Alumni Snapshot: Shannon Elkins
Shannon Elkins graduated from the University of Michigan in 2020 with a Bachelor of Science in Information with a focus in UX design, and a Bachelor of Arts in Biopsychology, Cognition, and Neuroscience through the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. She is currently a user experience specialist at Boeing.
What do you do in your current position?
I work in the information technology and data analytics organization, and I focus on supporting engineering products. That includes any and all software tools that the engineers need to use to perform their jobs, from design and production, development, maintenance, to everything regarding an aircraft life cycle.
Working for Boeing is my first full-time career. I did their early career rotational program, called the IT Career Foundation Program. Essentially, you get to do four six-month rotations in different roles in the entire organization. Basically extended internships where you can explore different areas of the business and try out new roles! That was really fantastic for me, because I didn't know for sure what I wanted to do coming out of college.
How is your experience so far at Boeing? How are work and life balancing out for you?
I enjoy the work culture and the benefits. It's been a fantastic learning experience. I currently live in St. Louis, Missouri. A lot of folks who live in St. Louis work for Boeing, and it's very much a community in that way.
I also really enjoy the work-life balance. I'm in a position where once eight hours are wrapped up, I'm able to turn my brain off work mode and do the things I personally enjoy.
I'm currently working from home, which has its pros and cons. I enjoy not having to commute; none of my teammates are located in St. Louis anyway. But I do miss face-to-face interactions. It can get lonely. So I just make a point to get out of the house and not sit inside all day.
What does a day in your life look like?
Our team is fairly new. I lead the team, and so I've been charting our course in terms of what our deliverables should be and what we should be accomplishing. I also make sure to keep in touch with my team, and I make sure that they are supported and that they feel connected to our goals.
What we do is a lot of usability research on the tools that engineers use in their day-to-day. I don't come from an engineering discipline, but I've got to talk to production engineers, liaison engineers — you name it, I've talked to them. We're working to understand the tools they use, where they might struggle to use those tools, and how we can make them better.
After going over our findings and synthesizing, we write up the documentation to request those changes. We might request a particular enhancement to the tool, then pass it off to the right folks who can review it and say whether or not they're able to implement that change. They might pass it back to us and say we need some more information here, “Can you add X, Y and Z,” and then we fill in those details for them.
Since you work with stakeholders and engineers in the corporate environment, have you ever felt pressured to speed up the research and testing processes?
I wouldn't necessarily say there's been pressure, but I've definitely had to educate my manager and leadership team on what it looks like to be engaged in the UX process.
Of course you can't just snap your fingers and make your product better. I wish it was that easy. There has to be a process where you work to identify the right people to talk to. You have to come up with a research protocol. You have to validate your assumptions and know which questions to ask, and make sure you're asking the right questions.
So if companies rush the process to try and meet a goal, they won’t be asking the right things and won’t get as much value from user research sessions as they would if they took the time to figure out a protocol that would dig into the insights they need.
The UX process can be lengthy. It may even be tedious sometimes. But this is what we need to do in order to really drive the user-centered design process from the beginning. We can’t wait until after development to think, “Oh, maybe we should do usability testing on it,” because then we might be all the way back to square one.
How do you educate people who are not well-versed in UX?
That's one of the biggest challenges I would say — to educate people in a way that they can connect with. I explain the UX process to them with concrete examples. I like to bring up examples from Don Norman's “The Design Of Everyday Things.” If you've heard of the Norman door example: If you go up to a door, you shouldn't have to figure out if it is push or pull, how to open this door, etc. You should be able to walk up to the door and just open it. In a nutshell, UX design is about making things obvious to the user that should be obvious.
Something might not look like a big problem, but if it takes an engineer a minute to do a process that should take them no more than 30 seconds, and you’ve got 1,000 engineers here, they're all wasting 30 seconds. That transfers into a lot of dollars very quickly. Sharing the financial side connects with people pretty quickly, too.
How do you apply the skills you learned at UMSI in your career?
I did a lot of reading and research in SI 422, where we got to learn about usability research methods. Each week, we'd have a project to use a new usability testing method. We learned to pick and choose, thinking “Should we do A/B testing here? Should we do a heuristic evaluation here? Should we do qualitative user research, quantitative user research?” That class definitely helped me understand the application of different methods.
SI 310 with John King ended up being a very, very useful class. In high school and college, you're taught to write really long essays, but in his class, the challenge was writing an essay that answers a bunch of questions in 300 words. Think about it: You're giving a report to someone in leadership, they're not going to have time to read a five-page write-up. Overall, it was a unique and a tad frustrating challenge that got me to think outside the box.
I also had the opportunity to be a research assistant for Dr. Stephanie Teasley via the Learning, Education, and Design Lab. I got to work with her for a couple of years, and even co-authored a couple of papers. I can't thank her enough for that. That work really helped me with my research and academic writing skills. Definitely an experience that I look back on fondly.
Was there any way that you felt underprepared for the industry?
UMSI prepared me very well, I think. Going into Boeing, the whole aerospace industry was new to me, but I'm not sure if UMSI could have done anything about that. They educated me well with the skills that I needed to be a good user experience designer and then relay my value to other stakeholders.
UMSI created a space for me to practice soft skills as well, like I mentioned: communication, teamwork, leadership and organization. Those are especially important if you're working from home. You almost have to over-communicate because you can't just turn around and tap someone on the shoulder and ask them a question.
What campus resources do you recommend for students to grow those soft skills?
There are a lot of research opportunities throughout UMSI and also clubs that you can join. I definitely recommend checking out a design jam or two. It forces you to work in a team and critically think through a complex problem that you may not have thought of before.
I highly recommend checking out employers’ career events. That is how I got my first internship with Boeing, and then ended up getting this job. I can't recommend going to those events enough, because it's how I got to where I am today! Don’t be afraid to chat with the recruiter after the event, tell them your name, who you are, what you're looking for. It can be nerve-wracking, but it'll be a handy skill to have.
Since you got your foot in the door through a career event, do you have any other tips for students trying to enter the industry?
It's easier said than done, but don't be afraid to ask questions. You may think, “This is a dumb question,” or “I don't want to take people's time and ask too much of them.” That’s normal. But don’t hesitate to reach out and ask questions to folks at the Career Development Office. You know, that's what they're there for. Or if you attend a potential employer’s workshops, ask questions. It shows that you're engaged and listening. Don’t be afraid of not flying under the radar, and take an active step in your job search.
Are there any personal milestones you would like to share with the UMSI community?
Since graduating, I have co-authored a paper. This effort was led by Dr. Stephanie Teasley through the Learning, Education, and Design Lab. Getting to co-author the paper and have my name in an academic publication was super cool. I'm also considering applying to grad school in the future but still looking into a few different programs and finding the right fit.
Would you like to share some advice for UMSI students and recent graduates?
Keep pursuing learning opportunities. One thing that I've really enjoyed is that as an alumnus, I get free access to Michigan's online Coursera courses. There's a lot of fascinating courses about web design and data science on there. You also can check out new books on UX design, or pick up a new skill in related fields like graphic design, web development or project management.
What would you do if you were a new graduate trying to get into the tech industry?
There's always companies, from global conglomerates to startups, looking for UX talents. The world needs more UX designers, and a lot of companies recognize that. I would say, be comforted by the fact that you're in such an up-and-coming career path that employers see value in. You're in a value-adding position.
Remain well-rounded and competitive as an applicant. Keep your resume brushed up. Keep your LinkedIn brushed up. Utilize your network! If something does happen and you find yourself laid off, you can reach out to your network and get connected to other opportunities.
— Friday, Dec. 1, 2023