Brittany Hunter on Tinkering, Learning Latin, and Design as Problem Solving

This is the first in a new series of interviews with Atomic makers.

Meet Brittany Hunter: dressage rider, violinist, and software designer at Atomic Object. I recently sat down with Brittany to learn what drew her to software design, how she got there, and where she thinks the industry is going.

Why are you a software designer?

I’m fascinated by solving problems for people: business problems, workflows, process design, etc. Helping people achieve a goal is really what I’m good at. People think that being a designer is all about visual design, but that’s probably the part I enjoy the least.

Having the chance to do user-centered design, ethnographic research, and user testing—that’s what drew me to Atomic. I get to see people encounter a piece of software or a workflow that I’ve built. I can watch them doing something they weren’t able to do before, or I can see their frustration if it doesn’t work out—and then I can make it better. Interaction with people and problem solving are the most valuable parts of my work to me.

How did you get to where you are today?

Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved to tinker with computers. I remember being seven years old and having so much fun making things with MS Paint. That just grew along with me. I taught myself HTML/CSS as a teenager, did a lot of desktop publishing, made freelance websites, etc.

I started in the graphic design program at GVSU, but this was back in 2004 when there wasn’t really an education program for web design or software design. The program was very print-based, and it didn’t match my career interests. I switched to a computer science major, but I dropped out of that after a semester because I was the only woman and, frankly, I wasn’t treated very well by my classmates or the department.

Meanwhile, all along, I’d been taking classes in ancient Greek because it was something I wanted to learn. I’d fallen in love with classics, so I made that my major. As a freshman, I was hired as a student employee of GVSU’s web team, and I did a lot of learning on my own and on the job. It grew into a career.

Right after I graduated, I got a job as a website coordinator for a non-profit. Then I spent a few years working as a web developer at GVSU before being hired at Atomic.

Has your training in classics ever come in handy as a designer?

Absolutely. The liberal arts and language skills I learned have enhanced the skills I’ve gathered elsewhere in design and software.

There’s really not that much difference between translating a complex poem in Latin and learning the syntax of code. You use a lot of the same critical thinking skills when you’re designing an interface or unraveling a business program.

Is being a designer what you expected?

In some ways it has been, yet it’s blown my mind how much the industry has changed. In my late teens, I envisioned myself working for an agency. In the decade since then, software has invaded every part of our lives. Before I started my career, software was in the screen, in the computer—and now it’s everywhere. I’m capable of doing more than I ever anticipated. There are many, many more possibilities for what you can do with it, and that’s really challenging.

Is there anything you find frustrating about design?

The pace of change in technology can be maddening at times. There’s always some new technique of framework or process you ought to be learning about and incorporating into your work. Google comes out with the Material Design framework, Twitter Bootstrap gets updated, etc.

Not to mention the Internet of Things throws an entirely new twist on design and problem solving in general. There are so many social constructs that are still evolving. We live in exciting times, but it’s also a challenge to keep up.

Communicating your vision to clients and colleagues can also be challenging, but you have to view that as a design problem. It’s part and parcel of the process. Learning to collaborate and communicate with people is key.

What other skills does a software designer need?

You need to have a strong aptitude for figuring things out. What drew me to this career path—and it’s served me well ever since—is that I loved to tinker on the computer. Any time someone had a software question, I’d tinker around until I figured it out. That drive to figure out the answer is very important; otherwise, you’ll just get frustrated with your tools and the work in general. You need that curiosity.

If you’re talking about a generalist software designer, you also need visual design skills and an aesthetic sense. Some organizations compartmentalize the different areas of software design. But even if visual design isn’t your primary job, you need to provide good design feedback.

You also need great communication skills and empathy—the ability to see things from other people’s perspectives and empathize with users, to walk through workflows in your head as if you were that person. So if you’re a person who has trouble imagining things in that way, maybe look into a different career.

So where do you think design and software are going?

Software design is only expanding as devices get more and more connected and technology becomes a bigger and bigger part of the world around us. You can’t even buy a refrigerator without a computer inside. And that takes a designer to think it through and make sure it’s a fantastic product.

Design paradigms are also continuing to evolve. Over my career, I’ve seen things grow from really crazy GeoCities sites back in the day to the beautiful websites we have now.

Ten years ago, there was a lot more experimentation. You’d go on a website and it would have this crazy navigation paradigm, and you’d have to figure it out before you could use the website. And that was exciting, but also frustrating.

Today, there are so many established interaction patterns and paradigms. Things have solidified, and there’s a lot more incremental adjustment. The experiments are much more refined. Things that are usable are becoming more and more usable. Things that are clever are getting more clever.

I think we’ll see the same pattern, maybe on a larger scale, as the Internet of Things continues to evolve and technology becomes more stable. I really look forward to seeing those things become more mainstream and seeing what evolves there.

What’s the most satisfying product you’ve ever worked on at Atomic?

The first thing that comes to mind is the Atomic website because it had been a problem for a very long time and was something we really wanted to achieve as a company. I’m proud of what we produced, and working closely with the other designers on our team was a really rewarding experience.

But I’d also have to say my current project, NexGen Inquiry. I’ve had the opportunity to work with a really fun client and a great team of developers creating this interactive, visually fun, complex, robust software for doing science experiments in the classroom.

I think it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever worked on at Atomic. We were under a tight deadline, and the team really pulled together to create something that exceeded my expectations in a short time period. The team at VAEI has been great to collaborate with, and it’s the biggest project I’ve ever worked on. It’s just been a really good and growing experience.