Leaders’ Insights: Fiona Murphy, Frontend.com

17 Nov 2016

Fiona Murphy, Frontend.com. Image: Frontend.com

Fiona Murphy is the co-founder and director of Frontend.com.

As Ireland’s first user experience (UX) design agency, Frontend.com is leading the way to provide a better end-user experience, through consultancy on interface design.

After years of experience representing clients in over 20 countries, Murphy has learned to listen to her gut instinct when it comes to business.

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Describe your role and what you do.

My main role is to manage and run Frontend.com. This includes everything from determining the strategic direction of the company, financial management, coordinating marketing initiatives, managing the sales pipeline [to] looking after staff. I also like to get involved in actual research and UX design projects to stay on top of current trends and behaviours (and keep myself sane). Being passionate about UX design and research was the reason I started the company, I would hate to lose that hands-on approach that can be so fulfilling.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

It’s not easy but prioritised lists and delegating as much tasks as possible helps. At the start of the day, I like to determine ‘what has to be done today’, ‘what I’d like to get done’ and ‘what I should get a start on’. However, more often than not, something is thrown in from the left field that you need to sort out. But that’s what makes life interesting!

The most important thing is not to get totally caught up in the day-to-day and take time to reflect and discuss with others overall goals and strategy. It’s also important to understand how much you can hope to achieve in a given period of time. If you personally take on too much, it can be debilitating. You need headspace to think things through and ensure you make clear, well considered decisions.

Also, when working in a team, you always have to be conscious of interdependencies between team members and making sure you are not delaying any of the work other people are doing.

Essentially, it’s a constant juggling act!

‘I can understand the lure of joining a large multinational organisation, however, the diversity and fast-moving environment of a consultancy can provide a rich and exciting experience’

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

Currently, finding enough good talent is a challenge. We have been doing UX design and research for almost 20 years now but the sector has exploded in the last three to five years. The appreciation of good UX and it being an essential component of delivering a product or service has grown exponentially recently.

Consequently, many organisations are building in-house teams, particularly large organisations like IBM, Accenture etc. Universities and design colleges have upped their game in developing courses and programs that meet the specialist skills required but they cannot produce graduates fast enough to meet the demand. We also need team members with experience, of which there is only a relatively small pool out there.

We have developed a number of interesting initiatives to engage with the universities and colleges that have been very positive, and we’ll grow and develop these further. However, we also need to be more active in promoting UX design consultancy as an exciting and progressive career choice. I can understand the lure of joining a large multinational organisation, however, the diversity and fast-moving environment of a consultancy can provide a rich and exciting experience.

Another challenge for us is the pace of change. Technology and its ubiquitous integration into our environment is changing at a phenomenal rate. Our customers’ expectations of what we deliver has also increased incredibly. They now understand that UX is more than an add-on, and therefore get us more involved both strategically and on a business change level, which basically means they want us to do much more – and more quickly. Also, end-user expectations of what defines a good user experience (or even an acceptable user experience) have changed dramatically and will continue to, as technology becomes more ingrained in our lives.

What are the key sector opportunities youre capitalising on?

A key sector opportunity for us is healthcare. We have a long history of working in this sector but we can see huge changes afoot, particularly with the use of technology in both the provision and consumption of healthcare services.

There are a number of issues driving demand for our services.

Healthcare is a huge issue across the world where providers are put under rising stress to fulfil on increased demand, while also functioning with static or reduced budgets. They require more effective and efficient systems that provide better healthcare services for less money. Policymakers, and consequently, providers are increasingly looking towards prevention, rather than treatment, as a route to improving outcomes and saving money.

Another area of growth is in applications and services that improve the management of chronic illnesses that are the primary driver for increased demand and cost. Patients are also changing. We see the increased prevalence of personal electronic devices and patients who are willing to use them to manage their own healthcare.

With all this in mind, healthcare policymakers and providers have looked to UX design and design thinking to help them achieve their goals. This has given UX designers a great opportunity to rethink healthcare provision.

Another key sector opportunity for us is ISV (Independent Software Vendor) typically focusing on the US market. Again, we have a long history of working in this sector and Ireland is a hotbed of activity. There is fantastic, innovative work just waiting to be leveraged by excellent UX [designers].

What set you on the road to where you are now?

I always loved science, maths and art. Originally I was going to do architecture, but discovered product design at the last minute. This combined both design and engineering. Ironically, after graduating, there were very few jobs in product design, so you had to reinvent yourself and I ended up in architecture.

I was fascinated with CAD systems to the point [that] I started coding in AutoLISP, a programming language specifically for AutoCAD. This led me onto completing Irelands first pan-European master’s degree in interactive multimedia. Interactive CD-ROMs were all the rage and the internet was only starting to take off; it was 1995.

Shortly afterwards, I found myself running a small media design company, OSA. It was associated with Nua, one of Ireland’s first internet companies and we quickly recognised that there was a real need for specialist design skills for this emerging platform. After a good deal of research, we identified ‘Usability Engineering and Interface Design’ as a really interesting area. This catchy title is essentially what we now know as UX Design.

Frontend was formed in 1998, making us Ireland’s first UX design agency. In fact, we were one of Europe’s first UX agencies and this gave us a great opportunity to work and learn on an international stage. It was hard work at the beginning and we looked all over the world to find projects in this specialised area, but it paid off in the end and our diverse global client base really helped us to get into some fascinating projects worldwide.

‘We were born before the dot-com bubble, rode the dot-com wave and survived the crashing aftermath with a few bruises and a lot of hard learned lessons’

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

I’m sure I have made many mistakes over the years and hope I have learned from them all. One thing I tended to do earlier in my career, but not so much now, is not listen to my gut instinct.

A more significant mistake was being overambitious and expanding too quickly in the early days. We were born before the dot-com bubble, rode the dot-com wave and survived the crashing aftermath with a few bruises and a lot of hard learned lessons! The legacy of such an experience can affect a company for a long time. I do feel that the experience was positive and it has made us significantly more robust now.

How do you get the best out of your team?

Autonomy across team members is really important. Individuals need to feel they can take responsibility and are free to make decisions, while still having the support of the broader team. Mutual respect is also paramount, every opinion is valued; whether you’re younger, older, experienced, inexperienced, a director or an intern. Everyone has a viewpoint that is worth considering. In fact, I continually seek advice across the team, most of them have more insight into their specific areas of specialisation. My job is to bring it together.

I also look for opportunities for all team members to expand and learn based on what interests them. It’s good to expose all team members to the entire UX process and interaction with clients. It provides them with context and goals for their specific contributions.

We also are in a great position now where we can often choose what projects we would like to take on, whether they are strategically important or just plain interesting. Most of our team love a challenge that is pushing the boundaries of their existing knowledge.

Most importantly, creating a sense of pride really helps team members to reach new heights. We’ve won many awards both here and internationally. This independent recognition of good work provides the team with the ongoing motivation and confidence to push the boundaries on the next challenge they face.

‘We need to equip our teachers with specialist skills in STEM, create advocates within every school and create more awareness around unconscious bias’

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity. What are your thoughts on this and whats needed to effect change?

More diversity within STEM sectors is not only positive in terms of equality, but essential if we are meet current economic needs. There is a huge growth in opportunity in these sectors and consequently, demand for resources. One approach to attract more people is to broaden the net. Promoting STEM amongst under-represented groups such as women, people with disabilities, people from ethnic minorities and those from socially disadvantaged groups would not only help meet demand, but also maximise opportunity for the individual.

The first port of call is education. I think this should start as early as primary school. We need to equip our teachers with specialist skills in STEM, create advocates within every school and create more awareness around unconscious bias, including STEM stereotypes.

Career advice is also crucial. As students start to make choices in what career they would like to peruse, they should be made aware of the broad spectrum of opportunities in STEM and how these can lead to fulfilling careers. In addition to all this, we need to raise awareness amongst the families of students as early as possible, to increase understanding of the opportunities in STEM and hopefully increase support in the home.

Within the workforce, we need to address the issue of under-representation at top levels, particularly within STEM organisations. Many organisations who have looked to address the issue have stated that diversity at all levels has yielded significant benefits.

Who is your role model and why?

My role models are constantly changing. I’m currently in awe of Cameron Sinclair. He has done some fantastic work on social-needs projects and is really using design, architecture and engineering to make real differences to those in need. He’s a bit of a maverick too, which I find a likeable trait.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I don’t get enough time to read as much as I’d like to, but I did enjoy Human Universe by Brian Cox. In one way, it shows how insignificant as a species we are in the context of the entire universe. On the other hand, it demonstrates how special we are based on the probability of our existence.

I also recently bought Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli. It’s brief, not really big on detail, but almost like physics poetry. The hardback copy I bought is also a beautiful object. With Kindles, tablets, and all other digital devices for reading, sometimes it’s good to revisit the physical book and enjoy the experience of reading one that is beautifully designed.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

Breakfast, my walk (typically to and from work but maybe a sneaky lunchtime one too) and a good night’s sleep. Walking is a great way to clear the head; the more going on in work, the less distractions I prefer. So [I like to be] alone, no music, no radio and just let the mind drift!