I had the honor of interviewing Ms. Lauren Dukes, a UX Designer who has been working for Design Systems International since October, 2020. Formerly an Interior Designer as well as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) who served in Albania, Lauren uses the skills and practices learned from her prior experiences to her product design processes. I reached out to Lauren after coming upon an article she wrote on UX Collective, “Why Peace Corps Volunteers Make Good Designers.” As a RPCV (from Senegal) myself, it was encouraging to learn that there was a fellow RPCV working as a product designer and effectively using the skills learned from the Peace Corps experience. I asked Lauren how the international volunteer experience influenced her as a Product Designer, as well her work process at Design Systems International.
Did your Peace Corps experience influence your decision to become a Product/UX Designer?
Yes, but also my background in interior design. In college, I learned the basics of thoughtful and intentional design, as well as user behavior when I studied interior design. I really liked the fact that you approach your design understanding who’s going to use the space. Peace Corps interestingly enough was the first time I understood how important your built in environment is to your sense of well-being, happiness, health, etc. I learned how important having spaces that are beautiful and interesting is to you. For me, Albania is a post-communist country, and much of the architecture is very brutalest and plain concrete structures. Everything is kind of the same color, and there’s not a lot of warmth in the building materials themselves. Winter time, I found myself feeling intensely miserable, and I didn’t feel creative or inspired by anything around me. That was a huge lesson for me, and made me desire to do something that would be creative for me but also be able to elevate things for other people.
I made the decision to become a product designer in October 2019. I actually didn’t learn about product design until a couple of years ago when I heard about it from a friend who studied interior design with me in college. Once I started looking into courses, that was the “aha” moment. Product design brought all of the things I learned in college and in the Peace Corps together: about being thoughtful and intentional, designing to work with existing behaviors, patterns, and responses, while still affecting them. You can design to produce behaviors that you want, but it’s still within the mind frame of understanding how people think and how they behave and react. Much like interior design, I liked that product design allowed me to be creative, but there was a logical and analytical side to it as well. It’s not just about designing a pretty space, but it’s designing a space that’s usable, lovable, and serves its purpose while also elevating that experience. Today, we have so many digital interactions, so the ability to positively affect someone is endless.
In your article on UX Collective, you give a list of skills you gained from your Peace Corps experience that are beneficial for product Designers (radical empathy, importance of community buy-in, seeing from different perspectives, learning how to fail). Are there any other skills that you think are important and could be added to this list?
I would also say being vulnerable enough to accept the fact that you might look silly, or learning something new is hard and uncomfortable. No one likes to feel like a beginner or stupid, and it can be really vulnerable to put yourself out there to take a risk and maybe fail/succeed, but at least struggle to learn something that is brand new to you. I would say the Peace Corps is definitely good for that. It’s easy for me to recall the immediate feelings of accidentally saying the wrong thing, not knowing what to say, or not feeling like you can express yourself and exactly how that felt in the moment. These moments and feelings are good for embracing my own learning journey, and helped me when I switched my career or did something different.
I would also add being flexible, being adaptable to change, and being able to roll with the punches a little bit. In Albania, many things were slow-paced. For example, The way to get around Albania were vans that operated like taxis and buses, which went to unofficial stations not run by a schedule. Once the vans were full, they would go. I experienced moments where you might think that you’re going to visit your friend, but then the van that you’re traveling in catches on fire and it takes longer. You might also not be able to solidify a plan with a friend until a few minutes later after meeting them. So being able to push back that timeline is a skill I learned from my experience as well.
Was there a particular product design project you worked on and noticed that you were required to use these skills a lot?
I feel like most of the skills are universally helpful. I don’t have a single project that comes to mind for that. It’s kind of an on-going everyday thing. I’d say the Peace Corps taught me that I can do a lot more than I originally thought I could. It was sort of a big test for me to go to this country where I didn’t know anyone or heard about before. Being able to move to this town by myself, figuring out how to set up my internet, understanding how to pay my gas and water bill, knowing where to go, learning a new language and skill, and teaching English, it was all just a big lesson for me that I can do it. So each time I find myself in a position where I am pushing past my comfort zone and learning a new skill or career, I would say that the Peace Corps probably gets the most credit for making me feel like I can do that.
In your article, you mention some Peace Corps projects that failed due to factors of user pain points and frustrations. If you were to redo one of your failed projects again, how would you approach it differently?
I think the biggest light bulb moment for me was when I wanted to do a girls soccer team. I remember that the girls in the team would always come to my door to make sure I was coming to practice. Other people were interested in activities/projects I proposed, but it was rare to get that level of excitement and dedication. Better user research in the beginning would have made some of my other projects more successful. I tried to survey interests and get a sense of what people wanted, but it did not always go as expected. Part of it was definitely the fact that the kids who were coming to the high school I was teaching at were coming from a few villages outside of the main town, and they had to travel back and forth. Kids have responsibilities at home too, and the parents were concerned if they were out on their own, especially when they were too late. Gossip was also a big thing. A lot of people were hesitant to do something outside of what was expected if they felt like it could make them a target of gossip. I think getting a better sense of what people wanted and also getting the parent on board with different things would have made them more open to having their kids come to a class or an activity. Those are the things I would have hit a little bit harder at hindsight; understanding all the factors that are going on. Another thing I could have done too is to talk to some of my friends in the town, and see if there were any insights I was missing or that just weren’t coming through culturally.
Could you describe what Design System International does and what your role is within the company?
Design systems International (DSI) is a very small agency, and I’m the fourth employee. It’s me, three others, and two co-founders. The team is composed of programmers and designers. DSI has an office in New York, but most of the team members are located in Chile, Serbia, and Copenhagen. The way we approach design and code is by viewing code as a material, and getting rid of the disconnect between designers and programmers by looking for ways to make systems that work better both for the client and the team. My role as a UX/UI designer is partially to help create and design products in the early stages, and then work with the rest of the team to pull them through the creation. I’m the only UX/UI designer, so I have also been creating user test plans, running user testing sessions, and pulling that data through. The project I was mainly hired for is developing products for a financial client. I basically help them visualize different financial concepts, thinking about how to create tools for their users and figuring out how to bring them through in a digital format. I work both as a team and by myself. Now, I work directly with one of the co-founders who is managing the project, as well as with the team that hired us to actually build out the products. So there’s a lot of teamwork there in terms of strategy, vision, focus, content, and figuring out exactly what the forces are in shaping the products. After that, I’ll go off to do a lot of the design work on my own and meet up with my manager. We’ll go through the designs and make tweaks together.
Do you have any objectives that you or your team aim for in your work?
I would not say that we’ve had a conversation around that within DSI. But I keep in mind a feedback I received from another UI designer when I was still a student, which is to always look for a way to elevate whatever I do, especially to keep myself engaged and interested if the content itself might not be so interesting. So at least internally, that’s something that I have in mind: is there a way to push whatever it is we are doing just a little further.
How do you collaborate within and outside design teams?
I think I’ve always been group oriented and pretty good with getting along with most people. I do think the Peace Corps experience heightened those skills and sensitivities around working with other people, like making sure that communication is clear, people are both speaking up and having their thoughts heard, and making sure we are communicating effectively.
What do you find most satisfying about your job?
I think figuring a way out of a challenge, or the sensation of, “I figured out where this needs to go and what it needs to look like.” Especially now, I’ve been working on the same layouts, making all these iterations, and trying to figure out what is the right way to communicate this information. It is satisfying to achieve this, especially if you have a lot of different information that you’re trying to communicate at once and figuring out a way that makes it readable, not too overwhelming, and approachable. So, I’d say the moment you know it’s at least headed in the right moment.
Do you have a design process and methods that you tend to follow when you come up with ideas and want to test them?
Theoretically, yes. I find having rounds of user testing after each major iteration very helpful. In this role so far, I haven’t had the chance to work on a project that quite allows for that yet. We did some user testing for the project I’m currently working on, but overall it takes an approach that is a little bit different than the kind I was grounded in. Still, I would say my instinct is to iterate and test frequently/often.
What are the challenges you or your company has?
DSI has been a remote agency even before covid. I sometimes find being remote frustrating though because the best moments come when my manager and I can review our work together. Since we’re working in figma, we can both be in the same file, move things, and actually be “live” creating together. That is satisfying because it’s really helpful to be able to talk through different things with people, or have someone with a fresh first perspective share suggestions and ideas. Since I don’t get that most of the time in the day, I’d say that’s the most frustrating part.
Do you have any tips for aspiring Product and UX designers for developing a digital product?
I think it’s kind of trite but this is certainly the truth for me.
1. Just continue to iterate, refine, and practice, and it feels easier and easier every time.
2. Stay curious, especially with user interviews. Just hearing people talk about why they feel some way about something, or why they’re responding to something like that has been really impactful for me. It’s such good data that continues to support you through the design process. For example, from past user interviews I naturally know when working with fonts that anything below a 16 point font is going to be harder to read for older people. The information kind of sticks with me, and makes me really resistant to making small text because I know from first hand experience that it’s going to be frustrating for someone. We’re not trying to make frustrating experiences.
3. This is the time to make a lot of mistakes so lean into it and make a lot of mistakes. It’s great, fine, and nice to be able to look back, even in a month, at what you did and know you can do that better.
(Lauren writes about user experience, design, and technology on her website, www.laurendukes.com, and can be reached on Medium @Lauren Dukes.)