You’re a product design leader at Instagram. What drew you to the field? Like others in a creative field, I like making things. Specific to product design, I love the luxury of immediate feedback from people to improve the work. At Instagram, my teams simplify and evolve user experiences app-wide. We’re shepherds of Instagram’s design and product systems. Improving a platform for more than a billion people globally means working closely with data and research peers to understand the needs of our community, then applying those insights by introducing—or removing—patterns within Instagram’s design language. The closely collaborative loop from an idea to a real thing delivered to real people drives me.
What have you learned from previous experiences that inspire your work at Instagram? A formative chapter in my career was my time as a multidisciplinary designer at a small software company called Basecamp. There, all the designers wrote code, edited copy, told stories, shared insights and practiced sales. I learned to learn, trying my hand at disciplines like marketing and engineering. I learned about what it takes to build a product and business end to end. At Basecamp, I also transitioned from brand design to product design, and went from individual contributor to manager.
In my several jobs that followed, I’ve had the enormous responsibility of growing and leading design teams. Reflecting back on these experiences, I come back to a few same lessons. Work with self-aware teammates. Write well to inspire action with others. Make things simple: both the design and the process. Through it all, hold a high bar for the quality of work and the people. All of these lessons inspired the way we build culture and lead teams at Instagram.
How has the focus on self-awareness helped you build a strong team culture at Instagram? It’s a privilege to work with people and teams who have a conscious understanding of who they are, where they fall short, where they’re trying to go and who they want to be. We give our teams at Instagram a lot of autonomy and trust. We lean on each other to do the right thing in order to build great experiences for our community. A self-aware teammate has an acute understanding of their behaviors, communication style and where they stand relative to a goal. When a challenge presents itself, interpersonal or specific to the work, a self-aware teammate can diagnose, course-correct and be helpful in bringing others along.
What questions do you ask during every project to ensure inclusive solutions? Whose needs are we not accounting for? Whose perspectives are missing? Do we understand all of the ways people will try to use this? Who are we leaving out if we choose to ship this? Who does and doesn’t have access to this? Could this be simpler?
You mention on your website that you believe in a “culture of experimentation.” How is experimentation important to building and innovating? We live in a world of best practices and optimizations. Companies mirror others’ successes. Innovation comes from connecting ideas and things that don’t seem to fit together. It’s better—and fun—to ask more “What if we tried… ?” and less “What does the competition do?” Ideas are fragile. We edit too soon. Experimentation means creating space and time for the unusual to have a fair shot at becoming believable.
What did you learn from serving as a president of AIGA Chicago? Serving as a president of a professional organization means standing up as a voice for many others. It’s hard, important and rewarding. You’re pulled out of your small professional bubble and have to quickly understand the needs of your peers. Serving as a leader for a professional organization is like being a manager at the workplace: you feel a responsibility to take care of the people.
What skills should every designer have in their toolbox? Digital tools always change. These skills, I find, don’t: writing well, presenting clearly and critiquing kindly.
How did you get the idea to start your project, Humble Pied? Breaking into an industry is hard. As we learn from others, we should also share with others. To help myself break into the industry, I cold emailed designers I admired and invited them to a five-minute interview. Nearly everyone agreed to share advice with me. I recorded these short interviews and published the videos for others to learn, too.
What do you hope product design will look like in the next few years? As the field of product design continues to be widely accessible as a career, I hope craftsmanship and excellence in quality remain priorities. I’m hopeful that product designers will apply their smart thinking and energy toward improving the quality of each other’s lives. We have a lot of work to do to tackle political polarization, systemic racism and climate change.
What advice would you give designers trying to create inclusive work? Understand your existing biases—everyone has them. Remember that you do not represent all users. Learn the impacts of your work by sharing it with underrepresented, less-abled and disabled people. Most importantly, be prepared to be humbled.