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Talent Spotlight - Gary Thompson

thumb-gary-thompson-professional-headshot-5x7Our business is all about our people. All the ideas and innovations, the possibilities and the solutions that have impacted thousands of clients and millions of learners over 30 years have come from the minds of our Talent. That's why we're excited to showcase the people of Unicon through our Talent Spotlight, giving you the opportunity to get to know them! Today I have the pleasure of highlighting Gary Thompson, a 24-year veteran of the firm and a User Experience Architect at Unicon.

Kate Valenti: Thanks for taking the time to sit with me today, Gary. You and I have worked together for many years, so I’m looking forward to discovering something new about you! Let’s start with your background. Given you’ve been at Unicon for 24 years - which is the majority of your professional career - I’m guessing you didn’t join the firm knowing you’d have a love for designing learning experiences. What brought you to Unicon, and how have your interests changed over the years?

Gary Thompson:  I have a fine arts background. I've always liked creative, artistic things but as I've explored that, what I’ve found I enjoy most is not just a pure artistic expression, but really using design to solve problems and make things work well for people. That's where the sweet spot is for me. 

When the internet was in its infancy I worked at a company called Sandbox, and I really enjoyed the immediacy of being able to design things and have them then be public on the internet. We worked in online games, like fantasy sports interactions, and simulations. I found it fascinating to have the ability to transport people into activities that seemed realistic but weren’t truly risky, to give them the opportunity to experiment and learn by trying.

When I joined Unicon I discovered that beyond the work, I enjoy the leadership style of Unicon’s executives, and the culture here just fits me well. We view our workforce as a family, and I like that sentiment. I’m also conservative, as is Unicon’s leadership, so I feel like we have the same values. My first engagement was on the Cisco Networking Academy account, and there I got my first taste of helping to make learning a great experience for people. It’s not something I had thought much about previously, but over time I have really come to value learning experience design. It is satisfying to create an experience for people to learn in a way that not only works, but is also satisfying and enjoyable.

Kate: You’ve no doubt seen a lot of change in this space over the years. What is one trend in edtech that you are excited about?

Gary: I think the AI trend, and the opportunity to use AI in the educational space, is super exciting. I do think there will be a lot of ways that students and educators use AI to benefit teaching and learning, for instance making the learning experience potentially much more interactive. As an educator, I think asking questions about student success, how is your class performing, where could you possibly improve things. And on the learning side, making AI your debate partner, or querying it about how you might improve your writing. I find it fascinating that we now have tools available to generate things, like images, that otherwise people wouldn’t necessarily have the talent to do. It’s early days, so it needs a little more time and attention to see how that plays out and to make it part of a learning experience that's really great.

Kate: One of the things that I have experienced when using something like ChatGPT and interacting via a chat prompt, it feels very impersonal, sort of a disembodied kind of interaction. Considering this is the current user experience for interacting with a lot of LLMs, how would you improve that experience?

Gary: That's a great question. And it can feel very impersonal. Even the responses you get, you can kind of tell when it generates something that feels very generic or is clearly written by a machine and not by a human. And so it does have some limitations. But in terms of user experience where users get value out of the interaction, there was an article recently from the Norman Nielsen group around usability of large language model experiences. Research indicates that most people just don't know how to interact with the AI - what to ask it or how to ask it the right thing. I think an improved user experience would be to provide a smarter UX than just an open text box, but a prompt to help people understand the language that they should use. You could use a similar model that people use for helping people visually learn how to code - instead of typing out the code itself you have these blocks that you can link together, and you start out with simple things and then it gets longer and more complicated. If you could help people get started with suggestions of ways they might ask questions, or have points in the interaction where you could insert suggestions that could prompt the user to help them learn the AI “language.” I don't think it will ever mimic a true human experience, but if we can help people know how to interact with it, they can get better results out of it and overall have a better experience.

Kate: What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career like yours?

Gary: I think new designers tend to focus too quickly on producing a visual result. What I’ve learned is there is immense value in stepping back and thinking deeply and creatively about what the problem is, what you're really trying to solve for, and spending time thinking about different ways to solve it. And particularly in the case of user experience and online interactions, it is critical to think about the people who are going to use your design. Who are they, what needs do they have, and how are they going to use it? And that might be best done with old-school pencil and paper. Sometimes it helps to just disengage yourself from the computer in order to not find yourself immediately trying to create some visual thing and just sketch some things out. Even if it's like a mind map or notes to identify what's important and what you're trying to achieve, having those thoughts to guide you creates a better place to start from, which will lead to better results of the visuals and the experience that you ultimately create.

Kate: I didn’t realize your early creative exploration was in Fine Arts. Is that what you studied in college? And what kind of non-digital art do you create these days?

Gary: I did a lot of drawing as a kid and when I went to college I started as a drawing major. But early on my dad convinced me that that maybe wasn't a good long-term career choice. So in my degree exploration, I found a program called Industrial Design, which is about designing products for people. Generally, these are consumer products, like electronics or toys or automobiles or household items. I really got excited when we learned about designing things for people, and having to take into account things like the average human size and how well they can hold onto things based on hand size, or whether something is comfortable or what impact vibration would have, etc. And I realized you can create a tool that does the job but is ugly, or you can create a tool that does the job and is elegant. And I got excited about the combination of those two things: it does what people need it to do and it does that in an elegant and pleasing way because it’s been designed thoughtfully and creatively. 

Between kids and work my life has just been really busy over the last several decades and I haven’t had time to just sit down and draw or paint something. But my life is now transitioning to being a little less busy on the personal side and I’m thinking about how I might experiment, maybe with digital art or actually get messy with a paintbrush. I have missed it and I am looking to see if I can sort of reintroduce that as I have some time and ability.

Kate: Thank you so much for chatting with me. You're so good at what you do, and so thoughtful - I appreciate you sharing your insights with me. 

Gary Thompson

Gary Thompson

User Experience Architect
Gary Thompson is a User Experience (UX) and Learning Design (LX) Architect for Unicon, a technology consulting firm focused solely on the education ecosystem. Gary has 25 years of experience in design and front-end development with a focus on interaction design, information architecture, usability, and accessibility. He works with Unicon's clients to understand both user goals and business needs to blend them into effective, efficient, and enjoyable experiences. He has been involved in designing solutions for student portals, learning management systems, course content and delivery, assessment and placement, learning analytics, student success, learning communities, and more. Prior to joining Unicon in 1999, Gary worked for Sandbox, Inc. creating the first wave of online games for the World Wide Web.
Kate Valenti

Kate Valenti

Kate Valenti leads the senior executive team and all aspects of corporate operations. Kate is responsible for the profitable execution of the firm's business strategy, balancing outstanding service to our clients, significant impact to learners, and enjoyable work experiences for our employees. Throughout her 20+ year career at Unicon, Kate has previously held key leadership roles including Chief Operating Officer and Senior Director of Integrations and Analytics. Previously, Kate worked at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young as a management consultant with a focus on enterprise application integration. Kate is passionate about the impact that well-designed and well-integrated technology can have on the learning experience. During her career in education, Kate has designed and developed integration strategies, programs, and technical services teams, and has delivered dozens of integrated solutions to the market. Kate has both participated in and facilitated industry panel conversations and holds the EDUCAUSE Review Author microcredential.