Aarron Walter is the Vice President of Design Education for InVision, a division dedicated to promoting design education worldwide. Walter works closely with the creative community, business leaders, and InVision’s two million customers to extoll how to build better design-driven products focused on what users want and need.
Previously, Walter founded the UX practice at MailChimp and helped shape the product over eight years. He’s offered design guidance to the White House, the US Department of State, dozens of startups and venture capitalists and students at design colleges throughout the U.S. and Europe. He tweets about design at @aarron.
1. Thank you for taking the time to interview with us! What are you currently doing for InVision?
I lead the the design education team. We help designers and the companies they serve understand product design best practices. We draw upon our years of experience in design leadership roles and industry experts we consult regularly to help organizations learn to run efficient design teams and produce great products.
We have some big initiatives in the works that we’ll share soon to help product designers master their craft.
2. You’re extremely passionate about design education. How did this passion begin?
Right out of graduate school I started teaching. I’ve found there’s a virtuous cycle to design practice and teaching: I try new things in my design practice then teach others. As I teach I understand these ideas more clearly. When I left teaching to join MailChimp, I turned to writing and speaking to scratch that itch.
3. Here at DT, we value empathy and human-centered design. I’d love to hear your take.
Good design certainly requires both as it has a strong service component. We’re creating things to serve the needs of others.
Empathy is the first step in the Design Thinking process because a design can’t solve a problem until we first understand the users. Immersing ourselves in the user’s experience keeps design from being self-indulgent.
We designers love making beautiful things, but if we can’t also make something useful, beauty is hollow.
4. You spent a fair bit of time at MailChimp, can you please tell me a little bit about that experience, and how you shaped their product to have a UX focus?
I joined MailChimp in 2008 to build the UX team. The lead engineer and I were given incredible freedom by the founders to redesign and rebuild the entire app. When we started MailChimp had a few thousand users, and by the time I left in early 2016 we had more than 10 million users worldwide.
The UX team I built had three sub-teams: UI design, research, and front-end development. The team was structured this way to reduce the friction between idea and execution. Insights from research helped us discover new feature and product ideas, and with UI Design and front-end development we could prototype and build out new things quickly.
5. You’ve provided guidance to numerous startups, students, and even the White House. I’m sure you have some great stories. What was one of the most interesting UX/design challenges you’ve faced?
I recently spent a week with a company that’s trying to grow their design team and make the organization more design-driven. They have talent, but don’t yet have the structure and plan to integrate with the rest of the company. I was able to help them work through their big challenges, and get buy in from C-level leaders.
It’s satisfying to see design elevated throughout an organization.
6. I’d love to know a bit about your process, how do you build design-driven products? What’s your process on discovering what the users want and need? What do you do to get inspired?
I’m most inspired by talking to customers. I enjoy observing customer behaviors, finding patterns, and then exploring unexpected ways to solve problems. As a design leader I always pushed my teams to talk with customers. It’s the best way to learn how to make something great.
Our approach was to identify a specific customer cohort, run a carefully worded survey with these folks, then read through every answer looking for interesting responses. We’d then get those people on the phone for an interview, or hop on a plane and go visit them. In person, you’ll see how their company runs, what sort of hardware they use, how they collaborate, and the limitations they work within. It’s eye opening.
7. What’s one key takeaway you want to leave our readers with?
Spend time talking to customers and watching people use the things you design. It’s humbling, but will show you how to become a better designer.