We’re stewards, not owners: User experience and open source

I work at a relatively large organization. There are many divisions and teams, and products within the larger product. At this organization, I design for people using these products.

To add another layer of complexity, the products we design and build are open source. This means that beyond the end users of the product, merchants and shoppers, there’s an ecosystem of store builders and extension developers who influence how the products are built.

Not only can we not assume knowledge of user needs, but we also can’t assume knowledge of the needs of these developers. We’re stewards, not owners of the experience. This relates to actual design work, but also designing within an organization.

Your team doesn’t know everything

It’s easy to get into the habit of feeling “ownership” of your particular area. For example, I work on a team that builds payments experiences and I might start to feel responsible for knowing every feature or experience that’s needed for users. I may start to feel I know this better than other teams at the organization.

However, everyone in the organization and larger open source ecosystem owns the user experience just as much as we do, and no one owns it more than the users themselves.

In my experience as a consultant for large enterprise companies like Experian, IBM, and Ericsson, the first thing I did was draw an org diagram of who are the key stakeholders and who needs to have awareness of our work. This helped our teams to understand who to involve in any of the bigger project decisions, and to make sure to tap into all existing institutional knowledge.

Perils of team silos

My first project at WooCommerce was a huge failure. When I started back in mid-2019, our focus was on order management. Specifically expanding and improving upon the order status system. After 6 months of design work, a technical research spike concluded that these changes would have catastrophic effects on the platform and the project was killed.

What happened there? First of all, I wasn’t comfortable using my previous experience as a guide as I was navigating this new organization. (That’s on me, and for another post.) Most importantly, we didn’t socialize the early stage work and start collaboration early enough with engineering.

Other unfortunate circumstances that can happen as a result of team silos.

  • An entire project team not knowing whether other teams have already tried what they’re doing, or potentially already designed or built it.
  • A division repeating the work of another division, learning in the same way, potentially failing in the same way. Or succeeding in the same way but taking 4 times as long as they could have with awareness of the historical work.

Overall, lots of wasted time. Besides the loss of roadmap time and people hours, why else is this important?

Each team’s work impacts the customer experience

Conways law states that organizations create software that reflects their internal organization. With many teams working in silos across an organization, this creates many conflicting experiences that impact the user experience.

At an open source company, the ecosystem of developers that create our extensions also create the image of our organization. The software that exists today is a reflection of the entire open source ecosystem that the company relies on.

This is a tough problem to solve without a top down product led approach to software. Some ways to improve the fragmentation include the following.

  • Encouraging open dialogue and collaboration among teams, actively discouraging signs of territoriality.
  • Starting to intertwine narratives between products.
  • Leadership can regularly create opportunities for cross-team collaboration in the form of workshops, making connections, and demos.
  • Bring the whole team into the ideation phase. I love hearing engineers talking about the ideas they proposed during brainstorming sessions.
  • Building in APIs or other means for teams to take advantage of your work. This also means sometimes sacrificing ease of development for focusing on the goal of larger cohesion.
  • Implementation of a design system with a dedicated design systems team.
  • Lastly, everyone could think of our product as a holistic service. We need a holistic vision of the product, thinking of it as a connected experience rather than a series of experiences with different owners. It’s like how we have a belief in democracy, it just needs to be ingrained in our psyche.

All of these ideas are just the tip of the iceberg. I’m facilitating a workshop at our upcoming division meetup on this topic, and I’m so looking forward to hearing everyone’s thoughts.

Solving for the right thing

Curse of knowledge

After 15 years of working as a designer, I can sometimes use my gut instinct to say what I think is best for users. However, I can never assume that I have all the knowledge of what users really need. Most of the time my experience actually takes me further away from that clarity. This is the curse of knowledge, and a trap for product development.

UX theater

Here’s another trap that I see designers falling into. There’s an experienced leadership team who specifies a particular solution. As designers, we want to do our due diligence to “test” this solution, so we do a round of research to validate the existing idea.

Do you see the issue here? We don’t know the problem, nor do we understand if the problem is important enough to be solved. We also don’t know if this particular solution is the best way to solve said (unknown) problem.

I’ve seen teams try to back into the problem to solve, after starting to build a solution. Once a feature is being built, we say, “Here’s why we’re building this.” Designers try to validate the time they’re spending on it by creating the problem to solve out of thin air.

This problem of “UX Theater” is articulated well in this article by Jesse James Garrett, co-founder of Adaptive Path. Organizations can easily use UX testing alongside their confirmation bias to falsely prove the need for certain features.

Much research and investigation needs to be done to understand the why, to be able to articulate the why to internal project teams, stakeholders, and the community, and to understand all risks and dependencies.

How much research?

Just enough. Just enough to not fall into the trap of only validating existing ideas. Just enough to find out what do people actually need.

Open source presents an even greater challenge in this regard. We truly are the facilitators of a project that the community shares. This means listening to the community, but understanding that the loudest voices shouldn’t necessarily have more influence than others.

We don’t have anyone with the title “research” at my company. When you’re working in a lean research environment such as this, the most important part of research is establishing your goals, hypotheses, and who to talk to. Getting the right people to talk to, i.e. quality is more important than the quantity of research.

It takes time, and that’s ok

It may be anxiety-provoking to not be churning out features at a steady clip. The risks of churning out features far outweigh the rewards, however. Moving fast on unvalidated ideas that users don’t need leads to wasted time and reverted code. If the feature is left in the product with no measurements for success, it’s like a potentially useless appendage taking up space and adding clutter to the UI.

There’s great power in grounding business decisions in real human needs. Products develop faster, are better quality, and the whole team is more fulfilled because they understand the Why behind what they’re building.

Some possible activities to discover needs and craft your Why.

  • Hire research experts and give them free rein to do their thing. One of the most inspiring talks I’ve seen was Indi Young at An Event Apart in San Francisco. She is the OG researcher, and her book Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behavior is the foremost authority on this topic. I wish everyone would read this book as the methodology truly gets to the heart of defining the problem to solve.
  • Encourage research best practices for self serve models within the organization. If research conducted within the organization is ineffective, there will continue to be no business reason for it.
  • Show what might happen if you don’t spend the time defining the problem. Conduct a pre-mortem for the kickoff of large projects and let everyone in the project team share their thoughts on how the project might fail. Harvard Business Review recommends taking time for this step in the process to mitigate risk of failure.
  • Any of the activities contained in the IDEO design kit. My favorites include the Journey Map and the Five Whys.

Those are a few thoughts on how begin aligning user needs with the business strategy, but this work needs to happen alongside integrating more UX metrics and user-centered KPI’s into the organizations’ objectives.

Designing an open system

In the past 4 years, I’ve learned what it’s like to be a designer at an open source software company. I’ve learned to consider extensibility with every design decision, which means asking the question “How will our network of extension developers take advantage of the new experience?”

In recent years we designed WooCommerce Home with three extensibility points: The Inbox for informational messages, a Task list for the sole purpose of extension developers (including our WooCommerce-owned extensions) being able to surface important notices for merchants in the admin, as well as another area for store management links.

This is the new Javascript layer of the product so there were very few extensions already integrating with the new UI, but design decisions were made with them in mind.

When working on a redesign of any legacy area of WooCommerce admin, there’s a literal minefield of extensibility points to consider.

When you don’t even know what you don’t know

There are times when we know what we don’t know. Then there are times like this, when we’re creating designs for a platform that can be extended with little regulation, when we literally don’t know what we don’t know.

Here are some ideas for making this process easier, and making the case for a redesign more palatable.

  • Run an audit of every extension that could possibly plug into this area, and create journey maps to illustrate how the UI is adapted for their specific purpose.
  • Connect with extension devs to learn their needs and pain points, alongside the builders and merchants who we tend to place more focus on.
  • Keep a running list of most popular extensions and always incorporate their needs into design decisions.

It takes hard work and a growth mindset to truly listen to these internal and external voices, to be more of a “steward” for the experience. I’m in the process of learning and find it helpful to organize my thoughts on this topic. I hope this can be a useful guide for others.

How to be a better designer, Part 1: Consequences of social media algorithms

I’ve been meaning to write this post on the consequences and power of data, and reflecting on what power we have as designers to make things better. It’s becoming more clear as time goes on, some of the things we design (or technologies we facilitate with our design) related to our work on certain platforms is more dangerous than we may realize. There are structures we’ve helped build that need to be reevaluated immediately.

I’m also well aware that I’m probably preaching to the choir, I don’t know how to escape the echo chamber.

A political interlude

I reported a tweet for the first time recently. I categorized it as “abusive or harmful”, and “threatening violence or physical harm”. It was one of a series of tweets from the United States President, calling for the “liberation” of states who are imposing stay at home orders during a global pandemic. The tweet, and his many tweets and statements since, are protected under the guise of free speech.

Parler is (or was) an app used by right-wing groups because they’re able to share violent, racist, and misogynist views and strategies under the guise of “free speech”.

Using the cover of free speech to endanger people’s lives is not what our founders had in mind when drafting the Bill of Rights.

To be clear, I believe in the concepts of freedom and liberty and the fact that our country was founded on those principles above all. However, I believe these principles alongside the belief that we’re all equal despite race, color, or gender. I believe in nonviolence and diplomacy, and I have faith in our democracy. I believe everyone should have the same opportunities to succeed in the United States, just as my parents did coming from a humble Italian-American upbringing in the Bronx.

Makes you wonder how the hell we got here, doesn’t it. We’ve now had our first social media president. There are a lot of factors that manifested the outgoing US President and other populist figures cropping up around the world, but it’s the first time we’re seeing the power of machine learning working towards lifting these figures up and amplifying their voices.

The real problem

This isn’t a political post, however. I’m writing this because I’m worried about AI, and have been for a while. Mostly because of the black and white nature of corporate objectives, and the dangers of using algorithms to achieve them. And I’m worried that designers working on these platforms may not recognize or feel the power to voice their concerns about the consequences of certain actions.

As Jaron Lenier talks about in Ten arguments for deleting your social media accounts right now, the main objective of companies like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube is engagement (people viewing, clicking, and interacting on these platforms). These companies sell ads and data. Facebook advertisers will pay more money if there’s more people to see those ads, and more data means more profit for Twitter.

So, similar to the Facebook algorithm, Twitter’s algorithm prioritizes posts based on what they think people want to see. What causes the most rage tends to get a lot of people engaging with it, which means hate speech and just quite frankly a-holes on these platforms get more views and priority in the algorithm. One of Lenier’s reasons for deleting your social media accounts is that “it will turn you into an asshole”. At the very least this system rewards bigotry and reinforces this behavior.

I deleted my Facebook account in a rage in 2019. Mainly over their disregard for our privacy and ignorance of the proliferation of hate speech and fake news on the platform. It’s reassuring to see that they’ve recently taken steps towards limiting dangerous content, but it’s so far from being enough.

It’s not all bad. There are many wonderful consequences of social media, but the business model inherent to these platforms guarantees that the problem will not go away.

So what can we do

There’s a recent “The Daily” episode (a New York Times podcast) that interviews one of the creators of the YouTube algorithm, Guillome Chaslot. He thinks he got fired from Google because he was spending too much time on his side project, which was to improve the YouTube algorithms to present content that would improve human life rather than presenting the same things over and over.

His current project is a bot that analyzes the opaque YouTube algorithm to surface the most recommended videos overall. After a quick look, most of the top videos were right wing or super religious zealots. Must be why there are countless stories like this one of Americans being radicalized by the platform.

I’m using this example as someone with a lot of courage to risk his job in order to make the world better. We’re not all in a position to be able to do that, but there’s more power if everyone has the courage to call out what’s wrong together. Then companies will know there won’t be any complacent designer out there to replace you.

Alongside Lenier and Chaslot, how could we re-architect the algorithms or business goals so that society-centered voices and truth were amplified instead?

We’ve all seen The Social Dilemma by now and these realizations are starting to become more mainstream, but designers of these platforms have an outsized responsibility. We have more power than we realize, and we should focus on solutions rather than designing anything that could make this mess of a situation any worse.

Design, cooking, and frameworks for creativity

I’ve had to think about my ideation and design process a lot lately, transitioning from a background of customer-centered product design to tech companies that are more driven by engineering. How does design work in these environments?

Also, during the recent extensive time at home I’ve managed to cook a lot of meals. I had an aha moment this weekend where I realized that a design process is similar to a cooking process. Hear me out on this one.

With cooking, you start with the goal (eating, most likely), then sometimes have a very strict plan where you buy all the exact ingredients you need, then use all the exact measurements to create the recipe. Other times with cooking you wing it, using the framework you’ve learned over the years as a guide and whatever ingredients are left in the fridge. With the strict process, you’ll have a predictable result. You also have more chance of success. But sometimes you can wing it and come up with something wonderful and unexpected.

With design, you start with your goal (usually from a business need) and can either follow a very strict process where each step is specified and measured out, or you can use a loose framework of data and instinct to lead you towards a result. The latter is where we are currently on my team, with a rough idea of design activities but none are required or established as a process to follow in any particular order.

I will point out that it’s a privilege to have the autonomy to create my own process, and it’s prompted me to look deeply into what I’ve always believed to be the “right” way to design, or the correct process that will produce the results we need.

Here are the parts of the framework that I employ in my design process, using the double diamond framework as a guide.

The double diamond – Discovery and tactical phases of a product design process

Question the premise (The discovery phase)

Sometimes you have clear business goals, and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes those business goals don’t make sense. As always, if you’re not clear about the “why”, be sure to get clarity. A better question gets a better answer. This clarity opens up the potential for a lot of creativity, and the ability for people to ideate within those constraints.

This thought experiment is about questioning the premise. Look at the thinking that led your team to this business goal, evaluate whether there are underlying assumptions that need to be teased out and validated. Always reframe the problem.

Here’s an example. Look at these two questions:

  • “What is the sum of 5 plus 5?”
  • “What two numbers add up to 10?”

The first question only has one answer, while the second has an infinite number of solutions (including negative and decimal numbers.) Changing the frame can drastically change the range of possible solutions.

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first fifty-five minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

So how can we translate that to an actionable process for our team?

  1. Ask why, then ask why again. and a third time. Use The Five Whys technique where it’s applicable.
  2. Research. Talk to everyone involved. Stakeholders, customers, people on other teams, etc. Ask questions that will validate or invalidate the original hypotheses.
  3. Look at the competitive landscape. What are other companies doing? What are opportunities in the current environment that might change our perspective?
  4. Summarize raw findings and cluster into themes
  5. Find insights and build opportunity areas, create How Might We… questions

Insights are the dormant truth about a customer or potential customer’s motivations or frustrations on a topic, and opportunity areas are markets, tactics, audiences, or features where we can take action. The How Might We… questions turns those insights and opportunities into tangible statements of what can be done or solved within that area of action.

In much the same way that you’d look at the ingredients in a recipe with curiosity – why did they say to add maple syrup to the tahini? I remember another recipe where sriracha was way better here – “tear up” the design brief with the same informed, creative, and thoughtful judgement.

As a designer it might be easy to skip this step, but it’s our job to create a solution. If the business goal is fundamentally flawed, that’s a lot of wasted time spent designing a perfect solution for a flawed premise. Don’t skip this step.

Salt, fat, acid, heat (The tactical phase)

This is my favorite cooking framework, coined by chef Samin Nosrat on her gorgeous Netflix show. These four components are essential to any great-tasting meal, although they don’t guarantee one.

The design components that are essential to any great solution for me are data, gut feeling/vision, and empathy. Data being what we know about the landscape and quantitative assessment of our users/potential customers, gut instinct being what we know to be good design, and empathy being the ability to put yourself in others’ shoes and change your perspective to understand how the customer might use your product.

This article about moving from data-driven to data-informed design by the Head of Design at Atlassian really resonates with me.

Even if you don’t have a design process chiseled in stone, using these three components in your tactical design cycles will create learnings to base future decisions on. A clearly defined and proven product development process will decrease risk and likely increase your team’s chances of success, however.

The following actionable steps can be done as as individual designer, or as part of a workshop or design sprint. It feels like there’s an opportunity in that moment of ideation, where having multiple voices can lead to more potentially viable solutions and greater buy-in from across the organization.

That said in an organization that’s free from the needs of stakeholder alignment, if it’s a choice of planning a design sprint vs coming up with the solution yourself, the latter is more lightweight.

  1. Sketch and ideate. Expand the possibilities before you narrow them down with reality.
  2. Simplify. Narrow down the ideas to what is the smallest thing you can do to achieve the biggest value.
  3. Storyboard. Walk through the user journey from beginning to end. Understand context and purpose.
  4. Prototype. Make the idea as real as possible.
  5. Test. Put the fleshed out idea in front of people and see how it solves their problems.

Similar to when you try a new recipe, now you’ve tested or released a new feature and can iterate on it the next time based on how it turned out.

Using technology to connect us with shopping IRL

Some context: I designed an app a little while back that connect you with points of interest around the city, and you could follow different paths based on your location and interests. Although there’s a lot of talk about how much technology disconnects us from the world around us, I’ve always been fascinated by the ability of technology to connect us with our surroundings. While working at Saks Fifth Avenue I did some thinking about how this can be applied to retail and there are so many exciting opportunities in this space (in an industry that really could use the help).

It’s no secret that retail companies are having their challenges at the moment. There are literally thousands of store closings planned for the near future across the United States, while dystopian images of half-darkened or fully abandoned malls haunt our collective psyche.

Sometimes it takes going through the hardest times to really learn and grow. It takes some soul-searching, and getting to the heart of what stores are good for, and delivering that value for customers in a new way. And fortunately, there are some really exciting new technologies that companies are using to leverage the power of the retail experience.

So what are stores good for — instant gratification of walking out with products in your hands, or the conversation with helpful store associates? Or in the case of one Saks Fifth Avenue customer I spoke to, a blissful and luxurious suspension of reality while exploring the store on a lunch break. At risk of over-simplifying, you might say that it’s the connection with people and a sense of place that differentiates physical stores from the e-commerce experience.




There are a few different technologies that have potential to re-imagine the retail experience and connect physical and digital in a meaningful way.

NFC (Near-field communication) is how Apple/Android pay works. It’s when two electronic devices establish communication by bringing them within 4 cm of each other.

Beacons transmit data to and from other devices through Bluetooth. For example, when you enter a store you could get a push notification of something you recently viewed online with a discount code and the item’s location in the store. The store associate for that department could get notified at the same time and offer assistance through the app before or after the purchase.

RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags transmit information to an RFID reader (an NFC enabled device), and have traditionally been used in tracking inventory movements and delivering insights automatically.


  Oak Labs  provides smart mirrors for a magical fitting room experience
Oak Labs provides smart mirrors for a magical fitting room experience


What some companies are doing now

  • The changing room mirrors at Rebecca Minkoff give customers the ability to view suggestions based on what they brought in, add or change items by summoning an associate, and of course order champagne. Similarly at Burberry, RFID tags are used to bring up information about each garment and a video of the item on the runway.
  • In the dressing room at some of their retail outlets in China, Alibaba’s Fashion AI uses deep learning to access massive amount of data and make “smart” suggestions to customers based on what they’re trying on. These in-store technology advancements are not just for novelty, they have a lot of potential for a more seamless in-store experience and a boost in sales. Seriously though, trying on clothes sucks, so anything that these companies can do to improve the experience is welcome.
  • Also with their new Hema stores and app, Alibaba is making a huge investment in the future of retail and bridging the physical and digital divide. Shoppers use the barcode scanner in the Hema app to research products and see similar recommendations in the store, as well as suggestions based on your purchase history. Then they have an easy checkout process with Alipay, which is linked to the customer’s account in the Hema app. There’s also an Instacart-like service where shopping can scurry around scanning and gathering your items for you for delivery within thirty minutes.
  • In an attempt to make food shopping completely seamless, Amazon just opened their Seattle Amazon Go store to the public. Here customers can use their smartphone to check in to the store, pick up their items and leave the store without ever going through the checkout process. Amazon hasn’t shared details on the “Just Walk Out” technology, but it sounds like a mix of sensors and cameras from above, machine learning algorithms and image processing technology. Amazon has said that it’s some of the same techniques used in self-driving cars.

Other retail innovations worth mentioning include streamlining inventory and store systems (Reformation), super innovative product launch strategies (Nike), and creating engaging experiential destinations (Google).

What I’d love to see

Ok, so I tested Google Glass for a hot minute in 2014, and there was one app that got me really excited. Field Trip provided a contextual layer to what you’re experiencing in real life. Ask Google to “explore nearby” and it provides nearby attractions and restaurants along with details from categories like history, art, architecture and food. I was obsessed with the possibilities. Another Google initiative was Art Project, where art enthusiasts could experience high resolution tours of some museums and galleries using street view technology.

Applied to retail, this could become a personalized experience for wearables or devices, leveraging AR that connects you with points of interest in the store. It could be a handy visual tour guide letting you take advantage of all the store has to offer. Depending on your location or interests you could follow a new path to learn more about the products around you. Or delve deeper into the online catalog if what you need isn’t physically there. Could see this working as a pretty cool VR experience as well, but of course you wouldn’t need the physical store for that one.




New technologies that connect customers with the store associate, or that gives us a new, more informed and contextual experience of a place, will amplify the in-store experience and could bring new and returning customers through the doors again. Not only that, once automated systems are integrated into the store’s sales cycle, they can collect data to provide future data driven decisions and deliver more value to customers.

It’s about making people feel like the phone in our hand is connecting us in a meaningful way with the store experience, not keeping us separate.

Rethinking Retail: 4 Opportunities to Upgrade the Associate Experience

At HBC Tech, one of the company’s current initiatives is to bridge the divide between the physical and digital experience. Saks Fifth Avenue has a considerable network of retail locations throughout the US, and our goal is to use technology to entice more people into these stores. More specifically, one initiative focuses on connecting new and existing Saks customers with our style professionals on the retail floor.

How does the design team go about tackling this challenge? The first thing we do is map out the full customer journey from beginning to end – device-agnostic, channel-agnostic. We create a view of the distinct elements that make up the customer journey, in order to devise an approach to provide a better experience for each one. Research helps to inform the customer journey – for this initiative we’ve conducted many customer and Associate interviews in order to get to the heart of their challenges and how we can help.

We have two types of customers to design for in this case – the Associate who works in the retail store and provides styling advice to the customer, and the Saks customer themselves. There are a few points in the journey where these two users intersect.

Customers may have an event coming up that they need to dress for, or they might be looking for that impossible-to-find Fendi backpack. They might deep down really want a new fashionable friend that they can get advice from on the daily. In these moments, they will be more likely to reach out to a retail Associate for help.

Associates are style professionals who thoughtfully build their client book month after month and meticulously style and assist their regular clients. They want to provide the best possible service to Saks customers and drive sales. There are some common challenges that came up again and again in the interviews, and design can help to solve some of them.

These are four core opportunities to make the retail associate workflow more seamless, structured and analytical.

1. One view of the customer

Visibility into the customer’s previous orders, style affinities, brands they follow, sizes and online activity will give Associates the information they need to provide the best advice to customers. Most importantly, Associates need to be able to access this information on their personal devices as customer requests don’t stop after business hours.

Our developers are hard at work building an Insights Dashboard that will provide this critical view using personalization to deliver even more value to the customer. With their new Hema stores and app, Alibaba is making a huge investment in the future of retail and bridging the physical and digital divide. Shoppers use the Hema app to learn about products in the store, while the algorithms offer suggestions based on customer purchase history.

2. Client acquisition

Associates need to have the ability to accept digital leads in one system — the same system that they add new clients to that they meet in the store. We want to provide as much information about the customer up front to allow them to successfully work with the customer.

We’re launching a new way for customers to onboard with a stylist in the Saks app soon, however to scale the styling service, we’re also talking about automation. Some companies are turning to chatbots to help customers narrow down their requests before connecting with a styling professional. This boosts the efficiency of customer service for companies, while also potentially leading to a more accurate match with a stylist.

3. Inventory

Visibility into online and in-store inventory is a must. It should be clear to Associates what they can pull from the store racks vs what they need to send a link to online. This visibility should extend to other store locations and beyond. What if there were even further transparency of global inventory levels of a product? This would benefit customers as they could find anything they’re looking for through Saks stores, and it would benefit associates by boosting sales.

Reformation uses a streamlined showroom concept to engage customers with their brand. Instead of rummaging through racks of clothes to find their size, customers choose the items they want and they or the store Associate adds that item to the fitting room via an app which connects with the stock room in the back. The customer magically finds their chosen garments in the fitting room once they are ready.

4. Automation

Store associates don’t have time to sift through inventory to provide personalized recommendations to each of their clients, or to personally get to know each new customer coming through the doors. They need insights regularly delivered to them that they can take immediate action on. For example, suggestions for follow up, new arrivals, upcoming events, or personal notes that can be searched and added to tasks. Machine learning can be implemented with product recommendations at the customer level as well as at the group level of customers with similar affinities.

Perhaps most importantly, ideally all of these activities would exist in a unified stylist tool. We should provide a seamless integration of their CRM tool and point of sale so that associates can checkout a customer and add notes to follow up efficiently without switching between systems.

After more than 30 interviews with our Saks Fifth Avenue retail associates, these opportunities to improve their experience became quite clear. Some of these challenges are beyond design, but through workshops, research and iteration, we can help identify the priorities for business, product and all other teams involved.

Associates are our customers too. They are the thread that ties together all of the services offered by Saks, and they represent the brand. We should be doing everything in our power to make their lives easier and nurture their client relationships.  


Notes on Creativity and Originality in Digital Product Design

Designers are extremely creative people, but the design of websites and digital products is becoming less and less so. And it’s not just because of responsive web design. I’ve been thinking about why this is happening, and in my research for a new platform I’m building, I asked many designers their opinions on the topic.

Silicon Valley culture is infiltrating into basically every other tech centre throughout the world, and most of the product people there tend to focus less on the brand in favor of building the magic combination of elements to go viral organically. However, the current design of web apps is a sea of same-ness, mainly inspired by whatever Silicon Valley startup is most successful at the moment.

I, like many a designer before me, have used Airbnb as a reference for my projects, particularly when I have a deep hierarchy of data that requires a great filter. They’ve done it really well, but rather than solving the problem exactly the way folks have done before, what is a new way to solve the problem? If we always follow what’s been done before, all of our work will look the same.

Material Design aims to create consistency among Google products (emphasis on GOOGLE products, not everyone’s products) and while they’re doing some great work in behaviors and animations, the misconception is that the entire Internet should copy their styles. People have asked me, ‘Can you ‘do’ Material Design?’, but it’s not a new skill that designers need to learn, it’s a framework that a private company has built for their own use, and to emphasize that they are a force to be reckoned with in design. (Success on that front, by the way)

The most important thing as designers is that we think about why Google has created this for their own products, and the implications of bringing elements of the new system in your own practice. Is it relevant to your audience, and does it fit with the brand or product you are currently designing for? There are certainly bits and pieces that I find quite useful in my work (The floating action button — ‘FAB’, I love).

Here are some thoughts on maintaining originality and inspiration in your life as a digital product designer, UX designer, visual designer or however you define your role. These points aim to address some of the problems I’ve faced and hopefully offer advice so that others don’t fall into the same traps I have at times.

1. What is your Concept?

Have a concept for what you’re creating — and make it important. This will be the current that your design work can flow on and it will keep you going in a strong direction.

There is always a cultural and historical component to our work, whether we are conscious of it or not, and we could push ourselves more to think about why we are building something a certain way, what influences those decisions and how it affects/is affected by the world around us.

Research-based UX practitioners like to see designers following best practices as there are ideal patterns and flows that make a website easier to use. By talking to users we’re giving more value to the design process through validation, but the recommendations can become quite prescriptive. We need to balance listening to users with also NOT listening to users, and allowing ourselves to follow creative direction.

2. Write your own Design Principles

There is a lot of noise out there, and it’s easy to get distracted by the loudest voices rather than your own. Especially the people saying designers “should” do this or “shouldn’t” do that (ha! kind of what I’m doing here). Truth is, we’re creative people and creativity is as complex as humans are, and there are multitudinous ways we can make and interpret our work.

People have also asked me what design programs do you use, expecting an absolute answer. To be honest, I am completely software agnostic. There are aspects of Illustrator I prefer massively to Sketch, and there are aspects of Keynote that I prefer to Illustrator. Design is design. The tool is simply a means to achieve your goals, is does not constitute the design itself.

Similarly, the ‘designers should code’ argument is not so black and white. It doesn’t matter whether designers should or shouldn’t code, it matters that designers should THINK. Think about what our work is being used for, and for whom, and how it is being built. If we are building it ourselves, all the better.

Check out my design principles here, and feel free to steal them.

3. Get a Seat at the Table

User experience design does infuse more meaning into the superficialities of the recently created field of ‘visual design’, but some larger organisations have siloed these roles, which is an inefficient way of working and mostly creates cookie-cutter layouts. Many visual designers I’ve spoken to tend to feel that they are forced into ‘colouring in the boxes’.

If your organization is siloed like this, aim for a seat at the table well ahead of any strategic or UX decisions. That way you can help to craft a concept, a brand and a personality from day one. The ideal would be to have complete ownership of the design process and to see the big picture, even at larger organisations and agencies, as this will encourage more unique and culturally relevant websites and products.

That said, if you want a seat at the table, know exactly what role you want to have at that table. Thinking like a strategist is something that product designers are expected to do, and while it is important to incorporate business goals into your design work, be careful to maintain your imagination in the process.

4. Create space for yourself

There is a bit of grumbling about Dribbble, as a platform too focused on aesthetics with very little focus on how the websites are being used. I say, why not allow designers the space to create? Even if it’s a fictional product that is completely unusable, if it allows the designer to stretch their imagination then it can be a good thing.

Web design doesn’t feel like very creative work most of the time. A lot of designers I’ve spoken to need a strong creative outlet outside of their web design work, especially those that work directly with developers or directly in code.


  My process, in a nutshell
My process, in a nutshell

Creativity is the process of making something from nothing. While business and user goals can be quite quantitative, it is much more difficult to define the value of the design phase. It may be that the design work is what keeps web and product design a creative act, and if so, conceptual thinking and imagination should be valued above all during this phase.

If you find yourself short on time to make really great work, your team needs to know that. Give yourself space for creativity, and the originality and quality of our web products will benefit immensely.

Originally published on the Ladies That UX blog

The Earliest Stage of a Startup: Finding Your Purpose

  Bye Tomorrow and Today as we know it! We sent 35 newsletters like this, with five handpicked art and design events around London.
Bye Tomorrow and Today as we know it! We sent 35 newsletters like this, with five handpicked art and design events around London.

Something I’ve always found useful is documenting my process and publishing it. It allows me to follow the thread of ideas and crucial areas to return to (or to let go).

I’ve been working for nine years and freelancing for five of those (counting two years in grad school), so I’ve had a wide variety of experience in many different working environments, working alongside stellar creative directors, designers and product people. I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from the agile product design agencies I’ve worked for and incorporated it into my design practice. Most recently I’ve put everything I’ve learned in my life to the test, as I build the product I’m working on now.

I wanted it to be the first cultural events platform that people actually use, and rely on regularly. My main goal was to connect the creative life of the community with the people who live there; to learn something about a building you walk past every day and have it completely transform your experience of that place. Also to help artists and designers get their work out to a wider audience, and support the work of people who are doing good in the community.

During the past two months, I’ve gone on a little journey with finding the identity of the business, as the cultural discovery direction wasn’t as successful as I would have hoped. I had decided to focus on events as a tangible outcome of the creative work of the community, however focusing on events is very time consuming with little return.

Two reasons why this didn’t work:

1. Too local

The events were focused in London, which is not useful for people outside of the city. The amount of work involved to build the same service in other cities is not sustainable in the long-term.

2. Short shelf-life

Also, a lot of our content (in the newsletter and blog) was fleeting and only relevant for a short period of time, which doesn’t build a base of evergreen content for people to come back to reference again.


The new direction I’m going in is a process-driven platform focused on designers and artists who are solving big problems in the world. It’s for people who are interested in how stuff gets made. It has much greater potential for scale as its globally relevant, and will contain entirely evergreen content. So this ‘pivot’ aims to solve the problems of my last attempt.

A friend of mine asked me last night, how did I know that it was time to ‘pivot’? I realized there is a lot to that question that might be useful for people working on their own ideas. I launched the Tomorrow and Today newsletter in November 2014, while working full-time at Adaptive Lab. I decided to focus my efforts full-time to building the platform for T&T as I had established a goal of 10,000 users by July 2015 (not ‘S.M.A.R.T.’, but that’s for another article).

Unfortunately, the developers I had lined up to build the back-end fell through back in April/May of this year. While I saved a ton of money, this was the death-knell for my lofty goal.

In a simple twist of fate, around this time I had been working alongside Jenny of Art Map London, helping her with user research for their site redesign. I had been really focused on the art world (obsessed in fact, and still am), but I realized that while I know a lot about art, I know a lot more about design.

Two things that are essential for any entrepreneur to answer are, 1. What can I offer the world? and 2. What does the world need? I realized that I could offer insight into the world of design, especially with a cross-disciplinary focus bringing in my passions for art and architecture. As well, there is not much out there specifically for designers, while the number of digital products for the art world increases exponentially every year.

This is when I decided to do the research project, 25 Coffees with 25 Designers (in 25 Days), which has given me a lot of faith that I’m now going in the right direction.



I did a Google Campus pre-accelerator program in Autumn last year, and one of the workshops that stuck with me was with Amelia from Steer. She recommended finding people and organisations that share your ideological goals and create partnerships with them. For example, starting with identifying influencers on social media, and starting to build relationships in that way.

I’ve spent a lot of time doing this. And I can say that while this was a great learning experience, we have now built up relationships with London-based galleries that will probably not find the new Tomorrow and Today direction super useful. However, I have faith that the work of the past six months has been critical to building the base for the direction we’re going in now.

So during this process, I’ve gained a new perspective on creating a winning strategy and hiring a team, and I appreciate with new eyes the challenges of the startup clients I’ve worked with in the past.

I also realise you need someone else there who shares your goals and reminds you of priorities. You can’t do it all alone. As a designer my main goal is to build something useful, beautiful and engaging — now I’d like to find a team who’s as passionate about the idea as I am to move the business to the next level.

Tomorrow and Today is on Medium, Twitter, and Instagram. And you can sign up for the newsletter (reboot) here.

Design Principles [WIP]

AKA a (trying not to be douchey) design manifesto for myself while designing for the Internets.


It’s not about what program you’re using, it’s about the message you’re trying to communicate. Choose the tool that satisfies your objectives. 


Form follows function.


It’s not about whether designers should code, or whether everything should look like Material Design, it’s about whether designers should think. We need to think about the platforms where our work lives, how it’s developed and how it’s deployed.


Think about what are the cultural and historical references to the work you’re creating. Think about why you are building something a certain way and what influences those decisions.

Gray areas

We need to have space for lateral thinking. There aren’t too many concrete answers, things are amorphous and we must be comfortable in that. There is no black and white in design.

Thinking 3-dimensionally

Much design pedagogy comes from industrial design. In the meantime, while user experience and digital product design catches up, these are the pillars we use. It makes a lot of sense that as web design practitioners we should think three-dimensionally. When you’re navigating through a website, there are many similarities to navigating through architecture. Sometimes you don’t mind being lost, and sometimes you need the signs to guide you. Create frameworks that provide structure and a reference point for visitors, but that also leave room for interpretation.

Explaining our Work – Three zoom levels

All the way out for strategy to pitch our work, medium zoom for creative direction and user experience, and zoomed all the way in for graphic design and details.


We are working for businesses so business objectives need to be priority.

Stand up for yourself

Be bold. If something’s not right, call it out and do something constructive to solve it.

Don’t lower your standards so that others will feel comfortable.

People won’t like you more for being mediocre. 

Be original

Remember why you became a designer. If it was to make websites that look like everyone else’s, then you should probably go back and think of a better reason.


Talk to everyone involved in the project, at every opportunity, every day.


Listen to your team members, listen to your users and listen to your clients. And try to keep in mind everything you’ve learned throughout the process.

Eliminating waste 

Find the core element that gives the essence of the product. We can simplify our products and reduce unnecessary complexity.

Vow of chastity (Adapted from John Morgan’s famous letter)

Design nothing that is not worth reading.

Design is design

The fundamental principles of design are the same across all disciplines. Human behaviour is the same and so the design principles are the same, whether you are designing for a mobile screen or a giant billboard.

Design for people

Only collect data if you are also going to use it to improve the experience for people.

Open your mind

Look at art, go to shows, look at architecture, read literature. Other disciplines can feed into your work and make it better. But most importantly look around you! The sights, sounds and characters of our everyday lives are sometimes the most inspiring thing of all.


Specifically on Being an Designer/Entrepreneur

Talk to everyone, but LISTEN to the right people.

And be independent enough to ignore the ones you need to.

You can’t do this alone.

Surround yourself with the right people that will give you constructive criticism and sound advice, and find a partner to share responsibilities of growing a business. 

#artTech: The art world is failing and we can help

It was a day the art world had never seen before. Last Monday at Christie’s auction house in New York, a Picasso painting sold for $179 million, which sets a record for the most expensive item ever to sell at auction. In total, the auction house sold more than $1 billion of art over three days – a new record for the art world.


 Jeff Koons, 'Balloon Dog (Orange)'
Jeff Koons, ‘Balloon Dog (Orange)’

This 12 foot sculpture of a balloon dog is the most expensive item ever sold by a living artist. The price tag was $58.4 million.

Despite numbers like these, emerging artists are meant to accept the fact that they cannot make a living from selling their art; The money simply doesn’t filter down to the emerging market. Understandably, advice for new art grads is often, “Don’t quit your day job”, but when all of your waking hours are spent doing something other than what you love (which is making art), how does that impact the diversity of the art world overall?

In the tech world we talk about disruption all the time and it’s become such a buzzword, but the truth is that companies who are disruptors identified and solved a unique problem to their industry. Uber solved transportation problems, AirBNB solved hospitality problems, Snapchat solved messaging problems. So what are some art world problems?

1. Transparency 

Buyers and sellers at large auctions can remain completely anonymous, and thus no one truly understands what drives irrational market forces. And similar to the financial markets, those who have insider information have leverage and control of market demand and therefore profits.

“Dealers operate in a murky shadow world, and money flows from information asymmetries. The ones who make a profit off the art market are those who know the industry front-to-back and have the deep pockets to buoy the markets of their artists when interest wanes.” www.blouinartinfo.com

2. Diversity

The perpetual promotion of a few top earners leaves a larger population of artists out in the cold. For art dealers and advisors it’s becoming common to go down a list of top artists and tick of the blue-chip names that “need” to be in the collection, just like stocks in a financial portfolio.

3. Accessibility

The art world overall, and especially the gallery system is inaccessible for most people. It’s not working for emerging artists, and it’s not working for collectors who don’t have buckets of cash. New collectors may find the art world overpriced, intimidating and elitist. Hard-working emerging artists may not have been born into the right circles of influence to create demand for their work.

There is some grumbling even within the establishment. After 41 years, New York’s McKee Gallery is closing down and the founders attributed their decision to their disgust with the current state of the art world. “The value of art is now perceived as its monetary value,” their statement reads. “The art world has become a stressful, unhealthy place; its focus on fashion, brands, and economics robs it of the great art experience, of connoisseurship, and of trust”.

There is a trend towards collecting for the sake of making a conspicuous investment, as newly minted billionaires in China, Russia and the Middle East vie for their cultural legacy. New collectors who enter the art world through the lens of the market are understandably more conspicuous in their purchases of what they believe to be ‘profitable’ artwork. There is less risk being taken with difficult or challenging work, which leads one to wonder if the art market overall has lost confidence in artistic values. Artist Olafur Eliasson believes it has – he’s gone so far to say that the art market is counter-productive to creativity.

I’m (obviously) fascinated by the art market. I worked at an arts nonprofit in New York that was very well connected to the art scene there, and I remember the founder curating our fundraising auction based on what seemed like a gut feeling. I even asked what made one artists work more valuable than others, as it didn’t seem based on the work alone. She had twenty years of experience as an art dealer before founding RxArt and knows the intrinsic value of the work – the organisation places contemporary art installations in children’s hospitals, aiming to improve the patient experience – but she also understands market forces.

Many times the value placed on an artist’s work is as much about the artist and their connections as it is about the quality of the piece. In the traditional art industry, these connections are forged and validated through the gallery system. However, galleries don’t necessarily support the careers of emerging artists, and take a minimum of 50% commission on all sales of work. There must be a better way to introduce new collectors to the artistic community.

It’s quite a shock when a gallery that’s founded on the fundamental principle of talent and ability is breaking new ground in the art world. The founders of The Unit Gallery in London have said in a Guardian article, “In an industry so often governed by commercial viability, back stories and nepotism, we proudly stand by our commitment to only showcase work that we genuinely believe in and nothing else.”

The tech sector has a knack for giving full access to goods and services where we were previously limited to less efficient, traditional industry standards. The art world needs us, but the industry needs to be open to some big changes.

So how can technology help?

People are buying more art online, which can begin to democratise the industry. While it won’t do anything to change the astronomical price tags at the top tiers of the market, it could do a lot to encourage new collectors to get involved and help emerging artists to have more control over the way their work is shown and sold.

Of the 5.1 billion pounds in 2014 sales from Christie’s last year, 21.4 million was from online only sales. And while that’s only around 4% of total sales, that figure spiked 54% from the year before. And this percentage is increasing year after year.

Gerard Richter, the most expensive living European artist, has a “very good website” (it’s terrible) that dealers believe contributes to his sales, allowing new collectors to thoroughly research his life and works.

I’ll mention a few of my favourite tech companies that are making progress towards solving the problems I mentioned of transparency, diversity and accessibility.

Art List (https://artlist.co/) is a peer to peer selling network, like the AirBNB for art sales, who aims to reduce the need for large auction houses who have a history of shortchanging artists on resales. They take a 10% commission on sales, which they share 50/50 with artists.

Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Art) has recently made it’s foray into the art market, partnering with around 150 galleries who give up a slice of the commission on each sale – between five and 20 per cent – in return for Amazon bringing their art to a larger, international audience. DegreeArt.com is one of the galleries collaborating with Amazon in this venture, who for ten years has been the UK market leader in online art sales, specialising in UK student and graduate art sales.

Paddle8 (https://paddle8.com/) is an online auction house for fine art, with themed auctions from selected nonprofits. So instead of all auctions being forced through the traditional houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s, smaller organisations (such as the one I worked for) who are fundraising can reach more people. They take around a 20% commission on sales, which seems like a lot but is actually good compared to larger auction houses standard commission of 35%.

There are these and many more companies making progress towards breaking down barriers to entry, but there has yet to be a service that’s come along to disrupt the traditional way of doing things. 

There are big opportunities to explore.

An intrinsic value in art (separate from its price tag) is something best communicated by artists themselves. I propose a service that gives control to the artist to tell the full story of the work, that completely de-commoditises art while educating people about its virtues.

…wish me luck making that profitable.


By the way, I’m working on a product that aims to solve some of these problems. You can find more info about that here. This post is based on a talk I gave last Tuesday at Digital Shoreditch called ‘Disrupting the Art World’.