A journey to becoming a Product Designer at Facebook — An interview with GB
Hi GB, please introduce yourself.
My name is Geunbae Lee but I go by “GB” which is an easier version to pronounce and spell for other people (I decided to UX my name 😊). I’m originally from South Korea but I spent most of my early childhood and high school in Vancouver and Toronto. For undergrad, I attended the University of Michigan — Ann Arbor and I graduated with a degree in Psychology. Right now, I’m finishing up my Master’s in Human Computer Interaction (HCI) at Georgia Institute of Technology which is located in Atlanta. Last summer, I did an internship at Facebook as a Product Designer and I’ll be joining Facebook as a full-timer this upcoming June.
What is your background and how did you get into UI/UX design?
At the University of Michigan, I was initially pursuing a Mechanical Engineering major. However, after two years, I discovered that it wasn’t the right fit for me. I knew there was something else I really wanted to do with my life. Therefore, I decided to take some time off to serve in the Army. After two years of serving my country, I recognized that during various moments of my life, I was deeply passionate about learning how people behave, think and feel. When I went back to Michigan I changed my major to Psychology.
After graduation, I wasn’t yet into UI/UX design. Actually, I didn’t even know much about these fields and completely didn’t think I would end up in the tech industry. In fact, I was back in South Korea preparing for law school. During this time, one of my professors from the University of Michigan came for a lecture series and we were able to catch up. That’s when he suggested that I take a look at HCI and UX. As soon as I researched the field, I instantly knew that it was something I really wanted to take a deeper dive in.
Long story short, that’s when I started to teach myself how to design, code and learn about the design and tech industry. Within those first few months, I prepared and applied for HCI programs and thankfully was admitted in my top choice. Self-teaching sounds like an easy word, but I hardly slept for those few months before the Master’s program, not only because I felt so behind, but also because I was passionate and fascinated with it. The journey was just a series of steps — jumping one stepping stone at a time.
How do you describe what you do when you meet new people?
When I first tried to convince my parents that I wanted to go back to the United States to attend graduate school, they asked me what HCI and UX are all about. I told them that most of the graduates become either UX Designers or UX Researchers who try to understand people’s behaviors when using a digital product. With their findings they make an effort to improve the product to achieve better user experiences.
If I get asked the same question today, in addition to what I said before, I’d say that I always try to understand what the users desire and feel uncomfortable with so that I can try to make the products more user friendly and accessible. Lastly, I would stress that design isn’t just a final product where everything looks nice and cool. Instead there is a lot of thought and collaboration continuously happening between engineers, designers, researchers, product managers and other team members to better the product.
What other activities or initiatives do you enjoy besides digital design?
Beside designing, I try to find things that relieve my stress. On a daily basis I go to the gym and during my workout, I listen to some of my favorite music or watch funny TV shows. When I’m at the gym, I feel like I can destress and have some fun so that after I take a warm shower, I’m able to jump back and focus on doing more work.
In addition to that, I love to write in both English and in my native Korean language. The things I like to write about are mostly stories about what I’ve learned and experienced with honest tips that could make a positive impact to others. Last year, I started to write about my experiences in design on Medium which gratefully were able to inspire and help other students just like me.
When I was a newbie in the design field and looking forward to start my first term in grad school, I was preparing my portfolio for an internship. During this process I experienced numerous situations where people I reached out to didn’t reply back. To be honest, this was actually totally understandable because people are busy and they probably receive hundreds of similar inquiries. However, when a few people responded and provided honest feedback, suggestions and their know-hows, I couldn’t thank them enough. I’m often reminded of their generosity and kindness.
Drawing from my own experience, I want to help other aspiring designers and students. Thankfully, people do reach out to me with questions. I try to spend at least 30 minutes to an hour, via chat or email as well as through video calls helping others. Often, there are many questions that I don’t know the answers myself. This actually keeps me even more motivated to learn new things and strive to become a better designer.
Would you give us a glance at your day? A day in the life of GB starts with…
A day in my life for me has completely changed ever since my son was born last May. My son, Grayson, was born just 5 days before my internship at Facebook started. Ever since he was born, “time” feels really short now and I value every second of it. I spend most of my time with my family and try to set aside time to work on my projects and to keep learning new things.
On a normal day, I wake up around 7 AM, as that’s when my son wakes up. While my wife prepares baby food for my son, I wash his hands and sit him down on the baby high chair to feed him. After that, we all get to sit down and eat breakfast. I also try to help my wife with the laundry, cooking and looking after my son. On the days when I don’t have classes, I typically have some additional time to work on my assignments, side projects and help other students.
Everyday is different of course, but I try to knock out small things first such as class assignments so that I can concentrate on the big projects as well as some of my ambitious projects (just like the Free Sketch Templates!). With Spotify on, I sit in my chair and build a wall with the entire world, making myself siloed in my little cubicle, designing. Sometimes, I scribble, take notes, brainstorm and search for inspirations for my designs. Most of the time I have Sketch and/or a prototyping tool open.
If I have some extra free time, I browse tech-related articles on places like Muzli or TechCrunch to stay up to date. I also try to read a lot of articles on Medium and catch news on various Facebook groups, other social media sites and by chatting with others with similar interests.
I truly wish I had more hours in my day 😊
Would you tell us about a past or current project you’re most proud of?
Over the course of two years, I have managed to complete several projects. Some were good ones and some, I wish I had spent more time and effort on. The project I spent working most during my firs year of grad school is called Grocery HelpAR. The purpose of the project was to create an enhance grocery shopping experience for international student who were new to the United States. We presented our solution at a University competition and won second place. This project also played a major role at securing multiple internship offers.
Another project that I’m proud of is actually happening right now. It is about creating easy-to-use Sketch templates that anyone can use during their UX design process. With limited time for projects, I’ve witnessed so many people start their design process from scratch or stress about not being able to find diverse templates that are free to spearhead their process. On the other hand, there are so many free Sketch templates that were related to app and web design. Therefore, I thought creating a journey map, user personas and a gradients template would be very helpful. You can check out some of the templates that I’m designing and releasing on Sketch App Sources or on my Dribbble.
Lastly, I recently suggested a new product idea for LinkedIn which I call, “LinkedIn Conference.” It is a product aimed to enhance the conference networking experiences of attendees. To learn more about it, read my article published on Muzli.
What if LinkedIn came up with a Conference Product?
“LinkedIn Conference”, a product idea aimed to enhance the conference networking experience of attendees
You’ve probably noticed that when it comes to inspiration, there is an abundance of information, communities, tools, and resources on the web. Who do you follow?
To be honest, when I first got my feet into the world of design and tech, I met a lot of people and some of the conversations were around famous people with names that I’ve never heard of. Since I didn’t have any background knowledge and was busy focusing on learning the tools and practicing, I really didn’t care about who to follow or get inspired by. To be more specific, at the time, I was most likely to get inspired by the good-looking designs rather than to research the person who made it.
But as time passed, I started to naturally look for designers that inspired me. For me, “following” designers means reading their articles, viewing their presentations, listening to their Ted talks, discovering their portfolio and learning their stories.
To get design-related information or to get answers to questions I might have, I go on to Designer’s Guild and HH Design Facebook groups. The people there are mostly designers that range from highly experienced students to professionals from all sorts of backgrounds and companies. Just by reading the posts, I often retrieve rich information.
For design inspiration, I like to go to Dribbble, Behance or Pinterest. There are a lot of cool and fancy designs that I create moodboards for before I start my project. There, I find lots of colors, fonts, layouts and more which I could use or modify to help out during my projects. In addition to that, glancing at portfolio websites of other designers is also inspiring. Until now, I always felt like you don’t “have” to start from a blank sheet in front of you. Finding inspiration and some community driven templates actually has more ups than downs.
If you could, what career advice would you offer to your younger self?
The world is so big and there are so many talented people. There will be situations where you feel like you’re way behind or not good enough. Also, it’ll feel like there are so many things to do and learn. If you feel that way at some point in your life, take initiative and action instead of complaining or doing nothing. Once you get to start on something, you’re already half way to achieving your goal. You might just need the extra push and motivation to continue pursuing it.
I feel like life doesn’t run perfectly. For me, if I had found what I was passionate about in high school and even when I entered university, I would’ve spent my time more wisely. I would have done more internships in my field. But I couldn’t go back in time of course, instead all I could do was to try to make my situation better with the time I had. Everyday, I strive to achieve something. I try to not dream big from the beginning, yet I still have that goal in the back of my mind. For now, the thing that’s in front of me is the most important thing to accomplish. After that, just like hopping on the stepping stones, eventually, I’ll get to cross to the other side where I can get close to achieving my career goals.
What are some of the design, development, and project management tools in your workflow?
To keep things organized, I use Google Drive and Dropbox as well as a Word document. Sometimes, I’ll keep a very organized folder in my computer and generate different files with appropriate names so I can easily find them later. When it comes to general ideation, I’m a huge fan of a notebook and a pencil, because I can just scribble away things and quickly memo things anywhere. For quick wireframes, depending on the situation, I’ll use Balsamiq Mockups or again, hand sketch, but I tend to think my hand sketch is not that great.
When it comes down to designing, I’m a huge fan of Sketch. It’s way easier and quicker than Photoshop and I don’t even remember the last time I opened Photoshop to be honest. Even for my internship at Facebook, I noticed that most of the people around me were using Sketch. But I really want to get my hands on Invision Studio and try Figma. But as for now, I’m quite satisfied with what Sketch offers. For prototyping, I love using Framer.js, Principle and Invision depending on the situation and the requirement of the fidelity of the prototypes.
Lastly, when it comes down to coding, I use Brackets.io. There are a lot of cool extensions that I can download which makes it easy for me to use. But I think Sublime or Atom.io are also great. Brackets.io is just really easy to use when I play around with CSS because I’m a beginner in coding and it’s always nice to see ‘live’ as I make changes to it.
How did you get introduced to Sketch and what do you like/dislike most about it?
A couple years ago when I first got my hands on a “design” tool, it wasn’t Sketch actually — It was Photoshop. People were still using mostly Photoshop and I was introduced to it by others as my first tool. Not long afterwards, I began to notice people talking about Sketch everywhere. When I first downloaded the trial version and followed a few tutorials online, I instantly felt good about the product. You know, it just felt so easy — I didn’t have to worry about so many different features in Photoshop that I wasn’t utilizing such as image modification features. To be honest, when I was first learning Photoshop, I was like, “am I supposed to know how to use this tool or is this just for another cause?” Sketch removed all the unnecessary stuff and even made the shortcuts easy to use.
There is nothing really that I don’t like about Sketch. At my level, I feel like I’m getting enough help from the plugins that so many smart people are offering for free. And, the fact that most companies now have shifted to Sketch means that it must be good, right? New tools like Invision Studio are rolling out to enhance the workflow for designers and to close the gap between designers and developers these days. While I don’t know if Sketch will still be the tool to use in the next few years, it’s the most important tool that I would tell design students to pay for. It’s worth it!
What advice would you offer to those starting out in your field?
Since I haven’t had long experience in the industry, I always feel cautious about giving advice. But I can provide some guidance and personal tips to students who are still studying design at school. All of these are based on my personal experience and more detailed write-ups can be found on my Medium.
First, it’s extremely important to keep everything ready (putting together your “A game”) for upcoming internships or job opportunities. The things you would need in order to apply for positions are mainly a portfolio website and a resume/CV. However, I personally wanted to stand out from the rest of the applicants, so I decided to add my Medium as well as my Dribbble account. I thought sharing my ideas and experiences through active blogging and working on mini side projects which focused heavily on Visual and Interaction Design could convince the recruiters and interviewers that I’m really passionate about design. Dribbble was actually a perfect platform for me to upload my creative work and show off my design skills which eventually acted as a secret sauce to convince others that I have the skills.
Next, I would strongly recommend to read a lot of articles, news and blogs about the tech industry and UI/UX in general. Similarly, it’s also super helpful if you are able to stay up-to-date on the design trends, follow influential people to see their work (get inspired) and most importantly, try to mimic what they are doing to begin with. Having adequate amount of background knowledge with a focus on what you should know and what is good to know will help you to quickly practice and learn things along the way.
For example, if you want to enhance your Visual Design skills, just go on Dribbble or Behance and try to copy exactly how others designed their apps, websites and other cool things. For me, it was a daily task. When I first started to learn Sketch, I simply took a screenshot of a design that I really liked and tried to create the same thing from scratch. It helped me to learn more about shadows, colors, typography, layouts and more. And after a lot of practices, not only did the tool become handy for me to use but also, I felt much more comfortable telling others that I can visually make something look great.
The last advice I would offer is to be humble and be honest about your work. Also, for the things that you don’t know, be truthful and show willingness to learn instead of faking it. The design and the tech world is too broad to be able to understand everything. If you are starting out fresh, try to focus a lot of your practices on learning responsive designs (mobile, web etc) instead of being frustrated about learning AR/VR/IoT concurrently. One step at a time is ideal, don’t try to jump around too much (unless you really feel like that’s the way you want to pursue). Anyways, what I’m trying to say is that not knowing something is common but with a lot of information and mentors out there, you’ll be able to learn and catch up pretty quickly. All it takes is time, effort and the active passion.
What makes you smile and enjoy life?
Before I got married, sitting down with my favorite food while watching movies or my favorite shows were one of my favorite hobbies. Also, I was a competitive gamer who played League of Legends day and night which I loved doing. Other than that, I played soccer weekly with my friends, hung out for drinks and traveled to places that I wanted to visit.
But a lot of things have changed ever since I got married and after my son was born. With such a time crunch and having to take on responsibilities of a father and a husband, a lot of the things that I used to enjoy by myself has been put to the side. Sometimes I miss the old days but all of that is forgotten when I see my family smile and laugh. On the way back home with warm food sitting in my car, I already see my wife’s excited face as soon as I step inside the house. There, I also see my son who’s still a crawler, greeting me with “dada!”
To be frank, I’ve never imagined myself getting married this early and having a child. When my wife was pregnant, I was still a student at Georgia Tech, trying to figure out my way in the design field with an internship to find for the Summer and a full-time job after graduation. The pressure I had on my shoulders made me study and practice design day and night as well as to figure out a way to put food on the table for my family. At the end, I’m glad it worked out the way I had hoped. The journey has just begun for me and I’m so excited for all the joys that I’ll be getting from it.
Tell us a bit about your internship at Facebook. What was it like to be part of the design team?
Although I can’t talk in detail about the projects I worked on, I can say that my experience at Facebook was phenomenal. When I was first extended an offer to join Facebook as an intern, I ran across the hall multiple times and shouted out loud saying, “Yes! I did it!” At the time, I felt like all my hard work for the past several months had finally paid off (whew! I still remember that day like it was yesterday). Shortly after the excitement though, I remember I began to panic because I felt like there was way more things to learn and catch up to. Getting into Facebook was yet another huge motivational factor for me to continue with the things that I was working on.
During my internship, I met so many talented people and throughout my internship, they helped me out in so many different ways. With just three months ahead of me, I needed to get comfortable with the space, get to know my teammates and the product that I was going to contribute to. And to be honest, time moved so fast that I needed to get organized and prioritize what I needed to do on a weekly basis. Basically, I needed to be efficient, productive, energetic and most importantly, stay motivated.
Everyday there was something new that I learned and realized. First, I learned to better present my work in front of other designers and cross functional teammates in order to get rich feedback. Getting feedback early and whenever necessary helped me to shape my projects in the best way possible. As I participated in presentations, meetings and design critiques, I slowly became comfortable with the space of getting feedback from other people and to take that feedback and improve the solutions I was designing.
In addition to that, I realized how important it is to build relationships with your teammates. Whenever I was stuck on something or had questions, I needed to know who I could reach out to for answers. When asking for help, I needed to be mindful of their time and once I received the help, I definitely needed to thank them for taking time to help me. And before all that, it was up to me to learn about their responsibilities and roles within the team. To help me with that, I set up one-on-one meetings with each members of my team during my first few weeks.
When I reflect back on my internship at Facebook, one of the reason why I liked it so much was because my managers were helpful in so many ways. Kevin Charboneau (my direct intern manager) and Matt Turpin both worked hard to guide me throughout my process and sat down with me whenever I had questions moving forward. From them, I learned so many valuable lessons as to how I should effectively present my work and build up a case for my projects with a solid problem statement. I also learned how having a strong motivation to solve the problem as well be excited to do so are essential to the projects. I was definitely lucky to meet such talented and caring managers. Without their effort, I wouldn’t have had a successful internship.
To this day, I’ll never forget the warm welcome of my teammates and their efforts in allowing me to have such a wonderful experience at Facebook. This upcoming June, I’ll be joining Facebook as a full-time Product Designer and I’m super excited to see what’s coming up next in my journey. This journey is just 1% finished.