Robyn Kanner

UX Designer at Amazon

Robyn Kanner

UX Designer at Amazon Episode 36

Episode Notes

Episode Transcript

Gary:
Before I start the latest Episode, I want to make a short personal plea to all my listeners in regards to the increase in hate crimes empowered by our President Elect. If you’re in a large organization with a national platform, please don’t remain neutral and hide behind a policy of “offensive material doesn’t promote inclusiveness”, by banning users or deleting work that denounces the increased hate crimes, no matter how polarizing those designs or works are.

When you stay neutral, ban users or delete work that criticizes the President Elect and the hate crimes that have sharply risen since the election, you are normalizing those hateful actions; you are passively saying, hate shouldn’t be denounced if someone is offended. Now is not the time to stay neutral. What we are seeing is not normal and it must be called out by everyone who professes to support equality and diversity.

Now is not the time to do work that tip-toes around avoiding offensive material. Now is the time to do very difficult work; work from helping those disenfranchised by the abolishment of the Voters’ Rights Act to creating online services helping call out hate crimes. If that work ends up being visually offensive to some: tough. Don’t normalize hate by being passive in your actions. Now is not the time to stand idly by.

With that said, welcome to Episode 36 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 non-traditional paths to becoming a graphic designer and the differences between Brand Design and User Experience Design. We will also go in depth about creating a user journey and what lengths are truly necessary for designers to properly research the end user of their products. We finish up the Episode with a call to designers to get involved in politics beyond posters and safety pins.

Today’s guest is Robyn Kanner, a designer living in Seattle, making responsible design decisions by diving deep to solve the right problem. Currently, Robyn is a UX designer at Amazon within Community where she primarily works on system design with a strong focus in mobile. Robyn also co-founded and design MyTransHealth, which is a resource dedicated to helping trans people find access to quality healthcare and was invited to the 2016 White House LGBT Tech Summit. Robyn started her career in the music industry designing albums and has worked as a brand designer for Staples and New Balance. Welcome, Robyn.

Robyn:
Hey!
Gary:
Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to do this.
Robyn:
Yeah, thanks for having me.
Gary:
You’re welcome. Oh, and I do want to give a quick shout-out to CHIEF Advertising Agency who are letting me use their conference room because I’m doing this in person with Robyn up in D.C. OK, so before I get into specific questions about UX and design, I’d like to ask you about your professional background, specifically how did you first get into graphic design without having any University training?
Robyn:
Sure, so I grew up in rural Maine, like in this little town called Fairfield and by sort of happen-stance, I graduated High School early, like back in December 2004. Basically I had been kicked out of the vocational program and my credits aligned in a way that I had the ability to leave early to I kinda had like eight months to hang out and take one Community College course and I was working as a fast food person, closing the restaurant down and I would basically go home and kinda like freak out about gender so it would be like, one am and I would just think about gender identity up until like, five am and I couldn’t sleep, so after a month of doing that, I just started to self-teach myself what design was so I was working mostly with musicians and just kinda like figuring out how software works but that period was just me flirting with Adobe and figuring out how to make things work.
Gary:
Wow, that’s kind of interesting. My own story, how I got into design was I was working at a diskette duplication company, we were duplicating diskettes; they needed somebody to take other people’s artwork and get it into Adobe so they could print the labels and that is what literally got me, that kinda got me started, messing around with HTML and CSS.
Robyn:
Yeah, and just figuring how things happened. There was this band in Maine, they’re called SixGig, and one of the people…there was this guy who was singing, his name was Walter, and he’d done all this really cool design work and I was just looking at it, as a seventeen year old in Maine, just really into the esthetics of how things looked and kinda like just wanted to learn how to do that so I would literally just look at his work and then look at other things and try to make things in the middle of the night and it got me to a point ultimately where eventually I landed at a rural Art School, called the University of Maine at Farmington and I was able to kind of play with, work a little bit more in that sense, the complicated thing being I was definitely a designer in Art program so I found myself really trying to pull all these installations and projections and audio sound-bits of talking about gender and this way of treating it like design so a lot of my work, even though I was trying to pass it off as art, looked like corporate design and I had a professor by the name of Dawn Nye who let me do that and it was pretty helpful for me.
Gary:
This wasn’t a scheduled question, but can you explain why you think it looked…why do you feel that what you were doing then was more design than art? What did you see as the difference?
Robyn:
Sure, so it was like a really rural program. There were six people in the class and everybody had these really deep understandings of why they were making the work they were making and a lot of the stuff they were doing was about asking people questions, whereas a lot of the stuff that I was doing was about telling people what to think, so I kind of gave it away really quickly always and the pullback was always like, well, you have to let people get there and I was like, I don’t want to let people think, I want to guide them to the experience. So that was the break as a design person in the Art School.
Gary:
OK, no, that’s a good differentiation. I don’t even know if that’s a word! But that’s a good…how to distinguish them. OK, so looking over your experience on Linked In, it seems that each of your positions prepared you for the next position. Not…it’s almost like an apprentice, as a scheduled apprenticeship and not just natural personal growth in skills. Is that kind of accurate?
Robyn:
Yeah. And it wasn’t intended at the time, so my youth was really messy. I left school and I landed in a theater program and I was basically the person who was building marketing stuff for these shows in Portland, Maine and then at night I would go and work with musicians, but that job ranged from building marketing pieces for specific live theater shows to also making sure the snow worked in A Christmas Carol; it was very much like an internship. And then after that, there was this person who moved into Maine and he wanted to start this music magazine so I went over with him and started to design this print magazine and he was a very wealthy start-up type person so I was able to kind of just break things and see what happens with grids. At that point, I didn’t really know what a grid was in design so I had to teach myself that and that was basically just going into book-stores and being like, oh these things are laid out in a specific way and figuring out how this magazine would look like, so I did that for a couple of years and then I spent a month in an advertising agency in Maine but then when I transitioned, they told me that they didn’t want me to work there any more, so I worked at a non-profit for a little bit and then I left Maine and became a designer at Staples and a designer at New Balance and then ultimately bailed out West to make a start-up and land in tech but it wasn’t really intended, how that happened; it just kind of did. I’m very thankful it did, but it was very strange.
Gary:
And it’s also, not that…you already know this, but that’s a shame, they already got to know you and they already valued you but once you said you…told them that you were going to go to the transition, that’s when they threw you out the door…
Robyn:
Yeah, so basically I had done a really good freelance contract for them and at the point in which I wrapped up my contract and I was done and we were on good terms and then they had reached back out to me about another full-time role, after they got another client and so I was going through this interview process with them and basically this eight hour interview, like VP of Design over there sat me down and was just like, they’ll ask questions at the interview, she was like, can you tell me why you’re the man for the job? I looked at her and I was like, do you mean the person? And she was like, nope, the man; I kinda looked back to her and I was like…I’m not getting this job, am I? And she was like, no, you’re not. And that’s why I left Maine.
Gary:
Yeah, that was a good choice. But also…your job at Staples, it seems like what you did and the scope that you did was perfect training for what you did at New Balance.
Robyn:
In a lot of ways yeah; so, when I was at Staples I was mostly building brands and I kind of focused mostly on style at Staples, so I was doing a lot of photo-shoots for them and art directing how this would look and also building a brand identity for how in-store signage could look. I never touched anything on the web though, and then basically after a nine month contract, I had the opportunity to role full-time there or go to a different contract and I was driving this car that couldn’t even barely make it to Framingham, Massachusetts from Boston and to the end of that contract, my friend Christine was picking me up to go into work and commute so I basically had no way to even get to Staples and I didn’t want to buy a car so that was ultimately the reason why I went to New Balance; New Balance was having a contract available too and it was similar in that I built pop-up shops for New Balance mostly and I kinda already knew how to build in-store fixtures from my work at Staples and there was also a little bit of confidently lying that I knew what I was doing when I started the interview there and I just met with two really good designers who were working there and they all kind of understood where I was coming from and the work I was doing, so they let me build pop-up shops for them and it was similar to Staples whereas when I was contracting, I was really intent on whatever that first product I was doing to make sure I knocked it out of the park so I built trust with them, so I got to New Balance and the first thing I built was the Brooklyn Half Marathon pop-up shop for 2015 and I just worked my butt off really quick on it and had built trust with them so for the rest of the contract they kinda like understood where I was coming from and also understood that I would ship things for them and kinda get another way too.
Gary:
With…this is an aside. I’m curious how much…so you said you were building the sets and building the pop-ups and things like that, so much did your theater background, how much has that helped you?
Robyn:
In strange ways! My theater background helped me talk to people; that was a really core thing. I was really socially awkward when I was younger and I didn’t really know what I was doing and in theater, everybody’s kind of an extrovert, or at least like a fake extrovert, so I was able to learn form them how to talk to people, so within that, it helped me do that work at New Balance and Staples. The actual physical building the sets though, I kinda just had an understanding of space; I had done a sculpture class when I was at U-Maine Farmington and I did like a 3D design course so I kinda understood how things worked and how they looked and then once I saw what a spec sheet looked like, it kinda made sense of how you built things because when you see these huge installations in stores, whatever, it can look quite daunting, but when you pull back and see a spec sheet it’s just A3, eleven by seventeen; A2 is like six by two, you build the mock on it and it’s actually not scary at all so that part helped me just get over my freak-out of making any of those pop-up shops for them and I was able to build like a mini comp so I could see how things would work in physical spaces.
Gary:
So, do you think the theater work has helped you in your UX work in regards to that story-telling, that idea of walking somebody through?
Robyn:
For sure.
Gary:
Can you give examples of how or…
Robyn:
Yeah, well the theater work was really interesting. They were very much professionals who were very great at theater and I very much was a designer who was building comps for them for how their websites would work but that idea of story-telling was kind of new to me in a lot of ways, but there was one show called The Thirty Nine Steps which is this mystery kind of thing and I did the lighting for it and when you’re a lighting designer at an internship, you don’t actually do any of the design: there’s an art director that designs all the lights and you basically end up running a board, so my job was to run lights for The Thirty Nine Steps and I did it fifty times or something like that and that whole process is like a stage manager being like: Lights one: go. Lights two: go and it’s just me hitting the Go button over and over and over again, so within that process I was kinda able to focus on one story over a month, fifty different times, hearing how these characters built up suspense and let go of suspense and figured out how to really control an audience in a room and I think when you’re designing UX there’s this idea of an end to end experience so within that, I kind of had a better understanding of what that was and since that, there’s an end to end experience for the people who are doing this show: they’re doing the show, that’s their whole experience and they leave the show but for an audience member that end to end experience is getting to the theater, walking up the steps, getting a drink then sitting down to their seat, watching the show, having an intermission, going back to their seats, leaving, getting back to their car: that’s the full end to end experience for the audience and from a UX standpoint, I think about how the fact that the majority of work that I do is about screens, but if you’re thinking about an end to end, usually anything within an app or something involves having to deal with people at one of those interactions, so I think that kinda taught me how to make a real end to end experience, in person then on the screen and kinda…I don’t want to use the word control, but manipulate that experience to be really positive for the person who needs to within it…
Gary:
Design it!
Robyn:
Yeah, design it. I love the word “manipulation”. I do it a lot. I think people have negative thoughts about the word “manipulate” but that’s what I do.
Gary:
No…yeah, I guess everything’s in language.
Robyn:
Totally!
Gary:
And the reason I was going on that whole theater line is, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Stanley Hainsworth? He runs Tether, it’s up in Seattle but he was former Global Creative Director of Starbucks, Lego, Nike and his background’s in theater.
Robyn:
Yeah, interesting.
Gary:
And so if you go into one of those stores, you see the end to end, like you said, the total experience and there’s obviously some kind of more than just a happen-stance or just a co-incidental connection there; there’s something really valuable about the way theater crafts…suspends disbelief so you really fell you’re there, that is very, very applicable to creating customer journeys.
Robyn:
Totally, and I saw it a lot in the music industry. For as much as I was doing that internship, there was a two year period where I was on tour with bands or building Apple identities, there was all these parts within music that involved me really understanding what an end to end was and I definitely was able to take a lot of those experiences into a customer journey for anything that I designed.
Gary:
So, before I ask you about the path that led you to Amazon, I want to ask you just to follow up on…so, we’ve been talking about this end to end, this user journey and all that kinda stuff; in print-heavy programs, if you design a business card, there’s not a lot of depth to that journey.
Robyn:
Totally.
Gary:
And even in a book, I mean, you’ve got the pacing between the pages, but…so what are some of the things that we should be doing as educators, bringing back to help our students understand that this larger…it’s not just a website, it’s not just visuals: this path, this journey, this experience. What are some things?
Robyn:
So, for me, a big thing for me when I was a student, and professors were asking me to do work, I couldn’t see the real cause and effect and that was a really complicated thing for me. I felt like I was building things a lot of the times for a grade as opposed to actually feeling the responsibility of something going wrong or something going well and the more pressure that was on me, the better I did with it, so there was a lot of the times when my professors were sending me projects and I would go and do them and present them to the class but the only person I was screwing if I got it wrong was just me: I didn’t have any responsibility of other people. When I started to do albums, I had bands who were scrounging together a few hundred dollars to make a record and all of a sudden I had a deep sense of responsibility for what it meant to make sure something was good and I felt that pressure, so I think for professors, there’s a lot of ideas about the fact that you can kinda help students feel that pressure of having to ship things and knowing that somebody else had to build the budget just for you in the room, so you can put a lot of responsibility on the student to ship good work for them.
Gary:
That’s fascinating because you’re right, that’s…we don’t…their responsibility is their grade and it’s an intrinsic…it’s not an…an intrinsic motivator which isn’t really going to work. That’s really interesting, that whole idea of ownership over something, because they just don’t.
Robyn:
No, I mean there is none and as far as grades go, I didn’t care. I could’ve got an F…I got a lot of Fs in school and I just didn’t care but I would leave there and I would go do a record for a group of five people who just had to work ten eight-hour shifts doing something and then they would scrounge together a few hundred dollars within fives and tens and I knew that pressure, so it shifted the value for me drastically and I kind of thrived on that pressure too. So yeah, that pressure is I think a lot of the times how designers end up getting to a place where they know they need to ship early to get a project for them.
Gary:
So first, can you talk a little bit about what led you to become a UX designer at Amazon? How’d you make that leap from New Balance?
Robyn:
Yeah, so…essentially, when I was in Boston, I was doing brand work for Staples and New Balance and the work was good but I couldn’t really see the future in it. I was afraid of looking at the business side of how businesses were shifting out of print and into web and I didn’t really know how to design a screen at all. I had done some websites in Squarespace, but it was never something that I owned myself, so we had this idea for MyTransHealth which was ultimately the bridge for me to getting from print to web and that entire experience was really just me alone in a bedroom in Boston or Portland, Oregon and just designing screens and sending them to my friends and having them respond back to feedback with them and then going to interviews with companies who shipped web design and have them…talk me through your web design and I could barely do it and there was a process of me just bombing interviews that helped me learn how to talk about web design in a lot of ways, which is a really horrible place to get a solid understanding of what your designs are working or not but I got a lot of feedback from bumming interviews!
Gary:
Well, you know what? Students need ’em. I tell them all the time, just go, pick a firm, don’t ask them for anything, don’t beg for a job, just ask them to do a mock interview with you. And they never do it!
Robyn:
Yeah, well I think…I’m really just a huge…this sounds dramatic, but I’m a really huge proponent of getting punched in the face! I learned a lot from just getting beat down by people and there was a process definitely when I interviewed where the range from a small company, what they were concerned about, to a large tech company was different and when I was showing them my work, they respond differently because they were thinking about their needs too and the more experience I had doing it, the better I was equipped to just talk about how I build websites, so my journey into UX was recognizing Trans people had a problem that I maybe could help solve and just going into rooms and being like, this is what I’m thinking about and where I’m at and them being, you’re right for this job or you’re not right for this job but here’s some minor pieces of feedback that you should consider regardless and then just me doing that cycle over and over and over again until I kinda came to where I was.
Gary:
All right, so, you already started talking about MyTransHealth, so we’ll jump into that in a minute; I’ll kinda dance around some of these questions, but the one I do want to address before we get into Trans Health is what, and you can lead into it by talking about Trans Health if it helps is…so, at Staples and at New Balance you were a brand graphic designer: that’s what you did and you said you didn’t do really much web there and so at Amazon, you’re a UX Designer. So, as a discipline, how are these two professions different?
Robyn:
Sure. So they’re similar in that you have to ship design and you have to sell design and I think that’s a really core piece in design is being able to present whatever it is and that bridge helped me talk about UX in print. But how they differ? I look at data a lot more than I ever did when I was a print or brand designer. I was able to go and look at how a pop-up shop performed the year before at New Balance and then flip it over to the next year to know if they made more money through this pop-up shop that I did or they lost money but that was all I had for data: I wasn’t in the physical space with them; you just shipped it and it would be happening in New York or Chicago and I would just be in Boston, so I didn’t understand…I didn’t really understand how a user was experiencing something with them, the physical space, whereas when I started to dive deep into UX, I had a totally different idea of what success metrics are and I knew I needed to set them in the beginning versus just letting an experience happening in a physical space, letting them happen, so the major different for me was this idea of…when you’re doing brands, you’re kind of doing one-offs, you’re making pictures. Sometimes you do design systems but there’s a lot of pictures versus UX which is this entire experience of knowing that a person needs to accomplish a task and that’s a little bit different from brand to UX.
Gary:
So, to follow up then, OK, the data points. What kind of data points; I’m asking it from this perspective. When I assign, I give students an assignment it’s like, OK, design a website but I struggle with what kind of content to give. What’s the content of it? I really struggle with that because if I just hand them the content and hand them the project, they’re learning…like you say, like real life; they’re learning how to decorate because I’ve already kind of set it up, they’re not going through the learning process, so I’m asking it from…so, what are data points and how do they influence the different things you’ve designed?
Robyn:
So, MyTransHealth is a really good example of a thing that I needed to figure out a data point for. We had to decide what cities that we were going to launch in and we knew we wanted to hit each quadrant of the United States but we didn’t know whether we were going to do Minneapolis or Chicago or New York or Boston and I had to look at where the need was heavy and that involved really diving deep with organizations who were doing that kind of work and figuring out where the need was the most. For example, MyTransHealth is in Chicago and not Minneapolis and the reason for that is that Chicago has a Trans Health Conference already built into place and they’re kinda like, have a lot more people doing that work. Minneapolis already does have a good Trans Health Conference too, but from a population standpoint, Chicago is a lot bigger so they have more Trans people there and that’s why MyTransHealth chose Chicago over Minneapolis was just a population-wise of how many people you could help in total, which is a really hard call to make when you have to figure out how many cities you’re going to be in for a resource that’s incredibly valuable but I definitely had to disagree and come in and say, I know people in Minneapolis need this help but I’m going to launch in Chicago first because there’s more groundwork already done for us to get there. And then data is affecting the way that I look at what a V2 for MyTransHealth looks like; we have the zip-code feature where people can enter in where they are and I can figure out where MyTransHealth needs to be next, so we’re launching in Minneapolis, well we launched in Minneapolis: not Minneapolis, but we launched in Chicago, San Francisco, New York, Miami and Dallas I think and Seattle, right, and within the data point of where MyTransHealth is at right now, we have the six cities where we are now but we’re wondering where we go next and I know for a fact when people are entering a zip-code for people who need help, North Carolina is in fact the state that’s going to MyTransHealth the most, asking for help, so I know that’s where need to be in next. And similar…not similar but in a really interesting way, if you look at all the people who are trying to figure out where they can get help for Trans healthcare, there’s United States which is the number one country, but Russia’s actually the number two country right now.
Gary:
Doesn’t surprise me!
Robyn:
By like a margin, too! So that tells you a lot about their politics at the moment, what people are going to the site to need help to.
Gary:
So, you know what, I should have said this for the user…
Robyn:
The users! The audience, yeah!
Gary:
Could you just kind of give us a brief overview of MyTransHealth so they can put it in context when were’re talking about it?
Robyn:
Totally. So, MyTransHealth is a site that I built and essentially it’s helping Trans people get access to quality healthcare. We found that Trans people were disproportionately targeted as like a wall to not get the access that they need so for instance, people would be going into a therapist saying, I needed a letter that says I need hormones and they would hear from their therapist things like, I don’t think you’re ready to transition or you might not be in a great place physically to transition, or you might be in a bad place locationally to transition and there’s all these walls that were being created for Trans people to get access to the things that they need, so MyTransHealth ended up calling about four hundred and eighty doctors across six cities and talking to them about how they talk to Trans people and basically we built a database of all these doctors that won’t be gatekeepers for Trans people so you’re able to just go, find a doctor, call them and then when you show up, they’ll just give you whatever you need and there’s less of a wall in between that social understanding of Trans identities are.
Gary:
So, it’s probably going to be hard for you to do this, but separating yourself out, because you know, this is also obviously something personally important to you, but let’s say you were to outsource this to a designer and to a firm to build this site. Would they have…would that firm had the same responsibility as you did, I mean, how would they handle the doctors? What would have been the real responsibility if you had to build the design and the functionality of this for an actual designer, or firm or whatever you want to call it.
Robyn:
Sure. This is my favorite question to answer because I’m a huge believer that any team building any product needs to be diverse enough in which they can see other viewpoints. MyTransHealth works because Trans people designed it and we’re able to see things that people who aren’t Trans can’t see. The people who vetted all these doctors and practitioners were Trans people who knew what it felt like to be in a room where somebody is weird so the first thing that any designer needs to do is research for a product, so if somebody who wasn’t Trans and they wanted to build this, (a) I don’t think that they would have been able to see all the things that we were able to see but, (b) if they were trying to, they would want to talk to a lot of different Trans people about the things that they need. Trans lives are inter-sexual so not only is there this idea of passing privilege for Trans people but there’s also class that comes into play, there’s race, there’s all these different elements that makes a person and it can set the constraints for how that person gets access to things and how they don’t, so it would really be on the design team to be able to talk to more than one Trans person about how they’re having difficulties; talk to a multitude. For me personally, because I knew that I was coming in with a lot of baggage on designing this product, I didn’t want to project that baggage on a lot of people. I did a couple of different things that helped me separate what I called the subjective objective.

The first thing I did is, after MyTransHealth kinda got a lot of press and we didn’t really have a product yet and I was kind of freaking out about it, I started to volunteer for a suicide helpline called Trans Lifeline and I was basically just working a day shift at New Balance and then going home and taking these calls from people across the country in a world really that were having difficult times within their lives and they were all super…kind of anonymous calls but there was a lot of the same group issues like, I don’t know where to go or I asked this one person but they didn’t help me and I’m too tired to do it again. Or, I went to this person and they said my joint pain was as a result of hormone replacement therapy, which it never would be; they were just having joint pain! So there was this entire misunderstanding of what medicine did to Trans bodies, to doctors who just weren’t up on their research when it came to it, so I kinda knew the holistic problem from that landscape. And then the other thing that we did, to launch our Kickstarter that helped fund the MyTransHealth, we did a hashtag called TransHealthFail and we had ten thousand people tweeting out their Trans Health fails, the experience of ten thousand total tweets from people who were talking about their difficulties getting access to healthcare to the point where somebody tweeted this thing about how they were in ER on a suicide…like they were on a suicide-watch for the trouble that they were having and one of the guards within the place called them a Tranny, which is really messed up, so there were all these people talking about the major issues that they were having and I was able to just dive through that Twitter hashtag and then also take everything that I knew from doing that suicide hotline and kind of separate my own personal experience with everybody else who was talking about their stuff and that helped me design a lot of the way it works right now.

Gary:
So, well, in your case, you were embedding yourself in the suicide hotline and things like that: that’s an extreme because you have to know what you’re doing in that kind of situation.
Robyn:
Yeah, no, I had to go through training to do that. I worked with a lot of people to figure out how to talk to different people and figure out how to really understand, how to validate a lot of experiences that people were having to have time with. There’s a whole training that I went through.
Gary:
But do people who…so, do designers, you know, should they embed themselves in a project like that on that kind of…well not that kind of…not on a level where it’s like life-threatening, but is part of the UX process that, I know why I’m not teaching a classroom, embedding yourself down to that level to gain empathy, to know what you’re really doing?
Robyn:
Sure. I think designers have a responsibility to the work that they’re putting into this world, so if you’re making a thing and you know it has a cause and effect on people, you really need to understand what that cause and effect is. It goes back to the end to end experience, so with MyTransHealth specifically, I know what it’s like to be at the wits of your end and basically freak out and be in a position where transitioning is a life or death thing so that is the end to end experience to me; with MyTransHealth it’s like I’m at this point where I am calling it a day and I’m going to do this one last thing before I can get access to healthcare. So if that’s my entry point, that’s how I onboard something, it totally shifts how I’m going to design something. So, do designers need to have empathy on that regard? I think so. If you’re building an app that’s talking about weather: no, probably not unless you’re figuring out where hurricanes are, but if you’re talking about a sunny day or you’re building an app that helps delivery, no, I don’t think people need to do volunteering for suicide hotlines but if you’re doing things like somebody’s main point into your site could be at that point in their life; yeah, I think you should have understanding.
Gary:
OK, so another thing that I wanted to just talk about is the Kickstarter that you did for MyTransHealth. I’m curious; the design, you had…as it relates to design, what kind of things did you do for the Kickstarter from designing the logos to the…I didn’t look…I couldn’t find…no, I didn’t look, sorry, did you give away…did you design give-aways stuff like…what did you do?
Robyn:
Sure. So, it’s a really good question because MyTransHealth is messy. As good as I feel about it right now I know the process of making that product was difficult. I know that I mostly hated making it while I was making it too, but from that Kickstarter point, basically Kade had a Google-like doc of what this site could potentially look like and we got to this place where we were like, we need funding to make this work at all, and I was living in Boston and I hopped on a bus to NYCE and I met with Annika, Amelia and Kade and we just sat down and tried to figure out what this site could like and what we needed to do and the first thing that we came up with was, OK, we need to give this thing a name and then we also need to figure out what the branding looks like and how we get people to talk about it, so MyTransHealth is named MyTransHealth because initially we were looking at how to make it like (a) a positive experience and (b) let people who weren’t Trans know that it’s not about them, so the reason why…it was initially going to be called TransHealth in general but (a) that was already incorporated and (b) that doesn’t …it doesn’t let Trans people know that it’s about them and I wanted Trans people to know, I don’t care what people who aren’t Trans think about the site, I only care about you, so that was including the word My into it. And then the actual logo itself, it’s like this H with the plus sign on it, and everything is set in this healthcare green as opposed to anything pink and blue which traditionally a lot of Trans health sites are, anything Trans related are.
Gary:
Really?
Robyn:
Yeah, so like the Trans flag is this light pink and a light blue. It’s actually the pantone colors of the year which is hilarious on a whole other level but there’s a lot of things for Trans people are set in this pink to assign female and blue to assign male and I just think that’s complicated on a binary stance so I just wanted to avoid that color scheme entirely. And I also wanted it to feel like this clean, professional website that had accountability for it, so I built it with the idea of this healthcare site in mind, which is why it’s green and it’s not pink and blue. And so yeah, the icon’s just like a plus with an H attached to it and that icon was the thing that I probably did, like, twenty different versions of what that variation would look like, I was tossing it back to like, I have this friend, Alexandrar Bond who was at Piniterest at the time and I have this friend Richie Stuart who runs this shop called Commoner, I was showing it to my art directors at Staples at the time, anyone who would look at it, it would be, what do you think of this mark? I had Jay Fanelli from Cotton Bureau look at it; I had everybody take a look at what this thing could be like and I finally got enough feedback to how I could scale this thing out onto a smaller icon on a mobile app or how it could look on a very large thing and was able to get it marked in, so once we had the mark and the MyTransHealth set out, we knew that we wanted to create a conversation around it before we started this Kickstarter, so again I hopped on a bus to New York and we met with this woman, Becca Roth, who had already filmed some stuff that was really well on the internet, really mean to queer people and she helped us out and I showed up to Kade’s apartment in Bushwick and we did this video of me talking about my experience getting healthcare and it’s like this two minute video of me talking about my difficulties and I’m looking in the screen and it’s very vulnerable and for as much as I was talking about a real life experience that I went through, I had also processed that real life experience on my own and was very much designing that moment and so we did my two minute video and we shot a few other people for the Kickstarter video and we just sent it out to press; I sent out a couple of Tweets and we had a couple of people who were working at Business Insider and Tech Crunch; here’s this thing that we’re doing, let me know if you want to cover it and they started to pick it up and Good picked it up and BuzzFeed picked it up and it’s interesting, we got to this point where enough people were talking about it that we decided to launch this Kickstarter and we had the branding materials built as far as what the design system was going to look like and I knew it was going to be very healthcare-centric with quotes from real Trans people, marking up with this H icon that I had and we just launched the Kickstarter with the video of me and a couple of videos of other Trans people and it just surprisingly did really well on the internet and I ended up taking calls from press, like, wow, on my lunch-break at New Balance with people who had no idea what I was building at the time and it was a really weird time!
Gary:
And I really like the site design in that when you…when I went and looked at it and I checked it out, I felt like I was, I don’t know, you normalized something that is normal, but you didn’t. I don’t want to say that, because it is normal. It’s not like you normalized it…
Robyn:
Totally.
Gary:
You made it approachable, like this is a matter of fact, this is just something that needs to be done.
Robyn:
Totally.
Gary:
Where instead of…I’m just actually shocked that the colors are blue and …because that’s so…I just…wow!
Robyn:
Totally. Yeah, so the reason why it’s approachable, the reason why it’s delightful is, I know where you’re coming in from; if you’re hitting that site, I know where you’re at mentally at the moment and I don’t want you to be bummed any more. I just don’t want Trans people to be bummed; that’s why the illustrations of the people, Kirk Wallace did, he’s a fantastic illustrator and I did all the iconography and all the colors are very bright and all the copy is very bright and it’s because I don’t want you to be sad any more; it’s just like I want you to get the thing that you need and get out of the experience. When we launched the marketing materials of it, I created a gif of somebody going through that experience; it’s a fifteen second long gif and in fifteen seconds it shows how somebody who’s on the verge of freaking out finds a doctor, in fifteen seconds, it’s a very short amount of time, so the entire idea was to not bog you down, make on-boarding very easy for people and just not get in your way, so it was really about creating a delightful experience.
Gary:
And it really does come across. So, one thing that you just said that I didn’t even…well, it’s not that I didn’t think about it: I think design educators should think about more is, you said the mark and you were getting advice from the mark and everybody. You also mentioned that the mark has to work as a little icon on a little social media but it also has to work across all these different things.
Robyn:
Totally.
Gary:
Can you just talk about maybe that process a little more: what should I be doing in the classroom to make students really think truly and deeply about their marks?
Robyn:
Yeah, it’s about design systems and it’s about understanding where that system could possibly be. MyTransHealth was an interesting spot because I didn’t know where that mark was going. I had that little logo thing but I didn’t really know if it was going to land in an app for mobile web or on desktop or on a large billboard and I wanted for it to be scalable. Richie taught me the quarter test which was, I think it’s the quarter or the nickel test which is basically you take a nickel and you print out your design at the size of a nickel and if it’s readable at that, you’re probably in a good place for your mark. And then from there, an accessibility of it’s readability at a small scale. Then I had to consider would it work on a billboard and I knew MyTransHealth would never be on a billboard but I also wanted to know what that would look like, so I mocked it up in a little mobile app on a nickel and I put it on a billboard in New York City and I just figured out, does this work? I never showed people that publicly but it was just me understanding from a systematic standpoint whether this design would work fluidly across a lot of different things and that was just totally the process of figuring out what scale was and figuring out where it could possibly be and just testing it and seeing what happened.
Gary:
So, my understanding of the term “design systems” is…boils down to this: in web design, you do not know what…it could grow; you need to give whatever it is you make, whether it’s a web app, whether it’s a mobile app, it doesn’t matter, you need to give it room to grow and so the design system is kind of like building that, you’re building this future flexibility, so by designing your logo and taking into consideration well yeah, it’s only going to be used on this website today, you have to then project into the future what are future uses of this, so is that an accurate description of what a design system is?
Robyn:
I mean, that’s what I’ve always considered it. The only thing that I would call out is it can grow but it also could shrink, so I guess this understanding like a lot of DC people have this idea of what their start-up’s going to do and they have their designers building these huge things and they’re really like, that could dwindle in a year, right? So by figuring out what that system does if it shrinks or it grows, that’s the fluidity for me. But from a systems standpoint, what is a design system and a brand is different than when it is in an environment is different than it is in an app or a UX experience, like when I was at Staples, my design systems that I had to do was working on this logo for … Staples Brand Group which was Staples’ main version of these things and figuring out how a little logo could work on packaging for a phone charger which is about an inch big versus how something could look in a very large print-out that people get in your mail box which could be a lot larger of a design thing, so I had to figure out how it was going to work on a grid and those experiences and how a grid could work on an inch versus how a grid could work out at seventeen inches. And then when I got to New Balance the system was, these environments were pop-up shops so if you walked into a place and a lot of the stuff that I was doing was gritty and textured for them, so, how those textures worked from place to play to place when a person’s walking through the experience and figuring out, New Balance was a lot looser and how the designs were actually created visually so, figuring out a design system didn’t mean exact…an exact experience from one panel to the next panel; it just meant that they felt the same, so I didn’t need to make sure that everything was on a grid in the exact same way but just the esthetics; it wasn’t a complete parody but you could walk through and know you were in the same experience versus when I got to UX by figuring that out, it was like, OK, it’s less about a visual element and your experience of where I’m going to go to next. If you’re training a person to go do an action sheet to do something, you need to make sure across experiences, they’re going to that same action sheet, so if you’re training them from a system standpoint of how you use your thing that you’re making for them. So the idea of a system is fluid in a lot of ways for me.
Gary:
Yeah, and that was my biggest question and difficulty when I was trying to describe the difference between a system and a branding guide to my students and I struggled with that.
Robyn:
Yeah, and it’s like it’s per case basis; if you’re in carpet versus if you’re shoes,versus if you’re doing a healthcare site, that totally shifts what a system means and there’s a really good chance that somebody in the room already knows what that answer is. For me, figuring out what it was at Staples meant that when I got to New Balance I got coffee with five different people there and I was like, what does this system mean to you? What’s your feel? And they were like, when I was working on MyTransHealth, I was able to develop that myself, so it’s a per case basis that involves figuring out what systems mean to an individual or your company.
Gary:
So, one last question before I let you go because I want to make sure you get out of here on time. Is there something I could be doing, like an exercise, or something with my students to help drive home that idea of design systems?
Robyn:
Yeah…I think that’s a really interesting question because what I would probably do is I would have them do a few different experiences; I would have them mark up a corporate experience versus a looser one versus a UX one and figure out if they could have these three different projects, if they pulled apart, really pushed back, how closely each of those systems aligned and where they differed and could you make this like a compare and contrast report based on how these systems worked together or they don’t work together. And then also, I know this doesn’t work for a lot of students but for me, it was this idea of pressure. If you’re able to talk to students about what it means to a budget and…most people’s not going to really care about your grade when you leave school, but if you have a budget, someone’s going to really care about that budget, so figuring out how students work within that, a lot of orgs will say, I have ten hours to do this, so handing this over to a designer and be like, you have ten hours to complete this task as opposed to, you have a week and maybe you can be late a couple of days and I understand…by putting that pressure on that real life scenario and be able to have that person flourish, or maybe they don’t flourish and that’s when they learn something else about how they design too.
Gary:
Yeah, that was one of the best things one of my very first professors did was, we’d come in, say OK, you’ve got forty-five minutes: do this. That’s when I did some of my best work, that was just like, man you pick an idea and you just run with it. You can’t sit there and toss it around.
Robyn:
Yeah, one of my favorite designers, Mike Monteiro, had this designer at the time, Andy, basically make a hundred banners in a day for a project and Andy’s talked about it in a couple of different conference talks but it’s like this idea of the day of a hundred banners, when Mike walked in and was just like, I’m going to make a bet with you that you can’t ship a hundred banners in a day and Andy had to figure out how to design a hundred different banners for this thing in one day and it was that pressure that was real and I love that idea.
Gary:
Yeah, we need to do more of that. So, Robyn, before I let you go, is there anything that you’re working on personally or something that you want to promote or share?
Robyn:
Sure, well I don’t know if it’s what I’m working on personally versus what every designer is working on right now? Any designer with any responsibilities to their lives, like the lives of other people around them, which is designing is political. Everything about design to me is so political and everything is design. I talk to people who do policy work all the time and I think to myself, how much design they’re actually doing, so it’s less about what I’m doing because I really don’t know what I’m doing right now: I know we just had a bad thing happen for the country and there’s a lot of people who are trying to build from scratch this idea of what they can do with the network but I would really just challenge everybody to understand the political landscape of what this world is and how they can create a conversation around it. I would be so bummed if the only thing that happens with this election result is that designers make posters and that they put them on Dribbble. That’s like the worst: don’t do that. If you’re listening to this thing right now and you’re thinking to yourself, I’m going to make a poster about political activism or whatever: don’t. Or if you make the picture, just don’t think of putting it on Dribbble which is a group of mostly cis white men designers to pat each other on the back about their vectors and immigrants are getting pushed out of their homes; Trans people are being afraid that they won’t ever be able to change their names legally; gay people are afraid to get electrocuted by the Vice President Elect. A poster on Dribbble, you’re not doing anything so don’t do that: do anything else than that. That’s what I got.
Gary:
All right, well do you have time for one final piece of advice, then I’ll have to let us go?
Robyn:
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Gary:
How do you…I think people are, in general; this is a generalization, not in disregard to the current election result, but in general I think designers get these ideas that I think were probably good but they’re just afraid to act on. How do you…do you have any advice for students; you’ve got this project, how do you…
Robyn:
How do you just get the urge to do it?
Gary:
Do it! They got the idea and how do you go through, follow through?
Robyn:
Yeah, I mean I think there’s this idea of pressure, that’s been the core thing of my entire life is I have this idea, I use this analogy of say you have a piece of wood and it’s kind of a flexible piece of wood and you can kind of bend it and it’ll wobble but it’ll mostly stay intact. For me, I love the idea of snapping that piece of wood and creating that electricity, that urge and when that happens, you feel it in yourself that you really need to ship something and just kind of power through it, so I think that designer who has an idea, they have this piece of wood and it’s a little bit wobbly but they’re really hesitant and afraid and maybe they don’t like putting things on the internet or maybe they’re concerned about their personal “brand” already and they’re afraid of putting things on but they give it from a different perspective. Would you really talk to an immigrant who’s about to get shipped out of the country and say, I was really afraid of my personal brand so I didn’t want to make this thing that could’ve helped your life. Come on! Just snap the piece of wood and do something, so I just think…as much as designers do things on screens and as much as designers do things in print, there’s an entire different understanding what design is, which is about helping people so I do, at the end of the day, I wonder how many designers didn’t talk more about this election before it happened because they were afraid somebody within their audience would respond negatively and if you take just a look back from where you are and your privilege that you have, how can you not afford to talk about it? So, create that urgency within yourself and know that you’ll hopefully be doing good work because of it.
Gary:
All right, well thank you so much for your time, I really appreciate it.
Robyn:
Yeah, thank you.
Gary:
So, that’s all we have time for on Episode 36 of Design Edu Today. I want to thank today’s guest, Robyn Kanner, 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, Digital Ocean, and CDN sponsor Fastly, for making the hosting and distribution of these podcasts possible. I also want to thank the AIGA and the AIGA Design Educators’ Community for their generous support of my research that led to this podcast series and I also want to give another shout-out to CHIEF Advertising Agency located in Washington D.C. for offering the use of their conference room for me and Robyn to record this interview: it’s greatly appreciated, thank you.

If you like this podcast, consider leaving a review for it in the iTunes Store and share it with your colleagues and friends. To discover more about the Design Edu Today podcast and read the session notes and transcripts, visit the show website at designedu.today.

To keep up with new show releases, you can follow us on Twitter @designedutoday, like the Facebook page or subscribe to this podcast through the iTunes or Google Play Store. Finally, if you’d like to suggest topics for future episodes or give feedback to help improve the show, contact me through Twitter or the show’s email address at hello@designedu.today

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