¿Como Podemos? — My adventure in UX abroad

When I first learned that I’d be traveling to Madrid as a “design ambassador” from Ironhack’s UX/UI Bootcamp in Miami, it’s fair to say that I didn’t have any idea what that meant, why I was going, or what I could possibly say that would be of any value to a brand new class of designers in Spain.

But 2 months and roughly 400 hours of UX later, I was packing my bags and dusting off the remnants of Freshman Spanish, preparing for a deep dive into the world of design on the other side of the planet. Over the course of just 6 days in the capital city, I’d be mentoring a brand new cohort of UXers, pitching my capstone project to dozens of developers and designers, and meeting with some of the most disruptive startups in Spain.

I must have been somewhere over the Atlantic by the time it began to feel real.

Having just graduated from the UX bootcamp myself — a whirlwind summer of research and prototypes and more post-it notes than you’ve seen in your entire life — I was eager to share my experience with those who might learn from it, and to learn all I could from city’s bustling tech scene. And in between the bouts of imposter syndrome and kicking myself for never pursuing that Spanish minor, my mind was abuzz with curiosity about what I might find in Madrid.

As a passionate young UXer in an unfamiliar environment, it was almost by instinct that I found myself eager to learn all that I could about the culture and its people. How did they live? What did they value? How might cultural differences inform the work of designers who live and work here? And what the hell are tapas anyway??

Valid questions, all.

From the pervasiveness of “siesta” culture to the whole “kiss-on-the-cheek-as-a-greeting” thing, it quickly became clear that there would be no shortage of cultural artifacts for me to uncover. In travel as in life, I tend to favor the “embarrass yourself til you get it right” approach.

But the more I learned about Spain and its people — about business and relationships and day-to-day life — the more it seemed there was to learn. More and more I began to suspect that to make a living in UX here — or anywhere — an outsider like myself would need to spend years immersed in the culture. To design for any population, I imagined, was to know intimately all of its goals and frustrations, to understand the norms and nuances of daily life visible only to “insiders.” Surely, to be a successful designer anywhere meant understanding the cultural ethos with the kind of familiarity achievable only by living there.

It wasn’t until I sat down with the designers who lived, worked, and studied in Madrid, that I saw just how wrong I’d been.

When I first arrived in Spain, I’d set out to learn all that I could from the design community — to seek out what was new and different in hopes it would lend fresh perspective to my own work.

And of course there were plenty of new and interesting perspectives to learn from. From seasoned lead designers to first-week design students, native Spaniards and American expats, local freelancers and global design agencies, I was privileged enough to be able to exchange ideas with designers representing an incredible spectrum of backgrounds and experience.

But the more we exchanged ideas, discussed methods, unpacked past challenges and difficult learning experiences, something began to dawn on me. For the first time since arriving in the country, I was struck not by what was different, but all that was remarkably the same.

From veteran designers making waves in the startup scene to the amateur UXers at Ironhack Madrid, everyone I met seemed united in the understanding that insight drives innovation. With the students, we drew insights from affinity diagrams and asked “Como podemos?” or “How might we…?” In meeting with the startups, I discovered breathtakingly agile workflows for turning feedback into features in a matter of weeks. And if we look past the inevitable sophistication gap, it’s clear that both of these processes are founded in the exact same principles and accomplish more or less the same task. For students, startups and everyone in between, the UX toolkit gives us the agency to turn challenges into opportunities for innovation.

From the local freelancer working with the restaurant up the block, to the global design agency with clients all over the world, I was amazed to find the same tools and frameworks applied to such wildly dissimilar design problems. Over dozens of conversations with designers of all stripes, I began to see that whether we’re designing for our closest friends and neighbors, or an unfamiliar audience on the other side of the planet, the practice of getting to know one’s users — and the tools that allow us to do so — are every bit as powerful.

Over beers or in the boardroom, all of my conversations with the designers of Madrid always seemed to lead me back to one seemingly fundamental idea. That is: the very principles that make UX useful, also make it universal.

In an increasingly globalized world, design thinking is so incredibly valuable because it provides us with a set of tools that cuts across industry, across geography, and indeed across culture.

For all my worrying about cheek-kisses and “cultural ethos,” in the end I realized that being a successful designer doesn’t necessitate being an “insider” anywhere. After all, the world is full of “insiders” from all walks of life — we just tend to call them “users.” And the wonderful thing about UX is that it gives us a window into lives of those we seek to understand. In some small way, it allows us to see the world from their perspective. So in a way, the principles of design thinking allow us to be insiders anywhere we choose.

To say that UX is universal is not to say that we have nothing left to learn from one another. On the contrary, as leaders in a young and increasingly influential field, those in UX should strive as much as possible for a free and lively exchange of tools, methods and ideas. By its very nature, UX is field that evolves not only with the state of technology, but with the ever-changing needs of those who use it. And as technology becomes ever more present in every corner of daily life — from smartphones to smart homes, virtual assistants and virtual reality — we’re united in the belief that compelling, valuable experiences start with people.

On my very last night in Madrid, over one last round of tapas at my favorite cervecería, I paused to reflect on all that had happened over the course of my trip. In the beginning, I’d felt like an outsider — an inexperienced UXer in an unfamiliar world, eager to learn all there was to know about the city, its culture, and the designers who worked there. With just 6 days in the capital city, I’d set out to discover a distinctly “Spanish perspective” on design — to seek out all that was new and strange and exotic. But what I found in my conversations with the designers of Madrid was anything but strange.

Instead, I discovered my place in a global community of innovators, empathizers and creatives. And for the first time in my brief career as a UX designer, I no longer felt like an outsider.

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Stuart McGibbon

Stuart McGibbon

UX Research & Designer based in Columbus, OH. Check out my work on www.stumcgibbon.com