Expert Voices: Osi Imeokparia, Product Manager

I interviewed Osi Imeokparia, an entrepreneur at heart and an expert at collaborating with designers in a fast-paced environment. She most recently led product for the Hillary Clinton campaign. Osi has had experience at companies small and large (like one called Google. You may have heard of it.) Here’s my chat with her about product, design, and future tech trends!

Can you give me a little bit of your background and tell me about yourself? That typical interview question.

Yes. It’s a fantastic question. So, Hi Kurt and your recorder! My name’s Osi. I have been a Product Manager, let’s see here, for a very long time. I’ve done product work at startups, which I did right out of college, I’ve done it at mid-size, high-growth companies. I’ve done it at standard-size corporations like Google and most recently I’ve also done it on the Hillary Clinton campaign. So I’ve done product management in a lot of different contexts and worked with a lot of different people and hired a bunch of people. Unfortunately, fired a bunch of people as well. So I’ve seen a lot in the last 16 years, but yea that’s the very quick about me.

Awesome. Just a little bit more, What got you into that track or field?

In my undergrad, I was an industrial engineer with a computer science minor. Historically I’ve always been someone who really liked art, really liked science, and really liked having variety and having a well-rounded perspective on things and ideas about things as opposed to being very narrowly focused.

So when I was looking for jobs my senior year of college, I had sort of given up on the whole dreams about having an interdisciplinary career and had settled on being a management consultant because at least that way I could see a variety of projects and I could see variety in that way.

Then, I stumbled upon an entrepreneurship program which introduced me to the world of startups and venture capital and the fast paced world of silicon valley. I got introduced to product that way. I hadn’t actually ever known through formal education that product management was a thing. It was really through this program that I discovered it. And it satisfied all those things that I loved: having an interdisciplinary career where the days were different all the time, and the problems are always changing, and you had to be creative and have an aesthetic sense. At the same time, use your textbook skills. It was a dream career that I fell into.

You sold it so much to me I’m thinking, Shoot…should I be doing that?

Well we’re not going to record your answer.

That’s a great little overview of your background. So I’m going to jump into some of my design questions. In your past roles, how would you describe your relationship with designers?

In past, in present, and in future it’s always been a partnership. And I think where things have gone off the rails it hasn’t been so. Early on in my career, I partnered with designers that didn’t report to me. And then at a certain point I had a role where both product managers and product designers reported to me. The line for reporting didn’t change the apparent makeup of the partnership. In order to get designers to do their best work, they have to feel like they have a voice at the table when you’re trying to figure out what the problem is and trying to create the best solutions, but at the same time, for some designers, you have to be a caring but critical editor for their work as the product manager. It’s both partnerships as well as editorial voice. It’s an interesting alchemy. It’s no different than the balancing act you do as a product manager working with engineers. It’s collaborative and partnering whether they report to you or to another organization. That’s the way I have worked and always will work.

That leads really well into my next two questions which are “What qualities do you like best in a designer?” and “What qualities do you like the least?”

So as typical when you ask this question you can take the inverse of what I say on either side. Qualities I like best end up being qualities I like least. But I would say that fantastic designers for me that I’ve worked with in the past have been people that explore before they narrow. What drives me crazy is when I present a problem to a designer and they present just one answer very early in the process as opposed to taking that early time to ideate and just explore the entire solution. You get narrowly focused and usable maximums that way as opposed to taking time to explore lots of different directions you get further answers. You get a far better answer and I find the most productive designer and best designers know that instinctively or people who are more junior I need to coach them to produce that sort of perspective. Conversely people who narrow too quickly and are emotionally attached to their ideas are not so much a pleasure to work with.

I would say another great characteristic of a designer is, don’t take this the wrong way I think there is value in having specialized expertise in user research, but the best designers that I have worked with actually walk that line fairly well, meaning that they are able to tweak out user or customer or buyer feedback about their product and be able to separate an indictment of their work as a designer and be able to incorporate that feedback rather well. So either they are able to execute that research themselves or they are open to that sort of customer feedback but either way the ability to sort of listen beyond what a customer is saying to actually what they are doing and/or intuit some sort of insight that impacts the designers

And then I would say a fantastic designer is someone who is able to follow the project through to completion. A designer’s work is not done when they deliver their first set of full fidelity mockups. Engineering requires tradeoffs. During the engineering process what was designed might be cut in scope, so having a design partner throughout that process is important as well as right up through launch.A good designer is interested in how their work is going to see the light of day and how well executed their design vision is on the the actual pixels on the screen. The third fantastic characteristic of a design partner is someone that is willing and able to follow the entire product journey from first delivery all the way to launch providing their expertise throughout the entire process.

Those are really great. I’m so glad I talked to you because I’m wondering now if a designer would give me a different answer.

They 100% would.

That’s very interesting. It leads into a couple of my other questions that have to do with user experience design instead of designers. I’m curious as a product owner how you feel about user experience design in general or that shift of placing research in front of the design process.

I think it’s great. I think there is a danger in hiding behind it in some sense. Jakob Nielsen has a famous heuristic that you only need to interview 5 people. So I think instead of using it as a crutch, if you can get insights very quickly It’s enormously effective. When I haven’t used it because oh we don’t’ have time or there are stakeholders that don’t want it, I always always regretted it. So sticking to your guns on that I think is the way to go. Even one session with five people is going to be a percentage of your group. It’s worth the 6 hours of time. it’s not a big deal. It will save you a lot of heartache later.

I’m always so curious sitting in the design seat and trying to advocate for research and finding friction sometimes from product owners, sometimes from other stakeholders, so I just wonder if it’s a philosophy thing? I guess every product owner has a different philosophy around it?

I think again there’s always internal pressures on product owners and anyone working on a site. There’s always tradeoffs. Where I’ve gone wrong is when when I’ve short shifted the research process. And again you can do it quickly. That’s part of the disservice of user experience this long drawn elaborate inconvenient thing where the reality is you can be on your way and be in a better position than you would have otherwise been.

You mentioned that one of things you liked about a designer is being able to suss out these research insights. Do you believe in unicorns?

Ah-ha-ha. I wish they existed. I really do. And again, I’ve made the mistake of a hiring manager or writing ambiguous amorphous hiring recs that are like “Be a visual designer and UX Designer and be a statistician to analyze survey results.” I have fallen prey to all the don’ts that people talk about. At Google we talked about this a lot, and had this notion of T-shaped skills. Someone who is very deep in one direction and a generalist in another. You can find a very skilled UX designer, and maybe not great, but sufficiently good at visual design or vice versa. It’s hard to find someone who is great at both dimensions.

You can find. If you lean into what your organization needs at the time. You can find people who have proficiencies but you’re not going to find all around depth.

They aren’t being hired in a vacuum. I think it’s about the team as a whole and how you can get what you need across everybody. And then contract out some stuff if you couldn’t do it.

I think that’s most of the design focused stuff. Are there any topics or trends you find interesting?

I find voice interface design interesting. If you start to think about Alexa and starting to think; “How do you design the interfaces quote unquote that is easy to use voice commands.” That to me is an interesting and an unexplored kind of world.

The second is kind of obvious. Last weekend I was wearing VR headsets and I almost threw-up. How do you create compelling VR experiences.

There’s got to be a better way. Those two things are interesting to me. But I would say more interesting for me is the voice stuff.

Yea I agree with you. VR has always been there. VR has always been on the cusp, but it nevers happens. But the voice thing all seems so new. What I find interesting as a designer is you see a lot of these chatbot interfaces but it’s still in this idea of “Talking to someone” like web 1.0. Like that little clip from microsoft word.

Clippy!!

How did we get back to that?

Everything will go again. Life and fashion is typical.

That’s all my questions! Thank you!

Thank you!

Writing on UX Writing

Hands typing on keyboard

Photo by Ilya Pavlov

UX Writing spans many aspects of user experience design including but not limited to: important skills required for designers, delightful microcopy in a user interface, effective error messaging, and more.

I saw an article What is UX Writing? posted on UX Booth at the beginning of the year that explains a burgeoning job position in the industry called User Experience Writers. The article piqued my interest because I used to work as a copywriter. I thought it would be a casual read, but once I dug a little deeper into the subject I found myself down a rabbit hole.

The general consensus is that the details in design matter. The words we use in our designs are just as crucial to creating usable products as the colors and images we pick. In FastCo’s article Forget Coding:Writing is Design’s “Unicorn Skill”, Katharine Schwab writes “As chatbots and conversational interfaces become more popular, writing becomes the vehicle for experience design—so much so that writers are being integrated into those design teams.”

Writing, regardless of the job, requires hard work. There’s a reason many company’s are hiring User Experience Writers as a separate role. Making great copy and design writing is a full-time job. Still, it’s imperative for UX designers to understand the importance of words in design. In order to stay conscious, Anjana Menon gives some pointers for designers who want to make the best designs and interfaces in her medium article 8 Lessons in UX Writing. She says:

  1. Mind the 3 C’s (Clear, Concise, Considerate): Avoid the desire to be overly whimsy or fluffy with writing. Being impressive is a great goal, but being clear, concise, and considerate is a better one
  2. Consistency is King: Develop a voice and stick with it. Don’t use different phrases to mean the same thing
  3. Test Often, Test Early: Use UX testing principles to find the best copy for your UI
  4. Translate it: Sometimes words will break once they are translated. Translating your copy into the common languages spoken by users is a surefire way to develop universal writing
  5. Go with your Gut: If something feels off to you, it will probably feel off for users as well
  6. Collaborate with the Team: As with all designing, staying aligned with the whole team will make the design process smoother
  7. Know Basic Design Software: Knowing how to quickly alter and edit text in designs will speed up the design process and allow for more iteration
  8. Don’t Wait: Interfaces don’t need to be the first thing you consider. Developing a voice and coming up with the words and phrases you know you want to use in your designs is just as good a place to start as any

Remember that content and design are complementary and should be developed in sync for seamless user experiences. As Dr. Seuss once said, “Words and pictures are yin and yang. Married, they produce a progeny more interesting than either parent.”

Other resources:

Design Critique: Dictionary.com (iOS iPhone App)

   

In the final chapter of his book The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman says, “Fundamental needs will also stay the same, even if they get satisfied in radically different ways.” A dictionary has been a staple reference tool for learning in the modern age and its use today is a fascinating case study in converting traditional analog objects into engaging digital experiences. Dictionary.com does a wonderful job at delivering users the primary purpose of a dictionary in their mobile app through a use of strong signifiers and appropriate feedback, but would benefit from refining edge cases in order to strengthen a user’s conceptual model and reduce the need for knowledge in the head.

Signifier: Strong Call-to-Action (CTA) for Primary Use Case

When users launch the Dictionary.com app, they are presented with a home screen that contains a menu hamburger button, a favorites/star section, a search bar, and blog content. Appropriate hierarchy places emphasis on the search bar. Inside the search bar is the helper or hint text that reads “Search”. This is a strong signifier that prompts users to take full advantage of the app’s search capabilities. Given that defining words through search is one of the more likely reasons someone would use dictionary.com‘s mobile app, the design decision to place visual importance on this action is a sound one.

Constraints: Unnecessary Bifurcation

Below the search bar there is an iOS toggle that allows users to switch from a dictionary search to a thesaurus search. Toggles act as a physical constraint in the digital world because it forces a user to select one option in a binary set of choices. While the intent of surfacing the two distinct reference types makes sense, the value of this distinction is somewhat lost by the app’s execution. The functionality of the dictionary and thesaurus searches are actually the same. If you search for a word, the app takes you to the same word page regardless of the toggle, but with a different tab selected. Once a search is completed, the toggle is removed and it becomes one tab among many on the word’s page. This constraint doesn’t accurately depict a difference in functionality. It becomes a superfluous step for users to obtain the information they are seeking. This toggle could be removed.

Feedback: Aiding Users on Search and Error

If a user spells a word incorrectly or searches for something not found in dictionary.com’s database, the user is presented with a list of alternative words that the user may have been looking to define. This is a great way to provide feedback for users if they make an error or the system fails to produce expected results. Another aid in the form of feedback occurs when a user is typing a word into the search bar. The app attempts to predict what the user is searching for and presents the user with auto-populated terms that could be what the user is hoping to define. The value in this feedback is two-fold: 1) it helps users execute an action more quickly and 2) it shows the user that the system is working.

Need for Knowledge in the Head

The auto-population of a search term mentioned above is great, but it only works if a user is typing in the term correctly. If a misspelling occurs, the list vanishes and the user is not presented with any indication that the result will error out. If Dictionary.com combines the error handling of the search query with the auto-population of potential search terms, it would create a more efficient experience. At the moment that a user is typing in a query, they are required to know how a word is spelled in order to find it.

Weak Conceptual Model to Traditional Printed Dictionary

Requiring a user to know how to spell a word presents a weak link between a traditional printed dictionary and the digital app. With a printed dictionary, a term is placed in the context of other words. A person using a dictionary can browse other words around the one they are looking for in order to help with spelling as well as discovery. If dictionary.com brought in next and previous words or allowed users to access entire sections based on the first letter of a word, it would aid in strengthening a user’s conceptual model of a dictionary.