Beyond the px — Customer.io’s Ivana McConnell on finding your feet, work-life balance and communication

Luis Ouriach
Feb 28 · 7 min read

Welcome to February’s edition of Beyond the PX. I came across Ivana McConnell’s excellent work after she was featured on the Diversity 30 website and have been in touch since.

She’s a remote worker, working out of Vancouver in Canada and is a big advocate for continuous communication to ease the product process across multi-region cross-functioning teams.

Enjoy.


Can you explain briefly who customer.io are and what they do?

Customer.io is a platform which lets businesses humanize their automated messaging — email, SMS, push notifications, things like that. Essentially, we aim to help businesses communicate with all of their users in a more contextual and timely way.


What has been your design journey up until now?

My design journey has been pretty haphazard! I made websites and designed graphics on Neopets and Geocities from around the age of 11, but I never thought that what I was doing was “design.”

I made websites with tables and frames, and graphics with a trial version of Photoshop Elements my dad got for me — from a magazine, I think. I learned how to make websites on the Geocities community, with tutorials various people wrote on graphics and layouts.

But I loved doing it, though I never thought that I could make a career of it — I thought that “design” was art, and I was never a good artist.

I went to university to study psychology and while there, I helped to do research in cognitive neuroscience. Throughout that, though, I continued working away at and making things on the web, simply because I loved it.

After I left university, and realised that I didn’t want to go into academica, I was a little lost. It was only when my girlfriend at the time (now wife, because she’s a keeper) told me, “Hey, you know that thing that you do for fun? There’s jobs to be had in that!” And at that point (about ten years ago now, maybe), I found my first web designer job, did more freelance work online where I could find it, and moved into UX and interaction design as I learned more about what I enjoyed.


What does your typical morning look like?

We wake up at 6:15 in the morning to walk two dogs, back in by 7 and working by 7:30.

I usually spend my first little while at work catching up on other work that’s been done by remote colleagues or feedback that’s been given on my work. I then usually set out a plan for the day, and attend any meetings I have — I usually have most meetings in the morning, due to time zones, and have afternoons to myself to get larger chunks of design work done.

If there are no meetings, I dive right into design work for the day, whatever that might be.


What does your design tool stack look like?

For design, my stack consists of pens, paper, and Figma. If I want to get an animation idea across, I’ll usually code it in Codepen or something similar. For collaboration and feedback, we also use Github, Basecamp, Slack, and Dropbox Paper.



Do you have any smart design processes?

The simplest “hacks” are just being purposeful and disciplined, and that can be hard to do sometimes, especially when working remotely. Setting goals for the day, reaching proactively out to people when you don’t know what to do, and not being afraid to ask questions even when it seems “too simple.”


Do your career aspirations encroach your life?

I keep my life and career separate, even though I work from home. But I have certain values that I’d like to think permeate my career and my work — I like being a good communicator, a good teacher, a good writer, and using the skills I have to creating spaces in which I (and others) feel welcome — online and otherwise!


When making design decisions, are your team conscious of the vast amount of customers that you’re impacting?

We’re incredibly conscious of the number of people we’re affecting — our customers send millions upon millions of messages to people, and one piece of copy or one change in functionality can affect that messaging.

It can cause millions of people people to get lots of messages they don’t want, or miss out on really important ones! So we do approach things cautiously in that respect, in making sure that the functionality is clear (even if it is sometimes nuanced), but also by building in considerate defaults that keep the end user in mind.

It can be a tough balance to strike, and we do have to accept that we’re not exactly going to innovate in certain areas, but our consistency and reliability are what matter.


How do you measure your own success at work?

I measure my success using regular meetings with my manager, and on the cadence of the team I’m working on. I find that I work best when I’m continuously designing, and asking others for feedback on those designs.

My job is to help the team I’m working with (and our project) communicate well — to continuously produce design work which allows us to see our ideas coming to life, ask questions, answer and refine them, and build and test the features we need.



What is your team dynamic?

Our product team has three designers and three PMs, our Director of Product being one of them.

Each designer and PM help to form a “squad”, which teams up with one or two engineers to define, scope, and tackle a given problem within the product. We’re given a lot of autonomy in how we solve that problem.


How do you see your product evolving?

I see us developing more features which help our customers, businesses, communicate in a more human way — not so much writing messages for them, but giving them insights about their customers which enable them to send better messages, at better times, and understand more about how and when their customers want to be communicated with, as well as when they don’t!

I can’t speak much about where we’ll be in ten years, because I have no idea where tech itself will be in five years, but as long as we’re focused on relationships rather than messages, I think we’ll be okay!


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

In terms of skills you need to have for SaaS products, I’ve found that learning how to deal with and visualize complexity is the biggest hurdle. Sure, there are ideal states, but what about customers who have lots of data they need to visualize or who might be using your application in an unorthodox way.

These aren’t edge cases, just complex and high-powered ones that need to be served just as well. So in this respect, planning is critical before jumping into the design tool of choice — what is the priority? What scenarios need to be solved for (and don’t)?

Similarly, it took me a while to get used to thinking of our user as an employee rather than as a consumer. They’re not using an app for the joy of it, really, but they want to get their job done and impress their boss. Understanding what that means and prioritizing it in design takes practice.

And finally, being able to maintain a consistent UI is key. A lot of folks do this by using a design system — I’m not saying that someone starting out in the field should know how to build one, but what this means is building a deep understanding of the product you’re building and what patterns it uses, and asking questions up front: “Hey, I’m creating a feature which allows people to sort through data — where else do we do that?” for example.

We may want to innovate, but keeping things consistent for a user is often far more of a challenge!


What’s your opinion on ‘the hustle’?

I think being forced to work any hours is bad, especially extra ones. This expectation, for both engineers and designers to keep coding and keep creating and have “side hustles” outside of their work, is a bad one.

If they want to, that’s great, but that should not be something we evaluate when it comes to new candidates or people looking for work or mentorship. It creates a bias toward those who have that time — those without families or other non-work interests or otherwise balanced lives.


Ivana really knows her stuff. It’s when designers talk about what isn’t visible in an interface that you know they have a real product mindset. Second to this, the sign of a great designer is someone who thinks about solving problems rather than pushing pixels, and it’s exactly what Customer.io are doing with their product process.


8px Magazine

Life, by designers.

Luis Ouriach

Written by

Design honcho @UpgradePack. Newsletter writer, co-host @thenoisepod, creator of @8pxmag, @juniordesignjob, @LondonIsYours. Sarcastic.

8px Magazine

Life, by designers.