Dump trucks, explosives, and service design. A story about my UX career

11 min read Gretta Jensen


  • A Blog: I’ve been asked to write one by Optimal Workshop. Exciting. Intimidating. Although I’m unsure exactly what they are – I’m yet to read any so I’d better try to – blogs push to the front of the hectic, clamouring queue in my head.
  • Podcast: Everyone talks about them. They were lined up in about tenth position in the brain so hadn’t been seen to yet.
  • Computer dyslexia: Is this a thing? Yes, indeed – I’m calling it! Even if I can’t find anything about it on Google. What appears so easy to others working with technology is such a struggle in my brain. Others find it all logical and cruisey, but me – I’m in a constant state of interface rage, and I just want it to make sense and stay in my brain until the next time I need it.

So I’m finally on a quick family holiday after a crazy few weeks following the wonderfully busy UX Australia conference. There are six of us in a one-bedroom apartment. It’s great … really! 🙂

I head to the gym to try the podcasting thing for the first time while doing a much-needed workout. It can’t be that hard.

I fumble onto Dr Karl, then try “service design”, my interest area. I think I have pressed the right podcast but an entirely different one comes on. Is that my fault, or is there a mysterious trick to it all?

It sounds good anyway and it’s about service design, a recount from a previous UX Australia presentation. I fail to catch the speaker’s name but they are talking about the basics of service design so it will do nicely. I’m enjoying this while jogging (well, flailing, to be fair) and watching a poor elderly couple struggle over and over to enter the pool area. The card swipe that they use opens a door far away with no sounds or lights to indicate the way; there’s just a tiny insignificant sign. I had also struggled with this. With a sense of amusement – maybe irony – I’m listening to a podcast on service design while watching very poor service design in action and aching to design it better. I’m thinking of how I might write about this episode in my blog thingo when I catch who the speaker is. It’s Optimal Workshop. The very people who I’m writing the blog for. Beautiful.

My journey to becoming a UX Designer

I’m a UX designer. Sometimes I feel a bit fraudulent saying this. I try not to think that, but I do. I accidentally fell into the world of UX design, but it’s where I’m meant to be. I’m so pleased I found my home and my people. Finally, my weird way of thinking has a place and a name I can apply with some tentative authority these days … I am a UX designer. It’s getting easier to say.

Born to immigrant parents in the 1970s, I ran away at 14 and barely made it through my High School Certificate, surviving only by training racehorses part time and skipping school to work on building sites for some very much needed cash in hand. I met an alcoholic and three beautiful daughters quickly arrived.

In 2004, while travelling Australia like random gypsies in an old bus with a cute face, I suffered an accidental, medically induced heart attack and became really sick. My little heart was failing and I was told I would likely die. The girls were flown to stay with family and saying goodbye was the hardest thing I have ever done. They were so little.

Clearly I didn’t die, but it was a slow and tough recovery.

During this time, an opportunity to move to remote Groote Eylandt to live with the Anindilyakwan tribe in Angurugu came up, and of course we went. Family and friends said I was mad. There was little medical help available for my heart, and it was a very long way from a hospital.

While living there, the local Manganese Mine decided to try using some local women to drive dump trucks. I was one of four chosen, so off I went to drive a two-story house on slippery mud. Magnificent fun!

Driving dump trucks was awesome and I really enjoyed mining, but then I saw the blast crew and it looked like far more fun. I would ask Knuckles every day if I could go on blast crew. “Girls don’t do blast crew” was his constant response. I kept asking anyway. One day I said, “Knuckles, I will double your productivity as I will work twice as hard as the boys – and they can’t have a girl beat them, so your productivity will go up.” He swore, gave me a resigned look, and a one-week trial. And I was on blast crew.

They were the best bunch of guys I ever had the joy of working with – such gentlemen – and I discovered I loved the adrenaline of blowing things up in the heat, humidity, mud, and storms.

We left Groote in 2007, travelling in the cute bus again, and landed in Queensland’s Bowen Basin. I started blasting coal, but this was quite different to Groote Eylandt and I learned quickly that women are not always welcome on a mine site. Regardless of the enormous challenges, including death threats, I stuck it out. In fact, every challenge made me more determined than ever to excel in the industry.

At the height of the global financial crisis, I found myself suddenly single with three girls to raise alone. The alcoholic had run off with another victim while I was working away on-site.

I lost my job in the same week due to site shutdowns, and went to have my long hair sorted out. Sadly, due to a hairdresser’s accident, I lost all of my hair, too. It was a bad week as far as first-world problems go. In hindsight, though, it was a great week.

Jobs were really scarce, but there was one going as an explosives operator in the Hunter Valley. I applied and was successful, so the girls and I packed up our meagre belongings and moved. I was the only female explosives operator working in the Valley then, and one of a handful in Australia – a highly male-dominated industry.

It was a fairly tough time. Single mum, three daughters, shift work, and up to four hours of travel a day for work. I was utterly exhausted. Add to this an angry 14-year-old teenager who was doing everything to rebel against the world at the time. Much as her mum did at the same age.

I found a local woman who was happy to live rent-free in exchange for part-time nannying while I worked shift work. This worked for a while but the teenagers were difficult, and challenged her authority. Needless to say, she didn’t last long term.

User Experience came driving around the corner

There was a job going with a local R&D department driving prototype explosives trucks. I submitted my little handwritten application. “Can you use a computer and Windows?” they asked. “Of course,” I said. But I couldn’t really.

A few months later I had the job. It was closer to home, and only a little shift work was required.

This was the golden ticket job I had been striving for. I was incredibly nervous about starting, but the night before I was woken at 11.00 pm by my 14-year-old daughter. She had tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose. I rushed her to hospital and stayed with her most of the night. Fortunately, she had not quite taken enough to cause the slow, painful, and unstoppable death, coming up four pills short. Heavily medicated, she was transferred to a troubled adolescents ward under lock and key. Unable to stay with my daughter, I turned up to my new job, exhausted and still in shock with a fake smile on my face. No one knew the ordeal.

Learning how to navigate a computer at nearly 40 years of age was particularly challenging. I tried watching others, but it was not intuitive and I learned the frustration of interface rage early, almost constantly. I have computer dyslexia, for sure.

Explosives operators are often like me – not very tech savvy. Some are very clever with computers, and some struggle to use a mobile phone and avoid owning a computer at all. In some countries, explosives operators are also illiterate.

The job of delivering explosives is very particular. The trucks have many pumps, augers, and systems to manufacture complicated explosives mixtures accurately, utilising multiple raw materials stored in tanks on board. The management of this information is in the hands of operators who are brave, wonderfully intelligent, and hard-working people in general. Looking at a screen for up to 12 hours a day managing explosives mixtures can be frustrating if it’s set up ineffectively. Add to that new regulations and business requirements, making the job ever more complicated.

I saw the new control system being created and thought the screens could be greatly improved from an operator’s perspective. I came up with an idea and designed a whole new system – very simplified, logical, and easy for the operators to use, if complicated in the back end. To be fair, at this point I had no idea about the “back end”. It was a mystical world of code the developers talked about in dark rooms.

The screens now displayed only what the operator had to see at any time rather than the full suite of buttons and controls. The interface tidied right up – and with the addition of many new features that operators could turn on or off as they chose – the result was a simple, effective system that could be personalized to suit a style of loading. It was easy to manipulate to suit the changing conditions of bench loading, which requires total flexibility while offering tight control on safety, product quality, and opportunity of change.

The problem was the magical choreography of the screens were dancing around in my head only; most people weren’t interested in my crazy drawings on butchers paper. I was thrown out of offices until someone finally listened to my rantings and my ideas were created as prototypes. These worked well enough to convince the business to develop the concept.

A new project manager was hired to oversee the work. The less said about this person, the better, but it took a year before he was fired, and it was one of the toughest years I had to endure.

In designing and developing concepts, I was actually following UX principles without knowing what they were. My main drive was to make the system consistent, logical, easy to understand at a glance, and able to capture effective data.

I designed the system so as to allow the user to choose how they wanted to use the features; however, the best way was also the easiest way. I hate bossy software – being forced into corners and feeling the interface rage while just trying to do your job. It’s unacceptable.

Designing interfaces and control systems is what I love to do, and I have now designed or contributed to designing four systems. I love the ability to change the way a person will perform a job just by implementing a simple alteration in software that changes the future completely. Making software suit the audience rather than the audience suit the software while achieving business goals – I love it.

Deciding that I wanted to stop driving trucks, I started researching interface design. I had no degree and no skills apart from being an explosives operator. What could I possibly do?

I literally stumbled upon UX design one night and noticed there was a conference soon in San Francisco, the UXDI15, so I bought a ticket and booked the flights. I had no idea what I would find, but it would be a great adventure anyway.

What I found was the most incredible new world of possibility. I felt welcomed in a room full of warm hugs and acceptance. These are my people, UX people. Compassionate, empathetic, friendly, resourceful. Beautiful. I finally fit somewhere. Thank you, UX.

I spent four days in awe, heard fantastic stories, met lots of clever people. Got an inappropriate tattoo…

As soon as I arrived home I booked into UX Design at General Assembly. It would

be the first time I’d studied since high school, and meant 5.00 am wake-ups every Saturday morning to catch the train to Sydney – but hey, so worth it. I learned that the principles I stuck to fiercely during the control system designs were in fact correct UX principles. I was often right as it turns out.

I know what I am now

Since then I have designed two apps that each solve very real problems in society, and I am excited and utterly terrified to be forging ahead with the development of them. I have a small development team, and the savings of a house deposit to throw into a startup instead.

I still work full time blowing things up. I’m still an exhausted single mum with three beautiful daughters, but fortunately I now have a decent man in my life. Still, I wake up terrified at 4.00 am most mornings. Am I mad? What do I know about UX? My computer dyslexia is improving, but it still doesn’t come naturally. I have interface rage constantly. Yes, I’m mad but determined. I will make this work, because, as I tell my daughters nearly every day, “Girls – you can achieve anything you set your mind to.” And they can. (Thanks for the great quote, Eminem.)

Next time I blog it will be about how I accidentally became an entrepreneur, developed two-million-dollar apps, and managed to follow my dreams of drawing portraits of life in my cafe by the sea.

I look forward to telling you all about it. 😉