In The Spotlight: Achal Varma, UX Prototyper

In The Spotlight: Achal Varma, UX Prototyper

To showcase our band members, every now and then we put a Spotifyer in the limelight. Today's headliner is Achal Varma, UX Prototyper on the Design Platform team in New York. Put on your headphones, hit play, and read along!

What would your self-portrait look like?

Why are you a designer?

Time for a cliché: I was the kid who was always trying to take things apart and put them back together. Sometimes to learn how they worked, and sometimes for no good reason at all. It was the process of disassembling, reassembling, and repurposing things that captivated me and helped me develop the ability to quickly identify potential and possibilities in any context. I'm drawn to design because it gives me an opportunity to apply the very same mindset towards problem-solving in various forms.

Being able to work through solutions and put them in front of someone—whether it’s just one person, or millions—is extremely satisfying and humbling, and I feel like I’m constantly chasing that feeling. The very nature of my role is ephemeral, and even though a lot of what I work on is exploratory and doesn’t make it out into the world, the desire to look for new opportunities and build meaningful things keeps my engine ticking regardless. I may have meandered into a career in design, but it’s this feeling that’s made me stick with it.

Describe your job at Spotify without using the words "design" or "designer."

I’m a part of Spotify’s small (but mighty!) prototyping team, and I collaborate with people across the company to develop new concepts and help build a shared vision for the future of Spotify. Depending on the context, I might do this by working specifically on one part of the experience, or by gradually chipping away at an open-ended problem. My team also builds tools for our peers to use, so they can translate what’s in their head into reality.

Show us a picture of your desk, and explain why it looks how it does.

  1. This black desk mat gives me a soft but stable base that I can use to write, sketch, or type on. It also acts as a focal point for my workspace—before I got it, I often found myself feeling really overwhelmed by a large desk with stuff scattered all over it.
  2. I’m always sketching new ideas or refining existing ones. I’m a visual thinker, so I like to break things down, even if it’s no more than chicken scratch. I also often simplify complicated views and interactions this way before I take a stab at implementing them in code.
  3. Wireless charger to keep my test devices charged and ready to go.
  4. I’ll often write notes to myself—to-dos, ideas, quotes, pretty much anything—and put them somewhere in my peripheral vision so I’m less likely to miss them, usually on my monitor.
  5. My friends Groot and Stitch are always on standby in case I’m stuck. If I’m having trouble with something or running into a bug, I try to break out of it by explaining it to them. I’m not crazy; it works!
  6. Post-its in various sizes and colors. It seems like overkill, but they’re super handy in design workshops, when sketching, jotting down notes, and so on. Name the task, and I probably have some kind of post-it suited to it. 🙈
  7. I’m really lucky to have a corner desk that looks out onto the East River and Brooklyn. You can’t see it in this photo, but it almost feels like a part of my workspace at this point (thankfully, I’m not afraid of heights).

Tell us about a time you beat an intimidating design challenge.

In college, I helped lead a student organization that aimed to raise awareness about immigration reform through education, storytelling, and technology. Our first web-based advocacy tool helped raise awareness about immigration-related bills that would be under consideration in state assemblies. People could read more about proposals, understand their implications, and use our platform to communicate with their state representatives and voice their support. Various initial iterations of the tool didn’t work very well, and many community organizers were counting on it for their evangelism efforts.

You’re probably wondering which parts of this effort were intimidating from a design perspective… I’d say all of them, because none of us knew what we were doing. Working on this was like a crash course in iterative design. Brainstorming, implementation, incorporating feedback, and doing it over again, all while watching people actually use the tool to send letters of support to their state reps, was kind of mind-boggling. It took a while, but the bill that our tool was initially meant to support did eventually pass. Success is always sweeter when you’re made to struggle for it!

Name three non-designers you feel inspired by when designing.

Fan Ho: Fan Ho was a photographer based out of Hong Kong in the ‘50s, and produced some of the most evocative photographs I've ever seen. He was self-taught, and didn’t have access to fancy equipment, or endless streams of inspiration like many of us do today, and yet managed to master the art and make extremely moving photographs that anyone can find a way to connect with. His work reminds me of the value of learning by doing, and that great things often have humble beginnings.
Jimi Hendrix: Few musicians have had a career as heartbreakingly short and groundbreaking as Jimi’s. To make innovative music, set trends, and influence music for decades to come within a period of ~4 years is remarkable, and hugely inspiring.

Anthony Bourdain: It’s hard to put into words why and how Anthony Bourdain’s work has inspired me (and certainly so many others), but I’ll try my best. His open-mindedness, willingness to explore, and desire to learn and teach, coupled with his mastery as a storyteller are unparalleled. When he passed away last year, it felt like I’d lost a close friend who had taught me so much about the world. As a friend and peer, it’s my goal to embody more of his qualities.

Any final shout-outs or things you'd like to share?

  • A huge, huge shout-out to the endlessly fun and supportive people of Spotify Design, and everyone else that I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with in my time here so far. I started off as an intern, and I’ve now been here two years full-time, but in many ways, it still feels like our work here has only just begun.
  • The Humane Interface by Jef Raskin is one of my favorite books on design, and reading it is really what first got me excited about prototyping. His work set a baseline for a lot of what designers such as ourselves build upon, and many of his ideas were truly ahead of their time. I highly recommend giving it a read!
  • To students and up-and-coming designers–our work is an imperfect science (if you could call it that). Despite what the internet will often have you believe, we’re all mostly just making it up as we go, and trying to get better day by day. Imposter syndrome is real, and everyone who has done work worth acclaim was once where you are today. Keep striving for growth!

If you have questions, think I could help with something, or ever want to discuss cricket, I’m easiest to grab ahold of on twitter: @_achalv

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