Karen Chan didn’t come from a design background. She didn’t come from a programming background. When she decided to enter the MDes in Interaction Design program at California College of the Arts in 2016, she was working as a public health consultant at the intersection of healthcare, policy, and technology in Washington, D.C. Now—just three short years later—she helps people build better relationships with their money as senior product designer at Capital One. We wanted to find out more about Karen’s unconventional career path, why she decided to pursue interaction design, the benefits and struggles she encountered along the way, and what advice she’d give to others in a similar position.
I always saw myself as more of a hobbyist when it came to creative pursuits, but when I learned that there were all these design programs out there, I decided to take a leap of faith.”
What made you leave your previous role to pursue interaction design?
Prior to CCA, I worked in healthcare technology consulting. This was during the time when there was a big push for the industry to transition from paper to electronic medical records. I loved what I did—helping doctors, hospitals, policy makers, and technology developers—but I couldn’t help but recognize that despite my efforts, I actually had little influence over the core problems in this ecosystem. I felt like I was working at the wrong end of the process.
As I started becoming more entrenched in this complex web of people, technology, and policy, I started hearing about user experience (UX) design and, by extension, interaction design. I became curious, started doing research, and felt really excited by this creative discipline and its potential impact. I always saw myself as more of a hobbyist when it came to creative pursuits, but when I learned that there were all these design programs out there, I decided to take a leap of faith, applied to several schools, and here I am, three years later.
What was it like changing careers to focus on IxD?
For me, one of the most challenging things about changing careers was being in this constant state of ambiguity during the beginning. I’d constantly think, “Was this the right decision? Am I really cut out for this? Wow, I have no idea what I’m doing… what if no one wants to hire me?” I would get really caught up in comparing myself to others or trying to check off all the boxes of skills, tools, and frameworks that I thought I needed to know.
I definitely still get bouts of this every now and then, but it does get better! Although it sounds a little cliché, what has served me well in overcoming this is remembering to stay curious, trust the process, embrace ambiguity as an opportunity for growth and discovery, and not lose sight of where I came from. Although my path may have been unconventional, it’s something that I’m learning to be proud of, because at the end of the day, it gives me a unique perspective that helps me be a better designer.
What was the single most valuable thing you learned in the IxD program?
If you had asked me this question when I was still in the program, I probably would have told you that the hard skills (i.e., sketch, synthesis techniques, [insert trendy prototyping tool]) were the most valuable. But now that it’s been a few years, I believe the soft skills—particularly in leadership and communication—have been invaluable in the workplace (shout out to the lovely Sharon Green!). Communication and collaboration can be messy and, at times, uncomfortable, so it was incredibly helpful to have courses that gave us a safe space to practice navigating the many challenges that come with this territory. All that is to say, hard skills are necessary to get the job done, but the soft skills are what have helped me get the job done well.
What groups/clubs/organizations/etc. should designers interested in the field of IxD join?
I don’t spend much time on Facebook anymore these days, but one of the primary reasons I do go on there is to peruse through the conversations in the Designers Guild group. It’s thoughtfully moderated and a great way to keep up with current topics, see what designers across a variety of disciplines are working on, and ask questions. If you’re like me and the thought of asking a question to a group of 15,000-plus folks makes you cringe, searching through the discussion history is also a nice way to find answers to a lot of design-related questions.
Was the three-semester intensive format a plus or minus for your experience?
The three-semester format was definitely a draw for me. I like a good challenge, so I was intrigued by the idea of focusing all of my energy toward building a strong foundation in interaction design for a concentrated period of time. From a financial perspective, I also thought the three-semester format would be more cost effective because I would be spending less on tuition (compared to what I would have spent on a two-year program) and it would give me the opportunity to get back out into the workforce more quickly.
Questions for an alum?
What questions would you ask of a current CCA student or graduate? Let us know and we’ll ask them in future Q+As.