Julie Lemieux on Data, Design, and Building Great Products Through Empathy
Head of Communications, Sigma
When it comes to building great products, the design might be the most important “feature.” Design goes far beyond the aesthetic look and feel of hardware or software; it encapsulates a user’s experience from the moment they interact with a product. Of course, a product must do its job, and do it well. But without a design approach that connects with the user and solves their problems in a way that is easy to use, adoption can only go so far.
Designers know that data can be your best friend as you build the next great product. But how do you turn customer data into a product roadmap? What challenges will you face in the process? And how can you use data to build empathy and connect with users in a way that you can both be successful?
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Julie Lemieux about her journey from aspiring doctor to product designer at some of today’s biggest technology companies, including SAP, Yahoo, and Databricks. In that time, she’s used data to help improve her process and the products she built, while learning a lot along the way. We talked about data, design, and how developing empathy leads to the best products. Read on to hear what Julie has to share with the designer in us all.
I don’t have a great love for math… but I do have an affinity for seeing numbers in front of me and thinking about how those numbers could reveal other things.
Tell me a little about yourself. What’s something people may not know about you?
Outside of design, I’m passionate about food—primarily sourcing clean, healthy, and sustainable meats. I enjoy the process of preparing meat in exciting ways, such as curing and smoking, and I work as a part-time butcher on the weekends. It all stemmed from working in a knife shop in high school, where I fell in love with the beauty and simplicity of knives.
When I started preparing my food as an adult, I made sure that I always had a good knife. Using that knife to butcher meat or prepare fish became an incredibly satisfying thing for me. I would much rather go to the docks to pick up a fish and clean it myself than go to Whole Foods and buy it.
That personal interest just snowballed into whole animal butchery—like making sausage, or digging up my grandmother’s recipes for pâté and terrine. Now I’m pulling up these old French Canadian recipes in my kitchen, and occasionally serving them at my local butcher shop. I spend my weekends talking with my neighbors about how to prepare meats and eat more sustainably. It’s a lot of fun.
So you went from simple knives to high-tech software where you’ve been working in design for the past 20 years. What inspired you to do that?
Growing up, my father—who is a geologist and economist—crunched a lot of data. He was one of the first people to double down on the use of the PC early on. He had to mine these Excel Access databases for work, and part of his interest in computers meant that he brought one home.
The first computer I remember working on was a Kaypro. It was this ancient, massive, green screen thing. It was the size of a small coffee table. I started playing games and doing my homework assignments on it as a kid.
It wasn’t long before he upgraded to an IBM PC clone. Boy was that life-changing! I typed up all of my school reports on the IBM and even started doing a little bit of light programming. But the real revelation for me came with spreadsheets.
I don’t have a great love for math—I don’t have a head for it—but I do have an affinity for seeing numbers in front of me and thinking about how those numbers could reveal other things. One of the challenges that my father gave me after my first job was to do my taxes. While the calculations weren’t very complicated, it was exciting to be 16 and completing my taxes in a spreadsheet. I have been a spreadsheet user ever since.
How did you find your way into product design?
When I left university, I thought I was going to go to medical school. It turned out that wasn’t for me. After I made that decision, I was in a pretty big funk because I had set myself up throughout high school and my undergrad thinking, “you’re going to be a great doctor.” And I would have been a great doctor, but I didn’t have the enthusiasm for medical school at the time, especially some of the applied sciences. So I had to rethink what I wanted to do with my life.
In university, I spent a lot of time in the labs with the guys that were doing computer science—there were no women in those labs at the time. But there I was in the labs exploring email and the innocent days of the Internet. And I was fascinated, right? When the Internet happened in ’94, ’95, and ’96—when the web was exploding all over the place—I could see all these pictures. Things were being shown to me from across the world in near real-time. I was communicating with people through email. I was exploring ideas and getting information from the dark corners of the Internet. And it was so fascinating; I wanted to know how it worked.
“While I was in university, I spent a lot of time in the labs with the guys that were studying computer science. There were no women in those labs at the time.”
After my undergrad, I found myself back at home, trying to piece together the next steps. I found myself scratching my head and struggling to find direction. Again, it was my dad that stepped in and helped me find my way. One day he asked me, “What about this Internet thing? What’s that all about? Why don’t you design pictures on the Internet? Go figure that out.” It was the kick in the bucket that I needed at the time.
I wound up temping at a satellite communications company in Ottawa doing desktop publishing stuff—brochures, physical goods, paper goods; you name it. And the woman that I worked for one morning came to me and said, “We need to add information to our website. Can you do that?” In a fit of humor, I said, “Absolutely. Can we start tomorrow?” Twenty minutes later, I was in the bookstore buying HTML for Dummies. That’s how this entire adventure started.
What was your first exposure to data in the design world?
The whole internet thing worked out for me. I eventually moved to the US and found myself in Silicon Valley, working in the small business unit at Yahoo. Yahoo was very much a pioneer of understanding user behavior. At the time—and this was a long time ago—Yahoo had a portal called data.yahoo.com. It was an internal portal that housed all of the user clickstream and behavioral data. We could use it to explore behavioral funnels.
As designers, we could specify behaviors that we wanted to track and analyze. I spent a significant amount of time in data.yahoo.com, trying to figure out a portion of the small business ecosystem that I was responsible for designing. I looked at what people were doing, what was happening, and what was going on. It was a treasure trove of information that my team used to improve a range of products for Yahoo users.
How do you use data to improve product design?
I use data to give me a clearer picture of what’s happening when users interact with the products I build. Data helps me develop empathy for the customer and their experience, which is extremely important for designers. Data allows me to understand what problems may exist, where roadblocks have occurred, and the like.
There’s the quantitative data (clickstream, interaction time, survey results, etc.) that helps me see what users are doing and how the product is working, and then there’s the qualitative data (customer reports, interviews, etc.) that gives me a peek into how users feel about the products and their experience.
Data helps paint a complete picture of what’s working, what isn’t working in the product itself, the way a person interacts with it. Ultimately, I use data to guide me down the path I need to take as a designer to simplify products so that people can be successful.
“Go out there and talk to your customers. Look at their faces. Listen to what they have to say. You’ll be amazed at the insights you generate.”
It seems like developing empathy is a big part of your design workflow. Can you elaborate on that?
Empathy is a huge part of my workflow. I’m sure if you sat down and talked to the vast majority of my colleagues, both present and past, they would probably tell you that I wear my heart on my sleeve. Which in my business, can be a tremendous benefit. It can also be a bit of a weakness.
I would much rather generate empathy for end-users with the goal of improving their experience and giving them the satisfaction—and the outcomes they bargained on when they bought the product—then to stick my head in the sand and just look at the clickstream data and wonder why people aren’t clicking on the big green button.
Go out there and talk to your customers. Look at their faces. Listen to what they have to say. You’ll be amazed at the insights you generate.
Create a usability test
Usability tests are a great way to integrate more data into product design workflows. Here are Julie’s tips for getting started:
Start with a hypothesis.
Pick an area of your product that isn’t performing well to test.
Construct a test in such a way that you can gather useful customer feedback . Pose a contained question, where the data can be collected easily.
Explore the results of your users in different dimensions—aggregations, averages, and percentages.
Compile your findings and extract insights. You’ll be surprised by what you find!
What would you say to those designers that may not be as comfortable with data as you are now? Do you have any practical tips for using data as a guide to building great products?
Start with a hypothesis. It doesn’t have to be huge. Ask a somewhat contained question, where the data can be collected in a reasonably easy way. Usability tests are a great place to start. Pick an area of your product that either isn’t performing well or you’ve heard reports that it isn’t working particularly well. Construct a test in such a way that you can gather useful feedback and some good data. The scope of that data is relatively small. It’s ten people, maybe ten questions or maybe ten behaviors. And you can contain that data analysis in Excel. You could even do it in your notebook if you want to.
Keep things simple at first. You’re doing aggregations, you’re doing averages, you doing percentages. You are exploring the results of your ten users in different dimensions. Who thought it was easy, who thought it was difficult, who refused to participate, who said, “no, it’s too hard, and I don’t want to do it.” Collecting that kind of data is the gateway. That’s where I suggest that most designers get started.
What types of challenges do you see modern designers facing today when it comes to data collection?
Designers need to expose themselves to the more challenging aspects of interacting with users, such as people who are either angry, disappointed, or ambivalent. Opening up a direct line of communication with customers is one of the only sources of introspection on how the product is doing in the market. By ignoring that, you miss out on what I feel are the richest veins available, and truly understanding and improving your products.
When you’re at HQ and you’re making decisions on a product roadmap based just on quantitative information, without connecting first with a customer, it can be detrimental. It makes a huge difference for a designer when you bring that qualitative data back to your colleagues and can confidently say, “People are struggling with these areas.” That’s a game-changer for people.
When you bring together data that’s not necessarily just ones and zeros, but instead is data in the form of human experience, that changes things.
When you bring together data that’s not necessarily just ones and zeros, but instead is data in the form of human experience and repeated human experiences—different faces, different words, but similar experiences—that changes things. It’s an incredibly rich source of data.
You can then tie that to a quantitative source, either a clickstream analysis, survey results, and the like. When you connect those things, you have a compelling platform on which to stand and say, “Hey, I’m a designer. I have thoughts here which are backed up by real things, real people, and real numbers.”
You can then prove your ideas are worthy of consideration in your roadmap because you’ve done the work to help others see what difference it can make for the company. It could make a difference in what you sell, how you sell it, etc. It is an incredibly powerful thing to show the faces of users to your colleagues and say, “Here’s where they’re struggling, and here’s how I want to make a change.”
MEET THE SPEAKER
Julie is the VP of Product and Design at Sigma Computing. She loves to turn business goals and objectives into simple, easy-to-use workflows and compelling experiences.
Part-time Butcher, Avid Hockey Fan & Coffee Aficionado