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Dec. 6, 2017, 6 a.m.
Andrea McVittie, User Experience Designer

Andrea studied fine art at Michigan State and human-computer interaction at the University of Michigan. One day, while working at the school library, it was discovered that she could make websites — which launched her career as a UX designer, and since 2012 she’s been designing apps at Omni.

Show Notes:

Andrea, it must be told, is firmly against stealing money from puppies — or maybe she’s against treating puppies as a particularly cuddly form of currency and then stealing them.

Nobody knows which. Don’t do either!

You can find Andrea @amcvittie on Twitter. And you can find her work in every single Omni app.

Some other people, places, and things mentioned:


Brent Simmons: You're listening to the Omni Show. Get to know the people and stories behind Omni's award-winning productivity apps for Mac and iOS. Music.

I love that music. I'm pretending like I just heard it, but I didn't. I'm your host, Brent Simmons. In the studio with me today is Andrea McVittie. Say hello, Andrea.

Andrea McVittie: Hello, Andrea.

Brent: Well done. Thank you.

So, Andrea, you are a user experience designer at Omni, and that means, among other things, you put the award-winning into award-winning here. You've won design awards on your own and Omni has of course won a few Apple Design Awards over the years too. So I'm just curious, that award-winning, thing, is that a thing you wake up in the morning and think, "What am I going to do today to win another award?"

Andrea: Um, no. I tend not to think about awards in what I do ... It's exciting when that happens, but it's not why I do what I do, or why I find satisfaction in it. Those awards that you mentioned that were mine, they were grad school days. They were team projects, I should note. Some fantastic people at the University of Michigan, which were a lot of fun, but no, that's not what drives what I do.

Brent: Oh, okay. It's money then right? It's ...

Andrea: Yes.

Brent: It's the exorbitant salaries.

Andrea: Yeah. Fabulous... Art majors man, we rake it in.

Brent: That's right, every single art major ever.

Andrea: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brent: Good point. So, do you have a general philosophy of UX, or perhaps Omni has one, that you might be interested to talk about?

Andrea: Oh man, UX Philosophy, that's a huge, huge area.

Brent: That's a huge, vague, general question.

Andrea: Yeah, so. I think I'll start with Omni. Omni, unlike many places I've been exposed to, UX isn't just a department, it is in the fiber of the company. I've never seen or worked with a team where every department seems so invested in getting it right and questioning the design decisions that we do, and really pushing for that aspect of the software to improve. It's a different sort of sense, versus some places where you work where they trust, "you're the designer and you know what you're doing, great, ship it." Wait, no, ask questions! I will never get it right on the first try!

Brent: That's a good thing I think. Part of what makes our stuff good I guess, right?

Andrea: Yeah. I love that part of Omni. That I know when I sit down with the developers, that we're on the same page about how that's important and they are invested in working on that part and not just the code.

Brent: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Andrea: I would love to help them on the code, but no one wants that.

Brent: And, I've been glad as an engineer that whenever I've had UX opinions, no one's ever said to me, "Hey, shut up, you're an engineer."

Andrea: Yeah, no we want to hear opinions and different views. That's how you get to a better answer. I would say there are no right answers in UX, but there are always better ones.

Brent: Mm-hmm (affirmative). It seems like that the topic of user experience and ethics has come up more and more recently.

Andrea: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brent: Maybe it just seems that. Maybe it's always been a thing, but, I wonder what you think about that. Starting with the fact that Omni, it's probably not even an issue often because it doesn't have to be right? We're making productivity apps.

Andrea: Yeah, we're in a market space, I'm not a [inaudible 00:03:45], market space where the pressures on us aren't the same as some other apps. Like our ... the way we make a living is not, doesn't have some of the challenges, which is not to say that ... I think ethics should be a part of every designers work, right? No matter where you are.

But because we have that buy-in and everyone understands the importance of the role, I think that it hasn't come up here in the same ways that I've seen it in other positions where the market pressures you to have things like dark patterns, or misleading UX, or things like that. I mean, if I felt we did that, honestly I wouldn't be here.

This is a thing I will drag a soap box up around, I think, a discussion about the ethics of design should be the core of every designer education program whether it's formal or informal. What we do is influencing how people think, how they feel, what they do, and you have to take that seriously. I mean it sounds, it probably sounds a little heavy to some people that I'm stressing it that much, but I mean, when you are influencing people and dealing with their private information particularly, or just how they live their lives, you have to take that seriously. And so I do. Sorry, I'll put my soap box away.

Brent: Oh, no it's quite all right. Yeah it's a soap box that a lot of people are interested in. I think.

Andrea: Oh yeah.

Brent: Is there, kind of, maybe a core statement behind the ethics?

Andrea: Oh boy.

Brent: Something about putting the user first, or I don't know.

Andrea: I would never try to speak for the whole field, right? We can't even agree on what to call ourselves sometimes, or how to define things! But, I think "keep your designs honest" has to be, you know — and that can mean a lot of things. It's something you need to keep in mind. Think about the impact, and not just the purposeful impact, but sometimes the worst fallout from design is by accident. Things you just didn't consider, users you didn't consider.

There's a ... I think it was Mike Monteiro who told a story about a woman who was outed to her family because of a Facebook feature. She was added to a group for her college and it outed her to her family. She lost her scholarship. She lost a place to live. And if I'm mumbling some of the details, my apologies, it was in a talk that he gave. No one set out to do that, they didn't think ... You can't see every angle, but you have to acknowledge that and try.

Brent: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Andrea: And fix it when you screw up.

Brent: Oh sure. Right, yeah.

Andrea: And I mean, as much, in that I case I don't know how you fix it, but you know.

Brent: Well, at least apologize in a real way, I guess?

Andrea: Yes. Apologize in a real way and realize that not all your users are going to be engaging on a good day, or in a perfect world, or in a safe world.

Brent: It's interesting. First starting the business in the 90s, I think I thought to myself, "Well, be a nice person." But never on a day to day basis. It wasn't even hardly an issue. Maybe I was just young and blind, or whatever, but I'm so glad that it's a real issue these days.

Andrea: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brent: And that people work really hard. And I guess it takes a certain amount of imagination, maybe to come up with all the ... to be able to foresee something like the event you just described.

Andrea: Oh yeah. I don't blame the designer. I don't want to say "they should have thought of this!" But you have to keep stretching your reign and thinking about people who are not in your shoes it's very easy to design for yourself but, try to think about those worse case scenarios. Try to think about how could this go wrong, whether on accident or maliciously for the design decisions you make.

Brent: Omni, in some cases, it seems takes that ethical approach, and will even go a step farther. An example I think of, is OmniFocus syncing.

Andrea: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brent: We provide a sync server and you can use that, but unlike most companies that do some kind of syncing, you can just use your own server instead.

Andrea: Yes. I love that.

Brent: And that seems like a highly ethical decision.

Andrea: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Brent: And it would have been highly defensible not to support that, but supporting that too...

Andrea: Yeah I appreciate that we do that. I would say that I've seen many decisions here where we are ... We actively do not want access to your data.

Brent: Yeah right?

Andrea: You know, if we don't have it, no one else can ask for it. We don't have to worry that we're going to screw up. That is your data, if you need that extra level of security you can have that and we will work with you on that. I think that's great.

Brent: Yeah, and we've toughened up later with adding encryption of various kinds. I don't know the details, I'm working on other things, but I still think it's cool.

Andrea: You can talk to Tim about it later.

Brent: Yeah, right.

Andrea: Tim, that doesn't listen to Podcasts.

Brent: Tim Ekl. I like Tim Ekl, because his entire name fits in six characters. That's a very short name.

Andrea: Yeah.

Brent: I find it easy to type.

So when you're working on design, you want things to look good, you want them to be appealing.

Andrea: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brent: And Omni's traditionally done a real good job of that. Most importantly you want things to work well.

Andrea: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brent: Now I think there's a relationship between those two things.

Andrea: Oh absolutely.

Brent: But I just wonder, what do you think about that balance and how much of that is in conflict versus the exact opposite of conflict?

Andrea: I mean, software, our focus needs to start with being usable and that lends itself well to being attractive in a certain ... maybe a more minimal sense I think. But yet, I think the two tend to go hand in hand. If you worry about how it works first, making it look attractive gets easier. If you start the other way around it gets complicated to me.

Brent: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Andrea: So yeah, I like to start with: what does this do, how does it function? Okay, now how can we lay it out to give it a little bit more breathing room, or give it more hierarchy and structure so I understand it easier, that kind of thing. And it's a different aesthetic than say poster art, where you are still designing for information...

Brent: Right.

Andrea: But it's a very different experience.

Brent: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Do you start with sketches, or go right to OmniGraffle, or how do you work?

Andrea: It depends on what I'm doing. The bigger the project, the more likely I am to start sketching either on actual physical paper, or I've been starting to use the Apple Pencil quite a bit.

Brent: Oh cool.

Andrea: In like... I've got three or four drawing programs. I'm always trying them out to see which one is best.

Brent: The way some people shop for to-do list management.

Andrea: Yes exactly. I'm trying to replicate as much of that notebook experience. Yeah, I've got a bunch of sketchbooks in my office. If it's early on, I like the sort of ... the encouragement the paper gives you to scribble it out and start over again, and you know you're not spending all your time getting things pixel perfect. It's just, get the sketch out, and outline things and start to bring it together in my mind. Get my ideas together. Other things I'll go right to Graffle, and dig in. If it's something that we're redesigning or improving, I might take a screen shot of what we've got so I have a base and then I start drawing on top of it or pasting things together, or building little bits and pieces in Graffle, you know, to lay on top of it or whatever. But it really depends on the scope of the project and where we're at, and honestly my mood for the day sometimes.

Brent: Oh sure. Yeah right. Is it fun to use Graffle to design Graffle?

Andrea: Yes! That is...

Brent: Thought so.

Andrea: Right now, I am deep in the jungles of working on undisclosed things for Graffle and it is my happy place definitely. Gets a little meta, sometimes I end up clickin on my mock ups instead of the actual inspectors...

Brent: Of course.

Andrea: Because I get a little to into what I'm doing.

Brent: Why is this not working?

Andrea: Yeah. But it's this interesting immediate feedback of I'm using the feature I'm working on and I can see exactly how it works now and what I wish it would do, or, and I mean, I get to work on features that I use every day. That's fantastic for me.

Brent: Right. You're making your own tools better.

Andrea: Yeah.

Brent: So in doing design, you do a fair amount of looking at prior art. Well, for one thing, you look at the current version of the app that you might be changing or adding to. There's a change in OmniFocus coming up to do with tags. You ended up looking at Vesper as one of your examples of prior art. Now, dear listener, I used to work on this app called Vesper that was very tag heavy, and you adopted some part of that I guess.

Andrea: Yeah.

Brent: That was really gratifying to me.

Andrea: Good.

Brent: That was really cool to be the prior art.

Andrea: I had no idea that you were the prior art. I was talking to some of the devs on the team and I want to say it was Curt, but I could be wrong.

Brent: It was probably Curt.

Andrea: It might have been Jim, said, "You know, you should look at Vesper, they did a lot of work with tags." They didn't tell me it was your tagging or not, until I had some of the sketches going and they were like, "Oh yeah, it's Brent's, you should go talk to him." I look at software patterns all the time. I own apps that I don't even necessarily have a firm use for, I just want to look at how they're handling certain interactions. You certainly don't want to rip somebody off directly.

Brent: Sure.

Andrea: But there's a usefulness in design patterns that people understand and have expectations of how they will work. If someone has solved that in a way that's working, yeah, go look at that.

Brent: Yeah.

Andrea: I mean, painters look at other painters.

Brent: Yeah, right, musicians listen to music.

Andrea: Yes, exactly.

Brent: Writers read. I've noticed there are a few websites, I forget their URLs, things like I don't even know if that's real. But also, positive examples too, out there. Do you find yourself going to those sometimes?

Andrea: Sometimes, if I'm really stuck on some weird thing and banging my head against the wall, I'll be like, "Well, let me see what someone else has done," and that can be tricky to even Google, if it's some obscure design thing. But I do dig around. I don't have one that I can refer, like I definitely do this or that. I quite often have people if they have an app that they know does this, so I can actually interact with it, as opposed to looking at something on a screen. You get a visual hint, but you don't get a feel for how it works.

Brent: Right.

Andrea: But yeah, looking at other people's ideas, that's a really good way to get out of a slump. It's a thing I had to learn that was when I first started doing design, it was more graphic design, but I would stare at white pages and feel sort of overwhelmed. It felt like cheating to go on the Internet and look at other things. Or to… I mean, student work, you shouldn't be on the Internet anyway right? You have to go out in the world and look at things. Not just in your own field. I occasionally take days off and go the Seattle Art Museum downtown just to go look at something else for a little while. I come back better for it.

Brent: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Omni went all in on iPad.

Andrea: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brent: And all in on iOS nowadays.

Andrea: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brent: Now you're designing apps that have to work on Macs and on these little devices and all these mid-range devices. There should be some amount of consistency but platforms are different. How do you approach this?

Andrea: Yeah, it's a fun challenge. I like my job to be hard, it's a fun challenge. When we first started — the general we here, designers — started moving things into iOS apps, we felt like we could offer a pared down version of a desktop app. That is no longer the expectation. I would argue that people want all the bells and whistles in their pocket, because sometimes that's the only computer they carry, right? I know lots of people don't even have laptops, they just use their phones or their iPads or whatever.

We've had to struggle with, how do you get all of that stuff in a little space? We quite often say in design that there's too much software in our software. We're putting full featured productivity apps, you can't put four tabs and be done, because there's too much stuff there.

Brent: Right.

Andrea: I quite often, if I know I'm going to have to do both. For example, when we were looking at a redesign of Outliner, thought about the phone first because that's the hardest format.

Brent: Sure. So little space.

Andrea: It's so tiny and there's so many buttons; trying to figure out how to put all of that functionality in, in a way that's still accessible and usable. Then when you go to the larger format, you've solved some of those problems, which is great. And it feels like suddenly I have so much space, look at all these toolbars, it's amazing! I mean, and there's obviously different expectations and use cases and things for a Mac or a larger format.

Brent: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Andrea: But yeah, I try to shoehorn into the little space first, because once you've got that, it's a better way than trying to shrink everything down.

Brent: Right, that makes sense.

Andrea: Which is also fun, but ...

Brent: Yeah.

Andrea: Tricky.

Brent: Are iOS apps, it seems, have to adapt more to size differences than Mac apps do, generally?

Andrea: Yes.

Brent: That's probably just a general statement, I guess, for everybody. As an engineer I like working on the Mac.

Andrea: There's a certain amount of freedom there. You still have to worry about, well not everyone uses an enormous monitor.

Brent: Right.

Andrea: It's a thing we try to think about with Graffle inspectors, what sort of set ups are people using? A little laptop versus multi-monitor set up, things like that. You definitely have more room to breathe on a Mac.

Brent: We have a couple of weird questions. One comes from our Slack group. See, we've gone live now so I can ask the Internet for reader questions, or listening questions.

Andrea: Thank you listeners, Slackers.

Brent: So, Rosemary Orchard, she asks, "What's your favorite little thing you've done? Maybe it's a small feature or just something that took a little effort. What's your favorite?"

Andrea: Oh man, this changes probably every week because little tweaks are sometimes the most rewarding things. I love things that are — what feel, to me, because I didn't have to code it — quick fixes that take the burden off support. So if there's, for example, we have, it's not pushed out yet, but we have an alert that comes up that was not as clear as we were hoping for on the first pass. We were reworking it, and that should cut down on the number of people who feel intimidated or confused by it. It's perfectly harmless, but the way it's worded looks confusing. I don't want to give too many details.

Brent: Oh no, it's fine.

Andrea: But yeah, anything that can free up a little bit of time for people on the team and serve the users better, that's like a double-win. I'm super happy, just any little thing that's just, "Oh, this wasn't a feature people could find and now they can find it." Just small things like that where it's like, yeah, I put in a little bit of effort and now our users are happy, support is happier, everyone's happier, great.

Brent: Cool. Another listener question, this one's from Twitter. "If I have limited time with a UX person to help solve a problem, what can I do beforehand to help?"

Andrea: Bring her a chai and a baked good. Okay that does work with me. I would say, put your UX thing, whatever it is, software, app, board game, whatever it is, in front of a real human that's not you and hasn't worked on it. It doesn't have to be a high tech set up. I'm a firm believer in shoestring budget user testing. One or two people can tell you a ton. It doesn't have to be a drawn out purpose. Sort of flesh out a few questions where you feel that people were uncertain. Then you have some things to narrow in on and talk to you about. I mean, a designer can give you some insights, but it's not a replacement from hearing from the real people that you're trying to target. So, even a twenty minute session, offer to buy someone a burrito or whatever. Which is what we used to do in grad school, bring them in and say, "Hey, look at this, what you think, how would you interact with this? What parts are confusing?" That gives your designer a jumpstart of "okay, let's look at this, let's rework that." But yeah, baked goods.

Brent: Baked goods, definitely. All right. Before you came to Omni, you were a Michigan State Art Student.

Andrea: Yep.

Brent: In prep, you were telling me you were a typist at the library. They shanghaied you into making their website. Before you know it, you're a UX designer.

Andrea: Yeah, it was sort of a weird little whirlwind. For undergrad I did go to Michigan State, fine art. Like all college students I needed money. So, a friend worked at the library she said, "Hey it's a great place to work, we're hiring typists." This is the dark ages of OCR, so they were hiring students to type out copies of really old cookbooks. They have a huge collections of cookery down in special collections, so they get digitized and add metadata as a grant project. So they needed people who could type. I can type, great! Amy's like, "Yeah, I listen to CDs and I type all day." Okay.

So I went in and talked to Ruth Ann who is the librarian there, and interviewed with her, and she said, "Well do you have any other skills?" and I thought, "Well..." — I was kind of a computer nerd kid so I had learned some photo editing and I'd learned some HTML to make a website — "Yeah, I've made websites before and I know Photoshop," and she got so excited! She was like, "Come with me, come with me." I was like, "What's going on? I'm just here to type." She drags me into Michael Seadle's office who was the director of the department, I want to say. They start talking rapidly about things I don't understand. They're like, "Great, you're hired, and by the way, we need somebody to make websites for grant projects for the library, would that interest you?" Which is great that it did, because I was a terrible typist. I can type very fast, but it's not accurate.

They moved me into making grant projects websites. We did digitizing cookbooks, it was one of my favorite. Also, the super old veterinary medicine books, scanning and taking photos and putting those up. They have a comic book collection, we put stuff up, orchids — you learn all sorts of weird stuff when you work with special collections, it's fantastic, poisonous wallpaper.

Brent: Poisonous wallpaper? Let me click on that. What's poisonous wallpaper?

Andrea: They have one of the only remaining copies of a ... I think U of M has the other ... of a book. I want to say it's called Walls of Death. It's a collection of wallpaper that came in this really interesting green. I think it was painted with arsenic. Obviously you don't want this book circulating. It's down in special collections, it's pages are sealed, it's very safe. I got to take pictures of it to put on the website.

Brent: Wow.

Andrea: That was pretty fun. Yeah, so I started working on websites for the library and loved it. I actually spent more and more time there and less and less time on some of my studio work for fine art. I did graduate, folks, I did manage that.

Brent: Congratulations.

Andrea: I was working with a lot of librarians who started telling me, "You should really check out the University of Michigan's School of Information." I said, "One, I'm a Spartan. And two, I don't want to be a Wolverine."

Brent: No.

Andrea: "That's just weird, and I don't want to be a librarian." I love librarians, it's just a hard job and I didn't want to do it. They were like, "No, no, check it out." They seemed to know things about usability and all these cool user research methods so I finally looked, and they were absolutely right. The School of Information course catalog was full of all sorts of things that I have sort of been touching on the edge of. I don't think I even knew the word "user experience" quite yet, but yeah I ended up applying and going for Human Computer Interaction.

Brent: Cool.

Andrea: Did that answer the question? I don't remember what it was.

Brent: I don't remember what it was anymore now, but that answered it. We're going to close off talking about dogs.

Andrea: Oh good!

Brent: So you have a dog, Oliver, who comes to work with you three times a week, right?

Andrea: Yep, he comes in a couple of times a week. The rest of the time he's at daycare because he's very busy. He's either part Husky or part Border Collie or something, busy.

Brent: Since my name is Brent, I have to say, he's a good dog.

Andrea: He is a good dog, Brent.

Brent: He is a good dog.

Andrea: He's very smart, I don't just say that.

Brent: In my notes I have in quotes, and we're going to have to explain this. This will probably close the show. In quotes it says, "Embezzling Puppies." Now where does that come from?

Andrea: So, when I interviewed at Omni ... Much to my surprise, they called me in for an interview.

Brent: Around 2012, right?

Andrea: I think so, yeah. They asked me, I believe Molly asked me, if there was anything that they could tell me about the job that would make me not want to take it. What I was trying to express, is that it's very, very important to me, sort of, the ethics of the place I work, and the standards they hold themselves to. But, what came out of my mouth was, "Well, if I found out you guys were, like, embezzling puppies or something..." I think there was some murmuring about exactly what that meant; whether the puppies were being embezzled, if they were ....

Brent: We're all nerds, right, so we're all like, "Puppies are terrible with their finances, so it's really easy to take their money."

Andrea: Yeah, I crossed my metaphors or my crimes, or I don't know, something.

Brent: If you're being mean to puppies, it's bad.

Andrea: Yeah, then it was right out. But, good news, Omni is very nice to puppies.

Brent: Yes.

Andrea: Yeah, so here I am. Yeah, they strangely called me back after that weird interview.

Brent: Charmed, I'm sure they were, by that, so they had to call you back.

Andrea: Guess it turned out.

Brent: Wow. You heard it here first, Omni does not embezzle puppies. We don't steal money from puppies, we don't steal puppies from other people.

Andrea: No, we do treat a lot of puppies. I keep a jar of treats in my drawer.

Brent: Yeah, that's important. Well, thank you Andrea. How can people find you on the web?

Andrea: Twitter is probably the easiest. I am @amcvittie. I will warn you, it's a little bit of UX and it's mostly adorable dog photos, mostly my own, sometimes other Omni dogs.

Brent: You can see actual pictures of Oliver.

Andrea: Yeah, he's pretty great.

Brent: He's a good dog.

Andrea: He is.

Brent: I'd also like to think our intrepid producer, Mark Boszko. Say hello, Mark.

Mark Boszko: Hello, Mark.

Andrea: Thanks, Mark.

Brent: And especially, I want to thank you for listening. Thank you. Music!