Career Story: Product Designer & Researcher

Donna, a product designer and researcher, discusses changing career paths and finding a job that aligns with her values.

Transcript
Close Disclaimer
The material provided on this website is for informational use only and is not intended for financial or investment advice. Bank of America and/or its affiliates, and Khan Academy, assume no liability for any loss or damage resulting from one’s reliance on the material provided. Please also note that such material is not updated regularly and that some of the information may not therefore be current. Consult with your own financial professional when making decisions regarding your financial or investment options.
Close Transcript

I'm Donna Chan, I'm a product designer
and researcher and I make 90k a year.
DONNA CHAN, 29
PRODUCT DESIGNER & RESEARCHER, ONE DEGREE

I previously was at App Direct

a few months ago and now I'm about
to start a new job in three days.

As a product designer and researcher,

my job is to solve problems
in the digital space.

How can we create an experience on web

or mobile that helps everyday people,

enable them to do something?

Where I'm going is One Degree,

very excited about it
because it's using design

and technology to help fight poverty

and the way that One Degree
is doing that is by connecting

low-income families with
the social services that they need.

Today, the social services process

is very analog, people open up binders
to find services for people.

You have to call, you have to take
work off in order to

walk into an office.

But in today's day and age,
where almost everything is online,

it's sort of crazy to think
that this stuff isn't already

digitized and readily available

in your phone for these families.

My role at One Degree is essentially

everything from research all the way
through design and testing

of our product.

Our product is this sort
of Yelp for social services

and my role within that
is going to be not only

actually talking to the people
who use the platform

to understand what do you need,
what do you need from this platform,

and then once I hear those insights,

turning those into designs

and testing out with the same users

that use our platform
and just making sure that

as a whole, our product works well

for the people that we want to serve.

My most frequent tasks are going to
be from the research perspective,

making sure that I am talking to users
and I'm getting feedback from users.

From the design perspective,
I'm actually creating designs,

I'm creating wire frames
and mock-ups and

what new features could look like

or what something could
look like on the mobile phone.

My salary is 90,000
as a product designer and researcher.

It's pretty reasonable for someone
who's starting out in product design

and the range can really vary.

In San Francisco, I would say
a range is probably from 75,000 to

the sky is the limit.

Probably as a senior product designer,

you make closer to 200,000,

at director level you definitely
make 200,000 or more.

With increased managerial experience
you obviously earn more.

I would say that for
a product designer and researcher,

for me, the key

the key traits that really embody

what makes
a great designer and researcher

are listening and empathy.

Listening means that you're really

taking the time
to first understand a user

or someone
that you're collaborating with

and understanding what it is that they
need, understand their perspectives.

The second, which goes
hand in hand with, is empathy.

Actually feeling what they feel,

embodying that so that
when you're designing something,

you know what potential pain points
there are, what things to look out for.

Empathy also helps with collaborating,

because as a designer I'm working with
so many different people,

so many different types of people,
product managers,

engineers, marketing, et cetera.

For me to collaborate
successfully to create a product

it takes a whole village
of different people,

so for that to really work well you
have to empathize with your teammates

and you have to understand

where they're coming from so that you
can come to agreement and move forward.

The other piece that I think is also
really important for a designer is

always wanting to learn,

learning a lot of different things,

and not just in design or research
or technology but going beyond that.

I think some of the most brilliant
designers, they're constantly

curious about everything.

Things in the art world,
things in the history,

things in anthropology,
plants, I love plants,

and that's really inspired
some of the ways that I design

because the more you know and the more
you think about how other things work

or how other fields solve problems,

it just enriches your own creativity
and how you approach things.

So I went to the University
of Pennsylvania for undergrad

and studied bioengineering.

I was premed and very intense.

But it was through
that process that you know,

you know for medical school they
wanna see that you've done research,

so I worked as a breast cancer
research assistant

for many of the years
I was in college.

And in the process of sitting down
with breast cancer patients,

hundreds of them over three years,

I realized I didn't care
so much about their biology

as their you know psychology
and their emotional pain.

And so I basically knew okay
I'm not gonna do medical school.

My parents weren't
happy about that, but

afterwards you know,
from being a breast cancer researcher,

a lot of my skillset
was in data analysis,

like analyzing data.

And where that landed me was at MDRC.

So MDRC is a social
policy research firm,

and what that means is,

we basically look at really
large nationwide programs

funded by the government
or like the Gates Foundation,

and we look at you know
how these programs

are helping low income families
and individuals across the nation.

So for example, you know if we have

a student in a community college who
wants to get into a four-year college,

and if they go through
this program that we've set up,

does it actually help them
get to four-year college?

And I was analyzing data

to see if these programs
actually worked at scale.

And I did that for about three years,

and while it was really interesting
I think to work at that level

and also to understand data
and quantitative research,

I felt something was really missing.

It sort of reminded me of the days when
I was doing breast cancer research,

right, this human element,
this connecting with people,

talking to people.

And I didn't know where to find that.

I took a little detour at one point
where I worked and then

went to school after work to try
to get a psychology post-bacc

because I thought I wanted to do
a psych grad degree.

But that also turned out
to be very quantitative,

very data-driven,

which is not to say data isn't
important. Data is important,

but I felt that it was only
one half of the circle,

and that the other circle was about
humans and emotions and connections.

So I think I sort of, I still remember
the moment where I decided

not to do a psychology PhD,

and I was standing
on the platform in New York,

and it just felt like my life
was crashing down around me

and I didn't know what to do next.

But I felt like the universe
sort of answers me

in really interesting ways,

and out of the blue,
my coworker says,

you should check out
this you know coworking,

learning, space in Brooklyn,

called it was called
Brooklyn Brainery.

And I was like, I was
you know I was so in the pits

and so desperate I think
I said okay I'll try anything.

Because you know they had classes

like how to make kimchi
and things like that, I was like okay.

And I signed up for this class
called The Design Gym.

And I thought it was
designing gyms for kids

because I, I don't know why,

I was like I'll take this weeklong,
this weekend long course.

And I took it and it changed my life.

And it was essentially
teaching design thinking

and how to solve problems
with design thinking,

which started first and foremost
with talking to humans

and empathy.

And I was hooked.

I knew that this was

something that I wanted
to learn more about.

So during the day
I would essentially go to my job

as a data analyst, and you know it was
me and my data sets in a room,

and then on nights and weekends,

I took every course I could

and did every project
I could with this community.

And it was talking to people,
it was facilitating design spreads,

it was going to hackathons,

and just really learning
what it meant to

connect with humans
and hear their stories

and then create
something from that.

And then, a good friend that
I actually am still in contact with

sent, you know, from this community,
this design community,

she sent along an email,

and you know just
very casual like oh hey,

there's an opening out
in San Francisco for this fellowship

that's applying design
thinking to poverty.

And I was like, oh,
that sounds perfect.

Because you know by day I was using
data to solve issues in poverty,

and by night I was using design
thinking to solve problems.

So I applied,
it was a very arduous process

because learning the skill
of how to do a resume

and how to you know do cover letters
and answer all these questions

and prepare for behavioral interviews,
like it's a lot, it's a lot of work.

But it paid off.

I was selected as one
of the nine participants.

And really without a thought,

I just moved across the country.

And in retrospect,
I think it was a little crazy

to think that you know I didn't
second guess it and I just moved,

but I think it was
the first time in my life

that I had felt so alive,

and felt so connected

to something

that you know I didn't
even think twice about it.

So I moved across the country,

and started as a problem-solver
as they called us

at Tipping Point.

And the sixth month
fellowship was called T Lab,

applying design thinking
to poverty issues here

in the San Francisco Bay Area.

So when I started the fellowship,
I was very excited,

but then pretty much on day one,
I became a shell of myself.

Like those who know me know
I'm energetic and outgoing

and bubbly and passionate,

but the first day
at this fellowship, I just,

I was so quiet,
I would like shrunk into myself.

And it was imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome is where you feel
like you don't belong somewhere,

that you're not good enough
to be doing something,

even if you've been
chosen to do it.

And I think it pretty much
within the first few days,

my friends sensed that I was being
drawn into imposter syndrome,

and they really encouraged me to reach
back out to my therapist in New York

and I'm really glad they did.

Because she helps me bit by bit

move through it, which is not to say
that the entire six months

was just, you know,
rainbows and cupcakes.

I still struggle.

There were moments
I had where I broke through

and I could focus
on the problem at hand,

and I really felt like I contributed
and created something,

but the six months was so hard

to really I think come into my own

and own that I had something
valuable to bring to the table.

Because I think after T Lab,
you know, I was still,

the imposter syndrome
was still there, you know.

Six months my therapist
helped me through it

and I was pushing
through it in some ways,

but you know I still didn't know like
was I cut out to be a designer?

Can I actually do this?
Am I enough?

But you know the impact that
we had made for these families

and seeing the power of that,

I couldn't, I couldn't go back
to a former life.

I knew I had to move forward.

So for the next year,
I call my creative sabbatical,

I took a leap.

I was on unemployment
which gave me a safety net.

I also had a little bit
of money saved up.

And so I decided that

I need a portfolio, and

the way to build a portfolio
is actually do projects.

So I started
asking people like "Hey,

do you know any projects that need a
designer? You know I'll work for free."

And they you know,

through one
of the people I knew,

she connected me
with this one woman

who needed a designer.
I started working on that project,

and then while I was working
on that project at a café,

lo and behold a guy comes up to me
and is like "Hey, are you a designer?"

You're working
with Post-its and stuff.

And I was like yeah, and then

another project
landed in my lap.

So it was really beautiful
I think to see

life work out in a way.

So I you know I was working
on these two projects for free,

and then eventually
they started paying me

because they liked
what they were seeing.

And that also helped
me build my confidence,

and had a portfolio finally.

I had three projects
in my portfolio,

including you know
the fellowship that I had done.

And I started applying for jobs,

and AppDirect actually
reached out to me.

They're enterprise
software startup.

They reached out to me,
and I had a great conversation

with my manager at the time.

And then suddenly
I was a product designer.

So for a product designer,
researcher,

there's sort of two paths
that you can take

as you move along in your career.

One is the managerial path,

you know you, if you're someone
who loves to work with other people,

help others grow
and lead a team,

those people tend to go
down the manager path.

But if you're someone
who really wants to stay designing

and creating and executing,

then you go down the IC path

or the individual
contributor path,

and you're essentially
a designer on a team,

but with a really deep knowledge

and deep skillset.

So I live in San Francisco
DONNA CHAN, 29
PRODUCT DESIGNER & RESEARCHER, ONE DEGREE

and I live smack dab in the heart of
a city which I'm very grateful for.

But living can be very interesting
in terms of living costs.

I really, really
lucked out with housing.

I was on Craigslist and responded
to every posting that I could,

which in retrospect was,
could have been shady, but

I lucked out and actually pay
only $1000 for this apartment.

It's a very small studio,
but I'm happy with it, yeah.

So coming from New York,

it was definitely very important to me

that I live somewhere
where I could walk everywhere.

That I not only moved
my body and exercised

but that I could walk
down the street to grab food,

I could walk there to find
a door knob for something.

You know, that I can get anywhere
pretty much with my legs

or public transportation.

I'm also someone who
definitely thrives off of energy.

So, you know,
actually living where I am,

I'm right above bars
and things like that.

So it gets really rowdy on weekends,

but I love the energy of feeling that
things are moving around me.

So I don't feel stagnant in a way.

That there's museums
just a few blocks away.

That I can walk down the street and
just see all sorts of different people

living there day-to-day lives, yeah.

So my monthly gross income, or my
pre-tax income each month is $7,500.
DONNA’S BUDGET:
MONTHLY SALARY $7,500

With taxes, healthcare
and putting money towards my 401(k),

that's $2,900 that gets
taken out of my paycheck.
TAXES AND OTHER DEDUCTIONS $2,900

And then I've set up an auto-debit
AUTOMATIC TRANSFER TO SAVINGS $600

into an emergency fund.

That takes out $600
automatically each month

and I love having it
just set up automatically

so I don't have to think about it.
I don't forget about it.

And I know that
I'm saving for my future.

And that leaves me each month
with a take home income of $4,000.
NET TAKE HOME INCOME $4,000

And then the way that
I do my monthly expenses

is I am very lucky to pay
only $1000 in rent,
RENT AND UTILITIES $1,000

which includes utilities
in San Francisco.

Each month I do $60
to pay for my Internet.
INTERNET $60

My phone bill is $50.
PHONE $50

I don't have a car,
I don't have to pay for insurance,

so my transportation costs go
towards taking Lyfts

or public transportation
and that's $400 a month.
TRANSPORTATION $400

I have no loans.

And otherwise I spend
about $200 in food a month.
GROCERIES $200

Mental health is important to me so
I spend $200 a month for my therapist.
THERAPIST $200

And then, you know I love to shop,

so $400 a month
for clothes and shopping
CLOTHES $400

and then I spend about $1,500
a month towards eating out
RESTAURANTS & ENTERTAINMENT $1,500

and spending time with friends

and doing fun activities
in San Francisco.

And all that comes down to about $190

that I have left over per month.
LEFTOVER $190

So actually last year I had a few
sessions with a financial advisor

and she really, I think,
had me start thinking about

some more money saving for retirement.

And more money for an emergency fund.

And I have to say that, you know,

throughout my life I've always
saved for emergency fund,

and that's really helped me in terms
of flexibility with my career.

That I could take a break.

I could switch jobs when I wanted to.

That I had a little bit more money
to travel when I wanted to.

So, that's important to me.

And then in terms of my 401(k),
I really,

this year, I really want to try to put
as much money as I can towards it.

'Cause I know that the earlier
you put money in there,

the more money
you have later down the road.

So a 401(k) is definitely
something that

is my personal goal for 2017,

to put as much money
as I can towards that.

I think a lot of people when they think
about money is just like this thing,

but you really have
a relationship with money.

Just like you have
a relationship with a person.

Some people they might
want to avoid money,

and just not think about it,
never look at their bank account.

Some people are like
really penny pinching,

and they like stress over
every single transaction.

But for me, I really wanted to have
a healthy relationship with money,

to be cognizant of it,
but also to not let it rule my life.

So that's what really spurred me
to talk with a financial advisor.

So that I could start building
a healthy mindset

around money and what
it enabled me to do in life.

A lot of tech didn't necessarily
resonate with me.
DONNA CHAN, 29
PRODUCT DESIGNER & RESEARCHER, ONE DEGREE

I think I was getting
a little bit jaded.

We have so many brilliant people here,

but a lot, not a lot,
but some of the technology

I feel like that's being
created wasn't necessarily

you know, impactful.

We have people designing apps where
you can get a pizza in 15 minutes,

but we have homeless people
starving on the streets.

So, I knew I wanted
to return to social impact.

But that's sort of a niche

and I didn't know where to start,

so where I started was
with my fellowship.

I won't to the manager
of the fellowship

and I was like, "hey, you know,
do you know of any designers,

or design positions in social impact?"

"or with any of the companies,
nonprofits that you work with?"

and he was like, "Oh yeah, actually
like One Degree started hiring."

I was like, "Okay, cool,
I'll check them out.

"Yeah, I'll check them out."
I was like oh, this is awesome.

They're fighting poverty,

and that's what I've been
doing for most of my career.

They've been fighting poverty
and also there is such –

they seem to be a company
that really has it together

and they've been able to do so much
with so little resources.

They're backed by Google, and they're
backed by like Y Combinator,

so I knew that they
had their stuff together,

and they were really
like being very thoughtful

and impactful with their resources.

So I applied

and actually I didn't expect
to get a response, honestly, but

the CTO reached out and he was like,
"Hey, I'd like to interview you.",

and then over the course
of five interviews,

got to know each other better,
and the more I talked to them,

the more I felt like this feels right.

We're really aligning
here on our values,

on what we care about in the world.

Their team is incredibly diverse

in terms of gender,
race and sexual orientation

and that matters to me,

and also everyone there
is there because of the mission,

to fight poverty,

and they care about issues like this,
and they value design.

They're really eager to have
someone there be a design leader.

So, they offered me the job

and then now
I'm starting in three days!

Where I want to move
forward is ideally,

becoming a designer in social impact,
whatever that means.

I already am a designer
in social impact,

but I think really leading that space.

'Cause right now, tech,
there's so much design talent

in corporate tech, if you will,
all these other tech companies,

but the social impact design space,

and social impact tech space
is sort of niche,

it's sort of off to the side
and it's a little smaller.

But I think part of my vision
is really expanding that!

I'm Donna Chan, I'm a product designer
and researcher and I make 90k a year.
DONNA CHAN, 29
PRODUCT DESIGNER & RESEARCHER, ONE DEGREE

I previously was at App Direct

a few months ago and now I'm about
to start a new job in three days.

As a product designer and researcher,

my job is to solve problems
in the digital space.

How can we create an experience on web

or mobile that helps everyday people,

enable them to do something?

Where I'm going is One Degree,

very excited about it
because it's using design

and technology to help fight poverty

and the way that One Degree
is doing that is by connecting

low-income families with
the social services that they need.

Today, the social services process

is very analog, people open up binders
to find services for people.

You have to call, you have to take
work off in order to

walk into an office.

But in today's day and age,
where almost everything is online,

it's sort of crazy to think
that this stuff isn't already

digitized and readily available

in your phone for these families.

My role at One Degree is essentially

everything from research all the way
through design and testing

of our product.

Our product is this sort
of Yelp for social services

and my role within that
is going to be not only

actually talking to the people
who use the platform

to understand what do you need,
what do you need from this platform,

and then once I hear those insights,

turning those into designs

and testing out with the same users

that use our platform
and just making sure that

as a whole, our product works well

for the people that we want to serve.

My most frequent tasks are going to
be from the research perspective,

making sure that I am talking to users
and I'm getting feedback from users.

From the design perspective,
I'm actually creating designs,

I'm creating wire frames
and mock-ups and

what new features could look like

or what something could
look like on the mobile phone.

My salary is 90,000
as a product designer and researcher.

It's pretty reasonable for someone
who's starting out in product design

and the range can really vary.

In San Francisco, I would say
a range is probably from 75,000 to

the sky is the limit.

Probably as a senior product designer,

you make closer to 200,000,

at director level you definitely
make 200,000 or more.

With increased managerial experience
you obviously earn more.

I would say that for
a product designer and researcher,

for me, the key

the key traits that really embody

what makes
a great designer and researcher

are listening and empathy.

Listening means that you're really

taking the time
to first understand a user

or someone
that you're collaborating with

and understanding what it is that they
need, understand their perspectives.

The second, which goes
hand in hand with, is empathy.

Actually feeling what they feel,

embodying that so that
when you're designing something,

you know what potential pain points
there are, what things to look out for.

Empathy also helps with collaborating,

because as a designer I'm working with
so many different people,

so many different types of people,
product managers,

engineers, marketing, et cetera.

For me to collaborate
successfully to create a product

it takes a whole village
of different people,

so for that to really work well you
have to empathize with your teammates

and you have to understand

where they're coming from so that you
can come to agreement and move forward.

The other piece that I think is also
really important for a designer is

always wanting to learn,

learning a lot of different things,

and not just in design or research
or technology but going beyond that.

I think some of the most brilliant
designers, they're constantly

curious about everything.

Things in the art world,
things in the history,

things in anthropology,
plants, I love plants,

and that's really inspired
some of the ways that I design

because the more you know and the more
you think about how other things work

or how other fields solve problems,

it just enriches your own creativity
and how you approach things.