Welcome to Episode 6 of UX Research Geeks! We’re introducing Camille Kramer Courbariaux, a specialist in user research. Discover her experiences in leading research teams, conducting studies across diverse sectors, and her focus on various industries in West Africa.
00:01:19 – Discovering the Industrial Design Path
00:11:49 – Nurturing the UX Design Community in Senegal
00:14:24 – Humanitarian Impact Through Design
00:21:05 – First Research Project: Street Vendors in Senegal
00:27:25 – Balancing Multiple Roles
00:31:22 – Hiring Criteria
About our guest Camille Kramer-Courbariaux
Camille Kramer Courbariaux is the Co-founder of YUX and the Director of YUX Academy. She specializes in user research and has a rich background in leading research teams and conducting field studies across diverse sectors. Her expertise extends to usability testing and facilitating research findings for UX/UI designers. In her current role, Camille oversees quantitative and qualitative research projects throughout West Africa, focusing on Human-Centered Design and UX methodologies. She leverages her understanding of African consumer habits to assist local startups and international clients, including UNESCO, UNCDF, AFD, IMF, Orange, Airtel, GSMA, and numerous startups. Connect with Camille on LinkedIn or visit the YUX website for more information.
[00:00:00] Tina Ličková:
This is the sixth episode of UX Research Geeks. The structure of today’s episode is a bit unusual, as we tried to cover as much as we could about the topic of UX research in Africa. We recorded over an hour and a half of the footage that will be released in two parts. You are now listening to the first part where we interviewed Camille, a Senegal based entrepreneur, UX researcher, and a co-founder of UX Design, a Pan African research and design agency.
We spoke to her mainly about her business journey and talent winning strategies.
[00:00:54] Camille Kramer-Courbariaux: Hi Tina.
[00:00:55] Tina Ličková: How are you?
[00:00:56] Camille Kramer-Courbariaux: I’m good. I’m good.
[00:00:59] Tina Ličková: Goodie good. Let’s go straight into it. Because you have a really interesting life and I would say business story. And for the listeners to have a context, I would be really interested to learn how you became who you are professionally and how you became an entrepreneur in Senegal.
[00:01:19] Camille Kramer-Courbariaux: Thanks, Tina. That’s very generous of you to say that. So I think I do have an interesting story, even though let’s say it’s not a direct path. That’s the best way to say it. I’m, it’s important to note that I’m from a bicultural family. I’m French by my father and American by my mother.
And I grew up in France, but my mother had always said: Oh, like you’ll go to a university in the States and you can do whatever you want over there. So you don’t need to specialize early. So I took that, to heart because I was interested in many things and it was hard to decide what I liked.
And after graduating in France for high school, I actually went to the United States to study art history because I loved art and history and I thought maybe, I wanted to be in the art sector, but not an artist. So I thought maybe museums would be interesting. And I went to a school that had a museum and I realized I hated it.
I hated working at the museum. It was really bad. I just like talking about art and not doing anything about it. And the museum’s environment is really interesting, but it just didn’t fit for me. And at the age of 19, I had this huge sort of question: what am I going to do with my life?
The sort of plan I had of working in a museum and art was falling apart. So I had to do a lot of research and I discovered the industrial designer path. Basically, that’s really interesting. Like that there’s art, there’s engineering, it’s useful. I had gotten tired of looking at the past and I had realized through my studies at the museum that what I wanted to do was contribute to building the future.
So I thought that’s really interesting. And I found a school back in France. I went back -quit college basically in my sophomore year. So that was a tough decision to make, and then I came back to France and, it took some time to, for the beginning of the year to start again, and I studied industrial design where I learned about, design thinking and the design process, and it was again, a bit of a conflicting point in my life because I also realized -at some point- that building things wasn’t for me either that I felt that it was a bit, gadget oh, let’s reinvent the new chair for the thousands time, so industrial design was also a bit of a I really like it, but at the same time, it’s I had conflicting emotions about it.
What was great about the school I went to, and one of the reasons I chose it, the design school, is that it was actually a school where half of your, it’s a five year school, I entered in second year, but out of the five years you spent two and a half years in internships and study abroad semesters. It was really a school that was focused on practicing, and I think for design school that makes a lot of sense.
And for the year, for the semester abroad, they actually had partnerships with African organizations, and I had traveled quite extensively. I’m from a family that travels a lot, but I had never been to Africa, and that was something I wanted to do. It’s a bit of a long story. You got to follow, but basically one of the things- one of the big decisions when I went towards industrial design, one of the big choices I made at the time was that I had another conflicting passion.
That was humanitarian work, basically, like social impact. Those were two sides of me that were really battling on what I should get into professionally. And I had chosen design because I felt like there were some hard skills to learn. And at that point in my life, I was tired of theory. And I wanted to learn how to use a tool, how to make something.
And I felt like humanitarian work was going to be a lot of, Just theory again, and I was tired of writing essays and things but it was still really a core part of me, and one of the reasons I wanted to do an internship in Africa was I thought maybe there’s some cool design work to do there that can have some social impact.
And I wound up interning at an NGO in Senegal, where I was very disappointed, basically. The department I worked at is now closed because there were some corruption issues. I could see that people were just, spending their days idling away a little. I’m not saying all NGOs happen like that, but it turns out that the one that, where I was at, I saw all this sort of power dynamics and how it’s, it was a little bit more in the interest of the people working there than of the people they were supposed to serve.
And it wasn’t all bad, of course, but it was a huge realization moment for me. And I realized that I no longer believed that development, long term development could happen through humanitarian work. And it was a good moment in my life, I think, to have that realization because At the end of my semester abroad, I was actually starting another double diploma that my design school offered.
It was a really, really great school. It is a great school. They offered a double diploma with a management school and that’s what I was entering when I was coming back from Africa. And so there I learned a lot about entrepreneurship and basically how to run a business. And I’m from a family background where my parents are both in education, like we’re not a business family not my parents level and I realized that if I wanted to truly impact, I needed to understand how companies, how businesses work, because I now felt that development went through entrepreneurship, or at least went through, the economy and building businesses that would be long term sustainable businesses.
So it was a really good succession of things that after my semester in Senegal, I now went to business school because I had just come to the realization that humanitarian, the humanitarian route, wasn’t for me. And long story short I had loved my experience in Senegal so much that at the management school that I was at, I actually got in touch with, there was a Senegalese student group there and I got in touch with them and they were actually organizing this amazing event it was a yearly event that was go, that was happening in different cities and this year was in the city where I was studying and it’s amazing because a lot of the African diaspora when they study abroad, they study serious, things so management, law, medicine, maybe marketing but very few African diaspora, students study design or art, African design or anything like that. So I had a skill set from being in a design school that none of the African students of the organization had. And so they were very interested in working with me for their event because there was all this graphic design things to do and communication support. So as a, it was funny, but as a French, like Franco American person, I was in the Senegalese student group because I was really passionate about what they were doing. It turns out that the topic of that year’s event was entrepreneurship in Senegal.
So it was just like, some of those moments where like you’re in the right place at the right time. And I made an amazing group of friends there that had decided that just having that event wasn’t enough, that they wanted to create something long term for Senegal that would help young entrepreneurs.
And that was right down my alley. That was exactly what I was looking for. And so we. created a startup to help other startups start you can still be quite utopian. We’d made all the mistakes. There were seven co-founders. We didn’t write a co-founder pack. Like it was, we were really just like baby entrepreneurs, but we had the passion and basically after graduating, and that took a bit of time because I first graduated the management school and then I had to finish graduating at the design school, but after graduating and getting my double diploma, I came straight to Senegal to support that startup that we had launched. And through helping startups in Senegal, basically on mostly what was, It’s business model design and basically the innovation we were bringing was that at the time, this was like seven years ago, at the time in Senegal, entrepreneurship was write your business plan and try to get finance, try to get someone to finance your project.
And we were all about lean entrepreneurship, prototype yours and go out and test and ask people. So we were bringing in that sort of thing, pulling yourself out by your bootstraps mentality, rather than sitting and waiting for someone to finance your project.
And that was really innovative at the time in Senegal, a few other places where we’re talking about that, but not a lot. And I wound up being more of a trainer on business model canvases than a designer. And that started to get to me cause I really missed design and like service design. And so at that point I had been in Senegal for two years as an entrepreneur and we were helping all these startups and I was exchanging with lots of startups and a lot of the people that were launching companies were developers because they had that skill set, building an app or building a website or building a service and they were terrible at design. They’re like, you imagine the product is only built by developers, right?
And that was the case and a lot of emphasis was made on development at that time in Senegal. So it was like 2015, 16. There were lots of developer schools that were sprouting out from everywhere. And as a designer, it was just like, we’d see all these products and they would spend months working on them without showing it to anyone, all the mistakes.
And at some point I was like, I’m part of this community. I want to do something, and so I started organizing sessions on UX and UI designer weekend and evening sessions just to teach people, train people. And I, and there were very few designs, like no designers, almost the only other UX or design designers I knew were other foreigners.
[00:11:49] But we got together and there was one local designer who had learned, like many people here, the only local designers were self taught because there are no schools. And so we managed to make this little group of like about four or five people with experience in design who knew what design was.
I think there were like three foreigners and one African. And we started, getting these sessions and we named ourselves, we had the name youths and everything, but it started like that. And what actually happened, which was quite funny is that now that community of designers is very highly embedded in the entrepreneurship community. So we had access to the venues and all the places. So we were already well known as individuals. And so when we started seeing we’re doing design, basically what happened was that another, one of my current co-founders, who was a business developer joined us because he saw the opportunity in what we were doing.
And when he came, he brought his like contacts with him. He had a ton of contacts and suddenly we were getting client work like a big telco operator in Senegal asked us to do workshops for them because there was a need for designers. Not a lot of people had become aware that they needed it, but some knew it.
And so we were the first people to offer that service, you know in Senegal and it turned out like we started getting steady clients so what started as a sort of, passion project there actually was demand for and we started hiring, to structure a team and It was just this amazing story of people saw the value in that and started asking us, to, to work for them.
It was tough for me because I was already the founder of another startup. And I had to make a choice at one point. I couldn’t be full time at both. And this took about a year where I was progressively more and more on the design agency -then my first startup. But to be honest, as a designer by trade and my passion, I wasn’t doing design at my first startup anymore.
So it was just, it made so much sense for me to go towards design again. I was, I could feel that it was good for me. I left the first startup still in really great terms with all of my co-founders there. That company still exists and I’m super proud of them. But I joined UX. And now, about four or five years down the line, there’s about 40 of us working across all of Africa.
[00:14:24] Yeah it’s started with three co-founders in Senegal, and now it’s 40 people across West Africa. So that’s a bit of the story and what’s really nice and I’ll talk about the agency a little bit more later, but what’s really nice is that now as a recognized agency in West Africa, we’re getting, I am getting that humanitarian impact that I wanted at the beginning because we have big NGOs, big multilateral donors that are coming towards us and that sector has matured also, and they know that they need to apply design thinking, and they, such as everyone in the African continent, there’s a lack of designers and resources who know that, so they’re coming towards us so that we can help them, build their programs, improve their products, their processes, and I’m not going to cite any names, but I’m honored, to be helping those NGOs now better do their job by applying design thinking and I feel that through, this agency that we built and we’re very proud. It’s a local agency. It’s a Senegalese company, we’re hiring locally. It’s local contracts. And so we’re pulling that skill set on the continent and we’re giving opportunities for people to practice and also helping, not just NGOs because NGOs and humanitarians are part, are some of our clients, but not only.
But for me as an individual, it’s great to be able to have that impact.
[00:16:03] Tina Ličková: And let me put it in a timeline. And I’m trying to figure out when UX research came to it. It’s seven years ago, you landed back in Senegal. When did it start out? Then four or five years ago you started with the agency. You’re being more focused on the agency. Started to hire 40 people in five years.
Wow. That’s yeah. It blows my mind. But when did UX research come into the play?
[00:16:27] Camille Kramer-Courbariaux: That’s a really good question because it’s, It was not an obvious sell at first, the research was not obvious. We actually started when people came to us, they wanted UI design, UX, UI design.
And so we had to educate our clients on the value of the research part, by saying we can build nice things, but we don’t know what to put inside them if you don’t do research. So we had to educate and there was actually a very natural configuration. I’m not the sole co-founder, right?
I have two other co-founders. One is, that business developer I told you about, who’s actually become an amazing designer now. And the other designer that we co-founded with, he’s actually naturally a UX, UI designer. He’s one of those pixel pusher people. And I am not. I am just super curious and super passionate about understanding context and people. And I think from, for a very long time, and it’s maybe one of the reasons why industrial design wasn’t for me either. I was Always more interested in the holistic view, the product, how does the product fit or the service fit in a global setting?
Like, how does it fit for people? And I think that’s because naturally I’m more of a research person. And so we naturally divided our roles in UX, UI expert, and a UX research expert, and that was me. And I but at first I, the first few months I also did interfaces – it was not great.
But as soon as we had the opportunity to do research, I took the lead on that and being the only designer, like a designer that had done formal design training between my three co-founders, I was also the one that had the most method and understanding of the processes and of different interview techniques.
So it was also, it also made sense that I would do that, but as an individual, it fit my personality much more. And I think that’s something that a lot of UX researchers will say, I think it’s something that you come to because it feels right for you, to talk to people, to understand, to dig, to question, to have ideas So I do consider myself as a UX lead in general, because I follow the whole process -I do a lot of work, so I don’t do only the research aspect, but that is something that I’m very passionate about. And it turned out to be one of the most valuable services that our company provides. Because UX, UI has actually grown quite a lot on the continent. You find a lot of UI designers now.
But people who have the knowledge to do UX research, to structure research, to structure questions, to dig, that’s something that takes critical thinking, creativity, and time, and it’s something where you really need to build on your experience to do that. I would say that in a sense, having spent a few years as an entrepreneur in Africa before gave me that context to be able to ask the right questions that our clients wanted us to ask, because they were trying to build products that worked right.
And my experience as an entrepreneur in this context for multiple years before that helped me, Oh we should ask about this. We should ask about that because there’s going to be this problem that they’re going to meet. And so I think it was a combination of natural inclination, my past experience, and the setup with my co founders.
And today more than 80% of our revenue is on research.
[00:20:16] Tina Ličková: Wow. Okay. 80%.
[00:20:19] Camille Kramer-Courbariaux: I’d say research and related like creativity and workshop activities, but it’s not like the UI part and the UX part is really just a sort of final deliverable of the process. And that’s something we’re really proud of is that even though at first it was really hard to sell research now, we’ve really been able to explain that what we’re selling is a process and not just: Oh, nice looking interfaces.
And that has been a real success for us and we don’t have any projects anymore, but I don’t think we’ll even accept, to just do interfaces if there’s no, at least some usability tests or some research previous to that, but we couldn’t impose that before.
[00:21:05] Tina Ličková: Can you remind yourself of the first research project you had?
[00:21:10] Camille Kramer-Courbariaux: Yeah. We actually, it wasn’t a client because no, like you can’t sell, you couldn’t sell that. So we actually, no, it’s really interesting. The way that we started. Showcasing that is by doing internal, what we call internal studies, so basically studies that we provide all the resources for, even if there isn’t a client.
And our first ever study was on street vendors in Senegal.
[00:21:35] Tina Ličková: Ah, okay.
[00:21:37] Camille Kramer-Courbariaux: Yeah. What do they do? What do they, what are they interested in? What are street vendors in Senegal and digital use. So like basically, what, do they use phones, if yes, what phones do they use?
What do they do with their phones? Because we have this grand sort of idea of maybe, providing a service for them through their phones. Because they’re people who are living day to day. They’re often students or migrants and they’re trying to make a living off of a really tough trade.
And so we wanted to See, you know how maybe there could be a service or an offering for them that could help them and It’s an interesting story because one of our we so we have an agency, right? We do client work for as I mentioned, NGOs, but also a lot of big private sector companies and local startups. That’s basically our three types of clients. But we also have a lab, what we call a lab, which is where we experiment with our own products and ideas. And we have an academy that I can talk about later. It’s a grand word. It’s still quite humble, but basically we do training. We do a lot of training for clients now, but we also do our own training that is open to anyone who wants to come.
And one of the first lab products was a product destined to street vendors, based off of that study that we did. And so that product failed, I want to say it – quite miserably. The academy we basically, as you understand, like from the start, actually you started as training, we wanted to build a community of designers because we felt the need for one and the lack of one and that has held true, throughout. And the demand is more and more pressing, but there’s, so there is one school in Benin, but it is so recent, there aren’t any graduates there, and we don’t think one school is enough for all of Africa.
At our small scale with what we can do, we’re trying to train- and we’ve tested different formats, we try to make it accessible because that’s also one challenge in unfortunately, one reality on the continent is that the best schools are private and so they’re expensive.
We’re trying to find business models that are inclusive because designers should come from all walks of life. But so we’ve prototyped lots of different formats, six month, full time formats three to four month remote formats. We are and yeah it’s so important for us that at this point, last year, I was actually full time at the Academy to watch it more seriously.
And now we actually have a team. We’ve hired a director for that department and she has a team of people that are hiring currently. So there’s actually a bunch of programs that are, that we’re working on. Currently, it’s not very visible because a lot of our work is actually for clients who are asking us to train their team or to run programs for them, but Our let’s say open training, that will be for anyone who is going to start again in the next few months.
We are focusing on a design leader program so that as we realize it’s hard for us to really do quantity in training because currently the academy is sustained by the agency.
So you have to remember that all of these, we’re self funded on everything. Basically the agency is the provider, for all of the departments and it’s an investment that we’re making, it’s also Ideological -we’re very happy to do but we do need to find an economic balance to things. So we’ve decided to focus on training design leaders and maybe less students, but we wanted to be the best program, you know, in Africa for Design leaders who are able to manage the whole process of design, maybe they won’t be the best UI designers, but they’ll understand the process.
They’ll be excellent UX researchers and UX design managers. So that’s our ambition with the Academy. To this day, we’ve run, I think, about a dozen sessions. We have 200 alumni. So there are things that have happened and we want to leverage on that and do even more.
So that’s yeah, that’s about the story. So there’s the agency, there’s the lab, the academy, and the goal is for each of these instances to grow as their own independent units. The academy might become an entity of its own. At this point it has no legal existence outside of the agency, but that’s the direction that we’re looking at.
Yes we’re still entrepreneurs at heart, just trying to impact on design by any means possible. Either if it’s by executing design work for people and promoting design and design thinking, if it’s by building our own tools or if it’s by teaching – these are all things that we’re extremely passionate about.
[00:27:06] Tina Ličková: I’m still amazed by how much you accomplished in such a short time. And it’s also the business results of it are amazing.
[00:27:17] Camille Kramer-Courbariaux: Yeah, it’s because we’re the only ones – they didn’t have a choice, they needed to come to us.
[00:27:25] Tina Ličková: Yeah, but it’s also, okay, but you are also growing your competition and that’s good because you are trying to, you are actually influencing a market.
And, but I’m also asking myself as a human, you are a designer, you were running the academy for the last year, you’re a mom for baby girls, so I’m asking myself, how do you balance all that with you being human and having time outside work?
[00:27:56] Camille Kramer-Courbariaux: Yeah, good question. And not always well.
[00:28:01] Tina Ličková: Or let’s rephrase the question. Maybe what drives you in this?
[00:28:06] Camille Kramer-Courbariaux: Yeah, I love it. I think it all comes down to that moment where I think my truth was that to have impact, you want Sustainable things, sustainable businesses. And I feel like every day I’m living that and without, I, so we have impact through the products that we help our clients build.
We have impact through our own products, but. The best, in fact, we’re having, is on the team that we’re growing, the jobs that we’re offering, the experiences that we’re giving. I’m just so proud of all the people who have come through the agency and who are growing there and becoming, really good designers, even though they don’t know it because they lack confidence in themselves, because maybe they don’t have the diploma or maybe, but they’re doing things that very few people on the continent are doing and they’re building a skill set.
And my personal goal in life is to have a positive impact around me, and I think that I am through the company that we built on multiple levels. So that’s what’s driving me. It doesn’t hurt that it’s working out, economically, ’cause of course , I’ve been in a situation where my business didn’t work as well, and it’s tough and you can’t necessarily sustain that.
But that’s what I’m talking about when I say something sustainable. We need to find a balance. Of course, there are some clients, it’s to bring money, there are some clients that are passion projects. But I think having been able to build this balance with an agency that’s running, that’s also a school, that’s also a community for our colleagues.
That’s just it’s about the journey, it’s about that journey. And I don’t know where we’re going to take it next. We have lots of projects, lots of ambition but that part, on training, on capacity building, like that is key on the African continent. I think you would like to howl at the ratio of seniors to juniors that we have at our agency.
We have so many juniors and mid levels, but that’s just, that’s how you have to run things. If you want to be long term here, because we need to build the skill sets that we need. No school, like no one else is going to do it for us. We’re now externalizing that through our own academy, but it’s still our own resources.
So I think the whole challenge, I think we could, in theory have done much more and much, faster if we had people who were trained that we could just hire and they would do their job. But no, we have to hire people that we train, that we give products to that they’re able to manage.
Sometimes they really need our help. Sometimes it doesn’t go the way we wanted it to go because yeah, they’ve never done this before. But we’re also giving ourselves the space to do that and we want, hopefully Elizabeth will be able to confirm this, but we want our agency to be a safe space, for people to explore the skillset.
It’s about, yeah, it’s about not just changing our clients and their products, but also of building the company that fits the values of the co-founders.
[00:31:22] Tina Ličková: And before I jump into the client work, where I am also interested in how you do good there. I’m, it’s very humbling to listen to you.
About how you’re building the community and how you support people. But I will be interested: how do you hire people? How do you hire, okay, we want to invest into this person. What is the alarm on: Oh, this is the person we could hire?
[00:31:48] Camille Kramer-Courbariaux: Oh, that was a huge question. I think we’re, we were always refining, our process at first we would basically run these recruitment days, where we would build like a small research project and ask people, we would get like 15 people together and ask them to go into teams and write a questionnaire and go out in the street. And that’s how we hired one of our most amazing senior researchers today. She used to be a midwife and she was hired through that process. And what we saw in her was: empathy, curiosity, critical thinking, but she had no previous knowledge of design. And now she’s amazing at that because she has that passion.
And I think that’s what we try to look at. And so we have a lot of people at our company, this is their first job.
We hire them straight out, school. So we will, I think the best lesson we learned, is we need to try them out a little bit. It’s hard to hire just based on an interviewer so we’ve made our interview process a little bit more structured. We give exercises out, but ultimately- it’s the first internship
[00:32:58] Tina Ličková: Okay
[00:32:59] Camille Kramer-Courbariaux: But I think we’re also in a place where we’re the two things that are really key for us I think is: the desire to grow- we need people who want that, because essentially that’s what we’re going to ask of them a sort of a long term commitment, or at least some kind of sense that they’re not just waiting for the first opportunity, to get higher and abroad and leave some kind of desire that they want to, work with us for a long time.
And then, just goodwill, I think is key. So we have lots of great stories like of people who started with a small mission and now they’re leading projects and leading huge clients or things like that. And that’s the best. We give them a lot of responsibility. It’s a bit of a we throw them in the pool and see if they can swim in that type of situation.
It’s not the most comfortable thing for them, but it’s also at this point, with 40 people, we used to be behind everyone and really, safeguarding and now it’s a little bit more there’s a bit of a sandbox for you to play around in and then you’re just going to be thrown out there and you know that we’re always there you can ask us any question, just express that there’s a problem and we’ll be there, but you have to come up and express that problem because we’re not going to be following you to see if you need help, you need to come to us. That’s the spirit.
[00:34:19] Tina Ličková: You have just listened to the sixth episode of UX Research Geeks. This topic was so interesting that we decided to release another episode about UX research in Africa that will be out in two weeks. Camille will be joined by Elizabeth- a UX researcher at UX Design and a coworker of hers.
Stay tuned for more. Thank you for listening to UX Research Geeks. If you liked this episode, don’t forget to share it with your friends, leave a review on your favorite podcast platform, and subscribe to stay updated when a new episode comes out.