Sketching a New User Experience: An Interview with Krystal Higgins

Krystal Higgins is a user experience designer specializing in the onboarding and education of new users. She has worked at companies such as NVIDIA, eBay, and most recently, Google designing all sorts of experiences for web, mobile, and wearable products. We caught up with Krystal shortly before AEA Nashville.

How'd you get your start in design, and on the web (if the two are different)?

When I was a kid, my answer to “what do you want to be when you grow up?” was “an animator!” I wanted to work at Pixar, Disney, or Dreamworks, and create stories. Lots and lots of stories. Naturally, I went to a fine arts university so that I had an excuse to work on storyboarding, character design, and animation with 3D Studio Max and Flash. I had a well-worn copy of Richard Williams' The Animator's Survival Kit by my bedside. I just knew narrative animation was the job for me.

As it turned out, my calling ended up being the work I had been doing on the side to fund my idealized schooling in animation. I went to high school in a small town with limited job opportunities, so when I got a chance to work at a local graphic design company, I took it. I was initially hired to answer phone calls, greet clients, and clean up digital files, so I didn't think of it as more than a paycheck, but the owners really took a chance on me. They taught me HTML, CSS, server-side programming, and how to do project billing and management. Soon I was running full projects. I continued doing freelance web design for them in college because I was having a lot of fun with the work.

Eventually my web design work intersected with my digital animation work as I delved deeper into scripting languages—ActionScript, at the time. I realized how satisfying it was to have people experience stories through interaction instead of just telling them stories. After that I shifted away from the animation industry and into the product design world, doing a lot with software setup flows. To this day I still use storyboarding to explore user journeys, but I'm truly an interaction designer at heart.

What do you do now?

Many fun things! For the past few years, I've been running a personal project called First Time UX, a resource for app, site, and other product designers looking for ways to onboard their new users. My awesome day job is at Google as a wearable UX designer for Android Wear. And I sell watercolor paintings on Etsy.

You sell watercolors? That's fantastic! What draws you to watercolor painting?

I love traditional watercolor painting because it's like prototyping. I used to do acrylic painting, and I'd spend a lot of time overworking pieces, not learning from mistakes. Watercolor, on the other hand, forces iteration. If I make a mistake, I have to decide whether to continue by incorporating the mistake, or start over on a new version. This process has allowed me to generate more paintings, each with higher quality than the ones that came before. It took me 11 iterations before I finished my favorite piece, “Jelly Hair No. 1.” And watercolor painting has even made me a better prototyper at work!

What are some tools, tricks, and techniques you can't work without?

This is going to sound a little simplistic, but if I think about the technique I use every day—that's critical to me being successful—it's sketching. Sketching is how I solidify all ideas, even if they're just the structural underpinnings of a prototype. These days I use my iPad with the Wacom Bamboo Paper drawing app and a Sensu brush.

Beyond that, my go-to digital tools include Sketch, Google Sheets/Docs, and Codecademy.

What would you say is the most overlooked aspect of web design?

I'm biased on this one, but designing an approachable, interactive, beyond-the-30-second-pitch onboarding experience tends to be overlooked. Often, people think that onboarding needs to be a robust series of flows best left for “dedicated” onboarding spaces in apps, but the truth is that onboarding is universal and web sites need to invest in it. After all, sites deal with new users all the time.

You'll be giving a session called “New Users Matter, Too!” at An Event Apart Nashville and other shows this year. What's it all about, and what will people take away from it?

Thanks for inviting me to share it! The talk encourages us to refocus on new user onboarding. We often get so immersed in what our sites or apps do for an active user, optimizing the implementation of specific flows, that we don't create a compelling path for our new folks. I created this presentation after running First Time UX for a bit and hearing from product designers who were thrilled to have found a dedicated onboarding resource, but wanted something that pulled all the patterns and best practices together.

Attendees will be exposed to learning and engagement concepts, get actionable patterns supported by plenty of examples, and learn some simple exercises they can use to facilitate next steps with their teams. And it'll be a bit of fun. Can't wait to see everyone there!

There are still tickets available to see Krystal Higgins's “New Users Matter, Too! Designing Better Onboarding Experiences” plus eleven other essential presentations at An Event Apart Nashville, March 14–16, 2016.