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Natalie Lew’s Human-Focused Design Process

By Natalie Lew

As part of her yearlong Adobe Creative Residency, Natalie Lew is considering how we might design an equitable, human-centered future. In this article, she shares her approach to interaction design and the development of her first Residency project:

PROFESSIONAL NETWORKING AND MY FIRST RESIDENCY PROJECT

I’m an interaction designer interested in ethics, philosophy, and technology, so when I was initially thinking about what I wanted to accomplish during the year of my Creative Residency, I kept coming back to where these spaces intersect. I wondered what a yearlong solo project with this backbone of interdisciplinary fusion might look like—and I configured my Residency around one large, open-ended, ever-present question: How might we design future technologies to be more equitable and human-centered?

I’m pursuing answering this question within multiple areas that I’m passionate about, all while focusing on how I can make my creative process feel ownable and personal. Over the past three months, I’ve been working in the area of professional networking—thinking about solutions that make professional networking feel more meaningful, sustainable, and personal. 

Click to watch a video that summarizes Lew’s work over the past three months—from initial research to a fully realized networking app.

RESEARCH

My overall process starts with secondary and primary research, which generates insight and then principles, which form the backbone of my brainstorming and prototyping phase. These brainstorms and prototypes are tested and worked on, and these revised pieces eventually lead me to a final deliverable.

It might sound strange, but I think my current favorite part of my design process is doing research. Thorough, dedicated research is so critical in designing something—even a prototype not intended to become entirely real. For this project, I started by researching the current scope of products in career services, issues in receiving and finding jobs, and articles describing the space.

I found that many products allowed people to virtually see and apply for many jobs, but few provided opportunities for users to meet professionals or interact with anyone one-on-one. This troubled me, as I found in a Glassdoor report on jobs that, on average, there are 250 applicants for every available job. The current services make finding a job and learning about opportunities stressful, impersonal, and difficult.

Much of my secondary research led me to the idea that finding meaningful jobs isn’t about how many jobs you apply for—rather, it’s about the personal connections you make with people in your field. With that idea in mind, I wanted to frame my primary research within an audience currently dealing with the issues I’ve described: millennials.

According to GPS University, “72 percent of students, as opposed to 53 percent of workers, consider having ‘a job where I can make an impact’ to be very important or essential to their happiness.”

I interviewed 6 millennials about their past job experiences, how they like to meet people, and what stresses them out about finding work. These interviews each took around 45 minutes to an hour, and gave me terrific insights into problems facing millennials in their efforts to gain employment at workplaces that align with their values and intere

I also had each interviewee participate in a research activity called the circle of trust. In the activity, participants ranked how uncomfortable or comfortable they were with behaviors related to professional networking.

Lew’s research subjects placed cards representing professional-networking behaviors on a board. Placing a card in an inner circle meant the participant was comfortable with the behavior; outer circles represent increasing discomfort. 

FINDING INSIGHTS AND PRINCIPLES

My general process for finding insights after interviews is simple yet effective: After these interviews, I wrote down everything my interviewees said on Post-it Notes (labeled with a number representing who said what) and placed them on a big wall. Then I created clusters of Post-its with similar statements, or stories that have similar trends running through them. The more time I spend with the notes, the easier it becomes to identify patterns. I then wrote down those patterns, and I formed clusters from the patterns. Eventually, all of this clustering of patterns turns into meaningful insights.

Here were the insights I gathered from my research:

  • Job boards feel unlikely to actually foster getting a job.
  • Almost every job was received by having a connection or meeting in person.
  • Casual interactions in meeting places like coffee shops feel less overwhelming.
  • “Networking” events feel forced and overwhelming.
  • Getting an introduction is most comfortable when meeting a new professional.
  • Job boards have so many jobs that it’s difficult to discern which are trustworthy.
  • Recruiters feel like automated robots. Talking to a professional is most comfortable one on one.
  • LinkedIn is used almost solely for messaging or finding mutual connections—not for its news feed or job posts.
  • Meeting in person trumps meeting over Skype or over the phone, and those connections are lasting.
  • Networking has a negative connotation of being superficial.

These insights then turned into general principles for the solution I made. Making principles is important, and different from finding insights. While finding insights is all about learning about habits, motivations, goals, fears, and so on from people, generating principles is all about how you’ll take those learnings and make sure they apply to the service you come up with.

My principles for my solution were simple:

  • My solution should promote one-on-one, in-person conversation.
  • My solution should make all interactions feel personal and organic.
  • My solution will not attempt to do all things—it will primarily help connect people.

BEGINNING BRAINSTORMING AND PROTOTYPING

Brainstorming is another part of my process that I love dedicating time to. My brainstorming usually deals with rapid ideation and drawing—both of which usually look like chicken scratch but are incredibly formative in making a holistic solution. For this part of my networking piece, I used a brainstorming technique that involves setting a timer and giving myself five minutes to draw out ten or more ideas. A piece of advice in brainstorming: constraints help! Give yourself a time limit, an area of focus, and technology to ideate on—you’ll really help yourself generate ideas quicker! I did this activity a few times, and I started finding ideas that were rooted in the principles and insights I had found.

I decided on furthering a concept I had worked on while brainstorming: an app that helps people meet other people. This might sound simple, but all you need in order to begin prototyping is a simple idea, the understanding that your idea might completely change, and a lot of passion.

I began by drawing up very simple wireframes in Adobe Experience Design CC, and then I turned those wireframes into higher- and higher-fidelity prototypes.

While I’m working on my concept, I test my prototypes with people. This part—the prototyping with real people—should probably be written in bold and underlined. Testing design work is the foundation of my project and of all interaction design, as making things with people constantly critiquing, giving feedback, and interacting with your pieces by your side is crucial in making services human-centered.

THE DELIVERABLE

After all of my prototyping, I landed on my final piece: a networking app called Vit that allows you to connect and stay in touch with professionals in your area.

In my research and prototyping, I found that having more options does not always mean having good options; in fact, I found that limiting how many people the user can connect with creates a sense of trustworthiness. For that reason, within the app, people are given a set of four professionals they can reach out to per day—never more. These four professionals are chosen by Vit’s smart algorithm, which matches similar goals, interests, types of work, and more.

In order to understand why I chose a limit of four, it might help to know that a huge design icon in my life is Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist and the creator of Time Well Spent. His mission is to make sure people spend their time online in a way that is meaningful and goal-oriented, something I strive to ensure in my own work. Giving the user only four people to reach out to per day not only makes them more likely to reach out, but also ensures that they won’t spend more time on the app than is necessary.

Users can reach out to professionals they are interested in connecting with, but only by setting up a time, date, and place to meet. In my research, I found that the most used part of LinkedIn was its people-finding and messaging services, but I also learned that people were often unsure about how to actually meet professionals in person. This is not dissimilar to general dissatisfaction with dating apps: while many dating services provide multiple ways to see who’s out there, the actual element of getting people to meet in person often falls flat.

I also found that once people met face to face, they were more likely to feel that the people they’d met were part of their larger professional network and could be called upon.

Once a meeting is set, the professional on the other side of the app has 24 hours to respond to the invitation. After each meeting, the user can write a small note for their own viewing purposes about how it went and what the person was like, and attach that to the professional’s contact information. They can then set more meetings with the professional and have access to their email address and other contact info.

Here’s the catch: users can’t see exactly where everyone works—they can see only their title, mutual connections, location, and information. This might seem strange, as the point of the app is to connect professionals, and a place of work might seem crucial; however, the more research I did, the more I learned that the “superficiality” of networking mostly comes from its goal-oriented nature. People who talk to professionals solely as a method for getting a job with their employer come off as superficial and rarely create meaningful relationships. But those who talk to professionals in their industry with the intention of meeting like-minded (or, in some cases, not-so-like-minded) individuals pursuing their own passions in their space were generally received as friendly and genuine.

If you’re interested in seeing more of what I’m talking about, feel free to check out the video near the top of this page for a little summary.

With this project coming to a close, I’m excited about what’s next: a few quick sprints, each spanning two weeks, where I’ll prototype and learn all I can about the ideas of generosity, reciprocity, giving, and receiving—eventually leading to a six-week expansion on one of the sprints. Feel free to find that work on my Medium account, and follow me on Twitter and Instagram for quick, timely updates!