Hello Elle! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Hi, I’m Elle. I’m 41 years old and a Senior UX Designer and I love LOVE being a UX designer. In addition to design, I love space and anything to do with astrophysics. I worked in the GIS industry with satellites for 7 years and that’s when my love space, maps and satellites really grew. I think we don’t really take in all that the Universe has to offer us in terms of delight and wonder. It’s truly expansive. One could be busy for an entire lifetime pondering and learning about space.
My other loves are dance and music. I’m quite the audiophile and I’ve played the violin for 30 years now and I play with the National Institutes of Health Community Orchestra throughout the year. When I’m not practicing my music or stargazing, I’m probably tweeting, or reading books on space, journaling or in a museum. I’m also an avid traveler, and I cannot begin to talk about my travel list. It keeps growing. I love food. So much of it. All of the time.
When I’m not eating at some swank spot in the city, you can find me at my favorite DC location on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on a crisp Spring night during cherry blossom season—clear skies, twinkling stars, a quiet city. It is magic.
How did you find your way into design?
I found my way into design through misery and dissatisfaction with my career and life. There’s nothing like dissatisfaction to force you into an emotional corner to make changes in your life. I needed it truly because I was suffocating and was losing myself in the process. I began by seeing a therapist who helped me rediscover the things that I love. We focused a lot on what makes me happy in my day to day. What ways using my skills, natural talent and abilities could be used in a career. I knew I wanted it to be flexible and creative. I knew that it would be in tech. But I didn’t know what, exactly. At first I thought I wanted to be a developer, but it was difficult looking at lines of code all day. I wanted to do something more visual. I thought of graphic design but I’m really no artist. I struggle with typography LOL. Yet, I understood my strengths as well. Someone said to me that my strengths would make me a good User Experience Designer. So I began to seek out UX courses online and read everything I could get my hands on.
It was really love at first sight. This career, what I do, has been the first time in my life that I could say I love my job and I love LOVE what I do. And I really do. Nothing I’ve ever done has been such a great fit for me. I feel so incredibly blessed by the Universe for this encounter. I’m in a really sweet spot in my life and career and I love it. And now that I’ve done this, I know I can keep making that happen because I understand a lot more, the process of finding passion, drive and love in what I do.
What is the power and/or value of a good mentorship experience?
The power and value of a good mentorship experience is cross-knowledge exchange and growth of the parties involved. I say “parties” because mentorship can happen in groups. It does not have to be two people. I want people to break away from the traditional ways we’ve done mentoring, and think of it as exchanges of knowledge and experience with other people in ways that teach us and help us grow. Well, that could look so many different ways. Those involved are able to learn a great deal from each other. The time spent together becomes enriching and feels more like a win for everyone. Let’s face it: taking time out of our schedules for people who are not our family and friends is a serious devotion of time, which is invaluable. But I think one is more inclined to exchange ideas and experiences versus taking someone under your wing and grooming them—which is not wrong at all. There’s no right or wrong here. But I do find this to be a good experience where both people have experiences and knowledge to share.
You have recently started mentoring other emerging designers who have switched into design from another career. Can you tell us more about how you got started?
I see it as paying it forward. I’ve had great mentors and people who have come alongside me when I was frustrated and down in the dumps. I think mentorship needs to break from the traditional models and reimagined as non-hierarchical flowing exchanges between people who are knowledge-bearers of things we want to do and know. Traditional models exclude a lot of marginalized people, who are already fighting to stay afloat in a race where others have a head start. And I’d like to specifically point out ageism is to be included in this as well. Lately, I’ve mentored several women who are 40 and over. It has helped me better understand their upbringing, gender roles at the time, and the even more limiting views of society upon women at the time they were coming of age. And so my goal is to help them reimagine their skills and professional experience for a technology-focused global job market. It’s very challenging but I’ve seen them overcome a great deal and are moving into some great careers.
What have you learned about mentoring, leadership and yourself through this experience?
Seek out mentorship from various types of people. Not just people in the field you want to pursue. Managing a career goes beyond the actual job you want to do. There is an emotional, financial, physical, future-planning aspect to any career. You can get so much knowledge from people who have some knowledge in these areas. Disregard age, sex, race, religion and all other things that keep us from learning from each other. Use those things AS a learning tool. My design mentor was 23 when we met. He helped me to unlearn a lot of the dated ideas I had about job seeking and career planning. I really had to adopt a modern mindset in many ways. In return, though, I have also been able to share with him timeless aspects of managing life that comes from having more lived experience. Don’t just think about what you’re there to get from a mentor, but think about what’s the exchange that can happen between the two of you…or the many of you.
Many people in leadership are unqualified but are there because they were not afraid to ask for what they wanted. And also likely have privilege that got them there. I’ve learned to not fear asking for what I want and even when I know I’m qualified, and even when I know I’m not qualified but have the aptitude and skill to become qualified. I like testing the waters but the game is still the game. Sometimes you win though. So try it. As a leader, myself, I learn to trust that the members of my team are very well qualified to do the job. And so I trust them on that. Therefore, my approach isn’t one of distrust and micromanagement, but one of creative freedom, understanding of what limitations are there, and encouragement for growth and opportunity in an environment where we have similar temperaments and personality traits—like being peaceable, hard-working, a good listener, leading with kindness, approachable, responsibility for self, accepts challenges well, but also asks for help. I like working with people who like harmony and who can address business problems without personal attacks and simply view things from a business perspective. So much gets accomplished that way.
What are some of the resources (and or insights/perspectives) that are uniquely needed by designers who are transitioning into design from another field?
The world has changed a lot since I entered the job market in 1998. Tech has changed. How you pursue work has changed. How you view a career has changed. I think you need several mentors with various levels of involvement. Some you see regularly, some you see as needed. Involvement in affinity groups are another great resource for designers. Meeting other people who were beginners at some point is encouraging. You learn that we all have different journeys to design. That’s important and it helps you to embrace your own journey versus forcing it to look like another’s journey. Also, designers are often just really nice people. And sometimes you just need to be in the company of nice people.
In terms of your transition, do not discard the work you’ve done in another field. Before I came to design, I managed satellite programs for the Department of Defense. My product knowledge and project management knowledge has helped me tremendously as a designer as I’ve lead projects or have worked on projects where the project team was quite new to product cycle development. I was able to use my past knowledge to help us get started, figure out a good cadence, and understand the process of proper product development and design sprints.
What is the best piece of advice you have received? What about the best piece of advice that you have given?
The best piece of advice that I have ever received is to work on and build up my self-love, for it is the wellspring of life and armour that allows me to show up for myself in the world, with a sense of owning my right to be as I am–a very good gift. I give that same advice as it’s truly invaluable. For me, it is the source and strength of all that I am able to accomplish. Essentially, it is love. And love does conquer a great deal.
You have been vocal about the need for safe and inclusive spaces in tech. Can you tell us more about this?
This is a difficult subject to talk about because being black, and then a black woman is an extremely challenging place to be in America. And that’s putting it lightly, with lovely words. In reality, I’ve had horrifying experiences that cost me a lot—finances, mental health, self-worth and love.
What’s more horrifying than that, is many black women have these experiences and are having them now, as we speak, and not only is it heartbreaking, but it is so disruptive to the harmonious and loving flow of life that we all desire and want for ourselves. To have external opposition to your humanity—opposition that often is completely unaware of it’s devices—is unearthing. To be required to perform above and beyond the status quo while having to leap impossible hurdles in your daily life (workplace, marketplace, neighborhood, country) is like a true mind*bleep*.
And the effects of this show up in our mental health and physical health as black women endure high levels of stress and mental anguish, while performing at maximum output in order to achieve low-level positions where companies cheat us out of $400M in equitable salaries (see. Oracle).
The reality is, we do not need safe and inclusive spaces in tech. What we need is for religious majority people, white people, able-bodied people, straight people, to own the necessary unlearning of bigotry, marginalization and exclusion of other humans, and to relearn how to be inclusive of humanity.
We all share humanity. That is the common experience—to be human. But what we do not need to do and need to stop doing is asking those we marginalize and oppress to teach us how not to dehumanize them. I think we can start there.
How has your identity influenced your vantage point as a UX designer and as a leader in the tech and design space?
I think when you are part of one or more marginalized groups, you develop a greater sense of empathy for others. Being able to put yourself in the shoes of others who are having hardship or have a need based on some aspect of their humanity that’s not “mainstream” or “status quo” comes from personal experience of the same.
When you know on a very deep level what it feels like to be marginalized or left out, ignored or unheard, you don’t want to see others feel that way because you know how debasing and dehumanizing it feels.
As a designer, my job is to advocate for people who will use the products that I am designing. I must advocate their needs and do so clearly with stakeholders who do not always have the needs of their users in mind. And so I am able to tap in from many experiences I have on a daily basis being a black, lesbian in a very white, straight world.
Why is equity and inclusion important when we talk about representation among emerging designers?
We live in a global technological society and world where technology is the way many of us must conduct the most important aspects of our lives. Whether that is managing our homes, education, finances and day-to-day responsibilities. Because all people have to manage their lives, and because technology is the main way we are managing our lives, then we need to understand that technology and digital products are reflective of society. We all have similar needs in terms of our primary needs, secondary, tertiary even. But there are specific needs of specific people-groups that must be understood and address, and resolved in order to have equitable and fair access to managing life.
If we do not consider, for example, that while designing a grocery delivery app that we are excluding people who live in food deserts, or people without access to 24-hour internet, then we don’t design for solutions that address these types of issues.
When you have equal and equitable representation, then you have clarity of understanding of the types of challenges people face and how they can be addressed. To not do this is to say “I know who I am excluding, and I do not care.” Representation allows us to address nuanced human experiences, culture and socio-economic differences that we are not always aware of but should be. It’s just the right thing to do for all of the obvious reason—at least to those who understand what it is like to be marginalized.
Lastly, looking back: how have you grown in your journey as an emerging designer? And looking forward: what’s down the line for you?
I think I’ve grown the most in my ability to know what battles to fight. Design is not perfect and never will be. And while design is often talked about in a perfect world, we do not live in one. And so you learn how to prioritize what’s most important when you are advocating for those who will use your products. You learn the difference between what’s necessary and what looks good, and you stop arguing as much for what looks good and save your energy for what really matters, and that is solid, clear and dependable design. These days I have been thinking a lot about visual design and AI/VR experiences—designing for the future. I think often about what that may look like; who are the users; what are things we have learned to address well that we’re doing with our eyes closed and where do we still need improvement. Who are we excluding now, and how do we include them? I, personally, want to do this in a space that is independent of an office, but with an amazing team, with an organization that understands that representation is not about meeting quotas or staying out of the news, but where differences in experiences and perspectives are seen as value-added and necessary elements to produce good products that greatly enhance people’s lives.