5 + 1 = Better for Everyone: Empathy-First Design

Accessibility lead and senior UX Designer at Openfield — a firm specializing in EdTech solutions — Julee Peterson is distinctly clued-in on improving how digital products work. Talking with her was a great opportunity for me to hear from a devotee of her field with a MS in UX and Design, as well as a background in art direction and digital design. Whatever the question was, the answer most often came back to empathy: the soft skill that should be a driving force in creating great UX.

A little bit about Julee: Author of articles on universal design, inclusion, and other accessibility topics, she is studying for certification in core competencies by the International Association of Accessibility Professionals. Outside of work, she’s been going garden crazy (what better way to embrace the pandemic?) and spending a lot of time listening to K-Pop — a self-described guilty pleasure. Now living in the Cincinnati area, she tells me she actually kind of misses the lake effect snow of Northeast Ohio…as well as her old friends. And she’s got a great book pick for learning more about social interaction: Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers.

User Experience wasn’t really something people used to talk about. Why has it become so important?

Everything’s digital. Short answer.

I’m thinking back to when I was younger, and I would give my mom all my tax forms. She would give them to a CPA. Now, I do my own taxes every year. There are digital tools that allow me to do that.

There are so many digital tools and so many standards are being set. They have to be easy to use and intuitive. You can quickly sense when you’re not going to be able to accomplish what you set out to do. That’s a no-go. So you stop using that product and find something that works. And it’s easier than ever to move on because the market is saturated with competing products. Some are charging money. Some aren’t. It has gotten so competitive.

If you don’t have top-notch UX, you are giving people a reason not to choose your company. They’ll find something that’s better.

What was the transition like going from shopper marketing to UX?

Oh, man! Night and day.

The work in shopper marketing was very hierarchically driven, trafficky process. I was just churning out work to get it approved. There were lots of opinions directed at the work, and I sorta just tweaked things at the end.

The whole subjective vs. objective thing bothered me. UX is data-driven. It allows for problem-solving.

That’s what I was looking for.

And that’s why I went and got my Master’s in UX while I was working in shopper marketing. I wanted a reason behind the things that I was doing. I wanted to be released from the will of the opinions that surrounded me.

Now my work is based on the data from my own research or the UX research team. That has helped me flourish because I can lean on and go back to the data to see if the solutions match the problems I’m working on.

What do you mean when you say inclusive design?

Products that are designed so everyone can use them.

One of the articles I’ve written talks about exclusive design. By exclusive, I don’t mean the new hot thing that’s only available to the select few. In product design, exclusivity is a bad thing. It means your solutions aren’t working for everyone.

An accessibility term is a visual/mouse user. That’s the majority of people. But you want to make sure that a keyboard user, someone who may be blind and relying mainly on their keyboard, can use your product too.

A good example I like to bring up is the little slider indicators in applications. If you’re a keyboard user and you’re using a digital app to turn the heat up or down in your house, ticking the slider up or down can be a real problem. Something easier would be to input the actual number of the degree you want to set your thermostat to. Instead of swiping the slider up twenty times to get from 60 to 80 degrees, you can input 80 directly. But that’s actually easier to use for both a visual/mouse user and a keyboard user.

I mean if you think sliders are a big part of surprising and delighting the people who are going to use your product, go ahead and build that. But include the input option that works for everyone.

Can you talk to me about the role of empathy?

It’s huge. A lot of times, when it comes to inclusivity and design, stakeholders and product owners are simply focused on the things that they know. They’re most likely visual users who use a keyboard, trackpad, and/or a mouse. So, naturally, they focus on results that work well for those tools when reviewing production work. We’re talking about the build and quality assurance. The whole review of a product.

But there are people who can’t use the products that way. So you have to be able to empathize, or you’re going to end up failing them. Most often because you’re not even thinking about them.

You simply can’t make accessibility a priority if you don’t try to imagine what using your product could be like for someone with a disability.

What would you say to someone looking to get into UX?

Good choice, especially if you love problem-solving.

If you’re more of a visually or aesthetically focused kind of person, I’d say you probably want to be more of a UI designer. Sometimes my teammates will hear me say that I don’t care what it looks like because I’m not super focused on the visuals. I’m trying to embrace the entire experience.

If you’re trying to get a job, having good case studies on your website is really important. Being able to show your thought process and how you’re tackling problems and projects. A lot of times, reviewing an applicant’s work, we’ll just see a bunch of images. But that doesn’t tell me what role you had. What you were trying to solve — business or user goals.

I’d also recommend following the thought-leaders out there. They post a lot of content that’s really insightful, really useful. For instance, I follow Nielsen Norman. They have a lot of articles and videos that you can check out. Of course, there are a lot of courses — free and paid.

Online opportunities for investing in your education in UX are a great way to go. I went a more traditional route, but I feel like the online boot camps can offer hands-on training that’s very valuable. I’m talking about the ones that give you actual problems and have you work with real clients. I think that’s more useful than a foundation based on a curriculum. Real-world experience gives you an advantage.


What would you say to someone who is discouraged?

Get feedback. Whatever it is you’re trying to do, the more you talk about it and the more you learn — the more confident you’re going to feel.

And stay data-driven! The data could be wrong. But if you’re building your confidence in good faith based on the data, you can’t go wrong. You might need new or better data. But you’re trying to do it the right way.

UX Writer by day. Obsessive reader, film critic, fiction writer, friend to poets, cats, and environmental crusaders at all times. Opinions are my own.