Name Dropping is a Q&A series that aims to elevate the stories of women and nonbinary people leading in the tech space. The idea came from Angela DeFranco, a VP of Product at HubSpot, who said one way to be better allies is to name drop more women and nonbinary people in discussions of achievement, inspiration, and disruptors in tech, instead of referencing, time and again, the same set of (often male) leaders.
When did you realize you loved design?
I’d have to take a journey back to my childhood. I really think it started when I was a ballerina. Even though it was costume design, and not necessarily web design, I was just so fascinated with my tutus and the colors. There was something about the sequins and the way that they moved around with the tutu. And I remember sitting with my costumes, constantly looking at the design, and just remembering how they made me feel. And then, throughout my childhood, I was in after-school gifted arts programs for drawing and creating things.
So I definitely had an affinity for wanting to create things. Fast forward to my career, and I was in another position and started to tinker with HTML and CSS. And that’s when I realized that creativity can come out in this digital form. That’s when I really started to lean into this idea of creating and designing experiences, that we’re not just about the look and feel of a site, but how to make people do things to make them more productive, or get them to what they need to do and who they need to be. When I look back, it’s basically a partial awakening of something that I’d loved in my childhood that just took form finally as an adult in my career.
You’re a Staff UX Design Researcher at LinkedIn. What are some of the most exciting challenges your team is working on right now?
What’s great about LinkedIn is that, at its core, it’s about creating economic opportunity for the global workforce. This is something that is already embedded in our day-to-day, and given the present global situation and the pandemic, it’s really elevated what we do as a company. We’re really trying to help connect people with economic opportunity now more than ever, where there are so many people who have been displaced or who need new opportunities. We are elevating the things that we’ve already been doing.
In terms of UX, specifically, with the research itself, where we’d usually be doing contextual, ethnographic, or pop-up studies where you’re meeting with members face- to-face, that has definitely changed. And we no longer do in person studies. We’ve had to sharpen our toolkit and conduct research in different qualitative and quantitative ways. We’ve also had to adjust how we do some of our research.
Want more from Renee? Hear her thoughts on combatting microagressions in a virtual world on the latest episode of our podcast Culture Happens.
Accessibility is such an important part of UX. What would you say to other UX professionals who are looking to make their products more accessible?
One of the main things I always call out is that accessibility has to be at the foundation of the process and not an afterthought. This is not something that you can slap on afterward. Some people may argue that considering it at any point of the process is better than nothing at all. And that’s of course true, but I’m a firm believer that at the inception of the idea or problem or solution, accessibility has to be top of mind.
And then also with accessibility, there has to be this even broader understanding of inclusive design as a whole. Inclusive design broadens the understanding of groups of people that are not being included in an experience — demographics and groups of people that are being overlooked and excluded for various reasons, for example, socioeconomic disadvantages, different tech access, and temporary or permanent disabilities. I think it’s important from academia, all the way to industry, to start at the foundation of where accessibility and inclusive design happen and should happen — at the design-thinking level all the way through product development.
This is hard work. And necessary work. But it has been an established field for years. There are people who have been doing this work for decades and for a long time experts have been expanding this field. We just need to do our due diligence to make sure that we are tapping into these experts who have laid the foundation and leverage their knowledge of accessibility while also learning and implementing better more inclusive design. I think more companies, more organizations are really realizing the importance of both and starting to take a stance on that.
How do you stay connected to user and customer feedback?
I’m the type of researcher who always keeps their ear to the streets. It’s one of those things that I can’t turn off. I keep up a rhythm of engagement where I may not know when I may need this particular person or archetype with this particular background, but because I’ve stayed engaged with them in some aspect, I can always reach out to them later on to make them part of the research. There’s this saying, “Always be learning.” As a researcher, it really is just that — I’m just always learning and listening. I don’t wait to start a research study to then start engaging. It’s a constant cycle of just being aware of communities and spaces that you can always tap into and learn from. I call it “Constant Curiosity.”
When you think about the best designers and researchers you’ve worked with, what characteristics did they embody?
I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with some incredible designers and researchers over the span of my career. Top of the line. People who have inspired me to be better in my craft, and my day-to-day work. I think one of the consistent traits of both researchers and designers is this authenticity in really creating the best and most optimal experiences that are about exploring the impossible or exploring these big ideas and concepts that take us to a different level. Those designers and researchers don’t box themselves in. They’re able to think outside the box, holistically, and think broader and deeper — longitudinally. I just love it when people think like that. Systems thinking is so important, seeing and understanding the whole picture. It’s exciting.
They’re into the tactical things of pixels and buttons and polishes, which are important. But they’re also strategic, system-level thinkers. They ask, what does this experience look like for the user, not just in a single feature but across an ecosystem. How does an experience and design look today, and more importantly, what will it look like tomorrow? What could this experience evolve into a year from now? Those are the types of visionary UX practitioners whom I love to work with.
One thing you definitely need to figure out through your research beforehand is what the time commitment looks like. You also want to know what the mission and value the organization is bringing into the community and the world is, and if it aligns with yours. That was something that was really important to me in terms of working with organizations. What I believe in and also was passionate about was aligned with Opportunity Junction and their mission to help people in underserved communities who need job and career re-skilling. The training programs and education and job placement assistance they provide help put individuals on a path to create a stronger economic future for themselves. The other board I am on, Inneract Project, is focused on educating and bringing design to members of underserved communities at an early age, as well as supporting and advocating for the underserved design community through different programs. So two different organizations, but two passions of mine that I believe in and want to devote time to.
If you’re researching boards for yourself, especially nonprofits, think about: What are your beliefs? What are you passionate about? What do you want to give back to, and what is something that you can speak very authentically and passionately about when people ask you what you do? Because a lot of these nonprofit organizations need additional resources: time, talent, gifts, all those things. And you will have to be that spokesperson to be able to get people excited about your organization.
It’s not a hobby — it’s something that is important. And it’s also been really great for me to be able to do some things through these boards that I don’t have a chance to do in my day job. Depending on how boards are set up, there are different committees. There’s a financial committee, and through that I’m able to get really involved in things like P&Ls, and really get a sense of what the financials of a nonprofit look like. Having those skill sets is important. So, if you’re thinking about joining a board, think about what you want to get out of it, too, not just what you want to give to the board.
And especially during this time, I would be very explicit about looking into who’s on the board. As a Black woman, I was very selective about, what does this board look like? And what’s the representation on it? And what does this organization believe in in terms of representation? All of that is important. Will you be the first, do you want to be the first and only? How will you change that? Take those facts into consideration when you’re joining a board.
On your LinkedIn page, in between your many project management and UX positions, you list experience in the restaurant industry, writing, “I’m listing this experience to show others the path to UX wasn’t a straight line and I even leverage skills I obtained as a hostess and waitress today, as a UX researcher.” What advice do you have for people looking to break into the tech industry with non-traditional tech backgrounds?
I thought it was really important to let people know that this journey was filled with twists and turns and ups and downs. It was not a linear path. And that’s something that I’ve embraced. I use this experience as part of my differentiator in the tech space — it’s actually a value-add. It makes me unique.
One of the things that people will try to do early in their careers, and I did, too, is to create similar patterns. Saying, I want to go to a specific school, I want to set out on a certain career path because I need to get to a certain place. But when I really started to lean into my own journey and accept and own my journey, it just opened up many doors, and it freed me from trying to fit in a box.
And these skills, they really do accumulate. For part of my career, I talked to people about pivoting into the tech industry. A lot of people think when you pivot, you have to drop everything that you’ve learned in your past and just acquire all this new knowledge. And I encourage a lot of the people that I mentor and speak with at conferences that pivoting doesn’t mean that you drop everything. Pivoting just means you turn, you take what you’ve learned, and you take it with you while learning more. You can apply skills that have been acquired in previous roles to this new space that you’re entering.
My advice to people who are going into the tech space or even non-tech spaces is to be able to connect the dots to these similar attributes from your former position. Leverage that. You’re not starting from scratch, you’re starting from a certain point, and building on that. It makes a difference in how people approach their search. And what employers are looking for are those parallels, things you can build on as you acquire new skills.
Putting the waitress job on my LinkedIn profile was important because I I learned so much being a waitress and a hostess. And this is even after getting a degree, this is not something I did during college. I was hit hard in the last recession. And like I say in my profile, I had to take my degree and walk into a restaurant and get a waitressing job. I set my ego and pride aside and was able to gain skill sets as a waitress that I can still use, even today as a researcher, in Silicon Valley.
Who’s one woman or nonbinary person in tech you’d like to name drop and why?
Without a doubt and without hesitation, Miss Kai Frazier. Kai Frasier is a founder and CEO of an XR/ AR/ VR company in ed tech called Kai XR, and what she is doing is incredible. She is creating AR classroom experiences for children and bringing them literally all over the world, to places where a lot of these students will probably never visit, never be able to see. I shouldn’t say never, but probably in their wildest dream they didn’t think they could see these places. And this is especially important now during this time where people are trying to reevaluate what education looks like.
Kai started this company years ago, just out of her own vision of being an educator and wanting to bring a different type of curriculum to students, especially students in cities and underserved communities.She has developed VR field trips all over the world and kids get to see and experience things like the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the ancient Mayan temple in Chichén Itzá, even the Obamas’ portraits at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. What’s also super cool is she has a VR experience that takes kids to UC Berkeley to learn about CRISPR with scientist Jennifer Doudna, who was recently named the 2020 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry. Kai is such a visionary that after speaking with her, you just come out feeling like you can do anything. That’s what I enjoy about being in her presence and being her sister friend. You don’t see a lot of Black women in the AR and VR field. She is tackling a space that is usually dominated by men, but she’s going full speed with ambition and encouraging others. That, especially, is what inspires me.
She deserves the spotlight. She’s doing some incredible work as a founder and entrepreneur and is just an incredible Black woman. She’s a light and an inspiration.
What’s your favorite show you’re currently streaming?
This is a good one because I don’t watch a lot of television, so when I do it needs to be really good. Just over the weekend I finished watching Cobra Kai and it was just a tip of the hat to a very specific time, a journey through my childhood. All the things of the 80s, and it was so nostalgic. I thought it was going to be cheesy, but it turned out really, really good.
And I just finished the last season of Schitt’s Creek. What a fun show. I often break into a Moira accent when saying words, like beh beh (baby).
Also, Netflix has brought back several incredible Black sitcoms from the early 2000’s and my favorite I have been watching has been Girlfriends, about four Black women who are friends navigating the ups and downs of life together.
I definitely have an affinity for things that are nostalgic like Cobra Kai and Girlfriends. I see a trend emerging here. It’s definitely the researcher in me making the assessment.
Know another woman or nonbinary person whose name we should drop? Tweet us at @HubSpotDev with ideas.
This post originally appeared on Medium.