Design Leader Insights - Omar Javier Lyles on Realizing the Potential of your Impact in Business

October 30, 2023


Alex Smith: Design leader insights is brought to you by Fuego UX, a UX research, strategy and design consultancy. Omar, thanks so much for joining the show today. 

Omar Javier Lyles: Thank you for having me, Alex.

Alex Smith: Of course. And as we get started, can you give the audience a bit of context into your journey in UX?

Omar Javier Lyles: Sure, sure. So like many designers, my journey started with a love of drawing. I've been drawing since the beginning, not necessarily drawing well mind you, but I've been drawing. You see, I have severe astigmatism and myopia. So when I was little, my whole world was about 3.5ft in diameter. I was introverted. I was slower at learning to read, and so my imagination led me to draw. It led me to create worlds of my own that could fully inhabit, engage with, and understand given that the physical world around me was just so abstract and remote. Now, eventually my pediatrician recognized that something was wrong, better late than never, I guess, and tested my sight. My world has been different ever since. But that's how it began. As I got older, I gravitated toward architectural drawing, the structure, the logic, the complexity, the scale. All of that really spoke to me and I ended up studying architecture at Carnegie Mellon University, which was both edifying and traumatic. I had nightmares for years. They took my money and my peace of mind, but in return they gave me an incredible architectural education. I mean, I can't tell you how many really important design decisions and lessons I learned in that space. So, I mean, I learned what I was capable of. You know, you really never really know what you can do until you're pushed to do it. I also learned what it meant to explore a problem space. I also learned what designing for accessibility really meant. I learned that good, accessible design is better for everyone, not just a subset of people, even though there are over 50 million Americans with disabilities. It really is better for everyone. As I entered the twilight of my architectural degree, I realized that I loved the discipline of architecture, but not necessarily the business of architecture. So I started to explore other avenues where I could leverage my education, but also still design most of the time because I still loved that portion. I applied to a bunch of places that took some web publishing courses at Carnegie Mellon and got hired at a consulting firm in Boston. And I've been doing UI UX ever since. I did UI for websites, web applications to start, and then sort of went on from there. I went back after a few years to get my master's in design studies at Harvard, and a few years after that I was lucky enough to be hired at a telehealth company called Amwell. I'm the first design hire and one of like ten people. There are no products. There are no clients. There is no process. There's just a business plan. Five people are on a table and saying, okay, make it work. And fast forward like ten, 15 years being the only designer prior to being, you know, a head of a design department of about 30 that include PhDs and contractors, a company that went from like less than ten people to over a thousand. From being privately held to publicly traded going IPO, all of that and kind of grew up with the company. And I was approached by Capital One. I was really impressed by how human centered everyone was, by how bright and just sharp everyone was and how nice and easy to work with everyone was. And so that's a great combination. So I decided to take a chance. And so I've been with Capital One since early 2022. And right now I am Vice President of Design and Head of Small Market Business Design. 

Alex Smith: Tell me about traversing sectors from healthcare to telehealth doctors, patients to banking. That sounds not simple. 

Omar Javier Lyles: Healthcare and financial services are similar in that they are essential, they are complex and they are highly regulated. But that's kind of where the similarities end. When you're changing sectors, I encourage everyone, no matter if it's healthcare or financial services or anything, I encourage everyone to learn the business, learn the market, learn the field, dig into the details. And these topics are vast. So it takes time. Be patient with yourself. Give yourself some grace. And I'm still very much learning myself. But if you don't understand the business, it's nearly impossible to realize the potential of your impact. I've found that the biggest impact in design is that sweet spot between the customer need and the business objectives. And if you can find that, you can really move mountains. It all starts with the fundamentals. So if you're in healthcare, what's an ICD nine code or an ICD ten code? What's in a CPT? What's a claim? How does the, you know, an employer based health care system work in general? In banking, like what is interchange? What is NIM, which is net interest margin? Like, what are these concepts and how do they apply to the business you're in? And then how does that connect to the services and the products that you're providing for customers? 

Alex Smith: Omar thanks for that. Yeah, the insights on traversing companies, I think that's hard for anyone. And I think that's true. Like lean on the colleagues, learn the industry you got to do those those are the fundamentals and it doesn't stop right. Especially for complex industries. I have a question though. It sounds like you led teams at Amwell and then now you're leading teams as well. Tell me a little bit about leading and motivating design research teams?

Omar Javier Lyles: So yes, I led the entire Department of Design at Amwell that included both, you know, marketing, visual design, all of that brand branding too, UI, UX research, content strategy, all of that. So that was my team at Amwell. At Capital One I'm really more focused in that product area, not so much in the brand area, but my team is roughly twice the size as it was at Amwell. So it's a lot of different, it's a lot of different expertise, a lot of different areas of focus, whether it's service design or it's content strategy or just design strategy in general. Is it UI, UX, is it research, etcetera. So all of these disciplines are really in my team and I have to understand exactly what they're bringing to the table. Are they bringing it to the table in the right way at the right time? And so those are all interesting challenges as well as being really human centered and working well with our product design tech partners to make sure that we are all in really close alignment. 

Alex Smith: I guess like how do you empower individuals on that team to grow in their own careers, like on their own roadmap, I guess and journey?

Omar Javier Lyles: I think that it's a few things. When you are leading larger and larger teams, you can't do it all on your own. It really is about empowering the people you know, you know, that are on your team, either directly reporting to you or reporting to them or reporting to them. It's about growing and nurturing leaders of leaders, and it's empowering them to, you know, have autonomy. It's empowering them to make mistakes. Like not everything is going to be perfect the first time and experimentation and being allowed to fail in a graceful manner and not always punishing that, but really saying, okay, this didn't work, how can we do it better next time? But giving them that space to grow, whether you're talking about a senior director or an associate, it really doesn't matter. Anyone in between, giving them that space. Now, the level that you're at will determine the size and just how much space that you're given. But they have to feel that they have some autonomy. They have to feel that they have some control and they have to feel good about what they're contributing. And that doesn't matter about the level.

Alex Smith: Obviously there's so many designers trying to break into the field and we all broke in at some point. I'm wondering what advice you have to those people, the new emerging designers that are trying to break into that?

Omar Javier Lyles: The first thing is no boundaries. You don't have any boundaries. Explore every single thing that interests you because you never know what you're going to find. So you've got to really be open to serendipity no matter what the area is not confined to design, but just in general. The second thing is like find what fuels you. And when you find it, lean into it. As you explore, you'll find things that make you feel alive, that make you, you know, they allow you to go the extra mile, they give you energy, and you're going to need that energy to face the challenges of a design career. Keep learning, especially about technology, about AI, about automation, data, psychology frameworks, all of it. As much as it's important to like find what fuels you and like dig in and network and do all these things, like is bigger than design. It just is. It just is. And have something outside of work that you care deeply about and pursue that as well. It will give you the balance you need when you go into design work. Related to having a long career and a long life, it's really personal for me because I'm lucky not to have three grandparents that are still alive. The youngest is 99, which is my grandmother. My grandfather is 100, and my other grandmother is turning 107 next month. So they have longevity on their side, which is awesome. But when I think about like my oldest grandparent, like when she came of age and worked, things like penicillin and ballpoint pen and the atom bomb and the computer were being invented. Like the first basic turing kind of machine was being invented at this time. Now, that same computer, or a version of it like can pass the bar exam, can beat any human at chess or go. Can, you know, order you a cab or Uber or order you food. That's an incredible shift. And I think that this in the next 50 years is going to be even more radical. And that's why it's so important to stay connected. Now you can't do everything. You can't learn everything but find those things, particularly in technology that grab you and hold on to them and like make it a hobby because, you know, God willing, everyone will have a very long life and a long career. And that constant learning and constant engagement with what's going on right now is really going to serve you well., 

Alex Smith: I love that optimism and perspective for what's coming. It's going to be mind blowing for all of us. Well Omar, thank you so much for coming on the show today. 

Omar Javier Lyles: Thank you for having me.