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Career pathways into tech #1: user researcher

Lisa McClure

Lisa McClure is an Opencast user researcher, currently supporting the Department for Work and Pensions on content. In the first of our ‘career pathways into tech’ posts, she shares her unusual career journey to date – and explains why user-centred design matters 

What is user-centred design in a nutshell? 

“User-centred design is about putting the user at the centre of whatever you’re doing. It’s a process of understanding what users need, so you can build and test your product or service and be sure it helps the user achieve their goal.” 

Why does it matter? 

“If someone says, ‘I want you to build me a dining chair’ and you go off and build something based on taste or budget, you may end up with a sofa. It’s a kind of chair, but can you eat from it at a table? Yes, but you’re probably going to get covered in soup. That’s not the experience you want for your users. 

“If you put the user at the heart of what you’re doing, you’re going to create a product or service that is highly usable and accessible to them.” 

Why has UCD become such a big part of software development? It hasn’t always been the case. 

“No, but it is now. It brings value to a project and is about building in success from the start. You wouldn’t want to build something without considering the user because you can end up with something that is neither use nor ornament. It is intrinsically linked, like breathing and oxygen.” 

What does a user researcher do? 

“I’m involved throughout the process. I conduct research with the audiences interested in using a product or service to understand their behaviours and needs. I share those insights with multidisciplinary teams - content designers, business analysts, developers - who use them to create or improve the service or product.” 

How did you get into this role? Was it your plan from the start? 

“No! I took a very convoluted, meandering path. I studied illustration at university, but left feeling ill-prepared to work in the industry. I went into the civil service, working in communications and PR. When I was made redundant, I ended up in a kind of five-year career wasteland. I did a lot of different jobs in different industries. I was comfortably into my thirties before I got into user-centred design. 

“I spent six months working as a receptionist booking people in for Employment and Support Allowance assessments, and now I’m at the Department for Work and Pensions working with people who are designing to make those services a better user experience. It’s weird the way your career twists and turns – you never know how experiences can be useful in interesting ways later down the line.” 

Were there times where you weren’t sure how a role would end up or whether it was what you wanted to do? How did you overcome that? 

“Definitely! When I was made redundant, I was worried that I’d sabotaged my career and should have stayed where it was safe. I put a lot of time into protecting my mental health and wellbeing. I watched a lot of TED talks and went to events that helped me understand possibilities. I sought out opportunities to build my skills and expand my knowledge. That went on for five years. It was not quick.” 

Now you’re in this role, what are your stand-out successes and achievements? 

“The key success as a researcher is bringing to a client user insights that help them understand how business decisions affect the success of a product or service. The people that I work with are talented, lovely people. They want to do the best job possible and that can be very rare. It’s great to be surrounded by people who share a passion for user-centred design.” 

If you could talk to your former self earlier in your career, what advice would you give yourself? 

“My dad had a framed certificate on his wall. It was beautiful calligraphy with gold foil. It celebrated 20 years of service with one company. I think I expected to have that same kind of trajectory. When that wasn’t working for me, it really had an impact. I would go back and explain to myself that it’s not a problem if you’re not an expert in one thing. I would definitely go back and say, it’s OK to have a broad range of skills. It’s not a negative.” 

A day in the life 

“I’ve got lots of different projects on the go. At DWP it usually starts with a stand-up ceremony, keeping my team up to date on the status of different threads of work. The day ahead is usually a combination of meetings and time set aside to get things done. 

“There are lots of different streams of work, and I try to move each one forward little bits at a time. There’ll be a show-and-tell, content design community event, or a broader discussion. It’s important to keep in touch with the content community to understand current challenges and strengthen the connection between strategy and on-the-ground service teams. 

“I prefer a calm start to mornings, where possible. So I’ve found it helpful to wrap up loose ends and tasks the night before so I can start fresh. If anything does happen first thing, I am ready to respond. With the pandemic, I have tried to be a bit more strict with myself on time. 

“Evenings are often best for me getting writing done. I can work knowing  communication channels are quiet and I have the freedom to think a bit more expansively.  

“In the evenings I will also go for a walk and maybe listen to a podcast. I don’t just listen to podcasts about user research or content, because my interests are broad. I enjoyed watching Line of Duty, then listening to the Shrine of Duty podcast. I have a few interests that separate my work and spare time.” 

User-centred reading 

The content strategy podcast 
Rebuild: How To Thrive In The Kindness Economy - Mary Portas
 
Don’t Make Me Think - Steve Krug
 

Lisa was talking at Opencast’s recent ‘Exploring career pathways into tech’ webinar, as part of its OpenForum initiative. Watch our YouTubes from the session here.

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