Welcome to Merit Office Hours! This week we’re chatting with designer, advisor, and Merit mentor Catt Small. Because of Catt’s experience as a designer and advisor, we asked her all about how non-designers can approach and learn design.
Catt is a product design leader, game maker, and developer. She is currently the Director of Product Design at All Turtles. She started programming interactive games around the age of 10 and has been going ever since. In her spare time, Catt makes awkward video games, writes, and draws artwork of all kinds. You can view her work at www.cattsmall.com.
Want to talk to Catt about design skills and techniques? Book some time with her on Merit.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Rachel Spurrier: You are a design advisor to both Merit and Artistree. What does your work as a design advisor typically entail?
Catt Small: I'm new to this, so I'm still figuring it out myself. I started doing this work earlier this year. Most of what it involves so far has been pulling from my expertise as a product designer and product design leader and looking out for any common pitfalls that folks might fall into when they're at a very early stage startup. I try to put my different perspective hats on to be able to share frustrations that users might have or things to consider in terms of how we're communicating to users.
It’s really being a combination of a design thinker, providing user insights, acting as an advisor, and then to some level thinking about my history as somebody who contributes to product strategy and engineering, even. Some days I might be providing feedback and/or ideating on flows that we're considering as potential additions to existing products. It could be thinking about brand messaging and consistency of user experiences from the marketing page to the product itself. It could even be thinking about visual QA and looking at ways to potentially make an interface look a little cleaner. The other day I actually was able to make a suggestion about a new CSS property [laughs] that got added a couple years ago that not everyone knows about.
It spans all kinds of different conversations, and that's what I like about it: it's really free form, and every week I get to see—or every other week depending on how often I meet with folks—such growth and change at a pace that doesn't always happen with larger-scale companies.
RS: That’s so cool. I'm glad that you mentioned pitfalls, because my next question is: some early stage startups might be looking to product and engineering to pitch in on design work. They may not have a designer on staff. What are some common design mishaps that non-designers make or where can it go wrong?
CS: That's so hard. [laughs]
It’s good to remind people that you're not always your customer, even if you have the right use case. What I really appreciate about working with the team at Merit, for example, and also at Artistree, is that they are both very in tune with their users and they're constantly working to get feedback, which is something that to me feels pretty rare historically. I'm really glad that we're seeing more people make sure to get very quick and dirty user research insights because it's really not that hard. But a lot of people assume that it's too challenging to put together a format that's going to get usable insights.
People also sometimes try to overcompensate for not having a designer title, for example. [laughs] And they'll try to make things really "design-y" and get really concentrated on what the UI looks like when, at an earlier stage startup, it might be [more] important to get some customer insights, figure out what the quickest and easiest flow is, and get it out as quickly as possible to get feedback and then iterate.
I really encourage people not to spend a huge amount of time on layouts. Of course, we want it to be trustworthy, and that's important. But we're also here to move quickly, to learn, and hopefully to scale to a point where you can get an actual designer to work on a product full-time.
I try my best to make it clear that it's okay sometimes to make temporary layout choices. What you really want to care about is making sure that generally the flow is good, and we can always spend more time on the UI and iterating once the core foundation is set.
RS: That’s such a good point that a lot of decisions that you make, they may feel like the “type one” decision that you can't go back and change your mind about, but really they're “type two.”
And a common mistake, at least I've seen, is getting really focused on what a button is called. You can change that later. Unless the button is weirdly tied to your architecture in a way that you can't change for whatever reason, you can go back later. Or copy, that can be fixed; it's okay. That’s such a good reminder.
CS: I agree.
RS: What are some ways that non-designers can develop basic design literacy? Or another way of phrasing it is: a non-designer wants to learn some of the basics. What are some approaches you might suggest to that person?
CS: Some great ways: obviously there are boot camps, but conferences are really a great—and in comparison to the cost of a boot camp, low-priced—opportunity to learn a ton in a short amount of time from people who are at the forefront of design thinking. It can also be a great way to find out, for example, about upcoming technology changes. The CSS property that I mentioned, I actually found out about that from a conference. And a couple of years later, we were able to actually start using CSS grid in code, because it works across all browsers.
[At conferences], you can learn a lot about the cutting edge of conversation, and you can learn tons from people who have been making mistakes and have been learning and iterating for years about the design process and about other parts of the product development process. I'm a huge believer in going to a conference, spending a couple days, getting hugely inspired, and learning a ton of things that I would've had to struggle on my own for who knows how long to actually understand.
The other thing I always recommend is books. We've got O'Reilly; we've got Rosenfeld Media; we've got A Book Apart. There are a ton of amazing authors who write about if, for example, you’re working by yourself and you need to actually build user research skills. There's a book that's called the UX Research Team of One. [laughs] Really good book, and it helped me. I really recommend that folks check out books from folks like Rosenfeld Media and A Book Apart in particular because they cover so many topics. And again, it's shortcutting having to actually make a ton of mistakes yourself because you're reading this wealth of knowledge that people have already discovered.
Obviously there are blog posts and things like that too. It can be really hard to discern what are trustworthy sources because we have so much clickbait now. For that reason, I am a huge proponent of going through sources that have been vetted, like conferences and books in particular. I've taken some skill share classes that have been good. Basically, there's the vetted media approach, which is, for me, really great.
RS: The sheer amount of knowledge designers have can feel overwhelming. You know everything from user research, to design frameworks, to visual hierarchy, to typography, to systems thinking, to color theory, to user journey mapping. How should someone, especially a non-designer, decide which ones to learn first?
CS: I try to think about foundations, things that aren't going to change over time versus highly specific or temporary information. For example, when I was in college for graphic design, I learned about this thing called the grid, and it was all about laying out content and thinking about how to structure information so that people can best understand it. I learned all kinds of foundational techniques for laying out text and all kinds of little rules that I still use to this day when I'm having conversations with folks and in design critiques. That’s the kind of thing that I really encourage people to seek out.
I would say focus less on particular, highly specific methodologies and more on "What's the kind of the technique or knowledge that, regardless of the job or the industry that you're in, that you're still going to use?"
When it comes to things like user research, how do you talk to people? The skills that I've learned to create a good environment for user research are the same skills that I use to facilitate workshops with people. It's the same set of techniques that I use when I'm giving feedback to people. Honestly, a lot of the communication skills are really important.
I would say the other skills that I would consider foundational are some of the really basic rules around typography. When do you use a serif, a sans serif? Not so much how to design your own typeface or something like that. But really the basics.
It's also important to understand how to balance information on a page so that people don't get overwhelmed, which is why, for me, learning about the grid was really important because that was the fundamental information that people were teaching me.
It's of course useful to learn Figma. But every couple of years the technology changes, so if you get too stuck in one tool, then you're not going to be able to actually keep up. And the best way to do that is to understand in any tool how you can use the different functionality that you're provided to actually create an experience that is going to be usable for people.
Understanding those basic rules and being able to understand when you can play with those rules and disregard them completely. Those are the kinds of techniques that I would focus on much more than the buzzwords, if that makes any sense.
RS: That's such a good point, especially about the tools. I wrote something last year geared towards design boot camp graduates, and I heard the exact same thing: it does not matter as much as if you're using Sketch or Figma. What matters is what you do with those tools. Do you know how to do the foundational things using Sketch or Figma, whichever piece of software that you're using?
CS: Something important for people to consider as early as they can—and you can always change your mind later—do you want be a visual designer, a service designer, more of a traditional product designer, or a user experience designer? There are so many options. Generally product designers are kind of expected to know how to do all of the parts of the other ones. If you want to be a product designer, then yes, you do need to dig very deeply into color theory, and the basics of typography, how to be a user researcher, how to prototype, how to sketch wire frames, and things like that.
But if you are thinking about maybe being slightly more specialized, there is space to do that. If you want to be a content designer, a service designer, do user research, or something else, we do have those options. You can also cut down on some of the information you need to learn if you want to focus a little bit more.
RS: Especially for folks who are not looking to become designers, but either need to collaborate with design or be involved in some way, folks can get mental blocks, including myself, of “I'm not artistic,” or “I have poor spacial reasoning.” (That one's me. I have terrible spatial reasoning.) “I can't design.” What are some ways to work past those mental blocks?
CS: That is really interesting. That's a hard one. I try to think about design in slightly more of a scientific way, and I find that that helps me. You don't have to be "creative" all of the time. Honestly, design is making pretty logical choices. And for me, focusing on what's the most logical choice? How can I build the most confidence in what I'm designing?
For people that I've worked with, it has made it less about “design is this magical thing that people do and they're wizards.” [laughs] And it's turned it into, “There are a series of pros and cons at any given time, and a designer's job is to pull as many ideas out of people and as many suggestions based on insights and research and to turn it into something that makes sense to people.”
There is an element of creativity, but for me thinking about it as a scientific study of how people think and how I can actually support the workflows that they need to accomplish or show them something interesting: that helps me feel less pressure to be creative and it makes me feel more that I'm kind of scientist, nerd-type person. [laughs]
RS: I really like that. I'm the same as a writer. I sometimes hear people say, “I can't write.” And my philosophy is anyone can write, because anyone can think aloud. And if you can think aloud, you can put those thoughts on a page.
It's the same thing: there are a series of building blocks and you need to figure out which order to put them in. But overall, most people can write, so I'm very much on the same page.
But I've definitely been the person where I've been asked to contribute design-wise and I say, “This is such a bad idea, y’all.”
CS: [laughs] You don't even.
To your point, writers go through the experience of writer's block, and a lot of the time what I've heard and what I've experienced myself is I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself about what the outcome is supposed to be.
When I remove that pressure and I just let myself make what seem to be mistakes, or to create ideas that maybe aren't super well formed, or are "ridiculous," eventually, through a process of refinement and iteration, you can get to something that actually feels good. And it's important to just start somewhere, so removing the pressure from yourself or from other people is really important too.
And this is why it can be useful to have a service designer or a product designer who knows how to facilitate workshops, because that person can often reduce the pressure. Much like a user researcher reduces the pressure in a research session by saying, "Everything you say is helpful. No ideas are too stupid; you're not going to hurt anyone's feelings," those are the same rules that should apply anytime a non-designer is providing advice, suggestions, or ideas to a team.
Bringing the pressure down to zero and getting comfortable with being a little silly or embarrassing or making mistakes is an important part of the process, too.
If you have more questions for Catt, you can schedule a mentorship session with her! Check out her profile to book a session.