Once a rising and ambitious architect, Serra Kiziltan can draw a direct if not always straight line between that profession and her broader career path in UX design. Along the road came life-changing pivot points, but a laser focus on purpose, peppered with moments of fearlessness has always guided her. When architecture stopped being creatively fulfilling, she leapt into the UX realm, bringing experiences and insights from that field with her.
At 15, she secured an architecture internship at American giant RTKL, working on the IMAX Trocadero in London. Creatively-minded, she had an interest in both graphic design and architecture, but preferred tangible projects. She opted for architecture at University College London and thrived in its intense environment in pursuit of her bachelor’s degree.
“It was a great environment back in the day – we were still working with Rotring pens and drawing everything up by hand, but the ideas and expression that the architecture school fostered, and still does today, was really revolutionary.”
Serra quickly learned to communicate a vision “without having to talk to it” by exploring how design and collaboration go hand in glove. “What elements in your toolkit will get you over a blocker in the design process? It comes from this notion that one or two artefacts can’t solve everything for you. You have to get a holistic picture and express ideas to the best of your ability, leveraging your toolkit that you have at your disposal. It’s there for a reason.”
Focusing on purpose – constantly asking why – rather than preparing a checklist, will always provide clear direction. Serra finds this challenging for younger designers. “They’re in a hurry to achieve successful outcomes fast at the expense of design thinking.”
Serra was in New York on Sept 11, 2001, which marked a key pivot point. With good friends in the city, the events of that day were very close and brought recognition that “We shouldn't get complacent and we shouldn't stick with something because it feels safe. As creatives we should see ourselves as pioneers, pushing boundaries and innovating.” She felt at home in New York’s vibe of social interaction, and while her initial visa allowed her a nine month stay, opportunities kept appearing which allowed her to elongate her time in the city.
Soon she was contributing to major infrastructure projects such as Disneyland Shanghai, New York’s Fulton Street Underground Station and the retail strategy and construction of Google Fiber stores across the Continental USA, as well as working on the NYC bid for the 2012 Olympics. Invaluable experience, but as she progressed, much of the work was centered on construction management, going on-site, leading people through drawing sets and ensuring legal compliance. The focus on the actualization aspects of projects, such as project and construction management left Serra feeling less creatively fulfilled.
“The design process was very creative: conceiving ideas, building frameworks for the design, refining, signing off and building. But I couldn’t get as involved as I liked. I felt very removed from the part I really love; ideating, designing, and being hands-on.”
Then came the realization that “I wasn’t going to get that back in the trajectory I was on.”
She reflected that while the work she was doing as an architect was important, it had moved away from her earlier career vision “I reached a pivot point where I recognized that my interest, having been taught by pioneers in experimental architectural design such as Zaha Hadid and Peter Eisenman, was in immersive environments and experience design, while also fulfilling the needs of users.”
“Our minds thrive when we are constantly absorbing and translating the information around us and our experiences, not when we’re locked into a computer screen or producing design artefacts.”
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UX design became a natural pivot. The big difference between physical and digital is the user involvement right across the design process. “I have been a strong advocate in every endeavor I have been involved in for a human-centered approach although even now, with UX being much more evolved, I find that it can be challenging to convince colleagues outside of the discipline to bake user testing into the process.
“I feel that an intrinsic part of my role is still being that ambassador for the end user – helping my colleagues understand that we can’t stand by our ideas and feel confident that we’ve reached a successful outcome if we haven’t got direct user feedback. That humble perspective helps us understand what we are doing and why we are doing it.
Architecture has imprinted on Serra a fastidious attention to detail, which means she can never quite switch off from thinking about it.
“I’ve gone into a hotel room and the shower tray isn’t pitched properly, it makes me so irritated I can barely let it go or you’re in a building and the lights aren’t centered on the ceiling or the vents aren’t aligned. Both disciplines depend on us to be attuned, maybe not to that extent, but both have an astute awareness of what is working and what isn’t.”
But when we look around, really look, the mundane can be and should be both inspiring and stimulating. “Our minds thrive when we are constantly absorbing and translating the information around us and our experiences, not when we’re locked into a computer screen or producing design artefacts. We have lots to inspire us from the world around us, whether it’s an object, a conversation, or a random video in a YouTube feed.”
UX and architecture are also “always striving for innovation, while being realistic around budget and design constraints. The biggest blocker can be a project team or a client unsure how to progress. A skilled designer with good collaboration and teamwork skills can frame a problem and facilitate a conversation towards the very best outcomes.”
At frog, Serra experienced directly the benefits of involving clients in design development and making them feel part of the process. Continually asking questions and seeking information from clients and colleagues is a huge aid in finding solutions.
“I love the humanity of UX design where you can roll your chair over to someone and talk about something and people respect each other's ideas and ways of thinking.”
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But that doesn’t mean doing everything for clients – design is a partnership which thrives with willingness on both sides – so an agency should be prepared to work hard but also be clear with clients what’s needed from them to do their best work. Accepting client demands can be tempting for ambitious young designers with a strong desire to impress and move up the ranks. “Like when you start your first leadership role trying to find your voice at the management table, it’s really key that you don’t fall into the temptation of doing everything for those folks at the cost of the team. As you get more seasoned, you also realize that the focus should be on supporting the design team, leveraging their skills and perspectives.”
Having her team’s back can mean tricky client conversations, shifting timescales, rethinking scope, but clients value honesty and transparency and the result will speak for itself. “I want designers to be proud of their work and feel empowered to achieve whatever they wish to accomplish.”
Architecture supplied a head start, but also a few habits Serra had to ditch, in particular one related to her already-mentioned love of detail and desire to sweat the small stuff.
“I’ve historically needed to check myself about getting too deep into the weeds too quickly. I’m also very much a visual designer, so I tend to fall in love with the refinement of something – it gives me so much joy – but at least now I’m aware that I need to put the brakes on sometimes to make sure that I am refining the right thing before taking that process too far.”
Serra takes her role as a leader seriously, having experienced poor leadership more than once in her career. Architecture school was a particularly tough experience, which she feels is more akin to a boot camp than a learning environment. Serra is proud to have come through that time, which has made her stronger and more confident, and which ultimately has helped her become a better design professional, more capable of articulating ideas clearly and making a case for a particular approach. She reflects back on sleepless nights which would often precede a critique and is determined to break that cycle.
Such is the demand for bright new UX talent that managers won’t get away with bad behavior. Nor is it a feature of this world.
“They have a perspective on the digital realm that we as Gen Xers don’t – they’ve never known life without the internet and an essential part of their living.”
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“When I first entered the world of UX I was struck by the level of empathy that leaders had, championing for a good work-life balance and perks like working from home. And while agency life can be fast-paced, particularly when there are looming deadlines, my experience in learning the art of multitasking from architecture really helps so it suits me really well. I love the humanity of UX design where you can roll your chair over to someone and talk about something and people respect each other's ideas and ways of thinking.”
In Huge she experienced the opportunity to make ideas tangible. Their specialism lay “in picking up design from a certain point, exploring ideas and pushing them to the max.” A strategic focus led them to ask endlessly: “these ideas are great, but can they actually be built?”
From Huge, Serra took up her current role at Critical Mass which spans responsibility on both the commercial and creative sides of the business. “I’ve been able to focus on not only creative oversight across client accounts and business development but also oversight over the UX Design discipline in New York. Along with two other colleagues we oversee creative with a big focus on culture, setting the bar for excellence and challenging the designers to be the best that they can be. Within every project team we have Copywriters, Visual Designers and Experience Designers, Strategists, Product Managers, SEO experts and Technologists and these roles overlap – we’re not really divided by discipline as such – culturally we see ourselves as a collaborative team. Keeping away from that hard delineation has worked well for us – we try to avoid siloed thinking when we can.”
Because people are free to move internally to get wider experiences, retention is excellent and siloes prevented. The team love the agility and diversity, which is especially suited to more experienced people.
“If you move across verticals then by definition, you’ll need to build an understanding for that vertical, for example financial services, media, or e-commerce. We also have a keen eye on industry trends and read a lot from McKinsey or Boston Consulting Group or Accenture. I like to encourage people to be proactive in their career development to carve out time in their day or week to read and learn, about something they have an interest in.”
Serra’s pursuit of purpose makes her particularly interested in Gen Z and their perspective on products and product design. She argues that they have unique life experience, challenges and understanding of the world, both physical and digital.
“They have a perspective on the digital realm that we as Gen Xers don’t – they’ve never known life without the internet and an essential part of their living – so they are much more attuned and connected than we are. I think when it comes to innovation, particularly in the context of UX, we need to over-index on them to hear what they think, what they’re saying and how they’re experiencing the world around them.”
“Their focus isn’t so much about the platform but rather about the platform as a conduit to an outcome – an unlock – a way to tap into a community to stand out and make an impact.”
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Not only that, the way they think can challenge previously held paradigms and challenges long-believed assumptions.
“There are things which are almost entirely alien or seem counterproductive to us as older generations, like Snapchat and TikTok having hidden feature sets. From a seasoned UX best practice perspective, our mindset is that everything needs to be discoverable and accessible, but much of the success of these platforms from a Gen Z standpoint lies in the joy of uncovering hidden features that drive greater engagement with their content.
“Part of the excitement of engaging with Gen Z is that their focus isn’t so much about the platform but rather about the platform as a conduit to an outcome – an unlock – a way to tap into a community to stand out and make an impact. When you look at a platform like Twitch, its community has evolved to the extent that it has its own language through emotes which those of us outside the community are completely foreign to.”
During her time teaching architecture, students were often asking how to score an A grade. “I had to reinforce that it wasn’t about getting to the ‘right’ solution, it was about design exploration, how you work and think through things – embracing process and being OK with unknown outcomes.”
Consistent with her aim to make things better for future generations, Serra joined the UX Design Institute on the Industry Advisory Council. They share her fixation with asking the right questions.
“How do we further the discipline? How do we think about things? How do we hear people and understand younger designers and their concerns and shape that into a way of evolving the discipline?”
If there’s one quality driving Serra’s success, it’s fearlessness. “I’ve often jumped into a scary unknown. I moved to Tokyo during my design education even though I didn’t know the language or culture. I found internships and learned so much about myself. It’s had a lifelong impact. It's amazing what you can accomplish if you really put your heart and mind into something and break past that terror barrier. It allows you to gain a whole new perspective.
“We really need to encourage designers to do that. All of us are so passionate about what we do and want to do the best for the younger generation. I want to help them be their best and feel happy and continue to push myself and not get complacent.”