Interview with Somya Hastekar, Product Design Lead at Microsoft

Somya Hastekar is a Product Design 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.

1. Tell us a little about your background and career path

My journey has been quite non-linear. It started when design was mostly institution dependent. My love for spaces which was carried down by my family led me to study Architecture. Back then, I thought it was the holy grail of creativity, but five years into studying I realized there was a lot more to explore. I did my Master’s in Industrial Design and interned with companies like Godrej and Magppie. Circa 2008, the tech landscape in India was evolving and it had a huge design vacuum. In the early years of my tech design journey, I consulted with TESCO and British Telecom in the UK, back when the design industry was more interface-driven.

I moved to a small niche studio called Design for Use that helped startups and mid-scale enterprises with design consulting. I loved the degree of ownership that DFU’s studio offered. That’s also when I started going to SPA as a visiting faculty. It helped me stay connected with my roots in architecture & industrial design. 

After moving to ThoughtWorks I started to experience the value of design much differently. Working with non-tech clients from across the world, it would feel great to step into a room where executives would have an archaic understanding of design as a ‘pretty-fying’ mechanism and then be able to influence business directions through design thinking. I started to truly value collaboration here and learned how design by itself doesn’t move the needle. At ThoughtWorks, I was fortunate to get many opportunities to design for the humanitarian sector. I got to consult for non-profits and activists from across the globe.

I loved the variety that design consulting gave, I got to work in fintech, retail, health, and entertainment as I solved problems of varying levels of abstraction.

The kind of impact you make is very different from the in-house experience. If you are serving non-tech-at-core sort of organizations then you have the chance to influence strategic decisions.  However, you plug-in, make recommendations, build things, and unplug. It can get difficult to see the tree grow for which you have planted seeds.

2. You’ve switched to different design fields in your career, what kind of challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?

Embracing inner conflict: At times, both planned and unforeseen career changes can leave you internally conflicted about the vision you have for yourself. There is an eerie duality in safeguarding your identity but also wanting to embrace new ones. What helps, is embracing this conflict instead of getting overwhelmed by it.

Get your fundamentals right: I think a few important design principles and sensibilities are medium-agnostic. Like connecting with the users of your end solution, or being able to visualize a future state; all these steps involve some fundamental principles to be applied. If you practice these elementary values then be it a space, a product, or an interface, you will mostly get it right. Beyond that, it is about getting the details of your craft right, which you have to continuously learn in newer environments. 

Be a curious sponge: Stay curious and keep learning. Know what sort of learner you are. Some like to depend on people and tools to learn while some seek a network or an environment.

3. Moving from a service-based company to a product-based company, what kind of differences can one expect?

Impact: As a consultant, you’re able to work on a variety of products in different contexts. The kind of impact you make is very different from the in-house experience. If you are serving non-tech-at-core sort of organizations then you have the chance to influence strategic decisions.  However, you plug-in, make recommendations, build things, and unplug. It can get difficult to see the tree grow for which you have planted seeds. Like when I was helping ICRC (international committee of Red Cross) build a health solution for patients in conflicted zones, I would have loved to see how it eventually impacted patients but then you don’t get to stay connected with clients for that long.

Non-design conversations: As a consultant, you are not just brought in for your craft but for solving wicked business problems. And that involves a lot of communication, selling, proving ROI of design or research, context switching. All of this can also eat up your time shaping the actual design solution. 

Context switching: At studios, you have to be super comfortable with switching dramatically different contexts. For example, my day would start with talking to a leading bank and selling the value of design, then I’d talk to a travel company about enhancing user research, and I’d end my day with talking to an enterprise company about how they could improve their usability studies. This kind of context switching has a lot of value but it’s good to know what you are drawing from it rather than feeling lost or exhausted by it. 

You and the product: Deciding which product you want to work on has a lot to do with where you are in your professional journey. At studios, you help clients with abstract problems and start with V0, then build on it. At a product company, it’s like working in a lab, where you have access to many versions of the product and many resources. You then seek newer questions to answer like, how to grow newer audiences, or how to get more pocket share from users, etc. Now all of this has to align with what you are seeking to learn in your journey. What helped me was to consider this transition as a gradient rather than a switch. Start with a place where you get to do something you are confident at. 

I think a few important design principles and sensibilities are medium-agnostic. Like connecting with the users of your end solution, or being able to visualize a future state; all these steps involve some fundamental principles to be applied.

4. What are a few themes in and around design that have been more pervasive and thought-provoking for you?

The ‘why’: For the longest time, the ‘how’ of design has been pretty sorted. We know how to design, build, ship, and sell products. But as a design community, we haven’t thought enough about why we do these things. We must question the deeper realm of why we design products. Are we designing products the way people expect them to be? Where are we as designers in this process? How does this impact society at large?

I created a framework called Responsible Futures with the help of a friend. It is a facilitative tool kit that poses interesting questions for designers to consider in their process. This started at ThoughtWorks, where we engaged with the humanitarian world of design and integrated that with the corporate world to build a value exchange system. In one particular instance where I was working with a bank, I started to think about all the questions that weren’t being asked. I was helping our client build a digital product for buying cars. It was a male-dominant work culture and team, and at that point, the user research they conducted reflected middle-aged working men in India who ‘assumed’ that not many women in India buy cars. I couldn’t help but think it was because we were building products that were not designed for them. That was one of the first times I allowed my voice to be heard in an effort to change the narrative and make room for a more inclusive voice.

Keep in touch with Somya:

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

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