Women In Business Q&A, Mimi Young, Behavior Design

Mimi Young

Mimi Young is a Founding Partner and Managing Director of Behavior Design, an award-winning user experience strategy and design studio in New York City. Behavior Design creates high-impact, interactive solutions for B2B and consumer clients across the finance, education, arts and nonprofit industries. Mimi and her team have worked with a roster of prestigious clients including HBO, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Royce & Associates, Red Hat and the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I grew up in the Midwest in the '70s when there were very few Asian families around. There was not much tolerance for difference and I endured a fair share of teasing and bullying as a result of the environment I lived in. Over time, I suppose, that has given me a thicker skin. From a leadership perspective, you are often put in situations where you need to make decisions that are not popular but that are critical to the bigger picture and collective health. Having survived some difficult social circumstances as a child has helped me stay on track by separating personal feelings from professional responsibilities when faced with making hard choices.

On the flipside, I am more sensitive to the importance of looking at issues from multiple perspectives, especially those that are not my own. This is invaluable in all aspects of life including in a service or product-based business.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Behavior Design?
Before entering the digital industry, I worked in the contemporary art field as the Curatorial Coordinator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. I learned to rally people together, maneuver through office politics to get things done, and express my ideas in verbal and written form. The most nerve-racking assignment was being given the impromptu opportunity to lead an exhibition walk-through (gallery talk) for a scrutinizing crowd consisting of the museum director, curators and staff, with no prior warning and about 5 minutes to prepare. Keep in mind that this was a highly coveted job in a museum that was lead by some very critical minds (mostly women, I should add) so there was no room for error and certainly no shortage of candidates to take my spot should I fail. Thankfully, I managed to present the concepts being explored by the artist and the work, and the significance of the exhibition in alignment with internal expectations. Surviving high-pressure situations and presenting myself credibly were undeniable lessons learned from my early career that serve me well now.

I eventually went back for my masters in computer art at the School of Visual Arts, and upon graduation took a job at an up-and-coming global digital consulting firm. The Internet was new so the potential for growth was abundant. It was also a time of inflated service teams (and budgets) and little to no care about building lasting relationships with clients. When the technology boom ended, I decided to join my colleagues, who were also discipline managers in the company, to start a new user experience strategy and design studio called Behavior Design. We identified the shortcomings of the large firm mentality and consciously aimed to steer away from them. Our idea was to take our practice expertise and apply it more nimbly to a company focused on strategy, craft, and care--for both the work and our clients. This philosophy has allowed Behavior Design to take hold even in the worst of economic times and to survive and thrive over the last 15 years.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Behavior Design?
Overall we are lucky to work with businesses and organizations that are looking for a UX design partner that brings the same passion and level of expertise that they bring to their own fields. Part of Behavior Design's approach is to get under the hood and get to know our clients and their culture. We are grateful to have the opportunity to collaborate with so many great brands such as HBO, National Geographic Channel, JPMorgan Chase, the Museum of Modern Art, and the University of Michigan. At the end of the day, what I believe has counted most is connecting with individuals--understanding the challenges they face on an organizational, environmental/political and personal level. It is not just about creating an impactful user experience; it is also critical to assist clients to their finish line.

We learned this first hand when we launched the Royce Funds website. We were excited to have designed one of the most innovative, brand-focused, and user-friendly, responsive financial services sites out there. The site was so radically different from the Royce Funds' old site that the initial internal reaction wasn't as enthusiastic as we had hoped. For internal users, the change came abruptly and without much time to acclimate and transition. Externally, Royce was receiving countless accolades and was suddenly third on Kassina's top ten list of "Online Leaders in Asset Management," along with financial giants such as Allianz Global Investors, BlackRock, Deutsche and Putnam, Fidelity, JP Morgan, OppenheimerFunds, and Vanguard. To date the website has received more than 15 awards and exceptional benchmark reviews.

What I learned from this is that we had to focus on more than just the external launch; collectively we should have anticipated the significance of the shift and its impact on internal audiences. Although most within the company were aware of the initiative, and many had given their input during the process, very few people had the full view of how all the parts would fit together or needed a reminder of how we had gone from point A to B and why. Since then, Behavior Design proactively spends time just prior to launch ensuring internal audiences know what's coming.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
A hot topic of discussion in education and parenting circles is the direct connection between success and the notion of 'resilience.' I believe being resilient is an important ingredient to success. Achievement has a lot to do with hardship and challenge and one's reaction to it. To be successful in any industry, especially a digital one, you need to be open to switching gears, embracing new ideas or rethinking old ones. Behavior Design was started at the height of the dotcom crash. We knew that if we could make it through this period, we had a good shot at a viable business. But in digital, the targets are often moving ones, and we learned to recalibrate our thinking and approach on an ongoing basis to keep fresh and relevant, all while staying true to our core values. Essentially, expect to fall down a lot, but make sure to get up, shift and try again until you get it right.

There is no one right answer or singular path to accomplishment. As a subset of being resilient, creativity is a key component to cultivate within your personal toolkit. If you are thinking about being an entrepreneur, don't forget why you are doing it. Don't feel compelled to do it like everyone else; that's part of the essence of forging out on your own--you can do it on your own terms.

Finally, I'm also a big believer in practice over pure theory. In other words, get as much experience as you can. There are opportunities within digital that normally would not be available in other industries without the 'right' education. Experience is a credential that gets you far in this industry.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
"Don't take anything for granted." This is applicable in how you run your business and the relationships you have built with clients. At Behavior Design, we tell ourselves we are always pitching and proving ourselves even when we've won the job.

From a user experience design perspective, designing a successful user experience requires listening to what users of a digital system want, analyzing your research and creating a strategic system to support that research. The company name, 'Behavior,' reflects our very conscious focus on designing with users in mind. Making your own assumptions about what users need is a good way to create either a cookie-cutter experience or one that simply reflects organizational priorities. Discovering and understanding, rather than prescribing, the underlying motivations and needs of users within any digital system is key to delivering a positive experience that increases the bottom line.

In essence, stay scrappy! Stay motivated, engaged and excited by all that you do. That's the true secret to survival.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
In both life and business, having the support of my family, business partners and peers has allowed me to juggle various responsibilities inside and outside the office. I have a very supportive spouse, and we take turns covering for each other when work gets busy so that we can care for our son. My business partners are equally supportive and ready to jump in when needed.

Compartmentalizing your time and focus allows you to be truly present at home without mental distraction. It's an ongoing battle, but if done right, you can accomplish a lot more at work while truly experiencing 'quality time' with family.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Balancing children and work is an enormous challenge for working women. Being a mom is not only an issue of time and tasks; the complexity of nurturing children is an emotional commitment that shouldn't be underestimated. Unless you are your own boss, most work cultures are not very tolerant of home-related needs, nor accommodating when it comes to school functions, sick children, school holidays, etc. For the most part, women aren't given much slack, as they are expected to be equally dedicated in both arenas of work and life. I am hopeful that's changing. Having said this, it is possible to have it all with the right support on both sides of the equation.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorship in my life is largely about being given opportunities to step up, in many cases when I may not have been quite ready. Having someone put trust in your abilities to figure it out and come through builds a strong sense of responsibility and gives you the courage to tackle new and unknown challenges.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
The late Marcia Tucker, Founder and Director of the New Museum of Contemporary Art, was a real pioneer. In 1977, she founded the first museum devoted to contemporary art in New York City. Despite numerous naysayers, largely from the traditional art establishment, Marcia brought the same critical scholarly rigor to the work of living artists as would be found in institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Museum of Modern Art, which was unheard of at the time. She had her own unapologetic vision that was infectious. All those who worked at the Museum during her tenure did so with a shared purpose toward elevating the dialogue around contemporary art. Marcia was always on a mission and every staff member, including the museum guards, had a sense that they were part of something greater.

Jackie Yeaney, EVP of Strategy & Marketing at Red Hat, a provider of open-source software products and services to the enterprise community, brings that same sense of purpose to her organization. I admire Jackie for leading large teams of people both inside and outside the company, working in a very collaborative environment with multiple stakeholders and initiatives toward a common goal. Having worked with Jackie as an agency partner over the last 8 years, I marvel at her down to earth approach and style. She compels those around her to tackle even the most difficult and daunting challenges. She is a warm, personable leader that makes you want to be part of the action to help achieve the organization's collective goals.

What do you want Behavior Design to accomplish in the next year?
After years of work in user experience, we continue to be fascinated by how new technologies may change the way people work, from educators to auditors--providing meaningful and humanizing experiences in the business, higher education, and cultural fields. We are currently looking at how artificial/virtual reality can be applied to the enterprise, and are incubating several projects in this area that we hope to bring to market.