Beyond the px — Babbel’s Akshan Ish on being a parent, storytelling, and collaboration

Luis Ouriach
8px Magazine
Published in
8 min readApr 16, 2021

--

Welcome to April’s Beyond the PX! This month we have Akshan Ish, who has lived in several countries, recently became a father and is an excellent designer working on language products.

Enjoy.

Who are Babbel?

Babbel is a language learning company that were one of the first to take language learning online (disrupting the CDROM market, and launched pre-iPhone). Today, millions of people around the world use Babbel to learn a language through the lessons, podcasts, and other learning media that we offer.

We’re a company of about 750 people from 60+ nationalities with offices in Berlin and New York, moving towards a distributed workforce in the EU.

What has been your design journey up until now?

Growing up in India in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, Computer Science Engineering seemed like the logical career option to pursue, mostly because everyone else was doing it. Unfortunately, I only got into an average college and didn’t really enjoy how the subject was taught. Fortunately though, it gave me enough time to explore other things, and I started to dabble with computer graphics, web design, Adobe Photoshop, and then started to freelance with my friends. We did some rudimentary identity design and built websites for local businesses through friends and family.

I went on to pursue a Masters degree in Graphic Design at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. I was very fortunate to meet some extremely brilliant people there and learn from them about utilizing systems design and the design thinking process to address pressing societal challenges.

After my studies, I moved to Munich to join IDEO. I spent about 5 years there, working across various industries and geographies, applying human-centered design to a huge breadth of challenges. Whilst at IDEO, I spent about a year in Peru embedded with a client organization building a startup accelerator. Here, my focus shifted from uncovering new opportunities to creating impact by shipping products that people find useful. This made me want to move from consulting to product. After a year-long stint as the first designer at an early stage startup called Ciara that was building a digital assistant for inside sales teams, I joined Babbel. I’m currently on parental leave, but right before I was leading a team of designers in the growth and engagement areas of our product.

What does your typical morning look like?

I have a 1 year old son, so my mornings start really early — usually around 5:30am. After a bit of snuggling and diaper changing, I make a cup of coffee for myself, and prepare breakfast for the little one. My wife takes over childcare while I get ready for the day. After a quick breakfast, I take my son out for a morning walk (his first nap). I use this time to listen to a podcast, typically switching between design, news, basketball or something interesting in the tech & societal space. This has been a really nice way to start my days before work. I go into work zoomed out, feeling whole and inspired.

Once at work (upstairs in our apartment, as I work remotely), I typically start off my day by looking at my personal Trello board to get a sense of things that need to be accomplished, then check slack & email, and proceed to block off time in my calendar for the week based on what I think needs my attention and how much.

What does your tool stack look like?

I spend most of my time in Google Docs for ideas, proposals and structured conversations, Miro for collecting research, conducting workshops and visual collaboration, Figma for working through flows with my team, collaborating on UI and basic prototyping. Confluence for documentation that needs to be visible to the company, and Jira if I‘m jumping in deep on to a project or working with the engineering teams. I also use https://rawgraphs.io to visualize data quickly either for processing research, or for presentations and I’m learning SwiftUI to prototype high-fidelity apps.

Do you have any design hacks?

At IDEO, I learned to start designing an experience by first writing a story in Google Sheets — each step of the story taking up a cell. This helps immensely in thinking about the overall experience of the person using your product or service beyond the interface. Stories require you to establish context and draw cause and effect between what’s happening in the product and what’s happening in “real“ life. I find that once the story starts to feel good, it gets much easier to line up the pixels.

Do your career aspirations encroach your life?

My career and life were inseparable before I had a child, especially since I met my wife at work, and we spent a couple of years working together on projects too. Having a child forces you to draw boundaries between work and life just because they demand that kind of attention and energy. Another aspect is that deciding where to live before starting a family was heavily dependent on career prospects. Now, I think differently about opportunities that would require me to be elsewhere.

In terms of fashion, music or other interests, I find that it is usually the opposite. Those areas of life inform the design work. Being able to find something that inspires me, and then to bring that into the workplace makes me more effective. When we lose touch with what’s happening around us, and focus only on the design process or the pixels, then our practice becomes detached from the reality of the world. It’s our job as designers to stay inspired — only then can we craft the interactions and experiences that help people navigate their worlds in a meaningful and joyful manner.

How do you design ‘for the future’?

If there’s one thing that 2020 taught us, it is that the future is very unpredictable. So, unless you’re inventing radically new technologies or systems that fundamentally change how we go about our lives, designing for the future in a tech product context is really about building the organizational capacity to be able to respond to changing scenarios in an appropriate and swift manner. This has to do with how teams are setup, how decisions are made, how well we’re listening to our users, how effectively we’re able to iterate, etc.

On the more exploratory side, while I was at IDEO, we’d often receive briefs from clients such as “explore the future of xyz…”. One method in the research phase that I found extremely insightful when designing “for the future” is to do inspirational research with extreme users. They’re not necessarily going to be your target user base but will provide inspiration through their behavior, habits or workarounds they’ve created for themselves. Extreme user interviews are a great way to spot emergent behavior, and bring to light scenarios you would not normally consider. That definitely helps you to stay away from the cliches.

What attracted you to the language learning space?

I’ve been trying to learn German for the last 7 years and it is hard work. It requires patience, dedication and a willingness to fail. On the flip side, being able to speak a new language immediately gives you access to new opportunities, builds bridges, and makes it easier to feel part of the local community. That combination is something that I’m excited to design for, and it really helps that there aren’t really any dark sides of helping people learn new languages.

Can you explain the team dynamic?

We’re roughly 15 product designers but the design org is larger as it includes UX Research, UX Writing and Learner Experience Design. The product designers are grouped together by product area with a design lead for each area. All seven designers on my team are embedded in cross-functional teams and each team is responsible for a high-level learner problem. The design team has grown quite significantly over the last year or so at Babbel, and we’re continuing to figure out ways to work together with other disciplines more collaboratively, and ship valuable stuff to our learners.

I have three main spheres of collaboration.
1) The product and engineering leads, to shape what we should be working on, why, and how we should be approaching the problem space in terms of people, process and principles.
2) The other design leads and research lead to make sure we’re creating the conditions for design to thrive at Babbel. This includes iterating on the design process, hiring, onboarding, working on career development for designers, et cetera.
3) The designers on my team, to set them up for success, and to ensure we’re doing high quality design work.

What advice would you give for those interested in kick starting a design career?

Think about the humans first, then the pixels.

I’m aware that it is getting increasingly harder for graduates to enter the industry, but the cultural landscape is changing so fast that any company that wants to be future proof should be investing in them. However, it does require a certain maturity in the organisation to be able to support them, so they‘re able to learn and excel at the same time.

I’ve also noticed that there is an increase in the number of folks switching careers into design, who bring with them a wealth of experience. Our UX research team has had quite a bit of success with bringing in junior level researchers who’ve worked as linguists or teachers but want to move into product development. Someone who has domain expertise but isn’t afraid to question what they know is invaluable.

What are your thoughts on burnout?

It’s totally real and it’s very prevalent. However, in my experience, burnout is not just caused due to excessive time spent working, although all the virtual meetings are tiring no doubt. What’s less spoken about is that it’s got a lot to do with the quality of that time spent working — is there a mismatch between what you find meaningful and what you’re working on, are you learning and being adequately challenged at work, are your efforts valued & recognized in your workplace, does your manager care about you and your growth, do the details that you sweat about as a designer actually see the light of day, is there cohesion & harmony on your team, do you have a supportive community of peers, etc.? All these factors contribute to lack of motivation, engagement and burnout.

Quite a few organizations are now providing mental health support to their employees including the option to take time off, which is a great first step. The next step is to address the causes, and not just treat the symptoms.

--

--

Luis Ouriach
8px Magazine

Design and community @FigmaDesign, newsletter writer, co-host @thenoisepod, creator of @8pxmag. Sarcastic.