Design Leader Insights - Adil Dhanani

January 16, 2023

Alex Smith: Hey Adil thanks so much for joining the show today.

Adil Dhanani: Thanks, Alex. I'm excited to be here. 

Alex Smith: Yeah, for sure. And to get started, can you give the audience a little indication on your background and history in UX design?

Adil Dhanani: Yeah, kind of took an unconventional path to design, but have been doing it for almost 15 years now. I'm currently Director of Product Design at Handshake. But I started off as a project manager, like a technical project manager, got exposure to design and engineering and how they work together, and kind of made switches at the company that I was at, Palm at back in 2008. And within the maybe first year and a half to two years, I kind of transitioned through a bunch of careers. So Project Manager, UI Developer, UI Developer Manager, and then Interaction Designer. And then I went from interaction design at Palm to Design Lead at a small little startup, where you kind of, I did everything. Then continued as an interaction designer, when I joined beats music, which was a lot of fun. And then I went to Apple, Beats got acquired by Apple. And so I was on the Apple Music team. That was a great experience. That was mostly interaction design as well, which they don't have, at that time, they didn't have interaction designer. So it was a different way of thinking. But they're way more into like high fidelity visuals, typography, color, like the visual aspect of it. So that started kind of pushing me in that direction. And then I joined after Apple, I went to Uber, and that was when I officially got like the product designer title. And I was like, okay, this is what it means. It means that I'm doing everything from, you know, potentially some of my own research, to understanding the business, working with product managers, doing wireframes, and visual designs, using the design system, building prototypes, all that stuff. Writing specs, working with engineering, I even got into code a little bit. After that I went to Slack. At that time, I was looking for a management position. But the right one, I didn't find the right one. So I took like a high level IC position with the promise of being a manager. And so I was able to switch to management, which is great. And a couple of years at Slack. And now I'm at Handshake. 

Alex Smith: Switching from all these industries B2C, logistics, SaaS, what stays the same? And like it is still product design. And then how do you advise people to learn quickly about a new industry when they're changing roles?

Adil Dhanani: It occurred to me not obviously, not like the second or the third job, but like, the fifth and sixth one, it occurred to me that there's like, there's some high level things that if you kind of orient yourself around that, it helps you make the transition from one industry to another easier. Think of yourself as not just a designer, but like as a product manager as the CEO of the company, and you kind of think of holistically, like, why does the company exist? 

Alex Smith: Yeah.

Adil Dhanani: You know, at like a very meta level, in terms of switching industries. So you go from like, let's say, Apple to Uber, so you try to understand like, okay, so you're at Uber now, you understand the mission. Cool, they, you know, they tell you about the mission a lot. It's really, really important. And so why does a company exist? So understanding that, and then it's like, okay, so the company exists to solve a certain problem around transportation, let's say Uber. And it's transportation of both people and goods. So you're moving things from A to B, because right now, what the way it was before Uber, it was very inefficient. So now you start understanding that like, okay, so there was an inefficiency. It's, you know, it's not really digitized. There isn't like a fast way to do this. So now, Uber is there to make that easier. To create this magical experience of tap a button and get a ride. That's one thing. Second thing is the users that you're serving. So like understanding, is there just like a, you know, a certain type of user? Or is it a marketplace, where you have to balance different types of users and their needs? At Uber, you have riders and drivers, and they both have different needs. So now we talked about why does a company exist? What are the different users, are there multiple users? And then industry specific, you kind of get into the nuances of like, like regulation. Like if you work in like healthcare, then you have to think about how you're protecting the data and HIPAA. For Uber, it was around regulation, government regulation. Like you think as you go from one industry to another, you think about those things, those like big things. And I think that helps you get a better picture of like, okay, so now this is how this is how it's different than other companies or other industries. But this is how, like it's similar. You have problems to solve, without a problem to solve, without users it's like, that's kind of the crux of kind of understanding. 

Alex Smith: Switching gears here, it sounds like in your career, you went from IC, to Manager to Lead to IC to Manager to back to IC, like,you know, how do you think about that? And why did you switch so much?

Adil Dhanani: Yeah. Yeah so like you said, it's, I've gone through this like three or four times. Kind of the switch back and forth. So the first time that I switched into management, it was, it was more of an, like an opportunity, that like I wasn't thinking about. So when I was at Palm, the team that I was on grew pretty big. This was the front end development and prototyping team on the design team. And so I got to, I don't know, 12, 13, like, it was pretty big for my manager at the time to manage to run. And he was also into the craft himself as well. And so there was an opportunity for him to give me half of his team or like, you know, a lot of his team, and he's like, why don't you take the front end developers? You know, that's what you did initially, on this team, you have like expertise on it in that area. And so I was like, oh, okay, cool manager. And so it was more of an opportunity. I took it and as I was, like, kind of being a manager, I realized that there's certain things that I had, and certain things that I didn't have. Like I could probably, I could get by. I was getting by. But what I was lacking and missing was the craft. Was like, I didn't, I hadn't shipped a bunch of stuff, 

Alex Smith: Yeah.

Adil Dhanani: It just, I couldn't, there weren't these like stories that I could tell or talk from experience. I wouldn't be able to elevate the quality of the team, like the quality bar was just like, I couldn't elevate it because I didn't know any better than that. And so I was like, no I need to go back to being an IC.So then I switched. And I went back to being IC and didn't even think about management for like, eight, nine years. And I just like ship stuff, I was like, I'm gonna fine tune my craft, I'm gonna get really good at being an Interaction Product Designer, learn about business, learn about research, learn about, you know, data, like kind of kind of absorb all the other disciplines that I'm interacting with. So that I can be not only a well rounded product designer, but also a really good collaborator with other functions. Then, when I was at Uber, my manager at the time had a conversation with me, he's like, okay, so now we're at this like, fork in the road. Do you want to get really, really good at your craft and work on more strategic problems? And go towards like being like a principal designer? Or an architect? Or do you want to go down the management route, and have a team and grow the team? And at that point, I felt like that first question that I had of like the quality bar, like I, I felt confident in myself to be able to do that with the team. So I took that path. Then there was the, then when I decided to leave Uber and look for another opportunity, I was kind of, same thing. I was like, I'm gonna stay in management. It's my like, happy place now. I feel good. And I was looking, talking to companies and there wasn't like the right fit. But Slack's philosophy on management, and very Senior ICs was in line with what I had thought. What was in line with kind of what I wanted to do next, which was, I wanted to be in a position where I can have impact on the culture. I can have impact on processes. Like all these things that like I really enjoyed doing at Uber as a manager, I wanted to continue doing those. So then, I joined Slack as a Staff Principal Designer, and then eventually was able to switch back into management and then had a team can have impact on the culture. I can have impact on processes, like all these things that like I really enjoyed doing at Uber as a manager, I wanted to continue doing those. and it was just like, it's like, okay, this is where I this is where I feel really, really good. Yeah, and then I joined Handshake a couple months ago, new industry, but a three sided marketplace. So back into marketplace environment, which I really enjoyed the complexities of at Uber.

Alex Smith: What advice would you have for new designers coming into the field today?

Adil Dhanani: Be curious about not only product design, but the other disciplines within design. 

Because you might be studying product design or want to be a product designer. And product  design has a huge spectrum. In terms of you know, the design team that you're on, if it's a smaller design team, you might be doing a lot more than just product design, or just like UX or UI. You might be going into doing some research, doing some maybe high fidelity prototyping, some front end code. And so be curious about the other disciplines because you never know that, like I've seen plenty of times, you know, someone who was a product designer decided to switch to like design ops.

Alex Smith: Let's switch gears here to something a little more fun. Table tennis, you're a professional table tennis pro, which I've never had on the show. So I want to hear about this. And did this develop from like the office, were you just wrecking people in the office or like, how did you become so good at this?

Adil Dhanani: So I'll caveat this by saying I am not a professional. If any professionals are listening to this, I am not a professional. So I got started into table tennis really early on. When I was a kid, maybe like 12, like 11, 12, which is too late to be an Olympian. And that's why you're not talking to an Olympian right now. But I was like 11, or 12. I got into it. It was like one of those sports that like, I played that, I played tennis, badminton, basketball, football, like it kind of played everything. But like table tennis was one of those things that like I felt like I could be like good at. I just started playing and started getting better and better. Found a coach, started learning a lot. Started going to tournaments, traveling. And then what's interesting is that sounds similar to my career, like eight to 10 years in, I was like, huh, I think I'm really good at this now. And I want to teach people so I got certified as a coach, so I could start coaching. And so I didn't realize the parallel right now with my career until now. 

Alex Smith: Adil thanks so much for coming on the show today.

Adil Dhanani: Yeah, thanks for having me. This is a great conversation. And yeah, thanks.