Digital products of the new age need to straddle the fine line between technological prowess and customer accessibility !
Vivek Menon, our next pathbreaker, User Experience Designer at Microsoft, works as part of a team of designers tasked with the mandate of making a customer’s experience with a software more productive and more delightful.
Vivek talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the significance of well-designed digital experiences in today’s world where the boundaries between work and home are fast disappearing.
For students, as new technologies get more and more advanced, you have an opportunity to shape how users think about and interact with technology.
Vivek, can you tell us about your growing up years?
My childhood was spent shuttling between Dubai and India. Both places were home to me. Throughout my schooling, I was known for being good at art. I used to win awards in Drawing competitions and some of my paintings were auctioned for charity. I would often experiment with different mediums. In high school, I took Art as a subject and scored a 99/100 in my final exam. I never considered it to be a career path even though there was a lot of positive support from my parents and teachers.
I never actually thought of myself as a good ‘artist’ though there were two elements to my creative skills at that age – I would draw and paint a lot, and I basically had good rendering skills, which I developed from years of habitual practice. I could draw something well if I had references or if it was in front of me. Furthermore, I would find myself periodically interested in numerous other creative avenues – photography, film, music, interiors, technology, writing, gardening, fashion. This is quite a common case for creative people – there are just too many outlets to externalize that creativity, and narrowing down on only one to excel at, is usually a struggle. In grade 11 & 12, I fully focused on science just to keep my options open and there was a ton of pressure to pursue engineering like everyone else in my class.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I did my graduation in Visual Communication at National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad and then my post graduation in Digital Direction at the Royal College of Art in London.
What were the influences that drove you on such an offbeat and unconventional career path?
At the time, there wasn’t too much information around degrees in creative fields. I was not inclined to do a Fine arts course, but I did consider courses in Animation or Architecture. I ended up talking to a friend with similar interests who told me about this university called NID which is prestigious for Design in India. They had a unique entrance exam full of abstract, bizarre questions and they valued the way we approached a problem rather than the solution itself.
Luckily, I got through the multiple rounds of NID entrance exams and studied Graphic Design for the next 4 years. They had a foundation year where everyone learnt fundamental design skills and the next three years were more specialized. Graphic Design is about developing a strong visual vocabulary, being able to make connections with pertinent references, and becoming sensitized to visual expression through an awareness of form, colour, composition and typography.
Through my final years at NID and beyond, I became more interested in technology and designing digital experiences. I had a tutor recommend this course to me for my post-graduation at the RCA, which was about storytelling and emerging technologies that are pushing the boundaries of how we create narratives.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted?
A secret to being a really valuable employee is being a T-shaped individual. A T-shaped person has a deep expertise in one particular field, while still having a breadth of knowledge and skills in varied accompanying topics. I often contemplate the dichotomy between being a specialist versus a generalist. My education has been unique in that my graduate degree was more specialized while my post-graduation was more generalist in nature.
From that perspective, I try to ‘brand’ my specialist skill as Product design or UX-design, while my analogous skills are things like motion, storytelling, data visualization, 3D graphics, coding and so on.
Once I decided at college that this was the direction I wanted my career to go in, I could consciously become a better product designer by taking up those kinds of design briefs, doing internships, reading articles and building the right network and portfolio. Simultaneously, I could explore and pick up a tangential skill during an elective or workshop but not actually have it affect the main direction which I had driven my career in.
In my third year I was fortunate to get chosen for a semester abroad which I did in Germany for six months. I studied the same course but also took advantage of the opportunity to travel a bit and understand how design was taught in other countries as well.
In my final semester of college I interned with IBM as a product designer. I worked on a cool project among others, exploring how their AI service Watson could be used to improve certain experiences in the service industry. I explored how a customer could comprehend and interact with the tech through a conversational chat interface.
How did you get your first break?
Campus placements were a really great opportunity that I took advantage of during my undergrad. I sat for as many interviews as possible, even just for the experience and to gain more confidence. I already had a student portfolio at the time with a couple of Product design projects and I took up the internship at IBM through this.
I got my first job at Microsoft once I finished my post graduation. I reached out to friends from my college network and applied through Linkedin. They had quite a streamlined application process with 3 interview rounds.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: This is an industry that is incredibly fast paced. In my first year of college, product design referred to designing tangible products. Today we are called product designers because digital products and apps have taken precedence. It requires the same skill set if not a more mature one and deals with more complexity. We always need to stay up to date with the latest software and skill sets. Nonetheless, I also like this aspect of the job – it keeps me on my feet, and I get to refine my career as and when the industry evolves.
Challenge 2: Getting pigeon-holed into one type of specialisation sometimes feels limiting, and yet is a requirement to remain employable. Today there are newer niche job profiles like ‘Creative Technologist’, which are probably a better fit for those who like to stay generalists.
Challenge 3: Design in general, is always a hard field to measure success in. Great ideas may work only in a particular context and era. Sometimes the most exciting ideas do not meet business goals and get deprioritized. A large aspect of the job is being able to successfully convince all stakeholders why your solution works.
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?
Design thinking which forms the basis for a design education is a methodical technique to solve a problem, involving research, analysis, brainstorming and visualisation. What I have come to realise is that this kind of approach is complementary to engineering, where students also imbibe a problem-solving mindset. This was the way NID taught Design, and it’s a skill that tech companies especially value, irrespective of specific hard skills.
Currently I work as a product designer at Microsoft. Being a digital product designer involves making a customer’s experience with a software more productive and more delightful. I get to work with many other talented individuals and solve challenges across many different endpoints. It might involve designing a new feature, making existing products easier to use, or thinking about futuristic ways of interacting with interfaces. We gather insights, speak to customers and then decide what to build. We primarily use a tool called Figma to actually prototype every single screen that a customer will see, and this then gets built and tested. We take into consideration things like business needs and accessibility needs. I love getting to see my mockups come to life and actually being used by customers.
How does your work benefit society?
I get to work on building products that are used daily by over a billion people worldwide. Especially with work from home becoming the new norm, well-designed digital products have enabled us to carry on our work and life as usual while keeping us safe. There’s no greater impact than helping facilitate that. I get to shape how we think about and interact with technology.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
You can find my portfolio at http://www.vivekme.com. I did a conceptual redesign of the nutrition label found on food products, which is a special and simple project that is close to me because it won an award and got some press. More recently, most of the work I am doing at Microsoft is memorable and exciting, because it is being used by real customers.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Your portfolio is the most important thing, and your work must speak for itself visually. Keep curating and refining your portfolio even after projects are complete. Publicize the work more, and wherever you can, communicate visually. For example, as part of a bigger project, if you have done some quantitative research, show it as a unique data visualisation approach. If it’s more qualitative, consider showing it as a video. You must convey that you have followed an appropriate process and have the relevant technical skills to approach the problem.
Right now, I’m just going with the flow and enjoying where I am and what I am doing. There is a lot more to keep learning in my current role and if I find time alongside, I would like to spend more time writing, and maybe experimenting with more digital media just for myself.