Women In Design feat. Laura Smith

Introducing Laura Smith, a lead designer at Unboxed, a London-based digital service design and product development agency.

In this interview, Laura shares her journey from the voluntary sector to design, her insights on mentorship, and her passion for creating impactful digital solutions.

Could you please introduce yourself and your background?

Hello, I’m Laura and I’m currently a lead designer at Unboxed. We’re a digital service design and product development agency based in London. I initially worked with Unboxed as a freelance content designer, then joined as an employee in 2021. Unboxed designers work cross-discipline – on some projects my focus will be user research and testing, on others I’ll be working on UX and others will have more of a service design focus. One of our key strengths is that we work side by side with our development team. I’ve learnt so much from working with devs every day and they are a key part of our design process.

Recently I’ve worked on a Discovery for GOV.UK, a major product build to transform the back-office planning system in the UK, and a remote monitoring service for patients with long term conditions.

I came to design through a fairly circuitous path (which is not uncommon, in my experience). I spent 10 years working in the voluntary and social enterprise sector, mainly in programme management and operations. ‘Programme management’ is often a euphemism for ‘doing a bit of everything’ so I gained a huge amount of experience across programme design, facilitation, relationship building, marketing, coaching, business development and innovation. Little did I know that all these skills would come in handy as a designer!

One of my favourite roles was as Head of Operations for an organisation that supports social entrepreneurs. I helped develop the first accelerator for social investment in Scotland, bringing private wealth into the social innovation community. In the same role, I was part of a team that delivered an award winning project to support young entrepreneurs to pilot business ideas that would improve failing town centres.

All of this taught me a lot about people and the challenges of turning ideas into things that work.

After our second child was born, we moved back down to England and I decided to start working as a freelance writer/facilitator/editor/researcher/whatever someone would pay me for. My partner is a service designer so I got involved in a number of projects through his contacts. That’s how I got hooked on user-centred design. I realised that I could apply these principles to my writing and then discovered that ‘content design’ was already a thing. This was around the same time that Sarah Winters and the team at Government Digital Service (GDS) were establishing the principles of content design and the GDS style guide. These became fundamental to my work over the next decade.

One of the projects I worked on was a course on Design Thinking in Health and Social Care. I was able to delve into the potential for design in healthcare and speak to a number of health care professionals who were pushing a design-led approach in complex healthcare systems – people like Dr Bon Ku, an emergency physician who knew there was a better way to solve the problems he was faced with every day. I went on to work on a number of digital health projects and was fascinated by the role of language in making it easier for people to access healthcare services.

I’ve been lucky to be able to continue working on healthcare projects at Unboxed. It’s in this area that I think I really developed my skills in user research – talking to and observing patients has been one of the most interesting parts of my role.

I’m now a lead designer and am never quite sure how I got here! But we have a brilliant team and I know that, even on the most difficult days, I can always ask someone for help. One of our company values is ‘learning by doing’ – I don’t think there is any other way to develop your skills as a designer. The more you can spend time with the real users and the stakeholders of your product or service, the more you will learn.

I’m also a director of a social enterprise using mobile technology and data to reduce global plastic waste (check it out at Unwaste.io if you’re interested). I only get a few hours a month to do this and we have a shoestring budget so it’s a living example of lean start up.

What are 5 stand out things you’ve learned that you’d like to pass onto your peers and future generations

1.   Any problem can be broken down into smaller problems

This is one of the biggest things I’ve learned as a designer. Working as a freelancer or in an agency, you never know what you’re going to be doing next. You start a project with a new team, a new problem, and an area of life or work that you might know absolutely nothing about. But I don’t find this terrifying any more – I like the challenge. We’re never going to solve the ‘big’ problem straightaway. We need to understand it and break it down into things that we can do something about. And we need to find people who can help, whose insight we need.

If someone asked me to send a rocket into space, I wouldn’t have the first clue about how to build a rocket, how to launch it, how to get it through the atmosphere or any of the complicated physics and engineering that is required. But I could ask some questions, find some people that did know, and work out where to start. And the first question I’d ask is – why do we need to send this rocket into space?

One of the things that I love about the design thinking approach is the idea that you probably don’t know what problem you need to solve when you start out – you need to understand the problem and then refine it. It’s that point in the middle of the Double Diamond, where you get to the heart of what people really need.

2. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know

I was quite shy growing up. I never liked to admit that I didn’t know something, so I’d rather keep quiet and stay ignorant even if I desperately wanted to find out. I sometimes wonder what my 20 year old self would make of me in my 40s. I’m much, much more confident, and a lot of that comes from realising that I’ll do a better job if I get all the facts. I’ll also build better relationships with people if I’m honest and open and ask for help when I need it. Most people like sharing their knowledge to help others.

As a designer, and particularly as a content designer, you often find yourself in a room with people who know much more about the topic in hand than you do. It’s your role to uncover the key information that’s going to help solve a problem for your users. I’ve created content around reporting disability hate crime, attending workplace tribunals, managing erectile dysfunction and the intricacies of the waste collection service in Buckinghamshire. I didn’t know anything about any of those things beforehand, but techniques like pair writing, content hierarchies and journey mapping helped both me and my expert to identify what information the user really needs.

3. Being a working mother is hard but makes you a greater asset to your employer

There’s no way around it – it is hard to manage a family and a job. Obviously millions of parents do it every day and there are a few super women who seem to be able to start a business while on maternity leave (I never understood this, I could barely get dressed).

I have 3 children under 12. I work 4 days a week. My partner works full time and runs a company with about 150 employees. So we’re both busy. Our life requires a great deal of organisation, multi-tasking and compartmentalisation. I need to be able to switch off from a tough day and give time to my kids when they need me, but that is not always easy.

Design involves a lot of ‘thinking’ and ‘being creative’. This can be exhausting and requires focus. It’s hard to put all that away when you arrive at the school gate and 1 child is crying, another is shouting excitedly and a third is being brought over by their teacher because they’ve upset one of their classmates.

Simple things help to separate life and work. I work flexible hours and mostly remotely. While this is brilliant for my situation, it also means I need to make clear boundaries between work time and home time. I leave my work phone at home so I don’t check Slack messages, I clearly block out childcare time in my calendar, I never try to work during bedtime hours.

I used to worry about talking about my kids at work and ‘going on’ about how busy I was. But now I’m quite open about it. I am who I am. I’ve learnt more from bringing up my kids and managing a household of 5 people than I have in any job – about psychology, about time management, about creativity and imagination, about learning, about nurturing – the list goes on. These things all make me who I am as a designer, and while I don’t bring my whole self to work, I bring whatever I need to do a great job.

4. Humans are endlessly fascinating, even the ones you don’t like

Empathy, listening and observation are all core skills in any human-centred design discipline. But it’s not just about understanding our users. Having worked in many different roles in different environments and across public, social and private sectors, I’ve had to work with all kinds of different people.

Building relationships is fundamental to what we do as designers. We have to build trust with users – to truly understand their needs and behaviours, hopes and fears – and with other stakeholders – to get buy in, to learn from them, to coach them. Perhaps most important is the trust we build with our teammates. We’re often working at a rapid pace and we need to be open with our team about failures or when we need help.

I’ve learnt that trust starts with understanding and that it’s vital to watch and listen to every person you’re working with to try to understand the nuances of their approach, their motivations and their challenges.

This also helps us to care for each other and work with kindness, which ultimately makes for a better team, a better workplace and a better project (I should give a shout out to our Wellbeing Lead, Vicky Peel, for teaching me about the importance of kindness at work).

We can’t ever really know what’s going inside someone’s head, and it’s often not appropriate to probe. I wouldn’t ask a client about their home situation, for example, unless I knew them well. But I might be able to notice if they’re looking stressed or tired or are struggling to focus in a meeting. Even if I don’t know them well, I can still think about how I work with them that day to get the best outcome for them and for the project.

I’ve also come across some awful people in my time, particularly as a young woman. I hope that women in their 20s now are better equipped to call out some of the sexism and casual abuse me and my peers faced every day. Some people are just awful and aren’t going to change but as a designer, you learn to get under the skin of a bad attitude or an aggressive tone and take something from the interaction.

5. You don’t need to start from scratch

Or as my Yorkshire-bred husband would say, ‘there’s nowt wrong with appropriation.’ Many, many things have already been designed at least once. Many problems have been thought about and solutions brainstormed and put into production.

While I would never advocate copying and hoping that an existing product or service would work for your users, there’s nothing wrong with looking at what’s already out there for inspiration. I do this with content too – if there’s something I’m not sure how to get across, I’ll look at how other organisations have done it and then I’ll go back to the user story I’m working on and think about what I can take from that example.

It’s also a great way to engage clients – I love doing lightning demos of websites or services that people can react to instantly. It’s a great way to get people thinking and talking as long as you make it clear that it’s just for inspiration.

With the rapid development of technology and now, AI, the way people interact with services and their expectations of digital products is changing very quickly. I watch my kids ‘search’ with their voice rather than typing, adopting a language that seems semi-human as they talk to Google or Alexa or whatever device it is. I find all this fascinating – the way our interactions with computers are becoming more and more human – but it’s also the reason why there are so many existing services that do need to be redesigned. But don’t be afraid to learn from what’s gone before.

What is your take on the importance of role models?

I think role models are important, particularly if you come from a place where the people around you tend to face barriers to achieving their goals. I’ve been inspired by many women over the years who I’ve seen take on the male leaders in a meeting or who made a brilliant career despite taking maternity leave and working part time, or despite experiencing menopause and being expected to just get on with their job.

I’m very lucky to be a trustee of a small charity, The Pelvic Partnership, which supports women experiencing pregnancy-related pelvic girdle pain (PGP). This is a painful condition that affects 1 in 5 pregnant women and can severely affect both physical and mental health. Our volunteers all experienced PGP and all chose to give up a few hours each month to try to help other women get the help they need. These women are a great inspiration to me.

I’m also inspired by my colleagues every day. I see how they approach problems in different ways and I try to learn from them. So, yes, I think positive role models are a great driver of self-improvement as they not only give you confidence but you can also learn by watching and applying what you learn in your own practice.

Thanks Laura!

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If you’re inspired by the stories and wisdom shared in our ‘Women In Design’ series and would like to contribute your own experiences, we’d love to hear from you. Creatives at all levels, please email us and your story could be the next we feature.

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Sam Firth