Design Leader Insights - Paul Smith on Business to Consumer Design

May 24, 2023


Alex Smith: Design leader Insights is brought to you by Fuego UX. Fuego UX is a user experience consultancy focused on creating simple and intuitive digital experiences. Hey Paul, thanks so much for joining us today.

Paul Smith: Thank you, Alex. I'm excited to be here.

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

Paul Smith: Absolutely. So I started out after crashed, but before the iPhone came out, so it was a very interesting time in like the early 2000s, when everything was going digital. My early career I worked in a few spots on a variety of things from just kind of like branded experiences that were really serving marketing purposes, you know, websites, interesting experiences on marketing sites. You know, frankly, through networking and a lot of luck, I got an opportunity to join Uber in like 2012, 2013. and was quickly made a manager. And that kind of started the next chapter of my career, which was working inside of technology companies and working on the design leadership side. I sort of left Uber in the way that a lot of us did, towards the end of my career there by not leaving the company, but going to Uber Eats, which was run as sort of an independent business, a startup within the startup. And got an opportunity to join a company called Opendoor, when they were fairly earlier in their journey, their pre-IPO about Series C, and a small design team, about eight people. And I joined and helped grow that company, take them public. And most recently, I left Opendoor almost a year ago at this point. And I joined another startup, another small startup, also in the real estate space called Aalto. And we're on a mission to democratize real estate, and help people go all the way through their real estate transaction when they're buying a home.

Alex Smith: Yeah, and Paul, it seems like B2C, I'd almost say like consumer staples has been a theme throughout your career, what draws you to that? 

Paul Smith: Like the logistics of transportation, food, housing, these essential consumer products. I think I must find something fulfilling about like, hey, anyone can use this. You know, coming from you know, my background and, and coming up in the, in the beginnings of the user experience movement, you know, there was just this like, feeling that, like, we're making things for people, we're making things more usable for people, it's all this human centeredness. So I wonder if, like, that's just always been something that I've gravitated towards, like being able to, you know, do the most good for the most people with, with all the things I picked to work on.

Alex Smith: You're gonna have a lot of advice, but a question I always ask is, what advice do you have for new designers entering the field today?

Paul Smith: I think the number one thing that seemed to be what helped me was just creating a lot. And I think that's maybe my, if I only gave one piece of advice to someone that's starting out in their career, it's like, you've gotta get a lot of these reps in, you know, design is a practice, it's something you learn by doing, it's not something you can just study in a book and be like, okay, now I'm ready to go, like, so actually just create a lot, a lot, a lot, and always be like, making things you know. And that's, that's going to get you probably 80% there. Just doing it a lot and getting that practice in. Sort of related to that is working early to develop good creative habits.  So design, again, it's a practice, and you need to be able to get into this flow state really quickly. And this is true of any creative work, whether you're, you're doing you know, UX design, whether you're an author writing a novel, having that good creative habit where you can kind of like get into the flow state, and really start producing, that's an important fundamental skill to develop, so that you can get there you can, you can get going. And you can get to those creative breakthroughs faster and in a more like, repeatable way. And then the last thing, sort of reflecting on what worked for me, you know, coming out of earlier days, we had to build a lot of the things that we were designing ourselves. So I was often coding up the website that I was designing. I was often making the thing that I was creating to the actual production ready version of it. And so I think I learned a lot about sort of the more invisible aspects of, you know, interaction and UX design from being accountable to actually make it work. So like okay, learning about the underlying information architecture and you know, the states of things and the way things flow together. It's really helpful to like actually have to, you know, take what you're designing and move out of just being like, flat screen based comms into something that's actually functional and working. And so, that would be my last piece of advice for folks that are out there, figure out a way to, to like, you know, make some of the things that you're designing.

Alex Smith: I love that, some super practical, actually design focused advice. Let's talk about collaboration, like design is not done in the silo. Over your career, how have you interacted with counterparts in different departments?

Paul Smith: You know, I mean, for me, you know, I started working in these agencies, where we were specialists that either did just general like interactive design, or, you know, user experience design, like human centered, you know, highly usable, highly functional product design. And so we were always brought in as both the makers but also kind of as a consultant. I learned early that it's not just about like, here it is, later. Right, you have to, you have to teach.  You have to sell. You have to package. And I think that really helped when I moved in house and started at Uber, because when I started at Uber, neither the industry nor frankly, Uber had a really strong grounding in what actual, you know, user experience design entailed and required, you know, it was there was like some very old school thinking happening there, as was around the industry. And so there's always this sort of, like, tension and kind of maybe sometimes even animosity between like design versus whomever and like, you know, it's very easy to feel sort of deflated, and like we're not getting the investment and that people are working against us. And there's certainly some truth to that we are, we are only as good as our inputs in you know, everyone is designing to a certain degree and can frankly ruin design to a certain degree. What I've found is that, rather than getting sort of pessimistic and whiny about that, it's kind of asked, it's worth asking, like, why is that happening? And, and in my experience, I've never been in a situation with like, a bad partner that wasn't setting design up for success, where that partner, whether they're engineering, PM, an executive, founder, whomever, I've never been in a situation where they weren't setting us up for success, and they fully understood design. But that's not actually what the seat at the table is about, or what it requires. It means that we need to be there to really help educate others on what design actually is, most people don't know or their definition is too narrow. And then help align with them on like, well, this is what we care about. This is what we require to achieve the things that we care about, here's how the things that we care about match your goals, the goals of your business, all that's evangelizing, educating, and really working with these partners. When you get that seat at the table. It's all about finding that win-win. It's like I know what you're trying to drive. I know what your goals are. Let me help you understand how our goals are aligned in this way. Maybe it's a tweak, maybe it's a little more time, maybe it's a little more, a better brief, maybe it's not such prescriptive direction, you know,  but then help them understand how that's gonna get us better design, which is going to lead to better, whatever, conversion or better revenue. And so a lot of that is really just coming down to  education and evangelizing for folks.

Alex Smith: Let's talk about one more thing that it seems like you've done in your career, which I think's tough for a lot of people it's like leaving a big company, where I mean, nothing's guaranteed, but it seems like designs established maybe you feel stable, you know, your roles stable, and then going to something new, unproven, smaller, maybe more exciting, but that's obviously scary, too. What's the mindset for that? 

Paul Smith: And for me, again, I think this goes back to my sort of upbringing in the industry. Everything was un-established when I started. I wasn't working with companies, that were like, this company has a reputation for great design. This company didn't even have anything digital. Right? It was like, everything that I was making that we were making, and sort of those years was new. My mentality, and I think this comes from my, my early days, it's always like, well yeah, of course you want to go to the place that doesn't have anything, because that's where we come in to give them something. And a trend that I've seen, you know, recently has been some of this, like, maybe it's a little risk aversion for designers to go into places that are unestablished. And there's like, you know, flocking towards hey, this is the big established brand, this company is reputable for having great design, and I'm gonna go there. And I've always found it kind of odd that there's not more sort of pull towards going to a company that nobody's ever heard of before. So that you can establish design there, design the entirety of the first version of a product. That's the kind of stuff that's always appealed to me. And you can kind of see in my, my career moves, I've always been going back to that, because I also kind of look at it across like the entire industry, as someone who's, who feels kind of attached to this entire movement, like we need to give great design to all these companies, we don't need to just concentrate on the few that have already done it, we need to do it everywhere because this is user centered design. We're trying to create better design for people, that means everywhere, whoever needs to use our products should be have a great experience with that product, and like it's not going to happen if they don't have great design and they're not gonna get great design if all the great designers are kind of clumped over in these like safe established companies.

Alex Smith: Yeah, that's a great point. Well Paul, thanks so much for joining the show today.

Paul Smith: Thanks for having me, it's been a blast.