Speaker Spotlight: Holy Shift! Learnings in UX Research Over the Years with Shrut Kirti Saksena

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In July, we were delighted to support UX Brighton in the launch of a series of events as part of their mentorship program. Designed to inspire and help people gain clarity on what they want to achieve from a mentor/ee relationship, we heard from a group of speakers with mentorship hints and tips.

During the event, we heard from Shrut Kirti Saksena, a Cognitive Scientist and UX Researcher, whose talk highlighted the emerging demands of the industry from a UX Research role, elucidated why a change in perspective of mentorship and learning is required to meet these demands, and how one could benefit from this perspective shift to grow into an experienced researcher. You can watch Shrut’s talk here.

Tell us a bit about you and the work that you do…

Hi, I am Shrut Kirti. A cognitive scientist turned UX Researcher who loves exploring the myriad complexities of human behaviour and cognitive processes to develop experiential products, and services. I empower products, design and other product partner teams such as marketing, content teams and more with data and insights. I enable and contribute to the development of user-informed product and design strategies for these teams. Currently, I‘m working in Adobe as a Senior Experience Researcher on the Creative Cloud and Emerging Products team, shaping and driving the next evolution of the Creative Cloud (CC) suite of products. With collaboration being the heart of my research focus, I have been partnering with 10+ global (US, Romania, India)cross-Adobe product, design, research and strategy teams and empowering them with research insights, learning to drive organization-wide strategic impact.

Before Adobe, I founded and led the UX Research operations at Lollypop Design Studio (Bangalore), where I set up the UX Research function from scratch and mentored a team of UX Researchers on 30+ exploratory, evaluative UX research projects across diverse domains.

My research expertise lies at the intersection of emerging technologies, global UX Research and operations, and cognition and behavioural sciences. I’m also an avid speaker. I cherish delivering talks, masterclass webinars and hosting UX Workshops at many conferences and events like GreenBook Events (US) and Savvy UX Summit, to name a few. I’m an inclusion and accessibility enthusiast, learning to appreciate diversity and inclusion and keep a check on my own inherent biases. I love mentoring aspiring UX professionals and emerging UX research teams at ADPList.org and other mentoring platforms.

Did you come up through a “traditional” techy route, or has your career taken a bit of a different turn?

Though my educational degree says Master of Technology, my area of study, i.e Cognitive Science and Neuroscience, has been quite academic. I have tried my luck at a career in psychological counselling and therapy at a mental hospital, being a neuropharmacology researcher under the guidance of a stroke medical expert. I have also worked on an Indian government-funded project on human attention, action and emotion at a Brain and Cognitive Science centre. UX Research was purely incidental for me, something that kept pulling me further towards it. I transitioned from academia to industry, becoming a self-taught UX Researcher. And now, I feel that this is always where I was meant to be.

Is there a moment that helped define your career?

Definitely yes! In my first role as a UX Researcher, I wasn’t sure if UXR is even meant for me. I was confident in my skills but was unaware of the industry practices and norms. My first project was for a Fortune 500 multinational company in the US. I was under immense pressure with expectations both from my team and myself. But not only did I come out with flying colours, but the project was also well received by the clients and the international design community. It changed the way my organisation began to look at UX Research and value it. The project became a gold standard project, exhibited to every single potential client of ours. I feel that was the moment I realised that this is the field for me and that I’m going to do well in this industry. That was the moment that defined my career path.

What piece of advice would you give your younger self?

An elaborate blog post is underway to answer this question. For this conversation, I’ll say that I came from humble roots and became a part of a world of individuals far more experienced, intellectually capable and successful than me. Over the years, I learned that irrespective of my beginnings, I need to be confident and have faith in my skills all the time. I need to keep the fear at bay and never let impostor syndrome get hold of me. Thus, my mantra for life now is:

“You might be weird. Work on it. You might be a little different. Own it. Better to be a nerd than one of the herd.“

What was the inspiration for your recent talk? Any key highlights / takeaways for anyone who missed it?

I transitioned to UX Research in the year 2017. Since then, a lot has changed in the industry. Not only has the UXR industry evolved, but there are also now more problem statements to be solved than there are UX Researchers available in the market. I further noticed that more and more organisations are seeking candidates that are friendly, collaborative, and can handle stakeholders quite well. Me, being the curious person that I am, looked into the problem deeply, and I found that many folks are making changes in UXR job descriptions over the years. Studies have highlighted how soft skills like collaboration, business acumen and presentation are surfacing more in these job descriptions than traditional skills and knowledge of research methods. Thus, I felt that this is a change that very few people in the industry have noticed, and it needs to be talked about more. I wanted my observations and data from studies evaluating JDs across the years 2019 to 2021  to be the crux of the talk. Further, I felt it is imperative now more than ever that mentors should encourage mentees to develop such skills in parallel with technical and hard skills in research. Thus, this talk was born.

For anyone who missed tuning in, the main takeaways from the talk were: The UXR industry is evolving and to meet the demands of the growing industry, it is recommended that we make a shift in our perspective. It was about time that we began emphasising learning soft skills such as business acumen, product-thinking, learning to be collaborative and more in parallel with technical skills. Secondly, we are no more just the informants of product insights, but we should seamlessly take over the role of product partner to teams and stakeholders, empowering them with insights and data to make informed decisions.

What’s your big tech prediction for 2022?

Well, Meta announcing plans for a metaverse this year, was a significant announcement in tech. I certainly believe that in the coming years, products and services are going to be developed using emerging technologies like AR/VR/XR. Thus, my big tech prediction is that the next evolution of the field of UXR is going to be for emerging technologies. Experience Researchers with experience in VR/AR will be sought after and would form a unique niche in the domain. Sean Lessin recently highlighted that AI content will be an essential part of any Metaverse future; I believe so too. Soon, AI/ML will reach the mundane interstices of our day-to-day life, and decision-making by machines (hopefully in control of humans) would be the cornerstone of the world we live in. Thus, an extended prediction would be that UXRs will need to evangelise and advocate for user ethics, privacy and safety when products prioritise AI/ML algorithms over human calls.

Anything else you would like to share?

If you are looking for any guidance around UXR or have questions about your UXR career trajectory, I’m available to connect via ADPList.org. Also, I’m planning a workshop on UX skills assessment, mapping and evaluation, so let me know on shrutkirti92@gmail.com if you are interested in joining the workshop.

And finally, Silicon Brighton wouldn’t be here without people like you giving back to the community, so what does the word community mean to you?

Humans are social beings. It is natural for us to find connection and solace in the company of others. But when individuals with shared ideals, values and goals come together to help and support each other is when they form a community. For me, the word community has meaning on a variety of levels. I am a self-taught UX Researcher who learnt the ropes of the field by reading books, articles, hands-on projects and most importantly by networking within the community. I can’t stress enough the role networking and community played in my growth as a User Experience Researcher over the years. It’s my always dependable, go-to place when I am seeking answers to the not-so-easy questions in my career. It’s my universe of experiential knowledge from where I draw my learnings and wisdom. I’ve gained so much from the User Experience community, and now it’s time for me to pay back as a responsible member.

You can find upcoming UX Brighton Mentorship Program events on their website, and follow them on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn for updates.

Missed Shrut’s talk or want to watch it again? Check it out below…

Working hand-in-hand with Brighton’s tech community, we run a range of free meetup groups that cover a broad spectrum of specialist areas; from marketing to programming, product design to data. Check out what’s coming up here and join our community of like-minded individuals in the local tech scene!