Looking back at design after interning at Facebook

3 things came to mind when I watched some bright designers do their thing.

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Respecting social distancing and craving fresh air, I worked at random, people-less spots on the UW campus throughout the summer. A good time I won’t have again, and will never forget.

Here’s what I think I should start doing as a designer after a summer at the social impact team. There are big and small reflections, but here are my three favorite ones, one in interaction design, visual design, and product thinking each.

Interaction designGo detailed

When I watched my coworker design, I always notice how detailed their work is.

At the macro-level, Detailed design means designs that are more clean and specific in which people problems to solve, goals to achieve, directions to take (based on product thinking), and design decisions to make. Detailed designs are not only better looking, but also more convincing and communicative because the designer provides an abundant amount of reasoning and background information to support them.

At the micro-level, detailed design means intentional designs. I personally find these details to be what years of experiences enable senior designers to do. It can be as small as changing the placement and size of a button or adding small dots. But because of these details the design moves metrics a bit more or help lower product risks. If you get one or two details right in a design every time, over years they add up to create a huge impact. It takes a lot of time polishing, thinking, and learning to get all the small things in the interaction right. But with experience, they will become easier to find.

Good designers can rationalize empathy into questions to ask themselves and their colleagues in critiques and conversations. I’ve heard many good questions over the summer and learned to ask myself some of them:

  • What is the intent behind an action and how strong is people’s will?
  • What are the consequences of each action? and what are the possible next steps people might take after that action?
  • What are jobs to be done when people come to the page? How should the components behave to facilitate those tasks?

Prototyping is a great way to start making more detailed designs. The maker of design knows everything about a product, but the people you’re trying to serve don’t. Playing with a prototype, even one made by myself, feels like experiencing the product from another person’s perspective. It always helps me notice unpleasant moments and the details (also Details) that I missed in the first try. Origami had been very rewarding once I adapted this habit in my workflow. I used to think “is a prototype really necessary? I think the devs/users would understand.” Now I prototype whenever I can.

Visual designOutside of screens

Explaining what is good visual is like trying describing a color in words. Here’s a better question: how can we make the design outside of the screens better looking? I love reading people’s design doc and I do it all the time. It is how I grow as a junior designer: looking at how senior designers solve problems and compare it to how I would have done it. In the good design docs, you see everything thought out and written down. From extreme states to interaction cases, even the naming of the files, everything is prepared perfectly as if the designer has also considered the reader’s experience. It is admirable. I felt urged to make my design like these.

Designing your design doc is not frosting on a cake, it’s professionalism. You have to get everything outside of the screens right too to call a design done. Creating a perfect design doc makes me feel I have fulfilled my duty, that my design is professionally produced and handed off with pride. Designing the design doc is like doing packaging design for your work — It’s part of the craftsmanship.

Sadly I’m not the best person to tell you this neither. I know I have plenty to work on: I could be better with words (to explain the design) and screen organizations (my origami files are all spaghetti and myself don’t even try to read). I don’t make enough perfect design docs and I’m working on it. You should think about it too!

Product thinkingThink about the world

One common design tip people give is don’t start designing right away. After this summer, I started to want to take this statement even further: don’t start thinking about the solution right away.

Usually when we start on a problem, there are so many opportunities out there. There are likely multiple user groups suffering from the same issue. They may diverge in age, country, tech familiarity, and suffer from the issue in different degrees. How do we choose which one to focus on?

Sometimes the user group with the highest company value is not the group that suffers the most. For example, older people in China might have a less will to pay and adapt to new products than other groups, does that mean fewer products will be created for older people and leave them confused in the tech-driven modern world?

Should we make decisions based on where the product needs to go, or what does the world, the industry, and the people need? It feels like we are entering the ancient debate of business vs users again, which feels like biblically old in tech history.

Regardless of your preferences, here are some product thinking questions I learned to ask myself when thinking about this issue:

  • When you are solving a problem, who else suffers from a similar problem besides the audience you are trying to serve?
  • What would each of their use cases be like?
  • How does this feature, or the product as a whole, or your company appear to them as a solution?

I also find research history to be very helpful in practicing product thinking: Tech history, industry history, company history, and product history. In the Endgame, the Avengers asked themselves “we lost to Thanos once before, what changed this time that gives us any difference?” Ask that question to the product. What are the world/industry/company/team doing differently than before that could make the product successful?

If you like to practice thinking broader, I recommend starting from the broadest term and think about what is the possible product impact on the world, then the company, industry, and work my way down to envision what and how to build the next feature. This funnel-like process will take time, patience, and passion; but it makes me feel more confident when deciding the next problem to tackle.

The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. What does it take to become a good designer? What should I be doing now? Can I become a good designer one day? Maybe. At this moment, I hope writing about design would help. I wrote a similar reflection after interning at Alibaba’s Tmall (天猫) team if you want another read.

I also remembered how it all started when someone introduced design to the back-then college newbies me. If you are also a curious newbie, please leave me a note. I want to do the same to others and help in all the ways I can.

Thanks for reading

Written by

Product designer + UW Seattle grad; I like tall places. nickszhou.com

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