June 2019 represented the most recent FITC Spotlight: UX/UI, held at Toronto’s Telus Tower.

With FITC Toronto scheduled for this week, April 19-21, 2020, but cancelled as a result of social distancing measures, it seems like a great time to share this wonderful content from last year and wish the FITC team well during this difficult time.

The most recent FITC Spotlight: UX/UI focused on strategies to boost your UX practice, as well as a number of design methodologies.

The Say Yeah team immersed themselves in the conference programming and had the chance to connect with several of the speakers. Here are some of our highlights.

In conversation with design leaders

We had the distinct pleasure of being able to dive deeper with some of the great speakers from Spotlight UX/UI. Here’s our audio recap and transcript in conversation with Ha Phan and Haley Hughes.

Catch Ha’s take on using AI in digital products and Hayley’s approach to bringing emerging tech to her design practice, with further discussion from both Ha and Hayley on experimentation and prototyping, and on being a woman in the design industry.


Lee Dale:

Welcome. You’re listening to Say Yeah’s digital disruptors podcast. We’re here at FITC spotlight UX UI, I’m Lee.

Kate Matesic:

And I’m Kate.

Lee Dale:

Now, if you don’t know FITC Spotlight is an annual best practices and upskilling content series, covering topics like coating, VR design ethics, and UX UI. Every year, Spotlight UX brings global leaders and interaction and experience design to Toronto. This conference is known for really challenging attendees to step up their game, both creatively and professionally.

Kate Matesic:

It’s like our annual checkup that urges us to rethink what’s happening in our field, and how we can show up better. Through conversations with peers and design leaders, attendees were encouraged to think about the impact they can have as a UX UI designer. We were so inspired by this year’s speakers. They covered everything from design systems thinking to iteration to micro animations in interesting new ways.

Lee Dale:

Today we’ve got some killer insights to share from two of our favorite FITC spotlight speakers. You’ll hear from Hayley Hughes, UX Manager at Shopify, and Ha Phan, Senior Product Manager at Pluralsight. They’ve got solid things to say about design practices and wicked smart advice for women in our industry.

Kate Matesic:

Here’s Ha’s take on using AI and digital products. For her. It’s more about the data you’re working with and about working within limitations, which combined to make a strong AI product. When people think that they’re building products with AI. They think that there’s something magical about it.

Ha Phan:

The key thing to building a good AI product is really understanding how to collect data. It’s kind of like a it’s kind of like a toddler who you teach to do one task, and it doesn’t know how so then you basically have to collect all the right data so that over time the toddler gets better and better and better to do that one task.

So for me, building a product isn’t about anything complex, but really understanding how you roadmap data collection. And then what is it that you’re trying to do with the data? And I think it’s a really hard thing to teach people. And I don’t think you can teach it unless you have lived through one of those experiences, know what questions to ask and how you might frame the experiment to kind of figure out how you want to use AI and how to improve it. It’s basically about having the right data and data collection.

Kate Matesic:

Now let’s hear from Hayley who’s really discerning when it comes to bringing emerging tech to her design practice.

Hayley Hughes:

With a lot of emerging technologies at my disposal. I think that the way that it’s influenced how I design has to do more with the kinds of questions that I have to ask as a designer, there’s a lot of complexity when new platforms and new tech hardware,new environments come into play. And so, as a systems designer, a lot of the questions I have are what do these new technologies have in common? How do they serve people? Not the other way around. And how can we better integrate them into our lives.

And so, you know, trying to best understand when they’re appropriate, and when, you know, a certain kind of technology might not be desirable, becomes, you know, kind of a scenario based way of designing as opposed to in the past, I think it was more artifact based. So you have to design this poster or create this book. And, you know, in that way, it’s a kind of one to one experience with a reader or a visitor at a museum and now it’s oftentimes a multi dimensional space with many, many people involved.

Lee Dale:

One of the cool overlapping opinions we discovered is a shared love of experimentation. For both Han Haley experimentation helps them create better products and more fully understand the problem space. They’re working in products that reflect a stronger understanding of users and a clear vision of the problem they’re solving. Let’s hear from her on an essential skill, building experiments to test and continually improve your digital products.

Ha Phan:

Like I feel like building a product is not like making a cake doesn’t mean that you’re gonna go through all these process and in the end there’s a cake. The method depends on the question you’re asking. So I work in search, and search, use, not a thing where if you just build the UI works, you have to work a long time on the relevance engine.

So basically, so basically,for our team, the first goal for us was to figure out like, what is the baseline for relevance? That makes sense, right? So the goals are really important because then they create a benchmark that you can stand on an issue, okay? Next, you can improve it and you can iterate on it. But understanding the goals and why you’re doing it is important.

So we both have qualitative methods where we understand the user motivation. And then we carry that hypothesis out to all the way through to quantitative. So we know that when users are using search online, there are real metrics that measure success. It’s not just qualitative, but being able to carry that hypothesis all the way through the quantitative. I think, understanding how to build experiments and to design experiments make you stronger, as a designer and as Product Manager.

If you don’t know how to build the experiment, you don’t, you haven’t really understood the problem you’re solving and you can’t isolate the assumption that you’re trying to test. So for me, if someone works in technology, and can’t design the experiment, then I would question if they understood the problem at all.

Kate Matesic:

Hayley reminded us that early prototyping is just as important as late stage product experiments. Here’s how she uses play in her design practice.

Hayley Hughes:

I’m always experimenting. As a designer.I think one of the kind of first principles is to, you know, continually hypothesize and to come up with new theories for how, you know, things can work in the future. And so, for me, experimentation, and prototyping and iteration come into play in really low fidelity. I work a lot in paper prototypes and things that are maybe less focused on shifting to test, A B test, and more so experimenting at a much earlier stage in the process where I can bring people in and they can give me feedback on the ideas that I have before I even bring them to the screen.

Lee Dale:

We wanted to ask Hayley and Ha their honest opinion on working in a male-dominated industry. They offered us tips on how to stay confident, and how to embrace one’s identity as a member of an underrepresented group.

Ha Phan:

At our company, we actually have goals and outcomes that are directly tied to diversity. You hear a lot of tech companies saying, Oh, yeah, they’re inclusive or diverse. But at the end of the day, the numbers still are the same. At the end of the day, they still have a really low percentage of minorities or women working in the workforce, right? at our company, we actually have a true measurable outcome to kind of like go beyond what the regular finals are, and try to like recruit women and minorities into you know, into all the different roles and also in the leadership roles also. So it’s not just the individual contributor but also senior management.

From my perspective, my team is composed of people who are really young And I’m really old. And when we have one lead engineer who’s you know, who’s not the 20 or 30-year-old engineer. And I think that that creates like a healthy balance. Everybody’s equal, and everybody’s super honest.

I grew up with three brothers, so I know how to take the punches. But, but I think that having a broad perspective like that, it’s like you, you have this check and balance that’s natural, and you automatically over time build trust, and you automatically you know, empathize with other people who are not like you. So in my team, we already work that way.

Kate Matesic:

Ha and Hayley had more great advice. Here’s how they stay inspired and keep growing as designers

Hayley encourages Junior designers to find role models

Hayley Hughes:

For aspiring designers and early career professionals in the field, one thing that I would always encourage is because you’re coming at it with fresh eyes, and

you have the beginner’s mindset, never to lose that. And always to ask for forgiveness, not permission to try things out. Because when you’re just getting started, there’s a lot of things you may not know. And you can use that to your advantage to feel able to ask people questions because they expect that of you. So keep growing, never stop asking questions and always speak up

Kate Matesic:

And Ha Phan speaks about her own mentorship experience with extra advice about battling self doubt.

Ha Phan:

So I come from a family that, that we’re first-generation immigrants, and so you come up

You built, you grew up with the idea that you are the are displaced. So you kind of so you already come to the table thinking that you have to compensate, overcompensate. So, the so I think that that’s a default I have is that it doesn’t matter. I already know that I don’t fit apart, I already know that I’m displaced. So I just have to work harder than everyone else.

I told people at my company that I feel like I have to work harder than other people. Because I don’t fit the I don’t fit apart because in most of my jobs, I’m always working on the latest technology. I’m always on the team. There are no women, like no women at all, like within like, like on the r&d team at GoPro with our men at the startup was all men.

I didn’t feel uncomfortable about that. I just felt like I was invited to the table but I didn’t belong.So I didn’t feel bad about it. I just thought that the way the world works, right? So I think that because we don’t see a lot of women or minorities in certain roles.The default is that we automatically build a bias, even women themselves, we already have, we automatically have a bias that

that person doesn’t fit the role of that person needs to prove himself. Like if you had another person who we can have a mental model that fits the role. We gave them the benefit of the doubt, but the other person who didn’t fit the role, we have to prove themselves. So I always feel like I have to prove myself. And it’s consistent. Even the people who say, yes, you know, we, we support diversity, but there’s a built in bias that there’s still something I have to overcome.

So that’s consistent in my career.I haven’t I have not been resentful of where I kind of it feels to me likelike icing on the cake, kind of like an invite to the table, I get to do really cool things. And by overcoming it, I became a better person.I learned a lot more, I’m more self aware than most people. So I just use it to my advantage. So my advice to young woman is to,you know, learn as much as you can.

You know, you can’t really become someone overnight. You can’t grow up overnight. So you just have to take your time and learn as much as you can reflect a lot.And then so that when the time comes, and when you’re ready, you can, you know, basically take advantage of the opportunities that come your way.The one thing that my mentor used to tell me when I am in doubt, he says, if not you then who? Then, if you if you answer the question by saying there’s 1000 other people who will do that

Then you realize where you are, and you got to work harder. If you realize that everybody else, no one can do the job, even you, then maybe you still want to do it because no one else can do it, either. And if you what you answered by saying, Yeah, I think that I’m the best day that they got, then you own it. And when by answering that question, you own it. So that’s the question I always ask myself when I’m in doubt, and that’s the advice I would give. Not every not just young woman, but anyway,

Lee Dale:

We hope you enjoyed our digital disruptors episode from FITC spotlight UX/UI. Be sure to check out the Digital Insights section at sayyeah.com for more event recaps, videos and podcasts.


And here are some additional highlights from the talks.

Unlocking systems thinking: moving beyond components

The first speaker of the day, AirBnB’s Experience Design Lead for the Design Language System, Haley Hughes, spoke about the importance of integrated, value-driven design systems.

Rather than using a single design system, which would be defined by components (e.g. buttons, icons), Hughes suggests developing a more ambitious, all-encompassing, broad system. Her more holistic approach governs all the values-based decisions of the designers.

Hughes described how she nudged the AirBnB team to create a hierarchy for design systems, which was crucial to their success. For example, here is Hughes’s hierarchical approach for AirBnB:

Lowest Level -> Efforts + Components
Middle Level -> Experiences
Highest Level -> Services + Journeys + Rights (values as models)

Hughes’s talk also addressed common concerns from designers relating to these systems. Primarily a fear that designers could be replaced entirely by a well-developed design system. Reassuring the designer-filled audience, Hughes suggests we focus on how we drive change beyond individual components, and instead use design to influence processes and institutions in a more meaningful way.

Her memorable final words:

“Don’t just be good, do good”

Wizard of Oz prototyping

Pluralsight’s Senior Product Manager (and GoPro’s former Principal UX Designer) Ha Phan’s talk had a whimsical tone. She described prototyping and conceptual models for interaction with a familiar classic pop culture reference: the Wizard of Oz.

The Wizard of Oz characters looking off to the distance with somewhat of a bewildered look on their faces.
The Wizard of Oz, 1939 MGM film classic. © Warner Bros.

Phan spoke about how prototyping draws out two of our key innate skills: it leverages our intuitive ability to problem-solve, and it helps designers ask better questions. Naming this ‘Wizard of Oz’-style prototyping, Phan suggests a method of research that “fakes” technological interactions. By performing user research with non-technological creations, teams can rapidly prototype new and wilder ways of interacting with projects. Who needs a yellow brick road? The detours are all part of the adventure.

“Designers like to envision the future without constraints, but the future still has constraints. However, we get to set the focus of our future.”

Her experiences at GoPro were a major portion of her talk, with some especially memorable examples of how Phan paired her expertise in artificial intelligence (AI) with her strong understanding of our hard-wired storytelling skills. Phan encouraged designers to create tools that enable people to connect through emotional storytelling, which ultimately results in the most intuitive, memorable, and powerful experiences.

Designer at scale: introspecting on personal narratives

One of the most thoughtful, raw talks was senior Google designer Joel Beukelman’s Designer at Scale. Beukelman’s presentation centred on building a personal narrative, looking inward to explore your identity, and finding inner clarity on both your UX practice goals and your broader life goals.

Beukelman gave the audience many interesting self-evaluation tools, which include applying a journalist’s 5 Ws (Who, What, When, Where & Why) to define your career, and rating yourself on an axis of craft, commerce, and self.

At each stage, Joel returned to this core question: Why? A question that should be applied to your UX practice’s purpose, your existence, and cultivating a clear self-awareness of your role as a designer.

Beukelman recognized that all your other aspects of life—family, friends, hobbies, etc—will impact your craft, too. These factors are critical for him, especially at the time he chose to leave Google, and then returned a year later. Ultimately, he concluded that ego is the enemy of creativity, and encouraged attendees to continue moving in their careers, which means that a clear sense of self-awareness is essential.

Don’t miss out on the next Spotlight UX event

Spotlight UX/UI is always a great opportunity to connect with a wide range of UX designers and to hear best practices from accomplished design leaders.

The Say Yeah team encourages anyone working or studying in the UX space to keep an eye out for upcoming FITC events and the next Spotlight UX event, whether it’s held in person, or online.

Can’t wait for the next event?

Check out our Spotlight UX/UI 2018 Recap: exploring user experience and interaction design.

Spotlight UX/UI 2018 Recap

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