Interview with Brave UX

This blog post is the transcription of a podcast I did with Brendan Jarvis in early February. He’s done a number of interview with senior folks in the field, and they are definitely worth a listen! You can find Brave UX on all the major podcasting platforms, and also on YouTube. I’ve done many of these interviews over the years, but I particularly enjoyed this one because I feel like Brendan interviewed me as a whole person. It makes good sense – so many of my experiences outside of work shape who I am as a leader and as a UX professional.

If you prefer, you can listen to the interview on Spotify, or another podcast platform of your choosing; search “Brave UX Hanson” and it should come up. Here is what we discussed. Enjoy! The bold numbers link to the YouTube video if you prefer to watch.

00:00 Start
00:32 Natalie’s introduction
02:21 How did growing up in a bi-cultural home shape how you see culture?
06:10 How have you reconciled your health challenges with your career ambitions?
09:53 Was it easy for you to choose your health and family over work?
11:13 How did ZS respond to your need to dial back on work for health reasons?
15:15 Why is it important for design leaders to be patient and persistent?
23:08 What ingredients need to be in place to enable design to mature?
26:00 Does design need a greater degree of standardisation of practice?
30:24 How important is it for designers to understand business?
34:21 Are designers business people?
35:35 How did Christian Madsbjerg, founder of ReD Associates, help you?
38:15 How do you tell someone they’re not ready for what they’ve asked for?
41:35 When and how do you make the case for user research?
46:36 Should other people in our organisations also care about users?
50:08 Do designers lack empathy for their colleagues?
55:03 Who was Gitti Jordan and what is The Ladder of Inference?
01:00:51 What makes ZS a great place for LGBTQ+ people to work at?
01:05:24 What was it like coming out in 1986 and how have things changed?
01:14:36 How can designers improve their chances of having meaningful impact?
01:16:30 Closing out the show – Thanks, Natalie!

0:00:00.0 Brendan Jarvis: Hello and welcome to another episode of Brave UX. I’m Brendan Jarvis, managing founder of The Space InBetween, the home of New Zealand’s only specialist evaluative UX research practice and world-class UX lab, enabling brave teams across the globe to derisk product design and equally breath leaders to shape and scale design culture. Here on Brave UX though, it’s my job to help you to put the pieces of the product puzzle together. I do that by unpacking the stories, learnings, and expert advice of word class UX design and product management professionals. My guest today is Dr. Natalie Hanson. Natalie is a principal at ZS, a 12,000-strong global professional services firm with more than 35 years of experience delivering products that create customer and company value. There, Natalie leads a globally-distributed human-centered design, research and engineering team of over 250 people, all working to make design a strategic differentiator for clients. Out and proud since 1986, Natalie is also the executive sponsor of ZS’s global LGBTQ community. Before ZS, Natalie was the Senior Director of Strategic Programs and UX Consulting at SAP where she oversaw a portfolio of programs and improvement efforts within the knowledge management function.

0:01:22.3 BJ: She was also responsible for the delivery of UX early and often in two strategic programs. Founding Anthro Design in 2002, a community of people working in UX and using ethnographic methods, Natalie has worked tirelessly for the past 20 years to bring people from across design and anthropology together. Her efforts have helped to spawn the EPIC conference, which aims to advance the value of ethnography in industry, as well as a number of books. Natalie holds a PhD and a Master of Arts in Anthropology from Temple University, as well as a Master of Arts in Whole System Design from Antioch University in Seattle, and now she’s holding the line to join me for a conversation on Brave UX today. Natalie, welcome to the show.

0:02:09.1 Natalie Hanson: Brendan, it’s so great to be here. Thanks.

0:02:11.3 BJ: It’s great to have you here too, Natalie. And thank you for letting me do this a second time, ’cause of that frog in my throat. We’ve cut that from the edit, people, but needless to say, it didn’t go to plan first time around. So Natalie, when I was preparing for today I discovered something about you and your background, and that’s that your father’s American but your mother is from France. In particular, she’s from the region in France called Provence. And why I thought this was interesting is ’cause I also discovered that your mother is an excellent chef; in fact, there’s a bit of a story there which hopefully we’ll get to soon. But I did wonder, I was curious, how did growing up in a bi-cultural household help to shape the way you think about people and culture?

0:02:52.7 NH: Yeah, so my mom would be horrified to hear you call her a chef. I think she thinks of herself as a cook.

0:03:00.7 BJ: Okay, oh…

0:03:00.8 NH: Not really as a chef, though she did…

0:03:01.3 BJ: My apologies, Natalie’s mom.

0:03:01.6 NH: No, no… Monique. No, she studied at Le Cordon Bleu, and so of course I think of her as a chef also, but for her, it was so important to cook food that was accessible, you know? And so I think distinguishing between a cook where you cook at home and a chef where you’re cooking fancy things in a restaurant, I think she always thought of herself as a cook. But yeah, I think a lot of anthropologists have that story of somehow having those cultural differences be central to their upbringing or their early experiences. For me, that was for sure true. To spend my early childhood in New England and in Connecticut, and then to go spend summers in the south of France, and it’s just a world away from my every day. And I really loved it. There’s a certain part of me that still feels part of my home is there. Coming into southern France with all the stucco houses and the red tiled roofs and everything. But when I think, especially for me, about what is it from my childhood that I remember, I just realized that something like food, which is so integral to just how we move through the world, we need to feed ourselves, it has it’s own…

0:04:18.4 NH: It carries the culture. It carries our culture. And so, for me, learning about… A lot of what I learned about France was through my mom’s cooking; what kinds of foods were typical there, how are they prepared, what flavor profiles are typical for that region. And a funny story about that too, my mom, she really only likes her own food. She eats other people’s food, but when you go to a pot luck and my mom brings her food, she always likes her food the best. And it’s kind of… She has this weird, almost an ethnocentric way of thinking about food where other flavors just… She doesn’t enjoy them. And it’s just so deeply embedded in who she is and how she moves through her daily life, the cooking.

0:05:04.3 BJ: Do you share that same ethnocentric view in terms of your taste for food?

0:05:09.7 NH: No, I love everything. And I’ve lived all over the country, so I love anything with curry in it, especially I like spicy things. And not that I don’t love the food that I grew up with, ’cause of course I love that too, but now with all the chronic health issues I’ve had over the past few years, I’ve really had to change my diet. And it’s pretty hard, if you have to avoid night shades or peppery, the pepper family basically, it’s pretty hard to make a good curry. [chuckle] So I still do my best to try to find ways to get those other flavors in my diet but it’s harder now than it was before.

0:05:46.6 BJ: Yeah, that’s something actually that has been typical for myself as well, because we’ve had to cut a lot of things out of my son’s diet, Judah, his condition that he has, including a lot of salts, which, as you can… As you probably know, salt adds a lot of flavor to food, and of course, we’re trying to share that journey a little bit with him as well, which means sometimes we are going without some of the tasty food that we would normally have. Now you mentioned that you’ve been battling chronic health recently, and this has come at a time where you’re at the… I don’t wanna… I will not suggest that you haven’t got further achievements to achieve, ’cause undoubtedly you do, but you’ve reached quite a senior leadership position. I mentioned the team that you have been leading, that 250-plus strong team. How have you reconciled this challenge that you’ve had, this battle that’s been a surprise, I imagine, for you in terms of your health, with your professional career, with being a UX and design leader?

0:06:47.9 NH: It’s really hard. I don’t think… It sounds funny when you look at my vitae and my website and everything, but I never thought of myself as being particularly ambitious. I told that to my mom the other day, and she actually laughed in my face. She said how…

0:07:03.9 BJ: She knows you better than you know yourself, yeah.

0:07:05.5 NH: She knows… That’s right. But for me it was never about, oh, making a certain amount of money or having a fancy car. I’m driving a 12-year-old piece of junk, it’s not what I care about. But the reason that I have been so driven is I realized the more people I lead, the more change I can make. And so for me, when I thought about how to grow what I was doing beyond UX in product and UX in consulting, I just realized that as my team grew I could influence more of our portfolio, of our experience with clients. I could just have better control of the outcomes of the things that we did research and design for. And so it was never about reaching a certain number of people, or a certain dollar amount, or something like that, but just wanting to make more change, more human-centered change. And that drove me really far. But the health stuff started actually right at the time I joined ZS. And I didn’t know it at the time. I had relocated halfway across the country and I was diagnosed with my first autoimmune disease 11 years ago, something like that.

0:08:11.5 NH: And it’s a full-time job for people. You know, ’cause your son’s dealing with stuff too. It is literally a full-time job; the medical research, the dietary adjustments, the chasing down doctors and diagnoses and all that kind of stuff. This is… Yeah. And also it’s very isolating. I don’t know if you experienced that, but for me, the fact that I can’t… Now, of course, we’re in COVID. This, I’ve gotta say pre-COVID times. But I can’t really… It’s very hard to go out to eat in a restaurant, because my ability to control my food and my situation is so constrained. So I never really felt like there was a choice to be made. I felt like I could do both. I managed to get the health stuff into a certain level of stability. But then as with any chronic thing, it comes and goes in waves, and I think the past 18 months have been very, very difficult. It has forced me to, for the first time, really, truly, for the first time in my life say, “I actually can’t do all of this anymore. I can’t reasonably do all these things.”

0:09:11.0 NH: I have a son starting in high school. He’s in high school now. I have a 14 and a 12-year-old. And I can’t be a manager of a team that size, a leader of a team that size, manage all of my health issues and be a parent. And it’s the first time that I’ve ever realized I have to choose. And the choices for me were to… As much as I love everything that I did at work, that… You were absolutely right, that I’m privileged that I’m at a point in my career that I could say, “I’m gonna do less at work, because I don’t wanna do less at home, and I can’t do less from a health, so that’s the only thing left to give.” And so that’s what’s had to give. And I’ve had to make some changes in terms of my focus and my priorities that still…

0:09:53.3 BJ: Were those changes obvious to you? Was it an easy decision? Once you had that realization, was it a very easy decision for you to make, or was it still something that you deliberated on and found difficult to come to terms with?

0:10:07.6 NH: Well, I think the first thing is is the whole process was very difficult. I was very lucky that I had a coach who pushed me really hard. The way that we operate at the partner level is we coach each other. So I have a partner who’s been a partner longer than I have that I just really like and trust and respect, and he was the one that first told me he thought I needed to work less. And I was like, “No, no, no, I don’t wanna do that.”

0:10:35.9 BJ: How’d that go down? [chuckle]

0:10:37.4 NH: Well, it was… Yeah, ’cause you think we… Here we bill by the hour, right? So nobody wants to work less, right? And he just challenged me to say, “Why won’t you do that?” You know? And he said, “I want you to go and think about that.” And it’s like, in a way it can be… If you’ve got a good coach, it can be like therapy. And he said, “I want you to go think about that and come back in a month and tell me what conclusion you came to.” And it took me a month, it really did. And when I came back, I said, “I realized I don’t wanna be sick.” And so acknowledging that I need time off, or that I need to work less, means acknowledging that I’m sick and I don’t wanna do that.

0:11:13.1 BJ: And how has the partnership… Obviously, you mentioned the pressure of you bill by the hour. This is how consultancies make their money, right? And there is that pressure within a consultancy to be seen to be pulling your weight. How did ZS and the culture there, how did the company respond to you needing something different at this point?

0:11:34.6 NH: It was extraordinary. I realized that it was my own… I was in my own way, that the company was more than happy to support me, that I was the one that was truly afraid of working less and of acknowledging how… ‘Cause I kind of felt like also if I slow down, I might just come to a complete stop, you know?

0:11:54.2 BJ: Yeah. Yeah, lose the momentum, right?

0:11:56.0 NH: Yeah, exactly. And so, no, the company has been extraordinary. In fact, I did an interview, I wanna say it was last year, it might have been the year before, with this organization called Fairy God Boss. It’s a company that focuses on women, placing women into workplaces that support us. And that was something that I talked about a lot, I just feel really blessed that the company said, “We’d rather have part of you, whatever part you can spare, than not have you at all. And do what you need to do, and we’ll support you.” And they have every step of the way. It’s been kind of unbelievable. It’s one of those things where, now, I put my time in, right? I just had my 10-year anniversary, so I put my time in and I’ve proven myself. I’m not green, I’m not… So maybe it would’ve been different.

0:12:38.9 BJ: You can cut it. Yeah.

0:12:40.4 NH: Yeah, I’ve shown them I’m not a slacker, and that I’m not asking for special treatment because I don’t wanna work. I’m asking for special treatment ’cause that’s what I need. And it’s been amazing. And I’ve had other people reach out to me too that have been through similar things that say, “You know, I went through periods where I couldn’t work, or I had to work part-time, and the company supported me. And when I was ready to be back full-time, they welcomed that too.” I had actually reached out to the managing director. We’re doing our planning cycle right now, I reached out to the managing director, I was like “I have this idea for this new thing that I wanna do.” He said, “You know, I think you should just focus on taking care of yourself this year. Let’s see where you are down the road.” So managing director said to me, “You’re not allowed to take on anything else.” So there’s a level of… I don’t know, it’s amazing honestly. I feel really blessed.

0:13:28.2 BJ: Really sounds like…

0:13:30.0 NH: It’s not a true… It’s a company that… I was there when they were less than 2000 people, and so obviously the partner level was a lot smaller and we all know each other well, so I don’t know if it would be the same in a big corporation that was focused on… I mean, it’s not that we don’t care about the bottom line or whatever, but we don’t have to report to analysts. We have nothing to prove, ’cause we’re privately held, and I think that is part of what contributes to that kind of culture and that kind of support. But it really is a commitment to taking care of our people that I think… Really lucky that I’m on the receiving end of that right now.

0:14:01.4 BJ: Yeah. And look, I would say you’re fortunate, but I have no doubt that there’s been some deliberate action that you’ve taken to arrive at a company like this that seems to be looking out for you and for one another. And I hope that people listening, a lot of what we do in our lives is tied to our profession, and we can tie a lot of our self-worth to our work ethic. And sometimes that can work against us, so I think it’s a really refreshing message to hear from you, Natalie, that sometimes we need to take a break, press pause and reassess and re-evaluate what’s actually most important. And that can change over time, you know as well.

0:14:41.9 NH: For sure. Before kids, I was making quite different choices than I make now. And I think sometimes it’s hard to remember to push in the clutch and remember, “I’m in a different stage in my life with a different set of circumstances, a different set of priorities,” and to have the wherewithall to make sure that you’re in an environment that supports those priorities, it’s not always obvious either, right?

0:15:03.4 BJ: Yeah, yeah. Look, there are enough challenges in the job of a UX or a design leader or someone who’s senior in product, let alone what we all have going on in our personal lives. So yeah, it’s really, really important to look after yourselves. So speaking of the challenges that one has in UX and design, one of these challenges, particularly when it comes to enterprise, is that UX can still be a little bit new and seem a little bit foreign to people. And you’re someone who’s advocated for people who are designers, design leaders, and enterprise, if they are lower on that maturity scale, to slow things down and build the trust over time rather than trying to go straight for the perfect straight away. How has that approach worked for you personally? Has this has come from an earlier experience where perhaps you try to rush things? So is this a place that you’ve been burned personally and you’ve had to reassess?

0:15:58.0 NH: Yeah. I’m inherently super impatient and so that’s been a hard thing about being in any kind of UX role, whether it’s in product or consulting. I just feel like… In fact, I had a moment when I was at my sickest last year where I just thought, “I don’t know if I can be in this field anymore. I’m just so tired of advocating for humanity in business. It’s so obvious. Why am I still saying the same things now as I was saying 20 years ago? It’s so frustrating.” And so it can be hard, yeah, and especially for someone who is from… I think we all are a little idealistic if we’re in UX in the first place, you know, a little bit of the Save The World desire to save the world, and so it’s kinda hard to reconcile that with the realities of getting a good product to market. But I have a very specific example. I’ve known this for many years, and I’ve known as we mellow, as we get more mature, that our patience and our stamina and our perspective changes. But I have a very specific example that I come to over and over again, especially for people earlier in their career, just maybe three to five years in their career, that maybe don’t see change happening fast enough or switching companies to try to get to the most exciting…

0:17:15.3 BJ: Nirvana, yeah.

0:17:16.7 NH: Yeah, exactly. That doesn’t exist. It exists only in somebody’s Medium post, ’cause that’s not reality. But I’ll give you a really specific example. So when I joined ZS 10 years ago now, I was hired by the CTO to build out UX for product. I was not in consulting at the time, I was really there to be part of a product team and the team was comprised at that period of only engineers. The guy that was brought in was brought in to make it a fully-fledged software business. We didn’t have product management, we didn’t have UX, we didn’t have product marketing, we didn’t have QA, we didn’t have technical support. All of that needed to be built and we built it all together.

0:17:55.1 NH: It was really fun to get to be in at the ground level, really building all these teams and how they work together. And one of the things that the CTO asked me, he’s like, “Well, can you at least just start by making all these products look the same?” He said, “I know that’s not usability, but can we at least just make everything look better in the meantime?” And I went and looked into it, and at the time we had 44 products. We’ve simplified the product suite significantly since then, but we had 44 stand-alone best-of-breed solutions. And they were all on slightly different code basis. And in the era before there was a real separation of front-end and back-end code and so a lot of the front-end was called from the service side. So I had to go back to him and I said, “Until we separate the front-end and the back-end code, I actually can’t change how the software looks. So that was 10 years ago, and when we kinda looked into what was involved, everybody was like, “Oh God, no, we can’t take that on, it’s to big.”

0:18:53.2 BJ: Technical debt.

0:18:55.2 NH: Too much technical debt. But as we started to build new products, at the time the front-end developers reported to me in addition to research and design, and I just said, look, you guys when you build this, the first few products we shipped, I was like, just do it the right way, ’cause by the way, that leads to all kinds of other problems, not just terrible ability to… The concept of the design systems didn’t exist back then, but… Yeah. So we built those first couple of products with a really nice front-end, and the other challenge is this, you can’t… All the software, the instruments, you know, if you wanna track the behavior of users through your solutions and stuff like that, you have to have a clean kind of modern front-end in order to do that. So in addition to not really being able to give the software the face lift that it needed, we actually couldn’t instrument it either to track user behavior, it was just so hard to do that, and so it sort of was a set of compounding problems. And so we tried…

0:19:52.6 NH: We tried making some shared components at least, and at least because the team was so small, all the designers and engineers reported to me, we could reach some shared agreements about what we were gonna do to the best of our ability to manage that situation. And then like three or four years later, the company decided to re-brand and all of a sudden this force from the outside that I could have never anticipated, and everyone was like, “Well, the software has to keep up. And so all of a sudden, there was all this energy and momentum and commitment to doing the work of separating the front-end and the back-end and allowing us to show the new brand and the software.

0:20:31.8 NH: And it was a turning point, it was something I could have never done, I couldn’t have made that happen on my own and yet… And it was something that kind of caught me sideways because I just also didn’t… I just couldn’t have anticipated that that was gonna be the thing that finally made it happen. But then we did everything in the… We built a design system, we were still using Axure at the time, this was pre-figma, and there weren’t a lot of other tools, but we built the design system out in Axure, we had a front-end team that built it out in code. It wasn’t integrated, it was like a separate code base in a separate design system.

0:21:07.7 NH: We’re on the second or third generation of the design system, now it’s fully integrated, but at the time it wasn’t, and then that allowed us the process is starting to look at solutions to instrument the front-end, so we could start to look at user behavior too, but that’s just happening now. So the design, we’re in the second generation of our design system, we started a couple of years ago, and now we’re instrumenting the software, and that is a 10-year journey. And a lot of the very senior design executives that I talk to, they really don’t stay in their jobs more than three or four years, you know, people tend to hop around a lot, and I’ve chosen to stay for a variety of reasons, but seeing that through takes a certain kind of fortitude and patience and perspective that maybe not everyone has the patience for.

0:21:52.1 BJ: There’s the stickability there in that story, of seeing things through, but there’s also the recognition you had of, well, it seemed that you had of, there’s things that I can control and there are things that I can’t control it, and I think that’s also a really important thing for people to think about, particularly if they are struggling with change within a big organization, is that there are gonna be things that are just well outside your ability to control.

0:22:17.2 NH: Yeah, and some of them you can mean… One of the things that I’ve talked about in the past is the importance of building those relationships and positions that are lateral to yours, having a great relationship with product management, with QA, with engineering, of course, and then there’s things that you could have never imagined. Like, did I really need to become friends with the branding group in my corporate marketing function? I couldn’t have imagined. Now, we ended up with a really nice working relationship, but that’s not one of the ones that I would have anticipated at the outset.

0:22:51.2 NH: But what’s interesting is they didn’t know how to bring the brand into software. So they knew a lot about what they wanted the brand to look like and feel like, and then getting it to the point where it was software, digital ready was a different thing entirely.

0:23:08.5 BJ: So this experience of sticking it out for 10 years, and it sounds like you’ve had a great time, obviously there have been frustrations.

0:23:15.9 NH: It’s been a great ride.

0:23:16.9 BJ: Yeah, it’s been a great run, but you’ve got things done and you’ve got things done that you wouldn’t have been able to if you’d only been around for three or four years. So just thinking about that though, what else was in place, do you believe, at the organization that if you reflect on the last 10 years, were the ingredients that enabled you to want to stick it out and enabled the company to make that change? Of course, that change of brand was one of the catalysts, but what can people who are wondering at the moment whether or not I should continue to commit some time of my life to this organization, what kind of things can they be looking at or thinking about in terms of those ingredients that might enable change to happen if they just stay a little bit longer?

0:24:03.3 NH: For me, the number one thing is the mutual respect, so even if the understanding isn’t there, that the respect is. So the way that we’re organized, we sit in sort of a shared service function, center of excellence, if you will, and the people that recognize us as experts and ask us for help and defer to us, I think are hugely important, and the places where we run into that’s not the case, where people think they’re capable of doing the design work and stuff. I think if I had… If I encountered a lot of that, I think I would lose patience, but I think the recognition, our placement in this shared service model as experts, I think… And in general, I think one of the things I really love about, yes, it’s been a good fit for me personally, is that it was founded by two professors from Northwestern who… So they’re both coming from an academic background and then moved into… Now they built this company, it was just the two of them at the beginning. And in fact, the first office that I was in was on the campus, Northwestern Campus, there were two Kellogg professors.

0:25:10.8 NH: And so the other thing I really appreciate is this sort of intellectual curiosity that I think characterizes so many employees and just willingness to learn and a humility that maybe they don’t know everything, and so that I think kinda makes a fertile soil. I think, again, it depends on where you are in your life, in your career. Two, I think your willingness to do that kind of education and awareness raising and so on, you know, people have different degrees of patience for that. I was brought in by the CTO, so I was already pretty well placed and I was interviewed by members of our shareholder council, so they knew what we were trying to build, what we were trying to do, and so I had that. The ground was paved for me, at least at the most basic level, before I arrived, and then it was up to me to do something with that.

0:26:00.7 BJ: You mentioned the shade service model and how people have deferred to you and the team as the experts when it comes to UX design, but I’ve also heard you talk about designers falling a little bit in love with themselves, and I’ll just quite… You know, you’ve said, “I do feel like we are so enamored with our prophecies of our ad effects of how we deliver, we’re a little bit precious about our own stuff.” And I wanted to ask you about that because as far as I can tell in UX, there’s no generally accepted principles of how it should be practiced, like there is in accounting or law or any of the other professions that have been long established. Are we guilty in this field of canonizing what… As in canon.

0:26:51.4 NH: On one hand I think we should have more of that, some of what Jared Spool is trying to do with the Center Center and places like that where we develop standards for UX education, I think some of that is needed, is missing. But part of the joy for me in UX right now is, what an amazing array of experiences we bring to the field and how that shapes our perceptions of humans and human behavior and how to build better software. So I have a guy in my team that’s a PhD in Human Factors, I have someone on my team with an MFA in Fine Arts, another one with a multimedia degree, another one with an HCI degree, within anthropology background. I think it’s that variety in those perspectives that we bring to UX that makes the field so vibrant in the first place. So on one hand, I would hate us to lose that because I believe, and I’ve talked about this before, that it’s a diversity of opinions that lead to the best possible outcomes, and diversity of experiences, life experiences, academic learnings, all those things influence how we look at the problems we are solving at work. And so if we expect everybody to go through some kind of cookie-cutter process to become a UX person, there’s the risk that to me what made the field so lovely in the first place maybe gets lost along the way.

0:28:13.5 BJ: So it sounds like you think we need to be careful about we laying a box to define us, we have to be careful about how we go about that and what… We gotta be careful what we ask for.

0:28:24.3 NH: Yes. And on the other hand, as the demand for UX continues to grow… When I was working with the Rosenfeld media team on the advancing research conference for 2021, one of the things, when we interviewed a bunch of very senior design leaders about what they’re worried about and what they were seeing, one of the big concerns they had was the de-scaling of UX labour, that we can train anyone to become a researcher, we can train anyone to become a designer, get them some degree, run them through a 12-week boot camp and they can be a designer. There’s some truth in that, it’s okay to have a team of maybe people that just do A/B testing, so they’re not doing deep formative ethnographic research, but they’ve learned some basics, they can run an A/B test and write up the results and the findings from that. So yeah, I think there’s… I’m not sure what the right answer is, the path forward is. Some standardization, I think is necessary because otherwise the quality of what we produce will deteriorate and not have the value it should, and on the other hand, there’s gotta be some ability to keep the field as vibrant and varied as it’s been up until now that’s made it such a great place to be. I’m not sure what the right… How to toe that line.

0:29:41.0 BJ: Yeah, I think it’s in motion. I understand Don Norman’s also working with a group to try and define a little bit more, the standards that may need to sit behind design education. I’m not sure his views are shared by everyone, but I know there are different people looking at this. I hear what you’re saying though about not wanting to define the field too tightly because it’s actually the diversity of backgrounds, and this is almost endemic, if you look at any design team. You’ve just described yours, you’ve got people from a variety of different backgrounds, which actually is really useful when it comes to shaping design, understanding problems and shaping solutions.

0:30:21.1 NH: Yeah, for sure. Yeah.

0:30:23.2 BJ: One of the other challenges that we face currently in design and that has probably been talked about almost to date, so possibly we don’t need to labour about this for too long, but this idea of designers, of which you are one, needing to have a seat at the proverbial table. This is clearly something that you’ve managed to achieve, you were a very senior SAP as well before you moved to ZS. How important is it for designers to understand the business that they’re in, the industry that they’re in, these sorts of things that people who have MBAs would think about or learn about as they go through their programs of study? How important is this for designers to tap into in order to have more influence in the organizations that they work for?

0:31:09.8 NH: I think it’s critical. I just finished… I’m in the process of doing skip level meetings with all of the most junior people in my organization right now, and that’s one of the things that I talk about with them, is that they wanna know, what courses should I take? And it’s always a question of, what other UX skills do I need to learn? Should I become an information architect? Should I become a content expert? Should I become really good at the iconography or whatever.

0:31:37.9 NH: At least for us in the consulting world, you’re a consultant first and a designer second, and the way that you advance, and you advance your career at CSS by being an excellent consultant and… Because your UX leadership team, we can evaluate your design skills, so your design chops and all that, but your evaluations that come from your project team, they are evaluating, are you a good communicator, do you manage your client effectively, do you understand the business problem the client is bringing to you so you can help solve it? Do you deliver your materials on time and with high quality? All these really basic consulting skills that you have to learn, and I think it’s hard for designers early in their career, they’re so hungry to learn the design work that they don’t understand that all these other skills have to be developed as well in order to be effective, and it’s those conversations that allow you to talk to more and more senior people in the business world so that you can solve more and more meaningful problems, if you…

0:32:37.2 NH: In the end, if your only problems are how to build, about your journey map, or how to build a better person or a better prototype, that’s not anything you can have a conversation with a business person about, they wanna talk about their business problems. And ultimately, you have to understand what they’re solving, the environment that they’re in, the industry they’re in, in our case, healthcare, and the problem that they’re trying to solve. And maybe you’re also helping them make sure they’re asking the right question, and how can you do that if you don’t understand the domain they’re in and the business that they’re driving towards, and so it does require…

0:33:15.4 BJ: Yeah, this is context. It’s context, right? It’s understanding the context. Yeah.

0:33:20.9 NH: Now the MBA part of it, how far do you get into that, for example? For me, it’s important, I teach the people that work for me, what are our metrics, how are those metrics collected? Why are they important? Who looks at them? All that kind of stuff, to me, understanding the business of running our own business. We are our own consulting business, we have to be profitable, inherently profitable, and I want my leaders to understand what it means to run a profitable business. So when they ask for 10 more head count, I can say, “How are you gonna keep them busy, are we gonna get the return on that?” And so on and make them leaders in their own right. I feel, honestly, I feel like that is the job at this point in my career, is to build the next generation of UX leaders, and it’s not that the work itself isn’t an important, of course it’s always there, but in the end, for me, that time invested in coaching and grooming UX talent into UX leaders is a significant part of the job, and that means understanding the business for sure.

0:34:21.3 BJ: Yeah, UX leaders are business leaders. It’s almost as if the othering that we do, there’s design and then there’s everything else, is actually not really saving us, designers, business, and I think if we can break down that barrier or that delineation that we make between the two, it’ll actually allow us, once we get to that point in our careers where we can have influence across an organization, or as a consultant working with an organization, that’s actually a maturing of our design practice in some way.

0:34:49.8 NH: Yeah, and yet I come back to this, how much do you standardize versus how much do you stand apart? Because having a little bit of that outsider perspective, as uncomfortable as it can be at moments, I’m a [0:35:02.8] __ in a sea of engineers and MBAs where I work, but I know that when I speak up, I’ve got a perspective that nobody else has and that’s part of what makes me valuable and special, so how do you… What’s that line between fitting in, understanding and so on and sticking to your… It doesn’t do the company any good if I behave like every other engineer and MBA that they’ve already hired, they hired me ’cause I’m different, and so I need to not lose that perspective also.

0:35:34.8 BJ: You’re speaking of perspective, I understand that you interviewed Christian… I believe this how you say his name, Christian Madsjberg? Am I completely munging that? I probably am.

0:35:44.2 NH: No, you got it. More or less, yeah.

0:35:45.0 BJ: Okay, good. My apologies, Christian, if I have, if you’re listening. And he’s one of the co-founders of a very successful consultancy called ReD Associates, and he recently released a book called ‘The Moment of Clarity.’ And in that book he said something that really stuck with you particularly about… And the way in which consultancies engage with clients. What was it that really resonated with you from his book?

0:36:10.6 NH: By the way, he’s written a book since then that’s also terrific, that’s about the role of the liberal arts in the area of the algorithm, basically talking about the importance of liberal arts thinking, it’s a really super interesting book. But the moment of clarity… First of all, the work of ReD Associates is, for me, is phenomenal, they’re behind the transformation of Lego, Adidas, all these other phenomenal brands, so I have a tremendous admiration for that team and the work that they do. But the thing that Christian… I had spoken to him one time, and I was at the moment struggling a little bit to make sense of things that were going on at ZS and I needed a, kind of a sounding board or a thought partner.

0:36:50.7 NH: And he was the one that said to me, “You need to treat this like an ethnographic exercise. You’re an ethnographer, look at the company you’re trying to change as an ethnographer and you’ll see… ” And it was a really helpful reminder that I could kind of distance myself a little bit and look at it that way. And he was basically giving the advice that he gives in that book, which is that when you’re helping a company make this kind of massive transformation, yes, they’re asking you to understand their market, who is their competition, who are their customers, just to invest the time to understand the environment that they wanna bring their product into, but if you don’t understand, just as deeply understand the company culture, then you can’t help them make that pivot because you don’t know what drives them, what drives their choices, what drives their decision making, what… Sort of the foundational aspects of their culture, and if you don’t understand that, you’re not gonna be able to help them make that change.

0:37:48.4 NH: And so it was the same thing from… The same advice that he gave to me basically was, make sure you’re really… And for me, it was learning about how decisions get made. So the work of UX, yes, it’s changed, how we were prototyping 10, 15 years ago and how he prototype now has obviously changed radically, but some things, they’re not all that different.

0:38:15.3 BJ: He was also touching on the need to understand how the company sees itself to work out whether or not it’s able to actually achieve the design outcomes that it’s going for, and I thought that was a really interesting way of framing ambition versus the actual ability to deliver on the ambition. How do you tell a client… I’m not sure if you can draw on first 10 experience here, maybe this is hypothetical, but how do you tell a client that comes to you with a problem that they want you to solve, that you then subsequently realize once you’ve looked at their culture and how they see themselves, that they’re not actually gonna be able to achieve?

0:39:00.7 NH: If you’re a good consultant, you’re gonna help them make those steps, and ideally, you’ve established trust and you can do that in increments. Gartner, in their work, recommends 15% of every project should be change management, budget for change management. So we talk with clients a lot about that. I think 15% seems really low, depending on the kind of change that you wanna make. The way that we do that is that we talk about the UX activities as part of the change management. So when you go talk to users, you’re seeding these ideas that things could be better, or you’re sharing concept art or prototypes and you’re sharing sort of a vision of what the future could look like and you bring some of those users along the change journey with you, and you’re using them to help you tell the story to the broader population. On the product side, it’s also really fun because you go from that kind of early stage research to actually telling the story to the market, to actually giving that material, putting it in the hands of marketing and letting them tell the story that you’ve heard through your user research, and that having a chance to…

0:40:14.5 NH: One of the things about ZS being smaller than, say SAP for example, is getting to be a part of that journey from beginning to end for multiple products, which I think is really, really neat. And I think in UX, at least, we’re uniquely placed to talk about it as an, it’s not a failing of leadership or a failing of a culture or whatever, it’s about what’s needed to change human behavior. And so there’s no finger pointing, there’s no blame, there’s no… I always come back. I had a very dear friend when I was at SAP, who talked about… At one point, she was the Dean of the SAP University, we called it at the time, and she always said, “Seven times for an adult learner.” She would always say, for kids, you give them something once or twice and they retain it, but at a certain age you need to be told something over and over again. And so then, it’s not a blame issue, it’s not… Your culture can’t do it, your leadership can’t drive it, you don’t have the prowess or the leadership required to make this kind of change.

0:41:16.9 NH: It just becomes a question of human behavior, it sort of makes it a demilitarized zone, that’s the best word that I can think of, it depersonalizes it. So it’s not about anybody’s failure but just about the reality of what it takes people to do things differently.

0:41:32.5 BJ: Yeah, and what do we wanna do about it? How often do you get push back when it comes to user research? How often a client… Yeah, right? You’re still getting it? Yeah.

0:41:41.2 NH: It’s so hard, and that’s, I think… When I do get on the dark days, ’cause we all have them, I think if you’re at all… If you have aspirations and you kind of look into the future and try to be a change maker, I think we all have those moments that are dark. And for me, those are the most frustrating moments, is when we’re asked to do design without any meaningful research. And in some cases, and actually, you had mentioned Don Norman earlier, he had this one super provocative article that he wrote about, if you are being asked to build a product, you shouldn’t do the research first. It was sort of the premise of the article. I forget what it was, it was a… But if you really read…

0:42:24.9 BJ: Was it Satire?

0:42:26.3 NH: No, it’s actually… It was really… People got so pissed off about it, and of course he does that… I feel like he does that just to get to people. But no, actually what he was saying, look, if you’re worth your salt as a product leader, you already know your users, you already know your… And you shouldn’t have to go start doing research once you get invited to the conversation about a new product you already know. So yes, our history has always been in sales and later in marketing. So someone comes now to ask me to do some kind of tool that enables sales people, I actually…

0:42:56.5 NH: I know this is gonna be super provocative, I don’t need to come do a bunch of research first. I’ve been studying sales people since 2005. If I can’t tell you now how they behave, somebody should fire me. Seriously, 17 years of studying sales people on and off. Now, when you get into some of our newer areas, for example, we’re now deeply embedded in the clinical trial space, a lot of the work that ZS has historically done with data and analytics and process transformation, we’re bringing into the clinical trials part of healthcare, because that is the thing that’s slowing down how the drugs get to… How quickly the drugs get to market and why they cost so much, it’s ’cause of that time delay in proper testing. Now, if you ask me to produce a tool now for somebody working in the clinical trial space, like a site operator, someone that’s managing a clinical trial site, I can’t go in and just start that. I have to go to… I have to do the research. We would have to do the research so that we develop a good product, ’cause I don’t have that same deep understanding of those types of users as I do of sales people.

0:44:02.0 NH: But sometimes we say, “Look, well, that’s not UX, it’s UI and if you want UI, then we have a team in India that can do that but we can’t tell… We can’t guarantee the usability.” You’ll get… It’s not gonna be of the same quality, and if that’s what you want, or that’s what you’re willing to pay for, you’ll do that, but if your client comes back and they’re unhappy, it’s because they got what they paid for or they got what you sold them and you need to let us help you tell a different story about why the access to users is important. I think the thing is we do everything, we do everything from two-screen dashboards to multi-million dollar clinical trial systems. And so we also pick our battles now. We’re not gonna let a client spend $7 Million on a clinical trial solution without user research. But if they’re gonna do a two-page dashboard for an audience we already know without user research, then okay, that’s fine, we can do that. We could probably do a pretty darn good job, because it’s an audience we already know and technology we’re familiar with and we know all the data, it’s not new space for us.

0:45:06.8 BJ: So you’ve gotta be smart enough to know when to compromise and when to hold the line.

0:45:11.6 NH: Absolutely. And some of it is about our reputation, making sure that things don’t go out that reflect badly on us, but it’s also about making sure that at some level that the client understands. And look, they’ve just spent a small amount of their operational budget on a few slides of a dashboard. If this is not something that… It’s not their new product that they’re shipping to patients. It’s not an emergency room solution, it’s not some life-saving medical device, it’s a couple of screens for an enterprise user. And so it’s also for me, that’s… I think we talked earlier about having perspective, and that’s another place where I say, look, are we enabling patients? Are we enabling doctors to save patient lives? Are we enabling emergency room staff or are we enabling an analyst to do a better job with sales reporting? And I’m not saying that that work is any less valuable, but it’s also not life-threatening.

0:46:12.3 NH: If the dashboard takes a few minutes longer to read or the data is not as beautiful or the color palate isn’t just so, just… We’ve done thousands of projects now. In my career, I’ve done thousands of projects, and so I can look at them and have a perspective that I didn’t have when I was early in my career where every… I wanted every single thing we produced to be just perfect. My perspective’s changed a lot since then.

0:46:36.9 BJ: One of the things that we do when we are working on projects and design and that we can sometimes be guilty of is this belief that everyone in the business needs to collaborate with us and to get involved, but you’ve suggested, and I’ll quote you in a second, that not everybody is interested in human behavior, and you’ve said specifically, and I’ll quote you now, “People don’t all love to play with Post-its and Sharpies and to affinity mapping and journey mapping and all the things we love so much about our jobs. So we just have to recognize that not everyone’s going to want to come and participate with us in the way that we want them to participate.” Now, that didn’t so much flaw me, I understand what you’re saying, and that’s definitely been my experience as well, and sometimes it feels like you’re senselessly dragging people along who really don’t wanna be there. But isn’t this a problem? Don’t businesses seek to serve people, customers, the people we’re actually designing products for, and is it not a fear expectation of us in design, that people elsewhere in our organizations should care about those people and what that experience is like?

0:47:46.6 NH: But no. I think that’s where we’re just so blind. They care about the outcome, they care about the business outcome, they honestly could care less about how we get there. And I remember a woman I used to work with… Now, for me as a researcher, my very favorite part of research, research projects are still the ones that I enjoy participating in the most, and my favorite thing is when you have those 80 hours or 120 hours of transcription or whatever it is, and you’re trying to make sense of the data. When it’s at its messiest, that’s the part I enjoy the most, looking for the patterns and all that. That’s my favorite point. And I remember bringing a colleague into one of our war rooms runs, and we had all the walls wallpapered with eight point font and the transcripts everywhere, and I was going out and looking for patterns and everything, and she walked in and she looked at it and she said, “Oh my God, come back to me when it’s in a spreadsheet.” She just couldn’t cope with that level of complexity and that level of raw insight, it was just too much. And it’s not that she didn’t care…

0:48:54.2 NH: That’s, I think, where we mistake, this is where I think we get so emotionally caught up in how we do the work. People wanna know what to do, our clients wanna know what to do, “What do I produce? What does the dashboard need to say? How does the tool need to behave? How do I need to talk about it to the market?” They just don’t care about how the sausage is made. And asking everybody to care as much as we care about the process is just woefully naïve. They’ve got their own parts… Their own jobs to deal with, and the way that we go about it, this sort of bottoms up, sort of sense making and sort of tactile, kinesthetic thing that we love, that I love so much about the job, it’s not everybody’s jam. And stop thinking that they don’t appreciate what you’re doing ’cause they don’t wanna do participatory design. That’s not true, that’s just a sort of a gross over-simplification. They’ve got their own jobs, they’ve got their own worries, they’ve got their own things you need to achieve, they don’t wanna spend two days with Post-its ’cause they want you to come out of that telling them what they need to do to move their business forward or what their business strategy should be.

0:50:05.0 BJ: They wanna make decisions.

0:50:08.3 NH: They wanna make decisions and how are we to get there…

0:50:08.6 BJ: Are you suggesting that we are a bit myopic? Are you suggesting that we are lacking a little bit of empathy for our colleagues?

0:50:16.2 NH: It’s a little bit strongly put, I would say. To me, it feels more like a naivety or like a… There’s no ill intent on anybody’s side or anything. I just think it’s… This is one of those places where we get so caught up in how we solve problems that we sometimes forget that not everybody wants to solve them the same way or that not everybody’s interested in being along for the process. The joy that I have walking into a room full of transcripts and affinity mapping, to me, that is so much fun. That’s my favorite part of my job, all that finding the themes and the patterns and all that. Most people could care less, and they want the… I remember the first time I ever got to talk to the Chief Process Officer at SAP, and I spent weeks laboring over this presentation. I was so nervous to talk to this guy. He sat on the board and everything, and he’s a little bit scary. I don’t think he’s still there, so I can say that now, but it was a real privilege to get to meet him and he just…

0:51:22.0 NH: He was driving change, he was moving the whole company, a whole 11-12,000 developers to an agile methodology, and he was trying to bring in lean practices into how the company operated. So he is a very intense, fast-moving guy, and you had to catch his attention and if you didn’t catch his attention, that was it, it was a real wake-up call, to be dealing with somebody at that level, C level of a company that size. And so I had prepared this whole deck and had this whole story line ready and two minutes in, I could tell, I was gonna lose him if I didn’t… And it was only like five or six slides but he just didn’t…

0:52:00.3 BJ: What was the giveaway? What did you say?

0:52:01.8 NH: Well, we were in a room and it was… There weren’t even any chairs, it was like these cocktail, high-top tables and there was all these different artifacts and stuff on the wall. So he wasn’t even sitting, and I could tell, he was just… He just… I don’t know. In retrospect, I wonder if he’s like ADHD or something, but just super, super high energy, very restless, not totally present for the conversation. I was like, “If I don’t do something quick, I’m gonna lose his attention, I’m gonna lose this opportunity.” And I had taken one of our… With the help of a researcher, who by the way works for me now, again, he worked for me back then, but we had taken all this… It was usability testing. We had done 60 usability testing sessions on our own CRM software to help inform the product and help us tell the story to the market, “We used our own CRM, here’s how it works. Here’s… ” But this guy was the… He was the champion for Lean at the company and I had had… Me and my whole team got certified in Lean, so we kinda understood what it was about. And in Lean, there’s very specific tools, methodologies, it’s like a whole other world, if you don’t know it, but they have their own kind of diagrams, they have their own frameworks and all that, and there’s certain words and ways that you talk when you’re talking to someone who’s Lean-focused. And so we had taken…

0:53:21.1 BJ: Just like a secret society.

0:53:23.4 NH: Yeah. But you have… And you have to know the lingo. So we took these usability testing sessions and we put them into a Lean diagram format. So the Lean, it shows process and it shows waste and it shows how often somebody has to repeat a task before they can complete it, and we took all of our usability testing and we put it in this Lean diagram, and I was like, “If I only get one slide with this guy, this has to be the slide,” and I showed him that slide and that was it. I got his attention, and all of a sudden, we got signed up to do all this ethnographic work for the board at SAP. But it was because I wasn’t so caught up in how… If I had tried to present the guy a journey map instead of a Lean process diagram, if I had tried to use my lingo instead of his lingo, forget it. I would have completely missed that opportunity. So I recognized obviously, his body language and his impatience and everything, and I was smart enough to have an artifact ready that was in the language that made sense to him and what he cared about.

0:54:20.5 BJ: There’s also a bit of humility in that, right? There’s also this recognition that your way or the way that you might wanna do things isn’t gonna work to achieve the outcome that you’re seeking, so you have to be willing to be able to bend in order to get the outcome.

0:54:33.4 NH: Here’s the thing, if we are so good at getting in the shoes of our users, of our customers or patients or whatever, why can’t we do that with our executive team or with our product management counterparts or with our engineering counterparts. So this is, I think something I said in one of the things that you’ve been quoting from, is we have the empathy for the people that we’re serving with our design but not for colleagues. Don’t expect an engineer to get joy out of sitting in a day of usability testing.

0:55:03.3 BJ: Yeah, and this makes me, reminds me actually of someone who I believe was quite important to you, and that I really did wanna ask you about on the podcast, and as someone who sadly has passed away, and that’s Gitti Jordan.

0:55:17.2 NH: Gitti Jordan.

0:55:18.7 BJ: Yeah. What was it? ‘Cause specifically, what you were touching on here, I believe is something that she had quite an impact on you and she showed you the light, so to speak, with this particular problem that we have.

0:55:29.3 NH: She was just such an amazing woman, and she influenced so many generations of anthropologists, not just me. Yeah. She had this just way of reaching out and staying connected and asking about people in a completely non-judgmental, curious way, and she was an amazing lady.

0:55:46.1 BJ: Who was she? Tell us who she was.

0:55:47.4 NH: Gitti Jordan, she is a PhD-level anthropologist, she was on the faculty, I think at the University of Michigan, and she, for many years, studied pregnancy and child birth and so on, cross-culturally, and so she’s written… I think one of the book she’s most well known for was related to those maternity practices cross-culturally. And she somehow made her way into Silicon Valley and I don’t remember the details now. I think people that were in that area at the time would probably be able to tell the story better, but she ended up at Xerox PARC, and I think… For me, Xerox PARC has always been this sort of idealistic place. Before I left the West Coast to do my PhD, I was living in the Bay Area, and I said when I left, “I’m gonna come back and work at Xerox PARC.” That was my aspiration as an anthropologist, to get to be in that kind of lab setting with engineers and anthropologists and so on, to try to make change. And she was a member of that team and in the Institute for Research on Learning later, but she was one of those people that really brought…

0:57:00.0 NH: Now, of course, that lab environment is very different than a corporate kind of consulting environment. The pace is different, the duration of projects is quite different. For me, our team, a typical project might be 12 weeks or maybe 24 weeks where a project in a lab might go on for years. But one of the things that she did that I found so interesting was that she would sit the engineers down and they would watch footage together, video footage together, and they would talk about what they saw in the footage. And there’s this great thing called a Ladder of Inference and I referenced it on my vlog and I’ve spoken about it in keynote addresses before.

0:57:45.8 NH: This idea that we so very quickly look at something and start to build layers of assumptions on what we see, and that’s based on who we are, how we were raised, how we see the world, and of course, our education and our work and how we work. And what she realized was that if you don’t go through the exercise of teaching people how to see differently and build up that ladder of inference together, then they’re never gonna see what you would want them to see.

0:58:18.9 NH: And so you can’t just stick ’em in front of a video and expect them to come to the same conclusions as you do, an engineer or a business person or whoever it is, that you have to work from those observations, those most base observations about what the person does or what their facial expression says or whatever and unpack that and then work up the ladder of inference together. And if you don’t do that, you’ll come to widely different conclusions.

0:58:43.6 BJ: Yeah. So this is critical for designers working with stakeholders and having influence, isn’t it? To understand this ladder of inference, to have influence.

0:58:56.0 NH: Yeah, and I think that’s why the idea of getting people to participate in usability testing or ethnographic research is so powerful. Because if you can get them to the place where they’re observing and you’re talking about, you know, if you come out of a day in the field and you sit down and talk about your observations together, you’re building that understanding in a way that’s kind of irreplaceable. If you come back with a report and a summary but you haven’t been on that journey together, people don’t feel it and experience it in the same way as if they’ve observed it with you. It’s a super… Look, I’m not trying to take anything away from that, I think it’s the most powerful thing. There’s so many people doing exciting work in this place, if you know Simon Gizard in Europe, and, of course, companies like ReD Associates and others over the years, whether it was eLab and SAPIEN and Doblin and all these companies who basically just do ethnographic research. The power of bringing your stakeholders with you to that kind of field work, of course, it’s fantastic. And I don’t wanna take anything away from that and I think it’s a dream to have those kinds of opportunities, but for many of us, it’s just not the reality most of the time. Ethnographic research for us, it doesn’t happen as often as I would like.

1:00:09.2 BJ: Yeah. So people shouldn’t be surprised if people don’t wanna participate. And if you are gonna get people to participate, you need to design that session in such a way that when they walk away from it, that you’ve built some shared understanding and made it worth their while.

1:00:23.4 NH: Yeah. And I think that taking that time is… That’s a part of building a good process, is making sure after the field work that you’re talking through it and working through it and capturing insights and in inference together, as opposed to assuming that just because you’ve watched the same thing that you’ve arrived at the same conclusions, ’cause you likely have it. If you had, they wouldn’t need to be in the field with you.

1:00:51.1 BJ: Natalie, I’m just conscious of time. And I really did wanna come to something else that I know that you are very involved in, and that’s quite an important part of your life. I mentioned in your introduction that you are the executive sponsor, ZS, of the LGBTQ community. And I also found out that in 2021, ZS was recognized as one of the best places to work for LGBTQ equality by an organization called the Human rights Campaign Foundation. What does that recognition mean to you?

1:01:27.6 NH: Well, one of the interesting things with ZS being privately held is that we’re private about a lot of things, and including, I think, sometimes how we treat our people, which is as I mentioned earlier, I think we treat our employees really well. And for me, that recognition was a reflection of things that ZS had already been doing for years. So I don’t… Am I glad we have the recognition, of course, and we’re in very good company with some amazing other corporations that have received that recognition also, but to me, it’s a testament to things that we’ve been doing for years and years, we had domestic partnership benefits 15 years ago, for example, things like that. So do we need to continue to evolve? For sure. Dealing with people that are with gender transitioning, for example, with de-gendering the bathrooms. There’s always more work to be done, but I feel like we have a platform and we’ve made a real commitment over the past few years, not just to Pride, but in general, to inclusion and diversity. There’s a council now across the company where we’re looking at these problems and making the changes that we need to make to continue to be better, better and better in this space. But the recognition to me is just the beginning.

1:02:51.4 NH: It’s showing that you have the policies and the practices that provide that environment, but then there’s still the work to make sure that that environment continues to be welcoming, and that it’s not just a place where people go to work but where they truly feel like they belong and they can be themselves. And there’s a great quote, if you give me a second, I’ll put my hands on it, that really resonated with me. One of my colleagues gave it to me. It’s by someone named Arthur Chan, and it says, “Diversity is a fact, equity is a choice, inclusion is an action and belonging is an outcome.” And when I think about what are we trying to do, we’re trying to get to the belonging. That I can come to work and just as freely talk about my wife as somebody who’s heterosexual, or that somebody who’s dating someone of the same gender can just as comfortably come in and talk about what happened over their weekend as somebody who’s straight. But getting to belonging is really hard. And so the HRC piece of it is really just establishing the beginnings of diversity and equity, but that step to get to the point where everybody feels like they belong, that’s a long road, not something that just happens overnight.

1:04:19.4 NH: And I think for the LGBTQ+ community in particular, because we have a choice, unlike our black colleagues that don’t have a choice, if they’re out or not at work. There’s lots of research that shows that 50% of people just aren’t out at work, and that needs to be just fine also, they have their reasons. They don’t wanna be out, they don’t think it’s something they need to talk about at work, and so the challenge is to make everybody feel like they belong, even if they don’t wanna be out. And so half of what I’m doing is serving a community that I don’t know and that’s a really incredibly difficult job as a sponsor, to try to do the best for people, but not really know who they are, especially as a researcher. Everything in me wants to just know, who are you, how can I help you, what’s holding you back? Not that I want people to feel any pressure to be out, but like how do I create an environment where you feel comfortable? And if I can’t talk to them, I can’t sort that out. It’s a challenge.

1:05:22.6 BJ: It is a challenge. I actually wanna wind the clock back a little bit further and talk about your story in particular. I mentioned that you’re out and proud in your introduction and you’re quite open about this. I read on your blog that you came out in 1986, and you told me before we started recording that you were 17 at the time, right? That was a very different time. Now I found out through preparing for today that up until, I think it was July ’86 in New Zealand, that homosexuality, as it was called, and the law there was a crime.

1:05:57.9 NH: Criminal offense.

1:06:00.5 BJ: It was a criminal offence. In New Zealand we still have men who were prosecuted underneath that law who are still carrying criminal convictions for being who they are. And so it’s a very different time. We also had HIV, had turned up on the scene and was really causing devastation within the gay community, and there was no open effort, as far as I can tell, and I’m not that old, I was only one in 1986 in terms of my historical perspective, but I don’t believe there was any open effort to support the rights of people in the LGBTQ+ community. Within workplaces, it was probably something that was very, very far down the list of priorities as far as enterprise was concerned.

1:06:42.4 BJ: Now so you came out at 17 at this time, which is very, very different to what we’ve just been talking about in terms of what people can expect, rightly so from the work environment now, although there’s still a lot of work to be done. But you came out, and this is something else that I wanted to ask you about, which is, you went to study Religion and Biblical Literature at Smith College, and I don’t know why for me that sort of popped out as something that was quite interesting, but what was it like for you when you came out at this time? Take us back to that point in time. What was it like? What was it like being someone, and I don’t know if this is a term used to identify with, so apologies if I get this wrong, but being a gay person at that time in 1986?

1:07:30.1 NH: There’s so much, there’s so much in all that to talk about. It’s true, I think about that a lot. It’s 35 years, so the times have changed quite a lot. And you’re right that the backdrop of AIDS was so significant at the time. It was one of the many things that it caused. Smith is an all-women’s college. I did not know that I was gay when I went to Smith, though now, using modern language, I would probably say I’m pan ’cause that’s not language that existed when I came out. But one of the many things that happened in that environment was it sort of pitted people in the community against each other. So women who identified as lesbians did not wanna date women who were bisexual because they were worried that those bisexual women would bring AIDS into the community, for example. And so it was just all that fear, it just created all this ugliness. And on the other hand, I also remember amazing moments. One of the things that I loved about Smith was it was very politically aware and engaged young community, and I kinda feel like what I’m doing now at ZS comes full circle to that.

1:08:48.6 NH: We marched for gay rights, we were… Massachusetts, I think passed rights in 1991 or something like that, one of the first states to do so and it was amazing to be on the front lines of that and to get to be a part of that. And then you think, God, that was 35 years ago, and we’re still having these same conversations. So that part of it, I think can be frustrating. I talk to colleagues in India, for example, and they’re like, “Oh, it’s so much better for you in the US than it is for us here,” and yes, it is, for sure but they also don’t understand. Look, sure, now we can get married, though I think with the current Supreme Court, that that may be in question again. In fact, some states are going so far as to create state-level laws and New Jersey is one of them, to protect gay marriage so that even if it unravels at the federal level, but at the state level people will still be protected. But in 35 out of the 50 states, you can still be fired for being gay. So great, now we can get married but we can still again be fired. It’s really…

1:09:48.5 BJ: It’s crazy, it is crazy.

1:09:49.7 NH: That legislative landscape is still a mess. It’s still a mess. And I think a lot of it really just depends on the current administration and the current social climate about what’s okay and what’s safe, and you have to trust that we’re not gonna backslide so far that the degree to which I’m out somehow becomes a huge liability. But I notice other things too and their small changes but they’re important. So for example, my 12-year-old. When my 12-year-old talks about kids in his classroom, he uses the pronoun “they.” He doesn’t talk about he and she. He has a transgender friend, so I think he knows the difference but whether it’s a female teacher or a male teacher or a classmate, he’s using the pronoun they. And I just think… And it doesn’t occur to him to do otherwise, it’s just normal. And for us, we still think of they as a plural, right? If you grew up… If you’re older. And so I think there’s all these little changes that at the same time give me hope. But I think my favorite thing about being the sponsor for Pride is the reverse mentoring.

1:10:56.3 NH: I went from… Obviously, I came out a long time ago, I was in college. You know I dated, had all those relationships. I finally met the woman who I’m with now and we’ve been together 22 years. And so we’ve been busy raising kids, having our careers, all of that kind of stuff. And I don’t wanna say we’ve been out of touch with the gay scene, but when you’re not out clubbing and you’re not out meeting people and you’re voting in your local elections on local topics, maybe you’re not so tuned into things. And getting pulled into the sponsor role for the LGBTQ+ community at work has really forced me to tune in again in a way that I was when I was 17 that I’m really actually enjoying. I’m enjoying getting to know people. There’s all this language, like nobody talked about gender fluidity in 1986. It’s not that it didn’t happen, but we didn’t have that language the way that we do now. Words like panromantic or pansexual and things like that, the word trans meant transvestite back then. So all of the language, the openness, the way that those words are, especially for young people, are just so much more normalized.

1:12:06.6 NH: My older son was just complaining the other day, he’s like, “We always have to use our pronouns when we introduce ourselves at school,” and he’s a freshman in high school. And I think God, you know, that’s so amazing. Now he finds it annoying. He’s like, “Everybody knows I’m a cis man.” I was like, “Well, that’s not true for everyone. That’s why you do it.” But the fact that they’re even doing things like that, like using pronouns, they’re de-gendering his advisory. So the way the advisory is organized at his high school, there’s… Boys have one advisory and girls have another. Well, what happens to intersex kids or trans kids in this environment that’s completely bifurcated? And so the parents petitioned and they’ve committed to allowing the kids to choose which advisory they wanna be in, and there’ll be a gender-neutral one or one that’s a cross over, basically people can be wherever they want. They don’t wanna be… Guys don’t wanna be in a guy’s advisory and girls don’t wanna be in a girl’s advisory and then will mix with people that maybe don’t have a gender… Maybe are exploring their gender identity or not …

1:13:10.6 NH: So it’s been kind of… That’s one of those things that I didn’t really think would come around the way it has, and it’s forced me to be more political and more vocal and more in tune in a way that I’ve really, I’ve actually really enjoyed. It’s actually one of the highlights of my work right now, is that part of the job, and it’s kind of an unexpected thing. And again, it’s just one more way that we’re connecting to each other as humans in the workplace and bringing as much of ourselves as complete, a part of ourselves to our work as we can, just one of the many ways that we do that. And so it seems a pretty natural thing for me to be doing as an anthropologist and as a UX professional.

1:13:50.4 BJ: Well, I heard you say when you were talking there about the feeling that you get where you wonder whether or not being who you are will come back to bite you in the future given the climate and I just really sincerely hope that we can get to a place as a species where people are no longer persecuted for just being who they are. I think the work that you’re doing is really important.

1:14:16.6 NH: Thank you so much. Yeah, I hope that with you, it’s that perspective now of having been through the Trump administration here, it’s been sobering to realize that democracy is not to be taken for granted.

1:14:28.7 BJ: It’s very fragile, yeah.

1:14:32.4 NH: Different perspectives than I did eight years ago.

1:14:35.7 BJ: Natalie, the ability for designers to collaborate with their peers is such an important part of design, making a meaningful difference to an organisation or not. Now given that collaboration’s so critical, I couldn’t help but ask you for my final question. What is the most important action that designers listening today can take that will improve their chances of having meaningful impact?

1:15:02.6 NH: So building awareness and understanding and empathy not just for the users that they’re designing for. So that empathy for what it’s like to be an engineer that’s not interested in usability testing, for a product manager who’s worried about when the product is gonna ship and not whether it’s pixel perfect, for an executive who wants to know if the product’s gonna sell, not what color… What size the font is or whatever. So that awareness of taking that, all of that work that we put into empathizing and understanding of the users we’re serving with our designs and making sure that we’re turning that inwards as well to ourselves in our cross-functional team that we work with. And even the executives, I think sometimes our frustration when things get handed on down on high from an executive is not really taking the time to understand the pressures that they’re facing and what they’re on the hook for. And so I think turning all that, it’s hard work. I’ve said it before, it’s emotional labor, all this is emotional labor, right? Taking the time to get to know your team in the same way that you get to know patience that you’re enabling with a piece of software, it’s hard work. Not pretending that it’s easy but those are relationships and that trust and that understanding that you build will in the end allow you to move much more faster and with less friction than if you just try to barrel through assuming everybody wants to play with Post-its.

1:16:28.3 BJ: ‘Cause not everybody does.

1:16:30.4 NH: Not everyone does.

1:16:31.4 BJ: Natalie, this has been a really enjoyable and meaningful conversation, and it’s really given me, and I’m sure it’s given the people listening to it a lot to think about. Thank you for so generously sharing your stories today, being so open and so brave and what it is that you do, and what you’ve done for this community.

1:16:47.9 NH: Yeah, it was my pleasure. It was really enjoyable to get to know you and to have this conversation and look forward to continuing to follow along with your subsequent discussions.

1:16:57.9 BJ: Most definitely. Natalie, if people wanna find out more about you and all the one of the things that you do, what’s the best way for them to do that?

1:17:06.6 NH: Well, as I mentioned earlier with the health issues I’m facing, I’m not super active on the blog right now, but that’s the main place, is the main place where I post goings on. I’m not doing so much on Twitter these days, and my Instagram account has turned into a place where I showcase my jewelry making skills now. So I’d say the blog is the main place to track me down.

1:17:28.5 BJ: Okay, sounds good. Thank you, Natalie. And to everyone that’s tuned in, it’s been great having you here to listen or watch, depending on how you’re consuming today’s episode. Everything that we’ve covered will be in the show notes on YouTube and also on the podcast platforms, including where you can find Natalie and all the resources or anything that we’ve mentioned that’s specific and interesting that I think that you would benefit from finding. If you enjoyed the show and you want to hear more great conversations like this with world class leaders and product UX and design, don’t forget to leave a review on the podcast, those are super helpful. Subscribe and also share the conversation with someone else that you feel will get some value from this type of dialogue around UX and design and product. If you want to reach out to me, you can find my profile link at the bottom of the show notes, and you can also head on over to That’s And until next time, keep being brave.

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