Leah Ujda featured

Inspirational Woman: Leah Ujda | Director of Research & Design, Widen

Leah UjdaLeah Ujda is Director of Research and Design at Widen Enterprises. She leads the User Experience and Service Design teams in providing actionable research insights that inform design vision and strategy throughout the company.

A librarian by training, she brings her curiosity about people and passion for sensemaking to all that she does.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I’m Leah Ujda, Director of Research and Design at Widen Enterprises, a marketing technology software company with headquarters in Madison, Wisconsin USA, and London, UK. I lead the User Experience and Service Design teams, both of which focus on bringing a human-centred, research-     driven approach to the software platform and accompanying service experience that Widen provides to its customers.

Prior to working at Widen, I was a Design Researcher at an innovation and strategic consulting firm. I worked with clients in a wide range of industries – ranging from medical devices, to financial services, to consumer good– to build empathy and understanding of user needs, and then generate insights and design recommendations based upon that knowledge. I’m academically trained as a      librarian; I earned a master’s degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Wisconsin– Madison, in 2007. Early in my career I worked in the libraries at The Art Institute of Chicago, University of Wisconsin Digital Collections Centre, and the Wisconsin Centre for Education Research.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I tend to make plans and generate a vision in approximately five year blocks. This gives me a comfortable balance of goals to shoot for, and freedom to go after unexpected opportunities. One of the biggest changes in my career path came when I moved away from the academic librarian path       and took a risk on a job as a consultant doing research for a design firm. A friend asked if I would be interested in joining a growing team. She told me a bit about the work I would be doing, and after taking a bit of time to think about how to apply the skills and experience I had at that time in a new context, I decided to go for it. I figured I could always go back to being a librarian if it didn’t work out. However, that risk really paid off and helped me discover a type of work that I didn’t even know existed. I think my approach to career planning boils down to having a vision but be willing to crumple it up and create a new one if new information comes to light!

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

A lot of the work I’ve done over the last few years has been new to the organisation I’m working with. It’s exciting to have the opportunity to be a pioneer, but it can get exhausting to constantly explain what it is you and your team do and how you provide value to the organisation. Being a transformational leader is really inspiring to me, and I’m proud that it’s a type of leadership that I’m good at. But the flip-side of that inspiration is the occasional feeling that you’re Sisyphus, pushing that rock up a never-ending hill. And it’s hard to predict when that feeling will pop up. The challenge to overcome this when the feeling does rear its head, is to re-find the spark of inspiration and energy that comes from successful communication moments to the wider team. Seeing teams have light-     bulb moments and understanding the impact of human-centred design on products, experiences, and organisations keeps me going even in hard times.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

I’m very proud of my influence on the way we explore problems from a user centred point of view at Widen. The UX team already existed when I joined the company, but the underlying philosophy of how we do the work of human centred design was still struggling to gain wide adoption and understanding. By the middle of this year, we’re on pace to expand the team by 50% since I started. We no longer work exclusively with product managers and engineers, but also with marketing and customer success. The emerging leaders on my team teach university courses on UX and are recognised for their contributions to the design community at large. We no longer find ourselves explaining what we do to sceptical internal audiences, but rather enjoying opportunities to share knowledge with enthusiastic colleagues.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

Curiosity! Genuine interest in the experience of others and the world around me led me to a job in an art museum, and an advanced degree studying the way people organise and interact with information. Curiosity has led me to a career path rooted in continuous learning about the way people incorporate products and services into their lives, and it makes me a good listener. It makes me a thorough, patient, analyser of qualitative insights. And it keeps me open to evolution.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Keep a focus on the humans who are engaging with the technology you create. The way to make something special, memorable, and enticing is to make sure it’s well aligned with the needs of your users. Seek feedback early and often. Be generous with your time and expertise. Make sure you feel connected to what you’re doing in order to stay motivated and excited!

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

Yes, there are still barriers to success. A lot of the challenges I find myself dealing with are connected to unconscious biases; people don’t even realise that they’re bringing assumptions or ‘old baggage’ to a situation. Overcoming something that you don’t even realise that you’re doing is truly difficult! As the underrepresented person, it required energy to call out when it happens, and that level of energy is hard to maintain. What I expect from my male colleagues is effort to hear me when I tell them about my observations or experiences, and what I offer them in return is space to learn, grow, and move forward. People deserve credit for evolving the way they think and making different choices when they gain new knowledge. Forward together is the philosophy I’d like to see across all individuals working in technology embrace.

What do you think companies can do to support and to progress the careers of women working in technology?

Emphasise diversity in recruiting to make sure you have a wide pool of candidates to evaluate for opportunities. This can help make sure women and other underrepresented groups have a chance to demonstrate that they’re the best fit for a job.

And offer flexible schedules and consider part time roles or job sharing to make the logistics of balancing work with all the other aspects of a person’s life, whatever those might be, possible.

There is currently only 17 per cent of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

I would use my wand for two things. First, I would make sure that girls are encouraged to explore their interests in development and engineering early and often. They should feel as confident as boys that a career in technology is something they could achieve if they want to. Second, I would expand the concept of what working in tech means. It’s not just about writing lines of code. It’s also about understanding the market value of your company’s offering. It’s about designing an interface that makes sense to the people using it. It’s about providing support and guidance to the customers who have purchased the product. Technology without humanity is pointless.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Michelle Obama’s Podcast - Michelle Obama is one of my most admired role models. To me, she represents authenticity, grace, and strength. The guests she invites to have conversations on her podcast help tell the story of her life as an ambitious and successful woman who has overcome obstacle after obstacle. I appreciate the humour and passion for music that she brings to these conversations as well!

“Dare to Lead” by Brené Brown- My top takeaway from this book was the section on the paradoxes of leadership. To be an effective leader, you must be able to hold and balance tension between:

  • Letting chaos reign (building something) and reigning in chaos (scaling something)
  • Humility and resolve
  • Velocity and quality

Being a leader is hard because there are rarely black and white answers. Concepts that seem to be in conflict with one another can both be true. These insights have helped me worry less about making the “right” choice because there probably isn’t a “right” choice in most of the situations I’m dealing with. I need to be confident in the choice I make, and brave as I lead teams and colleagues into grey areas.

Radical Candor by Kim Scott- Both the book and the podcast of this title have helped me move beyond tendencies to sugar coat things or avoid difficult conversations. Building a team environment with trust as the foundation makes it easier to express when things aren’t going well and need improvement. The ideas that Kim Scott and her team share have helped me see that candour is a gift you can give someone. Clear communication that doesn’t leave room for misinterpretation seems hard at first, especially for a person like me who doesn’t want to seem “mean” or “bossy”. I’m much more comfortable giving constructive feedback and offering coaching thanks to this book.


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