The Kiasu Designer

What it means to be a designer in a big competitive world

What is Kiasu?

adjective

  1. (of a person) having a grasping or selfish attitude arising from a fear of missing out on something.

    "kiasu parents enrol their kids in more and more tuition classes"

(from Google Translate)

Living in Singapore (it is in its own a very Singaporean term), you can’t help but sustain this mentality.

I think at some point, I’ve been there. Wanting to be seen. Wanting to be great. Wanting to be promoted so badly. Wanting to leave my mark in the design world.

I feel that I still have the kiasu-ness at this stage of my career. Especially when it relates to my survival. For me, it was when I got laid off. I wanted to prove myself again.

Also, when you see your peers, or even those designers younger than you who are now leads, managers and VPs/heads of design. Why can’t I be like them? Why, for someone old like me, who started it all earlier, things don’t work out so well or as fast as I’d like to, like I see my peers?

Then, you also encounter peers who are equally kiasu. Your teammate. Your manager(s). Your manager’s manager(s). They all want a spotlight. They want… drumrolls… The Visibility.

But the question is… do we have to do this? Is it sustainable? Is it important?

What does it cost us? What does it cost the team?

There are probably some root causes of this mentality to happen in our world today:

You and your team and the whole UX world are getting fancy seats on the effin’ golden table

Hurray! Isn’t this a good thing? Finally, after fighting hard for years, we have successfully (or nearly) made organizations aware of UX values, and make us a strategic position. What this means is then… UX is being held more accountable and thus UXers are getting more seriously business-minded. We’re making our way through the politics.

Demands for UXers are through the roof

Yep. It’s not a rocket science. When more and more people join the force, there’s when the tough (competition) gets going. Getting a UX job is different now and 5, 10 years ago. 10 years ago, we would have been interviewed only on UI design skills. Nothing else. All they needed were to see a portfolio of design explorations, and yes, you’re in. Now, totally different matter. You have to understand business, technology, governments, economy, sociology, culture, religion, cooking, behaviour, maths, public speaking, video-producing, dad-joke-making, preaching…

And all these factors make for a very tough life—now, you have to be visible or differentiated. There’s no way other than to be kiasu about it. Otherwise, probably like me, you’ll pretty much stale in your career.

What does this mean?

The worst part of this is the perception that if you’re not kiasu, or if you’re not aiming high enough, you’re not doing enough.

I’ve had advice such as, “you’ve got to be better 1% each day”, or “you’ve got to be 40% better next year”. What I say is — stop the crap. I don’t mind to undermine the importance of growing, but to say that you should be growing each day putting aside you being a human that can get tired, frustrated and face all sorts of mental issues, is just not realistic.

Remember when you were a kid and your parents want you to excel in everything? This is not it. We can’t do that all the time. Not realistically.

So this boils down to what I call — be a chill designer. ;-) If you can’t, then, at least, just be realistic.

To become a chill designer, you need to sign this Letter of Acknowledgments.

  • Acknowledge that you can’t make everyone happy. Focus on making yourself happy first, then everybody else.

  • Acknowledge that the work will never end if you don’t stop at one point, so know when to stop the work.

  • Acknowledge that you can grow 1% a day, but not everyday, and maybe sometimes not at all, be mad, and decrease -1%. That’s okay. Really.

  • Acknowledge that not everyone should grow their career to become leaders. We can become participants. We can become contributors. And leaders should appreciate this, too.

  • Acknowledge that we don’t own the team, product or the users. This can help us detach ourselves way more and be a happy observer that touches things once in a while just to try to make them better.

  • Acknowledge that we don’t have to know every single damn knowledge in the world today, and still be a good designer. Yes.

Me, signed.

When Designers Become Parents

How parenthood has shaped myself as a designer

When I was single and childless, I see the world in a linear way — that I would try to fix all the things in the world, that I am the smartest person in the room, and I won’t stop until I die to pursue perfection. At least, most of the time. Of course, I had my down times, but still, that optimistic feeling is there.

When I became a father in 2015, things change quite drastically. My point of view no longer is confined to myself and my career, but to life. It’s not even about the child per se, it’s about how to see life in balance. I learned to be “enough” — accepting of lives as they are, and lowering my standard of “good”. I learn to be happy faster, or in a smaller scope, or in smaller causes.

What do I mean? Here are some examples:

In parenting: There’s no perfection.
In UX: There’s no perfection, either.

You notice that pixel perfection is exhausting, especially in continuous product design and development, and you start to think more iteratively, and flexibly. You rely more on communication, validation, intuition and just moving things along and learning along the way.

In parenting: You start to think about the kid, not only yourself.
In UX: You start to think about the team, users, and other people, not only yourself.

You notice that in order to achieve success, openness and transparency are crucial. Empathy is a staple. You can’t move forward alone. You need others. You need to take care of others, address issues, and while you can’t make everyone happy, at least you considered multiple perspectives.

In parenting: You think long-term. You play the long game.
In UX: You think about ethical design. You think about long-term impact.

If I design this the way I think today, will it be relevant in the next year? Will it be benefiting the users in a great way? Will it be ethical? If I am craving for a burger at 11pm at night, and a stall is open 15km away, would it be okay to ask a delivery partner to deliver it to me? How do I contribute to make their lives better?

In parenting: Quality time with your kid matters. So much.
In UX: Quality time with your team matters. So much.

Work life becomes less of a work life. You see things less about business perspectives, but more about personal relationship as well. Jobs and companies come and go, but personal relationships don’t. You get laid off, but your friends won’t just dump you (except if you’re a jerk, of course, now that’s a different story). Do not hesitate to have coffee, lunch, social time and everything else outside work if you can.

In parenting: Every kid is different.
In UX: Every designer, process and approach is different.

I start to see things not only within hard-coded frameworks. I start to appreciate how different designers see things differently, and process things differently as well. They love fiddling in Figma? That’s fine. They love talking to stakeholders all day long? That’s fine too. They sulk a lot? Maybe not so much, but that’s okay too sometimes! Every problem should also be approached differently.

In parenting: You can be wrong. In fact, you’re always wrong.
In UX: Yes you can be wrong too.

“You can have opinions, but hold it loosely,” that’s what I learned from one of the companies I worked for. Have strong opinions, but if you’re proven wrong, then by all means admit it. As a parent, you have preconceived ideas and opinions, probably inherited from your parents or environment or culture, but then you come into different scenarios and companies, be ready to start learning all over again.

Now, are you a parent? What have you learned from parenthood that you can apply to your job?

The Power of "Yes, and..."

Why trying to be devil's advocate all the time can be a pain

If you ask me, what makes a good team, I would simply answer, the degree in which you can align with each other, and build on each other’s ideas.

Some people call this “chemistry”. Some people call it “culture”. Some people call it “cohesion”. I would agree. Specifically, in my opinion, the number of times you build on top of each other’s ideas, simultaneously taking a bit of risk but trusting that into the the process.

I’ve had a time when one of my team members was perceived as “constantly throwing a spanner to the wheel”. What this means is that this person constantly pushed the panic buttons in the team, by continually challenging in a negative way. Of course, a different perspective is always appreciated but doing it constantly without trusting the process and taking a bit of risk in letting things go as planned, could derail the team motivation.

It becomes worse when one is a leader. Anything you say to the team that is perceived a constant disagreement or re-direction, would render you being disagreeable. When you are a leader, people look up to you for direction, and it’s possible that they might just listen to you and follow you out of fear.

I think of this degree of alignment through the lens of how often the team use the word “yes, and…”, in spirit, and literally.

The word “yes, and…” is a powerful connector and idea builder. It allows you to think more positively and thoroughly about the other party’s intent, trust the intent, and try to build upon the intent. Whereas if you say, “no, but” or even “yes, but” you’re mentally ending and dismissing the intent even if you don’t intend to do it.

Imagine this conversation.

YES, AND

“Hey, let’s use design option A.”

“Yes, and we can probably put some ideas from design option B, as some of them test well with users.”

Compare it to:

YES, BUT

“Hey, let’s use design option A.”

“Yes, but how about some from option B that test well?”

Same outcome — they probably will end up design option A, with some design option B elements, but mentally, it’s different. The “yes, and” brings more positivity, while the “yes, but” feels like you’re having a mental barrier.

This kind of conversation can also kill potential interaction. Imagine this:

Hey, let’s use design option A.”

Yes, but that’s not the priority for now.”

This kills the conversation. Imagine if the answer was:

Yes, and I think we can potentially try to prioritise A for today and try B tomorrow, so that we can focus. What do you think?”

It creates a whole new dimension of opportunity to talk, and make the other party feel appreciated, hence increasing the opportunity for alignment.

Now, you might ask — what if I disagree? What if I’m the lead, and I need to demonstrate my authority (just kidding).

Yes you can do this. If you disagree or want to challenge, you can use:

“Yes, I think this is a possible idea, and I would also like to see more explorations in A, B & C.”

“Yes, I think this is a possible direction, another way I would love to challenge this is…”

Building alignment is hard, in an increasingly complex world and product, but it could start with the way we communicate to each other. It might not work all the time or you might not be consciously making this effort, but try some of the days and you’ll see how it works wonder.

Photo from Unsplash

Designer and Privileges

Privileges of status, and perspectives, too.

To become a designer is a privileged opportunity. Who afforded us to be able to go to design colleges, or fiddle around in front of computers all day, or let us draw things? Our parents, or our guardians. For that to happen, some prerequisites need to happen: either our family can afford some basic needs (or more), or they provided you with ample amount of time to explore.

True, to become a designer, you don’t necessarily need to go through a rigorous formal education. You can be a self-learner, get some jobs and learn by doing. Privileges indeed come in many ways: free time, or even risk tolerance—how much you’re willing to try hard and not worry about failing because either you have a lot of financial cushion or some other kind of support in your life.

In Indonesia, many don’t live an abundant life, but many also think they have enough. Many of them are just so resilient, even if they can’t achieve “financial” freedom in their lives, they can achieve some other kind of freedom: not being worried about rat race to fame, or just simply being grateful of what they have.

When I studied design in Indonesia, I have to admit I came from a very privileged, middle-income family who can afford sending me money every month to study outside the city I lived in. And boy, I lived comfortably. But I also remember some of my friends also struggled, they came further from the city and might have to make do with a tighter budget. Some of them actually live with their family in the city but although they are not poor, they live a very simple life. Often time, they are the ones who excel in the courses. They produce brilliant results. They live in a smaller, simpler room than the one that I rent, but they make do with it.

This makes me think of my privileges, and how it’s different from theirs. No privilege is the same, but they give you opportunity to think and do in a more planned, methodical and forgiving way. This is in contrast to doing things because you need to survive.

If you think of privileges in other way, it also affects our output and outcomes. The way you led your life influences so much about your perspectives in design process. Think, for example, how two designers from two different countries, culture and socio-economic backgrounds see a problem. I won’t go too far. Here’s a good tweet from one of Indonesia’s design leaders, Yoel Sumitro:

Basically what he’s saying is that he’s hiring a designer/design lead, but those who are coming from universities outside of Java, and grew up outside of Java. If you know Indonesia, 60% of the population live in the island of Java, and majority of technology or design-driven companies are based here. By proactively hiring somebody from outside the island, with as little context as possible about living in the island, Yoel opened up a whole pandora box of opportunities and realisation: how come we’ve been all focused on designers in Java?

This is similar to the Silicon Valley paradox: why are we trying to solve all world’s problems when we hire only locally, or through Silicon Valley lenses?

This is what I prefer to call “privilege of perspectives”. This is the hardest part to change.

What is your privilege?

Managing (and Working with) Multicultural Team

Why it's not as straightforward as you might think

I’ve not managed a big team. The most I’ve had was about four people. I have never been keen in managing people, although recently I’ve changed my mind. But still, it’s not an easy thing, even for the most experienced.

In 2014, when I was working for a client-service company, I was given the trust to lead the design team. That design team had two members in it. It was me, and the other one. Technically speaking, we’re just a… pair. But I was responsible in setting up performance reviews, hiring and the first career path for designers in the company. Come to think of it, I think that was the first time I fell in love with managing people. I loved the process and trust.

Fast forward to 2019, I was again given the trust to manage a team of four across different geographies. This brought its own challenge. I was managing a diverse kind of group, and most importantly, across different culture.

See, in 2014, I was an Indonesian managing an Indonesian. Of course every individual is different, but culturally, we had the same expectations. We speak the same language, literally and figuratively. There’s a lot of unspoken consensus—meaning that we don’t have to communicate a lot of things to get aligned. We sort of already knew what to expect.

For example, I didn’t need comprehensive updates from her from time to time. A short colloquial conversation was good. I didn’t even need to scrutinise her words into the smallest details. We just understood. No drama.

Even if the conversation got difficult, we released it off easily.

Things get tricky when I managed someone from different cultures, from different countries. In 2019, I got to manage a designer in India, Singapore and Australia. I got to hire a new person in India too. So that’s that: even though I’ve worked with them, when I switched to managing them, it was a different experience.

First, although we all speak the same literal business language (English), there is a lot of nuances and differences in how one behaves and brings themselves forward to you. They bring a lot of new unspoken expectations, that, if they were Indonesians, I would have already recognised those. But this is different.

For example, for India, there is a sense of optimism, confidence and outspokenness. Sometimes it portrays as aggressive. As an Indonesian-Javanese, I find this disturbing. There’s an Indonesian word I know, “nggak tau malu” or literally translated as “shameless”. There’s a big hesitation and restraint in Indonesian-Javanese culture that just doesn’t apply to my Indian friend.

He would just come to me and say or demand things like that.

I was startled at first, but then I realised, I needed to understand it. It’s a cultural thing. That’s the most comfortable or habitual way of him to interact. In essence, there’s nothing serious—we just operate at different “frequencies”.

I recognised this difference, and as a manager, I started to shape my interaction style towards his, to the best of my ability. I begun to practice openness. I also became more direct when needed. He was also the type who liked to have 1:1 more frequently. He liked to talk. So, I accommodated it, and he was happy. His values were openness and directness.

Managing my Filipino counterpart was obviously different. He was very casual, but hardworking at the same time. It’s also a very high context culture, and a lot of unspoken rules (like the way you communicate mattered to him). He wouldn’t show disappointment or remorse if you didn’t communicate well, but he’d try to be diplomatic about it. I find it similar to Indonesians, but he tends to speak out more. It wasn’t too hard for me because I appreciated a little bit of honesty and openness in there. To communicate with him, it has to be casual, but clear at the same time. Don’t leave any ambiguity, but don’t stress him out with details.

I also had a fair share of time managing an Australian-Asian. In a way, we share cultural traits (e.g. “did your mom always make you drink hot water for every illness?”) but at the same time, there are also differences. Western values are all about speaking your mind, but not only that: it’s about creating a space for conversations. All of my managers from the US or Australia almost never gave one-sided conversation—it’s always two-sided, and very egalitarian… or democratic (for a lack of better word). This was good but sometimes tricky because there might be signals we don’t get, that we fail to respond to, or pose risks of cancelling each other, or risks of not having any decisions. The list goes. In this case, what would be the best way to communicate with her? I always posed myself as the better listener. It worked most of the time, I guess.

Many managers probably think every subordinate thinks like them, behaves like them, expects like them. The reality is, it’s most likely true only if you both share the same culture or traits. But, in an increasingly diverse workplaces, we need to take into account these differences.

Image from Unsplash

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