UX Maturity feat. Milena Kukova

Meet Dr Milena Kukova, Principal User Researcher at Mimecast. Here she discusses her UX journey and gives her top 3 tips for people looking to secure a UX role.

Through this series, we hope to shine a light on all things UX Maturity. We hear about the UX Maturity of organisations, of the industry and of careers. We talk to people on all sides of the conversation, those on the beginning of the journey and those well on their way with the aim of sharing knowledge, stories and insight that others might find useful on their own path.

Chris @ ADLIB: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your current role?

I am currently working as Principal User Researcher at Mimecast. I joined the company in 2022 with the aim of building research practices from the ground up. I had to start from the basics – documentation, templates, tools, defining the research process, best practices and training. This was followed by the integration of research practices with the already established design and engineering processes – how it would work, when it is needed, what type of research can be done and of course – constant demonstration of the value of research. As a recent step, research was split into 2 categories: one focused on making sure we’re solving the right problems for customers (strategic research) and following from this, making sure the designed solutions actually solve the customer problems (reactive research). Now, I am at a phase of increasing the impact, value, and magnitude of research by connecting qualitative research findings with other internal sources such as quantitative data, customer insights, market analysis, competitor data and churn data to understand the bigger picture and influence product roadmap and priority. I work with a vast variety of people and locations – from Designers, Researchers, Engineers, Product Managers to Directors, Vice Presidents, from both the Product side of the organisation and the Customer facing one (support, customer success, etc) across 3 continents and over 6 different countries.

Chris @ ADLIB: When did you first discover your interest in UX?

I started my career as a Graphic/ Web designer but kept feeling like jobs in this field were just not quite right for me. I was introduced to Research and Design in more depth when I was doing my master’s degree at Brunel University. Then, I realised that there’s a lot more to design than a pretty interface. I found fascinating the amount of research needed to ensure the success of any design – whether it is product, software, or service. Since then, I have known user experience is my thing!

Chris @ ADLIB: What’s been your journey so far and how did you develop your skills in UX?

After my master’s where I discovered my passion for user experience, I won a unique PhD scholarship. Unique because it was tied up with a university and private sector company at the same time, the outcomes of which had to meet both academic rigour and company-set outcomes. This means that the PhD had to solve a real industry challenge and be put into practice almost straight away unlike many theoretical PhDs. During this time, I acquired a deep understanding of user psychology, product experience (both digital and physical ones), user behaviours and behaviour theories, motivations, decision-making, segmentation, statistics, cognition and emotion, the role of senses, and many more. One of the innovative outcomes I developed is a model, statistically validated, to differentiate between users’ needs, wants and what they are indifferent to when they’re making a purchase decision – concepts that are quite difficult to differentiate between.

Once I got into industry-only UX research, I learned practical skills – especially how to create short and sharp research studies, even at times when one may think there is no time for it and at the same time maintain a high level of research reliability and validity. In UX and agile environments collaboration is key. Collaborating with others on a research project was very challenging at the beginning, but I soon realised how much easier research could be with the help of other people and which tasks can be done in collaboration and which can’t. During this time, I realised the impact of collaborative research – it unites people from different expertise by having a common goal and allowing them to be part of shaping this goal.

Chris @ ADLIB: What would be your top 3 tips for people looking to secure a UX role?

1. Go for public sector. If you’re trying to get into UX, or you’re struggling to get a permanent job – try in the public sector as a contractor. It can often be a bit easier to get a job there than in the private one. Working in the public sector is rewarding and I found that they can be more mature in their practice, processes, and ways of working than most private sector companies when it comes to UX and Research. You will learn a lot there, you will be supported because you’re expected to collaborate and you can progress your career much faster there, too.

2. Be confident (but don’t overdo it). If you’re confident this will help you achieve 80% of anything you are trying to do. The other 20% comes from your knowledge and level of expertise. Your confidence will come from believing in yourself, in the problems you’ve solved and the passion you have for your work. As a former introvert, I know how difficult it is to build confidence, especially at a time when you may have lost your job or have been unsuccessful with applications. Keep going, maintain your confidence and fake it till you make it. Success is right around the corner but it’s hard to see until you get there!

3. Know where you’re getting in. UX is still not well-established in many companies. It’s a good idea to assess their level of maturity before joining because that will tell you how difficult your work may be in the company. Consider the following:
– What does the team look like? How many designers are there? How many researchers? If there are no researchers and you’re a designer, you will likely have to do research yourself, and they may not have established research practices. If you’re the sole researcher you may need to work hard to demonstrate the value of making research, how it integrates and perhaps establish some research practices and processes.
– Who will you report to? Who do they report to? This will indicate how influential and supported UX is as a field, and if you can grow within the company.
– What tools do they use?
– Who does the team work with most commonly? What are their challenges? There can be differing priorities between engineering and product management, but some teams have already ironed this out.

Answers to the above will help you build an understanding of wherever you are joining, and support you making decisions about the next stage in your career.

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Chris Nasrawi