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Meet Maria Papaleo, who has been inducted into the 2024 Marketers To Watch Series, in partnership with The Wall Street Journal, for her innovative work and leadership as the Head of User Experience (UX) Design and Research at Amazon Web Services (AWS).

With over 17 years in the UX field, she has progressed from an entry-level designer to senior leadership roles across innovative companies. Currently, she leads a team at AWS tasked with deeply understanding their diverse users and translating those insights into seamless, engaging product experiences. 

Curious about who is leading the AWS UX Design and Research team? Keep reading to learn Maria’s perspectives on the future of UX and marketing, how they can work together seamlessly, the innovative work she’s been leading, her best career advice, and more.

What gives me joy outside of work

Exploring diverse cultures through travel energizes and inspires me outside of work. Immersing in new environments challenges assumptions and provides perspective. Each trip renews my passion for empathetic, curious user experience work.

Every marketer should listen to...

Alie Ward’s podcast, “Ologies,” promotes curiosity and fresh perspectives that can all be used to innovate.

Future of Marketing and UX

Q: What’s one thing coming down the marketing pike you are most excited about, and how does that connect to UX?

I’m really excited about using data to make personalized user experiences. By combining marketing data with UX design, we can create interfaces and content that are customized for each user’s specific needs and preferences.

The tricky part is finding the right balance between personalization and privacy. I picture marketing and UX teams working closely together to use customer data responsibly. This data can guide research, design choices, and the creation of intuitive, individualized experiences.

Q: How can UX and Marketing teams work together successfully?

UX and marketing teams can work well together by first getting on the same page about who their users are through shared research using data.

Here are some ideas to get on the same page:

  1. Having brainstorming sessions with people from different teams will lead to new ideas that balance what users want with what the business needs.
  2. Coordinate plans to ensure that when new products or features launch, the marketing promotions and in-app experiences all work together seamlessly.
  3. Involve marketing in user testing of designs to validate that visuals and messaging will resonate before going live.
  4. Consistently share user feedback, metrics, and campaign performance between the teams to keep refining and improving over time.
  5. Encourage an open, collaborative environment where skills of both UX and marketing are valued equally to create a great user experience that achieves user and business goals in harmony. 

Q: What’s a prediction you have for UX over the next few years?

I think that bringing advanced AI and machine learning into digital products and services will quickly change the field of user experience design in the next few years. Smart, flexible interfaces will be able to predict what users need, give personalized recommendations, and automate complicated tasks to make them simpler. Virtual assistants will be able to understand spoken language and show customized information and actions.

The biggest challenge will be using AI’s capabilities to improve user experiences without making them feel impersonal or dehumanized. It’s really important to consider ethics around user data privacy, being transparent about how AI is used, and giving users control.

Ultimately, my vision is that AI will become an invisible layer that enhances digital experiences across different situations and devices. It will make them more efficient, personalized, and enjoyable—but in a responsible way that prioritizes ethical implementation. 

UX at AWS and Beyond

Q: What’s the most pressing business challenge you’ve faced within the last year at AWS, and what have you done to try to solve it?

One big challenge I faced was getting users to adopt a new service we launched. To address this, the team executed a comprehensive user experience strategy:

First, we did a lot of upfront research with customers to understand their needs and perspectives. This helped inform our plans and priorities for the product roadmap.

Then, we quickly built prototypes and tested them over and over to validate our ideas before actually building the final product. We worked closely with the product and marketing teams to make sure our messaging highlighted the key benefits we identified that customers cared about.

After launch, we closely tracked data on user engagement, issues they faced, and feedback to continuously improve the experience through fast cycles of enhancements.

While adoption is still growing, this comprehensive user-focused process has shown promising results so far. It has become a model for how we approach major new product rollouts across the whole company. The key was putting the customer at the center, from research through design, testing, marketing alignment, and continuous improvement based on real data. This holistic UX-driven approach set us up for success 

Q: What’s something exciting you’re currently working on?  

Outside of my day job, I have founded a UX conference called UXxUX ( UXxUX is exciting because it fosters cross-disciplinary idea exchange through immersive formats like interactive workshops, lightning talks from people doing real boot-on-the-ground work, useful keynotes, and lots of networking opportunities.

We are passionate about giving a voice to the folks doing and learning how the UX industry is evolving every day and exploring emerging tech’s UX implications while maintaining a human-centric lens. These sessions are built to inspire unconventional design thinking. This multidisciplinary, boundary-pushing environment propels experience design’s innovative frontiers for designers, researchers, and marketers alike.

Leadership and Career Advice

Q: What leadership muscle is most important for marketers to exercise?

One of the most important skills for marketers to develop is empathy—the ability to deeply understand the core human needs, feelings, and motivations that drive how users behave.

Building empathy means really immersing yourself in the lived experiences of your target users. This involves qualitative research methods like ethnographic studies where you observe people in their real environments and contexts. Gaining this deeper understanding of users enables you to craft marketing campaigns and brand messaging that resonates with them on an emotional, gut level.

As marketing becomes more and more data-driven, empathy will guide efforts to use personalization capabilities in an authentic way that doesn’t betray users’ trust. Empathy provides that human-centric perspective that is crucial for forming lasting, meaningful connections with customers amid all the technological advancements. Exercising the “empathy muscle” will separate the marketers who can rise above just transactional promotion from those who simply add more noise.

Q: What’s the most game-changing career advice youve received?

A mentor once told me, “What got you here won’t get you there. Never stop being a student of your users.” This simple advice completely changed my way of thinking. I realized that continuously doing user research and having empathy for users should be the driving force behind all our user experience strategies.

I started programs where my teams regularly shared insights we gathered directly from users. This helped keep us humble, curious and focused on creating experiences that truly helped users rather than just making assumptions about what they wanted. Staying closely connected to our users in this way was a game-changer. It completely transformed how we made decisions, putting the human user at the center instead of basing choices on other factors. Keeping a tight feedback loop with users is crucial for human-centered decision-making. 

Marketers to Watch is a recognition series to spotlight highly innovative and forward-thinking marketing leaders in the community. If you have someone you’d like to nominate for the series, apply here.