Sharon Austin


Sharon Austin


User Experience Designer


Northrop Grumman



Graduation year: 


How has your career progressed since you graduated SILS?

Immediately after graduation from SILS, I worked as a user experience designer in a temporary position for ITS Web Services at UNC, helping with the revamp of the ITS website in 2014. I eventually found an entry-level position with Northrop Grumman as a user experience designer. In my current role, I do a variety of interaction design work, information architecture work, and at times also help with conducting usability research. I later found out that I was hired specifically for my information science background. I have been in my role at Northrop over two years now and I still find many opportunities to draw upon my experiences at SILS.

In your current employment, what are your job duties and responsibilities?

My job duties vary depending on the project. My roles tend toward interaction design, information architecture and some user research.  Much of my work is done in Adobe Illustrator. I may be creating anything from user personas to wireframes to task models - it really depends on the project. I tend towards more of the "interaction design," side and understanding how the users move through a system or task. On some projects, I have written and conducted user interviews and expectancy tests, then helped with analyzing the data afterwards.  On my team, I have become known for loving information architecture and have given several talks on it. On projects, I conduct card sorts and content inventories as needed. I love designing search interfaces. I also recently gave a talk on search and information retrieval, drawing upon a ton of material we covered in SILS, of course.

What projects have gotten you most excited and/or what accomplishments have made you the proudest?

We had the opportunity to work on re-designing the software for a special tool, which has the capability to do some incredible things. That special tool was originally created by scientists in a lab, not for the 18-22 year-old soldiers that would eventually work with it. The process for turning on the tool was so cumbersome that most users couldn't do it. These users were so fed up with the tool that they absolutely refused to use it, even when ordered. It ended up being a multi-million dollar paperweight. We managed to get out to talk to these users (not an easy feat in our domain) and understand their difficulties in working with the software for this tool. We conducted numerous expectancy tests and many research interviews in an effort to understand the users' frustrations. We eventually delivered designs that will hopefully drastically improve things for them. Additionally, we heard that we did such a good job with this software redesign that other similar projects would like to follow our lead and redesign the software for their special tools in a similar manner.

What were some of your best experiences at SILS??

Not surprisingly, I really loved my user experience-focused courses at SILS. I learned so much from Javier Velasco's "User Experience Design," special topics course, Dr. Capra's course on usability evaluation and testing, and Dr. Bergquist's User Interface Design course. Paul Jones' "Emerging Topics for Information Science," was an awesome class that really forced me to think about, well, modern topics and applications of information science. I think it really helped me to understand some of the real-world applications of what information science is about. I can also say the same for the first-year seminar I took with SILS, "Information Policy."

How did your time at SILS prepare you for the future?

I still find myself relying on readings from SILS regularly - I keep a binder of them at my desk. I still have the majority of my textbooks (also at my desk) and I wish I hadn't sold my systems analysis and design one. I still refer to these regularly.  The theory behind models of information retrieval and search behavior have proved valuable when true user research is hard to come by. I have turned to previous course readings for evidence to make a point on a project. The empathy I gained for working with developers via my database courses and programming courses has helped tremendously on projects. I can understand their rationale for why they are tackling a problem a specific way. My user experience courses taught me the basics of how to do a content inventory, wireframing, and conducting user tests, all of which are useful in my current job. Dr. Bergquist's warnings about DoD industry PowerPoints are not to be taken lightly. They are incredibly accurate...the majority of slides are instant information overload. The team I belong to is trying to change this, one presentation at a time.

What inspires or motivates you?

I want to help people find what they need or what they are looking for, no matter the technology they are using.

Is there any other information you would like to share, or any advice you would like to offer current or future SILS students?

Do your readings. Seriously. You'll appreciate them later. I promise.  I would also say, try to get involved with projects or research or student groups if you can. I learned so much from working with other students and as a research assistant.