Interaction Designer JenEA Hayes knows what makes people tick

Jenea Hayes fell in love with cognitive psychology in college, but her interest in technology started even earlier, when she'd take apart (and put back together) her family Mac II in grade school. She got her start as a professional communicator with a high school job at San Francisco's Exploratorium. At Cooper, her's combined those skills as an interaction designer, someone who "uses her obsession for what makes people tick to synthesize key details while keeping the whole system in mind."


Where she’s from: San Francisco, California
Grew up with: mother, father, step-parents and nine siblings
Education: Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Harvard University; Master's degree in cognitive psychology from Stanford University
Where she lives now: Castro Valley, California
Growing up she wanted to be: a physicist
Now she’s: Practice Director at Cooper

Tell us about yourself growing up!

I was never a cool kid. I was kind of a brainy kid. I have a whole ton of siblings, but I was the student amongst us, even though I was the youngest. When I was really little I thought I would be a doctor, and everyone thought that was super cute, but that wasn’t really a thing that I wanted to do. In high school, I was a good student. I thought that I was going to study physics. I was a very studious kid.

I grew up mostly in [San Francisco], and I lived within walking distance of the Exploratorium, which is one of the world’s great science museums. They had this interesting policy that unaccompanied children are free, the idea being that if you’re a kid and you're wandering around, it’s better that you are at a science museum than getting into trouble somewhere. I wasn’t going to be getting in trouble somewhere, really, but I used to go there by myself after school and just hang out there. It inspired me a lot.

My interest in technology, and computing started early.

How did you become interested in technology?

My interest in technology, and computing started early. My mom was an early believer in private computing, so we had computers around very early. We had a Mac II. One of the science projects I did was taking the computer apart and putting it back together again, which was not common back then.

I was into video games, and I still am. I used to create little apps on HyperCard on the Macs back in the day. I never got deep into coding on my own. I took some computer science in college, and I was doing a little bit of tinkering, but somehow, that never quite exploded for me.

What was your mom like?

My mom was a very strong influence, partly because I’m my mother’s daughter. I have kind of a crazy family. I have nine brothers and sisters, and they’re all from different mixtures of parents, but of her natural-born children, I was the only girl, and I was the youngest and very like her in a lot of ways, and she was a very strong figure.

She was an entrepreneur and was founding and leading companies when I was young, which at the time, was not super common. The concept of me pursuing whatever it is that I was interested in and being the equal to any person, regardless of who they were, especially regardless of gender, was very much alive. When she married my stepfather, they were not quiet about the fact that this was a partnership. It was very clear that she took that stuff seriously, so that was a backdrop for me.

Were there other adults who were influential?

I have been fortunate through my whole life to have had access to great education. I can remember a third grade teacher, Mrs. Weiner, in the gifted and talented education program. It felt like she was always breaking the rules. We would turn out the lights, and light a candle, and read poetry together, and things like that.

I had a high school physics teacher who was hugely influential, Tucker Hiatt. He had a strong influence philosophically, where the very concept that the world was ordered and could be understood, and that if you were diligent and worked hard, that you could find answers to real-world questions. There was a lot of mind blowing going on there. I’m sure that was a big part of why I was interested in physics at the time.

Were you involved in any other activities?

In high school, I worked at the Exploratorium for a few semesters, and I trained the other Explainers for a few semesters after that. The docents at the Exploratorium are called Explainers. It was a really great early experience for me because that was a lot of public speaking, and approaching strangers, and explaining concepts to them.

I consider myself more of an introvert, so that wasn’t the easiest part of it. What gave me a lot of confidence was I had a reason. First of all, it was my job, and second of all, they were looking at an exhibit, and I would have a ready conversation. The sheer lack of fear about public speaking that I got from that was huge. I grew a lot from it.

The leaders of that program were also very influential to me. They ran a really amazing program. It was really about empowering teens and treating them like adults in the sense of treating them with respect. It was not a volunteer program. They made sure that they paid the kids and that they took it seriously as a job.

How did you get interested in cognitive psychology?

I was a physics major at first, and then I took Vision and the Brain, and it was all over. Vision and the Brain got down to the neurons in your brain and the rods and cones in your retina, and how they were wired up together, and how that resulted in the way that you perceive the world, which I thought was fascinating. How to explore all this stuff in a rigorous and scientific way became very interesting for me.

Cognitive psychology was incredibly fascinating. I couldn't get enough, and so I switched majors at that point. Cognitive psychology is not about people’s emotions and their personal relations. It’s more about the deep down mechanics of how do people learn? How do they remember? How do they perceive things out in the world?

You went to grad school after undergrad. What did you do from there?

I thought that I would end up in academia, and I was in a Ph.D. program at Stanford. It occurred to me partway in that I wasn’t really prepared to think about the same problem for seven years or whatever it would take to get my Ph.D.

In graduate school, I had discovered the idea that there were people whose job it was to think about human-computer interaction. I started to realize that I wanted to do something in that space, because I loved software. I loved technology. I was the person in the early days of the web who would find the webmaster and send them feedback on how I thought their websites worked and so on, how I thought they might do a better job serving me and my mental model. I was discovering that this was a thing that people could do. I started to try to think about how I might get a job in that space.

I was an excellent communicator, and asked good questions, and was thoughtful about humans, and knew something about the way their minds worked and how to think about them.

How did you wind up at Cooper?

I put my résumé on Craigslist, which sounds crazy to me now. A headhunter for Cooper found it, and they had this very interesting role, which, at the time, was called a design communicator. I wouldn't have considered myself a designer, but that label was one I was comfortable with. I went for it, and I got the job.

There was that moment of pure chance, of the right person seeing my résumé and plucking me out of the void, and then my boss at the time, Doug LeMoine, seeing my skills for what they were and taking a chance on that. I was not a person who was ready-made to create interfaces, but I was an excellent communicator, and asked good questions, and was thoughtful about humans, and knew something about the way their minds worked and how to think about them.

The soft skills are at the beating heart of business. The technical skills are great, and they get you in the door, but the larger part of the work is all the softer skill stuff.

How did you develop your communication skills?
That early Exploratorium experience is huge. I’ve always been a language person. People will live up to the expectations that you have for them. Part of the privilege of going to a good school or working at a top-notch place like Cooper is a culture of, “Well, we’re going to kick ass, obviously, and you will kick ass, too, and everybody’s just going to kick ass.” I think humans rise to that level of expectation, and I got lucky insomuch as there were people who had high expectations of me.

I thought, “I’m going to become an interaction designer, and I’m going to create interfaces, and I’m going to draw pictures of interfaces, and I’m going to get to know users.” That’s been true in my career, but the skills that really matter in the end are rhetoric, and persuasion, and interpersonal skills. The soft skills are at the beating heart of business. The technical skills are great, and they get you in the door, but the larger part of the work that we do is all the softer skill stuff.

How has your work with Cooper evolved over the ten years you’ve been there?

There’s a couple ways that things have evolved. One is how have I evolved, and the other is how the industry evolved. Along the way, I became comfortable with the label designer. I still am not a visual designer, and I don’t tend to draw the pretty pictures, but I’ve gotten over the label hang-up. 10 years is a long time. That’s a lot of projects.

When you’re early in your career in a craft like this, you’re heads down looking at the work really hard. With more and more experience, you start to see the patterns a little bit more, and you get a little bit more comfortable with your own skills and the technical work close to the actual problem you’re solving. That lets you lift your head up a little higher and look around and say, “I also see this in the context of my client, and their organization, and how their culture impacts what they’re doing.” And mid-level, “In this project, how do I get this work done, or who’s going to create some problems for us later on if we don’t start satisfying them in some way?” That has coincided with the industry needing more and more strategic thinking from companies like ours.

The more senior you get, the bigger picture you see. I start thinking in terms of: I really want an amazing product to come out of this, and here’s what I’m working with. I’ve got this political environment at this organization, and I’ve got an engineering team, and their skill levels about here. We need to create something that they can actually build. I start thinking about humans, and organizations, and cultures as raw material, not just pixels, and rectangles, and buttons.

It’s not just; can I create the best design? But how do I communicate it, or how do I deliver it in such a way that it’s more likely to get built, or to be more useful? A big part of the maturation has been around scale of how big of a system you’re thinking about in terms of your work.

Who do you work with within Cooper and at your clients?
Mid-stream at Cooper, younger designers started coming to me and asking me a lot of questions and wanting to be mentored by me. I’ve had to accept that I’m becoming an elder statesman at Cooper. I developed into mentoring people here at Cooper. Nowadays, that’s part of my formal role, so I do have some folks that I career manage.

I help scope and sell projects, and I help lead projects, and sometimes I am working on the project as a designer. I recently have been put on a couple of projects with some other pretty senior folks, which has been really fun. We have leaders for projects, but the designers really do the work. We’re there to help mentor them through quality control, keep your eye on the budget and the schedule, manage client-relations.

[At the client] we’re typically working with product teams, so people like product managers, designers, engineers, and if the project is strategic enough, we may find ourselves working more closely with senior management.

One of the things I brought to the table with me was I’m really good at fitting into new cultures, which is super helpful when you’re constantly dropping into a new organization and trying to work with them effectively in a project setting. I also teach courses in Cooper U.

Can you talk a little bit about the sales part of your job?

Approaching people and asking them for stuff doesn't feel like a super comfortable place, but ironically, I’ve done a lot of it. In college, I worked at the Harvard Law School Phone-A-Thon. It was my job to call people and ask them for a lot of money over the phone. Sales at Cooper are a different kind of process. We’re very consultative even in a sales context, and that’s my style.

Clients want to get a feel for who we are. That’s an environment that I excel in, because what I am particularly good at is thinking on my feet and asking really interesting questions. In the context of an initial sales call, it tends to make [clients] feel like, “Oh, wow, they get what our problem is. They understand where some of the challenges are. These are people who could really help us dig in.” That tends to be my style, not wine and dine and dazzle, but be smart, which is a comfort zone. 

What keeps you excited about your work at Cooper ten years in?

Consulting is a really good fit for me. The project work itself is really interesting. I like knowing stuff and learning stuff. My colleagues here are really capable, and dedicated, and smart. We get to lean in and geek out on what it means to do design and push our skills. I really love working with junior designers and watching their careers and their skills blossom.

I love to learn about new companies, and what makes them tick, and what problems they’re trying to solve, and watching the technology evolve, and being able to use new tools in different ways. The company culture is just a huge part of it. It’s very nurturing. It’s a very self-aware, encouraging place. We put effort into supporting one another and celebrating one another, and I’ve had multiple clients comment to us, “You guys really seem to like each other.” and yes, as a matter of fact, we really do like each other. It changes all the time; never gets old.

What fills your time outside of work?

I have a family, a husband and a daughter who is going to make her final decision on where to go to college next year. I’m looking at potential empty nest. We have a little house with our two cats out in Castro Valley, and my husband and I are both gamers.

You have to be careful if you marry another gamer, because you’re probably going to play a lot of video games, so we do a lot of that. My husband and I are both really into paper and paper crafting, and so everyone at Cooper knows me as the person who’s into wrapping presents every year. I like to give a presentation and talk about thinking deep thoughts about wrapping presents and how it overlaps with the design work we do.

I think it’s a natural fit because design is really about understanding people and how to serve them.

What advice would you give somebody who is interested in the kind of work that you do or in cognitive psychology?

I talk to a lot of people who studied psychology who get interested in design, and it’s really helpful. I think it’s a natural fit because design is really about understanding people and how to serve them. That has always served me pretty well. For a young designer, persuasion, and rhetoric, and storytelling, and facilitation, these are all the things that it really takes to do it well.

It’s easy to get lost in craft, typography, and color, and form, and interaction patterns. All that stuff is important, especially if you want to be good at it, but the soft skills are maybe more so. Mike Monteiro said in a speech, “A designer that can do pretty good work, and then persuade the client that the work is right, is worth more to me than a designer who can do amazing work and can’t for the life of them sell it.”

It’s about building relationships, and asking good questions, and being persuasive. The soft skills need some attention. Young people should take every opportunity they have to present, and speak in front of other people, and to make mistakes, and learn from them rather than just focusing on the nitty-gritty.

How did you picture your adult life when you were in high school?

You’re asking a question that, as a cognitive psychologist, I have to say that nobody knows what they thought about what they would do when they were an adult. I can tell you what I think I thought. I guess I saw myself in academia, and I don’t know that I ever thought I would end up as a consultant. I'm not sure that I even know what that was.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Check out books Jenea loves!