Fireside Chat with Kshitiz Anand

Currently the Associate VP at Paytm, Kshitiz is a Design Leader with experience in setting up and leading Design Teams across industry and academia. His approach is grounded in applying the principles of Design Thinking to Problem Solving, Product Management, Design Consulting, Entrepreneurship, and Design Leadership. His interest in Education systems, Design for Social Change, and Social Entrepreneurship have led him to share his thoughts on innovation in education across different platforms. He is also a regular speaker at conferences.

Q. The first instinct for most designers tends to be - ‘How do we build an app here?’; How can we address this bias?

As a designer, it would be quite useful to adopt the systems thinking hat. It basically allows you to have a bird’s eye view of the problem as well as zoom into the microscopic view of a particular problem.More often than not when you have an app first approach, we are already too zoomed into the solution. So, one good way of addressing this issue is to just zoom out.

A classic example of this is the CoWin portal; thinking that the vaccination problem is sorted by creating a booking system on the COWIN portal. That probably was the design brief given to the team; it’s pretty well laid out, the buttons look nice, there’s no UI issues and the platform looks very professional. In this case, “Design” has done its job but then there’s so many other issues related to the “vaccination problem” as we all have observed.

For instance, in rural areas, a lot of people were not availing vaccines. To find out why, one of the activities we’d done in our nonprofit (Happy Horizons Trust, which Kshitiz founded in 2013) was to launch a helpline number so that people can seek help if needed in this regard. Through the process we found that misinformation, superstitions, fear, etc., seemed to be holding people back from getting vaccinated. It’s only when you get to a systems level view that you are able to spot such issues, which will play a significant role in your design solution being successful.

As designers, we often have this bias that our role stops at just creating an app or after a product has gone live when in reality, it is not. The systems level view will tell you a lot about your user base and their psychology. So just being open to the fact that the product you are building is just one small bit in a larger system; that perspective shift I think would do a lot of service to you as a designer.

Q. What have your observations been with respect to junior designers (2-4 Yrs)? What mistakes do they often make and how could they be addressed?

Often, there’s a lot of emphasis on the tool. That emphasis on the tool, definitely needs to go. I believe that the emphasis has to be on the problem solving aspect. Some questions to ask yourself could be:

  • What is the problem that you’re trying to solve?
  • How do you know that you’ve actually solved that problem?
  • Are you able to gauge it with an audience?
  • Were you able to evaluate, in some capacity, that the product you have built did have the real impact you intended?

I feel that the ability to position yourself as a problem solver is very critical.For example, if I asked you to do a usability audit of a product, that’s the problem that I’m trying to solve. So you should be able to apply your knowledge of design and appropriate tools to solve that problem.

I put high value on the problem solving aspect. I feel that as designer, that’s what you should associate yourself with as primarily. I think that’s our larger calling as designers.

Q. How should designers find their next job?

I feel that when one is applying to companies, they don’t do enough homework about the company itself. One should spend some time, associating with the company and really understand what they are doing. There are a lot of great companies, but not all might fit in with what you want to pursue in life or as a designer.

You should never join a company for the sake of it’s ‘name’, instead you must be aligned with the vision of the company and the problem it is trying to solve. Spend enough time getting to know the people of the company, the progress they have been making and the impact they have created. These days it’s quite easy to reach out to people and even easier to find information about the company through social media and other digital platforms, so keep that in mind.

Another point I’d like to bring up here is about your individuality as a designer. Everybody has a certain uniqueness which you should be proud of. Let’s say you apply to a company that is looking for someone who churns out UIs at a rapid pace, and you are not that person, you should have the courage to forego the opportunity to find roles in organisations where you might be a better fit. It’s important for you to find yourself first.

Q. How much of your personality should you show in your portfolio? Should one follow a template based-model of popular portfolios or make something different?

One of my secrets is that I review the resume as a design exercise. If I find design principles not being applicable to the resume, I reject it. Similarly, if you want to incorporate design thinking principles it into developing your portfolio, think about:

  • Who is going to be reviewing it?
  • How do you want to be perceived by them?

The moment you send a portfolio and people start reviewing it, every project they review and every section they navigate through, is building their perception of you. So what is the perception that you want to build?

I think it is very important to treat the portfolio as an extension of oneself.

If the portfolios all look the same, it’s really not doing me any service. For example, if there are a lot of spelling errors in a portfolio website, I know for sure that the person will not pay attention to details when they get on the real work; I’m already judging them. Thus, It’s all about the perception you have in the reviewer’s mind.

One suggestion I always make: at the end of your portfolio’s project case study (If you’re using case study approach), also have a section, which talks about how you have evaluated the design? I often find that missing. If it went live, what is the real status of it? Did it succeed in its intent? If you can bring in those reflections that tells me that you are a reflective designer, that you are a really concerned about a project that you do, that you can actually take criticism about something which didn’t work and are open about it. All these things really add value in your presentation and what you want to present to the outside world.

Just because someone does a portfolio in certain way, doesn’t mean you have to use the same template. Bring in your individual perspective because that’s what makes you special.

As recruiters, we get so many portfolios. The ones that are unique or outstanding, will always get noticed. For example, the last time we were hiring product designers, we received close to 200-250 resumes to skim through. Out of that we probably shortlisted just about 20 of them. From the shortlisted candidates, we ended up selecting 2 people. Now, of those 200 people around 150 people just shared a behance link. This should give you an idea of what not to do.

Q. How do we talk about projects which are covered under an NDA with potential recruiters?

I encourage people to have an open conversation with the recruiter. If they take a liking to your profile, you can probably do a one-on-one showcasing during your interviews. Make them sign an NDA saying that, they will not record the session, they will not use of any sensitive information, etc. You could talk about the problem that you were trying to solve, you might not need to show the final screens from the project and instead may show certain parts of the whole project and then talk to them about the rest of the project if they are curious about it. If it’s live, it’s great because they can see your work, but if it’s not, I think they have to respect your constraints.

Also it is not a good idea to pin your entire candidature to it, being held up on just that one project. You see as a recruiter - I would like to assess your knowledge, skill set, your mindset and behavior in the context of design. If I am going to assess all of those things, under just one project, which has an NDA, then it’s a failing on my part as a recruiter as well. So you should probably also be open to discussing with your recruiter how your other projects can help him assess you better.

Q. How do we switch domains when applying for jobs? More specifically, how do we navigate the recruitment process when doing so?

It’s a purely supply demand situation out there. The supply side has become so saturated as there are many avenues that are producing designers (MOOCs, Master’s programs, bootcamps, accelerators, etc.). So, the supply side is very crowded with a lot of designers and recruiters know that they have choices.

Something I emphasise on is job description writing (as a recruiter) and job description reading (as an applicant). For example, when I was recruiting, we specifically mentioned we wanted people with 5+ years of experience, especially those who have worked in product companies for at least a year. But we had freshers applying for the role. I would straight away reject them. It is possible that the person has the capability, but I will not take them because I know that training the person to work in the company and product would be too high a cost for me to bear.

One needs to understand that not every company has the bandwidth to actually invest in a candidate whom they don’t see fitting the bill exactly as per their requirements. That’s when, companies, while rejecting applicants generally mention that they don’t match their present requirements. More so in tech product companies because things are happening at a very fast pace, right? So not many companies actually have the bandwidth to train you.

When I started my career in Infosys in 2005, people actually used to do training for six months in training programs. But today, you need to hit the ground running in less than 6 days! So I think it’s also the nature of the work site that you have to be mindful about.

Circling back to changing domains, one should be okay with stepping back for a little bit. What that means is - you probably won’t get to work in a bigger team or you wouldn’t draw the same salary that you were at earlier. So be open to that.

You may not need to join a full time company, instead you could take up a small freelance project in that domain. That way, you can build your domain expertise and portfolio, then apply to a bigger company.

Most of the time it boils down to what sort of a salary hit one would take. So, what you need to assess is how much of a setback that would be, and what value it adds to my candidature in the domain of my choice. Very often fresh graduates, have this restlessness to get a certain high very fast. I think that does a lot of Injustice to your candidature and to your profile as well.

Q. What sort of an impact will a Master’s degree in design, have in the long run in terms of Job prospects? (Asked by a cohort member who had deferred her Master’s admit in 2020)

I have realized that degrees matter to a certain extent only. I have a lot of people in my team who don’t have design degrees and are doing phenomenal work. A lot of people who do have design degrees also do phenomenal work. The bigger issue is that a lot of people don’t know what to do with that degree that they have. You should understand that being a part of an educational program is a lot more than just the knowledge you gain. It is about the people you learn with, the networks that you build and the opportunities you get to access to.

There are multiple other that come with associating with a University but when you’re very sure about the work that you want to do, that your work is going to speak and you’re going to make all career moves on the work that you do and the places that you have worked at, you make a very conscious decision to remove your university degree from the equation.

Q. If one’s actual work, when communicated in terms of work experience, does not fully encompass the depth of their skills how do we approach the recruitment process?

Let’s talk about the psychology of a recruiter. You have to understand that there are multiple things that the person is looking at and the knowledge bit is only 1/3rd of the equation (as mentioned earlier).

For example, when companies say they require 3 years of work experience, they are probably not talking about a difference in skill-set which there could be some alignment in even if you fail to meet the minimum experience criteria. There is a lot more emphasis on other things; over the span of 3 years you would have probably worked in enough teams that you understand team management better, how to handle crises more effectively, collaborating with cross-functional teams efficiently, etc. So, keep that in mind when you’re figuring things out.

Q. How should one view growth as a designer and when do you think should a designer switch?

I like to view growth at multiple levels. And I have a small framework, for the same which is divided into 4 parts, which are:

  • Intellectual growth.
  • Professional growth
  • Personal growth
  • Financial growth.

Sometimes a job doesn’t give you any of the three except financial growth, which is perfectly fine as at that point in your life, probably money is most important. Sometimes you might join a job, which doesn’t give you financial or professional growth but gives you immense intellectual growth, because the product and company you’re working in is really awesome. At other times you might purely want professional growth, which is why people join companies like Microsoft, Facebook, Google, etc. All of which look really good in terms of building your brand (Tags like Ex-Google, Ex-Amazon, etc.)

More often than not, in the Indian society, people only look at financial growth as the only “growth”. But when you are truly in control of your own growth, you will start to look at it from different perspectives.

Q. What are your thoughts on the generalist vs specialist vs T-shaped designers debate?

Param who heads Design at Fractal Inc gave a really different perspective on who a T-shaped designer is. Drawing upon that, I’d say we’re not T-shaped designers, we are stack designers.

When you’re a fresher, you have an empty ‘stack’ or a minimal stack. As you grow, you pick up skills and develop your stacks in the direction of those skills. Eventually, your goal should be that as you grow in your careers, you should find avenues where you get to actually use that stack. The worst thing that can happen is for you to have developed many skills but being unable unable to apply them. Job dissatisfaction tends to stem from such a situation.

Thankfully because of the number of opportunities out there, you can always find a place where you can apply your skills. You can also talk about it during your interviews. You should have conversations with recruiters and talk to them about your previous experiences and discuss opportunities as to where you could apply the myriad skills you’ve picked up.

I believe that Designers by definition cannot be specialists and will be generalists. The job role and domain will dictate what aspect of your profile you will be bringing in more.

I think it’s good to be a generalist in the first few years of a career because you know you can be very exploratory. Later on when you grow into leadership roles, you will also find that people want generalists unless the role actually requires a specialist.

Q. Do you have a framework to identify companies that take design very seriously as opposed to companies that treat design as an accessory?

One way of finding out is to look at how much a company values design leadership. If a company values design leadership you know that design is no longer just a support function.

I think that in India we are still trying to figure out the true value of design. People are recognising the importance of design. The bigger tech companies have figured it out already and smaller startups are in the process of figuring this out for themselves. More often it’s not just about a lack of clarity, but having constraints like budget or time.

Q. Can you talk a little bit about designers who want to be entrepreneurs?

There are multiple kinds of companies designers can start. They could just start a Design Studio, which is a service-based offering or they could start a product company.

I had noticed an upward trend (which seems to have slowed down in recent times) in the number of designers who were building their own products and were being part of founding teams. The demand for good designers is rising and so are their salaries, which in turn makes them less inclined to take risks like starting up.

You have to decide about what drives you. If the passion of earning lots of money drives you, go for it, no harm in doing that; if the passion of actually building a product drives you, great! If your passion is to probably build a design studio which lets you work with clients around the world and lets you travel and that drives you, do that! The answer lies with the person itself and has to do with what motivates and drives them.

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