Hatch Design Talks 2023





Embracing Multisensory & Accessible Design

Embracing Multisensory & Accessible Design

Natalia Filvarova

Natalia Filvarova

UXR @ Google

UXR @ Google

About the Episode

With quite a unique background in neuroscience, Natalia Filvarova works as a User Researcher at Google, helping identifying whether the people behind the screen are who they say they are, and that their privacy is protected. We talked about designing for people with disabilities, making research more inclusive and how the emotional component should play a bigger part in product design.



Damian: Hi, Natalia. Welcome. Thank you so much for being with me today.

Natalia: Hi, it's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Damian: You're giving one of the talks at Hatch Conference. And I was interested in chatting with you particularly because your profile is very unique. You come from the field of neuroscience and you got into research.
Can you tell us a bit about your story?

Natalia: Yeah, of course. When I was a kid in school, I didn't really know what to do, and I was in a school in England, and nobody told me that choosing my subjects would define what I can do in the future, so I chose pretty much at random and it was a mix of biology and business and economics and then that Severely limited what I could do at university out of what I liked So I was forced to go into psychology.

I had no choice. So I went into psych I was really lucky to get a scholarship at Oxford and then I fell in love with neuroscience there because my psychology course turned Out to be not your traditional psychology like psychoanalytics or kind of more therapeutical approaches, but more science and I was like Fascinating, I love that.

So I ended up doing a Master's in Neuroscience after that because I really enjoyed that. Then, after that I wanted to do a PhD, because I again had no idea what to do with myself, so I tried doing a PhD in Molecular Genetics. That didn't work well at all because I loved science, but not that much. That's science.

So I tried that. I quit my PhD, but I still didn't know what to do with myself. So I went into a really cool German concept called the Frauenhofer Institut, which is essentially where you do research, but it's applied research. So whatever you're doing is always connected to a real world business product or business opportunity.

And that gave me sort of one of the first real world touches to, okay, you can actually build something. There I tried to build my first startup. I also in parallel got involved with another startup that I tried to build from scratch because it was really interesting. After that I moved into product cause I was told that it's the next logical thing to do, that a full salary to do sort development of things and.

After that, I learned that, in product, my favorite thing is still to find out what the real problems are rather than build a specific solution, and I really enjoyed the direction you give people, or take when you find out what the real problems are, what the real passions of people are, and that's how I ended up in UX research.

Damian: nice. It's definitely a non traditional path, but I think it's what makes it interesting, right? For each one of our journeys and you work now at Google and digital identity systems for kids and families. What are exactly those? Could you explain it me?.

Natalia: Digital identity systems is essentially a framework, in some cases an infrastructure, in our case, that also has a user interface component. So users interact with it. That allows you to organize and manage your identity online. So in things like Facebook, for instance, that is your Facebook profile.

In Instagram, that is your Instagram profile. In our case, that is your Google account. So who are you and how do you represent yourself on the Google account? Specifically, what I work is the questions around authenticating your identity. So making sure that you are actually the you behind the screen storing information about your identity, making sure that it's safe, legally compliant, of course Sort of the questions of privacy and consent.

How do you protect your privacy and your data? What defines you as who you are online? And how do we make sure that is safe? And particularly I focus on children and their families. So it's all of these questions, but from the perspective of the child, which is ever so more important, because we're essentially helping kids who are maybe entering the world of the internet for the first time do this safely and in a way that allows them to be who they are.

But in a safe, secure, legally compliant way. And allows them to explore the internet.

Damian: Wow. Sounds like a really important part of what the internet is. . I remember I, I was drawn to you because I watched your TEDx talk, "Your Colour is your Superpower". Just fascinating take on how the perception of how color affects us in multiple ways.

And I have a feeling like there must be a lot of examples. You coming from neuroscience where you have to explain always to the person that comes, the challenge of a product or design process based on this. How do you feel like your unique background actually makes you navigate this, specifically in research or in general.

Natalia: I think having maybe non traditional background when it comes to working in tech is actually incredibly helpful, and this is something that is true across my team at Google, but also in pretty much every other project I worked where knowing something that kind of seems almost random at the surface brings in that unique perspective and the different way of thinking things.

So color in particular, it just used to be a one passion of mine, and that helps me to think in creative ways. But there was a lot of things I'm interested in that are not strictly related to UX design or UX research. And I think that is really, important because it allows. Me and anybody really who has those interests outside of their sort of strict core role to have unique and diverse approaches.

So when I about a UX decision or what our users need or what to build next, it's rarely about, oh, what is a particular UX framework say we should do or what is the component that we should apply? Because. Somebody somewhere said that's the right thing to do, but rather bringing all of those unique perspectives in as for instance, okay, how will the color impact this is it different given that we're releasing products for everybody globally?

Is it going to be any different for kids that are much younger because their color perception might be different. And that's true for a lot of other fields where I'm passionate, for instance, something else that I work on a lot alongside my core role is diversity and inclusion. So again, having all those thoughts that are maybe not strictly speaking, something that is.

Related to your job description helps a lot and I think that's true for everybody in our team because that really makes you Able to create products that are more unique because you don't go by what is written on some website or on some book But you try to bring in this diverse experience from the world into it And that is how people experience your product.

They never look at it and go oh This is how it should have been done. They apply their real world. They apply their thoughts, their memories, their emotions, and being able to bring that in, I think, makes your product much more human, which is really important, particularly, I think, in today's world when everybody's bringing, is building tech, everybody's trying to stand out.

So there is no way to stand unless you bring that human element in and that psychology is, i mean, really really important.

Damian: Yeah, absolutely. And as a researcher, has your role changed a lot since the pandemic? Like, when the pandemic started, were you doing it one way? And how do you deal with the actual changes that have come after the COVID 19 pandemic?

Natalia: Yeah, this is actually interesting because I was not a researcher when COVID started.

Because I've had this kind of path of going from one place to another, when COVID started, my startups, and then I was hired as a researcher right in the middle of COVID. But there was definitely certain things that made...

That became different with how COVID affected all of us, one of them being most importantly, then of course mostly everything is digital right now. That was not the case before in research as well, but you would normally do things face to face. Now you do pretty much everything online. It's very rare for me to go and do a study in person and This is one of those most prominent things that has great advantages and disadvantages.

One of the unique sides of it is that you can access users from all over the world. You're not really limited anymore by things like time zones or cost of travel. You can talk to anybody anywhere and that. Again brings in that you need perspective. You're no longer limited by who you can find in Berlin I'm in Berlin for instance So I don't have focus on people in Berlin or spend a ton of money and time to go travel elsewhere I can talk to my users regardless of where they are This also allows you to access users that maybe you wouldn't be able to do otherwise because maybe they, do not have capacity to travel, or maybe they a disability that doesn't allow them so easily to go and come to your lab.

Being able to do online is of course amazing, and that shift, such a heavy shift we saw. Because of COVID of course, there was also flip side to it. Teams being entirely distributed teams on all of my projects are all over the globe. And again, has great sites, but also it's sometimes very tough.

Cause I'm one of those people who loves to have in person contact. So I definitely struggle at times with not having right next to me that you can just talk to, you can just flip ideas around. But again, I wouldn't be able to work with people from all over the world if it weren't for this. I think that was definitely the main change.

Damian: Yeah, I understand. I think, as you said, at the same time, I haven't thought about this, but how it really makes them the research much more inclusive by allowing kind of anyone to just connect to an Internet connection and be on the other side. Whereas the other processes... while some companies might even have the budgets to really try to expand their reach and make it as accessible as possible, there's always like a wall, right? That is a lot of other things beyond the money and the time of people. 

Yeah, so your talk at Hatch actually focuses on exactly how most of the world's design isn't made for everyone and about disabilities. You're pretty open yourself about your ADHD.

Could you give a definition of what this multi sensory design that you describe in the talk means and, what can attendees expect? 

Natalia: Yeah, absolutely. So a multisensory design is a particular approach to design where you try to bring together the different senses that we as humans experience. I don't think originally it necessarily started as a movement to cater to those who might have certain disabilities, but today definitely is an opportunity to use it that way.

And it essentially states that you as a human experience vision, touch, smell, taste, hearing. You have the sense of balance. And somehow in UX, over the past dozens of years we haven't explored close to nothing other than vision and maybe a little bit of sound here and there and this is just such oversight and it becomes particularly prominent when you look at people who might have a different set of abilities or people who might have a different set of sensory needs where if somebody is unable to perceive color in the same way or visual signals in the same way they rely so much more on other senses but also Knowing that engaging more than one sense makes your product so much stronger.

We have plenty of evidence from sort of academic research, but also a little bit from design research that if you're able to engage more than just one sense, but you pair vision and sound, or you pair vision and smell, you're able to increase the emotional valence of your product. You're able to increase how users engage with it, what memories it causes.

It's just such a great opportunity and there is so much scope for improvement of our products there And I think somehow we forget about it because it's very easy to default to oh just vision and at best Okay, maybe we'll play around with colors. So there was a huge opportunity there. So In my talk, I essentially want to describe, on one hand, the history of how we've designed the world that is so specifically tailored for a particular type of person.

And when it comes to the sensory perception, it's usually vision, which doesn't just have to do with shapes, but also with text, for example. It's somebody who can look at your screen, read your text, see your shapes. And how we've neglected that there is so many other senses, but also so many other people who rely on these senses.

And I want to bring together those ideas that you can not just help people who might have a different set of abilities, but also your standard user, which is also something that we're going to demystify in the talk, have a much better experience of your product if you can harness all of the senses that humans have.

Damian: Yeah , and you mentioned also how that eventually drives your business and your product forward, which I think is key to any of us going to our PO or someone and be like, Hey, why don't you try something different, that's not the default, but actually gets us maybe to a different path, right?


What are you most looking forward about Hatch and about in general getting back on stage and what are the things that you enjoy in these types of events?

Natalia: Yeah, I think I'm most excited about meeting people who might have something interesting to say, some new ideas. This is something that never ceases to amaze me at every event that I go to. And we saw last year at Hatch that you always get to meet somebody who has a different perspective, a different idea.

 So I'm really excited to meet people who maybe have different perspectives, who have different experiences, learn something new. Maybe find people who think in similar ways, but also find people who think in different ways so you can have the discord.

 I'm not the biggest fan of being always digital, so I'm really looking forward to having sort of those vibes going and connecting with people, having some of those shared ideas.

It looked fantastic last year. I'm sure it's going to be even better this year. So I'm really looking forward to it.

Damian: Thank you so much. Yeah, we're also very excited to have you. Luckily that we could make it work this year. And looking forward to what you're going to bring and to have everyone together here in Berlin. Like being also the local representative on the main stage will be very interesting.

Thank you so much and have a great rest of the day.

Natalia: It's my pleasure, we'll see you soon, bye!

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