The #InterviewSeries is a collection of intimate discussions with womxn in the technical & digital spaces. They are entrepreneurs, developers, students, cyber-security experts, managers, designers and social media queens. The aim of the series is to increase the visibility of womxn in tech, to prove that no womxn's journey is linear & to celebrate their successes. Whatever your passion or skill or gender, there's something out there for you and these womxn prove that.
This time round, I'm pleased to introduce you to Ruby Steel. Ruby's journey is seriously impressive and she has shared with us some truly wonderful insights and advice. Ruby has worked on some marvellous projects. You'll definitely shed a tear or two when you watch the videos linked in the article. It's incredibly heart warming to see how tech for good can be implemented and truly make a difference for people. Bravo Ruby! I'm really proud to feature you and your work in the series.
Tell us a little bit about yourself
Hello! I’m Ruby Steel. I’m a senior design strategist for Smart Design, based in London. I’m also a ‘fixer’ on BBC2’s The Big Life Fix, a docuseries which features a team of designers, technologists and inventors who solve problems for amazing people. You can learn more about what I do at Smart Design in this excellent video the BBC made.
"I think the possibilities with technology are endless, I think the barrier to success is how we design products, services and experiences using technology. They need to have purpose and they need to have all people considered in the process otherwise they won’t work for everyone or they won’t work at all." Ruby on the barriers to success in the future
Tell us a little bit about your journey into your role
In a nutshell, I started as a visual designer but then I moved into digital product and service design to be able to change peoples’ experiences of life for the better. But the story of how that happened is a bit longer than that…
I have always been inspired by real people and their stories. When I was 17, someone came to give a talk at my school about her experiences of living with HIV. I was blown away by her honest and bravery in sharing her story and the way she was opening people’s minds and changing people’s opinions about things. I was so inspired, I realised that I wanted to make experiences for people like her and anyone that has a tougher day-to-day life than most. I wanted to be able to create better experiences for them. As a result, I decided to go to art school where I did an art and design foundation at Kingston University. I specialised in graphic design.
When I graduated, I wasn’t following the typical route of other original designers. I was always keen to figure out how I could be more a part of the process of moulding and changing experiences for people. All my peers went off into more traditional fields such as advertising, fashion, and photography – but I didn’t want to do any of that. I wanted to go into product design and digital product and service design, so I had to find my own way.
I did loads of design volunteering. I worked in a psychiatric hospital. I volunteered because I was passionate about the healthcare sector and what the in-patient experience was. I was always setting myself my own brief to come up with hypothetical new things for people.
By doing all of this, setting my own brief and doing these slightly unusual activities, I built up a portfolio that was beginning to move away from my route as a visual designer. I was becoming more of a product designer. I was fascinated by design research and what it meant to go out and talk to people, to watch people and understand their lives and their stories and convert that into new design vision.
All of this led to me applying to the Royal College of Art to do a Masters in Innovation Design Engineering (there was also an M.Sc. at Imperial College, London). A friend recommended the course because I was doing more projects about new ways of thinking and new things within design. I applied thinking there was absolutely no way that I was going to get in because most of the people on that course came from engineering backgrounds and I didn’t have that.
What I did have though was an understanding of people and a lot of work to show I was quite practised in design research, ethnography, generating insights and coming up with ideas. So, I applied and, amazingly, I got an interview and was offered a place to start in October 2010. I was two years out of my BA at this stage.
Those two years I spent at the Royal College of Art were a massive turning point for me because it meant that not only did I start to really choose my craft, but I also started to understand all the different kinds of technology that was available. I didn’t learn to be an engineer exactly, I more learned how to work with engineers and different kinds of designers. The course is all about mixing people with different skillsets..
All my projects, which were self-directed, were essentially looking at a person or a group of people who were struggling for one reason or another. One of my biggest projects was about diabetes – living with diabetes, and how services / products might be able to make living with diabetes easier. The second project was looking at the aging population and how to combat social isolation in older people.
I came out of the Royal College of Art with a huge body of work and it meant that I was off in the right direction. That is how I ended up in, a multi-disciplinary studio where we do product, digital and service design: Smart Design.
"I was fascinated by design research and what it meant to go out and talk to people, to watch people and understand their lives and their stories and convert that into new design vision." Ruby
How do you personally use technology in your day to day?
I personally use a wide variety of apps for personal and professional reasons. I’d feel pretty useless without technology. I have become very reliant on using apps for travel, entertainment, connecting with people, banking and more.
How do you use technology in your role?
The design firm I work with solve challenges for people and most often these solutions use technology, so I use and think about technology pretty much every day. But not fitting a technology into a solution - thinking about people before technology.
For Big Life Fix I’ve been so lucky as I’ve worked with some amazing technologies, notably designing a communication service for someone living with locked in syndrome, the most awesome interactive playground for a profoundly blind boy and most recently a voice-controlled home service for someone living with progressive MS. I urge you to check them out.
What have been the best learning resources for you?
The best way that I’ve learned is to get advice from people who know more than me. I’m lucky at Smart Design because we have a diverse range of still sets so there’s always someone I can learn from.
As a woman, do you think you have faced any challenges that a man would not face in your position?
I’m lucky because at Smart Design in London we have a good balance of men and women in the studio. The MD is female, as is our VP of strategy, which is great. I work in design and we understand that diversity, and that’s not just about gender, is so important in creating solutions that work for everyone.
The thing that I love about working on Big Life Fix is that fact that it is promoting design, tech and engineering to a wider audience that wouldn’t otherwise necessarily understand the value in it by showing these emotive stories. It’s also promoting that girls/women (there’s a few of us on the team) actually have a vital role to play in the design and tech world, the latter especially being still very male dominated. If the show somehow makes them think, “actually, this is a career path for me,” it’s just wonderful.
What has been your biggest challenge so far?
So far it would have to be balancing my day job at Smart Design and the wonderful Big Life Fix project. I deeply care about both and there are only so many hours in the day. There was lots of late nights and weekends which resulted in no person life during this period and it was tough. But Smart were understanding and the Big Life Fix was worth it.
With regards to technology, what do you think will be our biggest barrier to success in the future?
I think the possibilities with technology are endless, I think the barrier to success is how we design products, services and experiences using technology. They need to have purpose and they need to have all people considered in the process otherwise they won’t work for everyone or they won’t work at all.
The issue with many digital products is they are aimed at the mass market, but as we know digital products designed by men don’t work for women and those designed by abled bodied don’t work for those who aren’t. Whether it is a visible disability that doesn’t allow you to use a digital product because you cannot see the screen or you don’t have the dexterity to use a phone, or maybe for our vast aging population it is just something that has passed you by, there are loads and loads of opportunities for these two worlds to come together, but it is not happening everywhere yet. We can all be impaired at any point; looking at a phone and crossing a road, trying to go food shopping with kids in tow – so products that work well for everyone will do just that, work well for everyone.
Who makes up your support squad?
Well, I’m recently married so I guess I should mention my husband and of course, the amazing teams at Smart Design and Big Life Fix.
What’s your favourite piece of advice to offer entrepreneurial/techy women?
Collaborate with like-minded people. Get to know your users really well and keep testing everything with them.