Meet: Katie Riley, Product Designer
Katie has been at Envoy for almost eight months but if you ask around, it’s felt like longer based on the impact she’s already had on the company. I recently sat down with her to talk about how being detail-oriented led her to become a designer, her advice for younger designers, and how she created a community of waffle lovers at Envoy.
Hello Katie. Tell us in your own words what you do at Envoy.
I’m a Product Designer. I think my design process is pretty textbook… I really like being close to the product side of product design, maybe not everyone likes that? I used to tell people to just treat me the same as a Product Manager. I enjoy the user research side, and road-mapping and organizing backlogs and writing specs… but then at some point I’ll break off and make the visual design pieces, too.
Tell us about your typical day.
At Envoy, we have small cross-functional teams of PMs, designers and engineers all focused around a segment of the product. In the morning we’ll have stand-up and ensure we all have what we need for the day. Then I’ll be working on moving a project forward, whether that means scheduling calls with users to try to learn about their problems or producing designs in Sketch.
In the afternoon, occasionally I’ll make waffles. We have two waffle irons in the office kitchen because we hosted a brunch awhile ago—it broke my heart that we had three massive boxes of waffle mix and two irons going unused. So I just started making waffles one afternoon and let me tell you, if you melt butter in a waffle iron at 3 p.m. your coworkers will notice. It’s turned into a nice little community of wafflers — shoutout to Jenn Wong’s life-changing cheddar jalapeño waffles.
When did you first know you wanted to pursue design?
I sort of accidentally ended up in this career. But it also makes perfect sense that I ended up here. I think I must have always had strong aesthetic preferences. I remember always wanting things to be just so.
I’m still like this. For better or worse, if I think a couch is in the wrong place in a room or there’s too much clutter on a surface, I have to “fix” it. I’m just a control freak when it comes to decor. I basically have to live with people who are okay with me re-decorating.
When I was like six, my sister and I shared a bedroom. Our house had a spare room, but it was filled with my mom’s junk. I hated that, so I sort of junk-shamed my mom until she emptied it out for my sister.
After that, it was on. I blissfully sorted through the paint chips in the hardware store, selected the perfect periwinkle blue shade for my walls, and my dad helped me repaint my room. I remember being far too small to be rearranging furniture all by myself, yet spending a day locked in my room disassembling, moving and reassembling the heavy wood beams of my bunk bed set.
I was just that kid who wanted to watch HGTV instead of cartoons. I remember reading coffee table books that were literally just color swatches with fancy names.
Tell us about your design education.
As I entered high school, I thought I would end up going into interior design as a career. I had an amazing opportunity before my junior year of high school to attend summer school at Rhode Island School of Design. Turns out, I didn’t love it— I realized I didn’t want to go to art school.
Later, I visited a bunch of colleges, including Boston University. I fell in love with the campus, or lack thereof, since BU is mostly a bunch of high-rise buildings scattered around the city. They had an art program, but it seemed really oriented to classical drawing and painting — the stuff I didn’t really like at RISD.
But I still saw myself going there, so I checked the College Board website [another time the College Board changed an Envoy designer’s life] to see the other majors they offered. One caught my eye called “Advertising Art.” I looked into it more and realized it was part of the College of Communication at BU, which houses majors like Journalism and Public Relations. The weird thing is that the major is actually just Advertising; I’m not sure why College Board added the Art to it. A typo decided my entire future.
So I went to BU. I took classes where I used all the Adobe Creative Suite programs to make print ads, magazine layouts, and simple websites. The major was very focused around the context of advertising agencies, and I was drawn to the “account planning” role, which “brings the consumer into the process of developing advertising.” I learned how to conduct research, write unbiased surveys and lead focus groups. It was all really fascinating to me — I loved producing design work, and I also really enjoyed the psychological side of understanding customers and aiming your work toward that.
So how did you go from an advertising education to a professional product designer?
Being from Northern California, I didn’t love the cold and snow of the East Coast, so I moved back home after graduating. Ad agencies aren’t as common out here, so I started working for a small gift and home decor company for a year, designing greeting cards and calendars.
I got the opportunity to move to San Francisco thanks to my older sister, a front-end engineer who was working at a startup that needed a designer. It wasn’t until I started working there that I learned that “user experience design” was a thing and that I had basically already gone to school for it. I taught myself how to do user interviews and advocate for product features based on user feedback.
This is where my obsession with questions began. I’m no Terry Gross, but I’m working on it.
What would you tell others who want to get into design?
I think a lot of roads can lead you to design. When I look back on it, I can see that the common threads in my interests have always been aesthetics and organization. This job is so well-suited to those interests. You have to know what motivates you, because design is a broad role and varies from company to company.
As for my advice to people who want to get into the industry:
Ignore Dribbble; make things that solve problems. You can make them look nice later. What “looks nice” changes every two years anyway.
Another piece of advice I’d give is to build your design vocabulary. Learn to educate others about design in words they understand.
Jarrod Drysdale has written about this in several of his eBooks. I knew about design concepts like visual hierarchy, alignment and proximity, but I had never considered how explaining these concepts to non-designers could help demystify the design process. Be an advocate for design by teaching others how design decisions are made.
Where do you go to get inspired?
I love looking at productivity tools. I literally will go see how GitHub built a dropdown, or how Jira does search. I love to see how other web apps set up main navigation sections or settings pages.
I also like to look at existing design systems like Bootstrap and the U.S. Web Design System. I find it’s much more useful to look at a bunch of components that work really well, and then decide what kind of visual styles I might want to add on top. Function matters most to me.
Anything you want to promote or plug?
I recently started a Twitter account where I repost weird vintage items I see for sale on Poshmark. I love Poshmark, it’s an obsession, basically my entire wardrobe is thrifted. I really want them to user-interview me. Please email me, Poshmark designers. I would love to talk about your product!
I guess my plug is for environmentally friendly shopping habits? If you haven’t seen The True Cost, you really should. Fast fashion is ruining the environment.
Thank you for your time, Katie. Any final thoughts?
Send me your favorite waffle recipes :)