Empathy is the foundation of User Experience Design. And empathy comes from life experiences that help you design products based on psychological principles of understanding what users really want.

Imran Saif, our next pathbreaker, User Experience Designer at Optum, designs healthcare interfaces with the goal of making healthcare experiences better for everyone

Imran talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about realizing the importance of arts and psychology in making technology accessible to all by understanding the latent needs of users.

For students, creating something simple requires a lot of work. But this is where your problem solving skills come into play. Are you up for the challenge of designing simple and functional products by getting to the root of a problem?

Imran, tell us about your background?

I grew up in a small town named Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh. My father is a mechanic who ran a small repair shop for watches. We had a small shop of our own with minimum income to run our house. I was lucky to get into an English medium school in those days, this happened because of my mom who dreamt that her son should be able to speak in English. My initial interests were playing, coloring and any activity that would keep me engaged creatively. I did not do very well in my school and hated math. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I graduated in Psychology & Journalism and took up Psychology as my major in Masters. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

I had a brother who was schizophrenic and we as a family suffered a lot to treat and adjust with him. This experience made me think a bit about what career I should pursue. I took up psychology as a major in my graduation because of this. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

I began working very early in my career due to financial constraints in the family. I started my career with odd jobs such as a courier boy and as a salesman. I think this prepared me well in adjusting to my next few jobs. I then worked in call centers, which I think helped me improve on my communication. As I had no interest in engineering, I searched for different courses that suited my interests. I found that psychology might really help me understand my elder schizophrenic brother better. I decided to take up a psychology and also did my masters hoping that it would help me understand him and other mentally challenged people better. 

As I was struggling to juggle my schedule with night shifts in US based call centres, someone told me that Google India was hiring contractors and they give good perks and exposure. I attended the interview round and was selected as a contractor to review usability of different websites. A typical usability team member looks at a website or an app and tries to figure out the possible usability issues using a set of rules. It wasn’t a dream job at all but I was learning about different things everyday from Google teams by closely working with them and directly reporting to the silicon valley team members, this kept me motivated. 

I was learning more about the software world and how important a role arts and psychology play in designing technology. I was also a volunteer for an NGO called SAFA at Hyderabad, they worked on empowering women from underprivileged communities to generate a sustainable income. I was interested in doing something for those women. I figured one of the ways was to bridge the gap between the low income and high income. As I spoke to the founder about the idea, she helped me set up a venture as a side project. This helped me work on BlueAngels, a project that provided domestic help services. 

I was unsuccessful in the venture that I started, as I realized that there are so many things that I needed to learn. I then quit the venture and started doing freelancing work by designing websites and charging for the design mockups. I always wanted to do something that is close to being creative, as I was always interested in creative fields. I then discovered that what I studied and what I have interest in can be combined into a creative field called “User Experience” designing. Interestingly, this job had all the ingredients that I was looking for, including, creativity, problem solving and communication. 

My work portfolio is https://www.imsaif.com/ 

How did you get your first break? 

My first break, as I see it, was from networking with friends and figuring out what matches my interests. 

What were the challenges you faced in your career? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: Adapting to changes was a very big challenge for me. Coming from a small town, having never lived in a new city, and being an introvert, it was very difficult for me to live on my own.  

Challenge 2: Communication: One of the biggest challenges I had was to communicate properly. I think I’m still working on it. I’m now learning it by becoming president of our office Toastmasters club. 

Challenge 3: Impulsiveness: Not acting on impulse was something that I always lacked, I think I’m doing better now. Some experiences and understanding others better has helped me overcome it. 

Where do you work now?  Tell us what you do

I work at Optum, a healthcare software company. We work on making healthcare better for everyone. 

Good communication, understanding users and coordinating with team members are the key aspects of my job. I think I acquired this by constantly making mistakes and learning from them. 

A typical day might look like conducting user research, putting together a product prototype, or reviewing designs done by the team members. 

A typical example of a project may be, a hospital dashboard that helps a surgeon schedule his surgery and update a work order for the equipment required to perform a surgery. In this example, it may seem very easy to guess that a surgeon simply wants to perform a surgery but if we dig into the details of this task, we might learn so many details that are directly related to their goals, needs and wants. We need to consider all of those in our designs. Understanding what helps the surgeon perform his/her surgery better plays a key role in User Experience Design. This is where we interview a surgeon and this is where you need to be extremely well in communication. If we observe that our product needs to cater to help a surgeon to take a break in the midst of a surgery, we need to sketch/design accordingly for the dashboard, one of the solutions might be giving him the ability to pause the timer he set for the surgery. If most of the surgeons plan their surgery way ahead of time, this is again a great input for a design decision, which is to include a forward moving calendar. We create a lot of samples before deciding on some designs, this will be the time to use your sketching skills. 

Sometimes users (surgeons in this case) may not speak right upfront, for example a surgeon might hate the fact that he has to update a dashboard instead of focusing on his patient. Hence, a good design input is to make sure he doesn’t spend too much time on the dashboard. So, reading between the lines of what they really want and making design decisions based on psychological principles such as gestalt principles of design accordingly is where psychology helps. Getting to the root of a problem and designing products that feel easy and simple to use is a big challenge. Creating something simple requires a lot of work, this is where our problem solving skills come into play. 

What is it you love about this job? 

I love this job specifically because I can combine everything that I have interest in. I can combine psychology, creativity with problem solving.

How does your work benefit society? 

I don’t think my work benefits society directly, but in an indirect sense, as I work in the healthcare sector, it helps people in their health. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

I worked on a startup that helps underprivileged women in generating livelihood, this work was very close to my heart. I am a volunteer in an NGO on weekends. I teach students life skills and some entertaining moral science classes. I didn’t know how to run a social enterprise startup, but all I wanted to do was to see if there’s some livelihood that I can create for these women I was working with. We figured that we can cater for domestic help as there was a huge demand for that space. We trained women professionally and placed them in nearby houses. We ran into operational challenges during this period and had to spend more time than expected. I failed at working out the financial and operational aspects, however my learning during this period was much more than any other place I ever worked. I learnt so much during this period and feel so proud that I was able to contribute towards the development of the society.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

It is okay to fail. Learn from your failures and focus on gathering knowledge. 

Future Plans?

Creating digital products that help people is something that I want to do.