- Artwork by Eli Jorgensen
Alexa Roman motivates us to prove the value of design and contribute to it every single day. She encourages us to always be learning new things since designers work across many different fields. She inspires us to get more excited about analytics and measuring our designs. She also challenges us to think about what we want on our tombstones…while we’re still this side up.
Alexa Roman is a Lead Product Designer at Burner, an app for creating on-demand, smart phone numbers. At Burner, she works on product and growth initiatives. Customer development, experiments and analytics are core to her design work. Previously, she was at Carbon Five where she worked on growth projects with teams at Nissan, Prosper and Joyable. In her spare time, Alexa volunteers with the League of Women Voters of Los Angeles, the Violence Intervention Program and resisterhoodLA.
Fun fact about Alexa is that when she worked in the Art Department for the TV show The Office, she became the resident IT person and would often be called to set to show the actors how to use their on-screen UI. When you see UI in a TV show, it’s nearly always a file that’s been programmed and you have to know the shortcuts to operate it. I did not, however, design that UI and it was terribly out of date even for the time we shot that show.
- Secret Identity (7:49)
- Origin Story (12:42)
- What Will Your Tombstone Say? (19:25)
- Biggest Failure (21:50)
- Design Superpower (29:40)
- How Important is Aesthetics? (35:52)
- Awkward Testing Story (48:49)
- Design Kryptonite (55:23)
- UX Superhero Name (63:59)
- Designing with Data (64:30)
- Habit of Success (70:09)
- Invincible Resource (71:39)
- Recommended Book (73:28)
- Best Advice (74:48)
A UX Primer in Powers of Ten [ARTICLE]
Metrics that Matter [ARTICLE]
What if designers actually used the things they design? [ARTICLE]
Mise en World a talk by Alexa Roman [VIDEO]
Q&A with Charles Eames [VIDEO]
What they said in 1999 about Amazon.com [VIDEO]
A Day Made of Glass by Corning [VIDEO]
Alex + Ada
Jason: Welcome to User Defenders Alexa. I’m super-excited to have you on the show today.
Alexa: Thank you so much Jason. Glad to be here.
Jason: So did you ever have to show Steve Carell that he was he one of your patients, so to speak?
Alexa: I might have worked with Steve. Usually it was Rainn Wilson or B.J. Novak or John Krasinski.
Jason: That’s so cool. That must’ve been a neat experience.
Alexa: You know it was odd because it’s really really wasn’t part of my role. And in film and TV they have really well-defined roles those kind of unusual. But it was funny and if you watch the show and you look at the UI it’s just awful even for the time period the show is set in like it’s not even. It’s just so bad. So it was awful when we created it was it it was like kind of a gag of the show that it was just terrible e-mail interfaces.
Jason: But you know it’s been about that? We all watch TV shows. I mean Netflix thankfully has given us a lot to consume. And and I think that we don’t really think we don’t often think about it that there is actually somebody creating the interfaces that we see on those shows. Like I just finished actually this morning I just finished Ironfist and there’s a lot of like phone UI and stuff and it looks like some of it’s like a hybrid that’s on a Samsung phone but it looks like FaceTime things like that. But I guess you just have to take certain liberties because there’s proprietary natures and things but it’s fascinating to me. It’s neat that you were a part of that.
Alexa: Yeah luckily when you watch film usually it’s really well done TV you can just get kind of touch and go because they don’t they don’t necessarily know what device it’s going to the people creating the UI don’t necessarily know that it can be a little disconnected depending on the art department.
Jason: That makes sense. And you worked with you worked on Dexter too?
Alexa: Mm hmm, Dexter was my first job in LA.
Jason: That is so cool.
Alexa: Yeah. Dexter was so fun to work on. I loved working on that show. You know we shot in L.A. but we are set in Miami so we did so many sort of Miami themed sets which were really fun to do.
Jason: That is awesome. How did that inform your design your aesthetic in your decisions in problem solving? Working in that environment.
Alexa: It’s interesting because my boss on Dexter the production designer used to have me do a lot of visual research so I would go buy a lot of books about Miami about the Everglades and pull a lot of research online and so I kind of learned how to present and think through color palettes and textures and scenarios even sort of like what’s relevant what’s going to help someone understand at a glance where we are what we’re doing in this place. So that was it was really informative in that way and then working in film and TV. You have to work so fast that I’m pretty resourceful now because someone comes to you at 2pm and they’re like hey we need 150 chairs to be delivered to the Queen Mary by 5 pm. It’s like we figured out you call Home Depot.
Jason: Wow, that’s wild. Well as you know we take a fun superhero approach to the show and every superhero has a secret identity and origin story we’ve got a little sneak peek into your origin story early on with TV and how it informs your design decisions and your aesthetic. But let’s talk about yours. I’d like to start the show by you taking a few moments just to give us a look into your personal life.
Alexa: Yeah I spent a lot of time in the community doing a lot of volunteer work and advocacy work. So you mentioned that I work with the League of Women Voters. I’ve been recently part of an initiative to advocate for more permanent supportive housing in L.A. because L.A. has almost 60,000 homeless people living on the streets. So.
Alexa: Yeah and we have a lot of homeless students both you know youth children and also kids in college that are homeless. You know luckily we passed last year an initiative to build more housing and so I’ve been doing a lot of advocacy work around that. And then in addition to the volunteer work I also run a local film festival a dance film festival.
Jason: You are very active Alexa and I did a Google search. And there’s just so many things and I think that’s one of the things it’s so neat and interesting about you is that you have touched a lot of different things and I learned that you went to film school for a while you went to architectural school for a little while and you did TV design UI design and worked with art departments there and and now you’re a product designer and I think that’s what’s so interesting is that you know that you have touched a lot of different things and therefore you’ve been influenced and inspired by a lot of different things and channels and I know you you like to keep up to date. Pardon the pun but with like old time design like you know Charles Eames and things like that like some of the original folks that really helped inspire this field and helped shape this field. And so like I guess I want to ask you like how has having your hand in all these different areas. How’s it helped you become a better designer?
Alexa: I think it helps to cross train in different disciplines in any discipline not just in design disciplines or creative disciplines but anything you learn is gonna help you design things because designers work across many fields right.
Alexa: Even just in my UI design career I’ve worked in finance and healthcare and education and nonprofit.
So understanding anything about how any system works or any field works is hopeful and I feel really lucky to have done some of that cross training almost accidentally but now I sort of do it on purpose and I take classes right now I’m taking an industrial design drawing class and I’ve taken drafting and learning how other people approach design and problem solving. It’s super helpful. It’s so different the way that we do it in digital.
Jason: Yeah that’s awesome. And I feel like that’s in this field UX. I mean I think everybody has a different interpretation or definition of what that means. But I think that what I’ve learned is that it’s really solving problems for people and helping people and helping the business. But I feel like going back to the problem solving thing I think it all starts there because you have to have a problem to solve and people to help in order to actually have a business model. I think so. I feel like that Charles Eames video like that is sort of aspiring to me the one you put on your article The the 10 gosh what was the name of it?
Alexa: UX Primer and Powers of 10.
Jason: Yes. And again that was a great article Defenders I’m going to link to that. There’s so much so many resources to check out there but that video is just so inspiring I’d never seen that before. And I think about the interviewers she was asking him something to the effect of what is the boundary of design something like that. And he said well what are the boundaries of problems. And I love that. Right?
Alexa: Yeah yeah I mean the Eames it’s such a cliche to love the Eames. They’re fantastic.
Jason: He’s just so to the point like he doesn’t waste any time with it.I don’t know just very to the point and he just knows exactly what he wants right he knows exactly what he’s doing as a designer. And it is just a lot to glean from that. I really love that.
Jason: Thank you for sharing that with me.
Alexa: Yeah. It’s funny I used to DOS. We have an architecture museum. I don’t know if you ever went to the A&D museum.
Jason: I haven’t.
Alexa: I used to volunteer docent there and when I started they had an Eames exhibit and they played that video. So for six hours like every other Saturday I listened to that interview I mean I almost have it memorized.
Jason: I was gonna say you probably do.
Alexa: Yeah I love it.I think at the end she says what is the future of design Mr. Eames ? And then there’s just silence. It’s like oh that’s open ended.
Jason: I loved that. That was so that like made me stop and really think for a while I was like was that intentional? Or did he like is he gonna answer after this little collage of nature pictures and he never answers it. I love that because it’s true. Who knows? Right?
Alexa: Yeah. And the Eames. I mean it’s a cliche but you know they did films they made fabric. They they were just wildly creative in many different fields.
Jason: Yeah I saw that chair that he designed. I want one of those. That looks so comfortable.
Alexa: Yeah.Who doesn’t?
Jason: So tell us your origin story like what inspired you to pursue a career in this exciting challenging and ever evolving field?
Alexa: My friend Arturo actually. So you mentioned I went to architecture school while I was in architecture school I worked for a digital agency here in L.A. called Cluj that’s run by my friend Arturo. He’s still there (Arturo Perez) and I came into the office one day and I said you know I’m not really feeling architecture school. Like it’s not challenging in the right ways. I don’t know that I want to officially be an architect. I know I want to be some kind of designer. And he said I think you should look into UX design. And lucky for you there’s a class at UCLA Extension that’s starting in a week. And so I registered for that class and I quit school the next day and I didn’t look back and I was fortunate to be already working for an agency. So I was a project manager at the time. At the time I took the class and as I started learning things about UX I started selling it to clients because I would write our proposals and eventually I just sold enough products that I became the UX designer full time. So yeah many things started to grow. He runs a wonderful design event series here in L.A. with his team and his partner Cameron and Abraham. It’s called Evenings at the Loft. So.
Jason: Oh yeah very cool.
Jason: And I saw that you spoke at that and that was a really interesting talk as well.
Jason: I think your talk was called Mena Ane Sina?
Alexa: Mise en Scene Mise en Scene.
Jason: Oh my gosh.
Alexa: Mise en Scene’s a film so that’s a that was a talk trying to sort of connect my film background and my design background. Mise en Scene means it’s the deliberate placement of elements in a scene. And it was it was coined by French filmmakers the French New Wave filmmakers to sort of describe their approach to filmmaking which is you know in the early days of filmmaking it was kind of just a miracle that the camera worked. And eventually people were like we should think about the costumes and we should think about where the actors are and what the set looks like and so it was sort of about the gestalt of the whole film. And so that that talk I was sort of talking about the idea of the auteur designer which is which is you know a term from film. Just someone who can really intentionally think through the entire entire whole.
Jason: That’s cool and I think that whole concept it almost seems like either Eames inspired that or the other way around because I think one of the first things he says in that video when she asked him what is design. He says design has a plan for arranging elements in such a way as best to accomplish a particular purpose. That’s pretty cool.
Alexa: Yeah yeah. And Bucky Fuller says he has a great quote that something like if like it’s something like “I know that I’m solving this problem.I don’t solve for beauty. But if the results are not beautiful then it doesn’t matter like I’m solving the problem.” Basically. It’s really about the beauty of solving the problem not about the aesthetic choices that you’re making.
Jason: That’s cool. I like that. So Richard Neutra and again I didn’t know anything about this guy I didn’t know about his tombstone or anything until I saw your talk. That was really interesting.
Alexa: That’s so funny. Yeah it’s Neutra which I’m always corrected by one of the Neutra’s one of Dion Neutra who lives here in L.A. is his son. And yeah no it’s [Noi-tra].
Jason: I’m such a gringo,man.
Alexa: No, nobody knows how to say it. There’s a font called Neutra-Face. But nobody knows how to say it.
Jason: Oh wow.
Alexa: But I was corrected because I mispronounced it. But yeah Richard nitre is a contemporary of the Eames and you know a pretty I think pretty famous architect here in L.A. but probably not beyond L.A. Not that far beyond L.A. Modernist architect really interesting and did a bunch of homes in Silverlake.
Alexa: He has a street named after him in Silverlake so.
Jason: Which is known now for an artist like an artistry kind of dwelling environment like some of the some of the most creative people that we’ve seen come out of that area have dwelled it seems like they’ve dwelled in in Silverlake at some point or another. Is that would that be accurate?
Alexa: Yeah. I think the east side of LA, you know Venice used to be the hub of artists in L.A. but since the condos there cost like five thousand dollars everyone’s moved to the east side and it’s still really because a long history of that too you know. But even today there’s a lot of artists in that area.
Jason: Well it’s interesting what what Richard Neutra. Yes? Neutra?
Alexa: Yep that’s right that’s right.
Jason: Well it’s interesting what he had inscribed on his on his headstone. It says this. It says “Creators of this place united by the idea that man’s survival depends on his design.”
Alexa: Yeah. How great is that?
Jason: That’s so interesting.
Alexa: Yeah. It’s like yes.
Alexa: Scream it from the top.
Jason: What does that mean to you, Alexa?
Alexa: I think it means that we have to think through how we approach problem solving in every aspect of our lives and how the health care I think is probably one of the biggest like loudest ways that we see this. If we fail to design an effective healthcare system people will die and they are right? It’s like people who are not getting seen by the correct doctors they can’t get to the hospital they can’t navigate the insurance and and payment systems of the hospitals they can’t navigate the medicine they can’t pay for them medicine like it’s the whole system and it’s failing people on so many levels.
Alexa: That’s the design problem right? It’s a service design problem. And I was talking to my friend about it last night she was like I really want to get involved in healthcare because I think designers can be such an asset to that field and everything like that. Our roads the way where we put our roads you know where we arrange houses and how we arrange schools and how we make cities more walkable or more drivable. Right? It will it will determine our future.
Jason: Yeah even accessability issues right? Like right? Like I mean curb cuts I I was talking to Erin Gustafson in his interview he brought that up too. Like there’s there’s a lot of need out there for intentional design to help solve problems.
Alexa: Totally. Have you ever ever navigated New York City with someone in a motorized wheelchair? Like it’s nuts.
Jason: Oh my gosh I can’t even imagine that.
Alexa: Yeah it’s it’s we don’t think we don’t think about other people. I mean this is like a universal theme.
Jason: It’s true. It’s true.
Alexa: We don’t think about other people designers think about other people a little bit more than everyone else. But yeah we have to start thinking about the implications of what we do and what we put into the world everyone not just designers everyone has to think about that. What am I putting into the world? Is it pollution? Or is it something that adds value and solves the problem?
Jason: Wow. I’m just going to kind of sit in that for a minute because that was really pretty deep and I think you’re right. You’re absolutely right about that. I’m going to take it deeper even and I’m gonna ask you Alexa as Richard Neutra had that pretty profound and deep statement on his tombstone. What would you want written on yours?
Alexa: That’s such a good question.
Jason: I’m surprising you with that one.
Alexa: Yeah I know I think I would want something about how, this is gonna sound weird, like how I try I tried really hard. Like I think I think I want something about how that I was very hard working and that I got through a lot of work. I mean that seems so dumb and so shallow compared to like the way that we think about being effective. But I I really tried to solve a lot of problems and I think in some ways it feels like I’m just sort of chipping away at them and I don’t think that by the end of my life I’m going to have like transformed you know housing in L.A. or or even a piece of software and so I think I want something about you know that I contributed in some way and tried, she tried she did a bunch of work. It’s not finished though. So pick up where she left off you know?
Jason: Yeah. No that’s awesome. That’s awesome and I know I caught you off guard on that one but I I think that you know I would imagine Richard probably had a bit of time to kind of craft that statement and I just gave you about two seconds so. But I think that that just sentiment there I think we all get that and I think we would all want to see something like that on ours like you know what we gave it our best shot. We tried to make a difference the best we possibly can and you Alexa are one of those people that is doing that and I see you doing that. And so I I just commend your your passion and your effort to make a difference and to serve others through design and problem solving.
Alexa: Yeah. Thank you.
Jason: Yeah Richard he he wrote a book at least one book and did a lot of I think talking and writing.
Jason: Yeah it seems that way. Yeah I’d love to visit his house like the house where he’s buried. That seems like a really fascinating like a creative place.
Alexa: Yeah it’s a museum. Anybody can go there and yeah his son. Dion Neutra is also an architect and was running a book club for a while here which is how I met him.
Jason: Oh that’s cool.
Alexa: Yeah. Really interesting guy, too.
Jason: Well I’ll have to link to to that as well. And I know you touched on that in one of your articles. Well it may have been the same one but yeah I’ll link to that as well because I know there are some folks listening to this and Defenders that live out in Southern California like I used to. And and they are gonna probably want to check that out if they haven’t yet.
Jason: So we know that we’re going to kind of shift gears here and kind of dive into failure. And and here’s the thing like as we just touched upon and we’ll continue to, you have made a lot of successes in your life and in your career and in your art, but I know that those successes don’t come without some failures. And I and I love what Einstein said you know I I didn’t fail. I just found 10,000 ways it didn’t work. Right?
Jason: So I’d love to talk about maybe what’s been possibly the biggest one in your career or just something that really was life altering and help inform your transformation.
Alexa: I think in my life architecture school so far has been the biggest failure because it was just a big detour sort of on my path. And I’m fortunate to have found my way out of that. It was it was just you know I really should have thought a lot more about. I went to architecture school thinking that if I learned the hardest kind of design that I could do any kind of design and I could sort of figure it out later and become an industrial designer or an art director in film which is which is what I was sort of headed towards before. And that was a mistake and I should have really thought more about that. So architecture school generally was my biggest mistake. My parents called that one from day one. They were not not big fans, me going back to school. But in my career there was a project that I did. I used to work for a firm in San Francisco called Neo which is no longer around. They were absorbed by pivotal pivotal labs but Neo was a lean startup consultancy founded by Ian McFarlane, Joy Ito and Eric Ries. And and Eric Ries wrote “The Lean Start Up”.
Jason: Okay, I recognize that name.
Alexa: Yeah. The idea was that you know companies could come to Neo and learn how to do lean startup and sort of train up in it and there was a lot of great people that worked at Neo. I really miss my colleagues there a lot. But the truth is that if you bring an idea and you apply lean startup techniques lean startup is basically just telling you whether or not the idea is good faster than than if you didn’t you know if you just built the entire thing. So we had a client come and and say hey we want you to come up with an idea and then validate it using lean startup techniques and like show us that it’s awesome right? It’s sort of like make us a business and it just doesn’t work that way. That progect was such a huge failure because you can’t lean a startup like you can’t generate a successful startup I mean if I could do that I would be a founder right? It’s like it was so ridiculous.
Jason: Sprinkle some magic lean startup dust on it.
Alexa: Yeah it was just kind of like OK generate a bunch of ideas and then pick a winner and like it’s kind of like I have to have a winning idea you have to be smart. You have to give visionary. You have to have an awesome idea that has a market. And then what you’re doing with lean is just you’re putting it out there faster and smarter and you’re testing things along the way and you’re talking to customers you’re not just like building a monolith and shipping it and hoping it does well.
Jason: Yeah that’s really great. Alexa there’s a lot to take away from that story. I couldn’t help but think about the parallels to the 90’s dot bomb crisis. And I was there. Right that’s when I had just started I just started my career in 99 and I got a good year into my career when everything blew up except Amazon. Right? And that’s a perfect example of this. Because the biggest problem that we experienced then was the buzzwords dot com website get a website. And then that’s all you got to do is just get a website and then you’re rich right? And so all these VC’s were investing a ton of money into ideas that weren’t tested weren’t validated. Right? Nobody they didn’t find out whether somebody actually needed or wanted this thing before they just built it and spent millions of dollars and that’s why things went wrong. Except Amazon.
Jason: And there’s a video I think it just released last week which is funny. It’s a video about their one of these news guys 60 minutes or whatever interviewing Jeff Bezos right before right when he had just kind of started Amazon and they were just sort of starting to take off you know kind of get some some traction. And he was interviewing him and the whole interview was just the point the interviewer was taking a really skeptical point of view almost like like kind of like leaning into him and like kinda like sort of making fun of him like. “So this is your office? Your desk is made of a door?” Like kinda things like you know it’s just like making fun of the guy and now look at him.You know? So I just think it’s funny that all these years later that video just got released on YouTube. I’ll link to it Defenders. But there is there is a perfect example right there. There is a visionary guy and that guy’s you know kind of the parallel to the space episode we were just talking about before we started the interview with my dad. My dad mentioned Jeff Bezos several times because he is one of the guys that’s actually he and Elon Musk are the guys that are actually reinvigorating the space program when it had been lost.
Jason: So it’s like there’s a visionary guy right there.
Alexa: Yeah I know I did think that was really funny. You’re dad. It makes sense. I mean Bezos, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs. I wish I could think of a woman. I’m sure there’s amazing women but.
Jason: I know. I’m sure there is.
Alexa: I mean they are visionary. I just had someone in my in my mind that I’m escaping. Yeah I mean there’s amazing people that come up with these incredible ideas and you know people mention Apple a lot in the context of lean startup because Apple is notoriously opposed to talking to customers and hearing feedback. And it’s it is totally possible to be a genius like that. We know that geniuses exist and Steve Jobs was that way. Jeff Bezos I guess is that way too. And it’s it’s possible to have an amazing idea and to just sort of innately understand what’s going to solve a problem or predict predict the market. Right. Like the iPhone like who could have predicted that like just kind of. And that’s an amazing ability. The truth is that most of us are not like that and we need to talk to people and validate that there’s a market and really understand problems right. And I think people see stories like that like I’m going to be like Jeff Bezos I’m just going to become this huge billionaire. I’m a genius right and they have this inflated self-confidence and it’s something that makes you successful as a founder to have an inflated sense of self confidence but if you don’t counter that with a little bit of real world slap in the face I just don’t think it’s not going to go well for you. Most of the time.
Jason: Yeah, no you’re absolutely right. I think that that is a great point. You know we’re not all of those guys or gals too that have done these extraordinary things. But we can aspire to be and we can continue to test our ideas. I think that’s what’s beautiful about the lean method is that it used to be in the 90’s and that was another problem is that we used to wait a year before we launched a website after we got paid and we would you know,”Hey just wait another, you know, 10 months we’re gonna have it’s gonna just go live and it’s going to just blow up the Internet.” Right? And and unfortunately or fortunately depending on how you look at it a lot happens in 10 months in this field in tech.
Jason: And by the time you launch what you originally conceived of there’s a hundred new things that you could have done to make the website more relevant and more usable. Right? So that was a big problem back then. But anyway I like that. I think that’s a great great take away just to just to to strive to innovate of course continue to innovate. Try things but try things. You know that’s the thing.
Alexa: Yeah, I mean that was a big learning for me when I was at Neo was that you know you’re basically applying the scientific method to an idea concept but you still have to have a great idea like you still have to have something there.
Alexa: You can’t just make it up and expect to validate your way to something that’s gonna be worthwhile.
Jason: Absolutely. Alexa, what’s your design superpower?
Alexa: So I’ve been thinking about this because I don’t I don’t know that I have like a typical design. I’m not sort of a typical designer I’m not. Overly concerned UI think. But I think that my design superpower is being able to conceive of a design and then pull it back to the minimum so that I can run tests on it. I’m very test driven. So I think my design superpower is not over building design.
Jason: Interesting. Tell tell me more about that like I guess I want to know more about how that can be I guess you know like because we do as designers and I’m a big advocate of UI and and you probably read my Spotify article about how frustrated I am about their UI that they haven’t done anything about really they’ve made very minimal changes for usability. They’ve seemed to make a much more aesthetic changes which I appreciate. But as a user and as a paying subscriber for a long time now I’m pretty frustrated that they haven’t paid more attention to that. Those factors should speak to that a little more like kind of how that works.
Alexa: Yeah yeah I can totally agree about Spotify. I always joke that it’s really obvious their design teams in New York. I think they have some designers in Sweden, but because those of us who drive cars know how bad their UI is mean I’m going to die one day and it’s going to be because I was looking for like a cut of a song that I could. It’s so small they’re UI is so small.
Alexa: There’s not enough contrast. Yeah. I’m with you on Spotify. I almost switched to Apple Music last weekend but then Apple wanted me to connect to iCloud which I hate.
Jason: Oh, gosh.
Alexa: So I was like OK I guess, I guess I’m gonna have to live with Spotify for now. But you know when you study UX or any kind of design really you are taught this sort of lengthy process which is a valid and important thing to go through. So obviously you start with unpacking the idea understanding you know how the business is gonna work who’s it for you start talking to the people that you think the thing is for right you do user research, customer research. I call that customer development, you’re looking for the problems that people are are experiencing what are they using to solve it today. You start coming up with concepts you develop out you know what the whole experience is like what’s the flow going to be like if you’re doing something digital you know or the experience if you’re doing a service design project and then you sort of start raising the fidelity on that thing and if if you’re lucky you’re doing user testing you’re shipping lightweight you know. So there’s a whole long sort of considered process to come up with something that’s going to hang together. So I try to sort of strike a balance. I do. I do go through a lot of those steps. But once I sort of have a flow or an idea of what the system is that I’m gonna design or a feature that I’m gonna design I then try to understand what’s the killer features the wrong term but what’s the core of that feature? What’s the what’s the thing that’s actually delivering value here? And then I just raise a fidelity on that and I try to define a test around it so I’m trying to think of an example from something that we’re doing at burner you know like we’ll come up with we’ll come up with a feature idea we’ll say that we’re gonna do this kind of thing, right? And then we’ll just design a piece of it and we’ll sort of see like does anyone want to use this thing. And here’s just the beginning of what that thing might be. And so I think that’s it’s I think it’s a really important skill to have because I think designers have a tendency to overbuild and it’s similar to founders who overbuild because you can be wrong about the solution. You can be wrong about what the solution is. You can also be wrong about how you’ve executed the solution so.
Jason: Interesting point.
Alexa: I think it’s important as much as you and it’s what’s really challenging about it we’re constantly having discussions like this on my team is what is enough design? You know like at what point is it not worth doing at all or at what point is it like when does the value kick in and aesthetics is the hardest thing to gauge in this in this context.
Jason: Yeah so I’m going to challenge you here on aesthetics because that’s a great segue into this and because I know that you are a visual designer maybe even first and foremost. I don’t know. I mean like you started around visual more visual design so I know how much how much value you put on a design aesthetic for achieving a goal and a purpose. But then there’s the usability side of things. There’s the right the functionality and as we just discussed Spotify seems more concerned with form over function. Let’s be honest. And I hope they change or I hope somebody disrupts them. Okay. And I know Defenders, there’s a lot of you listening and a lot of you are in San Francisco and do something about this like criticized by creating. I’m too busy. I won’t do it. I criticize a lot but I’m not going to create a new music app I don’t have the time or the resource to do so. But anyway do that please.
Alexa: That’s a great that’s a great quote. Criticized by creating is an amazing phrase. We need to put that on a T-shirt.
Jason: Isn’t that great?
Jason: That’s a good idea. Yeah. I think that and I can’t remember who said it. I would and I heard it from another podcast. So but it was basically like you know we we all have an opinion we all have a point of view. I can be very vocal as much as I want to be a stoic. And I was thinking about this because one of my favorite authors is Ryan Holiday and he talks he’s a stoic and he talks about Stoicism a lot. And he reads the work of Marcus Aurelius and the meditation’s who was a very big stoic as well. But then I realized that I was looking it up yesterday I was like well what what exactly is a stoic? And it’s somebody who kind of doesn’t isn’t affected they’re unaffected by the things that most of the world cares about. It’s not that they don’t feel it’s not that they’re not emotional it’s just that they are not reactive they’re not affected by it. And I just feel as much as I want to be a stoic, by gosh, fighting for the users means being vocal about problems and with that may affect people when they affect humans. So I guess and I don’t know where exactly we’re going with that. But I guess I wanted to ask like about the whole functionality. How important is aesthetics when we are designing solutions, especially in the digital realm?
Alexa: I think aesthetics is important in the world. I think it’s important that our world is beautiful and that we enjoy being in it. I mean the best parallel I have for that is architecture like it’s very apparent when you’re in a space that people feel at ease and like I don’t know what kind of high school you went to but I went to public high school with cinder block walls white center block walls. And that is the most depressing space I mean aside from prison which is also very depressing. It’s so depressing to be learning in that environment. And sometimes I see photos of kids schools today with bright colors and desks that move around the room and you know are comfortable armchairs and it’s like you’re in a space like that it transforms the way that you approach anything you’re doing in that space and the same thing is true with office design, right hospitals. God help us I hope someone can fix this. I mean if you’ve ever been in a children’s hospital it’s like at least children’s hospitals have painted their walls.
Alexa: So UI is similar right? I mean we stare at our computers and our phones all day so in some ways the UI has become part of our environment our physical environment right? You want to be looking at something that’s that’s beautiful and inspiring and feels gracefully done. I also think I’ve really I’ve really thought a lot about how aesthetics contribute value to design. Like how can we sort of attribute success to aesthetics alone isolated from functionality? And I think it’s difficult to do that but I I do think it’s possible. I think Apple is a good example of that. I mean the the aesthetic quality of their physical hardware is is beautiful people love it and and they love holding it and they love showing it to other people. So I think there’s a financial you know demonstrates that that the thing has value the aesthetic has value there. What I think is challenging about software design is it’s pretty difficult to pull apart the functionality in aesthetic. And so I really admire designers that can solve a problem in a usable valuable way that and then it’s also beautiful and you’re looking at both. I’m trying to think of a good example of that I use on my phone or something that I use every day. I’m looking at my phone to see if I come up with anything but I just think that that inbox maybe I really love Google’s inbox. I think it’s pretty graceful. It’s a nice soothing blue color which is good because e-mail gives me anxiety.
Jason: Oh yeah,interesting. Psychology.
Alexa: Yeah. And I enjoy interacting with it. I mean I think it’s it feels like a coherent system right where the aesthetic is serving the functionality it’s getting out of the way, stuff like that. I mean I think the more we can sort of think about the aesthetic as part of the solution to the problem we’re solving rather than like we painted it at the end and it’s these colors like you know to me that’s really that’s where design really sings. And that’s that’s where industrial designers do that so well and as UI designers we have to we have to strive to do better at that.
Jason: That is a really good point, Alexa. For me the takeaway from what you just shared is we should really strive to make a usable product that should be like the core of what we’re doing but we should not settle when it comes to designing the thing to make just to putting a UI in place a visual system and and that brings branding into it. I mean we should really really not call it in when it comes to that we should try to achieve both. And Apple of course is always a shining example because they’ve been so successful at it. They have been really good at both form and function.
Jason: So I think that’s my takeaway personally.
Alexa: Yeah. And I think I mean I was trained sort of to just do wireframe my UX training sort of ended at wireframe. So for a while I was a designer that only created wire frames and then would give them to a visual designer. That was maybe five years ago. Since then I’ve been doing the entire full stack of I’ve been a solo designer on a team since then. And doing visual design to me it’s just become part of the process it’s not like I wire for I don’t wireframe anymore I create the design I create the function and the aesthetic at the same time which I’m sure could be debated by other designers who might think that’s not valuable but it’s it’s become part of my process that the aesthetic is included in the solution.
Alexa: So it’s it’s not just like a skin that’s applied on top you know?
Jason: How do you do that? Are you working in sketch or are you working in browsers like how does that how do you do that and how do you pivot if you need to?
Alexa: It depends on what I’m designing if I’m designing and existing, if I’m adding a feature to something that exists on the web I would I would design it in the browser but I use sketch primarily and I actually this is kind of funny. I was inspired by a design recruiter that I knew in San Francisco, Laurie Mann she’s she was at Uber I don’t know if she’s still there but she was she would always show me people’s portfolios and sort of I learned a lot about what was happening, what kind of trends were happening in design through her because she would she would show me a variety of work that she was seeing and she started showing me these wireframe that she called them wireframes plus but they were basically visual designs that were not in color. So they were they were well done visual designs where the elements were thought through they just weren’t they were grayscale basically. So I do something like that although I generally do use color so I’ll I’ll do sort of a style tile or a reference of styles with with a couple colors a couple of fonts you know if I’m if I’m starting from scratch. At Burner we already have an existing style so I generally can just use the full thing because I have you know the style set already I don’t have to think about it but I’ll take that and then I will compose the screens and use that color palette kind of color palette and style palette to create the UI and the flows and then I and I try not to obsess over it too much but but generally the first pass I do to a design it’s mostly there and then you refine it you make decisions. I always do multiple versions of design. That’s one of my biggest challenges is cutting down and curating.
Jason: Bringing color in early on into the design has it ever kind of bitten you in the butt so to speak with when presenting the work to where the folks or the client let’s say is kind of getting more hung up on the color and the visual rather than the functionality and the flow?
Alexa: Oh my God, yes. Yeah, well yeah. So clients get really hung up on visual design. So.
Alexa: I mean that’s but the problem it exists no matter whether or not you present it visually in any way. I mean even if you just show wire frames they get hung up on it and so.
Jason: Yeah that’s true.
Alexa: My solution to that when I was working in the agency I no longer have this problem thank God because I work in house and my team understands design a lot a lot more. But when I worked in an agency context my solution to that would be to present multiple versions so to show and also to demonstrate why I’ve chosen a certain aesthetic and you know you present, are you familiar with Style Tiles?
Jason: Yes.Samantha Warren from Twitter.
Alexa: Yes so I used Style Tiles for years and I would do I don’t know four different sets of styles and talk about where they came from and think about where you know, think about the company and what’s this company trying to convey. How do people feel when they use this product, how should they feel? And and create styles functional styles I think and then talk through those those choices. And then if you I feel generally I’ve found that if you show a few different options you can use if people are thoughtful you can get feedback and work forward from there. I mean certainly I’ve had to change the whole thing but I guess I just learned that you really can’t. I no longer can take a wireframe and then just color it in and find that it just works. Like maybe and maybe that’s just a weakness of mine. But I have to see the whole thing together. Am I using icons amazing imagery like I have to use all of those elements that are in my toolkit. You know and I try I try not to like I said I try not to overly refine it but to me they’re all they’re all contributing to the functionality like if I design something in greyscale with boxes and placeholder text and then I put a big image in there it could ruin the entire functionality that screen because you can’t see the button or you know what I mean.
Jason: Yeah, it’s I think that’s so awesome that you mention presenting multiple options because I think that’s certainly and especially under deadlines, it’s really hard to do that. Sometimes you just want to OK it’s just the log in page right? Like how many ways can you present this? You know I mean that’s that’s probably an extreme extreme example but but I mean I think it’s really good in it I think it shows your thoughtfulness as a designer too. So Defenders listening you know a lot of defenders listening there are kind of just starting their career or their real early on and they’re trying to navigate. And and that’s a good take away to don’t just do one right because you’re for one it’s kind of limiting you as a designer and two it’s I guess it’s just not demonstrating your thoughtfulness enough. And so I think that’s a really great lesson right there. But make sure this is this is from me. Make sure that what you present you really like it.
Alexa: So that’s like really important learning.
Jason: Because you know what they might pick the one that you hate.
Alexa: That’s right. I think that’s right. I learned that the hard way. Yeah I mean I I prefer to generate as many designs as I can possibly think of and I I usually start on paper I’ll use index cards because I do mobile design a lot and I generate as many as I can think of you know hundreds and then and they’re all really crappy and lightweight and I would never show them to anyone because they’re barely comprehensible. But then you sort of refine but if you you want to show designs that you feel like or are working you don’t just want to show everything you came up with you want to show the things that you think really are strong because you’re right people will choose the thing that you hate. And that’s not good.
Jason: No. I come from an agency background. When I was telling you, Alexa about how I started in the 90’s and my first foot in the door was at an ad agency and we were premier in Orange County, California so. But the thing is is that what I learned there I have a very a very marketing driven background and based on that when I was there one thing I learned when you’re pitching your work and that’s another thing Defenders another take away is that just as Alexa said learn how to defend your work and learn how to communicate it well learn how to communicate your your design decisions and your color decisions things. But one of the things I learned whether good or bad was the red herring concept. You know, you’re familiar with the red herring?
Alexa: Yeah! Yeah ,yeah.
Jason: Red herring it’s and I’m on Wikipedia right now. It’s it’s something that misleads or distracts from a relevant or important issue. So we used to when we really really liked something that we designed that we created and a lot of it again was more ads more ad stuff. But when we really liked something a lot more we presented a real crappy one too.
Jason: And so it’d be like if anybody’s thinking if anybody has any sort of taste whatsoever they’re gonna of course pick the one we like.
Jason: That’s a risk.
Alexa: Yeah, absolutely it’s a risk. It’s so subjective sometimes especially with ad with creative really creative work.
Alexa: It’s very subjective. It can be challenging.
Jason: It truly is.
Alexa: Yeah I I hope that no one out there has to trick people into, I mean I’ve been I’ve been fortunate in my career to work with people who generally are very supportive of design and trust me on some level right to to make the right decisions. So I’ve been lucky that if I really believe in a design I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone be like, “Nope!”
Jason: Yeah. And that’s good. And if you do get some pushback you have enough experience to defend those decisions in a tactful way of course and probably using data using user tests. Those are those are really important too.
Alexa: That’s right.
Jason: Speaking of user test I didn’t ask you do you have any stories of anything crazy or super awkward that happened? During any of those?
Alexa: I, I’ve done a lot f,so I don’t do a lot of user testing usability testing but I do a lot of customer development which I you know try to distinguish.The difference the difference to me for anyone listening is the customer developments really trying to understand the problems people are I talked about this earlier but the problems people are facing the existing situations that they’re in and it’s somewhat pulled from ethnographic research. Steve Blank I think is the famous customer development advocate. But it’s a big lean startup practice and so talking with people about you know their day and what they’re doing to solve a problem versus showing them UI and seeing if they can use it which is less interesting to me although I do that as well. But I’m a I’m a big fan of gorilla customer development so I’ve done a lot of like just walking on the street and trying to talk to people.
Jason: And that’s what gorilla testing is is just getting out of your office and just going going up to people and talking to them right?
Alexa: Yeah. Yeah Steve Blank I think famously said get out of the building. I think it’s Steve Blank that says that.
Alexa: But,so yeah. So I’ve done that a lot. I mean I mentored at lean startup machine in San Francisco and one of the one of my team members had this idea about mechanics solving something for mechanics and so we went down to the mission and we just walked into a bunch of auto shops and we’re like,”Hey, can we talk to the person who runs this shop about how they manage finances?” I don’t remember the idea but that kind of stuff. It’s funny because it’s really scary for people if they’re doing it for the first time but it’s really it’s generally pretty fun and people I mean I’ve definitely had people walk away from me and think I’m a not a telemarketer but you know a marketer on the street. But usually you can find people pretty fast if you’re doing something like that that has a clear market that has physical occasions but it’s fun. I mean that kind of stuff has been just really kind of exhilarating to be able to gather insights that fast. I worked on a project for Macy’s where we went to Union Square. There’s a big Macy’s in San Francisco and Union Square. And we just we talked to everybody we’re like,”Hey, have you ever shopped at Macy’s?” Like it was so easy to get, I don’t know 10 interviews within a couple hours.
Jason: Nice. So ever bump into any weirdies or anybody that just says something that’s just really weird to you?
Alexa: Well yeah I mean as a woman who works in design and talks to customers all the time I mean, I think all of us who do research who are women have stories like that which is unfortunate.
Alexa: Yeah. But I what I do it right now I do a lot of remote user research and you know I’ve had people hang up on me before. Burner is a privacy app it’s an app that people use to protect their identity and privacy. You know from people they’re dating from weirdos on Craigslist. So yeah it’s a strange circumstance of my job that I get people on the phone and I ask a lot of personal questions of people who are using our app to protect their privacy right? So generally our customers have been very forthcoming because I I take a lot of steps to make sure they know it’s anonymous I’m not using it for marketing. It’s for our own learning but sometimes I make people uncomfortable with that like,” I really-I got to go. I can’t I can’t tell you about this.”
Jason: Yeah, yeah that’s that’s cool. I think that’s that’s an awesome way to get some data and just to get out there and talk to people. It’s it always helps if you have something to offer them.
Jason: I think you know Starbucks,Starbucks card seems like the go-to for things like that.
Alexa: Yeah, I use Amazon.Yeah.
Jason: Oh, yeah there you go. That’s a good one.
Alexa: Yeah I’m trying to think of anything weird if anyone’s ever done anything weird and I mean I’ve gotten some hilarious unsolicited design feedback in interviews like Burner’s orange it’s pretty orange if if you only have one phone line and one of our customers was just like,”I hate the orange. What’s with the orange, like what?” Like I’m not going to do anything with that feedback but thanks. We’ll think about it you know?
Jason: Yeah. That doesn’t help the product too much.
Alexa: It’s funny. I mean the more I talk to people people are becoming really aware of UI design. And you know anytime someone says,”Oh I hate the UX or I love the UX I I almost sort of write them off because it’s like you know you’re too technical you know too much you’re starting to provide design feedback rather than feedback as a customer if that makes sense.
Jason: Right,yeah you got the wrong person in front of you and that’s when you realize it.
Alexa: Yeah I mean I look to my team for design feedback I what I want from you as a customer is is how are you using this? And what’s difficult about it? And it’s it can be challenging to pull that out at a certain point.
Jason: Yeah so vetting vetting the folks that you talk to as much as you can. I know when you’re doing gorilla testing you don’t have a lot of you don’t have a lot of choices. But I guess you can you can sort of really be aware and feel out the the person that you’re talking to to see whether they would be a good fit for for your product. Before you spend too much time I guess you’ll probably be able to to kind of detect that pretty soon if you bet some good questions especially.
Jason: Right? You come up with some good questions.
Alexa: Yeah, I mean when you’re doing Greenfield tests like if you’re if you’re pre product you’re definitely gonna interview people that that are not gonna be that valuable sometimes you’re gonna you’re gonna find they don’t have the problem you’re solving or they weren’t the right customer I mean that’s going to happen. And you take that for what it is. I work on a product that already exists and has an existing market. So I I’m lucky to have you know our customer support team sends me people to talk to a lot of times if people write in and complain about something that I’m working on or thinking about working on. They’ll say,” Hey, do you want talk to this person?” and that’s a great way. I mean if you’re working an existing product that’s an amazing way to be able to understand what people need.
Jason: Yeah,that’s interesting and your product too it seems like everybody makes phone calls right at some point. So it’s like the chances of being out on the field and bumping into somebody that’s going to resonate with a product are pretty high. I would imagine but if you’re doing like a motocross app and you go into a convalescent home you may not be talking to the right customers.
Alexa: Yeah. And it’s paramount. So when you’re doing customer development it’s paramount that you’re talking to people that are your customers you have to do that you can’t just interview anyone. It needs to be people that have this problem.
Alexa: When you’re doing usability testing it’s different you can recruit people that just have the sort of level of technical savviness that you expect. Someone to, I mean generally when I’m doing usability testing it I don’t I just want to know you know is this person on Android can they have they used an Android phone before. I mean it’s I don’t need them to have the problem because I’m just sort of asking can they navigate the app. You know I’ll say things like,”Tell me where you think you can find this. You know where can you find contacts?”Anybody who operates a phone should be able to find that they don’t have to be one of our customers you know?
Jason: Alexa what’s your design kryptonite?
Alexa: Hearing UX/UI. I hate it when people say UX/UI. I will never accept that as a title. I I can’t stand it. Can you relate to that?
Jason: Why? I have an answer to that but I want to know why you don’t like it.
Alexa: To me they’re completely separate things and I hate it when people use UX incorrectly. I’m a UI designer who considers people’s user experience right? I’m not really designing how someone feels about our product. I can’t design how they feel I’m designing what I think is going to make them feel a certain way. So I just I feel like it’s just an abuse of those two term UX is the experience that a customer has it’s owned by the customer not by the company. And UI is the method for creating that experience. I just feel like I just feel like it’s buzz wordy and I don’t love it.
Jason: Yeah. No I definitely understand that. It seems to me like it could be also a company trying to save money. That could be part of it let’s just hire somebody that can do it all and put a bunch of pressure on them and burn them out real quick. So that could be part of it. One of my design heroes, Golding Krishna, who I had the privilege of interviewing in episode 11. If anybody is familiar with his work he is the first guy to talk about you know how we’re drowning in screens and how like that seems like the go to solution for everything that we create. There’s an app for that. Right? And the app boom. And so he he wrote a book called The Best Interface is No Interface and he’s basically his whole logic is we maybe we don’t need a screen for that. Maybe we can use you know near field communication maybe we can use Bluetooth and a lot of companies have certainly thankfully caught onto that and started creating stuff where you don’t have to get your phone and do 10 things to open your car door.
Jason: So he says and I quote him because he’s definitely a quote worthy guy. He said,” A lot of big companies advertise these UX/UI roles and even designers talk about themselves in this way. They aren’t the same thing.” just like you just said Alexa.” When you’re a UI designer, you’re there to compose a great screen. And when you’re a UX designer you’re there to understand and solve problems. And when you conflate the two, you make it so people try to solve problems with screens.”
Jason: End quote.
Alexa: Yes! So I think I’ve watched a talk that he did. I’m completely on board with that. I think it’s a huge problem that UX designers right now are typically UI designers.
Jason: Yes. I think you’re right.
Alexa: And I’m no exception. I’m definitely a UI designer. I don’t.
Jason: Same here.
Alexa: I’ve done a couple of projects that were UI list or minimal UI that were somewhat invisible but we have to start moving and this is why the cross training and industrial design you know and other design fields even engineering fields is important because hopefully eventually we’ll be moving beyond these little rectangular bricks and we’ll be thinking more about invisible UI or different form factors of UI. Have you ever seen Corning’s Day of Glass Video?
Jason: I don’t know if I have.
Alexa: Sort of a projection for the future by the by the Glass Company Corning and it’s someone going through their day and every service in their home is you know can interact with every service in their home.
Alexa: I mean it’s still somewhat flat and screen based in some ways the glass is the screen right?
Alexa: But thinking about your home as an interface is a really cool way to sort of free yourself from that. Everything needs to be on my phone. It’s very simple to create apps which is why I think people go to that solution. But yes there’s so many so many more ways to solve problems and apps and this is what the “Mise en Scene” talk was kind of about this. I think in order to be effective at that we need bigger cross-functional teams so we need to involve architects industrial designers fashion is that we need to be thinking bigger and that’s challenging because it’s expensive but you know when you’re approaching something huge like a hospital or a healthcare system you need a cross-functional team of people so that this solution isn’t determined by someone’s job title.
Jason: And kind of going full circle around back to influences different inputs. I’m a big advocate I always say different inputs equals different outputs and that includes a team of diverse people from diverse backgrounds and they’re coming together to create something and offer a bunch of different perspectives on that thing especially when it comes to healthcare when people’s lives are quite literally at stake.
Jason: So I think that that’s kind of a really also a great take away that you know we need to really I think specialization is really key too you know like pick something you really like and get really good at it especially in this age of automation and artificial intelligence and I mean there’s already a bunch of stuff out there that can make your website for you without you even having to think about it you know and yeah. So I think that you know how do we become indispensable in our work and that’s a question I’m gonna want to be asking the panel I get to talk to at an event in Denver actually in a couple of weeks. One of the questions I’m asking is,” How do we stay indispensable in our work?” And I believe we become really good at something that only humans can do.
Alexa: Yeah. Wow. I think that’s a really important question for us all to be asking ourselves. It’s funny that you say that because I walked into a McDonald’s recently that has you know McDonald’s has started doing those big screens so you can order at the you can order on a screen basically in the store and not talk to a human.
Jason: It’s a trend.
Alexa: Yeah it was it was around dinnertime. It was a busy McDonald’s. Almost no one was using the screen.
Jason: Oh wow.
Alexa: I took a picture of it because I thought,”The humans are taking computer jobs.” Like it’s and we’re not quite there yet where people are comfortable interacting with technology over human right like.
Alexa: People scream on the phone. You know operator it’s like.
Alexa: We’re not quite there but I do think we’re no matter whether or not robots are going to take your job I think we have to think of ourselves as providing value. What is the value you’re providing every day?
Jason: I absolutely agree. And I agree also with your sentiment about you know we’re not there. Like I skip automation 99.99% of the time. However the more intelligent and believe me I Siri is one of the most frustrating experiences still for me on my iPhone and on my Apple Watch. I mean it’s still like I still feel like there’s so much room for improvement there but I’m glad that there’s something like that you know? So it’s like I’m kind of you know I’m I’m kind of in the middle here. But but I know it’s only going to get better. And so when we start when systems start to get to a place where do you ever see the movie Her, where he talks to his computer and has almost like a romantic relationship with her?
Jason: That kind of level of intelligence, I think that that’s coming eventually once a lot of more bugs get worked out and a lot more intelligence is at an end. So I think these are good questions to be asking ourselves now while we still have time to really find that niche.
Alexa: Yeah I mean for sure computers are going to take over a lot of our world. But I think we have to still be around for something right? I mean we’re not just gonna evaporate.
Jason: Yeah exactly. It’s true. And I think that there’s there’s will never be a substitute for human connection ever.
Alexa: Yeah although have you read “Alex and Eda”? The comic book series that get graphic novel series?
Alexa: The three book series about a guy whose grandmother gets him a robot girlfriend.
Jason: Oh my gosh, sounds like “Lars and the Real Girl.”
Alexa: Yeah because it’s similar to “Her.”
Jason: Except she’s not a real robot she’s just an inflatable doll.
Alexa: Yeah I think stories like that are fascinating,and I know that’s coming soon.
Jason: Wow what is the name of it again?
Alexa: Alex and Ada.
Jason: Okay interesting. Might be worth a link in the show notes yes?
Alexa: Yeah, yeah.
Jason: Okay, Alexa here’s a fun one. Tell me your super it sounds like I’m talking to the Amazon Alexa. That’s gotta be real frustrating for you.
Alexa: Yeah my parents have an Alexa they’re constantly telling it to shut up when I’m on the phone.
Jason: Oh my gosh.
Alexa: They’re like,”Shut up! We don’t need to know the weather.”
Jason: I think they need to change the name to something more unique I think. I mean Alexa’s a unique name don’t get me wrong but it needs to be a lot more just I think specific to a device instead of a human.
Jason: It’s a human name.
Alexa: It’s been funny having that experience having people call me a lot people try to give me commands sometimes as a joke it’s like OK that’s getting a little old but.
Jason: Yeah there’s there’s room for probably some innovation there as well. So I’m sure Amazon’s working on hopefully they’re working on something like that.
Jason: But they are busy building rockets so I don’t know. We’ll see. This is a fun one. I know that this is something that I kind of primed you with some of these questions beforehand and the reason why is because these are hard to answer on the cuff. I’m interested to know Alexa, what would your UX Superhero name be?
Alexa: I thought a lot about this because I went back through other people’s and I looked up Mr Grady. I mean some of them are really funny. I think it would be “Duchess data”. It’s funny we’ve spent a lot of time talking about visual design but I actually spent most of my day working with analytics and experiments and I cannot work without that. That is perhaps another design kryptonite. I can’t work without data. I’m just not effective when I can’t see the results or impact of the work. But weirdly that’s what I would say even though I am a designer. But I am very passionate about data.
Jason: That’s cool and I’m glad you mentioned that Alexa because studying you and researching you before this interview I did glean that from your work that you are a real big advocate of working with data and I think that’s awesome that just is another thing that makes you such a well-rounded designer and you have an article I think to that we’ll have to link to was about using data. Can you tell me the name of that one again?
Alexa: I think it’s called “Metrics that Matter.”
Jason: That’s it.
Alexa: Yeah I mean I I talk a lot about data and it’s a passion of mine to get other designers involved in data because I think designers are often cut off or excluded from data in decision making and I think that’s a big mistake. So I try to encourage people to get involved early and understanding their data. I happen to be extremely involved where I work. You know I’ve named our events and generate reports and I’m very involved in it every day. And I know not everyone can be but I think it’s unfortunate when people are hearing data second or third hand from other people in their companies. Oh well someone so-and-so said it’s converting this way it’s like you’re just gonna have to go with it. And designers are going to approach data in a different way than a product manager or a data scientist would. And I think it’s critical that we bring a UX lens to data and thinking about what does that mean for you. When I look at the events in our analytics platform I’m seeing the experience someone’s having and I’m able to see the pathway someone’s taking based on the events that they’re firing. So it’s important to be able to see that I’ve in past product’s been able to understand that people are using different devices and once you know I’m thinking everyone’s using one device and sitting down and going through this experience and they’re not. I can see it in the events I can see that they’ve left and they’ve brought back a different device and you know you can see people going back and forth through UI. They’re not taking a linear you know they’re not going step one step two. They’re going back and forth they’re leaving they’re firing errors because they’ve hit problems and it’s really important to look at that and understand how people are actually using the product.
Jason: That’s really great. Alexa and I’ll be honest with you like I consider myself mostly a UI designer and that’s one of my favorite things. It’s one of my passions and I’ll be honest with you. Like I have traditionally and historically never really loved data and I don’t get excited about it as much as I should probably as a designer. But I know how important it is and I mean I’ve I’ve dabbled with Google Analytics and I’m thankful that exists. You know? But I guess a two part question if you could help myself and the defenders listening get a little more excited about data and also how do we learn more about it?
Jason: Can you just take a second to do that?
Alexa: Of course. The reason that I got passionate about data was that it was actually working in film. So working in set design design has only as much value as the director and writer assigned to it. So if the directors and writers of a show or film don’t care about the design it’s not valuable and that’s really hard. And so you’re sort of at the mercy of someone’s subjective opinion of design. What I think is powerful about the rest of the design world is that it does have value. It has financial value. Design actually contributes to companies valuable like you know their valuation. And so but you have to prove that. I think designers often say that design is valuable. We know design matters. We want, you know, higher salaries and we want to have bigger design teams and in order to do that we have to prove that we have we’ve contributed that value I think. So that’s where it comes from. For me I want to know that my work has value and I want to be able to tangibly explain that to people and not just say yeah I know it does right? Like just believe it. So that’s that’s the motivation but it’s pretty easy. I mean basically you know when you start thinking about a design and implementing it how do I know that this is successful? How do I know that this solves the problem for someone and that they’re using it and that they’re using it in the way I think they’re going to be using it? And then you go through your UI. I think I talk about it in that article but I’ve I’ve talked about it in public talks that I’ve given you go through the UI and you label where you want the events to fire OK? You know in a sign up flow I want to know did someone put in their email? Did they put in a password? And and so you you label the buttons you say on this when they press this button it’s gonna fire this thing so that I know that they press the button. And then you can look at your sign up funnel and see,”Oh everyone’s leaving at this one critical stage.” right? So and that’s it. That’s pretty much it. You say I want these events. You know you write it up for a developer to implement. You Q.A. it by looking you can look in mostly on Analytics Tools Real Time. Go through your app and see if it fires in the order that you think it’s going to fire. And that’s it. Like you’re good to go and you can see that data come in once the once the app ships and then a lot of I mean there’s there’s a decent number of talks. One of my passions is talking to designers about how to get involved in data. So I mean Google Analytics is probably a good gateway if you have a Web site if you have a portfolio website you know definitely put Google Analytics on there and start looking where people are coming from? Where are they referring? How long are they spending on the site? Just start asking questions of your data that can be a decent way and then there’s obviously more advanced analytics tools for when you’re doing more complex apps.
Jason: Sure. Yeah, that’s great. Thank you Alexa. That’s inspiring. So, let’s wrap up the show with the imparting of superpowers. What’s one habit that you believe contributes to your success?
Alexa: I think the tracking of design like thinking through the,”How do we know if this is successful?” And then actually being able to detail an execution plan for knowing knowing if it is. I think that’s probably the best thing I could apart to someone. I really think that’s valuable it’s been you know invaluable to me to do that. And then I think on the other side of that would be taking a ton of classes and spending a lot of time learning. I’m taking a class right now. Like I said Industrial Design Class. I try to learn as much as I can as fast as I can. I’m also trying to learn more about IOS development.
Jason: Yes, me too.
Alexa: So you know just like just sitting here just consuming, there’s so much to learn. It’s amazing going to conferences and reading articles listening to podcasts like this just trying to take in as much as you can.
Jason: I love it. A.B.L. Defenders, always always be learning. I talked Jeffrey Zeldman and one of the things that he said in the interview said,”Listen if you’re bored,” I ask him what’s the best advice and one of the things he said was, “If you’re bored, you’re in the wrong field.”
Alexa: No kidding. Yeah. It’s amazing. There’s so many resources there’s so many free resources there’s so many wonderful people to follow.
Alexa: Yeah. Yeah. You can never. That’s what I love about design. You can never run out of stuff to do or learn or be inspired by.
Jason: Absolutely. Indeed.
Alexa: It’s expansive.
Jason: I couldn’t agree more. What’s your most invincible UX resource or tool you could recommend to our listeners? I know you mentioned data.
Alexa: Yeah. It’s yeah you know like-
Jason: I don’t want to bias you but.
Alexa: I mean my AB testing tool for sure is my AB testing tool we use Apptimize and I’m in love with it.
Jason: Apptimize, not Optimizely?
Alexa: Not Optimizely. You know I used to big fan of Optimizely but they’ve stopped caring about startups.
Jason: Oh poop.
Alexa: They they’re very enterprise focused now. Yeah so they’re not as useful to me anymore but I’m also I don’t love the way that Optimizely works with mobile apps. I don’t think it’s well done. So Apptimize has been fantastic. The team there’s been great. It’s so easy to use. It’s like nothing compares to looking at two UI’s or two experiences and then having it say this one is better than the other one. Here’s how. Like you know I can see it.
Alexa: It turns green. It’s amazing.
Jason: Doesn’t get any more black and white than that right?
Alexa: It’s fantastic it’s I mean no one will argue with that right?
Alexa: It’s been that’s been amazing. I love that tool. And I really recommend people get into AB testing it’s so easy. It’s so helpful. You are so wrong about so many things and it’s like it’ll tell you that right away.
Jason: Wow. Oh, that’s so awesome. Yeah and I think that’s another way to kind of pull your seat up to the table like what am I guessing Andy Vitale says he says,” Bring your own seat to the table.” And that’s how you do it.
Jason: You present your design with data that supports your decision.
Alexa: Yeah yeah. If you want to take a risk in design and you can define a lightweight way to test that and you say you know what let me try it out and see. We’ll see if there’s a signal here and if you can prove it that’s fantastic then you can chase that that design made that solution.
Jason: I’m a big reader. I love books. I love reading. I would be surprised if you didn’t either Alexa with your your hunger your desire to learn. So that’s a given. If you could recommend one book to our listeners what would it be and why?
Alexa: I think it would be “Running Lean” by Ash Maurya. That book is somewhat in the context of technology is somewhat old. I think it’s like maybe 6 or 7 years old I don’t know but.
Jason: So is “Don’t Make Me Think.” I think that books like 20 years old by now.
Alexa: Oh yeah “Don’t Make Me Think” is great. We had Steve, we interviewed Steve for the UX book club here.
Jason: Oh cool.
Alexa: Yeah he’s great. Yeah I mean I’m really passionate about people understanding design validation about designers specifically I think founders some founders have really latched onto lean startup. I don’t see as many designers. Running Lean is basically it’s Eric Reese’s book the lean startup but written for as a practical guide to execution. When he talks about problem interviews which is basically the guidebook for doing customer development for startups and then aside from Steve Blank’s book I think Running Lean just makes it a lot more tangible and then solution interviews which is when you go back to them with the thing you’ve designed. Yeah it’s just a very tactical book but I think it helps. It helped me with my process. It was one of the it’s informed my process I think more than any other book I’ve read a lot of books and I could give you a list of a bunch but.
Jason: Wow, I’m sure.
Alexa: But that one I just think is very hands on.
Jason: Awesome. Well that sounds like a good one. I’ll be sure to link to that Defenders in the show notes. Alexa, this is my last question for you and it’s one of my favorites. What’s your best advice for aspiring UX Superheroes?
Alexa: Prove your value as early as you can.
Jason: Oh wow.
Alexa: The way to do that is by tracking the success over your work and by you know integrating that into your process as early on as you can. That’s my best advice. Otherwise you’re at the mercy of people’s understanding of design. If you can’t sort of prove why you’re there and what you’re creating. Why it matters.
Jason: How do we do that? What’s what’s the best way we can do that?
Alexa: Define success. Right when you’re starting a project or a new role somewhere define success. You know talk to people talk to the leaders of that company and understand how how will I know if I’m successful as a designer here? What would that look like? And then when you’re working on a project how will we know if this product is working? How will we know if this feature is doing what it’s supposed to do? And then defining an execution plan for understanding that. If you’re not, I think it’s I think it’s acceptable if someone doesn’t want to get involved in data but maybe talking to someone who is involved in data at your company and saying,” Hey, I’d really like to know how many people bought this product.” or ,”How many people interacted with this feature?” and if you can’t do that talking with customer interviewing customers after you’ve released the feature.”Hey, how are you using this? How did you know this existed?” and just trying to gather any insight you can. I mean even looking at app reviews or support cases if you if you’re lucky to have that transparency at your company but just gathering anything you can and trying to piece together. “OK we said that we would release this feature and it would do X,Y,Z and here’s here’s what that looks like it, here’s what it’s doing.”
Jason: So good, Alexa and I think about just in your talk, the one that I can’t pronounce.
Alexa: Mise en Scene.
Jason: And I think this sort of puts a bow on what you know and I’m not I’m not adding I’m not trying to like say your answer wasn’t good enough but I just want to put a bow on kind of what you just shared with us because it was so good it’s you know get out of your seat. “Explore the full context.” That’s what you said in the talk explore the full context of what you’re making and if you don’t do something go talk to somebody who does that will help make this product even better. And you say talk to the folks who make the experience happen in other departments.
Alexa: Yes. Yeah I think that’s that’s absolutely right. Everyone at my company contributes majorly to the customer experience. Everyone from the paid ad team you know you’re seeing an ad of ours on Facebook to the support team obviously engineering. Everybody touches the customer in some way.
Jason: Alexa, this has been so amazing and so inspiring. Like I’m just totally pumped up right now and I I’m you know so I’m curious. I want to learn more about data. I want to you know I want to try to measure my work more and it’s just been incredible and you know you said it earlier on when I asked you about your tombstone. You said you know she tried you know she she did the best she could.
Alexa: Well now I wanted to say criticized by creating. Absolutely. That is a phrase that I am going to latch on to.
Alexa: Because that’s when I see a problem I try to get involved and I I don’t know that I’m always solving it but I think it’s amazing to just get in there and just try. I have a bias for action.
Jason: By God you’re trying, and you’re succeeding, and you are making a difference, so I just want to encourage you to fight on my friend.
Alexa: Thank you. Yeah this has been amazing. Thank you so much Jason.
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