show it to your manager, your boss, and they make it even better. And you’re like this is awesome, like well oh, if only you know, we could do a little bit more and then you always run out of time.

And I think what I’ve learned, finally, is that you don’t always have to do that. Like there is a moment where you can be like, “No, this is solid, you can stop now.” I think that’s really hard for creative people to stop sometimes.

Mike Rowe: Yeah. It reminds me of the quote that’s attributed to Picasso where he says that, “great art is only ever abandoned.” I’m probably completely butchering that, but the sentiment  I think, is there.

Stephanie Prevost: Yeah. It’s hard to walk away. It’s hard to stop. It’s hard to, you know, walk away from the computer and let it bake for a little bit. But there is a piece of that that I liked, and then I think that’s also kind of what drives me nuts about it now.

Mike Rowe: Yeah. And why did you decide to move from Boston to New York?

Stephanie Prevost: That’s a good one. That’s I actually blame my husband for that. He had lived in New York before, and we weren’t married yet, but we were both in Boston. And he wanted to move back, and he is kind of a classic New York story where, you know, apartments are really hard to find, and everything’s so expensive, but his aunt had an apartment that she was subletting out. And she was gonna get rid of it, and then he said, “No, wait, hold on, maybe we’ll take it.” So we found the apartment first, and then we found jobs to match.

Mike Rowe: Oh wow.

Stephanie Prevost: So then we stayed there for about a year, and then we moved to a different apartment, but I think that’s kind of classic New York, which is the apartment’s more important than the job in some ways.

Mike Rowe: And has the city changed much since you moved?

Stephanie Prevost: So I moved 15 years ago, it was 2004-- I guess almost 16 years now. I’d say the industry has definitely changed. I think the city, in some ways… You know, it’s funny, we just moved out a few years ago to Hoboken, which is just over the river in New Jersey. I’d say our neighborhood that we were in for, we were in the same place or 13 years, I’d say that neighborhood changed pretty-- not drastically, but it had gentrified pretty significantly while we were there.

But the industry changed quite a bit. It went from-- from my point of view-- it went from like very big players, to a lot of medium-sized players, to a lot of medium and small-sized players. Sentiment changed quite a bit on the creative side. Like when I first got there I kind of wanted to be at a big shop, and then over time like, “No, I really want to go small.” And then I went medium and now I’m back at like medium to big. So I kind of bounced around a little bit, but I think I probably followed a bit of a wave within the industry as well.

Mike Rowe: And what do you think triggered that wave? Is it the tools and the ability to do this kind of work is becoming easier or more accessible for people?

Stephanie Prevost: You know, I think it was all just cultural stuff. Like I liked the big agency gives you that sense of security that there’s an adult running the show, and that there’s, you know, there’s money to be funded, and you know, you feel a little bit more secure. The smaller ones it feels like you can do anything that is needed. So there’s a little bit less politics, you don’t have to ask permission so much as, you know, ask forgiveness. There’s a lot more of that informal creative piece, but there’s instability.

And you know, so I think I got caught up in a little bit of the grass is greener, let me go try this. Maybe, you know, Goldilocks and the Three Bears kind of thing, like this is too big, this one’s too small, this one’s just right. I mean I think it worked for me, I should say, maybe it’s not for everyone. But bouncing around a little bit like that helped me figure out what it is that I wanted, and what I wanted right now. You know, what I want right now isn’t going to be the same thing as I want in five, ten years so.

Mike Rowe: It sounds like you really value spontaneity and maybe being unencumbered by process.

Stephanie Prevost: I think not so much unencumbered like wild, wild west and do whatever. But I like the idea that if something isn’t working you can have the latitude to fix it and not get stuck in the “we’ve always done it this way trip.” Unless it works. If there are pieces of this puzzle that work, that’s fine, like leave it be. But I kind of bristle at the, “Well, this is just how we’ve always, so we have to.” In the guise of making things more efficient and make things better, and faster, and all those good words, sometimes you do just have to think of something from another angle.

Mike Rowe: And it sounds like you really enjoy the pursuit of continual improvement then.

Stephanie Prevost: Yeah. I think so. I think I didn’t always. I think I’m more comfortable with it the older I get. I think I’ve realized that it’s not as scary. That when you do that nobody knows what they’re doing and that’s okay. I think when you’re younger you’re looking for more guidance, you’re looking for that like, “Oh wait, they’ve done it that way, this is great. I’m just gonna follow those footsteps and, you know, I’ll be successful too.” It just changes, I think, as you get older.

Mike Rowe: And you reinvent, and modify, and adapt, and remix things together, and try and experiment, right? It’s a really exciting field to be in for that if that’s something that you’re really naturally drawn to. I’m curious about your background a bit deeper. Cause you’ve mentioned writing, and content, but we haven’t talked a lot about design and interaction design. And I’m curious if you can talk us through why you made the leap from content strategy and writing into design.

Stephanie Prevost: Yeah, so I didn’t make it on my own, to start. I didn’t even think to do it. I had a really great boss at the time who pulled me aside at one of my reviews and said, “You know, I really think you’d be…” At the time the discipline was information architecture, so IA was the name of the department. And he said, “I really think you’d be great at this.”

The way the process works in an agency is typically the IA gets sort of first crack at what the site should be, the website should be. And they’re putting together like a site map of here’s all the pages, and here’s the general structure, and this should be in the navigation, and this should be in the footer, and this should be on these pages. And then they hand that to the writer or the content strategist.

And so I was always receiving these documents, and so I was always moving into design was really moving more upstream. So he told me this one year, I said, “No thank you. I don’t think it’s creative enough. I’m not gonna be interested. I’m gonna get bored.” And he said, “Okay, let’s just wait and see.” So the following year, literally a year later, he said it again. And he said, “No, but this time we’re gonna change the department to interaction design. I’m gonna hire another manager out of our GA who will sit and train you, and we’ll give you the skills that you’re missing. But your head works this way, your brain works this way, this is better for you.”

At the time, we were in a digital, I guess, department or you know, enclave within a larger agency. And at the time what they were doing organizationally was breaking that wall down and making it a true integrated agency. So he said, “Listen, I’m about to get a bunch of new writers from the other side and it’s not that I don’t need you, but I have the writing box checked. We have some people leaving on the IA side, so I’m gonna be short on this new interaction design department. I want you to be a part of that.” And this time I said, “Yeah, let’s try it.”

So and really haven’t looked back. I did miss writing for a little while. The content strategy was a little bit of a stopgap on my way over because of this one particular project we were working on. And it allowed me to just get into a little bit higher level content mindset, and not so much about the writing, and a little bit more about the organization of it, which was a natural path into the interaction design world. My next job was, I think the title was user experience, and then same with maybe the next one, and then now I’m back to interaction design. So I’ve bounced around a little bit in the title world.

Mike Rowe: Yeah. I think titles are interchangeable for a lot of people in the design industry at the moment. Like there’s product designers, UX designers, interaction designers, it’s all over the shop at the moment. When you made the switch from content strategy into design what was going through your mind at the time?

Stephanie Prevost: You know, it’s interesting. When I got the title I remember thinking that I’m not a designer. Like I don’t get it, but I don’t design anything, I’m not a designer by nature, that’s not who I am. But in my head that was like graphic designer, art director mindset. And like, well no, this is still design. You’re not doing colors, you’re not doing photos, but this is still design. And it took a lot for me to warm up to that. It didn’t feel like I was worthy of it, frankly, it was such a high prestige title to me. Even coming I kind of had the same thing when I became a writer that I didn’t feel quite right either. Like I had to sort of earn it over a few years.  And then I remembered that with interaction design it was a similar process where I felt like I really had to work hard at it to kind of gain my own respect, I suppose, of the title.

Mike Rowe: And what you just mentioned is really interesting, too. Because it’s something that when I talk to others that are unfamiliar with designer there’s this, I think, a misconception that all design is creative design. Like artistic, and flair, and flourish, and that kind of stuff. But there is this other side of design that is usability, and practicality, and systems, and structures, and information, and organization, and this whole other component that is almost like hidden behind the scenes, which it sounds like that’s what you really work through as an interaction design director.

Stephanie Prevost: Yeah. I think that’s a great way of putting it. I think it is a behind the scenes design. It’s meant to clear paths for people so they don’t even feel like it’s been designed in a weird way. I think it’s meant to be in the shadows almost, or you know, invisible, and then you only notice something when it’s wrong. So it’s frustrating that way cause then people always just find what’s wrong. But a really well-designed thing, and you know, you see this with like Disney and Apple, and you see people that you go there and you’re like, “Oh, oh look at that.” Like, you know, and there’s like this weird surprise and delight element. And that’s because it’s been designed even though it feels like there’s nothing there. That it was just so easy. So, yeah, I think it’s the behind the scenes element to it, but the word design does tend to come with flourish, and color, and you know, font styles.

Mike Rowe: And preconceived ideas about who a designer is, I guess. Now I know you mentioned it a little bit at the start of the interview, but I’m hoping you can like break down interaction design a little bit more for us and explain it and how it works. So you’re an interaction design director, you work with a team, what would someone on your team be doing day-to-day?

Stephanie Prevost: So Code & Theory where I am now is a little unique in that they… typically an agency has a user experience department, and that covers a really wide range of skills. They go instead of focusing not just on one department, it’s more of I’d say, a mindset of the entire agency. We’re all here to serve the user and figure out what it is that that person needs, and what their problems are, et cetera.

So in this context interaction design is just one slice of the experience puzzle, if you will. And, to me, it’s very specific to moving someone through a flow, through actions, through you know, Point A, to B, to C. So if you’re selling shirts and shoes, it’s about making sure that you find the product, you get the size you want, you understand if it’s in stock, you get the price, and you keep moving through. And I have like an end goal in mind of that user journey, if you will.

I think it’s very focused, interaction design, cause it’s like I was saying at the top, it’s really your interaction with the tool, or with the site, or with the app, or whatever it may be. User experience is a little bit broader, more of an umbrella. I mean that could be the system design, that could be even the content piece of that, the taxonomy. So how everything, you know, you’re on a big news publication site and there’s a lifestyle section, and you know, all the articles that have to do with lifestyle are tagged “lifestyle.”

So there’s a content strategy team where I am that worries about that. That’s not the interaction design side so much. So we’re I guess broader in that way so that we have people that are dedicated to each of these individual areas. So interaction design is a little bit more focused on literally the user paths and actions and moving people through those flows.

Mike Rowe: Yeah, and I guess what I can really hear in what you’re saying is the interaction designers on your team are focused on removing friction, and blockers, and things that inhibit people from taking those desirable actions for that side.

Stephanie Prevost: Yeah. Exactly. And then the other piece of that is to translate all of that to a developer or an engineer and making sure they know what it is that we’re trying to design in a way that they understand. And that’s a really big piece of our day-to-day job is what I would say is landing the plane and saying, “Okay, so we had this great idea. This is what it’s gonna look like and we have a visual designer who’s doing the flourish, if you will, and evolving our core ideas into something even more beautiful.” And then but someone else has to document it for the engineer who’s like, “Okay, what are we doing here? I know what it looks like, but how is it gonna function and flow?” So that’s another piece of it too.

Mike Rowe: Yeah, and what are some of those challenges of landing the plane, so to speak, that designers would have to deal with in that handover experience?

Stephanie Prevost: It’s really the crossing the Ts and dotting the Is and making sure that we thought of all the edge cases, and you know, everything from what if they enter a zip code to find something and your product isn’t available in their area. What message do they get? Do you ask for more information so you can follow up later? What does that follow up look like? What if they, you know, they put an email address and there’s not a domain name?

Like literally going through all the ifs is something that I see people who are really good in this discipline and really enjoy it like to go down all those paths. Almost to a fault. But it’s like, okay, what if this happens, this happens, this happens and it’s a Tuesday and it’s sunny? You’re like, okay, hold on, we got that covered and we’re able to answer all of those little questions when a developer asks.

I think the struggles are when everyone falls in love with a designer and idea that hasn’t been put through those paces. And all systems are go, and the client loves it, and but that thinking hasn’t been done yet. And then you gotta backtrack, and you’re like, “Well, I know you wanted it this way, but it doesn’t work for whatever reason.” A system’s not in place, a database isn’t updated, there’s some technical something that just hasn’t been thought about yet because they haven’t had time to think about it yet.

And I think that happens a lot and I think it can happen. It puts developers in a really bad spot because they’re the ones that everything’s rolling downhill to them really, really fast. And then they’ve got to make sense of it and, you know, turn the lights on somehow. So I think that’s why our bridge to them is really important.

Mike Rowe: It sounds like asking the question “what if” a lot really helps the whole process.

Stephanie Prevost: In all directions. I think it helps early on when it’s, “Oh, here’s the business problem and the user need that we’re trying to solve.” And you’re like, “Okay, what if we just did something else entirely?” So that what if upfront is really important to kind of open the doors. And then also downstream when it’s, you know, what if they entered this but they really mean that? And there’s that confusing, and what if they’re on a phone, and then they go to their desktop. Like the what-ifs come in on both ends.

Mike Rowe: And are there any other key questions like “what if” that you regularly ask in the process?

Stephanie Prevost: Will they care? Does it matter? I think we can go down a rabbit hole of thinking something’s really cool and then it’s over-engineered. We’ve put in too many options. All with the best of intentions, but sometimes it’s very easy to over-engineer something cause you get really excited, but it may not be a core functionality. Is it too much I guess would be one of them. Too much too soon? I think the MVP mindset is really hard to do. So the minimal viable product. What is the least amount of work that we need to do to solve this problem? And then what comes next? I think the order of events is also another one. You know, the what comes first? Guess there are a lot of basic questions we ask. I never really thought about it.

Mike Rowe: And are those questions asked in workshops and in the collaboration experience or is that questions that you would ask of the users when you’re doing research? And how does it all kind of come together?

Stephanie Prevost: I’d say those are a lot of internal conversations. I think a client usually comes to us with obviously a problem. Sometimes they come with their own research and their own issues that they know they have. Sometimes they come with a solution and we have to back them up a little bit and say, “Well, no, no, what problem?” And they might be right, or they might be wrong. But you’ve gotta kind of get to the root of the problem.

Mike Rowe: Yes, stress test it.

Stephanie Prevost: Yeah. Yeah. And we’re really good about doing in-person-- or remote as the case may be-- but collaborative workshops with the client where we get to the root of these problems. Cause we don’t always have the answers, especially if it’s a new client, or a new industry, or a new target segment that we’re not familiar with. You know, a client comes to us and they know their business. They’re coming to us for a very specific need. They don’t come to us so we can learn everything there is to know about them and know more than them in a short period of time. I mean that’s ludicrous. So we’ve got to help each other out.

So I think we ask them with the clients, we ask them internally. I think with users it’s just a shorter list. You don’t try to get them to solve your problem, but you do try to get them to react to it. Or potential solutions, just to kind of dig into things, kind of prompt them for their points of views. And sometimes you get a solution out of them too. Like a “God, why couldn’t it just be like X?” And you’re like, “Good point,” you know?

Mike Rowe: Thank you for that.

Stephanie Prevost: Yeah, why can’t it? I’ll look into that. Thanks. So I think it’s across the board.

Mike Rowe: Well this has been huge, but everything good must come to an end. If you liked this episode and want to hear more, you can get “The Goods” on Apple, Spotify, or your favorite podcast network, or listening app. Thank you for listening. Until next time, this is Mike signing of.

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