Hello! Who are you? Tell us about yourself. What are you passionate about? What do you enjoy doing?
Hello! My name is Tristan. I leaned over to my wife and asked her to describe me in one sentence and she said: “well he’s very kind, and passionate about what he does, uh, open to feedback, very loyal, might take a couple reminders sometimes to get to the point, but like, in a good way—this is hard!”
That’s totally spot on, so pardon if I ramble a bit but I promise I will eventually get to a point. Places have had such a big impact on who I am: I was born in Santa Cruz, California; grew up in the Shangri-La town of Ojai, went to kindergarten at Patagonia’s GPCDC, spent nearly every summer in Yosemite and learned about the real world, went to school in Berkeley, then moved across the country to Boston, and now reside in the bike-friendly town of Somerville. I love places.
I have way too many hobbies to list (my friends tell me this is because I do not yet have kids) but the two I’m spending time on right now are bicycling, and singing in a local community choir.
I’m passionate about making things. Most of my other hobbies tie to that: some spin on creating something out of nothing, and doing it in the best way I can. I just feel incredibly lucky that I can bring creativity into my day to day work too. I feel incredibly lucky for a lot of things.
How did you get started in product design?
I probably came to design and UX in a roundabout way (like everyone), from being mystified by Microsoft Paint on my Grandfather’s i386, to discovering the web in the ’90’s and figuring out how easy it was to make a web page, to realizing there was a whole field geared around making web pages better. I remember reading Jeffrey Zeldman, Dan Cederholm, and Doug Bowman’s blogs and wanting to be like them when I grew up. I made my own blog and tried to copy the trends and put my own spin on it, and suddenly I was a web designer.
I had an influential experience in high school, in which I discovered a small computer lab in town that was teaching classes on web design and design tools, taught by Lynda Weinman and Bruce Heavin. I walked in and asked if I could intern over the summer, and they let me. They later went on to make videos or something like that.
During college I started to get into photography and really wanted to get back to design, so I started an open-source photo gallery called Zenphoto, and it allowed me to stretch my product legs. I would say it was the first product I really designed. I wrote a blog post announcing and asking for feedback, and got 100 comments within a week. I could see the demand, and started to parse through what people wanted and try to figure out why, and design a product that would make them happy (not to be confused with what they asked for).
Where do you work today? What is your title?
I work at Appcues as the Head of Product Design. Appcues is a platform for improving your user experience through supportive guidance and annotation. It’s ridiculously cool to be designing not only an experience tool, but also the experience that millions of people see every day by proxy.
How big is your company? How big is your design team?
We’re up to around 75 now! There are three total designers on our team: myself, fellow product designer Jennifer Maggio, and Tanya Higgins on brand & marketing design. They’re both phenomenal and I’m so fortunate to be able to work with them (and you would be too!).
What types of things are you responsible for day-to-day?
As the manager of the design team, I’m responsible for making sure everyone on my team has whatever they need to be incredibly successful and happy. Happy and excited designers make great products.
As the Head of Product Design, I’m also responsible for experience strategy (how we go about achieving the experience our product needs to be successful), and design process and activities. I also get to think a little more long-term about the future of the Appcues experience, which is exciting.
What do you love most about your work?
Absolutely without a doubt it’s the folks here. I’ve learned more in the last 3 years at Appcues than at any other time in my career, and it’s pretty much only because I’m surrounded by people who challenge me, teach me, and encourage me to do my best every day.
Second to that—on the design side of things, the Appcues product is just so much fun to work on. We get to design a solution that helps our customers design a solution to problems that are actually important to their users and their business. It’s very hard, confusing at times, and takes all of our design skills to pull off. Because of that, it’s pretty fulfilling and exciting.
What drains you at work?
Working alone for too long. I get energized by collaborating either one-on-one or in a small group. I have a lot of experience being the only designer at various companies, and I would always have to rope anyone I could find into whiteboarding or feedback sessions, if only to bounce stuff off of them and see if it changed my thinking. Now that there are three other designers around the office, it’s a dream.
Can you walk us through your typical work day?
|5:30am||My wife’s alarm goes off. She’s a social worker, and is objectively amazing.|
|7:30am||My alarm goes off. Get ready, walk the dog, bike and catch the 8:44 commuter rail train.|
|8:58am||Arrive at the office after my 10 minute train ride (it’s not even fair)|
|9:05am||Coffee, settle in at the lunch tables in the sun with computer and headphones (I’m on a non-desk kick lately)|
|9:15am||On task—let’s say I’m recruiting, sending emails, reviewing applicants, checking in with folks in process. Or maybe I’m diagramming something about our process.|
|11:30am||A meeting of some kind. I actually enjoy meetings.|
|12:00pm||Is it a nice day? How about walking to Tenoch, a mexican joint in the North End, for some excellent-for-Boston carnitas.|
|1:30pm||Our weekly design review, one of my favorite times of the week. We dedicate a good lot of time and pick three things to focus on. So great.|
|3:00pm||Riding on the design review, we might just continue working on an important problem together. This has happened a couple times and it’s always time well spent.|
|4:23pm||Post several gifs and emoji nearly every message on Slack.|
|5:05pm||Can’t think deeply anymore—fire up the dev environment and fix a piece of copy that’s been nagging me for weeks.|
|5:30pm||Run to catch the 5:35 train. Jump on with a whole 40 seconds to spare.|
|6:00pm||Cook dinner (maybe 40% of days… and let’s go with Thai yellow curry with chicken) and relax!|
Where do you turn for inspiration?
I’m going to give two non-example examples. First up, my team: they are constantly doing top notch work and inspiring me to do better. Second: our users. When I’m uninspired, nothing gets me more energized than talking to a user who can show us what it’s like for them to use our product and help us understand a problem or opportunity better through their eyes. Design is about solving problems for real people—I always go to them first.
What design or project are you most proud of? (It can be recent or older).
Recently we re-branded Appcues, thanks to our wonderful marketing designer, Tanya. She went through a great process trying to find our who we were as a company so we could present that to the outside world, and she integrated the whole product design team in the process. Because of that integration, we were all excited and inspired along the way, and I started experimenting with how the product could shift to meet the new standards of our brand. I really like how it turned out—it feels light and airy, and more mature with a solid visual system and a flexible navigation that can help our information architecture adapt for the future.
This was a good start, and the other product designers have already taken it way further than I ever could, refining and improving pretty much every part, in particular accessibility and contrast, and many other visual and UI system refinements. Most importantly, the real product ended up looking pretty close to the concept, and continues to improve beyond it, thanks to our awesome UI platform engineers.
And even more importantly, it helped our users get a better sense of the product and what it can do. To me, information architecture is how a product talks about itself; the key to understanding its basic structure and purpose. It has to be good.
Walk us through the design process you used for a recent project (you can pick any project).
I’m going to reach back a bit to before I hired my team for this one. At Appcues, we’ve loved the idea of onboarding checklists for as long as I can remember: psychologically and usability-wise, they have so many advantages. We wanted to take this experience and make it available to any app in only a few steps.
I began by trying to understand the opportunity as well as I could. I defined the goals, read articles on checklist psychology, read the Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, and did a survey of checklists in use across the web and apps. We realized a few things would be special to this pattern, and some principles and clear needs emerged, as well as many decisions to test. The Notion doc was comprehensive and helped spark great debates and discussions.
That clear list of possible directions led to some good sketching and divergence. We got together as a team, did some fun crazy-eights and post-it-ing, and that led to lots of ideas. Ideas turned into sketches, and a picture of a generic pattern that might just work for a wide variety of apps and products emerged.
The next step was cool: I decided to make a fully realistic prototype in React. I wouldn’t normally put in the work to make a full demo app, but a) I’m really comfortable in React these days and I love designing in a CSS-first way, and b) as an end-user pattern (what we at Appcues call the interfaces that our customers can create and place on top of their products), the fidelity mattered at every point: details of the design quality, animations, and the feel of this pattern all were essential to understanding how our customers and their users would respond to it.
After we had a basic prototype, I started getting it out there as soon as possible. Over the course of a month or so I had 35 calls with customers and non-customers alike. Since it was a brand new pattern, I talked to potential users and made adjustments and changes along the way until I was confident they would love it. Most were excited and gave great feedback—some said they would never be able to use it. We learned a lot, but by the end we knew we were onto something good.
The last step was making it real and getting it into the product. The prototype left few questions unanswered, but that was almost a crutch—one thing I’ve learned is that high fidelity can be deceiving. It’s important to keep talking through the work even if it feels certain; maybe even especially when it feels certain.
Overall, I was pretty happy with how it turned out and with the process. I mostly did things in the right order and derived a successful UI from good understanding, lots of divergence, and a whole lot of talking to users. If there’s one thing I’d do over, it would be to have more conversations pre-prototype as well as post-prototype: we learned a lot of things that probably would have influenced our thinking before we had created a more detailed prototype, and that would have saved us time and rework later on. Generative research to understand problems, situations, and assumptions is just this incredible hidden value that’s so easy to skip.
As for the product itself, I think it turned out great. It’s a way to get an awesome behavior-driven learning experience into any product super easily.
What career advice do you have for product designers just getting started?
Work with the best people you can find—and the best people can be found in the most unexpected places. You don’t need to work at a famous name or a hot startup to find a great team. Find larger companies with good managers and experienced designers who you can trust and learn from, because surrounding yourself with more experienced folks will be the fastest way you’ll learn and grow.
This comes from a couple experiences I’ll share to back it up: first, I started a company straight out of college. I was headstrong and thought I knew how to do anything, and I learned a lot in the process (read: did not know how to do anything). If I could do it all again, I’d find a great team at a big company and work and learn for at least two or three years first.
Second experience: when I was at a decent sized company with a design team of five, even with a few years of experience under my belt, I still learned and improved so quickly that I was astonished. Like, every 3 months I’d look back and not be able to look at my work from 3 months ago it was so different. Working directly with skilled folks is a superpower. Watch them work, copy their style and process shamelessly, and ask them for feedback on everything you do.
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Photos by Meryl Ayres