An Interview with Kat Zhou, Product Designer at IBM

Posted 8 months ago by Naomi Francis

What was the moment you knew you wanted to work in design?

How did you get to where you are now?

I have to give credit where credit is due; I am incredibly privileged to have supportive parents who financially enabled me to obtain an education and pursue what I love. Not only that, but when I was growing up, they let me branch out and explore a variety of creative outlets.

As a kid, I was always doing some form of storytelling, whether that was through piano or acting. Interestingly enough, when I started off my undergraduate years at Duke University, I studied public policy and ethics (I thought I was going to law school) before switching to design my sophomore year. While I still love the social sciences, I just couldn’t ignore my need for a creative outlet (also, I would argue that public policy and design have a lot more in common than you might think).

In my college extracurriculars, I got the chance to express ideas through design and knew I had to turn it into my major. During the summers, I got the chance to intern in all sorts of creative spaces, from fashion labels to design studios. Finally, after graduation, I decided to join IBM as a product designer and that’s where I am right now.

Anything you’d do differently?

Nope! Sure, there were plenty of mistakes here and there, but I think I’ve learned valuable lessons from every up and down. The mantra that I try to live by is, “fear regret, not failure.”

What did your teachers think of you?

It depends on which class they taught. If it was a subject that I loved, they probably liked me. I still keep in touch with my favorite professors and one of them asked me to photograph her wedding. And if it was a subject that I didn’t particularly enjoy…well, let’s just say I deserved the grades and feedback I got.

What does a typical day look like to you? And what makes a day, a good day, for you?

I’m an early bird – I typically wake up at 5:30am and squeeze in a workout to start off the day. Then I head to the design studio, where I spend the first half an hour catching up on my email and Slack messages. Typically I have a few meetings in the morning since some folks on our team are in Dublin and we have to catch them right before they end their work day.

After lunch with coworkers, it’s a few hours of heads-down design work before our afternoon Design Jam, where we can share some of our work and receive feedback. After work, I’ll head to a yoga or silks class unless there’s a rad event going on in Austin. For me, a day is good if I’ve experienced something new.

“For me, a day is good if I’ve experienced something new.”

What’s the best advice you’ve been given?

How do you handle design to developer handoff?

Currently, the designers on my team create our specs with a nifty little Sketch plugin (Sketch Measure) and pass the assets off to the developers. Every team and company has their own way of doing this handoff process. I’ve learned that the most important ingredient (regardless of which software or plugin you use) is communication. On my current team, the designers and developers are constantly syncing up with one another every day to make sure that we’re all on the same page.

What’s it like working for a big company like IBM?

Much like working at any other big company, it takes a bit of time to adjust and find your niche. It took me almost a year to orient myself within the Big Blue (IBM’s nickname) and find the right team for me. After switching divisions and moving across the country to Austin, TX, I couldn’t be happier now.

Aside from an abundance of resources, one of the awesome aspects about working in such a large company is that you meet so many folks from different walks of life.

Can you outline the major points of your design process?

Like most design processes these days, my process is extremely iterative and flexible. I generally start out by gathering as much information as possible about the users for whom I’m designing. After I’ve understood the users and their pain points, I’ll work with my team to figure out the key problem that needs to be solved, as well as whether or not the problem is inherently ethical to take on.

Once the designers, PMs, and engineers on our team have aligned on that, we typically move on to the ideating phase where we generate ideas. I make it a priority to try to forecast potential side effects of the ideas that we generate – can any unethical consequences occur with this type of product or this feature? And once everyone is on the same page with the finalized ideas, the really fun part begins.

Luckily, IBM’s design system is incredibly comprehensive, so oftentimes we can jump from low-fidelity wireframes right into high-fidelity prototypes by taking existing components from our design system. We work very closely with the developers on our team as we build out our designs. And all throughout this phase, we test with users, letting them click through anything from Flinto prototypes to live features.

How do you measure the success of your work?

I ask myself three questions:

  1. Did my work help someone or improve a process in an ethical way?
  2. Was my work this time better than my work last time?
  3. Did I learn something from doing this work?

Do you draw inspiration from any other creative field?

Definitely. One field that inspires me daily is journalism. Much like design, journalism is at a point in time where it’s not enough to write stories that sell. Journalists have a duty to think crucially about the information they are spreading, the stories and voices that they are highlighting, as well as the contexts in which their reporting exists.

“For both journalists and designers, it is more important than ever to examine the ethical consequences that can occur as result of our work. It is not enough to design or write without understanding the power imbalances that will be affected by your work.”

What excites you about the future of design?

A lot. I feel like in certain spaces, we’re reaching a new era of design. To explain it better, I’ll break down our design journey thus far into phases.

Phase 1, was simply getting our foot in the door and showing that the work that we do is incredibly impactful. We’ve proven ourselves to be indispensable for product teams. Now that we have a seat at the table (in most companies), we arrive at Phase 2, which entails leveraging our power and privilege to design for good.

We have a lot more say in how a product manifests and we have a responsibility to our users to make sure that what we create is not harmful. What will Phase 2 look like and how will it play out? I’m not sure, but I am more hopeful than not that we can turn the tide.

“What will Phase 2 look like and how will it play out? I’m not sure, but I am more hopeful than not that we can turn the tide.”

How do you incorporate feedback into your designs?

Feedback is such an integral part of the design process! And oftentimes, as designers, we get a lot of it from different directions (sometimes it can be quite overwhelming, haha). I’ve found that it’s helpful to bucket the feedback into two categories, foundational or accessory.

Foundational feedback is what I target first, since it really addresses what could be a larger problem down the road. If there is differing foundational feedback (i.e. two opposing viewpoints on something), that calls for some extensive prioritizing and research. As for differing accessory feedback, I encourage utilizing user testing (if you can) to figure out the best pathway.

What’s a time you received hard criticism for your work?

I’ve received plenty of hard criticism throughout the years. One time that comes to mind actually occurred years ago (so wayyyy before I became a product designer). I was in elementary school and I had just competed in a piano competition. Forget winning – I didn’t even place. When I glanced over the judges’ critiques, my ten-year-old self burst into tears. My piano teacher just looked at me quizzically, and bemusedly asked why I was crying, “It’s just feedback, it won’t bite.”

Looking back, I think that moment continually reminds me that feedback is not personal (unless it is, and that is problem in and of itself). Once you create that distinction between your self worth and your work, receiving hard criticism when it inevitably comes becomes a lot easier.

Ever received some bad advice?

“If someone is telling you to deal with toxicity as a hazing process to get started in design, or in your company – run away.”

Design trends that should die?

Designing without thinking about ethical ramifications.

Agile or waterfall?

I’ve mostly been on teams that used agile and it seems to work pretty well. At the end of the day, what matters is that all parties are consistently aligned on expectations (especially if they change frequently) and clear communication channels exist.

What are you watching on Netflix right now?

Not currently watching any Netflix shows (I go through phases) but one of the movies I watched recently (twice!) was “Sorry to Bother You” and I can’t stop thinking about it. It is such a pointed, satirical take on our current society and the plethora of intersectional problems we have (and need to address). You could write a thesis on that movie; it has so many layers to unpack – from racism, classism, sexism, the tech industry, capitalism, etc. Boots Riley is a visionary and the cast did a phenomenal job.

What are you reading/listening to right now?

Currently reading “Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst” by Robert Sapolsky – it is a fascinating examination of the biological and sociological factors that cause humans to act the way we do. Sapolsky examines heavy topics like xenophobia, aggression, morality, and free will with an incredibly funny and insightful lens.

Two of my favorite artists, Anderson .Paak and Kendrick Lamar, just came out with a new song called “Tints” and I am obsessed with it!

Who’s work do you follow and admire?

Colin Kaepernick.

Writing for Marvel. Writing for fun. Eating everywhere, all the time.

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