Delivering clear problem-focused communication and building an effective collaboration with your team is a learned skill. It starts with genuinely caring about the people you work with and their needs.
Today's guest for the Story Series is Shay Ghassemian, Senior Product Designer at Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and a mentor in the Professional Development Program. Shay is a designer that is highly driven by the fundamental belief that solving people-problems starts with building a common mindset and a clear understanding of people's needs. Her multicultural experience and the difficulties she grew up with built values that solidified the idea of treating each problem as a chance to learn, documenting difficulties and learning from them.
In this interview, Shay shares her learnings on how a shift in mindset can lead to better more effective communication and cross-functional collaboration. She also discusses how to manage changes, constraints in the design process, and the importance of being a creative sense-maker who helps a bigger team, including those experiencing the problem, use appropriate methods to create answers together to design better and more effective products.
Shay welcome! Tell us a bit about your story and how you got to where you are?
Thank you, Julie! You question makes me think of all the different elements in my path that played a role in the person/designer I am now:
I was born and raised in Tehran, the capital of Iran: a multicultural eventful megacity and one of the more progressive parts of the country. It was the end of the Iran-Iraq war when people had to start building the society’s morale and economy from scratch. My childhood and youth was spent under an authoritarian regime, and an ideological society where what was accepted as “good” outside of the house was completely different from the inside. This setting, among other things, created an analyzing and questioning mind. I believe regardless of difficulties growing up in such circumstances entails, there are unique characteristics that help me in doing my job:
I ask “why” all the time, I don’t accept the status quo, and I challenge it by imagining the alternatives.
Another key element was my family. Being a daughter to an artist and an engineer, exposed me to a vast spectrum of opportunities for self discovery and self expression. They were also very serious about getting us outside of our social bubble to understand what “others” are dealing with on a day to day basis. Hence, my curiosity about differences and similarities of humans, learning peoples’ stories and almost obsessively trying to make sense of why we act in a certain way and not the other way.
I believe that in the world we live in today, there are certain areas that are most valuable to focus if one has the opportunity, regardless of their skills and preferences. Education is a converging point in all of them and has been my passion one way or another: from teaching undocumented immigrants in Iran to understand their interaction with music, co-designing schools with students of deprived villages in Iran to help them learn how to make their environment more pleasant with the resources around them, running co-design workshops for the children of immigrants in the US to help them learn their roles as information mediaries for their bilingual families, to creating a game to educate the urbanites about wildlife extinction.
I currently work with Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, as a product designer where I’m part of a team that transforms the state of K-12 education in the US.
This road has not been smooth though. It’s been filled with moments of doubt, confusion and being stuck. Along the way I have made decisions that have kept me in confused and jammed states. Occasionally because of my identity, out of arrogance and sometimes because I excessively wanted to stand true to my values.
What are some ways to improve your communication skills as a designer for effective cross-functional collaboration?
Effective communication has been a life-long journey for me. No matter the status or power dynamic in my relationships, it’s been a challenge learning to get my point across precisely and at the same time be cognizant of standing next to my companion rather than facing them. These are the key directions I practice in my daily interactions:
Being honest and humble about my feelings and needs
First and foremost I need to be honest and humble with myself, and then with whoever I’m interacting with. Of course, this requires building a close and meaningful relationship with both parties in advance. Which again comes from mutual honesty.
Empowering myself and others through building relationships based on empathy.
We all have a story, a background full of joys and pains and it uniquely shapes our values and expectations from our experiences. I recognize that I am part of how others experience the world and try to understand how our relationship is perceived by them. I get to know them at a personal level. In other words, I respect their story and try to learn their needs before pushing my expectations on the relationship.
Staying curious and approaching people and their problems in a “sponge mode”.
Shifting my mindset from victim to player
Putting the team before self becomes specifically difficult at the moments when emotions are running high. My trick there is changing the questions I might have from ‘he/she/them/it’ to ‘I/we’. Rather than thinking ‘what they should do’ or ‘Why the situation is in a certain way’ I try to ask ‘what can I/we do to help achieve a desirable outcome?’ This pushes others in the player mindset too, and moves conversations to a constructive level.
Humor, humor, humor
Having fun and showing humor goes a long way with people. It includes all the points above by removing the work tension and connecting us to one another in a personal humane manner. At the end of the day, we are, in most cases, imperfect vulnerable beings with a shared passion for tackling a problem. I keep reminding myself that despite the difficult questions no one knows perfectly the answer and the need to put thought and seriousness in approaching them, we can have fun doing so.
How do you manage changes, constraints in your design process?
Collaboration and distribution of power in teams
I like to build a close relationship with the product manager, researcher, engineer or the learning and data scientist of the scrum I work on depending on the project that come and go. I make sure that we shape the right norms for collaboration and decision-making by involving them in my design process frequently and early on.
Keeping a distance from my divine creations
I try not to get emotionally tied to what I design, to change or dispose of them if needed.
Creative push-back on constraints
On the other hand, there are sometimes engineering and management constraints that harm the user experience. It’s a designer’s job to watch out and create alternatives for them when design and user values are at stake.
Simply asking for guidance when I don’t know.
What is your approach to understand people and the root causes of a problem they’re facing?
Co-designing with the audience
In a nutshell, it is designing with rather than designing for. Over the years I have learned that a designer is not a creative person with all the answers to existing problems. It’s rather a creative sense-maker who helps a bigger team, including those experiencing the problem, use appropriate methods and framing to create answers together.
Including the marginalized populations
In every problem area, there are groups of people who are less heard and barely represented in the data and research insights. It absolutely is a great opportunity for the design team to be vocal and pave the path to access these groups. A recent example from our team is working with the Trust and Legal team to reshape our policies, so that we can include marginalized student voices in our user research.
Re-iterating with the audience and continue understanding them
People’s needs change as does the world and we should approach our insights as living beings which transform. The new reality of schools at the time of the recent pandemic is a perfect example. In the “New Normal”, We have been re-examining our understanding of educators’ and students’ most pressing needs and reflecting the insights in our product at CZI.
How do you approach your career growth with intention and decide the stepping stones in your career journey?
There are two parts to this question: finding your areas of growth and deciding what you should focus on.
Finding your areas of growth
In my personal experience, having a mentor and working with smart and capable folks have been most effective in finding the path of growth.
When I mentioned earlier about past decisions that I would make differently today, criteria for choosing a team is one of them. Not that I had all the options coming out of school as an Iraninan on Student visa, though I certainly didn’t pay attention to the importance of having that mentor at work in the beginning. I was more concerned if I would find a team working on a topic I’m passionate about. I believe especially coming out of school it is more important to find a team that can help you transition your learnings to practice. Now by playing ‘spot the difference’ between myself and more experienced designers I can notice the gaps and make a list of what I want to be in a year or two.
Prioritizing career goals
For me, it’s been reevaluating my answer to ‘where do I want to be in 2, 5 and 10 years?’. Naturally, the answer transforms year to year. The transformation itself is a QP for my growth. Also, living in a rapidly changing world has its effects on what moves to the top of the list: it was honing in on my ‘pixel pushing’ skills last year and now it is learning how to co-frame a project perfectly. Can you guess why?