Gaia Armellin | Backbase
Developing curiosity helps a child to be willing and able to continually grow, learn and question what is around them. So when Gaia Armellin started exploring her granny's loft she stumbled across piles of magazines. Fascinated by the layouts, storytelling images and psychology, that was the moment Gaia realised her passion for design...and boy did it grow.
Now Principle UX and Chapter Lead at Backbase, Gaia manages the design consultancy team, supports client projects and even has time to promote internal initiatives. And if that isn't enough, she is also a mentor, offering free career and UX coaching to UX designers looking for their first job or transitioning careers - which is clear based on all the AMAZING takeaways, scattered throughout her story!
Why don't we all take ten minutes today to revisit our inner-child passions and see if they are related to what we love today...
TELL ME A BIT ABOUT YOUR JOB AND WHAT A DAY IN THE LIFE LOOKS LIKE FOR YOU?
I work as Principal UX and Chapter Lead for the Customer Success Europe team of Backbase, a global fintech company in the financial industry. The role entails managing the design consultancy team (e.g. building the team, growing talents, on and offboarding, creating regional UX strategy...); supporting clients' projects (e.g. handling escalations); and driving or promoting internal initiatives mainly related to the Backbase UX Guild and other departments.
Usually, my day starts at 9:00, checking emails and Slack messages. I quickly triage the requests, handle the most important ones then jump into calls with other UX leads to align on initiatives and work on to-dos. From 11 am until lunch I'm generally free, to work on such initiatives, create workshops, and take care of urgent demands. After lunch, I have biweekly 1:1s with my reports, interviews with new candidates, meetings with department leaders to align on initiatives and work on to-do's, or supporting projects with design consultancy. The end of my day is focused on writing documentation and knowledge sharing (e.g. new career framework, UX WOW,...). Every day is different and there are always unexpected challenges that come up. This is what makes it interesting :)
HOW AND WHY DID YOU GET INTO DESIGN?
It's a long story but for time's sake, it's thanks to hours spent in my granny's attic. When we visited her, I sneaked up there where grandma stored piles of magazines. I was fascinated by the ads. The layouts, storytelling images, the psychology and intention behind it. It was all so compelling.
My love for design sprung from psychology and visuals, but it stuck because it's an incredibly wide topic. How the medium influence design, how to create a service, how business and finance impact decisions, how to work with politics and cultures…It's a never-ending learning experience.
WHAT CHALLENGES DO YOU THINK WOMEN FACE IN THE DESIGN INDUSTRY? HOW DO YOU THINK THESE CHALLENGES SHOULD BE TACKLED?
Premise: 1- I don’t feel comfortable answering for the whole “women” category as I assume challenges are different based on world regions, cultural and societal backgrounds, and working industries. For this question, I’ll use my experience only, and being solely my experience and privileged, it’ll be biased and limited. 2- As much as we're pushing for inclusion, the design industry for tech and banking is still largely male-dominated. Therefore, to tackle women's challenges we should first solve the systemic issues of this male-dominated industry but that's too wide of a topic for here. Having set the premise, I can now deep-dive into the daily challenges because they act as symptoms of the root cause and they are more easily recognizable..
Paternalization and not being taken seriously. At times, it's about warnings and forecasts about risks management being laughed at, or peers utterly unaware of context and problematics explaining my job to me; at times, it's about not being accepted as a manager, or having to patch up the backlash peers received for not following direct instructions; at times it's being told women are good at something just because of gender. My way of tackling this is the UX way - by taking a step back, observing, asking questions, and gathering data to understand why men are acting that way. What part of my message is not clear? What part of me are they reacting to? And what part of their human experience (memories, fears…) is present in the interaction? This plus morphing into what the audience feels familiar lower barriers and make space for human connection beyond stereotypes, first impressions, and biases.
Sexualization and focus on looks & appearance. Although I live in the Netherlands and my work experience is mainly in northern Europe where gender bias is lower than in other countries, it truly makes a difference in what clothes I wear and how I present myself at work, especially at events or client meetings. It’s fairly usual to be told that I look tired when not wearing make-up or that the first thing noticed is the attire. Worse cases are colleagues addressing me inappropriately at the workplace, making suggestive comments during interviews with candidates, or in work communication channels. However, these comments come from any gender and they seem more related to the societal normalization of focusing primarily on looks than anything else.
Not being woman enough, but also not being man enough. Any person can incorporate a plethora of sides that make external expectations based on gender stereotypes limiting and biased. Hence, hearing about how caring, pleasant, and accommodating I should be being a woman is quite funny, as much as it is being told that I’m not aggressive enough, that I should be more dominant, and less emotional if I want to go ahead.
Violence or physical risks. In some regions of the world, challenges may lead to abuse. For example, while hiring in Saudi Arabia, we discussed in depth the option of having a full-male design team in order to ensure the safety of each person when visiting clients. We then decided to hire female UXers and arrange for stronger preparation for them and any other category at risk.
I’d like to stress that these negative experiences are a limited number in a much wider positive pool.
WHAT HAS INSPIRED YOU TO GET INTO THE TECH/DESIGN INDUSTRY?
It happened by chance. My background was variegated and I just knew I wanted to work for an international company with international clients because these places overflow with innovation, creativity in the wider sense, and a growth mindset. Once I spoke with Andreas Gerolemou, I knew I wanted to learn from him and that’s why Backbase was my choice.
DO YOU HAVE ADVICE FOR PEOPLE COMING INTO THE DESIGN SPACE THAT THINK IT MAY BE TOO OVERWHELMING?
Be patient with yourself. It’s good to be hungry and ambitious, but you will not learn everything in a matter of months. UX is such a wide topic that it’s simply not possible - and even though companies will want you to know all and be all, you don’t need to in order to be successful.
Learn detachment and not take things personally. As a UXer, your role is to interpret the needs of your users and come up with solutions that will best serve them - or nudge them in the right direction (see #3). Things will come and go. No matter how expert one is, ego doesn’t have a place in UX.
Listen and speak the language of your audience. Are you job hunting? Research the company and show your value using their wording. Do you want funds for your initiatives? Listen to what your CFO is asking for and build your case in terms of profits and costs. Interviewing users in a non-English speaking country? Listen to what words they use and use them to bridge the cultural gap and create familiarity. Read the room, listen beyond the words, and use your findings to gain deeper insights, negotiate, or nudge. You are there for your users.
WHAT CHALLENGES HAVE YOU FACED IN YOUR DESIGN CAREER?
Access to information and transitioning careers. 2010, Italy was the moment I started looking into a design career. Historically, Italian "design" means graphic design, interior design, fashion design, architecture, and advertising, and I choose the latter. It took me another 5 years to find out about UX design - and that Milan has one of the most renowned service design faculties. The same happens to a lot of other people who'd like to work as UX designers but they just don't know the path exists - or find out later in life and have to start from zero.
Defining the path. Once UX became a trend, boot camps popped up everywhere. In spite of that, the right path is still unclear and the more time passes, the more sub-specializations seem to appear. One can take a university course, a boot camp, or a Google course, and all of them release a certification. One can also be self-taught and do the work, and still be a UXer. This makes for a vague definition of which syllabus to follow and the basic skill set level for entry-level positions.
Recruitment done wrong and unclear market needs. The vagueness described above reflects in the industry and UX recruitment. In 2017 -when UX became hype- everybody wanted a UX designer but nobody knew what it was. Example: a company I collaborated with swapped employees’ email signatures from “content manager” to “UX designer”. For more insights on how painful it was doing interviews, feel free to reach my Medium article "Why I Hate Job Hunting". Although UX is now more established, the lack of clarity remains. To solve this, I enlisted the help of recruiter friends in giving me a "reality check" of what the upcoming job market needs and how my experience ought to satisfy them.
Imposter syndrome and self-doubts. When the definition of something is loose and each person shares opinions, it makes it almost impossible to run a valid self-assessment and define proper KPIs to reach. To handle this better, my process begins with setting an ideal goal and figuring out milestones with backward design. The second step is trial and error: test out different strategies, adjust and mix them until I find something that works for me and with the goal I set, and is in line with the person I aim to be. Not every time it turns out successful - which takes to the last and probably biggest challenge.
Managing (self)expectations. I always believed in following the job. In the course of my design career, I moved 17 times across 8 countries; got fired 1.5 times; resigned once from a toxic job; embarked 3 times on ventures I strongly believed in and didn't pan out - the 1st didn't have funds to hire me, the 2nd wasn't ready to scale up, the 3rd I built the wrong business model; or got ahead of myself and managed to be successful at work sacrificing my health. All of this while maintaining (and struggling to) a 7-year long distance relationship, going through sicknesses and death in the family, and living from the sidelines the births and growth of my nieces and nephew.
I’d lie if I’d say that everything was easy peasy and that I never wished for things to turn out differently. I’d lie if I’d say that I never felt guilty for not being more present at home when my home is split between Italy and any other country I live in - or that I never felt guilty for not feeling guilty enough because I love doing my job even when it’s crazy. I’d lie if I’d say that I never wished I could do more and be more.
For a few months now, I’ve reached some balance - maybe I’ve learned my limits by straining them, or maybe I learned to let go and give less f*** (thanks, Mark Manson!). For sure, I forgive and am more patient with myself and this, for now, is enough.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR PROUDEST MOMENT TO DATE, BOTH PERSONALLY AND PROFESSIONALLY?
Since 2016, I started offering free career and UX coaching to UX designers looking for their first job or transitioning careers. During COVID, it became my second "job". When the 1st mentee reached out to share they got the job they wanted and just a few months earlier didn't believe they could get it, that meant the world to me. Every time it happened, it means the world - because it means they started to believe in their own value and learned how to present it in the correct way for their target audience. That's the trait of a great user experience designer.
WHY DO YOU THINK IT IS IMPORTANT TO HAVE A MENTOR IN YOUR INDUSTRY?
Mentors and coaches can be of great support in developing one personally and professionally. They can share their knowledge and guide you in finding your way. However, they shouldn't be one's only lifeline. In fact, they may be the last resource to reach out to, after exhausting everything else.
On any given topic, there are plenty of resources to learn from, starting from your peers, LinkedIn posts, Medium articles, books, movies, videos, feedback from friends and family… And then, there is the old-but-gold trial and error. Put yourself out there. Create a strategy and give yourself some time to test it. Gather data and feedback from that. Once this is done for a couple of rounds and things still don't work out, then get a mentor - and keep those other resources at hand, because nobody has the perfect recipe for everything and personal accountability is key for growth.
DO YOU HAVE A STORY TO TELL ABOUT IMPOSTER SYNDROME YOU WOULD BE HAPPY TO SHARE?
So many stories! Due to how I was brought up, perfectionism and imposter syndrome have been my personal and professional life companions for many years; they still resurface every now and then. One example: when someone talks to me aggressively out of the blue, I tend to freeze and it takes me a couple of minutes to find my words. No matter how prepared I am, it leaves me with the feeling that I'm dumb because better answers come to mind after the interaction has ended. "So I should be able to reply faster, wittier, better. Right at that moment. Other people can do it! Why can't I?!".
It recently happened at a company party and haunted me for days, ruminating on my reaction and the answer I gave. My mentor's advice was to ask for 2 minutes to collect myself before responding, or to kindly ask to postpone the conversation to another moment in time, to better prepare myself and share value; in case I still wouldn't happy with the outcome, to send an email or meeting invite with the object "Upon reflection, these are my thoughts". As simple as it sounds, those simple hacks and letting of control helped massively in handling the aftermath of the party conversation and another couple of events that happened afterwards.
CHALLENGES WHEN IT COMES TO HIRING IN THE DESIGN SPACE?
Although there are several diverse challenges depending on the job grade, the main ones I've encountered are the following:
Lack of unified job title vs skillset matrix
UX designer, product designer, interface designer, service designer, UI expert… Unfortunately, design titles rarely match a clear job description and a precise understanding of what skills the job entails. This confusion permeates the industries as well as the candidates’ profiles.
E.g. Companies in need of developers ask for a UX designer because it's trendy; graphic designers label themselves as UX designers because they built a website once.
Assessing skill levels remotely
Due to COVID times, hybrid or remote work has become a norm. The side effect during recruitment is that evaluating skill level has become more challenging because digital conversations only let 20% of the message pass through; moreover, there has been a tendency for candidates to refrain from sharing portfolios or work samples, or being willing to sit through design tests as it takes time and effort. Without facts, it’s impossible to make a valid decision and it’s up to the recruiter's street-smartness and intuition to make the right choice.
Globalization has allowed for recruitment horizons to expand. While it increases the talent pool, hiring globally inherently raises cultural and language barriers making candidates' assessments more problematic, and can backfire when companies that offer visa sponsorships are used as launching pads for candidates to access the new market, increasing turnover and operational costs.
Thanks, Gaia, you rock!
Interview by Cameron Daniel