Hilary Stephenson is the managing director of digital user experience agency Sigma Consulting Solutions. She talks about understanding a customer's wants, the importance of family life, and maintaining authenticity.
What is it the company does?
Sigma is a digital user experience agency. We put people at the heart of design to deliver better products to a happier audience. We do this through user research, co-design, prototyping and usability testing with the people our clients seek to engage. We then design, develop and optimise a range of digital solutions for our clients.
Describe your role in no more than 100 words
I am the founder and MD of Sigma. I set the company up 10 years ago and still manage the overall business, our corporate responsibility programme and the clients we deliver to, particularly in the health and life sciences sector. I am passionate about digital inclusion and social impact, so that is reflected in the work we do and the people we help.
Give us a brief timeline of your career so far – where did you start, how did you move on?
I studied English at university so started my career as a technical author in a scientific research institute. This involved editing reports and writing user guides and training documentation. I was involved in user-centred work before terms like user experience were heavily used, and as information moved online, I had an early involvement in web usability and accessibility.
I have worked across many sectors as a writer, information designer, content strategist and account manager. This gave me exposure to commercial negotiation, financial management and service delivery. In 2007, I set up digital agency Sigma and have since built a team of researchers, designers and developers who are all focused on making the web better.
What do you believe makes a great leader?
I think a great leader cares about the working lives of their team and takes a vested interest in what they do. My team’s experience is important to me so I want to know about their concerns, their ideas and their views on how things should be done. Our culture is very open, inclusive and friendly, which can feel a little unstructured at times but I prefer that to isolated ways of working and hard organisational lines. I’m also nosey and really interested in the work we do and its impact.
What has been your biggest challenge in your current position?
As the team has grown, it can feel like I’m spinning plates at times, trying to oversee different functional parts of the business. Changes in the market also cause us to pre-empt the way customers want to work, for example, the current desire to build UX capabilities internally. This means we have to adapt our delivery approach, develop specialisms that clients want and look for fresh thinking all the time.
How do you alleviate the stress that comes with your job?
I have an amazing family and some brilliant friends who offer support, but I’m happy to be open about anxieties and pressures in the workplace too, so my team know when I’m struggling. I am a coper but not one who bottles stuff up!
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I think I wanted to be a police officer at one point, as I remember talking to a careers adviser about it.
Any pet hates in the workplace? What do you do about them?
My pet hates are people who don’t ask questions or accept responsibility for their own work. Also, people who seek to blame others. I think it’s important to work in the open, ask for help when you need it, share ideas and give and receive feedback in a grown up way.
Where do you see the company in five years’ time?
Technology is dynamic but I see us focusing on the softer side of things, namely how we engage more people through inclusive usability and how we tackle the problem of digital exclusion. In addition, I want to discourage the urge to develop things that aren’t really needed and design impactful solutions around real problems. Design and creative problem solving have a huge role to play in society. That’s where we are heading.
What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?
Be yourself, as authenticity is vital to your colleagues, your clients and those you want to join or follow your business. Realise you can do a lot of things but you can’t do everything. Pace yourself and value micro-actions, as small changes can also create a big impact. Give others a healthy mix of freedom and support, as seeking to control everything doesn’t work. That relies on building brilliant people around you and trusting them to do their own thing.
What do you wish someone had told you when you started out?
Be more open, less competitive and ask for guidance.