Interview Series with Designers — Sarah
San Diego has been called a “design desert”, which is a marvelous complement evident to those who have spent time either in this town or in the desert. The desert is a vibrant, mesmerizing place — just take this year’s “SuperBloom” in the Anza Borrego desert as proof. San Diego features a growing, and surprising ecosystem of successful design firms, including large established firms with solid design-led practice as well as a motivated community of talented design professionals. And just look at San Diego’s design conference Design Forward in its second year. These efforts are an inspiration!
One of my friends in this community is Erik More, Senior Interaction Design Manager at Wells Fargo. He connected me with the interviewee of this blog post. When I shared my interview project with him, he just knew I needed to talk to Sarah Bellrichard, his supervisor and Senior Vice President of Wholesale User Experience, overseeing Interaction Design, at Wells Fargo in San Francisco. She agreed to an interview to share her angle on design and diversity. I looked her up and found some great advice from Sarah on women in technology, how to win at job interviews and starting a UX career. In the present interview, Sarah describes her senior leadership position at a leading financial institution and gives some inspirational advice about minorities and women in UX.
Sarah Bellrichard — Striving for a place of shared understanding in the design world
JL: Sarah, tell me about your professional role and line of work?
SB: I am a Senior Vice President of User Experience at Wells Fargo for Digital Solutions for Business team as part of the larger Payments, Virtual Solutions, and Innovation Group. I manage a large team of interaction designers supporting user experience and interface design for our commercial banking platform and burgeoning enterprise-level channels.
I have a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and master’s in Information Studies and started my career in traditional library environments, beginning with the video archive of the CNN New York Bureau followed by the Claremont Colleges (a large network of academic libraries). I then transitioned into the UX field, working as a front end coder, information architect and UX interaction designer with various organizations, including a startup, a design agency, and a large corporation. The leap to UX made perfect sense to me. Now, as a Senior VP, I manage a team of interaction designers and also oversee cross-functional programs and projects.
My team of interaction designers is 25 people strong and largely based in the United States, mostly San Francisco, with a pocket of five designers in India through one of our Wells Fargo subsidiary companies. The larger User Experience team is 80+ people strong and this number will expand and contract based on our project pipeline. While a large percentage of my team consists of full-time employees, we also leverage contract resources based on project and incremental staffing needs.
JL: That gives me a better picture. Tell me more about your day-to-day tasks and challenges.
SB: I’ll use an American sports metaphor. I think of my current role as primarily blocking and tackling. It is a football term. My primary objective is to clear the way for every designer on my team to be successful — ensuring they have the tools and training to satisfy the job at hand as well as grow their skills and capabilities for new challenges. A handful of Interaction Design managers make up my direct reports and they manage the larger team of individual contributors directly. For instance, Erik More (whom you’ve met) is one of the interaction design managers who reports to me. He has a team of seven individual contributors. He lives in the day–to-day of design decisions while my job is to be an advocate up, down and across the organization.
To use a communication metaphor, I am also an information antennae, synthesizer and radiator. I take in all the things that might be happening one, two, or even three levels up and across our organization. Do we have the resources and capabilities that we need? How do we scale capacity? I still discuss specific design decisions across different tracks of work, if it is an application project or if it is related to our code framework or UX standards. And I frequently represent the UX point of view in executive reviews and discussions. I also reach out often to partners to learn more about their product roadmaps and UX support needs. I may talk to product managers to understand what they are trying to achieve when their product is in its infancy. I am working frequently as either an air traffic controller or a directional user experience compass for my team for our larger practice and the collective portfolio that we oversee and deliver.
JL: Do you still do design work? Or do you primarily manage employees?
SB: Yes, while I manage a large team — that is absolutely correct — I don’t want to undersell the influence I have on detailed design decisions. On behalf of our whole UX team, I am the primary approver over legions of project documentation, e.g. when we get new product requirements, change controls, or functional specs. I have to understand the projects even though I do not work on them myself. My team looks at each project and reviews each in detail. I check the documentation and ask “Does it make sense? Do they suggest something that we have already done or need to redo? Can we merge the functionality with an existing product?” In that way, I am more acting as that directional compass.
When we can’t take all the work that is coming our way, I will weigh in outputs from design vendors or managed contract resources. With my interaction design managers and peer managers, I am the leadership approver over all published UX standards. When we write a user experience and implementation standard about specific components, patterns and the workflow, then I may be playing dual roles of influencer and decider.
JL: I have been thinking a lot about the misconception of design as merely making things pretty. How do you define design?
SB: Design is a magical blend of art and science. It is confluence of form and function, of emotion and cognition that understands and anticipates user needs and expectations. And you could apply that to a soda can, to this chair that I sit in, to my shirt as well as a digital experience. Making user experience look pretty is a misconception. Design is not window dressing. Designers are also not just artists that don’t understand business drivers or technology landscapes. These two misconceptions combined tend to mean that UX is seen as a nice-to-have instead of a must-have. For instance, when other teams engage with our UX designers, the product managers might already have stamped out their product vision, the developers might already have decided on their technical direction and marketers might already be thinking about how to advertise the new product or feature enhancement. We have to unravel out of that.
Experience strategy is part of product strategy. Yes, you can tackle aspects of them independently, but they ultimately belong together, creating a holistic product strategy. If you view user experience as the icing on the cake, then UX professionals and teams suffer from a lack of early engagement or having a whole seat at the table thus being active participants and decision makers in the product strategy space.
In my almost 14 years at Wells Fargo, I have grown a large team thanks to executive leadership that values UX as a prerequisite and differentiating factor. The leadership support is something that cannot be over- or under-looked. At the same time, five or ten years ago our team when we were a less mature UX organization, we suffered from the perception of being purely a production shop. Our partners were less interested in hearing about the value add of UX for earlier more strategic stages of product. It can be very difficult to change others’ perceptions of UX. People will say “I love the UX team! I love what they do! They are always on time and their design is awesome.” However, they don’t mention “And by the way, their strategic design thinking contributions helped us make a better digital product.”
JL: Can I ask you about issues of diversity? Have you encountered discrimination, either first or second hand?
SB: I’ve been asked this question before by different outlets and tech group channels. From my perspective, user experience is traditionally a woman dominated field with its deep roots in library science. User experience has also roots in graphic design, a creative field across areas of marketing and online advertising. My experience is that UX is a balanced field with regards to gender. Christina Wodtke — whom I adore — is a highly regarded UX thought leader and pointed out in an interview that UX hasn’t really been perceived as a boy or girl career. In my experience, user experience is more diverse than many professions when it comes to gender, race, ethnicity, and LGBTQ. Our UX team at Wells Fargo is over 50% of female and we are diverse in terms of age, too. Our UX employees range from mid-20s to their late 50s. We have approximately 25% of LGBTQ representation in our team, and are fairly diverse in terms of race and ethnicity. If anything, I’ve seen the biggest gaps in race and ethnicity but that could be due to location, prevalence of local UX education and training, among other things. Approximately 40% of my current team has some sort of racial or ethnic element of the diversity wheel represented. Again, I haven’t seen there be a gender divide in my personal experience per se.
JL: What about solutions where working in UX design proved to be beneficial for these issues? With design thinking, it’s imperative to question the questions, which can help with understanding issues of diversity.
SB: Honestly, these problem-solving micro moments happen every day in design. A designer may think about using a design thinking method to get to a point of common understanding. We use a variety of design thinking methods across the lifecycle of our projects; they are not just for digital product problems. It may be appropriate for UX practitioners, product managers, and technologists to use these methods to address an everyday business, organizational, or operational problem. The rise of design thinking as an industry has been recognized. It is everywhere! People may be doubters at first until they peek behind the curtain. With design thinking, we quickly identify whether a problem needs to be defined first or better or we arrive quicker at a clearer answer using a collaborative, visual methodology.
JL: Talk to me about collaborating with different departments at Wells Fargo and with outside clients. Have you experienced discrimination in those areas?
SB: Not with the angle that you are talking about. But I do get approached by women in technology that ask the same questions or along the same line “Did you find it harder to get where you are than male counterparts?” and I honestly have to answer “No” I did not have any career barriers because I am a woman, an ethnic minority, or gay. And I am all of those things. I have been lucky in my work with my coworkers, the organizations and their clients over the years. Know that three of my four peer managers are also women. I think the gender angle at Wells Fargo specifically is strong. At a different organization or in different departments within our bank, the scales may tip in a different direction . I definitely have been in arm’s reach of development teams at multiple points in my professional history where women have been in the minority and frequently taken a backseat role to men in leadership positions and for day to day work efforts. My point was always regardless of gender to engage these women in the conversation to ensure that they get an opportunity to voice their ideas. I take that approach with anyone. Not everyone steps into the spotlight comfortably. Just because someone is quiet does not mean they don’t have an important contribution to make. This can happen in any number of meetings because people don’t make room for someone who is not elbowing their way in. Making it a point to ask people for their input is important; otherwise, it ends up being the loudest people in the room dominating the discussion and outcomes. It is about creating that space for people to contribute and to learn their different ways of communicating such as a shared workspace, email or adding comments to a document by then end of the day. Allow for people to take the information in, let them marinate it, and then come back comfortably to get their point of view.
JL: Can you share about experiences around those issues of diversity?
SB: I am adopted, which is another element of my diversity, and I grew up in Arizona with two wonderful human beings (my parents!) who are from the Midwest; they are Caucasian European. Growing up, I thought I was 75% Hispanic and 25% Lebanese until I took a DNA test through 23andme later in my life. I learned that I am 50–60% Hispanic, 20% Native American Indian and about 5–10% Middle Eastern. I didn’t have to go far to learn more about these ethnicities as my father worked with Job Corp vocational education program in the 60s and 70s throughout the Southwest with Hispanic and American Indian communities already. I’m also a gay woman and have been out and proud for over 20 years.
People don’t necessarily see an ethnically diverse, gay woman when they meet me. Over the years, I have heard comments that individuals would not have said if they had known more about what was behind the surface. And I have taken those opportunities! I have gotten a long stronger about calling people out saying “Hey, that’s not okay!” Everyone is entitled to their opinion as long as it is not demeaning of mine or others. While I appreciate difference, I am more interested in inclusion. I want to focus what unites us. Am I am perfect? Absolutely not. I can get frustrated if people can’t keep up in a conversation, don’t listen well, aren’t detail-oriented or don’t take enough responsibility. Those are the elements of diversity that I struggle with. I start to understand that diversity and inclusion is much more than what I thought. Nobody has it nailed. We are all biased and it can surface at the most random of times.
JL: Sarah, I appreciate hearing directly from you about things under the surface. I hear how you navigated careless comments, how you integrate new information about yourself and that you yourself experience unexpected moments of bias and frustration based on differences. Has your experience around issues of diversity impacted your professional role and how you lead?
SB: It didn’t change my view of who I am. I am me! I am a collection of the things that make up my mortal being and a hundred times more of all of the environmental inputs from over the years. Look at the nature versus nurture debate. My parents and I have the same facial expressions and gestures. There is a likeness between us as we all happen to have brown hair and brown eyes. My older brother is also adopted. There is enough similarity that combines our behaviors that visibly demonstrates a familial connection. It expands the line of what makes you you. I’ve joined different team networks in the Bay Area and become active and aware of different communities. Growing up, I already had a deep appreciation for American Indian culture because of my dad’s efforts to bring vocational training to different reservations throughout the Southwest. As I said, I did not have to go far to have appreciation for the cultures that are part of of my genetic makeup. I am positive I could know more. It also makes me curious about different cultures and sensitive to what inhibits others from taking a similar path as mine.
JL: If a reader of this identifies with parts of your story, say someone expanded their identity or learned new things about him or herself, do you have a piece of advice for that person?
SB: I have no short answer for this. I try to be me along the way. Sometimes I am my best and sometimes my worst self. It is important to know your audience. Know what space you are in and whether you are safe. Is it okay to make a mistake? For me, I have to be aware when I get really excited about something and raise my voice. You have to balance yourself. It is not about hiding who you are, but understanding what context you are in. I don’t want it come across like “Do not be this way with those people!” My goal is to always encourage myself and others to be themselves, and to play their strengths.
JL: That’s vulnerability. That’s a question of exposing yourself with a comment in a certain moment.
SB: While it is a word that in my opinion is overused right now, empathy is big, too! People confuse being emotionally sensitive with emotional awareness. I am trying to figure this out more. I read this article about empathy recently that made me think. Is empathy as it’s being commoditized all it should be? Or is there a new word of what I want empathy to be which is understanding more what gets us to shared understanding?
And yes, it is also about being vulnerable and about understanding where other people are in relationship to you. Are they right next to you? Are they a block away? Are they a mile away? Are they on a different continent? How much of myself can and should I show to get to a place of shared understanding. If I was 100% me and if I knew they were right next to me, I could give and be a lot more open. That type of sharing about myself could also push someone further away. Again, it is about knowing your audience, what resonates with them, and for the UX perspective, it is about show and tell. Just show or just tell gets you only half way. It also requires using approachable language and understanding the spectrum of your audience’s understanding. If you do a design review for five stakeholders, three who are new to UX and two who are familiar with you, you might have a certain energy and focus towards the people that you know and questions or a blindspot for the people that you don’t know. Collisions are about to happen! If you walk away while everyone is still confused and unclear about what to do, that’s a problem! It is about knowing your audience, having a clear intention and consistently checking in to make sure everyone is on the same page.
JL: You are advocating for connection. You show an interest for people in the room. And you mentioned that place of shared understanding while making people feel included and not pushing others away.
SB: I am one of the louder ones, and not shy about sharing it. I need to check myself to make sure everyone has a voice, feels heard and can contribute. Admittedly, I am not always the best at it. I am outspoken in various professional settings and might seem like an extrovert, but I am not. Personally, I prefer a small, core group of friends outside or work and smaller group meetings or 1:1s at work. My comfort in meeting new people is low which can be challenging at larger events, like conferences or networking socials.
JL: Thank you, Sarah! Your story, insight, and advice allowed me to see things in a new way.
With each interview, it seems that UX as a field is less burdened by gender issues than other fields. However, each interview also included anecdotes where interviewee had either observed or experienced unfavoring attitudes due to gender or other issues of diversity.
I learned things about Sarah’s identity that I could not have guessed. She is gay, was adopted and has a diverse ethnic background. Sarah experienced uncomfortable comments in her career. I am impressed that she doesn’t express hurt from those moments, but rather a proactive stance. She learned to confront derision and to scan her audience better gauging how much she should disclose. Realistically, anyone has to think twice about what personal details to reveal in a business setting. Is it in one’s best interest to talk about kids, to talk about political viewpoints or to mention religious faith these days? While Sarah puts tremendous effort into being open, inclusive and sensitive, she bravely admits to get frustrated with people who cannot keep up, struggle with listening and don’t meet her requested level of detail. Knowing your pet peeves is important for developing better leadership skills.
After this inspiring interview with Sarah, I will focus more on how people get to a shared point of understanding. Does that point of shared understanding primarily serve the client and their product, or the people who are involved? With what motivation do we talk about empathy in UX? I realize that pinpointing the reasons for which a digital solution has been launched and is invested in — and also fueled by empathizing with one another — matters tremendously. I am circling this back to the article on empathy in the NYT asking myself: Who wants to understand others’ pain just enough to get something out of it in their own favor and who wants to design for sympathy for its own sake that encourages us to go the extra mile?