The Year of Adaptability
All of us experienced immense changes, challenges and uncertainty in 2020 — the surreal year of COVID-19. For some time, 2020 was feeling like “the lost year” thanks to all the dread, drear, prolonged restrictions and isolation from people who make life more meaningful. But as we kick off the new year, I am fortunate to reflect back and see so much gained from this unique year. There’s personal impact, like gaining time with my husband to fix up our basement or go for afternoon walks together. Then there’s career impact: In this post, I reflect on the most impactful professional changes I experienced in 2020, and how they’ll continue to shape my role in product design going forward.
Changing teams when it wasn’t the plan.
This year started with what felt like a devastating move from my close-knit team on the enterprise tech side of the company — which I had poured 15 months of passion into — to a new team and initiative for the company’s consumer app. While leadership intended for this to be a great opportunity for me to work on a high-profile project, they supported my preference to ultimately return to my “home” team once the project was stable, which I embraced devoting my energy and positivity towards achieving.
Then the pandemic hit, and my original team’s mission consequentially was put on indefinite pause as its 30+ team members were also redistributed to other teams. Sadly, there was no going back anymore.
After being forced by situation to stick with this change more permanently, I was able to see it as a gift. As a newly principal level designer, it better positioned me to mentor other designers. It opened up new relationships with more diverse partners. It allowed me to shake up unhelpful legacy practices. It enabled me to work on experiences that could help millions. And icing on the cake…I saw our work featured in a commercial during New Year’s Eve programming last night, which was pretty cool to see!
Lesson learned in 2020: When your situation suddenly and drastically changes undesirably, grasp onto the growth instead of dwell in the loss.
Looking ahead in 2021: Be more open-minded to trying new opportunities — even when they’re presented to you at times when you have other plans.
Changing course in product direction like never before.
Any company with traditional brick & mortar footprints was forced to embrace a digital acceleration this year thanks to COVID-19, and we were no exception. Our 57 year-old company was suddenly hurling the strategically transformative digital opportunities that our Product & Tech teams had been working towards, but now at lightning speed. It was fast-paced and chaotic, but absolutely incredible to see how quickly the organization could react and how much the teams could accomplish. On the other hand, we launched so much, so fast that it exacerbated the classic design challenge of maintaining an overall streamlined, holistic experience.
Leadership’s increased appetite for agility inspired some bold moves, too. This year I took some risks in challenging the big idea and gaining alignment to pursue other directions instead (which thankfully have worked out successfully). This gave me more confidence to pursue big-picture thinking more proactively, and the drive to help other designers delicately navigate these types of situations as well.
Lesson learned in 2020: Ideas aren’t permanent, and don’t have to be marching orders. Both the environment and individuals can shift strategies in major ways when you’d never see it coming.
Looking ahead in 2021:
- Put forth the courage and effort into showing the possibilities you’ve envisioned. Dare to make a case for it — and spark the confidence and imagination of others to do the same.
- How might we uphold design quality and a unified digital experience when teams are launching experiences more widespread and rapidly than ever before?
Eliminating the commute.
When we were first evacuated from our New York office in March, I never imagined that I’d still be working remotely today. As much as I miss the buzz of the office and seeing coworkers more regularly and casually, eliminating my 1.5 hour commute has done wonders! I’m less tired and have gained more time for fitness, family and housework. I gained back 570 hours of commuting. That’s over 23 days worth of time! (Not to mention dodging icky-weather walks and frustrating train delays).
Lesson learned in 2020: My quality of life is substantially better without my commute; it’s worth prioritizing.
Looking ahead in 2021: Use this “new normal” to truly lean into leveraging freed-up time towards passion projects, too.
Finding new ways to stay connected.
It’s been so interesting learning how others in the design community (and beyond) have been trying to keep a sense of connectedness in a completely remote working environment. Some highlights we tried were Friday Challenges, Monday Morning Coffee chats, “What did you do this weekend?” Slack threads, team trivia events, a virtual escape room event, a “water cooler” Slack channel, and some really creative activities in virtual baby and wedding showers. I’ve also noticed most people seem to feel better leaving a virtual meeting that made some room for smalltalk or personal questions.
Additionally, I’ve found it more important than ever to invest in individual communication—ways to replace the convenience of running into someone in the kitchen or popping by their desk. Random outreach on Slack or ad-hoc coffee chat catch-ups have helped me sync with other teammates, learn about them more personally and let them know I care. And as tempting as it is to decrease 1:1s from Zoom-filled days, I’ve found these to become lifelines for maintaining relationships.
Lesson learned in 2020: Within the org, the strongest team cultures are those which have prioritized ways to keep the connectedness; we’re the teams who laugh. Personally, my weakest relationships are those which lack regular 1:1 interaction or skimp on the personal talk.
Looking ahead in 2021:
- Focus on extending these efforts for personal connectedness beyond my immediate design team and engineering crew.
- Which rituals are worth continuing? Where are we falling short in fostering genuine connectedness, and what else can we try to address it?
Amplifying the role of empathy.
Empathy is already a primary language for designers. But this year it was experienced grander than ever, all being in this together. Organizationally I witnessed more focus on empathy towards our users and towards each other than in the past — awareness ranging from relating to people’s anxiety, to understanding the struggles of our weight loss-seeking members who suddenly have restrictions on grocery shopping and fitness access, to acknowledging challenging lifestyle changes coworkers with children were dealing with on a daily basis. This heightened appreciation led to truly caring decisions and interactions both for users and employees.
Lesson learned in 2020: Everybody has struggles. Understanding and appreciating those struggles at scale leads to better results (and of course, better humanity).
Looking ahead in 2021:
- Even when the obvious struggles go away, remember that everybody has struggles, and seeing them is a powerful practice.
- How might we help others continue to practice this empathy even when crisis is over?
Stepping up wherever, whenever, and however needed.
Throughout my design career, I’ve always been the person filling the gaps — whether it’s design, project management, product management, research, or team support. But there were some changes this year that really evolved this for me. Both a shortage in design team managers and ambiguous, shifting projects left a need for more leadership. I found myself stepping in to take on more process and people challenges, and focusing on the bigger-picture product opportunities.
It was so rewarding seeing frameworks voluntarily adopted, getting approached for collaboration advice and design feedback, seeing experiments successfully enable tighter social connection, democratizing data for the product team, surfacing more holistic product opportunities, and being blown away by teammates’ unlocked potentials when delegating tasks out to them. Yet, I feel like I barely scratched the surface. And on the other hand, I was no longer doing my best detailed design work as I started spending more time on larger challenges beyond the feature at hand.
Lesson learned in 2020: As much as I enjoy being the expert crafter of a particular product/feature area, it’s true what they say — that a greater impact can be made when focusing on enabling others.
Looking ahead in 2021: Maybe it’s time to recalibrate my Process-Product-People compass, and reimagine what optimal impact looks like!