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The Philosophy of UX: Interaction Designer Natalie Lew

By Charles Purdy

Natalie Lew

As a student at the University of Washington, Natalie Lew found a way to combine her passion for design with her passion for philosophy and problem-solving. This year—after she graduates in June—the new Adobe Creative Resident will work on developing an open-source interaction-design toolkit that will allow social entrepreneurs and organizations to benefit from smarter design.

Lew, who grew up in Redmond, Washington (the home of Microsoft), calls the Seattle area a wonderful place to live, but she is approaching the coming year ready to explore new ground—not only because the Creative Residency entails a lot of travel (which it definitely does!), but also because her Residency project will take the new graduate into uncharted territory.

“This is something that I’ve never done before,” says Lew. “I’m doing a project by myself for a year—and that kind of freaks me out when I really start to think about it…. But on the flip side of that, it gives me an incredible opportunity to pursue a passion that I have.”

For a self-initiated practice project for the Seattle Aquarium, Lew created a new visual identity and designed a new service application to aid people visiting the site.

A USER-EXPERIENCE TOOLKIT

When interaction design is done well, it’s invisible to most of us—it makes doing what we want to do (and what the designers want us to do) perfectly intuitive. But this ease does not come easy, and a lot of thought and expertise go into creating digital user experiences that work.

Lew wants to apply her own user experience (UX) expertise to creating a toolkit for people and organizations who need it. What that will look like is not entirely certain; discovering its best form will be part of her process, as iteration and exploration are always a necessary part of the interaction-design process. And as she works, Lew will be sharing that process with us. She explains, “I’m going to be developing a UX toolkit that is open-source and interdisciplinary, with little pieces of different steps in the UX process that are going to be consumable for everyone. What that might look like is a website or another open-source platform where people are able to check out ideas on how you go about thinking about the many elements of information architecture and interaction design.”

Lew worked on this project with four peers at the University of Washington: this app, called Dub Cal, scrapes event information from Facebook, the University of Washington Calendar, list servs, and manual input to create a cohesive and interactive student calendar (shown are wireframes [top] and primary screens).

She continues, “I would imagine this toolkit to have downloadable PDFs, Illustrator files, XD files, and so on, that would aid my audience in each step of the UX process…. And what I want to do is really make that process shine and show people all of the little steps that I use. I’ll also be talking to other professionals, other masters in this field, to get an idea for how they work.”

To test her toolkit, Lew expects to work with social organizations and create case studies, which she will also share. “My year will be somewhat fluid,” she says.

MELDING DESIGN AND PHILOSOPHY

Lew will enter the Adobe Creative Residency with twin degrees in interaction design and philosophy; for her, the two fields go together naturally. “I think people often assume that studying philosophy is kind of unreasonable, but I think of philosophy as the platform that you build your career on top of. Then you’re able to think about those values that are so imperative to philosophy—questioning things, being curious, and always trying to understand more about a problem. Studying philosophy and ethics really helped me think about problem-solving, which I think is the primary element of UX design.”

Lew’s background in philosophy informs all the work she does: “Concepts like ethics and empathy—and I know that those are kind of buzzwords right now in the design community—are really fundamental to the work I’m producing,” she says. “And that means, for example, if I’m thinking about something in urban planning or health care, really consulting masters in those fields.”

Working with another student, Lew Molight designed and built a smart motion-detecting lamp that encourages movement—dubbed Molight.  

Working as a student intern, Lew has lent her efforts to projects at companies like Tectonic, and in addition to her student projects, she has done design work for her university’s student arts and entertainment organization. In the same way that she sees philosophy and design as intertwined, Lew’s professional interests and personal interests are also often inseparable: “We have people come and talk or perform at my school, and I do the design for those events [shown in header image]—I’ve always been passionate about arts and performance, going to see musicians and other artists. I’m also getting more into hands-on physical artwork, like block printing.”

THE YEAR AHEAD

For all of this year’s Creative Residents, there will be many surprises in the coming year—and Lew embraces the notion that she can’t plan all the details of how her Residency project will take shape.

“So far in school, I’ve had internships and jobs here and there, but I’ve never really had an opportunity to work individually to solve problems that I think are worth solving on a long-term scale. I think that, beyond the Residency, what I’ll learn will be really powerful.”

The Adobe Creative Residency empowers talented individuals to spend a year focusing on a passion project, while sharing their experiences and processes with the creative community.