We get to spend our days working with generally awesome people across the wonderful worlds of technology, product management, user experience, digital design, project management, analytics and insight, marketing, change and transformation and leadership.
And we love exploring what makes these folks tick. So we launched FFS, or Futureheads Five Stories, where we speak to people who have interesting stories to tell, to find out more about their career in the digital world, and the lessons they've learnt along the way.
And we couldn’t resist the acronym.
This week we sat down with UX Designer and 'Digital Nomad' Claire Durrant.
What’s the story of your career so far?
My path into UX Design is a little out of the ordinary. I don’t have a degree in psychology, human-computer interaction (HCI), or… anything at all, actually! When I left school, I was urged to go to university by my teachers - but the problem was that I had no idea what to study. I was good at English and Drama, but there wasn’t anything along those lines that I wanted a career in. So I got a job in a private medical insurer's call centre to save up some money and go travelling. However, I did pretty well and within a couple of years, I was a Training Consultant, overseeing the southern sales teams. Part of this role was listening in to calls with customers to evaluate and coach the advisors. I noticed that many of our customers didn’t understand what they were covered for, or where they could go for treatment. This meant that when time to claim came around, they were left disappointed or confused. At the time, the company had a reward scheme: come up with a brilliant idea that gets implemented, and win an award. I suggested a members’ app.
The problem though, was that the company had never made an app, and didn’t have a team - let alone any kind of business incentive to do it. My idea was passed back to me as a good one, but unachievable. Luckily I wasn’t happy with that answer and took to our internal social media to build up a business case. I collected data from colleagues around the world on the types of calls received, the time impact, and therefore cost of these, and how much I believed could be saved with my solution. I created my very first set of wireframes - of course at that point, I didn’t know they were called “wireframes” and these were absolutely grotesque things in bright green and blue that I created in PowerPoint. Armed with all of this, I submitted my business case - it was accepted, planned for delivery, and I was invited to be a part of the development team as a subject matter expert (SME). We’d be building my app, plus two fitness-themed apps at the same time.
Once on the team, I took on an SME and Business Analyst role, with some copywriting thrown in. We had a fantastic Lead UX Designer, who apparently saw some potential in me as he took me under his wing and had me doing the basics on our wireframes. When the project was almost completed and he left, I took ownership of them and made the last few tweaks before go-live. Our apps were featured in a number of lifestyle and health publications.
I had continued with the online team in Head Office for a month or two when I received a call. Our UX Designer was now working with a telecoms provider and instructed me to quit my job, go freelance, and work with him as a Junior UX Designer on the project. Not much consideration was needed before I headed to the office to meet the Head of UX, who turned out to be another of many incredible UX specialists who taught me so much about the trade - I have now worked with her at three different companies.
I stayed at the telecoms company for over a year, before doing a year as a permanent employee elsewhere to ensure I had enough experience to succeed as a freelancer. I’ve now been working in UX Design for seven years and freelancing for almost six of those. And even more exciting - for the last 14 months I have been working while I travel, living the life of the “digital nomad”.
For anyone who doesn’t know what a digital nomad is, it’s one of those awful, made-up-sounding terms that doesn’t mean a whole load and still needs explaining. Essentially, I work while I travel - all I need is WiFi. In March 2017, I decided to have a break from London and to visit Vietnam for a month. It just so happened that a client I’d worked with before (who’s based abroad) needed some UX expertise on her project. We agreed that I could work around three days a week, remotely (as I would have been remote anyway) from Vietnam. A month passed, and I decided not to go home (Asia is amazing)… so I’ve pretty much been doing that ever since! Since I started working remotely, I’ve travelled around much of Asia: to Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea (I even popped over to LA and Portland for a bit) - and I am currently two months into travelling around Japan, with another month to go.
What advice would you give to yourself when you were just starting out?
My first piece of advice is something that everyone realises at some point; that we’re all just muddling through. Everyone has imposter syndrome, and everyone worries that they’re not good enough at what they do. So on that note, don’t be afraid to say to a client, “I don’t understand what you’re asking me to do”. The times that I’ve needed to say this, it’s usually turned out that they don’t know either! We aren’t all specialists in each others’ fields, so it’s fair and understandable that sometimes people will just want you to “do your thing” on a project, especially when you’re working in a field like UX, which is currently a bit of a buzzword. Make sure you always have a clear understanding of what’s expected of you, and be clear about what you can offer - this avoids confusion, wasted time, and potential disappointment down the road.
And then, a piece of advice that was given to me when I just started out: everything you create is a piece of communication. Don’t show people work that’s sloppy or full of mistakes. Align things, correct things, make sure there’s nothing missing. Even if it’s just a sketch - make sure it’s a good one that communicates exactly what you want to say. Anyone who sees that work is interpreting it for themselves, and any ambiguity you’ve left could mean a poor experience. Never present something you’re not happy with - it will only reflect back on you.
What do you love most about what you do?
The #1 thing I’ve always loved the most about what I do is that I’m able to make peoples’ lives better. I realise that sounds corny, and you may think, “a well-designed website isn’t going to change the world”. But consider how many websites, apps, and pieces of software you use throughout each day. And think about how frustrating it is when one of those doesn’t work or doesn’t behave in the way that you expect it to. My job is to make your day run smoother, to reduce your stress, to understand the emotional state you’re in and create a product or service that provides you with what you need at that time. If I’ve done my job well, half the time you won’t even notice. And that means you can spend your energy and thoughts on the things you enjoy, instead of trying to resist punching your monitor! Bugs aside, if all of the tools we used were truly designed with the users in mind, the world would be a better place.
As well as this, I love the variety of work. I’ve designed shopping websites, entertainment apps, internal employee systems, massive content websites, and government processes. I’ve designed for energy providers, for telecoms, for fashion retailers, car manufacturers and even wizarding communities. It’s exciting to get your head around a new topic, and I find it totally fascinating learning about the inner workings of all these different industries.
Finally, as per my “digital nomad” status, I love being able to travel. As a freelancer, I have the benefit of working in short stints - usually three or six months at a time. This means I can do what I like in between those chunks of work. But with the added bonus of being able to work remotely, I’ve seen a whole lot of the world that I may not have had the time or resources to visit.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned over the course of your career?
Make it your mission to know everything about everything. Be the person in the room who can answer every question. If you can’t do that, keep asking questions until you are. I don’t mean “learn how to code, do UI design and become a unicorn” - but I have found that it is easiest, fastest, and best to design knowing everything you can about the thing you’re designing. This, of course, means doing user research: learn about your users, who they are, what they want, what they’re trying to do. But also learn about the backend systems that you’re retrieving information from. Learn about the current processes and anyone who’s involved who might be impacted. Get a full and rounded picture of the current situation before you try to change it, and everything will fall into place much easier. And while you don’t need to learn how to code or create beautiful visual designs, understanding the basics will mean you don’t create something totally unachievable. This doesn’t apply to just UX Design, either. In any role, a basic understanding of what everyone else is trying to do - and why - will make your life, and your team’s and clients’ lives much easier.
An important part of this is to work closely with your team. Great communication doesn’t happen just because you’re sitting next to each other. Take the time to understand what people are working on and how you can help each other. Ask for help. Make sure you're available to help - or even just to bounce ideas around to reach a better solution. You don’t need to co-locate to do this; my current team and I talk whenever we need to, from the other sides of the world!
What do you think is going to be the biggest challenge in our industry over the next twelve months?
Speaking particularly about working in freelance UX Design (though I’m sure this applies to other specialisms too), with the practice becoming better known and more widely understood, the market is becoming more saturated. Companies who now embrace UX as a part of their ongoing development (rightly so) are moving UX teams in-house, rather than splashing out on agencies. As such, we need to consider: why is it worth a company paying more for you than a Junior or Mid-level UX Designer that they’ve brought in-house? I think the answer to this question is that to remain a freelancer and a Senior or Lead, you need to offer something more. Service Design is of particular interest to me and UX is continually expanding, with the lines blurring between the two. And of course, the quality of work and expertise attached needs to be worth it. This is up to you as the freelancer.
A big challenge that I want to push back on is the insistence on co-location. As you’ve read throughout this article, I’ve worked successfully with a team for over a year now, in totally different countries and timezones. Of course, this presents its difficulties, but with good planning and communication, they’ve never really held us up. However, with the popularity of Agile methodology, many organisations insist on the team working the same hours, in the same place. I argue that this isn’t necessary and is overly prescriptive. As I mention above, sitting next to each other doesn’t mean good communication - plus, some people (like me) work better at 10pm!
A little bit about Claire
I moved from being a Training Consultant into UX Design in 2011, and in my seven years in the industry I've worked for private medical insurers, government departments, digital entertainment providers, car manufacturers, fashion companies, home improvement stores, charities, tiny start-ups, and even the Harry Potter website (I'm a Slytherin with a panther patronus FYI).
As well as enjoying amazing sights around the world, I’m a Trustee of The Questors Theatre in Ealing, an actor, a karaoke enthusiast, and a lover of cats and video games (honestly, if I could've brought my cat and my PlayStation travelling with me, I would have).
While I can’t commit to taking on an apprentice, I’m keen to help where I can - so if you’re starting out and want some advice, I’ll try to help.
Want to take part in our FFS series? Say hello at firstname.lastname@example.org.