Fireside Chat with Somya Hastekar, UX Lead at Microsoft

Somya Hastekar is a UX Lead at Microsoft, and a Mentor at ownpath. She brings digital product and service experiences to life by making tech humane. Previously she was a design lead at ThoughtWorks where she consulted for global enterprises, startups, and non-profits. She has also been a visiting faculty at her alma mater, School of Planning & Architecture, New Delhi.

Q: Could you take us through your experience of design in social impact projects?

In this sector, the whole play of motivation is very different from a typical growth-driven product. You design to create a larger impact in underserved areas. People involved in such missions mostly have limited exposure to design-in-tech or even tech so there is always an element of evangelising the right design value. Also decision-makers often know lot more about end-users because they have been solving these social problems for very long. It gets difficult to draw parallels with common consumer products.

I was once working on a project for ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) to design health systems for rehabilitation of victims in remote conflict zones. They had very limited resources for user research because of obvious reasons. Now in such cases, instead of pushing back, you have got to respect the constraints of humanitarian missions.

The design challenge then became about coming up with efficient & creative methods to evaluate design decisions in low-resource settings.

In another instance, my team was once designing digital presence for a renowned activist, Bezwada Wilson. We worked closely with his organization to understand their goals & history. As a recommendation, my visual designer friend in the team came up with a well-designed logo for the org. Bezwada looked at it and told, “I don’t want this. As an activist, my fight is against identity and you’re asking me to create an identity?” We felt disheartened to have missed out on such a unique thought dimension. But it was a great experience to learn something so deep & rich from him.

So, you get to design for some deep-rooted problems while questioning the norms of your methods & beliefs.

Q: When you move from different fields, there are times you would be in a position where you feel you have to pick up a few new skills. Could you tell us a bit about that?

Within tech I’ve moved across different settings & sectors - from being in a boutique studio then moving to a client environment or being in ThoughtWorks (where you do end to end product strategy to delivery) and now being in Microsoft; all these different environments have always pushed me to adapt & learn constantly.

Product thinking: It’s a game of many moving parts, and design is only a part of it. You have to be tuned in with the right market signals, understand business viability, be aware of your tech possibilities and always have an eye on how user needs/behaviors are evolving. While designers bring a creative mindset to solve wicked problems they can also constantly learn from their partners in business about product thinking.

On design tools: You have got to be comfortable switching tools every few years. In my career, Figma is probably the seventh or eighth tool I’m trying to learn. I remember, early in my career designers used to make hundreds of screens on PowerPoint! It’s been a long ride from there to Axure to Sketch to Figma. For a while when I started to lead teams, I was sticking to pen and paper just to move faster. You have got to keep flexing your learning muscles here.

On skills: When I was getting started as a lead designer, the newest skill to pick was to be able to collaborate with younger designers while being true to my own vision. You start moving away from design canvases. You move closer to inspiring & influencing people.

Q: What are certain things that designers can keep in mind when we are designing for inclusivity?

Let’s go step by step in this one. A major chunk of exclusion tends to happen when you recruit users for foundational research. That’s the biggest entry point for exclusion. You could reach out to people who are available to you. Like currently, everyone is doing remote research. Now remote research has in-built limited access. People who don’t have access to devices or the internet will never be available to you for research. So, how do you go about talking to them?

Then you build screeners, and they can also have baked in blind spots! I remember, a designer friend once talking about researching in rural India for women’s nutrition. In their field visits, men in the house wouldn’t let women interact with researchers.

Now, if the researcher wouldn’t object to this system, and proceed with taking notes from men about women’s nutrition; all your insights for the study are going to be completely skewed!

Also in evaluative research, how inclusive are you in terms of gender, race, ability - that really matters. Then, how do you go about influencing your product partners to be inclusive of edge-case users becomes the biggest challenge. You could do that in your individual capacity or raise up and question your organization’s value system. Or thirdly you could use your data-analysis chops and generate business insights to support the value of inclusion. It is not easy as it sounds but I’d say it all starts with having your voice heard.

When it comes down to tooling, how do you make your design system accessible to users with unserved needs? And lastly, it’s about UX language/writing. How do you go about making sure the language in your product is understood by different segments? As products grow, users from new cultures & backgrounds get added. How do you go about updating your language - both written & visual?

Q: Earlier, design used to be about industrial product design, and then data entered the digital realm. Does digital product design also take cues from Universal Design methodologies?

Design fields like Architecture and Industrial design are super-evolved and I often go back to them to draw inspiration. They’ve established set of frameworks and at least recognize what it takes to be universally accessible. Not that it’s practiced universally 🙂 but still there is a lot more research available.

Nike recently has come up with hands-free shoes. It’s a great idea, which probably evolved from an inclusive design space - may be from users with such unique needs. Now I’m sure we would all love to keep it as simple as that when it comes to wearing shoes. So yes we should continue to draw inspiration from these fields. OXO grips are another great example of solving for one and extending to many.

Q: Generalist role or a specific role at an early stage in your career?

I would recommend starting off as a generalist, this way you get to be involved in all aspects of design, experience it, and then make an informed choice on what to specialize in. If you start with something very specific then elevating back to be a generalist could be a challenge.

‘T’ shaped careers have seemed to work for many people. Also, starting with smaller teams helps you develop that path.

Q: How do you overcome rejection while you’re starting in design?

A professional rejection can be tough and can have a long-lasting impact. I still feel bruised about few early rejections in my career 🙂 What I have learned in hindsight is that all of this is very circumstantial. A rejection does not mean you’re not worthy. It just means that things are not fitting well in ‘this’ time frame.

Be humble, keep reaching out to people for feedback. You can’t grow without getting the right feedback from the right people.

Figure out how it aligns with your larger goals. If your morale starts tanking then have a fallback plan to at least stay on track. Keep telling yourself that ‘everything is transient’. No rejection can ever put a permanent stamp on you saying “you’re not worth it”.

If you missed reading her previous interview, you can find it here!

Keep in touch with Somya:

For regular updates, please follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.
Learn with Somya

Somya is a mentor on The Product Design Fellowship, which starts in June 2021. Grow your skills in Product Design and get hired at top design teams.

Learn more
Be in the know

We publish guides & interviews, organize events, courses, and programs to help you explore and learn design.

Can we keep you posted?