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Women in Tech series: interviews with UX designers

intive

If ‘women in tech’ sounds to you like an irritating or simply outdated theme, take a moment and get to know some of our women professionals who agreed to share their views on the topic. In our series of articles focusing on  gender gap in technology, we’ve been talking to quality specialists, project managers and software engineers. We’re finishing it off now with 3 great stories which have originated in 3 different countries and demonstrate 3 authentic perspectives. Meet Valentina, Soledad and Anna – amazing women and User Experience designers at intive.

Valentina Berois, Senior User Experience Designer at intive Regensburg

Valentina Berois

After high school, I didn’t have a clear idea about my future. I was into music and art, but I didn’t want to do it professionally. Believe it or not, I even took a shot at Economics (Accounting, to be exact). My interests started to drift in another direction when I got my first laptop. Right around that time the broadband revolution kicked in and brought us affordable internet access 24/7. I watched tons of online tutorials about pretty much everything that was new to me, then I discovered Adobe Photoshop and Premiere CS2 and got crazy about editing photos and videos.

It just so happened that at the time a new discipline was being introduced at the ORT University in Montevideo – Multimedia Design. It offered an interesting mix of design, development, interaction and media production. I jumped right in. During the course of my studies, I only had one subject that focused on user experience as we know it today, and it was one of the few I’d completed with a 100% score. Looking back, I should have taken it as a sign.

I didn’t. My professional horizons were limited to web design, media production and editing. My first full-time position was a graphic designer at a startup. Then I moved on to take part in a project which focused on an iOS native iPad App for training traumatology students on complex surgeries. It was only then that I started digging deeper and deeper into the importance of user experience and right away it just felt like home. I decided to go to Germany, landed my first job at a digital agency in Regensburg, and after a year and a half switched to intive. Here I am, for over 3 years now, working and reaching for my goals.

Woman in tech

The tech world? Personally, I’ve always thought of it as my world – and I don’t identify myself with men! I see it as a world of those who are always curious and want to make a positive impact in this world, our society and the future. When I started working at intive, I had just one female colleague in our design team, and now we’re close to 50/50! You can really see the difference in the way we work together and interact. It’s great.  

Things are improving, bit by bit. Education is crucial - I feel that some girls at school still don’t see themselves as having the same capabilities as boys and therefore are less likely to get into technology or engineering. There is a huge responsibility resting with us, women in tech, to empower these girls, to make them believe that anything is possible. They need to be looking at a world of equality.

Challenges

I am a team lead here in Regensburg and I talk a lot with the girls on my team about standing up for themselves and speaking their minds without any fear or restrictions. See, as children we were usually taught to do exactly the opposite. In our case, to disagree with someone, to stand your ground, takes not only courage, but also strength to fight stereotypes. Another thing is, I feel that sometimes we still must prove something to others as women. You kind of have to go the extra mile to get the same recognition as your male peers. Just another result of the way we were all trained as boys and girls.

I myself have always felt this extra pressure on me, and I think it has a lot to do with what I’ve mentioned before. It’s a broad topic. I’m not only referring to the families being responsible for the way kids think and act. I mean, look at your peers, TV and – nowadays – the internet: the impact of the social media, the power they have over us, is just mind-boggling! We need to work on changing things and it’s our responsibility to admit we’re not there yet.

It’s important you understand that I’m not advocating for more women in design or more female developers just for the sake of simple parity.  I’m part of the recruiting process here at intive, and I don’t care about the gender of the applicant: I look at the skills and attitude. I just wish there were more women applicants – that’s what I’m saying.

Different perspective

I don’t think there’s a women’s perspective to design. We have different perspectives that match our different personalities. If there is a substantial difference, it’s the one I’ve already mentioned: the cultural background we come from, that unique environment which shapes us in so many ways and has a major impact on our life choices.

As a kid, I would let my imagination take me places and lead me. I had no gender cliché attached – had as many Barbie dolls as toy soldiers and Lego blocks. My favorite childhood memories bring me back to my treehouse adventures and my grandpa’s workshop where I constructed cars out of cardboard boxes, or anything I could find lying about. I got my first computer when I was six and it was as if I had an extra pair of wings suddenly attached to my imagination. I remember sitting in front of that old monitor, with the classic Windows starfield simulation screensaver, and pretending I was an astronaut.

On UX

It’s a funny thing: for people my age or older, it’s not like we’ve chosen user experience, it’s more like user experience has chosen us. To me, UX offers the perfect balance between creativity, rationality and logic. With time, we learn to focus on what really matters and makes a difference. In our approach to design, we’ve gone from design first to UX first – and that’s some revolution!

I love working with clients. When you do your work right, when you’re able to get them on board with one of your suggested solutions, and see how they understand the benefits, it’s an amazing source of satisfaction. We’re like a bridge between businesses, with their own financial interests, and real end users wanting to solve daily problems or just looking for some entertainment. It's our responsibility to create a win-win situation.

Inspiration

I wouldn’t be able to design without music. I have my headphones on practically all the time. Love the oldies, classic 80s rock bands, songs with good lyrics and a melody I can hum. Nothing beats Joni Mitchell – that woman is a genius! I admire the tenacity with which she broke out of her original genre of classic folk and still keeps doing it, over and over, innovating and experimenting like no one else in the music business.  Once I got to know her creative process, I came to understand what “thinking outside the box” really means, and that’s something that inspires me deeply in my work.

I get to relax simply by spending time with my wife at home. I make digital illustrations, write design- related blog posts or compose music, whatever comes naturally. I try to give my creativity lots of space: it’s a great way to keep the flame alive in what you do.

Perks

The best thing about my work is that I love it. I come to the office super-motivated, even when I’m having a bad day. It’s my happy bubble that no one can pop. I’m the kind of person who needs to be passionate about her work and basically about everything else in life.

Responsibility

We design experiences. Technology advancements can be hard on people and when we do our job wrong, they get even harder to tame.

Future

I think the educational system needs to be seriously redefined. I’m also thinking about the environment and our lifestyles. We must change, evolve – after all it’s in our nature. I’m not a pessimist. I believe in people and in their ability to transform. I also think that with the tech we have now, we can do almost anything.

 

Our job is to build bridges between businesses and people.

Soledad Mari, User Experience Designer at intive Buenos Aires

Soledad Mari

I have always liked art. When I was a kid, I was always drawing. But I’d say that my defining trait as a little girl was curiosity. When I was in high school, somebody told me about graphic design and how it would be perfect for me since it seemed to combine a lot of my interests. It was then that I realized I could make practical use of my skills, and I got really excited about that. Art for art’s sake – that has never been my thing.

I studied graphic design at the University of Buenos Aires. I worked as an editorial and web designer. Lately, for the past 3 years, I’ve been focusing on UX Design. It’s all about how software and devices interact with people and the other way around – how people interact with new tech.

Before I joined intive, I’d hardly had any contact with the tech industry. I used to have this picture in my head: men sitting all day long in front of computer monitors, period. It must be so boring, I thought. Of course, as it has turned out, reality is very different from what I had imagined it to be at the time. One thing is true though: there are more men in the field than women.

Woman in tech

I’ve been with intive for 2 years now. How do I feel in the tech world? I’m happy with what I do and how I interact with people. However, I know that not all companies are the same. Women professionals sometimes feel that their opinion is not valued enough, just because they’re a minority in a group. They feel they have to back up everything they say with a lot of extra information. I once read an article, I think it was on CNN, saying that it takes women 2 more years of studying and preparation to apply for a new job, or ask for a promotion, in comparison to men. They need to overprove their capabilities.

It’s clear to me that gender gap in tech exists. I know there are many initiatives under way, but sometimes you just can’t help feeling these changes aren’t happening fast enough. When it comes to design, fortunately there’s no male over-representation. Actually, here in Argentina, as far as UX and graphic design are concerned there’re more women professionals, than men. The same applies to university: girls rule there, too - at least in numbers. 

Challenges

I believe that adequate representation of men and women is important. If the numbers favor one group, then there’s a good chance that some ideas are not being taken into account at all. The greater the gender balance, the smaller the bias and, surprise, surprise – the fuller the picture. Just imagine a world in which women don’t have to petition for so many obvious things!

Have to say though, that I'm not pro gender quotas. I understand the underlying idea, but I don't see it as a fair or suitable solution.

Different perspective

I believe that whatever you work on, having on board people who come from different backgrounds, different cultures, each with their own unique story to tell – all that nourishes the conversation. Being a woman or a man is a part of this diversity.

On UX

In my country, UX is not a part of official academic training yet. It’s something that’s been around in Argentina for only about 8-10 years. Everybody I know studied graphic design or communications before becoming a UX specialist. In the US UX has been a recognized academic discipline for about 20 years. What’s happening now, however, is that some of the larger Argentinian companies and startups are finally trying to leverage this new perspective and everything that’s been developed and established abroad. They’re starting to work with designers or simply people who are interested in UX and have been learning on their own. You see, UX has a lot to do with continuous research and empathy. There’s so much to learn in this field and we’ve only just began, really.

To me, UX has a lot to do with balance. Every company wants to sell you something and you’re left with tons of products that stick around for years. Now, our job as designers is to always advocate for the user. To think of his or her interaction with the product now, and in the future. The tricky part is to keep in mind that you can’t be neglecting the business angle, your client. It’s a huge challenge.

Inspiration

I draw my inspiration from the work of others. It’s not about copying – when you see how different people approach certain issues, it propels you forward. I read a lot. People tend to forget that a major part of this work consists of working with layouts and words, not visual forms.

Perks

For me, the best thing about UX is being in touch with users, with real people. It’s something that I truly missed as a graphic designer at uni. We were assigned tasks and it was totally up to us to decide when the work was complete. Our ideas were never verified and we never received any reader/viewer feedback, just notes from our professors. This user-centered approach that I’m obsessed with now is something I really value. We’re not supposed to make certain design choices just because they’re catchy or hot right now – we should always make sure we’re not creating potential problems instead of helping people. That’s the bottom line.

Responsibility

There’s a lot of talk going on about responsible design and the future generations. I prefer to talk about being responsible for the present. Whenever I think about a product or a feature, I ask myself a couple of questions: what are the consequences? is it valuable and useful? how is it going to affect the user? how will it impact other people? When I look around, I see many products that have a questionable or simply harmful impact. I sometimes wonder about their creators: have they paid enough attention to the user? have they challenged their concepts enough? The responsibility is huge and we all have to be careful and test our ideas over and over again.

Future

The future looks promising. There’s the rise of voice interfaces and high hopes regarding augmented reality solutions and the adoption of AI. All of them will surely change the way we interact with technology. It is kind of funny when you think about it, that we’ve come such a long way, but we’re still using keyboards most of the time, just like at the very beginning of the computer era.

The future with 50/50 ratio? I like to focus on the topic of general diversity, not just the men-women ratio. Have you heard about face recognition and how it malfunctions when confronted with other skin colors than white? I think that this case is a wonderful example of how narrowminded we can get.

Tech will be as inclusive as companies and creators want it to be. See, we don’t need to wait for the future – currently known solutions allow us to build inclusive-only products. It’s up to the decision-makers to make the most of the tools they have at their disposal.

It’s good to remember: tech cannot be biased – it’s us,
humans.

Anna Sorbian, Principal User Experience Designer at intive Wrocław

Anna Sorbian

When it comes to career building, I was definitely the restless type. For a long while I thought I’d become a history teacher or a librarian. I was a typical bookworm. However, I decided on law and graduated from the Wroclaw University. But still, I was missing something. I was interested in English and even considered opening a language school – one with a different, quirky approach to teaching. Another idea was running a food truck.

What set me on my current track, were the people I met along the way. At some point, I found myself in the middle of this energetic startup crowd. Friends shared with me their business ideas and stories and wanted to know my opinion on things. I started getting more and more into the concept of User Experience Design and somehow naturally found my place. It took me exactly one week to step off my path and understand that’s what I wanted to do with my life. I became obsessed with cognitive science and started devouring books on UX-related topics.

I completed an online course in Interaction Design. Then I did my postgraduate in UX Design. I spent all my days learning greedily. I was lucky enough to get a traineeship early on. And now I’m here, pretty satisfied with my choice. Most of the time I don’t even feel I’m at work.

Woman in tech

I’ve been with intive for almost 2 years now. I work as a Principal User Experience Designer. Tech has never interested me as such. I was neither tempted to go into it, nor felt in any way excluded from it.  However, what’s always triggered my attention in one way or another is the influence tech has on people’s behavior and the society as a whole. I’ve always been fascinated by how forums, online social networks, comments - in fact, all content created by users - tell stories of their creators, mirror what their lives are about, reflect their values, disclose their fears, phobias and biases. If the term netnography had been around back then, I would have certainly called myself a hobbyist netnographer.

I’ve never seen my field as ‘technology’ – it’s about human psychology, perception, mental models, empathy and facilitation of group work processes. I’m a digital native, even though I didn’t have a PC or a mobile until I was 15. I use all the digital tools in a way that feels natural, so I don’t consider my role as a “tech” role. Does using an electric kettle make the chef a “tech person”?

Challenges

UX Design in Poland is a field with a 50/50 gender ratio. Personally, I feel frustrated when gender is mentioned in any professional context. My personal litmus test for gender equality in a workplace is when I forget about gender altogether. In my working environment equality is a fact – gender is simply a non-issue. As professionals, we’re all just team members. Therefore, I can’t think of any challenges for me, as a woman, in my professional environment.

I’ve never felt I have to prove myself at work just because I’m a woman. I mean, every professional needs to prove they are a good fit for the position they are hired for. If you’re young and ambitious, it’s only natural to seek validation from senior professionals. It gives you a sense of direction and helps you grow. And again, I would not link it to any industry in particular, or to gender. 

When someone asks me about quotas as a solution to closing the gender gap in an industry, it makes me squirm.  As a woman and a professional, I feel anxious when equality is measured by quantitative indicators. I do not think quotas should be a consideration in recruiting for key positions, inviting conference speakers or selecting people for certain roles. As a person, I would immediately start to question my success: am I selected because I’m good at what I do, or just because I’m a woman?

Having said that, I need to point out there is a systemic problem which needs to be addressed. The general lack of women in tech has a lot to do with school education and social conditioning. People are lazy, that’s our nature. When we’re to make a choice, we usually go with what we know best. So, for the girls at school the designated default field is the humanities, and for the boys – science and computer programming. That’s our culture. These easy choices are then repeated further on in life and stay with (some) people until they die. Another thing: culturally embedded ambitions. Men are more likely to engage in competition, whereas women are expected to value close relationships. A career, a path to leadership, is a matter of making some significant and often difficult choices. Possibly, in our culture it’s a little bit trickier for us women, as we need to face some socially enforced stereotypes. However, it may be just as tricky for those men who’d like to focus on family life instead of chasing money.

Different perspective

A perspective on things is more often influenced by personality and upbringing than by gender. However, some scientists suggest that women tend to stay in the explorative mode longer and do not jump to solutions as quickly as men tend to do. I think it’s something that could help us when we work as researchers and design process facilitators.

Gender diversity makes teams work more effectively – that’s my only observation.

On UX

Before any interaction takes place, humans create expectations in their minds, either consciously or subconsciously. During an interaction we get to live through the actual experience. If the reality of it exceeds our expectations, then we have a good, memorable experience. When our expectations are not met, we perceive the experience as bad.

Let’s get one thing straight: you cannot design an experience. As an emotional and sensory reaction that happens in our mind, an experience is not something you can create. What you can do comes down to designing some elements of reality that make this experience possible.

There is plenty of discussion and misunderstanding around UX, as it covers many different specializations and is in fact an umbrella term. In business reality, the designer’s role is to support the growth of clients’ businesses. Designers are able to make people click, read, explore, spend time, memorize, open an app, react to notification, laugh or get frustrated. But products and services are not built by designers themselves – they’re made by teams. The digital artifacts (apps, websites, online services) are always the effect of a collaborative effort.

Inspiration

I like to observe how people interact, how they perceive different problems. I find it really inspiring to learn how I can change their perspective on things.

I read, mountain bike and dive. Also, when I’m not working, you’ll find me strolling somewhere with my head up and a pair of binoculars. Birdwatching has become my most recent hobby.

Perks

I love it that in my line of work there’s no script to follow. I love the investigation and experimentation. The whole design research is a wonderful adventure. I guess the best part is supporting people in thinking differently and reaching this ‘aha moment’ with a client. It’s just thrilling.

Responsibility

There’s an ethical component to what I do, no doubt. The question I should be asking myself every day is: will I make a good ancestor? The responsibility is huge. In my work as a designer I deal with peoples’ weaknesses. I know I have the power to manipulate them. So, it’s a matter of using this power in the right and conscious way.

Future

The future is impossible to predict. Is there anything that worries me? One of the worst things I’ve recently heard of is the social engineering experiment in China. The Social Credit System, basically a form of mass surveillance powered by big data analysis, is an outrageous and terrifying concept.

Gender equality means the elimination of gender topics from
professional discourse, making them transparent.

Challenge everything!