The UX Pioneer: Louisa Heinrich’s quest to humanize tech
There are a few things some startup founders don’t understand about what Louisa Heinrich does. And she’s not afraid to tell them. Hell, that’s how she kick-started her decades-long career in tech.
Prior to the dot-com crash, and even after, the roles Heinrich held at companies came with perplexing titles like “Director of Experience Architecture” and “Head of Interaction Design” — often a jumble of words meant to say she was in charge of how users interacted with technological products. Today, those positions would be called “user experience design” or UX for short.
In the early aughts, Heinrich found herself at constant odds with chief executives, who often only focused on the bottom line, either because they didn’t understand what she did or why she was needed.
“I have had so many conversations with people who want to do a thing or make a thing, but don’t have a good reason why,” she said. “And I think that continues to be the driving force in technology for different reasons now than then, but for one reason that is exactly the same as then, and that’s money.”
The way Silicon Valley has worked for the last few decades, and still works right now, is fairly straightforward: A founder, or a group of founders, have an idea. They raise money from venture capitalists or bootstrap the cash themselves. They hire a team to build their idea in hopes of either changing the world, or at the very least, paying their investors back. According to Heinrich, the ones who make it have one of two things: Pure luck or humancentric products.
And since luck is unpredictable, Heinrich fought to make founders think about how folks use the tech they build as a metric of success, not just the hardware or software itself.
“The reason why we called it information architecture back then was because we talked about building interactive products like we were building a house,” she said. “There has to be ways that make sense for people to go through. You can’t have a room without an exit. Once we started thinking about digital properties as physical spaces, it opened up our thinking and gave us better ways of constructing them.”
Heinrich has led design for digital consumer projects at Fortune 500 companies that have become staples of the internet as we know it. If you’ve ever customized a car on an automaker’s website, you have Heinrich to thank. Do you have your bank’s app on your smartphone? Heinrich led design for the earliest form of digital banking. She was also an executive director at the BBC when the iPlayer was released — ushering in the first iteration of the U.K.’s largest broadcaster’s searchable index of over 4 million pages of content.
In 2013 she started Superhuman, which consults governments and businesses on how to “productively embed human-centered thinking” because she saw a gap between what clients were asking of agencies and what they actually needed.
“Management consultancies are really good at marketing, they can tell you how big the market is for a hypothetical product in terms of dollars and cents,” Heinrich said. “What they can’t necessarily tell you is what the market is like in terms of what humans need and are ready for and are willing to engage with productively.”
Yet, one thesis she’s discovered time and time again is that creators can have the best intentions for how their product will be used. But once people get a hold of them, there’s no telling what they’ll do. That’s where Superhuman comes in, and also why she’s an advocate for framework-based regulation of tech.
“We will hack together what we want out of whatever you give us, that’s how humans work,” Heinrich said. “So the idea that the government can pass laws that are somehow going to be effective against this constantly changing landscape of humans interacting with technology is just insane.”
Governments are designed to move slowly, Heinrich added, because if they moved as quickly as technology, we’d all live in a state of “perpetual chaos” and if tech moved as slow as governments, well … innovation would come to a screeching halt.
For successful government regulation of tech to happen, she believes, lawmakers and stakeholders need to ask themselves a few questions when crafting legislation: What are adverse or unintended consequences of different types of technology? What are some of the signals we can identify of those consequences happening? How can we build frameworks to guide behaviors in positive directions?
It’s safe to say the predictability of those conversations happening is slim, but not slim to none — even though the technology industry and the government are two institutions bound to misunderstand each other (if you’ve ever used the IRS website or heard Mark Zuckerberg say “Move fast and break things,” you get it).
Heinrich, on the other hand, is optimistic. People are thinking much more critically about tech now than when she got her start.
“I think in some circles. that’s starting to happen,” she said. “I think a lot of the chaos in the political world over the last six years has caused more people to question what the fuck is happening with technology and what are some of the blind alleys it might be leading us down.”
And the more widespread everyday technology becomes in the lives of people across the world, the more founders and creators are forced to reckon with the human impact of their products. Take for example, the researchers and critics who protested the use of routinely biased, harmful artificial intelligence during the Black Lives Matter movement and the public outcry over the rapid spread of misinformation, which led to a crackdown across social media platforms.
That’s why Heinrich is happy to see UX roles embedded at the start of businesses cropping up today, rather than as a reactive measure to backlash — “Not only ‘How do we make the thing that you’ve decided to make,’ but ‘What is the thing that you should be making?’”
“Let’s face it, it’s the people who pay for the product or not, it’s the people who generate the revenue,” she added. “So when the people start making better decisions for themselves, that’s when we can really see some positive change.”