1. How did you begin working in the wonderful world of design?
My undergraduate study was Industrial Design. While my school’s ID program was primarily focused on physical products, I became more interested in interaction and information design. I found ways to include disciplines such as graphic design, photography, 3D animation and programming.
I moved to the Bay Area where I had a brief stint in a multimedia studies MFA program prior to landing a job at a video production company. I was hired to build a department to create interactive content on CD-ROMs. After that, I started a company with a few friends and we rode the dot.com wave of the 90s. This was the kick off of my non-traditional design career.
2. What is the purpose of design?
I tend to embrace the broader definition of solving problems for or meeting the needs and wants of people. It’s been rewarding to see certain practices get popularized in web and app development: prototyping, qualitative testing, measurement, iteration. These aren’t new; they have roots in industrial design and other disciplines. They just have new terms such as “lean” or “agile” design and “design sprints.” They are variations and mashups of human-centered design.
That being said, I don’t think design needs to always prioritize function over style. Sometimes we must champion an experience that prompts an emotional response. Not every problem is equal in scale and importance, so how we approach solutions needn’t be either.
The best case is when your work can serve both function and emotion.
3. How would you describe the intent (mission) behind 23andMe’s design?
Our company’s mission is to “help people access, understand and benefit from the human genome”. Right there, you see a foundation for our design principles — comprehension and value for people. On top of this, our brand is light, colorful and celebratory.
Given that our service is grounded in science, we have to be responsible with our design. This is most important where our customers learn something about themselves that could have a profound impact on their lives. We maintain a level of sensitivity in certain areas of our product, such as genetic health risks.
Simultaneously, we aim to illustrate how everyone is similar at a genetic level and how unique we are as individuals. From this perspective, we have more room to experiment and hit different chords in our design. We can be more light-hearted if we reveal that, based on your genetics, you are likely to have inherited your dimples from a specific grandparent or if you are less Neanderthal than your best friend.
We strive for our design to instill trust, but with personality.
4. What’s one thing you believe about design that most others don’t?
I don’t imagine my perspective is unique, but I believe that the driver for “good” design varies. The approach one takes should differ from project to project along the spectrum of “driven by metrics” to “driven by vision”. It comes down to the appetite of stakeholders for incremental improvements vs. taking risks with multiple shots at innovative jumps.
5. What key problems are often overlooked by design?
Design is not alone in the following two problem areas:
We typically build the active user product state and features first — overlooking early experience. I’m referring to the gap between basic onboarding and a fully-engaged product user. The opportunity to establish the best relationship is often missed. For this reason, it’s good to have a designer dedicated to this area.
Also, we generally design and build features serially and in silos according to a roadmap. Eventually, a product reaches a state where everything doesn’t quite fit together. Internally, it may all make logical sense. But from a fresh user’s perspective, it’s just complex or confusing.
If the team internalizes the entire customer journey, they might better account for the effect of changes or new features across the experience. This may prompt more deliberate and purposeful evolution of a product over time vs. slowly reaching the point where a major overhaul is required.
6. What is the most difficult thing about design?
Good ideas can come from anyone on a team and sometimes just from above. Being responsible for visually communicating the ideas of others can be a challenge. There’s a tendency to want to make it your own — especially when the creative brain takes over. It is possible to have ownership in what you create along with shared responsibility for the solution. In fact, that is the job of a designer. It’s easy to reframe this as a leadership opportunity. Designers can help stakeholders understand the best questions to ask, articulate different approaches to take and guide teams towards well-designed solutions.
7. When is design “done”?
The struggle is real: desire to keep tweaking towards perfection vs. accepting when something is “good enough” to ship. When you aren’t extremely happy or satisfied, it’s difficult to move on. A sign of a designer’s maturity is when they become less precious with their work.
At least for digital products, the practice of prototype testing and iterative development has made it easier to design incrementally. Continually improving as more feedback is gathered shouldn’t be a crutch, however. Given constraints, you need to design the best solution and you have to launch.
8. What does the future of design look like to you?
Maybe this is a reflection of my age, but I don’t think it will look much different than it did 40 years ago, 20 years ago or today. Just as there was with the rise of Internet and mobile, there will be specialists for non-visual, immersive and other experiences resulting from new information interfaces.
But the goals to optimize for presentation, learning or storytelling will still rely on foundational principles: information hierarchy, sequence and density; motion, speed and flow; alignment, harmony and tension; color, pattern and contrast; balance of visual and typographic elements; impact and emotional resonance, and so on.
I hope to be surprised by how designers of the future creatively develop new exciting experiences.