Much like the nimble Star Wars BB-8 droid she worked on, Amara Hulslander moves quickly and covers a lot of ground. Down time is rare, as you notice when scanning for an open hour on her crowded digital calendar.
During the day Hulslander works on some of Amazon’s newest projects and in the evening she goes to the classroom – teaching at CU Denver. When not mentoring students or solving human-computer interface problems, the endurance-sports enthusiast can be found pounding the pavement on Denver running paths.
Hulslander has worked on the user-experience (UX) design of some of the hottest apps and gadgets – Amazon’s retail interface and the Sphero-made droid, among them – and she’s currently involved with a host of innovative projects. She gives CU Denver students plentiful insights into this fast-evolving field in her classes in the Interactive Media and Digital Design program in the College of Arts & Media.
‘Remarkably motivated students’
Hulslander enjoys the curious and purposeful mindset of CU Denver students.
“CU Denver students are remarkably motivated and very bright.” She’s noticed at institutions where she guest lectures that there’s a tendency for some students to do the bare minimum when presented a problem. But at CU Denver, she said, “students will take it as far as they can – they take it all the way.”
For Hulslander, the fun and challenge of being a UX designer is rooted in problem solving. Human-computer interaction is all about being attentive to detail and empathic to what consumers want in a digital environment. “When companies hire designers, they hire you for design thinking,” she said. “They want people who can look at a set of problems and creatively solve them.”
And those solutions must be adaptable to a constantly-changing marketplace, she said. “Interactive Design gets students to think in a way that any solution they come up with today should also scale out as a five-year, 10-year or 50-year solution.”
Not too long ago, Hulslander was herself an undergraduate college student, earning a graphic design degree at the University of California San Bernardino. Graduating into the Great Recession of 2007, she landed a job at a Southern California advertising firm, but, being entrepreneurial-minded, she quickly moved into running her own design studio and consulting with Los Angeles-based startups.
Hulslander got noticed by Amazon and went to work in Seattle on a number of the company’s consumer marketing projects. She became one of the UX leads on Amazon Go, the self-service, no-checkout grocery store concept rolling out this year. Between stints at Amazon, Hulslander worked at Boulder-based Sphero, guiding the design experiences of the company’s products – including the BB-8 app-enabled droid and Star Wars Force Band.
Now, having earned a master’s in human-computer interaction from Iowa State University, and back at Amazon, Hulslander is a UX designer on the consumer electronics team. “It’s a very innovative and forward-thinking company,” she said of Amazon. “I’ve enjoyed working on a lot of different projects here.”
Katherine Hazelton, a sophomore in CAM’s Digital Design program, said Hulslander is an “incredible teacher” whose real-world experience translated every night in class. “She discussed what it meant to be in the real world, such as how to interview for a job, what a job offer looks like, and what we will need to know and be able to show in order to get a job,” Hazelton said. “This was great because many times during school it’s terrifying to graduate and not be sure how to go about getting a job.”
‘Skills we’d use in workforce’
For some students, it’s their first exposure to coding for voice-interface design or other technologies. “Amara’s real-world experience showed in her teaching because she asked us to develop apps and websites based on the tools, and skills we would be using in the workforce,” Hazelton said.
The field is wide open as the digital age demands tech-savvy products that interact with consumers in intuitive ways. “I’d like to go into this field because it’s fast-paced and always developing and changing,” Hazelton said. “Being a UX designer is also extremely challenging and can impact people in their everyday life without them even knowing.”
As for Hulslander, she’d like to continue teaching and being involved in the design of courses. “I think the value I bring to the classroom is my industry relevance,” she said. “I’d like to balance my working in the industry while staying in the classroom.”