You launched the group Blacks Who Design (BWD) in 2019. What feedback have you gotten from companies or hiring managers? The response has been overwhelming. We’ve had companies reach out for recruiting, conference organizers have found speakers, and we even got a mention by Beyoncé on Juneteenth! We’ve had a lot of major companies connect with our community in various ways. Most of the feedback has been along the lines of “How can we support this effort?” It’s exciting to see so many people express a genuine interest in the community and reach out with opportunities and resources. Now, it’s all about continuing the work and creating more action. As an industry, we need to incentivize companies and hiring managers to prioritize this type of work.
Do you know how the members of BWD have been doing during these uncertain times? Like everyone else, there’s a lot of anxiety and uncertainty at times, but BWD has been a great safe space for people to share how they’re feeling. There have also been a few Zoom meetups that have popped up where people have had a chance to connect.
What led you to begin serving as a design mentor at venture firm Backstage Capital? It came out of a desire to connect with early-stage teams. Having been employee number 5, 150 and 900 at various companies, I can help early founders see what’s around the corner. Whether it’s working on product/market fit, hiring the first designer or trying to scale, all of these problems have tested processes.
It’s also a great way to infuse design thinking early on in the company lifecycle. I’m a firm believer that design can be a competitive advantage and the great companies of tomorrow, and even today, have design baked into their DNA. Often, design is added too late in a company. This mentorship gives me a chance to get founders thinking about it from day one.
What do you hope product and digital design looks like in the next few years? I hope that more product designers start thinking about how their decisions impact their businesses. Having an impact at the financial level is key for the industry to progress. I’ve recently talked to several senior designers and managers about this impact, and they all have incredible business acumen and real empathy for their cross-functional partners.
Many designers start their careers with an antibusiness mindset and it really limits them. Shouldn’t we all want to make a product that’s so useful that we’re willing to pay for it? If we fail to do that today, then we won’t be able to deliver that value for users tomorrow. Luckily, there are a few courses and books that are helping to lead designers through this transition. I’ve taken a few myself.
How does inclusive design lead to product innovation? It’s about creating a larger surface area for innovation to happen. If your design practice is a monolith, by definition, you’ve limited how innovative you can become. However, if you bring in many different perspectives, backgrounds and strengths, then you can only widen the net for great ideas.
How has your background or personal experiences influenced the work you produce? As a designer, what question do you ask during every project to ensure an inclusive solution? The basic one is, “How does this work for people who aren’t me?” The “me” here can mean a lot of things: where you live, your ethnicity, age, gender, alma mater, etc. This is a hard question for all of us to answer because all of our biases creep in. However, asking this question helps you do the hard work of changing your point of view so that you can address a wider range of needs.
What emerging technologies and innovations excite or worry you? I’m excited for more designers to move into “nonscreen” spaces. We’ve seen this with the rise of voice. Over time, we’ll see designers branching out into analog mediums or mediums that are primarily process based, like service design. Also, the rise of machine learning and artificial intelligence is requiring designers to consider the role of automation in their solutions. The question “How can we not make the user think?” can now mean things like giving better suggestions to users instead of always requiring their input. The future is bright, but we need to make sure that we’re doing right by the user. This is why it’s crucial to have designers at the forefront of these technological shifts.
How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic will impact product design? COVID-19 has made us think more about distributed working environments. We all have to answer questions like, “How do we stay collaborative while not being colocated?” This is pushing the industry to think about our collaborative tools and find ways to innovate in this space. The pandemic is also allowing designers to use their talents for civic purposes. I’m seeing designers volunteer for U.S. Digital Response, local nonprofit organizations and presidential campaigns.
What excites you about product design today? I’m excited to see the profession mature. I feel like I’ve been part of the first wave of product design. A lot of peers came into product design from other professions because product design was still so new. But now that it’s been around for a while, we’re seeing more schools teach it and more new grads entering the field. The second wave of product designers will spend less time dealing with design tools, because the tools are becoming better, and more time on product strategy, data and deep user research.
What do you wish you had known when you first started working in tech? How many skills are involved in becoming a truly successful designer. When you start, you only think about how beautiful you can make something. Then you think about how easy you can make it to use. Then you think about if it’s even useful in the first place. Then you think about how you can communicate the vision to other partners. Then you think about how it affects the bottom line. There are a lot of ladders to climb.
A friend of mine once said, “Know that at this height, all disciplines converge into product leadership.” That’s a quote that I think of often.