Product Tribes AMA #2 — Tanner Christensen

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This is the transcript of Ask Me Anything Session with Tanner Christensen on Product Tribes community, June 20, 2019

1. I’m super happy to have you here! Have ever done an AMA session before?

Excited to see your questions! I’ve done a few AMAs before, yes. Mostly in-person and on stage, so this is a bit of a different format.

2. What advice would you give to a recent grad designer working on enterprise products?

I’d say, spend as much time as you can on getting to know your users and digesting everything that the tool or platform touches. Because enterprise can often be very cluttered, very busy, and the real “meat” of the work comes down to solving the real problems that customers have instead of trying to impress them with really flashy graphics or animations.

If you can focus on the core of the design work — the problems and solutions — over things like graphics, you’ll actually be setting yourself up for more success in the future of your career. You’ll have a better perception of the “big picture” work.

3. What is the process and thinking when designing for something as unprecedented as autonomous vehicles?

The process is surprisingly the same as any other type of product design. We’ve got research, prototyping, testing, and fidelity stages.

What makes something like designing for autonomous vehicles different — and where our process diverges from other industries — is that we don’t have a place to look for existing insights or research. As long as someone who designs a mobile app can Google “how to make an effective list view”, we can’t just look up “How to make a car drive itself.” We spend waaaay more time in research and trying to experiment with things.

The way I think about our team is less of a “product” team and more of a research and development team. We invest more in research and experimenting than almost anything else, which also means our design team has to be already strong in the typical design areas like visuals and prototyping.

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The Creativity Challenge — book written by Tanner Christensen

4. Could you please elaborate on the testing phase. How do you test and evaluate your assumptions?

Sure, it really depends on the project and work but we test in ways most designers are already familiar with. We do lab studies where we sit people down in a room and show them concepts on paper or on a screen and watch as they try to use the designs. Or we build prototypes with Framer X or Principle and put them in front of our engineers and see how they perform.

Most of our tests are actually in production code since we have to move so quickly. We just build an MVP concept and then add analytics to see whether or not the concepts perform well and give good and high-quality results. In some cases we’ll stop people on the street and talk to them about self-driving cars. We ask them what they would hope to see, what they’re afraid of, etc.

Lastly, we test in our own little parking lot in Palo Alto, California. Where we can see how cars and interfaces play together in real-life scenarios.

5. What is the part of the design process which feels more rewarding to you and why?

For me personally I really thrive in identifying problems. My first real job was in consumer research so I’ve got this research background that I think has always been a big part of the work I do.

I’m not the best, to be honest, but that just makes the process more fun for me. I like being able to dig around a problem space, ask a lot of questions, uncover insights, and see what we can find.

6. What direction do you see product design, design in general, is heading to? As a society, we’re slowly starting to realize the power of putting people and solving their problems at the forefront, rather than attempting to pander products and services to them that they have to be convinced they need.

I think design is not going to change all that much honestly. Designers will become more aware of the impact their work has. We’ll learn better processes for conducting safer and healthier design, but we’ll also always have designers who try to game experiences or businesses that still try to do harmful work.

Designers will need to develop ways of thinking about new technologies — particularly as tech continues to integrate into every single aspect of daily life on a global scale — but that’s about it.

7. Which design processes do you and your team follow?

The design process is honestly the same as anywhere else. I think people are surprised to hear that but it’s true!

We spend a bit more time on research and iteration than most design teams I’d say though, but once we have an inclination that a design direction might be good, we prototype, conduct user research where we can, build the thing, then track analytics and iterate further.

Just because something like autonomous vehicles hasn’t really been done before doesn’t mean we need to invest more time and energy in research and looking at our own data than looking outside. But even that we do: for example we rely on looking at industries like film making (believe it or not) and banking to see what they do in terms of problems like object segmentation (i.e. rotoscoping) and tracking complex data structures across platforms.

8. What’s your stance on Product Designers having various creative interests, and sharing this on social media? Do you think this dilute their perceived expertise in a sense that others might assume them to be the “Jack of all trades and master of none”? Or how would you approach it? (Think illustrations/brandings, etc)

I’ve personally been a “jack of all trades” my entire career. I’m a published writer and write every single day in a public way. I’m an app developer and have built some fairly successful apps on my own. I also consult, do podcasting and video making, and even though I’m terrible at it I do illustrations too. My guidance is to embrace creative diversity as a designer.

Designers who only focus on one specific area or practice, suffer because they don’t have the ability to learn from other ways of thinking or working. But designers who have diverse interests can take their knowledge across practices and learn as well as experiment with them.

For example, I have adapted my design process to be very writing-oriented. I write everything down before I start designing, and it’s made my process much more concrete. But I also work with designers who are illustrators and they start their process by doodling everything down, and that enables them to see things in a messier way but more creatively… when we work together it’s like: “Oh I didn’t even think about that in that way because I was using this other way of thinking (writing or drawing).”

When it comes to talking about it or sharing diverse work or interests, I’m 100% for it as long as you can talk about it in the same context I mentioned above which is “how does it help your design practice?”.

Check out my website for examples of how I integrate all my types of practice and experience into a single portfolio of work: tannerc.com

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Wordid — quick-thinking game created and developed by Tanner

9. I’m currently doing UX work for two different platforms. With demanding deadlines and being a team of one, what is your advice on having a strategic long vision on the new features that I’m building when I don’t have the time to plan out a holistic plan for both platforms? Everything is very reactive and adhoc right now.

Are you the only designer on the projects or do you have a team to help you?Do you have a Design System in place, or at least a visual style guide that can help make your work a little easier?

If you don’t have a strategic vision for the future, you’re going to find yourself constantly running in circles because you’ll finish one task and move onto the next one only to discover later on that the first task now needs to be updated or changed, on and on the cycle goes. You have to find time to think deeply about the work and where it needs to be in 6 months or so. Of course visions change, and as you build and learn, things will evolve too, but you still need some direction of where to take the work.

I suspect your non-design partners, such as project managers, engineering managers, company leaders, already have a vision. Try to meet and partner with them to see if you can better understand those visions and set aside time, one hour a week to start with or so just to explore and try to create more concrete work around the vision.

You may also have to sacrifice some after-hours/personal time to dedicate yourself to figuring out the bigger vision and what that looks like. Hopefully not, but perhaps it’s the only way. The benefit is: investing now in painting a picture of the future means everything you do afterward is straight-forward. You know where you’re going and what you need to do.

For example, today I work on many, many projects across teams and platforms and I spent my time up-front creating a vision of the future for the teams. Now when they come to me with new requests I can say that not only have I already thought of that, but I also have a design for it. And that frees me up to continuously think about what’s next.

10. How to help the community flourish? I know you were involved in a few design communities so what would be your advice to help us, Product Tribes to be this place we all want to be a part of?

I’ve been launching and growing communities for 10 years now, believe it or not!

I started one of the biggest groups on LinkedIn (it’s now closed) when I worked for Hewlett Packard (little known fact). My advice would be to invest a lot of time and encourage members to do the same. Not only that but when members show investment, reward them for it. Celebrate members who continuously show up and try to help others.

I personally believe that the best communities are designed to lift others up and share knowledge. When we have communities filled with memes or spam, those are really fun and enjoyable but they’re not going to help anyone learn and grow.

So find ways to encourage deeper conversations. Try to kind of push back on low-quality posts and members who are part of the community only for themselves. Those people can go join any other community, what makes a community really special is when the team managing it have strong values and aren’t afraid to confront people when those values aren’t met.

11. What advice would you give to a guy who has just entered the field of digital product design?

That’s a hard question with many variables. I’ll give you one answer and if you want more specific details please just ask!

My advice would be to build as much as you can. Do personal projects, design just for fun, find people who need help and design for them, just design as much as you can. The more you build, the more you’ll learn. But I’d also say avoid redesigning existing things. You aren’t going to learn anything except how to use your tools if you redesign things.

Design your own things. But design a lot of them. Do a design a day if you need to. Focus on one thing: how can you design a single screen for store checkouts? What would you design to make a better loading indicator? Or a welcome screen? Just design as much as you can because the more you do the more you’ll learn. You don’t even need to do YouTube videos or anything like that, just build build build on your own and you’ll learn everything you need to succeed.

12. I know you can code, how important is this knowledge in daily work as a product designer?

Hah, don’t hate me but the answer is that it depends.

I really think knowing more about the world we design matters a lot. If you’re a product designer building digital products, knowing how things actually get built enables you to make smarter decisions, faster than those who don’t have any idea how the code works. It also means I can work closely with engineers, and when they push back I can say: “No, I know you can do this because I’VE DONE IT!” Haha, which has happened to me a few times.

It’s just advantageous to learn a little about programming and how the work all comes together. You know what limitations there are and what platform conventions are and why they exist. So I think if you’re a product designer, you should try to get a view behind the scenes.

Now, that doesn’t mean you have to learn how to code yourself necessarily, you just need to know some of the basics so you can understand them a little and how they relate to your work.

13. Could you tell us about your time management, how do you get so much done?

Priorities and chunking up tasks into smaller pieces. It’s actually a known psychological trick to empower creative thinking: work on more than one thing at a time, but make sure they’re different types of things.

Right this minute I’m going back and forth between answering questions here, writing a blog post, designing a project, and programming one of my apps. And little by little they start to take better forms. Little by little I can take my way of thinking about one of them into another.

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Design blog on Tanner website— https://tannerchristensen.com/blog

14. I was hoping to get your advice on career growth. Right now, I’m feeling a little stuck at my current situation and unsure of how to get out of feeling “I need to be somewhere that pushes me to grow, but I feel I don’t have anything I feel is worth adding to my portfolio to move jobs.” Would love to hear your thoughts

That’s a loaded question my friend, but thank you for asking.

Have you looked elsewhere to see what might be available? Do you have friends in places that might be able to help connect you? Do you have a manager or leader who can offer you more or different work?

If you’re concerned about adding things to your portfolio I’d say this: bring it to a community like this one and share it, ask for feedback, ask people what they would like to see or how to polish up the work. You might be surprised at the feedback.

Don’t be afraid to share your work, even if you’re not super proud of it. Communities like this one are here to help you learn and grow, so use them as a stepping stone. I know personally I’d be happy to see your work and help you put it into your portfolio or improve it!

15. You’ve worked for the most innovative companies. How do you see the future of design? How will the role of designer change? Any thoughts on AI and design?

I mentioned this in another answer here: but I don’t foresee the role of product designers changing all that much in the coming years.

Things like AI will still need product designers. The practice and process won’t really change (honestly) it’s just the end work and some of the tools will change. We’ve seen this already with prototyping tools like Framer X and now with SwiftUI from Apple: designers can do more than ever before, but the process for getting the work from concept to execution is still the same. We still need to do research, wireframe, conceptualise, test, and iterate.

16. What would be the one thing you would like to share to fellow designers on Product Tribes?

I like this questions! I would say: I hope we can make this a community of people who want to seriously help each other. Not just to get something out of it for individuals but to level-up everyone here.

Share more of what you learn, share interesting things, don’t just ask for a job or ask for feedback, — give feedback and share the jobs you find! The more you invest in the community, the more you’ll find the community invests back in you.

Join Product Tribes — community of experienced product designer, managers and developers.

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