Interview with Paul Adams

VP of Product, Intercom

This year we’re celebrating 10 years of UX London! In the run up to our special anniversary conference, we caught up with Paul Adams to hear his thoughts on the evolution and impact of UX, and how his 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, what role was it playing in business at that time?

In some ways it’s night and day better. For example I was at Google at the time and the UX team, which I was a member of, had very little influence in the company. That’s not the case anymore. So that’s progress.

And yet I think back to me and others during those times and think how naive I was about the broader business. And that wasn’t just inexperience. It was an attitude and an interest problem. I wasn’t curious about the business or the people within as much as I was about the products and their users. In many places none of that has changed. I don’t see many UX folks going deep in understanding how business works. A small example: how many have read a Warren Buffet book? Or went out of their way to understand how a Marketing team works, or a Sales team works? Not many.

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

I think we’ll get over ourselves and our insecurities and become a regular part of the business like everyone else. Which will mean not having the influence we desire at times. And eating humble pie. And accepting that it’s actually not always all about the user and that there are other important considerations too. Many might balk at these ideas but I’m excited about them! Learning your true place in something is liberating.

On your career

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

Honestly I don’t really know. People often think I had a career masterplan but I didn’t. Early on in my career I was just trying to do good work, designing things people would like and find valuable, but I didn’t have clear goals about my future. Once I got into that practice, and these days I’m somewhat obsessive about my goals, my career advanced much faster.

What are the qualities of a good UX practitioner?

Honestly the same qualities as most related professions. Being a great team player. Being open minded. Being humble about your work, assuming you didn’t get it right first time. Reflecting a lot on what you did well and not so well and getting better as a result. Other big things include being curious about all that is happening around you and wanting to learn and grow every day.

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

Don’t obsess about the tools of the day, and instead learn about the history of software design, and teach yourself the fundamentals that UX was built upon. These are things like Information Architecture, System Design. Too many designers these days aren’t studying the critical fundamentals. Doing so will set you apart from the rest.

What challenges are you facing at the moment and what are you doing to overcome them?

I’m reflecting a lot about how we work. How we design and build great products. Both at Intercom and in our industry. I’m thinking about all these discussions about UX people getting a seat at the table and I’m thinking our industry is pretty confused about what it wants, or thinks it wants. That’s what some of my talk will be about!

What’s your proudest achievement?

This is easy! Helping build Intercom from a tiny startup to where we are today, and making it somewhere that UX folks are empowered to do the best work of their careers. This hasn’t been easy by the way, it’s been very hard, but I’m immensely proud of what we’ve achieved so far, and the opportunities that are now in front of us because we built a product and design first company.

Anything else on your mind at the moment?

Thinking about what the next great step is in knowing how to build teams and process in order to build great products. I think we’re ready for something new and simpler. I think people are lost in the jargon and dogma of our times, whether that’s sprints or stories or scrum or kanban. It’s way too religious. And, by the way, the thing is that business leaders don’t care about any of that. They care about results. So we need a new phase in our industry.

Join Paul 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