On Friday, I drove to Charlotte to attend Blend Conf, a conference featuring speakers on web development, design, and user experience. While I learned a lot about web development at this event, it also reminded me why I wanted to originally pursue a career in applied research. Several of the talks I attended touched on the field of user experience, which is how an individual feels when interacting with a system. This usually refers to a user’s experience while navigating a website, but we have different experiences interacting with systems every day. For example, we may have varying opinions on using our ATMs, checking out a Redbox dvd, or following the signs on a highway.

I’ve found myself really interested in this field, especially as I consider careers in web technologies that veer away from programming. While I feel empowered every time I build a working web application, my passions have always been in communication and problem solving. Building a webpage requires both of these skills, but it’s missing the component I loved about research. Namely, I want to collect information that explains why something is happening. I want to find the answers, not just build a product. For this reason, I am going back to considering a career in market research and related areas such as usability testing and product management. I will continue learning web development because the skills are useful, it can allow me a freelance income, and I’d prefer to do research related to web applications. Plus it’s just plain cool.

Going back to Blend Conf, this was probably the best conference I’ve ever attended, and I’d like to share some of the awesome stuff I learned there. The opening address is what really got me thinking about user experience research. Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America, talked about how poor user experience can erode our trust in government. You can see this in the poor initial implementation of healthcare.gov and other government websites. Pahlka illustrated how people can work together to solve these problems through four principles of civic design: respect, participation, unity, and relevance. In short, by bringing together and listening to members of the communities they serve, Code for America is building applications to make better cities.

Netta Marshall gave another talk that highlighted what technology can do for social good. She is a web designer for Watsi.org, a website that allows donors to fund medical treatments for people in third world countries. The website is successful by keeping design first, rather than viewing it as an optional expense. The organization is transparent, keeps donors engaged through updates, focuses on what is happening now instead of what-ifs, and achieves a high-impact through low costs. All and all, I thought it was an excellent example of how a non-profit should function and provided good guidelines for any non-profit work I would pursue in the future.

Pamela Pavliscak from Change Sciences discussed what makes people happy when visiting websites. Through her research and experience, she’s found that users are more likely to feel happy when they feel smart, in control, and like they are mastering a topic, as well as when the site shows authenticity, care, and respect. Users tend to desire play (the ability to try things without risk), variety (a bit of surprise), continuity (no digital/real life divide), curation (help discovering themselves), and the aspirational (speaking to one’s better self).

In the web development track, Jen Simmons gave a great presentation on modern layouts, and Aaron Gustafson made forms a lot easier to code.

I’m so glad I was able to go to this. Shout out to Girl Develop It Charlotte, which sent out a discount from Github that allowed me to afford a ticket. I definitely look forward to attending future conferences in web technologies.

Blend Conf, User Experience, and My Current Career Path

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