Understandable Design: An Interview with Stephanie Hay

Stephanie (Steph) Hay is an Ohioan who loves video games, CrossFit, and BBC programs. She's also a journalist who pioneered content-first design and Lean Content testing, two low-risk methods for proving traction before building a product. Stephanie co-founded FastCustomer and Work Design Magazine, and made 1nicething.com. These days she's in Virginia at Capital One, where she leads Content Strategy and runs “What's Up Thursday,” a weekly share-out for the entire design team of 250 people across 11 locations. We caught up with Stephanie to discuss work/life balance, human-centered design, and following the fun.

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

It's around 2004, and I'm working at George Mason University. A guy by the name of Will Rees, one of my best friends to this day, is teaching me to use Contribute. I write a sentence, publish it, and POOF it's on the web. I edit the sentence, re-publish, POOF it's updated. I'm hooked instantly with the speed. Especially because, while in grad school, I found myself having to re-pack hundreds of alumni letters into envelopes because the Dean edited a few lines after the first round had already been printed and packed. NEVER WOULD I GO BACK TO PRINT AGAIN! Or at least that's what went through my brain at the time.

What can you tell us about working at Capital One and sharing knowledge across a geographically far-flung set of teams?

The amount of customer feedback and data at our fingertips is incredible. The design talent is amazing. And the willingness to share with and learn from one another is astounding. I often describe Capital One as a startup at scale; we've got ridiculously smart and excited people who want to change the world like NOW, and we have the ability to learn quickly from millions of customers who interact with us every day across multiple touch points. The biggest challenge to sharing knowledge isn't our geography; it's WHAT to share and WITH WHOM, because there's so much good stuff happening by default, and so many people to learn from. That said, we have a weekly design team session called What's Up Thursday, where designers share things that are inspiring them or lessons they're learning. We try to make it an oasis during the busy work week; a chance to slow down and get in our local rooms and on video conference together, see each others' faces, meet new team members, tell some jokes, and truly stay connected with our design colleagues.

You're giving a talk called “Designing for Understanding” this year at AEA. What's it about, and what will people take away from it?

The session title has a dual meaning. The first is externally oriented: Are we focused on seeing our customers understand, meaning the users will KNOW what's happening without having to think or interpret our work? If so, we instantly boost the quality bar. We set new expectations of what's possible and rise above the noise of STUFF. This goal of designing for understanding slips away if we get too myopic about usability—does it work, and to what degree—or about consistency—is it the same user experience across touch points?

The second is internally oriented: Does our design teach us what customers are feeling and thinking? If so, we get better at communicating with each other about what needs to change or improve, and why. If not, then we can find ourselves redesigning iteratively in a shot-in-the-dark kind of way; one where our assumptions or opinions are driving changes rather than customer needs and behaviors.

People will take away stories that illustrate both meanings, plus a key mindset + methods for making it work at work.

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

I can't work without balance. I find balance in things like going to the gym, pulling weeds around the house, playing Animal Crossing, getting in driveway conversations with neighbors, eating Pho with my husband, and watching Game of Thrones or Miyazaki films. Very similar genres, no? And naps. Also, I can't work without a good joke to start a conference call. Not every time, but enough. A mentor once told me, “follow the fun,” and that's been a pretty good motto to live by whenever humanly possible, both at work and at home.

What has you most excited these days?

My team. I have SUCH kind, creative, inventive, and hilarious people on my team at Capital One. They inspire me and make me cry with joy and pride, then tease me for being such a softie—but sheesh, I can't help it. My team includes 15 folks at all stages of their careers, focused on different kinds of content design and storytelling or events management. And to know we're part of a larger design organization driven by hard-but-rewarding human-centered work… and that our work connects with millions of people every day… and we still have so many opportunities to connect even more. Yep, that's pretty danged exciting.

Stephanie will present “Designing for Understanding” at An Event Apart Chicago, August 29-31. Don't miss out on this essential information—plus eleven other great presentations for people who create digital experiences.