Event Recap: Balance in Design - Community Storytellers
Balance is an important element in life. There are different ways in which balance or the lack of it can manifest: through work and personal life, in different skillsets, and between individual and societal expectations. As a part of the Seattle Design Festival, IxDA Seattle hosted a Community Storytelling event at The Collective where designers shared what balance means in their lives. The stories shared ranged from finding balance in design decisions to maintaining the balance between personal and professional relationships.
Independence or Collaboration?
Tarryn Lambert, a UX designer and researcher at Tarryn Lambert Consulting, kicked off the evening by talking about her struggle to find balance between expressing her individuality and collaborating with a team.
She spoke about her time working as the lead UX Researcher and Designer for Howard Schultz's political campaign. She said that her team received numerous last-minute requests, which did not always result in the most quality output. After spending some time understanding the relationships between different teams, she was able to narrow down to the root problem. She felt that changing some practices upstream, where the last minute requests were generated, would improve her team’s workflow and the quality of their output. But when she tried to advocate for these changes, she was met with resistance both from her team and other departments.
Giving it a deeper thought, she realized that she had missed a crucial step by failing to create the relationships necessary to get her team and others invested in improving together. This led her to bring her team members in as co-contributors in a joint presentation on proposed organizational change. Ultimately, the changes were approved and adopted because the entire team came together to advocate for solutions they all supported.
“The individuation process is all at once a process of becoming differentiated and unique but also about the process of becoming whole and united with others. We can do more together than we can do alone.”
Duality of Excellence (or, How I stopped worrying and learned to love my Steppenwolf)
Loren O'Laughlin, Design Manager at Level 11, discussed the path that led him to his current role and his love for immersive experiences. He had an opportunity to design for a Roman marketplace where he was assigned to create Roman soldier replicas. He hit the ground running, diving into Roman armory details in order to create historically authentic experiences. He reached out to different professionals to help make his vision a reality. However, during this process, he realized, “This is the wrong century for what I am envisioning! It is not possible to capture the details without methods of production that existed in that particular era. I want it to be really perfect but it can’t be.”
He shared his thoughts with the project director who asked him to instead craft an achievable goal. This motivated Loren to go back, iterate, and simplify his design to have authentic elements but not as much detail. The end result was something that was well received in the market, despite not living up to Loren’s expectations. Market goers were amazed that someone had attempted to recreate in such extensive detail.
Recalling the outcome, he said, “Nobody knew the delta between what I had imagined and where we landed.” Throughout the timeline of the project, he wavered between optimism and pessimism when thinking about the end result. He admitted, “When I kept both these parts away from each other, I felt like I was going to give up. But when I started to realize that these were two very valid perspectives that I needed to occupy at different points in the process, that's when things fell in place.”
Loren suggests finding the balance between being a reckless optimist and a cautious pessimist, seeing both mindsets as essential to the creative process.
“Every ambitious thing you have ever done in your life has been a failure at some point. But the ability to step back and look at what happened critically is what is really impressive. It is something I have learned over time.”
Jason Kopec, Design Director at Convoy, questioned the premise of making sensible design choices based on best practices, arguing that may not always make sense for every user base.
He shared his experience working on a particular mobile application at Convoy, where the target users were truckers with limited technology exposure. When talking with users, his team heard complaints about the elements being too small and difficult to see. Many of the truckers magnify the text size to the largest extent, which puzzled his design team.
Further research revealed that most truckers use the application by placing the smartphone on the dashboard when they’re driving. This placement, which is necessary from the truckers’ perspective, makes it difficult to see the application elements and read the text. Tackling the challenge head-on, Jason explained, “We focused on sizing up the details that were necessary and that the truckers looked at on a regular basis. But a lot of these design decisions were not aesthetically pleasing.”
Jason asserted that research is necessary to understand user requirements. And design decisions must be made based on these requirements even if they defy standard design aesthetics.
“We get wrapped up in this idea that it has to be beautiful and it has to be functional. And actually sometimes to be functional, something is not beautiful at all.”
Trying to find my chill
Liz Heidner, a freelance product designer, reflected on her experience with depression and anxiety for almost two decades. Depression and anxiety run in her family. She remembers growing up in a strict household with parents who were emotionally unavailable. “I was constantly reminded to be independent and responsible because someday I am going to have a great career.”
These factors adversely affected her attitude toward success but she has slowly learned to tackle her negative feelings. She explained, “The way I have learned to deal with these things is to recognize that those stories about what success should look like don’t align with my thinking. More specifically, I defined what success looks like for me.”
She spoke of the value of not saying “Yes” when you don't mean it because it affects your health. Instead, she recommends doing acts of service that are motivated by helping someone but within boundaries that protect you.
As a designer, she’s grappled with the need to be empathetic and how it can bog her down. Working in domains like healthcare at FinTech, she’s been exposed to users’ pain. Instead of internalizing this pain, she focuses on how to ameliorate this pain. She encourages us to design with compassion by thinking about the best and the worst-case scenarios and to leverage tools like user mental models and heuristics such as recognition over recall.
“We need to be more aware of the emotion that we reflect on our design decisions. I don't think we should continue to push the idea of empathy. Empathy is important but centered around the idea of sharing a feeling. Compassion is where you act on that feeling.”
Married to UX
Ryan Breault, Experience Architect at projekt202, talked about the struggles of achieving work/life balance when you work with your spouse.
Ryan shared an anecdote about organizing a meeting on design systems in his company in order to promote discussion on the latests industry trends with coworkers. He enlisted the help of a colleague, who was herself very skilled in this area, to plan the meeting’s agenda. However on the day of the event, he realized that one of the largest design teams in the office had considerable experience with design systems. This led him to invite them to do a presentation, causing him to completely change the agenda for the meeting.
His colleague was upset since she was not consulted about the change in the meeting agenda. Ryan then revealed that this colleague is also his wife.
Through this anecdote, Ryan shared the lesson he learned regarding conflicts in the workplace. Lacking the boundary between work and home helped Ryan understand how work problems are inevitably brought home, although we might not see it. Therefore, we should work with our colleagues to ensure things get resolved and don’t remain on our minds as we head home.
“The conflict was immediately brought home. I had to deal with it then and there because I had to go home to it. A universal message that I found is that we should face conflicts in the workplace head-on and hopefully deal with it the same way we resolve conflicts with our significant others.”
Finding balance as a new designer
Linh Tran, UX Designer at Expedia Group, talked about her experience finding balance as a new designer, particularly in balancing her own expectations with the expectations of others.
Graduating from design school taught Linh how to follow a rigid structure and deliver work within a tight deadline. However when transitioning into a role at a big company within a large team, she discovered that work is not always so structured and rigid. She found herself doing multiple iterations of her designs, seeking her colleagues’ opinion at every iteration. She explained, “When a senior designer critiques my designs, I automatically think that she must be right. I feel I don't have confidence in my designs.” Being junior, she found it difficult to speak up and as a result was being pushed in different directions.
This led to her having a breakdown in a one-on-one session with her manager while relaying her frustrations and stressful experiences. Her manager reminded her that she was not lacking design skills but instead she was struggling to manage different expectations.
Looking back at the experience, Linh has learned to balance others’ expectations with her own instinct as a designer. She believes doing this has made her a better team player, being able weigh and assess others’ opinions and express her own.
“I realized I need to believe that I bring value to the team and to trust the stakeholders that they know what is best for the user. I slowly started voicing my opinion in meetings and this experience made me a better collaborator going forward.”