Welcome to Merit Office Hours! This week, we're talking to Merit mentor and designer Diana Kourbo about career choices, developing user empathy, and the value of mentorship.
Diana Kourbo is a Staff Product Designer at Coursera with over 15 years of experience in the design space. Prior to working in ed tech, her career spanned a variety of industries, including travel, online gaming, and the energy market. An advocate for accessible design, she has spoken about the value of accessibility in the design process. Outside of her design work, she's an avid traveller, dancer, and house plant enthusiast.
Want to talk to Diana more about design careers and growing your design skills? Book some time with her on Merit.
Our interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Rachel Spurrier: You studied in Canada and then worked at a Canadian airline as well as energy companies. Then you began working at a software-focused company, Coursera, and moved to the States. Could you talk a little bit about that transition?
Diana Kourbo: I spent quite a chunk of my career at an airline, WestJet, which is the second largest airline in Canada right now. The rest of that time was in the energy industry—oil and gas and electricity.
Getting the opportunity to work with Coursera was amazing because Coursera is a completely different space. Ed-tech in particular is interesting [to me] because I like to learn continuously. In the field of technology, there’s so much changing all the time that it's almost impossible to keep up without taking courses constantly, which Coursera offers. So I jumped at the opportunity to join the company.
It just so happened that they were able to help my husband and me relocate to the States. Everything happened really fast, and it was a stressful but fun experience. Within a matter of six to eight weeks, we sold everything and moved. We ended up in Florida, so it's been a big change from Canada. We're not seeing snow anymore. We're at the beach every other day.
It's inspiring that you never know where your career can take you. Your career can really define your life at some point. Our whole life has changed just based on the fact that I switched employers.
RS: I agree. It's so funny, the directions life can take with your profession in ways that you would not expect.
You mentioned that you worked for WestJet. I imagine that designing for someone who's booking a flight, then going to an airport, then taking that flight might be a little bit different than working on a product where that person is primarily interacting with the product in one place. How does your design thinking change or expand when you're considering how to design for an experience that spans space and time?
DK: That’s a good question. The environment in which people interact with your product is a really big factor. While at WestJet, our team primarily focused on sales: email and online. We had another team who was going into airports, talking to people, and seeing them in their environment. Until you see people using your product in different environments, you have no idea what [users will do].
You have to consider about the whole journey from people's thinking, “I want to go somewhere,” all the way through having that experience and then coming back home. You want to support [those experiences] in a consistent way.
You would think Coursera is a more limited space because it's online education. You log in; you take a couple of courses; and then you're done for the day. But it's still a complex space. My team is focused on retention, so we are talking to people and trying to understand what keeps them from achieving their career and learning goals online. The different environments come up again. They're living in the home life. They have kids or they have families; they have a full-time job on top of everything, so we still have to understand the full picture.
While these two industries look separate, you still need to understand the holistic view of the person's life to design for them. That's when user testing and talking to people is important, no matter which product or audience you're designing for.
RS: Design practices seem like they're always evolving, and design in general seems like a field where you want to keep yourself apprised on the latest thinking and research. What recommendations do you have for designers to keep their skills and practices up-to-date?
DK: There are two sides to that question, because you do want to keep on top of current trends, but there's the other side of it, a darker side, where if you try to keep up with everything, you're going to get overwhelmed.
Focus on the most interesting thing to you, and then find people who provide content around that. Find that niche, and then try to keep up through social media or through books—although they get outdated really fast.
My favorite thing to do is follow influencers on social media in the product design space. I also like to sign up for webinars from different organizations. Calgary UX and DesignBuddies have so many great webinars that they host with different design speakers, and it's all free.
RS: You mentioned different places that provide talks online. You gave a talk about accessibility design and how can tech companies can improve in thinking about accessibility in their product and design practices. Do US-based companies in particular seem to struggle with this more?
DK: I don't think it's [only] US companies. I feel like a lot of companies struggle with that. I think there's a stigma that it's a very small niche market, so we don't have the time or resources to focus on [inclusive design].
But as people get to know a lot more about inclusive design and accessibility, they understand that they at some point have had to use an accessible form of design. They would never have thought of themselves as somebody who needs additional resources or help when using tools and products.
If you include accessibility as part of your design, you actually benefit everybody in some way, not just that niche market that you thought that you were [serving].
RS: Definitely. In general it seems like Canada has more regulations about website and software design—for example, accessibility or support for multiple languages, like French. What can US-based designers learn from how their Canadian counterparts handle these additional considerations?
DK: I remember really struggling when we were localizing the airline website for languages like French. You think you have this much space to work with in English, and then you translate it to French. There are many more [characters], and the experience becomes convoluted if you didn't build a scalable experience.
One of the things designers can do is put themselves in the customer's shoes. How will this website look if I had a low bandwidth, for example, and I can’t load all the heavy graphics? Can I still get the information that I need from this website?
Especially in Chrome, developer tools can simulate those different environments. When you try to emulate the experience, you understand what you can do to make things easier. That could be a different million different things: making the page lighter on graphics or optimizing your images so they load faster.
RS: You have a certificate in project management. I think that that's really interesting because a lot of the time, people don't think about design as having anything to do with project management. When and how do designers participate in project management? Is that a skill that designers benefit from having?
DK: Absolutely. My previous experience before Coursera, it was more UX design-focused. I didn't think there was much of a difference between [UX and product design] before starting this role, and now I understand product design has a much bigger business lens that you have to look through when designing.
Having a skill such as project management is useful because you can understand how the whole team comes together to create this experience and how everything needs to sync to put out a workable product. I feel like half the time I am doing project management because I have to do all these workshops and organize strategy sessions with my product manager. And because we're usually working in an agile environment, there's no formal project manager involved in these teams.
We do have a product manager, but they deal with the business side of things and how we're going to scale [products] across the organization. It's everybody's role, essentially, on the project to manage themselves and then everybody else as a team.
RS: I agree: everyone on an agile team is partially responsible for project management. You always need to make sure the work is getting done. Like you mentioned, when you’re organizing workshops or design sprints, that takes a lot of wrangling and organizational skills.
I’m going to switch now to talking about mentorship. What does mentorship mean to you? What, if anything, has mentorship taught you, whether that’s you being mentored or you offering the mentorship?
DK: When I first got into mentorship with Merit, I was kind of unsure. Do I have anything to offer? Do people actually want to talk to me? Will I add any value? But then I started mentoring people. I realized, yes, I do have something to offer. That gives you a boost of confidence, especially in the design field. We're always suffering from imposter syndrome. We’re always thinking, “I should know more. I should be more competent. I should have better skillsets.” So when I started mentoring, I gained more confidence in myself as a design leader, but I also found that people actually were really thankful for mentorship. It gave me a feeling of bringing value.
Even though you don't get paid for it, [mentorship] is one of the most rewarding things you can do, because I can see that after I mentored somebody, they start to get more interviews or they got their first design job or they had some sort of breakthrough that you helped them with. I'm not going to take credit, because I just try to help people see the skills that they already have, how they can use them, how to maximize on them. I'm so glad I joined [Merit] as a mentor.
From the other side, I also get mentored myself on other websites. That's also been valuable because people share perspectives that help you expand your thinking.
Whether you're mentoring or you’re being mentored, it's just a super valuable experience.
RS: How did you end up mentoring on Merit?
DK: I was inspired by one of the webinars I watched. I learned that if you don't have direct leadership responsibilities at work but you want to practice leadership, mentoring is one of the best things that you can do.
RS: When would you recommend someone find or connect with a mentor? At what stages or what moments do you think a mentor is especially beneficial?
DK: People can connect at any point. I've had people who are in a completely different field and they're curious about design and what it would take [to enter design]. If you want to get an idea of the design world, you can talk to a mentor, and they'll tell you about the day-to-day and the kinds of tasks you would be doing.
Especially beneficial would be when you start practicing your design skills, but you're unsure of what to do next: do I want to learn more before I start applying for jobs? Do I need more feedback on my portfolio? Do I need some other guidance at this stage in my journey? I think for junior designers, mentorship could be especially valuable, but you can really get mentored at any stage in your career.