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An interview with…Liz Wallace, Sustainable MBA / UX Designer

James Christie and Liz Wallace, Spring 2021

This is the first in a series of interviews with folks working at the intersection of sustainability and UX.

15+ years ago when I got my start in UX, there wasn’t much of an academic path into UX , and the barrier to entry was very low. Today, students have a vast range of university courses tailored to different aspects of the digital design field. Some of these courses have started offering sustainability modules, and there are even courses that offer a blend of sustainability & digital design.

Liz Wallace is a recent graduate of the Sustainable Innovation MBA program at the University of Vermont, and we discuss the course, her influences, and how programs such as these are preparing the next generation to work in the context of a disrupted climate.

Hi Liz, how’s it going?

Hi James! Thanks for having me! I’m doing well. Feeling hopeful that we may be moving into a new chapter, and moving on from the last year or so. It’s just been so crazy, and I’m sure everyone is more than exhausted from the emotional roller coaster that we’ve all been on. But I have hope that we will get through it together. We are more resilient than we think.

You recently completed an MBA in Sustainability. Can you tell us a bit about what that involved? How did the course split between “sustainability” and “business”? 

I recently finished classes in the Sustainable Innovation MBA program at The University of Vermont. It’s a one-year MBA program that combines traditional business disciplines with Sustainability, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship. The whole program is set up to get you thinking about how to intervene in current systems and implement sustainable changes into those systems. 

You need to have a good foundation in business before you can start looking for opportunities for disruption. The program does an excellent job of doing that. You pretty much come out of the program knowing how to make the business case for sustainable changes, and that’s really powerful. 

Vermont, as small as the state is, is home to some of the Sustainability heavy-hitters like Ben & Jerry’s and Seventh Generation. So through the program, you get an opportunity to work with these companies and learn from some of the leaders of the sustainability movement. It’s incredible.

Can Business ever square with Sustainability? 

I think this is absolutely possible. 

What I’m the most optimistic about is not necessarily innovation coming from my generation, the millennials, but Gen Z and beyond. I’ve really been paying attention to the grit and resilience this generation has. I’ve been to talks where some of these young entrepreneurs pitch new ideas that disrupt the market, and I am just blown away at how sophisticated they are. They think about things that I don’t think about, and I think there is so much to be learned from younger folks. 

These kids are as tough as nails, and they know what they want. They will not take no for an answer, and that kind of excellence is what is going to change hearts and minds.

There are so many proposed approaches to the climate crisis. Did the MBA present a perspective on climate that you wouldn’t have considered otherwise? 

Yes. Very much so.

What really stuck out to me was how much actually needs to be changed in order to combat climate change. The opportunities are literally everywhere you look. I think the biggest one, and rightfully so because of the last year, is healthcare. The industry certainly needs to make some serious changes, but it will be slow and tedious. It has to be.

I cannot help but to think about the amount of plastic waste that has, and will continue to be, generated from the pandemic, and what kinds of climate costs this might total up to be. There is a better way, but the systems are working against us for now. 

What are some of your main sustainability influences (books, twitter peeps, etc…)

I just finished Thinking in Systems by Dana Meadows. She was an excellent thinker, and I’ve been lucky enough to be taught by some of her previous colleagues. Her book is so, so good for anything that you’re trying to fix, any problem you’re trying to solve, or any project you’re trying to scope. 

Another one is Biomimcry by Janine Benyus. This book is so poetic. A colleague of mine gave me a copy of this book, and he is a writer by training. We spend a lot of our time gushing over the writing style of this book because Janine does such an excellent job of capturing the beauty and fragility of nature. It makes the heartbreak of how much of an impact our consumption has had on the environment that much more painful. It’s really an excellent book.

Lastly, my biggest sustainability influence is the fact that I love nature. I grew up on a farm in the Adirondacks in New York. I was outside almost all day, every day. I can see how being in the outdoors has helped me in my creativity, my resilience, and my imagination. I wish everyone had the kind of access that I had to the outdoors going up. I realize that is a privilege. I hope that the work that I do pays it forward to some other young kid down the line who ends up finding who they are out in nature. 

What were you doing / studying before the MBA? 

Before my MBA I was running a hard cider company. My background is in sales and marketing in the beverage industry, so I was managing all of the revenue solutions for the firm. It had a great social and environmental mission, but their follow through came up a little short. Because I was wearing so many hats, I got curious about how to run a purpose-driven business better. That’s why I decided to get an MBA. 

You described yourself as a UX designer in training; what does that training look like?

In a sentence, it’s reading and staring at stuff. 

I’m trying to read everything I can on design, architecture, color theory, systems, and psychology. I have been blessed with a really curious brain that has a lot of energy, so I’m almost always flipping through something (even between papers for my master’s). Learning has turned into kind of a hobby for me, so once I’m on to something, I’ve got to get to the bottom of it. There’s just so many interesting things to learn about, it’s everywhere, and I really enjoy the process of finding out more about a subject.

As far as staring at stuff goes, once I finished Don Norman’s Design Of Everyday Things, I can’t unsee everything that is mentioned in that book. I have this spatula in my kitchen that I have a new appreciation for because it is just so well designed. It’s rounded in all the right places, even the handle, so that the bowl comes out clean when you scrape it. My partner is a baker, so when I am on dish duty to clean the KitchenAid Mixer bowl, this is what I reach for now. I’ve had it since I can remember, and reading Don’s book has given me a new appreciation for that tool.

But, I also spend a lot of time looking at systems, tools, and people and question “Why is that like that?” a lot. Which I guess feeds back into reading more stuff and staring at more things. I believe Dana Meadows called that a “Reverse Feedback Loop”…

Are you finding opportunities to apply sustainability thinking to UX? 

Yes, but what I’m learning is that there are not a lot of examples out there of what “Sustainable Tech” should look like. It seems like there’s two camps: Those who are designing digital tools in a sustainable way, and tools that encourage sustainable living. Both are still very new, and there really isn’t a standard yet by any means. However, I do think that measures like Carbon Footprint should be something we pay attention to, just like how many steps we walk each day, or our bank account balances, but that just hasn’t happened yet. I think it will, though, and the company who can figure out how to make this measure as common as how many followers we have on Instagram, is going to be one successful human being. 

The reality is that there are opportunities for sustainability, literally everywhere you look, in everything you have ever used in the built environment. It just depends on where the boundaries are of what we need to fix, when we need to fix it. Right now, the problems that we need to fix are sweeping and extremely complicated. Time is of the essence, and we have yet to design a fully-universal way for everyone, and I mean everyone, to participate. 

Sustainability should not, and can not be a marketing tactic that is based in identity politics. It has to be fully accessible.  We have yet to design a way to truly democratize a sustainable future, and we have to do that if we are trying to take on issues like climate change, and social and environmental justice reform.

What sort of career are you looking for? How will your studies in Sustainability inform your choices? 

I’m hoping to, for now, get into Product Management and work for a mission-driven organization. Studying UX is helping me understand how I might be able to aid in getting people to pay attention to what’s going on in the world around us. Now more than ever we are spending more and more time on screens, and we should seize that opportunity to educate each other on what a better world would look like, for everyone. So My hope is to work with like-minded people who want to make those kinds of products with the goal of changing behavior.

80’s dance-pop – got a playlist to share?

Got anything to advertise? 

Well, I will say that I am currently on the job hunt, and I’m looking to put my curiosity, energy, and intelligence to work for people who want to create something bigger than themselves. You can find me on LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/liz-wallace-000/

Drop me a message, say hi! I love a good conversation, and am always looking to learn new things.

Last word to you…

If there is one thing I’ve learned this last year, it’s to remember to slow down, take deep breaths, and take survey of all the good things that you have in your life. Because when times are tough, these are the things that are going to get you through. 

Be Kind, and Don’t Litter!

Liz’s Bio

Liz Wallace is a recent graduate of the Sustainable Innovation MBA program at the University of Vermont. She attributes her interest in human-centered and UX design to her studies in sustainability in consumer-packaged goods and  health care. A natural systems thinker, Liz is focused on finding new pathways to create behavior change to sustainable lifestyles by using digital tools, and believes that to create a more sustainable world, we must design for it. 

In her free time, Liz loves to doodle, craft the perfect 80”s dance-pop playlist, and jump into mud puddles during her outdoor runs in the Vermont countryside.