Product Designer at Microsoft
Joanna
Ngai

Seattle based designer responsible for data marketplace dynamics. Illustrator and green tea drinker. Writing on design, creativity and technology on Medium.

Seattle, United States • May 4, 2021

What led you into design?

I loved art since I was young. My earliest memory is sitting beside my mom at the kitchen table, drawing The Little Mermaid in pencil crayon together. As I grew older, I doodled over every available surface and drew many one-eyed anime characters (since drawing both eyes symmetrically was a challenge).

When I started studying at the University of Washington, I felt drawn to become a doctor because 'helping people' seemed like a worthwhile and stable job. Though I still dreamed about doing something more creative, I didn't know that design existed.

A few friends at church were in the design program at the time and they encouraged me to look into design. Eventually, I switched majors. I consider it one of my better life decisions.

I feel privileged to work on complex problems every day at Microsoft.

What does a typical day look like?

After waking up, I drink water with lemon or tea and then cook some sort of healthy food while mentally going over my plans for the day. At the office (which recently is at home), I check emails in the morning and spend time reading, writing or scanning Techmeme.

My day usually involves some mixture of planning, iterating on designs and working with others.

What’s your workstation setup?

I do my best work late at night or in the mornings, in a bright, clean environment, always with a cup of tea nearby. 

During the pandemic, I've been grateful to work from home. It took some time to adjust and find balance but overall, it gives me more appreciation for the 'normal' things I took for granted.

Taking walks around the office is part of my daily routine (and finding fun spots like Microsoft's treehouse).

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Where do you go to get inspired?

I do something new or learn something new everyday. I enjoy learning about learning.

Nature and This is colossal surface new ideas. I also read quite a bit (here's my booklists).

I listen to podcasts or play instruments to give my eyes a screenbreak.

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What product have you recently seen that made you think this is great design?

Discord - it's easy to use. I feel conversations were never meant to be broadcasts as much as discussions in small intimate groups.

MagicaVoxel - it’s simple and fun to play around with various rendering options. It enables me to create interior scenes and houses without worrying about hours of rendering.

What pieces of work are you most proud of?

I don't think about a specific piece of work as much as the learning process or impact on people.

'Successful' outcomes are great. But learning something valuable along the way is also part of the definition of 'success'. Lately, the moments I leaned into discomfort have been the most fulfilling.

Some of those things include speaking in front of an audience of 2000 peers, role models and potential employers (and even my design professor from college) for Command X at AIGA conference awhile ago. And doing a four-hour livestream in front of hundreds of people when one of my greatest fears is public speaking.

Being able to help others get into the design profession, whether students or people transitioning careers, is fulfilling. Mentoring and being mentored are both so important for people to feel supported.

I believe God places people in your life for a reason. My faith leads me to value relationships and care about other people's needs through action even though I'm naturally reserved and private.

What design challenges do you face at your company?

Advocating for human-centric design in addition to examining a decision from a tech-centric perspective.

With Trove, I'm experimenting on something from scratch. I believe thoughtful design can create new opportunities for a more equitable future.

What music do you listen to whilst designing?

Any advice for ambitious designers?

Every challenge is an opportunity. Some things are within your control as long as you're alive.

Assess what's important to you often and make adjustments.

From a mentor: Work will always be there. Have perspective. You have time for what you make time for.

Anything you want to promote or plug?

I'm on Instagram, write about design on Medium and have a series of Q&A with female founders and daily UX inspiration. I also wrote a book on getting started with design

Besides that, I’d like to encourage other designers to give back to the local community. Invest into your community and others, and it will reap good things.