How I went from 0 design experience to Facebook in 1 year
In May of 2015, I found out that I would be going to school a semester late — meaning I had 8 months on my hands before I started school in January of 2016 — so I decided to study something new. I was always interested in behavioral economics and learning about human irrationality. When you synthesize behavioral economics with design a field called User Experience Design emerges. (or UI/UX, Product Design, or Interaction Design depending on who you ask) .
While working a retail job stacking shoes at DSW Shoes and going to community college for 8 months, I became immersed in the field of design. Here’s my story:
Working For Sweat Equity (or free)
From July to September, I continued to read about products, user experience, and design on Medium while listening to various podcasts during my commutes such as Design Details and This Week in Startups. I realized really quickly that listening and reading might give me knowledge — but to truly harness all this information I would need to apply it
I headed over to AngelList and applied to over 100 startups for remote positions or opportunities around Dallas. I eventually matched with a startup in Dallas that was trying to revolutionize parenting — essentially a mobile application that allowed parents to assign chores to their children. When I visited the startup, I was scared because I had no design experience aside from some Sonic the Hedgehog and Dragon Ball Z sketches I created as a kid. I found out that the startup was composed of a founder with an MBA background who wanted to raise money or get acquired by Amazon — whichever came first.
I began working for free redoing the on-boarding, main interactions, and flow of the application while commuting an hour back and forth on the Dallas Train — hoping that the work would make a good portfolio piece.
While working at Dangle, I decided to tried to create more interfaces to mess around in my newly acquired software: Sketch 2.0
I quickly realized that I had no idea what I was doing. Who was I to say that the a tile should be 200px by 200px in all four corners? What did a parent even need? Should we really add a screen to the traditional nature of assigning chores?
Early on, I realized making things looks good is a component of my job — but not the primary task at hand. My work should be intentional and purposeful from start to finish. When my work looks good, that’s the cherry on top of the intentionally crafted sundae.
I knew I couldn’t be intentional about my work unless I had some sort of idea what user expected and enjoyed. I decided to go out into the real world to figure out how do users (also known as people) use mobile applications.
Into the wild
I wanted to see how people in the real world use a phone app — but which one? I decided to go with Quora: a product I use heavily, am familiar with, and respect, but isn’t as prevalent as Snapchat or Facebook, meaning most people are probably unfamiliar with its mobile interface — the perfect test app. I went to my local libraries and Starbucks cafes to ask people to use the application and its basic functionalities such as asking a question, answering a question, and following new topics.
Hi, my name is Sahil. I’m a UX Designer at Quora (kinda).
Part 1 in creating a better mobile experience for Quora.
The post gained some traction at Quora and I was able to speak to various researchers about the experience so they could use my learnings. The experience was productive and exposed Quora to new users, but for me, the most important part of the experience was getting uncomfortable. It’s certainly not easy to go up to strangers enjoying their coffee or reading a book and ask them about another mobile application. But that’s the part I enjoyed the most — talking to people, learning about their frustrations, as well as their excitements.
Side note — don’t preface your ad-hoc UX experiments by stating you represent the company. It usually biases results and causes the company to be concerned.
With some UX Research experience and UI Design under my belt, I was finally getting my feet wet in the field of Product Design. However, I was still hesitant about pursuing the field as a career rather a hobby or freelancing for startups.
Last December, my family and I went to Southeast Asia for vacation, visiting Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Penang, Phuket, Bangkok, and Hong Kong. I’ve always been interested in international development so I decided to take my ad-hoc UX experiments to an international scale. We took Uber’s in every city so I decided to interview all of my drivers.
This experience made me realize the difference between users and people. These drivers weren’t telling me interaction design issues or why some colors in the Uber application didn’t look the same. They were telling me their story. The struggles, perils, happiness, and ultimately empowerment that a revolutionary product can create.
While these qualitative aspects may not show tangible data, clicks, or cash, these aspects will determine if your product will become a part of a user’s daily life. These aspects show how your product sits in the context of the daily narrative that all your customers experience.
I wrote a post about my experience that received attention from the Head of Product Design, Lead Experience Designers, Uber’s Growth Team, and an opportunity to work at Uber (my parents were not thrilled about me considering dropping out of school before I even started)
What 24 Uber Drivers in East Asia need right now
A close look into the lives of Uber drivers and their experiences with the application.
It was in this experience that I realized design isn’t perfecting a color palette or knowing the difference between a line-height and x-height. There are many, many problems in our world. Everyone thinks they have the solution. Well, how do you know your solution is the next Uber? You create a test version, go out into the wild, and iterate, iterate, iterate.
Design is the medium for creating, testing, and solving the complex problems in society.
I was hooked.
Hustlin’ & a16z
It was now January of 2016 — my first semester of college as an Applied Economics and Management Major (a fancy name for Business). During this time, I found out that I would be paired with a mentor from Andreessen Horowitz’s Generation Design Program. My mentor, along with Jessica, helped me refine my process and connected me with startups in the Andreessen network. From March to May, I was speaking with startups in the a16z network or from cold emails every week.
As a student of design, I realized that my every time I shared my story with someone, I was sharing an experience. I wanted them to empathize with my situation, my excitement, and my hunger for learning more about the field. While every call didn’t lead to an opportunity, these informative interactions helped me design and refine my experiences. From telling designers or recruiters my awkward situation of getting into school late to interviewing 26 Uber drivers in Southeast Asia, I knew my answer to “tell me about yourself” like the back of my hand. Overtime, I realized the difference between a 30 second ‘elevator pitch’ and a 2 minute recap of the last year — the latter being much more effective.
In May, I had the option of working at a startup for the summer where I knew my work would be shipped, or a large, public company where my work would possibly remain in a sketch file deep inside Dropbox. As a freshman in college with an very informal design education, my number one priority was mentorship. The startup had very timely needs due to pressure from investors and amount of runway that was left for the year; the public company, however, would give me the mentorship and resources that I was looking for.
Recognizing my current needs was essential to figuring out what I was looking for in an opportunity or company: mentorship, resources, and working with other designers — which I had previously never done.
This past summer, as an Experience Design Intern at Intuit, I learned a ton —
- The intricate habits of accountants
- The roadblocks that large teams encounter
- Designing in a large system
- Working with other designers
and most importantly
- Asking questions
There would be times that I would ask the principal designer or even my manager: what am I supposed to be doing? I can recall a time where I was white-boarding some screens and the principal designer, J.B., told me I should not be drawing screens to be doing busywork in the form of drawing interfaces. Instead think about the person in his or her chair using their phone. Think about the setting and then the screen and then what goes inside. This back and forth process from setting to screen to setting made me realize how to create effective design instead of busy design.
Every single day at work, I would keep note of what I did, what I needed to do, and what I learned, along with pictures from throughout the day. This explicitness helped identify my progress, roadblocks, and next steps. It gave me a chance to step back and identify issues or opportunities that I might miss during the nitty gritty, in addition to reference materials for my manager, final presentation, and portfolio.
The journey from initial ideas to polished work always tells a better story than a shiny finished product while refining your process. Documenting everything I did, from sketches, whiteboard drawings, meeting notes, low-fi’s, mid-fi’s and more kept me on track and made crafting my portfolio piece much easier.
And the story continues
This past semester, I recruited and interviewed at Facebook to join their Business Platforms team in NYC next summer. (If you have any questions about the Facebook interview process, feel free to email me!)
In the past year, I’ve learned a ton about myself, other people, and how a 750 x 1334 px screen can contribute or detract from our everyday lives. As a designer you have the power to affect people’s senses, emotions, and experiences — and that is the beauty of our field.
Below are some resources that have helped me on my design journey and hopefully they can help you too :)
Designing Design — a book about amazing architects redesigning everyday objects
The Best UI is No UI — a book that will have you questioning every interface in your life
Thinking With Type — the in and outs of typography
Sprint — refine and define your process through design by Google Ventures
a16z — how technology is shaping the world by Andreessen Horowitz
HH Design — thoughts from a community of design
Facebook Design — process and thoughts from Facebook’s Designers