Talk to a Tykling: Viola Marku, UX Researcher

Meet the team – getting to know Viola Marku, UX Researcher

Our Talk to a Tykling interview series is focused on getting to know the people who make the Tyk magic happen. We are able to offer an outstanding product because it’s developed and supported by a team of outstanding individuals. We wouldn’t be where we are today without each and every one of them. 

With that in mind, we sat down with Viola Marku, our talented User Experience (UX) Researcher, to find out more about her interests, her values and why boundless curiosity is the secret to being your best self. 

What do you do at Tyk? 

Essentially, I’m a bridge between the product and the end user. Being a researcher means covering a series of topics: motivations, reasoning, behaviours… pretty much anything related to your particular user base. My role is about understanding what matters to our users – what problems are they facing and what goals are they trying to achieve? Ultimately, they are the audience for whom our product was built. By embracing that user focus, you are lighting the path for each and every user and keeping the conversation alive. 

It is a complex goal in some ways. When we experience a product, there are so many different motivations and realities behind why and how we’re choosing to use that product. You have to wear an investigative hat and make sense of as much as you can, helped by data and information.

On a day-to-day basis, I undertake a varied set of tasks in order to achieve this. You can generally use various methodologies, depending on what the research goals are. If you’re doing an exploratory type of activity, you are most likely to look at datasets and information from different streams, like tickets, product feedback and website analytics. 

If you’re doing more of a structured study, you can go crazy with the methodologies and set up things like interviews and observations with existing or potential users. You can even do a powerful activity, guerrilla research. That’s where you try to be some place where you know your user base could be present – so API management conferences in our case – then converse with people in order to understand their motivations and pain points. It all depends on what you’re trying to find out, so preparation is key.

It’s so varied – I love it! There is no standard day. Essentially you have this substantial toolkit of activities that allows you to bring so much excitement and energy to what you do.

Being a researcher is also about working in a synergistic way. You work paired with a roadmap of what the company is setting to achieve. With that and being part of a young company that is growing so fast, you have a chance to experience and get stuck into things that you perhaps wouldn’t in a larger organisation. Working at Tyk definitely adds to the excitement. 

Whereabouts are you based when not under lockdown restrictions? 

I live in London, where Tyk has one of its offices. I love coming into the office, because I enjoy the energy of the people around me and the feedback that you get from them, in relation to work and also personally. You can validate your thinking and bounce ideas around in person. I tend to come into the office quite often. 

The area I live in is Highgate, which is a small London village that’s surrounded by nature. It’s strange, because it doesn’t really feel like London here! One of the parks is Hampstead Heath – you can wander around and get lost in it, and it is surrounded by little cafés. It is a splendid place.

It’s also great to have the freedom to work from wherever you want in there. You can just grab your iPad and download some data you want to go over in the heath (and get a bonus tan in the summer).  

Tell us a little about yourself. What’s your background? What brought you to Tyk? 

I grew up in Italy, where I attended a STEM-focused high school. I enjoyed STEM topics, but I also had this weird duality where I’ve always been deeply attracted to literature and art. I made a conscious choice to pursue a career in something that was integral to society’s inner workings, with it being the Information Age, so it felt the natural choice was to focus on STEM topics. 

When it came to choosing what to study at university, I was suddenly hit by life dread! I wanted to choose a topic that would cover those two main interests – science and art/literature – so I decided to study business, which was perhaps not the best choice.

Early on I came to the realisation that business is something you can experience – you don’t necessarily have to study it. So throughout my years at university I involved myself in different activities. I co-organised an entrepreneurship conference in Oxford, I worked part-time in lots of different start-ups… Ultimately I was trying to understand what I wanted to pursue in my life. 

It dawned on me that there was something about studying people and how they interact with technology that deeply fascinated me. It’s something that’s so pervasive. Most of us nowadays interact with technology at an unprecedented level. 

So I decided to study UX the next summer. I flew to San Francisco and spent three months there and went deep into user experience. It felt like the perfect place to do so because of the high density of companies and startups trying to come up with “the next big thing” – so more opportunities to observe and learn.

At one point I realised I had an even stronger desire to study computer science and the interaction side of things. I went back to England and did a Masters degree in Computer Science – it was a fascinating time. The systems that we’ve built are incredibly complex in many ways. At the same time, they’re also simpler than many of the day-to-day challenges that we have and the way that we think and live. What’s interesting is that we add to that complexity by sometimes building products in a way that is not logical, to a human, or user-friendly. 

All of this led me to want to do something that would add to society by providing that bridge of knowledge between people and technology – like user experience research. With Tyk in particular, it is a technical product for a technical audience. It is an exceptional audience in many ways, from their remarkable talent to their problem solving skills and resilience. 

Tyk exists to help people make, create and build things better. Is there a particular pain point in the UX sector that you would like to fix? 

Yes. Many things, actually! The main one really overlaps with the industry. API management can be an incredibly complex activity – not only due to the tools that you use but also because of the overarching general business requirements. An API management program is distilled down generally from those business requirements, so you have to make sure that all those activities and the directions that your projects may take are reflected in the way that you set up your tools. This preparation often takes way more time than actually setting up an API gateway. 

After talking to many engineers and product owners, I realised the difficulty of these activities that our users are not necessarily equipped to achieve. That is what I would like to resolve – to reduce complexity for the user. Of course there are many factors that we cannot realistically have an impact on. However, what we can do is deliver a tool that is as intuitive and as efficient as possible – and most importantly, that solves the user’s actual problems.  

What do you particularly like about working at Tyk?

The one thing that is incredibly rare and which you can definitely see at Tyk is the freedom to be an agent of change. You can truly feel empowered to bring change and to own anything you want to own or bring to the table. There is a level of trust and co-ownership that is incredibly rare, based on my experience in other companies and the way in which my friends and family interact with their companies. The conversation is always open. You truly feel that you can speak. 

How long have you worked at Tyk? Has it changed much during that time? 

I’ve been at Tyk for nearly three years now! It has changed in that it’s been growing in an organic way. It’s not a growth that has brought disruption, but one where people have been listened to. Their opinions and experience have been taken on board and used to grow the company positively. The evidence is clear: we are a start-up that’s evolving wonderfully into a young, stable company. 

What tips would you give to a new starter when it comes to working in a remote first organisation? 

Remote first is a fantastic way to be free to own your time and what matters to you. You can work from wherever you want, you can travel… there are many benefits. However, when you work for a remote company, the lack of face-to-face contact can be quite impactful. My advice is to avoid that by bringing empathy to the workplace every day. 

When you don’t have people present to greet every day and to bounce ideas off, you lack those physical cues that you get when you work in an office. If you bring empathy and try to understand what your colleagues may be needing or what might benefit them, you can come forward and foster that warmth that may otherwise be missing. 

It’s also essential to be genuine. It can be tempting when you work remotely to put on a mask sometimes and represent something that you’re not – perhaps out of fear of lack of acceptance or something. You don’t need to do that at Tyk. The culture here is a warm, welcoming one.

Ultimately, while we may be working with machines, we are not machines ourselves, so understanding how human-to-human communication differs across team members is important. It is crucial to learn from each other our communication patterns, to prevent misunderstandings and reduce friction. You can do that by fostering open communication, lowering the power distance, and being forthcoming with any issues or victories you may have. The benefits of positive communication with colleagues are immense. 

What does Tyk do to foster connections between its remote workers? 

I have developed some amazing friendships with people who work at Tyk but who I’ve only met in person once or twice. We use Slack as a tool to enable you to communicate freely with anyone in the company. It takes away the wall of distance between people. 

The company organises some great activities to encourage people to get to know each other. We have the twice-weekly Tyk cafés as well as annual retreats, which are a fantastic way to bring people together, but also a book club and even a French conversation club (which is really just an excuse to drink wine in good company!). 

Ultimately, it’s down to that freedom that Tyk gives you. Workwise, you don’t have to work on a project on your own. If you want to loop in people from other teams then you can do so. You can share ideas with people in completely different teams. There are no boundaries in terms of communication and transparency, except respecting each other’s time, so you can build working relationships that you can rely on and which can even grow into wonderful friendships. 

Thinking about your early career, what is a mistake that you made and what did you learn from it? 

Probably the mistake that I learned the most from, and that I continue to learn from, dates back to my time at University. I was working part-time for a series of start-ups throughout University. One year I would be working for a start-up that was bringing jobs to war-torn regions, then moving to one that was focused on creating a better PDFs experience and so on (spoiler alert: PDFs are still not exciting!).

The issue that I realised at one of these start-ups was that I was not mentally involved with the product. I didn’t care about what that start-up was working on or believe in their mission – I was not engaged with what they were trying to achieve as I was more focused on experimenting as much as I could. The result was that the working experience turned into a box-checking exercise for me. 

I finally realised that I was spending my time in a way that was not fair to me or to the company for which I was working. So I quit – which is something that I naturally struggle doing. Time is the most expensive and limited resource we have, so it wasn’t right to be doing something that I didn’t truly care about. 

I realised that I need to make sure I fully evaluate something before committing to it, but also continually while working on it, otherwise I may be doing an injustice to mine and others’ time. And that quitting does not mean failure. It’s a continuous lesson that I still use in both my professional and my personal life, some times better than others. 

What are the values that drive you personally? 

The main values that I hold close are authenticity and curiosity. We have limited time in life and people are generally really good tellers of truth, so being authentic is the most “real” experience you can give to others. Bringing yourself 100% to work and doing it with authenticity is something that people can see and appreciate in a complete way. 

Curiosity, on the other hand, is what strikingly differentiates us from other species. It’s the effort that we put into continually improving our lives. Technology is one of the results of that curiosity and that push to improve things. To foster curiosity daily is a way to try and approach a best version of your output at work and of the way you want to live your life. 

At Tyk, the beauty is that there is almost no ‘right’ fit of values because we appreciate everyone’s. Every value set adds on to the diverse array that the company has – they bring so much diversity and so many different perspectives. It’s almost paradoxical. 

What are your three favourite books and/or podcasts? 

Personally, the list is just too big – and it changes depending on each period of my life! However, workwise I chose three books that gave me an edge in doing what I do. Learning is a very personal matter, but I find sharing what you learn and opening a conversation with colleagues and friends about it takes any learning further, and expands your understanding. So these books come with my advice of “stretching the dogma and breaking it” – read, converse, challenge ideas. Moving from a monotone, passive learning can foster the most brilliant ideas.

The first book that I recommend is considered a “classic” of interaction design – it’s called The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman. Norman is one of the founders of the Nielsen Norman Group, which is an institution that gives insight into usability and user experience. The book is about going deep into the rationales of why things are designed a certain way and what good usability should look like. It’s an accessible book not only for UX practitioners but for anyone who wants to understand more about why interaction design looks the way it does, even though some sections are outdated (it was originally published in 1988, so it is a great way to see how some ideas have evolved!). 

My second recommendation is The Inmates are Running the Asylum by Alan Cooper, which is a book that has made me reflect plenty. Cooper has been contributing to the usability field for many, many years. This book is about understanding the dynamics between product design and the actual teams that build the product. It is also about fostering a user centered mentality in design and development, making sure the two don’t antagonise each other. It makes the often ignored friction visible, and the impact is had to end users and companies alike. 

The last book is Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, which covers studies about how we think, our biases and behaviours. In product design, it’s of course important to understand the psychology behind users’ actions and why they could make certain choices. On a personal level it’s also a great book to help you explore your own thinking patterns and your own biases. 

Other than reading, what do you like to do in your spare time? 

I love learning and learning to me encompasses so many different activities. It can mean going to a museum or an exhibition or trying a new cuisine at a restaurant… I miss being able to do all those things!

I also love to travel, and in particular experiencing serendipitous moments wherever I go. They are all unexpected things, like finding a random but incredible cafe, an empty beach during a sunset.. A few years back, during a trip in the USA I happened to find an American drive-in movie theater along the way: it was the most exhilarating experience! 

Not being able to travel right now is making me appreciate even more having had the freedom to travel. I also love exploring nature – it’s one of my favourite things (minus the insects). Just immersing yourself in a new place and a new culture… We are, and we will be again, so lucky to have these opportunities. 

Where is your favourite place that you’ve travelled to? 

Muir Woods, which is a couple of hours’ drive from San Francisco, is this huge forest of ancient redwood trees. Some of the trees are over a thousand years old. You can walk all the way down to the ocean – it was one of the most beautiful and humbling experiences of my life and I would love to go back there one day.