Shannon McGarity designs user-friendly Experiences

Shannon McGarity speaking at World IA Day. (Photo by Corey Sipkin)

Today, Shannon McGarity is Director of User Experience at Cooper, a user experience design and strategy firm. Her job that lets her be both a coach and a player, managing people and teaching classes and designing client solutions. Growing up in Ohio, Shannon didn’t have the global perspective the internet gives kids in rural areas today, but her education in interactive telecommunications in the mid-90s gave her the tools she needed to jump into creating “work that people might use and see on the web.”

Shannon with drawings made by participants in a workshop she led at World UX (User Experience) Day.


Where she’s from: Toledo, Ohio
Grew up with: mother, father, two younger brothers
Education: Bachelor’s degree in telecommunications; Master's degree from the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University
Where she lives now: New York City
Growing up she wanted to be: the next Jane Pauley
Now she’s: Director of User Experience at Cooper

Tell us about yourself growing up!

I grew up in Toledo, Ohio. My brothers and I were good swimmers and so we swam year round. We didn’t travel outside of Ohio but we did a lot of traveling in state. Ohio is a great place to grow up and be a kid. There are a lot of wide-open spaces; in the 70s there were even more. That period of time was very free. Your parents would set you out in the morning and say go ride your bike and come back for dinner when the streetlights turn on. In many ways, that was a very idyllic childhood experience. We lived near a creek and we had dogs and we were outside a lot. We had a really fun childhood.

Growing up in the 70s, we also didn’t have the global perspective that I think kids in more rural areas have today. I didn’t really know what was out there. I had no idea that you could have a career in advertising, as a 12-year-old or a 16-year-old or an 18-year-old.

I didn’t really know what was out there. I had no idea that you could have a career in advertising, as a 12-year-old or a 16-year-old or an 18-year-old.

Why did you choose to study telecommunications at Ohio University?

I wanted to be the next Jane Pauley. I got accepted to this interesting program at Ohio University called the Honors Tutorial Program for telecommunications. It was a cool program in that you could create your own program. I had to take telecommunication classes and I ended up in video production classes. I learned three-camera studio video. I learned editing. I learned some animation. I got to test drive a lot of different things. I ended up not in front of the camera but behind the camera. I very quickly began to understand I’m actually in a school where I am going to be able to create that content and ideate around that experience. It was a happy accident.

I glommed on to the technology and the opportunities to create things I loved with the technology.

How did you decide to go to graduate school right after undergrad?

I worked hard at the classes I took but I didn’t know what the end result was. By the end of my program it turned out that I was actually being coached to go to grad school. The good news is I needed that institution of higher learning. I had just gotten to spend four years doing whatever I wanted. I might not have been terribly focused by the time I graduated. The path I ended up taking was the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU at the Tisch School. I graduated in ’95, right around that time when the internet was becoming the internet as we know it. Webpages were just becoming something that people understood. It was really cool because I looked at that course catalog before I chose. I thought, “Look at this. Here’s a class on programming. Here’s a class on policy. Oh, here’s a class where I can learn to create digital art or video.”

I became a graduate assistant. The first year I got to help other students with technology issues at the school, and then the second year I got to work on this really cool interactive television program called The Yorb. People could call into the show that we had on public access, and they could use the buttons on their phone to navigate this 3D space. It was virtual reality but in the way that could be done in 1995. It was a lot of fun and I met so many people there. I glommed on to the technology and the opportunities to create things I loved with the technology. It was a match made in heaven. I did a bunch of different work but it all centers from that ITP experience. It all grew from that seed.

The internet was really coming into its own when you were finishing school. What kind of work were you doing early in your career?

I made a lot of tiny, hopping movements. First I was a design tools researcher at an ISP [Internet Service Provider]. Then I became a web designer / art director. My first true job out of grad school was working at an agency creating websites for companies like VW and Swiss Air and CBS News. It was first and second gen websites. I didn’t have a design background but I was the person in grad school who always ended up doing the design work on projects. I snuck in the back door to design and all of a sudden eight, nine months out of school I was basically a web designer that got fast tracked to art director really quickly. That wouldn’t happen today. There was a lot of opportunity because nobody was an expert in web design.

you want to be able to design for what’s possible from the backend.

Did you do programming as part of your web design work?

In grad school we learned how to program in for Macro Media Director or we learned HyperCard or I learned a little bit of C++. When webpages became a thing I started coding in HTML. By the time I was working for myself I rarely did as much coding as I did in my early days. Even now I’ve taken refresher classes just because you want to be able to design for what’s possible from the backend.

That diversity of opportunity has served me incredibly well. I went from an agency to content and community-based brands. I worked for myself for 12 years and it was really helpful to have a bunch of different skills. It’s nice to be able to fall back on coding when you have to. There’s the interaction design work versus the visual design work and I got to do both of those. There were just so many different ways that you could be employed in the creation of work that people might use and see on the web. It was a pretty great time.

What was it like making that transition to working for yourself?

By the time I got to Girls On, which was a community and content brand, I felt like I’d done a ton of things and I didn’t have a lot of control over my life. I felt like I was floating a bit and I didn’t have a goal.

I’d already been doing a little bit of freelance work on the side and had slowly built up confidence that I could start something on my own where I didn’t have to do 9 to 5. I could work on projects that I was really excited about. It was really difficult to leave that company but I also knew that I could go back and work for them. That’s where I learned to never burn a bridge. I’ve never severed a relationship. I’ve been really lucky to get to go back and work with people in previous jobs, whether it’s working with the Girls On crew or Oxygen or I’ve worked in-house at Everyday Health and then when I left again to pursue my own thing I helped them when I could. It was nice to be able to choose which projects really made the most sense for me.

How did you build your client base when you were running your firm, Hover Media?

I was running that business off and on for 15 years. The first 12 were pretty much uninterrupted and then the last three were off and on. When the work was good people referred me to the next client. I was very lucky because when you are working on referral generally good begets good and great people will refer you on to other great people. I didn’t go out and search for projects that were perfect for me. I ended up working with people that I really loved. I knew that if I loved the people I could make that project into something that was interesting to me.

You joined Cooper around the time that they merged with Catalyst. How did you end up joining Cooper?

When I had my own business, Hover Media, I had worked off and on with Catalyst over nine years on a number of different projects. Not only did I love the people, I was just really impressed with how smart all of the people that I worked with were. Every project that I’d done for them I was proud of. We talked over the years about somehow trying to make it work with me there in a full-time capacity. Finally, this perfect timing worked out. It was great, great timing because not only did I love the work that Catalyst had done, but it was amazing that they were merging with Cooper and they have new methodologies and a bunch of history in the business. The people are just so freaking smart.

I'm not just a coach but I'm a player

What do you do as director of user experience?

I am not only a consultant or a practitioner but I’m also a teacher. From a consulting standpoint I am oftentimes the engagement lead on projects where I’m helping to manage projects and design work and work with clients to help get these projects completed and facilitate buy-in with organizations. I do design work.

I’m not just a coach but I’m a player so I do user research with customers and users as a part of a team. I do interaction design work. That could mean creating the blueprints of what an experience might be. I also do some visual design work when needed. I think the thing that I love most about the work is you get to work with people that are already bought into how important design thinking is to their organization or to their product or service and that feels very special to me. That’s why it’s nice to be a consultant right now.

It’s really great to be a manager. I’m helping to shape the practice at Cooper in New York and I get to work with and mentor other designers, which is pretty amazing. That part is very rewarding. You can design a product or a service or website or app, do organizational management, but really it’s amazing when you have some impact on a designer’s life. That’s one of the most rewarding parts of my job and any past management job that I’ve had.

Can you tell us a little bit about the teaching you do for Cooper?

I teach Cooper professional education classes. We have a whole arm of our business that’s training. We do public and private classes around things including service design or interaction design or creative ideation, design leadership. I’ve taught most of those classes at this point. There’s a lot of fun to be had there.

That same part of me that really likes empowering younger designers, that same lever is pulled with classes and teaching. If we’re supplying participants, students with the tools they need to do their work better at their organizations, or opening their eyes to some new technique, it is really fun to see the light bulbs go on. It’s hard not to look like I’m enjoying myself because that is so fun. With creative ideation class you’re coming up with ideas. You may be working with a group of people that aren’t used to ideating. There’s a method behind the madness and sometimes you have to lean on the fun a bit and make things feel less high stakes by loosening people up and doing exercises and icebreakers that will help them warm up to doing work that they don’t ordinarily get to do in their tactical day to day.

Had you done much teaching before Cooper?

No. I recognized back when I was a grad assistant at ITP that I really liked helping people and teaching people how to do things. That’s another reason it was so great to find Cooper when I did. This was something that I always thought I’d like to do and never pursued and now it’s something that I wouldn’t ever want to stop doing.

What fills your time outside of work?

I do love to travel. It’s nice when you’re my age all of your friends have move different places so I spend a lot of time visiting. People who’ve move away from New York. I love traveling. I love scuba diving. If I’m not meeting a friend in Berlin or Hawaii or LA or wherever, I’m hopefully somewhere tropical and underwater. I’m taking an improv class right now, which is really fun. Improv definitely helps you relax when you’re speaking in front of large groups of people. I have a dog. I live at the seaport. I’m really connected to my community.

Off and on I’m learning German. I would like to spend a year or two in Berlin at some point because I think it’s just an incredibly cool city. It feels a little bit like New York did in the 90s when I got here. It feels like there’s a lot of change happening there. I just like the vibe there. I accidentally ended up taking German in high school so I’ve always wanted to fully speak another language and I never really got to that point. I never ended up traveling there when I was young and so now that’s the language I have my base proficiency in so I would love to just really get fluent.

I rely on the idea of getting really comfortable with discomfort and being okay not knowing things

What advice would you give someone who wants to do the kind of work that you do?

I don’t believe that there’s a “right path” to get to where you want to be. I imagine that there are a lot of great schools out there that will empower you to marry craft with developing business skills. I rely on the idea of getting really comfortable with discomfort and being okay not knowing things and trying them out. Ultimately, it’s so rewarding. It doesn’t feel perfectly natural and easy. I’ve gone with the flow and ridden where opportunity took me.

Keep growing: grow your network; meet people who are having some of the same experiences that you are. Don’t just focus on the business of interaction design but also diversify your influences. It’s not all about work all the time. Look outside of just your work world for inspiration.

If you only know one thing and you don’t know how to step outside of that one thing or that sphere, it can feel like the world is closing in on you. You have to figure out a way to punch through and look at whatever the problem is a different way. If your life is the problem you have to figure out a way to get some distance and see it from a zoomed out vantage point. Figure out that if something isn’t working you have to look outside yourself for answers.

I didn’t really know what adult life could look like outside of my own family

How did you imagine adult life when you were a teenager? How does your life compare to that?

I just didn’t know what was possible. We had three or four television stations. I didn’t really know what adult life could look like outside of my own family and my own friend structure. I’m constantly surprised. I knew that I didn’t want to live in Ohio but I didn’t know where I did want to live or what I did want to do. Once I got to New York for grad school I didn’t want to leave, and I’ve been really happy with the city I’ve chosen. I’m happy with my adult life. If I look back at myself as a kid, would that kid be jazzed about the life I have? I think she’d be astonished that I don’t live in Toledo, that I’ve got a really diverse group of friends, and that I have access to so much culture and I get to travel so much. I’m lucky. I’m living a charmed life right now. There are highs and lows but ultimately I’ve netted it out and I’m really happy.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Check out books Shannon loves!