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Ask Spotify Design 03

March 2021

Article

Spotify Design Team
Simon Child

Every now and then, the nice folks from the Spotify Design Community field questions from you, our readers. We put a call out for you to share the design dilemmas you’ve been puzzling over, and then they provide us with their unique perspective. Read on for their pearls of wisdom — plus a little bit of portrait magic from illustrator, Simon Child.

Any advice on overcoming creative block in the middle of a long project?

Sometimes projects just flow: there’s project momentum, you’re collaborating well with your cross-functional partners, and your work is being valued. For me, this is what keeps my creative fire burning bright. 

But let’s be honest: especially when you’re working on a long project, there will always be blockers and the feeling of burnout may set in. Functionality constraints can lead to a major pivot. Reiterations can lead to an endless loop of ideas. Chasing down stakeholders for alignment can feel frustrating. When these challenges arise, how do I rekindle that inner flame of creativity to maintain motivation?

Firstly, I always check in with myself. When’s the last time I really slept? Am I resorting to stress eating? How’s the current state of my mental health? If I’m feeling guilt around these areas then it’s time to kick the self-care routines into full gear. Putting my work-life on pause to rest and go outside for more walks usually helps. Just saying no to sugar (a lifetime struggle) feels like a big win. I also find that carving out more time with my therapist is crucial. Lately, I’ve fallen in love with taking Zumba classes at my local gym, which is my way of simulating past dance party experiences. During a pandemic, all of these things have been very beneficial to me. 

Secondly, during pre-pandemic times, taking time off to travel and rekindle those flames was awesome (it now feels bittersweet). During most trips, I would tap into the local art communities through museums and galleries, street art tours, and different music events. I also loved to do this in my own city. Getting out of my designer bubble to engage with the world around me allowed me to learn from others, grow and provided me with inspiration. Now that most of this is on pause, I’ve found that I can still expose myself to new experiences and ideas even if it's through a screen. I’ve become obsessed with travel cooking shows like ‘Chef’s Table’ on Netflix, following artists who are being innovative by selling via NFTs, like Beeple, and listening to more podcasts, like Creative Pep Talk by Andy J. Pizza, on our very own platform. And since I recently bought a home, I’ve been immersed in getting crafty by decorating my new space one nook at a time.

However, duty always calls and the show must go on. At this point feeling re-energized, I’m then ready to get back to work. Luckily, I partner with a strong team of cross-functional disciplines who are always down to brainstorm and ideate. The work I do is never dull, so when new challenges arise, we’re able to come up with new approaches together. These plot twists keep me engaged and that fire burning. 

Going through the cyclical phases from passion to burnout, I’ve learned to appreciate the process. What’s reassuring is that whenever I’m feeling burnt out, it’s a gentle reminder to focus on rekindling those flames through self-care, enjoyment, and team collaboration.

-Jeru Barnes, Senior Product Designer

How to learn UX writing from scratch?

This is difficult to condense into a few characters, but I'd say the 2 main things to do are: 

1) Understand what good UX principles are. You definitely need to know-how design and accessibility contribute to building a great user experience. 

2) Become a good editor and not just a writer. Your core skill is conveying information clearly and trimming out anything unnecessary.

-Anjana Menon, Senior UX Writer

How do you properly hand-off designs to developers?

With the rise of automation and machine learning, the answer to this question offers a glimpse at the changing role of a Product Designer. Today, there is no single design hand-off point, but instead an iterative collaboration with engineering to move from Figma to the engineering systems that will ultimately create the end-user experience.

The first app I worked on was a financial iPad app and handoff to development meant a detailed 100-page spec document to ensure every edge case and scenario was covered. At the time, this level of documentation was necessary to ensure that the siloed engineering team could implement the end-user experience in a way that aligned with our design vision.

Today, my work at Spotify is less about a moment of handoff and more a series of milestones where design and engineering define key parameters together leading up to a launch. From defining how something will be personalized, scoping what can be automated vs designed manually, and choosing which data a machine learning system will learn on — these moments are the new handoff.  

This means two things. 

First, our knowledge base must expand past the handoff checklist that involves setting UI guidelines, to one based on making user-centered guidelines for data sets and machine learning systems. At Spotify, handing off means having user-centered opinions about what data should be creating, say, a personalized playlist, or what reward the machine learning system should be using to improve content recommendations. 

Second, our attitude must shift. As product designers, we are no longer the owners of the end experience, we are guides. I’ll never forget the first time I designed something that surprised me when I saw a variant of it in the real world — not in a bad way, but in a way that felt unnerving. I didn’t choose the content, colors or lockup I saw — the machine had and with it my answer to this question of hand-off changed.

-Conor McGlauflin, Senior Product Designer

How are you designing for the future?

Designing for the future means navigating ambiguity, whether you’ve been tasked with solving an old problem in a new way, or with finding entirely new problems to solve. You have to be comfortable with the fact that you might uncover more questions than answers, and to be willing to deviate from a specific process or plan. In other words: Use your best judgment to fluidly move between stages of the design process as needed, and be willing to let go of solutions you had in mind when you started. 

In order to make something out of nothing (or, out of an entire world of possibilities), I like to start by thinking about how I can reduce the scope of the problem space into something that’s more manageable. Ambiguous problems are daunting, but it becomes much less intimidating once you can start to see the edges of the space you’re working within.

What this means in practice is that I’ll start applying constraints to the problem space very early on. These constraints can be derived by talking to cross-functional stakeholders, conducting secondary research, and applying self-imposed deadlines (e.g. what if I only had a month to come up with a solution?). Instead of glossing over any gaps in my knowledge, I go out of my way to outline the things I don’t know and any assumptions I’m making in order to spark further discussions and investigation. 

I also believe that designing for the future means thinking critically about the ways your product is or is not inclusive at every step of the design process, particularly in the early exploration and definition phases. I’m always asking myself questions like:

  • Who benefits from this? 

  • Why can’t people do certain things? For example, how might differing abilities, differences in socioeconomic class, physical limitations, or a lack of available time or resources impact someone’s experience using our existing product or proposed solution?

  • How might this solution cause harm directly or indirectly? Who specifically might this cause harm to? 

Asking myself these questions at the outset of a project allows me to define a set of guiding principles that outline the things our solution should do, as well as the things it should not do in order to mitigate harm. I can use these beliefs to further reduce the problem space and make faster design decisions that don’t forsake inclusivity. We can’t solve new problems if we keep looking at things the same way we always have. 

-Kiyana Salkeld, Senior Product Designer

Credits

Spotify Design Team

We're a cross-disciplinary team of people who love to create great experiences and make meaningful connections between listeners and creators.

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Simon Child

Illustrator

Simon is an all-round designer / brand creative / casual illustrator and ex-world traveler.

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