Maya Patterson and the Craft of UX

By Jordan Kushins

Maya Patterson is a people person, in the sense that she has an innate interest in the way others navigate the world and a finely tuned ability to see solutions where others may encounter roadblocks. In April, the Midwest native and “diehard Chicago stan” moved to Oakland, California, for a job as a product designer at Facebook; we talked with her about user experience design, empathy, internships, and why it makes sense to keep up with the Snapchat habits of teens.

Create: Tech titles and terms can be tough to parse. You’re a product designer at Facebook; what does your job entail?

Patterson: It’s funny you say that because I feel like my title—and what it means—changes every six months. Officially, at this moment, I’m a product designer at Facebook. If I could rename this kind of job, I would call it “digital product designer” because we’re not building tangible things—we’re focusing on web experiences; it all started with desktop, then laptop, then mobile devices, and then on to AR and VR and all of these developing spaces.

But essentially my job is to take care of users, to dig into their needs and behaviors, and build a digital system that helps them accomplish their goals. Depending on who I’m working for, that could be anything from intense data infographic systems to designing a way to get a trunk of clothes sent to your house (which was my last job). Now it’s designing different pieces of the Facebook experience.

So that’s the “real” answer. Though the answer I oftentimes give is: “I’m a web designer.” People are satisfied with that. 

Since joining Facebook, Patterson has worked on projects including augmented-reality effects that allow people to try out cosmetics via a device’s camera. 

Create: Is there such thing as a typical weekday work day for you?

Patterson: It’s usually a mix of meetings, plus thinking and working time: I’m talking to people, building out Keynote decks, mocking up in Adobe Sketch or prototyping in Framer, traveling to other Facebook offices, conducting user research, observing things out in the world. That’s my day-to-day.

I’m in an interesting spot because I’m working on multiple products; some of these ship, which means they go into production—like changes to the composer, which you use if you’re going to post to Facebook, and camera effects, where you can change the lighting and add stuff to your face—and some are more conceptual, like AR experiences.

AR is this thing where no one knows exactly what they’re doing, or what the next steps are, so we’re building a case for it—and that’s the fun part. Right now I spend a lot of time reading through user research and talking to our researchers about what they see as big opportunities, then extracting information from that to imagine potential solutions. From there I’ll build a concept—which might look like a rough prototype, or a mock prototype that moves so you can see how the experience would function—and a hypothesis to present to bosses and leadership to see where the excitement is, and how that might align with business goals. 

Create: So you need to have the technical skills to bring these ideas to life, but it sounds like you’re also doing a lot of interpersonal work, both with users and colleagues. 

A snapshot of the onboarding overhaul Patterson designed for Trunk Club: “This was my first huge project and turned out to be a huge success,” she says.

Patterson: I actually think that soft skills are more important than technical ones for UX designers. The biggest two assets in my opinion are the ability to communicate and a sense of empathy.

Early on in my career, I’d have these really good ideas. I’d mock them up. I’d design solutions. And over and over they’d get cut. I was like, “What is the issue?!” It was so frustrating. I realized it was because I didn’t know how to package them and tell the story about why they mattered.

So I watched people who could communicate very well. Writing is important because it helps you to think in a structured manner and articulate yourself and your ideas. Speaking, presenting, storytelling: these are all essential. People who can tune in, listen, read body language, and get down to the core of how people are responding and reacting to something they’ve created—and who are able to receive feedback—are going to excel. 

That’s why minorities, specifically black people and black women, are primed for this career. We’re oftentimes put in situations where we have to be very cognizant of how our behavior is affecting others; we have to see how others are performing and tune our own actions accordingly, even if we don’t want to. We are trained from age zero in how to do this. One you figure that out, and translate it into the day-to-day design job, it kind of comes naturally.

Create: You’ve been outspoken about inclusivity in your field. Do you feel pressure to be a kind of advocate, simply by existing as a black woman in tech?

Patterson: As a black person you go through every day and every activity knowing you’re black, so the intersection between my blackness and my profession is constantly on my mind. I’m established enough in my career now that I’m beginning to have a layer of guilt if I’m not doing enough to reach back and pull my community up with me. It’s not a bad guilt; it’s just something I have to balance and maintain. When you’re black, there’s also pressure to speak on all of the black experience. I don’t want to stick my foot in my mouth and say anything that’s “wrong,” but I also believe strongly in speaking your voice and giving your opinion. Another layer is that I don’t always want to speak about diversity. I think it’s important, but I want to speak about my profession, and my passions, and my interests. Blackness on top of that is cool and dope and I’m down to go there, but I think that sometimes we get pigeonholed toward “What are we going to do about diversity? How can we fix this?” And it’s like, “Whoa, that is a whole issue that I am not prepared to solve.”

Patterson served as the MC for the Engineering and Design track at November 2017’s Afrotech conference. 

Create: Especially when even from the top down, it should be a no-brainer: Your product will be better with a non-homogenous team.

Patterson: It’s not a bad thing to speak to the fact that your business will be better with diverse minds, and it’s frustrating at this point that people are thought to be hyper-intelligent industry leaders don’t get that. It’s non-debatable. It’s proven. So to me, it’s like: Why is this even a conversation? If you are at a table and you look around and all you see is men, or all you see is white dudes, or all you see is white people, there’s probably something wrong and you should actively work to change that. It’s also frustrating for any underrepresented population to constantly have to say that, but I will be the one to say it.

Exposing underrepresented people—particularly black people—to design is definitely a passion of mine. It’s hard, but every day it seems to get a little bit easier as more and more people seem to know about and understand the field. There are tons of educational programs now that are really focused on STEM, which is super needed and absolutely a thing that we continue to cultivate, but I think that there’s an additional layer of design thinking that we could start to expose our young girls and boys to at an early age. In addition to showing them that design is something they could go into when they’re older—and it’s totally not some fluffy job, you will make money!—it might shape how they see the world.

Create: How did you discover product design?

Patterson: My mom owns a tech consulting company, but I totally took what she did for granted. She wasn’t ever super gadget oriented, she was just really good at running businesses and managing people. I looked at her as an entrepreneur, which I thought was amazing but something I would absolutely not be good at; there was no way I could be that superhuman.

Patterson says, “To get ideas out of my head, my go-to tools always include a pen and dotted paper.” 

My dad was a DJ; I think I got my taste for gadgets from his musical interests. I was exposed to things growing up that I’m now realizing a lot of people weren’t, but not in a way where I knew anything about or associated it with design.

But then the iPhone dropped, and the first time I got to experience it in my hand I was like, “Whoa.” It took me a while to understand what I was responding so passionately to—come to find out it was user experience.

Create: What was that process like, unpacking and analyzing this connection, and then translating it into a career?

Patterson: The moment that I was exploring my feelings about the iPhone—which sounds so weird when I say it, but I was totally infatuated with this device!—happened to be the same time I was not feeling my major or the path that I was on. My mom introduced me to a woman she had just hired to do information architecture, and said I was asking a lot of the same questions that she does for her job. I ended up shadowing her for the summer, and kind of fell into UX from there. 

Create: So you’ve had a few key influencers who have made a major difference on your creative path. How important do you feel it is to be exposed to—and pursue—those kinds of mentor relationships?

Patterson: I feel like mentorship is a ginormous topic that’s so important, especially for people who are constantly underrepresented and aren’t put in the same spaces that you need to be in to typically get a mentor.

I view mentorship in different categories. There’s teachers to look up to in terms of craft: visual design, intense user research skills, code, basically whatever you’re trying to hone in on. You can latch onto whoever you can access easily, either online or in person, and ask them questions or copy techniques. Then there are life mentors, who don’t actually have to be in your field; they just have to care about you, and care about your success. These can be family, friends, sorority sisters, fellow volunteers, anyone.

I also like to surround myself with people who challenge the way I think. My friends are not in the same field at all, and they keep me up to speed on things from education to policy to fundraising. They help me cultivate my thinking skills.

Basically what I’m trying to say is that people often expect the mentor relationship to be very formal, but really it’s about building relationships. What that means from a mentee perspective is this: Reach out and ask questions, get to know your potential mentor, explain where you’re at, and give them insight. You’ll almost always run into someone who wants to give back, but you have to tell them how to help you. 

Patterson says, “This was volunteer project I worked on with an awesome team to help fight voter suppression. 

Create: What else do you recommend for newbies who want to explore and navigate this field?

Patterson: UX is still in a space where you can actually learn on-the-fly—a kind of happy medium of self-taught possibilities and more formal HCI [human-computer interaction] curriculums—but I will say you almost have to have an internship. I wouldn’t have any of the skills that I need to practice my job if it wasn’t for my internships; and if you’re looking for a full-time job, keep in mind that even though you might be working for minimum wage, it could very easily turn into a salary in three months’ time. I’ve been offered a full-time position at the end of every internship I’ve ever had.

A lot of companies want to have internships but haven’t done what they need to do to post an opening. If you’re interested in a company you can usually reach out and ask: “Hey, do you want an intern?” They’ll probably say yes!

Create: As the industry develops, what is it like trying to keep up with the pace of the technology that’s constantly evolving, but also to help push that same tech, and those experiences, forward?

Patterson: In tech, you’re constantly stuck between wanting to get ahead to what’s coming tomorrow and perfecting your craft and producing relevant things for what is happening today. It’s a balance.

I’m an overthinker, and I’ve had to learn to cut off my exploration and research phases over time because there’s just so much info out there; it can be really overwhelming. The way I often combat that is by shutting my browser, pulling up Sketch full-bleed, and just getting something out. Sometimes you really have to close it all down, and focus on you.

Create: What else helps you refocus and recharge?

Patterson: Observing young people; they’re the ones who are going to transform our world. I’m lucky enough to have a little brother—he’s 17, and he is definitely Generation Z—and he and I have a good relationship, so he lets me follow him on Snapchat. It’s interesting to see how he and his friends use the product versus how I will, like: “Ohhh, so that’s what the kids are doing these days.”

And just observing anyone’s behaviors outside of my own self. It won’t tell me exactly how I should build a system or interface, but it exposes me to things that could use additional design thinking. Like, “Here’s a place I could enter in and make a difference.” I feel really excited about that.

Follow Maya Patterson on Twitter or Medium.

January 18, 2018