Kyle Turman is the Director of Design Infrastructure at Slack and currently living in Oakland, California, U.S.A. He was inspired to write on the Pillars of Digital Product Design article to guide designers to have a better understanding of the role of a product designer as they are applying for jobs and growing their career.
Pillars of product design are the processes or structures that product designers should focus on when designing product for the masses. Read more as Kyle shared his experience with Slack and tips to succeed as a new product designer!
“The understanding of how someone journeys through your product. How do they flow through it? What error states will come up on the actual brand and visual design of things? You can see the Aberdeen purple background, that's part of Slack branding. The visual and user interface design, the motion, and interaction design parts. These things as well respond to something you tap or click. Also, content design. We have actual content designers at Slack, that do amazing jobs helping us be able to put words inside of our designs that make sense but that's a big part of this as well. Then, there is also accessibility thinking about the color contrast thinking about screen readers thinking about people with different levels of abilities coming into being able to use your product.” - Kyle.
“Kind of stacking those things up as we kind of figure out, yes this is the thing we all decide on and then moving up through there.” - Kyle.
It's interesting when we interview candidates at Slack who want to work with us. I've gotten to talk to some amazing designers and some parts of it are just not everyone kind of has this shared definition of what a product designer is. There are a lot of different ways that people think about creating digital products today. Some companies have dedicated UI designers and dedicated UX designers in product design. It is kind of a mix of both of those together.
I wanted to kind of be able to help define that a little bit and at least kind of put some rough areas around what generally a product designer does to help people who may be trying to break into the industry or trying to understand better if the expectations of a product designer as they're thinking about applying to jobs and growing their career.
I mean it changes all the time. As new tools and new things develop, I'm trying to keep up with some things that are difficult. There are a lot of people thinking about things like the metaverse, web3 and trying to understand those things. Also, it can be kind of distracting but I really try to focus on are what are the core pillars.
No matter what you're working on, what are the things that you kind of consistently need to understand, no matter what they are chases. And that's kind of my experience based on 15 or so years of working in this industry. These are kind of the core things that I always fall back on.
I think as we have more no-code tools starting to come out. There is this interesting hybrid between someone who can design something and make something and build something right. Back in the day, I had to learn how to code to be able to build anything but now we have amazing tools like Webflow and even Framer that have the ability to create sites.
You can do a lot of that without needing to have an engineer look over everything for some projects. I think that that's kind of interesting space to get into. Especially thinking about 3D and Blender and some of these tools that are coming out too. I think they're going to see a lot more interest in convergence in kind of my guess between the actual design tools and the building tools.
When I started, we were making flash websites and some of those same things still come to life there are some old flash websites that I miss because they had a character to them. They had interesting hover effects in different ways that kind of created delight and I think those things create this kind of loyalty and brand love that sometimes we miss when we're kind of making everything look the same. I think that's something that happens a lot where we just want it to look standardized and inconsistent but we kind of miss on some of those ideas of making software that feels personable like it's been made by a human being.
I think that's something that I've continued to see throughout especially as tools developed. People deserve to have software that feels like it's made by a human because otherwise, everything will just feel robotic. I think that's something that has always been the case for me anyway.
Well, we have an incredible user research team here at Slack, that does awesome work. There are different types of user research that you can do when you're doing a project and designing something a lot of times we think about usability testing, can someone use this thing that I designed but sometimes it's helpful to think before that if you're trying to improve on something. We've done things like diary studies and interviews one of our user researchers Raz is doing some amazing coffee chats where she just schedules time with customers and records it. Just talk to them about things because there is this aspect of both the qualitative and the quantitative.
Being able to understand kind of more on the qualitative side those are more emotional aspects of things and you can kind of get that in surveys or user interviews. But sometimes it's just trying to understand what about Slack don't you like? What do you like? And that can kind of fold some things that can help us start to figure out this is the thing we should focus on. Recently, we've been thinking about focus in general. How can we design Slack to help you focus instead of the opposite. Sometimes notifications and other things can pop in. Our user research team has done some pretty extensive research on that to try to just understand how can we help people focus better so those kinds of more pre-emptive research sessions. I think are good for capturing this type of thing.
That's kind of where this first pillar comes in, Trying to understand the user problems and user goals as well as the business problem, the business goals and I learned at Etsy which was at a certain point, we went through some layoffs some things happen that business was kind of in a rough shape and I used to have this kind of philosophy that is if you just design beautiful things people will come people will do it, good design will save everything and we have products like audio and other things that kind of show that that's not necessarily the case.
I think part of it is trying to understand where is our company going, what is our company strategy, how do we kind of help understand some of these business aspects but also balance those with the user needs. We don't want to do something that is against what the user needs but we wanna do something that creates a kind of a sustainable business for us as well.
Part of that is trying to help get user information or user research and more qualitative data about how people are feeling and then shape that into a strategy that also works well with the business to prioritize certain things. Based on those things, we can sometimes say yeah let's focus on this over that. We have this cool prototype philosophy at Slackware that we try and prototype things. We'll try it on an idea and we'll build it and we'll just see how it works and then sometimes it doesn't work very well and sometimes it's helpful to just try the ideas out and see what works and see what doesn't and then have that inform your next session that's kind of that idea of layering truth.
I think we could always improve on it. We use Slack quite a bit for it for that. I think I had at one point I think that someone had said that the acronym for Slack was the source of and log of all centralized knowledge or something like that. (According to Quartz, the acronym for Slack stands for Searchable Log of All Communication and Knowledge) .
(Back to Kyle response), “But we use Slack very intensely. I mean that's one way we do it and then also trying to figure out how we take that into our design systems as well. That's something we're working on now, trying to understand how we can help anything that we learn from continually evolve the standards that we set.”
These are kind of the foundational pieces and I think they all have a certain amount of weight and kind of what I was saying before is that I think sometimes we might focus too much on the visuals because that's what everyone sees and everyone has this idea of “Oh, yeah!” designer is like has cool glasses and wears a cool hat and makes cool dribble posts. It's like balance; making sure those things are balanced outright with being able to have that curiosity and that user-driven approach and collaboration.
I think it's about balance and creating that balance and one thing we kind of talk about in the industry sometimes is this idea of a T-shaped skillset where you kind of have the balance of some of these skills and then you might have one area in particular that you want to go deep. For me, that T- shaped skill is probably pizza and code that would be my deep understanding of those things I care about.
I started in college and they didn't have product design. It wasn't something you could study when I went to college. I studied computer science for a bit and then I switched to graphic design halfway through I always kind of had this coding background and people kept asking me for coding things when the responsive web became a thing. When iOS became a thing back when it was called iPhone OS people were like, “Oh, yeah can you do this, you know how to code right?” and it became a kind of thing where people just kept asking for it based on my experience and that's kind of what I think is kind of interesting is that I kind of stumbled into that in some ways and sometimes I think people might be a little too active and intentional about trying to create that T-shaped where they're like “Oh!, I really wanna be this or whatever.” I wanted to be a brand designer because I thought brand designers were cool. All the brand designers I knew were the coolest people and I tried it and I just wasn't very good at it that's not my forte.
But, I kind of figured out this is something I'm good at and I don't hate doing. I enjoy code but I love to use code as a tool to create what I want to create.
I think part of that is just kind of giving yourself time to explore those things and I don't think you necessarily have to intentionally become a generalist all at once first and then discover what your T shaped is. It's more of figuring out your path. Some T-shaped people I found like user research, they're good at being able to work with customers, some people is just collaboration and communication. All of those things are natural skill sets that you might have.
And I think it's about trying to let those things come out in you and be patient with yourself you don't have to be me. For yourself, figure out what those things are and that's kind of what you're T-shaped skills can kind of naturally become over time.
I think part of it is enjoyment too. Is it the idea of personal enjoyment? Is it intrinsic or is it the idea that you wanna be something that you wanna show someone else? Is it extrinsic? I wanted to be a brand designer not necessarily because I enjoyed it but because I thought it would make me look cool. And that's the thing that's fine. That's reasonable, we're all human. But I think it's the understanding if you're good at something but you don't like doing it, then you're probably not good at that thing because it's something that if it doesn't give you that personal reward and value it can just lead to burnout.
I found creatively is that creatively you should be getting back more than you put in general and anytime that isn't the case that you don't get that same amount of energy back. When I design an amazing cool hover interaction on a button it gives me chills! I love it it gives me so much energy and that is worth all of the weird webs transforms and stuff that I have to overcome. That's worth it to me that makes it worth it even though I don't necessarily always love navigating MPM and all of the build environments and everything like that. I enjoy that part of it. I think part of it is figuring out what it is that you enjoy and what gives you that energy and a lot of it is just trial and error and figuring it out.
I had to figure out a time I am not necessarily good at brand design nor does it give me energy and when I say that I mean like making logos. I saw branding as a bigger thing but making logos that's a hard hard thing that is not great.
Part of it is understanding that the aspect of leadership is something that is not necessarily correlated with management. I've switched back and forth many times in my career between IC and management because I like to explore new things and I think in the IC position I tried to exemplify leadership by mentoring people trying to help set a vision for the team on where we could go and push people and critique in ways that help build their career and create a better a better overall design at the end of the day.
There are ways that I think you can think about that in terms of leadership as you're growing your career that you're helping other people to do their jobs better by just being yourself by just being around them and part of that is just the understanding what it is that you are good at or what that is valuable to you and then trying to figure out how that can kind of manifest itself in terms of helping other people be able to do that thing better as well.
How I ended up in management is because I enjoyed that more than doing the design work I love working with people and helping them grow and helping develop their careers. If that's something you enjoy then maybe try management. Give that a whirl and work towards that but I think it's the understanding that this idea of leadership itself, your ability to help create more focused more advanced skill sets. You exist in this role is exponential to the company and to the team that's what leadership kind of is at the end of the day.
I think there is this aspect of being able to understand early on what are the things that prevent us from reaching the company goals? If we have a company goal to grow our business to make more money whatever that is or to provide a new service to a new industry trying to understand what the needs are in that industry or that specific area to help grow the business.
That's where we're working with research and it is not in instant to understand how to do it we kind of set that foundation and understand what the kind of core needs is to be able to meet that. We're working with them, pretty closely at that point. Also, as we're developing the product we're working between product and design and sometimes engineering as well to understand is this the right solution.
Are we going in the right direction? There are both of these aspects where we're using research to inform our strategy and then using research to validate our decisions. Both product designers and product managers I think work fairly closely with research in that aspect.
But I think product design, (to answer the second question) How is the business direction is driven by product design? It is about how we create that user experience and what that looks like. Product managers might decide from research and other things. From there we get that, “Hey, this is a big problem.” and then designers kind of help understand how we solve that problem.
Work with PMs to help validate that and help make sure that that's the right solution. We have PDE here at Slack which is a product design and engineering. It's a big collaboration between all three of us to make sure that we do design and ship something that customers love.
There are so many methods. In the early stage, trying to understand who you're designing for and trying to get a pretty good sense of the types of users that you're designing for. If you're like designing an entire product you might have a large group of people that you're designing for, if you're designing a specific feature maybe it's a power feature maybe it's only relevant to a specific set of people but it's going to be very valuable for them.
What's important is trying to get as much data as you can to be able to help inform your decisions and some methods you can do in that space we've used mechanical Turk with Amazon service to do very high-level surveys and send it out to people around, like general usability to just get a sense on, “Okay, is this generally the feature that we have today? How are people thinking about it? Is this a good thing or a bad thing? How fast are people navigating through this specific thing?
There are always ways you can do that. Like surveys that are targeted at specific groups of individuals, that's helpful as well. I think also using more intentional sessions that are more guided where you're walking through customers with customers. What are their problems? Try to see things.
When we were at Etsy, we used to do these seller studio visits that I just absolutely loved. I used to work on the seller experience team that helped create the tools for sellers on Etsy. We'd go to seller shops and studios and see how they built things how they processed orders. We just try and understand what issues they have because part of the issue that comes up is that people won't tell you. What problems that they have you have to kind of see them for yourself. There are so many little hacks that I have the software that I use but I'm just like, “Oh, yeah I'll just deal with it but it could be better.” But I'm not gonna call that out and try to understand those things and get that information from users. I think a really important thing to do and sometimes that's just talking to people.
I think what you're getting at there is this idea of either universal design or inclusive design. Millions of people use Slack and so there are aspects of it that we have to be fairly universal. We have to make sure it works for most people because a lot of people don't have a choice because their company uses it. We have to make sure it works for them but certain features are more geared towards specific people and they're going to take more advantage of them.
Then that gets into this aspect of return on investment. If we're gonna spend 3 months working on a project or however long it takes to ship this thing that has a core cost to the company. We have to make sure that that is going to produce enough value to be able to justify that work. Being able to understand those core people is it enough?
There are some powerful features that we just don't ship because it's not worth us doing it because it's not a big enough impact on a big enough group of people. But I think that there are quite a few things where it's this is going to be very valuable for half of the people or 40% of the people and focusing on those specific users is super helpful because at the end of the day you can't design everything to meet the needs of everyone that's just impossible because humans are so different.
I mean go for it. I don't think that there is that much difference between a UX UI designer and a product designer. I think they're the same thing to a lot of people. The titles are just different if you're doing specifically UI design or specifically UX design. Those can be different at some companies but for a lot of smaller companies like startups and things, it's essentially the same thing. Those are the pillars that I kind of mentioned before. Those are kind of all the skill sets you need to learn. You'll run into people who will try and look for some proof that you can do those things right and all of those skills that I mentioned you have to have some ability to show, “Hey, I'm capable of doing that and what's hard.”
I've been in a place where I know I'm capable of doing this but I can't prove it yet. Part of that I found doing some side projects some personal projects working with some local companies. Sometimes I've ever done that for a limited charge or no charge for nonprofits or other things to just build up your skills. Get some things in your portfolio to be able to show people. At the end of the day, I think the Bootcamp training is helpful to get that kind of foundation but it's how you apply those skills and then try and figure out what are you good at what do you need to grow in a little bit or sometimes you don't know until you try it.
It changes all the time. I think something that is generally hard to figure out is what is done looks like. I think the reality is that with digital design, something is never done you could continue iterating on it it could always be better. I often say with design it's not about figuring out what the best thing is but it's the least worst thing that you could create. Getting to that point where you're able to ship something and then get feedback on it is incredibly important but sometimes letting go of that as a designer, we get really attached to things.
I think that's one aspect and that can be hard especially early on in your career I'm trying to figure out how you can let go and be okay with shipping something that you're like, “Man, this maybe this could be a little bit better. But it's you need to get that feedback from folks before you understand. If it's good or bad or if it's gonna work for them or if it's not gonna work for them.
I think that's a really big part that's really hard . It is like figuring out what that balance is and how to find something that ships and is still going to solve your customer needs and your user needs and it's something that you're proud of but also something that you don't spend forever working on.
I think it would be that there is no as someone who just read an article saying this is what a product designer is. There is no one definition of what a product designer is. I think part of that is understanding to a certain degree trying not to compare yourself to other people trying to figure out what it is that you intrinsically are interested in and what you want to help the world with is something that is way more important than trying to be the coolest product designer with all the Twitter followers and whatever.
That's not what's important. What's important is that you are able to find something that you can contribute back to the world that you feel gives you energy and gives the world energy.
The world is such a crazy place, especially the past few years anything that we can do to add brilliance and joy and delight into the world is so worth it and sometimes those things get bogged down with all the career advancement. And you're like, “Oh I've gotta do this and I've gotta do this and I've gotta hit this point.” It's fine you will get there, you can just breathe and just slowly work on things.
I still struggle with 15 years into my career of trying to be something that I'm not trying to be something that someone else wants me to be and I think some people will disagree with that. I firmly believe it's about trying to find that aspect inside yourself where you feel you can live your life and be yourself and whatever that entails I think that's a very important thing more than your career to a certain degree.
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