Qiqi’s Aero-Experience

Earlier this year, Qiqi joined Aerolab as a UX Design intern. After her internship was over we asked her to write about her experience.

By Qiqi Xu

When I first heard the name Aerolab, I found it funny that it was located in a city that was literally called good air… As it turned out, it was a pretty awesome lab 😊

For the past few months, I’ve lived a pretty hectic life. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I was a student at the Minerva Schools, and on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I was a Design Intern at Aerolab.

A quick word about how it all started: I grew up in China, started college in the US, stumbled into UX design before joining the cult at Minerva, then travelled with the cult to a land of cheap wine and delicious meat but expensive everything-else… From here my Aero-experience unfolded.

Note: Minerva Schools is a global university that allows students to take classes online while rotating through cities all over the world and to immerse themselves personally into each city. You can learn more at Minerva.kgi.edu (this is not a shameless plug but important context that enhances your reading experience going beyond this point).

Aerolab, with its UX Director, Juani Ruiz Echazú, as the representative, is a partner of Minerva. Since Minerva doesn’t provide any design classes or training, I started stalking Aerolab’s website and Dribbble account the moment I learned about them at the orientation of my new semester in Buenos Aires.

Not long after that, I applied to be a design intern there, as I saw it as a precious learning opportunity and it turned out to be so much more than that — it also played a crucial role in me finding a balance between school work and my passion. After a barrage of emails, I finally got a calendar invite for the on-boarding meeting!

First impressions

The first time I showed up at Aerolab, a beautiful piece of hand painted lettering at the entrance caught my eye.

As a lettering nerd myself, that was the first good sign for sure. (Fun fact, when I joined Minerva, the admission letter was an animated piece of calligraphy that looks like this — so well, here goes my soft spot). The office is open and well-lit, and the signs are impeccably stylish. A bright and lively space bustling with amazing ideas — it definitely fitted what I imagined a creative agency would look like.

Then Alejandro Vizio, Aerolab’s Creative Director, gave me a walk-through of the offices in general, taught me about the process, and told me about some of the past projects. I got to ask as many questions as I could think of, and that really set the tone for my experience here: active, communicative, and growth-oriented.

I was then introduced to Francisco and Bianca, respectively the designer and the project manager that I would be working with for the first half of my time there. All I can really remember from that first day was the thrill of being in a space full of design-minded people who are amazing at their craft.

As a self-taught designer, my experience was, up to then, largely comprised of self-initiated projects. While I did have an internship doing in-house design at an awesome startup in the Bay Area, I was fresh off of a rather disappointing design project with an NGO in Berlin by the time I started at Aerolab. The lack of agency experience made it possible for me to keep a truly open mind for my time there.

Aerolab in Motion

In the three months I spent there, I got to work on two projects to really maximize my time to learn the nuance of UX in different kinds of projects — the first one was more product-focused and involved complex product thinking, and the second one was more user-centered and conversion-oriented.

With the time constraints from being a full time student while interning, I was initially a bit concerned about not being assigned to the most exciting projects available, and about how limited my involvement could be… but I was pleasantly surprised and really happy to get to work on something that I feel so passionate about (Ed-tech!).

I’ve seen my fair share of crappy education products that use technology just for the sake of using it rather than focusing on the students or the teachers, it was refreshing to get involved in something that was really leveraging technology to improve teaching and learning by bettering the experience of doing so.

Iterate, Baby, Iterate!

For the first half of my internship, I was assigned to work on a specific feature of this massive online teaching and learning platform. I got to work alongside Fran, an awesome designer from whom I learned a lot about working within a complex product system that supports multiple platforms and screens of different sizes.

Focusing on a specific part of a feature allowed me to really explore all the different ways of solving a same problem and how these alternatives would work within the larger system that contains the product.

In practice, this meant a lot of cross checking, referencing and validating. I realized I was good at coming up with different options but then felt very lost in terms of how to evaluate and move forward.

It was definitely hard to trust my instinct as an intern, but with the feedback of Juani and Fran, I gradually learned to find the sweet spot between a thorough iterative process (design) and efficient decision-making (business), as time is limited. During this process, I was really encouraged and pushed to explain my reasoning and go for what I believed was the better choice.

Faster, Move faster!

The second project that I was a part of was a Fintech company. As it had most of a communication design twist, the team had a slightly different set-up, with the addition of a Executive Creative Director, Sof, and a Copywriter Bautista besides the typical designer-developer-PM trio.

Compared to product features, landing pages have a much shorter iteration cycle. Every day we got to work on distinctly different tasks, and many times we were working on different landing pages in parallel.

Mobile first and Modular design were the not-so-secret weapons that enabled us to move at lightning speed. I had read a lot about the methodologies of mobile first, but never really got to implement them myself.

The amazing designer on the team, Gabrielle, involved me in every step of her process, from research to wire-framing and to UI design, and showed me a great deal of Sketch tricks that helped speed the process.

Along the way, I learned the nuances of designing for different screen breakpoints, and the considerations that had to be made in order to keep the rhythm and visual focus on different screen sizes — such as the framing of the pictures, the row length of a table, the visual weight of CTA, and so on — these all need to be adjusted to comply to the screen size that they live on albeit the existences of a rough pattern. Modular design provides the grid, which is the guideline to assemble the design, but ultimately the design process takes place when the designers scrutinize the page as a whole and tweak the components differently so the experience across different breakpoints looks “the same”.

What did I learn?

First thing first, Paper

The approach of “Paper First” was particularly interesting to me, since I started reading books pretty much only in epub/mobi/pdf around the time I started attending a virtual university. Paper first was at the front and center of what Juani wanted me to take away from Aerolab.

DJ Stout talked about that as well, because designers are hired for how they think, and pen and paper help designers explore our thinking with greater flexibility and a sense of immediacy.

Everyone at Aerolab has a flashy shiny orange-covered sketchpad for a reason, as one of the working memory models proposed by Baddeley is based on the idea of a mental visuospatial sketchpad that holds and manipulate visual information. (And also carrying the notebook makes you look really cool).

Our working memory has a very limited capacity (next time if I get asked the superpower question, I’m for sure switching my answer from being invisible to having super-memory) and as UX designers, we need to take into consideration a slew of things while designing.

How does every screen fit into a product system? How do interactions transition from one another? All the thinking process is pertinent to many other factors that our brain are not so good at keeping track of. Visualizing our thinking on paper frees up mental space to evaluate variations and further develop our ideas.

Start Small

Another takeaway that works really well with the paper-first methodology is to Start Small, and Gab’s sketchpad is the quintessence of this approach.

By starting small, with wireframes of the lowest fidelity possibly, we force ourselves to pinpoint the most important information and therefore are able to develop an information hierarchy that is hard to arrive at without a “zoomed out lens”. This information then defines the typographic hierarchy and the specific design decisions that impact focus of the page, such as color, font weight and alignment.

Communicating Design is just as important as Design

One of the primary reasons that I really wanted to intern at an agency was to get the opportunity of gaining first-hand experience at communicating design with clients.

Throughout the internship, it really struck me that, design is also by and large a business skill — meaning it’s the designers’ responsibility to ensure the clients understand why and how the design decisions are made, how they serve to achieve the goals, and why some design are not pursued.

A client is never one person — they work with people as well. For some, communicating design might mean more handholding if they are not familiar with what wireframes are used for; for others who are more well versed in the space, this could mean taking extra time to design the obvious option that you vote against so you can show clients why your proposed design will work better.

Critique of your design =! Critique of designer you

As I was wrapping up my first project, Juani thought it was a good idea to have a design critique — which was my first real Design Critique with a full house of designers and developers! Separating the critique of my work from that of me as a designer was one of the most important lessons I learnt here, and thanks to the support and honesty of all the aerolabers — the process for me was actually painless and highly rewarding!

Reflection

The past months working at Aerolab while being a full-time student at a design-unrelated program was insanely rewarding but at the same time intense and challenging, putting my time management skills to the test.

I feel incredibly grateful for this opportunity to work alongside stellar designers in a stellar space — which made working feel like a break from school to me, and hence I was always reminded to take breaks by Fran and Gab 😁

Shoutout: Thanks to Juani, who always gives quality feedback and replies to emails sooner than anyone I know, and taught me that we are the ones that get to decide how to make a project challenging for ourselves, that we should always be seeking experience that helps us learn and grow.

Thanks to Fran and Gab, for taking the time to teach me and guide me through numerous questions and processes while still meeting deadlines and being great designers themselves. Thanks to Bianca, Ivo, Sof, Bauti and Sergio and everyone that I was lucky enough to have crossed paths with — my Aerolab experience would not have been this incredible without you guys!!

Next: Tokyo Bound

My next stop is Japan — to implement a project for which I won a Hackathon sponsored by a Japanese VC with three of my lovely classmates at Minerva. I am going to dive into a new culture and territory — we are going to work on an IoT related project. What’s worth mentioning was, we were super lucky to have an IoT mentoring session with Sergio, VP of Engineering, in Aerolab’s Workshop.

People ask me why I’m still in school and why I don’t simply quit and become a designer full time — well, I think about that everyday too, but I’d like to think of studying at Minerva not as a means to get a successful career (although it certainly helps), but more as an end in itself — to embrace the vastness of the world and see the different possibilities of lives for myself.

I could make the case of how traveling around the world and thrusting myself into completely different cultures are helpful for me as designer to connect to people and see more perspectives, but the traveling is part of learning about life — before I could learn about design.

Many Minerva students aspire to change the world, compared to them, I don’t have ambitions that are too noble at the moment. All I know is, I can’t impact the world in any meaningful way without seeing the world — after all, I’m a designer, I need clear objectives and constraints so conceptualizing it is crucial (let’s not go to the philosophical realm of things for now haha).

Now this works both as a love letter and cover letter to Aerolab? 😛

The idea of this article was to have an absolutely transparent take on what it’s like to be an intern at Aerolab. You can contact Qiqi and check out her work here: http://iiimkicky.weebly.com/design.html