Interview with Sara Mastro

Sara Mastro is the Senior Experience Design Director at Mediabarn Inc, a digital agency and user experience lab based out of Arlington, Virginia. She is also this year’s co-chair of the 2014 UXPA international conference being held in London this July. Christian Gonzalez interviewed Sara, and they talked about what to expect from the conference, her role as the co-chair and some wisdom for aspiring usability professionals.

CG: What can attendees expect to get out of UXPA this year?

Photo of UXPA 2014 co-chair Sara MastroSM: This year we have a really great program. We tried to mix it up a little bit and really make sure to cover our bases from all the types of UX issues and hot topics out there. Anybody who attends is going to be able to get information about mobile UX, responsive, agile, accessibility and other great content. This year we’ve also divided the conference into different tracks depending on your interest. Tracks include tools and techniques, design psychology, service design, and career development for students or those wishing to switch careers.

What makes the UXPA conference different from other conferences in the field?

We try to draw from all different types of students and professionals in various UX related industries because everybody touches UX, whether you are a researcher, developer or designer. It’s also a fun conference and a great way to network and socialize. We try very hard to make everything work well together with the schedule of sessions. We offer plenty of time for networking and fun receptions as well as other social activities around the city. We try to make it a full experience, not just sitting in rooms listening to talks.

The other conferences probably don’t have cupcakes either. 

Good point! I don’t know if they do, but they’re definitely not as good! We’re also doing “Music and Mimosas” on Wednesday morning. It will be a sixty minute presentation that has to do with the relationship between innovation and improvisation in design. We thought it would be fun to have a cocktail while you’re sitting down and enjoying the presentation and listening to some music. We want to make the conference a little more engaging and unique.

Could you tell me a little bit about how you entered the role as the co-chair this year?

I’ve been involved with UXPA since when they were still called UPA. I started by volunteering to review papers for an earlier conference. We get hundreds of submissions each year and unlike other conferences we don’t just have two or three reviewers; we have big committees with various backgrounds and expertise to make sure we’re really getting quality work. Eventually I led up the reviewers committee for several years up through last year’s conference in DC. This year Danielle Cooley asked me to co-chair with her so I, of course, said yes. We brought Stavros Garzonis on as our third chair (who also happens to be the UXPA UK chapter president.

What are some of your responsibilities as co-chair?

There’s really a lot that goes into planning a big conference like this. We try to divide and conquer as much as possible but we work a lot as a team as well. We coordinate with other volunteers to help with reviews and work with topic chairs to make sure that submissions are chosen thoughtfully in order to develop a strong program. We select keynotes, plan other sessions, create schedules, coordinate committees, etc... It becomes a game of organization with a lot of project management involved. It’s planning a big party and a conference at the same time.

Let’s switch gears to the field of UX in general. What skills have you drawn on the most or served you best in your career?

You know what’s funny; one of the most important skills that you get is actually in practice, which is people skills. There’s a lot you can learn from reading and studying, but working with people and knowing how to read them is a really important skill to have UXPA even has a tutorial on active listening this year. Being able to understand what your users are feeling and what they’re thinking is really important. Mediabarn has been lucky to work with interns and hire students’ right out of school, but it seems like those people skills are something that needs to be more of a focus.

Any new applications or areas adopting usability that you’re particularly excited about?

I think everyone wants the government to incorporate more usability testing into their processes, but in addition to that, children’s education and educational software is really critical. I can’t really think of a new or upcoming application off the top of my head, it’s really just more of a focus. However, one of the things I feel that has to be balanced is that as design trends evolve, we need to make sure that everything being designed to be cool or funky has a balance with what is usable. Even though something is cool we need to ensure that things still work the way people expect them to.

Any particular sessions at the conference you’re excited about?

I’m excited about all the sessions, and the whole conference! It is all going to be awesome. Matias Duarte’s keynote, (the VP of Design for Android), is going to be fantastic. We have tutorials and workshops on eye tracking, how to build a great design team, big data - there’s definitely something for everyone. Something that always frustrates me when I go to a conference is when you attend a session and basically all they’ve done is throw up a PowerPoint and then the presenter recites the bullet points and that’s pretty much it. This conference is not that. These sessions are going to be much better and more engaging than that. It’s the whole package.