Sandbox Designers — in Their Own Words

Da-Jin Chu
May 8 · 8 min read

As a software consultancy, Sandbox stands out as a developer-driven organization. However, Sandbox members in other disciplines are just as critical in driving the club’s success. For this post, we interviewed the wonderful designers at Sandbox to highlight the ways that they help transform software at Northeastern.

Meet the Designers

Jose Saravia

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Jose was the UX designer for PharmD Tracker, a project to help the Deans of the Pharmacy program at NU track their students’ progress in the pharmacy curriculum. In his first semester, he conducted user studies and designed the project’s entire user interface from scratch. An experienced front-end developer, Jose also integrated a system to automatically export styles from Figma into React.

Becca Johnson

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Becca was the UX designer for SearchNEU, a website for NU students to find classes and professors. In her first semester at Sandbox, she helped transform the search experience for thousands of students by introducing filters, one of the top requested features since SearchNEU began in 2017. In the fall, she will also be taking over as Project Lead for SearchNEU.

Fiona Gridley

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Fiona was the UX designer for GraduateNU, a new site in development to help students explore different majors, build a plan of study, and graduate with the right classes. Fiona joined Sandbox in its infancy and was responsible for designing the Sandbox shovel logo and the Sandbox website. In the fall, she will lead the charge in user-focused thinking at Sandbox as our Head of UX.

Catherine Titcomb

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Catherine is our Head of Brand. In her second consecutive semester in her role, she has elevated Sandbox’s presence on all social media platforms through creative and on-brand designs. She also created a set of brand guidelines and assets for Sandbox that will continue to empower designers through the years to come.

The Designer Experience

Note: Some of these answers have been edited for brevity.

What’s it like working with developers?

Jose: There’s a lot more developers [than designers] here at Sandbox, which is what it is at most companies. It’s nice getting to work with other developers. In classes usually everyone is a design major, so it’s nice to have a sizable ratio of developers to one designer.

Becca: In my design classes, everyone is studying design together. At Sandbox, it wasn’t just designers, it was designers and developers and project lead all working together from different backgrounds.

Fiona: I think as designers, we think when we graduate we’ll be designing with a whole a bunch of similar minded designers, whereas, in my experience, you’re one designer working with a bunch of technical or business development people. Advocating for design is a skill that I’ve had to develop over my co-ops and over working with Sandbox. Trying to show why design is really important and can push the envelope of a product.

Jose: As someone who is half design and CS, I’ve met people who don’t actually see any value in design, and it’s good to know that there’s no one like that in Sandbox. It’s good that Sandbox embraces the designers.

How do you get feedback?

Becca: I rely heavily on the feedback and constant collaboration [from the team]. People will message me more on the designs now. When we were working on the course range filters, for example, Daniel and I had a conversation about it on several different occasions and I think it looks really good. He made it look so much like the spec, and I just really appreciated that we were constantly going back and forth with it.

Fiona: It’s really nice to hear feedback from a developer perspective, because they always bring up ideas that I don’t necessarily think of when I’m working on a design, so their feedback has been super helpful.

Becca: You would hate for the designer make a design, show the client, the client to say “I really love this” and then you get to the developer, and they’re like “no we can’t do that” because maybe there’s something that isn’t feasible on the backend or something. Just having that constant communication really prevents that.

Jose: We’ve had a lot of meetings coding at the same time, and it’s great to jump different ideas between people.

Catherine: I think we have a relationship of constant communication and figuring what is needed for marketing materials. I think marketing and design are always super interconnected.

Becca: Just in general, it saved a lot of time for us to collaborate together. I feel like the team is very cross functional. I think that the developers give me a lot of technical insight which isn’t always apparent to me.

What’s it like interacting with users?

Jose: It seemed pretty cool getting to start from scratch and interviewing the actual users to define problems and eventually drawing a whole bunch of diagram and wireframing, mockups, and prototyping.

Becca: I always try to keep in mind what would be easiest for users… and what would be the best thing to do so they have the most positive experience possible.

Fiona: I think Sandbox is super user focused on how we can make the best product that will be the most helpful for the most amount of people. Instead of just doing something super technically complex, it’s about how we can make this usable and how we can improve the lives of students through this app.

Becca: I think at first I leaned towards the aesthetic of [a feature] being really cool, but I think that’s dangerous because you can get caught up in the idea of it versus the actual practical application of it.

Fiona: Some of the other design work I’ve done, we haven’t had direct access to users, and I think it’s really cool for Sandbox that we can test a lot of these products and get real feedback. In class, for instance, in HCI, professors talk about how important user feedback is, but in the real world sometimes that’s not possible. I think it’s really cool to have a direct user feedback loop both from students and advisors using the tool.

How has Sandbox helped you grow?

Becca: Sometimes I’m involved in pair programming and I think that’s a really cool experience even though it’s not the role I was assigned, the leadership encouraged people to explore different roles if they’re interested in them.

Catherine: I wasn’t expecting to get to work on the website, but I think that was an awesome perk.

Jose: I haven’t had the chance to work on a lot of bigger software projects with a lot of other people before… so I learned a lot here.

Becca: It helped me improve a lot in design. SearchNEU is something I’m constantly working on, whereas with class projects, you go from project to project.

Catherine: It’s been awesome because it’s the first design experience I’ve had where I’ve had pretty much free reign over the branding. My co-op and other clubs I’ve been on, there’s usually been a brand guideline because the club has been around for a long time, and I think it’s really cool that I’ve been on Sandbox since the beginning of its life, which has been really fun but also really challenging.

Becca: I’ve learned not only from the other designers, but I’ve also had the opportunity to work on the development side of things. I feel like Sandbox wants you to explore other positions, if you’re interested.

What’s the culture like?

Becca: I was worried about the environment — I feel like in CS, things tend to be a little competitive, and sometimes a bit uncomfortable because of that. But then we had that talk about values, and one of them was “Be Kind,” and I was like, this will be fine, everyone is so nice. I don’t think it’s that type of environment.

Fiona: I think it’s a super cool community and everyone is really focused on they can improve both their own skills and improve whatever product I’m working on at the same time, and I think that it’s just a really great group of students, and all the projects are very interesting and important for the general community.

Becca: It has always been kind and constructive feedback and just a really positive environment to grow. In terms of learning together, I feel like people always take the time to answer any questions I had.

Catherine: Each team has its own designer and I’m the only designer for the website and for brand so you know that your voice is going to get heard.

Fiona: I think the community has evolved a lot. It’s really cool to see how we started as a group a friends that liked to do side projects together to a very focused organization working on real world projects and trying to improve the community not only at Sandbox, but the community at Northeastern at large.

What would you tell a designer considering joining Sandbox?

Jose: I think Sandbox does see the value in design, and if you’re a designer and want to join some organization, you should consider designing for Sandbox!

Catherine: Sandbox is a great place to be a designer because right now the design team is so small…. It’s really awesome as a designer to have that experience of really being in charge and owning your projects.

Becca: Do it! This was my first out-of-classroom experience working with design. I switched from CS to CS and design just last spring, so this was my first time being able to make some real stuff beyond the theoretical. And when I say real stuff, I mean getting to see it go from initial ideas to creating the wireframes and prototypes, to the final spec and to production and in use. I think that’s really rewarding and it pushes me to put my best foot forward.

Fiona: If you’re looking for real world experience that focuses more on usability, Sandbox is a real world experience building something for real users. I feel like it’s closer to the co-op experience. It’s closer to what I’ve done on co-op than some of the other design work I’ve done on campus because you’re working with developers, which, for designers, is what you’ll actually be doing in a real job.

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