Antonella Sassu joined the NaturalMotion team last year and has now taken over the role of Lead UX Designer for CSR2! Though she had worked in UX for 10 years, she had always wanted to get into the gaming industry. She is very passionate about games and believes they possess the power of teaching.
“ In most other industries you have specific laws and requirements framing you, but in a games industry, you can be creative and invent new things. “
Antonella really values the NM culture and loves that employees are valued for their professionalism; leaving open doors to equal career progression and promotion. As a female in the gaming industry, she has felt at ease working for NaturalMotion; she feels valued for her hard work and has not felt that gender has impacted her interactions with colleagues in any way.
Keep reading to learn more about Antonella’s transition into the gaming industry and her journey with NaturalMotion!
What is your role within NM/BA and how did you get here?
I’m the Lead UX Designer, and I’ve been working in UX for more than 10 years. I got into UX from a social science side, which is different from the usual route that many people take such as the graphic or computer science sides. When I was studying UX, it wasn’t called as such, but was Interaction Design and was part of Human Computer Interaction. UX came later and was something that was already talked about in the US where the discipline was much more mature than here in Europe. My first job was in human-robot interaction and I also enjoyed being part of creative industries. However, the more senior I became, the harder it was to get into the gaming industry because UX wasn’t developed at that point in games. I also didn’t have any experience in the games industry, and all the positions required that experience. I was told that I could only grow inside a company, since I didn’t have any previous experience in the games industry. My CV wasn’t being accepted anywhere in games and at some point I was even told that I was overqualified. At last, when I applied to NaturalMotion, I didn’t even reveal that to anybody because I thought that the company wouldn’t even call me. But they did! In the past I also worked as a consultant in mainly financial services, in-house designer and university researcher in applied research about healthcare for the independent living of the ederly. I always wanted to go into the games industry, but it was never possible. When I came to NM, Julian and Tom really knew what UX design was; they weren’t looking for a graphic designer or a UI coder. This was my opportunity to show what a UX designer can do.
What was it about the games industry that drew you in?
The purpose of the production building, so my reasoning isn’t strictly functional. I don’t want to say that every other industry is bad, as working for financial services can also be interesting due to the high amount of data that you have to manage, but in a game, you’re making the lives of people better. Games can also be extremely useful. They aren’t a waste of time like many people believe. For instance, they are good for education. Just think about all the educational gaming museums for the kids and those games that teach you a foreign language, for example. Once, I even came across a game project where children of immigrants living in London were taught how to write in Arabic. Games possess the power of teaching, and that’s amazing. I’m very passionate about that. In most other industries you have specific laws and requirements framing you, but in a games industry, you can be creative and invent new things. You can clash the conventions, which I like.
What was it like being one of the first UX designers at NM?
When I joined, there wasn’t any UX team at all and I was their very first UX designer. I started talking with stakeholders and other leaders in disciplines such as production, product management, the tech side and game design to promote the benefit of the collaboration of UX with all the other disciplines. Because there were already plenty of processes going on, as CSR2 was already successful at that point, I had to stretch myself to find the space for UX in other disciplines. I had lots of support from the leaders of each discipline, and I even found myself in a place to collaborate with the Consumer Insights team, who were very receptive, as they take care of the initial stages of UX through all of their research. Step-by-step, I started analysing the game and working with the Game Designers to bring in improvements and use this as an opportunity to emphasise that UX is not UI. My main concern was not letting UX disrupt the existing framework. It’s just like becoming part of a new family, you have to respect the existing traditions and avoid changing everything from the get-go. So, I had to find a way to allow UX to come in smoothly, which was a new process all together. It worked out well, and that’s thanks to the open culture of the company where everyone was open to talk to me about both my own and the discipline’s needs.
What are the common misconceptions about your profession, or industry, and what is the reality?
Since UX finds itself in-between qualitative and quantitative data while involving a large portion of psychology and social sciences, sometimes it’s not considered as a proper area of science. However, it is. We’re grabbing methodology from anthropology, sociology and other social science domains. So not only being a female, but also being a UX designer makes it extra challenging to show people that we don’t just base our work off opinion, but provable scientific facts.
How does it feel when you see your work greatly impacting the real life game?
As a person, I’m very strict with myself, so I will never be happy with what I’m doing because I always feel that I need to do better all the time. The UX role in the game hasn’t been fully developed just yet and there’s still space for improvement. What I’m doing now is making it be recognised as a proper discipline, as UX has been used in a consulting manner and as a tool to help everyone. I feel well, but not satisfied enough. I want to make my dream a reality, which is turning NM into an example of how UX should be implemented in games, but I’m not there yet.
How would you describe the culture at NM and why is it important to you?
The main aspect of the culture at NM is trust. When you trust a professional, they are able to express themselves better. I was never scared of rejection when I wanted to show something to the rest of the company. I knew that it could be discussed, but I felt that I was granted freedom to organise something on my own by basing it off my expertise in the UX. I have never come across such a level of trust being given in any other company, as it’s mostly the case that you are micromanaged or controlled in your actions. There was none of that here, and I’m so grateful for that. This trust helped me to build up the credibility of the disciplines, introduce necessary practices and work on day-to-day UX deliverables. At the same time I had constant support and feedback being shared with me, which was vital for gaining that trust.
As a female leader, how do you approach empowering female employees?
Because I found myself in a situation where I was one of the few women throughout my professional career, sometimes the struggle for a woman is to get her point across and be regarded as a qualified professional. When I was working at another company in the past, I was leading the UX team and I was collaborating with other departments. The leader of one of those departments always needed to talk to me because I was leading from a technical standpoint, but he hated doing that. He was coming in with vital questions that required firm decision making, which only a leader can do as a way of taking responsibility for the team, and posing the questions to my colleague under me just because he was a male. While I really trusted my colleague to give proper answers, I also knew exactly what was going on, because after all, I was the one to answer those questions as a team leader. Not being fully accepted in a technical environment happens all the time to female employees, as they’re seen as incapable of possessing any technical knowledge. So, my advice to them would be to be prepared to make your point. It’s very common not to be heard, but it’s useful to have a solid justification for your statements, not to simply justify your point, but to also be taken seriously. Be prepared to answer more questions than normally asked. Also, don’t listen to the imposter syndrome. We all have it, including me, but change your perspective on it; you wouldn’t tell another person what you say to yourself. Most importantly, be confident, and convince yourself of the good quality of your work.
What role have men played in your career or what role do you think they can play in women’s career equality?
At NaturalMotion you feel at ease, as you don’t sense any differences between interlocutors. We’re all human beings and are valued for our professionalism, which opens doors to equal career progression and promotion. For example, I was promoted during the lockdown, which was really unexpected. People see you as an expert and a colleague, and your gender doesn’t impact your interactions in any way. While we’d like to have more women in STEM roles, we do have female leaders, engineers, producers and other female specialists. In the past, working with men has affected me a lot. It’s made me aggressive as well, because I was working in a fiercely competitive environment, which I finally escaped from.
What does it mean to you to be a woman in technology and gaming?
To be honest, I’m divided in my answer. I want to avoid being in a place where I’m treated a certain way only because I’m a female. I want people to focus on the value that I bring rather than my gender. However, we’re also a minority, so we need to be proud and show others what we’re capable of.
What advice would you give someone trying to break into the industry?
In the case of UX, you get a lot of very transferable skills. I would say it was easy for me to switch from the corporate to the games industry. Of course, there are always some peculiarities that you have to keep in mind when transitioning or entering a new industry, but the skills are universally applicable. This is an industry of passionate people. If you are passionate about games, just apply for a position. Remember that your portfolio speaks for itself, so focus on developing it by becoming involved in various projects just to show interest. Apart from demonstrating your technical abilities, it’s important to show that you’re passionate about the industry too.