February’s interview this year is a real treat; we sat down with Matthew Schafman, Sr. Director of Ideation and Design at Neudesic! During our interview, Matt describes his unintentional beginnings to becoming a leader in Arizona’s User Experience domain, then helps us to understand what he means by “UX in AZ”. Catalyzed by his role at Neudesic and his partnership with Arizona State University, Matt is at the forefront of building an extraordinary community of UX professionals right here in Phoenix. Let’s hear his thoughts!
A sincere “Thank You” to Matthew Schafman!
Research Collective: Welcome! First, we’d like to get to know you. What is your background? How did you get into User Experience?
Matt: “I grew up in a household with a mother that ran a data center, back when they had tape backups and punch cards. We always seemed to have a computer in the house, even though they were pretty expensive business machines back then. I had a Commodore 64 like most kids, and I wasn’t really into gaming systems, so I would play games on these older computers. There was an application that I always played around with — a very rudimentary drawing program. It was kind of like an 8-bit thing, still using the mouse or keyboard to navigate it and make dots.
“I was always involved with art, and having that ability and the luxury of having a computer in the home allowed me to keep working at computer-aided design. So growing up, I was always experimenting with that kind of thing and it really came from being an artist — a more traditional artist like painting, sculpture, drawing, and photography. All through high school I was AP Art; I was painting sets for the plays, I was always in charge of a float, I was always in charge of making snow sculptures (I grew up in Illinois), and it was always in my blood to do “art”. I now know the difference between art and design, but that’s kind of where I got into understanding what I always wanted to do.
“Going forward from that, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, so I ended up going to junior college for a bit. They really had a lot of electronic imaging kinds of things — computers that were able to handle more advanced art-type tools like Photoshop 1, CorelDRAW, and Painter, stuff like that.
“I always knew I wanted to build things, but I took a right turn and went into the Navy because I just didn’t know what I wanted to do. I still ended up picking a branch in the Navy that you actually create things, so I never really got away from that. That was part of my history of understanding where I wanted to go next. After that, I knew I wanted to go back to school.
“I ended up exploring schools that had things I was doing before: classes where you’re doing Photoshop, Quark, typesetting, art, and stuff like that. I thought maybe I’d go back to Massachusetts, go to UMass, and I got a bachelor’s degree in Electronic Imaging and Digital Photography. They had anything you ever wanted. It was a traditional art school with a full-on art building and we were focused on digital art, 3D animation, and, at the time, HTML. I started getting more practical with it, creating actual designs instead of just “art”. That was definitely my first [instance] of knowing exactly what I wanted to do. That was the catalyst of “I’m going to find a job around doing this”. And I think while other people were trying to find jobs of doing 3D animation for Disney or video editing, I was looking at the web, which was more intriguing to me — creating websites and using it as a tool for information. So, I started front-end development of how you create websites. Mind you, there wasn’t much you could do with it at the time.
“User Experience was unknown for me at this time. It was the late 90s. As soon as I got out of college, I got the typical advertising-type jobs for a while and then some typesetting at a newspaper. But for the most part, it wasn’t really “User Experience”.
“That was the first time when I really felt like I was doing something for an actual user. We were actually creating an experience for someone to learn. Having the ability to know who you are actually trying to serve changes your mindset on what’s design, how it functions, how it works, and how it flows. I think that’s really how I got my start into it.
“From there, you’re building on that, right? You get laid off and then you start working for yourself and creating websites for a bunch of people. Even then, you can kind of fall in that trap of “this is art” and you’re not saying to yourself “there’s a function to this”. For example, the intent of a website is not just to show what you do. The intent is to get somebody to call you, or buy something, or whatever. So now it’s “User Experience with an intent in business”. After about 150 different websites you’ve created, you start to realize that. You keep learning and keep doing that for all these different industries. For the most part, they all want the same thing.
“I guess my idea of “getting into User Experience” isn’t necessarily a mature way. It was a very unintentional, “back-door” way of learning that what you’re doing is actually for somebody else, not for yourself. It was moving from art to design, moving from doing something that makes you feel good about yourself to making something that actually has business value and changes the behavior of a person. How do I make that person click that button? How do I compel them to understand what this company wants to do with them? Or click that button or call?
“So that was my long answer. My short answer: It was an evolved, immature [path] into maturity.”
Research Collective: You have mentioned that a main focus of yours is “growing UX in Arizona”. What do you mean by that?
Matt: “Creating an eco-system for advocates of User Experience. If you think about “growing”, it’s a lot of things. Growing a person to respect it and maybe even practice it. Growing a student that says “I don’t know what I want to do with my life, but I’m a designer” into someone who is profitable and can earn money to live comfortably, a thinker, an ideator, into someone who understands problems and wants to make them better. Those people have the opportunity to be an advocate for User Experience. So if I’m “growing” UX in AZ, I have to grow people.
“But I also have to get other people to say “Yeah, I need those people.” So, I have to grow companies into believing that. If you don’t have [UX] in applications or business flow, then [the people] won’t have jobs. I have to “marry” the two. The two have to get together and say “There’s a need and there are people [who can fill the need].”
“When I started this, there were a couple groups, but not many people were talking. I don’t think a lot of people were really talking outside of their domain, so I wanted to create a community that connects the people to the need. That community can come together as a consortium of companies, project managers, and people like that, that are saying “How can I make my processes better?” “How can I make my software better?”.
“The idea of User Experience in Arizona is not having to go to Silicon Valley, Chicago, New York, or LA, or wherever. Let’s have it here in Arizona. Let’s create that eco-system here. Let’s make it the next Silicon Valley if we need to, you know? There’ve been a lot of times, I’ve heard, that companies moved away from here because they just couldn’t find the talent they needed.
“Now you see things happening around here! There are more than 300 product companies in Arizona and some big ones, GoDaddy being one of them. And there are a lot of small ones. I would love to know how many of those people have a need, but don’t really realize it. There’s so much market-share here to help people understand that if User Experience is part of their process, they will have better products. So it’s my job to convince those people that aren’t doing User Experience processes to grow into a more mature product offering.”
Research Collective: What are your strategies for persuading organizations that there is a need for UX? What about persuading organizations to hire UX practitioners?
Matt: “From the get-go, another reason I created the community is because I need to hire some people. There’s a Venn diagram that fits well with a lot of things that I do. If I have the Venn diagram with skills, availability, and proof, I need to build those three things up that gives me the “hireability of a UX person” in the middle. So how can I show a company they need it? I have to prove that they need it by understanding the skill sets that they have in-house and what they are producing that don’t prove that they’ve [already] done that. And then actually show them [what does]. You have to literally show them. You have to be available to go and have the conversation that they need to have [UX].
“Persuasion is a loaded word because it is sometimes very, very hard to get somebody to change their mind. All the experiences they’ve had up to that point, they’ve been doing it the same way every time and feeling pretty damn good about it. And if you’re coming in there, you have to change the way they experience something. It’s giving them a little taste of what it means: “Hey I did some user research, I did some tests, and these people liked it.” Then they say “Oh that was cool. What did you do?” You give them that taste and say “Look, there’s something better here”. This isn’t about anchor biases and things like that. You should not be designing this for your user, your user should help you design it for themselves.
“Those kinds of conversations are really tough, so you just have to give them proof and keep showing them.”
Research Collective: How does your role at Neudesic play into all this?
Matt: “It allows me to get connected to those people. If I didn’t have Neudesic, I wouldn’t have access to CIOs all over the place. I wouldn’t have access to marketing people.
“I love Neudesic. I’ve been here for nine years in June, and they’ve allowed me to have this conversation with people. If they had stopped me from doing that, I’d probably have moved on by now. But they haven’t. They’ve allowed me to build something that is, frankly, one of the bigger practices in Arizona by connecting the need. There are people that are hiring and that have money to spend to do something different. It’s really about convincing them to change their behavior and how they think about their problems. Again, you do that by showing them their solutions are not working; here’s a better way.”
Research Collective: How does your involvement with Arizona State University play into all this?
Matt: “Connecting the people to the need. With Arizona State, I’m able to connect closer to the people that are coming out [of school]. Connecting with Russ a long time ago, we went to lunch at Four Peaks, and we started talking about what our dreams are and what we want to do. Mine was to find people and grow a community. And he says, “Well I’ve got a bunch of people!”, so we started figuring it out.
“Having Arizona State as a feeder for UX and for growth is amazing. If I didn’t have a feeder like Arizona State, I would only have people doing their thing and I would have to change them. I would have to convince them. I don’t know where I’d get them! I’d have to go to the University of Arizona, I guess. Ew!
“If I can get them earlier and understand where those people come from, how they’re being trained, and what they’re training in, I can get ahead of that. I think having an actual Masters [degree] in the field really helps because it focuses everybody into where they’re going to go afterward.
“It’s awesome working with ASU on this problem because I get so many great candidates. I get people calling me, asking for jobs. If I can get them a job somewhere, that’s a win for me; as long as they don’t move away from Arizona, that’s a win for all of us.”
Research Collective: What is your favorite thing about your job?
Matt: Well, shoot, I’ve been doing it for nine years; I must like something! The job, I think, is different from the company. The company allows me to do what I really want to do. It doesn’t put a lot of parameters on me except for making money and making sure I don’t do something stupid. The fun part about my job is doing what I love and still being profitable. I’ve proved to do that by modeling the right team and putting people together.
“The people that I work with every day. I love my team, and I hope that they love me. I’m only there to help them, so my favorite thing about my job is the people that I work with. They are definitely excited. They are motivated. They are always thinking about new things. They are always challenging me and I am always challenging them. It’s a good healthy mix of “Let’s ideate over a problem and let’s figure it out.” You couldn’t do that without the people here, so that’s it.”
Research Collective: What what are you most proud of?
Matt: “I hate to put it back into a money scenario, but I am most proud that in 2018, we became really profitable for Neudesic. I’m proud that the people that aren’t on my team are starting to get it. I love the fact that I was able to change their opinions, change the way they sell [UX], and change the way they value [UX].
“For the most part, what we do is not for ourselves. None of our activities are for us. We shouldn’t be thinking of ourselves; we should be thinking of other people. As soon as we started doing that, I’m proud to say [UX] was the catalyst for when we became really mature and how we approach stuff. We stopped arguing on making a button green when someone else wanted a blue button. It’s not about that. It’s about what that button is supposed to do because it was blue.
“We were able to model our team with ASU students. We were able to put together a team that was very loved. On every project, we are generally the last ones to leave and I’m proud that we have a great time.”
Matthew Schafman | Sr. Director of Ideation and Design | Neudesic
Matthew Schafman is the Sr. Director of Ideation and Design for Neudesic, a Trusted Technology Partner in Business Innovation. He started out in the United States Navy and then graduated from the University of Massachusetts with a BFA in Electronic Imaging/Photography. He has over 25 years of experience in solution consulting and design. In 2015, he and his team became the proud winners of the Nielsen Norman Group Best Intranet Award. For the last 7 years, Matthew has been dedicating his life to growing the UX eco-system in Arizona and founded one of the largest and most active Arizona Meet-Ups called “UX in AZ” in 2012. Its purpose is to concentrate on growing the capabilities and collaboration of our local UX talent, as well as building Arizona company’s awareness of how important UX services are for their business. Matthew believes that, with ASU as a partner, Arizona will quickly be a top-tier producer of UX innovators and advocates.