The Path to UX

Last Fall I was elected a Principal and partner at ZS.  It was such an honor to be recognized by the firm in that way.  During their first year, each newly elected Principal is featured in our internal newsletter.  My profile was published last week; I’m sharing a slightly redacted version here.  

The Intersection of Four Unlikely Interests Led this Evanston Principal to UX at the Right Moment

It was when she was earning her bachelor’s degree in religion and biblical literature that Principal Natalie Hanson (Evanston) first discovered she was deeply fascinated by people and the way they relate to one another. Her next move, driven by the affinity she developed for computers growing up in a tech-savvy home, took her in an entirely different direction.

In the 1990s, Natalie began studying whole systems design, a combination of systems and design theories. After earning her master’s degree, she landed a number of jobs in reporting, analytics and computing throughout the early years of her career. She couldn’t help, however, but feel like a piece of the puzzle was missing. The people piece.

“Everything I was taught about systems theory failed to take human agency into account,” Natalie said. “Even in a supposedly perfect system, people will find workarounds and ways of doing things differently.”

This realization led Natalie to anthropology—a broad, expansive way of thinking about human norms, values and behaviors that complemented her background in systems and design.

“I wanted to find a career that would help me bridge all the things I was passionate about: business strategy, technology, social sciences and design,” said Natalie who, at the time she graduated with another masters and a PhD in anthropology, was running a number of sales operations programs, including the annual Winners’ Circle event,  at SAP. And that’s when she made the case to begin focusing on user experience—a relatively new domain, at the time.

“I was managing the intranet for sales reps at SAP, and I felt I didn’t understand them well enough to make it relevant,” Natalie said. “My leadership team supported me in doing my first ethnographic research study. I shadowed sales people to understand what they did.”

Over time, the demand for UX grew so much at SAP that Natalie and her growing team’s capacity was allocated by c-level executives on high priority operations projects. She was eager, however, to work for a company that truly valued and was committed to UX. Serendipitously, that was also the same time that ZS came calling.

In 2011, Natalie accepted a role as an Associate Principal within our Software Development (SD) group, focusing primarily on User Experience. As the demand for UX grew on the consulting side, Natalie and her group—now nearing 50 people around the world—moved into Business Technology.  They now touch hundreds of projects each year. Natalie was elected Principal in September.

What’s the best idea you ever had?

When I was at SAP and I was looking for my next role, I created two versions of my resume.  One was for a vice president of operations job, which would have been the natural next step for me given my ten-year history at SAP.  Another was for a UX leadership role. When I compared them side-by-side, it became quite clear to me that I didn’t want that VP title if it meant I couldn’t do UX, which is where my heart was.

What’s the biggest mistake you ever made and what did you learn from it?

This is more of a misconception than a mistake, but when I first came to ZS I was constantly worried about staying relevant—a mentality that stemmed from spending a decade in an environment where restructuring and layoffs were the norm. In my first few months, I pitched in on other projects such as building out our technical support team and analyzing our software licensing processes. I got great experience and learned a lot about the company, but I got sidetracked from what I came to ZS to do: UX. When I refocused my energy, I reached a critical inflection point. I began tracking the demand for UX from consulting colleagues, and found we had received many requests for support for clients. With help from another senior principal, I made the case to build out UX beyond SD.

Give your 25-year-old self one piece of advice.

In my 20s, I was not as ambitious as I am today. When I got out of college, I found a job that would work around my rowing schedule so I could row crew at the national level. Now that I’m nearing 50, I realize it took me longer to get where I am today, but I also know I wouldn’t change anything. The reason I was able to put together a career that I love is because I had the experience of doing so many other things first.

What’s your life like outside ZS?

My interest in art and culture has influenced my love of travel, and I’ve had the opportunity to visit China, Bali, Japan and, of course, ZS offices India, as well as several countries in Europe. My wife Stephanie and I have two sons (11 and 9), and we still love to take the occasional getaway. Being out at ZS is something that’s important to me – the ZS community has been welcoming to me and my family since I joined.  I’m happy to be the sponsor of our Pride@ZS resource group for LGBTQ ZSers and allies.


With my family at Chicago’s Proud to Run 2018


With my family at the 2018 partners’ meeting in southern California

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