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Confessions of an IT Pro: Small Changes Can Make Big Impacts

By - Source: Toms IT Pro
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Lana Krolikowski, in her role as a user experience designer, she walks that fine line between consumers and developers.

Lana Krolikowski likes to describe her job as "IT adjacent." As a user experience designer, she works as a user advocate for the needs of the customer, and a translation conduit between what users want, what users actually need and what developers can and will build. From science major to master's degree, Lana gave us some interesting insight on user needs, the value of knowing how to research, and on users not assuming changes are easy.

Q: How did you start your career? And how important do you think education and certifications were for you?

A: Lana's undergraduate degree is in physics, but when she went for her master's degree she wanted to take a bit of a turn. "I went to grad school with the intention of becoming a reference librarian," to help faculty, staff and students meet their research needs. But thanks to a graduate student assistantship, Lana got her hands dirty working on the University of Michigan library website. The same school that library sciences falls under also had a Human Computer Interaction program.  When it came time to pick a concentration, Lana made the switch. "I loved the Human Computer Interaction classes I got to take." She credits her physics undergrad, though, with leading her down the right path. "I think it was the way that physics taught me to think that really made me successful at it."

MORE: Confessions of an IT Pro: Communication Means More Than You Think

"Education, I think, really is important," Lana quickly responds, "because a lot of what we do is research, so just like you need to be taught proper methodology to do biology research, there are proper methodologies to use when doing user research so you're not biasing your outcomes." Because user experience is carried out so early in the process, every decision has a significant impact, making it more important to avoid researcher bias. "An application may not make sense to you, but it makes sense to the user, and that's all that matters."

Q: What are your feelings about the ethics of employee tracking? How far should companies go?

A: Lana has a wholly unique perspective on this question. "It's not something I think about often from what happens to me, but I often think about it in terms of what happens to the users of my designs." When it comes to her own experience, she says if a company is treating the situation like they are both adults, she doesn't really think about it much. Lana has had to ask for exceptions, though, to company-wide site blocks – like social media sites – to effective do her job. "It feels like some jobs are still stuck in the mentality of 'Butt in seat, 40 hours a week', but that's not how I'm productive." Completing projects, and executing on them well, is more important than being concerned with how employees spend every minute while on the job.

Q: What do you wish non-IT employees knew?

A: Lana's advice gets to the heart of some of the biggest frustrations in IT. "Don't ever say 'but it's just'," she says. "'But it's just a web page' or 'but it's just an added field' – it shows a level of not understanding what actually goes into our jobs." The complexities in IT, especially in a good user experience, mean that small changes can have big impacts. A change to one field, Lana points out, may require data changes, or changes to all of the fields that one connects to, let alone the effects on different screen sizes. "Whenever anyone makes a request with 'but it's just', you know they don't have a full understanding of what actually went into the work, and you need to take time and explain it to them."

Q: What is the craziest technical support issue you or your team has ever had to deal with?

A: Customer requests can be as out there and frustrating as any other kind of support issue. With a customer looking for a "multi-ship" option for orders to their current site, Lana and her team were faced with some real challenges. "It was the timing that they chose. They wanted us to implement this in a month, before Christmas, which is their biggest time of year." The team tried to convince the client that a large change to a complicated part of their site during their busiest time of year wasn't in their best interest. "We lost that battle." Faced with the requirement to make the change, Lana's team implemented a solution that, while not perfect, still benefited the client. "It turned out ok in the end, but it's not something I'd recommend."

Q: What is the most valuable skill an IT professional should have?

A: Being able to set your ego aside, Lana says, is what you need to be successful in IT. "The ability to say 'I think I have the best solution for this, but I'm going to listen to what others have to say'." That doesn't mean backing down whenever you're challenged, however. "It's not about not letting others challenge your ideas, or about not challenging their ideas, but don't always assume you're the smartest person in the room." As a user experience designer, this is a big part of Lana's job. "The client knows way more about their business than I will ever know," she says. "And sometimes you just have to say 'Cool, you know this better than I do, I'll just have to take your word on it'. But that doesn't mean you don't do other research, or that you don't think about it."