Quick Facts

  • Name: Rebecca Serr
  • Time at CivicScience: 5 Months
  • Title: Director of UX Design
  • College Major: Human Biology, Stanford University
  • Graduate Program: Human-Centered Design, IIT Institute of Design in Chicago
  • Job Summary: Rebecca works to make CivicScience’s digital offerings fun, rewarding, and easy to use. She translates users’ needs and research insights into fantastic design solutions.

Q: Having switched from biology to UX design, is there a connection between the two that people might not realize? Has a biology background helped you with design?

A: In biology and the sciences, you use the scientific method to answer questions about the world. Learning about that in college really shaped the way that I think about research and decisions – because design is really just about making a lot of decisions. Should we make this button smaller or bigger? How should people navigate through this experience? What should we even make in the first place?

User experience design also borrows some qualitative research methods from social science – like interviewing and observing people to understand how they use things. You can also use quantitative methods, like A/B testing, to figure out whether one option actually works better than another. At CivicScience, we gather a ton of data everyday and we have people who really understand how to analyze it. It’s amazing to be able to get such quick quantitative feedback.

Another connection between biology and design is trying to understand how people actually think, not just how we want them to think. We want people to be perfect users – to pay attention, read everything on the screen, make decisions that make sense. But people don’t work that way. We have cognitive biases that affect how we perceive the world. But lots of those biases are predictable, and we can understand them, and even account for them in the way we design things. Ultimately, the more a design lines up with the way people actually think, the easier it is for them to use.

Q: What are your favorite parts of UX design?  

A: One thing I enjoy about the design process is making sure different peoples’ voices are heard.

You interview end users and stakeholders to find out what’s important to them. It’s an interesting process that turns out to be a lot about facilitating conversations. At the end of those conversations, you have a ton of data and different points of view, and you have to look for patterns and find meaning. That’s really fun.

And then the other thing I like about design is sort of the opposite of what I just said, which is the part where you do heads-down design work and work on creating something that you think is beautiful, or cool, or fun, and your inspiration can come from anywhere. There’s a part that’s not driven by data at all, it’s just about what delights you. I think that’s really cool.

Q: What do you think are the most important principles of UX/Human-Centered Design? Also, do you think those words are interchangeable?

A: Not really. There’s been a lot of debate in the community, and different people have different interpretations of what those things mean. I tend to think that it doesn’t really matter exactly what you call it. There’s a set of principles that guide modern digital design that have just come to be accepted as best practices.

One of those principles is the idea of being user or human-centered. In practice, I think this means looking for the overlap between users’ goals and your business’s goals and letting people’s needs drive what you create. In order to do that, you engage end users in the design process. Talking with people who will actually use what you’re making puts a check on your own assumptions as a designer.

Another key part is iteration — setting up a cycle of making and testing. There’s no substitute for putting your design in front of someone and seeing what happens when they try to use it. It can be really humbling, but it’s the quickest way to learn what’s not working. You don’t have to get things perfect the first time – and in fact, that’s not even possible. You’re constantly learning and tweaking things.

Q: What are the traits of a good UX designer?

A: You have to be interested in problem-solving in general. In UX, sometimes you’re solving high-level, strategic problems, and sometimes you’re figuring out what color a button should be. It helps if you just like breaking problems down and working through them methodically.

It also helps to be open to feedback and to not get too attached to your work. It’s funny because design is very personal in a lot of ways. Design is a lot of decisions that ultimately end up reflecting you, what you like and what your worldview is – even in very subtle ways. At the same time, the kind of design I do is all about making a functional product. Treating your design as a really personal thing can make it hard to be successful in that setting.

Q: But given the amount of time you put in, should you still have any attachment to your work?

A: I think it’s important to care about your work, for sure, and to push yourself to make things that you’re proud of. But you also have to think: this is going to change over time. As a UX designer, sometimes your value is in guiding that process, and not in having complete control over the outcome.

Q: What are some challenges and opportunities in the field of UX right now?

A: In terms of opportunity, right now is a really good time to be a UX designer. Fifteen years ago, the concept of user experience was something that people really had to fight for within companies. That’s changed a lot. Many companies have embraced the idea that a user’s experience with your product is a major factor of whether it will be successful or not. That’s great, but it’s also a challenge, because it means the bar has been raised across the board. UX isn’t a differentiator anymore, it’s just how design is done.

Now there are parts of the UX community that are focusing on figuring out how companies can scale up UX efforts and make them more efficient – but there’s an inherent tension there with the unpredictable nature of design and innovation.

Something else that’s exciting to me is that user experience applies to any kind of interface a person can interact with. For us at CivicScience, it’s a website, but across the field, it could be so many different kinds of things. There are voice UX designers, and designers who look at interactions with people and environments. New technologies are going to impact that a lot, things like self-driving cars – that’s really exciting because it involves rethinking what the experience of transportation is like. There’s a lot of cool emerging technology right now that will create new opportunities for UX designers.

Q: On the last note, do you have any tips for someone trying to get the hang of design?

A: It honestly took me a few years to even figure out what user experience is, and to understand the layout of the field and the different opportunities there are. There are lots of different paths you can follow with design. The only way I figured it out was by working on different kinds of projects and seeing what I liked and was good at.

One thing that will serve you well in design is learning to be okay with ambiguity. My natural tendency is to try to really understand things before I do them, but sometimes with UX projects, you need to dive in and start working in order to figure out what problem you’re really solving. I feel like this career path has made me more open to not knowing exactly where things will go at the beginning.

I think something else is to work on being a good team member. This type of design tends to be really collaborative. You need to talk with other people, sketch with other people, and work on things with other people – sometimes from very different backgrounds. I’m not just working with other designers all the time, I’m working with developers, business people, even statisticians.

Developing skills around articulating your thinking and being open to other people’s ideas serves you really well when you’re starting out in design. If you can both give and receive critique, you can learn a lot more from other people, and from your own experiences. That’s really important.

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