POV: Interview with Cielo de la Paz, Lead Interaction Designer

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Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting



cielo-de-la-pazCielo de la Paz is a lead interaction designer at Hotwire, working to establish the overall vision and UX strategy for Hotwire’s car brands, including CarRentals.com. As a part of the UX industry since 1999, or before it was called user experience, de la Paz has experience in work with brands such as LVMH, Time Warner, Williams-Sonoma Inc. and Ancestry.com. Throughout her career, de la Paz has designed investor trading systems, gaming/touchscreen interfaces, room designer apps, retail e-commerce sites, and now, more and more mobile and tablet apps.

What is your definition of user experience design? What differentiates a UX designer from a web designer or art director?

The term “user experience” is being used more frequently yet is still misunderstood. From company to company, it’s defined in different ways and that’s probably why there is confusion. My personal definition of it is the overall design of the user’s experience that encompasses things such as visual design, information flow, voice and interaction. A UX designer has to know a little bit of all of those in order to be successful. This is different from a web designer and art director because it is more than visuals and branding. It’s about getting intimate with who the user is and designing something tailored to their needs.

You’re currently the lead interaction designer for Hotwire, and you’ve had previous positions at Ancestry.com and Williams-Sonoma. What is your first step to understanding how the broad-range of consumers use and interact with these sites?

The best and first way to understand how consumers use and interact with the site is to watch them use it! Bring them in, sit them in front of your site or app and have them use it. Or better yet, at Ancestry we did home visits where we observed users in their natural environment. There is nothing like watching your users interact with the product. You’ll learn so much just by watching. And then I suggest doing enough of this kind of observation that you are able to pick up on patterns of how your users are interacting with your site.

In your opinion, how does design help lend credibility to websites, especially e-commerce-focused sites? How can it take away from a site’s credibility?

Design is HUGE when it comes to giving a site credibility. A well-designed experience not only allows the user to achieve their goal on the site, but it delights the user along the way. It’s not enough to just be usable anymore. Consumers have a much higher expectation from sites these days. Sites that can do this build trust and loyalty with their users.

How has mobile app design and development influenced website design for desktop computers?

The simplicity of designs for mobile apps is being carried forward (or backwards?) to the desktop.

It’s becoming common practice to design for “mobile first” and then layer in all the other extra features for the desktop version. It used to be the other way around.

What trends do you think will continue to influence user experience practitioners?

I think mobile/tablet will continue to be huge. We are barely tapping the surface with what we can do with mobile. I mean, with a mobile device there is so much you can know about the user — where they are, who they’re with, their time of day, their velocity, who their friends are, who they frequently call/text, what their calendar looks like and so on. I haven’t yet seen an app designed to take full advantage of all this knowledge about the user.

Jared Spool introduced the term, “The Knowledge Gap,” stating that UX designers need to create experiences that bridge the gap between what a user already knows and how to complete a task on the specific site. How do you help to educate users of the sites for which you have designed?

I always say that if your user has to read a whole paragraph on how to use the site to complete a task, your design has failed. Ideally by combining interaction and visual design, you can cue the user on what to do and encourage them to explore and discover without fear of making a mistake.

You’ve taught classes on user experience and design for start-up founders. Why do you think these entrepreneurs are interested in UX? What do you hope they take away from your classes?

I think that it has finally dawned on everyone that a great user experience is key to a successful product. UX is no longer an after-thought. In fact, now it is seen as central to the creation of a new product. And that’s why these new entrepreneurs are taking my UX classes. They want to understand the process and learn a bit themselves on how to craft a good UX — which is what I hope they take away from my classes. I also try to impress upon them the importance of understanding their users – this is central to good UX.

What does the ideal UX team look like? What roles and skills do you think are important to the development and maintenance of a brand’s online presence?

The ideal UX team – wow, great question. I usually just land in a pre-determined one! So “Cielo’s ideal UX team” would probably look like a group of “hybrid designers.” Right now it’s common practice to have very specialized roles so there’s a lot of “hand-offs” between the information architect (IA), the interaction designer, the visual designer and so on. I would rather have designers on my team who can take on two or more of these roles. So for example, a hybrid designer that can research the user, create user flows and wireframes and then finally do the visual design. That’s three roles right there.

At Hotwire, you have complexities in what you are selling, including rates, fees, legal language and multiple amenities associated with each inquiry. How does your UX team approach such a complicated industry?

A lot of coordination. Not only are our designers extremely skilled at their craft, but they are also excellent facilitators. We have to take initiative in owning the user experience and be the champion for the user – which usually entails negotiating with legal, marketing, customer operations and even our suppliers. Cookies – you’d be surprised how far a chocolate chip cookie can smooth along negotiations.

What should brands and agencies look for when working with a UX consultant?

They should seek out a consultant that has GREAT communication and facilitation skills. This is key for a designer that is not in-house. And of course you have to make sure they are also able to do the work — but most are able to, and it’s usually the facilitation/communication skills that are hard to come by.

One reason that you love what you do: Through my designs I am helping someone meet a need – whether it’s helping them get that great vacation they’ll remember forever (at Hotwire), or helping them discover their family history (at Ancestry). I love what I do because I am affecting someone’s day, maybe even life, in a very positive way.

Mentor: Really early on in my career I worked with a great lead designer, Eric Johnson, who is now the Senior VP of ecommerce at Ralph Lauren. He once pulled me aside after my design wasn’t selected by our client. He said: “You can have the best design, but it won’t go far if you can’t communicate why it’s great. It’s about communication.” That piece of advice has gotten me where I am today. Now they can’t shut me up. Just kidding.

Must read book: I would say that most interaction designers have read the book “About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design” by Alan Cooper. But I’d have to say that I’ve been most inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” during my journey to becoming an expert in my field.

Music that gets you in your zone: I love banging out my designs to Nirvana’s “Nevermind” or some Bruno Mars, depending on the project.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I want to put it out there that I aspire to be a TED speaker. I think I have some inspirational ideas about design. So, if there’s anyone reading this who I can connect with… ;)

Connect with Cielo on Twiiter @cielodp and LinkedIn, or find out more about her work by visiting her personal site.

Feature image courtesy of Flickr user joshuaseye.

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