Interview: Dr Anja Sisarica on UX and being UnSchooled

We have always placed design and user experience at the centre of our products, and Dr Anja Sisarica has been leading this side of Signal as User Researcher. With a PhD in Human-Computer Interaction from City University London, Anja has helped make sure that users’ experiences with Signal are consistently delightful. In October, Anja was invited to participate in a Berlin-based programme run by the Unschool of Disruptive Design. We sat down with her to discuss how the UX lessons she learned can be translated back into the workplace.

Introduction to UnSchool

[Joe]: Hi Anja! To start us off, can you describe for us what the UnSchool is and what it does?

[Anja]: The UnSchool is an amazing programme that takes people from various backgrounds and introduces them to new ways of thinking about creativity, sustainability and systems thinking. It was founded by Dr Leyla Acaroglu: she is a designer by background, but she always wanted to be more involved in interdisciplinary activities. The UnSchool has created a whole new learning experience.

UnSchool offers online classes and shorter in-person workshops, but I was lucky enough to attend their week-long fellowship programme. They are hosted all over the world: the programme I attended was held in Berlin, but the next one is taking place in New Zealand!

[Joe]: So you were introduced to new learning methods and concepts?

[Anja]: Yes! I participated in my first design jam, which was a 24-hour project for a real client: the brief was to create an initiative which would make it easier for refugees in Berlin to get funding for new businesses. It was amazing to be a part of that, and my mini-team won an award for the best project too, which is always a bonus.

[Joe]: Many congratulations. How did you find out about the programme?

[Anja] I happened upon it through a service design forum: I think around 100 people applied and 15 were selected.

[Joe]: What were the backgrounds of the other participants?

[Anja]: Many had design backgrounds: there were UX designers, interface designers and visual designers there. But there were also other professions represented: we had PR and communications executives, journalists and marketers as well. There is definitely a ‘human focus’, if that’s the right term.

[Joe]: So are you planning to bring some of the lessons of UnSchool back into Signal?

[Anja]: I came away with so many interesting insights which can be applied to Signal. As our main target market is the PR and communications sector, it was especially interesting to learn about how PR firms are beginning to use cognitive science and neurology to adapt their messaging. I’m going to run internal workshops discussing these principles, which I’m sure will be helpful to different teams. And in the longer term, having a thorough and effective UX strategy is always beneficial for software companies like Signal.

[Joe]: That sounds fascinating. What do you think software firms should be thinking about in terms of fostering a general UX strategy, then?

[Anja]: Being able to differentiate yourself from your competitors via the user experience is very underrated, in my opinion. Having a tangibly different UX in terms of look and feel, so that people almost subconsciously know your offer is unique, is really important. This doesn’t always come easily, though!

Unschool Berlin
UnSchool Berlin

The environment and people

[Joe]: Was Berlin a good place to hold the UnSchool?

[Anja]: Absolutely – one of the best experiences we had was a private tour of the Bauhaus, which reminded everyone that cutting-edge design thinking is not a new concept at all! Bauhaus students took everyday objects and reimagined them: this definitely inspired me to think differently about my work.

[Joe]: Did you all work with materials then – not just web-based design?

[Anja]: Yes! One of our workshops was based around the idea of tearing stuff apart, working with iPads and other devices to examine the hardware on the inside. It was a great reminder that design has to incorporate the physical as well as the intangible.

[Joe]: Back to UnSchool for a second: I’m sure you went to Berlin with goals and objectives for your time there. But how was the programme different to what you might have expected?

[Anja]: It was definitely a surprising experience in certain ways. In particular, I didn’t expect that I would have so many new ideas around actually presenting to audiences. We had so many talks, discussions and lectures which were presented in so many different ways, and this helped me think about the ways I present, and how we might get better at showing Signal off to people!

[Joe]: So what is UnSchool’s alumni network like? Will you collaborate with them in the future, do you think?

[Anja]: UnSchool put lots of emphasis on maintaining relationships. So I’m sure we will work together again at some point!

[Joe]: Thanks for your time Anja; it was awesome to learn a little more about your fellowship.

[Anja]: Thank you – lovely to chat!

The Signal blog has more interviews like this one: explore a recent conversation with co-founder Dr Miguel Martinez on the state of AI in 2016.

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