Growing up in Washington D.C., Dida Atassi always imagined a career in government lay ahead of her. And when she left university, it was starting to look that way – her first job was writing content for the United States’ embassies websites. It was the early 2000s and she and her team soon found themselves trying to untangle the difference in the way readers engaged with words on a printed page versus the screen. The thread she pulled led her to visual layout, to interaction design, to the burgeoning field of user experience and digital design. As the field matured, people’s comfort levels and behaviours evolved too, drawing Dida in further.
In 2013, Dida moved to Dubai, first working at Flip before moving to Accenture Interactive’s Fjord. In 2018, she became Accenture Interactive Middle East’s design director and it’s a role that Dida relishes. At a time when countries like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are undergoing national-level transformations, readying themselves for a science and tech-driven post-oil future, businesses are realising the importance of holistic experience design and transformation.
LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Dida to find out more about her adventures in design.
LBB> You were recently on the Design Lions jury at Cannes – how was that experience?
Dida> It was amazing. This was a really interesting year because the festival didn’t happen last year so we were judging two years’ worth of entries. You could see the difference in the entries, pre-pandemic and post-pandemic. You really start to understand that people’s priorities and behaviours have changed.
The things that we saw that were really meaningful were the projects that combined purpose with design, innovation, technology and whose ultimate output resonated with people’s belief structure. The winners combined multiple design disciplines, were really purpose-driven in terms of social change and their impact on the earth or human behaviour.
LBB> Your background is in digital design, which puts people at the centre of experiences and products. It’s something the industry has long talked about, but it feels like Covid-19 really forced people to embrace that with some urgency.
Dida> Absolutely. There’s a difference between putting someone at the centre of a specific product or service, and putting people at the centre of the end-to-end experience. Every interaction. Every touchpoint. Every product and service that you sell needs to have that. You can’t do one cool thing that’s human-centric and then that person calls and tries to get through to customer service and it’s crap. That’s what we’ve been trying to tell clients in the region. You need to look at the whole experience not just one-off projects in terms of usability and UX.
LBB> So going back, I’m curious about the journey that you’ve been on in your career. How did you get into digital design in the first place?
Dida> I’m shocked when I think back and realise that I’ve been in this field for 18 years. At university, I studied journalism and international affairs. I was born and raised in Washington DC, so my whole life I thought I was going to be a diplomat or working for the federal government or doing something in political science. The core of these fields is ultimately communication, so I majored in broadcast journalism, which is bizarre to me now.
When I graduated in 2003, digital jobs were starting to become more prevalent. My first job was writing content for the US Embassy websites. It was a newsfeed that US embassies were publishing, and it was related to journalism. We thought, ‘wait a second, when you read something on paper, it’s different than when you read something on screen. So, the question was, how do we write for a web audience… and that naturally translated into digital user experience.
LBB> And as you progressed in your career, did you receive any pieces of advice that helped you on your journey?
Dida> I didn’t really have a specific piece of advice I can point to, but I have had people who were role models and mentors. You just find that person that you naturally get along with. I’ve been lucky enough in every stage of my career and even now I have some really great people that provide me with advice. I learn from them every single day. Accenture, as a big company, has people from so many different backgrounds and skill sets. You will always be learning something.
LBB> What aspects of design do you get really nerdy about personally?
Dida> I’m a digital product designer so I love digital products and services. If you come to me and want to design a new app for a car sharing service, I’d be like, ‘yeah! Let’s do it!’ On the Cannes jury, everyone had a different design speciality. My thing was digital, so I had to hold my hand up several times to say, ‘this is a great idea, but the digital execution is terrible’. I’m super nerdy about all things digital, specifically digital products and service design.
LBB> So one question that really interests me in design fields that use a lot of data is the idea of creative differentiation when data might point everyone in the same direction, leading competitors to resemble one another. What are your thoughts on that?
Dida> The worst thing you can do in design is to make a cookie cutter design, a one-size-fits-all approach. The data might stay relatively stable for some things, but it generally changes over time. So, for example, here in the UAE, we have an incredible culture; our expat population is 90% and our local Emirati population is 10%. You have people from Asian backgrounds, European backgrounds and Arab backgrounds. We have to cater to all of those different people, who hold different belief sets, come from different education levels. I always say to my team and clients that you cannot design a one-size-fits-all approach; you have to adapt to your audience and your market and all the cultural contexts that come with that.
We have a high population that speaks Arabic, we’ve a high proportion of the population that speaks Hindi and Urdu. We need to make those languages available, otherwise people aren’t going to be able to use their services.
LBB> That’s fascinating. How can different languages influence how we read a page or image, for example if you have a right-to-left writing system or left-to-right?
Dida> With Arabic it’s very difficult because we initially thought we could just take the English layout and flip it, and we had lots of problems. It doesn’t make sense when you flip the design, you have to take into account the language, the culture and everything to make the layout engaging for that type of reader.
We just finished doing that for one of our clients, a telecommunications client. We’ve designed the project five different times, so that everyone gets an experience that’s tailored to them.
LBB> What’s going on at the moment in digital design that’s getting you particularly excited?
Dida> We used to design things in isolation, and that still sometimes happens, but what I’m getting excited about is telling clients to look at the whole ecosystem. We’re not just designing one product or one service. We need to look outward at the customer but also internally within the organisation. Where are the organisational or technological changes to the infrastructure that would help us to deliver an experience in the best possible way. I’m super excited that I’m not just talking about a product or a specific design, but the whole thing. What happens online, what happens offline, what happens in the backend, what happens on the customer-facing side.
LBB> So you’re based in Dubai and you’ve been there for quite a while – what brought you there?
Dida> It’s related to my husband. I met him one summer, through friends and he was actually living in Dubai at the time. I had actually wanted to live here – my aunt lived here and 2008 was a real turning point for Dubai. The Burj Khalifa was coming up and they were doing all these crazy things, dredging up the sand to build The Palm island, where I live now. So, when my husband and I got married, I was super happy to move here. That was the end of 2013.
I don’t think a city has ever changed as much as the city of Dubai. There are constant advancements. I saw a drone delivering a Starbucks to someone on the beach. There’s a whole city in Abu Dhabi that runs on autonomous vehicles. It’s called Masdar City and it’s just unbelievable.
LBB>Whenever I speak to people living and working in Dubai, that unrestrained ambition and optimism seems to infect everyday work. For example, I saw the activities around the recent Mars probe and everyone seemed to really get behind it and were inspired by it.
Dida> It’s like a designer’s dream playground. There’s an amazing piece of architecture literally outside my house. It’s a tall building on The Palm; you can go to the top and see the view, but it’s built at an angle, so it feels like you’re standing on glass and there’s nothing below you. It’s a little scary! Even the architecture here is inspiring.
LBB> And it seems that in recent years, there’s been more of a concerted effort to nurture a design and creative scene. Is that something you’ve noticed?
Dida> It is. In 2014, what most of the agencies were doing was importuning designers from other offices around the world and bringing them to Dubai. Now we’re organically growing designers here, taking students that have graduated from the American University of Sharjah and creating a design base in the UAE. That was started by seeding designers from other countries and now it’s homegrown. It’s amazing.
LBB> In terms of work, it seems that Dubai is doing a lot of interesting projects around technology, experience, activation. What do you make of that?
Dida> I’d like to think we’re at the forefront. I’d like to think there’s some interesting ideas here. The UAE was one of the top recipient countries at The One Show this year and I’m really proud of that. I really think that there’s something to be said for that because the work coming out of this region is relevant. We’re not producing great work because we want to keep up with the West, we’re doing great work for this part of the world and for audiences here. I think that’s really cool and a lot of big brands here are starting to realise they can’t just come here and do what they do elsewhere. They need to adapt a little bit, culturally, and understand the audience.
LBB> What’s the appetite among clients for what you do in the region?
Dida> We have regional clients and we have local clients across all industries: across financial services telecommunications and entertainment and everything. I've seen the progression in working with clients because back in 2014 we struggled to explain what service design is. People love the buzzwords but didn't really understand what it meant and why they should buy this from us. All I was doing was just explaining and educating.
Now I think we've reached a level where we all understand it, we know what's needed, and it's about how we get there. I present to C-levels a lot and we talk about what needs to change internally in their organisations, what changes are needed to adapt to the market. So, we've come a long way for sure.
LBB> Externally, it seems that, at least there’s a lot of ambition about being ready for the post-oil future in places like the UAE and Saudi. How does that translate to the attitudes of business regarding experience and transformation?
Dida> It's twofold, right? A positive attitude and a can-do attitude are always helpful, but sometimes it comes with unrealistic expectations on timelines. If you want to do something right, you really have to follow every step of the process because if you skip a couple steps here and there just to make things shorter and go live, you might not end up with the output that you had intended.
Design takes time. If you give me a brief, I'm not immediately going to put my pen to paper and start designing it for you. I first need to really understand the context; I need to understand people; I need to do some benchmarking; I need to look at what's happening locally and what's happening globally. All of that has to happen before I can put pen to paper and actually start designing. So, we love this can-do attitude but with caution, we need to follow all the right steps to get there.
LBB> So despite being immersed in the world of digital, you're still a fan of good old fashioned pen and paper designing?
Dida> I love pens and papers and notebooks. It's still a perfectly great method to get your idea down quickly. Now working remotely, I’ll draw something out, and I take a picture of it, and I send it via chat to the client on Teams, if I want to validate something. We actually teach that as a method, we teach paper prototyping as a design method. So, sketching and paper prototyping are a very valid method of design. And very useful.
LBB> As you moved into leadership, how did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be?
Dida> I don’t know, it comes naturally to me. I like people. I often get feedback from colleagues saying I’m really empathetic. I look at things from other people’s points of view and I think that’s helped me become this leader that looks at our people first instead of whether we are making money on an account.
I think I’ve become more empathetic now that I’ve had two little kids. But I’ve always aspired to come up with great ideas to inspire teams to give the overall direction for design and ultimately bridge that relationship between agency and client, and also between the client and their consumers.
Now there’s a whole generation of people who are way better at designing and tools have evolved so much in the last five years. We have experts on the team, and that’s really great. That cycle will always continue – you’ll always have people come in that are a little bit better at something, especially the tools and technology. I like to see myself as an empathetic design leader who’s really passionate about people. Whether they’re our team, my colleagues or the client or end user.
LBB> And thinking of people at the beginning of their career, what advice would you give them for navigating this constantly changing field?
Dida> There's a couple of things. First, I would say read as much as you can. Reading really gets you a long way. If you spend 40 hours a week at work, I would honestly block out an extra five hours a week to spend on your own personal development. That can be reading blogs, learning what other people have to say, watching some speeches, looking at the award shows. That kind of thing gets you so far. Somebody told me that actually many years back and I really took it to heart, and I really think reading will get you very far.
The other thing I would say is to continually find new things to inspire yourself. Designers are not people that can sit at a desk for eight hours a day. I need different spaces to work in, to be inspired by. It's kind of hard during Covid, but even if you can change rooms every now and again and have a new view it can help. I think continually making sure that you feel inspired is really important to succeed in this field.
LBB> Do you have any design heroes?
Dida> This may be cheesy, but I don’t have a design idol – the people who inspire me are the people I work with every day. Everyone from my boss to our newest analysts. They’re the reason I get up every morning. Now that I’m doing more account-level work, I see what people are doing who are at an earlier stage of their career and I’m amazed and impressed. I learn so much from them.