Can you give us a brief introduction, tell us your name, your job, and what you’re working on?
My name is Elizabeth, I actually go by Bits, but I answer to either. I’m currently a UX designer, user experience designer, at TED, also known as TED Talks, TED Conferences. And I work across TED’s digital products. Both consumer-facing, but also internal products. A lot of what TED runs on is actually self-built. Our technology team does it all, really. Jack of all trades.
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Can you explain your design career thus far and how your journey has led you to TED?
Yeah, so I actually have a very … a very kind of wandering path to design. I actually come from more of a health background, so I studied public health in school. And it wasn’t until senior year that I was like introduced to what we know as design thinking. So IDOs, kind of, framework for designing. And I was kind of brought into that through the lens of designing for public health, and designing for health experiences and more from a service design perspective. And then I kind of walked away from that with my first couple of jobs, and I ended up in a kind of account strategy role for Kennedy Space Center, actually, which was really neat. But I always kind of felt this itch to go back to being less of a delegator and more of a creator.
It’s been a real schlepp the past two years, as I kind of laid the groundwork for what I’m doing now. It was a lot of freelance work, a lot of asking people what I can help them do. Just really a lot of small, kind of freelance-y, niche roles. And TED kind of was totally, I mean, everyone knows … I shouldn’t say that, but a lot of people know what TED is, and it was certainly on my radar when I decided I wanted to go in-house somewhere and applied from the website, and here I am.
What does your personal design process look like? How long does it take something to grow from an idea to a fully implemented feature?
So that’s interesting. Having the perspective now of working for myself in a freelance capacity, and now working for a team that creates a product that millions of people see every day, it definitely varies. I would say I’m surprised by, sometimes, how quickly things happen, and then alternatively how slow things are. So if it’s something like improving an existing experience or product, so let’s say like a feature on our Talk page, so the page that people come to to view TED content. That could be a really short process, and the kind of clips research that happens there is just a lot of questions to my team, who maybe have historical context around why we’re doing the things … why we’re testing it this way, what have we tested before in the past?
Those things are really quick, and that’s like changing button language or changing the way that we promote the share experience, or allow users to share a talk. For the kind of bigger media projects, what I look for, what I’m really trying to get at, is finding these points of tension. So when we’re starting a project or conceptually have an idea that we want to scratch this itch, it’s really going out and conducting research. It always starts with research, the degree to which you can do that, it varies. And obviously, like when you’re moving as quickly as we do, it doesn’t always happen.
In a lot of my solo endeavors, it starts with talking to people and really, I want to find the point of tension and the friction between what they say they want and what it is they’re actually doing. A lot of times, users will create hacks to get the intended result that they want to achieve. It’s about finding a way to listen to that and hearing the way that they’re trying to solve these problems already. It’s about identifying how we can make that much easier for them.
What is something that has surprised you since beginning to work in this space?
I’m surprised by how just quick and dirty a lot of it is. When you do stuff in your own time, like in a freelancing capacity, you have the tendency to really marinate on an idea and be like “No, no, no, got to get it perfect, got to get it perfect.”
It really is true what they say, just ship it and then learn from that. That’s still something that I’m beginning to wrap my hands around.
But, I mean, there’s definitely a time and a place for that, but I would say that –
People are more comfortable with risks than I would have, maybe, assumed coming from the perspective of a job that seems so calculating and so thoughtful. Sometimes the most thoughtful thing you can do is just release it to the wild and just see what happens.
What is design to you?
So design, to me, is creating with an intention for an intention.
As a designer, there should always be a purpose to what it is that you’re creating. Design can be this beautiful and impactful thing. It can be art, but there’s a purpose that underlines it.
I think the expression that a lot of people are more familiar with is like form meeting functionality. So the thing itself, the experience itself, the service itself must meet a baseline function. And for a long time, that was basically, like “Is this meeting a basic user need?” And now, looking kind of broadly at a lot of the things that we see in the tech industry, specifically, in content specifically, it’s meeting that basic need, but now we’re sort of leveling up on that to say “Okay, but delight is also a function of design.” And how can we layer in and design for user delight? And so there’s now these like gradients of what that intention is, and I think that that kind of backs into like the intention of the designer themselves.
Design has entered this new phase where there’s a nuance and a kind of … I don’t know if delicateness is the right word, but there’s just so much to explore, and through the lens of design it’s really exciting. I mean, a design should always be simple, and that’s what makes it really challenging.
Is there a soundtrack or album that helps you get into creative mode?
I love listening to movie film scores. When I’m really trying to focus and get the creative juices flowing, I can’t have words. I like film scores because there’s strings and they’re orchestral and they’re passionate, and there’s so much energy there, but it’s not like a distracting kind, where my brain is like jumping to kind of interpret the words.
So I always default to film scores. I would say when I’m doing really kind of like rote design work, where I may have to create symbols or duplicate this screen in these different states, then I’ll listen to like … I actually have been in like a big ’80s kick, like Jefferson Starship. I go real pop, because that keeps the spirits high. It can get pretty dark, you know, when you’re on screen 40 and there’s only one element of change between this screen and the last one.
What is a new design trend that has caught your attention in the last year?
I don’t know… just really rallying cry around designing for disability by designing for disabled people, with disabled designers. This idea of products, in general, being very adaptive for disabled users, when in reality it really shouldn’t be the case. It shouldn’t be the last step in a process for a company to think “Oh, well, we have to make our design ‘accessible,’ so we should tack this one little thing on at the end.” Liz Jackson’s actually a designer who is a pretty prolific voice in this, and she’s kind of leading this charge around integrating disabled designers into the process. I mean, you have so many instances of brands that design for disabled people without actually asking disabled people for input into the process, which blows my mind.
But working, I mean, TED.com’s website, for instance, has millions of people trafficking it, and they’re global users, and they speak tons of different languages. So I understand from the kind of in-practice perspective, of how challenging that is, to work into a process where historically we really have thought of it as like the last step, when really it should be baked in from the beginning. When you see that happening, you get really great products, like OXO kitchenware. So many tools that are designed for people that can’t use the things that we’ve designed, because we’ve chosen to not make them accessible for all, just really are the ones that bubble up to the top as being the kind of most steadfast, powerful products that we have.
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