Mary Shaw's more than 20-year career has taken her from accomplished touring singer-songwriter to marketing strategist to web designer to UX consultant to some of the biggest brands in the world.
Mary's first career was that of a professional musician, playing solo concerts at colleges all over the U.S. with just a guitar and a sound system. When the money ran out, she became a corporate meeting planner...before gratefully stumbling into web design in 1996.
The numerous twists and turns her career has taken have only strengthened her belief in collaboration and the power of interaction design. Experience, Mary says, has taught her that the best products come from a clearly articulated vision, based on solid user needs and business research — along with a little healthy debate ;-)
Joe Natoli:0:08Hello and welcome to Making UX Work, the Give Good UX podcast. I'm your host Joe Natoli, and our focus here is on folks like you doing real, often unglamorous UX work in the real world. You'll hear about their struggles, their successes and their journey to and through the trenches of product design, development and, of course, user experience.
Joe Natoli:0:32My guest today is Mary Shaw, whose more than 20-year career has taken her from accomplished touring singer-songwriter to marketing strategist and UX consultant to some of the biggest brands in the world.
Joe Natoli:0:47She's a firm believer in collaboration and the power of interaction design — and experience has taught her that the best products come from a clearly articulated vision based on solid user and business needs research — along with a little healthy debate. Here's my conversation with Mary Shaw, on Making UX Work.
Joe Natoli:1:06So Mary, how are you?
Mary Shaw:1:09Hey Joe. Thanks for having me.
Joe Natoli:1:10Thanks for being here. You have a very interesting story! I was checking out your your bio and of course your LinkedIn profile. You've done a lot of things!
Mary Shaw:1:20Yeah... that.
Joe Natoli:1:24You say that like it's a bad thing!
Mary Shaw:1:26Ah, it's been a fascinating wonderful journey. I guess we start at the beginning. I set out to become a musician 30 years ago. That was the only job I wanted.
Mary Shaw:1:38It's the only job I did for a while.
Joe Natoli:1:39For how long?
Mary Shaw:1:41Almost 12 years. I started in college. I had an opportunity to play we had this Rathskeller where I went to school and they were going to pay me 75 bucks to play my favorite songs for three hours. I was like wow sign me up. Back in the 80s. And so I would practice after classes until I had a repertoire. And it was just so much fun; I just really enjoyed it a lot. I started writing a lot of songs and heard about this college circuit and that was it. I have a degree in Communication and Journalism but I wanted to see if I could do it. And so so I did well 12 years I mean that's how to make a living playing music yeah. We've used to say I made a starting. There were couple of years where it was really good the college market was very lucrative for about three of those years. I was mostly you know I would have to do temporary secretarial jobs on the sites like make ends meet. In the late 80s early 90s, things were things were going really well, but I was doing about 50,000 miles a year and after I met my husband it was just unsustainable.
Joe Natoli:2:44Yeah, I mean that's a lot.
Joe Natoli:2:46That's absolutely a lot. I mean I've been in bands on most of my life as well; I sort of quit doing that about 10 years ago, but never had any aspirations to do what you've done. And I know from firsthand experience just how hard of a slog that is. So to hear you ran that road for 12 years, that says a hell of a lot to me about your commitment, your belief, your dedication. It takes a lot.
Mary Shaw:3:09Well, thank you. I had I had a lot of support. My family was very supportive my husband at the time even remarried. He was very supportive and had a good friend whose brother had an early home recording studio and he needed a new project. And it was a great opportunity. That's why I did my first album. And I just I wanted to be the next Bonnie Raitt; she's still my favorite. I just love the way she connects with audiences and I wanted to see if I could do that and it was just really a big adventure. And it was a wonderful way to spend my 20s and to see the country and to just meet all types of people really something that they were mostly young college students and the older I got. I kept having similar conversations. This was like during the MTV days... so they'd still be 20-21 years old and I would be getting to be 25, 26, 27 and still having the same conversation. So it got to be. that nobody knew who I was. I was just doing the show and play some songs and then go home. Yeah but it was good it was. It was a good adventure and. And thank God for the web.
Joe Natoli:4:11Yeah, no kidding. So how did that come to an end, and then your career, I mean, into all things sort of marketing and design and advertising and UX and everything else. How did that switch happen?
Mary Shaw:4:22It was gradual, I think it was...we got married in 94 and I was starting to get tired of the road right around 93. You know when we were ready to like trying to start life together. And so I just kind of... I just kind of curtailed the touring and I was like "all right, I have this marketing degree, what can I do with it?" There was a small agency near my town that was looking for freelancers so I joined up and I won. And they were great. I wound up working with them for five years and I was always...you know it was never for the whole year or anything and there was another agency here in Connecticut that I also teamed up with on a shorter basis. But I was just doing basically project management type stuff so that we would coordinate sales meetings. We would do videos, new product launches and back in those days there were a lot of big brands in Connecticut that we could support. So it was fun. So I got to I got to do that. I learned a lot of that from a guy who I worked with at the agency. He's he's still my biggest business mentor and still a very dear friend who lives in Florida now. But we did a lot of great meetings for Glad, Glad bags. We did stuff for them. We did stuff for T.P. and scoop away. And also for us the ASPCA. So those are like very early exposures to large profile brands.
Joe Natoli:5:35It sounds like there was some event management mixed in there as well.
Mary Shaw:5:39Yes. And then that that led to my first real job at a software company at Stanford; they actually had an event coordinator position. It was going to be a short term thing. I went there to cover for some months of maternity leave, and that person left and I got the job and it was right around the time we were buying our house. You know I've just been very fortunate. That's how these things happen, right?
Joe Natoli:6:03I mean yeah, it's never when you're sort of looking; it's just serendipity. You know, one thing happens and everything falls into place. It's that old saying about one door closes another door opens — but there's a reason those cliches exist.
Mary Shaw:6:16Oh totally. And this was such a great opportunity. This was a company called Hyperion Solutions. And they had an annual user conference back then it was like almost 2,000 attendees. And I got hired in the marketing department and I was there and in that role for almost two years. But I had an awesome boss. They were just very forward thinking and we grew that event almost 5,000 attendees. But the thing that was most interesting for me during that job was I got to work on the Web. And I had found, you know I had done a little bit of interactive projects on my freelance career the year before but boy I remember. Do you remember Internet cafes back in the mid 90s?
Joe Natoli:6:54Oh yeah. Yeah I mean from that from the timeline here this is right around ...correct me if I'm wrong but isn't this right when your transition started into web stuff, wasn't this right around 2000 like the dot-com boom era?
Mary Shaw:7:07No, it was actually right before that. It was right it was right when things were getting OK you know. Amazing. It was. It was 97 when I got the job Hyperion. I got firmly entrenched in working on web projects before the crash and Hyperion promoted from within. So I had an opportunity to join the Web group as a project manager in 2000 before everything happened. Thankfully the company did well and we were rather Eskay by all of that stuff because you know we were working with Fortune 1000 clients and between 99 and 2000 I moved over to I.T. which was who ran the web group. And I just I was really fortunate. I kind of feel like Hyperion is where I grew up; it was kind of like grad school in a way, just...it was the first real stability I had had in any kind of career. And they were just very, very encouraging and they would supply training. And if I found books on it you know the Web was so new that we were we were we were just doing whatever we could to try to get projects out the door and we wanted them to be good. But it was very, very innocent. It didn't even have that name.
Joe Natoli:8:10No. Exactly how much of what you were doing felt like brand new territory to you and everyone else?
Mary Shaw:8:17For me it was in the early days, and it was just...it's so interesting, Joe, because it's so similar in my mind to music creation and production because we were making something out of nothing. And that's what you do when you start a brand new song. You just have a blank piece of paper. And we had a blank text file. Do you remember webmasters? We had a brilliant webmaster at my company and she kind of took me under her wing and showed me a bunch of stuff and then I've always been a bookworm and Amazon was just starting out — my one click addiction was just starting back then. And I found a really cool book web project management. Ashley Friedlen actually...
Joe Natoli:8:56I read that book!
Mary Shaw:8:56Yeah, that book was awesome. I told my boss about it and she was like "cool, let's do this!" And so we started instituting all that stuff, you know about scope work. And just you know mapping stuff out and really really early Agile if you will. Just really, you know, blocking things off into workable chunks and then working through everything in a somewhat safe manner, versus the Wild West that it was before then.
Joe Natoli:9:22Right. Absolutely. It's really funny that you mention that book because I'll you something... I haven't thought about it, I haven't thought about that particular a book for years. But you and I bought that book right around the same time because I had just started, in the late 90s, I started my own firm and it was the same thing. Not only did we not know what we were doing, but no one else knew what they were doing either! And so at the same time there's all this material coming out, articles books.
Mary Shaw:9:52Oh yeah.
Joe Natoli:9:53You know? And that was one of them where it was an eye opener: "OK, here's how you run this."
Mary Shaw:9:57Oh it was great. That book was really helpful. And then there was Kelly Goto's book. I think it's still up on my shelf somewhere. Web design workflow that works.
Joe Natoli:10:07I swear to you it's right in front of me right now.
Mary Shaw:10:10We should hang out.
Joe Natoli:10:11Oh this is SO strange. I literally pulled this book out two days ago because I wanted to show somebody something and its Web ReDesign 2.0. It's right in my hands, right now.
Mary Shaw:10:24Yeah. And you know all the stuff they said about content management is still so relevant.
Joe Natoli:10:28Absolutely. Absolutely.
Mary Shaw:10:30The thing that drew me to your work was just, you know of course, the elements of user experience.
Joe Natoli:10:34Yeah, exactly.
Mary Shaw:10:36Jesse. Jesse James Garrett, man.
Joe Natoli:10:37Right. Exactly right. It was like, your head is just exploding. All of a sudden you're reading all this stuff that it makes so much sense. You know? And everything that Don Norman said about user experience and everything that like for me a lot of what I started reading it. Alan Cooper. Cooper's Web site.
Mary Shaw:10:53OK. Yep.
Joe Natoli:10:54Alan and Sue, and the work that they did, was just monumental for me. And I thought OK, this is exactly how this is supposed to work. And I probably drove all my employees crazy with this. I was like "THIS! I'm telling you, this is how we've got to do this work," and they're like "we don't know HOW to do that work." "Doesn't matter!"
Mary Shaw:11:14Oh I know. I later went to an agency after I left Hyperion, and we were working on some early projects and I have a Xerox copy. I mean Xerox copies of that scaffolding diagram from the Jesse James Garrett book. And I asked everybody to put it in their cube just keep it in mind as we were working nonstop.
Joe Natoli:11:31Right. Right. They probably looked at you like you had three heads.
Mary Shaw:11:33Yeah, it was a great time. It was great great time to be doing this stuff. Yeah and just I really felt like I was on the cutting edge. It was very adventurous. For me, it was very similar to my music career. But the key difference was I was making a living. A good living at that point and we had so much passion for the work we really did and we were we were helping people and were helping the company move forward. You know it was a good time too, for me anyway, to be an employee.
Joe Natoli:12:01You were there for quite a while, at Hyperion for quite a while, right?
Mary Shaw:12:05Five years, actually and I guess if you count the marketing department it was more like 7. Things just changed and it was time for me to go somewhere else. But I loved it. I still have a very special place in my heart. But I moved on to a promotions agency in Connecticut to work on more brand-focused stuff. And that was where I met one of my biggest mentors, who, ironically, we worked on a project together about six months ago. It's like wow it's a small community and kinetic and everybody knows each other. It's kind of like television production. Everybody knows everybody. But yeah I got to work on Dove.com. It's the flagship website for their products. So this was back when microsites were big.
Mary Shaw:12:48So every time I had a new product, we had a new microsite to support it and then we had media that had to go out with it and that was when I really started doing a lot more UXey type stuff. I was doing it at Hyperion; I just didn't know that's what it was called.
Joe Natoli:13:02This is what, like, early 2000s?
Mary Shaw:13:04It was around 2004, 2005 actually, closer to that. We started to do the... we were definitely doing sitemaps. And I wouldn't even call them wireframes back then, but we were sketching stuff out and we had post notes all over my office. So I was doing a lot of what I was doing a lot more user research back then before I went to the agency. You know, I would go out into the field. We were building custom applications within the company. So I would go into the field to talk to the users, figure out what they needed. Try to come back and translate it for the tech team and then work with the designers to bring it forward. And so it was basically user research but it was under project management.
Joe Natoli:13:41Really interesting and I love that. I love the fact that... because I've always believed there's a missing component in product ownership and product management, project management inside organizations. And what you just described to me, I've sort of always felt like those folks should have a hand in having that happen. I think it would change the way a lot of them do their job. I think it would make their lives easier in a lot of ways. I think it would eliminate a lot of misunderstanding about this profession. So it's really interesting to me to hear you say that those things were so close together for you. Do you think that was a function of a lot of this being new, or was it just that you know, that company's philosophy, "this is this is how we do it," where you find out who these folks are before we design for them.
Mary Shaw:14:24Well, I think it was part of the company philosophy because Hyperion was always very user-centered from the beginning, and my boss was also very forward thinking. She was like "you have got to go talk to the people." I said OK, so that's what I did. I went. It was really interesting, I got, you know by then I think we had about 2000 employees and I got to work with every department to provide them some sort of product. We did a lot of stuff for H.R. The big thing we did, do you remember the enterprise portals?
Joe Natoli:14:50Sure do.
Mary Shaw:14:51That was probably the biggest project we worked on it was we rolled out a Plumtree portal to replace our Intranet.
Joe Natoli:14:58Plumtree! This is a blast from the past.
Mary Shaw:15:00Yeah right?
Joe Natoli:15:01This is awesome.
Mary Shaw:15:02This is like the wayback machine for you, Joe.
Joe Natoli:15:04That's awesome. I remember sitting in meetings with the Plumtree reps...right, and they're walking through everything and you go "OK, we need to change that...and this...maybe we can customize that... because it sucks." Yeah, I remember those days.
Mary Shaw:15:19We had, like I said, we had a really amazing Webmaster, she was something else and she was able to tame that Plumtree beast. It was quite interesting, but we got it done.
Joe Natoli:15:29That's awesome. And it is like a lion-taming feat. I mean those those behemoth, you know, enterprise packages were just a universe unto their own.
Mary Shaw:15:39We had to look at we had to look at so many too because they know the CIA wanted to make sure we vetted everything so we were looking at the Gartner Magic Quadrant and making sure that we had the top players and we had white papers all over the place. It was an interesting time, and that was way long ago.
Joe Natoli:15:54Yeah I mean from Hyperion to the next gig you were talking about, I mean did you feel like... it sounds like at Hyperion there was certainly support for all this. Did you ever encounter, there or afterwards, you know that the next place you jumped to, did you encounter any opposition where, you know, you sort of had to start fighting for these things that were second nature?
Mary Shaw:16:13Oh yeah. Yes indeed.
Joe Natoli:16:18Was it the same type of opposition that we that you sort of see now today? Or was it different?
Mary Shaw:16:22Yeah and we had that too. You know where I was back at Hyperion it was it was very much rainbows and unicorns within our little web team. But going into the marketing department we were always fighting for stuff. And at the end of the day we had to compromise on stuff and a lot of times it happened and it also happened in the agency world too, our brand clients...you know somebody reads something in a marketing magazine on a plane and they rush into the office and it has to be up tomorrow.
Mary Shaw:16:50And we don't know why and we don't know how much it costs...
Joe Natoli:16:52Yeah, a client of mine likes to say the urgent always trumps the important.
Mary Shaw:16:57Yes. So I lived through a ton of that and Hyperion then definitely into... I was at a company called Ryan partnership which was acquired by Epsilon I guess I think after I left. Oh yeah we really had to sell in our process to that client. You know, with scopes of work I explain it just you know back then it was very much a waterfall effort. The information we needed through discovery, and then before we get to proceed to design that you know development deployment all that stuff... and we would knock heads with our clients sometimes but
Joe Natoli:17:28Yeah, I'm sure.
Mary Shaw:17:28But always in the most respectful way possible.
Joe Natoli:17:31When you have disagreement, you know, it's part of the gig. And I always feel like the folks on that end, the fear and the reticence is sort of a natural byproduct of...of who they are and what they do for a living. They're sort of being asked to place very large bets on things they really don't understand.
Mary Shaw:17:47Yes, very much so.
Joe Natoli:17:49It's a scary place to be.
Mary Shaw:17:50Yeah yeah. And the other thing too that I find too like for you I'm working on a corporate website right now a big responsive web design project for a very large brand and you know the CMO and everybody who works for him, they already have full time jobs. And then you bring up a web project on top of that. It's not necessarily it's not a "done for you" thing, it's a collaborative process and so we need we need their brains we need them in the room with us to help us make design decisions. And I think there's a lot of education that has to happen with executives before they embark on a big project because it's going to take their time. It's just going to take their time.
Joe Natoli:18:28They're not used to that.
Mary Shaw:18:29No, and especially if they want the best product possible. You know, because you know we just can't go off and work in a vacuum. We have to understand what their business is and they have to understand what their business needs to grow and move forward.
Joe Natoli:18:41Yeah and I have sort of experienced, I mean throughout my career, if you do anything long enough you get lots of flavors of experience, I guess. You know, you you get folks who will throw down with you and say "yeah, OK, this is really important me and I do want to be involved." And then you have people at the extreme end of that spectrum who sort of micromanage everything... and then I've also experienced the opposite which is "yeah, I get, it it's important, but I'm too busy."
Mary Shaw:19:09I get that a lot. And I think there is there's so much value to educating the ROI if you can. And that's such a hard thing to do. But I find that that when I'm able to really get it, get at what's in it for the business and what's in it for them, potentially. Professionally I get there but it takes a lot of work to do that.
Joe Natoli:19:28How do you do that? What kind of things do you talk about?
Mary Shaw:19:29Well, if they'll let me, I try to get information. I try to get insights on the revenue numbers. Now you know most of what I do is responsive websites and believe it or not, there are so many companies still that have not moved to a responsive website design.
Joe Natoli:19:44Oh, I believe it.
Mary Shaw:19:45Well you know that, just just for the listeners out here. It's astonishing. It's astonishing how many big companies do not have a responsive web site, or adaptive or whatever... it doesn't work on a phone, let's just say that. So I try to go, I try to do a deep dive into the analytics to try to figure out what their sales numbers are whether or not they have e-commerce and this case the site does not have e-commerce but it could drive off to it. And it's like if you can at least engage that user you can consider trying to figure out probably an indirect sale that's taking place and if we can agree that it's this number, if we could even lift that traffic by 1 percent, you know, you're looking at a couple of million dollars.
Mary Shaw:20:24And is that lift worth going through this additional process? Absolutely. Because you retain your customers, they have a better experience, you know. The experience of you is better for everyone and then they're happy and then they buy more stuff.
Joe Natoli:20:37Yeah, exactly right. Exactly right. What do you do when they won't get involved? What do you do when they just flat out, you know, say "nope, sorry, just go do it."
Speaker 5:20:44They don't play, I don't play. I used to. I am, as an independent consultant I I have this process that I that I lay out and I make it part of basically the deal. And if they want to work with me, that's the way I want to work. I still do sub out to some agencies and usually by the time they bring me in where they're at the site map or wireframe stage. So I haven't had the opportunity to be involved in any previous research. So those are like a different type of project, they're a smaller project I'll take on, but if it's me going direct to a company, I have to have that process in place or it's just not worth it.
Joe Natoli:21:23So you bow out. You know, we're either going to do this together or we're not going to do it at all.
Mary Shaw:21:28Yeah, because I want them to have the best product they can possibly get. And I agree they have to be involved in order for that to happen.
Joe Natoli:21:35See, I'm the same way. And it was hard because people always are surprised when they hear that. So I want everybody listening, OK, you heard it from somebody else now aside for me, who does the same thing. You know, when you first start doing it. It's scary. You know someone gave me that advice years ago when I was when I was still young when I when I had my own gig going, and a mentor here locally, a guy by the name of Ed Gold, who I really really respected kept telling me you have to — because I would tell him stories where we get together for lunch and I'd bitch — and he would say you have got to fire these clients. OK. If they're not willing to invest the time to do this right, If they're not willing to give you what you need to do a good job, that's going to actually do something for them, you've got to walk away. Now that scared the hell out of me, OK, because you know you're sort of the captain responsible for going down with the ship and you don't want the ship to go down.
Joe Natoli:22:30So the idea of turning away work is like, "you have to be kidding me!" But man it took me... I don't know, it took me five or six years to realize that he was absolutely right.
Mary Shaw:22:40Oh yeah because it's a terrifying thought, you know, because we have families to support.
Joe Natoli:22:45Those gigs never end well. They do not ever well.
Mary Shaw:22:49And I don't know if it's...you know, I had to live through a few of them to discover that they just weren't worth it.
Mary Shaw:22:54But, you know, it's always better to make the positive choice I think.
Joe Natoli:22:58Yeah I always felt like, you know, once I hit that point I really firmly, especially now, feel like I don't ever want someone to have an experience with me — someone who's hired me for any reason — to come back and say "you know we spent all this money, we did all this work and we're still where we were when we came to you." Or "we're not any better," or... I mean who wants that? I don't want that.
Mary Shaw:23:20Yeah, but you still have to make compromises on these jobs anyway.
Mary Shaw:23:24Yeah. It's never...I've had several that I that I've worked on that you know it's 70 or 80 percent of what I would have hoped.
Joe Natoli:23:32Yeah, of course.
Mary Shaw:23:34But there's battles that... you've got to pick your battles. And there's I have to remind myself that I will never ever know as much about the business as the business leader does.
Mary Shaw:23:43So I just have to be humble to that.
Joe Natoli:23:46Which is hard, too. You know, if you care about what you do, it's especially hard.
Mary Shaw:23:50Mmm hmmm, very much.
Joe Natoli:23:50You've been doing this for quite awhile now, and I always say the same thing. It's like seeing a... it's like seeing a movie 100 times, right? You know what's coming next. You know how it ends. And like you just said, I mean sometimes the best you can do in any situation is just, you voice that and you say "well, here's what I think has got to take place" and at the end of the day it's their decision to do it or not. So you're right, you do have to have to make compromises.
Mary Shaw:24:22Yeah I think, you know there's all these UX boot camps that are out there, some of which are very very good...but on the business side, everybody is talking about the user, the user, the user — and yes, we are user experience professionals. But there is that Venn diagram right that that has the sweet spot the middle. Well what's on the what's on the left side of that? The business. So I think the business kind of gets the short shrift of that —
Mary Shaw:24:45Always. But it's because I think we get hung up on what the business wants, versus helping the business figure out what it needs.
Joe Natoli:24:53I totally agree. Totally agree, couldn't agree more. You just you hit that nail on the head. Part of the reason I'm reacting the way I am is because a big push for me personally right now is something I'm working on, a workshop type thing, is all about that side of the fence because I don't think any of us as a profession talk about this nearly enough.
Mary Shaw:25:13We don't, and there's so much we can do to help.
Mary Shaw:25:16But we have to seek first to understand, like Steven Covey says.
Joe Natoli:25:21And that's the problem, right? If I had a nickel for every post I see that's like, essentially it'll say "clients are idiots and they don't get it."
Mary Shaw:25:29It's misguided! totally misguided.
Joe Natoli:25:31Yeah, and it's probably not the truth, OK? When you dig into some of these stories — and I've had plenty of people tell me stories, you know, about situations because they're looking for some advice — and a lot of times they don't like what I have to tell them because what I have to tell them is "you have to go about this in a different way," or "you're positioning them as an adversary." The minute you do that in your mind, you're not getting anywhere. There's no sense of helping them succeed. It's not about just blanket catering to their needs. Like you said, it's not a dictatorship, or like "you will do this in this way!" No, it's about leveraging your expertise and your skill to show them how doing it differently would be hugely beneficial. But you have to have that conversation.
Mary Shaw:26:13Yes. So how are we going to get that conversation more often? What are you doing? Is it top secret?
Joe Natoli:26:18Well...what am I doing? it's going to be a live workshop and I may do, or sell a recorded version as well. But essentially what I decided is what I want to do is I want to take people through exactly what I do with clients from day one. You know, if it's a five-day engagement, from day one to day five.
Mary Shaw:26:37That's awesome.
Joe Natoli:26:37Alright? Here's exactly what I do, here's exactly how I do it.
Mary Shaw:26:40Sign me up!
Joe Natoli:26:41Here are the questions I ask, and I'm going to tell you something, Mary: most of it has very little to do with the formal quote unquote "UX methods and processes" that the internet is littered with, OK? I get all that, I support it, I've done it myself, I've encouraged client teams to do it. I'm not against any of that, but in a lot of situations there is a whole hell of a lot of work that has to happen that is outside those things, IF you are going to get that kind of cooperation, collaboration, intel that you need in order to make those UX improvements.
Mary Shaw:27:16Right, because so much, so much of the discovery work is about what makes the business tick. So you know outside of any app or site that you're going to build
Joe Natoli:27:24Right. I mean, do you know how many times clients have called me in because they feel like, OK, this product is failing, or it needs a major redesign from interaction to UI, or it's any number of things right, "we just we suck at UX, can you help us?" If I had a nickel for every time I found out that there was some internal process or personality issues causing a lot of the disconnect, they're causing a lot of the work that should happen to not happen? I'd be retired by now.
Mary Shaw:27:52Yeah, it's it's throughout and I think it's just people don't know.
Joe Natoli:27:56No, and you have to... I guess all I'm saying is you have to spend a lot of time figuring out how this place operates right now. OK? How do they do things now, from the time someone says "I want," or "I think we should," or whatever it is, from that time until that time something gets built. What happens? You need to know all of that. You know, you really need to know that if you're going to be able to solve those issues and I think again it's something that, to my eye, nobody's talking about.
Mary Shaw:28:25Well it's invariably, you know there's this concept of stated needs, you know, I want X, I want Y. And then when you start doing your digging like you're talking about, there's all of these other needs under the surface that they are not even aware of, right?
Joe Natoli:28:40Right. Right. That are actually driving that are actually driving that request.
Joe Natoli:28:45They don't know that it's there.
Mary Shaw:28:46Who says "you don't know what you don't know," right?
Joe Natoli:28:48Right, exactly right. So yeah, I think that there's a larger conversation that's being missed. It is about users, of course it is — but only in the context of making sure that there's value back to the business...so that the business gives a shit about helping users, to be honest with you.
Mary Shaw:29:05Well yeah because, that's so funny you said that, because when I'm working with students it's like, we talk about that Venn diagram you know the left and the right side and then the sweet spot of the middle. If there's no business on the left side, there's no users on the right side, and then nobody gets paid and nobody can use any product.
Joe Natoli:29:22Exactly right.
Mary Shaw:29:22You know, it all fades away. So it's in everyone's interest to satisfy both sides of that equation.
Joe Natoli:29:29Yeah, I mean, you could suggest all sorts of things that would improve user experience that would improve user delight, user efficiency, whatever you want to call it. That business is essentially looking at you saying "OK, great — what does that GET us?"
Joe Natoli:29:45I mean let's let's be real here. "OK, um...so what?"
Mary Shaw:29:53"Do I get a raise or promotion out of this" is what they'll ask you.
Joe Natoli:29:56Right, right!
Mary Shaw:29:57"Do I get stock options for that?"
Joe Natoli:29:59And that's not, and I'm not...I want to be clear I'm not criticizing any of those people. But that is the gig, that's the lay of the land, that's how business operates. That's the world that we live in.
Mary Shaw:30:11It's a world of benefits, not features.
Joe Natoli:30:13Right. Correct. Absolutely correct. That's...I'm gonna steal that.
Mary Shaw:30:16Oh go for it. So much of what we do, and I think that the further you get into your career, you have to be a consultative salesperson. And that and I don't mean that in, like a used car salesmen or anything like that, it's it's just really identifying the problem, identifying those pain points and figuring out how to solve them, which is the big puzzle, right?
Joe Natoli:30:36Yeah. Well, consultative sales though, to me, in its true sense...means telling the truth.
Mary Shaw:30:41Yeah, of course.
Joe Natoli:30:42It means truly being a consultant, it means being someone that that person can rely on to tell them here's how you make the situation better, here's what you should do, here's what you shouldn't do and here's why. And I think we have a great opportunity to do that, right? And do it in a way where everybody does see benefit — users win, businesses win, everybody wins. it's totally possible. I was telling you about my my basement, right, the recent flooding escapade which is sort of like a neverending story. Long story short I had a contractor who did some work on my house earlier a couple years ago who I trust explicitly. This guy's one in a million, OK, because he just tells you the truth. If he thinks something doesn't need to happen, if he thinks you don't need to spend the money, he'll flat out tell you.
Mary Shaw:31:25Oh wow.
Joe Natoli:31:25Part of the reason I appreciate that is because I grew up building houses. So there's no part of a house I haven't built myself including electrical, plumbing, like I've done all this work. Pushing 50 and two shoulder surgeries later, I don't do it anymore. Anyway, I called him after this last flood. I said "look, this is making me crazy and I gotta do something and I have a couple ideas and just want to bounce them off you and see what you think." So he comes and I lay it all out for him and essentially what he says, without giving you all the ridiculous details, is "don't do it. Do this small thing, do this other small thing yourself and see what happens for the next six-eight months." You know, he's like "don't go down that road, don't spend all this money. Don't, just don't." That guy is worth his weight in GOLD to me.
Mary Shaw:32:09Totally. He should work on some websites.
Joe Natoli:32:13And I thought about it after he left. And I thought you know it's the same approach that I take when I work with clients. And I think it's the reason I appreciate that so much, because that's my belief as well. You know, just because we can do it doesn't mean we should.
Mary Shaw:32:28Right. It's only if it's if that's causing a huge problem, that's when you address it.
Joe Natoli:32:32Right. I mean companies come to me and say "we have to redesign every inch of this." It's a massive, you know, internal portal type entity. And I say "well, let's hang on a second. Why don't you tell me exactly what's happening and where and why and how." First, before we just dive in and say yes we're going to tear it all up. You know, it's not always that simple and I think as a consultant especially, I think your longevity increases when you get a reputation for telling the truth.
Mary Shaw:33:00Sure thing. I mean a lot of times it's just a simple task maybe that needs to get fixed instead of retooling the entire thing.
Joe Natoli:33:08Right. So, you had your own consulting business — it looks like you sort of did that twice, right?
Mary Shaw:33:14If you count the music I've done it three times. So I think if you include the music gigs, I think I've been a freelancer for 20 of the last 30 years.
Joe Natoli:33:25You keep coming back.
Mary Shaw:33:27You know I just, I'm the Phoenix. I just, you know it's funny, a lot of this is driven by my motherhood. I'm a Mom, I have a beautiful 15-year old daughter and back at the agency in 2006, you know- I sent 70, 80-hour, 80-hour work weeks. And I would bring in freelance IAs for different projects. I remember this this one gal I was working with she was leaving at two, and I said "Oh, you're leaving already?" She goes "Oh yeah, I'm just part time." I was like Wow...and she did great work. So it kind of plant planted a seed and then I started thinking about, you know... I was doing a lot of sitemaps, some wireframes and just basic stuff at that point... and I was like gosh what is my favorite part of this job? What do I get the most joy from? And then where do I, where do I offer the most value? And it was in that area, so I was like, "I wonder if I could just carve out this as a freelance opportunity?" We were at a point where just we really needed me to come home.
Joe Natoli:34:27Yeah, it's hard.
Mary Shaw:34:28And so I did. I got fortunate that I had two clients when I left and one of one of whom is still a client, 12 years later. And just got really lucky, you know. I do work hard, and if I don't know something, I'll tell you, I'll try to go figure it out, but I've been very very fortunate. I've got a good professional network and it's just life took its, life did — what did you say in your e-mail today? You're like "life does what it wants."
Joe Natoli:34:55Yeah that's exactly right.
Mary Shaw:34:57Life did what it wanted to in 2011. I thought I had a whole bunch of consulting work lined up in 2011 and it all fell through, it either got pushed out or canceled. And it was time for me to go back full time for a while. So I went back to it. I was able to thankfully get a job pretty quickly as a project manager at another agency but it didn't last long. I just I missed...I missed the UX stuff, I just missed it. And so had a negotiation with my CFO, who was my husband, and he was like "alright, if you can do it this way if you can deliver X, Y and Z, let's see how it goes" and so I relaunched in 2013.
Joe Natoli:35:33And you've been doing it ever since.
Joe Natoli:35:34That is awesome.
Mary Shaw:35:35Yeah, I love it so much.
Joe Natoli:35:37And looking at your trajectory, OK, we all are inclined to say we got lucky. But the truth is to be doing anything this long, alright, and to be able to come back to it more than once... I think is more of a testament to your ability and the results that you get.
Mary Shaw:35:52Oh, thank you Joe. I appreciate that very much.
Joe Natoli:35:54You know, so you've gotta pat yourself back a little bit as well, I think.
Mary Shaw:35:58It's funny, I think there's still there's still a big part of me that is still that shy folk singer, who's afraid to get a job, as it were. And as a musician I think you you know that.
Mary Shaw:36:10It's uh... you know, civilians can't understand that.
Joe Natoli:36:13No no they don't. And I'll tell you something else: it has a lot to do with the performing thing.
Joe Natoli:36:19For me as well, that's a huge, HUGE lift for me whether it's I mean, even this OK, you know, a podcast. Talking and putting it out in public, standing up on the stage especially, OK, speaking gigs. Being in the room, working with clients, there's a performance aspect to all that.
Mary Shaw:36:39Oh, absolutely.
Joe Natoli:36:40And that's a critical part of who I am, and it's...to me it's the same way with music, right? All the artists that I love my own rules for writing music, making music, performing music are all sort of the same, and that is you shouldn't be doing it if you don't believe it. Like I never wanted a note that I played or something that I sang or whatever to come out of my mouth in a way or out of my hands that you couldn't tell that I meant it. You know?
Mary Shaw:37:05Oh yeah.
Joe Natoli:37:06And all this is the same thing.
Mary Shaw:37:08Yeah I draw on my years of performing whenever I'm presenting. I've only done a few speaking opportunities, but I've done a ton of presentations to senior executives and stuff. I draw on all that energy and I'm just very thankful for it now. I think it definitely helps that I've just... one of the things that was really cool about touring was just meeting all different types of people, I mean all over the US, and just being exposed to that. I used to get terrible stage fright but, you know, after you've done a couple of hundred performances it's like "OK, here we go."
Joe Natoli:37:39Yeah. And I really do believe that when you're in it, when your heart is in it, when your head is in it and when you care about it, right, when it MATTERS, that comes across.
Mary Shaw:37:51Oh sure.
Joe Natoli:37:51All by itself. People will forgive — in a performance, let's say you know music — bands can make mistakes, right, everybody makes mistakes. People don't even notice that if the performers come across like they're really invested in what they're doing, that they mean it, that it's real for them, it's true for them.
Mary Shaw:38:08Well it's gotta be, it's gotta be real because you know, I think I'm a few years older than you and it's like the older I get, It's like I just want to be doing stuff that that matters on some level.
Mary Shaw:38:18Right, because it's like it's a cliche. Here's another cliche, it's like nobody sits on their deathbed wishing they had spent more time at the office. I want it to work, even if it's on a small scale I want to help make somebody's life a little easier, and I think that's what UX can really do — not just for the users but for the people doing the actual work.
Mary Shaw:38:36We can help. We can help pave a path to more efficient processes. You know we can't just we can help people talk to each other better. We can we can help with conflict resolution in some cases. I mean, I've refereed a few conference room arguments that were quite interesting.
Joe Natoli:38:53Let me ask you a question related to that. How much of what you do these days is of that nature? Is as much about helping the people in the room as it is about helping, you know, the users and the business as a whole?
Mary Shaw:39:07Oh, I think a lot of it is. I think a ton of it is. I think most of that is just because of, because of being this far along in my career. You know, I don't work full time just with the motherhood stuff and being a Mom, but I have been on the earth long enough and I have been in enough of these situations where, you know, after you've done it as many times as I have, what you were saying earlier. You start seeing the patterns, right? It's just like when when you start getting your, I guess your competence as a designer, you start seeing design patterns, you start seeing behavior patterns, especially in the workplace.
Mary Shaw:39:42So yeah that's a lot of what I do now. In fact, I'm going to be doing this on Friday when I go to meet with the client.
Joe Natoli:39:47And the reason I asked the question is because it feels like a larger component of that has found its way into what I do as well — and I find that the longer I do this, the more that becomes a component. In a lot of cases, I was spending just as much mental and emotional energy trying to figure out — OK, these 12 people that I'm with you know for a day or two to three days or five days whatever it is — how do I ease everybody's stress here? How do I, how I lift, how do I get rid of some of this pain? How do we get rid of some of this conflict, the thing that's making people walk around with their heads down? How do we solve these problems as well? To me, they're as important...
Mary Shaw:40:28Oh sure
Joe Natoli:40:29...as the other ones.
Mary Shaw:40:30Because they're going to drive the quality of the meeting, of course.
Joe Natoli:40:34Everything matters, everything counts, everything's connected.
Mary Shaw:40:36Do you do one-on-one? Do you have...if you're only with them for like five days, do you get opportunities to do any kind of one-on-one time with them?
Joe Natoli:40:43Sometimes, yeah. Sometimes we break out, or a lot of times during breaks what'll happen — if there's no formal sort of break out, where, you know, we sort of schedule it — people will come up to me... you know and they'll elaborate on something that maybe was hinted at...
Mary Shaw:40:56Right. Right right right.
Joe Natoli:40:58...when everyone else was in the room and they'll give me some version of "I'm just really at my wit's end here and I don't know what to do."
Mary Shaw:41:06Yeah just to get that elephant out of the room or identify it at least and then ushering it out of the room is a real big deal. I had a wonderful boss at that agency that I was talking about earlier. He he was a big fan of what he called the back channel, right? We'd all have a big meeting with everybody, but he made sure that he would stop by the office, stop by the cube, just get a couple of minutes in the hallway just to find out what was really going on. And that that has always stayed with me.
Joe Natoli:41:33Yeah. Well I think it's important. And like you just said, getting those elements out of the room is a big step toward progress. Because if those things remain, it doesn't matter how many other things you do well; if you can't get rid of some of that stress and strife and pain and conflict, it doesn't matter. The end result still going to be the same end result.
Mary Shaw:41:55Well, and it's so critical for team building, you know? If you don't have a tight, focused team it's so hard to move forward. It's like the best way I've found for that, to get those elephants out of the room. When people start trusting each other then they relax. And then they work better and they work more effectively, they can think more clearly and work becomes more fun. You know, there's no reason why it can't be fun. It doesn't have to be an 8 hour soap opera.
Joe Natoli:42:19Totally agree. I mean, I can't tell you how many times I've I've said to people — where they're frustrated about something — and like, for instance you know, they want to do some research or something and they'll say "well, it's not approved" or "we're allowed to do that." And I say "well, let me ask you a question: do you have time to do it anyway?" And they kind of look at me like, "what do you mean?" I'm like, "do you have time to do it? On your own?" "Yeah." "Then DO it."
Mary Shaw:42:45Sure thing. And they have something tangible to bring to the table.
Joe Natoli:42:48It doesn't mean we have to have meetings about it, it doesn't mean we have to, you know, get everybody together and convince everyone that this is what the data says, but you can certainly allow it to inform the quality of your work or the relevance... or accuracy or whatever of your work. There's no law that says you can't do that, and it's funny — they sort of look at me after that like "...OK... yeah! I can! And I'm gonna!"
Mary Shaw:43:13And then they get excited and they relax a little bit, right?
Joe Natoli:43:14Right. Right. The temperature changes, and you're like "See?"
Joe Natoli:43:19Those chains are invisible, you know, to some degree.
Mary Shaw:43:23I think a lot of it is self-imposed too because.... I mean, I know for me when I was younger and you know I just really ,it was so important to me, you know, that I did the right thing. I never even knew what the right thing was, I just...
Joe Natoli:43:34Right, right, right.
Mary Shaw:43:35I know I want to act a certain way. "I'm at an agency, oh my goodness."
Joe Natoli:43:38Well, and you want it to be seen too, I think. I think having it being seen is more important when you're younger.
Mary Shaw:43:43Yes. Very much so.
Joe Natoli:43:44You want everybody to recognize what you're doing, you know, and the importance of it.
Mary Shaw:43:48There's this thing called the 18-40-6- rule, you ever heard of it?
Mary Shaw:43:52It's from Jack Canfield, one of his books. It's like, when you're 18 you're just constantly worried about what everybody's thinking about you. And by the time you're 40 you don't care about what anybody is thinking. But by the time you're 60 you realize nobody was thinking about you anyway.
Joe Natoli:44:06I love that!
Mary Shaw:44:12So I try to keep that in mind at all times.
Joe Natoli:44:14That's good advice.
Mary Shaw:44:17Isn't that great?
Joe Natoli:44:18Excellent advice.
Mary Shaw:44:18It's from the "Success Principles" book came out probably 10 or 11 years ago?
Joe Natoli:44:18Alright, I'm going to have to check that out. That's one of the greatest things I've ever heard, because it's completely accurate.
Mary Shaw:44:29Please pass it forward, pass it on.
Joe Natoli:44:31I will. So we are at four fifty-four. We started at four, right?.
Mary Shaw:44:36Yes. I don't know.
Joe Natoli:44:39Something like that. We had some technical issues.
Joe Natoli:44:41Right. So anyway, I want to ask you what we call some "Hot Seat" questions, which are just sort of off the cuff random things so people can learn more about you.
Joe Natoli:44:50What's one thing that either nobody or most people don't know about you, but probably should?
Mary Shaw:44:57I can play dueling banjos on one guitar.
Joe Natoli:45:01On ONE guitar?
Mary Shaw:45:03One guitar. I call it schizophrenic dueling banjos on one guitar.
Joe Natoli:45:07That's incredible.
Mary Shaw:45:08Well I'm probably rusty on it right now, but with a little practice I could probably, I could probably wrap it up.
Joe Natoli:45:13I think you should practice and then upload, you know, give me an audio file and we'll add it. We'll add it to this as like a bonus track.
Mary Shaw:45:19That's a deal.
Joe Natoli:45:22Right? In fact, here's what we'll do. We'll do it like a hidden bonus track. The podcast will end, and then you have four seconds of silence and then it'll just start.
Joe Natoli:45:28You know, "bonus!" If — and I always ask this question and people hate it but I love it so — Desert island, OK?
Joe Natoli:45:42I'm going to give you a choice you get either — let's assume you have electricity — you get one book, one movie or one piece of music that you can, you know, have to absorb and enjoy the rest of your life. What would be?
Joe Natoli:45:56Oh, so hard.
Joe Natoli:45:56I know! I know, it's a great question.
Mary Shaw:45:59Awesome question! Ah, I have to go music.
Joe Natoli:46:02OK, what would it be?
Mary Shaw:46:03Oh come on. Wow. For the rest of my life, because that'd be a lot of repetition.
Joe Natoli:46:11The rest of your life.
Mary Shaw:46:13My Lord...probably Bonnie Raitt's "Nick of Time."
Joe Natoli:46:18Tell me why.
Mary Shaw:46:19It was just such a pivotal moment for her and....me, unbeknownst to her obviously. I was living in Austin and I was really getting serious about my my performing career back then and that was the song that turned everything around for her and got her notoriety and was a very personal song for her. And just so well produced by Don Was and I've never gotten tired of it. It always makes me think of my days back in Austin which were some of my favorite days of my whole life.
Joe Natoli:46:50That was late in her career, right? I mean that was very late in her career.
Mary Shaw:46:54Yeah, it was. I've been a big fan ever since I was 14 but people would ask me who's your favorite singer and I'd say that and they'd be like "who?"
Joe Natoli:47:00Yeah right. I mean...
Mary Shaw:47:01That's like, '88...
Joe Natoli:47:02...the planets just align, the timing was right.
Mary Shaw:47:04It was amazing. I thought that was just so wonderful. So yeah, I could... I could listen to that, I think, and not get tired of it.
Joe Natoli:47:11Alright, cool. Let me think with another one here...tell me something that you think is true about UX, design, IA, project management, anything, that almost nobody agrees with you on.
Mary Shaw:47:23Oh it goes back to what we were talking about earlier about, you know, the business getting the short shrift, because I get a lot of pushback on that because it's not...we're not thinking enough about the users and and it's just it's one big circle. It's...If you take care of both ends of the circle then that's the only the only clear path to the sweet spot whatever that is. You know, wherever that is. You've got to represent both equally.
Joe Natoli:47:46When you get arguments against that, where do you think that comes from?
Mary Shaw:47:51I don't know. I wonder if it's probably experience. It's usually the younger designers and I think they think that I'm plotting against the users and I'm not representing the user, because the user is sacred and all that kind of stuff. Of course the user is important — but the only way to satisfy that that user is to make sure that the business has what it needs as well.
Joe Natoli:48:13Yeah, I always wonder if it's, if it's sort of a "whose side are you on?" kind of thing.
Mary Shaw:48:16Yeah I think there's a lot of us versus them.
Joe Natoli:48:19It's not helpful.
Mary Shaw:48:20I hear a lot of, "Oh, you're just with them because they're paying you." And it's like, NO...
Joe Natoli:48:23Yeah. And it's funny, I mean, I've I've gotten that as well. And what I tell them in response is "well, they are paying me, but I'm going to tell you something: I'm the best advocate you've got right now.
Joe Natoli:48:36Because the fact that they're paying me makes them willing to listen to what I have to tell them.
Joe Natoli:48:42OK? So I'm here for YOU as well. I'm absolutely on your side.
Mary Shaw:48:46It's an interesting line.
Joe Natoli:48:48You know, so you've got an opportunity here as well.
Mary Shaw:48:52It's an interesting line we walk. You know, I want a happy user more than anybody.
Mary Shaw:48:57But there needs to be a product for them to interact with.
Joe Natoli:49:00Well there's only one way you're going to get there, OK? The only way you're going to get a happy user is to get the folks with the purse strings to agree that doing this stuff matters.
Joe Natoli:49:10OK? They have to pay for it; if they don't pay for it doesn't happen.
Joe Natoli:49:16Right? It's that simple. So if we want what we want, we have to work together to get it.
Mary Shaw:49:19You're preaching to the choir, my friend.
Joe Natoli:49:22I know. I know. What word or phrase do you say waaay too much?
Mary Shaw:49:28I think I did it on this podcast: "Sure!"
Joe Natoli:49:32Yeah? OK, I'll listen back, and when... when we're in editing I'll have somebody edit out every "sure" and we'll count.
Mary Shaw:49:37"Oh sure!" Or I say "really" a lot, as well. "Really?" "Yes, really, you do say 'really' a lot.".
Joe Natoli:49:45"OK and "right" are mine. Those are my two. When I first started doing courses, recording video courses, it blew my mind how many times in recordings I said "OK," like in this space of four minutes.
Joe Natoli:50:04Just constantly, like "this is SO bad!" And I made them edit out — my poor editors — I made them edit out every single instance practically. Left a couple in, so it sounded normal but I was so completely embarrassed by that.
Mary Shaw:50:16Oh gosh. Yeah that's the... I'm going to be afraid to listen to this! it's like...you know it's like the recording tells all , talk about telling the truth.
Joe Natoli:50:26I'll make a note to watch out for them.
Mary Shaw:50:27Thank you.
Joe Natoli:50:28What are you not very good at?
Mary Shaw:50:29Oh, I am not very good at coding. I will break your website. I know just enough to be dangerous. You know, if you show me a page of code, I can read it. I kind of know what it's doing and whatnot, but if you wanted me to update something...you'll be very sad. Don't give me the keys to the website.
Joe Natoli:50:50"Don't give me the keys to the website!" I like that. Here's here's the last one and we'll end with this. Knowing what you know now, being where you are, you know, at this point in your career: if you could give your younger self — let's say not so much in your music career but when you were first starting out in marketing and software and UK and all those things, it's a classic question, right — if you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be.
Mary Shaw:51:19Don't be afraid to be yourself.
Joe Natoli:51:21That's good advice.
Mary Shaw:51:22Just don't be afraid of that. The World, everybody's unique. I think Marie Forleo says the world needs that special gift that only you have. I was so self-conscious at the beginning, I was so terrified that I was going to get fired every day, because I'd never had a job before. And if I'd just... just don't take it so seriously, you know? It's... life is short and especially after you have kids...
Mary Shaw:51:46You've got three kids right?
Mary Shaw:51:48Yeah. When you have kids. It's like "Oh, that's what...OK. It's all right. Let's all chill out. Just don't take it also seriously."
Joe Natoli:52:00Amen to that. Well, we will end on that note. Mary, I cannot thank you enough for your time. Thank you for being here.
Mary Shaw:52:07Thank you for having me. You know it's been a lot of fun.
Joe Natoli:52:09Awesome. Maybe we'll do it again.
Mary Shaw:52:10I'd like that very much. That'd be great.
Joe Natoli:52:12Alright. I wish you all the success in the world in your career, although I have every indication that you don't need it.
Mary Shaw:52:20Let's just hope things keep going the way they're going. I'm a very fortunate, grateful person
Joe Natoli:52:26Me too. Keep the faith, and we'll talk soon.
Mary Shaw:52:28Alright, thanks Joe.
Joe Natoli:52:28That wraps up this edition of Making UX Work. Thanks for listening, and I hope hearing these stories provide some useful perspective and encouragement — along with a reminder that you're not alone out there. Before I go, I want you to know that you can find show notes and links to the things mentioned during our conversation by visiting givegoodux.com/podcast. You'll also find links to more UX resources on the web and social media along with ways to contact me if you're interested in sharing your own story here. Until next time this is Joe Natoli, reminding you that it's people like you who make UX work.