Interview with Krystal Higgins

Senior Interaction Designer, Google

This year we’re celebrating 10 years of UX London! In the run up to our special anniversary conference, we caught up with Krystal Higgins to hear her thoughts on the evolution and impact of UX, and how her own career has developed in this time.

On the evolution and impact of UX

Thinking back to 2009, how and where did the discipline of UX sit within the industry, and what role was it playing in business at that time?

In 2009, it seemed that UX was still struggling to get a seat at the decision-making table. Designers, researchers, and UX consultants were commonly involved only after products had been defined (and often after they were developed!), when technical constraints and business goals steered the direction in which they could go. Around this same time, though, the burgeoning mobile app market had highlighted the importance of well-designed products. This was spurring startups and large companies to prioritize UX in hiring and product development, and schools to start offering more UX-focused courses. The discipline was in the beginning stages of rapid expansion.

How has UX changed in the past 10 years?

There have been many changes, but I regularly reflect on two big ones: UX is much more of an in-house operation than it used to be (especially in startups, where designers are now often part of the founding team); and the value businesses place on user research has increased tremendously.

How do you see UX evolving over the decade to come?

It’s both exciting and daunting to think about the impact machine learning will have on our ability to build meaningful, personalized experiences. UX will be at the forefront of making these experiences inclusive and user-centered. I could go on, but “Human-Centered Machine Learning” by Josh Lovejoy and Jess Holbrook of Google sums up these opportunities and responsibilities quite well.

On your career

Tell us about your first design/UX role. Who did you model yourself on?

It’s hard to pinpoint the moment I “officially” started working in UX. The definition of the role was very much in flux when I joined the workforce. It probably started somewhere between the web designer apprenticeship I had in high school, the computer animation projects I focused on during and after university, and my first software design role at Kyocera, because each of those experiences built up my interactive design and storytelling competencies. However, my first true-blue UX role was when I worked at NVIDIA. There, I was able to learn from talented graphic designers, interaction designers, industrial designers, researchers, and information architects, and was in an environment that afforded opportunities to build rich experiences for web, computer platforms, and software.

I never modelled myself after any single person, but I did have many influential role models at different stages of my career. Usually these were the people I worked with day-to-day. The female co-founder of the web design company I apprenticed at in high school helped me build up my business acumen. And Elissa Darnell, a manager I had when I worked at eBay, helped me grow into a design lead.

What are the qualities of a good UX practitioner?

In my mind, a good UX practitioner gives up ownership of ideas and can foster an “anyone can be a designer” mindset in the project team. As long as a good idea gets realized, and it makes people’s lives better, it doesn’t matter who it came from. So a good practitioner will have great facilitation skills, great communication skills, and the ability to synthesize user and business goals into a north star that guides the team and project.

How do you motivate your team?

One of the best ways to motivate a team is through user research! I often use research to get my cross-functional teammates excited about a new project or re-invigorated about an existing one. Observing sessions firsthand helps the team build empathy for our users. Joining site visits gets them away from a screen and inspires creative problem solving. Including them in synthesis exercises allows them to uncover meaningful insights that contribute to product strategy. I encourage all members of the team to actively participate in user research and have even held a workshop (run by a peer) for our non-designers to arm them with user interviewing skills.

What advice would you give practitioners who are just starting out in their careers?

Immerse yourself in a breadth of UX design activities. Volunteer for challenging UX projects at work or, if you are able to, volunteer for projects outside of work. Get experience working on different types of problems with a wide variety of audiences, because this builds up your capacity for empathy and problem-solving. Don’t worry about specializing in specific tools or processes too early, since these things are always changing.

What’s your proudest achievement?

I’m not good at choosing the “best” or “worst” of anything, but I can think of an achievement I’m proud of: I moved to Australia! It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for ages, but the timing and opportunities never lined up until recently. Moving is hard, but I’m enjoying having better access to scuba diving while working with a talented, diverse team on some exciting projects.

Join Krystal and a host of other fantastic speakers at UX London 2018 — the 10th anniversary edition of Clearleft’s trailblazing UX conference. UX London takes place 23rd-25th May 2018 at Trinity Laban — tickets are on sale now at www.uxlondon.com