Celebrating Womens Day With Meena Kothandaraman

Celebrating Womens Day With Meena Kothandaraman

Designwhine Interviews Meena Kothandaraman

A qualitative researcher and co-founder of twig+fish research practice, a micro-agency based in Boston, USA, Meena Kothandaraman loves meeting people and hearing their stories. She credits the diversity of her Canadian upbringing and the many places around the world she has called home as inspiration to her curious and open nature.

Understanding deep knowledge about people is what she encourages organizations to leverage as a strategic tool, and a basis to creating relationship with the people they serve.

Beyond consulting with global firms, Meena is a 20-year lecturer in Bentley University’s graduate Human Factors and Information Design program and has curated the qualitative research course that has shaped the minds of many research leaders.

As a woman of color, who has two kids and a family she chooses to spend a lot of time with, Meena sees the importance of providing mentorship to young female professionals entering the qualitative research workspace. Her favorite motto is “we advance together, or not at all.”

Meena is constantly learning and nurtures her interest in music (she is a South Indian classical violinist and vocalist), in the culinary arts (has hosted her own cooking show), and in children’s literature (has published a children’s book focused on the importance of proper name pronunciation). She is always grateful to the many people who have inspired her own journey!

How are you planning to celebrate Women’s Day this year?

Celebrating Women’s Day doesn’t need to be limited to just one day – we should be celebrating ourselves daily. On a regular cadence, I look back to understand what has brought us to this point in time, and look forward, to the work that has yet to be done.
I always begin my day with a short meditation on something meaningful to me: Women’s Day will start with a thank you to the countless women, specifically women of color, who have done so much to help me on my own path. My family is full of strong women, and strong men who have supported us. Part of my day has been set aside to listen to career and work/life balance questions from young women. Vocalizing openly the journey, areas of confusion, how we navigate them, and where we can assert ourselves without apology makes us stronger together.

Would you say there is an under-representation of women in UI/UX design?

Not really , because a certain trend we have been seeing in our graduate program for a while is a larger percentage of women than men in classes.

What are some personality traits of women that make them better (or worse) UX designers?

This is an interesting question. I don’t believe women possess personality traits that give them an edge as UX professionals.

In qualitative research, we talk about mindset (how we perceive qualitative research activities) and mechanics (how we conduct qualitative research activities) of research.

Mindset “traits” that we must have include staying open-minded, curious and being willing to listen deeply to the details someone is sharing without assumption or bias. Mechanics “traits” that we must have include being organized, articulate and transparent in our way of communicating, and being assertive and confident of the process we are executing. Any gender can possess these traits naturally, or learn them over time.

I personally think we must be careful in over-associating skills that women have v/s other genders to any profession. We have enough proof that if someone wants to do something, and they put their mind to it, they can.

Who are some design leaders (male or female) you look up to?

As a researcher, I look to analogous space for inspiration. This approach transfers to my role models as well. I am inspired by those who have led with character traits I aspire toward regardless of their gender (male, female, or otherwise).

As a female professional, I especially admire those women who have advanced their careers by speaking impeccably, appreciating and learning from the people around them, and for those who have set a bar in positively balancing their careers with their personal lives.

Some of my role models are other researchers who lead with their high quality work, or perhaps come from political positions, heads of companies that have protected and defended their people, and some are people in my own family who have inspired my work habits and ethics.

As a woman, what’s the greatest challenge you’ve had to face as a designer?

A challenge I distinctly remember 20 years ago was leading a project in Sweden, in which I was working alongside a male peer. I was considered the lead on the project, however, when it came to suggesting approaches and discussing the timeline, the client cut through the discussion and asked me if I had “family obligations”. The client asked me, not my male peer. I was startled and didn’t know how to respond. Ultimately I went with complete focus on the project, assuring them that no “family obligations” would get in the way.

In hindsight, this was not the way to answer this question, and basically encouraged the client to ask the same to other women after me.

Fast forward to 5 years ago, as my colleague Zarla Ludin and I were presenting our capabilities to a prominent Fortune 15 company, we were presented the exact same question, this time to both of us. I paused, recognizing that this question sounded familiar. I calmly answered “That’s an interesting question: would you ask that if we weren’t women?” I delivered the question intentionally, kindly and without attitude. The room went silent. I then proceeded to indicate that it is important that whoever we work with respects us, as we respect them, for each other’s abilities and potential. What made it worse was the client didn’t take responsibility, nor did they acknowledge what they had just done. Instead, they cross-questioned us on whether our engagements were ever derailed for personal reasons.

After several awkward responses, we respectfully declined the option to work with them. I felt good about that, because the message was clear from our side: we have provided enough proof of the quality work we do and our capabilities and addressed all of their fair questions. We recognized we had to assert ourselves in order to communicate to the client that these additional questions were unacceptable.

Hopefully, this brings it to their attention and the next woman being interviewed will not face the same unfair treatment.

What, in your opinion, could we UI & UX designers do, as a relatively young and collaborative fraternity, to solve the problem of gender inequality?

I find the use of the word “fraternity” interesting here, as it often implies “male group”. I would suggest the term “young professionals” as an alternative. 🙂

Addressing gender inequality is lofty as an objective, and almost feels insurmountable.

I would suggest setting small goals, such as raising awareness, and advocating for small change as good ways to get started. Identifying a tight scope for what we seek to change for the good before it ultimately affects us (it doesn’t have to just personally affect us to make it’s existence meaningful).

Raising awareness to the incredible level of unspoken manifestations of gender inequality is a great first step, and is already slowly happening.

Your message to young women looking to make their careers in UI/UX?

Form a network of people with whom you can be transparent in your conversations. This network should not be limited to women only or UX’ers only, but it is important to identify UX women whose lifestyle aligns with your own vision.

Be assertive and honest in all situations, but be respectful in tone. Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions – there is no harm in ever asking anything. It informs you a lot more about context and perspectives.

Design your life as you would design any good experience: focus on the people involved (you), your goals and aspirations, and provide yourself the best experience to get there.

Don’t be swayed too much by what other people think you should do: be your own guiding force and make the decisions based on your own observations even if it goes against the grain.

Ask yourself how invested you want to be in UX work – and be accepting of that answer. Join into the conversation – even if you are new, your perspective challenges baked-in assumptions.

This article was last updated on December 3, 2023; Originally published on March 8, 2021

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