I’m Angela Schmeidel Randall, the founder of UX.training. What started as a business has grown into a calling — all with the help of the unexpected: life.
This is the whole, true story.
I put myself through college as a web and UX professional, first at the University of St. Thomas where I majored in International Studies and minored in Religion and Philosophy. I was born abroad, something that's had a huge impact on my mental model. During college I thought I'd join the State Department or do something in international business when I graduated.
Before I started graduate school, my beloved advisor - Dr. Wensjoe - encouraged me to attend a Foreign Policy Association Great Decisions study group to keep my mind from going soft. His words, not mine.
The first night of the group, I met my soon-to-be husband. He, admittedly, was there to pick up chicks. (Tells you a lot about our life right there, huh?)
The joke at our wedding was that the only conservative carnivore in California moved to Texas to marry the only liberal vegetarian.
Shortly before our marriage, I matriculated at Rice University to start my master's degree while husband finished his Ph.D. and MBA. While I was in graduate school, I joined Continental Airlines during a pivotal time in the travel industry. Leveraging a major redesign focused on the user experience, we achieved true disruption in the travel industry by supplanting travel agents with online airline/hotel/rental car reservations. That experience changed the way I viewed UX; it was no longer a "nice to have" but a competitive advantage and a game changer for business.
My master’s thesis included ethnographic research in mainland China examining an interesting intersection of traditional Chinese medicine, healthcare systems, and marginalized populations in China. (This will be even more useful than I thought later).
We graduated in May 2008. In August 2008 I took a job at a hedge fund. Two weeeks later the stock market collapsed.
After nine months at a hedge fund struggling to adapt to the perilous market situation, I started a boutique user experience and usability consulting company called Normal Modes.
I believed the best way to do user experience outside a large organization was to be a consultant with a fresh perspective and a joie de vivre that got organizations excited about practicing user centered design. Our services included UX design, research, and training for organizations of all sizes with one common goal: delivering a great user experience.
Signing each new client gave me a high. Having them recommend us to others was even better. And the business took off! Of course, this often meant brutally long hours, biting off more than we could chew but somehow making it work and neglecting the little things, like sleeping, eating whole foods, going to the doctor when you’ve been sick for three weeks, and other so-called healthy habits.
After just a few years in the business, I began to experience a steady stream of people contacting me for career advice. I noticed some themes:
Finding qualified UX candidates is tough. And then after I get them hired, I’m not really sure how to develop their skills. What else do you think they need to know?
There are others. But these are the most common ones. We’ll come back to this.
Meanwhile, Normal Modes had launched an intern program in 2010. Through this program, I became acutely aware that there were few universities adequately preparing students for careers in UX. I had one intern who wanted to make a career transition, but searched for a job for over a year and a half before giving up and going back to his old career. After all the money he'd paid for a master’s degree, he simply hadn’t been educated on how to do the work. I felt that this was a grave disservice to the students of that program.
Even students with reasonably good educations sometimes have unrealistic expectations of what UX looked like in practice.
Eventually, I became interested in how we, as a UX profession, prepare the next generation of user experience professionals for their careers. I was beginning to think we were doing it all wrong.
I began work on the UX Competency ModelTM.
I’ve been practicing UX since the early aughts. During that time I’d attended training sessions and conferences hosted by the luminaries in our profession. I knew what they did, what I liked about it, and what I didn’t.
When I put together the first UX training services for Normal Modes, I did some things right: I included a lot of videos of actual users, used case studies, and had opportunities for hands-on learning.
But I did a lot of things wrong too. For years I had my 300+ slide deck, which often crashed since it was so huge. I stood up at the front of the room for hours while I droned on reading my slides full of text and definitions. I felt helpless as people fell asleep. The content was good, but my delivery needed help.
I was also swiftly approaching what my body could take. There are many stories I could give as an example, but we’ll go with this one: Once, I had an asthma attack the first morning of a full week of in-house UX training. Even though I was literally seeing stars for hours, I pressed on. Improvise, adapt, overcome - that’s what I told myself. There’s no time for this. After the training day was over, I had to drive directly to the ER… twice in two days.
I was beginning to think that maybe there was a better way.
After years of completely neglecting my personal life in order to work obscene hours, my husband and I welcomed two children in rapid succession (spoiler alert! Not twins).
Remember the work I did in graduate school on China? One of the results of my study was a desire to adopt from that part of the world. After months and months of preparation (more work! We’re so good at work!), we adopted our oldest child, whom we’ll call WX on this very public forum, from China when he was 32 months old. WX has a very rare congenital birth defected called bilateral aural atresia and microtia (BMA), which basically means he was born without ears or ear canals on either side of his head. By the time he received his first hearing aids when he was 35 months old, he’d amassed considerable global developmental delays. He had 0-3 months of receptive and expressive language. He was a preschooler with the listening and spoken language of a newborn.
At times, the delays were overwhelming. My husband and I would lie awake at night discussing the magnitude of his delays; how to prioritize them because they were so serious, numerous, and deeply intertwined while allowing him be a little kid with a new family, too.
As if that wasn’t enough, we had a premature baby the old fashioned way less than 7 months after we adopted WX. “BX” is fine today, though that took some work as well. We’ll save that story for another day.
Happily, we lucked out on kids. They are awesome and they adore each other. That went right. But little did I know, what a profound impact mitigating WX’s global developmental delays, especially his language delays, was going to have on me personally and professionally.
For our son’s education, we chose a program that teaches listening and spoken language without the use of ASL. The school’s goal is to mainstream children by kindergarten or first grade, which meant WX had about 3 years to learn 6 years of receptive and expressive language.
Our family was expected to be heavily involved. Everyone who interacted with him on a regular basis went to speech therapy to learn what to do - parents, grandparents, our family helper, and my assistant. When she was just 18 months old, BX started participating, too, so that WX wouldn’t feel singled out. Auditory verbal therapy (AVT) isn’t a once-a-week session for the kid; it’s very much a family lifestyle.
When we began that journey into AVT, I couldn’t wrap my head around how he was going to learn so much language in such a short amount of time. This was sure to be painfully unenjoyable. The experience I envisioned included hardcore drills dictated by megaphone in which WX had to say a word over and over and over again until he got it right… or begged to be water boarded instead.
Huh. Kinda like most people feel about training.
I can laugh. I like to think I have a good sense of humor. But play is not traditionally my forte. One might say that I was born an old soul.
So you can only imagine my surprise when I discovered the primary tool we use in speech therapy to make the hard work of learning how to hear and speak fun is playing. Specifically, playing games. Lots and lots of board games, but other games too.
This was a revelation. The scales fell from my eyes.
Working with WX brought home for me how fun and games (joy!) can have such a huge impact on our ability to learn. I became really passionate about having fun when training and teaching, seeking out ways to make my existing UX training more engaging, efficient, and memorable.
I found professional development opportunities that developed my newfound appreciation for play learning and spending the better part of a year getting certifications that would help me become a better trainer.
Also in January 2015, I joined the adjunct faculty in the Master of User Experience Design program at Kent State University, where I continue to teach today. I love teaching, my students, and the program.
When I talk with my students, I remember the years of sage counsel from my old college advisor, Dr. Wensjoe. I always appreciated how he took a personal interest in each of his students and how he always tried to guide me to the best path. I'm forever grateful to him and thankful I have an opportunity to pay it forward.
2016 flew by in a blur of laughter and connectivity that I shared with my family, friends, colleagues and clients. I began to realize I didn’t have to work so seriously and that play really mattered both personally and professionally. That fun was the glue that made an experience stick. That fun should always be at the center of our lives.
Wow, we went through a lot of sticky notes in 2016!
With this newfound knowledge, I rebranded Normal Modes training services as UX.training. It’s the same participant-centered, evidence-based training methods we used at Normal Modes, but kicked up a notch through the new UX Competency ModelTM – and all performed with the goal of enjoying ourselves and one another.
Today, WX is just a normal kid who wears hearing aids to help him hear. Happily, after less than 3 years of AVT – playing games and having fun, being engaged in learning – WX’s January 2016 evaluation found he had average to above-average language skills compared to his typical hearing peers and no developmental delays.
Needless to say, we have a very large collection of games.