Penelope Rance

My UX research & design ramblings

Interview with Helen O'Doherty

Head shot of Helen O'Doherty

How long have you been involved in the world of UX and digital?

Oh God, it’s been so long now. So I graduated in 2004 - which means 17 years!

I actually started my degree in music. I auditioned and got a place at the Birmingham Conservatoire of Music. On the first day of my music degree, my teacher threw a whole load of pamphlets down on the table, and told us to choose a night class, because “you're never gonna make any money being a musician”. And I was like, wow - that’s really harsh!

So I ended up switching degrees and studying Internet Technologies, because my boyfriend at the time was showing me how to write HTML and CSS in IE5(!), and I didn’t have a better plan.

There are degrees now for the stuff we do, but back then there wasn’t a dedicated course and UX wasn’t even really a mainstream term, certainly not at degree level.

I was so lucky to get my first job, I had no idea. I didn't know what a media agency was, I didn't know how this world worked, I didn't know anything about the industry. I just came out of university and I needed a job.

I was looking for a web development job for HTML and CSS and it was by complete chance that I even found the role, and I can't remember where I found it, I feel like it was a newspaper or something equally old fashioned. I was like ‘oh that sounds kind of like something I could do’. It was this huge job in London and I romanticised the whole thing because I was from a small town, London would be exciting!

I had a phone interview then went up to London for a proper interview. It was a fun experience and I didn’t think anything would come of it. I hadn’t officially graduated at this point, this was the first thing I applied for and so I had no idea what I was interviewing for. It was a good three months after starting the role, for an agency which later became DigitasLBi, that I realised it was actually quite a big deal. I had just thought that all agencies dealt with clients like Marks and Spencers or Unilever. It was crazy, I landed on my feet.

What did you do next?

I worked for about four different agencies and worked my way from junior to senior Interface Developer over maybe eight years. It was brilliant for me, I think it really shaped my understanding of the industry. It gave me a huge breadth of knowledge. Working agency side versus client side you work with tons of clients and they’re always vastly different scenarios and situations with their own difficulties. They are never the same. I think you learn a lot quicker how to tackle the problems that come up and how to address hard things.

It’s a great fast paced environment to spend your 20s. I worked with companies like Coca Cola, McDonalds, Starbucks and the TrainLine, household names that I would never have had exposure to if I hadn’t worked in creative agencies.

Why did you change from agency side to client side?

I got made redundant, and I was at a point in my life where I wanted to try different things. I just felt like I wanted a different challenge and I wanted to see what client side was like. I thought it might be fun to try something new.

A role at JustGiving came up and I loved what they did and thought they were a brilliant company. I applied for the position and I was really, really fortunate to get it because I think that is probably the best place I’ve ever worked.

So does that answer the ‘what’s been your favorite role’ question?

I’m going to be greedy and say there’s two. What I do now is my favourite in terms of responsibilities and where I want to take my career, but in terms of company JustGiving was my favourite.

JustGiving was such a caring company and the people were so passionate about fundraising and about supporting charities. I’ve never worked with a bunch of more inspiring people in my life! Every single person there undertook their own fundraising and had charities that they worked really closely with.

It was just such an inspiring place to work. I worked with charities that were fundraising for different disabilities and that’s when I really started to get involved in accessibility. I got to experience first hand what it meant if our site wasn’t accessible, as it meant people with certain disabilities couldn’t fundraise or donate. It was incredible to see the actual value of creating accessible digital products.

What are you doing now?

I’m currently the UI/UX Manager at WiggleCRC where I oversee the design process from start to finish. It’s something I’m really passionate about - the different ways you can get from the beginning to the end of that process for each project. I love supporting the team in considering what approach to take, the best methodologies to adopt, which workshops to run. I’m always looking for ways to improve our strategy, process and tooling. I really enjoy encouraging and mentoring different people within the team. It’s a rewarding part of my role, where I get to see the team flourish.

Who inspires you?

I've been so lucky to have worked under some great leadership. When I worked at JustGiving it was the first time I ever worked in a role where women were in management. At the time JustGiving was run by its two co-founders, Zarine Kharas and Anne-Marie Huby, and they are just incredible women. They were so passionate about social giving, and had time for every member of the company. They would regularly start up a conversation with you in the kitchen while you made coffee and talk about their excitement and vision for the JustGiving platform. It's where I learnt the importance of good storytelling and the power of having a story, it’s what really inspires people to follow you.

Then when I first started at WiggleCRC I had a female manager that I reported to directly, Rebecca White. She was really insightful, especially around navigating management within the IT work space. She had real passion and drive as well as a depth of knowledge about IT and product delivery. We often talked about women in the workplace and career paths for women.

These were the first times I’d experienced women in powerful positions, apart from on TV, and I was just so fortunate to have these women as influences in my life. I don’t think we realise how important it is for us to have really good female role models, because it’s a voice that we don’t necessarily see every day but it’s a really important voice.

How do you think research fits into the design process?

It’s the cornerstone really, on which everything depends. It's so important to have a good research strategy that ensures research is continually carried out through a project but specifically at the beginning - before projects even start. Discovery is the heart of everything. It’s crucial to fully understand the problem and to fully understand why it is a problem, and from that we can create a plan to guide us through the rest of the design process. So often, we're just given information like, ‘oh, this thing is wrong, because of this reason’. But when you start to understand the problem you find it's not that reason at all.

Having the opportunity to have continual discovery also feeds into creating a better roadmap because so often our roadmaps can be formed around good intentions and features that we think are the right thing to pursue, but without research you can’t back up that there is value in developing that product.

What’s been your biggest challenge?

This is a really hard question. I think you experience different challenges at different times in your career. You experience challenges as a junior when you’re terrified of making mistakes, and you don’t understand yet that everyone has already made those mistakes and that it isn’t the end of the world when something goes wrong and you’re not about to be out the door!

As a midweight you’re in an indecisive place where you might not have the confidence to really reach forward and take on responsibility. Then, as a senior there was that feeling of pressure to be able to give decisive answers to difficult questions. I think learning certain tactics, like ‘that's a really good question, I’ll get back to you on that’ is really important.

So I would say understanding my own career path is probably one of the hardest things because rarely is someone there to help you with that. We don’t have linear straight career paths. I started in UI and then got involved in UX and I had to think really hard about what direction I should go in. What was the best move? Is UX the right direction or is UI? Or even product ownership? It’s really challenging because sometimes you don’t know what the right path is to get to where you want to be.

What are you most proud of?

I would say my time at WiggleCRC. I’ve been really fortunate to be able to shape my career here into something I love, and to be adventurous and take opportunities. I love telling the story of how there wasn’t really any UX in place when I started at WiggleCRC and now there is a flourishing UX team with defined processes and strategy.

I think it’s been a really good journey to have taken the company on and it’s definitely not been easy, but I love that I’ve been able to make a difference with what I do.

What advice would you give someone just starting out?

Find good people who will give you good advice. They don’t have to be the person you report into, they can just be people that inspire you in the industry. And don’t be afraid to talk to people. People love it when you reach out and ask them questions. I spent too long being shy on Twitter, but now I’ll reach out to my heroes and say things like ‘I really loved what you wrote on that article, it really inspired me, and what do you think about this?’ People are so willing to give advice.

So, make connections, get a good circle of people around you, find people in your company and in the industry that inspire you, and ask lots of questions.

What book/video/podcast would you recommend?

There are so many incredible webinars you can attend, there’s just so much free stuff around, it actually blows my mind how good quality a lot of it is.

You’ve got Jared Spool, his stuff is great and he’s so generous with his time. I’ve been attending his every other Monday sessions.

But there’s also great stuff coming out of different companies like Figma, they really impressed me with some of their stuff lately. They posted a guide on conducting personal retrospectives which was really fascinating. And Abstract just released something really interesting about how to run design discussions.

There’s so much happening in the industry that is really exciting.

Do you think it’s time for UX professionals to have a governing body to help with training, standards and ethics?

This is a really tough question, I'm trying to think why would we not want something like that. We already have people that we regard as leaders that offer best practice like NNG (NielsenNorman Group) and Jared Spool, and we have WCAG for accessibility standards for example.

Ethics is a hugely important subject, especially round inclusion, it’s important that we create our products responsibly. A governing body could house all of this information in one place - but it’s a tricky one because at the same time you don’t want something that will inhibit the growth of the industry, and unlike other industries that might already have governance, do they experience the rapid growth/change rate we do in tech?

I don’t think governance is an inherently bad thing but it’d be important to get the balance right so there was some sort of bar for standards and ethics, but without it stifling creativity and advancement.

Where do you see the future of UX Research going?

I think research is still in its infancy, We’re still developing exactly what UX research entails and there are still a lot of companies that don’t have UX researchers as a defined role, within the design process.

Research itself will become more psychological, more like a science. We already know that bias and other things can impact our own perspective on what we’re seeing in our research, because research is complex, and we need to mature how we conduct research and the way we use it.

Do you think designers should be doing their own research, or it is better to have a research function in the team?

I think it depends on the size of the business. Some businesses don’t have the luxury of having a separate research arm, but I really believe that when you have the ability to have one, that it is really worth doing. Why would you not want someone to be dedicated to research when it generates all this information for you? Research has important strategic value.

Companies are going to have to decide what topology is best for them, but there is a lot of really good growth and UX maturity that you can get from having a pure researcher on your team.

Thanks to Helen for taking the time to speak to me. You can follow her on Twitter.

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

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Email me on peneloperance@gmail.com or find me on Twitter or Linkedin.


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