Meet Ali: A New Product Development (NPD)-Focused UX Designer
In this installment of our employee spotlight series, we highlight Ali Gaass, a UX Designer at Milwaukee Tool focused on New Product Development (NPD).
Ali Gaass is as interesting a person as she is pleasant a conversationalist.
From her resort mountain town in Colorado, her hobbies change with the seasons—paddleboarding the river, riding electric bikes, hiking, exploring nature, and gardening, when the warm weather permits—while snow flurries make her grab her board and skis poles to shred mountains. This picturesque setting also serves as an inspiring backdrop, where Gaass, a UX designer focused on new product development, forms the designs that underpin how Milwaukee Tool’s connected smart tools interact with our app interface.
Gaass is friendly, welcoming, easy to talk to—the same qualities, I’m sure, that make her succeed in her role.
What is a UX Designer? Gaass Focuses on Smoothing User Interactions Between Software and Hardware
‘Designer’ carries different meanings and applications to people across industries. In web development, visual or web designers may create wireframes for websites or banner ads to drive interest in ecommerce—in the AEC industry, architectural designers may use software like AutoCAD to design structures or use building information modeling collaboratively to virtually shape multi-dimensional representations of built environments and infrastructure.
In product development—whether that’s software or manufactured goods like power tools—an emerging role is UX design, which stands for User Experience. Yes, UX designers design products, but their focus, as their title suggests, is the user.
As Gaass tells me, a graphic designer may have laser focus on making sure the final developed product of visually appealing design for marketing collateral is pixel perfect. Meanwhile, a product designer that’s determined to make a name for themselves may put form before function. A UX designer focuses on improving product experiences—enhancing usability, usefulness, desirability, and brand perception that customers and users form with these products when they interact with them. Just as they aim to develop products that meet the needs of end users, they’re obsessed with continuous improvement through user feedback to address and resolve unforeseen problems as users engage with these products through a product lifecycle.
Gaass, a long-time ONE-KEY™ team member of over five years, credits her being in the right place at the right time, and having the right background of intersecting skillsets, with what made UX the “perfect fit” for her.
With a passing glance, Gaass’s resume may look to someone on the street as eclectic—dual degrees in psychology, ceramics, and graphic design, programming classes, and work experience as a frontend developer. But it’s precisely these intersecting life experiences that helped her eventually find her to the UX field, where she’s thrived with a honed craft.
As a UX designer, you have to set aside personal preferences and let the users, user research, data, and metrics speak instead. You have to thoughtfully listen as a user highlights their needs and pain points to better highlight their ‘migraine’ problems while solving through both design and system thinking lenses. When designing through all these lenses, you have to put yourself in their shoes and being able to understand behavior, motivation and what they're trying to accomplish. So, while I will always advocate for the user first and foremost, there is a skill to balancing those user needs with the business goals and technical feasibility of features to make sure the ‘juice is worth the squeeze’ to deliver the best experience possible.
Ali Gaass, UX Designer·Milwaukee Tool
Keep reading to learn more about Gaass’s background, what the day-to-day workflow of a new product development (NPD) UX designer looks like, and how Gaass’s role differs and intersects with Tennyson’s, a UX researcher we previously spotlighted!
An Interview with Ali Gaass – UX Designer on the New Product Development Team for One-Key Compatible Tools
I asked a similar question of Tennyson, and I’m interested to hear your answer.
UX is an emerging field, and its practitioners come from many diverse backgrounds. Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you originally got into UX design?
Yes, it's been an interesting thing watching UX grow and become more defined in the last 15ish years, definitely.
So, I actually found [UX design] by chance. It was funny, when I was graduating with psychology and art, my mom's asked, “What are you going to do with that?” So, I had to figure out how to combine both design/art and behavioral psychology into one greater thing.
I have seemingly random degrees paper, but really, they weave a good UX foundation. I have a background in behavioral psychology and research methodologies. I focused my research and findings around Benevolent Sexism as well as studied the beneficial neurological impacts of using mindfulness-based techniques like meditation and yoga for anxiety disorders. That really set me up for doing UX research down the line. I also have a degree in graphic design but knew at the time ‘print was dying’ so I focused my degree on more web-based solutions. Through that, we had to take a bunch of coding classes to create our own portfolios so we would be better equipped to support uploading new work. While in school, I applied for a marketing/graphic design internship. Through that interview process they said, “Yeah, you'd be great for that, but we also think that you'd be a better fit for UX Internship.” The internship combined me doing both the UX/graphic design of marketing campaigns and then I coded the front-end on them too. I took more coding bootcamps which I think helps me understand how to design from a component and development standpoint.
So, when I apply that together, it really helps me understand how to design and research from many lenses and facets.
What was it like starting out?
When I first started, UX was this fuzzy umbrella of digital design and strategy where you kind of had to learn anything and everything you could and really experiment to see worked and didn’t to build your toolkit. There was a lot of trial an error as the industry was becoming better defined. At the time, there was a big focus on breaking User Experience into the roles UX and UI (User Interface). Every company and their specific make-up often dictate what the UX umbrella looks like depending on their specific product, UX needs, and company size.
Many tech companies were start-ups in my area and so the UX teams were often scrappy and wore many hats. UX as a whole had to advocate for themselves and the users in order to grow the field. The tech giants like Apple had big budgets (thus could experiment with UX roles) so they really helped distill it into what you see today.
Through that, I think we have a better understanding of these various roles, but it will always be evolving. Right now, some of those more defined roles are UX (User Experience), UI (User Interface Design, UXR (UX research), IxD (Interaction Design), IA (Information Architecture). I am thankful that I got to try out all those roles wearing the various hats from my scrappy startup days to help me figure out my strengths within the field too.
Wow, that's great and that kind of speaks to one of these other questions that I have just added. You kind of talked about this with like the user testing and things like that.
But, just at a high level for a layman, how would you describe what UX is to someone who is unfamiliar with the field? When they hear you're a designer, they may think of things like traditional design, like graphic design, visual design, web design.
How would you explain what your role is to a layperson and what UX processes may look like [compared to other types of designers]?
So, UX it’s really broad because any product we interact with will give a “user experience” good or bad, but having UX designers involved will help improve the end product.
In general, UX designers help curate the interaction a user has with a product or service through user research, testing, and validation. The intention is making a product easy to use, efficient, and enjoyable for the end-users, while balancing the business goals, feasibility and overall value add.
I think that many factors can define what the role and UX process looks like based on the product, team size, and team makeup. How the UXer applies their toolkit also depends on the project at hand and the team makeup. I have worked on Platform, NPD teams, and was here prior to our current product teams at One-Key and all required varying processes. Currently sitting on the NPD team Vulcan, my process has changed a bunch from my platform days because I am interacting with a physical tool. When designing for a tool, I have to think with more of a system design mindset when designing for One-Key Developers and our partners on the tool teams to make sure all features function smoothly together.
Editorial Note: A product team in software development is a cross-functional team structure that splits developers, UX designers, product owners (POs), and product managers (PMs) into smaller groups, each tasked with a specific area of product development to remove bottlenecks and empower autonomy (e.g., tool location services, continuous app improvement, new product development). See also: Scrum and Agile Software Development.
Most of the tool projects I have worked on lately fall under the Precision Drilling and Fastening sphere of new product development (NPD), and many of these tools are often first of their kind for Milwaukee Tool in many ways. In my experience, the process for NPD often requires a lot more onsite user testing with the physical tools, project flexibility and pivoting (due to technical limitations), and trial and error collaboration with our Milwaukee® partners, than some other projects I have been on for say platform.
With that, we have added processes for infield research, testing, and additional work that goes into developing new adaptive features and designing for new kinds of technical complexities. When lifting a new tool project, we spend time working on each new feature individually, while considering pros and cons of this functionality to the tool overall. One-Key’s ability to interact with the tool in certain and necessary ways is based on what is baked into the tool’s firmware upstream, and so we must have foresight of impacts to other features as we design. For example, if we know the tool requires reporting functionality (even though we won’t touch reporting that for months), we have to have foresight to require certain features be added/captured by the adaptive feature’s firmware before it is locked. A lot of these early decisions will impact the architecture which change design patterns and the overall user experience.
I think of it as a puzzle and I am trying to balance all the various pieces of working and thinking micro at single feature level, while simultaneously thinking and planning downstream at a large macro project level too. It is incredibly interesting work, and it is amazing to get to experiment and design with “what if” in mind since we develop the product in-house and can build to the very limits.
Kind of dovetailing off of that. What are some of the challenges that you would typically face in your role, and what are some of the strategies that you use to try to overcome them?
Depends on the team and project you're on. Since I’m on NPD [new product development] and I'm physically working with the tool, I can have a lot more limitations set by feasibility and technicality as we collaborate, and balance One-Key’s needs with our Milwaukee® partner’s.
If the firmware can only allow me to do XYZ, how can I use that limitation and help paint a story for the end user? How can I make this process as simple and easy to use as possible even if it is technical behind the scenes? For me personally, some of the current limitations I have is that some of these new tool projects take a few years to lift and that can make overall tool planning more complex since you have to think of a feature and its impact at a micro and macro level simultantously. It can be difficult to predict required functionality and bake that into firmware well in advance since the relationship with our partners requires a lot of flexibility and pivoting based on in-field tool and user feedback as each new individual feature is lifted. Due to the fast nature of pivoting and some technical limitations, there is just never enough time and I wish I had the luxury of more user testing at that micro level.
Here's a follow-up. Outside of UX, who are the people that you collaborate with the most you would say and what is like collaboration look like within your role?
I am in a unique position because I collaborate so closely with partners outside of One-Key as we lift new tools together. Day to day, I collaborate closely with the PMs (Product Managers), POs (Product Owners), and developers on Team Vulcan here in One-Key. However, due to the unique nature of NPD work, I also work very closely with the PMs and POs from our Milwaukee® partners. The One-Key UX team is very close, and we collaborate together weekly to make ensure overall we are in overall alignment as we are working on a wide array of varying projects. This helps solidify overall One-Key design standards while working towards establishing patterns and creating overall design components. Having UX in alignment helps with brand standards and the overall experience. I have the added privilege of collaborating with Milwaukee® partners to such as electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, sometimes with the machine learning teams among others. We also heavily collaborate with end users as we are developing these features to make sure Milwaukee® stays far ahead of our competition. Collaboration and communication between all these teams are key.
What would you say are some qualities that make a great UX designer and/or what would you describe as great UX design in general?
I think the ability to quickly hone-in on a user’s actual “migraine problem” is a big differentiator for good UX designers. A user can say they need to solve for pain points X, Y, Z and that they need individual features to solve for their problems. As a UXer, are you able to dig deeper to understand why these are pain points? Is there a larger theme? Users can say they want to solve for their problems by adding individual features- a good UXer will hopefully identify overall patterns and can thread those pain points into a larger theme or issue they need to solve for. Users can say they “want” certain things, but what they actually “need” might be completely different. Being able to quickly identify that actual “need” or “migraine” will speed up the design process, help reduce complexity and over-engineering down road. Figuring out that migraine upfront can help reduce development time which is very costly. Often, if you don’t see the larger picture/ patterns, anyone go down the wrong smaller rabbit hole. There is an art to balancing those needs, without dangling a “shiny object” or feature to an Additionally, user will want the “shiny object” (functionalities) whether they need it or not as users will always want more functionality over less. With that, we can quickly add complexity and over-engineering if we aren’t careful. It is being able to identify the user need and make sure that feature is worth “the squeeze” for all parties. User testing with our end users and asking the correct questions often and early will also create a better, more user friendly, and cost-efficient product in the end.
What do you like most about UX (and your role specifically)?
Working in NPD is never boring. There will always be lots of complexities and new challenges as each tool is different. That keeps things fun and interesting. I love to tinker and solve problems and NPD is a good fit for that. I can design big (as we develop product in house), while still working within good confines (overall feasibility). I will always be trying to solve issues from a different angle with those limitations in mind and try and push the boundaries. I love to learn. I am extremely curious and love system thinking. There are so many aspects we can build out within NPD beyond tools that is exciting. I love system and design thinking and there is a lot of strategy in the works for NPD so there are tons of opportunities. AI has just added a new element to the UX field and understanding that impact will keep things interesting. As AI has put everything into warp speed, learning, experimenting, and testing these new boundaries is going to be infinite playground.
You've been in the One-Key team for about five years, right?
Time has flown, but a little over 5 years.
Can you speak a little bit to me about your tenure here and seeing the department grow? From your perspective, what are some of the major milestones that you recall [at the company] and being a part of the team?
So, I've been here since before we had the product teams we have today. We have really matured since then. The team was much smaller and One-Key development often focused on big features, (Multi-user for example). We only had a few UX designers at the time (no UXR either) and so I would pivot between NPD, platform and styleguide building where we are much more focused now. One-Key is much bigger too which helps with speed and agility, so we are able to better focus our efforts and so we can release a lot more functionality into the One-Key app.
I think for UX, some of the biggest milestones was lifting our One-Key DSMs [design system management]. We had been doing a lot of one-offs for each project and tool prior to that UX initiative. Christina was huge in leading those efforts and we are in a much better place due to that. The ability to get aligned and lift DSMs for platform, and both mobile apps has been huge. We have been building upon that since which makes designing much more cohesive (regardless of UX team growth for onboarding) and improved our overall design process (we have design library stickersheets we can pull from which saves times and reduces inconsistencies between designers). We are much more automated too which allows for designing and developing from a component’s standpoint.
Mobile has really grown out too from when I started. Additionally, we have added UX researchers to the team which will pay dividends 10-fold. The UX team is in a really exciting place and with the team we currently have, it is only going to improve.
How’s it like now, compared to then? What are you most excited about?
Some of the new amazing features were just released in Figma which will change some of our current processes. We still have to understand how large that impact will be but are making strides. There are opportunities for tooling up skills like adding more interaction design to improve usability (could be a big win as we look more at our education strategy. Understanding AI and its impact will be a wild ride too.
Is there a project, feature, or initiative that you worked on since starting that you’re particularly proud of?
Oh, that’s a hard one. Maybe helping understand NPD from a UX lens has had the greatest impact. One-Key has grown so much, and we have really matured from a product standpoint. We have better defined roles and teams and that helps better orient focus. Now that we have grown, we are able to put focus in different areas rather than one large initiative, and I think NPD is going to have an amazing next couple of years. There were a lot of foundations put in place to be able to spotlight the needs and possibilities of NPD. There has been a big imitative of componatizing the DSM for One-Key, and currently we are in a place to be able focus more on the NPD experience now too.
What would you say is your favorite part about working at Milwaukee Tool is, and on the One-Key team more specifically? And perhaps compared to other workplaces?
I have worked at other companies where we have worked with just app facing products, as well as interacting with outside products, but hadn’t worked with products built in-house before One-Key. In the past I've worked with gamifying health for companies using data off of habit trackers like Fitbits and using what data we can access from their APIs, but we couldn’t add or optimize to that dataset. When designing for something that you can't really control, there are big limitations. Working at One-Key is special since the product is built in house. We can pair with the mechanical and the electrical teams to get rid of those limitations of relying on outside products. Actually, being a part of the product build is really special because it is so customizable and can be tailored to our user’s needs. This has created an amazing and exploratory working culture and the work and challenges are always fresh and exciting. Additionally, from working with our Milwaukee® partners, folks speak highly of One-Key, and I think that speaks to the culture we have fostered over the years.
Last one. Can you tell me a bit about yourself outside of the office? Do you have any hobbies? I know that you snowboard! Anything else?
I live in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, which is a mountain ski town, so hobbies depend on the season. In the winters, I grew up skiing and snowboarding (though I mainly board now). Being so close to the ski resort is such a gift. I would argue summers in the mountains are even better and the activities and opportunities are endless but falls colors and weather can’t be beat. Currently, I am spending a lot of weekends outdoors hiking, paddleboarding the rivers, doing art by the river, and seeing lots of live music (surprisingly they have a great music scene if you like Bluegrass). We got electric bikes last summer and have a great bike path system which makes outdoor activities that much more accessible. I have really become an avid gardener and have been experiments with different growing techniques to hone my craft. I have really gotten into companion planting, planting for the pollinators, and hydroponic growing (grasshoppers are a losing battle up in Steamboat right now). I am a big fan of cooking, baking, and plating and am trying to do more farm to table type planning and growing. I like to do mindful activities like yoga and meditation to keep balance. Design, art, ceramics will always be my bread and butter, however. I just got a tufting gun and a Cricut. Between my growing power tool collection and crating tool arsenal, excited to see how I pair them all together into a single craft. Hopefully I can start uploading stuff to the “I-made-it” Slack channel soon.
Tufting gun? What is that? I’ve never heard of that.
Ah yes, I love fiber arts and tufting guns are the new hip toy. I think you have to YouTube it to truly get it what it is since it is hard to explain. Basically, the tool it is used to freeform rugs and fiber textiles. Typically, you start build a wooden frame and stretching add a special type of canvas (almost like building a canvas for painting, yet yarn will be the “paint”). You can draw out your design on that canvas, or you can use a projector to help outline the design if it’s more complex. Then you use different colors of yarn, and you fill in the drawn lines. Maybe it’s like a new take of a coloring book for adults and the end result is a rug. YouTube it. It’s cool.
Wow. I’m looking at it online. That's really cool.
Crafting in general and all the new toys they come out with... I’m over here picking up crafting skills like Infinity Stones.
Very cool. I think that's everything that I had.
About the AuthorLucas is Content Marketing and SEO Manager for Milwaukee Tool, where he and his team raise awareness about the company’s digital products and educate users on best practices through a variety of content vehicles. More Content By Lucas Marshall
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