A conversation with Rachel Liu

A conversation with Rachel Liu

Rachel Liu traces her path as a service designer to an early interest in making and a degree in computer science. She talks to MEX founder Marek Pawlowski about the evolution of her career, including the nuances of conducting complex user research in countries like China. The conversation touches on the way education in China has changed since Rachel’s earlier talk at the MEX/16 conference and goes on to explore skills Rachel is honing in herself and others to progress the practice of service design.

From episode 54 of the MEX podcast, first published on 14th February 2019. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity, with an emphasis on preserving the character of the original recording.

Marek Pawlowski (MP): Rachel, welcome to the show. Thank you very much for taking the time to join me. Where are you dialling in from today?

Rachel Liu (RL): I’m based in the London office and yeah, it’s great to be here. Thank you.

MP: Well I was thinking probably the last time we caught up was when you spoke at MEX, which would have been a couple of years ago now. I always do a little bit of digging before I sit down to record a podcast with a guest. I’ve got to ask you something because in doing some research for this one, I discovered something that I didn’t know about you. I was looking down your LinkedIn profile and, according to that, you actually started out in the world of mobile with some time at Symbian back in 2006 and 2007. Is that right?

RL: Yeah, that was actually my first industrial placement as part of my course, which was doing computer science and business.

MP: Amazing. So this would have been just before the arrival of the iPhone and arguably the peak of Symbian’s arc as a platform for smartphones. I’m sure a lot of people who have come through the MEX community will have had experience in that world themselves. That was the starting point for many who have been involved with our conferences and podcasts over the years. But can you remember what it was like to be there at that time as a student?

RL: It was actually my first city experience, so that in itself was really exciting. I chose Symbian over Oracle at the time. I had another offer.

Symbian interested me because it was mobile and it was something that we weren’t taught at university. Knowing that it was an emerging technology at the time and exploring the potential of mobile and what it can do. It just felt like an exciting time, that I would not have been able to learn with Oracle databases, which I’d covered during university. It was an opportunity to think about it before the explosion of apps. What could it do? How could it help you?

I was just generally quite interested in that field, but also more from a maker perspective. One of the reasons why I did computer science was trying to think of myself as a maker, where I can create things. I used to love Lego – the creation and building of things. Computer science was kind of another tool. And that’s why I chose Symbian at the time. Being there, it was just great. Learning from so many people and extending the skills that you learn beyond the university into the real world. It’s just more exciting to see the possibilities.

MP: I didn’t realise that your degree was in computer science. I think you’re right: at that time, Symbian was probably one of the most interesting places to put those skills into practice. I mean for those listeners who aren’t familiar with the history of Symbian, I guess it was being looked upon as the smartphone platform of the future. It certainly had the largest market share around the world. Until, of course, the arrival of the iPhone, iOS and then Android. Symbian’s trajectory took a rather different turn and eventually fell into obscurity, but at that point, if you were using a smart mobile device, you were more likely than anything else to be using one which was powered by Symbian’s operating system. So quite an interesting place to be trying out those skills.

RL: Yeah. Also Symbian code is a very difficult language to learn, I have to say. So I think even learning it as a niche, it just makes you grow a lot. To be able to kind of go, well, I can write a mobile app. It is obviously so much easier these days but back then writing anything that’s an interface, even the smallest things, you were just like, “Wow, I can do this icon!” We’ve come a long way.

MP: Therein lies a bit of a clue, perhaps, as to why Symbian didn’t become the dominant platform. I think that’s a pretty familiar story for anyone who was in that world. Some of the challenges around coping with all of the different screen ratios, all of the different specifications, you know, coding these things using some pretty complex languages. It’s a world away from the speed with which we can deploy stuff these days.

Thinking to your presentation at MEX a couple of years ago, you were talking about some of the nuances that you’ve observed in China, particularly in relation to education, which is the area where you work now. But I remember distinctly when you were talking about that you were also sort of picking out some of the pitfalls that you saw in the first generation of ed-tech. You were talking about some of the things around cognitive overload, just too much information being supplied. This idea that more features are better rather than having a clear path for students. And also this age-old problem, which I guess was familiar back in the Symbian days, of trying to take an existing experience either from the world of print or desktop computers and channel that down into mobile without really thinking about what that makes. That was a couple of years ago that you were talking about that at MEX, but I’m wondering, having been two years in the role that you are now with Pearson Education, what do you feel the situation is today? What’s changed since you gave that presentation?

RL: Well, I think one of the interesting thing that has changed in terms of China is the speed that they’re innovating and that we really have to be quicker.

On my trip last year, I was just so surprised how mobile native they are. Not just digital native, but mobile native. In terms of payment, it is now so cashless that even trying to flag down a taxi, I couldn’t flag one down. You have to use the app and I couldn’t use the app because I don’t read Chinese. So I can’t pay, I can’t connect it to a local payment. It made me feel quite disabled. It was really weird to find that in few years it had become so cashless. That was one thing that I observed in particular for China as a whole.

For education, it’s still buoyant, it’s still in demand. They are really thinking about AI a lot and Pearson is kind of going through a transformation itself from print to digital.

I see different levels of maturity within Pearson. I’ve been in a project where they innovate like anything and they really understood how to provide the service. Thinking about the online and offline experience for learning and really combining that mix, it was brilliant. It was more greenfield. Again, the demand was coming from China, not in the rest of the world.

MP: What does the Pearson name mean in China? When you turn up as a representative of Pearson, what sort of connotations does it have in the world of education in China?

RL: Funnily enough, the project I was working on, they weren’t known as Pearson. It was a different brand. It was ‘Wall Street English’. Branding is really important. They don’t really hear much about Pearson. They hear about the Longman Dictionary. That’s something that they’re quite familiar with.

MP: So these are individual properties that Pearson owns and then uses that local brand in China?

RL: Yeah, because they don’t have the understanding of Pearson as much, but they do understand Pearson in terms of tests and assessment, which was quite interesting to know that hey, it might not be for the learning aspects, but maybe more the assessment aspects of the education system. That was kind of, yeah, new to me.

MP: One of the things I remember from your presentation at MEX was that you were talking about some of the fundamentals that you’d observed in earlier trips to China about the difference in the way education is seen there. I came away, and correct me if I’m wrong, because this was a couple of years ago, I remember having this impression that it was a real case of laws of supply and demand giving a bit of a different situation. There was greater demand than there was supply of good quality education in China. Therefore it made it this really competitive place for Chinese students and that you didn’t get second chances, that you had to be succeeding at all levels of education to progress to the next step. Is that something which continues to inform the sort of appetite there is for these digital education experiences?

RL: Well I found that really interesting. At the time I was looking at the teenager group and the parents. And we’ve also looked at the slightly younger ones I think over the last two years: from five to about ten years old and their parents.

What was interesting was that there is that generational shift where parents actually really care about the kids enjoying the learning process. Now that is something that was quite different to what I had seen. Parents who obviously had some sort of education and can still afford to, they want their kids to enjoy and have a good study habit at the beginning rather than going, “Oh I have to memorise, I have to cram.” Because that was their experience and their pain point and they don’t want that anymore for their kids. But at the same time it’s still competitive because they’re starting earlier.

They are trying to learn English and get ahead. Not just the teenagers anymore, but at three or five years old, which was really interesting. So the demand has shifted younger. That was for us just, yeah, it was a very different take on things. It’s again knowing that, hey, it changes a lot of the time so you have to still go out there to do research. I mean that is one key thing, knowing to be aware of the assumptions that you are making and that just because something was that way a few years ago, things are changing, you know, throughout time. It means that you do need to check-in as well and make a conscious choice of who you’re looking at. Who are you talking to? And that might change that sort of dynamic. So it’s ever evolving.

MP: As a service designer it’s hard to think of a meatier sort of challenge to get stuck into because, as you say, you’ve got multiple different stakeholders there. You’ve then got, within that, multiple generations of different stakeholders who might have different attitudes, whether those are the students or parents – who are at different stages themselves – or the teachers and the different attitudes there. I mean that’s a pretty complex set of stakeholder requirements to get your head around.

Do you think that working for an organisation like Pearson, or in general with what you’re seeing in ed-tech, people higher up the organisation are now starting to understand the value of really digging in to the research nuances of those user behaviors and then rolling that into the way the product is developed? Is there an understanding of just how important it is to get deep into the lives of those different stakeholders?

RL: Because we started as a new team – there were three of us when we joined – and it was part of global products, but working more like an agency, we didn’t get siloed. We look at different problems and I think that’s very helpful actually to know that hey, there are different levels of maturity. Within our stakeholders there are different levels of understanding. So how do we even bring value within UX when they don’t understand it either? So there’s that challenge in itself of showing evidence in really in a compelling way and having the sort of narrative and how you present back the insights is actually quite critical.

Also, getting them involved in the process. I think before I looked at stakeholders like a barrier. There was a lot frustration. But now I’ve changed the way of thinking where actually we need to have empathy for our stakeholders and how can we work together better? It’s a complex problem, as you said. It’s a system level problem, which means you need to have different perspectives and actually they can also bring in certain value too. You can use that to kind of go, okay, well these are assumptions here, this is what we are thinking and then go out and validate those. Having that sort of methodology and that kind of thorough process and guiding them through that has been super helpful for them to understand. For them to really see the value as well.

MP: Here, I guess we are thinking about stakeholders in the internal sense as opposed to external? When you’ve experienced those barriers in the past, and I guess everyone in a role like yours experiences this to some degree, there’s always that sense of balancing the sort of time commitment that people have to make to understand the kind of research that’s flowing from your work and presenting that in an effective way away that actually makes a difference. What have you found to be most effective? Have you found there are any real transition moments where people start to get the importance of what you do and it starts to have an effect on their own work?

RL: I actually found the first part is really starting small. Don’t underestimate the power of small. Before, I took things for granted, thinking we have to prove things by doing some usability tests or we have to prove by starting to show some of the interaction design level. You know, a bit more solution focused. But actually, it is just about showing things in a tangible way and it’s kind of useful to almost bridge the gap and build the trust. I found that’s kind of key.

MP: Another thing I wanted to ask you about is, if you look at where you’ve got to, the kind of work that you do, which would be defined I guess as service design or experience design and then you think back to where you started with computer science and that time somewhere like Symbian, was there a moment when you started to think of what you did more in terms of design rather than computer science? Do you see a differentiation between those two things? Or is it all part of that maker spirit that you alluded to, of just wanting to make change happen in some way?

RL: I’ve always really loved art and design from a young age. I even got disqualified from an art competition. They didn’t believe that my parents didn’t help me with the competition. So that was quite interesting. I’ve always had it in me. That’s kind of like my inner child.

MP: What was the piece of artwork which earned you this disqualification?

RL: Okay, we were living close to a Homebase store at the time and it was a Christmas card competition. They didn’t believe that I could make a pop-up card at the age that I was. I think I was 10 or something at the time. So I got disqualified and I didn’t win my 20 pounds. My classmate won and we made their card in class! Funnily enough, a lot of my school friends still remember that.

I’ve always enjoyed the creativity part, I guess. And I wanted to combine the two. Knowing that technology is almost a vehicle and it’s exciting in that space. I mean the reason I took computer science with business is also thinking about the business aspect too. I’ve kept it quite broad for a reason. The challenging part was combining it, but the emergence of UX kind of came about at the right time. At the time it was disguised as more human-centred design or computer design, so it almost evolved as I evolved with the role. It was kind of good timing in a way.

MP: It’s really interesting hearing the different paths that people who started around the same time that you did have taken. When you think back, the definitions were very fluid and a lot of what is now seen as being user experience work – as a kind of broad, umbrella term – was being made up as people went along. Yes, there were some educational backgrounds which perhaps were more inclined towards leading that way than others, but all the stuff that was being done was so new that it was requiring that those educational definitions be changed. I’ve had people on this podcast who got into this world through theatre design or anthropology. It really seems that, if anything, the more diverse the background, the more likely it was to lead to doing interesting and useful work as your career progressed. That would certainly seem to bear out with the path that you’ve taken as well.

RL: Well, I think that’s what I really love about being in UX, right? It’s the fact that it is so multidisciplinary. You can learn so much from other people because they bring in a new perspective. It’s making sure that you have that life-long learning spirit. It enables you to do that because you problem solve in different ways. You don’t want to use the same methodology. You want to push yourself a little bit.

That’s probably why I enjoy being in UX compared to being in software development where they think of things very logically and black and white in some aspects. It’s difficult to look at things in a new perspective because they want to be proven right or wrong. UX allows a kind of evolution and fluidness, which I really like.

Being in the education sector is another area where people do generally want to grow in some ways. A lot of the backgrounds are from teaching and they generally make great facilitators. They can often actually transition to UX if they want to. I have actually mentored someone through that within Education First, at my last job, and I see that it is possible. It’s really important. It’s useful to have people from different disciplines.

MP: Looking across the whole of your career, this strand around education seems to have been a recurring one. You spent that time with Education First and now you’re working with Pearson Education. I guess it begs the question in my mind, do you see yourself as being a teacher first and foremost? In the roles that you now do, as well as obviously having deliverables that you’ve got to produce for your stakeholders, does that interest in education come from a desire to in some way teach and coach and pass on what you know?

RL: Yeah, I think it became quite natural. People in my team have actually pointed that out. Even in one of the workshops I had to facilitate, where we had people that I’ve never met before, it was one of the key things they mentioned. They were like, “Were you a teacher in your past life? Because the way that you share the stories, the insights and everything, you just bring them to life like as you would do as a teacher.” But then a lot of the skills are quite transferable, in a way. Everyone could be a teacher in some ways. Everyone!

You’re both a teacher and a learner. I think if you have that kind of mindset, then you can be more curious and you want to learn more and you question things more. I think that’s fundamentally how you grow. I’ve seen how people think about motivation, how people think about building habits. You know, these are kind of applicable for everyone, not just within education itself. It’s just part of growth.

MP: I’d agree with that. I mean I’ve always had this working theory that the key thing in motivating someone to be an effective teacher is whether or not they are passionate enough about the particular subject area to be excited about passing it on to someone else. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about woodwork or whether you’re talking about digital design or whatever it is. If someone is genuinely enthused about what it is they’re trying to share, then they find effective ways to share it. Of course there are some skills that you can learn to improve that – some techniques – but I think it’s got to start with that, that passion and enthusiasm.

RL: Definitely! The best teachers I’ve seen are the ones that just keep you engaged. They keep you engaged not just by sharing what they know and presenting stuff, they actually find really creative ways for you to learn and immerse yourself in that learning process. It’s not just like a lecture delivering things to you, instructing you what you need to learn. That’s why I find different ways of learning valuable, like peer mentoring.

You can also have different kinds of delivery format. Some people prefer just to have it kind of bite size and listen to certain podcasts. It’s kind of making and creating that environment for you to grow. Finding one that works for you is important and that’s been quite key for my different career transitions.

I know I learn by doing, I learn by immersing myself, I learn through other people, I learn by shared experiences. It’s kind of informal learning, in a way. Education makes it very formal with assessments, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

MP: Do you think that gets harder as you get further on in your career? To strike that balance between the demands on you as someone who has now had a certain number of years of experience to share, to teach others, versus keeping that desire for ongoing learning fresh in yourself? Do you think about that balance and how you strike that for yourself?

RL: I think you have an awareness once things start to get a bit mundane or you perceive them to be a little bit boring. It is almost a signal and you kind of go, right, I’m probably in my comfort zone. I’m not being stretched enough.

MP: Ah, that dreaded comfort zone.

RL: Yes. I think that’s almost a trigger to think, well, okay, how else can I grow? And actually if we want to break silos, if we want to really have good user experience, then you have to have uncomfortable conversations. Like, with marketing departments. They might not naturally want, or have the same values or care about the same sort of things that we do. But if we want a better experience, we have to find ways to work with them. So you can already say that’s maybe a bit of a stretch. Then you’re like, “Well how can I kind of facilitate a healthy conversation with them to start a moving vehicle for change?”

I think that looking at very different disciplines to your own actually really helps. So, yes, I look within education, but I’ve also started to look a lot within health because that’s something that’s very important to me. You see what are the constraints within the systems that we have in place.

Taking a step back helps you to look at things differently, so I purposely sometimes immerse myself in uncomfortable situations. So say I know personally that I don’t like talking to people or I don’t feel comfortable talking to people who are more senior than me because somehow I feel that I maybe don’t have the authority or don’t have the knowledge or don’t have that wisdom. So it puts me off and then I’m not myself. Now I purposely use that as a challenge to try and break that and actually accumulate those little small wins. That is growth, when you’re learning new tools and techniques on the way.

MP: Absolutely. While ‘seniority’ can sometimes be a reliable guide to the level of wisdom someone is able to share about a particular situation, something I’ve found over all the years of doing MEX is that it’s often not the most reliable guide. In the moment, I’ve seen – particularly at our MEX events – outstanding contributions from people in the room who have probably got the least ‘seniority’, so to speak, in terms of being at the very earliest stages of their careers – having just come out of, say, a university course or being in their first role. But by virtue of enthusiasm or by virtue of, as you alluded to, that desire to dip into diverse different industries and diverse different experiences, they’re able to bring something to a conversation that someone who has been in a role for 20 plus years just doesn’t have access to.

It’s so important to have all of that coming together at different places. I mean, I often think about it in the context of events, because that’s what we do, and the need to have that diversity of people involved with events. But I think it’s true, whether that’s in your day-to-day work or whether that’s in the conversations that you’re having. It’s amazing, and perhaps this is something that you are now starting to get a sense of as you spend more time in this career, how much you yourself value speaking to people who, say, have just come out of university because they have a different set of wisdom to the one that you have access to. And it’s no less valid simply because they haven’t been in their career as long as you have.

RL: Exactly! And I think sometimes that even comes down to the way that we introduce ourselves, right? We start to say job titles rather than really uniting in a way that is about a topic or an area that we’re really passionate for. Starting from there really helps because it kind of removes all of those invisible boundaries that we put in place.

An example is that recently one colleague within Pearson, they decided to launch a book club, a virtual book club. It was about women playing big. Because we tend to play quite small, so how do we play bigger and make bigger impact with what we want in the world? It was really interesting. The people that came together, and it was a huge variety coming together, to discuss topics like, “What does it mean to me to play big?”. That is applicable to anyone.

It was just really interesting. The different phases of their lives. The ones who are returning back to work after being a mother kind of going, well I don’t have that confidence anymore to make that career change, I don’t know how to fit it in and stuff. That itself is a much more deep and meaningful conversation because we don’t judge, we don’t make that judgment and we don’t associate with job titles anymore. It’s really about that kind of topic or a problem – that we have a shared common thing – that gets us together and connected.

MP: It’s that thing of multiple perspectives and the value that they deliver. I mean it’s fundamental to user research. This is why we go out and try to speak to such a range of people. When you’re thinking about how that might then go on to inform a product or a service or a long term strategy. You often see things from a different perspective and you get your insight from having those different lenses to look at a situation. If there is an inherent value to being in this sort of world of UX, it is that it gives you that understanding of its value because that’s what you’re doing day to day when you’re going out and talking to people as part of your research process.

RL: Definitely, but there’s also something to keep in mind that certain cultures are not naturally as open or are more reserved. I think that’s something that’s really important. How do you bring in those people that probably don’t have a voice? How would you create that safe environment and that space that they can feel comfortable to share? Because it’s not within their norm. Say, like for Japan, I know that the whole hierarchy – that invisible part – there is a lot of respect for elders and so forth. Even within Chinese cultures – I see that as almost a constraint for myself sometimes.

MP: What’s been your hardest experience of that? Because I guess in the work that you’ve done, you’ve had particular exposure to this. You’ve spent time doing this kind of work in places like China. There’s always been that sort of sense of going out and being a bit of an explorer into other markets and other cultures. In the work that you’ve done, what was the hardest one that you had to overcome to get people to open up a little bit more to get the kind of insight that you needed?

RL: Interestingly enough, a lot of it is not particularly from the users when it’s a one-to-one. It is definitely when we’re doing ideation or sharing things with internal stakeholders and there’s the hierarchy level. I actually find that is the harder one to really get their voices heard, to get their ideas and their input. So the ones who are actually on the ground running the surveys, running the processes, versus the ones that are their managers that are overseeing it. That’s the challenge I found time and time again. They’re being a bit cautious and they’re not familiar or, find it very unusual almost to kind of have this open, collaborative way of working and recognising that. It’s almost like, well, how do I create that first safe space for them?

MP: Have you had any examples where you feel like you have been able to cross that chasm and get people to open up? Any techniques which you feel are particularly effective at getting to that point? It’s a tough thing, I guess, and it probably differs from market to market, from situation to situation?

RL: There’s this book called Culture Map that I read and it’s a really good framework to think about. They really mapped out all the different ways. Whether it’s communication or whether it is autonomy. You know, the full range. And seeing where vaguely they are at. So you’ve got to be aware whether it’s within their personality or whether it’s a cultural thing. Even distinguishing that first.

And building relationships remotely I think is quite tricky. But I do find having a conversation with that person on the one-to-one first always makes a difference. Sometimes they feel comfortable thinking through certain things, so they’re a bit more reflective and giving certain things up front for them to think about. That helps them out to kind of navigate through this uncertainty thing. Yeah, I do feel every single time that slight one-to-one before a workshop, before anything, getting to know them a little bit – on the personal level that makes a huge difference in some form – whether it’s virtual or whether it’s face-to-face.

MP: It reminds me of a story actually. A friend of mine, going back a few years now, ended up being the sort of ‘go between’ for an American organisation which was acquiring a Finnish organisation. I remember him talking about one of the things you just alluded to: that need to recognise that different cultures have different cadences of thinking and sharing those thoughts back to a group.

The particular challenge he had to try and help, I guess both sides of that equation to overcome, was this: the American company was used to situations where if there was a silence in a meeting, it was generally a bad sign. The fact that the conversation had ground to a halt. Whereas for the people working in the Finnish organisation, that was very much part and parcel of the culture. It’s an expectation that if a question was asked, time would be given to sit and contemplate and come back with a meaningful answer.

He ended up being in the role of cultural facilitator between those two things – to help each side understand that no, this wasn’t actually grinding to a halt – that in fact this was just part of it and they were going to get to where they needed to, but there just needed to be that understanding and that respect of the different cadences of thought between different cultures.

RL: Definitely. I mean that book explains it really well with some of the things I observed. I had to learn through the mistakes that I’ve made too. One key one is when at the end of a meeting, someone asks: “Any questions?” Well, not everyone is comfortable with that. Maybe if there’s a channel and a way that they can just follow up a bit more privately, they might be more comfortable. I know that for Asian cultures in particular that seems to be a recurring theme to be able to do that a bit more.

MP: I’ll put a link in the show notes to the book so that people can check it out and hopefully find some useful tips in there.

Do you ever think about the role of fun in that? It makes me think of some of the sessions which Patrizia Bertini, who’s been involved with the MEX initiative in different ways, has run for us over the years. She uses the Lego Serious Play facilitation method, which has a natural element of playfulness and fun to it that tends to get people to open up. One of the particular techniques I remember her explaining was this way in which you have to try and get people to leave their previous baggage at the door of a facilitated creative session, particularly when you’re trying to do co-creative activities. To try and find some way for people to tangibly express that they’re no longer so and so, X-Y-Z job title, representing X-Y-Z company. Actually they are someone who just has a certain set of characteristics or a certain approach to creativity that they can bring with them without that kind of baggage. Is that something you’ve ever come across in the work you’ve done?

RL: That’s actually a really good point. We did some co-creation with kids and naturally you have to make it fun for them to engage. We’re quite lucky that we have an experience lab in London where we have bean bags, that is quite modular in terms of design, and we can make it into a meeting room, we can make it into a brainstorm room, we can make it quite lively. Even the colors. We can chose to make it a bit more colorful, put a bit of music on in the background so it’s not silent when they’re drawing away, creating stories for us. It’s finding the medium that resonates with them, that people universally understand. That was quite key.

Observing teachers, how they add the element of fun to their warm-up, how they loosen people up. That is quite a good way to see it. I probably, without even knowing it, incorporated elements of that and brought that into my sessions. But you’re absolutely right. I mean getting them to just be a bit looser and not think about it as, like, we need to get to your ‘correct’ answer, we need to be quite rigid about this and being quite serious about it. Loosening up is probably quite key.

That kind of icebreaker needs to be done a little bit differently too. Not relying on the generic ones that you have, but within the problem that you’re solving, asking is there a different way to kind of get people together?

Show that bit of vulnerability as well. Sometimes I’ve found that was quite helpful for me as a facilitator to add that bit. By being a little bit vulnerable it shows that, you know, I’m open, I’m honest and it kind of has that welcoming aspect to it. But if you think about how would I make it fun for kids and would they join in, I find that it’s a good way to almost naturally bring in elements of fun.

MP: It also gets to this idea about what it really means to be in the world of experience design and in some sort of role which is tied to user research going forward because these are not necessarily the traditional skills that have been associated with this area. Yet they are so vital to the future of it now that almost every organisation is putting in place some kind of user experience function, with more or less degrees of effectiveness. But now that’s become kind of table stakes, the question then becomes, well, how do you ensure it remains a competitive differentiator? What are the skills of the people who you’re putting into those roles, that are going to help you to drive it to the next level?

Is this something that you are thinking about in relation to your team at Pearson? It sounds like you’re in a phase where that team is going to grow over the next little while. Are you starting to think about the kind of people that you want to bring into those roles? Who might have that additional level of skill to be able to facilitate in more creative ways to be able to draw out more insight than perhaps the traditional methods?

RL: We’ve started to do some of that internally, but it is reaching the point where I’m like, “I need different ways.” What you mentioned about the person who is in that kind of theatre design background, I mean that’s brilliant. Acting – that is a really good way to loosen up and prototype.

We’re at that stage where we’ve grown quite steadily I would say, in a good way. I didn’t realise that actually I was thinking about culture within the team, that each individual plays a role in shaping that. Before I was just like, oh well I need to try and push that, or trying to create that space. But everything that I do and even small things and actions accumulate and add to that culture.

It’s almost facilitating and giving them the freedom to make things happen as well. It’s less about telling people what to do or how to do it. It’s giving them the space and the permission to actually explore and experiment a bit. That’s something that is still hard to convey within Pearson, in the sense that we talk a lot about experimenting and we talk a lot about ‘you can fail’, but I still don’t see those kind of risks taken. It’s almost like, “Oh well you kind of failed, but hey…we haven’t.” It’s still within that little bit of comfort zone, so how do we push that a bit more? The ones who are a bit more risk taking, a bit more of a change agent sort of mentality and quite adaptable.

It’s probably quite important. Building that resilience within our team is quite important to navigate through some of the challenges that we have as we grow out. That’s something that I haven’t thought too much about but because we are just about to hire our first service designer, yes, I am starting to think about what form that might take. I mean, from your experience, what did you find that has been useful?

MP: As you say, often one of the biggest challenges can be that trade off between the sort of security of the well trodden path and one which stays within acceptable parameters for success without taking too much risk. If we recognise that there is a value to taking what could be perceived by some as being a risk of bringing on people with, say, a more diverse background, bringing on people with experience which seems tangential rather than directly related to an area, but that you feel may expand the overall team’s capability by bringing in those different viewpoints. Then it seems to me that really evidence speaks.

So the more people, not just within your organisation but across this whole community, can do to document how those kinds of experiments went and what were the hard parts, what were the parts which work better than expected. To sort of provide the community of practice with the body of evidence, which allows people to justify that more easily. Then maybe it becomes a simpler thing to be able to go to budget holders or people who may be not as familiar with the day-to-day of the area and say, “This is what we need to do,” and to take what can be perceived as a risk because you know that it’s going to lead to a greater reward in the future. That’s easier said than done. Often teams have got enough on their plate just fighting for day-to-day things and trying to keep the team growing and delivering to the deadlines that it needs to deliver to. But I’ve had the chance on this show to speak to a few different people who are trying different ways.

One which springs to mind is the stuff going on at Lowe’s. They’re the equivalent of B&Q – a big DIY chain in the US – and they were able to get a mandate, I guess from higher up within the organisation where there was a real belief that you need to try some different things. They were trying all sorts of different experiments. Everything from producing a comic book, which illustrated some of the things that the organisation might aspire to do differently in the future, to building these big immersive environments to test out some of the new technologies. And because they were able to tell a story around it, because they’re able to document where that succeeded and how it related back to the business, I think there was an awareness from the senior members of the team that storytelling had to be compelling to take people along on that journey with them. They were able to build that step-by-step and have some success with it. So I guess there’s probably always going to be that element of understanding that if you want to push things forward, then you’ve got be conscious that you have to tell a story which allows others who don’t understand the nuance and the detail of what you’re doing, because it’s not necessarily their day job to come along on that journey with you.

RL: I’ve actually found that even storytelling through talks and I think, in everything that I do, it’s something that people can use to relate to me more easily. But it’s also a bit of aspiration and inspiration. Sometimes I feel that the story can be told a bit more visually. That’s quite compelling, I think, for them. It draws their attention.

MP: So I guess we get back to that power and value of teaching again. And I’m curious, if you weren’t working in this area of digital experience design, what would you choose to teach?

RL: That’s a really difficult question because I have so many interests!

MP: Well, I guess you didn’t come on the podcast just to do the easy questions?

RL: I guess one part is that I’ve been on a journey of wellbeing and holistic health and lifestyle. The eastern world has taught me about ying and yang, the balance. Things in harmony. That has been eye opening. I think about wellbeing because a lot of times we think about being prescribed things by doctors. People fix us instead of looking at solving these problems for ourselves. That has been a big limitation for me previously. I never thought about it in that way. How having and cultivating certain good lifestyle habits makes a huge difference.

Also being able to live quite mindfully. Mindfulness plays a big role. I think in everything that we do we can be better by being mindful, as designers, as human beings. Technology and everything moves so fast. We forget to be present and to be whole and to take space. I found that’s really important and that’s a message I would like to share from my own personal experience.

MP: It’s one of those really important balances in all walks of life. I do feel there’s a particular urgency to it for people who work in roles which naturally are at the cutting edge and at the very fastest pace of technological development. Also with that added responsibility of being in a role where you need to have an ongoing empathy and a really deep empathy for the people that you’re trying to understand in your role as an experience designer. That requires a lot of mental bandwidth. I think it is probably very important that people take the time to remember there needs to be a balance and there needs to be a mindful approach to that. Otherwise the sort of pressures that you put on yourself to remain at the top of your game in both of those areas can be pretty demanding.

RL: Exactly. I think that is something that I had to try and work to overcome. That kind of resilience is probably a good way to put it.

MP: It’s been such a pleasure catching up Rachel. It’s great to hear what’s been happening since you last spoke at MEX. Do you stay in touch and it would be great to hear what else comes out of your work at Pearson and what else comes next in your career.

RL: Wonderful. Thank you so much for having me. It’s been great.

For further reference, the show notes for episode 54 contain links to many of the things Rachel and Marek discussed. Hear future conversations first on the MEX podcast. Subcribe on Apple PodcastsSoundcloudStitcherTuneIn or by searching ‘MEX Design Talk’ in your favourite podcast player.

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