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Marissa Louie is an entrepreneur, design leader, and digital technologist. She’s currently the co-founder and CEO of Animoodles, an award-winning magnetic toy company. Previously, she spent time as a product design leader at Apple, Yahoo, and Ness. Outside of work, Marissa founded Designer’s Guild, a 20,000+ member community of designers focused on collective career advancement.
Aswin Pranam: As a designer, you’ve created physical and digital products used by millions of people. What principles guide your work and vision?
Marissa Louie: User centricity is at the core of everything I design. It’s not just how things look or work; it’s putting the focus on delivering a valuable user experience. At Apple, that meant leading a creative team to make simple, beautiful, and intuitive user interfaces. At Yahoo, that meant creating a sticky, valuable news reading experience that people enjoy as a daily habit. At Animoodles, that meant creating stuffed animals that would inspire creativity, empathy, and fun in kids of all ages.
Pranam: How does a designer learn to be user-centric?
Louie: It’s essential to pay attention to both user research and user behavior (as indicated by metrics and observation). To cultivate a real passion for helping users, it helps to know some of them as people – getting out of the building and doing user research enables you to see the pain points and thought processes of real people.
Pranam: You’re the co-founder and CEO of Animoodles, a magnetic children’s toy company. What sparked the transition from designer to entrepreneur?
Louie: I’ve always been entrepreneurial, from the time I was a kid, sitting in on my family’s business meetings. When I was in elementary school, I had the idea to create stuffed animals that would inspire kids of every age with an engaging play pattern. Decades later, after working at Apple and Yahoo, I developed the design expertise that gave me a framework for solving the problem.
Pranam: What’s the hardest lesson you’ve had to learn as a CEO & Founder?
Louie: When I began managing others early in my career, I didn’t pay enough attention to my team’s career success: I focused almost entirely on our company’s success. Now, I have a very different approach that begins with my team’s career success, and then we extend that into company success.
I have also learned that it’s not enough for me to be a great manager: the best and most effective way for my team and me to succeed together is for me to help coach high potential individuals to be great leaders who can also bring up other great leaders.
Pranam: What commonly known design “best practice” do you disagree with?
Louie: I disagree with the idea that it is best for all product designers to code. It can be useful for designers to be able to make technical prototypes of their design work. Still, it may also anchor a designer’s thinking too much on the technical feasibility of the product, rather than on user-centered design.
I believe that designer-product manager hybrids will be the new designer unicorn, and they will unlock new value for the design profession. They will be able to align user-centered design with product thinking and business outcomes. This is where I predict design is headed.
Pranam: Speaking of design & product management, features like infinite scroll and dark patterns can strengthen product metrics (e.g., engagement, click-thru) but hurt user trust. How do you achieve balance in this tug-of-war?
Louie: I don’t think it should be a tug-of-war between users and metrics. Our goal should always be to make compelling products that people want to use as a habit because the products add something meaningful to their lives.
Tying this back to what I said earlier: great user experience begins with being user-centric. Companies like Apple have succeeded because of how in tune they are with their customers. For example, the iPad Smart Cover brilliantly uses magnets to turn what could have been a simple flat cover into both a flat cover and a stand that can roll up to prop up your iPad for viewing. Many of Apple’s products are intuitive and build genuine loyalty, and they don’t trick people into using their products for extended periods. Apple doesn’t need to touch dark patterns, which are the equivalent of cheap tricks. And for every dark pattern that may cause a short term bump in product metrics, there are many success stories of design teams working dilligently to engage users with experiences that are truly useful and delightful.
Pranam: Companies like uizard are using AI to translate whiteboard scribbles into functional user interfaces automatically. Does the application of AI in user experience design excite or worry you?
Louie: I previously spent five years designing search interfaces with AI and machine learning engineers, while at Ness and Yahoo Search, so I’m knowledgeable about how this technology works. AI, at its best, will help designers reduce unnecessary work so that we can focus on higher-level thinking and strategy. For example, in Adobe’s products such as Photoshop, there are AI-powered tools such as clone stamp that help designers reduce the amount of time that they have to spend on editing complex visuals.
Pranam: AI-enabled voice assistants (Amazon Echo, Google Home) may boom in sales to 8+ billion by 2023, but their present-day use cases are transactional instead of conversational. How do you see these products evolving to create a more intimate relationship with end-users?
Louie: Voice assistants have to do more to earn people’s trust, and I think that begins with privacy and user controls. I once overheard an acquaintance ask a voice assistant to read out the contents of another person’s Amazon shopping list without their consent, and it was a rude invasion of privacy.
For voice assistants to be conversational and more natural feeling, they need to address exponentially more use cases. For example, they should be able to answer questions by triangulating information from multiple sources, similar to how a human would consume information on a search results page.
Overall, I am hopeful about the future of voice assistants. I believe they can be much more valuable if their developers respect user-centered design principles within the emerging field of voice UI.