Curiosity created a career in UX design for McDonald’s

Curiosity created a career in UX design for McDonald’s

Anna Flanders /
Kelly Cunningham

When she was studying at the University of Northern Iowa, Kelly Cunningham wanted to learn as much as she possibly could. That’s why in addition to her graphic design major, she completed three minors: one in interactive digital studies, another in anthropology and another in art history. Her many areas of study have all helped her succeed as a user experience (UX) designer, now working as a senior experience design lead for the McDonald’s Corporation in Chicago.

“Something I think about a lot is the reasoning behind why people are making a decision or if one group thinks about something differently from another group — those are all things that I learned from anthropology classes at UNI,” said Cunningham. “Also with communication, being able to articulate your ideas or show your ideas — that's something that we end up doing all the time in UX. The visual design aspect of graphic design definitely comes into play.”

In her role at McDonald’s, Cunningham primarily works on backend tools that help the restaurants run more efficiently. She seeks to understand problems and come up with solutions that are reflected in the way users navigate those tools.

When Cunningham first got to UNI, she knew she was interested in art, but it took her some time to settle on graphic design. Even after she declared a major, she didn’t immediately consider using her degree to work in UX design — that all changed when Bettina Fabos, one of her interactive digital studies professors at the time, recommended she apply for an internship with local UX design agency Visual Logic.

“She saw my interest in all of these different things and helped me tie them together into a career in UX design, which I knew nothing about until she was the one that was like, ‘Hey, there's this internship that I think you would be really good at, and you should apply for it,’” said Cunningham. “I was like, ‘Okay, but I don't really know what I'm doing.’ Bettina really, really set me on my entire trajectory in life.” 

“Kelly always had a deep sensitivity for color, balance and how things fit together,” said Fabos. “She was a perfect fit at Visual Logic — a lucky place to land for UX mentoring. What a complete pleasure to see Kelly thrive professionally in UX design!”

From that internship, Cunningham fell in love with user experience. The internship took one year to complete, but she continued with Visual Logic for two more years beyond that.

“It was all of these other things that I was already interested in coming together as one,” she said. “I really did fall in love with it from the very beginning, and I was like, ‘This is exactly what I want to do.’”

Fabos was hardly the only professor who supported Cunningham during her time at UNI. Cunningham said she consistently felt support from professors like Roy Behrens and Phil Fass in the Department of Art. She also felt that support in the Department of Philosophy & World Religions where she worked on marketing materials.

“The relationships that I was able to build with my professors definitely stand out to me,” said Cunningham. “I always felt like they very much advocated for me. Because I was so interested in so many different things and in those different departments, I was able to make a lot of relationships and had a lot of people looking out for me and helping me figure out my path. I don't think I would be in the same place without their support and guidance.”

Cunningham graduated from UNI in 2016 and moved to Chicago the next year. After working for a marketing agency and UX design agency, she landed her role at McDonald’s.

To succeed in the UX space, Cunningham believes her intense curiosity has been crucial. This skill came alive during her time at UNI.

"I don't think I would be in the same place without [my professors'] support and guidance.”

“AI is a great example of something that's brand-new, and you have to learn about it in order to figure out how to best implement it,” she said. “So being curious, taking the initiative to dive into learning something new — I think that's definitely a skill that I learned through all of my classes. I don't think there was a single class or professor I had that would discourage you from being curious and trying to go out and learn other things.”

To stay on top of trends in her ever-changing industry, Cunningham makes time to read newsletters, go to conferences and have conversations with new people as often as she can. She believes others who are interested in UX design should do the same.

“After college, it all falls on you to be one that is actively seeking those things out,” she said. “So it's a little bit of a mindset shift. People aren't going to be coming to teach you things all the time, you have to be open and willing to learn them and seek those out for yourself. Learn as much as you can and be interested and open to anything that piques your interest. It's okay to have a diverse set of interests. I think that makes you a more interesting designer and a more interesting person.”