Dara Pressley ’89

Dara Pressley is a designer and architect. Not of brick-and-mortar buildings but of digital spaces. She designs user-friendly, human-centered websites that allow users to rapidly and smoothly find important information.

“It’s my job to ask who is coming to the website, what are they looking for, who is the priority, and how do we serve up content for each user that arrives at the doorstep?” says Dara.

Director of User Experience at ICF Next

ICF Next is a global advisory and technology services provider with 7000 employees. Before ICF, Dara spent many years working as a consultant and as an employee in the commercial world for Fortune 500 companies, including AOL, Microsoft, and Accenture. In 2016 she decided she wanted a better quality of life and searched for a firm that would allow her to work in a remote-first environment.

“My commute had gotten really bad on the east coast—it was two hours, one way,” explains Dara, who moved back to Seattle last year with her two children, 18-year-old Fauno, and 16-year-old Zion. “I decided I should be spending my time either with work or with family, not on the road. So, my priority was to work remotely. ICF was able to meet that need.”

At ICF, Dara works primarily on federal government projects as opposed to commercial. “I love the work I do now. I’m a partner and on the executive team.”

A recent favorite project was to overhaul the data site for the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. The purpose of the federal agency’s data site is to provide the public with the latest behavioral health data and statistics, as well as timely access to mental health and substance abuse trends. It is the go-to resource for policy makers, journalists, and medical professionals, and yet the site was confusing and notoriously difficult to navigate. “You could not figure out where to go or what to do once you were on the site,” testifies Dara.

Data site for the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality
Data site for the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality

Dara and her ICF teammates overhauled the information architecture, visual design, content, and backend architecture. “We not only solved the problem we changed what the initial ask was; we told them, ‘this is actually the problem you have,’ and we were able to solve it in less time than they had predicted. It was a fun project.”

From Writer to Designer

Dara’s path to user experience strategist has been anything but a straight line. When she headed to Scripps College in California, she thought she wanted to be a lawyer, but soon realized she wanted to be a writer. After gaining her degree in English from Scripps, she went on to Columbia College Chicago, and obtained an MFA in Writing and a MA in Teaching Writing. She was the first to obtain two master’s degrees simultaneously at Columbia. She got straight As in both.

Despite these stellar credentials she had a hard time getting a fulltime college teaching position. She started looking for writing jobs at tech companies but the tech bubble caused a series of layoffs. She then turned to freelancing, creating cradle-to-grave websites, but did not like marketing and hustling required. One day, a head hunter asked, how about user experience (also known as UX)?

“I said, what’s that? He described it and I said, well, that’s the part I actually like doing. I got my first UX job at AOL and never looked back.”

At the time, there was no degree program for user experience; people were self-taught. Dara had learned webwork and technology at home (her mother was a computer developer) and her knowledge of psychology and human behavior came from her academic pursuits. “All my training in liberal arts really helped,” confirms Dara.

In elementary school, Dara was in the public school system and had a good experience. But when she toured the public middle school, she refused to go. Her parents heard about Northwest School through a friend and took her there for a tour.

“I saw Northwest was very much a community and not about competition. I was very, very shy before coming to Northwest and a competitive environment would have just done me in.”
Starting at Northwest in 7th grade, Dara blossomed. She credits the dance program and the theatre training for her current ease at being in front of people. “In my field we do a lot of presentations,” confirms Dara. “As soon as I get in front of people now, it’s flawless.”

Learning How to Learn

Dara particularly appreciates how Northwest taught students how to think by examining both sides of an issue or historical event.

“Paul (Raymond) would come into class and say ‘Communism is the best thing ever!’ and by the time the class was over we were all ready to be communists. Then the next day, he came in and said ‘Communism is the worst thing ever!’ He was amazing,” recalls Dara, laughing.

When students complained about the heavy reading and writing workload, Paul countered that college was going be so hard so they must learn how to do this now. According to Dara, the hard work paid off.

“After Northwest, college was so-o-o easy. I saw my classmates struggling with trying to write an essay. I had been writing essays since 7th grade and term papers since 9th. The liberal arts at Northwest were outstanding. They taught us how to learn. To this day that serves me because I’m always learning something. I credit Northwest for teaching me to do that.”