Asking Why: A Conversation with Faith Bolliger

efcf0a9b-20ed-43d9-91a1-7e8e02923886Faith Bolliger is the Head of Service Design at AKQA, a global design agency with offices in North and South America, Europe, and Asia. Faith began her career in UX fifteen years ago and, over the years, she has held a variety of in-house and agency positions in both New York City and San Francisco. Faith was kind enough to speak with me recently about her experiences working in UX, the skills she feels young UX designers should have, and some of the opportunities and challenges facing the UX community today. I chose to speak with Faith because of the variety of her professional UX experiences.

You hold a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a master’s degree in Sociology & Historical Studies from the New School. Do you feel your interest in sociology is apparent in the ways you approach UX design?

Sociology is concerned with the questions of “why?” Why do we have racism, sexism? Why do we have poverty? The why questions, which attracted me to sociology, are one of my chief interests as a UX professional. There are a lot of people in the profession who focus on the “how.” How do we design something that is innovative? How do we design something that is unique? But for me, questions of how have always been secondary. I like to ask why? Why are we making the design choices we’re making? Why will our solution deliver value? Why will people want to use it?

Your first position as a UX Designer was at McKinsey & Co., where you started as a part-time temp. You’re now the Head of Service design at AKQA. Could you talk a bit about this unique career trajectory?

My introduction to UX was serendipitous. I began working at McKinsey part-time as a temp, in 2001, while I was completing my graduate degree. After I completed the degree, I decided not to pursue a PhD and focused on going to law school, instead. I felt that the law would allow me to apply what I had learned during my studies in sociology and have some impact. While I was waiting to attend law school, I continued temping at McKinsey and was eventually asked to interview for a generalist team position in their Internet Communications department. I was hired and had to choose a focus among development, project management, or design. I chose design because I knew a lot of people working in design at the time and figured it would be fun to learn some of the programs, such as Photoshop and Illustrator. I ended up not going to law school, and instead, began taking a variety of night classes in design, color theory, and illustration, at SVA, Parsons, and NYU. I wanted to strengthen my design sensibilities and these classes helped me to achieve this goal.

A couple of years later, I transitioned to information architecture during what was proving to be a particularly exciting time: technology was beginning to influence what we could do with the browser and there were many more opportunities for in-page interactions. Applications and software were also being released that users could customize. Everything was becoming more interactive. From that point, I really started getting into user-centered design, which meant advocating for user testing.

After I left McKinsey and moved to San Francisco in 2008, I took a job at the brilliant interaction and design services consultancy Cooper. Their design and research methodologies are heavily interview- and ethnography-based, so it was a great fit for someone with my background. In my current positon as Head of Service Design at AKQA, I no longer work on interactions within mobile products or websites; I’m looking at cross-channel interactions, touch points…the entire ecosystem.

While you began your UX career as an in-house designer at McKinsey, the majority of your work since then has been at agencies. Was the transition from in-house to agency difficult?

Even though I was technically in-house at McKinsey, our team acted more as an internal consultancy. We had a variety of in-house clients and we built products for those clients. For example, we built time and expense reporting tools for the HR and Administration departments. I feel like at McKinsey I learned how to be a small agency. I still had stakeholders who had to make the final decisions and I still didn’t own the product, which was very similar to how I worked at the agency Cooper. At AKQA it’s been more of a mix. Some of the accounts I work on are on retainer and that means we have an ongoing relationship that gets renewed every few years.

As the manager of a UX team at an agency, what are some of the qualities you value most in the designers working under you?

It’s critical that my designers be ambitious and take initiative. Designers who choose to work agency-side need to have these qualities. Agencies can be a great place to learn design, because of the variety of work being done there, but they are not environments well suited to hand-holding. If you really boil it down, clients are paying for work and that can create a lot of pressure; constant pressure, however, can bring out the best work in some people. Still, many designers who have decided to work agency-side are finding themselves and their agencies being acquired by companies with deep pockets who want to incorporate them into their in-house teams. Hot Studio’s acquisition by Facebook and Fjord’s acquisition by Accenture are just two examples of this ongoing trend.

Learning skills on the job is a common expectation for many professionals. What types of skills should new UX professionals be expecting to learn on the job?

During the first few years, it’s just about learning all of the tool sets and how to structure your design thinking. When starting out, it may feel very tense when you’re uncertain of how your work will be received, but people are expected to hit some road bumps and have some problems along the way, so you shouldn’t take the judgments too critically. It’s just normal growth. Learning how to interact with clients and learning how to manage teams are skills that are difficult and stressful to learn on the job, but unfortunately, there’s no other way to learn them. Handling a conversation with a client that’s gone wrong, particularly when you’re new to working directly with clients, can be very stressful, as can leading a team of designers for the first time.

We are currently beginning to work with prototyping tools for our final assignments. Do you have a favorite prototyping tool you’d recommend to designers new to UX?

My favorite is still old-school paper prototyping. It’s just easier. It’s also great because you can work through a lot of ideas and shop them around very quickly. When you start getting digital, it’s slower and cumbersome, and you become really fixed to it—you’re a little less open creatively to changing ideas because you have already spent so long designing it and getting it built.

Are there any emerging trends in user experience that you’re particularly excited about?

I know that some people in the industry think VR (virtual reality) is going to blow-up. In terms of the industries I’m mainly working with, which are retail, e-commerce, media, etc., improving upon cross-channel experiences and the tools that support these experiences are areas I’m excited about. Taking your online shopping experience into the store, or store experience back online…that’s something that hasn’t been very smooth. I’m interested in closing that loop; of bringing someone who hasn’t bought your product into your brand, getting them to purchase, and then retaining them.

Many of the students in my classes will be graduating at the end of this semester. What kind of a job market do you think they will be finding themselves in?

There’s a lot of opportunity out there for both agency and in-house positions, at least in the San Francisco area, which I’m more familiar with these days. Universities have just recently begun understanding how to teach UX, so the field is by no means saturated. There seems to be much more of a demand for UX designers than supply.