User experience (UX) design is a phrase you hear a lot in the world of software, but what does it mean, and what sort of background do you need to become a UX designer? Fiona Campbell-Howes gets the lowdown from Paula Kaminska about what user experience really means, and how she forged a career as a UX designer and strategist.
Can you start by telling us what ‘user experience’ means?
It’s a very common term in the tech world, but it's actually about psychology. It’s about how people think and feel about the products they use.
That product could be anything – a website, an app, a cash machine, the instructions for building a piece of IKEA furniture. If it’s difficult to use, it causes frustration – with the product and the company that provided it. So user experience design is about trying to improve the experience for the person using the product.
There’s a guy called Steve Krug who wrote a really great book titled Don't Make Me Think. And that's the main concept of UX design – that whenever people interact with something, they shouldn't have to think, it should just be intuitive. They should be able to go with the flow without stopping to think about how to use it.
What kind of companies typically hire UX professionals?
All sorts, but in tech it’s mainly software startups. There’s been a lot of research suggesting that companies with good UX design practices outperform the industry benchmark by 2:1, financially speaking. So user experience design directly translates into financial improvement for the company.
We’re talking about UX design, but your role is UX strategist. What’s the difference?
Typically, the UX designer does the design work, and the strategist helps to draw up and deliver the business strategy. So as UX director at Duesday, I manage the UX design team and I also advise the co-founders on how we can make the software easy to use so more people sign up to use it.
What does the job involve?
A big chunk of it is research, which falls into three areas:
Business research involves lots of meetings with people within the company to understand what they want to build. We run workshops to figure out how we can improve our existing products and build new ones that people will like using.
Market research is about analysing the competitors – the current ones and any companies that might be competitors in the future, because they might develop a feature that our product has as well.
User research is about understanding what users need. We talk to people to find out what their pain point is and how it can be solved. If the product already exists, we look at how they interact with it and how it could be improved for them.
We might invite them in to a kind of laboratory, and ask them to perform a task. For example, we might show them a website and ask them to try to buy something from it. We’d look at what they do, and ask them to think out loud so we can understand what happens in their mind. It’s also about looking at data like Google Analytics, to see how people use the product and if there are any places where they get stuck.
If we’re designing a new product, we’ll create a prototype – like a clickable mock-up of the app or the website, and test it with real people to see if they can use it easily. It’s quite an exciting area.
It sounds fascinating – how did you get into it?
As a kid my parents were quite over-protective. I didn't have many opportunities to socialise, so I spent a lot of time with a computer. I had an analytical mind and I was quite geeky, so I got really good at it.
I found computing easy at school, so I always had top grades. Sometimes when the teacher left the class for something, he would say “Paula, can you take over?” I think that helped with my confidence. I grew up in a culture [in Poland], where there are still lots of jokes about women not being as intelligent as men. So I had this mission to prove that a woman can.
And that made you want to study IT at university?
Not at first. I was really interested in the film industry, and I wanted to be a filmmaker. My mother was a journalist who had access to filmmakers, and I found them fascinating. But she said I’d need to be really good or have very good connections to make money out of it.
She said I should study IT at university instead, as it was in demand and very well paid – and I’d then be able to make films as a hobby if I wanted.
That was really precious advice, even though I felt I was betraying myself by choosing to study IT. But it made sense to me later, because having skills that will always be in demand has given me a very good sense of security. Even now, during the pandemic, user experience is on the rise.
Did you think about becoming a UX designer while you were studying?
No, because the job didn’t exist then. Programming was the cool thing, and there were some great movies about it around at the time, like Hackers with Angelina Jolie. So I signed up to do a computer science degree. But while I was at university, I realised that coding isn’t actually my style of creativity. I started to feel more drawn towards psychology.
One day I came across a book about a field called human-computer interaction, which sits exactly between coding and psychology. I thought it was really interesting, so I chose to write about it for my dissertation. What was called human-computer interaction in those days evolved into what we now call user experience design.
What do you enjoy most about UX design?
It ties into what I liked about filmmaking – it’s a fascination with human experience. With UX design I feel like I can create something that can solve a problem, or improve people’s lives. It’s also very data driven, which means I can actually measure how much the product improves the human experience.
What advice would you give to girls who are interested in working in the tech sector one day?
What worked well for me was ignoring gender. In my life I’ve been inspired by lots of different people and it didn't matter to me whether they were men or women. It's good to be open minded about that.
At the same time, women do have a different communication style. I worked in a company where IT was dominated by a male style of communication. If I didn't behave like a man, with a strong voice and a strong posture, I would be ignored.
I've learned the hard way to look for managers who welcome feminine energy, who see value in it. Then as women we can be confident about the way we communicate, without pretending to be someone we’re not.
How can parents encourage their daughters to pursue a career in tech?
What really helped me was meeting professionals from my mother' company. I had access to camera operators, video editors, IT specialists... It’s really helpful to be able to meet and chat to those kinds of professionals early on. Because then we can start to visualise ourselves in those kinds of roles, and know who we want to be.