Inspired by a recent blog post by Sallie Krawcheck of Ellevest, today I reflected on one of my influencers and how I became a critical thinker–so central to my role as a UX design leader at Essential. One of my strongest influencers has been my dad–a man! On this International Women’s Day, I wanted to share how this personal influencer shaped not just my identity, but my approach to problem solving and the relationships I’ve forged with my clients.

Growing up, my days were filled with a steady stream of activity. Occupied by sailing, track, swimming, gymnastics, and debate, my busy schedule left me well-rounded, but spared little time to pause and reflect on gender, that I was a girl and what that might mean. But the unavoidable car trips from home, to school, to practice, and everywhere in between meant many carpools, long drives, and plenty of opportunity for the adults in my life to connect with me. Time in the car was when many parenting “moments” happened; and it was in these close quarters that some of my strongest lessons were learned.

Challenge the traditional path

My dad was a constant companion throughout all of my athletic and academic pursuits. He was always supportive, not pushy. On one of these drives, I suggested that I try out for the cheerleading team. Normally he would say, “Go for it!”. But this time his reaction was surprising. “Why would you do that?”, he asked. “Why not try out for the football team?”

I was shocked. Because I was a gymnast, cheerleading seemed like a sensible path. He thought otherwise. While he wasn’t opposing my idea, he was questioning it, calling attention to an inherent gender bias. The message was clear: He wasn’t telling me what to do, but asking me to question why and to consider other possibilities. He was asking me to challenge the traditional path and by doing so, powerfully modeled a mindset that I would take on for life. He delivered that message at a formative moment for me. And little did he know what he kindled! GO DAD!

At Essential we begin our client engagements by asking questions and listening closely. And as a UX project lead, I ask a lot of questions. Probing into our clients’ business, deep exploration of their problems and challenging their design assumptions is the foundation for change and innovation. Asking why and considering new possibilities are the core of the UX design process. Through ethnographic research, idea generation, and user testing, we not only help our clients to understand why but also how to change the path and make it better in new and surprising ways.

Different ways of thinking

Recently, we had a client ask us to redesign an “antiquated” Visual Basic UI used in an industrial setting. The colors were all too bright, competing for attention. Boxy buttons crowded the interface and mixed relationships between actions and other types of feedback. The challenge was to find a way to make the workflow efficient, touchscreen friendly, and easy to use for all–but to complete the redesign in 4 weeks.

We started with a series of work sessions where we took the UI apart, asking questions about each part, understanding what the features did for the user and why they were in organized in such a way. To some, this process feels cumbersome and even unnecessary. It may feel rooted in the “now” when the client wants to think about the future. Some clients, unfamiliar with UX design, may want us to “design” the UI without changing the workflow – something that is nearly impossible. But what this thorough process affords, and what they come to understand, is that it leads to different ways of thinking. In this example, the process yielded a completely new, but more effective, way to initiate and complete the primary work of the UI.

Even better than the resulting design system which looked and felt tight and on brand, our teams worked collaboratively to understand the underlying problems and create a solution together. Our client was central to the solution – this process was empowering. This particular client went on and continued to innovate the solution even more. We truly changed the UX, the UI, and the client’s outlook on what was possible and how to get it done. You could say we modeled a creative mindset that now will permeate our client’s team–success all around!

And as I celebrate the power of positive influence in design, I have to appreciate my strongest influence, my dad, and the positive influence of the strong and smart women of Essential fondly known as “Essentialistas” who compassionately ask why and generously offer ideas for innovation for those who dare to change. Cheers!

Margaret Jacobi is a Principal Designer of Digital Experience at Essential Design.

Essential Design is a leading Innovation Strategy & Design consultancy. We work across the healthcare, consumer, and commercial industries, helping our clients conceive and drive to market comprehensive digital, physical, and service experiences.