Sarah is the Founder and Managing Director of Nile, an award-winning innovative insight and proposition design company based in Edinburgh. Not only is Sarah a hugely successful business leader, philanthropist, political strategy influencer and mother, she has also been a Digital Advisor to Number 10’s GB campaign and co-founded the UK Service Design Network.
Can you tell us about your career & how you came to found your experience and service design agency, Nile?
I founded Nile in 2006, three years after completing my Masters Degree in Human Computer Interaction. I thought there was an opportunity in the market and that it would be fun to explore it. The first year was challenging; it involved a lot of time presenting to different companies and waiting for the phone to ring. Year-on-year the business grew and we won numerous awards and many high profile clients, most of whom are still working with us today.
In the last two years, I’ve also become an investor in a number of companies in sectors ranging from education to engineering. It’s been a new experience to be on the other side and to see the range of challenges companies face across industries and how they manage them.
I’ve always been interested in business, my parents recently reminded me of the first business plan I drew aged 12. A veterinary practice, which would save the lives of all animals. My ultimate goal is to live a fun life, full of unusual experiences and interesting people. Work wise, it’s to be involved across a range of companies, each making a positive difference to the world we live in.
My ultimate goal is to live a fun life, full of unusual experiences and interesting people.
What exactly is ‘service design’ & why is it so important to get it right in today’s competitive landscape?
Technology is more and more integrated into our daily lives, and it’s advancing at rapid speed. We augment our ability with phones, connected apps and wearable devices. They tell us how to get somewhere, where we left our keys, if we’ve slept enough, whether our electricity has been left on or that we’re about to overspend for the month. Service design is the process of imagining new products and services whilst working out what technology and human resources are required to deliver them.
A very early example of this, which is now mainstream is the Emergency Cash service of RBS. By using the existing ATM network, we were able to help design a service that allows an RBS or NatWest customer to access up to £200 from an ATM without requiring a banking card. You just need the app on your phone to receive a one-time code. Two months ago, I was doing a weekly shop and realised I had forgotten my wallet. This small and simple service was so valuable in that moment.
Companies need quick and reliable methods to uncover unique opportunities and improvements. That’s all service design is. A tried and tested method to design to great products and services.
You founded Nile in 2006. How have you seen the user experience and service design industry develop over the last 10 years?
When I started the company in 2006 the landscape was very different. Many companies were just starting to create websites and online retail stores. Connectivity across the UK was poor, and people’s trust of digital transactions was low. The rise of mobile and wearable devices have significantly transformed our ‘standard’ behaviour and appetite for digitally enabled products and services. This is the perfect storm for businesses like Nile.
I’ve seen, and continue to see a huge shift in how companies are evolving their strategies and attitudes to user experience. I think the biggest difference is around internal knowledge and education. It’s no longer a hard sell; it’s an essential aspect of any product of service. Executive and board leaders have it on their agenda and as a result many more companies have meaningful contact with customers before, during and after launching new products and services.
What does a typical workday look like for you?
I get up at 6.00 or 6.30am, followed by some short meditation and setting three goals for the day. All before my daughter Sunniva rises! If she wakes early, this happens later, or not at all.
We have breakfast together. At the moment I’m experimenting with coffee, butter and oil blended together, apparently it aids mental performance. I’ll report back later… Sunniva heads off to Nursery and Louis (our French bulldog) and I walk to the office.
My days are varied, which I love. They include meetings with my team, clients or partners, travelling in the UK and abroad and attending industry events to stay on top of the latest trends.
You provided mentorship on the prestigious Service Design degree at the Royal College of Art. How important is mentorship to you?
Having been both mentee and mentor over the years, I’m a big advocate. It can be the quickest route to evolving your perceptions and behaviours in specific contexts. The mentors I’ve been fortunate to work with during my career have been right for the particular stage of company growth.
Today, I have a very challenging company board. I also have an extended peer networks via organisations such as BIMA (the British Interactive Media Association) which has been invaluable over the years.
As a senior woman within your profession, what advice would you give to other women looking to progress in a similar field?
Don’t wait. Decide what you are going to do, and do it. A useful step when you are starting out is to join the relevant industry bodies to grow your network in the space and surround yourself with people further along the journey than you.
My advice? Don’t wait for what you want. Decide what you are going to do, and do it.
What are the highlights in your own career and why?
This is a little cheesy, but I’ll share it anyway. In the first three years of the business we were doing some really innovative and leading commercial work with eye tracking technology (it enables you to record where someone is looking). Because of this I was interviewed for a global magazine, which my husband read. He was living in Norway at the time, but the article prompted him to get in touch, we arranged to meet and the rest is history.
Been the best piece of career advice received?
Age is no barrier to experience.
How do you like to wind-down in your free time?
By being at home and enjoying the people in it.
Do you think the way we dress in the workplace has a direct impact on our careers?
Yes, I do. How we dress impacts both how we feel about ourselves, and the impression we make on others. Malcolm Gladwell covers this really well in his book ‘Blink’. In a split second we form our first opinion on someone, their smarts, trustworthiness, likeability etc. What you wear is a significant part of this. I think it’s both important to dress for the context you are in and your personality so you feel good and natural on the inside.
Dress for your personality and the context you are in so you feel good and natural on the inside.
Three ways we could be more productive today?
Spend five minutes meditating, drink lots of water (it significantly helps decision making), identify where you can create NET time (no extra time) e.g. download a podcast and listen on the tube.
Job satisfaction is…
Being energised by the work you do.
Recreational – Three Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet or anything by Jo Nesbø and Robin Hobb.
Edinburgh top five?
- Camera Obscura.
- The Edinburgh Food Studio – a three year creative food project, the menus and wine rotate from around the world and the hosts are excellent.
- Arthur’s Seat at sunrise or sunset.
- Affogato Gelato in the West End – possibly the best ice-cream in Edinburgh.
- One Spa for the day – who doesn’t love a day of pampering?
Who inspires you?
I find inspiration from lots of people, from the well known to not so well known. For example there’s a start up (MoreUnited) being run by Bess Mayhew, I find her desire to change our political landscape and relationship to politicians inspiring especially in the current climate.
Why do we need more women at the top?
We need diversity. Diversity will bring divergent thinking progressing business, our economy and the environments we work in.
Lastly, which items from The Fold do you have your eye on and why?
There’s a lovely silk blouse in the collection, an easy all rounder. I’ve already purchased it.
Age is no barrier to experience.