Catherine Hills is UX Lead at REA Group, but a more fitting title might be Modern Day Superwoman. In addition to leading the UX division at REA, she’s a Lead Instructor (UXD) at General Assembly, is completing a thesis as part of a Master of Business, and tries to get to as many industry events as she can. Oh and she has a family. Is there anything this woman can’t do?
We sat down with Catherine to discuss the changing face of UX, hint, it’s female.
You’re UX Lead at REA Group, for those of us who are UX illiterate, can you tell us what this means?
At the end of the day, my job is to look at our product and evaluate its effectiveness with our users - this is the primary driver. My job is to incrementally improve our product, lead and facilitate research and testing, as well as discovery and design thinking workshops.
To do this, I provide leadership, design and research mentoring and give advice to the product and delivery teams around problem solving and design communication. My key role at the moment is to upskill certain people in the business to help them with technique and validation methodologies, to help them become more user, business and strategy focused.
How did you get into the industry?
I started by doing an interactive media and design course at RMIT. I started primarily as a web and digital designer before moving into more hybrid roles across development and design, both in agencies and in-house. I tend to look for new territories - I’ve always been curious about new technologies and broadening my understanding of people, which is why having a balance of agency and in-house experience has been really important for me.
I gradually moved into UX about five years ago in a role at the University of Melbourne, followed by Envato - this is where I was first exposed to agile ways of working and a lot of the methodologies I use to this day.
We’ve noticed more and more women attending UX events in Melbourne, would you say women in tech is a rapidly growing trend in Melbourne?
Absolutely. In the class I’m currently teaching at General Assembly (GA), around 75% of the people are female. There’s also a huge number of female attendees at Ladies That UX and other industry events. I try to get to as many of these as I can, but I also have a family! [Laughs].
I think it’s hugely important for women in the industry to connect with other women and to have mentors. I’ve been really lucky to have connected with some great women recently - they’re not all in UX, some are leaders in digital and product development. At REA, the ratio of women to men in leadership is higher than in most workplaces - it’s a really strong community. But this is not the norm in most workplaces, so it’s important to have a network you can call on.
We need positive stories to tell to encourage females to enter the tech industry. To do this we need more engagement with education and to further adjust workplace flexibility for parents and carers.
Any advice you’d give women entering the industry?
You have to be honest about family, even if you fear being perceived as being unprofessional in doing so. You have to if you want to stay sane and be able to work and have a family. A lot of senior women in tech are at an age where they’re considering having families, and many leave to have kids and don’t come back because there aren’t the systems in place to support them in having both. Government legislation doesn’t support this as well as it could.
REA actually just released this really awesome six month paid parental leave policy, which is gender agnostic, and the secondary carer still gets generous paid leave of three months. We need more of this in industry.
Why do you think UX, and digital more broadly, have traditionally been more male dominated?
I’m writing a thesis on diversity and gender in a UX context and it simply comes down to the history of technology over the last 30 years - it’s become a masculine domain, but it wasn’t always so, think Ada Lovelace. There’s lots of evidence out there now about the power of diversity and how the diversity of the team behind a product impacts on its effectiveness and the way it's perceived.
Have you ever experienced any push back from colleagues being a senior level woman in UX?
It does happen. Sometimes I do feel I have to work harder, as a woman, in order to be heard or have my views accepted.
I had an instance not long ago where I’d facilitated a day of user testing and I had to push really hard for the voice of the user, because I sensed that the opinions of some people in the room were that I was driven by some sort of agenda or bias. It’s actually my job to be unbiased. My recommendations were challenged and I was forced to push hard to advocate for the evidence we’d obtained, which was challenging but not unusual.
I’m not confident men will always face that push back, and there’s additional layers to deal with on top of being female, such as being a designer rather than an engineer or a product manager. This is why UX is so important, in that user centered design and research incorporates an empirical methodology to evaluate and validate hypotheses. You shouldn’t need empirical evidence to be heard, but sometimes this is the case.
Outside work, what makes you click? What are you into?
My family. I have an eight year old daughter - she’s awesome. And I have an incredible partner who also works in tech, he’s an engineer and creative, and he’s very aware of gender issues. We talk about this all the time. And our cat Boskha! He’s part of the family too. He’s a Russian Blue and is a total little ninja, he hides around corners waiting to surprise you and can catch a ball and throw it back.
Do you think your daughter will follow in both your footsteps?
Definitely. She’s very creative too - I find her really inspiring. When my daughter’s father and I broke up (my previous partner), it was a hugely challenging time for me but also a very empowering one. I’d always been independent but I had to become independent in a whole new way in taking on the role of primary carer.
When my ex-partner would see our daughter, I had time to myself, so I started studying again. I wanted to learn more so I applied for a research place at RMIT and was accepted.
Wow! Do you ever stop?!
Yes, I do! I took a break over summer and we’ve taken two holidays this year.
Without holidays I’d go nuts!