Talk with Sara Alaeus

The Design Leadership Community is meeting different design leaders in Sweden and listening to their stories about their career and leadership. The second interviewee is Sara Alaeus, UX Lead at Försäkringskassan after working at Atlas Copco and DeLaval. In this interview, Terry Han is meeting Sara to talk about her journey as a design leader, the importance of accessibility and her advice for aspiring design leaders from experiences.

When I first heard about the design leadership, I felt like it was so beyond me. I thought it was a position reserved for those at the highest level. However, a few years ago, I had the opportunity to speak with one of my mentors during my master’s degree project. I mustered up the courage to ask her about her journey to becoming a leader.


Terry: Can you briefly talk about yourself and what your job position is?

Sara: I’m Sara, I work as a UX lead at Försäkringskassan. 

I’ve been here for two and a half years and before that, I worked as an Interaction and UX Designer at several industrial companies like Atlas Copco, Scania and DeLaval. To work with UX for physical products is not too different from digital interfaces, it’s the same methods, mindset and tools. Only a different context and tech. In a way, my previous experience is a bit different from what many designers have today.

Terry: What do you mean different?

Sara: Most of the designers that I come in contact with have only experience from digital products or web design. I come from a mechanical engineering background, so I have the physical interface part with me. I learned about physical ergonomic, industrial design and how to manufacture robots instead. So, I’m a bit nerdy in many ways. Today, UX education focuses more on digital products. 

Terry: What is your main work scope as a UX lead? And how many designers do you have?

Sara: In our organization, we have approximately 40 to 50 designers in total. Within this group, there is a lead design team consisting of myself as an UX lead, along with other leads like the art director and copy lead. As an UX lead, my primary responsibility is to guide and develop a cohesive customer experience for all our services, and I work closely with our project owners (PO) and other stakeholders to support them in what is required for ensuring an accessible and easy to use interface. 

Additionally, I take charge of ensuring that the design organization has the required knowledge and expertise. This may involve organizing courses on topics such as feedback and fostering collaboration among team members. Also, I actively participate in ongoing projects, aiming to connect different authorities and contribute to the bigger picture. This includes supporting designers in methods, conducting interviews, generating insightful reports, analytics, design work and conducting usability testing. So, a bit of everything.

Terry: How did you become a Design leader?
Sara: When I first heard about the design leadership, I felt like it was so beyond me. I thought it was a position reserved for those at the highest level. However, a few years ago, I had the opportunity to speak with one of my mentors during my master’s degree project. I mustered up the courage to ask her about her journey to becoming a leader. Surprisingly, she shared that she applied for a leadership position without meeting every requirement written down in the ad, and she got the role. Inspired by her story, I decided to follow a similar path and applied for the design leadership role I am currently in.

Although it feels somewhat surreal, I have been working in the UX field for 13 years, accumulating valuable experience along the way. This has provided me with some of the necessary skills and insights to take on the responsibilities of a design leader.

Sara Alaeus
Sara Alaeus

Terry: How do you define a design leader?
Sara: To me, being a leader means being genuinely interested in people and ensuring that they have the necessary support and resources to thrive. To be a design leader, I think it is necessary to focus on both the people and the product/service to improve the everyday for real people using them. A design leader is someone who stands up for the user and makes sure that they are not forgotten when developing tech or business.

Terry: What’s the most significant difference between a UX designer and a UX lead?
I would say that the difference is the amount of different tasks. As an UX designer, the work was usually more focused on designing. As an UX lead, the focus is on people and guidance. I believe I was already functioning as a UX lead before officially being given the role. The job title itself may not accurately capture the essence of what it means to be a leader. It’s possible to demonstrate leadership qualities even with just one year of experience in the field, but it requires putting in the necessary hard work. Learning the processes and methods and striving for excellence are crucial components of being a successful leader. Also work on your own communication and feedback skills.

In reality, everyone has the potential to be a leader, as we all guide ourselves in our work. There isn’t always someone dictating our every move. By embracing this mindset, it became much easier for me to integrate into the design group and assume a leadership role.

One aspect I particularly enjoy as an UX Lead is taking the lead in collaborating with students, mentoring them, and helping them grow into better designers. That made me interested in changing roles from UX designer to UX lead. 

Terry: In your daily work, do you primarily focus on design, or is it more focused on management and leadership? What is the rough ratio of your work?

Sara: It depends on what I want. In my role, I have the flexibility to prioritize my work based on what is needed at the time. If there is a need to support the design team with user research or conduct external research, I take on that responsibility. However, I also engage in roadmap and strategic work, as I believe it is crucial for the overall direction of the design efforts. So, the ratio of design work to management and leadership work varies depending on the priorities and needs of the team.

Terry: When you have a conflict regarding a design decision, how do you deal with it as a design leader?

Sara: As a UX lead, part of my role is to manage and navigate through challenges and conflicts that may arise. It’s important to approach these situations from a neutral standpoint, focusing on the goal of creating the best experience for the user. Instead of getting caught up in arguments about who is right or wrong, I strive to guide the team by providing practical solutions and demonstrating how things can be done effectively with different methods. By taking this approach, we can collectively work towards achieving our objectives and delivering a successful user experience.

Terry: As a design lead, how do you try to become an accessible leader to everyone?

Sara: To foster open communication, I try to be an approachable person. It’s important to break down any perceived barriers and create an environment where people feel comfortable approaching me.

In my role, I see myself as a helper and guardian to the team. I am a person who provides support and assistance to anyone who needs it. The leadership position is never about standing above others, but rather about being there to support and guide them. It’s a role that allows me to be a source of support for as many people as necessary.

Terry: What does the design organization at your company look like?

Sara: We don’t have a centralized design department because our designers are spread across different regions and not all part of the same organizational unit. My underlying goal is to foster a sense of unity and community among designers. I believe that designers should come together as one cohesive community, breaking down the barriers that exist due to our geographical and organizational differences. It’s a challenge that I’m actively working towards, aiming to create a more connected and collaborative design community. I believe it is critical for all the designers to work on the same goal for a great user experience.

Terry: As a design leader, can you describe or discuss a project that you are particularly proud of?

Sara: One aspect of my work that I am very proud of is transforming our weekly design forum meeting into a more supportive and psychologically safe environment. We had a design forum where all the designers were supposed to meet and review each other’s designs and talk with each other. But it was challenging to bring up ideas and engage in discussions without fear of criticism or judgment at the design forum. So, we decided to work on it to make it more psychologically safe. We started with small exercises like lean coffee sessions, held once a month, where designers could freely express their opinions and track the current topics of interest. We also incorporated fun activities, such as deliberately making designs ugly or intentionally making them inaccessible, to encourage creativity and experimentation among the designers.

I’m particularly proud of how we have addressed cultural issues and tackled insecurities. We now have a solid foundation for conducting breakout rooms and structured group discussions, ensuring that everyone feels secure and valued. We have even dedicated sessions to discuss topics like imposter syndrome, specifically addressing the challenges faced by designers. This forum has grown and expanded into design day, a biannual event that serves as a mini design conference. It brings together all the designers from various regions, providing a platform for sharing knowledge, insights, and experiences in one central location.

Terry: What is the greatest challenge you face as a UX lead, and how do you typically overcome those challenges?

Sara: As a design leader, one of the challenges I face is the overwhelming number of tasks and requests that come in. It’s important for me to learn how to say no and prioritize effectively for my team. Additionally, a significant challenge is ensuring that the design perspective is integrated into the development process and collaborating with stakeholders who may not have an in-depth understanding of design. 

Terry: Is there a notable difference in considerations for UX and organizational work between your previous experience in private companies and your current role in a public agency?

Sara: As a public organization, our focus and priorities differ significantly from those of the private sector due to our distinct financial model. Our funding comes from the Swedish government, and we don’t face the same competitive pressures as private companies, which can sometimes be a driving force for innovation. Consequently, we often experience a gap in terms of innovation.

Moreover, as an authority, we are not at the forefront of technology adoption. We tend to be a few steps behind, which can be frustrating at times. We may desire certain advancements or solutions immediately, but our organizational structure and role as an authority limit our ability to swiftly implement them. That is, however, a good thing in some way, we make sure that everything is safe and robust before using it.

Terry: As a public service, it should be important to consider inclusion and accessibility. How do you consider it at work?

Sara: It is crucial that our service is accessible to all individuals, even if you have difficulties seeing, hearing, comprehending, speaking or moving. For instance, when someone is seriously ill, reading a lengthy text of 1000 words can be incredibly difficult. Considering accessibility is very difficult, but at the same time it’s very meaningful and rewarding. I feel like it is the very right thing to pursue a UX professional. 

Terry: It is mandatory for you to deliver an accessible service, right?

Sara: Yes, it is. Accessibility is essential in our work. It is not optional or something we can overlook, as it is not only a best practice but also a legal requirement. We have a legal obligation to ensure that our services are accessible to all individuals. Unlike the private sector, where financial motivations often drive decision-making, our focus is on providing equal access and serving the public interest. This fundamental difference shapes our approach and emphasizes the importance of conducting thorough usability testing.

Terry: What kind of work does your company usually do for creating more accessible service?

Sara: We prioritize conducting usability testing with small minority groups. This proactive approach enables us to create designs that cater to their unique needs, ultimately benefiting all users. By developing solutions that accommodate individuals with high cognitive loads, we also achieve comprehension for a wider range of users. As a result, we aim to minimize the need for customer support, as our services and websites are designed to be easily understood and navigated by the majority of users. To help the designers in their daily work, we have a design system that has accessible components and guidance.

Terry: How do you stay inspired and updated in terms of design leadership and managing others?

Sara: I usually try to read different articles and often talk to various people. Also, I like going to UX and design related seminars.

Terry: When hiring new team members, what qualities do you look for in terms of team culture, and how do you cultivate those qualities in your team members?

Sara: When hiring new team members, we look for individuals who demonstrate a strong passion for UX and have a clear vision of their professional growth. It’s important for them to have a map in their head of where they want to go and to lean forward with excitement and interest in their work. Being genuinely passionate about what you do is crucial because life is too short to be in a job that doesn’t ignite that kind of enthusiasm.

I believe that the best designers are those who are truly passionate about their craft. If you’re new to the field but have a strong passion for learning, sharing knowledge, and collaborating with others, you have the potential to become an exceptional designer in just a few years. At our organization, we value individuals who not only want to do great work, but also act to make it happen. Being proactive and driven by passion leads to tangible results and a thriving work environment.

Terry: What advice would you give to someone starting as a design leader or aspiring to be one? 

Sara: My advice would be to focus on connecting with people. Reach out to others on platforms like LinkedIn or engage in professional groups. Don’t hesitate to ask someone to meet for lunch or coffee. Remember, even your idols, are just people. By connecting with others, you can gain valuable insights about your potential career path and where you could be in the future. I had a mentor who was my boss a few years ago, and she provided me with valuable perspectives on learning from others. It’s better to try and fail than to not try at all. If you don’t reach out and connect with people, you’ll miss out on valuable learning opportunities. 

I recommend scheduling meetings with people and start having those meaningful discussions. Learning from others’ experiences is invaluable. If someone mentions that managing organizational growth is challenging, dive deeper into the topic. Ask yourself why it’s challenging and explore related books or resources. By gathering insights from various sources, you’ll develop new ideas and questions to discuss with others.

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