How did you get into design, and do you wish you had done anything differently?
Design was never in my deck of cards. Like many other Asian Americans or Middle Eastern Americans, it seemed like the only choices offered to me at an early age were a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. I don’t fault my parents—like many other loving parents they simply wanted me to be happy which they believed were byproducts of financial security, respect, and helping others.
Growing up in America being exposed to both western and eastern values, I found a tension early on between individualism vs. collectivist culture. The former asks all about “what do I enjoy?” or “how can I best express myself?” whereas the latter asks about “What’s most helpful to the community?”
Up until my final year of college, I had two goals: become a physician assistant (PA) to help others and also graduated with a business degree in case I had to take over my family’s business. I had the grades and opportunity to make both happen, but I felt a sense of inner betrayal in not also being able to check the box of “what do I enjoy?”
In my free time, I was binging YouTube design tutorials and helping my realtor and business owner friends with their design collateral but never considered this more than a hobby. It wasn’t until I interned at a hospital that I begin to see how reliant these places were on technology. I realized then that making a difference in the world 🌎 didn’t only mean being on the frontlines of direct care.
I switched to design as a full-time career because I didn’t have to compromise being true to my passions while also being able to create value and help those around me.
I honestly don’t think I’d do anything differently. I’m not a big dweller on the past and I genuinely believe that the experiences I had of developing empathy through healthcare and understanding business needs from my college degree have helped me become a better designer.
What’s an experience you’re grateful you’ve had in your design career?
Mentorship. I always roll my eyes 🙄 when people tell me they’re “self-made” (fill in success story). The leaders I’ve come to respect spend less time trying to convince others they’re deserving of their titles and much more on simply doing the work of adding value to other peoples’ lives.
For myself, I am who I am and where I am today because of the investment, healthy challenges, and encouragement of mentors and coworkers around me. I’m a believer in hustle and hard work, but at the end of the day, these experiences of learning from others have been the catalyst in leveling up my character and design skills.
Mentorship can be formal—I literally cold messaged two senior designers I respected and they were gracious enough to sit with me over lunch and answer all my noob product design questions. However, mentorship can also be informal.
People talk about lots of factors when searching for a new job: compensation, work-life balance, culture, etc. But what I think doesn’t get enough attention is mentorship from your direct managers. In my last two roles, I sought out designers I respected (one of these just so happens to be the infamous Taylor Palmer, co-founder of UX tools who didn’t know me at the time) to see if I could come learn and build products with them.
Where in the design process do you feel most comfortable? Why there?
I feel like this is asking a parent to be able to pick their favorite child—there’s a lot of joy and comfort that I find in each one of these various disciplines. I’m also keenly aware that in every area, I still have mountains to learn. However, where I feel most confident and often times most leveraged by organizations that I’ve worked with is in information architecture and design systems. I tend to really enjoy this space because it’s foundational to everything else. I still love going really deep in a certain problem area, but in terms of broad impact—I’ve found that making sure we match our environment with user intents leads to lots of good ripple effects. 🌊 There’s also something really rewarding about being able to enable designers to be more productive with the right tools, templates, and patterns they can glean from when it makes sense so they can get back to talking to the people they’re building products for.
What attributes or skills make a successful product designer?
Communication and storytelling are great superpowers, but I think an underrated skill that a successful designer has is being an exceptional story-listener. It’s in active listening that we hear about what our customers, stakeholders, and the market care for. It’s in that listening that we identify problems, patterns, and insights that lead to more holistic solutions.
Selling ideas is important, but even more critical is finding the intersection of the right idea for the right context. I’ll bet on a designer who keeps her finger on the pulse of people and can back her decisions up with data-informed rationale over a strong, charismatic communicator any day.
What makes you feel energized at work?
There’s a certain satisfaction that I get from having a product actually come alive in the execution phase, but where I typically get the most energy is from dreaming and scheming with others. A previous design leader I worked with would call designers “contenders of reality” and that phrase has always stuck with me. What gets me the most energized is being able to ask the “why” questions (whether that’s in the capacity of an existing or net new product) and being able to reimagine what could be if we challenge some assumptions or parameters. I love getting to bring people together so that we can facilitate and build a better future.
My design tool stack is currently composed of Figma, Figjam, G Suite, Zoom, and Slack. I can definitely geek out on tools and can tell you how these stack up against competitors, but the reality is tools come and go—what matters more is do they help you achieve your goal?
Lately, I’ve been finding some of these tools to be more distracting than helpful. I’m reaching an inflection point in my career where I’m responsible for more than just critical ground-level work, but harder problems that require deeper focus and attention as they strategically span across the entire platform. I never want to be the bottleneck in a project and want to be seen as responsive, dependable, and approachable. However, I’ve found myself disabling notifications and using built-in focus modes more often as I want these tools to be helpers instead of dictators of my time.
We’re also not as important as we think. Surprisingly since doing this, I haven’t ever seen a fire get out of control. I still zero out my messages at different points of the day, but I’ve found that being able to disconnect in a notification-free flow state has led to greater creativity, better insights, clearer vision, and helped me move the needle on the metrics and priorities that matter most.
However, if I absolutely had to choose a favorite tool, it’d be Spotify as it’s adaptable to my jobs-to-be-done. I can hire it out to entertain friends at a dinner party or I can hire this out for productivity and enabling space for that deeper thinking.
What are some tips you have for working with other departments outside of design?
As a minority, I’m constantly code-switching between different cultures and social interactions. I used to view this negatively or somehow not being authentic to myself.
My perspective on this has recently changed—I am who I am unapologetically regardless of context. However, communication isn’t so much about how a message is presented, but how it’s received and interpreted. I’ve found if I want to be an effective communicator then I need to be mindful of my audience—speaking to cultural references, mental models, familiar language, and concerns or objections that they have.
Similarly, for designers wanting to be bridge-makers between other departments, you need to realize that this will require being adaptable, intentional, and a willingness to step out of your familiar lane. This won’t happen overnight, but you need to start being students of these other disciplines—what do they care about, what keeps them up at night, where do they want to collaborate, etc. This will also be an ongoing process, but you’ll be surprised at how much it’ll impact your velocity to gain buy-in for initiatives.
What signs do you look for to tell you when you’ve done “enough” research?
Research should stop if it no longer influences action. To be clear, I don’t mean if your organization doesn’t care about research then you shouldn’t do it. That’s another conversation altogether, but I’m operating under the assumption that your product org has bought into good research practices. However, research’s primary goal is to be able to drive actionable insights. There can be a point in your project when you hit a point of diminishing returns.
Research should always be framed in the context of risk, opportunity, and intended goals. While I believe in having a healthy cadence of always talking to customers, for project-specific research—if you no longer know what you’re trying to de-risk, change, or need feedback on then you need to move onto something else or collectively re-assess your goals.
What advice should designers keep in mind when working remotely?
Don’t forget to prioritize your long-term mental, emotional, relational, and physical health. As designers, back-to-back meetings typically find us as we want to collaborate or keep others informed of our in-progress work. I’ve also noticed we aren’t always great at estimating work, which leads to work bleeding into nights and weekends to keep timelines on track.
Be intentional in scheduling breaks, vacations, and PTO as well as set up appropriate guardrails where you can—your current employer and future self will thank you as you’ll continue to hopefully keep your creative spark. ✨
For those working in fully remote teams, virtual activities can be helpful. However, I’ve also seen unhealthy expectations where people put a burden of “family” type responsibilities on their co-workers. It’s okay to seek community outside of your immediate team be that other departments or your local community of designers. That difference in diversity can also help you continue to learn, grow, and simply have fun.
Thanks for chatting, Sean!
Yeah, thanks for having me! I appreciate all that UX Tools does for the community.