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Lessons from One Designer’s Journey in Uncentering Her Design Practice

March 2021

Article

Janey Lee
Shreya Gulati

When Janey Lee moved to Stockholm to join Spotify Design, one of her main goals was to learn more about designing products for the entire world, and not just the US and Europe. Over the past year, she has learned that designing for the globe meant nothing short of undoing most default behaviors and assumptions she held as a designer. We took some time to speak to Janey about the process of critically examining and evolving her design practice.

Tell us about what changed in your design practice since you joined Spotify. Where did it all begin?

Last winter, I said a bittersweet goodbye to family and friends in the US to join Spotify’s growth opportunities team in Stockholm. I spent the first few months getting to know my new teammates, chatting with the designers behind my favorite Spotify features, and eating beautiful amber saffron buns to contrast the darkness of Sweden’s winters — and then 2020 happened.

Anyone who lived through 2020 knows that the assumptions we hold about the world are, more often than not, built on sand. The events of the year — a global pandemic, important conversations on race and privilege, and growing indications of inequality worldwide — made this even more true. Like many others, I found myself questioning, well, everything: my preferences; the way I spent time, money, and attention; my idea of “good design”; the history I was taught; and more.

This questioning seeped into my work life as well. As the year progressed, I continued to read research reports that challenged my view of how, for instance, Spotify listeners in areas with unreliable internet connectivity use their phones and data plans. I sat in on interviews with music enthusiasts in Mexico, Brazil, and Indonesia that challenged my views on how audio fits into people’s lives. I heard time and time again from the UX writer on my team that my designs or copy “wouldn’t translate well.” 

I learned that building Spotify for the world meant incorporating diverse viewpoints and experiences into my design practice at each step of the way. It meant thinking beyond the needs of my economically advantaged, Western-educated, able-bodied, iPhone-carrying, privileged self. In other words, it meant uncentering myself from my design practice.

For people who don’t know, what does it mean to “center yourself” in your design practice?

Different people put themselves at the center of their design work in different ways, but here are some examples I noticed in my own practice:

When I mocked up designs that looked or sounded “good” only in English, I was centering myself and uncentering the billions of people in the world for whom English isn't a first language. 

When I used mostly Western artists in mockups meant to feature the breadth of the Spotify catalog, I was centering myself and uncentering the billions of fans whose favorite artists aren’t from the West. 

When I presented my designs predominantly on high-end, large-display iOS devices, I was centering myself and uncentering the majority of the mobile phone users in the world on smaller, lower-resolution devices. 

When I delivered design specs to engineers without the alternate text that VoiceOver or TalkBalk need to read aloud, I was centering myself and uncentering the millions of people using assistive technologies. 

When I believed that high-quality design training could only be found in Silicon Valley, I was centering myself and uncentering the deep knowledge to be gained from designers in regions like China and Africa.

Designing for not-myself meant closely examining the perspectives I held, and how they affected the product and design decisions I made. I’m a daughter of Korean immigrants in America, which gives me a head start, since I naturally straddle two cultures and can see through two distinctly different cultural lenses. It also helps that I started my design career in Mumbai, India. Living in such an unfamiliar environment forced me to reevaluate my assumptions constantly. But I still think I have a lot more work to do.

What advice would you give to designers wanting to uncenter their own design practice? 

Once you can identify the ways in which you center yourself, you simply need to start questioning and undoing them one by one! There are many places people can start to take themselves out of their design practice. The three I started with were: leveraging the experts around me, diversifying my source material, and refreshing my spec checklist. 

How do you “leverage the experts around you”?

In my role, I’m fortunate to work with internal teams with specialized knowledge in a wide variety of areas related to creating global products. Some people are deeply knowledgeable about listener behavior in access-constrained markets, some are experts in accessible design, and others have experience scaling digital products to hundreds of languages. They’ve created helpful toolkits and guidelines for designers, which have been essential to my design process.

We also have incredible user and market research teams that constantly develop new insights about how people from various regions of the world interact with audio. They make sure we learn from listeners everywhere — not just in the US and Europe, but Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa as well. 

These experts are crucial to the feedback process, and best of all, they are always willing to have a coffee and chat about their learnings!

Here’s a simple example where collaboration across specialties — including UX writing, design systems, and localization teams — was essential: the Spotify app start screen. This screen gets millions of daily visitors worldwide, so it’s important that our front door is welcoming for all users — no matter what language they’re viewing it in.

Option 1 looks simple and clean in English, but the layout is difficult to adapt across languages. Not every language uses the sentence structure “Continue with [authentication method].” Many languages take a different sentence structure; for instance, a direct translation in Korean would require writing “[Authentication method] continue with.” In Finnish, we use “Jatka Google-tunnuksilla” for “Continue with Google” and “Käytä puhelinnumeroa” for “Continue with phone number,” so this format doesn’t translate well.

Option 2 works better but still isn’t ideal. Although the design translates more easily, the all-caps letters and character spacing aren’t great for languages like Arabic or Finnish in which texts expand up to 30% when translated. This means text can get cut off or go to multiple lines. The problem is compounded when people have text enlargement enabled on their phones. Not to mention that all-caps letters can feel aggressive.

In the third option, we used sentence case strings, which are not only more readable but also allow for easy translation and text expansion. It’s not perfect yet for extremely large text sizes, but we’re continuing to iterate to make sure the layout accommodates all accessibility settings.

How can people find these expert voices in their own organizations?

If you work in a small team with limited resources, you might not have colleagues with these specific roles. I would recommend simply starting by identifying individuals on your team who have personal or career experiences different from yours. 

Perhaps it’s someone who speaks a different language, who’s experienced a temporary or permanent disability, or who has deep personal or professional experience in contexts that are unfamiliar to you. Set up a chat and see what you can learn from them. How might what you learn affect your design decisions? 

Once you find a set of experts in a certain area, create a space for people to share knowledge and ask questions. For example, I’ve personally found our internal accessibility community to be extremely helpful. The group is a one-stop-shop for answers and resources on accessibility and has hundreds of members. Designers, engineers, marketers, product managers, UX writers, and more can post questions and expect a response from experts equally diverse in function.

Another one of your tips was to diversify your source material. What does that involve?

Inspiration can and should come from everywhere. It certainly shouldn’t be limited to Silicon Valley tech newsletters and training programs.

My teammates and I are continuously trying to become more intentional about incorporating a diverse set of voices in our design consumption habits. This includes discovering new design and tech-focused publications focused on non-Western markets, bringing in speakers with a wide range of perspectives, or simply sitting in on user interviews with people from unfamiliar contexts. 

Listening to diverse voices often creates tension between what we’re hearing and what we are inclined to believe about a certain audience. This is a good thing! Question your assumptions, relish in the paradox and let your users surprise you.

One way I’ve seen this come to life at Spotify is through a new speaker series on the decolonization of design. It all started last year when product designer Mady Torres de Souza posed an important question to our team: how have colonial views centering whiteness affected the way we design, and how might designers be more intentional about uplifting historically marginalized cultures and identities?

Photographer: Ishmil Waterman

These discussions evolved into an internal speaker series, which invites experts from a variety of backgrounds to help our team critically examine the Western design discipline’s tendency to center whiteness. The conversations have helped us reflect on and reverse practices that may perpetuate colonial legacies by design. 

How can designers incorporate more diverse source material into their practice?

Auditing your design-related media and content consumption is a good place to start. Take a look at the newsletter subscriptions you have, podcasts you listen to, news outlets and social media accounts you follow, and training programs you’ve attended. Then seek to diversify them; the more these voices contradict each other, the more you’ll start to notice the nuances around how people define “good design.” I’ll provide a list of resources I found useful for people who aren’t sure where to start! (Check out Janey’s appendix of resources here.)

Another helpful exercise is to reflect on some of the assumptions you’ve made about the people using your product. Which ones are based on hard evidence, and which ones are based on potentially incomplete narratives? How might you validate or invalidate your assumptions by going directly to the source and seeing for yourself?

My colleague, product designer Linnea Strid, has spent a lot of time thinking about and interacting with users in markets with low connectivity. She brings these insights into designing Spotify Lite, a lightweight version of the main Spotify app that’s popular in many of our non-Western markets. Here are some of her reflections on using first-hand research to correct assumptions about how people in areas of low connectivity think about their data plans: 

“We bake in biases even when we are consciously designing for people who are not ourselves. These can include assumptions like ‘people with poor phones won't care about poor image resolutions,’ ‘people with slow phones hate their phones and want to upgrade,’ or ‘people with less money won't spend money on a music service.’

One of the pivotal realizations designing Spotify Lite was that we are able to call things ‘bad’ because we have the privilege of a point of comparison. If your data plan is as big as you can afford, you don't consider it expensive. If your phone is faster than the one you had before, you don't consider it slow. So when we sent out surveys asking if people considered their data plans expensive or slow, we overwhelmingly got ‘no’ back — even though we were targeting people who we knew were likely to have these constraints.

I think there is a danger when we assume that ‘pretending I am a user who is like this’ is a solution to bias. It's important to build a real understanding of them through first-hand research, or creating abstract requirements to follow — removing the guesswork of what it is to live like them.’”

And finally, when you became serious about uncentering your practice, what changes did you make to your spec checklist?

Earlier in my career, the checklist I'd use to communicate everything about a design to an engineer was quite short. It would show some visuals with annotations on font styles, sizes, colors, and padding.

Now, my checklist includes all of that, plus specifications for how designs should look in languages in which text expands when translated, how designs should look when users enlarge the text sizes on their phones, right-to-left languages like Arabic and Hebrew, and tiny screen sizes (think iPhone SE and Android phones, which vary widely).

I also work with a UX writer to include specs for alternate text for each component on the screen, which VoiceOver or TalkBalk will say out loud for people with visual impairments, and for loading states for areas of low connectivity. 

And finally, I make sure to include a feedback session with the localization team and engineers to make sure my designs translate well. The back and forth really helps iron out unforeseen issues! 

If you’re looking to refresh your own spec checklist, a great place to start is to simply invite a more diverse audience into your design feedback sessions. When you’re getting ready to deliver specs for production, is there someone you can invite with a deep knowledge of accessible design or designing for access-constrained markets? What unique perspectives can you add to your feedback sessions that will make sure whatever you release is globally viable?

Can you share an example of a unique perspective you added to your feedback process? 

I’ve learned a lot by working with UX writer Anjana Menon, who works across multiple teams at Spotify and has seen almost every word-related faux-pas imaginable. Here are some of the things she’s thinking about when helping us design translatable, accessible experiences: 

“For UXW in particular, we don’t just come up with the right words. We need to think about how we structure the information hierarchy and consider the order of how we place buttons and copy. We make sure to write helpful headings and labels, descriptive links, and alt text for VoiceOver and TalkBack. 

It’s also important to use accessible verbs and avoid ableist language, acronyms, and abbreviations that aren't familiar to others. For example, a call-to-action that says “See your playlists” wouldn’t make sense to someone interacting with Spotify exclusively using a screen reader. We avoid having colloquial language like ‘jump back in,’ which may not be understood by non-native speakers or would be difficult to translate.”

When you can’t get an actual human in the room to share feedback, small reminders can be helpful, too! I love these stickers product designer Cait Charniga put together as a quick and simple way to bake accessibility and inclusion into virtual design crits. Teammates can place them in parts of a design file where, for instance, a certain visual or interaction pattern may not be ideal for accessibility features like VoiceOver or TalkBack. They serve as necessary reminders to broaden the lenses through which we critique design work and are just the beginning of an evolving process to ensure that shipped work is thoughtfully and inclusively designed.

What would you say have been your biggest learnings throughout this journey?

In critically examining my assumptions and processes, and actively working against the ones that foster an incomplete understanding of the world, I’ve learned that my design practice can itself become an act of social justice. With this awareness, I can perform simple, daily acts of resistance against the centering of Western perspectives and standards of design. 

One of my biggest takeaways from this particular moment is that nothing I do as a designer is neutral or objective. Every choice I make is either centering myself or striving to center others. In everything I create, I have the opportunity to make a conscious choice to uncenter myself and have the true experiences of others represented more in my work. This means understanding everything I do and believe by default and turning it on its head in order to see through a new lens.

Dismantling defaults that are so ingrained in our design upbringing won’t happen in one day. I’ve realized that this is, in fact, a lifelong journey. The destination isn’t perfection; it’s a continued will to be wrong and stand corrected. I am thankful to the UX writers, researchers, engineers, designers, and regional experts on my team who keep me accountable. They show me that my design practice can be so much more than just a day job. It can be a continuous practice of uncentering, whose impact hopefully goes beyond any work I do in designing screens.

There’s a quote I love from Cathy Park Hong in Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning that goes:

“Conscription [to whiteness] is every day and unconscious. It is the default way of life among those of us who live in relative comfort unless we make an effort to choose otherwise.”

From now on, I choose otherwise.

For the full list of books and resources, Janey has used in her journey to uncentering her design practice, visit her Medium

Credits

Janey Lee

Senior Product Designer

Stockholm-based product designer. Find me eating or making something to eat (mostly desserts), or looking for the perfect place to pitch a tent.

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Shreya Gulati

Illustrator

Shreya is an Indian illustrator whose work bears motifs of strong women and nudity. She’s often found eating street food and playing with stray cats.

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