Penelope Rance

My UX research & design ramblings

Interview with Danielle Macdonald

Head shot of Danielle Macdonald

How did you get started in UX?

So I went to university to study History. When I graduated I got a job working for the university, recruiting and guiding students who wanted to pursue a degree. So I would speak to students on the phone, I would respond to emails, I would go out to high schools and do presentations. I was creating the print content and the web content, I was essentially speaking to people and refactoring and reframing that into the content I created. I became what we would call a subject matter expert, moving on to another university to work in their web office to help them rebuild their future student environment. That was where I learnt about UX, I was like ‘Oh my god, I’ve found my people!’

I used to get frustrated at the over indexing on marketing and business benefit and I would think to myself “but people don’t want this!” So when I found UX, it made a lot of sense to me.

I ended up moving to a UX consultancy role at an agency, looking at the full end-to-end and was empowered to consider not only the business needs but understand more about the customer needs and behaviours.

From there I moved to a bank, and while they were making a stab at bringing UX into the business, it was very much focused on the end of the second diamond, and was very much on the usability of things. This became frustrating when you could see real customer problems but weren’t able to get ahead of the development process to work on more valuable solutions.

When I returned to the UK to see family I ended up with a six month contract with Facebook as a UX Researcher. I ended up applying for a full time role as a UX Researcher and moving to San Francisco.

From there I moved into the people management track and took on a lead role back in the UK for Dext (formerly Receipt Bank) and now for Wise (formerly TransferWise).

What’s been your favourite role?

I don’t have a favourite role as such. Instead, I'm always happiest when I can tell that I’m helping people, whether that’s people I work with directly or the customer.

So at the university it was having a conversation with someone and helping them unpack where they wanted to go with their future. Or at Wise now I’m helping my reports grow as individuals to become more impactful, stronger researchers. And at the same time, regardless of role, it has always been about how what we do delivers for the customer and how we solve their problems.

What’s your favourite research method?

I’m definitely in the interviewer camp. I would love to have done and to do more observational or ethnographic research because that is just so incredibly intriguing, just understanding how people navigate the world. They’ll tell you one thing but what they do is something very different. And just being able to almost shock yourself into “wow there are other ways of doing things and other ways of living that I just wouldn’t have guessed’. There’s always a surprise.

Those kinds of conversations, those kinds of experiences where you think “woah that’s amazing!”, that’s what really does it for me.

What have you found is the best way of sharing your research insights or findings?

With difficulty!

I think it really boils down to why have you done it (the research) in the first place and what value they (your stakeholders) see in what you’ve learnt. It’s really tricky. It’s all about how do I get people to hear and recognise what’s in it for them? How do I make this alive and relevant for people?

You have these two worlds, one where you’re doing something within a team that they want and one where you're doing something you think they need, but they don’t know that.

On top of this you have to address what you do when the research delivers all these findings and they’re not what the team wants to hear or is a message that the team doesn’t currently care about.

I think the key thing is it has to be layered. You can’t just do one thing and expect people to get it. It has to be an ongoing conversation. You have to think about all the ways you can provide the information and message you want to share physically as well as orally. You have to read the room and work out how to frame it in a way that’s relevant for the audience that you’re talking to. How do you make it consumable in chunks?

With a large stakeholder group you’ve got to think about how to make our insights consumable, even if this means sharing in smaller chunks rather than one big report. With a 100 page deck, people just look at the number of slides and say 'no way'. They don’t even think about the content and that someone’s actually tried to craft this as a story. They just think “there’s too many slides, I’m not going to look at it”.

So, you have to make it relevant, make it consumable, and make it short and sweet. That’s my top three.

What’s been your biggest challenge?

For me, it’s very easy to second guess myself and think “I don’t know enough”, or “I only know these methods” or “I need to be more mixed methods” or “I need to understand more… be a data analyst… be a designer…be a communications expert… be a better people lead…be a change management expert.. an evaluative researcher …and a generative researcher”. It never ends!

Our profession is so vast and broad, ‘I am a researcher’ can mean so many things. It means you second guess yourself about what good looks like and then your imposter syndrome kicks in. You can’t be all of those things. You can only be what you are and seek out relevant skills when you need them, but it’s really easy to look back and think I’m not enough.

What are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of the people that I’ve been able to work with and help grow. I’m really invested in my team’s success. I really want them to do well. They are super smart, way smarter than I am, have way more skills than I have. They are amazing people and to help them polish their skills and their craft, to help them grow into whatever they want to do next is a real privilege. I’m so excited to see what they end up doing and if all I do is help them grow as individuals into kick-ass-whatever-they-want-to-be’s, then that is still a massive win.

What advice would you give someone just starting out?

Definitely do it! Research is relevant, rewarding, and there are always nice, meaty challenges.

It’s a profession that’s not going to go away and we have the tools that really empower and differentiate businesses.

My suggested approach to get into Research and figure out if it is for you, is to read and talk to people, read and talk to people, repeat. I think if you’re not coming from an academic background, starting off with the evaluative side of things is really helpful. You need to see that, “no, that button won’t make sense”. You need to understand the practicalities of the interactions people have. From this evaluative world, understanding those interactions, you can then start expanding the lens outwards into the different realms of research. Starting there gives you that practical application and then you start to be able to become more and more abstract.

What resources would you recommend?

I don’t listen to podcasts, I just don’t have the right time for it, but I definitely follow a lot of blogs.

Some of them I just look at the headlines as they fly past, and some I dig into and some I open and bookmark to read later on and then inevitably never get the time!

I think there are some really good conferences like the Learners conference (formally UXR) and I think UX Australia does an excellent job. I used to go every year when I lived in Australia.

And there are obviously names around the place that you hear all the time and the more you read, the more you will start to see the patterns and people. Follow these people:

  • Vivienne Castillo
  • Behzhod Sirjani
  • Julie Zhou
  • Jared Zimmerman
  • Indi Young
  • Kate Towsey
  • Emma Boulton
  • Renee Reid
  • Erika Hall

And there there’s the almost prescriptive set texts, like ‘Don’t make me Think’ or the List Apart series of books or Rosenfeld books.

And there is so much stuff on Medium, you can just follow and it will come to you.

There is so much out there, it’s definitely so much easier than it used to be when I started.

Would a governing body to help with training, standards and ethics help or hinder UX professionals?

I can see both sides of the coin. I think it would help in some ways.

You get a bunch of people who say “well I’ve done this course” and just throw UX on their CV and just expect to get a bunch of UX design jobs. Or those who think research is just talking to people. We sometimes also struggle to make the distinction between marketing and user research clear.

But I think the risk is we become even more insular. We can be a bit “‘we know the customer and we’re the experts and you guys are out of touch/aren’t customer centric enough”. I would hate for us to become more insular.

I think we do need to do better. The ReOps community is a really good example of what good looks like and what we could use a model. Or are we just an extension of that anyway? When we explore how we function as researchers and what are the things that we need to comply with, is Ops doing the work and we’re just not contributing? Maybe we just need to be more consciously involved in that space.

Where do you see the future of UX Research going?

In terms of the future, I think you’ll see more businesses with researchers contributing at all levels of the business. We’ll start to see strategists that have user research skills as well as services designers that sit at a high enough level to say this is how everything joins together and how it could join together for greatest impact for the business and customers.

In some cases, the roles already exist, we’re just not really integrated enough.

We’ll see much stronger relationships between research and other functions, as well as significant drive for businesses to be increasingly customer informed. The same way we need to be data-informed rather than data-led. We want feasibility, desirability, usability, so instead of being customer led, product led or engineering led, let's be all of those things-informed.

Thank you to Danielle for taking the time to speak with me. You can find her on LinkedIn and Wise are currently hiring, not just researchers but analysts, designers, design leads and product managers amongst others.

If you know someone you think I should speak to for this series, do let me know.

If you enjoyed this interview and would like to read more like this, check out The UX Life Chose Me newsletter. Subscribe to get interviews like this directly to your inbox once a month.

⟨⟨ Previous | Blog home | Next ⟩⟩

Contact Me

If you have any questions about my work please feel free to contact me.

Email me on or find me on Twitter or Linkedin.

Sign up to The UX Life Chose Me Newsletter and get the most interesting UX Research articles, videos and podcasts from across the web straight into your mailbox once a month.