Elizabeth Kagimbi: Stepping out of myself.

By Mwaniki Nyaga, KamiLimu Management Committee Member

Design provides us with choices to define ourselves. It is often hidden in places, within services and in business innovation. Nowadays, people are finding a deeper sense of identity, purpose and gratification through creating and maintaining connections, memories and experiences. Oftentimes, this cannot be derived only from material product purchases. Therefore, we have come from the idea that designers simply make appealing and usable components and products, to an appreciation that their work impacts the perception of entire brand and customer experiences, and beyond that — to making those experiences meaningful.

In this interview, Elizabeth Kagimbi, a User Experience (UX) Researcher and Product Designer specializing in Human Experience and Interface Design, shares her encounters with self-doubt, and lessons she has learnt as a researcher, multifaceted designer and mentor. At KamiLimu, Elizabeth is the UX Track professional mentor.

Elizabeth Kagimbi, Cohort 5.0 Professional Mentor.

Who is Elizabeth?

I’m a conceptualizer, a wannabe Disney director, and a low-key adrenaline junkie. I’m a creative at heart.

How do you feel this creativity expresses itself?

I draw and paint a lot, but for myself. Maybe one day when I’m retiring I’ll have a gallery showcase for my art. I animate too in my spare time. As a creative, there are times when I feel pressured or I have a lot of self-doubt. The painting and animating are primarily for my mental health: they relieve the pressure I experience whenever I have a bloated workload.

How did you arrive at experience design as your field of specialization?

Growing up, I wanted to study Medicine, not art. Disappointingly, I did not qualify to pursue Medicine after my final secondary school exams. A friend suggested that I should try out a course at Nairobits, a Digital Design School. Going in, I was looking forward to learning computer programming but this desire was not to be met immediately as I first had to learn about the fundamental principles of design. I enjoyed my time in the program tremendously, and during our final project presentations two years later, my first employer spotted my portfolio and invited me to interview for an internship. At the time, I had not settled on a particular aspect of design and you’d find me doing animation, graphic design, as well as coding web pages. During the internship, I was advised to combine my graphic design and animation skills to support the marketing team. Three years later, as a Junior Designer with the product and marketing team, I worked on a project to improve a brand’s product experience to include accessibility by the visually-impaired. The experience was quite eye-opening, and it made me question the authenticity of my designs and the reasoning behind them. It triggered my decision to move to a more user-centric design process where every design I did would be geared towards improving a situation faced by real people.

Did you need to learn what it means to design for people at that point?

It’s a continuous process. I’m grateful that throughout my career I’ve been surrounded by people who have allowed me to learn by making mistakes. I’ve come to realise that designing for people is a never-ending learning process: I started as an animator, realized that I needed to create usable products, which led me to take a human-centred design course with IDEO, after which I started to create impactful designs for actual people, and I began to both ask good questions that trigger emotions and hold conversations that give the right answers to the design challenge at hand. That’s how the process of learning and becoming has manifested itself in me.

What do you wish you knew about design when you started that you know now?

Three things. One, understanding the people I’m designing for is crucial. I need to learn their hopes, their fears and their needs. Two, my preferences and tastes are not always similar to those for whom I am designing. Three, I won’t always get it right on the first try. Initially, I thought I needed to be perfect and that I should get everything in the right place all at once. But I’ve come to see the good that comes out of iterating, seeing whether something works, asking for feedback and re-presenting the design in a new way.

On the second point, how are you able to separate your preferences from the design?

My first three years working were all about creating fancy designs that would please my ego. Six to seven years down the line, I saw that it wasn’t about me. Through respecting the process of being human-centred, I gradually grew out of the need to fulfil my ego.

Why did you want to be a mentor with KamiLimu?

When this opportunity landed on my table, I was a bit hesitant. The impostor syndrome kicked in: “I don’t think I’m there yet.” I didn’t believe I had enough experience to give proper advice or mentor. Through conversations with a lot of people, including some of my friends in design who have been mentors at KamiLimu, I realized that they believed I could do it. My mentor walked me through my previous work and achievements and the impact they have had over time, and, with that, I saw the need to share my experience with the mentees at KamiLImu.

What did you hope to achieve with your UX Track mentees?

I wanted them to know what it takes to be a designer; not only about the planning that goes into a look and feel but also the impact of a designed solution on both the people and the business. I also wanted to create awareness on why we should be empathetic as designers. I like to show designers that they are indeed talented, but also help them ask the why’s behind what they are doing; to create an environment where they are in-sync with their audience. I also hoped that they would have fun while doing their research!

What was your approach to their personal projects?

I decided to use IDEO’s Human Centred Design ideology, a creative approach for hands-on problem solving, as well as some aspects from The Design Council’s Double Diamond. Both methods entail building a deep empathy with the people you’re designing for, generating tonnes of ideas, building and sharing prototypes with the audience in order to learn from them and refine your concept for an eventual launch.

Were the mentees’ achievements in line with your hopes?

The process of becoming a good designer is a marathon, not a sprint. All my mentees have developed a certain level of confidence, enough to even apply for UX jobs. Their case studies had a level of detail that was incredibly humbling. I even shared them with my workmates and they were really impressed! They have all become more curious and more confident in their design skills and putting their design work out there. I attribute the positive mindset and attitude that the mentees have to KamiLimu. It was very evident in the ease with which they did their research and asked questions when in doubt. I can’t wait to see what they come up with in the group project!

How is your overall experience being an ICT Track mentor?

I’m so elated to have been picked to mentor. My experience has enabled me to do a lot of learning, especially in getting to know my mentees’ characters and capabilities. I have also relearnt ways of teaching, like dumping resources on people without clear guidance won’t result in productivity. And understanding where my mentees are coming from. I’d definitely do this again and also recommend it to other experience designers in the community!

What are you looking forward to doing or learning in life over the next year?

I want to improve my research skills. Remember, I started from a market-led industry which steered me to where I am now, in a user-centred industry. As a designer, I need to understand the data I collect and the psychology behind it. Therefore, I’ve started going down the path of data science research. I’m curious about how to understand customer insights, the process of data visualisation, and how to use statistics and Python to support the two.