Not (very) Online: Working in tech and living IRL
There’s a central irony to my working life: I am not a very online person, and yet for the last four years, I’ve worked at a place I once, no joke, described as “an internet place for internet people” in a client meeting. And while the way I expressed the sentiment is a bit ridiculous, it’s not untrue. I work at Stink Studios in New York. At Stink, we make all kinds of (hopefully) smart, well-designed things, built in code. We hacked YouTube to make an interactive film, used Spotify data to personalize your year in review, and built a living monument in AR to celebrate 50 years of Pride. But, ironically, I couldn’t even test that AR prototype on my own phone — it’s an iPhone 6, so AR doesn’t work. To be honest, my phone is barely “smart” anymore. It rarely gets above 3G service, the GPS doesn’t work in Google Maps, and most of the time it takes so long to load anything, I give up and wait ‘til an oasis of WiFi or a laptop appears, whichever comes first. It’s almost as if, in its final stages of life, my iPhone is returning to its ancestral roots — it’s a mobile phone, and not much more. 

But for the most part, I don’t mind. In fact, sometimes I enjoy it. When my phone dies (this happens about once a day) I feel a sense of relief — no incoming messages that I feel pressured to respond to, no robocallers spoofing my mom’s phone number, no temptation to plumb the depths of the internet. I’ve always been this way. When I was in high school, my parents gave me a burner phone for emergencies. I used to just turn the phone off and leave it in the glove compartment of the car — not because I cared if they knew where I was, but because I chafed at the idea of being always available. My friends, meanwhile, treated their phones (and pagers!) like essential teenage survival tools. When my cousin spent an entire summer bragging about (and demonstrating for anyone who would watch) her lazer-like proficiency with the Motorola slide-out QWERTY keyboard, I just… didn’t get it. Who cares how fast you can text if you don’t want to text at all? When my friends started created blogs, and vlogs, and later on Instagram accounts… I felt no urge to join the hordes of “users” baring all for the early internet. It turns out I’m more of a lurker. Which maybe is a natural evolution for the kid who read Narnia during recess while the other kids played. 

Unlike a lot of people I work with, I didn’t grow up wanting to be a designer, either. I stumbled upon UX design through a fortuitous deep dive on accessibility when I was trying to find ways for my grandmother to live independently. She went blind one day to the next, and I was hacking together little tricks — velcro on the remote buttons, cardboard closet dividers, yogurt cups to signal left and right hearing aids — for her with my Mom. I was also at a crossroads in my life. I worked in the art world, which I had found to be an often thankless way to spend 8 hours or more a day, even though I loved the art. When I thought about what fulfilled me, I realized it wasn’t what I did day-to-day. I wanted work to feel purpose-driven, creative, and a little nerdy — like creating those low-fi life hacks. The idea of a career in human-centered design appeared somewhat unexpectedly, and I went for it full-stop.

Someone asked me recently why I chose UX — to design things for the internet — and not, for instance, Industrial Design. Truthfully, there’s no good reason. I had a friend who was a director of UX. She helped me get into this career, and that’s kind of why. I didn’t really understand, at the time, that I would be internetting so hard. I came to it through the lense of human-centered design, not design — capital D. Not a deep love for the internet, either. But even though I’m kind of a perennial n00b, I enjoy my work as an accidental internet architect, and I enjoy thinking about how the internet shapes our culture, and how we shape it. 

When I first started working as a UX designer, I struggled with the anxiety of not being internet enough for this job. I was trying on a new identity, essentially, and figuring out what pieces fit me. I got a new phone, I got all the apps, I finally started sharing my life with Instagram, I went on YouTube binges. I went from being very not online to being, well, somewhat online. For work, I learned Sketch and finally downloaded Chrome. I started using Google Calendar to organize my life. I started prototyping on my phone, whipping out InVision at parties and regaling my friends with my newfound fascination with responsive grids. I went for it, hard, in part because I felt like I had to — otherwise, wouldn’t I be a bit of an imposter? A UX designer who doesn’t actually internet that hard? 

As I’ve grown in my career, and as a person, I dropped some of the superficial markers of my new identity and relaxed. I’ve found what works for me. I’m a bit of lurker — and that’s OK. I haven’t posted anything to Instagram in over three years, I never replaced my old phone, and I don’t start every day reading UX articles on Medium anymore. It turns out that being authentically my technological self, far from hindering my career, is often a benefit. That old phone — when I use it to test sites we’re building, I see our work the way many, many users will also. I catch bugs we might not have found otherwise. I’m not always deep into the latest design trends, so I’m less influenced by them. I approach my work thinking about how people who are a little less tech-savvy, or internet-inclined, will actually use the internet. And I try to build a better internet for people like them, one site at a time. I’m a UX designer who learned to embrace technology on my own terms, and came out better for it. It turns out, you don’t need to be an “internet person” to be a person who builds things for the internet.
Maggie Bryan is the Director of UX at Stink Studios in Brooklyn, NY. She, as you read above, isn’t really online, but you can find her work and a little bit more about her on her website
Art used in this issue: “Sunset over Staffelsee” by Gabriele Münter
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