Meet Susan K Rits, User Experience Design Immersive Instructor at General Assembly San Francisco


Invention by Design

Susan K Rits — a User Experience Design Immersive (UXDI) instructor at General Assembly’s San Francisco campus — brings with her to the classroom 25 years of product design experience that spans from coast to coast. She’s been the senior director of UX at Sephora, a lead designer at Google, the mobile UI designer at Oracle, and UX designer at PayPal, in addition to working with startups big and small. Currently, Susan is the founder and director of product design at Rits & Co. Read her article, “A Beginner’s Guide to Color Theory”, and get her take on what success looks like in UX below.

How would you define user experience design in one sentence?

UX is the invention of products and experiences that people love to use.

What do you love about user experience design?

I love the brash, gold-rush feel of working in technology. We’re all inventors coming up with ideas, trying them out — sometimes hitting it big, sometimes failing — and that’s part of the thrill. It’s a really fun career!

What’s an example that embodies the best of what UX design can and should accomplish in real life?

UX design is no longer a “nice-to-have” addition to software but instead has become a critical element of the entire product development process. This is because businesses understand that speeding the user to their goal has a direct impact on the bottom line. (A 2016 study from Forrester Research reported that a user interface that was elegantly designed and tested for usability would improve a website’s conversion rate as much as 200 percent.)

At Sephora, my UX team spent four months researching and redesigning the checkout flow in order to improve that conversion rate, and we were not disappointed with the results. We went from a 15-plus-click checkout flow to four simple screens and significantly less distraction. Fewer distractions means fewer dropoffs before making that last critical click to confirm the purchase, and that translates into real dollars (in the millions). That’s the power of good product design.

What are some examples of companies excelling in UX design?

It seems like every business is starting to take heed of its customer experience, but one that’s been in the know from the beginning is Airbnb, which made famous the use of storyboarding for user research and didn’t release a feature without showing a quantifiable improvement in usability testing.

Startups are even more eager to include the product designer in the planning and ideation stage of business development, as they so often thrive or fail based on the traction their applications gain in the first few months. Even a barebones minimum viable product (MVP) can benefit from excellent UX.

Why should someone learn essential user experience design skills at GA?

The advantage of an in-person UXDI course at GA is that students spend 40-plus hours per week — for 10 weeks — with access to director-level product designers. Nothing really compares to spending hours talking to, learning techniques from, and showing work to actual practitioners. I’m able to share more than two decades’ worth of experience designing complex transactional software, techniques for guerrilla usability testing when your company won’t give you time or a budget for it, advice for surviving dysfunctional product teams, working in an agile, lean, or waterfall environment, and, especially, how not to lose your mind or your apartment when you start your own company.

Plus, the bonding experience of going through an accelerator course with 20 other students is incredible. These students become friends for life, colleagues looking out for one another, passing along tips and tools and job opportunities that they’d never find on their own. I wish I’d had this kind of leg up in the industry then I was first starting my career.

What does a superstar UX student look like?

A superstar student takes each project seriously — focusing on learning the skills, yes, but even more on how this will build their portfolio and narrative when talking to a hiring manager. The student who comes early, stays late, networks after class, and focuses on building their career as well as their portfolio is always the first hire from my cohorts. This is a competitive field — even with all of the skills, a big amount of hustle and drive is required.

What personal qualities will set someone up for success in your industry?

Setting the ego aside. The great fear product teams have is that they’ll hire the egoistic designer who can’t take feedback and won’t change their designs. When designers realize they’re a single member of a larger team, and their advice is only that — advice — they’ll have a much higher level of success.

What was your path to becoming a teacher and leader in user experience design?

My own design firm, Rits & Co, has been a great vehicle for finding cool opportunities and working with amazing people. It also allows me to pursue other passions, including teaching — something I’d done a bit of in the past at the university level. I really love teaching, so when the opportunity to teach my favorite subject to emerging young designers came along, I jumped on it.

Why did the opportunity to teach at GA appeal to you?

I’d been running into GA grads for a couple of years, which is how General Assembly came onto my radar. I was offered a course in January 2017, and I jumped at the chance. I’ve been teaching steadily since then and can honestly say it’s the hardest job I’ve ever had — but also the most rewarding.

How would you describe your teaching philosophy?

I’m definitely focused on real-world skills. Some theory and history of this profession is necessary just to provide context, but all of my students are adults transitioning into a career. I want them to have the skills they’ll need on Day One in that job — not a lot of philosophy that won’t help when their creative director is asking for a solution to the sticky navigation problem that the engineers need that afternoon.

What has been your favorite memory as a GA instructor?

My best memory (so far) was when a student I’d spent a lot of time mentoring and coaching during class Slacked me that she’d just got her first design job — which was her first job ever. A lot of people thought she wouldn’t make it through the program, let alone get a job, and yet she was one of the first out of the class to do just that. I was so proud of her!

How do you help struggling students break through to meet or go beyond their minimum GA course requirements?

My courses are heavy on the growth mindset. Everyone will get value from the course, no matter whether they start from a solid visual design background or have no experience with design at all. UX is a broad field, so people who are terrible at design but can throw themselves into research and testing will be just as successful as the fantastic visual designer who struggles to write well. We teach a big bundle of tools, and once a student has learned them, they pick and choose the ones that make most sense for them.

I come from the startup world, and I love starting new projects and ventures. I encourage everyone to do at least one startup in their life. High-achieving students often come up with amazing ideas I really want to see live in the real world, and I’m always happy to help them brainstorm ways to turn a class project into the next hot business idea.

Please describe exceptional strengths in GA’s curriculum, teaching style, and community.

The strength of the curriculum is that real-world designers bring their real work experiences to the classroom.

What are some free resources and tools a student can use to stay up to speed in the field?

There are a million blogs and resources on the Internet — Smashing Magazine, UXPin, UX Magazine, Nielsen Norman Group, UX Booth, A List Apart, UX Movement, The Hipper Element. New sources come out daily, so this is by no means an exhaustive list.

What is the best way to get practical, real-world experience in user experience design?

Freelance — even if that means working for free on your roommate’s project. The point is to be working, constantly, on your own, your friends’, or a paid project. Don’t lose momentum spinning your wheels on perfecting your portfolio (they are never perfect, even after 25 years) or finding your dream job. Every job should be your dream job until the next better opportunity comes along.