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Tiffany Stewart

While the World Wide Web has evolved tremendously over the past couple of decades, it can still feel like we are fighting an uphill battle when it comes to accessibility, even though this push for accessibility has existed since the first set of guidelines created by the W3C in 1999. Making the Web more accessible is a benefit to everyone, and Tiffany Stewart is working hard to make sure that happens.

Our conversation began with a discussion on her work at Thomson Reuters, and she shared how she got into design systems and accessibility. Tiffany also talked about moving to the U.S. from Jamaica as a teenager, attending college in Mississippi, and spoke on what prompted her to shift her focus from engineering to UX. Thank goodness we have future-thinking designers like Tiffany Stewart to ensure that we have a Web that we can all use!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right, so tell us who you are and what you do.

Tiffany Stewart:
Hi, my name is Tiffany Stewart. I’m a senior UX designer specializing in digital systems with a focus on accessibility. And yeah, that’s me. Very much a blurb and just really passionate about accessibility and UX.

Maurice Cherry:
How’s the year been going for you so far? How’s 2022?

Tiffany Stewart:
Oh my gosh, 2022 has been a blast and then some. I bought a house.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice.

Tiffany Stewart:
Right. I am officially now a homeowner and I am in the process of building out my office. So I went and bought the IKEA cabinets and I attached them to the wall and I’m painting and I’m sanding and breaking out the miter saw. That is my life at the moment.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a huge accomplishment. Congratulations.

Tiffany Stewart:
Thank you. It was a lot. The process was a lot because I think it was right before the interest rates went up, so it was just like, “Oh my gosh, I have to hustle and get this house before everything just goes to pop.”

Maurice Cherry:
Well, that’s such a big accomplishment already for the year. Is there anything else that you still want to try to accomplish before 2023?

Tiffany Stewart:
I have so many, but I think for the immediate goal for me is to see this Black Panther movie that’s coming out this year, the second one, the Black Panther. And then on my professional work and getting my design system up and running to a point where it’s doing what it needs to do and folks are able to use it in a meaningful way. So yeah, those are my big ones for the end of the year.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Let’s tap into a little bit about the work that you do. You mentioned you’re a senior UX designer and you’re working at Thomson Reuters. Talk to me about that.

Tiffany Stewart:
I think they initially hired me as a contractor to work on one of their products as a regular UX product designer. And then once they heard about my previous work on a design system prior, they’re like, “Oh, we’ll just move you over to the design system side so we can get that up and running and you can help facilitate that process.” And I was like, “Okay, cool.” And so I shifted into that particular space. Design system tends to be more, because I think not many people know what design system designers do. It’s more of a space where you’re looking at applying concepts across the board holistically for several products and several teams and spaces. So my day to day is really thinking about, “Okay, how do I apply the concept of warning across a design system so that all of the products are consistently representing warning in a way that’s meaningful and consistent?”

So my day to day is that, making decisions about what our colors are going to be and how they’re going to be expressed and just setting all of that up so that the designers can build their products relatively quickly because all of these decisions are already made for them. So they can already just bring those into play. And then working closely with the accessibility team, which I’m very excited, the first time I’ve actually ever had one. Usually, it’s just me doing it by myself. But we do have a dedicated accessibility team at TR and they’re amazing to work with and we just make sure that the DS is accessible as possible, that our products are accessible as possible. So that’s my day-to-day.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me more about that accessibility. I’m curious, what does that look like at a news organization like Thomson Reuters?

Tiffany Stewart:
A lot of it is making sure that we are meeting WCAG requirements. We’re making sure that within the code itself, everything is labeled with the correct ARIA labels, that the DOM is in the correct order, so that when you are tapping through with your headings, everything gets represented semantically type of thing. Making sure that people who are using screen readers are able to get their news in a way that is accessible and meaningful to them. Because I think most people when they think of accessibility, they think, “Oh, I just have to match the color contrast ratio of 3:1 or whatever it is at the time.” But no, it’s actually making sure that the code works, that someone who is a purely keyboard user can tab through, everything makes sense when they tab through, they can read things, whether they are blind or otherwise situationally disabled.

And so we meet with the accessibility team regularly. My particular specialist that we work with is Yvonne, hey Yvonne. And then I think on the other side is Fariel. So we meet with them regularly. There’s a whole team of them, they’re amazing. We reach out, we ask questions, we pair and make sure that the code matches as well as the Figma files match so that all of our products in theory, leave the board fully accessible.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like that’s a lot to do from day to day. What does your regular everyday job look like?

Tiffany Stewart:
It is a lot of pairing. So I will pair with devs, I will pair with like I said, Yvonne on accessibility. And then it’s also a lot of research to make sure that we are meeting the use cases that are given to us by the various teams that we work with. And then figuring out those solutions for how do we solve their problem, but make it agnostic to a design system because it can’t be really specific. The teams are usually responsible for the more specific work that they do in terms of the workflow for their particular product. But from the DS side, it’s more of a super relatively agnostic approach to how can I apply, what does a header look like in an agnostic way that everybody can just pull from the DS and use. Modify here and there. But for the most part, this is generally what a header should look like and where things should go and it is accessible because we’ve already sorted out that when you tab through, it’s going to go through here, here, here and here.

Maurice Cherry:
And just to be clear, a design system would be different from say a brand guide or something because it seems like because you’re applying this across several different products, there’s just going to be different, like you said, situations or use cases where you may not be able to apply it directly, but maybe some elements of it. Am I getting that right?

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah, that sounds about reasonable. Now brand does sort of inform a lot of the things because we can set those colors and that typography and some of the spacing as set colors within the system. And then if you are that brand and you are on the brand team, we at least have those in the system so that you can pull them if you need to. Those decisions are already made. So your H1 is in whatever font with whatever spacing that’s already set in the base token work. So whenever the engineers go to code it, they don’t have to worry about it. That H1 is always going to be that H1.

Maurice Cherry:
Got you. What’s probably the most difficult part about what you do?

Tiffany Stewart:
Probably convincing other designers that accessibility is the thing. That is probably the hardest thing. Now, I will say that my coworkers and my teammates at TR, we’re all very passionate about accessibility, so it’s not so much a problem there per se. But I’ve worked with other designers before or other strategists or other brand folks who are just… It is pulling teeth to get them to do the bare minimum of a contrast check on a color or a button or trying to understand that there are people… Is there a focus state that’s set? What happens if you try to tab through? Because a lot of sites will break. I think in my example at the State of Black design talk, I was just trying to buy a book from a website, but just using my keyboard and it completely failed. And so I wasn’t able to check out.

So in my mind, if we’re making a use case for it, which I don’t generally like applying to accessibility, but if you do need to make a use case or a business use case for it, you’re preventing people from buying your product by not making it as accessible as possible. It’s easy to throw away accessibility, I think because people as a very general rule, and I mean very generic here, seem to be willing to ignore people with disabilities or having a disability in general. You hear all these stories nowadays of airlines who are completely throwing away people’s wheelchairs or people not allowing the dog for the blind user in this space because of whatever. There’s a level of disposability there that I personally don’t enjoy and I don’t like seeing it. And more so too, if you’re looking at the numbers in the U.S., a good majority of the people who have disabilities do tend to be Black and brown people. So then I’m doubly more so like, “Oh no, no, no, we have to get into this.” We absolutely have to get into this.

Maurice Cherry:
And accessibility is one of those things that has definitely increased in importance over the years. Not just because more and more people have gotten on the web, but there are now more and more ways of experiencing the web that is not just through a standard computer monitor. There’s laptops, there’s smartphones, there’s smart watches, there’s probably a toaster out there that can get online. There’s all these different ways now to access information on the web. And granted those use cases are important, but also just as you mentioned, just differently abled people will have different sorts of things like vision requirements for high contrast or colors or even the alt text that you put on images is I think almost remedial accessibility and that’s still something a lot of people hem and haw over.

Tiffany Stewart:
Oh my gosh, they will fight you down. They will absolutely fight you down. Or they’ll produce this interface that has no contrast whatsoever. And so you’re just guessing at this point as to what is happening on that page? I don’t know. Because I think the new thing now is everything is light and bright, so there’s no borders on anything and everything just fades into the next one. And it’s very pretty aesthetically, I will give it that, but unfortunately it’s not really usable by everyone. And I think often people forget that by and large, when you make something that is accessible, that is usable by everyone, everyone benefits. Everyone benefits there. Like the grab bar in the bathroom, I am not disabled. However, the amount of times that I have slipped on the conditioner and that grab bar saved my life. You know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Tiffany Stewart:
And it can look cute too. So yeah, it’s just accessibility works literally for everyone, so why not just do it?

Maurice Cherry:
Right. And accessibility also makes sure that as many people as possible can experience what it is that you’re putting on the web.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember back in the day, we’re talking this is early 2000s, maybe even before that, when websites would have those badges that are, this site is best viewed an Internet Explorer 6 on a desktop that’s 1024 X 768. It was almost like a bouncer at the door telling you, you have to be this old to get in or something.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah. Well, no, it’s a matter too, because I think what people don’t include in accessibility when they are thinking about the digital part of it too, is that they don’t include access. Not everybody has access to the best monitor, not everybody has access to the fastest processor and not everybody has access to a credit card. When we make everything credit card only for the longest time, I think before a Venmo and a PayPal came into the play, it was just the people that don’t have a credit card or don’t have that level of financial literacy don’t deserve to buy things. What are we saying when we don’t include that as part of the conversation around access and accessibility?

Maurice Cherry:
And I would say one thing that is also, I think made accessibility more important is the increase of multimedia on the web.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
We’re recording a podcast. This podcast will have transcripts for accessibility.

Tiffany Stewart:
A transcript? Yes, thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
Videos with captions-

Tiffany Stewart:
I was going to ask.

Maurice Cherry:
And things like that.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
We’re starting to see it be more and more commonplace now that the media that we consume is not just what we read, it’s also what we hear, what we see. Even smart speakers and devices, you have to talk to them in a certain way in order to get back what you need. All of that is a factor of accessibility.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah, no. I think they just released a study maybe day before yesterday that Netflix was saying that the good majority of their users that have subtitles turned on are not blind or deaf.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, there’s some shows I would watch with subtitles. I used to watch Scandal with subtitles just so I can make sure I can catch everything.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes, I keep mine on. Yeah, I know because I’m like, “I don’t know what’s happening.”

Maurice Cherry:
Another thing that it’s good for, and this is not so much accessibility, but if you’re watching foreign language programs, to have subtitles in a different language. For me, it can help with learning a bit of the language because you know what they’re trying to say and what you hear, your mind connects those things together. But even with accessibility, there’s bad captions out there.

Tiffany Stewart:
Oh my gosh, I live for those.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s a whole thing.

Tiffany Stewart:
I need to make a website that’s just bad captions. Because they’ll be like, “Pop music playing enthusiastically.” And you’re like, “What, where did that caption come from?” The descriptions are great, I love it. Yeah, yeah. No.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Tiffany Stewart:
But I’m just glad that they’re there at this point because like I said, people don’t think about those things a lot of times.

Maurice Cherry:
And we’re talking about now accessibility in a largely, I don’t want to say 2D context. You might see where I’m going here, but there’s been all this talk about Web3 and the metaverse, and you want to talk about inaccessibility? It’s inaccessible even for the average person because, it’s not only about what you can hear or see, but just to get it… And maybe this is a tangent of accessibility, but you have to be watching on a certain device that costs a certain amount of money and you’ve got to have a high speed internet connection. There are other barriers that I think people might not look at as accessibility that does factor into accessible web experiences.

Tiffany Stewart:
Absolutely. I talk about it all the time. I’m like, “So let’s talk about the actual experience part of this. How am I meant to experience this when I don’t have access to any of these things?” Maybe your point is to gatekeep, I don’t know, maybe. Because that’s usually the argument that will come up too, is that like, “Oh, well those people are not my target demographic.” And I’m like, “Run me by again, what exactly is your target demographic?” Because every demographic has someone who may or may not be disabled. So I’m not really sure why. Again, it just plays back the disposability of people with disabilities. So it’s stressful to me. I get annoyed all the time.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s switch gears here a little bit. Let’s learn more about you, about your origin story. I can tell you’re very passionate about UX and about accessibility, but I’d like to get a sense of where that came from. So just to start off, where’d you grow up?

Tiffany Stewart:
So I am originally from Jamaica. I moved here when I was about maybe 14, 15. Don’t ask me about the numbers. It was a long time ago. And then moved here. And the immigrant family story, my options were either engineer, doctor, MBA. My career choices were very narrow based on that particular set of criteria, which to be fair, I gave my mom her engineering degree so I could be left alone. Right? But everyone in my family is either a physician or a NASA scientist in my cousin’s part. So we’re all pretty diverse in terms of our applications to STEAM and STEM work.

I was actually going to be a surgeon at one point. I was attending NYU as a bio major to do that. But I think working with my mom in terms of listening to her talk about medicine as it’s in medical practice as it functions today in the U.S. and really hearing the stories about how people with disabilities or even older people are treated in the hospital system. I was like, “I can’t sit back and not say anything about it.” So I think I got a lot of it from going to work with my mom and seeing how people were being treated within the medical space. And even being handed their prescriptions and they couldn’t read it or they had to fill out online forms and they didn’t know how. And I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to fill out online form via a hospital, but it’s usually a very bad process. Nothing is readable, any of those things. Don’t even ask them about a language option for you.

So going through all of that and watching my mom do it and then getting into the digital space and then understanding and linking the two was probably what drove most of my passion for accessibility.

Maurice Cherry:
From what it sounds like, just based on life experience, that you had this early desire to get into this, but then you also just said, I gave my mom her engineering degree. I want to talk a little bit about that. You went to undergrad, you went to the University of Mississippi and majored in electrical engineering. Did you have an interest in it or were you just like, “This is what I need to do to get my family off my back?”

Tiffany Stewart:
No, no, no, no. I did. I really, really did. So back, oh my gosh, my mom is going to be so mad. So I dropped out of NYU, to which my mother was livid and that’s fair. But then I dropped out of NYU because the company that I worked for at the time had given me a promotion and wanted to send me out to California to train their engineers on a particular ticketing system that we were using for our IT program. And so while I was out there, I ended up switching jobs and then my job was basically what they call a client support specialist is what they called it. And I was basically a liaison between the engineering department, project management and the sales people and customers in order to get them moved into their co-location space, set up their routers, all of that extraneous good stuff.

This was back before when we were doing network address translations and you had to do a letter of justification in order to get IPs because they thought that the IPs were going to run out. It was a whole thing. It was pre 2000, so pre Y2K, they were very concerned about these things. So I did that. But then the Dotcom Bubble essentially burst. And so a lot of us in Silicon Valley got let go. And so I came back and I was like, “Okay mom, I’m ready.” So because of that work that I did with that ISP, I determined that I wanted to build computers because I thought that was fun. So I did electrical engineering specializing in computer engineering. So in theory, I could build you a badass circuit. So yeah, that’s how that happened.

Maurice Cherry:
But you had the interest in it though. That’s the important part, right?

Tiffany Stewart:
I am of a person who I like to take things apart and tinker. I like to work with my hands. Like I said, I’m building the shelves in my office. So miter saw, table saw, planar, let’s go. And I’ve always been that person. And then I’m also an only child, my mom’s only child. So she was very much of this is broken, you need to figure out how to fix it because I have to go to work. So I was like, “Well, got to figure it out.” But I’ve always had an interest in it and it was fine. I enjoy taking things apart. I’m a very curious person by nature. So I’m always fascinated about how things work, how things are put together. And you’ll see, you see me use the phrase all the time, “Oh my God, that’s fascinating.” Because I’m generally, I am that person.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, no, I understand. I went to college and I majored in math… Well, no, let me roll that back.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes, math major.

Maurice Cherry:
I first majored in computer science, computer engineering because this was turn of the century, like ’99, 2000. Started college in ’99 and I had been already dipping my toe into web design with Tripod and Angel Fire, GeoCities, reverse engineering view source websites and stuff like that. And I thought, “Oh, if I become a computer engineer, I can design a website,” because I didn’t know. I had not heard of what a web designer was or if that was a thing. And I that first semester, I was taking courses in I think it was intro to computer programming, learning C++. And I was like, “This is not HTML. What is this? How do I make a website with this?” And I’m going to my advisor and telling him what I want to do. And my advisor, Dr. Jones, he was like, “If you want to do this internet stuff, that’s just a fad. If you want to get into that, this isn’t going to last. That’s not what we do here.”

Tiffany Stewart:
Oh no. Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
He’s like, “We don’t do that here.”

Tiffany Stewart:
But I will say they are teaching you the backend part of it. So they just completely tossed you over for the front end. But they gave you the backend part.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, but again, this was-

Tiffany Stewart:
You had that Java stuff too.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah. And this was ’99. Our lab had Sun Microsystems and SGI Machines and stuff like that. So this was still very, very early in the web/internet days. And he was like, “We don’t do that here. We’ll teach you assembly, we’ll teach you C++, but if you want to do this web design thing, you might want to change your major.” And so the next semester, I changed my major to math. And then that’s just what I ended up getting my degree in. I like math, but people are always surprised with me being a designer that I have a math degree. I would imagine people are probably surprised you as a designer have an electrical engineering degree. They’re like, “How does that work?” For me, math teaches me how to think. Yeah, go ahead.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes, that’s what I was going to say. I think for engineering, it teaches you how to identify a problem and think about the steps needed to solve the problem. So engineering for me teaches you how to think about problem solving, which as a UX designer, that is pretty much all that we do is problem solve. How do we get the checkout flow to work in such a way that they actually finish checking out? What are those steps? And if there’s an error, what happens? So going through all of those steps and iterating on that process by testing every time. It’s very much an engineering mindset, I think.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And I know with math, the thing I think that struck me at one point learning math in college was that, “Oh, there are some equations that have either no solution or infinitely many solutions.” And that blew my mind at the time because I was like, “Wait a minute, I’ve been taking algebra and trig and calc and all these things.” They resolve to something. And they’re like, “Well, there are often going to sometimes be equations that don’t make sense, that are not going to have a solution or they’re going to have an infinite amount of solutions.” And so when I say it teaches you how to think, at least for me, it teaches me how to take something I may not know and process it and break it down. The steps of writing a mathematical proof to me are the same steps to writing a research paper, the same steps to writing a proposal for a client or a statement of work. It’s the same logical flow of take these elements, prove this thing, therefore this, all of that.

Tiffany Stewart:
I used to love those.

Maurice Cherry:
I look back at some-

Tiffany Stewart:
I was that weird kid in class who loves doing the geometric proofs. I’m like, “Oh, I’m going to show you that this is a right angle. Let me break it down right quick.”

Maurice Cherry:
I looked back at some of my old stuff. I found my thesis from, god, 20 years ago. I found my thesis recently that I wrote in college on sigma algebra and measure theoretic entropy with the existence of Lie groups. I have no idea what any of those things mean now. But I’m looking back at it and it’s just symbols and letters. I’m like, “I used to really know this. I don’t know it now.”

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes. Listen, I stopped because with electrical engineering, especially at Ole Miss, they were like, “We can’t let you do a math minor. You’d have to double major do EE and math.” And I was like, “Listen, after differential equations, I’m good.” It was differential, discreet, all of that. And I think after those classes is when you start getting into the theoretical math where they just don’t use numbers at all. It’s just theory and proving that this process works.

Maurice Cherry:
My last year and a half because I majored in pure math and my last year and a half, it was differential equations, it was topology. And my teachers, great teachers, but absolute sadists. They would be like, “I’m going to give this test and not everybody is going to pass this test.” Or they’ll say, “Well, these last two questions are only for my top students.” And there will be infinitely just wild stuff like, “What in the world? When am I ever going to use this?” I’ve never had to use anything with differential equations, ever. I love it though. The thing is, I went into math because I love it. I love to do the problems and solving and all that sort of stuff, which is a lot about what design is. It’s about solving problems, different kind of problems, but you’re still solving problems. And math teaches you those steps and ways to think and consider in a way that… I didn’t go to design school, so I don’t know, but I feel like it teaches you that logical way of thinking through something that perhaps design school may not.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah. Because I think for me at least, it felt like design school was more about the psychology of things. So understanding color theory and understanding that different colors make people feel a different way than other colors do. So it’s more so about how these things make you feel more so than anything else. And so it was the engineering part that taught me the problem solving and then the design part that taught me the aesthetic piece. Is that the word?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, the aesthetic piece. Yeah.

Tiffany Stewart:
The aesthetic piece Of it, and how things make you feel.

Maurice Cherry:
I totally get that. Yeah. Because for example, if you put red text on a blue background, yes, that’s going to be really jarring.

Tiffany Stewart:
I will fight you.

Maurice Cherry:
They won’t go together. But then mathematically, I know it’s because of the frequency of the color red against the color blue causes your eyes to do this weird jump shift. It’s really tiring to read that. So I’m like, “Okay, that’s why it doesn’t make sense.” I’ll always be trying to think of the reason behind the feeling instead of just going with the feeling, which I don’t know, maybe if I went to design school, I’d have more of that, “Oh yes, these colors, they mesh. I get it.” As supposed to being like, “Well, this makes sense because of some other reason.” But you end up going and majoring in design after you got your degree from Ole Miss, you went to Mississippi State and you majored in graphic design. Why did you make that switch?

Tiffany Stewart:
Well, because I wanted to be an animator. Funnily enough, I think they had not updated their website at the time. So Mississippi State was like, “Oh, we have an animation program.” Because I really wanted to do graphic design for film or design for film. And so I was like, “Oh, I can combine my problem solving with design if I become an animator and do that.” That was a thought process in my mind. I don’t know why. So on their website, they hadn’t updated it. And so I enrolled and got in and I was super excited and they were like, “Oh, we no longer have that program. All we have for you is graphic design, good luck.” And I was like, “Huh? Okay. Well let’s try it and we’ll see.”

But then I think at the time, maybe it was more so print focused than anything else. So I could tell you all the things about the GSM of paper. We did watercolor photography, all of those things. One of my favorite classes was 3D design. And so that’s when I spent most of my time in the wood shop. The instructor at the time, I think he was a famous furniture designer, but he was teaching us how to build things by sketching it out, thinking about from a 3D space perspective, how something would look and then we would have to build it, build it, build it. So did some sculptural work. It was great. Oh my gosh, that design program at Mississippi State, I loved it. It was great.

And then they also allowed me to pair with video game designers they had. And so I was doing design work for that too. So it was a good time. Even though it wasn’t necessarily an animation program, I learned a lot from the graphic design program at State. I will say that.

Maurice Cherry:
That sounds like a lot of fun, actually.

Tiffany Stewart:
Oh my gosh, it was so much fun. And I’m still friends with a lot of people there. And the people that left that school went on to do amazing things. I think Tim is out here designing the graphics for Roku. Let’s see, there’s another young lady, She went on to work at Gensler as an architect. So the class is good. The classes are really, really good. And some of the students that came out of there based on the teachers that we had at the time were just amazing, amazing folks to work with.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel like your background in engineering helped you out in any way when you were majoring in design?

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes and no. It helped me figure out how to approach thinking about what I was going to do if I needed to put together a logo per se. I knew, I’m like, “Okay, this is the result that I wanted. What are the steps to get there?” So in that sense, the planning of how to do it was helpful. However, engineering is very much, I like things to be symmetrical. There’s always those projects that we had to do that were you had to make something asymmetrical. And I did not enjoy that because my brain just refused. And I think that just came from the engineering side. It was like, “No, it has to either be in order or it has to be on a scale of some sort that I can understand like 2, 4, 6, 8,” that type of thing. I can’t have you jumping around all over the place in the design. It makes my brain not work well.

So it does both. And more so now with the digital side of things. Like I said, it mainly applies to the problem solving part of it where I’m like, “Oh, okay, if we want to get this result. How do we apply that concept in a way that scales on a DS?” And I can do that through my engineering thinking, coupled with my design thinking.

Maurice Cherry:
So once you graduated from Mississippi State, you’ve got your design degree, you’ve got your engineering degree. Did you go right into UX design after that?

Tiffany Stewart:
No. I actually got a job at a church. It was one of those big churches, biggest churches in Austin, Texas. And I basically was doing everything. So I was doing all of their print work, so designed magazines, all of their photography. So I was a photographer. And then I was also responsible for building and maintaining their website. So it was a full on, you’re the only person here, you have to do everything type of moment. And I learned a lot from that job for sure. Yeah, printmaking and printing things is no joke. Web work is no joke. Because I think at the time they only had access to, what is it, WordPress? So that was the medium that I was working with. And WordPress has its own caveats. So putting all of that together and making sure everything got out on time every Sunday, I learned a lot. I learned a lot.

What I remember the most is we had to print magazines because the rector at the time wanted us to put out a monthly magazine where we interviewed various people from the church. We had to take pictures of everything and there was whole thing. So I was like a Vogue Magazine editor with the big old board where you put things up and your articles are there, and you pick what pictures and you basically art direct that whole entire process. But then after that was done, assembling them in this giant InDesign file and then sending that to the printer because we had a dedicated printer room. And figuring out how the printer worked, troubleshooting all of that, and then actually printing it, trimming the edges, cutting it, mailing it. I actually ended up sleeping at the office doing a magazine run. It was a good time. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was a good time.

Maurice Cherry:
You were truly a webmaster.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Doing all of that. I especially tip my hat to you about the magazine thing. The last gig that I worked at, we put together a quarterly magazine and that was a lot just to try to get it out the door, hopefully every three months. I can’t imagine every month. How big was the magazine?

Tiffany Stewart:
It wasn’t very big. It was a very… I want to say how many sheets as I’m looking through my paper. Maybe like 24, 32.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. That’s still a lot though-

Tiffany Stewart:
So it wasn’t too bad.

Maurice Cherry:
To try to pull together every month.

Tiffany Stewart:
Listen, my main thing was because people would submit photos and the photos that they would submit, I’m like, “This cannot be printed. It’s entirely too small.” So then I’d have to schedule a photo shoot and run out there and retake all the photos and then run back. But the church had money, so we did what we had to do. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Tiffany Stewart:
It was a good time. Like I said, I learned a lot because it was literally only me. So I was responsible for all of it. From the rooter to the tooter, as they say.

Maurice Cherry:
As they say.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah, as they say, the rooter to the tooter. And so it was just picking the font, understanding how the typography was going to be laid out in an enticing way on the cover page. Figuring out how the table of content should be displayed, what was the concept and theme for the magazine. And then making sure that we got all the articles and everybody returned their corrections on time. And then making sure that we had the correct paper in stock and making sure that the printer didn’t jam. And then after all of that, running it through the cycle of getting it mailed out to the individual households that were part of the membership was a lot.

Maurice Cherry:
That alone is a job. The fact that you were doing that on top of web stuff, on top of graphic stuff. My hat goes off to you because I’ve had those positions before where you’re doing all the things because you’re the only person that can do all the things.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah. It makes you indispensable to a point, but you get serious burnout after a while because it was one thing after another. And I think a few minutes later or a few months after the choir director left and the choir director was responsible for printing the Sunday brochures. So after he left, guess who was responsible for printing the Sunday brochures?

Maurice Cherry:
That was you.

Tiffany Stewart:
Mm-hmm, yep. I was at that job all the time, actually slept there. And one would not think that of like, “Oh, you’re just a graphic designer at a church.” No, no friend.

Maurice Cherry:
No.

Tiffany Stewart:
No, no friend.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve done church work before. Because sometimes what will happen, and I don’t know if this happened maybe in your case, but sometimes what will happen is that your obligation to your job ends up getting wrapped up in some level of religiosity where it’s not just the work that you’re doing for the church, but you’re doing the work for God.

Tiffany Stewart:
None of that, fortunately that was not. They were very nice. I want to say the church was Episcopalian. And I just was like, “Mm-hmm, Mm-hmm. This is great. I’m very happy for everyone involved. Yes, exactly that.”

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I feel like maybe if it had been, for lack of a better word, a Black church, that might have changed. Because I feel like there’s a level of guilt, I find.

Maurice Cherry:
Guilt? Yeah, that’s what I was going to say.

Tiffany Stewart:
I know, I’m trying. How do I say this nicely? But there’s a level of guilt that only Black churches because-

Maurice Cherry:
I hear you.

Tiffany Stewart:
Because they’ll be like, “Oh well, your grand mama Marlene.” And I’m like, “Oh no. So now I have to do this flyer.”

Maurice Cherry:
I empathize with that a 100%. Oh my God. Okay, yeah.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Especially if your parents or family members or members of the church too. It’s just like, “Yeah, no, I’m absolutely going to just have to make this flyer and make Miss Martha look good.”

Maurice Cherry:
So after your work at the church is when you got more into, I would say digital design. You worked as a product designer and then a UX designer, which is what you’re doing now. Was it a big shift to go from doing all the things at the church to now just focusing on product or focusing on UX?

Tiffany Stewart:
Honestly, no. And I think that’s because the church in its way of making me do everything, prepared me for the slightly, and I do mean slightly, slightly less work of being a product or UX designer because I’m only focused on one thing at that point. I’m not focused on doing everything. So it was a breath of fresh air because I was like, “Oh, okay, I can just focus on the digital. I don’t have to worry about the magazine and whatever and whatever, whatever. I can just do the digital.” And then it also helped that I worked for a luxury travel agency. So I was just staring at beautiful pictures of hotels all day long and being like, “I will go there some day. Absolutely.” But yeah, no, it wasn’t too bad at all.

I think a lot of my experience with my work in print actually helped with my work at digital because they actually also did print magazines, but I was responsible for the digital version of it. So since I already knew how to do all of that work from the church, it was like, “Oh no, no, this is good. This is great. I can do this.” And I think the engineering team had already set up a pretty decent templating system. So at that point it was basically just making sure that all of the digital stuff was set up in a way that I could just very quickly upload it to the web what I needed it to, whenever they needed to release a digital article. And on my side, it wasn’t a set thing. So we only had released maybe one or two articles a week. And so it was just basically sourcing photos and making sure that all of the digital stuff was set up on there.

It wasn’t until they decided to end the print half or move the print half and mainly focus on digital in terms of booking flights and booking hotels. Then that’s when it was like, “Okay, so now we’ve shifted to the user experience side of things.” Because before, it was a lot of really just allowing consumers to just read articles based on our recommendations for things. And so it was very narrow in that sense. And then when it came time to book things, then it became, “Okay, so how does our booking thing work? How does search work? What is the experience if someone were to try to book a flight?” Is it that it goes to the travel agent or can they book directly? And what did the steps look like for that?

So that’s where it shifted is that that last piece of the UX of completing a full entire process to get that booked result versus I’m just serving you up an article on the best restaurant in LA type of thing. Does that make sense?

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes sense. And I think for people that are listening, I feel like at least nowadays, UX and product tend to get conflated in a way. There may be subbed out one thing for another. So I’m glad that you were pointing out what the differences are between those two.

Tiffany Stewart:
They do both carry an aspect of user experience in the very basic sense of how is a user meant to experience reading an article on restaurants versus how is a user meant to experience a checkout flow for booking a flight? So they do share that in that regard. You could use them interchangeably, I don’t think anybody would be mad. However, I do have friends who are product designers and I think they call them industrial designers now. I remember they’d be like, “Oh, I’m applying for a position for a product designer.” And I’m like, “Ooh, that’s not what you think it is, friend.” So it also depends on what the company defines a product designer or a UX designer as well in the job description. And so a lot of my industrial designer friends were like, “This is lame, we’re the product designers, not you guys.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Tiffany Stewart:
So, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
What gives you purpose to keep doing the work that you do?

Tiffany Stewart:
So I follow several people on Twitter who are in the disability activism space. And while I don’t comment per se, them sharing their experiences fuels me to make the web better. The internet is not going anywhere as far as I know. I would love it if they made it a utility, but I digress. And so I want everyone to have an equitable experience on the web. I want for, or I would like to be able to help that further along, whether it’s being passionate about making sure that there’s a contrast and the code is right and whatever.

But I want the web to be as equitable as possible. Because a lot of times when folks don’t have access to these things, people’s lives are in danger. No one talks about that side of it. But if all of a sudden you’re saying access to government grants and access to COVID vaccinations can only be achieved by going to a website, how many people are you cutting out with that one decision alone? Especially if the web is not accessible enough to accommodate everybody. And so following these women and their work in that space really fuels me to make sure that I champion it on my end as best as I can.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you work to stay your authentic self throughout your career? certainly I think when people hear this interview, they get that you’ve got a bubbly personality and working in tech and then working in design and working in tech in news. I would imagine you encounter a lot of different types of folks, we’ll just put it that way. But how have you worked to stay your authentic self?

Tiffany Stewart:
Antionette told me to, I think you’ve interviewed Antionette Carroll?

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, I’ve had her on the show. Yeah.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes. Yes, yes, yes. So she used to come hang out at the house whenever she would come in for South by Southwest and we would have these long conversations about the work that she was doing in design equity. And she’s amazing and she’s also another inspiration. But Antionette was like, “Listen, you have to be authentic in your work all the time. You just have to be.” And I said, “Okay, yes ma’am.” I just did what she said. I trust her and she’s an amazing human. And I do find that it is helpful because people then know what they’re getting from you. And I do tell people in front. I remember teasing my poor boss. I was like, “Are you sure you want to hire me? Because you were getting this mouth along with the hire, so I need you to be okay with that.” And he was like, “No, no, it’s fine. Please, by all means, bring your authentic self to work.”

And so I appreciate that about my bosses at my company. They’re very much supportive of that. And I have not run into a situation, because sometimes they’ll say that and they don’t mean that. But I have not run into that thus far here.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good.

Tiffany Stewart:
So I’m very grateful for that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Tiffany Stewart:
Very grateful for that.

Maurice Cherry:
#AntionetteTaughtMe.

Tiffany Stewart:
Listen, that could be a series in and of itself. My goodness, I miss her so much.

Maurice Cherry:
What is the best piece of advice that you would give to somebody that wants to follow in your footsteps? They’ve heard your story, they want to be like you, they want to be where you’re at, at that level. What would you tell them?

Tiffany Stewart:
Stay curious. Be curious about everything. How everything works, how people feel about things. Be observant. Watch people, watch how things function. You would be surprised what you can learn just by looking at a thing and being like, “So what was that meant for?” We always used to joke that there’s these products out there that the designers built them for one way and then the users use them in a completely different way and you’re just like, “That’s not what that was meant for.” But even that is some semblance of feedback. So just observing and being curious and watching and learning. Stay learning. Stay curious and stay learning. Never stop learning.

Maurice Cherry:
To that end, where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Tiffany Stewart:
I feel like at the moment, my big thing is I’m planning on having my mom come live with me. So learning more about accessibility in terms of interior design and home design and making sure that everything is set up for her to live comfortably if she chooses to come live with me. So just furthering my experience in accessibility, but just applying it to different things and seeing what that looks like. And then whatever I learned, share it with everybody who asks or didn’t ask. Y’all gon’ get this accessibility on today, as I say, often.

Maurice Cherry:
Just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you, about your work? Where can they find that online?

Tiffany Stewart:
I tend to keep a low profile, but I am on LinkedIn. You can find me there. I am on Instagram, but I don’t post often. I am a lurker, as it were, one of those things. Those are my two spots that I’m usually-

Maurice Cherry:
What’s the Instagram name?

Tiffany Stewart:
Elemango.design. It’s from an old graphic design project that I did for my senior year at university.

Maurice Cherry:
All right.

Tiffany Stewart:
But yeah, elemango.design. Elephants and mangoes.

Maurice Cherry:
I thought that what it might be.

Tiffany Stewart:
My two favorite things.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounded like that’s what it might be elephants and mangoes.

Tiffany Stewart:
Elephants and mangoes. My two favorite things. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Awesome. Well, Tiffany Stewart, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show.

Tiffany Stewart:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
Thank you for sharing your story. It sounds like you’re someone that is just passionately curious about a lot of things and you had the opportunity to be able to really go into a lot of places with your career. Engineering degree, then doing design and then doing all these other things. It sounds like you’re someone that is always trying to keep on the pulse of what’s next. And I think of course, with accessibility being such an important topic to our world right now, I feel like we’ll be hearing and seeing a lot more from you in the future. So thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Tiffany Stewart:
Thank you. So lovely to do this. This is a lot of fun. So yeah, no, I appreciate it very much. Thank you.

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