Helen Willmot’s career has had a gravitational pull towards UX from the beginning, even if it wasn’t an immediately evident path when she graduated from Manchester University with a BA Honours degree in Philosophy. Her inquisitive nature, love of words and critical thinking mindset, married to an appreciation for good design and analysis, made her a natural fit for the challenges of high-impact digital marketing and it wasn’t long before she was drawn to the burgeoning discipline of user experience in all of its various guises.
Helen’s career trajectory has included a diverse portfolio of positions, all of which have helped her fulfil her current role as Director of UX & Optimisation at Dentsu International, in a fuller, richer way. Her earlier experiences in particular were centered around content marketing where she developed both an appreciation of good copy and a curiosity about how content and design together can lead to better user outcomes.
“I worked at JD Sports creating copy for landing pages, managing influencer outreach and writing more traditional content marketing pieces,” Helen explains.
“It proved to be a wonderful training ground as I naturally learned about the relationship between content, user behaviour and design performance. I became an advocate for the critical importance of copy developing hand in hand with design, and found myself drawn to user experience design in particular, specifically the relationship between UX and optimization.”
This draw towards the craft of design performance led Helen to take up a content marketing manager position with the energy switching service, Switch my Business, because it had a heavy emphasis on UX and optimization.
“When I joined Switch my Business that was part of a purposeful evolution towards UX and optimization and was my first deliberate user-first role. It was a content manager role which included UX and optimization – it was a sideways move – but it provided me with exposure in the areas I wanted to move into.”
Helen began to study research, UX, and optimization in her own time, earning qualifications in various disciplines from the likes of CXL, Google, Code Academy, and the Market Research Society. After a year of intensive studying and immersing herself in the job, she was ready to make another leap, this time to a UX-focused role with the Dentsu owned digital media agency, iProspect.
“By the time I moved to iProspect, I’d learned the fundamentals of UX and felt ready. But I was also nervous as iProspect was my first experience of working in an agency environment. However, I needn’t have worried, as I thrived from the change of pace, the different types of clients and the variety of challenges. I had fabulously supportive colleagues who allowed me to indulge my interests in optimization and UX in its broader sense, particularly research.”
Helen’s first year at iProspect was spent as senior optimization executive, looking after optimization clients and leading the research team. It wasn’t long before she was promoted to UX Manager, where her remit expanded – she was now looking after the design team as well as the research team.
We asked her if optimization and UX were naturally aligned disciplines – was there any overlap or ambiguity in having responsibility for both?
“In my experience there has always been crossover in the roles that optimization and research play in the overall user experience. It was important to me that we weren’t limited in what work we could do from a UX perspective. So, if a client needed A/B testing, we would run an experiment. If their analytics suggested their navigation was underperforming, we would run a card sort or tree test. And if they needed a landing page, we would trial several different layouts. That flexibility meant that some months we were testing hypotheses and other months we were carrying out more traditional UX research.”
“But we aim to recruit people that are very passionate, and when we get that right they will hit the ground running with the motivation and hunger to learn as they go, and will embed themselves in the company from the off.”
E-commerce was the team’s key focus, but they also tackled a broader range of B2B and B2C challenges, with the common factor being the importance of conversion. So, what frameworks or processes did they apply, and which worked best?
“We often ran expert or heuristic reviews with clients to start the process off, which then guided the focus of our subsequent work, which tended to be more focused and in-depth, often involving primary research. The Nielsen Norman ten heuristics and Chris Goward’s LIFT model were particularly helpful for positioning UX in the mind of our clients. Our more commercial clients really responded to LIFT because it focuses on value proposition, urgency, benefits and costs of a particular product or service offering.”
This role, along with short stints with Manchester based fashion distributer, Missguided and Central-London headquartered digital experience agency REO, meant Helen was amassing a wide range of experiences which were helping her hone her craft in the real world.
“While my Missguided role was more focused on classic UX research, across iProspect, Missguided and REO I was developing a keen sense for when a design challenge leant itself to the range of optimization techniques and when a more classic UX research approach was appropriate.”
With her experience mounting and her reputation within the sector as someone who thoroughly understood the relationship between data, research, optimisation and UX solidified, it wasn’t long before opportunity came knocking again. This time it was Dentsu International who wanted her skills, and in March 2022, Helen was appointed Director of UX and Optimization.
Still based in Manchester, Helen’s current position is a much broader and strategic role, with responsibility for a team of eleven designers and researchers across the UK and Ireland.
“My team sits within performance experience which spans optimization, SEO, content, organic social and reactive PR. The great thing about this structure is that there's a lot of overlap between us, content, and SEO, meaning that there’s a real opportunity to feed a user-first mindset and inform other channels using insight from really robust research techniques. We have four designers on the team, each of whom has a very distinct passion and perspective. They are all primarily UX designers, but some are interested in animation and motion, and others in design ops. Then we have seven people in various research roles, including a research manager, some hybrid research and client-facing folk, and a couple of full-time researchers.”
Given Helen’s own background, and her experience in roles where she was able to explore her own interests and passions, is nurturing talent and enabling a certain amount of creative freedom important to her?
“Absolutely. I try to seek out and encourage people’s intrinsic passions and areas of interest. I do find myself inspired by what the individuals in the team find interesting and build around that. And of course, one of the benefits of being part of a network like Dentsu is that if we need more talent from another area of the business, we have access to that as well.”
“Collaboration is essential for what we do. I personally find collaboration very inspiring and really appreciate being part of this big ecosystem here at Dentsu.”
It’s not surprising that Helen has developed a team brimming with a diverse range of talent and skills, but have their career journeys followed a similar diverse trajectory to hers, and how easily do they slot into working for a major agency if that is not something they’ve previously experienced.
“We've got many different backgrounds within the team. There are people who've come from a graphics background, a really common path in UX. But we also have great people on the team who were doing something else entirely and then essentially career-changed into UX. But whatever their previous background they always arrive with relevant skills, a genuine interest in the discipline, and a natural affinity for the work, so upskilling is never really a challenge.
“If anything the challenge for new team members is adapting to how we do things here – it’s not that our business is wildly different from other agencies, but rather that part of coming into a giant agency is understanding how that agency works and how it is structured. But we aim to recruit people that are very passionate, and when we get that right they will hit the ground running with the motivation and hunger to learn as they go, and will embed themselves in the company from the off. Of course it’s crucial that as the Director of UX & Optimization I listen to my team and ensure they have all the support they need, be that external training or access to internal experience building opportunities.”
With Dentsu International being one of the leading global marketing agencies, running multi-channel multimedia communications campaigns for some of the world’s biggest brands and companies, does that mean that Helen and her team are often supporting larger assignments rather than working on smaller UX-only client projects?
“Nine times out of ten that is the case. But I find that very interesting, and I know the team do too because we are never siloed. Collaboration is essential for what we do. We sit within the performance team and work alongside colleagues in the brand and insights teams, client services, and client success teams, who are responsible for ensuring their clients get maximum value from the various teams across the agency. I personally find collaboration very inspiring and really appreciate being part of this big ecosystem here at Dentsu.”
Many agencies face the challenge of varying client perspectives and requirements – naturally for some clients UX and performance will be their top priority yet for others they will just want to see a product built or a campaign launched. We asked Helen if her clients embrace UX’s relevance within their product’s design journey or marketing campaign, or is it sometimes considered to be ancillary?
“Well, client awareness and understanding of UX has definitely improved. There was a time when UX was a little bit of a buzzword and I think people half-invested in UX – essentially UX without research, without users – just design. People who did that were burnt by it because obviously it doesn't work and you don't get the wonderful benefits if you're not actually doing the process.
“For clients who engage with me and my team, they will have shown some interest in UX or they need to have a pretty solid problem that we know UX can solve or that we know UX is the appropriate tool for.
“Our client success people ensure that all clients engage with the right teams for their project,” Helen continues, “and we work really hard to inform colleagues across the agency about the value of UX. So by the time a project reaches our team, the work has been signed off and the client understands what we do and is comfortable with the approach.”
“It can be too easy to undervalue exploratory research and overvalue evaluative research. Sometimes when you’re evaluating something you realise that this was built for a problem that didn't exist, so it might be eminently usable, but is it necessary?”
Agencies are by their nature busy workplaces and a global entity such as Dentsu is no exception. In such environments getting breathing space to keep relevant and to carry out deliberate innovation and ideation can be a challenge – does Helen get the time and opportunity to innovate and experiment, to take calculated risks as part of her current role?
“Thankfully I do. As an agency we do have good antennae for spotting when a client requires some new thinking, and as part of my role looking at the UX offering there is definitely an expectation to experiment with new ways of doing things. That could be examining new solutions for clients, or innovating with new tools, or exploring new technologies. Of course, innovation doesn’t apply to every project and it absolutely must be relevant.
“Over the years I’ve seen innovation done poorly, and I’ve seen situations where an unsuitable tool has been used to solve a particular problem. As a UX leader I understand that it can be too easy to undervalue exploratory research and overvalue evaluative research. Sometimes when you’re evaluating something you realise that this was built for a problem that didn't exist, so it might be eminently usable, but is it necessary? Is it important to anybody? Does it actually make their lives easier?
“Personally I believe that focusing on unmet customer needs is the way forward. Unmet needs can feel intangible and messy, but the concept provides a real opportunity when it’s properly approached.”
Finally, turning back to recruitment and early career development, what does Helen look for when she’s recruiting to her team? And what advice would she give to someone interested in perusing a career in UX optimization?
“Well, you probably can't really work in UX unless you're passionate about it,” she smiles. “And I’d say an interest in design is crucial too. I would expect that even if you are not a designer, you're still going to be spending a lot of your time thinking about design, reflecting on design, working with design. Research skills, obviously. Strong verbal and written communication skills are also essential as people need to be able to describe their designs and research data in a compelling and accurate way. And you must be curious. I think that curiosity is probably the number one reason why many people end up migrating to UX. I feel privileged to have the freedom to be curious every day when I’m at work.”