For the first 26 years of her life, Liza Shkirando never played a video game. It wasn’t until she took a course on game psychology during graduate school that she really began to understand and appreciate the history and importance of games in society. Upon receiving her Master’s degree in Interactive Design, Shkirando pursued an internship at Massive Entertainment as a junior user researcher. Now, three and a half years into her career at Ubisoft, she currently works as a UX designer on tools – ensuring that the everyday workflows of designers and artists are as easy and efficient as possible by developing better tools – on Tom Clancy’s The Division.
Originally from St. Petersburg, Russia, Shkirando now lives and works in Malmö, Sweden. While The Division remains her favourite Ubisoft game, she – like many developers – has trouble looking at her own handiwork without seeing a plethora of things she might have done differently. More recently, she’s been enjoying her time with South Park: The Fractured But Whole.
I was lucky enough to sit down with Shkirando while she was in San Francisco during GDC giving a talk about UX tool development.
When did you first know you wanted to work in games?
Liza Shkirando: It really wasn’t until graduate school. I didn’t experience video games as a kid. I always thought that video games were for boys. I didn’t even think it was something that I could be interested in.
Why do you think that is?
LS: Maybe it’s all the TV commercials. Growing up, we’re always shown that Barbie dolls are for girls and video games are for boys. Toys are often a very social thing when you’re young, so I was never interested in them because of the social setting. The boys were playing video games and the girls were playing with dolls.
Do you think that’s why the game development industry is so male-dominated?
LS: Yeah, I think so. I think it comes from a very early age. You grow up with a mindset that there is something for boys and there’s something for girls. We’re also influenced by our parents, because they buy our toys for us, and maybe they have an idea of what kinds of toys their sons or daughters should play with. It’s a bit sad how much something like that can shape the future.
I’m actually really thankful for my parents because I always had a lot of building toys that weren’t typically associated with girls. It was really cool that they ignored the social bias that tools and construction toys are only for boys. Playing with those is one of my first memories, and it’s really cool.
What makes you good at your job?
LS: I think I still need to work on it (laughs), but in UX, you need to be really good at communicating with a lot of different people in many different disciplines. As a UX designer for tools, I work with level designers, programmers, artists, a bunch of different people who are experts in their fields. I don’t need to be an expert in their field to work with them, but I need to be able to communicate effectively with them.
It took me a while to understand that I wasn’t bad at my job because I didn’t understand how programming works. I’m good at my job because I can learn to talk to experts without having expertise. I think my job is similar to that of a journalist because you have to learn how to ask good questions, because that’s how to improve design while working with multiple disciplines.
What makes UI/UX design so important?
LS: That’s almost a philosophical question (laughs). There are computers around us everywhere today, UX and UI is the bridge between a human and a computer. Computers can’t exist on their own, they’re built for human interaction, and without good UX, there is no communication between a human as a user and a computer. This doesn’t only apply to things like games, phones, and computers, but also things without any graphic interface, like smart home technology. People often think of UX as a visual or graphical component, but really, it’s the entire experience.
Have you ever had any female role models?
LS: Ten years ago, when I was working in Russia as a graphic designer, my boss was this amazing lady. I always looked up to her because she was always so positive and optimistic. Not in a fake way – she was really genuine and was great at handling conflict. I thought she was one of the wisest women I’ve ever met. She really inspired me back then and still does today. I don’t think I would be where I am today without her.
What advice would you give to women who want to do what you do?
LS: I’d tell them to think outside the box. Try things that you might think are not for you, because that’s where you’ll find yourself.
What do you think needs to change in order to achieve gender equality in the games industry?
LS: I think it’s more of a societal problem. The games industry inherited the problem from society. That’s why the change is so slow: because it’s on a global scale, it’s happening in all corners of civilization. The unfortunate truth is that there is no easy solution to the problem. If there was, it would be solved by now.
On the other hand, I would like to warn employers from making a mistake of hiring more women “just because they are women”. It’s all over media nowadays and there is a risk that women would be hired just for better statistics and reputation of a company. We want to be hired for our skills, experience and personalities, not just because we are female.
I’m actually very happy that in Sweden, where Massive is, the society is very open-minded and welcoming of diversity. Even in just the three and half years I’ve been at Massive, I’ve seen more and more women each year coming into development positions.
To see more interviews in this series, click here.