What does design mean to you?
Design is strategic problem solving that improves people’s lives. Empathy, pragmatism and creativity are applied to the adventure of hunting and validating ideas — a process that leads to intentional solutions. The results are intuitive, delightful and beautiful experiences. Good design benefits users without users ever having to think about it. Design is iterative, never giving up on the mission to guide people through life in a more effortless and more enjoyable way.
I have spent my whole life pursuing design professionally and personally. I love that my natural talents have led me to sharpening my skills as a successful designer. The future of design is inspiring and broad. It keeps me motivated as I continue to grow as a designer.
What’s the difference between a good and great designer?
I believe good designers are able to definitively pinpoint valid problems and contextualize them through exhaustive research. I believe good designers set out to solve problems by casting a wide net of ideas and distilling them down through testing. I believe good designers carefully see the design through development to shipment to ensure proper implementation.
What makes a great designer is how they elevate that process. Great designers have intentionality for the outcomes they’re solving for. They are visionaries, able to see how individual projects fit within the big picture goals. Great designers are opinionated. They are able to map out the reasoning behind every design decision they make. Great designers are generalists and collaborators dedicated to the problem, not their own solutions.
Why do you want to leave freelancing?
I chose to dedicate the past year to freelancing for two reasons. The first was that I knew I’d be moving several times across the country within this past year. Working remotely for clients was a simple way for me to maintain positions despite the geographical transitions.
The second reason I have been a freelancer at this stage of my career is to gain diverse experiences rapidly. Over the past 13 months, I have spent 6–7 days a week designing for over a dozen projects. This is a unique benefit to having multiple clients as a freelancer.
The reason I am leaving freelancing is because I knew that once I was settled in my long term home, I’d want to translate my experiences to a team setting. In a team, I will be able leverage my abilities with the abilities of others to contribute to a larger impact than the impact one can make as a solo designer. The opportunity to collaborate and learn from other designers is an exciting next step in my career.
How do you plan a project?
Each project I take on loosely adheres to a three step process. These three steps are identifying the problem, narrowing down to the most relevant solutions through a cycle of iterations and testing, and following through for a successful shipment. Adaptable to methodologies from design sprints to waterfall, this is the framework I structure projects around.
I start out my projects by meeting with internal stakeholders to learn their expectations and understand what they envision success will look like. This is the beginning of the first step: identifying and understanding the problem. Design boils down to problem solving. I want to make sure that I am knowledgeable about the problem so that I can accurately pursue solutions. I dedicate the beginning of the project to meeting with these internal stakeholders, understanding the target user base, familiarizing myself with the industry and competitors — collecting as many insights as I can. These insights reveal the plan for the rest of the project.
The plan is then defined for the second step, design. Am I solving for one main problem? Several? Having planned the priorities in the previous step, I start working through a broad range of solutions, editing them down through testing. I talk with developers to ensure that the solutions are framed well for building. I translate my wireframes to prototypes to put in front of users in order to test their validity. The client communication style and the development workload determines the handoff process. Once everything has been worked through, presented, finalized, and sent to development, I move to step three.
Step three involves taking a support role during the development process. I have found that oftentime planning is bound to a timeline, so this incremental planning process allows me to set aside appropriate ratios of time to tackle problems in the right way to preserve development time for this phase. I make myself available to project managers and developers in order for our team to ship successfully and on time.
An outline of my high-level strategy can be found here:
For new projects without users, my methods for collecting insights are laid out here:
What is the relationship for you between UX and visual/graphic design?
I view UX as the often-invisible bulk of a product and visual/graphic design as the icing on the cake. Without visual design, the “UX cake” isn’t typically palatable enough to be fully enjoyable. Visual design critically contributes to two pieces of a product: legitimacy and accessibility. Individual visual design preferences can be subjective, so my opinions regarding visual design are aimed towards ensuring the support of the underlying user experience design.
Because I am not a visual designer, I prefer to work on projects with design guidelines in place. When I have the colors, fonts, etc to work within, I am much more confident in making complementary visual design decisions. I value visual designers for their dedication to the latest visual design trends. I myself am more passionate about the underlying UX structure: product strategy, information architecture, and interaction design.
Describe your experience collaborating with developers. In your opinion, what makes for the best collaboration between designers and developers?
My first experience collaborating with a developer was actually my partner. He was the one that introduced me to the tech industry on a professional level over 5 years ago. He taught me HTML and CSS, skills that enabled me to translate my nonprofit sector design experience to the startup world.
Because I understand the developer perspective in an intimate way, I have been able to have great relationships with the developers I work with. I have worked on projects ranging from one developer to a substantial team where different developers are dedicated to front end, backend, and mobile.
The most challenging experience I have had was working on a team with one non-technical founder and one previously autonomous developer. I received a lot of pushback, finally discovering it was rooted in the developer’s limitations from lack of experience. I learned that my assumptions about his skill level hurt our communication. I adapted my communication style to his and compromised the design in order to be completed within his skill set.
I believe the best collaboration between designers and developers is when we’re communicating through every stage of the project. When collaboration extends before and after the handoff from design to development, I have experienced an overall smoother process.
Seeking developer feedback at the earliest stages of the project has created efficiencies in the design process. Once I’ve understood the problem through research, I brainstorm as many solutions as possible. At this time, I like to know how these high-level solutions could be fleshed out on a development level. Receiving new insights from developers at this stage has helped steer me towards simpler solutions on multiple occasions.
When I seek developer feedback during the design phase, it strengthens our team. Developers are able to feel more ownership in the product so that when it is time for them to implement, the handoff is received enthusiastically with less surprises.
When I do hand-off a design, I find it beneficial to provide context with a high-level narrative. Storytelling helps place the design in a more meaningful, easy to remember way. Designs are more easily interpreted and developers feel better equipped than when I send over interactive prototypes and annotations without this explanation.
During implementation, I make myself available to clarify any confusion that may arise during development. I test implementations to ensure accuracy and provide my feedback to ensure that we ship flawlessly. This is also the time where I gush over developers because they’re translating design improvements into real life, positively impacting users. At the end of the day developers are the people that make my contribution a reality, so it’s easy for me to want to see them succeed.
What’s the most interesting project you’ve worked on? What made it interesting?
The most interesting project I’ve worked on was a suite of services for backpackers. The central product was a trip planner. I enjoy hiking and the outdoors, so this project was immediately interesting to me.
I came into this project at the very beginning. My client was the founder and his goal was broad: “make backpacking more fun for everyone”. He had a few projects he wanted to build out to reach this goal as well as a bloated wish list of functions. I started with the trip planner. Never before had I had so much autonomy in translating a vague concept into a usable product.
I was able to take the time to do thorough research. I conducted user tests with expert backpackers. I became knowledgeable about dozens of complimentary products within the space. I read backpacking guidebooks in order to really get into the mind of this class of technical, ultralight backpackers.
Solving the problem of underpreparedness was a mission I enjoyed being responsible for. The goal was to grow the trip planner into a service that would eventually appeal to recreational hikers as well as the professionals. The discoveries I made in balancing these two user groups brought up even more interesting challenges. The objectives of the web and mobile experiences evolved in a way I did not initially predict. It was fun to successfully design desirable solutions for experienced and novice backpacker that melded well together.
During the process, I was able to prove my value not only for product strategy and UX design, but also as a tech leader. I managed developers and a UI designer while assisting my client with business-level decision making. The level of data was more than I had ever worked with, accounting for weather, geolocation, calorie intake and more. Being so influential in the backend organization was an interesting new experience for me. Overall, it was great to build a trustworthy atmosphere where user insights were the leading priorities that shaped the product.
I’ve written three case studies that dive into three specific projects within this company:
Trip Planner: http://www.allisonmilchling.com/projects/trip-planner
Mobile Trip Viewer: http://www.allisonmilchling.com/projects/trip-viewer-mobile-app
Trail Listing Service: http://www.allisonmilchling.com/projects/trail-listing-service
What tools do you use? Why have you chosen them over their alternatives?
Sketch for wireframing, prototyping, visual design. Sketch is my primary design tool. It is a succinct tool that allows for rapid iteration when compared to bulkier Adobe Creative Suites. In one place, I am able to create uniform wireframes, templated design guidelines, vector graphics and animations. It’s extremely intuitive, controls are simple to remember, and everyone else is integrating with it. This is the one tool that gets my 100% fidelity.
Pen and paper for low-fidelity planning and wireframing. Traditional sketching is the fastest way to organize my ideas, visually group elements, and work through layouts when I am getting started on new projects.
Google Sheets for information architecture and organization. I use the entire Google Apps suite, but the product I rely on most is Google Sheets. I use Google Sheets for charting product strategy, prioritizing features, and organizing user feedback. Because I can share it in the cloud, it’s an ideal format for seamless collaboration compared to Excel. I could manage each task I do in Sheets with separate specialty services, but I have found that the single, familiar format provides the least amount of barriers when sharing information with others.
UserTesting for remote unmoderated testing. It has the fullest range of features to screen users, create intuitive test scripts, and review tests efficiently. It is also at the most affordable price point for unlimited tests.
GoToMeeting for remote moderated testing. I have found this to be the smoothest service that allows for full session recording and screen control sharing. Skype and other solutions either rely on a hodgepodge of tools to produce the same results, or they require testers to download bulkier, lesser known products.
YouCanBookMe for scheduling remote moderated tests. I include this because scheduling is a big time suck and this tool makes it as simple as it should be. I recommend this tool to everyone who ever needs to schedule a meetings. Doodle and long email chains don’t work efficiently enough. I have not tried Clara because the quantity of moderated testing I have scheduled has not justified the price of a personal assistant tool.
Mixpanel for tracking adoption. Mixpanel is my favorite analytics tool because of the level of customization one can achieve with it. I can ask a developer to drop in a script and start tracking a data point pretty effortlessly. Although marketing and development departments typically focus on measuring data, I find Mixpanel to be an essential UX tool for uncovering weaker features within the product and for validating the success of shipped updates.
What are some websites and apps whose design you love? Why do you like them?
Intercom — Intercom is a great example of end-to-end user experience in a SaaS product. The design of the top navigation bar on their website is all about the user. All product offerings are summarized and all resources are defined in this navigation. These brief explanations reinforce the helpfulness of the product, providing unmysterious routes to all major information. All of this is happening above the fold as soon as a visitor lands on the website — and there is no scrolling needed.
Most pages on their website, especially the homepage, utilize storytelling to illustrate how the product benefits will transform customer relations. No matter where you are on their website, you can glean information successfully at any level. Whether you just look at the illustrations and images or scour every line of text, the content is extremely scannable.
The actual product is a great example of a minimum viable product with a strategic growth strategy. The product has evolved by picking up the best parts of bulkier competitors and implementing them in a clean, full solution that has strengthened the initial version of the product. It’s an example that proves how restraint can yield a sustainable, competitive solution.
Spotify — Spotify presents a complex database of music in a way where the cognitive load is never overwhelming. They are one of my favorite examples of thoughtful information architecture and taxonomy. The level of depth in their categorization is proof that they know their diverse user groups very well. The navigation and its nomenclature accommodate a seemingly infinite amount of user flows. No matter how you meander through the product, it is structured so that you effortlessly arrive at a song that fits your needs. To welcome all types of users, browsing is sorted not only be genres, but by moods. Even if you’ve never heard of R&B, they’ve created alternative ways for you to get there. And if you already know you like R&B, genres distill down to granular playlists, allowing you to choose between sub-genres like “80’s Jam Sessions” and “Soul Lounge”.
All of these features are placed around the core product: a music player. The player functionality complies with web standards, making the product inviting and familiar to an even broader user base.
Duolingo — I love learning languages and Duolingo is a service I rely on to help incorporate that into my post-college life. Every component of the app is built around gamification which thoughtfully motivates and delights the user. Never do I actually feel like I am learning, as much as I feel like I’m spending my time in an entertaining way. Progress is charted intuitively and delightfully. My position within the course is easy to understand. Remembering what I’ve done and seeing what I have to look forward to is a regular component of how I move through the app, reinforcing a sense of accomplishment and motivating me to continue. Even push notifications draw you in, summarizing the exact words I’ll be learning when I return to the app.
The feature hierarchy is brilliantly balanced. It allows me to completely focus on the single task within a course, hiding everything else. But when I am in the mood to use advanced features like setting goals, shopping, or checking my friends’ progress, they are all accessible and intuitive to contextualize within the broader product.
Other Relevant Skills
Client-facing communication: I am confident in my abilities to interface with clients of all seniority levels to present ideas concisely, align expectations enthusiastically, and resolve misunderstandings professionally.
Empathy: I have a passion for understanding those who are different than me. My ability to empathize with a wide range of people helps me connect to users more deeply and solve their problems more accurately.
Self-starter: I am a hard worker and a quick, perpetual learner. I have a solid understanding of my abilities as they relate to the task at hand and am not afraid to seek additional resources in order to do a job well.