An Interview with Catalina Naranjo-Bock, User Experience Design Researcher

This week rewarded me with the opportunity and privilege to connect with Catalina Naranjo-Bock, UX Design Researcher, and discuss key UX issues that are trending today in technology. Catalina is a hybrid user experience designer and researcher who has collaborated with creative departments in companies across the US, Europe, Canada and South America in the area of human-centered product development. She has also served as adjunct faculty, speaker, and author in different design and research related contexts. Her professional engagements include projects with Intel, LEGO, Nickelodeon, MTV, and Yahoo!. Explore this interview in more depth to discover the answers to burning user experience issues. I see that your previous experiences were quite extensive. Please tell me a bit about how you got into the field of user experience research and your work with kids and youth industry. I received my Master’s Degree in Design, with a focus on User Experience and Human-Computer Interaction. I specialized in designing for children and young audiences, particularly the ages between 0 to 25 years of age. That’s how I got into companies that create things for children. I was not only learning about UX itself but I became knowledgeable about child development and the needs that young audiences have in their different developmental stages. I have worked in many different products and worn many hats through my experience as a UX professional. a the way from creating software for robotic products for children to creating web experiences to be used by all ages in global settings. There’s quite a difference when you are designing for kids – Just to name a very basic example, when designing for young kids that can’t read, things have to be very graphic and you need to make everything understandable without the use of text. I have worked for different types of companies, always creating digital products, but not always on companies that are part of the technology industry. The field of user experience can be less known depending on the type of company you are working for. In some instances, I’ve had to form and build the discipline within the company, or help companies craft UX positions from scratch. I’ve worked with all kinds of professionals, from psychologists and anthropologists to computer scientists and product managers, while I bring the knowledge related to UX design and research. Now you are working in the technology industry, and you’re doing the UX design research over there – what’s it like to work as UX design researcher in these types of companies? I find that in the technology industry and specifically in big companies, the UX research role is fairly specific and highly specialized. So, even though I work as a part of a design team, I am completely focused on user research, whereas before I was doing both design and research at the same time. The user-research team accompanies the development team in all stages of the process. We work on inspirational, innovation, re-design and concept evaluation projects to see how people are solving their needs and analyze their behavior through a variety of research methods in order to progress in the design and product development process. We try to seek for users’ feedback at different stages of the design process, and once we have a high definition prototype, we run usability tests or other evaluation methods and then launch the product keeping an eye on how it does over time. I think that in general, the role of UX in the technology industry is aiming to become more strategic and structured because the types of products call for it. Some companies in the technology industry are very structured in this sense, while other types of companies are still learning. The more I research about the topic of user experience, it gets meddled with other terms such as customer experience and customer success. What distinguishes user experience as its own unified, unique field? Sometimes when you say “customers” and not “users”, people will relate the term to customer service and the representatives working with customers to help them with a product. In my opinion, whether you talk about a customer or a user, the field of user experience tries to drive the product development process by putting the people you’re designing for at the center of the process. This, of course, should be in combination with the business goals and technology capabilities. Historically, before UX came along, the way people designed was reliant on product manufacturing, streamlining processes, and making money. There was some user-testing done, but it was not the primary focus. While all of these goals continue to be vital, the introduction of user experience shifts the focus from strict monetization to creating great product experiences that put the people that use the product first, thus allowing the money to follow. This mindset brings in users AS you design a product in several ways – through feedback sessions, A/B testing, co-creation, or observation and learning for inspiration. The field is currently defining itself and it will probably evolve substantially in the near future, but it is unique in that it changes the focus of the product development process by adding the user or customer as a key part of the puzzle. I’m seeing lots of companies product-focused and I think it’s a necessity that companies will have to shift to be more user-focused. How can the importance of user experience be introduced to management in a company that seems to have no idea about it? If you ask people if user experience is important, everyone will say it is. But elevating UX to the corporate level and implementing it in a fast-paced product development process can be a struggle. Some people have a hard time understanding the value of user experience when there are constant time and budget constraints, and it can be hard to sell the process. The strategy that I find most successful involves bringing the teams I work with to user-testing sessions or visits to users’ homes. It can be very valuable for the team to see users interacting with people, places and things in their daily life, because it will help them to understand their design challenge in different ways than what they initially thought. It opens their mind. Generally, after being exposed to the process, there is a shift in mentality and you can see more requests for following UX design and research activities. It takes a while because of time and budget priorities, but, if executives understand the benefit of the process, they will spread the word to the lower-level employees. In large companies, this is harder, but in a smaller company it can be a bit easier. What do you predict will be the future trend of user experience? I think user experience will continue to become more strategically important instead of just service-oriented.  What I’m seeing right now is user experience company-wide goals and metrics that are driven by the highest management level. This is starting to happen more in the technology world, but might spread to other types of products. UX roles might become a lot more specialized; however, what companies will look for is people that have cross-functional skills and can work in a variety of settings. You will start seeing compartments in the field as companies try to find out the best user experience strategy. You will also see the new grads with lots of different skills in their education and a background in design combined with other types of fields that previously might not be associated. What is this whole issue of responsive design? People are trying to figure out how to design for as many screens as possible. When you are here in Silicon Valley, you live five years in the future. I see people here have easier access to all sorts of devices: tablets, phones, televisions, laptops, and desktops all at the same time; but even depending on the browser you use and the resolution of your screen, things would look different. Responsive design tries to create one product with streamlined code that will render itself perfectly on all sets of devices. If you use different browsers, it will look equally good as well. I don’t think responsive design is there yet. Mobile is something people are still figuring out and it will only become more complex. Right now, we have Apple and Google as main players but it will evolve. With Android, iPhone, Microsoft, iPad user interface guidelines, and more, it is difficult in the development process to create one solution for everything because you need to carefully look at how design will be rendered on all of these interfaces. If you are in the digital world, you will see trends come and go. Things move very quickly and I’ve felt this even more vividly since I arrived to the Silicon Valley. It is sometimes a problem because you cannot tackle things completely due to quick change and it can be difficult for companies to plan out long term strategies.