About This Episode
This week’s episode of The Full Stack Leader features Jon Fox, A Ux & Design Leader at Crowdstreet. Jon has had an incredible career in Ux for the past 20 years. Working from the early days of the internet to the implementation of virtual reality. Showing us that you can take inspiration from anything to create a visually compelling experience. Giving us his Top 5 Tips on fostering a relationship with your users and your coworkers to give them the best experience you can.
Jon’sTop 5 Leadership Tips:
Below is a summary of the Top 5 Leadership tips shared during the interview this week. Take a listen to the episode to learn more about the thoughts behind these tips –
- Lead With Humanity
- Listen To People & Their Needs
- Design Is Art, Science, And Understanding
- The Process Is Important
- Fight For What You Believe
We hope you enjoy the episode. You can find even more Full Stack Leader episodes here:
Ryan: Welcome to this week’s episode of the full stack leader. This week, we’re here with my longtime friend, John Fox. He is a design and UX leader. That’s been working in the industry for 15 to 20 years. John.
Great to have you here.
Jon: Great to be here. Thanks, Ryan.
Ryan: Yeah. Maybe you can give our audience a little perspective on what you’ve done to lead you up to this point.
Jon: Absolutely. I’ve been, as you mentioned, I’ve been working in the industry for quite some time now, going back to the early days of the internet before user experience is really, even was a thing. And, you know, I’ve had the benefit of working on a number of really exciting and unique projects in my career, from building a makeshift design studio in a stadium in Cape town to innovate on the fan.
Of course, for world rugby. And, to like designing the audio video concept for a 20, 30 autonomous vehicle and which we used VR to, to do some testing on a vehicle that doesn’t actually exist. And also working in a lot of disruptive enterprise applications, such as currently I work at crowd street where I manage the UX team in democratizing the availability of commercial real estate investing through crowdfunding.
And, crowd street, despite being a fully remote and distributed team across the country, has really one of the best company cultures that I’ve ever been a part of. And it’s really exciting to be in a company that really values UX and design, and really sees it as a very important ingredient in our, in our business success.
Ryan: That’s amazing. Thanks for the rundown. I really liked how you said, before UX as a concept was even a thing, like long ago, when do you think that did
Jon: become a thing? It was really in, I think. First, the first decade of the two thousands is really when you saw UX become a dedicated, really formal, design practice.
Prior to that, there was obviously information architecture and, , which really focused on a site hierarchy. And there was a lot of them. We had started in web design, which was an outcome of graphic design. And, as things got more particular and really as mobile and mobile apps became more of a, a pressing and relevant concept, the need for streamlining processes to make things much simpler, especially on a much smaller screen.
Became more important and really the rise of user experience design came out of that idea of really getting into the hands, the hearts and the minds of the user, and really understanding the context because now we weren’t just dealing with people on a computer. They had their computers out in the world.
So really understanding a lot of who these people were, how they were going to be utilizing an application and really being able to customize that experience to their needs really grew out of that period. And The first title that I had that was really UX focused was in the probably 2008 to 2010 range.
So I think that’s really where that became dedicated.
Ryan: Yeah, it makes sense. And I think I remember feeling there was this kind of unsaid split between traditional graphic design and actual application and website usability and really the design methodology of, , Two environments became partners more than you did.
One of everything. Like,
Jon: so we,
Ryan: I see a lot of like, people are either graphic designers or UX
Jon: people at this point. Yeah. I mean, there are a number of UX designers who have incredible visual design skills and there are a number of visuals. Nurse who doesn’t really understand architecture. And one of the things that I always found fascinating is if I were to develop wireframes and then hand it to a visual designer, sometimes they would move things around in the layout.
And that is because once you add in that, those visual elements, the type or graphy, the color, the, design elements. Sometimes you need to move things around to focus on I flow and know where your calls to action are and really what you want to direct the audience to do. And it becomes a real partnership and nowadays the tools have become so powerful.
Now that we have, sketch and absolutely Figma that you. Almost combine those two things into one and then hand off much more sophisticated technical documentation to engineers, and it becomes much easier to develop something that is pixel.
Ryan: Yep. And it really creates a great handshake between the two that speeds everything up so much.
And it’s powerful to see that take place. When, 10 years ago, 15 years ago, one or two pixels off could wreck an entire front end, process of building things out and cause arguments and frustration between designers and
Jon: developers. Absolutely. And nowadays you can hand off like a CSS directly out of a design document and, you can get front end developers who can just implement it straight out of that.
Which is wild to me that you have developers that can go into the actual design files and be able to pull out relevant information that they can use in their.
Ryan: Yeah, it’s definitely a new era of partnership between designers and
Jon: for sure.
Ryan: , and, you know, like, We’re working at a company that, or we support it is kind of two, um, two different sides of the same coin to some degree.
Do you, one of the things I wanted to talk to you about today is how you work with designers and UX folk and, anyone that’s kind of creating the kind of product development side of things and, and. And if it’s a little bit different than how we might see people working with developers.
Jon: Well, it, I think it definitely is. I mean, it really does come down to that collaboration and really forming those partnerships. And if you have a really good model where you have. UX designers or product designers working directly in tandem with product managers and engineering managers, to make sure that you’re all in.
You’re all on the same page then, you can make sure that like, as things get developed, there are no surprises. There’s no changes in scope or schedule that we know that what we are designing that has been verified through research and through our discussions with stakeholders and with, Actual users of the product that then that the, what the engineers are going to deliver is going to be that experience.
And those types of partnerships along the way are just invaluable. And the fact that we can focus a lot more of our attention on those types of conversations and less on the mechanics of the design tools makes an enormous step.
Ryan: Yeah, it absolutely does because you’re actually talking about what’s.
Point of the thing that we’re creating and how do we actually engineer the right solution in general. But,
Do you find that, there’s different flavors of people in the design space that you’ve worked with and been a leader for of the
Jon: course of time? Yeah, absolutely. And one of the things I think that’s really interesting about UX is that it’s actually very broad.
And there are certain designers who are. Far more adept at the research part and they love the research part. They love having conversations with customers, with stakeholders and really being able to drill into that motivation and understanding of what works and what doesn’t work. And then there are other designers who are.
Much more about the creation and the design of it, and really focusing on the individual pieces of the product and making sure that they are going to work and deliver on what the goals are and the metrics that we’re trying to achieve. And so there are definitely multiple different types of designers and as a design manager, One of the things that is really key is to be able to identify what skills people are mostly adept at, and then be able to drive the types of collaboration within the team to support.
Ryan: Yeah, that makes sense. And I, one of the things that always comes up around managing designers or working with leading designers is, how you unlock inspiration, right is there anything special that you do to like inspire? And I know the two different groups might be slightly different from one another, but,
Jon: I think for the most part, for the most part, it’s really understanding who they are.
I mean, the, as a manager, your team is the. Customer right. And using the tools of empathy that UX designers utilize a lot. You really, you end up creating kind of a, you curate a team experience where everybody feels sort of taken care of and you really understand sort of what drives them and where they get inspiration from, because you can get inspiration.
Almost anywhere. I actually come from a background of film school. I went to film school and that’s the direction that I was heading in before the internet actually even was a thing. And, I find that I sometimes am inspired by things that I might see in a film or a friend of mine used to joke about this because I used to get inspiration from airport design.
And if you think about it, airports are all about wayfinding the structure of things, the layout, how to get there, how to get to a place in a quick, you know, fast time where the signage is and everything. And so I actually, especially when I go to foreign countries to see how airports are laid out and how they do it, I get a lot of inspiration for that.
And so understanding, understanding who, you know, who is on my team and where they get inspiration. One of the designers on my team, she’s way into salsa dancing, and that’s where she gets her inspiration. Right? And so I’m really understanding that. And then being able to foster that and really inspire them and have them make sure that they can live their lives and that they can continue to get that inspiration from outside areas is super.
Ryan: Yeah, that’s amazing. I love the concept of looking at airports, as a design conceptualization, especially in that, that, , user experience flow. And we talk a lot at our company about, Our product development team and our designers and, being very much like architects, like in the construction world.
So like everything about the flow through the building as well. And so the same type of thing. We’re often like,at a high level of managing that aspect.
Ryan: When you’re going to hire somebody on the design team, what are some important things that you’re looking for?
What are some qualities that stand out to you or like okay, I’ve got it. I’ve got to take a deeper
Jon: Look at this person. I think, really what it comes down to is how do they tell their. And how do they represent what is important to them and how do they convey that through design language?
And that might be in their portfolio. If their portfolio is really well architected, if it’s. Uses nice topography if it’s well laid out. Right. Or it does it, is it just too much? Is it like way too much content? And I just, there’s no way I’m going to be able to parse this or is it more technical or is it more design focused?
And do they rely too much on visual design? When they are clearly not a visual designer or are they able to convey what they need to, via a prototype or sketches? I once interviewed somebody for a design role and she came and did a presentation, based on an assignment that we had given.
And she did this prototype and it was all done in sketches, hand, drawn with pencil. And when she started, I was very concerned and. By the time it was over, she had completely won us over because she played to her strengths. She played to what she could do best. And she was able to articulate the full story of what she was doing.
And because of that, she didn’t spend a lot of time on visual design. So she had extra time. So she actually went into use cases that we hadn’t even. Because of that, I could really see the way that she, the way that she broke down the problem and the way that she arrived at some solution strategies. And that ended up translating into really authentic and terrific interaction with.
Ryan: That’s amazing. Yeah. I think that’s a great example of having UX be at the forefront of something as well, because you really can use a lot of different formats for that storytelling. And try to, but I really, I think, and I also think that the pencil is often underestimated as still one
Jon: of the great tools.
Yes. I’m a hardcore pencil. Yes.
Ryan: I have spent, I’ve spent hours on an airplane flight sketching, an entire product, like just going deep into it. And it’s amazing what you can do just with the pencil coming out of it. Yep. Yep. So tell me, is there a particular experience in your career where you’re like really seen.
You’re a leadership tool having to be put to use.
Jon: I mean, there are definitely a number of different opportunities. One of the things that I think that has been really beneficial and I’m extremely grateful for is that I’ve been able to work in a number of different industries, as I mentioned earlier, but one of the most exciting projects that I was able to work on recently was in, the design for.
The voting system that is now employed in Los Angeles county and was built for the 20, 20 election. And it’s the most technologically advanced and accessible system being used in the United States. And one of the things I think that was mostly, that was really eye opening. For myself and really being able to grow as a leader is to really understand accessibility.
You know, we had to provide a design that was translatable into 13 languages and the base language needed to be no higher than a sixth grade reading level. So that changes how you use language. We also needed to use it. Four different typeface sizes. So it needed to be able to go up really big and really small without breaking the design.
But also we needed use cases for colorblind, for fully blind people, for people to use a separate ATI controller. Or a pluggable sip, a sip and puff for people who had low to no motor skills. And also an audio read back through headphones and understanding how blind people use interfaces through the audio is very different than closing your eyes and pretending because.
Attuned the other senses in a different way. So they hear things in a completely different way than you or I might. So being able to, having to design an experience for that was extremely unique and made for an incredibly powerful, design, in a design, ultimately that was both, a combination of hardware and.
Ryan: That is incredible. Did you find that you had to do a lot of, user interviewing to, to get some of those accessibility
Jon: features that you’re talking about? Yes, absolutely. And I think that was really the most eye opening thing about it was bringing in a blind, you know, And watching him get completely lost in our interface.
Now, when you’re talking about voting in an election, the last thing you want is for somebody to get lost and to vote for the wrong thing. Yeah. Clarity is very important and being able to observe. How he used the system and how he listened to things very differently. He wanted the audio to be much faster.
He wanted certain pieces of information at the front versus at the back, and being able to add in the right pauses and the right sound effects so that he understood when he moved to a different screen or onto a different button. And That was something that I had never really considered because I had previously worked mostly in either websites or mobile apps or things that you wouldn’t run into those challenges.
And here we needed to make sure that we were taking those things into consideration, same thing with colorblindness and, and make sure that we had the right color contrast ratios. And I brought a lot of that into. Future projects when I worked in healthcare. And even now, when I’m working in something, as you know, like financial investing, it’s still very important that we take those types of use cases into consideration.
Ryan: Yeah. And you really are talking about reaching the widest possible audience, but also making sure that the internet is a usable place for everyone. Yeah. And even just having design conversations around that with teams, is huge. I know there’s a lot of regulations being put into place and requirements on websites to start to meet some of these, which is great, but there is also like.
A beautiful art to it as well. If it can be done in conjunction with having a really great design for people who don’t have,
Jon: any kind of impairment. Yes, absolutely. It’s very important. and it’s something that fortunately, now as UX is maturing, it’s becoming more of a conversation.
And what’s really exciting to see is that there’s more and more tools available now so that you can test your designs to make sure that they reach those levels of compliance without having to do that type of hardcore users.
Ryan: Are you looking for designers to work with that have experience with accessibility?
Is that a, is that an important
Jon: quality for you? I think any designer needs to have some form of accessibility, understanding, as we are user experience designers. And our focus is on the human element, and we always need to take those things into consideration in certain industries.
Require it, when I worked in healthcare, we had very strict accessibility guidelines that are designed absolutely needed to hit, right? Because of the nature of that business. Now I am currently working at crowd street and we are, you know, in commercial real estate investing, right. We don’t have those types of formal requirements put upon us, but a lot of our users are older.
They are people who have achieved a certain amount of wealth over time, and now are older and are looking to invest that money and make, have that money make money. And so we need to design interfaces that are going to. Easier for them to use. And so that might include, you know, larger type faces, certainly color contrast ratios and making sure that we are supporting those users so that, if they don’t, they don’t contact us and file support tickets and everything because they are unable to perform simple actions.
So I think it is very important for any kind of designer. I might not be specific. Interviewing them about that in this current role, but it’s definitely something I’m looking for to make sure that they understand.
Ryan: All right. That’s amazing. Thank you. I appreciate you taking the time to talk through some of your experiences in the past of being a design leader, but also really going into what are some of the things that are actually impactful in creating teams around it in today’s world.
So I appreciate all of that. Sure.
Ryan: John reminds us of that user experience. Isn’t always about the visual quality of a website or a piece of software. In fact, as he points out and inspired relationship between an experienced designer and the end user is a central part of the success an application has with its audience.
I also really appreciated the way he called forward the importance of research to open up more reliable decision making pathways during the creative process. He was clear that a blend of data informed decisions with truly open creativity says a lot about where application and web development is in today’s landscape.
All right, we’re going to jump to the top five tips. And this week I know they’re going to be really good from John. I’m really excited about him. So John let’s jump in and once you give us tip
Tip One (Lead With Humanity)
Jon: number one, Well, I think, one of the things that I always talk about is that, we spend more time at work solving problems with our colleagues than we do doing anything else.
We spend more time than we do with our friends and our family, and that’s just numbers. Right? So my aim is always to make that the best possible experience for the people on my team as possible. So my first tip is really to lead with Humana. And, really understand, you know, what drives the people on your team and really what’s, take a vested interest in who they are, both at work and outside of work so that you can help them to grow and be better human beings.
Because if they’re better human beings, they’re going to be better designers and that’s going to reflect in their work. So really to inspire them to grow in all areas. Absolute paramount. Number one.
Ryan: That’s great. How do you open that up for them? Do you do one-on-one meetings? Do you actually create environments where you guys get to know each other outside of just working on a project?
What are some of the
Jon: tools you have? We definitely do right now. My team is entirely distributed. So we’re all over the country, because of remote work. When I was at the office, one of the things that I would say is that when we had one-on-one meetings, we always would take them as a walk around the block.
Let’s go for a walk, let’s get away from screens. And let’s just talk about who we are as people. We can still talk about work projects, but it’s important that we understand who they are as people and it opens them up and it drives collaboration and it really helps, it helps the teams to feel the team members to feel.
They’re being heard and that they are not just somebody there to perform a task, but they’re a, they’re a person and that you are their coach in helping them to grow as people.
Ryan: Amazing. Thank you. All right, let’s jump to
Tip Two (Listen To People & Their Needs)
Jon: tip number two. Okay. So, uh, kind of related it’s, listen to their needs and do everything you can to get them what they need to succeed and to drive collaboration from all areas of the team and from the organization.
And, one of the things is like you have, and just like with engineering, senior designers, you have junior designers, but everybody has a seat at the table in the team. And so everybody has the opportunity to provide feedback, to share their ideas and to. Create new opportunities with the team.
And it’s very important to me that everybody feels like they have a voice on the team and that they are able to contribute with each other. As the team grows, I like to foster pair design. So you get designers working together and they can play off of each other. But also, just to really understand and, you know, if somebody says they need a tool, you get it.
And you want them to not have to worry about how they’re going to accomplish it. You just want them to be able to accomplish it the best that they possibly can.
Ryan: I think that’s a great offering, actually, that part of what you’re doing to enable that creativity and enable that collaboration is to be there, to supply things that are needed without having.
Create too much frustration or maybe distraction away from the thing. It’s pretty powerful. Yeah, that’s amazing. Awesome. How about tip number three?
Tip Three (Design Is Art, Science, & Understanding)
Jon: Tip number three is design is art and it’s science and it’s understanding and it’s often business driven, but the more you can inspire the creative aspirations, the better the final product.
So I’m always pushing for creativity. A few years ago, I went to a design conference up in San Francisco and I was talking to a number of designers and they were all talking about who his process was better, but there was no talk about the art and the joy and the, like the beauty of creating.
And I always come back to that, even design of the most rudimentary enterprise application is still a form of art. It’s still a form of creation. And so it’s important that designers are inspired by art and that they always want to create a better world.
Ryan: Yeah. It’s such a simple foundation of.
We got into this creative business, like this thing, and why are we creative? And there is always art behind it. There’s. And staying tapped into that. I agree. And some of these things are wildly rudimentary or like you brought up with accessibility. Like sometimes they’re just so far different than the things that you’ve been trained at.
And then you’re like, you have to go backwards. And then how do you find the beauty and all that? So that’s amazing.
Jon: Yeah, absolutely. Awesome.
Ryan: All right.
Tip Four (The Process Is Important)
Jon: Let’s look at tip number two. Tip number four. So, you know, as I mentioned, process, process is important and I think as a design leader, one of the things that’s really important is to find the right amount of process for your team.
Not every team or every company is the same, and sometimes there can be too much. And too many tools and sometimes there’s not enough. So it’s about listening and evolving and really understanding what works for your team. Do you need more project management? Do you need less project management?
Do you need to have JIRA tickets for everything or do you mean. And it depends on the designers and it depends on the company and how things are structured and everything, but you always have to hone it to make sure that you have the proper and right. Amount of process so that everybody feels that they are being supported.
Ryan: All right. And the last one, tip number four.
Tip Five (Fight For What You Believe)
Jon: The last one is to fight for what you believe. , and oftentimes, a fully realized vision of a design is, you know, not delivered. Sometimes we focus on it. Getting out, the MVP version of it. And sometimes that is what the designer or what really, not even the designer, but what the users are asking for.
And so we need to validate and make sure that what we are delivering does. Achieve the goals that we discovered in our research. And so it’s about not compromising and to always fight for what you believe and to make sure that your design is what you believe will move the needle. And if you can prove that if you can verify that, then you need to.
Continue and keep making sure that the organization believes in what design is.
Ryan: Yeah, that’s great. And I think there’s a number of people that probably feel like design is a series of compromises with business teams or technology teams. But they’re trying to find a way to stay passionate about the things that they’re bringing to the table.
Jon: Yep. It definitely can be. But again, if we go back to the research, if we go back to, whether it is data and metrics that we have from analytics, or it is from interviews that we have done and, we have more. You know, more, more of that kind of information, then we can point directly to it.
Unfortunately. Now , there are tools that allow us to organize our research in much more powerful ways so that we can point directly to where our stakeholders or our users have asked for certain things. And then we can make our case to make sure that we are delivering the design that they.
Ryan: All right. Awesome. And John, thanks for joining us today. You really brought a lot of insight and inspiration to this particular podcast. So this is really great. If somebody wants to get in touch with you, and talk to you more about design or. Do you have the opportunity to chat with you in the future?
What’s the best way to do that?
Jon: I have my own personal website portfolios, John Fox, ux.com. I also have the Twitter handle, John Fox UX, JOHNFOX UX. As well, those are usually the best ways to get in touch with me. I am also working on a really fun project, that I’d love to, I’d love to give a shout out to, we are working on a nine episode web series that is set in the star wars universe about design and it is about a design agency.
Then, the galactic empire recruits to rebrand them. After the fall of the second death star, it is a comedy. It is a workplace comedy set in Star wars. It is all about design and design agencies. Star Wars and Disney. And it’s funny, and it’s done with a lot of love and, that’s called designing empires and you can go to designing empires.com or follow our various socials for that.
And we’re hoping to launch that later this spring. So we’re really excited about that project too. I
Ryan: I am so excited about that project. Just even the imagery on the website is exciting. So I love the
Jon: idea here.
Ryan: All right. Thanks for joining us today. It was great to have you here on the floor leader, and we’re signing off.
Jon: Awesome. Thank you so much, Ryan. This was great.
Ryan: During John’s top five. I was reminded how important it is for design leaders to keep their teams tied to their artistic integrity. As he mentioned, even the most simple, boring website can be filled with the kind of passion that we imagine a Picasso or van Gogh may have felt as they brought their paintings to a canvas.
And to do this, John really drove home that creating deep connections and inroads to the people on his team. Always opened up the kind of safe environment that allows for true visual inspiration.