Stéphanie Walter is a UX researcher and designer based in Luxembourg. She’s prolific in sharing useful information via social media and her newsletter. Recently, she co-founded a new project, called Neurospicy, to bring more awareness to issues of neurodiversity in design. Neurospicy has evolved since we recorded this conversation, but as you’ll hear, organic evolution is part of Stéphanie’s approach.

Show notes

Show notes include Amazon affiliate links. We get a small commission for purchases made through these links.

If you're enjoying the show, please rate or review us in Apple's podcast directory:

This episode's transcript was produced by an AI. If you notice any errors, please get in touch.


Jorge: Stéphanie, welcome to the show.

Stéphanie: Hello, welcome. Thanks for having me.

Jorge: I’m excited to have you on the show. I’ve been following your work, primarily over social media, for what feels like a couple of years now. I’m always amazed at how much you share and how much of it is of high quality, which is always good to look at. I wanted to have the opportunity to hear more about you and your work, and in particular, the stuff that you’ve been doing recently.

About Stéphanie

Jorge: How do you go about introducing yourself?

Stéphanie: Sure. So I’m originally French, but I’ve been living and working in Luxembourg for seven years now. I started in Germany, went back to France, and now I’m in Luxembourg. I work as a UX researcher and a UX designer, focusing mostly on enterprise UX. I try to solve problems for people who need to work with an interface on a daily basis. I’m a consultant. Today I work for the European Investment Bank, and I’m working on internal tools that are used by everyone at the bank on a daily basis. And yeah, I have a blog. I also have a sticker business.

Jorge: The sticker business—you chuckle, but I have to say, as somebody who is a—I’m going to use the word ‘consumer’—of the content that you put out, it feels to me that it’s one with the spirit of your personal brand somehow, so it does not feel out of place to me.

Stéphanie: Yeah, I work in enterprise UX, I work with tables all day long, data tables, stuff like that. So I really like to do something creative on the side, which is basically, I’m doing a lot of illustration and, you can’t see it behind me, but usually behind me, I have the plotter. It’s a machine that lets you cut things. At the beginning, I started cutting them by hand, and then it was very annoying, so I was like, okay, let’s buy your plotters. And my friend was like, you should sell those online. I was like, come on. It’s annoying to sell stuff online in Europe because of VAT and all of that. But then, yeah, eventually I figured it out with a tool to do that and an accountant. So now I have a legit sticker business.

Jorge: That’s great. I think it’s great to have a connection with craft. I think it’s something that, especially—I’ll speak for myself—I’ve worked in the enterprise space as well, and often I feel like a lot of the work is very abstract. So having the opportunity to work on concrete things feels like it’s good.

Stéphanie: Yes. And doing something with your hands, even though I draw on the iPad, so it’s still very digital, but at some point, I’m also doing some… how do you call this, like paper stuff with, I’ve been doing earrings at some point. I think stickers are basically the gateway drug to buying a cutting machine. And then you’re like, okay, what else can I do? A lot of things.

Jorge: Is your background in a field related to these things? Is it like a graphic design background? How did you get into this?

Stéphanie’s Journey to UX Design

Stéphanie: I wanted to be an art teacher, but then I realized there’s no money in that. So I discovered a master’s degree in Strasbourg that was mixing what you might call infographics at that time. It was essentially about combining digital creation and languages. The primary goal was to prepare people to localize digital products, like CD-ROMs, websites, and stuff like that.

So I decided to pursue that master’s degree because I enjoyed languages, but I also liked designing websites, doing some digital arts, and all of that. Then I went to work in Germany. This is where I discovered UX because in France we had this—it’s called ergonomie in French, but ergonomics is more about chairs and all of that. You could say it was a usability class. We were taught about user testing, talking to the users, and so forth, but it wasn’t called UX. It was called something else.

And then, when I was working in Germany, I discovered the human interaction design guidelines from Apple because I had to work on iOS, and I had absolutely no idea how to design native applications for iOS. I was very pleased that they had that amazing documentation online. This is basically how I discovered that there’s a field called UX design and UX research, and you can do this and that. So this is how I gradually shifted from doing mostly web design to starting to work on native applications for iOS, for Android, and I was already working in enterprise because a lot of what we were doing was B2B. We had a native application for people whose job was to double-check bridges, someone who is hanging on a bridge checking there’s no structural damage and trying to take notes of the structural damage on an iPad.

So, I started my career with a lot of very enterprise-specific projects, and I think I’ve always enjoyed it because you have very specific niche topics, and you also become an expert on things no one cares about. Like, I know how a crane works, and I know why cranes on a construction site, when there’s a lot of wind, need to be left loose. Otherwise, they might fall and stuff like that, which is totally random knowledge. But it’s just because I eventually worked for a tool that was a crane monitoring system. And then you have to understand how this whole thing works. So that’s the very fun thing with enterprise and B2B—you never really know what new thing you will discover.

Jorge: As a consultant, an external person who works in the enterprise, this exposes me, again, I’ll speak for myself, to different kinds of challenges. When you were talking about the crane, I was thinking about a project I worked on that involved wind farms, and I learned a lot about that, something I didn’t expect I would learn so much about. And cybersecurity, and there are a bunch of different fields that one is exposed to as well.

Learning from Video Games

Jorge: You write on your website about your love for video games, and as someone who, I’m getting the sense that you have an open mind for learning different things, talking about the cranes and such, I’m wondering what, if anything, you’ve learned from video games that has influenced your work as a UX designer?

Stéphanie: All right. It depends on the type of game. Usually, in games where you can solve a puzzle with different solutions, like problem-solving skills, is something you learn a lot from video games. They have this new Zelda, which gives you tons of powers, and I saw a talk on how they tried to build this to be a very open world, where you can combine different things. It has super complex puzzles, and you have people who will just be hacking the system and say, you know what? I don’t care about your puzzle. I’m going to use this power and that power and do something completely out of the box to solve it in two minutes.

So, I really like this idea. I think the game developer in Zelda must just enjoy those videos on YouTube and TikTok so much, seeing people solving problems in very different ways. That’s usually one type of game I like, problem-solving/adventure. I also like to collect things. I never finished Diablo because finishing it would’ve meant closing the doors, and inside the doors, like Oblivion… no, not Diablo, Oblivion I meant, you have this kind of hellish realm, but they had a lot of stuff for potions. I’m like, hell no, I don’t want to close the doors. I don’t want to finish the game because then I cannot get the ingredients for the potions. So, sorry folks, I’m not going to save the world.

So, things like that, like collecting and spending time. And I think also resilience, especially if you play online video games because you end up in a team like League of Legends, for instance, which is a game where you have five versus five. You have to take down some turrets eventually to take down the enemy nexus. It’s like a 45-minute game on a desktop, more like 20 on mobile. And here you end up having to work with some people you do not know.

So, you have to very quickly adapt. You have to decide: Who can I trust? Who can’t I trust? Who am I going to follow? Sometimes you have someone who will carry you. So they will basically do the whole game for you, and you can relax. And sometimes, you play with people who are not very good, or who might even ruin the game. And I think it’s the same in many environments. You end up with colleagues. You don’t know who they will be. You don’t know how they will react, but then you have to quickly adapt to the situation. So, resilience and patience, I think.

Jorge: I’m also hearing flexibility and again, an openness to collaboration. And again, I can empathize as a consultant because I’m often thrust into situations where I am working with collaborators who are completely different from the group I was working with previously. And it sounds to me like some of these games, like League of Legends, maybe are good training for learning how to assess people’s contributions on the fly.

Stéphanie: Very quickly. To be fair, the community is very toxic. That’s, I think, the main problem with this video game. Like, the chat is sometimes very annoying and includes not very nice things, like slurs and stuff.

Jobe: Oof. That would be something that I would expect would make collaboration in the real world easier. Because I would expect that most of us don’t act like that in real life.

Stéphanie: I hope so.

Collaborating on Neurospicy

Jorge: I also got the sense from your website, and just from following your work, that you collaborate a lot. You work with collaborators, and now that we’re on this subject, I’m wondering about your approach to finding collaborators as opposed to the ones that you’re thrust into through no choice of your own. But I get the sense that you are mindful about picking collaborators for some things. How do you go about it?

Stéphanie: Usually, I like open-minded people. Because it’s the same like when you’re working in UX for users, you have a lot of people who think, “Okay, this user, they cannot do something because they’re stupid.” I’ve heard this so many times, especially from developers like, “Yeah, but it’s abuse. They’re stupid.” And it’s no, they’re just different. And they don’t want to do it the same way you developed it, and yes, they just work differently than you. So it’s always a little bit tricky. So I’m really cautious about people who are not open to differences.

There was an article about placeholders at some point, explaining the issues that placeholders have with accessibility. And one of them is that if you use a placeholder, for instance, in a form for an indication of a format, as soon as you start typing, the format vanishes. And someone was putting a very nasty comment about, “You’re able to comment, at some point if you don’t have the memory to remember from two seconds ago,” was like, “Yes, some people don’t.”

There’s a lot of things happening. There’s a lot with cognitive disabilities. We have long COVID, where you have people who have brain fog, who have issues remembering something that happened two seconds ago. And this is like, “Very close, oh, I work like that, and I don’t have this kind of issue. So I cannot imagine someone who cannot have a short-term memory of more than two seconds.” Yeah, but that’s not very open-minded. The world is made of a lot of different people, and you need to acknowledge that if you want to design for them. So, yeah, I would say open-mindedness to difference.

And also transparency. I don’t mind people messing up, but if you are going to hide it and make it very difficult for us to recover, that’s going to be a problem. So the whole, like not communicating the information on purpose, things like that, are sometimes a little tricky.

Jorge: I want to circle back to what you were talking about with regard to cognitive differences, let’s say. You recently launched something called Neurospicy. And I was hoping that you’d tell us more about it, just because I would like my audience to hear about it, but also I want to learn about it too. What is Neurospicy?

Stéphanie: I met Myriam Jessier, who is my co-conspirator on this project, a couple of years ago, and we were like, “Yeah, at some point we need to work together, or at least do something fun together.” So we’ve been doing a lot of fun things. We did a workshop last year at a conference, things like that, and we launched Neurospicy, which for now is just a website that is trying to promote and raise awareness toward neurodiversity. So for now, we have stickers, we have socks, and we have a newsletter where 19 amazing people already subscribed. And I’m just amazed that we already have, whoa, 19 people gave us their email for us to send them fun things. I’m like, “Oh, that’s very nice.”

So yeah, the idea is, Miriam is working mostly in SEO marketing content. I’m mostly working in UX research, UX design, and we wanted to have a place where when we collaborate on something that is around this area, at the cross-section of both, this is where we want to do it. So for now, it’s mostly the website. There are a couple of articles in there. Miriam is preparing a checklist normally for, to help people deal with neurodivergent folks in the workspace. The goal is really to give tools and also it’s just to have fun. The newsletter is going to be a dopamine and brain dump of, “This is very fun. Just look at it.” Something like that,So yeah, that’s the main idea. It’s supposed to grow, but we want to keep it very simple at the moment.

So it’s just a side project. It has the .agency domain, so it sounds very official. But yeah, for now, it’s just like a small side project that we are going to grow into. I don’t know. Honestly, that’s the fun part. It’s like we don’t really know where it’s going. We just talked this afternoon about maybe we could do a workshop on, huh, how did I pitch that? UX writing/accessibility and what design needs to be aware of and how do you work with content and UX writers, and what is the intersection for information architecture, accessibility, and UX writing. I have no idea where this is going. We were just discussing, oh, this would be something cool to do.

And so yeah, the goal is really to do something at the intersection of different topics, including like digital accessibility, cognitive accessibility, neurodiversity, UX writing, and SEO and marketing also a little bit.

Jorge: I love this. And I love this at two levels, and I’m hoping that we’ll talk about it on both levels. One level is, I love the idea of bringing more attention to the subject. I had, in the first year of this podcast, one of the first people I interviewed was Trip O’Dell, who came on to talk about dyslexia and the effects of that in UX design. So it’s a subject that has been on my radar for a while. So that’s one level in which I love this. The other level is the idea of putting out signals to see what it becomes. It’s like putting out the bat signal in some ways.

So let’s focus first on the neurodiversity piece of this. And then, I’d love to ask you about the second part of it.

The Importance of Neurodiversity Awareness

Jorge: Why is something like this needed now in your opinion?

Stéphanie: There are these situations where you have people who complain about this a little bit. You have people who say, “Yeah, but there weren’t that many autistic people a couple of years ago. There weren’t that many people who had ADHD. It’s just a phase. People need to have something.” And yes, there also weren’t that many left-handed people a couple of years ago, strangely, when society stopped making left-handed people’s lives miserable. All of a sudden, a lot of people were left-handed. And when I say miserable, I have friends who were forced to write with their right hand because, at that time in school, that’s what they did.

So that’s the thing, neurodiversity has always been around. It’s just that at some point, we start seeing it as something that should not be stigmatized and just something that should be treated as, “Okay, some people have a brain that works differently than other people, and that’s it.” So maybe you work differently, so you might need specific things that work. For example, some people have a trait where you are very sensitive to light. This can be a problem when you work in an open office space with these very horrible neon lights. Extra point if the neons are blinking sometimes. And yeah, most of the time, this kind of environment will not be a problem for most people, but if you are on the spectrum, if you’re neurodivergent, you may not be able to work in these environments.

So the goal is to say, at some point, we need to be aware of that and we need to provide accommodations for people so they can actually work in the perfect conditions. And often it’s a little bit complicated because first, a lot of people don’t know they are neurodivergent, especially among women. ADHD is rarely diagnosed when you’re a child. Most of the women I know who are diagnosed with ADHD were diagnosed very late in life for many different reasons. One of them is that the symptoms in boys are more visible, while in women, because of the way they were socialized as little girls, they basically learn very early to mask, to hide the symptoms.

So that’s one thing, a lot of people end up with a late diagnosis. And it’s the same, I think, for dyslexia. For children undiagnosed with dyslexia, you do not need the exact same thing. So I was working on making ratings fairer for students with dyslexia. The problem is, when you look at the scientific research, most of the studies are done on children, and it was very hard to find, okay, what could help a student with dyslexia? Because if you’re a student with dyslexia, you arrive in higher education, it means that you’ve put into place already some tools, mechanisms, to help you cope with your dyslexia.

So what do you do? Do you say, “Okay, they need Comic Sans font because it’s easier to read?” No. Basically, I went to the scene and asked, “What’s your favorite font, for instance?” And most of them said, yeah, some preferred serifs, some preferred sans-serifs. So there was not a consensus, but most of them were like, “Yeah, what we actually need is not a specific font, it’s for the teacher to give us the stuff in words so that we can adapt.” Some wanted more line height, some wanted to change the spacing between the letters, all of that, and it was very hard to make teachers understand that.

Because teachers had this stigma that dyslexic people are lazy. It’s like, “yeah, but sometimes it’s easy to blame it on the dyslexia,” and it’s the same with autism. It’s the same with ADHD; there’s this perception that, “oh, you should just make an effort,” like, “yeah, maybe not.” So I have a friend who was diagnosed, and I love what his psychologist told him. His psychologist explained that ADHD is as if you were playing the life game in hard mode, except you do not know there’s an easy mode, so you fail at things that everyone else does very easily, and you feel you are the problem because you do not know that the other people are not playing the same mode as you are.

Jorge: Wow.

Stéphanie: And he said just having the diagnosis and the realization that the problem wasn’t necessarily him, but the fact that he wasn’t aware of all of that, that really already helped a lot. So that’s what I’m saying when I’m… we need to raise awareness, because if you’re not aware that it exists and that some people might need different things to work, different things to just live, then you cannot help anyone.

Jorge: I really like that. And I’m a little blown away by that statement, playing life in hard mode. I could easily imagine how someone who feels that way can end up blaming themselves and feeling inferior, thereby feeding reactions that perpetuate the problem.

Stéphanie: That and the people who are around you also.

Jorge: Yeah.

Stéphanie: There’s one trait, which is basically some people have issues with parsing auditory information. So they will ask you to repeat, and by the time you repeat, their brain actually processes the stuff. So then everyone around them is like, “But you don’t listen to me. Pay attention to what I’m saying.” It’s not an attention problem, but sometimes it’s, “Oh, can’t you hear properly?” No, the hearing is perfect; the issue is like the time the brain needs to process the information, and since a lot of things happen with oral language, especially like teaching when you’re a kid, it might be very complex. Or if you have kids who move a lot at school, and basically they’re stimming all day long, you’ll have teachers who tell them, “Yeah, stop doing that, it’s annoying.” Then you internalize that you should not be doing that.

Jorge: One thing that I’ve learned over the last few years, increasingly more personally, is that we learn with our bodies, and as we interact with our environments, we’re making sense of things. And I can imagine that some people do that to a greater degree than others. And yet our learning environments, classrooms… again, I’ll speak to my own experience: when I was younger, we were asked to sit still in desks and not move, right? Like, our bodies were not engaged. We were supposed to just use our minds. And I can see how that would be very challenging for some people.

I wanted to call out, I had Jeff Johnson on this podcast talking about design for an aging population. And that conversation is coming back to mind as I talk with you, because he made a couple of points that I thought were relevant here. One was that in designing things to make them more accessible for members of a particular sector of the population — in his case, the aged; in your case, people with diverse cognitive abilities — those changes to the things we’re designing tend to bring benefits to other people who are part of the general population. That was one point. The other point was that in the case of aging, it’s a direction that most of us are hopefully heading toward.

Stéphanie: Yeah, exactly. I hope we all age nicely without problems, but statistically…

Jorge: We’re going to need that. And I don’t know what percentage of designers are younger folks. I would imagine that the majority of designers are younger people. And one of the reasons why I liked this initiative so much is that any opportunity that we can have to try to envision the world we’re designing through other people’s experiences is useful. I’ll just put that there and see if you have any reactions to that.

Stéphanie: Yeah, that’s one part. When I’m talking about cognitive accessibility, it’s about designing for people with learning disabilities, but also for people who have different perceptions. So, the thing is, you can have cognitive issues because of a disease like long Covid, for instance, or even while you had Covid, as like during the pandemic, the people who designed the website for the Covid situation did not take into account that someone who has Covid has a complete brain fog. You get so much information, so poorly written, at least in Luxembourg. They’re like, “What is the next step? How do I proceed?” I remember I was panicked. I sent a screenshot to my friends. I know that normally I would not have any problems, but can you tell me where do I click on this website? Because at the moment, my brain is fried eggs, and I cannot, for the life of me, feel that.

And it’s the same for aging and things like that. So it’s not just designing for people who have permanent cognitive disabilities; it can happen to anyone at any moment. And so many websites are so poorly done and so poorly written, like information architecture is a mess, sentences are super long, very complex to understand. And in some countries, we have this initiative for simplified language. Unfortunately, in Luxembourg, they do it in German, not in French. In France, in French, they have [inaudible], I know that in the US they also have simplified language. I’m like, “Why do we need an initiative? This should be the default; when you go on a government website, you need the simplified language.”

I created a company in Luxembourg, and I’m going to be very frank here, but I’m not surprised. There are so few people who create companies in this country who are disabled. Because the whole thing is a mess. Nothing is accessible. Some of the websites are very horrible. And then when you try to talk to administration, it’s like, at the end of the day, I was writing emails explaining to them that I cannot parse an 81-page PDF of European directives to get my answer. And I’m like, I’m not trying to be difficult. I’m just like, “You are the expert. You are the one who’s supposed to give me the answers on VAT and stuff like that.”

And yeah, that’s the thing, I’m just amazed at how bad and poorly structured everything is as soon as you try to do anything. And so for me, all of those initiatives, as you said, they should be the default, simplified language and all of that will benefit anyone. It would benefit people with cognitive disabilities. It would benefit foreign people who might not be that comfortable with the language, things like that. So yes, we need these initiatives because at the end of the day, if we can make lives easier for everyone, that’s perfect. And we’d have more companies in Luxembourg.

Jorge: I think that’s said well. And I encourage and promote that perspective. I’m hoping that after this conversation, you’ll have more than 19 subscribers to the newsletter. So folks can sign up.

About Stéphanie’s Approach

Jorge: But I want to switch gears now and ask you about the approach itself, just because I find it so exciting. I find it an exciting approach, to put something out there and see what it becomes. And I’m wondering, have you tried it before? Have you done this kind of thing?

Stéphanie: Almost everything I do is like that. At one point, I put some illustrations in Creative Commons on Wikipedia, and someone wrote an article about SEO strategies to get backlinks, and they quoted me, saying, “Yes, Stéphanie’s strategy is to put things on Wikipedia so that she can get back in and look. It works very nicely.” Are you kidding me? This thing was put on Wikipedia for a completely random reason. I drew the thing, and a friend told me there was an article that didn’t have an illustration and asked me if he could put it in there. I was like, I don’t know if I love or am really scared that people think I have a strategy. Because I don’t. I’m just like, “Okay, is it fun? Am I going to do this with nice people?” And then, if yes, okay, let’s do it. And yeah, at the end of the day, that’s also maybe like my brain wanting to get some little pieces of dopamine. It’s mostly about trying to do fun stuff, and I think not knowing where it goes is also part of the fun because if you decide you’re going to go in that direction, you might have tunnel vision as, “Okay, that’s the goal here.” We have no idea where it’s going. So everything is open.

I like it because of that too; it’s a very creative way of thinking to say, “Okay, it means we don’t know where it goes, but we’re also not restricted about what we can do.” Maybe it’s because I work in enterprise and it’s very strict and all of that. So I want something fun on the side that isn’t that strict. But, yeah, that’s the idea.

Jorge: In the spirit of transparency, I’m asking for selfish reasons, because I’m in the midst of launching something like this myself. And the thing is, it’s a subject that I am deeply interested in, and that I see a need for in the world, but I’m not entirely sure what exactly it wants to be. It’s almost like I want to play there, but I don’t know exactly what form it needs to take. And what I’m hearing here is that it’s okay to just put something tentative out and just see who it attracts and what traction it gains, if any, and then just let it go from there. Is that a fair read on it?

Stéphanie: Yeah, because then you shape it with people. Like, I basically at the moment have a giant workshop on accessibility for designers. And at the beginning, it was just a talk where I was like, “Okay, WCAG is a little bit complicated to digest for designers. What if I took the WCAG criteria and started documenting a lot of things for accessibility in my mockups?” So I decided to do this talk. Then at the end of the talk, people were like, “It’s a very cool talk, but can we have a main point as a checklist?”

So I created this small checklist, and then, of course, it wasn’t enough. So the small checklist became 14 pages of real checklists, and now I’m like, “Yeah, that’s a lot.” I’ve created another smaller checklist, which is a four-poster that you can print. And it’s like, this is very organic. At the beginning, I just had this idea of a talk on this topic, and it grew into a checklist and these things, and I have the stickers. I don’t know where they are, but how, like, disability rainbow stickers, things like that. So yeah, put it in the world, see what people think, what kind of feedback. And this will also, I think, fuel you into new ideas. Because you don’t know exactly where it’s going. So it’s perfect. And you can… I don’t like the word “pivot,” it makes it sound very startup-ish, but adapt to whatever it needs to become at some point.

Jorge: You said that you don’t have a strategy for this, but this sounds to me like a strategy, right? It’s a strategy that in some ways optimizes for joy and, like you said, flexibility.

Stéphanie: Chaos. Chaos is good fuel. Yeah, sometimes.

Jorge: Chaos is what?

Stéphanie: I think chaos is also a way to fuel new ideas.

Jorge: Absolutely. Particularly in times of disruption, right? We’re living through a time of disruption, and I think that it’s okay to not have a perfectly clear vision of where things are going, but to be guided by interest and curiosity, which is, it sounds to me like that’s what you’re doing.

Stéphanie: Yeah, and then you have less pressure.

Jorge: Right.

Stéphanie: What’s the worst that can happen? People do not care. Okay. But did I have fun making it? Yes. Did I learn something while making it? Also yes. So that’s a win, even if no one cares.

Jorge: Yeah, I love it. This is… I’m getting a sense that it’s a kind of playful approach to life and to doing the work. And I want to thank you for sharing it with us. And I also think that, like I said, it’s in, it’s, you’re doing the playing in a… but it’s a very serious subject and one that has tremendous import for people. So I’m excited for the project and I’m excited for folks to engage with it.


Jorge: Where can folks follow up with you?

Stéphanie: I have the website; it’s Stephanie Walter Design, where you have all the links to stalk me online. I have a newsletter also that I usually send every week. So every week I have these weekly links where I summarize everything I posted on social media, and I also add extra interesting links in there. And then, And there we have a specific newsletter too, and stickers and socks, and we’ll see in the future a couple of articles and maybe online workshops and more things. So once we decide how it’ll grow.

Jorge: Maybe by the time this conversation comes out, there will be new things there. Thank you so much, Stéphanie, for sharing it with us and for being here on the show.

Stéphanie: Thanks for having me.