Career insights from an Experience Design Lead: how to excel in research

Meet Joana Cerejo, Experience Design Lead at Emergn!

Joana is passionate about artificial intelligence, machine learning, data, and, most of all, the human experience. For more than ten years, she’s been emphasizing the value of UX research and UX strategy to grow clients’ design maturity and capabilities. Driven by her interest in research and problem-solving, she undertook mentorship, teaching, and research projects – and she also shares her knowledge and findings at international conferences. This month, Joana is presenting her research at the UXInsight Festival, the biggest UX research conference in Europe.

What motivates her to undertake research? Why is it important to be active and curious in your field? And how can you overcome communication barriers and share your knowledge with others?

In this interview, you will learn more about Joana’s path in research and her insights on how to overcome the challenges and seize the opportunities that arrive through being active in your field.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your role at Emergn

Hi! I’m Joana, and I’m an Experience Design Lead at Emergn. I joined the Strategy and Architecture team two years ago to help build our value propositions – the design capabilities we offer our clients. And, because of my background in AI and ML, I also support the Intelligent Automation Practice by bringing human-centered design principles into the development of intelligent solutions.

How did you get started with AI (Artificial Intelligence)?

When I started looking for higher education courses there weren’t any in human-computer interaction in Portugal, and I didn’t have the financial capacity to study abroad. For these reasons, I took a traditional communication designer degree.

But I always knew that my heart was in user experience, so I had to make a workaround. I was able to take a specialized master’s degree in the field, and afterward, I immediately started working with user interface and computer interaction.

I’ve always been very curious about what motivates people and how people interact with products. I also like to solve complex problems, and this drove my interest in the research part. My passion for AI started when I got the opportunity to work for the first time with intelligent solutions. As I got more involved with these technologies, I started searching for more information, but I could only get so far. The internet is full of valuable content, but it’s really complex to differentiate which content is relevant to your personal learning goals. I decided to take a Ph.D. in the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Porto, to learn more about AI and how to humanize the experience of intelligent solutions better.

Because of my relationship with AI, I fell in love with data too – because data is the base of everything.

Where did your passion for user experience (UX) come from?

I’ve always been passionate and curious about technology. It gets me frustrated when I use a digital product that wastes my time or doesn’t accomplish my goal. And I think this is where my interest in UX came from. I want to create solutions that are useful for people, that don’t frustrate them, and that give them more time to do valuable things. I also like to study people and their behaviors – it’s a fascinating field that plays a big part in UX research.

What motivates you to take part in research, mentorship, and teaching activities?

15 years ago, I started to research and understand that many industries would need to go through a digital transformation. Digital and tech companies would need to bring in human-centered design to support the decision-making of designers. And that did happen – that’s why we now have a proliferation of UX and UI professionals.

These needs keep growing. A few years back, I realized that AI would change the way we design solutions because the mental models and the way people interact with the solution are completely different from a traditional approach to technology. In a traditional approach, the user interacts with the system, and the system responds to that interaction. AI is the opposite: it makes decisions on behalf of the user. It’s important for designers to understand how to design these interaction mechanisms and anticipate users’ needs without interaction from them.

It’s important to stay ahead of tech trends and market needs, which is why I invested time in research. When I was 24, universities started inviting me to teach and offer my future perspective on different UX topics to younger design generations. And I’m still doing it – mentoring and following up with learning.

What are the biggest challenges with presenting something completely new or not out there yet? And how do you solve that?

Communication is a two-way road. What if you speak and the other side doesn’t understand what you are saying? You can’t communicate effectively, and that’s the first big barrier. It’s hard to deconstruct the complexity of a new topic to a level that the audience can understand.

At Emergn, we solve that by teaching some design foundations to other roles that have different knowledge and understanding of design processes and principles. In conferences, we apply the same. The level of complexity needs to be limited because you don’t know the entire audience, so it’s best to focus on delivering a broader message.

Sometimes it’s hard to break down these complex topics, so I often use metaphors.

For example, when I joined Emergn, there were client partners that needed to be more knowledgeable about what user research and usability meant. I created an analogy in which usability is compared to cooking, and I used the steps of the cooking process to explain what happened or should happen in the design process. It was incredibly fun and engaging for the audience.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be more active in their own field of research?

Be very organized with your time. Build a structure and save, let’s say, an hour to read and build your personal knowledge before or after you start working. Be very rigorous because if you miss the structure, you start losing motivation, and it’s hard to pick back up. If you work just a little bit on yourself every day, you can invest in your research and build a strong basis for knowledge. If you try to learn it all at once, it will be overwhelming.

What do you expect from UXInsight Festival, and what is Emergn bringing to the table?

UXInsights Festival is the biggest UX Research Conference in Europe, and I believe we can bring a new vision with the Quantifying Experiences research. The UX field has been mostly about qualitative research, interviews, surveys, conversations with users’ and usability tests. But it’s not a very explored topic quantitively – because you need to have statistics and data knowledge to understand that part of the research, and people with a design degree don’t usually explore those areas.

We are taught that speaking with users and observing what they do is more relevant than surveys. But now, with the growing capabilities of machine learning, we can bring another level of insight from users as group behavior, instead of just looking at one individual, and understanding how users collectively perceive the quality of the service. 

It also impacts the role of UX researchers: Usually, UX researchers only intervene in the initial discovery process and in usability testing, but they don’t influence the business strategy or product management.

With the model I’m bringing to the conference, the UX Researcher can use quantitive metrics to have more influence in the product management lifecycle and in the business vision. By bringing numbers to the table and deconstructing the complexity of an experience, they can make leadership and stakeholders understand the business value of design. It’s about offering insights in a way executives can better understand.

UXInsight Festival will also be a fantastic opportunity to bring Emergn and our expertise to the table alongside other players in the industry.