Based in Barcelona, Spain, Mariana Amat has mentored more than 30 Designlab students. We spoke with Mariana about her degree in Psychology, why empathy is key in design and mentoring, and what the most fulfilling part of her role is as a mentor. Read on to learn more about this Designlab mentor.
Hi, Mariana! I’m excited to learn more about you, thanks for taking the time. Tell us, how did you start out in UX/UI design?
I’ve always been passionate about human behavior and the impact design and digital products have on our lives. So, I studied for a BA degree in Psychology to gain a deeper understanding of our motivations and behaviors. I knew I wanted to make a scalable impact on people’s lives, and I was trying to find out how to make it happen.
This is when I heard about UX design for the first time and the possibilities it provides to design for emotions, and create delightful experiences based on actionable and meaningful data-driven insights that represent the voice of the people. At that point I was working as a Recruiter for global IT companies, so I realized that I needed to make a career change. That’s when I started studying Usability and Accessibility at a tech university in Buenos Aires, while working in a job I already knew wasn't fulfilling me anymore.
To make this career shift happen, I also reached out to professionals that were already working in the UX design field and that had a similar social background as me. Having coffees with professionals with different perspectives helped me to become even more convinced of my next step as a new UX professional.
At the same time, I read as many books as I could, attended lots of UX events and watched UX and Product talks to continue learning and also boost my profile. Some inspiring people at that moment were Erika Hall, Joe Leech, Don Norman, and Steve Krug, among others.
Some months later, I found the extraordinary opportunity of joining an online travel agency as a UX Researcher, with the challenge of being the first psychologist in the team 🧠
Despite having achieved my goal of joining a UX design team, I continued to learn more about different topics such as cognitive behavioral psychology, and now I’m in search of a new master so I can continue exploring, maybe something related to Behavioral Economics or Service Design.
Your deep interest and education in psychology must serve you so well in your role as a UX Researcher! Where else have you worked?
I’ve been working on C2C and B2C companies, such as an online global marketplace (OLX Group) and the online travel agency (Despegar).
Recently, I moved from Buenos Aires to Barcelona, as I had the ambition of living in a new context with different cultures and people. Of course, COVID-19 has made this relocation challenging, but I believe it’s worth it as I’ve already learned more about resilience and optimism to overcome every new obstacle.
Currently, I’m working as a freelance UX Researcher on diverse projects. Besides that, I’m mentoring ~20 students with Designlab, mainly from UX Academy, and I’m participating as a UX instructor at AllWomen here in Barcelona.
This year has certainly thrown up a lot of unexpected obstacles! Going back to your main role, what parts of being a UX Researcher do you find most fulfilling?
What I enjoy most about working as a UX Researcher is the challenge of solving problems and uncovering data-driven insights in order to generate value for businesses and create a positive impact on people’s experiences.
And to make it happen, I also enjoy crafting, leading, and conducting strategic research plans, working end-to-end on the design process to get a deeper understanding of the users' needs, attitudes, emotions and behaviors.
Another thing that fulfills me as a UX researcher is to work collaboratively with other teams to help them learn from their customers, and then transform those learnings into rigorous results to make better design decisions.
The most fulfilling part of my role as a mentor is getting to know many interesting people, with completely different backgrounds, but sharing the same eagerness and curiosity to know more about the UX field.
You’ve had such diverse experiences, and I’m sure that’s contributed to the designer and mentor you are today. On that note, how did your journey bring you to Designlab?
While I was living in Buenos Aires I had the opportunity to participate as a keynote speaker at events about UX, and as a lecturer at different design, tech and psychology universities. Through these opportunities, I discovered I had the passion to explain UX concepts, and enjoy it at the same time.
At the same time, a colleague and friend of mine recommended me to Designlab. So, after exploring the different syllabi, I found them interesting, not only because of the thorough content, but also because of the fantastic methodology to work closely with students and help them do their best.
Moreover, as I’ve been in that position of studying and changing my career before, I know how challenging it can be to make such a huge decision, and how much you have to work until you get it. So, I love the idea of contributing to students’ development and helping them become talented UX designers. I loved the idea of helping share my experience, and now, looking back I can tell that joining Designlab’s team was a clever decision, as I’ve met wonderful people while mentoring students.
We really appreciate the kind words, and love that you’ve enjoyed your time being a mentor with us so much! Between freelance work and mentorship, what does an ordinary day look like for you?
Honestly, I cannot think of ordinary days anymore. Every day is different for me, with new challenges. The only thing that is more constant in my life is to work remotely most of my time as the pandemic situation has forced many Spanish people to reorganize our jobs and daily lives from home, if possible.
So, to make the “ordinary days” work, I plan my week ahead in order to handle the time in an effective way to divide the hours between Designlab’s sessions and feedback, some UX freelance projects, and extra time to read or study.
Nowadays, my best allies for time management are Google Calendar and Notion.
Notion is a big favorite on our team too!. What do you find most rewarding about mentoring?
It’s completely rewarding to see how the students gain confidence with each new unit they learn. My responsibility is to help students develop their UX design strengths, while overcoming their possible weaknesses.
It feels so good when students shake the infamous impostor syndrome, which might have previously been making them doubt their skills, talents, or accomplishments.
While working together with students, it’s exciting to see how I’m learning from their fresh perspectives and ideas at the same time. As all the students have different backgrounds, previous careers, cultures, and perspectives about design, the sessions are enriching, and that’s why I adapt my approach to work in the best possible way together.
Imposter syndrome is definitely something a lot of new designers encounter, but we’ve found our mentors play a big role in mitigating that. What has surprised you most about the students you’ve worked with?
When I started mentoring it really surprised me to see how UX design is becoming more and more multidisciplinary.
Lots of students come to Designlab with previous careers, experiences, and perspectives. This makes the field more inclusive, creating more opportunities for new perspectives and best practices based on the different backgrounds we have.
Moreover, a lovely surprise is also to see students’ commitment, effort, and persistence to learn from their mistakes. The talented people we have in the Designlab community is so delightful. I’m so proud to be part of this amazing and collaborative team.
And we are so happy to have you as part of the team! What has been the ultimate student win throughout your Designlab mentoring experience?
I had a particularly resilient student who worked very hard until she got her first UX design job while doing UX Academy. Before I met her, she was working in a job that she had to quit after making the decision to take her dream trip. But due to COVID-19, the trip didn’t happen.
Having already quit her job, she had to adapt to her new reality. That’s when she decided to apply for UX Academy, and she realized that it was the perfect time to make a career change.
Throughout the program she worked really hard to give it her best in the program projects, in order to create her best portfolio. She always stayed optimistic and ambitious during the coursework.
After a while, she finally got this job, in a new business, which opened a new door for her. At that moment, she had the opportunity to create a real capstone project based on her current job. This was another challenge for her, as she had to handle the day-to-day job while also focusing on the capstone project with it’s own timeline.
Ultimately, she submitted her capston while also finding actionable insights and adding real value to her new business through design. I was so proud of her!
Thank you for sharing, that’s a great story. What do you think makes a good mentor?
First of all, empathy and support are key skills in our role if we want to be good mentors, as we need to understand the best way to mentor each student, taking into account their contexts, pace, and backgrounds.
Also, to understand and work together with our students we need to be effective listeners.
A positive mindset allows us as mentors to encourage students to be engaged. Moreover, inspiring the students to push their own boundaries with our guidance is vital so they can unlock their potential.
Last but not least, a good mentor is the one that has the excitement of spreading the word with enthusiasm to their students, while at the same time understands how to keep them motivated.
Empathy is certainly key. Similarly, what do you think makes a good student?
To become a good student and learner, it’s important to deal with frustrations. Students need to get out of their comfort zones and embrace failure. This is part of our roles as UX professionals and we need to feel comfortable with the idea of continuously iterating on our designs. So, we need to put these skills into practice from the very beginning of our UX careers.
To make the most of your mentor sessions, I believe it’s essential to write down all of your questions and doubts while you’re working on the curriculum. Curiosity allows us to grow faster. It’s also crucial that students learn to give and receive professional feedback, as this not only will help them during the course, but also in real-life projects working with different stakeholders and teams.
⚡️ Lightning Round ⚡️
What do you like to do in your free time?
Nowadays, COVID-19 is making me spend my free time in different ways. I used to play soccer, as I really enjoy being part of a sports team with shared goals and values. But now in Barcelona we are temporarily not allowed to play matches given the situation. So, if I’m not reading at the beach with Moka, my dog, I’m probably roller skating.
What’s a favorite project you’ve worked on?
I’m not sure if I have a favorite project or product as each one has been completely different and challenging. For me, the best designs are the ones that force me to push my own boundaries and the ones that teach me how to work even harder and better.
Because of leading challenging projects, I learned about the importance of dealing with uncertainty by working collaboratively with Data Scientists and Product Managers in order to get key research questions, data-driven insights, and accurate product design decisions.
Besides, my favorite projects involved mixed methods (quantitative and qualitative) as these allow me to get robust and actionable insights through a wider perspective, not only understanding the behavioral aspects of our users but also the attitudinal factors.
What people in design do you look up to?
Just to name a few, some interesting professionals I follow and inspire me about UX design and product management are Erika Hall, Teresa Torres, Joe Leech and Don Norman.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Some years ago a friend of mine told me to be fearless and to have the courage to do everything that sounds scary, as those are the things that we never regret. Besides, what I learned is that we do regret the things that we could have done, the risks that we didn’t take, or the questions we didn’t ask on time.
Whenever I feel fearful, I know that is the right direction to go.
In any case, we need to embrace the failure, hold the uncomfortable emotions and know that at least we are trying.
What is the best piece of advice you have to give someone entering the world of design?
It’s a great question and I try to share these thoughts with my Designlab students.
First of all, as designers we need to train the mind to be optimistic enough to see every problem as a new challenge. A positive mindset is completely necessary to overcome the obstacles and to deal with frustration.
I suggest every new UX designer test as much as possible, whenever you have a new design or idea, test it. No matter if it’s with the final or real customer, but a fresh perspective on what you are doing is always insightful.
So, as new designers, it’s essential to assume less and test more, to get away from your biases.
If you’re interested in learning UX/UI design with a mentor like Mariana, we invite you to explore our UX Academy program. If you’re interested in becoming a mentor with Designlab, we encourage you to apply here.