For this week’s edition of the Practitioner Series, we’re excited to share our Q&A with Anna Saraceno, Sr. Interaction Designer with Salesforce. Anna has a unique background in public health that has not only informed her choices in her personal life, but has also informed her design philosophy as she’s segued into the enterprise. Throughout the interview, you’ll learn how to approach your own design critiques, and glean some helpful ideas on utilizing a mentor for your career growth as well as tips for evolving as a designer. We’ve been impressed with her knowledge and outlook on design and we think you will be, too—once you dive in.

And don’t forget: We are always eager to hear what you think about the Practitioner Series, and if you have suggestions for more experts to interview, we’d love to hear from you!

1. During our initial chat, you mentioned that your passion for design started while you were studying public health during your undergrad years. Could you tell us a story about that experience and any specific outreach efforts in regards to health education that sparked your interest in design? What were some problems you faced then that you feel have evolved today?

As an undergrad, I interned at Planned Parenthood in Bloomington, Indiana, with a focus on sexual health education. I was tasked with designing a new Teen Information Packet on Sexuality (TIPS) to help teens learn sexual health information not always taught in schools, and encourage them to make smarter, healthier decisions. I really enjoyed the challenge of organizing a huge body of information and finding a more visual, teen-friendly way to display it. On a very basic level, this was my first experience using design to meet a public health need.

I felt a bit skeptical about whether or not the info packet would really make a difference because in order to access it, teens had to proactively find it on the Planned Parenthood of Indiana website—and this was back when mobile device use wasn’t as ubiquitous in the teen population. I remember thinking… there must be more effective ways to motivate teens to make healthy decisions. While I don’t think I could have articulated this at the time, this was a bit of an “Aha!” moment in which I realized the potential for design to extend beyond making something pretty, and into the realm of exploring solutions that are thoughtfully tailored to the needs of specific populations.

Health education for teens has since become easier because many use mobile devices to seek health information, but also more complex because now it’s easier for misinformation to be propagated. I think that as technology becomes more pervasive amongst even the more hard-to-reach populations in health education—such as low-income, elderly, homeless, etc.—public health initiatives will use design thinking to creatively use technology that solves problems and inspires change.

Editor’s Note: For some inspiring examples, see the recently announced FastCo Innovation By Design winners in the Health category.

2. You also mentioned that you feel drawn to the public health industry. During your time in this area, what challenges did you face in this industry and how have you helped solve them?

My passion in the public health field always surrounded sexual health education, especially the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS. At the heart of all health education endeavors are the same difficult issues: enabling and inspiring behavioral change. For example, simply giving an IV drug user a pamphlet on the modes of HIV transmission doesn’t automatically enable them to use clean needles every time, or motivate them to stop their drug use. Likewise, I doubt there are many former cigarette smokers whose reason for quitting was the health-related warning information on the box.

So, with every initiative to educate, we need to pair it with ways to enable and encourage positive behavior change. As a volunteer at Positive Link at IU Health, I helped with an effort to curb the rising rates of HIV/AIDS in the male Latino population in southern Indiana. In addition to writing HIV-related articles and radio spots in Spanish for a community Latino organization, we distributed “First AIDS Kits” and provided free HIV testing to restaurant kitchens staffed mainly by those in our target population. The kits were restocked regularly, and contained information on HIV prevention and access to free testing, as well as condoms and band-aids. This was a very simple and low-tech solution, but just by providing and delivering free prevention and testing methods, we moved from a purely educational endeavor to one that enabled behavior change.

For my master’s capstone, I created the concept for an app called “Positively” that allows HIV-positive individuals to engage in a virtual practice conversation to prepare them for common questions asked when disclosing a positive HIV/AIDS status. The goal was to replace fear of status disclosure with a feeling of preparedness, ultimately giving users not only the information they needed, but also inspiration to tell loved ones and partners about their status.

3. As your career segued more strongly into interaction design, what were some of your biggest learning curves? How did you make the plunge from public health to working at Blackbaud?

All of my work in public health was done through volunteer and internship positions with non-profit organizations, so getting a job designing software for non-profits at Blackbaud helped with a smooth transition—as did a few years in content management at Indiana University. As an entry-level UX designer fresh out of grad school, I didn’t find many positions that were specifically health-related, but I felt at home with Blackbaud’s mission to create products that help non-profits better achieve their goals.

One of my biggest learning curves starting out in the UX field was learning to efficiently work with large teams and diverse stakeholders. I found myself having to be more proactive about sharing my work early and often, and I also had to learn how to facilitate design review sessions and conversations about strategy with stakeholders who were not trained in UX. I learned early in HCI/d grad school that I should have strong rationale behind all design decisions, but it wasn’t until I stepped into the “real world” of UX design that I realized how essential it was to always share context and rationale behind every design artifact.

Here's Anna in her element—interacting. Over the years, Anna's design philosophy has evolved to really enjoy working within a design ecosystem versus an independent silo. (Image courtesy of Stephanie Brechbuhl)

4. Now that you’re firmly planted in the enterprise as a key design player at Salesforce, how has your work flow style ebbed? Have you made personal changes to adapt to the enterprise? What’s new and different?

I’ve developed more confidence in expressing both certainty and uncertainty. I used to be an incredibly independent worker. I wanted to solve problems and come up with ideas on my own. While I do think it’s essential to budget solo work into the design process, a completely independent work style will almost always hinder success—especially in enterprise UX. Working in an enterprise ecosystem means that you have to keep track of a ton of constantly—albeit often slow—moving pieces, and even the smallest changes in one area can have a butterfly effect. 

I realized early on that there will always be important information that isn’t surfaced at the onset of a project. Success in UX design is as much about asking questions and filling in the details of a complete story as it is about creating workflows and interfaces. Asking smart questions throughout the design process, to both internal and external stakeholders, ultimately leads to having sound rationale behind every design decision and being able to intelligently vocalize it when challenged.  

5. Since you’ve now been at Salesforce for almost two years now, how have you become a more effective designer, and do you draw upon your “old self” to make design and business decisions?

The more experience I get as a UX designer, the further I feel away from being the dreaded—by some—pixel-pusher. Just starting out in the field, I spent a lot of time and brainpower churning out UI wireframes and long design spec documents. UI design is part of what I do, but what I love most about my job, and what I think has made me a more effective designer, is the more strategic, high-level thinking that goes into the “big picture” of UX.

At the onset of a project, I used to jump straight to wireframes. Now I try to focus more on making sure all project members have a shared understanding of the problem we’re trying to solve through design. This can entail bringing to light real customer needs and values, visualizing workflows, and being involved in discussions about prioritizing items on our product road maps.

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There have been a lot of recent discussions on the Salesforce Marketing Cloud UX team about defining and prioritizing vision and principles for each product and feature that we work on. The UX team for Salesforce core products recently introduced the new Lightning Design System and had great success with instituting four guiding principles throughout their process: clarity, efficiency, consistency and beauty

I’ve also started to see non-UX product team members as key collaborators during my design process. Granted, not all PMs and developers have interest in taking part in design, but on every product team I’ve been part of, there are at least a few team members who show enthusiasm about contributing to the design process. I work with some incredibly talented developers, and they can be really helpful when I’m trying to ideate on a concept. I especially love when they start sentences with, “Not only can we do that, but did you also know we can…?” and they share something I didn’t even think was possible. Our developers are encouraged to take a percentage of their work time for side projects, and a lot of great ideas have come from those—and ended up being built and released. In a sense, I’ve become a more effective designer by realizing that other team members can contribute to the design as well.

6. What’s your personal design philosophy? Do you have a mentor? Or do you have someone famous, quasi-famous or renowned that you look to for inspiration or guidance?

Always be able to quickly and smartly articulate the rationale behind your design work. If you’re unable to do so, don’t be afraid to push back on whoever asked you to do the work. This all goes back to the importance of having a shared understanding of the problem space in which your team is working. How will everybody agree on a solution if there isn’t a consensus on the definition of the problem?

In regards to a mentor: The UX field isn’t quite as male-dominated as other tech fields, but it is still male-dominated. I have plenty of amazing male mentors on my UX team whom I look up to and learn from every day. However, I try to be proactive about seeking mentorship from women in the UX field. I’m incredibly fortunate to work under our Senior Manager of UX Design, Janie Hunter. She is an ideal mentor in that she provides guidance without getting anywhere near micromanaging, she both gives and seeks open and honest feedback, and she is genuinely invested in my success and happiness, both in and outside of work.

I’ve also recently become inspired by Whitney Hess, an experience designer and coach, who spent 10 years in UX design and then transitioned to speaking and writing about organizational design. Her career path is especially inspiring to me as someone in enterprise UX design, because in her words, “…designing the product is all for naught if you don’t first take the time to design the organization.”

7. Last question, what advice do you have for those seeking to transition to the enterprise? And what advice do you have for those that want to move into Interaction Design—what makes this segment of design unique and interesting?

Enterprise UX is both exciting and challenging in that UX designers often take on many roles, including educator, advocate and facilitator. The degrees to which I’ve filled these roles has varied between organizations, and even between product teams within the same organization. It all depends on how deeply ingrained UX is into the product development process. If an in-house UX team is fairly new to a large enterprise company, designers may have to spend time and energy evangelizing the benefit of UX, which will naturally happen if they do a great job in their design work.

Additionally, designers are often taught to embrace our constraints, but in an enterprise ecosystem sometimes it can feel like too many constraints can hinder innovation. One thing I love about the culture in the UX Design Studio at the Salesforce Marketing Cloud is that we can challenge our constraints and explore “blue sky” concepts. Of course, we eventually have to bring our ideas back down to Earth, but for those thinking of transitioning to enterprise, I recommend taking time for “blue sky” ideation whenever possible.

Interaction design never gets boring—if you don’t let it. From sketching storyboards and new concepts, to interacting with people in unique and purposeful ways, to creating experiences that solve real problems and delight customers, this field is exciting and fun to be a part of. Interaction designers get to use a huge variety of methods to creatively meet the needs of diverse populations, and our toolbox is infinite. I get to spend each day thinking of ways to make life easier for thousands of people—what’s not to love about that?