"Never stop learning."
User experience designer Michael Kontopoulos's work helps further cancer treatment in patients, making his take on a client's needs particularly unique.
He sat down with DesignRush to explore the top three factors that influence design, how we can find balance in every project, and how to track -- and avoid -- design debt.
DesignRush: What inspired you to go into UX design?
Michael Kontopoulos: I was working as a visual artist and arts educator in Los Angeles for many years after receiving my Masters Fine Arts. I found my niche teaching programming to young artists and designers, challenging them to build their own tools. Meanwhile, in my own artwork, I created fictional societies and designed sculptures or rituals that fit those worlds.
Design thinking was critical to my practice before I even considered myself a designer. To produce work for a show, I interviewed people, conducted analogous research, iterated through prototypes, etc. I even looked at my openings like user-tests. When I discovered UX as a career option, it felt like a perfect match.
DR: How so?
MK: I had become frustrated with the art world, experienced some difficult changes in my personal life, and felt like I could do more to influence the world rather than just observe and critique it as I had been.
I did an immersive UX boot camp, and now, years later, I find myself applying my background in storytelling and systems thinking towards healthcare design, and I couldn’t be more content.
DR: That's really interesting! Do you have any tips for designing with both a client’s desires and user experience in mind?
MK: I’d bet any working designer could write a book on this.
It can be a challenging balance to find, regardless of whether you work explicitly in a client-services role (say, at an agency) or on the internal design team at a company. There will always be internal or external stakeholders whose needs must weigh into your process. While they may come from a good place, sometimes those needs don’t align with what you think (or hopefully, your research shows) are the needs of users. These are political constraints. Add in resources/time and technical constraints. and you have what I consider the top three factors that influence all design.
Successful design isn’t just the most beautiful or intuitive, in my opinion. It’s the solutions that find the best compromise of these three constraints.
DR: Excellent point. How do we achieve that balance?
MK: Good design doesn’t happen in a vacuum -- it has to bend to the physics of the real world. Navigating this, I think, comes down to how teams are composed and what efforts are being made to make sure the right people are communicating.
There are some obvious wins: Roping in engineers early and working more collaboratively, leveraging product owner’s expertise about customer insights, setting up appropriate gut-checks with any stakeholders, and so on. But depending on the needs of a project and how your team is organized -- such as agile product releases or discrete agency-client timelines -- there may be other roles and expertise to consider.
DR: Do you have any specific things that we should be considering when working on a project?
MK: Yes. For example, do you have dedicated content strategists or information architecture experts? They may need to work more closely with your engineering team to make sure that the search functionality you’re designing is possible. Are your hands tied by an ancient vendor that your company uses? That’s a technical constraint. You may have to design an elegant near-term solution that will hold until you can make the case for a new vendor or bring that expertise in-house. This kind of “design debt” can be a slippery slope though, and more teams are starting to track and report it the same way any engineering team would track tech debt.
DR: Let's talk about some of your work. What are some projects of your own that you are particularly proud of?
MK: My current position is probably the most rewarding job I’ve ever had and the product I feel the proudest to work on.
I work at a genomic testing company that is working to transform cancer care. We offer a portfolio of physician-ordered tests that analyze tumor or blood samples and report back any alterations or mutations that are driving the patient’s cancer, as well as any targeted therapies and clinical trials that may be relevant. Using that information, physicians and patients can evaluate the options we provide and determine a path forward.
DR: Wow, that's incredible.
MK: We’re on the vanguard of what’s being called “Precision Medicine” and it’s a fascinating space to be a UX designer in because the problems are unprecedented and the need is great.
I recently wrapped up a large, collaborative research project about the cancer patient journey. We’re using insights from that research to inform design and marketing work around physician and patient education. Generally, our work endeavors to empower the physician and patient relationship.
DR: Well, we would be proud of that kind of work as well. Are there any tools you gravitate towards when working on these projects?
MK: A mentor once advised me not to get too attached to tools because they change too frequently, and I agree. The best thing you can do for yourself is to learn how to be a good learner. That way, you’re always ready to locate the tool that fits your project’s needs.
With that being said, I -- like many others -- have been an avid user of Sketch, InVision and Adobe products (when appropriate). I enjoy prototyping animation microinteractions in Principle as well.
DR: Microinteractions must be huge in your particular line of design.
MK: It is. My team is also putting a lot of energy into establishing a living style guide, and so we’re starting to use Abstract for version control, working more with libraries and even building an internal component library with usage examples and code. I’m also a big fan of learning to code and building your own tools when they are missing. Processing is a fantastic resource for bringing procedural literacy to your practice.
DR: We'd love to know a little more about you. Which blogs, websites or apps do you check every day?
MK: I’ve soured on social media in recent years, but I do check Instagram pretty constantly because I can curate it more carefully and follow design, fashion and photography work that inspires me. Some of my favorite, less obvious accounts lately are anti_cgi, abstractsunday, designmilk, massmoca, ideo and extrafactory, in addition to a slew of individual artists, board game accounts, foodies and dog memes.
For work inspiration, I use the Muzli browser plugin and I have it pretty well-curated so every time I open a new tab, I see lots of great design, art and tech inspiration. InVision’s blog and TypeWolf are also frequent stops. Finally, I get emails about what’s going on in healthcare design and I subscribe to MIT’s Technology Review so I’m up on trends.
DR: You have the day off. What can we find you doing?
MK: I’m a huge believer in downtime and finding inspiration everywhere. If the weather is nice, my girlfriend and I will take day-trips around New England and enjoy the natural beauty here. We adopted a rescue dog this year so we also spend a lot of time with him! I also enjoy spending free time playing board games. For me, they hit a perfect sweet spot between unplugging, spending time with people, and exercising the part of my brain that is analytical and enjoys solving problems.
DR: Is there a mantra that motivates you in your work?
MK: I always have a handwritten post-it note on my desk that reads: “Take your time. Do it right.”
DR: Those are great words to live by. Do any specific brands speak to you?
MK: The human-centered design approach at IDEO is inspirational to me and I try and keep a close eye on what they’re doing and how they work. In healthcare, it’s critically important to have empathy and work in a research-driven and human-centered way. One of my favorite IDEO projects is Society of Grownups. It’s an important reminder that sometimes a design solution must go beyond a product. Sometimes, you need to work equally as hard to create social spaces, foster better conversations and bolster public education. Don’t just design new things. Design the world those things should live in.
Will we always get it right? Not so much. But there's a lot to gain from opening the conversation, being brave, and taking risks. A little #mondaymotivation from our CEO Nondini's presentation at #DelightConf.
DR: What advice do you have for designers that are new in their career but looking to grow?
MK: I’m going to quote one of my favorite artists, John Cage, from 10 Rules for Students, Teachers: “The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch onto things.”
Another great quote from a former boss: “Don’t wait for someone to tell you to be awesome.”
DR: There's something to be said for being your own advocate. Do you have any final thoughts, comments, or words of wisdom you’d like to share with someone in the industry?
MK: Be a good person. Be vulnerable. Be humble. A lot of agencies are patriarchies where big egos win. That won’t last long. When you treat people with respect, they want to work with you. The more people you work with, the more you learn. The more you learn, the better you and your work get.