Adaptability and flexibility, communication and problem solving

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I graduated from The University of Manchester in 2013 with a degree in Geography (BA Hons, High First). Since then, I have been working in the tech industry — for myself and for market leaders — focusing on areas such as prop-tech, geospatial utility apps, and design resources. I am currently consulting on user experience (UX) - for example, conversion rate optimisation and usability - and project management. I have been a digital nomad for much of that time. Indeed, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, I was already well acquainted with all the tools and well-adjusted to that way of working.

How are adaptability and flexibility, communication, and problem solving important in your current role?

Design is a problem solving discipline. Even when it is at its most visual and most artistic, design is still looking to do something. Designers might be seeking to find ways to increase the consistency of interfaces across platforms, make a design system more cohesive, or heighten the resonance of a brand. In other areas, our work might border on the technical — improving accessibility, for example, by interrogating colour contrast ratio or changing the way designs come to life in code so that they are better understood by screen readers. Often we might be striving to increase key business metrics and conversion rates. Work as a designer is varied, but it always remains purpose-driven. Design does not take place within a perfect world. Designers must be adaptable and flexible, and must be communicative to overcome imperfections and messiness.

Process and collaboration are as fundamental to our success as problem solving. We might need to proceed with an incomplete account of the problem or more/different data arising thereafter. We will need to navigate and adjust to constraints and challenges. We will not be bringing our designs to life; others will be doing that, so we need to communicate.

How did you develop each of these skills during your degree?

Geography as a discipline is renowned for its transferable skills. Communication and collaboration were foundational aspects of studying geography at The University of Manchester. We had regular seminars discussing subject matter with our peers, individual and group presentations, question and answer session with guest lecturers, office hours with our lecturers, field trips, collaborative research projects, and much more. It was a case of plentiful opportunities and practice making perfect.

Equally, my degree provided many opportunities to conduct short (and some extended) research projects out in the field. However, these did not always go according to plan or took unexpected turns, so flexibility and adaptability were essential. On a second year excursion to Amsterdam, for example, my group sought to understand an urban development project that attempted to bring together a very diverse group of people. However, not long after arriving, it became clear that the situation was much more complex than our readings had suggested. That led to us making a significant (but successful) adaptation to the research design — broadening the scope of our engagement by arranging impromptu conversations with key stakeholders and other significant individuals in the community (alongside its residents) — to fully capture and represent the partial and contested nature of its successes. Without that flexibility and adaptability, and ability to communicate with the stakeholders, our research findings would have been contestable.

How did this help you get your first graduate job?

Notwithstanding their differences (subject matter, bodies of knowledge, ways of doing, etc.), geography and design both seek to engage with people and understand their actions within specific environments. Geography, like design, can seek to influence and change things. Geography and design also share many (although not all) research methods. Being a knowledgeable, highly experienced geographer will not automatically make you an effective designer or vice versa. However, degrees in the social sciences can be a very good jumping-off point. For those interested in design as a career path, I would highly recommend vocational courses in design, UX, etc.

What were the main factors that influenced your choice of first graduate job?

Geography (at The University of Manchester and as a discipline) not only influenced my career path, but also my choice of jobs. Through it, I observed design in action — its power, its consequences, its good and bad. To give an example, my thesis - set in areas as culturally diverse as they were financially deprived - gave a first-hand account of how individuals often remained adrift of community life not because of self-imposition, but due to suboptimal design. It was a conclusion so troubling and deeply motivating that, by graduation, my path had been mapped. I was to deviate from observing design through doing geography to influencing and enacting design.

Not long after graduation, I joined an established tech company with an inspiring ethos, mature product, and millions of users. I would be helping people to find somewhere to call home — something so fundamental to our identity, health and wellbeing. In the years that followed, I sought to understand their processes and needs through all manner of research techniques (often alongside colleagues) and design solutions that helped them find accommodation matching their requirements in an efficient, accessible, usable, and inclusive way.