Reena Merchant has mastered the perfect combination of logic and creativity to guide us through a futurescape that will desperately need both.
To be described as a paradox used to be a negative. “A person having qualities that appear to be opposites,” goes the dictionary definition. It denotes an unreconciled confusion, like an incomplete puzzle.
Except in today’s world – and more importantly tomorrow’s – these are exactly the type of qualities that will dominate: traits that bring together two opposing forces of logic and creativity.
Think about AI and its role in our future. Generative tech will soon dominate the online landscape – creating content, building websites, handling and delivering information at will. Pundits say this will lead to a homogenization of the online space, creating a meta world that will operate entirely under its own AI thinking.
A world where tech makes all the decisions, all the content and all the imagery to create a living virtual space in which humans will engage. And that’s what has a lot of people worried – where exactly do oxygen-breathing mammals like us fit in? Who will handle this tricky marriage of artifice and human experience?
It will likely be people like Reena Merchant.
“There simply aren’t as many women
fabric, we are often expected to
in tech. And because of the cultural
behave in a certain way.”
The Great Adventure
Reena Merchant is a product of two worlds. Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, she hails from a family of Indian descent. A clever kid with a talent for academic study, in Grade 9 she left the comfort of her Canadian education and on the advice of her parents moved with her grandmother to India.
“I was really shy. I was an introvert, with a lot of focus on normal things – you go to school, do well in your studies. And then all of a sudden, I was put in this situation where I was going to be in a completely different country. And although I was somewhat familiar with Indian culture and language, living there full time was very new to me.”
It was her Great Adventure. “It was a big journey of me pushing myself out of my comfort zone and coming out of the shell that I had grown into. I needed to make sense of the world and figure out how to do well in this new environment, how to make friends and how to be more social. It was a really great experience, if challenging.”
The experience shaped her, but she soon had to do it all over again. “I came back three years later and had to reintegrate. There was a cultural shock all over again. Although I’m Canadian and familiar with that culture, I had no idea what high school was going to be like. I had no friends, I didn’t know anyone because I had gone to India for the past few years.” It wasn’t the last time she would feel out of place.
Dance Little Sister
As a child, Reena considered being either a lawyer like her mother, or a ballerina. It perfectly describes her dichotomy and the two sides of her personality. Her paradox. On the one hand, a bright spark in the field of computer science, where she would eventually end up applying her logical brain to master code, and on the other a gentle and inquiring creative that sought to deal with an inherent sensitivity to the world around her.
At first, she struggled to marry the two sides, but then she discovered UX – the science of adapting tech’s user experience to be of ultimate benefit to people’s lives. She joined Blackberry, then Citrix and Sony PlayStation, and then Google, where today she runs a User Experience team for YouTube.
“I enjoy UX because it’s the perfect way of combining logical thinking and problem-solving with my artistic and creative side. And when it comes to user experience design, it’s so much about creating great products for humans. That’s something that’s really important to me.”
Is It Still A Man’s World?
Reena rose through a tech industry dominated by men, another challenge. “There simply aren’t as many women in tech. And because of the cultural fabric, we are often expected to behave in a certain way. Women are often expected to be a louder voice and presence that doesn’t necessarily lean on intuition. And I have found that whenever I’ve tried to become that person, I have missed out on the intuitive part within me.”
Reena started to look inwards and began to engage with her intuition in order to further reconcile her inward and outward selves. Life helped her along.
“In 2015, I went through a lot of personal change in my life, and to help manage the stress, I started meditating. That allowed me to give myself permission to quiet all of the chaos inside me. I learned that when I was quiet there was another little voice within me that I usually wasn’t hearing, but oh my goodness, I could hear it now. And through that I learned that my intuition is always there. It’s just that many times I’m not tapping into it.”
“It may seem obvious,” says Reena,
“but the biggest lesson I’ve learned over
the years is that you should never try
to be someone you’re not.”
Learning how to hear her intuition put Reena in better alignment with her authentic self. “It’s been a lot of learning to have the courage to say, ‘No, I don’t need to show up in this industry as women are often expected to. It doesn’t need to be like that. It can be my own flavor of leadership. It’s about learning how to coexist in this diverse industry. I’m constantly in boardrooms with people who aren’t like me.”
Just Be Yourself
“It may seem obvious,” says Reena, “but the biggest lesson I’ve learned over the years is that you should never try to be someone you’re not. When working in an industry where success is frequently defined in masculine terms, it can be easy to start believing you need to ‘become’ that in order to succeed,” she says.
In addition to her high-powered tech career, in which she leads a team at Google, today she is an author, podcaster, and mindfulness coach via OurVoice, her community organization aimed at fostering self-confidence and authenticity. Inner work has helped Reena to stay calm and centered no matter what is happening around her. “It has helped me hear my own voice and tap into my intuition. All of this has helped me become more confident in myself and my decisions. I think it’s kind of a life-long journey. There is this platform [OurVoice] through which my hope is to bring others resources, but I am on this journey too so I’m growing as I go.”
Bring It All Together
The world of user experience is going to be central to how we exist in the future, says Reena. “On one hand, the field of user experience is a high ‘human touch field’ and I believe will always require the hands-on expertise of UX designers, researchers, prototypers, and writers to develop great products. However, I do think AI is quickly changing the landscape of tools and methodologies available to UX professionals. The possibilities are endless. AI could revolutionize the way we brainstorm, ideate, conduct design sprints, collaborate, generate designs, or even conduct research. I think there is a lot of opportunity for AI not only to streamline the UX process, but also to amplify it by putting more generative capabilities at the hands of UX professionals.”
There are dangers ahead too, she says.
“I’m embarking on a lot of research around AI as part of my role. I’m personally very passionate about ensuring that we adopt and utilize AI responsibly. Though AI has been used for years in the tech industry to create products that are intelligently and intuitively tailored to user needs, the growth of Generative AI specifically opens up a plethora of trust, safety, and authenticity related considerations throughout tech. Especially as a UX professional, my role is to ensure that technology is human-centric, and I think it’s important that all of us in tech, and especially in UX, more than ever spend time to establish the right principles and guardrails that can keep us innovating with AI, but in a responsible way.”
Reena Merchant is well positioned to lead the way.
“I have a deep love, appreciation and gratitude for life overall,” she says. “I am on a continual journey to cultivate this from within, rather than having my love for life be dependent on external things. If I love life no matter what’s happening around me, then I am grateful for each and every day, and excited for the experiences life will bring me.
“I thoroughly love what I do. I deeply enjoy my role as a user experience professional – bringing meaning to human lives through tech is something that gratifies me. This deep love keeps me going every day, even when the going gets tough.”