ProdPod with Adrienne Tan

Elizabeth Pek – ‘What makes a good designer?’

John Carter
January 16, 2018
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ProdPod with Adrienne Tan
January 16, 2018

Elizabeth Pek – ‘What makes a good designer?’

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Episode Transcript

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Mark: Hi. Welcome to another episode of This is HCD. My name is Mark Catanzariti and I’m a human-centered designer based in Sydney. In today’s episode, Adrienne and I catch up with Elizabeth Pek, the director of experience design at BT Financial, to discuss the topic “What makes a great HCD designer?” We cover the challenges of measuring great personality traits to look out for in an interesting, immersive interview process for hiring in design roles. But before we get started, as this podcast was recorded in the Sydney CBD, I’d like to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation as the traditional custodians of the land where we meet today and pay our respects to the elders, both past and present.

Adrienne: Thank you for joining us today, Liz. I love to understand more about your background. Please tell us what you’ve done in the last, I don’t know, 15 years of your career.

Elizabeth: Oh, gosh. Okay. Probably worthwhile to me to actually talk a bit about how I got into the industry. It was about 21 years ago. And I think what really drives me and fascinates me is people. I’ve always known that even when I was a young age, I’m just always curious about people and what makes them tick and what drives them, what motivates them. And I studied as a psychologist. My first job was actually as a service designer. So I was applying my psychology skills, particularly in research skills to design new health service for the New South Wales Department of Health. It was designing a hospital in the home.

Adrienne: Fantastic.

Elizabeth: Taking part or delivering a pilot program of that. And I didn’t know in those days it was called service design. That’s kind of how I fell into the design craft and really fell in love with it. That was also during the tech boom times as well, the early days of the internet. So I’ve sort of been applying my design craft to designing products and services and experiences, particularly around the digital experiences since that time. In the last 15 years or so, I’ve been a practitioner, design practitioner in various industries. I’ve worked in media, telco, health and fitness, as well as financial services, of course. I’ve made lots of mistakes.

Adrienne: We love to learn more about those.

Elizabeth: I’ve learned a lot along the way. I think that’s naturally how I like to learn, just by making mistakes. Especially at the beginning of my own practice, but also as I became more experienced building and leading teams as well. Made lots of mistakes around the building and leading teams.

Adrienne: Fantastic. Today, we’re going to be talking about what makes a great HCD designer. It’s a pretty broad topic, so I’d love to understand what you measure as great.

Elizabeth: I can tell you about the qualities that I would look for that I think what makes a great designer.

Adrienne: Well, let’s explore the qualities, and then let’s come back to how do we kind of measure those qualities? And maybe measure is a little bit of a harsh word, but it’d be great to be able to identify whether somebody who we consider as a great HCD designer is essentially making an impact or an outcome or driving for an outcome in a business.

Elizabeth: Absolutely.

Adrienne: Because essentially, that’s what we’re trying to do. Deliver something. But how do we know if you’ve got these qualities that you’re going to follow through essentially?

Elizabeth: Yeah. Good question and I’m in complete agreement that I think a great designer should be outcomes-driven and should be delivering real tangible business outcomes, alongside obviously other roles that are involved in delivering that.

Adrienne: Yup.

Elizabeth: One of the qualities that I think makes a really great designer is a T-shirt professional. To me, it’s not just the depths part where the deep expertise in particular areas or particular deep experiences in an industry or techniques. The more I suppose the technical hard skill sets. It’s fundamental to that. It’s the soft skills. It’s the qualities that are really fundamental. It’s sort of almost the broad T part at the beginning. I would almost like flip it around, the T is an upside down T that I would look for the qualities that are fundamental that underpins which is generally the broad skill sets. And then obviously look for some experience that they’ve had in a particular industry or a particular area or a particular technique.

Adrienne: And so what would make those foundational skills that you’re looking for?

Elizabeth: There’s a number of those. I think that a great designer should have really great leadership skills. And I don’t mean, it’s not a people management top skill sets, it’s self-leadership. It’s also being able to lead and influence others. So my definition of leadership is probably someone who’s working without authority or being anointed–

Adrienne: Sounds like a product manager.

Elizabeth: Yeah. Being anointed as, you know, this is your responsibility. But they just have that ability to naturally coordinate and influence others towards achieving a common outcome. And I think even out of that, what’s more important than just the coordination is the influencing part. And so then if we follow that route, I think about what makes someone who can really influence people? And I think there are definitely people that are good with other people and have that ability to build really good human relationships. Qualities that I also think that go towards the sort of relationship building or people skills is that collaborative nature. And if we go deep, what this collaborative mean? I would always look for someone who’s got no egos. What that means, not attached to their own ideas, being really open-minded, flexible. Obviously, a strong ability to emphasize. After all, HCD, human-centered design, is human. It’s the key emphasis so they need to be able to empathize with others. And I think to understand that design isn’t about a particular artefact.

The outcome isn’t the artefact. My mistakes in the past where I hired or worked with designers that just get so caught up in where I add value is delivering this amazing artefact whether it’s wireframes or journey maps or whatever artefact it is. They get so caught up in delivering that artefact that they forget that at the end of the day, we’re here to deliver outcomes rather than the artefact.

Adrienne: If we move beyond the artefact, what are the outcomes that you seek from them?

Elizabeth: Well, a key value that a designer brings to the table. These days, now, when you’re kind of taking up a new product or service out to market, it’s going to be done in a multi-disciplinary way.

Adrienne: Absolutely.

Elizabeth: I don’t think anyone now.

Adrienne: Individually into it.

Elizabeth: Someone will just go away and welcome their own. One of the outcomes that I think a great designer will bring to the table is that they are like the dot connectors or the glue for that team. I’ve seen this in many instances where we’ve put maybe designers who maybe are a bit more attached to their own ideas, who are maybe not so people-focused. I don’t understand that that’s the value that they can bring. And focus on that kind of key artifacts that they start isolating others. Whereas, I love working with designers who understand that the value that they bring is to connect people. Because quite often, we’re in the middle of that intersection of desirability, viability, and feasibility. We get to talk to technical people to understand what’s feasible. We get to talk to business people to understand business outcomes, sort of goals. We also understand we go and research and talk to customers so we understand kind of that human desirability element. And we’re right in the middle of that intersection. And quite often, especially with large product teams or large teams that are trying to deliver any product or service, they can be quite working in isolation or inside of their own silos because there’s just so many problems to solve. I guess people tend to want to just put their blinkers on and, “Okay, this is the problem that I’m solving.” So I find that that’s one of the key values or outcomes that a designer would deliver. It’s that kind of being the glue and connecting the dots for others and sharing that knowledge.

Adrienne: And if we just take that a little bit further, how do we know that they’re doing that? How do we say, “Hey, you’re doing that really well. You’re bringing people together. You’re being that dot connector and that glue.” How will we differentiate a great person, HCD person, who does some of that from a mediocre person.

Elizabeth: What I look for is obviously in terms of their behaviors and their practices. Like what are they actually doing when they say, “I’m the dot connector.” Well, I’ll start asking them how are you becoming a dot connector? What have you actually done? And then sort of really look at the kind of the practices that they bring, just the way they behave as well. And then the other one that I would look for, and I’m a big fan of this, and generally this is sort of performance review time which happens in my case. I’m a big believer in having that kind of regular ongoing conversations. It’s getting an understanding of what I call–well, it’s not a new term–but like an NPS score of that particular person.

Adrienne: Right.

Elizabeth: So we usually have a bit of a feedback time that you would get from other project team members and just ask would you want to work with this person again?

Adrienne: So that is your measurement.

Elizabeth: Would you recommend this person to work on other project teams? So that is kind of one way that we measure. And it’s just like an NPS. If they’re a great operator, if they work really well in a team, typically, the people just gravitate towards that or want that person in the projects. So if another project might come up, they’ll go, “Oh, yeah. I’ll definitely want to work with that person again.” And yeah, that is the measure.

Adrienne: Well, that’s great. That’s fantastic. And I think that the HCD designer has the benefits of being that roaming consultant that sometimes a product person doesn’t have because we’re so with in to a particular product. But that’s great that you can measure, where the others want to work with this person given that leadership qualities is something that essentially is something that you look for from a great HCD designer. Is there anything else do you think that comes to mind in terms of measurement?

Elizabeth: Well, one of my mistakes in the past is I’ve tried to measure based on productivity. But that’s never a good measure. Productivity doesn’t mean great outcome at all. I’ve learned that there are designers out there who are very productive, can work really fast, can be freely focused on the artifact. But then also how they go about doing it might actually turn off others. Yes, just through my experience now. The kind of single measure that I tend to look for, it’s that kind of word-of-mouth off that particular person. And also when we do hire, I’m very big on making sure and getting an understanding what is their mode of operation?

Mark: Do you think how they go about solving that problem, the leadership, and all the kind of things that you talked about, the documenting, is that something that’s innate to people? Or is that something that they can learn and grow in a particular role?

Elizabeth: Good question. So through my own, I guess, learnings, I think that it’s definitely something you develop. It’s not like a knowledge that you can go and acquire. I mean, I’m currently working financial services so I need to understand regular true changes. I can go and acquire that knowledge by reading something. An article or something like that. But with something like leadership skills or influencing skills, I think you’ve got to develop it. And it’s going to–

Adrienne: Age.

Elizabeth: It’s going to be natural to you as well.

Adrienne: Yeah. Age. I don’t think that the product person that I am now–I’ve been working for 20 years–is the same product person 20 years ago. Because I think life experiences offers you the opportunity to be that leader. You can only gain that through living life, I think.

Elizabeth: Yeah. I would agree with that. Sometimes, we don’t always get this right. We know what we’re looking for, but how do you measure? Especially when you’re in a hiring context, how do you measure someone’s emotional intelligence, for example? We always want to work with people who have high self-awareness and high emotional intelligence and resilience and understanding their own natural style, and know that there are different styles out there, and the ability to relate and communicate. It’s my ability to be able to change my style appropriately to meet that person’s style quite open because we do get to put to work in very challenging situations, stressful situations. Also their ability to regulate their own emotion and stresses. They’re really critical.

Adrienne: And that comes with time.

Elizabeth: With time.

Adrienne: And life lessons.

Elizabeth: Yeah. And I’ll put it out there. The other one that I look for, and I don’t know how to measure this, but just a sense of knowing that they have a healthy self-esteem. Not the ego part where I’m attached to my ideas. I suppose that perfectionistic top person versus the high achiever or high striver top person that we call. I guess the perfectionistic tends to be their self-worth or their self-esteem is defined by their appearance or the success that they achieve or the outcomes that they achieve. Whereas the highest achiever is sort of like, “I’m here for just to learn along the way.” They’re both looking to achieve as much as they can but it’s just a different approach that, “I’m here to enjoy the ride. If I don’t get there in the end, that’s okay as long as I’ve grown and learned from that experience.”

Adrienne: Yup. And I’m only going to get better over time. And essentially this is a theme that we’ve been listening to for a really long time now. It’s about being on that life-learning journey and not feeling like you need to know everything. Even as a practitioner and as a consultant, that others have knowledge to share and lessons to teach you as well. I think that’s important. But I mean, it’s very hard to hire people across all disciplines. But I’m sure specifically in HCD, how do you quickly gauge a great designer from a bunch of mediocre people? How do you find that outstanding person in a room full of people that you’re about to hire?

Elizabeth: Challenging. Through time, I’ve just learnt that we try to… Well, when we’re developing a new product or a service, you would prototype and test and simulate before you launch it. I’ve now believed in making sure that candidates are actually put through a bit of a simulation test. In fact, I’m in the current process at the moment where I’m currently working for BT Financial Group and we are hiring, by the way.

Adrienne: Excellent.

Elizabeth: Our typical process, I mean, there’s the usual sort of let’s have a look at your experience, your CV, your portfolio. And then let’s have a discussion around what’s an ideal role for your next role. Let’s see if there’s a match there. And if there is a match, what we typically like to do is try to simulate the working environment with a real-life project.

Adrienne: Can you step us through how you do that?

Elizabeth: In the past, we’ve given people homework to do. Let’s say we timebox it because we don’t want people to be spending their whole kind of full-time job trying to do this. But we give them a design challenge, a brief. And then say with no more than four hours over a weekend, go and prepare a presentation or something to come back and we’ll try and simulate kind of a little working group. And so they’re working on that project and they’re presenting back their ideas. And what I’ve always looked for in that instance, it’s about the thought process as opposed to the actual artifact. That’s more important to me. And also how they go about communicating and their ability to come on the room, really, during that time. Sometimes, you don’t simulate the kind of stressful nature of the challenging environment wherein if they’re doing it at their own home and they can do it at their own leisure.

Adrienne: They could get help.

Elizabeth: They could get help. And we’re not discouraging getting help. We want to be working with resources, people who know when they need help and how to get help and where to get help. But where typically come unravels all the learning for me is that they seem great, they did this homework, you bring them in, and then all of a sudden, in that real environment, they just don’t work out. And it’s typically related to resilience. And quite often, it’s the fast-paced changing nature of a particular organization. So I suppose I’ve just been working in the lot of organizations where there is fast-paced change and because of the size and the nature of the organization as well, it’s a lot of people and could be a bit disorganized. Sort of that kind of–

Adrienne: Human nature.

Elizabeth: Yup. It’s just human nature. And some just don’t perform or work really well under those conditions. So now, what we do is rather than giving them a homework that they do in their own space, we reduced the design challenge. And so we get them to come in and spend half a day with us, about three to four hours. We get them in. We give them the brief. We give them about an hour, an hour and a half to prepare and provide materials. And usually, we just try to keep a very low  file. Pen, paper, post-it notes, flip chart, whiteboard. And then the last one and half hours is trying to simulate that kind of project team, discussion alongside. There’d be other practitioners coming in and hearing them present. And then they present. And then we spend half an hour after that leaving it very informed for them to ask questions. I really do believe that an interview process is a two-way street.

Adrienne: Absolutely. It’s a marriage.

Elizabeth: Absolutely. Yeah.

Adrienne: And do you think it’s had a positive impact on your hiring process by changing the process? Have you essentially gotten better candidates or better employees, really?

Elizabeth: Look I believe so. Yeah.

Adrienne: Excellent.

Elizabeth: If I think about the last couple of people that we’ve hired, yeah, definitely. And now, particularly where I am at the moment, we’ve been learning a lot of about growth mindset versus fixed mindset. Ms. Professor Carol Dweck. It’s really trying to look at whether this particular person, this candidate in a stressful challenging situation, do they demonstrate this growth mindset? What happens to them when particularly put them through a stressful situation? Do they actually strive on that and kind of quite enjoy it? Or are they going to shy away and kind of be quite scared of that?

Adrienne: Excellent. That’s great. That’s really good, I guess, advice for listeners out there who are trying to hire HCD practitioners essentially, or people also trying to get an HCD job. That they need to understand that they will be challenged in some of these interviews. I want to go back to a little bit about that kind of outcomes that great designers deliver. And so apart from binding the team together which is super important, what do you think the difference between a great designer and a mediocre designer offers a company? Because there are lots of mediocre designers out there. In this age of online learning, there’s kind of very fast one-day, two-day courses. People are doing these courses and learning online and calling themselves these practitioners. So they appear to have the buzzwords and the common terms and the phrases mapped out in their head, which I’m sure you can unpick pretty quickly. But sometimes, they slip through the cracks. How do you spot the difference in a company?

Elizabeth: If I think about my own practice, and I’ve been involved in delivering lots of products and services–I guess if I measure outcome from a business outcome, if I’d be really honest, products and services I’ve been involved in or designed for has been a flop. Does that make me a bad designer? And sometimes, it’s been a flop through no fault of anyone who’s been working on it. It could be because of market conditions or timing or lots of things. So yeah, it’s a really good question. I think it’s going to be that demonstrated sort of off the techniques and the skills and how they go about their work.

Adrienne: Right.

Elizabeth: And it can be really hard to tell. As much as you do this upfront interviewing and stress testing as part of the candidate, it’s really hard to tell until they get into the organization.

Adrienne: And so when they get in the organization and they’re there and they’re running a workshop or they’re running a piece of research, how do you know whether you’re great or just mediocre? What are the signs? I’m looking for signs.

Elizabeth: Yup. Well, fundamentally, to be able to call yourself a designer, you do need to have that set of techniques, right? Whether it’s running a workshop, doing some research, developing some journey maps, whatever that might be, you have to have some of those techniques. But I think the difference between a great versus a mediocre is, again, back to the kind of the personal qualities that I was talking about. So they’ve got to be someone who can rally the troops, that’s got that kind of leadership and influencing skills. But just through my own reflection, the ones that will go from good to great are those that are embracing that kind of growth mindset, really opening themselves to feedback, learning from their mistakes. Not being afraid to make mistakes. So they could be running a workshop, it could be a complete disaster. It doesn’t mean that they’re not a great designer, as long as they kind of learned from it. And the next time they do it, I can see an improvement in how they’ve gone about doing it. I think that’s critical actually around that attitude, around test and learn for myself, for my own practice. And I think the other one as well is around the care as we kind of thought about as well. So it’s that I care about what I’m doing and the outcomes that I’m actually achieving for my team, for the business. And that I’m doing everything that I can with what I’ve been given to try and achieve those outcomes.

Adrienne: Excellent.

Mark: Cool. So Liz, we always ask three questions for every guest that comes on the podcast. The first question is what’s the one professional skill that you wish you were better at?

Elizabeth: Oh, geez. Facilitating. I think you can never be absolutely 100% with that.

Mark: Okay. Cool. The next question is what is the one thing in the industry that you wish you were able to banish?

Elizabeth: Probably more around bureaucracy. I’m thinking that in terms of the context of where I’m working at the moment. Look, I understand it’s a large organization, so therefore, processes need to be put in place. But sometimes, it feels like it’s process for processing.

Mark: Yeah. Cool. And final question is what’s the message that you would give to an emerging HCD talent for the future?

Elizabeth: I think embrace it, enjoy it. The topic of the conversation could be is HCD a fad? And I don’t think it is a fad. I mean, I think that at the moment, it’s still seen as an area of expertise. But eventually, I think everyone liked to be able to work in a future workforce. Like you need to have these skills. It’s a bit like coding is the third language these days, especially the way they talk about it to primary school children. To me, design thinking and HCD is going to become one of those. Like it’s just something you have to have. So embrace it, enjoy it.

Mark: Awesome. All right. Thank you very much for your time today, Liz. We’ll see you next time.

Elizabeth: Thanks.

Adrienne: So there we have it, folks. I hope you enjoyed this episode. If you like to be a part of the conversation or community, hop on over to where you can request to join the Slack community and help shape future episodes and connect with other designers and product people. Thanks for listening. See you next time.


John Carter
Tech Vlogger & YouTuber

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