Women in UX: An Interview with Irene Au

Irene Au talks to UX Jobs Board about how following her curiosity and finding opportunities to grow have defined her career and influenced how she managed her teams Yahoo! and Google.

As for those starting out in UX, Irene advises that finding an opportunity to solve a problem that benefits others is a great place to start your career and your portfolio.

Read the full interview for a frank and illuminative perspective on Irene Au’s UX career.

Q. Please tell us how you started your career in UX?

Throughout my career I have followed my curiosity and interests without much concern for what kind of “career” I would have. I chose to study electrical and computer engineering because as a math and science geek I loved technology. In graduate school, as I became disillusioned by my peers who seemed to be more interested in creating technology for technology’s sake, I was increasingly interested in how technology and people relate to each other, and soon discovered the field of engineering psychology and human factors. I shifted my field of study to focus on human-computer interaction, and took courses in computer science, psychology, and industrial engineering. My first job was as an interaction designer at Netscape Communications, which I loved.

Q. You’ve worked with some amazing organisations including Google. What was it like joining a company that had traditionally been quite engineering focused?

Google, in many ways, was like Netscape, so the culture was not that foreign and being a tech geek myself it was a natural fit for me. However, at the time that I joined, the lack of diversity in skill set on the design team was surprising; Larry had required all designers at Google to know how to code, which made it very difficult to hire a wide range of skills needed to deliver great experiences (for example, psychologists, writers, motion graphics animators, graphic designers). There was an abundance of usability testing, but not a lot of upfront, generative research, so product development was not necessarily grounded in an understanding of user behaviors and needs. Furthermore, Google at the time was very bottom-up, where managers might have several dozens of direct reports and not really have time to provide active leadership. This was in direct contrast to design-led organizations, which requires a vision, intention, and purpose that cascades from the top and permeates throughout the organization. There wasn’t much incentive for development teams to focus on craft and attentive execution of visual design.

“Larry required all designers at Google to know how to code, which made it very difficult to hire a wide range of skills needed to deliver great experiences…”

Q. How did you help foster a design-focused culture?

If a company is engineering-driven, that can be a competitive asset and strength, one that should be embraced rather than fought. The crucial question is to figure out how to create an environment where good design work can happen. What does it mean for good design work to happen? To me, that is a place where products and services are created with intent, with vision, with purpose. It’s a place where highly talented technologists and creatives can envision an offering that benefits others and are empowered to deliver that, and trade-offs are made in service of creating something that people can’t live without and endures the test of time.

As a leader of design organizations, I have sought to build teams with diverse skills, where members have strong technical and analytical skills and are highly empathetic and work well with others. They build credibility with stakeholders easily and negotiate effectively with people whose views are different from theirs. They use their research skills to bring user stories to life, and design skills to make vision tangible. They understand how people think and feel, and know what good design looks like and how to deliver an experience that makes people feel good about themselves.

Within large companies like Yahoo! and Google, I focused my teams’ energies on projects where they were empowered and thus more likely to succeed. Whether through the insights of user research or the power of prototyping, we would find the most effective ways to engage with stakeholders, and bootstrap from there. As we gained traction and brought demonstrable value to these projects through the power of design, we could champion and showcase how design made products more successful. This created a virtuous cycle where we gained credibility as an organization and became the team that everyone wanted to work with, thereby giving us more headcount and more options to do more interesting work with more teams.

Q. For many, working at Google would be the pinnacle of their career, so it must have been a difficult decision to move on. What influences your decision to leave one company and join another?

Follow your curiosity, find challenges that will help you grow in ways you want to grow, and choose the option that has the most heart.

Q. Is there anything you wish you knew at the start of your career that you know now?

There isn’t necessarily anything I know now that I wish I knew then; the journey I’ve taken is what helped me grow and shaped who I have become. It’s important to be able to just be with the uncomfortable feeling of not knowing. Everything works out in the end.

Transitioning from managing a small team to running a large organization requires a completely different set of skills and can be a difficult transition to make in a company that is growing rapidly. The external-facing skills required of an executive did not come naturally to me, as a natural introvert. Only when I started teaching yoga did I start to feel comfortable onstage speaking in front of a large group of people.

Q. A UX career can be challenging at times. How have you remained inspired, fresh and productive in your career?

I love meeting people, I love to travel, I love to study design. I try to approach things with a beginner’s mind, be curious, ask questions. It’s equally important to be connected to your own heart.

Q. What more would you like to achieve in your UX career?

“Success” is not about a fancy job title, how big a team you lead, or how much money you make. Success is really about knowing yourself, knowing how to be happy, and connecting in a meaningful way to your work and to people around you. At this point, I am not interested in striving or achievement. I want to keep learning and creating but it doesn’t have to be in service of a “career” in a specific field. I am more focused on following my own interests and where the heart leads me, and how I can contribute in ways that the world needs from me.

“Success is really about knowing yourself, knowing how to be happy, and connecting in a meaningful way to your work and to people around you. “

 Q. What advice would you give to aspiring UX professionals?

Start where you are and find or create opportunities to make. Only through practice, feedback, and iteration will you learn, become a stronger designer, and build a portfolio that shows what you are capable of. Follow your curiosity and use your skills to solve problems that benefit people.

Q. As the UX industry becomes even more competitive, what can UX candidates do to stand out from the crowd?

UX is inherently a multidisciplinary field, so the more diverse and versatile one’s skills are, the stronger one becomes as a designer. Beyond prototyping, user research, visual design, and interaction design, become a better writer, learn how to sketch, practice storytelling. Engage in projects, whether of your own invention or commissioned by someone else, to exercise and demonstrate your skills. Focus on details but also take steps back to see the entire whole, whether it’s the end-to-end experience, or the ecosystem in which what you’re making exists.

Q. Is it possible to successfully transition into UX from other fields or careers?

Yes, absolutely. Within my own organizations I sponsored the successful transfers of people from adjacent disciplines into UX, and they went on to become top performers on the team. These people all had in common a passion for the work and relentless dedication towards learning, iterating, and making their work great.

“Many of the interesting design challenges of the day relate to content strategy and writing chat bot scripts that humanize technology and relate to people effectively.”

Q. How will the UX industry evolve in the future & how can UX professionals prepare for this?

As user interfaces become more conversational and AI renders the need for human-machine interfaces obsolete, UX skills move from the visual to the written word. Many of the interesting design challenges of the day relate to content strategy and writing chat bot scripts that humanize technology and relate to people effectively.

Read more inspiring insights from Irene Au in her Medium articles:

Tales from the Trenches: Lessons Learned from Netscape, Yahoo, and Google.’

‘How to Choose Which UX Job to Take.’

Irene’s Profile

Irene Au

Design Partner at Khosla Ventures

Former head of design at Google, Yahoo, Udacity. Yoga teacher, author, speaker.

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