Carl Jordan Mahaney
Architect pivoting to UX
So, you're an architect? That sounds fun. Why change careers?
It is fun, and it's a good question. The short answer is, I reached a point professionally where I wanted to have a greater impact on more people's lives than I could designing exquisite private residences.
Is there a longer answer?
The longer answer involves the global moment we're in—politically, environmentally, technologically—and the enormous challenges societies are facing in navigating rapid, systemic change. I feel increasingly compelled to tackle these issues more directly, and UX seems like an engaging way to have meaningful impact that builds on a skillset I've spent my adult life cultivating.
Why change industries? Why not do something more impactful within architecture, or maybe even urban design?
It's a fair question and one I certainly considered. I'd love to end up pointing this new career in that direction, working to understand and improve the user experience of the myriad systems and touch points that impact communities. To that end, the first UX-specific case study I'm tackling looks at improving the experience of citizen participation in local government.
What issues or problems are particularly exciting to you?
I'm really interested in transportation and mobility, healthy aging, and smart cities. A common theme seems to be this historical opportunity to rethink and redesign urban places to accommodate a growing and aging population, and at the same time improve access, opportunity, and equity. It's that last part where I think UX can have a huge influence and do real good. I would love to find a role on a team addressing these sorts of problems head on. But more broadly, I'm interested in any issues that impact people’s lives in tangible ways, particularly vulnerable or marginalized groups.
How similar is the architectural design process to human-centered design and UX?
They're actually quite similar. Both have users at their core, and both follow a rigorous process of researching needs & analyzing data, synthesizing insights, defining constraints, sketching, prototyping, and iterating toward a solution. There's also a similar division of labor where the designer hands off to the builder at a certain point while still being responsible for fidelity to the design intent, which requires excellent soft skills to keep other stakeholders focused on the larger mission.
Are there any notable differences?
There seem to be more tools and methods in UX to surface and document user needs and share them with the various stakeholders. In architecture, at least in my experience, the architect tends to be the repository of research insights, which ultimately gets translated as the architect's vision for the project. The human-centered design process strikes me as more transparent, and ultimately more inclusive.
How much UX design experience do you have?
I'm fairly new to the language and methodologies of UX, though I'm becoming increasingly familiar and gaining hands-on knowledge every day. I’m also coming at this with a couple decades of experience realizing architectural solutions at all sorts of scales, from urban plans to door knobs, so I’m practiced at thinking critically and responding nimbly in creative, collaborative environments. In a sense, I've been doing user-centered design my entire career.
What resources have you found useful so far in your UX training?
Networking has been the best resource, and I'm always eager to talk to new people and get fresh perspectives on the work. Please feel free to reach out by email, Twitter, or LinkedIn. Some books I've found indispensable are: Just Enough Research by Erika Hall; and The User Experience Team of One by Leah Buley, to name just a couple. More formally, I completed several certificate courses through The Interaction Design Foundation, and I recently completed the General Assembly User Experience Design Circuit Course which proved a great way to sharpen and apply my UX skillset.
Is there any particular area of focus in UX you feel drawn to?
I’ve been most excited so far by user research and service design. The systems-level nature of service design is really compelling, as is the scale of potential impact. User research is exciting because it really gets to the heart of the matter: why products, services, buildings, etc exist in the first place. Meaningfully teasing insights from people's lived experience to inform better outcomes is a thrilling and humbling responsibility, and work I'm eager to continue in this new role.