Office Hours with Yoko Sakao Ohama

Welcome to Merit Office Hours! This week we're sitting down with designer and Merit mentor Yoko Sakao Ohama and chatting about making career decisions, vulnerability, and becoming a designer.

Photograph of Yoko Sakao Ohama holding her orange-and-white cat

Yoko Sakao Ohama (she/her) is a senior product designer currently focused on shipping and fulfillment in the e-commerce space. She thinks of her path to product design as a gradual narrowing of focus, starting from a general interest in art and communication to thinking about how to bring clarity and enablement to users sending and receiving packages in the mail. Yoko spends maybe too much time thinking about systems—the ones that surround and impact us, as well as the ones we design.

Want to talk to Yoko more about careers in design or career choices? Book some time with her on Merit.

Our interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Rachel Spurrier: If you could give one piece of advice to an early career designer, what would that be?

Yoko Sakao Ohama: How do I narrow it down to just one? I've talked to a few folks who come through Merit, and they'll say that they're having trouble making a decision, whether it's, "I have a job offer” or “I have several job offers and I don't know which one to pick."  But it's also things like, "I'm not sure about coming into the field of product design. The transition to me is scary."

The advice that I would give is: "Try to make a decision that feels the best for you with the information that you have at the time."

That helps people make that decision in the first place. When they later reflect on it, they can at least say that they were trying to make the decision that was the best for them. Sometimes things don't work out the way that you expect, but at least you can own the decision as opposed to thinking, "Well, I thought that this would happen, and it didn't, and now I'm really mad at that."

It's a totally legitimate feeling to have, but it's just not something that you can do a lot about. The overall feeling of agency that you will gain from approaching a decision in that way is worth it to me. That feeling of agency almost matters more to me than the actual circumstances.

When faced with a tough career choice, try to make the decision that feels the best for you with the information you have now.

RS: I think that that's fantastic advice. We have a really strong tendency to beat ourselves up over, "Well, this isn't what I thought it was going to be." Or, "I made a mistake." No, you didn't. You made a decision based on what you knew, and this is the outcome. And usually, you learn something from it.

YSO: Exactly what you said. And I think I would add that when you take that perspective, it also helps you to make a decision at that moment because you're less worried about all of the things that could happen. Thinking through every single scenario that could happen in the future can really bog you down. But when you think about, "What do I feel right now in this moment? What do I know about and what my options are right now? What feels right to me right now?"

This is coming from someone who tends to think through all the scenarios, bad and good, usually bad because that's how my brain goes. [laughs]. So that's advice that I always need for myself. When I sense that the person I'm talking to is in a similar position, being like, "Oh, but what if this could happen? What if this could happen? What if I'm closing a door when I make a decision in this way?" I think that that perspective is really helpful.

One more thing that I would add about closing doors is, let's say in the scenario where a person is entertaining two job offers and feels like if they say yes to this one thing then they're saying no to another thing. I think it's easy to feel that you're closing a door in that space, but that door is still going to be available for you in the future. Try to take the perspective that when you make a decision, it opens more door opportunities for you as opposed to closing all the other options that all of the other doors that you could have chosen to open.

When choosing one path over another, you’re not closing yourself off to opportunities but opening more doors for the future.

RS: I spoke to another designer, and she said that the way that she looks at it is that for every door that she opens, there are more doors behind it. So even if there is a door that closes and she doesn't open it again, any decision that she makes creates more opportunities and more decisions in a positive way.

You offer mentorship to those who are looking to break into tech. And what are some tips that you tend to share about breaking into either be tech in general or becoming a designer? What are some things that you tend to advise?

YSO: I'll speak to one specific type of person who is breaking into tech: somebody who has working experience but has not worked in product design or in the tech industry. A lot of the product designers I work with and respect have a lot of technical skills that can be hard to develop. But so much of the work of being a product designer is working with folks who are not product designers, so you need to be able to level with that person and understand what their incentives and their goals are. I’m working in a triangle of disciplines between product, design, and engineering, but we're coming from different perspectives and different incentives. Being able to understand that dynamic of a working relationship is super important as a product designer. That's a skill that you can gain without being a product designer; it is transferable from another working environment. Understanding that unlocks a person's ability to believe that they can become a product designer.

Something else that you can still gain without being a product designer is the ability to craft a story and advocate for a specific kind of user experience or a specific user outcome. The work that goes into crafting a story like that is understanding your audience, being able to build a case, and communicating it effectively. These are all things that you don't necessarily need to have been in product design to do.

If you want to move into product design but don’t feel like you have experience, soft skills like storytelling and cross-functional collaboration are easily transferred from other fields and roles.

Yes, there's a technical skillset that you'll likely need to build that you haven’t had an opportunity to build yet, but one of the greatest advantages of having worked, period, is a lot of the skills that you need to become a product designer are things that you can gain in other places because it's such a collaborative, narrrative-communicating job.

That can bring you confidence in [design] where you may feel like you’ve worked for 10 years in a completely unrelated space, but there's probably something in [your experience] that you can build upon without having that direct industry experience.

The alternative perspective is you might be just graduating from school or you don't have a lot of working experience. This is a space where I feel like I actually don't know a ton about, because I gradually came into my career. I had a design degree, but it was not product design or UX design related at all. It took me seven or eight years of figuring out how to get into the field of product design with a design degree.

It was much more of a gradual understanding of what the industry really is and where I fit into it, navigating my own interests, and asking, "What is the sort of thing that I want to do as a job? How is that different from what I learned in school as a designer?" In that [situation], to gain that understanding of where you might fit into product design, talk to people on platforms like Merit and ask, "What is it like working as a product designer? Does that fit my understanding of what I want to do?"

The product designer's job changes a lot, depending on the company, or even within a company, depending on your roles. “Try to gather as many data points as possible through talking to people,” would be my advice for folks who maybe don't have a lot of working experience and are still trying to figure out where they might fit in, in terms of a job in product design or UX design.

To learn if product design would be a good fit for you, talk to people on platforms like Merit and ask what it’s like to work as a product designer.

RS: You mentioned that at the time that you graduated, there wasn't a direct path from a degree in design to product design. But I'm starting to see more design apprenticeship programs. Could you define what these programs look like and how you think that they're helpful getting folks into design?

YSO: An apprenticeship is allowing a person to learn by doing the job of being a product designer or a UX designer, with or without working experience.

It's a way for folks to get into the industry to leverage [whatever] work experience that they have, and then also gain more technical skills that you need to become a product designer. There are great incentives on both sides: on both the company's part and also the apprentice's part. As an apprentice, you're able to move into an industry that you felt was not accessible to you because you didn't have a degree, for example. For the company, especially with apprenticeships that focus on folks who tend to be underrepresented, that increases the diversity of the employee base, a really big plus.

RS: You said something interesting about how product design is an emerging field. The role hasn’t been around a long time, like a software engineer. What's a common misconception about product design that you hear a lot?

YSO: Especially now that this field is becoming more defined and established, there are now courses and majors you can take. I think the emerging misconception that's probably coming out of that is that you need that kind of [training] in order to come in, that you need to have that degree or that course experience to be good at product design. I think that that misconception pervades not just candidates, but also companies who are hiring.

If I could speak to that misconception, I would say I know lots of people who are maybe my age, and they didn't study product design, because it didn't exist as a field. We eventually found the field as a place that was a really good fit for us, but I know [product designers] whose academic background is in music or computer science or poetry. I want to push against this idea that these pipelines are the only ways that you can become a good product designer.

Great product designers can come from a wide variety of backgrounds, not just design-specific degrees and courses.

It's a big tide to fight against, because I think a lot of companies are going to ask, “Did this person do a UX bootcamp, or do they have a UX-related degree?" before they even consider a person's capability in being a product designer.

RS: You talked a little bit about the technical skills, but then also some of the softer skills, like collaboration and being able to work in a cross-functional team. If someone comes to you and is struggling to collaborate in a cross-functional team for the first time, whether that's conflicts with a product manager, or communicating with software engineers, how do you advise someone to navigate those team relationships?

YSO: This sounds maybe a little reductive, but no matter what sort of situation is causing this tension of collaboration, be honest with yourself about what you think that you need. And then try your best to communicate that to your collaborators. It's not really an easy thing to do, but the vulnerability that you will help the people in the room understand, "We're just people trying to work together."

I'm a person who believes very strongly that you need to be able to give a little bit of yourself for people to feel safe that they can do that, too.  I know that it's a really hard thing to do, and it really depends on the situation.

To create psychological safety in a team, you first have to share a bit of yourself and take the risk to be vulnerable so others feel that they can be, too.

If you were in a straight-up toxic environment where being vulnerable will hurt you, you need to protect yourself. Leave, if you can. Or try to find people who can support you in that space. In general, I think most people are trying to do their job. Not everyone is like, "This job is my passion and my meaning in life." For some people, it's literally just a job. So try to understand where they’re coming from: "Okay, I understand. I have a job to do, too. This is what I need. And can we work together to sort of figure this out?" I think being the first person to suggest that is a difficult thing to do.

I will say from experience that it gets easier with practice. I want to believe that for the most part people just don't know that you might be struggling or that that there's something wrong. Without someone to say that there’s something that can be fixed, people will just keep doing whatever they're doing.

Often, your teammates don’t know that you might be struggling. Unless you say something, people will continue the status quo, and nothing can or will change.

RS: I like what you mentioned, too, earlier, about people are operating under different incentives. The things that a product designer is trying to work towards and optimize for is different than what a product manager's thinking about. Can you speak to that at all, about what the different incentives are for folks on a team?

YSO: To simplify a lot, my role as a product designer is to help a user attain the goal of whatever they're doing. A product manager is making sure that the products being built accomplish a business goal for the company. For the engineering team, their goal is that the implementation methods to build the product are scalable and don't break—doing that in a way that's smart, efficient, and flexible enough to change or evolve.

In a highly effective partnership l can say, "I am a product designer. I'm not responsible for the business goals. I'm not responsible for the scalability of the technical like architecture of the product." But I have some understanding of what those things are and the general principles to accomplish those business goals or a well-architectured product. Having some understanding of what those entail helps me better work with those two disciplines for us to accomplish our goal together. I think it's easy for us to say, "This is my job. This is my responsibility. The PM has a different responsibility; engineering has a different responsibility.” But I think a really highly effective team is one where each of those disciplines has some idea or at least empathy for the other disciplines.

In a highly effective team, each member has empathy for their teammates’ goals, incentives, and concerns.

Have more questions for Yoko? Grab some time with her by joining Merit today.

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