Emelyn Baker

Product Designer at Brit + Co.

Emelyn Baker

Product Designer at Brit + Co. Episode 35

Episode Notes

Episode Transcript

Gary:
Hello, and welcome to Episode Thirty-five of Design Edu Today, the podcast series discussing topics concerning the state of interactive design education at institutions of higher learning. I am your host, Gary Rozanc, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

In this episode we will be discussing the staggering number of titles out there to categorize designers, and the not always perfect step by step design process including where content strategy fits in on a classroom project. We also cover designing with real content vs. Lorem Ipsum and ways to expose students to working in multidisciplinary teams while still in school.

Today’s guest is Emelyn Baker. Emelyn is a product designer focused on education, creativity, and cross-cultural design challenges. She is currently working as a Product Designer with Brit + Co., a digital media and commerce company that enables creativity through inspirational content and online classes. Before that, Emelyn was the Design Lead at Bloc, an online program for learning development and design with a mentor, where she built the product design team as the first designer and its Design Lead. Emelyn’s worked with Fortune 500s to companies of 5, and currently writes about all things interactive design and about the challenges of designing at a start-up.

Welcome Emelyn.

Emelyn:
Hey, Gary: great to meet you.
Gary:
Thank you so much for agreeing to be on the show. So, before we get into the conversation, I want to let listeners know about an article that you wrote called Job Titles in the Design Community. So, listeners, from this research Emelyn did into position openings on the Dribbble job board, she discovered that the most popular two job titles were UX/UI Designer in some combination of those two words and Product Designer. So, I’m mentioning this article for two reasons: first, there’s a lot in that article that I’m not going to ask to re-hash into this podcast; just read the article, and two, while it is a small sample size, it’s a really strong indicator of the skills that our students will need upon graduation so I kinda wanted to bring this out as hey, we should be looking at this and these are things that we should be thinking about including in our classroom so Emelyn, thank you for doing that research.
Emelyn:
Yeah, absolutely, I mean, it’s a really fascinating piece and thinking about what sort of impact job titles have on employment is a really interesting thing to think about as well.
Gary:
Yeah, and we talked about that actually last week with Jay Fanelli who was trying to hire somebody at Cotton Bureau and he didn’t know what the heck to call it because all of these…all the names out there, so it was pretty funny. So now, onto the reason I asked you to be on today. So, Emelyn, you received a BFA in Graphic Design from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, but your first job while in school was as a Visual Designer. So, what are the skills or knowledge necessary for someone to be a Visual Designer?
Emelyn:
Mm-hmm. Yeah, so that’s a little bit interesting, isn’t it? Getting a degree in Graphic Design and then having that first bit of employment being titled as a Visual Designer. So, for a little bit of context, I think that was one of my first part time jobs during School and you know, I went and got a degree in Graphic Design but I actually began my university studies as undecided; I started a Major that I think was called General Studies and I wound up getting…so, I wound up kind of deciding between two paths, one of which was East Asian Languages and Cultures and the other which was Design and you know, I’d done a little bit of graphic design before; my stepmother was a graphic designer so I knew it would be a decent career path, but at the same time I really didn’t have a very strong idea of what a designer was, so first some context, that first job that I had, I was working part time at our University’s Student Union, called the Illinois Union, and my title there was Visual Designer but essentially my position wound up being working part time creating print or, you know, yeah, mostly print flyers or posters for upcoming concerts and events and I even did a little bit of sign-painting too. So, it would up being actually an excellent introduction to sort of what a very traditional graphic design job would be, even though the titles between graphic designer and visual designer weren’t necessarily the same, the skills were still pretty similar, you know, trying to communicate an idea through word and image so yeah, those actually wound up being…that wound up being a pretty excellent introduction into graphic designer, visual communication, whatever you might call it.
Gary:
Yeah, and the reason I asked, I hear the term Visual Designer used a lot and to me, when I hear it used, I just think immediately of graphic design but now it could encompass interactive, motion or anything, any medium on the planet that exists. It just expands the medium that you work from, so I just kind of wanted to see if that sounded similar to what your experience was?
Emelyn:
Yeah, I think that’s really true. And traditionally I’ve seen…again, I think I say this a lot and I say that a little bit in the blogpost that I wrote but job titles don’t necessarily indicate what you’re doing at all! You could be called a visual designer, a graphic designer and doing the same type of work, or you could find yourself as a user interface designer and doing a little bit more UX work, or you could be doing purely visual design like skinning applications, so it’s really difficult to tell exactly what you’ll be doing with the title of the job that you apply for.
Gary:
Yeah, and that really makes it hard for educators to try to make sure that everybody has the right skillsets when they go…
Emelyn:
Yeah, I certainly think so, I think it’s incredibly difficult too; the skillsets themselves have such differing nuance that it’s incredibly difficult to pin down exactly what you should be teaching as well, which is that encompassed really.
Gary:
Yeah, so your next job was as a Graphic Designer at Nuvix…Nuvixa?
Emelyn:
Yeah, yeah, this was a technology start-up called Nuvixa that I worked at part time while I was on campus.
Gary:
So, in your…I think I got this off your LinkedIn profile, it said you worked alongside software engineers to design layouts. Can you talk about that process of working alongside a software engineer and how it worked there?
Emelyn:
Oh yeah, absolutely. So, let’s see…so I started at Nuvixa…I started at this technology start-up when I was maybe about half way through design school and up until then, I would say I had a pretty traditional graphic design education and it was almost traditional to the point of frustration for me! …Pardon me…
Gary:
No worries, I’ll edit that kinda stuff out because I have a cold too!
Emelyn:
Oh, that’s awesome, OK. Yeah, I’ll go ahead and start over again then. So, let’s see…
Gary:
You can just pick up where you left off.
Emelyn:
Yeah, yeah, so again, I’d say I had a pretty traditional graphic design education; I remember in my Foundations year we got a local newspaper, scanned it in, printed it out, cut up letters and then pasted them back on foam-core to like, learn about kerning. I mean, it was a really traditional print-driven education!
Gary:
Yeah, mine was too!
Emelyn:
Yeah, yeah and so this was, what, 2009, you know, that’s not too long ago; I was pretty frustrated, especially since my first experience doing any sort of design was when I was a kid. I mean, I think you could call it design; I certainly had no idea what I was doing but I was using HTML and CSS to hack a Neopets site or work with my MySpace page. But it works and I grew up in a native digital environment, so I had a really excellent foundational education in things like typography, using word and image in conjunction but when it came to working within digital medium, I didn’t have a lot of excellent educators to sort of guide me within that within my Graphic Design program that I was going to school for. And that was very frustrating. There was very few digital based classes and we had a great Computer Science department but there was really very little overlap between the HCI department and our Graphic Design program. So…how did I get to a point where I was working with software engineers on a software product? That kind of wound up being a goal for me; I was like well, you know, I was pretty interested in this, I think this is when I started hearing about the terms User Experience and I thought man, that sounds like the type of work that I want to do eventually, after I graduate. And so I did a lot of reading on my own and kind of came up with this very targeted approach to eventually get me there and that included a lot of self-learning; it included essentially pitching every single design project that I was doing to include some sort of digital element and eventually I built up enough of a portfolio with things that I’d done for class or things that I’d done on my own that when I finally had that interview with this start-up, I was able to essentially talk my way into it which was really wonderful.

The downside though is working with engineers and working in essentially…I would consider this a User Experience role even though my title was Graphic Designer and I did a lot of graphic design work, even though this was a really new experience for me. I understood that there were some things I should be doing like wireframing and prototyping things, but I’d never had anyone to really mentor me in the best practices for doing that, so my work process at this start-up was pretty conventional in that I’d be pitched an idea, like you would in school, I would wireframe…I would iterate on a couple different design directions and then hand it off to engineers to build it and that’s not exactly an excellent process for developing great products and it wound up being a pretty difficult learning experience as well. I remember…an engineer asking if I could export an illustrated asset as an SVG and I thought to myself, wwwwhat? So there were some pretty harsh learning curves in that particular environment too but it wound up being incredibly invaluable, working with engineers and working in an entirely different process than my straightforward design education prepared me for.

Gary:
Great. You know, this wasn’t one of my original questions, but this is something…so I’m thinking about the class that I’m teaching right now and I am struggling with what order to do some things in and what it comes down to is content…so, I have students do atomic design where they’re tracing…atoms, molecules, the idea from Brad Frost in existing websites, just to learn hey, these things are…is a modular approach to this but then I say OK, let’s start doing, let’s start gathering content and doing content strategy. What order would you, for a visual designer or a graphic designer, where do you think they need to know content strategy? Does it come before wireframing? Because it does inform the wireframing, right?
Emelyn:
Yeah, absolutely.
Gary:
OK, so they have to get the content, get the content strategy, then go into the wireframing and then at that point they can kind of get into the visual design or they can probably maybe do that at the same time if they’re kind of like parallel, I guess?
Emelyn:
Yeah, I could see that and you know, this is why I find segmenting out a design process into this perfect step after step process to be so infuriating sometimes. Sometimes you begin with zero content and it’s up to you to work with your collaborators to figure out what the right message to portray is; it’s not quite as straightforward as someone giving you a prompt and saying, here’s all the things that we want to communicate in this; let’s make it happen. But it’s also not the flip side of that where you have four or five paragraphs of lorem ipsum and you’re trying to design layouts around that either. Oftentimes it gets really messy on the inside where you have some ideas, maybe some concrete text that you want to have in these interfaces and it winds up being a negotiation between stakeholders and yourself as a designer and I found that really difficult to replicate in educational environments. I think it’s a little bit messy unless you’re doing some sort of in the classroom project with some sort of collaborator that’s going to be with your class all semester; it’s really tough!
Gary:
Thank you, and that’s actually what I did this semester, I had…
Emelyn:
Oh, awesome!
Gary:
I have my students, they are re-designing a…they’re going to be designing a website for a web design conference and so I had somebody who put on a web design conference Skype in and they basically…they asked this person questions, you know, kind of like so they could do…but they did it on the…I messed up and it was basically about the visuals for creating style tiles and element collages, so they were asking questions like, who would…they were just trying to get a feel for what the visual identity of the website should be like and I was like…ugh! After the fact it was like, should they have already had the content? Do they go gather the content now? Because now they can’t…because they were doing user flow and there’s just…I couldn’t neatly package it, I just couldn’t and I still can’t.
Emelyn:
It’s very difficult to package it so neatly, and even if you do package it just-so, it takes a little bit of the realism out of the messy experience of doing collaborative design so I think there’s an advantage to having it feel a little bit chaotic.
Gary:
Well good, because I can’t organize it any better than I think I did without…and that’s why I wanted ask you. The minute you mentioned wireframe I was like, oh yeah, that’s a question I’ve had in the back of my mind.
Emelyn:
Yeah, yeah.
Gary:
OK, so…oh and back onto working with…alongside the engineers. Is there a way from your perspective that that can be replicated in the classroom?
Emelyn:
Oh, that’s a good one. You know, I’ve found a really excellent way to replicate that. I did this in Undergrad. The best way that I found to replicate this, aside from working part time with engineers is to do Hackathons and have those fixed two or three day events where you’re simply trying to get something off the ground and again, it’s design students working with engineering students, so there’s a lack of professionality about it, but there’s a lot of value in having two people try to communicate in very different languages like that. So that could simply be one way to do it.
Gary:
Oh, that’s perfect!
Emelyn:
Yeah, it might be worth giving it a try.
Gary:
Yeah, because the biggest challenge I get with that is, you know, in any University, Engineering’s in another department, they’ve got their own set of courses, I’ve been trying to synch those up so they can overlap is…
Emelyn:
Oh, it’s painful!
Gary:
Yeah, but there’s no excuse, there’s no reason why we couldn’t do a weekend Hackaton once a semester.
Emelyn:
Yeah, I think that would be great and I’ve…
Gary:
Just to get them together.
Emelyn:
Yeah, you know, I’ve met plenty of engineers that have been interested in learning more about user interface design or design thinking so it could be a really nice mutual exchange, I think.
Gary:
Yeah, so thank you for that idea.
Emelyn:
Yeah, absolutely!
Gary:
All right, so your next job was as a User Experience Design Intern at Intel.
Emelyn:
Yes.
Gary:
So, I’m going to ask, it seems like a really silly question. What is a UX Designer and how is it different from Graphic Design?
Emelyn:
No, no, it’s a great question to ask. So, what is the difference between a UX Designer and a Visual Designer? I think…so, first here’s how I would define a Visual Designer or a Graphic Designer. I’d essentially say that a Visual Designer is someone who solves a problem using visuals aka word and image to communicate with their users or their customers, whereas on the flipside I would say that user experience is more focused on…it’s more focused on solving a user problem and I will include through a digital means since when we’re often talking about user experience design, it’s usually for a digital product, even though it could be applicable to physical products or experiences like very literally experiences. The thing that I’ve noticed that differs strongly between those two is that user experience tends to be a little bit more holistic in the terms of tools that it uses; as far as visual design goes, oftentimes it’s using a lot of, again, word and image to solve a problem, but User Experience Designers have a little bit of a wider toolset: sometimes they’re conducting research and speaking with users. Sometimes they’re conducting usability tests with users. Oftentimes that cycle of build and design is pretty tight and so you’re working with solving a problem over multiple iterations over time and the process seems to be a little bit tighter with working with your users. One thing that I’ve noticed, especially for friends that have taken traditional visual design and graphic design jobs is that there’s less of a tight feedback loop with the people that they’re designing for: it’s a lot more about pitching to a client as opposed to solving a problem for the audience that they are communicating with. I mean, that’s certainly a part of it but that interaction is a lot more client-based as opposed to user experience, where it’s a lot more…it’s a lot more user-based, although I am thinking a lot about in-house designers, like in-house user experience designers as opposed to purely agency, visual designers. So, that’s a lot, I think.
Gary:
No, but that makes sense and it clarifies something in my own mind because when I did my…I did an Associates Degree before I did my Bachelors and before I did my Masters and in my Associates Degree, I did a lot of marketing classes which got down onto like on the psychological level of…
Emelyn:
Yes, yes.
Gary:
And so I’ve always, because of that experience before I started taking design classes, that’s how I’ve always approached design, ,from a very…user, what do they need, what are they trying to accomplish, that’s what I’ve always gone to instead of going to the visual end first.
Emelyn:
That’s fantastic.
Gary:
I mean, I know it’s not UX, but it’s a different…just hearing the way you explain it, it almost sounds like I just had a different philosophy on design all along.
Emelyn:
Yeah, well you know, it sounds like…and you know, I’m starting to realize this from this conversation: it sounds like that type of user-focused design process is still present in graphic design and visual design but it’s just a little bit more segmented, that user research part, and it sounds like a lot of marketers will do a lot more of that as well.
Gary:
Yeah. So…this is something else that’s been on the top of…on my mind recently. And it’s when you hear the term UX, I think a lot of people automatically think it’s technical, a lot of designers, the traditional print designers or traditionally trained designers hear the word UX and they think automatically technical and they kind of shy away from it. It’s not. It’s not necessarily technical is it?
Emelyn:
Not necessarily, you know, visual designers, let’s go with graphic design since it’s a more traditional design term: Graphic Designers know their medium very well and if we’re thinking of a traditional print Graphic Designer, they know print medium incredibly well and it’s very similar for User Experience Designers but the medium is often digital and I think there’s a stigma about that being particularly scary or menacing or just, I don’t know, very difficult, right?
Gary:
Yeah.
Emelyn:
So I mean, hmm, yeah, that’s pretty interesting and a lot of User Experience Designers just have a more, well, a more holistic ownership over the process; it’s not to say that a Graphic Designer couldn’t do the entire process and in fact a lot of User Experience Designers do employ graphic design techniques, designing with word and image, right? But it’s just ownership of different parts.
Gary:
OK. So, you had a traditional print background…
Emelyn:
Oh yeah.
Gary:
…training. So, from that, what did you find that was really helpful and does translate really well to designing in this digital context?
Emelyn:
Oh man! You know, one thing that my program was incredibly efficient at was getting students to understand how typography works and now that I work primarily on digital interfaces for the web or for mobile devices, a lot of that is text and having such great ownership over typography has given me a lot of success as a designer, so I’m, despite my frustration and kerning pieces by hand, I definitely came out with a really strong type background.
Gary:
OK, so the typography, where the print typography training did translate into digital typography?
Emelyn:
Yeah, you know, there’s different constraints, different ways that text is rendered on a screen, different types of screens, you know that the medium has its own quirks to it, but there’s still some fundamental ways of looking at type and understanding how type works together that is really easy to overlook if you’re a self-taught beginner.
Gary:
OK. So, on the flip of that question then is, so, what did you have to learn on the fly that you were like, oh this could have been…this would have been so easy for them to just do cover in school for me?
Emelyn:
Oh man! So much! I mean, yeah, let’s see. I was pretty frustrated with my design education in many ways and I think it was because, and I can mention a little bit about my time at Intel; you know, after working at the start-up on campus, I learned a lot on my own and very painfully. Kind of had to like ram my head against a brick wall just to figure out something and I realized that I needed some sort of mentorship or to work with a team or more experienced designers. And Intel was one of those experiences that exposed me to those unknown unknowns in my process. Things that I didn’t know that I should know, so good examples of that would be how to do effective usability tests…
Gary:
Oooh…
Emelyn:
…or even doing preliminary customer interviews or generally deeper user interviews to understand how your users work. Or even, learning how to prototype. Those were the sort of things where I thought, wow, this can be a part of my design process: this should be a part of my design process. This is so great! And I wound up feeling so frustrated that, you know, I wanted to do the excellent design for these digital mediums but there were so many tool that would make my work better that I didn’t know I was lacking, like the ability to do great user interviews or the ability to do…you know…five person guerrilla usability tests; those would have made my entire experience in learning how to design better interfaces so much greater in school but I simply didn’t have the sort of curriculum that was set up for that. It’s a curriculum that was maybe five or ten years out of date and that’s not any fault of my school in particular; it’s just kind of a fault of…
Gary:
It’s all of us!
Emelyn:
Yeah, yeah, I’m not going to point fingers and say that my school was at fault here, it’s just…it’s part of the difficulty of working in a medium, in an industry that changes so quickly.
Gary:
And I think too, one of the big keys that I kinda keep focusing on is that…while the iPhone came out in 2007; it wasn’t until 2010 when media queries came out that you really started…I think that was the game-changer for designing and UX and kicking it into a whole new kind of level. And then when Apple opened up the App Store too, that was…because they didn’t do that right away either. So, if you go from that timeframe and that context, that’s only six years old.
Emelyn:
A lot’s changed in six years!
Gary:
Yeah, so…we need to catch up in education but in reality though, we’re only six years behind, we’re not…I keep telling myself that, that’s how I sleep at night!
Emelyn:
It’s not hopeless!
Gary:
Yeah. So then, do you think…do we need to re-think visual design or graphic design to include UX principals or do you think UX is different enough that it needs to be its own program?
Emelyn:
Hmm…hmm…I think that…this is difficult…
Gary:
Yeah!
Emelyn:
…I mean, it’s a big, meaty question.
Gary:
Take your time!
Emelyn:
Yeah, yeah. I think that it can go either way. So, I’ve seen students that have gone through twelve week intensive design boot-camps and they’ve gotten a large overview of the majority of user experience principles; they’ve gone through that very traditional, very idyllic design process of research, wireframe, prototype, visual design, launch test and essentially make an app from scratch. But there’s only so much that you can cram into such a short amount of time and I feel that in many ways, visual design is part of that. I truly think that if I hadn’t had three years of intensive design practice, I wouldn’t be at the place where I was today. So the question is, if we have three to four years of design education in a traditional university, and you’ve only got a fixed amount of time, do you add things? Well, if you add things, what do you take out? And that’s the sort of trade-off that one has to make when considering, do you have an intensive graphics/visual design program, or do you look at a holistic, user experience or design thinking type of program. I think that there’s value in either one but articulating the difference between the two is incredibly important, especially when speaking with students that are considering potential careers that they might want to get into. So, I could see it going either way, but I will say that I haven’t seen a lot of programs that have successfully integrated essentially everything you might need in your current UX or Product Designer type of job; it’s just a lot of breadth to cover and since there are so many different areas where you can go broad but then go deep in, there’s a certain amount of customization that each student chooses themselves too.
Gary:
Is this next statement that I’m going to make, is it a fair assessment that I’m about to say? When I look at visual design, graphic design, I think of that as something that you can’t have a twelve week intensive: you need…it’s practice and practice and practice over that three years, where I think some of the user research and user testing, while yes, the more experience you have doing at it, you’re going to be way better at it, but just knowing a little bit of it will vastly improve your design without having to have a mastery of it.
Emelyn:
Hmm…I would say that’s a fair statement. But I think of the flip-side. Let’s say you want to become…you look at that entire holistic design process and say, oh, I want to be an excellent visual designer, then you need that multiple years of experience and practice. You could say the same is true also for user research; I know quite a few people that have had careers essentially stalled because they don’t have the proper amount of education, even though they’re pretty adequate practitioners of user research, there’s a certain level that you need to get to there as well, but those are a lot more…I think that’s a lot more focused. Yeah, it comes down to specialty versus generalist, doesn’t it?
Gary:
Yeah, and that’s a debate that I haven’t…I’ve just started kind of having recently in my own head!
Emelyn:
Yeah, what are your thoughts on that?
Gary:
You know, it’s going to have to depend on the Faculty that you have. I think just if you’ve got a Faculty, a body that’s traditional, it’s come from a print background, I feel like they…the technology part is going to be missing; designing for digital, so I think they’re going to have to stick to the more traditional in visual…in graphic design, I think they could more quickly embrace the idea of user research, whereas I think the Faculty who are more into the digital design, working with HTML, working, playing around with the different languages and they can produce digital products or understand it better, they’re going to have…they could really focus on the UI because they can…OK now let’s test this on an actual phone, let’s test this on an actual smart device and so maybe the user research component for them doesn’t have to be a focus because they can focus on the UI. And this is the first time I really fully actually tried to articulate that, so I don’t know where that went!
Emelyn:
I mean, it’s pretty messy too. Hmm…but I understand what you’re saying and I think that from someone coming from a highly technical angle into improving their visual design or visual communication skills, there’s a lot of…there’s a lot of temptation to trivialize it as well and I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but I’ve seen this personally working with some highly technical people that they find it easy to dismiss that type of…the strength of that type of communication and because of that, it makes their skills weaker as well, which is unfortunate.
Gary:
I haven’t seen it personally but I’ve seen the discussions, because you know, I see it on Twitter all the time.
Emelyn:
Oh yeah!
Gary:
You see that back and forth banter of…one not appreciating the other, then somebody comes out and says, you both are right! Yeah, I’ve seen that but I haven’t personally experienced, because I have been in education long enough now where I’m embarrassingly, I have to go back and discover for myself, OK, what is the process for digital design?
Emelyn:
Oh that’s fine though, I mean these processes change so often, you almost have to be a life-long learner in this field.
Gary:
Yeah, and you really do because I’ve just been over the past year or so, as I’ve been doing this podcast, I’m just like, oh my God, there’s…it’s so much, it’s so different.
Emelyn:
It’s insane, and it keeps changing!
Gary:
Yes. And I look forward to that. It keeps you on your toes! Gives you something to look forward to. All right so…onto your next job, because you got a different title and this one…
Emelyn:
I know!
Gary:
Yep.
Emelyn:
Titles mean nothing!
Gary:
Yep. But I think this…I understand this one but, and I’ll tell you there’s only one reason why I don’t like the term Product Designer and it’s just because I’m so used to thinking I immediately think of Industrial Design, but I completely understand the rationale behind it, so do you want to talk about a little bit about your job as Product Designer at the start-up company, Bloc?
Emelyn:
Yeah, absolutely. I’ll touch upon the term Product Design first. I find that usage really fascinating because once I got back from my internship at Intel, one of the things I realized was that physical product designers, industrial designers, already had a really excellent, essentially product design process baked into the way that they designed. I mean, a lot of product design starts with doing user research or working very closely with the user that you’re designing for, whether that’s maybe an extreme example is like, OXO working with elderly people to design really excellent can-openers because they have particularly sensitive grips, right? That sort of research prototype test and build process is really baked into it so it does seem to be a pretty good fit and I found some of the industrial design classes that I took to be really valuable in making me essentially a better digital product designer. But with that in mind, I started at Bloc right out of College; first long term job right out of College and again, as far…this is one of those titles that really had no bearing on anything that I was doing, so, graduated, joined Bloc which is an online boot-camp for learning how to code and I was the first designer on the team, the sixth employee and so for a good one and a half years, I did absolutely everything that could be related to design.

That meant doing early customer interviews, to see what our early adopters liked and were kind of motivated with for our product. It was wireframing and prototyping interfaces for early versions of the product. It was building the brands, making T-shirts and swag for some of our students or our mentors. It really was every part of the design process that you could possibly do and that includes going deep on things like user research or visual design and it was overwhelming but I would say that the thing that I would identify with in the title Product Designer would be…essentially that I had a very holistic ownership of a portion of the product that I was working on. Anything from essentially concepts to building; it was kind of on me to make that happen as far as design goes and I guess that is how I maybe mark Product Designer as slightly different from a User Experience Designer but I think they’re pretty similar.

Gary:
Sorry, getting over a cold!
Emelyn:
Not a problem.
Gary:
And that’s an interesting…I’m glad you brought that up because I like the term Product Designer because you’re not creating a static brochure-type digital experience. You’re creating a physical experience that just happens to be located on a screen and it’s kinda like choose your own adventure and you have to think about all these different ways that people are going to use it and work with it, so that’s why I like the term Product Designer but I just can’t help but think of, like you said, the people at IDEO…
Emelyn:
Yeah, yeah!
Gary:
Making the OXO grips. So, another…oh, I lost my train of thought here, let me see…OK, so then, thinking…based on all these different experiences that you’ve had, and because you’ve had now experience in the classroom, in an online classroom, what are some of the things that you think educators at traditional institutions can do to start better preparing the students for this idea of product design or UX design? What are some low-hanging fruit kind of things that we could do?
Emelyn:
Low-hanging fruit? I think that basic digital literacy is incredibly valuable and to translate that, some basic HTML and CSS classes go a really long way. If you are designing for a digital medium but you don’t necessarily have a clear understanding of how a page is put together, it can make your proposals and designs very, very difficult in the long run, so I think that that will help a lot.
Gary:
What about then…OK and I don’t…with Android and I know how to write HTML and CSS and actually PHP and a little bit of JavaScript but I don’t know how to…so I understand that medium but is the medium of iOS and Android the same thing?
Emelyn:
Hmm, yeah, how deep do you go too? Because you could extend that out even to applying to an Apple Watch or designing for VR or designing for other wearable devices, like where do you draw the line?
Gary:
Yeah!
Emelyn:
And that’s a great question. I think…general exposure to a lot of different digital mediums is really valuable, regardless of how deep you go into them. But another way to approach that would be to say, what are the fundamental constraints of each particular medium and how can I integrate that into class work? So, designing for the web…no, no, no. So, designing for mobile may not mean learning Objective C or developing an app in Swift but it may mean understanding some of the form factor and some of the challenges of designing for a mobile device. Like, where can your thumbs easily go? What are things…what’s the maximum or minimum button size that you need to have in order for it to be clickable? The constraints, I guess generally knowing the medium is really valuable and then it’s up to you and up to the student to determine how deep you get into it. Again, I wouldn’t necessarily say, every student should have an excellent practice of JavaScript because that may not be valuable for every single student but for those that are interested, there’s a rabbit-hole that they can go down and it’s up for them to approach it.
Gary:
Good Lord!
Emelyn:
Right!
Gary:
So that’s why I focus on HTML and CSS because like you said, you could…you don’t understand the medium of Swift but you do understand the medium of a touch device; you can understand the medium of a touch device through HTML and CSS.
Emelyn:
True, very true.
Gary:
And that then can theoretically apply across different software mediums.
Emelyn:
Mm-hmm.
Gary:
OK, so, one last question. I was looking over your résumé and I saw that you didn’t…I’m questioning myself now, but I didn’t see you list a lot of user research in your résumé, but that’s all we’ve talked about!
Emelyn:
I know, and I think I get really excited about user research too, but go ahead!
Gary:
OK, so I’m curious if you didn’t…did you not do it, that’s why you didn’t list it or is it something that just kind of comes with it and you…so you do do it?
Emelyn:
Mm-hmm. So, yeah, OK. I really enjoy doing user research. It’s perhaps doing early interviews with your users before you even get to designing a product or designing a new feature; that’s one of my favorite parts of the entire design process, understanding what makes a person tick and how whatever I design could potentially solve their problems. It’s incredibly thrilling; I love it. But up until that internship at Intel, I had zero experience doing any sort of user research whatsoever and that was really my first exposure to anything like usability testing or doing exploratory user research, so I was really lucky in that two of the employees there, Sophie and Anna, they let me kind of tag along and observe them on some of the studies that they were doing and the exchange was I take notes for them, so it worked out really well!
Gary:
That’s awesome!
Emelyn:
I know, it was great, it was a really wonderful experience, especially since Intel is a place that really values excellence when it comes to doing research, so I learned a lot there but when it comes to integrating research into my practice, I would say that my skills are not as well versed in traditional education, especially when it comes to something like doing visual design, so maybe it’s a bit of…maybe it’s a little bit of sub-consciousness there. I certainly do enjoy doing user research and I think it’s integral to a really excellent user-driven design process, but I also think that it’s quite difficult to justify doing…it’s difficult to articulate when you do user research well; it’s really challenging, I’ve found.
Gary:
All right, so…I’m…OK, so currently like I said, I’m having my students design a website for a web design conference. So, what kind of…what would be a really simple thing that I could do, ask them to do, pre-user research before they get started, or is that not even the right context to do it in?
Emelyn:
Oh, I think that’s a great idea.
Gary:
So, what would it look like then?
Emelyn:
Well, so let’s see; you’re in the discovery phase…I think right about then, it’s a really excellent time to do, well it sounds like you’re doing stakeholder interviews with this potential conference runner. I’d say it’s an excellent time to reach out to…and you could do this in a couple of different ways. At a larger scale you could do essentially surveys with people who have gone to conferences in the past but I find that the information that you get there is a little bit more generalized and it doesn’t necessarily drive you into getting really great user insights, so I might recommend having each student or teams of students go and do one-on-one interviews with a few people that have gone to web design conferences in the past or are potentially interested in going out conferences and, you know, that might be an excellent time to talk to them about what they find appealing there; why they would want to do this and it might be an excellent time to mine for things that they’ve enjoyed in conferences in the past, things that they haven’t. It’s kind of up to you to figure out where the right balance is in terms of why are they motivated to go to a conference versus what are the benefits, what are the good or bad attributes of certain conferences. But that could be a really nice way to at least develop some really quick user empathy.
Gary:
OK. And the part that I find is hilarious about that is…I started this whole podcast series was actually I first started off as like online surveys and I couldn’t get anybody to fill it out and when I did, the stuff that I got from it was useless, but man, it’s been really…this is going to be Episode number thirty five…
Emelyn:
Cool!
Gary:
So that means I’ve been able to get thirty five people to sit down and have a one-on-one conversation about this.
Emelyn:
That’s wonderful!
Gary:
So it’s just amazing, it’s bizarre but that one on one is so much…you would think, it sounds like it’s harder but it’s so much easier to get than data from a survey.
Emelyn:
Yeah, it’s a lot easier, huh? It seems a lot more personal.
Gary:
And I don’t understand why.
Emelyn:
Yeah, I think it’s just…it seems a lot more personal when you approach a person and say hey, I’m focused on this; I would really value your opinion. That means a lot to another person, even if it seems inconsequential to you, for sure. I would assume that’s why it’s been successful but also clearly, you’re talking about very interesting things so there’s that too!
Gary:
Well, I’m just thinking more like on the meta scale that it’s just like I said, the survey is just nowhere near as effective as like a one-on-one conversation.
Emelyn:
Yeah, yeah.
Gary:
Even though the one-on-one conversation is kinda hard to quantify, like you could with an actual survey data. I still just find that the data from that kind of user research or interaction is just more valuable.
Emelyn:
I do too, and you know, I wonder if there’s a way to do, you know, groups of students talking to users and then taking that collective information and doing a large amount of affinity diagramming as a class? I wonder, that could be kind of interesting but who knows. I wonder if anyone’s done that before?
Gary:
I actually have in a previous class with a colleague of mine.
Emelyn:
Oh, how did it go?
Gary:
It was fantastic, but the problem is, it doesn’t fit into traditional education, it kind of makes everybody’s heads explode! But literally what we did is, we had students, and this was back in Chicago, so we had them take the same route form Point A to Point B via four different methods of transportation, so they had to walk, bike, drive and take public transit, so they had to take that same route and then they had to journal their experiences and photograph their experiences, so then they came back and then they started …so then we started critiquing their experiences and then you know, that leads to sticky notes: here’s a pain point, here’s a pain point, here’s a pain point, and so eventually what this whole discussion spiraled into was, biking in Chicago is not as friendly as they think it is! So then that became the intervention; that became our intervention point, that’s what we termed it, and that’s when we decided OK, well, we’re going to solve the bike safety issue in Chicago. Go solve it.
Emelyn:
Oh, how wonderful!
Gary:
Yeah, but that just …it was the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had teaching but that just…it doesn’t fit into traditional design education and it takes an enormous leap of faith on everybody that it’s going to work out, because you don’t know, you’re not assigning an assignment.
Emelyn:
That’s so true.
Gary:
Yeah, you don’t know what’s going to come from it and so I wish I could keep teaching that way but ultimately it’s…I don’t think education’s ready for it yet.
Emelyn:
Oh, that’s a shame!
Gary:
Yeah. So, Emelyn, before I let you go because I see we’re starting to run a little bit long here, is there anything that you’re working on personally that you would like to share or is there something that you want to talk about?
Emelyn:
Let’s see…you know, I care a lot about design education; a lot of my own education was self-taught and so I care very deeply about giving back to the community, especially students that are still in school that maybe are doing a lot of learning on their own, so currently I do a decent bit of writing on Medium; I’ve got a couple articles out there, the one that you mentioned about job titles, but some other tips and tricks about building your portfolio, getting ready for graduation, and so if there are any students out there that need some help, feel free to read through those, but I’d also like to make an open offer too in that Gary, if any of your students listen to the podcast and would like to reach out for a portfolio critique or have any questions or anything like that, feel free to do so, go ahead and check out my Medium account and contact me there or hit me up on Twitter.
Gary:
All right, that sounds good and now I’ll know if students are actually listening to this or not! I just assumed they didn’t because I put Education in the title so I figured that scares everybody away.
Emelyn:
Oh yeah, they’ll get bored!
Gary:
Yeah, but in hindsight, when I’ve listened to some of these…you know, gone back to listen to them, like wow, this would be really good for students too.
Emelyn:
Yeah, it certainly seems so, I’ve looked at some of your past guests and I can only imagine that they’ve had excellent advice for people that are still in school, they’re still learning about design.
Gary:
Yeah, it’s just I’m just asking it from a different perspective.
Emelyn:
Sure, sure.
Gary:
It’s applicable; I’m asking it so I can pass it on to my students, so just cut out the middle man so to speak!
Emelyn:
Perfect!
Gary:
Directly to the source for the students. All right so again, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. So wait, I’m going to say one more thing, this is just for the recording…

That’s all we have time for today on episode 35 of Design Edu Today. I want to thank today’s guest, Emelyn Baker for being so generous with her time. I want to thank the audience for listening and I want to thank the Design Edu Today hosting sponsor DigitalOcean and CDN sponsor Fastly for making the hosting and distribution of these podcasts possible. Finally, I want to thank the AIGA and the AIGA Design Educators’ Community for their generous support of my research that lead to this podcast series.

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Once again, thank you for listening to Design Edu Today.