I really, really enjoy talking to people. So much so that I came up with a project that allowed me to converse with others about their careers and consume some of their time in exchange for a portrait taken by me. As soon as I found out that I was attending Strive, a user experience (UX) research conference based in Toronto, I knew I wanted to learn about research, design, and strategy through the process of interviewing other conference attendees.
Here is the first part of that series, in which I speak with Vivian C. about the relationship between public policy and UX, systems thinking, and the current challenges of designing for insurance. I hope you gain as much as I did from our conversation.
LT: Let's start off with how you got into UX design.
VC: I didn't start out in UX or even in tech. I did my entire education in international relations so I worked in policy, specifically climate change. A byproduct of my educational pathway was being exposed to innovation studies, and through that, learning about design thinking as an innovative and non-traditional approach to solving complex social problems. Once I started down that rabbit hole, I just kept going. It took me a few years because I continued working in policy but then realized that problem-solving at that level was not for me. I really love the user centeredness and what that means, like talking to people, observing people, and just really making that the impetus for insights and change and impact. That led me to UX design and realizing that I do want to actually switch careers and do more of that type of work.
LT: That's wonderful. I feel like we should all start off in a career where we are serving others and working in an industry that deals heavily with people and interacting with people. It's important to know how the decisions you make directly impact other lives. If you're designing digital products, not everyone has a smartphone or a cell phone for that matter and they can either opt in or out. But policy, that's kind of something you have to follow! (laughs) How do you think having that background influences your work today?
VC: It gives me a unique perspective in the sense that I easily marry not just the user centeredness but a lot of the strategic foresight and systems thinking as well. That can mean looking at a problem not just as a user and at this one instance in time, but then trying to scope it out, too. Using an iceberg as a metaphor, it's important to understand that this is the tip that we can visually see, but let's uncover the system below it so that we can understand what kind of levers can or cannot be pulled to make change. It's not as easy as changing a button, right? Technically, that is the surface level change you can make. But are there any other levers that can lead to more effective impact or, more importantly, impact at scale or change at scale? That type of thinking and doing that work in policy makes it a lot easier for me to bring that value to my work here. I still very much advocate and do a lot of work for the user, in my mind, at the grassroots level. But can we blow that out a bit to see how that fits within a larger system? I think it helps the product team prioritize better because now I'm not just giving them random individual pieces of information. I'm trying to tie it together for them so they can build a more well-informed roadmap.
LT: That was a beautiful answer. I loved that.
VC: Yeah, and my policy work was very interesting because I also navigated stakeholder relations. This was crucial because a big part of implementation and adoption is coalition building. You have to have a pretty critical mass of a coalition to be able to push policy forward to government. And so that skill of being comfortable with managing stakeholders, managing relations, and bringing people together has helped in this role. I think people underestimate our roles as designers because they think our jobs are just talking to people and designing things, right? But there is a lot of work that goes into advocating and pitching your ideas and your opinions in a way that doesn't rub people the wrong way. You can't just say, "Oh, I did research, therefore this is what we should do." Being able to look at the stakeholders in the room and assess what their interests are, as well as how to speak to their interests to get them on board, has been very helpful. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but it's having that mindset that's important.
LT: And people don't realize that advocacy work is mentally and emotionally taxing. At a granular level, you have to code switch and, like you mentioned earlier, accommodate them. "How do I communicate this in a way where they won't be turned off by my policy proposal when I know and I have the evidence to prove, 'Hey, this is good for the environment and this is good for the world.'"
VC: In climate change, evidence doesn't seem to matter. (laughs) I think the biggest thing is speaking the other person's language. So if I'm talking to a product manager, then I want to put it in the context of features and roadmaps, things that matter to them. If I'm talking to executives or even external stakeholders—from a business perspective, what does this mean to them? How does this affect conversion or the growth path? What kind of challenges will you see on a business level if we don't address these issues now? And then that helps me prioritize what I actually want to recommend. There are so many insights, so many things that come out of our research, that we can drown in this wealth of information. And how does one sift through that when we all have limited capabilities and capacities? So we have to prioritize at the end of the day, this exercise of thinking through who's going to be in the room, who needs to make a decision, and what they would be interested in. This helps us consider, as designers, what's actually important.
LT: So, for example, you work in insurance. I feel like insurance is a little intimidating to design for, especially in the U.S. because in the states it's inaccessible and it's insufficient. There's typically a steep deductible that you have to pay for out-of-pocket before the government ever starts paying for you. Do you think Canada's healthcare policy makes a difference in your workflow? And if so, how?
VC: Well, for us, we pay for health insurance (OHIP) through tax dollars, but no one ever thinks of it that way. Our healthcare system is built in a way where we, as taxpayers, pay for it in income taxes. And then, as a result, it's "free."
LT: Oh, like when you go to university and they advertise the gym as free, but you pay for it through your tuition.
VC: Right. It's the same concept. But I think to your point about insurance being intimidating, I'm totally with you on that. I haven't worked in this space for very long since I only joined Slice like, four months ago. So, still really new to this space. And maybe that's why I completely agree with you about it being intimidating. It's very complex. And then on top of that, it's optional. Health insurance is different, obviously. Again, we pay for insurance through our taxes, but every other type of insurance product is optional until it becomes required. Home insurance and auto insurance are really great examples of that in that we only get home insurance when we buy a house. Once you are a car owner, you are required by law to buy car insurance whereas life insurance is optional at all points in time, right? There's never a requirement to buy it. So, that's the space that we are working in right now. I think the current challenge is trying to convince people that it's worth it. Even though you're paying presently for something that matters, the benefits of it only manifest at some point in the future. And we're very bad at predicting the future. And then the other piece, too, is addressing the amount of distrust that the insurance industry has built up. No one thinks of insurance companies as, "They're my best friend. They have my best interests in mind." And Slice is a tech company that partners with insurance companies. I think, in my mind, our job is to help our partners understand that it's not just the act of digitization that needs to happen for them to be innovative. It's that systems thinking, right? It's that perception of trust, of honesty, of navigating those high deductibles. You're feeling like, "I'm just being cheated out of this money." That's really critical to greater uptake and greater purchase and that's what's on my mind right now. And then the digitization process. It's definitely a tool, but what is it about digital transformation that you think is going to change or innovate the space that you're playing in?
LT: That's a great question. And what is an aspect of your team's research method that you currently appreciate?
VC: I think the interesting part of our approach to doing research and designing in general is that we work with our partners. We don't have control of every single aspect of insurance. We don't write insurance, essentially. And we partner with insurance companies, but we're not quite consultants. We're in this in-between area where we try to apply design methods to a project that has external stakeholders. But the goal is not "Let's just build it and ship it." Before getting to any design activities, I try to foster that sense of rapport with stakeholders and build their confidence in my ability to guide them through this process.
LT: Yes, it's important to have co-designing in mind when approaching any problem. That's what Cheryl Li and Sepideh Shahi addressed in their presentation for the Research Through Design track. And what about Strive in particular drew you to attend it? Was it a specific speaker, a workshop?
VC: In general, the UX design team at Slice Labs is quite new. Slice, I think, has been in operation since 2015. So, a number of years. But they started building in-house capabilities less than a year ago. So, as a design practice, we're really quite fresh. And so I thought this conference would be a great opportunity to kickstart our research practice. Insurance is such a massive problem space; there are so many types of problems and pain points that would really benefit from user research activities. That's what drew me here. And then more importantly, my background lends itself more naturally to the research, strategy, and analysis side of UX. I signed up for the Research Foundations track, which I thought was amazing.
LT: What would you say was your most valuable takeaway from that day?
VC: It was Behzod Sirjani's point on not starting with data to scope research. That entire talk really resonated with me. If there's one thing out of his presentation that I really liked, it was that framework that he showed us. Instead of starting with a data point, let's get people to think through what decisions they need to make in order to then scope the proper research approach, methods and activities. For me that was really important. I love it when people say, "I want to be data-driven." That's great. But the parentheses in that is "(quantitative) data-driven." We can get very misdirected when we rely on just quantitative data to spur research. And I think that was the point of his presentation as well because research, in my mind, fulfills a much more holistic need. To narrow it down to just figuring out what's going on with a data point is missing the mark and not realizing research's full potential. Being able to think about the decision at a high level and then figuring out what kind of research we need to do from there really helps to position us to be much more impactful in the type of work we can deliver.
The branding seen in the banner is not my own work. I did my best to make sure the color scheme, background texture, and typeface aligned with Strive's brand. Also, I wouldn't have been able to easily transcribe this interview without the help of Temi, a speech-to-text transcription service. This post is not sponsored. I just genuinely appreciate the tool and want to share it with others.
Thank you again, Strive, for the best first international conference experience!
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