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UX Unicorn Gallops Toward Civic Startups

by Kristyn Back

Dan Dawson is a “digital macgyver” with a knack for witty puns and extensive UX skills to boot. Dawson got his start in political communications, vamping up the often struggling digital environments they live in. He’s currently digging into Javascript and JQuery so he can offer employers both UX and front end development expertise. Dawson’s spirit and hustle won’t keep him on the job market for long, so woo him while you can.

What program did you just complete?
General Assembly’s User Experience Design Immersive Course

What is your background?
I began my career working in political communications. Over the years, I have managed the traditional and digital media for public officials and organizations.

When I began working in political communications, traditional media strategies were struggling in the digital environment. Rather than cover up poor performance with statistics, I began using UX research methods to determine fundamental issues. Working in a field where you are a few characters away from public humiliation has left me with a healthy amount of irreverence for politics, design, PR and marketing.

What prompted you to take this class?
While I used many of the tools and practices that make up the UX stack, I wanted to formalize and level up my experience. I actually wrote a post about my decision.

What are you currently working on and what past projects have you worked on?
I currently have two political clients and a nonprofit on the books. Those jobs range from website design and development to full-service digital strategy and consulting. My most recent project was for the Atlanta-based healthcare-marketing company, Brightwhistle.

Description of the project and your role?
Brightwhistle needed to improve the user interface of a form builder within their lead generation toolkit. Fellow UX designer, Kendra Sarvadi and I worked closely with company stakeholders to determine the best approach for the task. Since the development timeline was short, we focused on improving the tool’s information architecture rather than proposing a full redesign. After three weeks of research, user testing, and prototyping we presented our final design recommendations. The recommendations were well received and I recently learned that Brightwhistle will be developing what we built. If you are interested in the project here is the full case study.

What are your best technical or creative skills?
On a day-to-day basis, I use a combination of Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign, but Sketch has become by go-to for wireframing. Axure remains my favorite tool for sitemaps and user flows. I do most of my prototyping in a combination of Keynote and InVision, but I am experimenting with JustInMind and Proto.io.

I began designing sites by customizing WordPress templates and briefly flirted with Squarespace. Now most of my web design work takes place in WebFlow. After learning to shoot manually, I invested in a Canon 60D. It wasn’t long before I began using the video functions on the camera to film short spots. I learned to edit in Final Cut, but switched to Premier Pro after Apple introduced Final Cut X.

Finally, I am a big fan of Google Apps, Trello, Harvest, and Quickbooks for keeping my freelance work organized.

What new skills have you picked up along the way?
When I built my first website the best option for a novice was deploying WordPress and customizing a template. This meant finding a host, messing with cpanel, FTP and occasionally MySQL. Things have changed a lot with the growth of Squarespace, Wix and others, but without my initial challenges I wouldn’t have learned HTML, CSS and a basic understanding of PHP.

What’s next on your list to learn?
Right now I am digging into Jon Duckett’s Javascript & JQuery book. While UX and front-end development are unique practices, many clients and employers want people with both skills. While mastering Javascript & JQuery are no casual endeavors, understanding their options and limitations code are essential.

The technology that is most important to me?
It’s a tie between my Macbook Air and iPhone. Together they have allowed me to work from anywhere. Google Apps also gets a mention. It has replaced a suite of tools I used previously to get basic work done.

Why the interest in startups?
My political background means I spend as much time consulting as I do on creative work. It is a challenging field that keeps you on your toes, but when campaigns end much of your work vanishes into history. Startups operate on much of the same principles as political campaigns, but when you win your work lives on.

What’s your ideal internship/gig?
Right now I am focused on agency work in Atlanta, but the right health care project could get my attention. My wife is a resident at Emory, so I know how much can be done to improve UX in the field. The political realm is still both interesting and addictive – it will always be part of my career.

Post graduation plans?
I am looking at agencies, product companies, and startups where I feel I would fit in with the culture. Beyond that, I am always thinking about case studies, side projects and looking to network with fellow designers.

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