Penelope Rance

My UX research & design ramblings

Interview with Kameshini Pillay

Head shot of Kim Pillay

How did you get started in UX?

So I actually studied design. I was good at drawing and pretty creative, so at that age I was like I guess I’ll be a designer, because that was the thing associated with creativity.

I went into the industry as a multimedia designer, but I remember watching videos around UX and being so mesmerised about the idea of it.

Luckily the role I was in were super open to me implementing new ways. I was designing an app but it was very UI focused and I remember going to them and saying we could do great things! We could go to the universities and I could speak to people and find out what they think. My boss was great, she gave me free reign to explore ways to enhance the product.

It makes such sense in retrospect, thinking about the types of things that I enjoyed most when I was in university. It was the research pieces where the assignment was the essay not creating designs. My theoretical work carried me through! So transitioning was easy for me.

I got a job at one of our biggest banks in South Africa. I had initially envisioned it would only happen in years and the fact that it happened so early, I was so excited. I’ve never regretted getting into research.

I absolutely love psychology, I love reading all these papers and studies and being able to talk to other people that maybe don’t want to read the whole paper but that are excited about hearing how it affects their work.

What are you currently doing?

I work for a bank called Equity Bank, they’re based in Kenya and I’m a consultant with them.

I started about a year ago and it was tough initially because I’d only worked at South African companies. It was a great way for me to understand how to communicate and collaborate across different cultures, that has been my favourite experience.

Recently the head of the department has asked if I’ll lead the team. It’s been a good experience for me to be introspective and think okay, what type of leader do I want to be?

Does working in a company with lots of different cultures change the way you have to communicate?

Yes I’ve learnt that different cultures have different ways of doing things.

For example, I have such a special place for Kenyan people. They are so polite. They don’t swear in meetings, they’re almost prim and proper and very kind and patient, very thoughtful. But on the other hand, not so open to saying when things are wrong or saying ‘look I can’t actually help you right now’. You won’t get someone saying I don’t have capacity.

I think it comes from a good place, they want to be kind.

So it’s taken me a while to figure out what's being said behind the words actually spoken. I think coming from an environment where I would push a lot more assertively, I’ve learnt to be a bit more patient. It’s been challenging, figuring out which are the moments that I need to sit back.

What’s been your favourite project?

One of my favourite projects was one where I got the autonomy to be able to put something together from start to finish. I included lots of different methods and got to go out and be in the field.

It was a beautiful project looking at vehicle finance and I got to go out to dealerships and there were a couple of scenarios where I used a disguised participant observation method to be a customer.

I remember going to one dressed for work because I’d had a meeting before going to the dealership and realising the next day that dressing differently affected the way sales people treated me.

It was the first time I’d thought about it in that context, because I actively almost tasted it, that feeling of embarrassment when someone is rude to you because of how you are dressed or what they think you can or can’t afford.

We talk to customers or our stakeholders and try to deeply take what they tell us and share it with other people but that day of actually experiencing people being rude to me because I was not dressed the way I should be to afford such a car, it was definitely a lot more personal.

What’s your favourite research method?

I definitely love ethnographic work. I really love the idea of contextual inquiry and as intrusive as it may sound, being in someone’s space.

I love that feeling of being a ghost in someone’s space and contextual inquiry is one of those methods that you really get to do it.

Who inspires you?

There are a few leaders, one that was really amazing years ago was Margaret.

She was so patient and she always had empathy. She was very thoughtful when everyone was in the room, and she was very cognizant of everyone having their say. I think we sometimes get caught up in titles and our egos or being right or being worried about being wrong, but she was not at all like that. She was so humble and comfortable with letting everyone grow as well.

In general I really admire people who are always learning, always working on being a better version of themselves.

What advice would you give someone just starting out?

We come from so many different spaces, so many different careers. I think by nature we’re people who love learning, we love watching and we love to question things, but I would say we should not question ourselves. I think that can come from an insecurity of not feeling good enough, that popular term we talk about - impostor syndrome. So let's take the positive out of that feeling, learn more, be better but don’t disadvantage yourself by thinking you are not good enough for that role you want to apply for. I meet such amazing inspiring researchers, but they’re questioning their abilities to apply for lead roles or heads of departments and it makes me sad because they are highly skilled researchers who I admire.

I always tell people it feels like a role where I get to be a chameleon, I have to be patient, attentive and passive when I’m speaking to participants. Yet assertive, confident and highly communicative when talking to some stakeholders. Work on your communication skills, and being adaptable in and out of the lab. Being able to build relationships with people and have them rely and confide in you will be one of your biggest advantages.

What book/video/podcast would you recommend?

My favourite podcast is Hidden Brain. I really love it. I’m always listening to it on the train or when I’m walking. I’ve actually had to stop listening to it at the gym because I get distracted and just sit there being mesmerised by the studies and findings uncovered.

Hidden Brain is beautiful. I feel so connected to the researchers that talk on the show because you hear about how it started with an experience, a childhood and something that really defines them or really inspired their entire career.

But while you can learn about all these things like biases and behavioural patterns and all these other interesting things, you can also learn how to talk about research. There is a huge element of storytelling involved in Hidden Brain and Shanker who presents and coordinates the show directs the researchers every now and again. And it’s beautiful when you listen to the types of questions he asks. You can learn a lot about how to structure your research pieces when presenting from that podcast.

What’s been your biggest challenge?

I’ve felt communication is a big thing for me, it’s something I’m constantly trying to make sure I’m doing right. And I’d say I’ve always felt very held back by my lack of understanding of statistics.

In South Africa, I don’t know what it’s like everywhere else in the world, but when I was in school you didn’t have to take maths. So you could drop mathematics, which I did and it was a terrible decision.

Besides that lack of confidence it also meant there were fundamental things I didn’t understand and I would back off when it came to those types of questions.

So I’ve pushed myself recently and I’ve been doing statistics courses and things to upskill, so slowly I’m feeling more confident as I learn more. It’s opened up so many doors and understanding for me. I’m actually very excited to become more skilled in the quantitative space now.

What are you most proud of?

I’m proud of my ability to keep learning, I’ve changed careers so many times over the years. I started with design, and there was a time when I was teaching high school students, and then I was a paramedic for a bit and I managed a bar when I was even more unsure of what I wanted to do. But it all came back to the tech space and research. My journey isn’t done, I suppose I have lots of ideas of where my career will be in the next 10 years. I could have stayed in one career, I could have stayed in design and carried on doing it for the next 20 years, earning a good salary. But I’ve ignored that fear and just jumped into different new spaces through my life in search of finding a space that resonates with me.

Does your company have a clear career development path for researchers?

Where I’m based at the moment there aren’t any other researchers above my level in the whole department. It’s very new for that team to have a researcher, every consultant has a way for moving up in salary and title but it doesn’t actually define career growth in the work you do because it is a consultancy. So for example you could have a very senior title at the consultancy but be an intermediate role at the client where you work. The “seniority” can also be based on the salary you get instead of the experience you have and other factors etc.

Consultancy work may result in you not advancing to leadership roles at the client where you would be placed, because companies don’t often hire leadership from contractors/consultants so it’s good to understand what your career goals are before taking a job at a consultancy for example. I suppose they do have the option for leadership within the consultancy if you wanted to explore that more though.

I would say in general I think that it’s very lacking in lots of companies. It’s a big problem that I’ve noticed in almost every company I’ve been at, they see leadership as a path in your career. They say ‘you’re a really great researcher, you should lead the team’ or ‘you’re a really great designer, you should lead the designers’. It’s the way a lot of companies do it, but I don’t think it’s the right way. It’s a completely different mindset. A different type of personality. It’s something I think people aren’t even sure of themselves until they do it.

But I’ve heard of a few companies who have two separate tracks and I actually really like that idea. So they have a track that if you want to specialise in your craft you can carry on specialising and keep going. If you want to go towards people management and more around connecting with people, which I think leads to leadership, then it’s a different track.

I think that’s potentially better. It’s about slowly getting people climatised, starting small and seeing if you really enjoy it. To be fair the consultancy where I am tries to do this already, but it obviously is not actually within your day job because that is the client's decision on if you get promoted in your actual job or not.

Do researchers need portfolios? If so, what should they include in them?

Personally I’ve been okay with it because I come from a design background where I was doing it anyway.

I do agree that it can be tricky, especially with NDA’s and some products not even being live yet.

I like the idea of having a presentation you put together for a role, but it’s important to understand how long is the effort you need to put in. They can’t be asking you to do a full on research project. Asking you to put together a research plan and maybe your process or a roadmap can give an idea of how you would do things.

Where do you see the future of UX Research going?

I would love to see it in the AI (Artificial Intelligence) space.

The concept of researchers interacting with a physical AI, like some sort of bot and figuring out how does this robot interact with its humans? How can we make sure it’s immersed in the space. Imagine that type of study! Imagine figuring out, okay how do robots need to speak to people, what would be comfortable? When do they step in to assist or stay passive? How can they assist in a carer role? I find robotics very interesting. I’d love to see where it goes in terms of research.

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

In South Africa there are not a lot of researchers, so it is very easy to rise up and become a senior in like a year. I got roles like that, I was one of those to advance so fast because of having the knowledge and being able to do the job.

I wouldn’t want that to be controlled because I think it is good. If someone has the skill set and can do the job great, they should get it.

Sometimes when we have these boards they become a blocker for people to enter the industry and I love the fact I can work with people from so many different industries. People come from all different spaces with their different backgrounds. They can self learn and not have to go to university to become a researcher in the tech space.

Thanks to Kameshini for taking the time to speak with me. You can find Kameshini on LinkedIn.

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

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