When User Experience Means Life or Death

Information architect Merryl Gross designs UX that averts calamities

2 min read

Illustration of Merryl Gross
Illustration: Gluekit

For kidney patients who do their own dialysis at home, nurses must review information data gathered during a treatment session. “These nurses need to know quickly when there is a problem like peritonitis, which can kill a patient in a day—but not be overwhelmed with alerts and messages," says Merryl Gross, an information architect and senior UX Designer for Fresenius Medical Care North America. The company's Web-based software for clinics and nurses who are responsible for dialysis and other services needs to be carefully crafted. It has to display information in a way that draws nurses' attention to both immediate and long-term problems, without being confusing or overwhelming.

“Basically [it's] applying human psychology to the design of made objects," says Gross. “Different fields have their own names for this," Gross notes. “When it's a control panel in an airplane cockpit, we call it human-factors engineering. When it's software, we call it usability and user experience (UX)."

Gross started on her path by taking an elective course in human factors as an MIT undergraduate in the early 1980s. Field trips included visits to the control tower at Boston's Logan Airport and the control room in New Hampshire's Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant—places where rapid, correct responses by staff are critical.

The high stakes force clear, if sometimes surprising, interface decisions. “We saw where one power plant had replaced the numbered levers for the control rods with levers from beer taps," recalls Gross. “It meant that if there was an emergency requiring quick action, instead of yelling 'Drop lever No. Six!,' which could take a new—or stressed—employee several seconds to identify, they could yell 'Drop the Coors lever!,' which even a new employee could locate instantly."

After graduating from MIT, “I did human-factors engineering at Telephonics, designing control panels for radios for military and aviation use.... But after a year, I decided that to do more of the human-factors parts I needed a master's degree, so I went to Tufts and got my master's in engineering psychology."

From there, Gross went on to work on the UX aspect of software design at companies including IBM, SilverPlatter, IDX Systems, and GE Healthcare, which, as software architectures evolved, brought her to working on software as a service (SaaS) and Web apps.

For people interested in a UX design role, Gross says, “You can start with a subspecialty like usability testing, then add, like, information architecture or interaction design to broaden your focus." Someone with coding experience “may be able to start as a UI designer." Or, Gross says, “You could go the graphic artist route, if a company needs controls designed as part of the work. If you do technical writing, there are UI writers who do the text parts of user interfaces."

She also suggests some skills that it's good to have in your portfolio: “Wireframing, ideation, conducting iterative design reviews, usability testing, and creating functional specifications." For specific software tools, Gross recommends getting experience with “Adobe XD, Sketch, Balsamiq, or other wireframing tools; outlining and flow tools like Overflow or [Microsoft] Visio; and collaboration tools like InVision or Miro."

In addition to traditional job listings, Gross suggests looking at specialty recruiters like Clear/Point Staffing Consultants for those interested in UX. But she warns, “Beware of any listing that asks for someone to wireframe, design, and code the entire front end—that's a place that doesn't know what they need."

This article appears in the November 2020 print issue as “Merryl Gross, Information Architect."

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