S2 Episode 17 with Ilya Benjamin

April 09, 2023 00:44:35
S2 Episode 17 with Ilya Benjamin
Disability Empowerment Now
S2 Episode 17 with Ilya Benjamin

Apr 09 2023 | 00:44:35

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Show Notes

Ilya Benjamin is the director of user experience for a medical company. Keith and Ilya have been friends and colleagues for a long time. Ilya worked in the CUNY School of Professional Studies Office of Disabilities while Keith pursued his degree. Ilya has a background in art education and design. Access the transcript of the […]

Disability Empowerment Now is produced by Pascal Albright

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Episode Transcript

Keith: Welcome to Disability Empowerment Now, Season 2. I'm your host, Keith Murfee-DeConcini. Today I'm talking with my very good friend, Ilya Benjamin, who is a Director of User Experience at a medical company. Ilya, welcome to the show. Ilya: Hey Keith. Thanks for having me. Keith: So our professional and personal friendship goes way back. You were assigned to me to be my note taker and tutor, I believe my first semester at CUNY SPS and then we eventually became friends throughout the years. Am I remembering that correctly, it all seems like a lifetime ago? Ilya: Yeah. Yeah. It does seem like a lifetime ago, so you're exactly right. I was working at CUNY SPS, School of Professional Studies. I was working in the Office of Disabilities. I was hired as an assistive technologist, working around, you know, initially working around technology and accessibility, which actually kind of sparked my interest to kind of pursue this further and yes, that's how we initially met when I was working there. Yeah. Keith: So when I knew you, you were studying to become an art therapist. Now you are a Director of User Experience for a medical company that will remain nameless. That is a big jump. What inspired that leap? Ilya: Well, it's a jump, but actually it's not a jump. Right? So, you know, my background was in graphic design and designing more, generally speaking, I was studying, you know, kind of art, art education, design, education. And I considered therapy because I thought that, you know, I wanted to make an impact and kind of do, you know, use my superpowers for good. But, you know, I started doing research when I was a graduate student at Columbia and I started to learn more about design and, you know, in order to be really competitive, I thought that it was really great that I already had sort of an attention to the importance of making, you know, designing things for everyone, right? So not just for a few people, but making sure that the things that I created were open for everyone to enjoy. And so that's the connection. Keith: So going back to CUNY, what intrigued you about working there in the disability resources or disability studies? I can't remember the name. I should, but it's a lifetime and a half ago, I swear. Ilya: Oh my God. Yeah. So CUNY was kind of crazy. I literally, I kind of landed face first into New York. I came from California and I was kind of bumbling around trying to find, I think I had like four jobs that I was working at the same time and then I got this opportunity at CUNY and it was really just working with Christopher Layton who was there and I forget what was her name? His boss at the time. Keith: Z. Ilya: Z. Yes. So, I just enjoyed working with them. I thought they were just really inspiring, very passionate people. I learned a ton from Chris.We used to go have coffee together right there on 34th, I think and like seventh. And we'd go and we'd go have coffee and we'd talk and he was, he was just someone I, you know, kind of admire just his own journey and his path to where he was. So it was a good, steady job, albeit part-time. It was a great job and I got to meet a lot of interesting people and I really enjoyed the students that I got to interact with. I think the first student I worked with was a graduate student who was actually completing her dissertation, and she was actually a blind woman, who was not born blind, but became blind later in life. And just working with her and learning a lot around about assisted technology like jaws and screen readers. It was just transformational for me at least. Just to see, you know, she was brilliant. She finished this PhD and I really just got the opportunity to kind of, you know, provide support but really tag along and learn. So that was really rewarding and then meeting you of course, you know, that was a rollercoaster and a lot of fun as well. Keith: Oh do tell! Do tell! Ilya: I was able to take notes in the classes, which made me feel like I was actually, you know, also taking classes and learning a lot about disability, medical models disability, just a lens that I'd never even considered before, and it just made me think like, you know, what do we mean by disability? If you put people in a proper context, then the disability sometimes actually turns into a superpower. I don't know. So this, and I guess that's the social model, right? The social model. I don't know. I just, I really enjoyed it. Keith: So the medical model of disability for listeners who don't know is essentially looking at disability as a medical problem that needs to be fixed by doctors and be something to get rid of through medical intervention, basically. The social model doesn't look at disability as the problem like the medical model does, but instead looks at the inaccessibility of the environment and culture around the disability and around the person with the disability as the problem or area that needs to be addressed rather than the disability itself. Now, when we first met, this next year it will be 10 years. Can you believe it? And I was only there for a year because originally I joined the program to just get a concentration graduate certificate, and then things picked up later on. How long did you work there? Ilya: I worked for CUNY for two years. I worked for exactly two years and then it was Z who recommended, she went to Columbia and she was like, oh, you might wanna go to Columbia. And I was like, okay, cool. And she was like, you can also stay and work for us but I kind of wanted to start something new. So I ended up leaving CUNY. But hindsight I wish I kind of stayed cause I really did enjoy it and I probably could have done both. Keith: So what sparked your interest in art therapy and becoming an art therapist? What was the genesis of that? Ilya: I know I wanted to do something art or creative related. I think my background, you know, so I have a fine arts background. I studied at the School of the Art Institute, things like that. And the kind of big hindrance there for me was that I wanted to do something creative, but I wanted to do something that I could actually earn a living for and actually make an impact. I had just kind of given up on the idea that I was gonna be Picasso Junior or the next Basia. So I was looking for something that was a little bit practical. I think, you know, again, just kind of my core values are around helping people, you know, helping people to succeed in whatever it is that they wanna do. That goal is, you know, you could see that in the work that I did with CUNY, which was basically helping students no matter where they were, reach whatever type of goals that they set for themselves. And so, that my role primarily was to be a champion, right? And provide that support. So I wanted to carry that over and then also, you know, make sure it was something that was creative. So when I went to Columbia, it was mostly, at first it was a lot of education classes about art and all that kind of stuff. And then I started to do some research and I learned more about how design and how the world is designed, which I think kind of feeds into this idea of like the social model around disability, right? Like how might we like change our environments and even the tools that we use in ways that will help everyone to reach whatever goal that they set for themselves. And I think that my current role, working as a UX designer, allows me to do all of those things, to help people achieve their goals in the products that I design. So the software, the digital products that I design, I also get to be creative, which was really important to me. And then also to kind of improve people's lives and design things that everyone can use, right? And so that's where I was able to tie in the work that I did around disabilities at CUNY into some of the work that I do now because, you know, accessibility is a major part in how we design digital products. We talk about A11Y, which it's just basically accessibility. It is such a long word. So the first letter of accessibility is A, and the last letter Y and there are 11 characters in between. So we often say A11Y to stand for accessibility in my line of work. Yeah, right. Everybody wants to abbreviate everything, but it is kind of a mouthful but basically there's a lot of attention, a lot of dedicated professionals that I work with who are all about this effort to, you know, make digital products more accessible, more easy for not just, you know, quote unquote people with disabilities, but really for everyone. A perfect example I think of is like subtitles. You know, subtitles probably were created for people who might not be able to hear or be, you know, who might identify as deaf. But you know, to be honest, I use subtitles because typically I'm multitasking and I'm trying to catch what's happening around me while I'm doing something else. So that's an example of how making something accessible can actually improve the experience for a lot of other people as well. Right? So it's just some of the things that we do and think about. Keith: So, how far along did you get in the program of Columbia and what was your first job or interest that deviated from that area of focus? The only reason why I keep coming back to it, is when we walked together, you were all about it. I mean I scarcely can remember someone else in my life with that level of passion, dedication, this is what I want to be, this is how I'd see my life going. And so I'm wondering what made you want to branch away from that and how did you eventually get to your current job? Ilya: I don't. It's funny, you know, how different people can remember similar types of experiences, right. I don't, I don't think I've ever, I don't even think now, like right now, so I've gone pretty far, right. I'm a quote unquote a director of whatever right, but I don't even think at this moment I'm clear a hundred percent of what I want to become or be or do for a living. I think I'm content where I am right now, right. And I think that, you know, when I met you, I wasn't in school. I think I went to graduate school precisely because I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do and I needed some additional clarity and just some space, which is what school provides, right. A lot of time for you to just kind of twiddle your thumbs or meander a little bit and ponder like, what would I like to do and explore. I think that's what I used school for, is like this opportunity to well, what could I do or what would I be interested in doing? So for me, Columbia was really just kind of tumbling around and trying to figure out what, I knew I wanted to do something creative, but I didn't know what that would look like. And I think, you know, I finished a program at Columbia. I got my degree from Columbia University, I got an education degree, so I got credentials. I can teach and I still teach. Actually I teach part-time, but, you know, for me it was really just, you know, Columbia's a research institution and that's really where I got to grow. So I got the opportunity to get a lot of support around research. From my research is where I discovered a company, a firm called IDL, and I was really inspired by the work that they were doing with design, kind of away from some of the more traditional ways that people think of design as just kind of a visual discipline. They were looking at design in terms of like the design of structuring or sort of designs of systems or designing environments, right. Going back to like the social model of disability. Like how do we design better environments where human beings can thrive? And I was really inspired by that work. And so then I went back to school actually. I went to Parsons and studied design formally and so I was a design major as an undergrad, but I dropped out of design school to pursue things like literature and language and German and all that stuff but I decided to re-enroll as a design student. And this time I stayed the course. I was an art school dropout but yeah, I was inspired to kind of state a course this time and I learned a lot about design as business and that felt like a sweet spot for me because it tied in my analytical thinking, my natural kind of strategic mind along with this idea of being creative and designing environments or experiences where humans can thrive. And so that became kind of the motif or the mantra that I was using as I was kind of moving along in my career, and you know, you'll talk to other people who work in, user experience or UX and they'll tell you similar things. They didn't go out looking for this job. Most of us come from all over the place. We have people who studied Opera or music who end up in this field. We have people who, you know, were in the military who somehow stumbled into, I mean, it's a very open, very generous discipline that is really accommodating to a lot of different perspectives and where people come from because all of those experiences are, you know, like valuable. And help us to kind of derive empathy for people in particular contexts. So, yeah, so I don't think I'm unusual in that sense. I think that my discipline kind of allows for people to come from a lot of different interdisciplinary backgrounds. And so, yeah. Keith: So since you work for a medical company and your job with your colleagues seems to be very empathetic, does the medical model, the rehabilitation model, which is very very similar to the medical model, and what you do in UX, which is more the social model, do they ever clash or do they intersect, or am I just overthinking it because you work for a medical company. Ilya: That's really fascinating. I've never really considered that. I wonder, I think I'm gonna become more observant about where those intersections are and whether they do clash. So I don't work for a medical company per se. I work for a firm and I kind of work predominantly in the healthcare space. So I work generally in the healthcare space and that ranges from kind of biotech all the way to pharmaceuticals, all the way to, you know, so, you know, with insurance providers, and just generally kind of specialize in the medical space? Yeah, that's a really good question. I wonder. I think that, you know, kind of the core of what I do is all about understanding who the people are that are using the product or service that I'm designing or creating for and there is a kind of posture of non-judgment, right, of just accepting it as it is. Like if I'm designing for, you know, a clown for example, who entertains sick kids at a hospital, it's not really about what I think about that person, it's more about can I empathize with them enough to be able to design something that will make their lives easier. So I'm not really thinking of it in terms of like, you know, oh this is healthcare therefore they must have some kind of preconceived notion of how to treat people or patients. I'm thinking more of, so like, you know, if I'm working on a patient side, like how can I make their experience better? Like it's a pain in the butt, right? To be able to figure out how insurance works and like, who am I supposed to pay? What's my copay, what's my, you know, co-insurance. Like, that's like crazy. So how can I make that easier for that person? If I'm working on, you know, the other side of it, if it's a doctor trying to make a decision around prescribing a particular drug, right? Like how can I make it easier for them to understand the efficacy of that drug and, and whether it's, you know, actually helps people or you know, how can I make them make that experience better so that people get what they need? So it's not really up for me to determine whether it's good or bad necessarily. It's more about understanding what is, accepting what reality is, and trying to ease pain points in a way that makes everyone's life a little bit more tolerable. I don't know. That sounds really bleak, but that's not what I mean. They say better. How about that? Better? Yeah. Keith: Yeah. So at the top I'd said you worked for a medical company, but you just said you work for a firm in healthcare. Could you differentiate the two for the listeners and I? Ilya: And I guess in my head when I hear you work for a medical company, I'm thinking you work for like, specifically for a company that produces kind of like either medical technology or medical equipment or like works you know, even for like a hospital. That's in my head, that's how I interpret medical companies, I'm like, oh, they work for a medical company. It must be this medicine-y thingy. I think for me I like to say I work in a life science and healthcare space. I think that's just kind of like, what it's known more so in like an industry context. So I guess I'm more comfortable hearing it that way because that way it's more encompassing of all kinds of things. Not just like one type of thing. So it could very well be like a medical, like product, you know what I mean? But it could also be like, you know, how can I help people better understand their copay? You know what I mean? Like, so it kinda encompasses like anything in that realm I think better. Keith: And it sounds from listening to you that UX, user experience, encompasses the whole gamut of different experiences throughout the healthcare firm that both patients and doctors have? Ilya: It can, I think user experience encompasses like any experience that when you're trying to better understand how people interact with their technology, right? So I happen to like specializing, you know, I'm pursuing this specialization in this healthcare space, but obviously there are UX professionals everywhere, right? There are people who are working in big tech, right? So, you know, the big tech companies like Google and Amazon, they hire UX professionals, right? Or like, you know, there's a UX person who probably designed like, you know, government sites and make sure that the government portals work when people are applying for benefits and support and services. So, UX, you know, you can find a UX person anywhere there's any type of technology, right? Because our job is to help to improve the relationship between people and their devices and their interfaces that they work with, right? Keith: Indeed. So you mentioned that this job for you right now is where you feel comfortable for right now. Ilya: I mean, I feel comfortable, not the job, right? But I'm talking about my role as working as a director or working in the space or leader of UX design. I think right now, you know, I feel satisfied by what I do. I feel, you know, inspired to go to work every day. I enjoy what I do. I recognize my impact and that's good, but I'm not opposed to exploring other types, like expanding spaces. I think when you work in technology, it's important to just adopt a mindset of just continuing learning. Like, I'll always continue to learn and grow and kind of allow where we are and what's happening in the space to determine where I'm gonna be most impactful. Keith: So what are the next five years like for you professionally if you could choose the hashtag ideal job or Ilya, user experience for yourself? Ilya: I think in the next five years, I would love to, you know, continue to, you know, improve my work life integration. Right. I think in the next five years I would like to continue to, you know, drive change in our healthcare system. I think healthcare in the United States is very complex and definitely can, you know, could be better for a lot of people. So I would love to continue to make an impact in that space. I would love to, you know, continue to work on my leadership skills to continue to hone my craft in five years. Like, yeah, definitely those are some things that I'm constantly working on. I don't think you can ever kind of work too much on being a good leader. So yeah, I definitely have some goals in terms of just developing and becoming just a better overall practitioner coach and leader. As far as where I'm gonna be, like, you know, who knows, right? Keith: Talk about a work integration, a work life integration as you just mentioned. Like architects because of what they do, they look at building structure, particularly the external building structure differently than a lot of other people look. Is there any part of your job or the fact that you work in healthcare that makes you notice things in your everyday life apart from work that a person like me who doesn't work in healthcare, would not particularly notice. Ilya: I think the role of a UX practitioner in general, I think the large part of our job as professionals is noticing, I think that's one of the, the big skill sets, right? You know, number one would be empathy, being able to, you know, step into someone else's shoes and try to see what that might be like. I think number two would be noticing, and I think a large part of what I do from day, you know, day to day is observing, noticing, making observations, aggregating that, and then, you know, coming up with some type of insight that's gonna push us forward to the next, you know, the next iteration or the next phase of the project. I think obviously, you know, when you work in any type of space and you develop a deep kind of, you know, kind of expertise in a particular field you start to see kind of overlaps and things like that. I wouldn't say that I'm an expert in this space. I think I've just kind of landed in this space and only recently I've probably made the decision that this is a space that I want to continue to grow. So, you know, I think give it some time. You ask me what I'll be doing in five to ten years, maybe in five years I'll have more insights into, you know, what healthcare looks like across these different spaces but I'm really just kind of at the beginning of this. Keith: What are some of the most rewarding things for your parts of your job in healthcare and what are some of the most challenging that people may not know or appreciate? Ilya: I think some of the most rewarding, I wouldn't just say in healthcare, but just as for what I do for work is my team. I think my team energizes me. I enjoy just, you know, the banter and sometimes the venting sessions that kind of comes up when we're just kind of in the thick of something, of a problem that we're trying to, you know, come up with a good solution to. So, you know, and the team energizes me. The types of problems that I solve energize me. Knowing that, you know, the type of work that I do matters is really important to me and I think that's, that's really good. Like I always used to tell my students, you know, when we're working in UX they say, hey, we're not curing cancer. But I think working in healthcare is probably the closest thing to that type of impact. Right. As for me, as a designer, as a digital designer as far as like, what was the second part? Like the sucky parts of working? Keith: The challenges. Ilya: Challenges, that's a better word than sucky. You're right. So as far as the challenges, I'd say, you know, challenges to UX more generally speaking are, you know, constantly having to articulate or explain the value of the work that you do. You're constantly having to kind of provide metrics and, and explain like the return on, you know, hey, let's get a few users to kind of test this thing out before we release it into the wild and sometimes you get pushback, like, we don't have time for that. You know, time is money, da da, da. So that's a challenge in general with the profession. I think specifically with healthcare, rules, rules, rules. I think the first healthcare project I ever took on, I was just. Keith: Wait I didn’t get that, did you say rules? Ilya: The rules. Rules. There's tons of rules. Yeah. Lots of, it's a highly, highly regulated industry. So, you know, it takes a certain type of person to be able to kind of navigate that and to be able to kind of push some of the innovation that you see out here in that space. I mean, it really takes a roto-rooter to get that going. I think that, you know, with creativity, having those types of constraints actually help you become more creative, right? So when you have to kind of come up with a solution with both hands tied behind your back, I think that it actually stretches those creative muscles and so in that way it's a challenge, but I also find it to be incredibly rewarding. Keith: If there are any listeners who are just starting out and inspiring to be self-advocates or advocates for people with disabilities, what of three to five steps or action points that you would give them? Ilya: I would say start where you are. I think a lot of time people, it comes to any type of advocacy, people are waiting for some grand moment where they get to stand up in front of a million people and like, you know, at a podium somewhere. And those moments are like, you know, rare. There are few and far in between. I think start wherever you are. So in my work, you know, I work in technology and the way that I'm able to advocate for people with disabilities is through, you know, trying to make the software that we produce become more and more accessible right, and I think that, you know, for everyone, you know, just wherever you are, there's opportunities to think about to, you know, have empathy. Think about how to make different experiences and opportunities more accessible and inclusive for everyone, not just a few. So that would be my first, second and third tip, I guess, is just start where you are. Keith: So how big is your team in, I know you work in technology, is that all that user experience is, or is it multifaceted? Ilya: User experience is the entire like journey from that a user has with any type of product or service. So it could be literally, you know, the website or interface that you're engaging with, but it's also thinking about the entire experience, you know what I mean? So, yeah, I guess it's big and small at the same time. Keith: So I would like to think that this podcast can and does reach listeners with disabilities who may be advocates and also listeners who have yet to discover their own disabilities. As my guest, what do you hope that listeners with disabilities would take away from this conversation and what do you hope listeners who have yet to discover their own disabilities would take away from this conversation? Ilya: For people with disabilities. I guess the big takeaway I would like for people to get is that one, there are a lot of people who have disabilities and who don't have disabilities, who empathize with the social model of disability and are working really hard to make the, you know, make a lot of different experiences accessible to all people. The second thing I would want people with disabilities to take away from this is, you know, the space that I work in as a UX designer, we are constantly looking for people who identify as having a disability to actually join our ranks and to work alongside us so that we can better understand and have more empathy as we build digital experiences and products. So I guess the big takeaway is that this is an inclusive discipline and that, you know, we actually, you know, I will speak for myself. I encourage all people to kind of do their due diligence, research this field, and there's tons of opportunity. And then what's the big takeaway for, what's the other group you said? Keith: People who have yet to discover their own disabilities? Ilya: People who have, yeah. So yeah, I mean, I know, you know, the concepts like universal design I think are really important, right? This idea that, you know, when we design for accessibility, we're not just thinking of, you know, the millions and millions of people who have disabilities we're thinking of permanent disabilities. We're also thinking about people with temporary disabilities, right? For example, being pregnant might change the way you interact or your experience might change or are holding a child, for example, which could change the way you might interact with technology. Right? Or if I fell down a flight of stairs right now and I broke my leg, right? So, you know, at some point, you know, every person will experience some type of, you know, a limit to their abilities or a change in their abilities, right? And so I think, you know, having an open mindset, being empathetic and thinking universally, how can we create experiences, not just digital or technological experiences, but just interaction, human interactions? Something we often forget about, people also interact right and create experiences together. How can we be more inclusive in our thinking? How can we create moments that allow everyone to participate more? Keith: So when you were looking up what UX was, where did you go to really find out and research this field. If a listener wanted to reach out and figure out if this experience, this field, this job was for them, where would you direct them to learn more? Ilya: I think I would direct them to Google or even chat GPT at this point. Right. I think it's ubiquitous at this point. I think everyone is aware of it. A lot of people are aware of it. There's tons of articles written about it. Not like when I started, it was kind of like not so much and, you know. Keith: I can't believe I forgot to ask, when did you start? Ilya: So I've been doing this work for a very long time like I said, I started out as a graphic designer and from graphic design, I did web design and then from web design, you know, kind of webmaster work, I started to transition into more digital works around applications and from there, you know, so it's been a long time and a kind of progressive journey. Something that I've always had kind of one foot in and then the second piece that I've always done is teach. So that was my second thing and I actually teach part-time currently in a bootcamp where we train UX designers and it's called, it's changed names like three or four times. So I don't even know right now, but there's tons of bootcamps out there. There's also classes, I think universities now have courses for it, so it's not some obscure thing as it was back like, you know, a decade or over a decade ago when I started. It's something that's pretty ubiquitous at this time. I will say that it's often misunderstood and that's something you want to just think about before you kind of jump head first into it, just kind of maybe get some internship or some experience that way and see if it's really the thing for you though. Keith: Why do you think it's misunderstood if it's written about so much nowadays, then it was ten plus years ago? Ilya: I think this is gonna open up a whole can of worms and might not be appropriate for this forum. But I'll just say like, you know, yeah, I totally forgot what I was gonna say about that. I just think it would just open up a whole can of worms about it. I will say, oh, that's what I was gonna say. I will say that it's, you know, just like every other field, like UX is a very kind of relatively new field and like every field that's involved in technology, these things are evolving and changing and what, you know, what they mean changes, so, you know, it's just part of the ebb and flow of like growth. Keith: Well, Ilya, thank you so much for coming on this podcast and sharing everything about UX and why accessibility and empathy are core values of a very important part of the healthcare experience, and it's great to get back in touch and it sounds like you're doing great things. So I hope you come back and update us on the evolution of UX experience because I learned about it from you, I had no idea. So I hope that some listeners are like the host and learn a lot of, if not, totally new concepts. So thank you once again my friend. Ilya: Thank you too. This was great. Appreciate it. Keith: Thanks. Bye. Keith: You have been listening to Disability Empowerment Now. I would like to thank my guest, You, our listener and the Disability Empowerment Team that made this episode possible. More information about the podcast can be found at DisabilityEmpowermentNow.com or on social media @disabilityempowermentnow. The podcast is available wherever you listen to podcasts or on the official website. Don’t forget to rate, comment, and share the podcast! This episode of Disability Empowerment Now is copyrighted 2023.

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