Tina Xu has been a Product Designer at Envoy since 2017. We recently sat down to chat about Sailor Moon, finding your passion in life, and how Nobel laureate Richard Thaler nudged her into the design world.
What do you want to state for the record about yourself?
If I weren’t a product designer, I would love to be in academia. I studied economics and psychology in college and I’m obsessed with behavioral economics; if I weren’t doing behavioral economics-related things as a product designer, I like to think that I would do lab studies or research in that field.
Tell me in your own words what you do at Envoy.
I work with the Visitor Registration and Growth teams.
Envoy Visitors is Envoy’s first and flagship product; I work primarily on new features and improvements to existing features on our web dashboard. Some of my work has involved our iPad app for Visitors, too.
On the Growth team I’ve primarily been constructing various experiments that are focused around increasing conversions and AARRR (acquisition, activation, revenue, retention, and referral). One of the things we’re looking into now is building out a referral program, so that’s going to be really exciting.
How did you transition from economics to product design?
I made the decision to pursue product design really late in my college career. It was always important for me to take care of people in some way through whatever work I ended up doing; designing products that help people do their jobs is a really good way to do that.
I think the nice thing about product design is that people come from all different kinds of backgrounds. It’s one of those careers where it doesn’t really matter what you studied, or even if you’re self-taught. All of your cumulative experiences and backgrounds give you a unique perspective to bring to product design. Economics and psychology translated smoothly into the field of product design, which is really multidisciplinary.
How is design multidisciplinary at Envoy?
The team is small, so the product designers do a lot of different things: constructing flows, talking to customers, designing screens, conducting testing, and interfacing with engineers and PMs — lots of hats!
I really enjoy talking to customers. Being able to learn about their problems is really rewarding because it gives me a clearer image of how the work that I’m producing is going to impact people in measurable ways. It always feels really good to go into a project with a good understanding of what I’m designing and who I’m designing for.
What were some of your creative outlets before you were a product designer?
Since I was really young, I loved to draw. I watched a lot of anime as a kid; I started out watching Sailor Moon and basically I thought it was the most beautiful thing in the entire world.
I was so captivated with the art and fashion in the show, I thought, I want to do this. So I started drawing, and then realized that the more I did it, the better I got at it.
Why didn’t you pursue art school?
I was interested in so many things as a high-schooler, but I didn’t want to go to art school because I think I psyched myself out of it. I thought, you have to be great to be an artist, you have to be exceptional to be a fashion designer, and what if I graduate with a ton of debt and I can’t find a job? Maybe I should do something more stable. I love biology; maybe I can be a neurosurgeon!
And then my parents were like, no, no, no, Tina, don’t be a doctor! That’s so stressful! You should go into business.
I had no clue what business meant; no one does when they’re going into college! Like, what is business? But I thought, okay, I’ll do business! So I applied to all of these business programs, and ended up going to UC Berkeley.
But I was also not really sure what I wanted to do career-wise.
How did you decide what to career to pursue?
I’m someone who can easily get into a lot of things; I had this struggle that I was a “jack of all trades, but master of none.”
I was always really jealous of people who had something they were super passionate about, who had found their calling. I didn’t know what my calling was, and I felt like I had to have one.
A friend recommended me this book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, and it was just mind-opening for me.
Obviously I was interested in economics — it’s not just supply and demand; it’s how people make decisions based on constraints and limitations, perceived cost and benefits, and everyone’s trying make the best decision in any circumstance. But behavioral economics was even more interesting because it’s focused on how things actually work in the real world, which is often not the way classical economics says they will. People are inconsistent and act irrationally; they are subject to so many cognitive biases, social pressures, and other external factors. Behavioral economics became something I was really interested in, and that’s when I deep-dived into something… but I still didn’t really know how it would translate into a job.
I had internships at small seed-stage startups which were definitely very interesting but they also made me realize that I didn’t want to do marketing, or operations, or business development.
How did you discover product design?
I was in a club in college called Innovative Design which provided creative services to other clubs on campus, like graphic design, videography, web design, and photography.
Before I joined that club, I thought design was basically graphic design and visual design and making cool digital images; I thought to myself, this is something that I can do; I draw a lot, what’s the difference?
Now I know the difference, but through the club I realized that design wasn’t about what I wanted; it was about what the client’s needs and requirements were. You weren’t creating things for yourself; you were creating things very intentionally, centered around a purpose. Even if it was logos or fliers, they were based on some sort of need or requirement — it wasn’t just like, I like purple, so I’m going to use purple.
Some of my peers in the design club were getting into product design careers and internships, so that’s how I became aware of product design.
After learning more about what product designers did, I realized that design was something that I would be interested in exploring, something that I could potentially get good at. Cal doesn’t have a design program, but there were a handful of design-related classes that I took, and then I tried to join other clubs that would give me more work that I could put in a portfolio to apply to jobs with. Funnily enough, I think those were all really helpful, but I think what actually helped me get my portfolio into shape was just doing personal projects.
What would you tell others who want to get into design?
I was definitely very fearful; I had a lot of doubt about whether I could do it because I felt like I was so late into it. I think people are capable of doing amazing things, and as long as you’re willing to do something about it, there are actionable steps that you can take.
For me, it was reading a lot; The Design of Everyday Things and Emotional Design by Don Norman, and About Face by Alan Cooper, but also a ton of books that weren’t strictly about design. I read a lot of articles on how to interview, how to build a portfolio, and how to approach design problems.
To people who are getting started at least, I think being curious and trying to learn all you can is really useful, and then find ways to apply it. You can read endlessly about design and gain so much knowledge and there will be no end in sight because there’s so much information out there.
After a year in design, how is the job different than you expected?
I didn’t realize that so much of my job would be communicating with people. I spend more time doing that than I spend in Sketch — far more.
I had never worked cross-functionally before; it requires understanding what’s important to other people. PMs, engineers, sales teams, and customer teams all care about different things.
You need to actively solicit feedback and be comfortable asking for help, which was not something that I really liked to do before, I because I really wanted to be self-sufficient. I got in my head about wanting to do things independently and prove things to myself.
But now I think, try your best on your own, but people are there to support you. They’ve probably been in your shoes, they want to help you, so all you need to do is ask. That’s something that I do a lot more now, and I think it’s benefited me a lot.
Could academia lure you away from product design?
If Richard Thaler asked me to work for him, I might have to leave. I actually really enjoy baking, too. At some point I might run off to open a bakery.