Angela Alarcon of Ancestry DNA: Being a UX Designer, Means Having Empathy

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Angela Alarcon is working as a UX Lead Designer at Ancestry DNA. Photo by @ANDYVIERNES.

Angela Alarcon is working as a UX Lead Designer at Ancestry DNA. Photo by @ANDYVIERNES.

Angela Alarcon worked in the fashion industry for 9 years—including stints in magazine, advertising, and even celebrity styling—before finally pursuing her MA in Web Design & New Media at the Academy of Art University.

Fashion was just one medium, and she found visual design and user experience to be another. Being able to design products that reach a wide range of people beyond print really inspired her.

Today, she is working as a UX Lead Designer at Ancestry DNA, designing products within the genomic technology space.

We connected with Angela to talk about a career switch, creativity muscles, inspiration and UX design. Read on to find out what she had to say.

Entering The World of Design

“I like falling in love with a problem and not just subscribing to a solution,” Angela says, talking about her journey to the expansive world of design.

She explains that during her Master’s program at the Academy, she was quite taken with the problem-solving aspect of design. “It’s easy to come up with something beautiful and elegant, but that’s not really the challenge designers should focus on—designing a simple and intuitive product that answers a specific user problem well is the real challenge.”

Biggest Career Influence

Her mother is an artist and was an influence to her growing up.

“When I was young, it was ingrained in me that I have the power and ability to create—needed new doll dresses? Make them. Needed a cooking set? Make it out of clay! My mom loved working with her hands and watching her was my first taste of education. My favorite thing to create were my own storybooks.”

Needless to say, her successful career in fashion was no surprise to anyone who knew her. Visual storytelling was her calling and her magazine editorials capture a glimpse of her imagination.

Angela talking to her engineering partner Adam Thompson. Photo from a personal Angela’s archive.

Angela talking to her engineering partner Adam Thompson. Photo from a personal Angela’s archive.

Today, as a designer, her affinity for storytelling has reached a different, more refined level. “I love working on products at Ancestry that allow me to help empower our users to tell their unique stories, whether it’s through sharing, content creation, personal discoveries, and more. I definitely draw a lot of inspiration and influence from my past work in the way that I design products that help tell our user’s story the best possible way. It’s a lot like a beautiful editorial image—the composition, the work that goes on behind it, the story it tells.”

On Work Philosophy

Angela believes that in design, the work never stops. “There’s never an end to designing a product! It could always be better, it can always evolve. Just like the trends, there’s always something new to learn, to include, to draw inspiration from.”

Flexing Creativity Muscles

According to Angela, training her creativity muscle happens every day. “Always keep your eyes open, whether you’re in the car on the way to wherever, or walking around. There’s inspiration everywhere and you have to be open to it.” Reading books and online blogs about design, architecture, travel, technology and science is something she’s incorporated into her daily morning routine. “It keeps me informed and helps me feel confident when I walk into a room full of Execs and I have to present my work and tell them why I think this is best practice today.”

Life-Changing Experiences

At 28, switching careers felt like a big move for her. She was nervous and anxious, but said it was the best thing she’s ever done for herself. “I was nervous because growth is always scary. It felt like taking a risk, but today I wouldn’t call it that. It didn’t feel risky, it felt aligned. I think the scariest part was telling my Dad, but he was very supportive and happy for me.”

The “war room” at Ancestry DNA. Her engineering lead stuck that post-it to tease her design team. Photo by Angela Alarcon.

The “war room” at Ancestry DNA. Her engineering lead stuck that post-it to tease her design team. Photo by Angela Alarcon.

Starting from “Zero” again, is no small matter, though, she agrees. Leaving her 9-year career in fashion to study again was a huge life experience that taught her discipline, perseverance, and humility. “People are very scared to pursue something outside their comfort zone, especially as they get older. I don’t ever think it’s too late, it’s the most empowering thing to show up for yourself and say ‘OK, let’s jump.’”

Success in UX design

“Being a UX Designer, means having empathy.” This is a “people” job, she explains.

Angela speaking at women in technology event. Photo from The Expat Woman.

Angela speaking at women in technology event. Photo from The Expat Woman.

Designing for users means truly wanting to understand their needs and wants and solving problems through products, and this type of thinking is something she takes to heart when she comes to work every day. “Anyone can come in and have amazing design chops, but this isn’t a job for just designing pretty things, you have to have a lot of heart and empathy for users to be successful in UX.”

Working on Exciting Projects

Photo from a personal Angela’s archive.

Photo from a personal Angela’s archive.

Today, she’s excited about having just launched AncestryDNA Traits, a product within the DNA space that tells users about their unique appearance and sensory traits, influenced by DNA, and help them understand how it connects them to the past and future. “It’s been a whole year of effort from a lot of very talented people in the company and I’m really happy we’re able to share it to the public.”

Since having prior editorial experience, she was also part of the photoshoot behind the beautiful imagery used throughout the Traits product. “I love how I’m able to tie my editorial background to my current design job, it just goes to show how no experience in your life really goes to waste.”