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An interview with Bushra Mahmood, a lead designer at Adobe

On April 2nd I had the chance to interview Bushra Mahmood, who is currently a Lead Designer in Adobe. I was glad to interview her because she is a designer with years of experience but also she works for Adobe – the creator of tools that I use for designing as far as I have started designing. It was a very nice conversation for me and I am glad to present its simplified version here:

Q: Can you tell me about your role in the work? What does being a lead designer mean?

Sure! I am a design leader at Adobe, so that means I am not only responsible for my own product (which we will release in a few months) but also holistically we try to make sure that the product aligns with other works of the company. I need to make sure that all my stakeholders are aligned. I also help and mentor other designers in my team depending on where they are in their career and assist my directors in order to achieve the common vision. 

Q: What are your biggest challenges at work, regarding your position?

One of the trickiest parts is to get “a lot” of people on the same page who are spread through very different geographies that have a lot of different mandates. Every group has their own products that they know very well, but in the end we are trying to make these products talk to each other to make them represent an ecosystem. 

Trickiest parts are alignment and framing. Once these two are settled other things are a lot easier to do.  Imagine the export feature of Photoshop for example. If you know how to do that, you would expect to pretty much know how to do it in Illustrator too. Although it seems like an obvious thing, it is actually hard to achieve in such a big company with a lot of moving parts. 

But we overcome these challenges by aligning ourselves earlier, framing the problems carefully and making a lot of research supported iterations. 

Q: How do you make decisions as a group?

Best thing to do for group decision is working towards an initial framing of what the group or the product is trying to achieve. Once everybody understands this initial framing, everything moves a lot smoother. 

There are some design traps that people tend to fall. One of them is showing a lot of work about the process but not the real outcomes. Another one is not showing ideas to people earlier to get a bigger “wow” factor. I do not think either of these are good for decision making. 

In fact, earlier one starts asking others, easier to come up with decisions that are beneficial for whole group. Also, data is very important when making decisions.

Best thing to do is working towards framing. Decision making is much easier if you could just verbalize and establish what your product (or group) is trying to do. Once everybody understands this initial framing, the entire process moves a lot smoother.

Q: How do you come up with ideas and test them, how do you iterate on the products? 

I believe coming up with ideas is the easy part. Hard part is clearly understanding and defining the problems. We do a lot of investigation and research to achieve this. We try to make a definition of the problem, come up with mockups and assertions. In this process, a lot of ideas also occur but we do not present all of them to our stakeholders. We only share some of them, which aligns with our point of view.

When making iterations, alignment is important once again. It is important that any change is compliant with the accessibility team, Adobe Spectrum team, services team, developers, marketing and so on. This is why once again framing early in the process is really important. I am trying to make data oriented decisions, even though what data shows is not my favorite option some of the time. 

Q: How do you set goals or objectives? How do you measure success?

Goals are usually set hand in hand with product managers. We validate the goals with users, research department, accessibility department, developers and so on. According to that validation we iterate and create prototypes and we go out and do a lot of usability testing sessions.

What we are doing is non-linear apps, authoring tools. So usability tests are not always straightforward. Sometimes we show a poster and ask the user to create the same. If they can create the poster via product; or they cannot create but know what is stopping them from doing it and which tool they are lacking, this is considered a success. When a user does not understand anything at all or they do not even know what to ask about, then I consider it as a failure.

Q: How do you keep yourself and the team creative and motivated?

It is actually hard to do in this remote environment with a team like ours who are dispersed all around the world with different time zones. However, we try to keep creativity up with a lot of workshops, meaningful, purposeful time that we spend with each other.

It is always good to discuss things and share out. So in my team, if anybody learns something new, they just share it. For example if they learn something new, they conduct a workshop to share it with group.

We tend to keep things lighthearted and believe in the moments of delight. If someone is getting excited over a product, it is really contagious and keeps spirits high.

Worst thing that could happen is overburdening and overwork. Creative people tend to experience this a lot. I do not believe that, one can create diamonds under high pressure. I believe, self care and personal time are really important parts of creativity. So, I rather cancel a meeting than make someone overwork. 

Q: What are some qualities a good designer has?

For me a good designer is really good at giving and receiving feedback. Sometimes people tend to keep their criticism to not break their co-workers hearts. But I believe a high quality, constructive critique is the best gift anyone can give you. 

Another quality is patience. I really like people who can listen more than vocalizing themselves. For me, good designers are not talking to be heard but when the time is right. I believe really good designers have really good timing. 

Q: How do you balance work & learn? When you learn is it more industry oriented or academic?

For me education is organic.

I learn from both academia and industry but I think academia is lagging behind tech business. Twitter is one of my favorite resources. I get to know the latest stuff in the field thanks to the accounts I carefully curated and follow. As I realize it can be toxic platform as it is, it also provides transparency at a massive scale too.

Thanks to following people from diverse backgrounds (education, ethics, environment etc.),I can approach topics in a more critical and informed way. 

Q: Just out of curiosity: what is it like designing tools that people are using to design with?

I have been interested in “Collective IQ” concept for a long time. Which very simply says, when you create tools to solve a problem, society will solve that problem and move forward as a whole and discover new problems. And you will create new tools to solve these problems too thus you will have progress. 

So creating non-linear open ended tools is tricky but it is an exciting thing for me. It is also exciting thinking about different concepts or theories, understanding the limits of what humans can comprehend (she also gives the example of Turing tarpit here), understanding how people perceive content and tools.

Q: What are some pieces of advice you could give to future designers?

Most emerging designers are either bogged down in the decorative side of the work or the research part. If you focus too much on either side, then it becomes superficial. I believe there should be a balance between the two in order to create effective solutions.

In emerging designers’ portfolios I see a lot of fake personas, lots of details about the process but not really the solution. In the end I believe, as designers we should value the definition and framing of the problem, data validated point of views and building trust. Rather than age and occupation of the personas, I would like to see that their problems are and have they been correctly addressed. 

I advise: keep thinking about framing the problem space, learn how to take and give feedback, trust the process and trust the people!