Interview: Jacqueline Mirell – UX designer & Femsplain co-founder

"There wasn't an outlet for women to share personal essays and admissions"

Jacqueline Mirell is a user experience (UX) designer who, after growing up in New York City and Boston, took the plunge and moved to London to follow her dreams. When she’s not cooking up an experience storm for Harvey, she’s involved with Femsplain – an inclusive community that allows women in tech and beyond to speak their minds and have their voices heard. Here’s what she had to say when we caught up with her.

Hi Jacqueline! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I’m a UX designer born and raised in New York City, and after five years in Boston, I’m living the expat life in London.

What led you to working in UX and the web?

I was always glued to the computer, since I saw the internet as a place where I could cherry-pick the communities I could engage with. More so than I could in my <100 person high school. I decided on a Media Studies degree once I started undergrad, because I had a vague sense of wanting to work in some kind of advertising or creative marketing field.

It was only once I started doing internships and odd jobs that I realised my favourite tasks were the UX and design projects that were never my responsibility but that I somehow always managed to find. For me, UX jobs are like puzzles that involve matching people’s cognitive skills with a company’s product goals. It’s the perfect mix of creativity and analytical thinking.

I started researching UX and reaching out to designers: asking them to coffee, visiting their offices, and whatnot. What was tricky was that every single person I met had different opinions on what UX entailed. I refer to it as UX for simplicity’s sake but really, you have similar principles of psychology and design applied to different job titles, all subtly nuanced.

You have some people who are adamant that researchers are mutually exclusive from information architects, from UX designers, from interaction designers, etc. And that depends partially on their work experience, because a small team requires designers to take on at least two if not three or four of these specialities. On the other hand, somebody who started in a large corporate environment might have only experienced UX in a large team where responsibilities are less fluid, more specialised.

Additionally, everybody enters UX fields on different paths. I’ve met designers with backgrounds ranging from computer science, to electrical engineering, library science, graphic design, product design, and even others with marketing backgrounds. I decided to find a postgraduate program, still tricky considering that some view UX as more vocational than academic and so places like Oxbridge were right out for me. I made the mistake of choosing a broad digital development program in which UX modules were offered, instead of a course that dealt specifically with a field like human-computer interaction studies. But I made it work.

How did you find the move to London?

Choosing a course in London was a no-brainer. I’d wanted to live here for years, and I’m not ashamed to admit that my early adolescent years were defined by trekking to speciality magazine shops to find copies of NME for exorbitant import prices. It’s so hard to get a work visa as a non-EU national, as I’m sure you’ve seen in the news and such, but I was so incredibly lucky to find a startup that really wanted to invest in me, literally and figuratively. It’s such a shame, since so many talented people are being educated by British universities then promptly told to head back to their home countries.

It’s as if the leaders don’t realise that exiling these graduates just sends them back to strengthen the countries with which the British economy is directly competing. I mean, I know of a few incredible women in tech who were kicked out at the end of their student visas, and what did they do? They went right to Silicon Valley. Of course I speak with the privilege of somebody who can return to a country and find relative peace and political stability, but it definitely evidences how broken immigration policy is. I try to put immigration woes aside though; London is an incredible city, and I’ve been fortunate to meet many people who make my life here even more incredible.

Jacqueline fell in love with London

What sort of work do you do at Harvey? And what led you to working there?

Towards the end of my studies, I started looking for leads to jobs and internships, and met a woman named Ellie on Ada’s List, a digital community for women in tech fields. Ellie arranged a coffee so we could get to know one another and tell me about the company she was building, and we hit it off. A few interviews later, and I started interning.

I love the team and the work, but regardless, Harvey itself is an amazing product. In the UK, companies building their own bespoke technology qualify to get a portion of their development spend back through the R&D tax credits scheme. Usually, agencies that help companies file their applications for R&D tax credits charge fees that price really innovative startups out–when innovative startups are the perfect contenders for this scheme!

So Harvey built a cloud-based platform that lets you easily plug in the numbers and details of your development process. Automation takes out the costs that human work adds to overhead, and lets us charge startup-friendly prices. So I work on the design side of the external and internal products, which has been fascinating given that I had no prior experience in financial tech. It’s also nice to know I build something that helps the startup community, and isn’t ethically or morally ambiguous!

Can you tell us about Femsplain?

Femsplain started over a ramen dinner at Ippudo with three of my closest friends: Amber Gordon (founder), Gabi Barkho (editor), and Jeanette Fabre (official Femsplain stylist). We lamented the fact that there wasn’t an outlet for women to share personal essays and admissions in editorial, the way the four of us had bared our souls in a group text (it still exists!). I don’t know how else to put this but to say that Amber made her dreams a reality–the three of them are some of the smartest and hardest working people I know and I’m #blessed to have them in my life.

What tips would you give to women wanting to enter the UX world?

Start by thinking about how you’d make your immediate world better. When I decided to pursue UX, I started reading Don Norman’s ‘The Design of Everyday Things’, in which he says that an object’s insufficiency is due to bad design more often than it’s due to stupid people. Confusing navigation in your flat block or office building? Maybe you bought an appliance with terrible directions? Start thinking about how you could improve these things: with wording, symbols? Or maybe physical changes like tactile additions that show a user where to hold an object for optimal use. When you start seeing frustrations in your immediate environment as problems to be solved, creative solutions and coherent information design become second nature.

Want to hear more from Jacqueline? Follow her on Twitter: @jacquelinehey and check out Femsplain here.

All images courtesy of Jacqueline Mirell.