Illuminating Design at Uber, Instagram, and GM
Written by Liv Jenks and Kelly Niethammer
This fall, SWID’s Design Partnerships team launched an interview series to connect our community with influential designers. We’ve cast a wide net, talking to industry leaders in health, wellness, education, tech, and social entrepreneurship to bring you answers to big design questions, including: What is “good” design, and how is that definition evolving? How can intersectional perspectives be incorporated into the design process? How do we design for social good? How does design thinking differ at start-ups versus larger firms?
For this first installment, we talked to Katherine Liu, a product designer at Instagram, Grace O’Brien, a consumer product manager at Uber, and Elise Friedman, an engineer at General Motors. Below, you will find their varied and vibrant journeys into design, insights into their current roles, and where they see design headed.
1. There are many different routes into product design.
Katherine Liu: “I was always super interested in art and graphic design, and when I got to Stanford, I found that Product Design was more focused on product realization and building things, which was a bit different from what I wanted to do.” She started focusing more on human-computer interaction (HCI) and Symbolic Systems courses, which aligned with her interests in psychology, computer science, linguistics, and philosophy. “I think studying Symbolic Systems gave me an appreciation for embracing different perspectives, which is helpful in digital product design because you’re working a lot with qualitative researchers who talk a lot with our users, and you’re talking with data scientists and understanding their more numeric perspective. I started getting interested in this field because I always felt like I wanted to do something creative, but also didn’t want to let go on the problem-side of things.”
Grace O’Brien: “I came into Stanford very software and CS focused, but I quickly fell in love with the idea of being a holistic software person who not only looked at an entire system, but who also focused on the humanity of users.” She was drawn to the open-endedness and versatility of Product Design because “it teaches you the mindset of learning how to connect with a user, solve key needs, and iterate your way towards something, which felt like a framework [she] could apply to so many fields.”
Elise Friedman: “I started Stanford loving math and science, and didn’t yet have the words for it, but was also really passionate about human-centered design. I took an arts intensive with Bill Burnett going into my sophomore year, and I literally had one of those lightbulb moments when I realized that all of the weird things that led me to re-evaluate other potential major options were addressed with Product Design. The emphasis on empathy and the process of need-finding, rapid prototyping, failing quickly, and then iterating to really address a user’s need really spoke to me. And through this discovery process at Stanford — and talking with other people in the industry — I realized that I am passionate about designing physical products and services, which helped me begin to figure out what I wanted to do beyond college.”
2. Jobs in product design vary and include a wide spectrum of sub-tracks.
Liu: Katherine’s job as a designer often parallels the same cycle as the design thinking process: identifying a user base, need-finding, and then articulating a “problem statement,” which describes what users need from a product that it isn’t fulfilling today. “It’s really the designer’s job to think in the user’s shoes, and think through what solutions would work at a specific moment in time.”
O’Brien: Grace says she always knew in her heart that she was UX/UI product manager, and though there are many archetypes for PMs, she generalizes that, “You are always the person who is six months ahead of what is being engineered. You are the one looking at the data, talking to customers, and combining qualitative and quantitative data to decide what we need to change, add, or adapt. In many ways, you are creating a north star vision and saying this is where we need to go. It’s really fun, but there is a lot of responsibility and you take the blame when things don’t work out. But, you create a team culture to work through failure and get to help build the next generation of products.”
Friedman: Elise started at GM in a rotation program, which has given her the opportunity to work in many different roles, but at the heart of her job as an engineer, she focuses on a particular part of a vehicle and works to maximize performance, appearance, and ingenuity. “In one of my first roles at GM, I was in the studio as what they call an Integration Design Engineer, working on the rear exterior of the Celestiq — a really sleek, innovative vehicle GM is releasing shortly — which involved everything from lighting to regulatory parts. I was working right next to the sculptors and artists, and I got to walk up to these life-sized clay models we had of the car. It was so cool to see all these different people come together to figure out how to make each individual piece work together to be incredible while still balancing appearance, performance, and the realities of production, like cost. I now work as a seat release engineer, which includes taking a concept idea of how a seat should attach to the vehicle to figuring out how we can make the seat as comfortable as possible.”
3. The design process looks very different at a large company versus a start-up.
Liu: “My first job in product design was at a five person start-up that didn’t have a full-time designer, so it was very chaotic and I had to step into that full-time role. I’d only ever done visual design not web design, so I would read books on web design in the morning, and then try to recreate what I’d learned in the afternoon. No one was really questioning my work because they were building so quickly, which would never happen at a company like Instagram. We have the time to be more structured and deliberate, while a start-up has an urgency to launch quickly to stay afloat.” Katherine now works with eight or nine other designers, and there’s an emphasis on feedback and product reviews, which she says, “allows us to be super thoughtful at each step of the process.”
O’Brien: “In a startup you have a much tighter consumer. It’s much easier to pinpoint exactly who your customer is. You have a persona that you can dig into, asking, ‘How do I fit their needs?’ In a bigger, global company, there isn’t a cookie cutter user that you are making this for. You are making it for a lot of different people, giving you the opportunity to design for inclusivity.”
4. At larger firms, there’s an emphasis on metrics to gauge the success of a product or feature, but sometimes impact can’t be measured solely through metrics.
O’Brien: “I think there is starting to become an understanding that there are some intangible things that you cannot measure that can provide value. Some people will call it the ‘delight metric,’ which is the intangible value of a product that people love and want to use all the time. We can make design more inclusive, diverse, and human-centered by really thinking about everyday use, and acknowledging that we can’t always optimize around metrics.”
Friedman echoes the importance of balancing metrics with those intangible, human needs. “Great design comes from the process of really talking to the user to the point where you’re removing all of your preconceived biases, and really designing for your user’s needs. And if you can make that marketable, if you can make it business-viable and manufacturable, and make it have long-term performance, then you can make it a great product. The other element of really great design is that you anticipate any unintended consequences of your design early on, so you can mitigate them or design them out. Great design shouldn’t cause harm; you never want to put your user in a place where something fails them,” said Friedman. And for a lot of larger companies, the design process is a dance of moving quickly and continuing to innovate while still prioritizing safety — whether physical safety for a car manufacturer like GM or digital privacy for tech companies — of their users.
5. If you’re getting started in design, study the craft of designers who inspire you.
“We often think of design as having to create something from scratch, which is not the case at all. I think some of the best designers are incredible copiers. Go out there and copy everything. Note when you like or dislike something in daily life, try to understand why, and then bring what you like into your own design process. That is how you can develop a good understanding of what design is and find your personal style,” said O’Brien.
6. When you’re learning, volunteer your skills and get as much experience as you can.
“There are so many people trying to start companies — especially graduate and MBA students — who need designers to help them build a brand identity. These are great opportunities for designers who are just starting out,” said Liu. She also suggests reaching out to local nonprofits to gain design experience.
Tips, tricks, and helpful hints:
1. Make a Dribbbl account.
“Dribbbl is like the search engine for design,” said O’Brien. “Put Dribbbl on one side of your screen and Figma on the other, and get to work exploring and creating.”
2. Apply for random opportunities, even if they feel like long-shots.
When Liu was first getting into product design, she applied for a portfolio competition with Salesforce, even though most of her portfolio was drawings and independent projects she had created. She ended up winning, and later earned an internship at Salesforce.
3. Reach out to professors, researchers, and people in roles that interest you.
“Your student email is such a valuable tool because people love helping students who want to learn more,” said Friedman. “Reach out to people in different areas and just ask to learn more about what they do — not necessarily for a job, but just to hear their advice and experiences.”
4. Learn the industry language.
“While I was at Stanford, I learned that it really helps to learn the language that people in the industry use, so you can have better discussions with them in the future. I found reading articles and books about the areas I was interested in to be very valuable. People in the industry sometimes don’t realize you may be speaking different languages, so if you’re ever unsure of a term or a concept someone uses, ask them about it. Take advantage of the fact that people don’t have preconceived notions of what you know about your areas of interest,” Friedman said.