Entrepreneurship Through Empathy: How I Got Into UX Design

Entrepreneurship Through Empathy: How I Got Into UX Design

Whenever I tell someone that I’m Head of User Experience for a tech startup they usually look at me completely confused. They don’t understand what it is that I really do and how I came about doing it.

For that reason I wrote this blog post – to explain a bit on what I do and how an Economics major became the Head of User Experience for a tech startup slated to bring in over $50 million revenue in 2016.


Michael In LA

It’s me in downtown Los Angeles!

What I Do

To summarize, User Experience professionals design and build intuitive, easy-to-use websites and applications that allow users to achieve a desired goal. These goals could be anything from someone trying to find directions to a specific location or medical staff looking to create and maintain a patient’s electronic medical record between different offices.

The first part of my job is to completely understand my user so that I can think and feel like them. I do this by talking often with users via conference calls, video calls, shadowing them in their day to day tasks and also by completing some of their tasks myself.

By putting myself in their shoes, I identify with the user. I feel their pains and frustrations.

I also reach out to team members in sales, marketing, our founders, and our engineers – this allows me to get a 360 degree perspective on the goals we are trying to achieve and hear feedback from every aspect.

Are we trying to increase sign ups? Are we trying to decrease time to complete a specific action? The better I understand my users, the better I’ll be able to build a tool that meets their needs.

No Day Is The Same

There are days I’m using design tools to show engineers what we will be building and help stakeholders envision the future of the business. Other days I’m talking with users, listening to their feedback, and trying to understand what we can build to make things better for them.

Sometimes I’ll jump into an ad hoc whiteboarding, sketching and brainstorming session to figure out how we can build a feature faster, or more efficiently, while maintaining our goals.

engineer session

Working with some of our engineers to prioritize the features we are going to build.

This is what’s exciting about my job.

Each day is different and brings a new set of challenges. These challenges give me the opportunity to work with people that can execute.

Together we can make something great. And I love to see what we’re building come alive.

An ad hoc brainstorming session on how a feature should work

An ad hoc brainstorming session on how a feature should work


Doing UX Design Before I Was Doing UX Design

UX Design isn’t just about making things look good.

It’s more about truly understanding your user and making sure they have a great experience while accomplishing their goals.

In short, to be good at UX Design you must be empathetic.

I would say that my ability to empathize started when I was a kid.

Growing up, I was the youngest of 5 kids. I was forced to understand my siblings, or risk getting beat up.

We were also a multi-cultural family (Japanese and Mexican) so I was exposed to different cultures, practices and traditions and learned to understand both.

In team sports I was a captain because of my ability to empathize with all the players and in my ability to make every person on the team feel included, respected, and a crucial component of the team. I knew that if my teammates truly enjoyed their time with the team and felt like they were making a difference, that we had a better chance of winning.

The same could be said for designing software – if you can help your development team empathize with the user, they will be more inclined to develop better. Additionally, if you are able to make a user comfortable by using your application, they will use it again and again.

I Started To Build Things

As I worked my way through college I learned that I loved building new organizations. I loved the ability to make decisions and watch those changes take effect immediately.

It’s with this mentality I launched a non-profit and two startups – an internet marketing company, a design agency, and a rugby club. I was able to learn something from each of these experience.

From running the Internet Marketing company I learned how other companies monetized by understanding their KPIs.

From the design agency I was able to enhance my own eye for design, while learning how to communicate with other designers, and how to work with and for clients.

From the rugby club I was able to see that it was a holistic experience that made people want to join our club – from the logo, to the colors, to the coaches and players, to structuring formal practices.

In order for anyone to join our club we had to look good, feel established, and also have fun. If one of these pieces was missing, the club would not have happened.

Before I knew what I was doing I just used paint to create mocks of things I wanted to build

Before I knew what I was doing I just used paint to create mocks of things I wanted to build

From these experiences I was able to learn and see things from the perspective of a business owner, a designer, a marketer, a teammate and more.

When Everything Clashed

Even though my design agency and internet marketing company were going full throttle, something was still missing.

Both companies were doing great – my design agency was working on movies like Transformers, Sex and The City, I Am Legend and had credits in some award winning feature films, while the Internet marketing company had clients of Inc 500 companies, 30 under 30 entrepreneurs and grew to 10 employees in the first year – but I wasn’t satisfied.

Looking back, the Internet Marketing company was too concerned with the numbers while the design agency was focused solely on design.

My first startup was in Internet Marketing and conversion optimization

My first startup was in Internet Marketing and conversion optimization

The Internet marketing company would make decisions based solely on analytics, never taking into consideration what a real life human actually wanted.

The design agency was making incredible designs, but at that time was not focused on business growth.

So I tried something different.

I brought the team members of both companies together one night at my loft in downtown LA and I tried to convey how we needed to combine the strategies of both companies – the analytical strategies of the marketing company and the aesthetics of the design agency.

Together we could be a great company.

Unfortunately, my idea didn’t pan out and both companies went their own ways. But in trying, I had learned something about my own interests that would open up doors for me later on.

The Lightbulb Went On

As I was making my slow exit away from both companies, I jumped into networking and attending all kinds of classes from raising capital to user acquisition to design.

I want a shakeIn one class I heard the term User Experience and things just clicked.

This is exactly what I couldn’t put my finger on before and what I had been trying to get the marketing and design company to do before.

I wanted to take into consideration the analytics, the design, the emotions, the offline experiences, the online experiences, and everything else you could think of!

Ultimately, I wanted to think of the user first. I finally knew exactly what I wanted to do!

Putting In My Time

So I took a few UX classes and jumped into doing strictly UX work while the other businesses moved on.

These classes helped me formalize the deliverables and pick up some basic lingo, but everything else I needed I had learned from the non-profits and running my own startups.

I had actually been trying to implement UX into my companies but I couldn’t because I didn’t know what to call it or really know how to explain it. Now I had some content to work with.

I had been doing UX all along, but never called it that – I just called it building startups.

After learning the basics of UX I was accepted into a UX Apprenticeship with Jaime Levy alongside professionals with advanced skills and degrees from MIT, Cornell, NYU, and University of California.

We were thrown into the deep end of MVP hands-on testing and our tasks drew on a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods.

These included test-driving the experience by using the platform, Guerilla User Research interviews across LA, wireframe development for immediate deployment, and brainstorming unconventional Customer Acquisition strategies.

Guerilla user research and interviews at a coffee shop in Silver Lake

Guerilla user research and interviews at a coffee shop in Silver Lake

I was fortunate enough to take part of this experience as it was included in Jaime Levy’s book, UX Strategy, published by O’Reilly. Be sure to check out the book on Amazon.

This apprenticeship not only gave me the ability to work with all kinds of brilliant people in a UX project, but also learn from one of UX’s biggest names, Jaime Levy.

After the apprenticeship, I continued to work hand-in-hand with Jaime on larger projects until eventually I was able to get work with other UX Agencies, companies and projects like Grindr, Honda, DivX, Ohio State University, EXOS, Minion Rush, M&C Saatchi, Daily Ideas, Iteration Group, The Glue, & JLR Interactive.

From all these projects I was able to experience large agency bureaucracy, fast nimble bootstrapped startups, and well funded tech companies.

Some projects I was strictly a UX designer, others I acted as Project Manager and Product Designer, and others I was a researcher – but everything centered on user experience.

My Final Note on UX

From my experiences and the numerous projects I have worked on, I believe that User Experience plays a strong hand in all parts of a project.

This can include the research, validation, and branding of a new startup, to creating a streamlined and frictionless platform based on information architecture, wireframing, prototyping, and usability testing.

It can even include the User Experience Strategy for user acquisition and user retention. It includes the sales calls you might get before seeing our platform, the funny error messages we show on our forms, to the thank you emails at the end of the process – both offline and online interactions.

the spectrum of user experience

Ultimately, I believe that you must understand your user completely.

If you start with the user, your customer, at the heart of your business, everything else will fall in place. So be empathetic and listen to users, communicate with your team, and adapt your design and product as necessary.


Valuable Things I Learned Along My Journey

Pay Attention to The Details

Sometimes I feel crazy when I’m telling our engineers that something is off by a few pixels, but I remind myself that the smallest changes can make a big difference. I’ve seen screens look completely different because we added one 10px long line that was 1px thick

Do What The User Needs Not What They Want

I wrote a blog post on this here. Many times a user will tell you exactly what they want, but figure out WHY they want it and you can then determine what they really need.

Always Ask Why

Whenever you get feedback from a user just ask them why that feedback is important. By simply asking them why, it can lead you to uncovering their underlying problems.

There is No Silver Bullet

When I TA’d at UCLA, we put everyone on the same UX task to prove a point to the students. At the end of that task they all came up with a different solution, some worked better than others, but the point is that there is never a single best answer. Move forward in what you believe in and don’t be afraid to try multiple options.

Never Let a Tool Stop You

Some people are afraid of getting into UX Design because they are intimidated by tools. Yes, knowing something like Omnigraffle or Sketch or Axure can seem scary, but you can learn while you work. I know several UX leaders that use whiteboards or pen and paper as their main form of showing developers how to build something.

Avoid Paralysis by Analysis

Take everything with a grain of salt. You are required to make decisions on the spot that takes others days or weeks to make. Make the decision, go with it, learn from it, and improve on it.

Be a Stalker (Not Really)

Watching users is the best feedback you can get. Whether you’re using a paper prototype, a real prototype, or just screenshots on a pdf you can get amazing feedback from watching real users do what they do.


A Special Thanks

I’d like to give a special thanks to the professional mentors I’ve had along the way:

Jaime Levy – JLR Interactive
Sash Catanzarite – Tradesy
Mark Sloan – Sloan Studios
Lane Halley – Brooklyn Copper Cookware
Neille Ilel, Karisa Allen, and Paula Campos – The Glue
Yarone Goren and Yossi Langer – Iteration Group
Jesse Wilson – Grindr, Avast
Marcos Escalante – Microsoft, The Mobile Majority

Michael Sueoka

Michael Sueoka

Michael has founded and advised several companies in the tech startup world. He has experience working on projects from the smallest mobile apps to one of the country’s largest and most complex healthcare software. His speciality is in User-Centered Design, and he has helped companies like Grindr, Honda, EXOS, MC & Saatchi, Daily Associates, DivX, and Entertainment Arts.
Michael Sueoka
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