Standing on the bright green hills of Mount Tamalpais just north of San Francisco, Sara Soueidan turned to her friend and said, “I’m ready to get back to work.”
The UX developer, as she describes herself, was in California to speak at SmashingConf, but escaped for a day to hike the hills of Marin County. Described as having “the energy of 10,000 light bulbs,” Sara’s bright personality has led to speaking engagements and workshop opportunities around the world. But all the travel — combined with overexerting herself as a freelance front-end developer and UX designer — had dimmed the glowing fire inside her to mere coals.
“I had been burnt out for four months and that trip made me feel refreshed, kind of like a battery that’s out of energy and then you recharge that battery. That’s exactly how it felt,” Sara said.
Fast-forward to now, and the fire is once again roaring strong. When we talk, Sara is at her home office in Lebanon preparing for upcoming talks in Amsterdam, Canada, Australia, London, New York City, and Paris, to name a few — not the slightest hint of a dwindling flame in her voice.
Journey to UX
“Beirut,” a new espionage movie starring John Hamm set in the 1980s, paints the capital of Lebanon out to be a war zone, but critics argue today’s Beirut is anything but. Many hail the city’s burgeoning tech and entrepreneurial scene as a catalyst for change. Publications such as Techcrunch, the BBC, and Fast Company look to the growing Digital District as proof of the country’s innovative ways of changing the narrative for today’s youth.
Yet Sara’s success stems from outside of this. She studied computer sciences at a university in Beirut, but calls the south of Lebanon, some several hours from the city, home. It’s where she was born, where she and her family returned to after spending her childhood in Germany, where she likes to get in her car and drive really fast when the solutions to her problems just won’t come.
Where she’s from, a career in technology — especially for a woman — is not the norm.
“I thought I was going to end up just like most of the girls and women in my area here, or in Lebanon in general. A lot of women usually go into teaching in schools and universities, so I thought, ‘OK, I’m probably going to end up teaching math to some class in school,’ which was completely boring and I didn’t want to do,” she said. “I spent the first year-and-a-half looking for something to do. I almost taught a mathematics and computers class in a school, but I quit an hour and a half later.”
Though she claims to have “never been much of a computer girl,” Sara had fallen for the web once before. In eighth grade, she took her first computer class and established a reputation for writing code and developing websites that went far beyond the basic lessons of the course.
“The second I saw HTML elements, like <p>, the body, and other basic elements, I felt like it was some sort of natural language. I instantly picked it up and I started creating projects that my teacher didn’t even request me to do. I got school-famous writing codes. I was the girl that did those really awesome website projects and nobody even knew how to do them because the course was very basic,” she said.
With a passion for learning, she borrowed books from her brother’s friends in college and began immersing herself in her studies, learning more than the teacher ever taught her. But as time went on, she moved away from this early talent. It wasn’t until after university when she was struggling to find a job that a friend suggested she reconsider her roots.
“I was extremely desperate, and there was a lot of pressure on me from everyone. Like, you have to do something, you need to work, you need to be a productive human being, you know? A friend of mine who also happened to be a web designer and web developer suggested that I get back into web development. He said, ‘You were really good with HTML when you were just very young, and you have a background in computer sciences, so why don’t you get into web development? It’s fun.’”
He agreed to start teaching her CSS from scratch, something she remembers took place specifically over the course of 10 lessons. She sought inspiration from sites like Codrops and before she knew it she was back in love with web development and web design.
“I was hooked,” Sara said. “I loved the idea of writing a bit of code and seeing something amazing come to life, something you could actually interact with and use.”
How UX development differs from UX design
She’s found her niche in the gap that exists between conventional front-end development and UX design. Although Sara has received some criticism for calling herself a “UX developer,” a term she says is admittedly controversial, for her it is the only title that makes sense for the way she bridges the two disciplines.
“UX developers, we build stuff. We don’t just design it, we build it, so it has the development part. Today’s developers especially have as big an impact on user experience as any designer,” she said. Her thoughts on the matter have captured the attention of many, having been invited to lead workshops at companies such as Netflix and, more recently, the Amsterdam Airport Schiphol.
“If there’s anything missing on the design part, as developers we fill it. I do a lot of communication between the UI and UX designers and the backend developer. I’m the communicator between these two because I’m literally building the part that is between the design versus the backend integration,” Sara said.
While she considers herself a “responsible developer” first, here’s where her understanding of UX comes into play when she’s working with her clients:
- Usability. Making sure the UI is usable for any user, regardless of context.
- Intent. Ensuring all UI interactions, animations, colors, contrasts, forms, error messages, and so on are accessible, and working with UX designers to incorporate these considerations into the design so she can build them. She also makes sure these assets are effective and have meaning for the user.
- Plugging in “invisible” features that are functional, but not visible. For example, coding it so screen readers skip to certain parts of the page. “I don’t need anyone’s permission to do that,” she said. “It’s my job as a UX developer.”
- Improving performance and page speed. “As a developer, it’s my job to think, ‘OK, how do I make this page load faster? What is the experience going to be like on a tethered mobile connection?’ Performance is part of the user experience,” she said. “If the website is very slow, the experience is going to be really bad.”
- Using semantic markup to ensure the designs are understandable to specific technologies.
Sara’s goal is to eventually move to becoming primarily a “UX designer-plus developer,” but right now she is happy doing both.
In the meantime, she’s focusing her creative energies on pursuing photography as a hobby. In fact, she took all the photos accompanying this article herself. Unlike in her career where she strives to find perfect solutions and has a tendency to say yes to too many opportunities, ultimately leading to the aforementioned burnout, photography is something that allows her to express herself freely and without restraint.
“I don’t need to be perfect at it. I don’t need to be number one. I just do it because I love it,” she said.
Soueidan’s advice to women: “Keep kicking ass”
Sara’s message for other women working in UX is simple: “Keep kicking ass!”
“There’s nothing more that expresses how I feel about this. If you love doing something, do it. Don’t let anyone stand in the way of it,” she said.
She also recommends being intentional with who you follow on social networks such as Twitter by avoiding negative and unsupportive people and communities. “Stay strong, learn the subtle art of the block button, and ignore any kind of negativity. Only follow the people that truly inspire you. Don’t follow people out of guilt. If you want to stay sane, you need to curate who you follow and curate the content that you see every day. Don’t focus on the negative stuff. Focus on the positive stuff.”
Being based in Lebanon and isolated from the greater development and design communities, Sara has found her communities largely online. These groups are out there and you just need to find them and be selective about the ones you choose.
“Find supporting communities where you know that other women are talking and encouraging each other, inspiring each other, talking about their work, teaching each other, and learning from each other. If you can join them, do that,” she said. “Support each other and you’ll find community. If you support someone, you’re going to find someone who’s going to reciprocate that. Just keep kicking ass. Do your best. Put it out there. Don’t let anyone bring you down.”