Smarter than her computer and able to manage the biggest projects in a single bound, Sarah Blecher is a true digital superhero. She wrestles complex site architectures to the ground, empowering strategic thinking to dominate chaotic bureaucracy, ultimately helping clients understand not only the "how" but also the "why." Sarah leads a team of digital UX/UI designers who are responsible for both strategic insights and unique user experiences. Her significant industry experience, professional insights and infectious creative drive foster strong relationships with clients and is a cornerstone of Digital Pulp's mission and philosophy.
Sarah holds a BFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. Before joining Digital Pulp, she was Senior Producer at Ogilvy.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
For as long as I can remember, I've always cared about people and doing things efficiently. As a highly organized person, I realized very early on that if things went according to plan, everyone was happy. Little did I know that exact desire - to organize and orchestrate things to make people happy - would be at the heart of the UX work I do now.
I also played sports as a young girl and learned the lessons of discipline, hard work and how to get along with other competitive people. But the most important lesson I learned was the critical need to see what's happening around you and make decisions based on that information quickly. When coming down the basketball court, you only have a moment to understand where your opportunities are and decide what you're going to do next. There's no overthinking, you just do. The ability to not overthink but just "do" has been a big part of shaping who I am as a leader.
How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Digital Pulp?
I spent my early years at Ogilvy, a very large traditional advertising agency. I learned a great deal about what a brand really is, how consumer messages are crafted, what design can do to create desire and how all this creative thinking and execution is rolled out seamlessly across the world. What an experience!
I also learned that large organizations are hard. There are so many people involved, and many things get worked out behind closed doors. Meetings are often not the place to get work done, but places to create a perception of what's being done and by whom. When a problem is expressed, you can't just answer it. You need to understand who is in the room and how your solution will affect them. It gets complicated. For a wide-eyed, ambitious and young version of myself who just wanted to make great work, I found that environment to be difficult at times. So I eventually found a new agency, Digital Pulp, where I could do the same caliber of work without the politics and spend my time doing what I love.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Digital Pulp?
There have been business challenges for sure. The dot com bust was the big one. Many agencies closed their doors, but we made it through - and much of the reason for that is because our process has always been driven by strategic insight and an understanding that the people we were targeting were going through an emotional brand experience at every digital interaction. Where others doubted the power of digital in the early days, our clients saw an opportunity in our approach to reach their truth and translate it into one powerful, beautiful and simple digital experience for people. Still, those were hard times, and luckily, the Internet has come back in spades. Digital solutions are now even more central to every business today. But that kind of experience stays with you.
UX has also changed a lot. Fifteen years ago, the discipline wasn't anything like what it is today. Technology was so limited that the role focused mostly on content development and organization. But as the frontend has become more sophisticated with HTML5 and responsive design, UX has transformed from simple content organization into full-fledged product design. It's a challenge, for sure, but the challenge is probably why I still love what I'm doing. UX and I have grown up together, you might say.
What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
UX has turned into an incredibly complicated field filled with specialties. There's research and user study, strategic planning, content development, site and application architecture, and interface design. Depending on the project, you'll need to provide solutions for some or all of these areas. Figuring out which part you like most is important to a happy future.
Are you a social scientist at heart who wants to know what people like to do and why? Do you like editorializing content and dreaming up stories that can be presented and merchandised on these sites? Are you more of an organizer and want to work through where every piece of content lives or every step a person will go through to accomplish a task? Do you love art and want to spend hours fine-tuning how a specific interface element reveals more on hover and click?
Thinking about where you want to focus between content, organization and design will guide you to the right working environment for you. There's nothing a creative person gets more frustrated by then spending hours in the weeds of a process. There's nothing a process person dislikes more than being held back by fluffy design ideas. If you love all of these areas equally, then the UX world is a good place for you.
What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
It's not enough to be smart. You need experience. When a problem presents itself, any team will jump in and start solving it; but without experience, many paths will emerge and all will seem equal. With experience, you can see where to focus quickly, and that's when great work happens. Experience allows you to spend all of your limited time on the right path. So put yourself in as many situations as you can. The more kinds of projects you can work on, the more solutions you'll see and the faster you'll be able to solve the next problem.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I don't think balance exists. Or at least I've not found it. I've tried what seems like every possible way. After having my two kids, I worked 3 days and then 4 days a week. I ended up missing critical collaboration time at work. Then I went to 5 days with two of those days from home. The days at home were frustrating. Five-minute work conversations ended up taking a half hour, and interruptions seemed to come from every place. And for some reason, there was an expectation to run extra errands after work. I was tired and unhappy. So I sat down with myself (yes, me!) and thought about what I'm good at and what I want to do. I love my kids. But I didn't love the daily grind of feeding, clothing, washing and errands. I love playing with them, taking them places, teaching them things, making legos in the morning and tucking them in at night. So I do work and just that.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
The biggest issue I see for women is having the confidence to speak up in a room full of people. Over the years, I've realized that initially no one knows who is smart but after working together for a few weeks it is clear where everyone stands on intellect, experience and ability to get things done. If you're not speaking up because you're afraid to be wrong, everyone is going to find out anyway. So what does it matter? Don't wait. Say what you're thinking out loud. At first, it'll be junior and unpolished. But before you know it, you'll start seeing heads nod and things will get done. And if you can get things done, the workplace will reward you.
In my mind, there is no downside to speaking up. Watch how your bosses speak and present themselves. Watch how public leaders speak. Learn from them both, always remembering that they didn't sound like that out of the gate either.
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
While I haven't had a specific mentor, I have spent lots of time learning from the people around me. When you spend time listening, it's amazing to learn how people explore the "whys" of human behavior, create new UX patterns, conceptualize a design, think about new uses for frontend technology, tailor important presentations, decide where to focus business resources and figure out how best to navigate an employee issue. I've learned a great deal by just watching how other people work, asking questions and incorporating how they see the world, approach problems and handle challenging situations into what I do. It's a wonderful way to get a lot of experience without going through all the hard work yourself.
Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I wish it was a female prime minister or someone of similar importance, but at this moment I'd have to say a comedian, Amy Poehler. She's not perfect, but she is fearless. I read her book recently, and she includes a story where she was telling some pretty disgusting jokes. One of her male SNL cast mates told her to stop, because it wasn't ladylike. She got up and said she didn't give a crap what he thought. Holy cow! I'm no proponent for yelling at someone, but he put her in a box, and she refused to accept that box. I don't like boxes either.
What do you want Digital Pulp to accomplish in the next year?
We've always been incredibly strong in UX, design and technology, but the world is constantly changing. Primary browsing is happening on mobile devices of all shapes and sizes, and new, more personal formats like the AppleWatch come out every year. We'll be pushing our teams, working even more seamlessly together with technology represented very early in the ideation phase. We'll be looking at new, more modular approaches to UX that allow our larger clients to flex and change as their businesses demand after the initial launch. We'll definitely see design moving away from layout towards complex, multilayer, experiential solutions that allow the site to truly wrap around the user. And just like last year, I'm ready to work.
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