Skip to main content

Select your location

Meet Jess Hiltrop, a trailblazing experience mastermind

Designed headshot of Jess with text that reads: Kin+ Jess Hiltrop

Our name is intentional. "Kin" refers to family and "Carta" refers to maps. When together, we're Kin + Carta — a group of connected makers, builders and creators, who come together everyday to help our clients build experiences and plot a clear path forward in today's digital world. Carta is what we do, Kin is who we are.

Kin+ is a series that uncovers the experiences, stories and lives of the people who make our collective "Kin" exceptional.

Eager to delve into the dynamic world of design and strategy? Or, to get inspiration from a growth path filled with secure change? Meet Jess Hiltrop, who began as one of Kin + Carta’s first UX designers, playing a pivotal role in shaping and expanding the firm’s UX team. From crafting thoughtfully designed mobile experiences to becoming a strategic Delivery Partner on the B2B Portfolio team, Jess's story is a testament to the diverse growth opportunities within Kin + Carta.

Designed headshot of Jess with text that reads: Kin+ Jess Hiltrop

Everything I've done in my career is grounded in the fact that I thrive at crafting experiences. Whether those experiences are helping people create new processes or building new products, they're an inherent thread throughout my path.

I grew up in Indiana, just east of South Bend in Granger. I went to school at Purdue University for Visual Communication Design and started my design career at a small marketing agency and full service print shop.

From there, I was recruited by Kin + Carta. While interviewing, I was told it didn't matter if I had digital design skills yet. They weren't looking for that specific skill set. Rather, they wanted somebody to come in and focus on how we better represent our brand through the mobile apps we were creating. They needed to slowly start embedding design into client projects.

I was one of the first user experience (UX) designers, and shortly after starting, I became the only person in the area. I remember J Schwan, our CEO at the time, walking by my desk and asking me to lunch. And I was left wondering: Why is the CEO taking me to lunch?! It was to give me a heads-up that I would be the only UX designer for a little bit and that they would find more people to join the team soon.

This was such a unique opportunity, especially coming in at a junior role, to help build the UX team. In addition to having a say about what the team could look like, it gave me the chance to grow really quickly. So, I came in as a fresh user interface (UI) and UX designer and eventually helped build that team up to 40+ designers.

Picture of Jess with UX team in a Zoom call
Jess with the UX team as it grew from 1 to 40 people

At first, I was nervous about switching to UI and UX design from my visual design background. But I very quickly realized that either way, you're still crafting an experience. One is more usable in the sense that you're creating an interface with buttons that people will touch and interact with. Visual design is really the same concept but with a platform like a billboard or a magazine layout. Even though they're static, your goal is still to evoke a response.

That translated well into designing visually pleasing experiences for mobile apps. In this, I found you get to take it further and question: How do we make this something that someone can interact with and use easily? It was fun to balance the two. It wasn't all just about making something pretty. It was making something that, first and foremost, could be used well.

It was me and a whole bunch of engineers when I started, so I very quickly got trained on how to work with engineering, and looking back, that was a huge advantage. I worked with engineers first to understand how we were building something and then figured out how to make it work well and look great. Whatever I was putting together, they had to be able to build. I can't tell you how often I was bugging them and asking questions like: Can I do this? How do I do this? How do I make this thing work? Can I do it this way? Do you want me to do it this way instead?

As we were able to build a team, I really focused on this. We looked for people with communication skills to work with engineers so they could truly understand how something worked. There had to be a balance there. There was a difference in the type of team we were creating compared to a traditional design agency. You will often find that design agencies separate visual designers and UI/UX designers. We chose not to. We focused on getting people that held both skill sets. Having those folks was and continues to be a significant advantage for us.

I very quickly got trained on how to work with engineering, and looking back, that was a huge advantage.

If there's one project that I look most fondly upon, it's less about the project itself and more about the team we put together. I still have some of the best friends from that group. The client was based in Minnesota, and I can't tell you how many times we got stuck at the airport in the winter because our flight was delayed. But we were such a close-knit team that it was always a blast. We had a wide range of skill sets and experience amongst that group and were constantly trying new ideas and approaches. Everybody dove in. Projects like that speak to the incredible people I've had the opportunity to work with along the way.

Jess with UX team members
Jess with one of her favorite project teams

Eventually, I did a little less hands-on design and served more as a design lead. I was paired with more junior designers to help coach them. At that point, I started to focus on UX strategies. I loved working directly with stakeholders and interacting with the clients. As our Strategy Practice opened up to people with various backgrounds, including researchers, designers, and product folks, I decided to take the plunge and switch to strategy while still maintaining my focus on UX.

My current role is a Delivery Partner on the B2B Portfolio team, which has morphed into a cool, new challenge to tackle. I still get to lean on my strategy skillset, and I still get to utilize my background in UX design. But it's all aimed at ensuring we maintain delivery excellence across our projects. I'm now on a wide variety of platform and commerce-based projects, which is different from what I had been working on before which was more custom app focused.

Jess with a few Kin who get together to work remotely in their Chicago suburb
Jess with a few Kin who get together to work remotely in their Chicago suburb

Looking back at my career so far, I’ve stepped into ambiguous roles. But I never made any of those moves super quick. I set sights on new roles and slowly worked my way into them. When I had already been doing parts of any potential new role, it got to a time where it felt more comfortable and made more sense. That's the benefit of inching toward something instead of making a big, hard switch.

I'm not someone who actually enjoys change. If you were to ask me if I liked change, the answer would be: No! I generally like to get in a groove and roll with what I know. But there's something about consulting, especially consulting for technology, that makes change seem accessible. Technology changes so fast, so most of the time you're just learning alongside everybody else.

Consulting is also nice in that it allows you to work on so many different things. I've been with the firm for over 11 years, working on everything from agriculture to manufacturing to retail and financial services. It truly runs the gamut. And I've found that even as we continue to grow, I can find smaller groups within the firm, like the Strategy group, or Delivery Partners group, that allow me to still get the small company feel even within a now-larger firm.

There’s something about technology consulting that makes change seem accessible. Technology changes so fast, so most of the time you're just learning alongside everybody else.

If you're willing to dive in, you're afforded a lot of opportunities to try new things at Kin + Carta. And that’s something that hasn’t changed during my time here. I've watched others do the same as I have done. We're not a company that tells you what to do or what your path should be. We let you figure it out for yourself, and if you're willing to, come up with what that path is and follow it where it may lead.

Ready to grow a trailblazing career like Jess?

Apply now


Share this article

Show me all