Design Leader Insights - Leah Russell on User Experience Across Numerous Industries

February 21, 2023


Alex Smith: Design leader Insights is brought to you by Fuego UX, a UX design consultancy focused on creating simple and intuitive digital experiences. Leah, thanks so much for joining the show today. 

Leah Russell: Yeah, I'm happy to be here. Thanks for having me. 

Alex Smith: Yeah, for sure. And to get started, can you give the audience a little bit of context into your journey in UX? 

Leah Russell: Yeah. So I started in probably an unconventional way, my degrees in school are actually in Public Relations, and Religious Studies. Two things that are obvious that I'm going to go into UX and design with. But I started off in PR, and absolutely hated it. I couldn't believe I've gotten into something that I'd spent four years getting a degree and this is ridiculous. So at the time, my brother was actually in digital consulting. And he said I think we have a role that could be interesting for someone with your background, because most of the PR background as a journalism background. And so I went in to talk to them. And they basically said, if you're willing to take a job that has no title, no job description, no real parameters around it, we will take a chance on someone who has no technology background. And through that I was introduced to the world of then called information architecture, which has grown into UX design. And so I had this amazing opportunity where someone took a chance on me. And I learned with the industry. And I learned and grew as the discipline grew, and have continued on that journey, and had a really successful career. So always take a chance. That's what I learned from that. 

Alex Smith: Love that advice. And in your career, I think what's really unique and awesome is you've worked across I think so many types of verticals, which, which I think is invaluable. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience? And kind of what you learned across different verticals? 

Leah Russell: Absolutely. So I think one of the things that's so fascinating about experience design is that the tenants and the principles are applicable regardless of what the industry is. And I think the more you learn about the industry, you can get more in depth. But the basic ideas and concepts really can be applied across that, across those verticals. And I think I really learned that because I started in consulting. And in consulting, you were jumping from industry to industry and each project that you are on, you had to jump in and really learn what is banking doing? What is the stock market doing? What is day trading? I learned a lot about those kinds of things. But I knew that the core of the work that I was doing, really was applicable. And I saw that and that really shaped the rest of my career because I really saw that I could move as I needed to or as I wanted to, and really apply those skills. And so I went from consulting and then went into travel, and worked in travel for about nine years, which was an incredibly exciting space to be in, I still, my heart is still with travel. And it was interesting, because from travel actually moved into home services. Whether it is insurance, health care, home services, or travel, those tenants are really, really similar. And those industries become more, they are more similar than you may have ever thought the more you jump in and look at it. 

Alex Smith: Yeah, I love that. I think, yeah, it's user experience. It's applicable across so many industries. So Leah along this journey you've also managed a lot of design teams. Tell me about that. And kind of how you how you run your design teams. 

Leah Russell: You know, I think there's two different aspects when you look at how you run a team and one is how you organize it. And one is kind of how you actually lead it and what your philosophies are on that. You know, there's so many things in our industry right now. Is it product design, one person who does all aspects? Do you actually focus by discipline? How do you make those decisions? And I really don't, and then there's a lot of debates about it, but I don't think there's a right or a wrong. I think how you organize the team is really looking at what are the needs of the business now and moving forward? And where is your team professionally? Where are they in their design journey and maturity? And so you're really thinking about what is an organization and a structure that makes sense and ideally is scalable? Is growable. How, what are you going to need as, as the team continues to grow and the grow may be by numbers,  it may be by the type of work you're doing. It may be, you know, growth means a lot of different things. And so, you know, the debate about there's only one way to do it. No there's not, there's a million ways to do it, you really have to look at the team and the business and what you need to do to really decide how you want to organize the team. But then once you get that, that's table stakes. Once you do that, it's okay, how do you build this team, and I have some leadership tenants that I really follow. But one of the ones that I'm pretty passionate about is continuous learning. I've already said, I like to learn a lot. But I think it's incredibly valuable to have professional development as a core piece of what you do with your team. I, you know, I hate to hear people say, I really want to learn that, but I never have time to. But the more you learn that the more beneficial it is to the work you're doing, which means we do better products, we design and build better products, we design and build, you know, the company or which organization, what you're trying to do grows. So that professional learning, I think there's a famous Steve Jobs quote about, you know, what if we train our people, and they leave, but it's what if we don't train them and they stay?

Alex Smith: Yeah.

Leah Russell: I believe in that. And I think that really building in professional development is something that's really important to me. I've done it with all of my teams. And so even where organizations don't have some sort of goal setting or professional development plan, my teams have always done that. Because it's important to me to understand what they want to learn, so that we can find opportunities for them to learn and grow. We also almost all of my teams, we have built into development time, where there is time that is dedicated, whether it is on a monthly basis or a quarterly basis for you to go and learn something new. I don't actually even care what it is you're learning, I'm not going to mandate it. But it's to really respond to that I would love to do that, I don't have time. Well, then let's make time. I really, really believe in that continuous learning and developing your people. Because we all benefit from it. 

Alex Smith: Leah, what advice do you have for new designers entering the field today?

Leah Russell: Don't be shy and take chances. You know, my whole career started because I took a chance. But it's also, so take those chances. But I also say, get out and meet designers that are out in the field, ask questions, all of us have taken that journey. And I've never met a designer that's not willing to share. And to help the person that comes up behind us. You know, I was in this field when it was very first starting. And so to see how it's grown, that's because we've all given back. And we've all, we all care about what we do.  And so we want to help people that want to get into the field. So if you're a new designer and starting out, meet people, ask questions. Denver in particular has some incredible meetups that I know you are very involved in.

Alex Smith: Yeah.

Leah Russell: You've got opportunities, meet people on LinkedIn. Reach out to people in that field, follow people, understand but don't be shy. All of us are willing to help all of us want to make this field even better and continue to grow it. So if you're a new designer, learn as much as you can. They need as many people as you can. And don't be shy. We're all here to do great work and want to help you do great work too. It's sometimes just reaching out and saying hey, can we have a virtual coffee? I'd like to pick your brain. But there are, I mean, don't be shy, ask people. I've done portfolio reviews for complete strangers. I've looked at resumes for complete strangers. Don't take advantage of people's time. But if you've built a rapport with someone or you value their opinion, ask. Worst they can say is no. Yeah. Yeah, for sure.

Alex Smith: Well, thank you so much for coming on the show today. 

Leah Russell: Thank you for having me. This has been fun.