Wendy McKennon: Head Of User Experience, Color Genomics

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If you love design and user experience, this is a podcast for you. Today we speak with Wendy McKennon, head of user experience at Color Genomics, a digital health startup with a mission to help people make the most of their health information.

Color Genomics is most known for its much lower-cost $249 physician-ordered genetic test that is available to determine an individual’s breast and ovarian cancer risk. The lower cost associated with this test is transformative in the way that it changes how people can afford and access this information for their personal health. In addition, the company has expanded to offer testing for the eight most-common hereditary cancers, as well as a test for high cholesterol risk.

When Wendy joined the Color Genomics team as its first designer, she worked with only five others. Today, she leads product and design for a team double that size. She believes that although work will always bring pressure, it’s vital to your career happiness and fulfillment to do work that makes you feel good.

“Working on the things that are exciting to you can yield the greatest benefit,” Wendy says. “I think there’s a pressure sometimes to work on the things that look like they’re going to promise the greatest rewards. And there’s certainly points in life where you need to follow those; [for example when] you need to pay off a loan or support your family. But if you can, I think you’re going to get a lot out of being able to work on the things that really excite you.”

In episode 54 of I Want Her Job: The Podcast, we speak with Wendy about what it’s like to work in user experience, the qualities Wendy looks for when hiring and her biggest source of inspiration. We’ll also hear about the incredible inspirations in Wendy’s life that have transformed her interests.

Let’s dive in.

Topics Discussed In Today’s Show:

  • emPOWER: “Color’s mission is to help people make the most of their health information,” Wendy says.
  • A Colored Background: Two years ago the company launched its first product; a genetic test for breast and ovarian cancer risk. This test was revolutionary—instead of being completed at a doctor’s office, it could be ordered by a consumer from their home. This meant that if a person wanted to check their risk, instead of dealing with the logistics of appointments, insurance coverage, traveling to a specialist, etc., an individual could be empowered to take the process of procuring and taking a test into her or his own hands. “We thought we could make a difference by trying to address those various pain points,” Wendy says. The test, which also was priced at $249, was also much more accessible to the average person than the up-to-$4,000 cost of the same genetic tests done the traditional way.
  • The More You Know: One in eight women in the United States will get breast cancer in her lifetime, Wendy cites, and of those one in- eight, about 15% have a genetic cause. At Color, “We’re trying to connect people with the information that’s already in their bodies,” she says. “… We want to make sure that the information is actionable, useful and well-informed. We include genetic counseling as part of our service.”
  • Solving People’s Problems: “User experience design, to me, is a fancy name for problem solving,” Wendy says. She continues that the best solutions to problems are usually informed by good information, and a good UX designer will spend some part of their day information gathering: understanding user needs, business goals and technical constraints.
  • On Her Challenges: Prior to joining the team at Color, Wendy worked at Google. The transition from working at a big company to then working at a small company was a definite shift for Wendy. At Google, Wendy worked with many specialists who could help her solve solutions to a roadblock. But, at a startup like Color, Wendy says, if she ran into something she had a question on, she had to figure it out herself. She says, “It’s forced me to grow a lot in my skills.”
  • On Studying Symbolic Systems: Wendy stumbled into the symbolic systems program at Stanford after a tough time passing an engineering-level physics program. She was drawn to the symbolic systems program interdisciplinary focus that merged linguistics, psychology, computer science and philosophy.
  • A Mother’s Touch: Wendy names her mom as her role model. Her parents divorced before she even has a memory of the event, and as the youngest of four kids, she was raised in Spokane, Wash., along with her three siblings by her mom. As a hard-working single mom who went to college with the goal of becoming an architect, Wendy’s mom’s drive was extremely inspiring.
  • On Learning To Code: While she was in fifth grade, Wendy’s father, who would visit about once a month during her childhood, began to teach her how to code. She says that being exposed to coding at a young age fed into her future interest and enabled her to think it was a path that was possible for her; not just for “boys” or “techies.”
  • Passionate Prep Work: Wendy says she looks for three key things when looking at a user experience candidate—and of course, a portfolio is highly important. She recommends someone takes on their own project and redesigns it to show how they think through and solve problems. She also looks for good analytical thinkers and strong storytellers.
  • Reaching Out: One of Wendy’s key pieces of advice is to reach out to others when you’re going through a tough time. “A lot of time people will be surprised to find that other people are also having a hard time,” she says.
  • A Personal Connection: Earlier this year, Wendy lost her older sister to alcoholism. “The experience has given me really heartbreaking insights into our society’s lack of acknowledgement that it’s a disease. And just like any disease, there’s a genetic component that’s really not acknowledged and the side effect of this is that treatment options are limited,” Wendy says. At some point in her life, she hopes to do something to make a positive difference in this space.
  • Learn More: If you’re interested in pursing a career in user experience, we also recommend you listen to our I Want Her Job: The Podcast interview with Mona Patel of Motivate Design.
  • Connect: Follow Wendy on Twitter and LinkedIn, then follow Color on Twitter.

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