Did you know that a love of art and graphic design could lead to a rewarding career in the software industry?
Ruth Ross-Macdonald is a graphic designer turned software UX designer, who’s just been promoted to Head of Product at fast-growing Cornwall-based software company Colateral.
We asked Ruth about what it means to be Head of Product for a software company, and why a background in design makes you ideally placed to become one.
Ruth, could you tell us a bit about Colateral and what it does?
We make cloud-based software that helps retail companies to manage in-store promotions more efficiently.
Store managers use Colateral to understand what signage they need to put where in the store, and they can also use it to report any problems to head office. And head office uses it to make sure they’re sending the right signage to the stores, and that the stores are putting it up properly.
It helps with eco-efficiency because there’s less waste. Often, head office send out promotional materials without knowing how big each store is, or how it’s laid out. So store managers often have to throw stuff away or put it in storage, because they can’t use it. Colateral makes sure that doesn’t happen.
You’re head of product for Colateral – what does that involve?
The first part is to create the product strategy, which means deciding on our vision for the product and how we will achieve it. To do that, I work with the managing director, the client services team, the development team and the design team.
I sit in the middle of everyone, holding workshops to decide how we’re going to develop the product. Once that’s decided, I then communicate that strategy to everyone. At every stage I’m asking and answering a lot of questions. It’s a bit like being an investigator: you have to ask a lot of questions and build up a lot of knowledge before you can make the right decision.
After that, I make sure we’re building the product in the right way. That means making sure it’s designed well, that it works well, and that it does what our customers need it to do. Coming up with solutions that tick all those boxes is very complex, but that’s what I love about the job.
Have you always worked in the software industry?
No, but I’ve always worked in design. I studied graphic design at university, and I really wanted to work with packaging. I fell in love with Design Bridge, one of the best packaging design agencies in the world. I managed to get a placement, which turned into a job offer, and I sold everything I had and moved to London to work there.
I had to move back to Cornwall for family reasons, and I started a branding design company with an old university friend. We did work for companies like the Meat Counter in Falmouth and Enjoy Clothing in Truro. After that I worked in a design agency for a while, and spent some time doing interior design.
I’d done some work for Dorian, the founder of Colateral, along the way, and when he asked me to come and work full-time at Colateral, I was keen for a new challenge. I started last year as lead UX designer, and a few weeks ago I was promoted to Head of Product.
What first made you want to be a designer?
At school I was always good at art and design, and I got good grades, so I chose to do graphic design at university. But I wasn't sure what I wanted to do as a job. I really struggled through my second year to visualise what my future was going to look like.
I got a packaging design brief in my third year, and the pieces just fell into place. I realised that what I really love is seeing an idea through into a physical thing that people can touch and interact with.
It made sense because when I was a kid, I always liked gift packaging. When I first learned how to make a box out of a piece of paper, I used to make all sorts of different ones, and I was always decorating them.
Do you feel the same about software, even though it’s not a physical object?
Yes, because it’s still about the user experience. Design is about making someone feel a certain way about the product they’re using. With software, the user opens the application, they interact with it, they try to get the job done that they wanted to do.
As software developers, it really matters where we place stuff on the screen, because we want people to be able to complete the job easily. We want them to feel happy and productive while they're using Colateral. It’s about bringing an understanding of human needs into the product.
Do you need to be quite techy to be Head of Product at a software company?
Not really. It’s the developers who write the code, but if they don't have an understanding of the user, they can sometimes over-complicate stuff. That’s why software needs a person who bridges the gap between the customer, the business, the design and the code – and that’s my job.
If you don't bridge that gap, you end up with a product that people can’t use because they can’t figure out how to do the thing they want. Or it might look beautiful but under the surface it doesn’t actually work.
Do you have any advice for girls thinking about what they might like to do as a career?
I think it’s important to experiment and find what you love. You don’t have to have just one hobby, or be good at just one thing, you don’t even have to be good at the things you try. It’s important to just give things a go. You might not realise at the time, but you’ll learn from everything that you do.
If you focus on the things you really enjoy doing, then one day that could become your job. As a kid I loved making boxes and doing bubble writing. I never knew I would end up making a career out of it!
And any advice for parents who want to support their daughters?
Definitely feed their curiosity. I had my daughter when I was still at university, so she was integral to my own career journey. I've always taken her with me to places I wanted to go – art galleries, design museums, out photographing the sunset, even to work.
I'll never forget the first time I took her to the Tate Gallery in London. She was six, and she was fascinated. She was asking questions about the paintings – what they are and what they mean. I think it's really important to feed a child’s curiosity.
At the same time it's important to focus on what they enjoy and not try to drive them. Instead, reinforce the idea that they can do anything that they put their mind to, and become any person that they want to be.