Advice From Ladies That UX

A summary of a panel discussion held on October 29, 2015.

Maggie Avila
Nov 5, 2015 · 19 min read
From left to right: MJ Broadbent (Design Director, GE Digital), Shahrzad Samadzadeh (Senior Designer at Cooper), Melanie Araujo (Founder of Front & Center) and Eileen O’Brien (Senior User Researcher at Ultimate Software)

The San Francisco chapter of Ladies that UX hosted a panel discussion last Thursday. In attendance were MJ Broadbent (Design Director, GE Digital), Shahrzad Samadzadeh (Senior Designer at Cooper), Melanie Araujo (Founder of Front & Center) and Eileen O’Brien (Senior User Researcher at Ultimate Software).

I was at the 78 minute long panel discussion which was jam packed with career advice, laughter, stories and motivational statements that I’m sure everyone in attendance found inspiring.

In total there were around eight questions asked, which are outlined below. Each question was answered by the four panelists. Here’s a quick legend of the initials I’ll be using for each of the panelists’ responses:

MJ = MJ Broadbent
SS = Shahrzad Samadzadeh
MA = Melanie Araujo
EO = Eileen O’Brien

I drew a Sketch note summarizing the main points for quick reference, but I urge you to read the whole thing. There’s a lot of good stuff!

Here’s my sketch note.

Note: I recorded the discussion on my phone, so what follows are slightly cleaned up, direct quotes from the panelists.


Each panelist introduced themselves and explained their background.

MJ: (while talking about her decision to work at GE) At GE, we’re talking about billions of dollars. And so the scale of it really intrigued me. Also, the challenge to transform a fortune 100 company that’s 125 years old by radically reforming how they think about digital product, I thought, “Sign me up!”

SS: (while talking about how she got into design) I work at Cooper and my business card says I’m a Senior Designer. It should actually say Trouble Maker. I got into design because I found myself constantly doing Design work.

MA: My mom named me Melanie because as an African mother she thought it would give me better opportunities to get a job if I had an American name… I founded Front & Center to help increase diversity in tech, both in terms of race and gender.

EO: My business card says User Research but I feel more strongly about being known as a User Advocate.

Question 1: How do you see differences between working at a small company versus a large company?


The size of the company doesn’t impact me as much as the presence of hierarchy.

Very strong hierarchical cultures I found are very male dominated and very difficult for me in particular to deal with. My career has definitely been impacted by me identifying early on that I really struggled in those kinds of environments. Instead I started to find environments that felt more comfortable to me and conducive to the kind of work and collaboration I would like to be doing. I’m at a 45 person company with not much hierarchy and that feels right for me.

MJ: I’ve been freelancing most of my life.

The size of the place matters less than the type of arrangement they have with the decision makers and the money.


The size doesn’t really matter, it’s all about how they perceive design at the organization.

When I was a Lead Interaction Designer my role changed into evangelizing for design. The power of design, what it could be. It’s not just about let’s make things pretty, it’s not the look and feel. It’s about how it behaves and the impact it has on the end user. So if a company doesn’t understand that, I don’t want to waste my time. Then I won’t be doing design work, I’ll be evangelizing for design. And you’ll be surprised how many companies claim to understand design. Really? Do you see the place you want me to work in?

I thrive in communities where people understand that design is d-e-$-i-g-n.

Design is objective. We have an end goal and we’re going to use all our of tools to get to that end goal, to help the company win that market.

It really comes down to the design manager. They should be evangelizing for design on the executive team, to remove all the dumb obstacles. Marketing needs to understand design too. We can’t design a product if experience is different from the communication message. If I can work on a team where I can control all of that experience, and it’s consistent, that’s a community and environment I want to be in. Otherwise, don’t waste my time.

EO: It’s more to do with how UX is perceived in the organization. Educating is a big part of the job, especially at medium to large-sized companies.

Once you can prove yourself and show the value of design, doing user research, iterating on the design and showing them “Wow, we started off here and we found out this from users, and changed it here and now it’s successful.” Once you fight that all the way through, if things start getting cut before the release, that’s where the advocacy part comes in. You can say “Remember those video clips from the users? Remember all things we went through?” And they can actually see success, then they’re bought in.

MA: You’re almost making a business case for design in an organization. And once you’ve got that through and show them the power of design and how it can convert users, to do the thing you want them to do, then you can get a little bit more support and they’re like “Okay, we’re prioritizing design and that can get us to our goal.”

SS: I feel like I hear this a lot, where people say you have to fight for design, advocate for design, people need to understand design.

I agree with all that, in some sense, but I found that as a consultant and even within my own organization, the ways I’ve been able to be successful is by forming partnerships.

By going to Marketing and going to Operations and going to Sales, and asking them what they’re trying to achieve. Tell me more about that! I want to understand that. And then telling them the story of how the work I’m doing can help them achieve their goals. And then it’s not a fight anymore. It’s more like “Oh wow, you get it. You’re listening to me.” I think the best things we can do when we’re trying to advocate for design is turning those user research skills and empathy inward to the organization we’re working in.

MJ: (MJ referenced a talk given by Catherine Courage at a recent conference she attended. That talk is linked below.)

You need to treat everybody like your customer.

Cool thing about having design skills (whether it’s research based, or it’s visual design or it’s design thinking, whatever it is) is we’re problem solvers.

We’re explorers. And as a friend put it the other day, we’re cartographers.

We want to go out and map landscape and help people make sense of it. And, that’s a really amazing skill. It’s a humble activity. It should be and it ought to be. Because we’re enabling something new to happen. Clarity to be gained.

Question 2: How do you see navigating, not only having UX accepted by the tech world, but us navigating our career paths?

SS: When it comes to confronting Tech sexism, I tend to be very confrontational. I don’t try to do partnerships because that doesn’t work for me. I can tell a specific story about this when I was in a meeting with someone who wouldn’t make eye contact with me. He would turn to one of the men on my team and listen to what he was saying. Then I would say something and he would ignore me. And one of the men on my team would essentially say the same thing that I just did, and he who go “Mmhmm.” We took a break during the meeting and I pulled my team aside and said “Guys I don’t know if you’re noticing this, but it’s really bothering me. This is what’s going on and here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to sit across from this guy, I’m going to call him by name, and make eye contact with him and I want you guys not to repeat anything I say. I want there to be silence until he listens to me. Okay?”

It was very confrontational and it worked super well. The rest of the meeting was fine. The guy realized if he didn’t listen to me, it was going to be super awkward. There are times to be a partner and times to be a fighter.

MA: Growing up West African, in order to speak within in your family you really have to fight you’re way into that. That’s made me really strong in that sense.

I’ll tell a specific story about a friend who won a design award for Google because of the product she worked on in which she implemented Material Design. And she lead that whole process and design but they hired a person who was going to be the Android Design leader. And it’s a man. And so her company had won an award and Google wanted to award them on stage. But her boss had told her it’s up to you and him to decide who’s going on stage to accept it. And she naively goes into it and she’s like, let’s be diplomatic and talk about who should get this award. So she says to the guy, “Hey, I think you did a great job and as the Android Design Leader, you should get the reward.” And he goes “Yeah, okay, thanks. I agree.”

But I told her, he did the right thing. More women shouldn’t expect to have to ask for permission to get what we deserve. Take what you deserve. Look, she lead that project. There’s no discussion. Take the award.

I also build allies in the men around me, who end up supporting me. I don’t have to brag about my own talents. I have other people promoting me within the community.

MJ: I don’t have any blatant sexism stories. The main thing I’ve found as a woman, especially as I become more of a leader, I need to not consider my gender. I behave like a person. As human beings we want approval, reinforcement and mentorship. The big thing I advocate for, is to do it for yourself. Don’t make meaning out of what you think. If you think you did a bad job in a meeting or aren’t happy with what you’re doing, don’t take it seriously. Unless someone tells you to your face, just let it go. You have to empower yourself.

1. You are an amazing treasure. You have goods to give, talents and skills you don’t even know yet.

2. When you aren’t feeling great, a way to manifest personal power is to imagine a garment, which can be anything, armor, a fur coat, a cape or an amazing dress, or just light. Figure out what that is, and when you aren’t feeling great, just put that on.

SS: My way of doing it is a bit more self-deprecating. I think, “You know, I don’t feel great, but I bet 75% of the people in this room don’t either.” Reframing things as, this can’t be my own sole experience and there are other people that have felt this way and therefore this will pass.

MA: Most of the time the men don’t know that they’re doing this. So sometimes just calling them out is enough. I usually take people out for a walk and say “Okay what I’m about to say to you, don’t take it personally, but this will help you out in life in the long run, cause someone else is going to tell you off a lot worse than I’m about to.” Most of the time human behavior is subconscious so it’s not right to make them an enemy.

Be confident in yourself. Men don’t ask permission they just do stuff. So why do we have to?

EO: There were times that during projects I felt I was being perceived as pushy because I was being so passionate about what the user wanted. And then you get to a deadline and things start getting cut, and what gets cut are pieces of the UI that makes it great. So, to me, it was common sense to say “What are you guys doing? Look at the data, we know this is the right thing to do.”

And then I got a sense that I was being perceived as pushy where maybe a man would be perceived as being strong and convincing.

I realized that the power of persuasion is really, really important in getting people to buy in to your user research and getting them to actually follow through with it. Empathy is the most important trait to have to get into this field at all. I think your ego needs to be second to your empathy. Empathy for the user but also for everyone you work with. Developers have totally different constraints than what we have. Understanding where the managers are coming from, where Marketing is coming from, it’s only going to help you. Use the artifacts from your process (user videos, findings, etc) to support your project and case for when things start to get cut.

MJ: Don’t clean up ever. I like things to be tidy but don’t pick up after any one ever. It’s a subservient behavior.

Don’t say sorry when making a statement!

If you write something and it sounds commanding to you, right on! Just keep doing it.

Question 3: How would you recommend facilitating UX in our own lives to get ahead in our careers?

SS: Make your own opportunities. I really love giving advice to people who are just getting into this field. I like doing this because there’s this storytelling ability that designers have.

It’s understanding what the goal is and identifying what the raw materials are and using those raw materials to get to the end goal. I always tell people that the best way they can use their UX skills on themselves is to understand the goal that they want to get to in their own lives. Then understand the materials you are working with. What are the experiences and skills you have, and how can you shape them into a narrative that helps you get to that first step of your goal? That’s the way I approached my own career and it was hard because I had so many types of experiences that I had to weave into a cohesive narrative, but it’s been the best and helpful thing for me. To just identify my own goals and then help tell my story towards those goals.

MJ: I didn’t have a plan. I never had a one year plan, five year plan or ten year plan. I never bought a house, that kind of thing. But I’m not the person who’s going to throw everything into a backpack and run off with no plans. I will show up and look around for opportunity. The way to do that in your career is inside your organizations, inside MeetUps, how you move around a city, go on vacation, have a conversation on a plan. I got a client because I talked to her when we were waiting for jury selection.

Diversify your approach and be a discoverer. Be open. Engage. The most unlikely things happen when you least expect them.

It’s not “Don’t plan.” You want to hone in and foster your ambition and know in your gut that if you’re not happy, you know it. Just keep exploring and having conversations with people. When is the time when you’re doing something that you lose track of time? When you’re really enjoying yourself? And it can be because you love cycling, because you like to be out in the harbor.

The main thing I would say is if you’re not in a place that feels right for you, don’t linger there.

Don’t use that mental process of “Well, the pay is really good. And I don’t know, I shouldn’t leave this until I have some thing else lined up.” Build and leverage your networks. The most amazing things happen just out of random conversations.

You can plant seeds and they become fertile later.

MA: I don’t know where I want to be. I do know that I like to start off with a set of values that make me come alive first before I focus on my goals. One of my values is to work and build on something that even if I’m gone tomorrow it’s still standing here. Part of my essence is in that.

One of my values is also giving back to the community, creating opportunities for other people. I get a really big high from getting one of my friends a job, or someone an opportunity that they otherwise didn’t know how to get. I’m like “Don’t worry. Let’s leverage your existing skill set to tell a story that will help you get to where you want to be.” And once I teach them I don’t want them to do anything for me, just show this exact same thing to someone else.

You want to always be prototyping yourself.

I follow my interests and passions to see where I land. I love people and I love making genuine human connections offline. I don’t really contribute much to online. I do make friendships online but then I quickly move them offline to build that human connection. This is another value for me.

What I do is how I live my life. Everything I see, design has a power, and I can design a feature that I want for myself. If I don’t know the tools, to get to the feature, oh I will learn them. Hack your way to where you want to be. Realize that everything is kind of attainable in some sense. There is a lot of political systems and stuff like that, that are in place, but you can overcome these obstacles. And they’re not really obstacles once you figure out the solution. It may not be the first solution but there’s a solution to breaking through and getting the thing that you want.

Start with your values, write them down, and design the future you want for yourself. Exactly how you would design a experience.

EO: I’m still trying to figure it out. My least favorite interview question is “Where do you want to be in five years?” I barely know where I want to be right now. It’s about being really interested in what I’m doing. When I’m in zone and talking to users on a site visit and doing a usability study or an interview, I’m kinda engrossed in what that person is saying or doing. After 10 years in research and 6 years in design before that, I’m still so excited every day. You’ll always see something from a different perceptive that you didn’t know about.

It took me a while to get here, but no matter what, I know I’m in the right place. As long as I’m doing this, I’m happy.

SS: I’m seeing two kind of strategies designers use to approach their lives. One is the kind of emergent strategy of “What do I see? What’s next? That’s very interesting, I’ll follow that.” The other is, top-down, vision first. If you can do both, do both. You’ll get way farther, faster. You’ll be really happy, but it’s hard.

MJ: Post it notes.

Question 4: What’s been the biggest surprise from where you are right now to where you thought you’d be?

MA: There’s so much more I have to learn. Every single day there’s something new to learn. The more you think you know, the more you realize you don’t actually know much. Everyone’s faking it at some point. Tech moves so fast, what was the norm a few years ago is not the norm today. Remember Photoshop? Now everyone’s like, “Sssskeeeeetch.”

MJ: The theme for me has always been, how do I help people understand stuff as a designer?

The surprise is I never thought I’d be inside of big corporate as a middle manager. I have this long history that I feel like I’ve been surfing this wave and been able to catch other, interesting waves. I like to provide the space for people to make good things, have a good experience and benefit. My core value is, it has to be for good. I don’t know where I’m going from here. The key thing about user experience design is that it’s so emergent that you can make it up.

All of us here, in 3–5 years, are all going to be doing something we can’t think of. Aren’t we lucky?

SS: 15 years ago in a meeting, presenting to VPs, I thought, “This is pretty cool but I can’t believe these people are listening to me.” I still go to my job everyday now and think “This is pretty cool but I can’t believe these people are listening to me.” I never took the time out to be intentional about believing in myself.

I need to kick back against imposter syndrome. I’m happy with my career and what I’m doing, but there’s a part of me that still has a lot of self-doubt which surprises me.

Question 5: What do you love about being a woman in UX?

MA: I really embrace my feminine qualities. I love planning events and doing nice things for my coworkers. Those small things help move the product team faster.

MJ: I’ll generalize. The human touch that we [women] generally have more of. Keeping tabs on what’s going on for people, that’s gold. I’m sometimes the only woman in a lot of meetings and dressing can be a challenge. Dress the part. Dress how it feels right for you and who you are becoming. Always dress up a little bit more and people will regard you differently.

SS: I’m not particularly feminine. I have a more gender neutral expression.

I found that being a woman in a room full of men, people expect a little bit less of me. So they’re very surprised when they find out I’m competent and effective.

Then they pay a lot more attention to me. So I get to overcome a stereotype very quickly and be in higher regard.

EO: Empathy and emotional intelligence helps you a lot. Whether its conflict resolution or understanding something’s going on between Dev and QA. This is a generalization, but maybe men wouldn’t pick up on that as quickly as a woman would naturally do.

Question 6: I’m curious how things have changed from when you first started in UX to now.

MJ: We’re not just making something because someone ordered it. We’re being more strategic. User experience and design isn’t just part of the assembly line.

We’re at the core, the idea center of what we’re doing and why.

There’s most interest and dimension such as ethics, privacy and data. It’s a lot more interesting than it was 20 years ago.

(MJ then recommended reading this Harvard Business Review September: Design Thinking article.)

EO: In the past 15 years, people have now heard of UX. I feel like we should be a lot further along than we are, in 2015. At least people are talking about user experience, people aren’t completely clueless. There’s a lot more opportunity to educate. The field is currently growing a lot. Hopefully 15 years from now, we won’t need to advocate so much for it.

Question 7: What are some projects that you have worked on or come across that really inspire you?

MA: Honor, they are redesigning in-home care right now.

SS: I enjoy really dry and un-sexy design. Lucy Kimbell, is a UK designer working on form design for the government. She’s making the experience better.

MJ: Cameron Sinclair, Architecture for Humanity. In particular, his work for the Jolie and Pitt Foundation.

EO: I have a friend Sandy Speicher, at IDEO. Her work inspires me whenever I’m getting slightly bored with my projects.

Question 8: If you’re trying to transition into the field, and aren’t coming from a typical background, what kind of advice do you have?

SS: I always look for people who are articulate and know what they want to do. And know how their previous experience can be brought to bear on what they want to do. Know what you’re bringing to UX because it’s a lot easier to make a business case to hire you.

EO: There are things you can do. Go to your favorite website and figure out what’s working and not working. Start exercising that design thinking. If you can show a body of work that shows that you’ve thought about things and run 7 users through usability testings. Trying things out. Taking classes when you can, even if it’s not a full program. Practice observation. Observe people and their interactions. Buy lots of books. Do an internship. Build a couple of examples of running studies on your own.

MA: Check out Francine Lee’s Medium article on Dropbox. She ended up getting a job at Dropbox because of it.

Go to the VCs that fund these startups. Go to their happy hours. They’re constantly looking for new talent.

MJ: Go to hack-a-thons or a bootcamp. Build stuff. Don’t get stopped by the ridiculous job descriptions you see.

As I was walking to BART after the event, I realized how excited I am about my profession. MJ’s perspective on how designers are explorers and cartographers of the world offered a very fresh way to approach my work. Shahrzad’s insanely confident way of confronting sexism gave me a template for my own potential future encounters. Melanie’s insight on gauging a company’s perception of design is something I’ll remember when going on interviews. And Eileen’s emphasis on empathy, not just with your users but within your own workplace, is something I’ll carry with me to my next job.

It was motivational to hear such powerful, intelligent women speak and it’s driven me to work even harder.

Thank you MJ Broadbent, Shahrzad Samadzadeh, Melanie Araujo and Eileen O’Brien for all the great advice!

Also, I want to say thank you to @LadiesthatUX_SF! Without you, we wouldn’t have received such awesome knowledge.

Thanks to Francesca Chua for reminding me about the event.

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