How did you get into product design? And how does your background affect how you approach the job?
I always knew I wanted to work in a position that allowed me to be creative. Growing up, I was the kid who was making comic books during class and selling them to everyone at recess for a quarter. That’s just who I am—I love making new things. I remember when I was applying for college, I was set on being an inventor, so I applied to industrial design and business programs, but also to creative writing programs and other random stuff that sounded cool and creative. Nothing technical though.
It wasn’t until I was a few years into college before I realized that there was more to tech than coding—and that’s when I became enamored by UX. It really felt like a dream job to be able to spend my day inventing new features. That being said, I really try to bring my curious and creative mindset with me into work every day by leveraging a lot of design thinking activities early on in projects. I am always down to hear new ideas or perspectives, so I love hosting workshops with cross-functional folks from places like the product, engineering and data science teams to allow me to see things from a new angle.
Who’s someone you admire in design?
Can I give 2? On a personal level, there have been a plethora designers who have helped mentor, support and encourage me, but if I had to pick one to call out it would be Joi Roberts. She’s an incredible design leader at Meta who has shown me how impactful it can be to have someone in your corner rooting you on. She is incredibly smart both in terms of her expert understanding of experience design and also her rare ability to teach emotional intelligence and other soft skills that are required to be successful as a design leader.
From an academic perspective, the designer who I have learned the most from is Jared Spool. For anyone who hasn’t heard of his Leader’s of Awesomeness program, I couldn’t recommend it more. It is a FREE weekly lecture on Mondays where Jared covers topics like “Why won’t stakeholders listen to my research findings?” and “How do I make sure I’m hiring the right designer?” By simply attending his lectures over the past few years, I’ve been able to learn how to think more strategically as a designer and have more impact at the organizations I work with. For anyone looking for a book to read, consider spending that time going back and watching one of his lectures currently available online instead.
What’s a big challenge you’re currently facing as a designer and what are you doing to address it?
I think the biggest challenge that I’m facing today is the same one that many readers are also dealing with: how to make an impact on the broader organization as a young designer. As someone who is new to this organization (I started at Adobe about 6 months ago) and relatively new to UX as a whole (under 3 years of experience post-grad), I’m still building my personal brand and reputation, so I often find myself struggling to drive the changes that I believe in.
That being said, one way that I’ve been successful at getting Design that seat at the table is through the use of design thinking activities. Most teams have never tried them, but once they do, I’ve found that they love the unique solutions that get generated by bringing together cross-functional teams to solve problems together.
Additionally, I’ve found that, in these settings, designers are often able to serve as “collaboration multipliers” because we thrive on feedback and clear communication and we’re used to embracing ambiguity which is key to solving these complex enterprise problems that so often arise. As a result, bringing designers into the discussion can often lead to faster, simpler solutions. And, once teams see that, they are often much more interested in bringing design into the room for key decisions in the future.
What was one of your best moments as a designer and what happened to get you there?
I remember back in college I was interning at Royal Caribbean and they put me on this small project to redesign the confirmation page that users see after they book a cruise. It was a low stakes project, but it was super exciting to me because it was my first real opportunity to design something for a major company. As the project was going, I had done some initial work, but I needed to get some feedback from users, so I asked my manager if I could send out a survey.
However, instead of letting me just do a survey, he decided to let me go onto one of their biggest ships and do a focus group in person. It was such a cool experience to be able to talk with the people I was designing for and to be able to experience the atmosphere of the ship while I was at work. That was one of the first moments when I felt confirmation that I was on the career right path. A few weeks after that, I finished the designs and they were quickly added to the website and I remember feeling so excited to have created something that would be used by thousands of people in the future—I will never forget that feeling. That was the moment that I first felt like I wasn’t just an intern, I was a “real” designer.
How important is it for UX designers to understand the business side of things?
This might be a hot take, but if you are a UX designer who doesn’t understand the business side of things then you are not going to be successful long term. Period. We can’t stay inside of our “UX bubbles” and focus on just what our users want and expect our designs to be implemented.
Our partners from product management certainly aren’t thinking this way and if we want to “win” their support and the support of other stakeholders we need to understand what business objectives are influencing their decision making.
There’s a lecture from Jared Spool that talks about how to ensure your designs make the impact that you want them to and one of the first steps he recommends is that you put aside outputs (ex: deliverables like mocks) and instead start by defining outcomes—defined as, a change in user behavior that will improve their lives. These outcomes should tie in with your organization’s business goals.
By making this shift in my design process I’ve seen significantly less scope creep and misalignment between myself and the folks from the business side of the team because we then have a shared “north star” (which is the outcome) that we can all use to determine if an idea will move us in the right direction or not. It eliminates so many disagreements because we all have agreed on where we’re headed both from an experience and business perspective.
How do you document and share your research findings?
Currently, I don’t do much primary research myself because I get to work with a team of specialized researchers, but in the past I’ve worked more directly on research and I’d use a combination of Word + Excel to track hypotheses and prepare research plans, Usertesting.com for conducting and recording research sessions and transcripts and sharing insights via a combination of Airtable (for long term storage of insights) and PowerPoint for team readouts of our findings.
What are some tips to keep in mind when presenting your design work?
Stop thinking in terms of selling features or individual components to stakeholders and start thinking in terms of sharing stories and envisioning experiences.
Very few people have a concrete opinion on whether you should use a 1px rounded corner or a 10 px rounded corner, but a lot of people care about whether the user flow you’re showcasing will make users feel more confident about their purchase and thus convert more.
In other words, don’t present a design by going through each individual component on the screen and describing what they do; instead, tell the story of how the user will accomplish the task you want them to complete and how this new experience will work better than what was previously available. Additionally, try to support your design decisions by telling stories about what you learned from users in interviews when possible—it’s a great way to show the value of research and to back up your decisions.
In terms of getting feedback, be intentional about asking specific questions when you want feedback such as, “When you read the word ‘activate’, what did you think would happen if you pressed that button?” DON’T ask general questions like, “Do you like the design” or “Is this the flow you expected to see” because it invites others to provide feedback that doesn’t help you solve the problems you still need to solve and may invite unnecessary discussions on topics that you and your team have already decided on. Check out the book, “Articulating Design Decisions” by Tom Greever to learn more on this.
What do you do to keep learning in your profession?
The two main ways that I keep learning are 1.) by attending lectures from designers that have things worth listening to like Jared Spool (UX Strategy), Sophia Prater (OOUX expert) and Joe Natoli (wide variety of content from strategy to soft skills) AND 2.) listening to audiobooks. I try to always have an audiobook in progress. Right now I’m listening to “The Science of Storytelling” by Will Storr which is a great read if you want to learn how to craft stories the way that professional writers do.
I also just finished “Articulating Design Decisions” by Tom Greever which was a fantastic guide to presenting your design work and defending your decisions. I’ve found that, for me, audiobooks are a great way to keep learning because they’re accessible even when I’m too lazy to read a physical book. That being said, I am also slowly working my way through “UX Strategy” by Jaime Levy when I can find the motivation to physically read a book and it has been really interesting.
What’s something designers should stop doing?
What about instead of stopping doing something, we stop feeling like we can’t say no. If the goal is to be seen as equal stakeholders as PMs and Engineers, then we need to act like we have ownership (because we do) and start empowering ourselves to say no when we’re given unreasonable requests or requests that we know will lead to bad outcomes.
For instance, if a PM asks you for a high fidelity design 3 days after you join the project—say NO. If an engineer says that they can only build a version of the design that would create a bad experience—say NO. We need to stop being “Yes men/women/folx” and start being owners of the experience. Just like PMs and engineers tell us that our designs are out of scope or require too much time, we need to tell them when their requests will cause negative impacts or prevent us from doing the job we’re paid to do.
How do you see UX evolving in the future?
I see what’s considered a part of the “UX” umbrella expanding significantly. Today, most organizations see UX as just UI. Some organizations see UX as including things like research, service design and content. In the future, I see UX expanding into other disciplines like sales, implementation, business strategy and even beyond digital experiences into the physical (and meta-physical) spaces. Imagine how much better your clothes shopping experience could be, for example, if you had UX designers building stores based on what users need instead of based on what the store thinks will increase sales.
The days of designing experiences without the user in mind are over, customers expect more and their dollars are showing that they will pay for thoughtful experiences. With that shift is going to come more opportunities to apply the UX process in new and unique ways.
I also see UX becoming much more diverse. Today, there’s a very small funnel into UX, but with bootcamps, online courses and so many new companies looking for designers with unique and untraditional backgrounds there’s a real opportunity to create a UX community that is more representative of the broader society than it is today.