Nurturing Growth: From Academia to Building a Path in UX
Hi Upasna! Could you tell us a bit about how you ended up in your current role?
My journey primarily started when I transitioned from academia to industry, and that's probably something that a lot of people ask me about as well. When I started my PhD, a part of me wanted to figure out my own special sauce for solving problems and determine the most authentic way for me to do so, and research provided me with that framework.
I wanted to learn more deeply at a theoretical and academic level because academia offers several advantages. You have the luxury of time to dive deeply into a project and emerge as an expert in a topic. I enjoyed academia, but I was missing the practical application of the knowledge in the real world.
I slowly began to think about how I could apply some of the things I was learning in my field to see if they worked in the real world. UX is an established field, but I would say it's still young. That caught my attention, and I started talking to people about their journey into UX. I realized that people come from all walks of life.
UX was a place where anyone, regardless of their background, could find their place under the sun. This further cemented my confidence that if the goal was problem-solving, then UX was an excellent place to try to solve problems from many different perspectives. You could have a business, marketing, psychology, academic, analytics, or data background, and all could come together.
I found it really exciting and beautiful. So I thought, "Okay, let me try." That's how I landed my first role, which was at a startup, and I built the discipline from scratch. There was no research department there, so I was the first hire. Then I slowly set up a small team of three or four researchers. As our product and design grew, I was able to push myself and get into people management.
Shortly after, the company took a bit of a detour in terms of where they wanted to go, and I felt like I wasn't seeing the research scale at the pace that I would have liked. This made me want to expose myself to other opportunities as I grew. So, I ended up in a banking environment.
Things moved a lot slower than in a startup, but the challenge was different. It was about stakeholder management and figuring out how to work with people who have a certain fixed way of doing things, such as problem-solving or their approach to risk. I had to see how I, as a person, could fit in with all that I know from my background.
That worked out great because it exposed me to another dimension of conducting research. It's not just about what you do, but also about how you do it. I learned the "how" part in a much larger organization, while the "what" part was clear from the startup because it allowed me to take more risks and try new things.
At one point, I remember being fresh into the field and trying to do crazy things. Every time somebody attended a user session, such as a user interview session, research project, or fieldwork, I used to take a Polaroid photo of them and put it up in what I called the Research Hall of Fame. If they completed five sessions, whether it was five interviews or five workshops or any kind of research initiative, I would put a little crown on their head and they would become the research champion of the month. It was silly and basic, but it caught on like wildfire because people would say, "Did you see my crown on my photo?" and it seemed to impress senior stakeholders.
That's when I realized that in addition to what I'm doing in terms of these great research insights and reports, I also need to focus on creating a culture and a feeling that this is something we want to continue investing in. So my current role at foodpanda feels like a combination of both.
I have a deep understanding of delivering projects end-to-end, from scoping and planning to stakeholder management, requirement analysis, execution, analysis, and ultimately delivering an effective, action-oriented research report. I have also brought my skills from my experience in a large organization to help bring people together, raise our maturity level, prioritize tasks, and help people focus more on doing less but with better quality.
Fostering a Culture of Trust and Collaboration
It sounds like it comes naturally to you. Your team members on LinkedIn have also given you great feedback on your leadership style. Could you maybe share a little bit about how you created that supportive and positive working environment?
It all starts with me being humble enough to realize that there are things I know and then there are things I don't know. People management, in comparison to being a lead, involves driving conversations and actions, creating plans, and figuring things out collaborating actively with stakeholders.
As people manager, when you delegate and have team members driving the work, the mindset has to shift. Sometimes, they are the experts because they are in the grind day-to-day. They work with the analytics team, designers, and product managers to deliver the work. It starts with me having the humility to recognize, but also not feeling intimidated to step into the details and ask questions, and sometimes challenge them. What about that methodology? Why did you do it this way? What else we can do to make it more impactful and align with the goals?
Overall, finding that balance may naturally create an environment where they feel like they are the ones leading it. They truly believe that they own the delivery process, but they also know that they have someone they can trust to rely on. Because I'm honest with them and I'm not so far removed from the details that I don't know the context, they are not afraid to ask me for help or anything. However, I'm not micromanaging to the point that I need to know every single thing. I trust them with their capabilities and abilities.
That's where the whole inclusive, open, and honest feedback is coming from. I do retrospectives with my team, but I have never honestly asked, "Do you feel this way? And later think how can it be attributed to me to find areas to grow?”.
But I do believe it's also the group of people here. I'm grateful to have an exceptionally talented, open, honest, and driven bunch of individuals who are in the right place at the right time, presented with the right challenges. They feel like they're doing their best and are supported in that. It's an outcome of many things.
Leveraging the NewCampus Framework for Effective Management
You also mentioned stakeholder management and giving feedback earlier. How does the NewCampus framework help you in certain ways?
Before I took this Management Essentials course, I was basically learning on the job. This is true for many people who move into people management later in their careers. You're essentially looking at people who have been doing it for a while, trying to talk to them and get mentorship exposure within the job.
I had slowly started looking at courses, books, and short training that I could take to make my learning more formalized. I also wanted something to go back and read up on. I love focusing on my own growth and honing my skills. What I found was that if I only learned on the job, I missed the opportunity to sit down, reflect deeply, and absorb some of the concepts that I was naturally drawn to.
After I completed the Management Essentials course, it made things a bit more formal for me. The biggest advantage was having access to the platform. Even now, if I recall something from one of the training sessions, I will go back, open the PDF, review it again, and if there is something at an abstract level that I can use for one of my biweekly team meetings, I will pick it up.
For example, just recently we were discussing the stakeholder onion, which I had never thought of as an onion before, but during the management essentials course, we started using that term and doing that activity with the cohort, it stuck. We started working on a complex project this quarter, I suggested to my team that we first examine the stakeholders using what I had learnt.
This helps to identify the innermost and outer circles, as well as the extended group of people who need to be informed about the project. Then, we developed strategies for communicating with the stakeholder group depending on where we placed them, such as through meetings or Slack updates. We also considered how to communicate with the extended group. These were the moments where the training really helped me reflect on our approach.
With the learning platform available, I recently revisited it, just two days ago, to review one of the delegation matrices, specifically the Eisenhower matrix. I wanted to determine which tasks I should be doing myself and which ones I should delegate. Even though I can usually figure it out on the job, having a concrete resource to refer back to is helpful. It allows me to refresh my memory, gain a fresh perspective, and then proceed with my work.
Enhancing Project Success through the Stakeholder Onion Framework
How does your team use the Stakeholder Onion Framework?
They were quite receptive because it made sense at that moment. For example, if the project was not very complex it wouldn’t work.
In the context of a complex project, which probably involved six to eight teams that needed to align with 20-plus stakeholders we needed to communicate with, the stakeholder onion exercise was very much needed. Without it, we would have gone on Miro and just started listing stakeholders and discussing for an hour. However, with the stakeholder onion exercise, we had a concrete outcome that we could take a screenshot of and share with our leadership group. We could say, "Hey, by the way, for this project, we did this exercise. Here's what the stakeholder onion looked like." They might ask, "What onion?" but they now have a visual that they can look at.
If we want to do this for other projects, then they will know that it's replicable. The value of doing that activity was evident, and I didn't have to motivate them further to do it. They naturally followed it because it was the need of the hour.
Cultivating Trust in Team Dynamics
Thanks for sharing this. Last question, how has your relationship with your team members and also your manager changed as a result?
I was reading an article on LinkedIn this morning where I believe it was one of the senior directors for research and insights at Slack and they said that the number one determinant of great teams is trust. I do believe this after completing a couple of these trainings at NewCampus.
There are other things that I do, but I believe that by combining these actions, the ultimate goal is to build a team culture and establish trust, whether it's with my direct reports or my own managers. This leads to increased productivity, job satisfaction, self-motivation, taking initiative, and going above and beyond your assigned tasks. To me, these are all precedents to building great trust within the team, which ultimately leads to wonderful outcomes later on.