Can you describe what an experience designer does?
Every business model results in a unique experience for its customer. My job as an experience designer is to help leaders understand what the current experience is for their customer, what their biggest needs are, and how their company can restructure it’s offerings to better serve those needs. We do this by using ethnographic research methods like interviewing, shadowing, and observing, look for patterns, then collaboratively design new solutions and test them out to see if they work. Part of me thinks that my job title is purposefully vague, so it allows for the flexibility in the different roles and responsibilities that I can take on. In the several years I have been at [the Business Innovation Factory], I have launched community initiatives in Dallas, produced a reality show, help refine our business model innovation process, and launched our internal Birthday Experience Lab (where I get to design unique birthday experiences for my coworkers). And I feel like the title “Experience Designer” fits the projects that I do outside of the walls of BIF as well. It’s all about understanding people and creatively designing a positive experience for them.
How did you become an experience designer?
If I think back, there are many instances growing up that I think primed me for what I do now. For one, my mom always put me in charge of birthdays. I was always figuring out fun ways to entertain my brother’s and my friends on our special day. Two, one of my favorite things to do when I was young was turn my room into a dance party. I would decorate, set up all of my colorful lights and disco balls, create a mixed CD for the event, and invite my mom and brother. Then we’d dance our faces off.
However, the career path that I envisioned wasn’t always design in a broad sense, but rather fairly specific. From a young age, all I wanted to do was become an architect. When I was growing up, my family moved almost every year (at this point in my life I’ve moved almost 30 times, where by the time I was 16 I had moved I think almost 20 times). At that age I started to wonder what I wanted to be when I grew up and I asked God, “Why would you put me through this experience and all this struggle?” and the answer that I walked away with was that it helped me understand what it felt like for a family like mine to go through that and understand what people needed. When thinking which path my experience was best preparing me for, architecture seemed like it was perfectly suited for me. I not only had empathy, but I also had the foundational skills and interests in art and math and science. So I did everything in my power to prep myself for getting in a really good college where I could study architecture. I ended up getting into the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and throughout the whole five years that I was there, I still felt like architecture was the right path for me. And in almost all of my projects, I came to them with the question: what are the needs around me and how can I use design to address those needs?
My thesis project focused on designing for the homeless community in Providence, specifically looking at the transition from the street into permanent housing. There’s so much focus around getting people in housing, but not a lot of effort put into that in-between stage. That transition can be really difficult because there’s a whole mindset shift and behavior shift that has to happen in order to maintain housing successfully, especially if you’ve been homeless for many years. My approach to the project was going out into the community and getting to people who were homeless at the time so that I could understand their experience from their perspective. Once trust was built, I would walk around the city with them and “shadow” them (which is one of the research methods I do use now for work). I would walk where they walk, meet their friends, experience what they do.
It’s interesting because there was a point when I questioned why is it that I’m so comfortable in this setting. And I realized that it’s because even from a young age, my brother and I would be out on the streets hanging with people who were homeless. That was just what we did for fun. We would introduce ourselves to the guys who would hang around the abandoned houses near us, and we would listen to their stories. We didn’t see them as someone who was different than us. We saw them as new friends.
Since I stayed in Providence after graduating, I’ve been able to stay friends with the people that I met during my thesis. We still hang out when we can, and the best part is, all of them now have permanent housing and have been working towards turning their life around. They’re having a lot of success, which makes me really happy to see – because they are each amazingly talented in their own way.
So long story short, it was that approach to my thesis that (I’m pretty sure) got me my job now at the Business Innovation Factory (or BIF for short). They looked at my portfolio and saw my project, and even though I didn’t study anthropology, ethnographic research, or design thinking, they saw that I intuitively have been using this process all along – I just didn’t know it. And of course it’s always a good feeling to find people who believe in the same things as you do. It was a good fit and I’ve now been there for almost 4 years.
“Each one of us possesses a powerful story that deserves to be known and shared.”
You were talking about empathy in architecture…do you think that’s something that’s missing in a lot of today’s design?
I can’t say that for design in general, because there is a lot of design sectors that are natural empathetic to their user (or at least should be), like service design, graphic design, UX/UI, product design, etc. In any of those fields, if you understand your user, it’s going to result in a more successful design. And with architecture, although there are a lot of instances where it’s not user-centric, but more architect-centric, I can see a cultural shift happening where more and more people are recognizing that by listening and understanding who you’re designing for, the potential to make an impact is huge and can go far beyond aesthetics, and begin to address some of life’s biggest challenges. I believe that empathy is a core ingredient that is necessary for designers. And this is something that needs to be explicitly talked about more – not only how we can grow in our own empathy towards others, but how as designers, we can we begin to generate it well.
How has being in Rhode Island influenced you and your work?
I think Providence is a great place to start out, at least as a designer. If you decide to go somewhere like New York or San Francisco where there is a high saturation of people who are doing the same thing as you, you end up having to work a lot harder to make a name for yourself. In Providence, in just a matter of four years, I already have a great support system and feel like a lot of people know me and what I’m passionate about. I can go anywhere around town and I run into people I know. It has a small town feel, but still has a lot going on. Plus, a lot of people I’ve met here are very passionate about making things happen from the ground up, so to have access to that network has been really beneficial to me because anytime I have an idea of my own, I know who I can turn to and if I do decide to make something happen, I know I have the full support of my community.
“We would introduce ourselves to the guys who would hang around the abandoned houses near us, and we would listen to their stories. We didn’t see them as someone who was different than us.”
What’s the hardest thing for you in your work? Both personal and at BIF?
In the last several years, one of the biggest things I struggled with was balancing my time. I would tend to over extend myself outside of work and would have a lot going on between working on side projects, social engagements, or meetings. I’m a very excitable person, and I get really excited about good ideas. I not only think of a lot but I also became the person that friends would go too if they wanted help making an idea a reality. I love being that person, but over time, as hard as it was, I had to learn how to say no. By wearing myself thin, I wasn’t doing a service for anyone, including myself. One really practical thing that I began to implement was a Sabbath, which is basically a day of rest. I began to make Sundays the day where I wouldn’t plan anything – but slowly those evening would fill up with ways where I could serve others, because I had a free block of time in my schedule. So I then created Take-Kara-Myself-Day, which is on Wednesdays. That is the one evening of the week that is dedicated only to doing things that are life-giving and give me rest (drawing, reading, napping, writing music, etc). Coming from a place of rest has really helped my work.
What’s the biggest risk you feel that you’ve taken in your work?
It would probably be asking for help. I believe the quote is, “If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.” Most of the things I’ve done would have been impossible if I didn’t have the help of those around me. Whether it’s a quick text, or a Facebook status asking anyone if they happen to have x, or if they could help with y, it takes literally 10 seconds to ask a friend. It requires humility and courage. And what’s the worst that could happen? They’ll say no, and you’ll move on. But the best thing that could happen? They say yes! I truly believe that asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of courage, because you’re brave enough to ask.
Can you describe some of your personal or social work that you’ve done? How do you see the importance for the community in some of your “passion projects”?
Since my passion is in creating local change, my surrounding community and neighborhood is what most of my side projects focus on. I want to be the catalyst for the best version of Providence, and I’m always looking for opportunities to do this.
Last Summer, I got a grant from the city to build a pop-up mini golf course on the West Side of Providence called PVD Putt Putt. It was artist designed, meaning local artists and designers from across the state designed each of the 9 holes. It was also free to play, with donations going towards supporting a different local non-profit every week. Since the project was meant to be a temporary installation, PVD Putt Putt was an experience that came and went, only being open for 3 months. But although only up for a short period of time, people from all over the city (and country) came to play. It was amazing to see how something as simple as mini golf could unite a community by bringing together people who wouldn’t normally interact.
Another project of mine that is ongoing is a photography project called IAMPVD (@iampvd on Instagram). It is essentially a crowd-sourced Providence-based version of Humans of New York, where it’s not just me taking the photos and sharing people’s stories, but anyone can do so. The idea is you meet a stranger, get to know them and their story, take a photo, and use #iampvd. What made me want to start this was the desire to know my neighbors, while wanting to encourage others towards a posture of curiosity as well. Each one of us possesses a powerful story that deserves to be known and shared. This project gives people a platform to listen to the stories of others.
I also run a creative arts group in the city called Creative Collective. It consists of over 100 people, all from different creative industries and talents, who meet regularly to encourage one another, learn from one another, and figure out as followers of Jesus, what the intersection of creativity and spirituality looks like. We have workshops and discussions. This group has huge potential, and I’m in the midst of figuring out how to best harness it.
What do you do when you feel stuck creatively?
How my mind works, is that I always have many tracks of thought going on at once, which is very overwhelming, so I usually don’t get stuck because I have so many different things going on. If I come to a point where it does feel like I’m stuck on something, I just hop over to the next thing. There’s always something that’s generating within me. There are always different tracks.
If I have to work on the same thing for a significant period of time, that’s when I usually pull in another brain. I’m a very collaborative worker, and much prefer to work alongside others. When I’m working with someone else, since I’m able to externally process my thoughts, it gets me out of my own head and helps me work better and faster.
Do you find solving one problem often gives you answers to others?
Yes. All the time. Even in the work we do at BIF, as Experience Designers, we never work only in education or only in healthcare. We’re always jumping back and forth between the two areas of work, because there’s a lot of cross-over and a lot of learnings that can carry over and be applied to the other industry.
Do you have any advice for anyone starting out?
I’m a firm believer in intention. I think that being intentional with the relationships to people around you is especially important, because you never know where they may lead. I have a really solid network of friends that I mentioned earlier – would support me in any way they could – and I would do the same for them. When you commit to something, follow through. When you believe in something, live it out. Approach everything and everyone with intention.
Do you have anything you want to plug? Any projects coming up this year?
Sometime this year, if not this Fall then in the Spring, I’m going to throw a pop-up dance party and I want the whole city to be invited. I don’t know the details yet, but it’s bound to be epic. If you follow me on Twitter I will make sure to keep everyone in the loop.