June 6, 2023Comments are off for this post.

Communicating a product vision

Illustration by Sasha Kolesnik

I visited Airbnb’s San Francisco office a few years back and saw this beautiful wall. 

Airbnb’s storyboards were inspired by Walt Disney’s storyboards for his first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

The wall's storyboards illustrate the key touchpoints of the host and guest journeys: everything from browsing to booking to interacting with your host, and enjoying your trip when that time finally comes. Each touchpoint is both physical and visual. It can be borrowed like a library book to inspire anyone working to improve it. You can imagine how the product started with accommodations and could extend their customer journey to include in-person and online activities.

Agile development should not mean “we don’t have a plan,” but that’s what it can feel like at times for cross-functional teams. I’ve written about the tough jobs that product managers have to define linear product roadmaps, while also iterating based on customer feedback. In addition, teams have to adapt to changing business priorities, and with cross-team dependencies, we might not have ownership over an entire product, much less an entire customer journey. 

I'm here to tell you that product visions help teams orchestrate those experiences. They are visual and sometimes tactile plans for the future which give internal teams a directional sense of where they are headed based on a complete customer journey. Yes, the details change, but the customers who enjoy the products, the people who make that enjoyment happen, and the interactions they all have with your brand often remain constant.

At Beyond UX, I worked as a design strategy lead and we partnered with product leaders to communicate a product vision for employers, employees, and 3rd party developers. Our product vision wasn’t limited to a single screen, device, or app. We connected several feature teams by following a single employee through a wellness journey. We incorporated the employer’s needs of wanting to provide compelling healthcare benefits to their population. We responded to the 3rd party developers' needs of wanting wholesale distribution for their content. We were able to show how multiple journeys work together and can even strengthen each other. 

A customer journey can be an integral part of a product vision. 

“So how does this product effort fit into the bigger picture?” How can we have a more strategic impact.” These are questions I hear from designers I mentor. After completing all of your day-to-day work, try overdelivering by volunteering for extra opportunities like communicating your product, including your product’s vision. It may not be your role to lead your product manager and engineering counterparts, but you can use your design skills to ask questions, contribute ideas, and communicate a beautiful product vision for others to follow. 

March 24, 2022Comments are off for this post.

The best possible thing


Illustrated by: Sasha Kolesnik

The MVP (minimally viable product) approach is a basic practice of the Agile software development. It’s also an undisputed part of product development to help your product find its market quickly. 

An MVP can make sense from the smallest dorm room startups all the way to the largest companies. We all share the same need to move fast and learn.

But does anyone actually demand a minimally viable product? And if everyone follows the same practice, how does a product stand out in a crowded market? Different companies may need different strategies.

There is a common misconception with MVP. According to Eric Ries, who helped popularize the concept with his book Lean Startup, an MVP allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort. Ideally, product teams are meant to gather learnings, and adapt their product based on those learnings. It does not have to do with an MVP release of minimal functionality. 

Product managers have a tough job. Oftentimes, they continue to have to follow both waterfall and agile methodogies. While most companies have moved from waterfall to agile development, many organizational cultures still expect to have roadmaps, executive approval, finalized designs, detailed specifications and firm timeline commitments. When an MVP becomes a rigid singular software release, it risks underperforming.

I’ve written previously about how to stand out as a designer, and one of those techniques is to over-deliver on the work. The same can also be true for successful design teams. Ben Blumenrose, the co-founder of Designer Fund, and Stripe investor shares how to embed design into Fintech, “Design has had an impact at Stripe because it is valued, nurtured from the top, and focuses on making a positive impact on people.” Stripe design is known for its obsessive attention to detail and craft and yes, that takes more time, “We would say we simply spend 20x more time on this than what anyone else would.” --Malthe Sigurdsson, Head of Design, 2015-2020. Having a unique product strategy may help you create a unique product and a differentiated result. 

How do you make sure design has an impact? My former professor, Maria Guidice, executive leadership coach and former design executive at Facebook and Autodesk describes the type of top-down support needed. “I often say for people who are coming in as senior designers whose job it is to bring design culture, bring design methods, organize workforces, you better look up—and if the people above you do not have your back, if they don’t understand why you’re there, they don’t understand the value that design can bring, then that’s a huge red flag. You have to have executive support. You have to have enlightened leaders at the top in order for design leaders to be successful, because they have a large, hard job ahead of them to change culture.”

So make sure you look up! What does your company value? What's their unique product strategy? Do they understand your role? Will they support the inevitable, and unknown change you will need to offer?

February 10, 2022Comments are off for this post.

Hiring top design talent

When recruiting, you’ll want to make the case you have an excellent team. Top talent wants to work with top talent.

Read more

January 23, 2022Comments are off for this post.

Leveling up your design team

Illustration by Sasha Kolesnik

How can you hang on to your top performers during the great resignation? A new study recommends career transparency as a way to retain employees and communicate opportunities for advancement. 

Inc.com columnist Jessica Stillman writes, “Career transparency is a clear sense among employees of how they can grow in their jobs and how the company will support their efforts to reach their goals.”

Show that you care

Designers can be brutally honest, but when talking to your team about career growth, it needs to be a delicate conversation. You’ll have to acknowledge “we are not where we want to be”, but as a leader, it’s important to show you care. When setting career goals, acknowledge the difficulty in self-improvement, and show your support for someone who is courageous enough to try something new. 

Team Goals: Benchmarking your team’s design maturity 

Designers can help companies envision the future and can have a voice in their own personal career progressions at those companies. 

To address team maturity, It can be helpful to start by understanding your team’s baseline. Compared to other teams, where are you now and where do you want to be in the future? 

DesignerFund has a great free resource to help design teams assess their own development. They’ve documented how high-performing design teams can invest in six areas to increase their maturity.

Once you’ve identified where your team wants to go, you can then set actionable goals for how to get there step by step. 

Your direct report’s goals: Communicating expectations through levels

If you're in a leadership role, Peter Merholz and Kristin Skinner describe levels as a way to articulate and define the differences in seniority on a team. Levels can also be set up cross-functionally by HR to communicate career progression across a company.  “Done right, levels are the scaffolding that helps team members elevate.” Their framework is particularly helpful for larger or rapidly scaling teams who can use levels to have healthy hiring, professional development, and performance review conversations. A levels framework can also help create a sense of fairness across job titles, and can even help with compensation conversations, as levels are often tied to salary.

Me Goals: Connecting your contributions to a bigger cause

Once you’ve helped identify how your team can mature and how your teammate’s individually can level up, design maturity and levels frameworks can also be used to set your personal career goals. If you’re able to identify where you want to go, and how that ties into your team (by helping others move forward), you’ll have a stronger business case to support why your career goals matter to a company.

Being transparent about careers is not easy. It involves showing you care, identifying areas of opportunity, creating systems of fairness and progress, and then planning a supportive approach to realize those goals. Lastly, it gives you an opportunity to get more comfortable with some degree of discomfort and move forward by further investing in your company, team, and personal growth.

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January 2, 2022Comments are off for this post.

Pitching yourself as a designer

Illustration by Sasha Kolesnik

You are not alone.

Job searching is tough. For candidates, It’s never been easier to apply for several roles online. For hiring teams, it can feel like swimming back-stroke through the talent pool. You can’t see everything that’s there or where you are heading, and you can only really take one stroke at a time. 

If you’re applying to a company like Google, you might be competing with over 3 million other applicants who apply there every year. Unfortunately, this incredible scale of qualified applicants makes it difficult for hiring managers to give candidates constructive feedback and applicants are left not understanding why they aren’t making the cut. 

How can you improve your odds?

While getting feedback from hiring managers is not always a viable option, there are other avenues a designer can take to get their portfolios and interview preparation in check. Companies have boards which give them diverse perspectives. Try creating your own informal cabinet of peers, colleagues, and professional contacts. Often the most helpful feedback comes from people who know you and your work well. 

Online communities like ADPList allow you to schedule meetings with senior designers to review your work. 

1. Know what you stand for

Simon Sinek, author and inspirational speaker, recently tweeted:

Just like a company needs to clearly communicate a unique promise, you need to develop your own professional brand which distills who you really are. Think about how you are different from others, and how that can be advantageous.

2. Be concise

With digital brands, I find just a few words and a specific promise can work wonders. Airbnb’s tag line used to be “Travel like a human”. Now it’s just two words:  “Belong Anywhere.”

So, it’s not about telling a long story, it’s about communicating succinctly.

3. Remember your audience

We know from task-based research studies, most people don’t read word for word on the web. 

This rings true for your audience - the hiring teams. These individuals are often moving quickly to identify who you are, what you’re great at, and why you think you might be a fit for the role they’re looking for. 

Make it easy for them to understand what you care about, your desired industries, your desired job locations, contract/full-time preference, and the type of team dynamic you’re looking for. I’ve shared previously how you can Make Stuff That Matters, if you’re explicit and intentional with the type of work you want.

4. Communicate your strengths

Unless you’re applying for a job in advertising, pitching yourself shouldn’t be about getting attention, but you do need to work on that pitch. What are you really great at? Beyond being a generalist Product Designer, what do you excel at?

5. Show, don’t tell

For designers, a pitch is often visual, but words about who you are, and what you stand for should support it. Especially if they have nice typography! 

When selecting your work for the portfolio, the style, appropriateness, and the impact of your work will help determine where you will end up. Make sure to keep your portfolio up to date for your next job, and not necessarily the job you have. How do you do this?

6. Over-deliver on the work

As a designer, you can always do another iteration, variation or exploration. The same holds true for the portfolio and your pitch. In order to really stand out, you need to go above what is expected with the quality, completeness, and the thoughtfulness of your work. What can you do better? Keep practicing. Keep pitching.

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December 22, 2021Comments are off for this post.

Making stuff that matters

Featured -3
Illustration by Sasha Kolesnik

The right problem

In his book, Wicked problems: Problems worth solving, John Kolko reminds us that there are harder, more important design opportunities to be solved. 

“It’s true, designers are often solving easier, more banal problems over and over again (ex; design a dashboard, a login flow, a chat interface, a place to show ads). Most of these problems are not wicked problems, but they are business problems that can help and impact a lot of people.” 

While I agree wicked problems are worthy problems in need of solutions. Designers also have to balance the realities of their lives, including providing for their families, repaying their student loans, and contributing to their local communities.

I’ve learned it often takes solving the most visible design problems first to be able to build trust with your stakeholders to get to work on the harder problems, where an immediate solution might be known. You can apply design to almost any problem. Trouble recruiting? Review your organization’s communications (web, social, and outreach). Trouble fundraising? Take another design pass at the pitch deck. Trouble selling? Take a critical eye to user research and your product to identify where you think you can make more of an impact. 

The right focus

Just like your product needs a strategy, your job search does as well. Sarah Doody, Founder of The Career Strategy Lab advises, "Be strategic about the industries and types of jobs you choose.” She encourages designers to try and focus on a particular vertical they are personally passionate about (ex: healthcare, climate tech, financial empowerment). This focus could build on an existing superpower from a previous career or help you make progress towards a longer-term path to a desired dream job. 

With online job applications, there is a temptation to “cast a really wide net” or  “see what sticks,” but in my experience, having a more targeted approach  works better. When sifting through hundreds of applicants, hiring managers want to understand the motivation and intent behind a candidate's application. So, next time when you’re doing career outreach, try to stand out by demonstrating your selectivity, and how an opportunity uniquely fits into your professional mission.

The right role

We spend a lot of our time at work. By one estimate, the average person will spend 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime. How we spend our days is how we spend our life. It’s one of our most important decisions. 

So when designers come to me and say they’re looking for any kind of job, I have to challenge that belief. There’s such a broad range of product design jobs out there from autonomous taxi services to automated tax preparation. What are you most passionate about? What are you most qualified to do?

A hiring team can usually tell how much time and thought a candidate put into their application. Despite what a lot of people say, I think the cover letter is still critical. Why are you applying for this job? What experience can you highlight to demonstrate you’ve read the job description? I’m often surprised in interviews how many candidates don’t read the job description. It never looks good to reach the interview stage without knowing the qualifications the prospective employer is looking for. 

The right team

Going further, have you read the company’s mission, vision and values statements? These should be exciting to you. Often times, in a culture fit interview, the hiring panel will compare the values you demonstrate to the values of the company. Have you met your future manager and team? These people should also inspire you to do your best work.

The right impact 

Once you’ve found the right problem, company, role you should be motivated to design several good solutions and ship solutions that are done right. You’ll want to measure your impact to help your team make sure what you collectively thought would make a difference really did.

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December 15, 2021Comments are off for this post.

Deleting a favorite

Illustration by Sasha Kolesnik

A year ago, I said goodbye to my mom after she completed a long battle with multiple sclerosis. 

Looking at the contacts on my phone, I saw her photo, messages, and visual voicemails. We could no longer FaceTime, but was I really supposed to swipe left to delete my mom? This wasn’t a former acquaintance or an ex-girlfriend of mine. This was the history of our parent-child relationship in its digital form.  

As many of you know, losing a parent is incredibly difficult, but it can also be extremely tedious and baffling as you navigate what to do with their possessions, both physical and digital. 

My siblings and I planned the graveside service and cleaned out her house, all while we continued to grieve. My heart ached, and so did my back! My mother was a children’s literature professor, and over her lifetime, she had collected tens of thousands of beautiful, and surprisingly heavy children’s books. 

Then there were her digital devices and accounts which needed to be archived. I thought this might be easier than, say, paying her taxes, which my sister was helping with. I sifted through her personal photos, letters, and the videos she had saved. I responded to her friends' direct messages on her behalf and memorialized her social media profiles one by one. Meta (formerly Facebook) has 2.91 billion MAU worldwide, which means millions of families every month will have to complete 3 different processes to report a death to Meta's different support teams (Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp).

Then I took a look at my Photos app, where I had so many family photos. Later, some would pop up as “memories”, triggering strong reactions. Does Apple know my Mom died? I had years of the thoughtful texts and the words of encouragement she had dictated. She had lost her ability to type years before, but I could tell she was dictating because she used her unique expressions, shared funny memories, and the occasional Czech phrase from what we called our “secret family language”.

I found a voicemail she had left a few weeks prior. She sang happy birthday to me like she had every year prior, but this time it was accompanied by her hospice musical therapist. Normally, I delete voicemails, but this time, I felt nostalgic for the sentimental collector my mom was. 

She was one of my “Favorites”. The round profile photo of her smiling at me stacked next to my wife, brother, sister, dad, and my boss. I realized we couldn’t call, text, or FaceTime (her preferred communication method) again. Seeing her photo there was difficult to accept. I swiped left to reveal the red button. Just like that, I deleted my mom as one of my favorites. What a weird interaction I thought. Functionally, it was very easy, but emotionally it was very difficult.

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December 9, 2021Comments are off for this post.

Mentoring designers at scale

Illustration by Sasha Kolesnik

As a design director at Fidelity Labs, I mentor designers across our financial services firm as well as externally through the ADPList global community. 

Up until now, much of my mentorship work has been in 1:1 sessions. One of my personal and professional goals for 2022 is to help more designers by sharing some of these insights publicly. Design mentors were incredibly helpful to me when I was starting out. Now that I’m on the other side, I’m excited to help others.

What is a design mentor?

Similar to becoming a designer, there’s no single path or certification process to becoming a design mentor. Traditional mentors help provide guidance and encouragement to designers with less experience. 

I work with mentees both in single sessions and over time. A single session might be right, if you’ve found some traction with your portfolio and are looking for feedback from several mentors. Other designers prefer multiple sessions, especially if you haven’t quite identified specific career goals, and are in an exploration phase.

Design mentors can help:

  • Explore new career areas to learn what’s working
  • Identify strengths and opportunities for development
  • Set desirable and achievable career goals
  • Review portfolios to make sure strength align with those goals
  • Practice interview techniques
  • Learn new design and leadership skills
  • Be accountable to someone else 
  • Communicate your personal professional mission

Do you need a mentor?

I know extremely talented designers who have mastered their craft through self-study by  following tutorials, learning design methods, and reading as much as they can. But usually, independent exploration will only get you so far. 

Designers need critique to take their work to the next level. Often in the hiring process, recruiters and hiring managers don’t have time to offer constructive feedback, or their company policy may prevent them from doing so.  

Mentors can also increase psychological safety, as designers can have exploratory career conversations outside of their current employers.

What can I expect?

You should expect your mentor to listen to your goals and challenges while sharing their guidance. Just like any other meeting, it helps to come prepared with your portfolio, specific questions, and an open mind. 

What can’t I expect?

Mentors won’t be able to make your design and career decisions for you. You will have to put in the work yourself to build your skills, learn new tools, and practice applying what you learn. You should think of the meeting as a conversation about your career goals and as a method for elevating your presentation. It’s not a job interview, and you shouldn’t come with that expectation, but it is a type of networking and occasionally mentors may offer to refer strong candidates to their network.

How should I choose the right mentor?

I would try and find mentors who are doing the kind of work you would like to be doing. Do you have experience in a particular industry, giving you a particular advantage? What do you have in common with your mentor? Does your mentor have the skills that you would like to learn?  Do you have a similar professional or educational background? Do you need to live in a certain city or location? Do you have specific financial needs which may narrow your search to that type of company?

It’s never been a better time to level up. We’re hiring at Fidelity Labs. You can choose from 12,366+ mentors including me on ADPlist.

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