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Understanding the Human Experience through the M.S. in Human Factors in Information Design
Erik Ojakaar (MSHFID ’03) approached a project with the user experience (UX) in mind as an employee at L.L. Bean before he ever decided to pursue a degree in the subject.
The approach came to him while he was supporting a team of intranet developers and content writers. He was tasked with redesigning the intranet that the call center representatives relied upon to help them answer customer inquiries – everything from product specs to policies and procedures.
Rather than revamping the site based on opinions, Ojakaar decided to go to the users themselves - the call representatives. He ran studies and observed them in action to more deeply understand their needs and pain points. The insights from this research ended up being integral to the redesign.
Through consideration of the intranet’s end users and their experience, the new intranet reduced call time length and saved the company money. This was an epiphany for Ojakaar that led to a career change. He took a position at web usability guru Jared Spool’s company, User Interface Engineering, where he worked as a consultant for a couple of years. He then decided to formalize his UX education and seek a graduate degree.
Pursuing a Master’s Degree
Ojakaar was living in Massachusetts at the time so he already knew about Bentley University when he began to explore graduate school possibilities. When he researched their user experience program, the Master of Science in Human Factors in Information Design (HFID), the curriculum, caliber of the teaching staff, and facilities solidified his decision to attend.
Coming to Bentley with work experience, Ojakaar knew that having an education in “usability engineering, human-computer interaction, and cognitive psychology” were key to developing a successful career in the field. A business background was also vital.
He saw all of these subject areas covered in some way at Bentley, with course options for HFID students that included Intelligent User Interfaces, Measuring the User Experience, Special Topics in Human-Computer Interaction, Prototyping, and Business Process Management.
As an HFID student, Ojakaar also had the opportunity to work in Bentley’s User Experience Center (UXC). This center, which offers consulting services to clients around the world, gave Ojakaar even more confidence for his burgeoning career with the chance to work with real clients.
“What we did in the lab is what we would be doing on the job after graduation,” he says. “There is nothing more valuable than actually doing the work with guidance from top professionals in the field.”
Using UX on the Job
Working with real clients helped Ojakaar gain insight into how companies think about and integrate findings from user experience research. This meant being thoughtful about how proposed changes are framed, understanding what the company is capable of implementing, and considering the company’s strategic direction.
“It’s not just about applying the tools of the trade, it’s about stepping back and understanding the bigger picture of the business,” he says. At the end of the day, all UX must “improve and align with the business’ goals.”
Today, Ojakaar is a Principal Researcher at LinkedIn in Mountain View, CA. He has also held top UX Research roles at Yahoo and eBay. Currently, he is leading UX research for the integration of LinkedIn and Microsoft.
“LinkedIn has baked right into their ethos the value proposition of ‘members first.’ Making sure that the UX meets LinkedIn members’ needs and expectations is central to our success,” he says. “Understanding your users is essential to improving the user experience as well as laying the foundation for innovation.”
At LinkedIn, says Ojakaar, the user base is constantly growing and evolving. In the early days, LinkedIn was primarily embraced by those in the tech industry. Now it serves a diverse market of professions and workers at all stages of their careers. The UX must consider and meet the various needs of each of those market segments.
“At its core, it’s about understanding the human experience,” says Ojakaar, “not just from a UX standpoint but by identifying where and how technology can improve our lives.”
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