Designing at Nasdaq

The O’Reilly Design Podcast: Aaron Irizarry on getting and keeping a seat at the table.

By Mary Treseler
July 22, 2015
LA students explore the Former GM engine block manufacturing plant LA students explore the Former GM engine block manufacturing plant (source: Dave Brenner)

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Welcome to the inaugural episode of our newly launched O’Reilly Design Podcast. In this podcast episode, I chat with Aaron Irizarry. Irizarry is the director of UX for product design at Nasdaq, co-author of “Discussing Design” with Adam Connor, and a member of the program committee for O’Reilly’s Design Conference.

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Design at Nasdaq: A growing team

I first noted Nasdaq’s commitment to design when talking to Irizarry about his book and the design conference hosted by Nasdaq that Irizarry helps develop:

It’s interesting to see an organization that didn’t have a product design team as of, what — 2011, I believe. To see the need for that, bring someone in, hire them to establish a team (which is my boss, Chris), and then see just the transition and the growth within the company, and how they embraced product design. We had to work a lot, and really educate and pitch in the beginning, explain to them the value of certain aspects of the job we were doing, whether that was research, usability, testing, why we were wanting to do more design of browser and rapid prototyping, and things like that.

We believe we’re helping structure and build, and I think we still have work to do as a design-led organization. We recently did our Pro/Design conference in New York. Our opening speaker was the president of Nasdaq, and to hear her reference the design team’s research, and to be in marketing meetings, and discussing the personas that we created, and to hear the president of Nasdaq speak about these kind of artifacts and items that we feel are crucial to design and the design process, it was a mark for us like, ‘We’re really starting to make a mark here. We’re starting to show the value of what these things are,’ not just because we want design, but we believe that this approach to design is going to be really good for the product, and in the end, good for the business.

We try to establish really solid communication. We try to establish a lot of inclusion. When we’re doing research, we’re including our product managers and executives, anybody we can, who’s willing to be a part of it — even developers, which I believe is really key in this process, to be a part of the research, or to review the findings with us, take part in usability testing, going and visiting clients and doing interviews. All of that stuff, we try to include everybody.

Keeping a seat at the proverbial table

Irizarry noted the ongoing discussion on designers gaining a seat at the table alongside business counterparts. He described the thinking and behavior necessary to keep that seat.

What are you going to do when you get that seat at the table? Are we going to push our agendas, and what we think is best as designers, or do we even understand the nature of the game?

Especially in an enterprise situation, this isn’t like Disneyland for designers. This is about trade-offs. This is about learning how to communicate and work with people in a way that you can say, ‘You know what? I don’t agree with that, but I don’t think this is the right battle to fight right now.’ I understand that if I agree to find a compromise and work with this person, then I’m building equity with them. I’m building a relationship with them where, when I do speak up and I do want to take more of a stand on something, they say, ‘That person’s been fair. They’ve worked with me. They know their stuff.’ Now, the onus is on them to come back and work with me, and show that same compromise.

Getting a seat at the table is one thing, but understanding what to do when you’re there, and how to work with people in a way that allows you to keep that seat at the table, is way more important.

On design critiques: It’s not you

I recently finished reading Ed Catmull’s Creativity Inc., where Catmull noted “you are not your work.” Irizarry echoes this sentiment when discussing the best practices for conducting successful design critiques:

Adam and I joke about this phrase in our slide deck when we do this talk: ‘Think before you speak,’ comes up, probably, every other slide. What’s so silly about it, is that’s just a common, good life rule. It’s translated into this thing about receiving critique and building products and design. We’ve realized that critique has a lot of overlap with those life skills, like listening to advice, not being defensive. Those types of things translate and overlap.

The one I think was important to me was, ‘never take it personal.’ Even if someone else is seeming to make it personal, because we work in companies and they can get all House of Cards and political. People are going to be upset because their design didn’t get chosen, or a product owner just wants so much control that they do this, or the CEO or the VP or whoever feels like they have to be so much in charge that they shoot your work down. There’s a million reasons why people may come across as harsh, or seem like they’re making it a personal attack on your work.

As designers, we get incredibly defensive and protective of our work. That’s kind of a tough line to walk. One of the things I learned is just don’t take things personally, even if someone else is. A second part of that is, even if they are being an ass or making it personal, they could still have a valid point. That’s one of the hardest pills to swallow because you don’t want to validate that person totally being a jerk to you, but to say, ‘Cool, thanks for the feedback,’ write it down, move on, or dig deeper, ask more questions: ‘Wow, what is that made you come to that conclusion? Is there something specific you can show me?’

One thing I’ve learned in companies with so many different people — we have 26 people on our product design team — is that we’re all, for the most part, very, very different. We all come from different backgrounds. We have different experience levels. We’ve gone to different schools, or worked at different companies. All that weighs into your experience and the lens through which you approach design. You may say a certain term, and I may say that same term, but we understand it in two different ways. The whole Princess Bride thing: ‘that thing you said — I don’t think it means what you think it means.’ That’s really very common.

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