Beyond the px — Threads’s Shirley Wu on collaboration, research and communication
This month’s Beyond the PX comes in the form of San Francisco based Shirley Wu. Shirley works for the vitual team management tool Threads.com.
It was great to hear from Shirley, especially because she followed in Kanye West’s steps and dropped out of college. This is inspiring, because she made the jump and has managed to forge a successful design career in her own right off the back of it.
Who are Threads?
Threads is a platform designed to make work more inclusive by empowering teams to discuss and make decisions at scale.
What has been your design journey up until now?
My pursuit in design began when I came to the realization that I disagreed with society and cultural norms. I had an impactful life event where I was sexually assaulted at age 12, and the reactions I received at a young age were absolutely shocking. It gave me perspective and made me want to change the way people received emotional support.
Working in communications and media made the most sense given the influence of media outlets. The concept of existing software product design didn’t exist back then. Out of high school, I went to Academy of Art University for a BFA in Graphic Design so I could design for media and also understand how messaging influenced people.
While studying for five years, I was also working at internships and early-stage startups. I wanted to maximize my time and understand whether I wanted to work at an agency, a larger company, or a startup. During my last year of college, my family hit some hard financial hurdles. At the same time, a company also offered me a senior visual design role before graduating. I considered myself extremely lucky. While it resulted in me needing to drop out before graduating, supporting my family was more important.
Afterwards, I worked in both small and large companies, multiple contracts, and startups. Each company had their own set of ethos and experiences. They also tackled problems in different spaces from women’s fashion to mental health.
What does your typical morning look like?
I wake up to my dog patiently waiting to greet me (she knows to not wake me up for food).
I usually take my time getting in, where I’ll put on jazz and apply cosmetics. Taking my time to get to work makes a large difference in my mood and state of being.
When I skip routine, it usually means I’m in a sprint.
When I get into the office, I’ll make myself an americano or cappuccino. I’ll run through my threads, answer any questions or provide direction, and jump into production mode.
What does your design stack look like?
Threads, Slack, Sketch, lots and lots of Post-It notes, Zeplin, and Dropbox.
Do you have any smart design processes?
Always over-communicate, share context, and find alignment.
This makes it significantly easier to collaborate effectively. As time consuming and frustrating as it may be, often times people don’t share the same understanding and context.
Even when we speak the same language, words have many meanings and can be interpreted differently.
Do you find it hard to define what you do?
Even with other product designers, I’ve had to explain what I do. As we grow, responsibilities increase.
Depending on the company stage and size, one might need to do more than producing and iterating.
With the way design roles have evolved in the last five years, where designers are now required to know prototyping and animating, coding, branding, qualitative and quantitive research, and more, I’d be surprised if anyone could accurately define roles.
Do your career aspirations encroach your life?
Creating a more emotionally supportive environment for others has been a long time goal, and with design being a means to get there, I wouldn’t divide them.
Design is an intentional creative process where we undergo research, experimentation, iteration, and refinements. We also subconsciously absorb information and patterns around us which encourage unique approaches to finding solutions through design.
With fashion designers needing to constantly be ahead of the times and understanding what resonates with people, it’s a great place to discover potential visual trends.
How do you ensure you’re consistently designing for the future?
In short, collaboratively.
We don’t design in silos. We put a lot of effort in growing our team to be a diverse set of people with different backgrounds and experiences.
As people who are building enterprise software, being able to use and refine it allows us to brainstorm the different ways we can approach pain points and problems.
It gives people the opportunity to identify concerns and solutions we may be unaware of.
What drew you to the team collaboration industry?
When I was designing and working with teams on how machine learning tech can be leveraged for different features, I noticed there was a huge barrier to entry. People were intimidated because they didn’t understand what machine learning was and I also initially fell into that bucket. Only after talking with PhD’s and the machine learning engineers did I realize it’s a model informed by large amounts of data.
At that time, I performed interviews internally with people in different roles and learned about their processes. From what I learned, there were a lot of inefficiencies with time and muddled data. When communication becomes a game of telephone, people often aren’t on the same page. It just so happened that my manager at the time was stretched too thin because he was running to meeting after meeting.
People being unable to scale themselves effectively is what drew my curiosity towards providing context in a more efficient manner and helping to get everyone on the same page. This is what brought me to work in the asynchronous discussion space for the first time.
What is your team dynamic?
Design works with our Core and Education, Marketing, and Customer Success teams closely. With our various verticals growing, we’re hiring!
We’ll optimize for ways we can be most effective in our work depending on whether or not we’re in a sprint.
Sometimes we’ll have verbal discussions, and we’ll do a write up on Threads after to reinforce alignment.
What advice would you give for those interested in kick starting a career in designing for the market?
Have a conversation and talk to people.
The amount of knowledge people have and experiences unique to them is a huge learning opportunity.
Do you work on any side projects?
I paint on the side to reconnect to my roots from when I learned how to paint as a child. It allows me to focus on my breathing which reduces anxiety and also helps me to better understand my mental state.
During days where I feel absolutely drained, my paintings are much more disorderly versus the days where I overthink, and the elements look extremely controlled.
What are your thoughts on overworking?
I think people don’t speak up about boundaries, not necessarily that designers are forced to work outside of the 9–5. When people are passionate about their work, they can spend countless hours on it.
The problem is that it isn’t sustainable when you’re working a certain number of hours on repeat. It wears peoples mental and physical health.
Some wonderfully open and honest insights there from Shirley, I especially like her recognition that we need to be more honest with ourselves about our work-life balance.
It’s incredibly easy to be swept up in your work and forget to live your own life. If you’re feeling like things are slipping away, speak up and try to manage your own situation. Designing is our passion, but it’s not everything.
Until next time folks.
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