This week for Duma Works’ What It Takes series, we interviewed Mark Kamau, the Design Lead at the UX Lab (UX = User Experience). The UX Lab is the first agency dedicated to user experience design in Kenya, and Mark is the cofounder, so he had a lot of great stories about his journey and tips about how to break into the field. This interview is a bit longer than usual but definitely worth a read. For those who are reading on the fly, here is the TL;DR (“too long, didn’t read), but I would highly encourage coming back and having a look at the whole interview. *Especially* guys looking to score UX Design jobs and startup founders (not even just tech startups!).
- UX Design is less about designing at your computer from the comfort of your home, and more about working with potential users in the field to step into their shoes
- UX Design is a dynamic field of work, and you need to be driven by curiosity and observations about the to keep up
- It is your attitude and ability to learn, not skills, that can determine your success
So Mark, tell me about your career path.
It’s been long, man. I have been doing this for 15 years, I’m no spring chicken.
I started out learning multi-media designs in a training program that focused on different design disciplines. It was a broad program – you learn design and choose what works for you. I studied quite a lot of front end design and development. Then I worked with design for print, and also a little bit of animations. That’s basically where I started with my studies.
Then, going into my career, I had to respond to design demand by seeing gaps in the design space, seeing the requirements, and seeing gaps that the client has. From there, I began working as hard as possible to deliver. That meant learning new things, always applying myself, getting out of my comfort zone to learn another aspect of design or the product development cycle that I didn’t know before, and just make sure I delivered.
I actually remember the first website we got the contract for. I was a shabby young man and I went to the Dutch embassy to pitch to do the design for their website. It was a big deal – a government institution portal of communication. I was pitching against companies with mile-long track records. They say you don’t get it if you don’t try… In the end, they picked us, and we worked with them day and night to make sure we didn’t let them down. That was my first foray into professional design work, and that was in 1999.
From there, I started working with more clients from here (Kenya) and abroad – places like Amsterdam and Berlin. I was always trying to learn and adapt to the market. I think that’s the name of the game – being as adaptable as possible and responsive to the environment. So it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing things – you just need to have humility to put yourself in constant improvement mode. You are as good as your last project.
Do you think your ability to travel outside Kenya helped?
Sure – I was able to see people in Berlin and Amsterdam using new techniques and design technologies to attract users….while people here were just focused on building a lot of applications. But In Kenya, they are not focused on design enough to get traction and people.
I feel like people build a product out of technical curiosity, and learning about problems and trying to make a solution that fits. The biggest challenge to their products is that their design process is basically non-existent. So I decided to do something about it – One day at Artcaffé, I talked to Erik Hersman. I want to set up a user experience/design place and I need a mentor – someone to give me advice. I showed Erik the concept. Erik said “Yea – come do it at the iHub” and he gave me the support I needed to start up.
It’s been a long long road with a lot of success and failure. Falling down, screaming out, getting up, feeling let down, the whole thing.
What made you first start getting excited about doing this kind of design work ?
Actually, that’s an interesting story. When I was younger, I wanted to be a professional footballer – I was on the Kenya national team and I was doing quite well. I actually thought football would be the way to sustain myself. But then there was a lot of corruption and I got frustrated. I was playing football one day and there were these Dutch girls looking for recruits to train in design skills.
The first time I interacted with design was in Nairobi through Nairobits. I was the first batch of Nairobits students along with 19 other colleagues. That’s where the design journey started. I went in, and that was the first time I had ever use a computer. That really fascinated me – that was in 1998. I took to design and then started building onto the training I got with them through courses here and there.
My self-improvement in design work has always been curiosity-led – seeing what I wanted to learn and then where I could learn it. And that’s what it’s been like from then. Then, I did some work, went to Amsterdam for a short few weeks, came back, and did it all over again. I actually went up and down to Amsterdam for a period of 6 years. I wound up in Berlin for assignments working for Digital Spirits – that’s a company that works with really high-end clients eg. Hugo Boss for compliance platform. That was my first exposure to real German-style work mentality.
Oh yea, what did you learn from working in Germany?
That is a funny story. The office was in the same building as the Kenya embassy – so the first place I went to work at in Germany actually had a Kenyan flag 🙂
I decided that these people have a bad image of Africans – that we’re incompetent, and we don’t keep time. So I decided to represent all Africans. I decided my shit was gonna be tight. So I get there and we start at 8 – I get in, sit down, turn on my computer. The first thing they ask me is if it’s genuine software. I said to them, what do you mean? Haha. They got a technical guy, told him to go out, uninstall everything on my computer, and then bought me all the software I needed.
The second day, I was at the door at 8 am. The boss calls me in and asks me why I am always late. I was like what do you mean? I’m here at 8am every day. Then boss told me – yea, you come in, make coffee, get ready, etc. and you only actually start at 8:15. So that was trial by fire. Germans work really hard.
I realized that there is a big “excuse culture” in Africa. When the power goes, you tell the client that power went. But that wasn’t acceptable in Germany – you just need to find a way and get it done. That is the one thing I learned that I feel we lack here. We are so easily driven into an excuse culture, and that hurts our ability to compete with the rest of the world. We should benchmark ourselves against the best. The difference is to have the mentality that no matter what, I need to get it done. It’s not an ethos here people embrace. It doesn’t matter if client is paying $2M or $2. You just need to get it done.
Can you give me an example?
A good example is yesterday a developer was coming for an interview. We were all in the room, we had all made time, and the guy tells us 5 minutes before that he can’t make it. This guy has mad skills but his work ethic is poor and that will affect the team and his reputation.
A lot of startups at the iHub also fall into this same trap. Actually, iHub consulting started up because there are a lot of companies who take people’s money and don’t deliver. That’s horrible – and it happens because we are ok to give excuses. So, getting exposed to the outside world has taught me that it’s not about money, it’s about mutual respect, and relationships. I mean, we also have an education system that is exam-based, but I don’t know if that’s the only factor…getting out of this mentality is an uphill climb for a lot of people.
And it’s not just about skills. I’m sure you’ve experienced this with DUMA – 80% of the challenge is just getting people to show up for the interview.
We definitely have that challenge! Tons of people we match to jobs just don’t show up. I never understand that..
Absolutely. I actually went to Tanzania at some point in 2008. I have had quite a bit of passion to change this mindset in people, and so I started doing a lot of training in Nairobi and Tanzania – mostly teaching young people what I was learning out there about work ethic. I spent 2 years trying to work with some people to set up the Kilimanjaro Film Institute. Initially, there were mostly foreigners teaching there, but like I said, I had a multimedia background, and these guys saw me and thought I could teach this work culture from an African perspective.
So now you run the UX Lab out of Bishop Magua. What would you say your major day to day activities are?
Like today, I just finished a UX design iteration a project with the MIT Media Lab. There was a documentary about the 1 male rhino left in the world, and the huge problems we have with poaching. So, one of the things we are designing together with iHub Consulting for World Life Works in Tsavo National Park is a digital system to help fight poaching amongst rhinos. See, in the park, there are fences, but the ranger has to walk a long distance before finding poachers or other illegal activities. So we are building an app that makes sensors ping when there is motion in the bush (by poachers). Right now, we are figuring out the communication system and how we can innovate on that.
For me, this project means that I go to bush and live with rangers for a week – I immerse myself into their lives to really understand their day to day and what their needs are for this app.
What people don’t realize is that there is actually a lot of UX work that doesn’t involve a computer. That is the misconception between UX (user experience) and UI (user interface). UX involves a lot of putting yourself in peoples shoes, going to their contexts and gaining empathy after which you use principles of UX and design together to solve these problems.
Another example – I am going to Kiambu (rural central Kenya) from Tuesday to Friday for a healthcare project with local community health providers. I will spend time in the clinics and local population to hear about their frustrations, talk to workers and patients, see what their problem is, and figure out how we can design solutions for that. Sometimes the solutions are not digital. The aim is not to build technology, but to solve problems in a way that is most contextually relevant.
We make paper-based solutions for farmers for example. On one project we were trying to find a solutions for small scale farming system to help local small scale farmers comply with standards from Europe – it’s a lot of regulation and lot of filing that needs to be done on a deadline. The most relevant solution to keep track was a custom paper calendar for the farmers in which they could keep track, schedule activities and such. The calendars were crop cycle specific. This it turned out, worked better for them than a digital solution. Further along, maybe it will make sense to move to tech, but at the moment, this is the best contextually relevant solution.
UX is about finding out what works for people in their context and then building for that. It’s really a process of inquiry and action. I think for a lot of designer think the process is basically – a client comes to the office, says they want this, and then you do something on the computer. That’s not the case at all. The client is not the user, and therein is my beef with this traditional design approach.
What is the skill you need for this job that you can’t live without?
I think for a UX person, it makes a lot of sense to be able to deal with people, be flexible, and be able to exist in different contexts. You need to be able to go out and mingle with people of different socio-economics backgrounds.
I was in Kisumu the other day for a human rights program, working with 100 gay prostitutes. They were hitting on me and I had to figure out what to do. I needed to connect with them, and make them feel that I respect them, so that I could have real conversations with them and really learn from them.
You also need to be passionate about a problem, and passionate about your work. I see a lot of designers come to the UX lab, and after one trip, they say it’s not for them. Why? Because it takes too much work, and the alternative of simply designing from assumptions is easier. Then, they decide to be UI designers so they can focus on computer based UI design. There is nothing wrong with that. UX, just like UI, is not for everyone. The only problem I have is when they call themselves UX designers without understanding or practicing UX.
For people interested in UX design work, check out www.uxafrica.co.ke which has some examples of the work I do. Hopefully they find it useful. (Editorial note – I checked out the site, and it’s really cool – you can read about some more UX case studies that Mark has worked on).
What are your biggest challenges with your role?
Finding competence – competent people. The UX discipline is pretty new and nascent here. To illustrate this, The UX lab we have is the first of its kind in Sub-Saharan Africa. We do a lot of in-house training to grow the community. We could do much more if we had the capacity.
Also, there is a challenge making a lot of local organizations understand and invest in the UX process. They are often resource constrained, and the traditional approach seems cheaper and easier (in the end, this is not true). We need to convince them that spending time with users is important and that companies should be designing, not just building for them.
What skills did you have to learn when you took this job?
Oh yea, it was a big big learning curve – basically understanding this market and even the UX skills that are more applicable to Africa. Some techniques that work in Europe don’t work here. There is a lot of adoption and understanding that I’ve had to make for this market. Learning all of these things have been a big learning curve for me. Especially since when I started the UX lab, I wasn’t an expert and there was a lot I had to learn myself. UX Design is a discipline that changes, and UX Design in Africa is different from other places.
What tech tools do you use on this job?
I use a lot of pen and paper, but also Sketch, omnigrafle, Balsamic, Axure, Podoco, sketch as well as the design suite from Adobe – The most common tool though is my pencil and paper.
What advice do you have for job seekers about how to apply for a role in your field?
I think the number one thing a lot of companies look for is that people have the right attitude. Leave the skills alone – anyone can learn a skill. To have the right attitude is incredibly important – you need to be a go-getter, willing to learn, open minded and work well with people. That’s what I find, especially having worked with a lot of really skilled people, but really hard to work with. You’d rather have a semi-skilled person with a good attitude than a really skilled person with a bad attitude – A person that even if they are not ready – they still say “I’m going to deliver 100%’’. That is a mindset, not a skill, and one that one decided to embrace despite their skill level.
Thank you so much, Mark! I know you spend a lot of time in the field, we so we really appreciate you hopping on the phone and telling us your story. I know I learned a lot. Actually, the biggest learning I had was that anthropologists could make great UX Designers! 🙂 There’s a thought…
Anyway, thank you, reader, for taking time out of your day to read this article. I hope you learned some new things, and have gotten inspired by how important design is when developing any kind of new product/service. There is definitely a dearth of UX Designers in Kenya, so if you think this might be your passion, I would highly encourage to to pursue the field and achieve success by using the tools you learned from this discussion with Mark.
Here are a few things I think you should do now:
1- Sign up for Duma Works, (if you haven’t already), and you are looking to get connected to jobs.
2- Check out our post about how to pitch yourself in 1 minute. If you are looking to impress an employer, this is key 🙂
3- Leave a comment below! We can’t make this blog better without your feedback – What do you love about these interviews and where can we do better?
Thanks again, and we’ll have another What It Takes post ready for you next week. Get excited!